Category Archives: Book Club
by Will Ferguson
I never thought I’d read the words “Will Ferguson” and “book about Rwanda” in the same sentence. When I did, the idea intrigued me. What on earth did Will Ferguson—a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour—and Rwanda have to do with one another? I wanted to know.
Turns out, Ferguson has a child who played soccer with the child of Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Rwandan who escaped the genocide. Will and Jean-Claude became friends, and the friendship led to the decision to tell the story of Rwanda reborn.
So, a novelist known for humorous writing and an escapee from genocide go on a road trip.
Does the idea make you feel a little apprehensive? It did me. The horrific events of the 1994 Rwanda genocide defy description and comprehension. How would Ferguson manage to honour those killed and those who survived and still write a novel that touches the light side of our humanity?
“I’d always maintained that a sense of humour can be found in any destination, no matter how bruised, how battered, and that through humour we can find a sense of shared humanity. But Rwanda?”
Ferguson does it. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of one million people being brutally murdered in a mere 100 days—the length of an average university semester. He shares the obvious scars—a car rental agent with a thick machete slash scar from ear to ear—and the hidden scars, evidenced in the many moments when he and Jean-Claude can do nothing more than stand together in silence.
The gifts of this book come Ferguson’s exceptional storytelling ability combined with Jean-Claude’s intimate knowledge of the country, the communities, the events, the people, the recovery, the new leadership, and the damage. Ferguson writes stories that make me want to pull up a chair, lean forward on my knees and take in every nuance, as if he were recounting a tale by the fireside. He is a fine writer who describes scenes vividly, sometimes poetically, and always authentically. No pretentious literary meanderings for him.
“Kigali is draped across a loose federation of hills, and the city’s main thoroughfares often run along high-wire ridges before dropping suddenly into the valleys below. This layout—the dip and drop, the ridges and sloping descents, the whorls and loops—makes driving through the city akin to navigating a fingerprint.”
Jean-Claude and Will venture into the public sites and the private homes of the new Rwanda, a country that has a growing list of optimistic statistics indicating recovery and new growth. They share unspeakably sad moments, of course, but they share humorous moments involving fire ants, Primus beer, gorillas in the wild and a journey to the source of the Nile. (Ferguson is a descendant of David Livingstone, apparently. No, really.)
The two journey around a country dealing with “the consequences of targeting one segment of society, of singling out one specific group of people,” and in the end, find hope in children and a game of soccer in the dusty streets.
By Melissa DeCarlo
Harper Paperbacks, 2015
“Twenty-seven minutes is, if anyone ever asks, exactly how long it takes to cram everything I own into six giant trash bags.”
—opening sentence of The Art of Crash Landing
I defy you to read that opening sentence and not keep reading.
The title of this book gives hints about the story. Before we even begin to read we know that someone’s life is spiraling out of control, and we know that someone is going to share some insights about the experience. We guess that, one way or another, the person survives. A little banged up maybe, but still in one piece.
That person is Mattie, who is 30, pregnant and couch-surfing. Her mother combined just enough love with just enough alcoholic negligence to shape her into a person who is an absolute mess, but with a capacity for daring compassion.
From that first sentence I liked Mattie. I cheered for her when she made good decisions, and I completely understood when she messed up big-time. Her character appeals to the side of us that has made mistakes, but reassures the side of us that says, “Well, I made some mistakes, but at least I didn’t screw things up that badly.”
Mattie’s mother—who died of cancer—had cut off all contact with family, so Mattie is surprised to hear that her maternal grandmother has died and left her an inheritance. The answer to her problems? Perhaps, but not without some adventures and some mystery.
“But now, my hand turning this last doorknob, the feeling is strong enough to take my breath away. Even though I already know what I’m going to find.” —Mattie in The Art of Crash Landing
What’s behind the door? I bet you want to know.
It takes skill to write a heartbreaking story with humour, and DeCarlo strikes the right balance. Some chapters unfold with an inescapable sense of impending doom, but those chapters are balanced by others that unfold with irrepressible hope. DeCarlo creates well-rounded characters who are flawed, but endearingly so. The extra touches she brings to the story—guinea pigs and farting dogs—make it all the more charming.
I received the book from Harper Paperbacks for review purposes.
I was not financially compensated for this post. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.
by Michel Faber
I had my defences up for the first part of this book. The main character, a Christian minister, travels to the faraway planet of Oasis to live with and teach Christianity to the indigenous alien population.
Considering the damage done to indigenous populations around the world by Christian missionaries of centuries past, I was not prepared to buy into that as a good idea, at least not initially. But I had to keep reading just to see if Peter Leigh, Christian minister, ended up tortured and murdered by less-than-welcoming aliens.
As I read on, I realized that Peter does not use his considerable knowledge of the Bible to proselytize but to enlighten. He calls the Bible “a storehouse of messages,” and he leaves room for metaphorical appreciation of its stories.
The trouble is, Peter is not the first Christian missionary to have contact with the Oasan beings. Previous missionaries taught the Bible—the Book of Strange New Things—with more fervor and factual flair, and the Oasans are not equipped with the ability to perceive subtleties of meaning or metaphor. When fact-based Oasans baldly quote passages like, “We will have no other God than God our saviour. In Him alone we have hope of life,” it makes Peter uneasy. He begins to see the dark side of his purpose there.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife, Bea, is dealing with apocalyptic-like climatic and economic disasters. The distance between her and Peter and the daunting challenges she must face alone stress their relationship and diminish her faith.
