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Category Archive for 'Canada'

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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Timeless in its themes and completely of the moment in its narrative voice, Kim Thuy’s Ru brings to life the innermost thoughts of one of Vietnam’s “boat people.” The author, whose family emigrated from Vietnam to Canada when she was ten, has created a vibrant novel that feels much more like a memoir than fiction, with a main character whose life so closely parallels that of the author that her publisher’s biography for her is virtually identical in its details to the factual material in the novel. Few, if any, readers will doubt that the author actually lived these events – her voice is so clear and so honest that there is no sense of artifice at all. A series of vignettes, presented in the “random” order in which the main character, Nguyen An Tinh, appears to have remembered them, allows the author to move around through time and memory, while also allowing the reader to participate, for short moments, in events that would otherwise feel alien in time and place. The action, often dramatic, just as often reflects the quiet, loving experiences of a family’s life; descriptions of hardship and deplorable, even repulsive, conditions are balanced by the author’s ability to see beauty in small, even delicate, moments.

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Setting his latest novel on the Oronsay, a passenger ship going between Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and London in 1954, Michael Ondaatje writes his most accessible, and, in many ways, most enjoyable novel ever. Having grown up in Ceylon, from which he himself was sent to England to be educated as a boy, the author certainly understands what it feels like to be a child on a ship for three weeks, like his main character here, but author Ondaatje says that all the characters in the book are fictional, including the main character. The novel has such a ring of truth and Ondaatje’s depiction of the characters is so true to the perceptions of an eleven-year-old traveling on his own, however, that it is difficult to remember that the boy in the book is imagined and not real. Since the boy grows up and becomes an author like Ondaatje, his adult conclusions as he looks back on the importance of these events and what they have meant in the grand scheme of his life become even more vivid.

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