Category Archives: Books I liked so much I bought them after I borrowed them

Book Review: Road Trip Rwanda by Will Ferguson

Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey into the New Heart of Africa 9780670066421

by Will Ferguson
ISBN 9780670066421
Viking, 2015

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.

 

 

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Book Review: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

cvr9781451698060_9781451698060_lgMy Notorious Life 

by Kate Manning
ISBN 9781451698060
Scribner, 2013

I read this book immediately after I read The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. What a contrast. Strout’s characters were unhappy and unlikable comfortably well-off people. Kate Manning’s characters were positive and likable impoverished people. I struggled through The Burgess Boys. I delighted in every page of My Notorious Life.

Manning’s inspiration for My Notorious Life was a real-life female physician who became known as “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” In Manning’s version, the heroine is Annie (Axie) Muldoon. She is born into 1860s New York City as the child of desperately poor Irish immigrants. When her father dies and her mother is maimed in an accident, Axie, her sister, Dutchie, and her baby brother, Joe, end up on an orphan train as part of the Western Emigration Program.

The trajectory of her life leads her to mistrust men, to confront the “complexities” of women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, and to accumulate wealth and controversy in equal measure. Axie Muldoon becomes Madame DeBeausacq, a woman who compassionately does what she believes is right even when it’s illegal and risky.

This puts her on a collision course with Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He, too, does what he believes is right even when it’s illegal and risky. 

The result is a story that resonates with the solar plexus. Manning explores family dynamics, love, feminism, reproduction, money, class separation, ethical dilemmas and marriage. Her story is harrowing and fun, heartbreaking and uplifting. 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

I first reviewed this book last November. It’s a fun summer read.
_____________________________

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

By Jonas Jonasson
Translated from the original Swedish by Rod Bradbury
ISBN 978-1-44341-910-9
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2012

I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book.

You want suspense? This book has it. You never know what’s going to happen: “Well, now you can see how sensible it is not to start your day by guessing what might happen . . .. After all, how long would I have had to go on guessing before I guessed this?”

You want humour? This book has it. The story is rich in irony and understatement: “Even if you’re well bundled up, it is bold to cross the Himalayas with only the help of a homemade map of the world and a compass.”

You want a fun romp through history? Boy, does this book have it. The lovable 100-year-old protagonist journeys through the major news events of the 20th Century. Along the way he solves some rather large problems, but creates some doozies, too: “It is better not to have two murder organizations on your heels.”

Allan Emmanuel Karlsson teaches us that if you want to give your life a new direction, sometimes you have to climb out the window. On the morning of his 100th birthday, he decides that a nursing home is no place for an explosives expert with a fondness for vodka and an aversion to politics. He escapes the clutches of Director Alice and climbs out his window. Wearing a suit and his bedroom slippers, he embarks on a grand adventure.

In a way that is entirely charming and soul-stirringly inspirational, Allan doesn’t try to direct his life, but let’s life happen to him. He marvels with childlike curiosity at each new twist and turn. “. . . it was what it was, and that thereafter whatever will be will be.”

And he never meets a hurdle he cannot overcome: “He considered the matter so intently that the stone wall in front of his eyes seemed to shrink. And when it was at its very lowest, Allan crept over it, age and knees be damned.”

This book is entertaining, literary and suspenseful. Great fun.

Book Review: Village of the Small Houses by Ian Ferguson

village-of-the-small-housesBook Review: Village of the Small Houses: A Memoir of Sorts

by Ian Ferguson
ISBN 978-1-55365-069-0
Douglas & McIntyre, 2003

Funny, heartbreaking, mystical—this book is all that before you get to the half-way mark. You will laugh, your solar plexus will ache with empathy, and you will wonder at the mysteries of life.

It is the memoir, of sorts, of a white-man-made-Indian.

The story begins with a con artist on the lam, a car chase to a hospital, and thalidomide. It carries on through a surprising and troubled birth into rugged life in the third-poorest community in Canada. It concludes with poignant memories of a mother who inspired, a father who disappointed, and friends who walked troubled paths.

Two weeks ago I reviewed 419, the Giller Prize winning novel written by Ian Ferguson’s brother, Will. (He’s called Billy in this book.) Reading 419 reminded me of Ian’s book, which I had read years ago after I heard him speak at the Canadian Authors Association CanWrite! conference in Edmonton. His keynote speech at the CAA Literary Awards event had the audience laughing from the moment he stepped up to the microphone. His date for the night was his mother. After the awards ceremony, he joined a group of us at a local restaurant. In my journal from that time I wrote: “Ian Ferguson also is a genuine pleasure to be around. A funny guy and a decent human being through and through. You can feel the “decent human being” vibes emanating from him.”

You can feel decent human being vibes emanating from this book, too.

Ferguson might be decent, but he’s also mischievous, which makes this book darned entertaining; it received the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, after all. The finest moments come when Ferguson’s devilish urges collide with his innate goodness. He is one of six children in a family in Fort Vermilion, Alberta. Even though the family is poor, the house has no running water or electricity, and Ian often runs home from school to avoid a pummeling from a childhood enemy, he describes himself as “born lucky.” All things are relative, right?