In The Book of Strange New Things, messy, complicated humans seem delightfully fascinating next to the stoic, plodding, straightforward Oasans. Faber’s message could be that we can’t—and shouldn’t—stomp out our human controversies and complexities, much as we might sometimes want to.
In The Book of Strange New Things, Peter’s allegorical, multi-layered interpretation of the Bible seems delightfully reassuring next to the inflexible—and ultimately, unsatisfactory—factual view. Faber’s message could be that there is a time for faith and a time for doubt.
In the end, I liked this book, but I can see how many people would not. I’m a member of a progressive Christian church, and I found the Christian zeal of Peter at the beginning of the book off-putting. I bet atheists would bail early.
by Rita Leganski
You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of magical realism. If you prefer cold hard facts, maybe not so much.
Given the title, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say the main character does not speak, or at least not with words. Voiceless, he uses other means to communicate deeply with people (alive or dead) and with nature and the universe.
Rita Leganski creates a charming character in Bonaventure Arrow. Because he doesn’t speak, Leganski can’t use traditional dialogue to convey his insights and emotions. She uses head nods, gestures, and thoughts in a way that I feared might get tedious and annoying after a while, but it never did.
The mystical New Orleans setting matches the mystical nature of the story. Leganski brings in Southern Baptist tent revivals, Roman Catholic rituals, Voodoo curses, and Hoodoo charms to add spicy twists to her narrative.
Occasionally, just very occasionally, the stilted dialogue of Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, did not ring true to me. Dialogue is not Leganski’s strong suit as a writer. Her strength is beautiful, descriptive narrative that captures the essence of a thing.
“Dancy did not know of Gabe’s feelings, but Bonaventure could hear them and he thought they sounded like a pearl that forms in concentric layers of kindness to protect a helpless oyster from a hurtful grain of sand.”
Fortunately, since Bonaventure doesn’t speak, dialogue is not a prominent feature of the book, so the dreamy story flows.
Leganski gives us plenty to think about: life after death, different ways to perceive the unspoken, the benefits and dangers of religion, the need for forgiveness (or not), acceptance of differences, and the poison of guilt, revenge and loneliness.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow received unanimous approval from the members of my book club: fans of magical realism all.
by Sean Michaels
Random House, 2014
Odd questions crossed my mind when I was reading Us Conductors.
How long did Sean Michaels spend coming up with “DZEEEEOOOoo” as the proper translation of the theremin sound? It captures perfectly the eerie sound of the instrument invented by the novel’s main character, Lev Sergeyevich Termen.
Under what circumstances did Michaels receive the inspiration to add Kung Fu to Termen’s list of interests? That one aspect to his character strikes me as . . . out of character.
And why haven’t I heard of the many inventions and exploits of the “Russian Edison”, a man who seemed to be able to invent on demand? We have him to thank for everything from motion-activated lights to a clear picture on our televisions.
The breadth of those questions summarizes my overall impression of this novel.
First, Michaels is not a poetic writer, but he has a knack for encapsulating an image or feeling. The theremin sound is one example, and later in the novel when Termen has to brush off rusty musical skills after a lengthy and harrowing imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, he writes: “I was about to wrench open an overgrown gate.” Perfect.
Second, bits and pieces of the novel perplex me, because they don’t seem to fit. The Kung Fu is curious. And Termen’s first wife is there—and not there—in an inexplicable, and mildly annoying way.
Finally, it enlightened me. I learned so much. This book is fiction, but based on real people and real events from history: Russia at the time of Lenin, New York City in the Jazz Age and later the market crash of 1929, and then the harsh Siberia of Stalin’s time.
Michael’s double-edged epigraph at the beginning of the Giller Prize-winning book is prize-winning in itself: “This book is mostly inventions.” It lets the reader know that the author intends to play fast and loose with facts, which Michaels does, but it also refers to the many brilliant inventions of the main character.
The Lev Sergeyevich Termen of this book is scientifically brilliant and socially inept. Unable to navigate his way to a meaningful loving relationship, unable to leave either Russia or America behind, and unable to manage such banalities as personal finances, the man is the master of his own demise.
This book won’t warm your heart. You won’t come to the end of it, close it with a sigh and hold it close to your chest. Aspects of it might frustrate you. But if you read it, you have the opportunity to admire some insightful writing, and you probably will learn something.
by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is World War II as seen by a German technical genius boy and a French blind girl. Perhaps I should say as “seen, smelled, felt and heard” because the girl’s visual impairment requires Anthony Doerr to tell his story via senses other than sight. As a result, his story is rich in aroma, texture and varied sound vibrations.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the blind daughter of the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The daughter of a man who helps to protect the treasures of France sees her world through her fingertips and hears the events of the world through radio. Werner Pfennig is the orphaned son of a German coal miner. His deft hand with radio technology means they have radio in common, and their common interest in the medium leads to their inevitable meeting.
Doerr creates sympathetic, and not-so-sympathetic, characters on both sides of the world war. We root for his German soldiers, even as they play out their roles in the renowned atrocities of the time. We seethe about the duplicitous actions of French citizens. (The Americans are a tad too glorified and the British a tad too undermined for my Canadian taste, but that’s just me.)
Doerr’s choice to take us back and forth in time disoriented me at first, but I eventually sorted out his pattern. Still, I would have preferred if he had started the book with a tantalizing glimpse ahead to the important events of 1944, then returned to 1934 and carried straight on through from there without repeated visits to 1944.
I also thought Doerr pulled a Quentin Tarentino with this book: one plot development too many. I can’t say much without giving away the ending, but I will say I thought Doerr took me on one too many visits to a little house. Read the book and see if you agree.