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Category Archive for 'Canada'

George Washington Black, a young slave born in 1818, tells his life story – as much as he knows of it – beginning when he is eleven, a boy living on the sprawling Faith Plantation in Barbados. His master has just died, and he and Big Kit, the slave woman who watches over him, know nothing about the person who will take his master’s place. Wash, as he is known, is an orphan with no family, a person without a “real” name, known only by the slave name assigned to him by a master who is also in charge of every other aspect of his life – and his death. When the new master arrives from England a few months later, he is everyone’s worst nightmare. Canadian author Esi Edugyan does not dwell on the sadism of the master and the horrors he wreaks for long. She is far more committed to telling the story of “Wash,” whom we learn through a flashback in the first few pages, is a survivor, one who at eighteen is officially a Freeman. What unfolds in the ensuing three hundred pages is Wash’s story, a monument to the human spirit and what it takes for someone who has never known freedom or had the opportunity to make his own decisions to learn how to survive in an alien world. This is a dramatic and powerful study of slavery and its effects on people whose lives are what they are completely by the accident of their birth.

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This novel will thrill those who have enjoyed the late Richard Wagamese’s past novels, even though it is unfinished. An Ojibway Indian, he dramatically recreates and shares the breath-taking, almost magical, moments in which he becomes one with nature in its grandest sense. As he teaches a young, abused woman and her child how to feel the pulse of the world and to find peace, he becomes real in ways I have not seen in his previous novels. He is a teacher here, sharing what he has learned in his lifetime, without becoming preachy or sentimental, and I found the book’s lack of completion an ironic benefit: He is so good at conveying the essence of what he has learned in his lifetime that the story itself becomes a simple vehicle, rather than an end in itself. For those who prefer an obvious resolution to the narrative, in addition to the clear resolutions to the themes, the publisher has provided “A Note on the Ending,” in which the pre-planned resolution to the narrative is described in general terms, along with an essay by Wagamese entitled, “Finding Father,” which provides parallels between his own life and the ending planned for this book.

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Jacob Rigolet is attending a 1977 auction of photographs on behalf of his employer, Mrs. Esther Hamelin, a well-known collector of vintage photographs – literally doing her bidding at auctions of antique photographs around the world. Suddenly, he is horrified to see his estranged mother, Nora Rigolet, walk up the aisle of the auction hall. Without warning, she throws a pot of black ink at a photograph taken by photographer Robert Capa during a World War II battle, “Death on a Leipzig balcony.” Jacob’s mother, the former Head Librarian of the Halifax Free Library in Nova Scotia, had been “safely tucked away” at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, following a breakdown three years previously, and Jacob has not seen her for over a year. He himself has been busy working part-time at the Free Library and, for the past two years, living in a cottage behind Mrs. Hamelin’s Victorian home. In one of the novel’s many ironies, it is Jacob’s fiancée, Martha Crauchet, a detective with the Halifax Regional Police, who is in charge of Nora Rigolet’s interrogation at the police station. With no sense of fear, Nora answers their questions but provides little insight into why she destroyed this photograph. As the novel develops and the lives of the characters unfurl, the author maintains an air of fun and good humor for most of the novel, even as universal themes of right and wrong, and good and evil, begin to appear throughout, and it is not until the conclusion that the novel’s “noir” elements become more obvious. Norman is a clever author who does not tie all the details into a bow, leaving the reader to solve the mystery surrounding Nora with the clues provided.

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Brunelleschi’s Dome opens with a description of the city of Florence in 1418, when it is holding a competition for artists or architects to produce a model or design for the vaulting of the main dome of the large new cathedral being built there. Six weeks are allowed for the candidate to produce his sample work for the dome, which will complement the cathedral campanile on which the artist Giotto has worked for twenty years. Because of the proportions of the work already completed, the crowning dome will have to be the highest and widest dome ever built – higher and wider than the 143’ 6” diameter of the Pantheon built in Rome a thousand years earlier and never duplicated. The Gothic architecture popular in the rest of Europe, with its flying buttresses to draw the weight of large arches and domes away from the center of the cathedral, does not appeal to the Florentines, who want something different for their cathedral. The finalists in the competition are Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith and clockmaker, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, a worker in bronze who has designed the doors of the Baptistery of Florence. Detailing the issues that Brunelleschi faced for twenty-five years as he designed and built the dome of the cathedral, Ross King makes the complex engineering and structural feats of building this dome understandable to the lay reader and makes Brunelleschi’s behavior human

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On a magnificent, clear night, Franklin Starlight, age sixteen, and his father Eldon, from whom he has been estranged for nearly all of his life, sit smoking around a campfire in the mountains, as their stories, often sad, emerge to be shared. Eldon, an alcoholic who is just days away from death, has persuaded his son-in-name-only to accompany him on his final trip “beyond the ridge.” Riding Franklin’s horse, to which he eventually needs to be tied hand and foot as he sinks in and out of consciousness, Eldon shares his life story, and stories involving other people around him, in a final effort to connect with his son and to reconcile himself with his own guilt about actions from his past. Young Franklin has been brought up by “the old man,” a white man, who has devoted his life to him, while Eldon Starlight, his real father, has lived many miles away and avoided all sense of responsibility since Franklin’s birth, losing himself in drink instead. The old white man has taught Franklin everything he knows, and, unlike the disengaged Eldon Starlight, the boy and the old man love and honor each other through their actions. The novel that Ojibway author and storyteller Richard Wagamese creates from this outline is thoughtful and full of heart – and so gripping that it is hard to imagine any reader not being left breathless from the sheer drama of the writing and its overwhelming message. It is a wondrous novel about stories, their importance in our lives and memories, their ability to help us reconcile the past with the present, and ultimately their power to teach us the nature of the world and our relationship to it.

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