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Category Archive for 'Canada'

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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With a poet’s sensitivity to words and images, and a ballad-singer’s awareness of cadences and narrative tension, Michael Crummey creates a rich novel of Newfoundland from the nineteenth century through World War I. Deftly combining the brutal realities of subsistence fishermen and farmers with the mythic tales that give hope to their lives, he traces the lives of two families through six generations in Paradise Deep and the Gut, rural areas worlds away from life in St. John’s. With its huge scope in time and its limited scope in location, the novel straddles the line between the epic and the comic epic, honoring the characters’ resilience as they struggle to survive during times of extreme privation (and six months of nearly paralyzing winter), while also celebrating the stories and long-held myths which give interest and even hope to their lives. The individual stories of the two main families over six generations here are complex, and two helpful genealogies at the beginning of the book may become well-worn as the reader tries to keep the characters all straight. The novel should appeal to those who enjoy historical family sagas.

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