 “My grandfather says it doesn’t hurt to turn into an Indian. But he says it can hurt being an Indian.” 
Grandson of the Medicine Man

It’s a testament to Ferguson’s writing skill that this book was nominated for a medal for humour when the subject matter is sometimes anything but funny. Ferguson relates the adverse circumstances of First Nations people factually, and therefore most effectively. Never preachy or off-putting, he plainly, lovingly, humorously, and above all, respectfully, introduces us to the First Nations people who saved his life and heavily influenced his life. Ferguson’s close friend, Lloyd Loonskin, shows him the difference between being born lucky and being lucky to be born.

“. . . these are Indian kids. It doesn’t matter if you teach them or not. They don’t learn much.”
White school administrator in Fort Vermilion

Like The Glass Castle, this memoir (of sorts) entertains even as it prompts readers to delve deeply into the human psyche.

I highly recommend it.

“This book is as honest as I could make it, but I haven’t let the facts get in the way of the story I was trying to tell. Nothing that follows is true, except for the parts that really happened.”
Ian Ferguson

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

By Jonas Jonasson
Translated from the original Swedish by Rod Bradbury
ISBN 978-1-44341-910-9
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2012

I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book.

You want suspense? This book has it. You never know what’s going to happen: “Well, now you can see how sensible it is not to start your day by guessing what might happen . . .. After all, how long would I have had to go on guessing before I guessed this?”

You want humour? This book has it. The story is rich in irony and understatement: “Even if you’re well bundled up, it is bold to cross the Himalayas with only the help of a homemade map of the world and a compass.”

You want a fun romp through history? Boy, does this book have it. The lovable 100-year-old protagonist journeys through the major news events of the 20th Century. Along the way he solves some rather large problems, but creates some doozies, too: “It is better not to have two murder organizations on your heels.”

Allan Emmanuel Karlsson teaches us that if you want to give your life a new direction, sometimes you have to climb out the window. On the morning of his 100th birthday, he decides that a nursing home is no place for an explosives expert with a fondness for vodka and an aversion to politics. He escapes the clutches of Director Alice and climbs out his window. Wearing a suit and his bedroom slippers, he embarks on a grand adventure.

In a way that is entirely charming and soul-stirringly inspirational, Allan doesn’t try to direct his life, but let’s life happen to him. He marvels with childlike curiosity at each new twist and turn. “. . . it was what it was, and that thereafter whatever will be will be.”

And he never meets a hurdle he cannot overcome: “He considered the matter so intently that the stone wall in front of his eyes seemed to shrink. And when it was at its very lowest, Allan crept over it, age and knees be damned.”

This book is entertaining, literary and suspenseful. Great fun.

The Heart Specialist

The Heart Specialist

by Claire Holden Rothman
ISBN 978-1-897151-21-1
Cormorant Books Inc., 2009

“The road to hell is paved with hopeful theories.” —Agnes White in The Heart Specialist

Agnes White appears before the dean of McGill University seeking permission to study medicine at the prestigious institution. It is May of 1890. Despite a cheque in her handbag for a large amount of money, the dean flatly refuses her request. Doctors “have to deal with matters to which women ought not to be exposed” he tells her.

“Sometimes a very small hole may be accompanied by a very loud murmur.” —Maude Abbott, “Congenital Cardiac Disease”

The Heart Specialist is a compelling novel based on the real-life story of Dr. Maude Abbott, Montreal’s first female doctor. Like the character in the novel, Abbott walked away in frustration from a McGill Medical School rejection. Like the character in the novel, because of the societal constraints of her time, Abbott travelled a long detour to success in the medical field.

The novel begins with Agnes White dissecting a squirrel in the barn behind her home. She is no ordinary child. More interested in microscopes than embroidery, she pursues a dream inspired by her absentee father—a physician who left the family in the wake of a scandal. More interested in anatomy than hair and stockings, White spends her life building a portfolio of medical successes intended to impress the men she worships as heroes. She develops particular expertise in congenital heart disease, a lethal condition that can pass undetected for years before manifesting itself in tragedy. In the end, her heroes disappoint, but her body of work doesn’t.

“Starting a long way off the true point and proceeding by loops and zigzags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be.” —George Eliot, Middlemarch

The Heart Specialist will inspire and comfort anyone who doesn’t fit the mould. It will inspire and comfort anyone facing a glass ceiling imposed by the societal constraints of our time. The Heart Specialist will inspire us to stick with a dream, because it might come true, eventually: maybe not for the reasons we imagined or in the way we imagined, but true nonetheless.

This book was longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association Forest of Reading Evergreen Award and named as 1 of 6 notable Canadian fiction titles in 2009 by Quill & Quire. The novel earned this acclaim. Rothman’s literary writing educates and enthralls.

This is a quality book.

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