Most of the books we read are the result of one thing: someone we know, trust, and/or admire tells us it's great. That's why we run this series, The Recommend, where readers, writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.
This week we're pleased to present the picks of memoirist Brian Brett (Tuco); author Amy Jones (upcoming We're All in This Together), author Ursula Pflug (Motion Sickness), former Ontario premier and Liberal Party leader, Dalton McGuinty; author John Bart (Middenrammers); and poet Adebe DeRango-Adem (Terra Incognita).
Brian Brett picks Ronald Wright's The Gold Eaters
A recent reading treat for me has been Ronald Wright’s The Gold Eaters, a novel that’s both informative and gripping.
Long known as one of the top scholars of Meso-American civilization, Wright caught my attention with the lyrical Time Among The Maya, and I invited him to give a reading on Salt Spring Island where I like to think we became friends, and I’ve followed his career since, including his impressive novels, A Scientific Romance and Henderson’s Spear.
The Gold Eaters tells the story of Waman, a young man who sneaks away on a fishing boat and is captured by the first wave of Pizarro’s conquistadors, becoming their enslaved translator. Waman’s struggles to return to his family and his beloved Tika, whom he abandoned for delusions of winning riches at sea, provide us with a personal vision of the conquest and its repercussions, as the highly advanced Incas succumbed to the waves of smallpox that devastated 93% of the population in less than 100 years; the two human diseases—conquistadors and smallpox—reducing the Inca empire to rubble.
The bonus pleasure of The Gold Eaters lies in learning so many interesting aspects of Inca culture within this epic story. Wright also exposes the failures of the Inca rulers, the duplicity of the conquistadors, and even includes a few decent conquistadors among the rabble. At times it can be a heart-breaker witnessing the flaws and glories of the Inca, including the arrogant inability of two emperors to comprehend the duplicity of the lice-ridden, rotten-toothed, skanky invaders insanely desperate for fame and gold—as much gold as possible—so much that the uncomprehending Incas contemptuously referred to them as the gold eaters. They were a lot more than that.
Brian Brett is a poet, fictionist, journalist, and memoirist, is the author of twelve books, including the prize-winning bestseller Trauma Farm, The Wind River Variations, and the just released Tuco: The Parrot, the Others, and a Scattershot World.
Ursula Pflug picks Kate Story's Blasted
Kate Story's protagonist, Ruby, grows up in St. John's, Newfoundland, in the shadow of the Southside Hill. Sometimes on her walks she sees things: a circle of women dressed in white. They're there, and then they're not. In the winter her father seems almost another person entirely. He eats a great deal and hides in the bedroom. He becomes moody. His eyes get a flat cast to them, a kind of I'm-not-here look.
Newfoundland chapters are intercut with those in which, after her move to Toronto, Ruby spends several years drinking and having casual sex, supporting herself as a diner waitress while she does so. She hangs out with a downtown arty crowd including Cree multi-media artist Blue.
Ruby's grandmother dies and she flies home to Newfoundland, where she cooks for her taciturn grandfather and finally gets to know his sister, Aunt Queenie. Queenie hints at the family secrets; the bad blood Ruby has been conscious of all her life. Ruby remembers strange moments, finds peculiar photographs, and can't get full answers from anyone.
She goes back to Toronto, to her so-called life. And here Blasted stops being a well-crafted first novel about family secrets, alcoholism, the Toronto Queen Street crowd and Newfoundland fairy lore and becomes instead a strange, shining, soaring thing brimming with beauty and terror, pain and love, insight and redemption, even its language transforming.
On the surface, Blasted is about a fairy-led family; a curse which usually skips generations. The fantastical elements, including a flock of terrifying fairy pigeons that break and enter into Blue's Toronto loft where Ruby has been hiding out, are seamlessly done. The switch from realism to fantasy is always believable; the poetic imagery of the fantastic is created in brushstrokes which are lush, dangerous, seductive and tragic.
Ursula Pflug is the award winning author of the novels Green Music, The Alphabet Stones and Motion Sickness, illustrated by SK Dyment. She penned the story collections After the Fires and Harvesting the Moon, and edited the anthologies They Have To Take You In, a fundraiser for mental health, and Playground of Lost Toys, with Colleen Anderson. Her YA novella, Mountain, is forthcoming in 2016 from Inanna. Motion Sickness has been long-listed for the ReLit award.
Amy Jones picks Pauls, by Jess Taylor
The first time I heard about Jess Taylor’s debut collection of stories, Pauls, I was immediately super jealous of the title. And by the time I had finished the first story in the collection, the 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction Gold-winning “Paul,” I was also super jealous of her immense talent as a writer. In this collection, characters named Paul act as a leitmotif connecting the stories together, and the effect is kind of like when you repeat a word so much that it loses all meaning—except in this case, it instead becomes an invisible thread that pulls you through the stories, drawing you in. Taylor’s stories are so human, so real, and so astonishingly powerful in their simplicity, and I found myself still haunted by them days after I had finished reading them. I predict this is the beginning of a really exciting career for her, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Amy Jones is the author of the short fiction collection What Boys Like (Bibiloasis, 2009). Her debut novel, We're All In This Together, is forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart this spring. She lives in Thunder Bay, ON, and can be found on Twitter at @amylaurajones.
The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving, is a novel that uses the incisive knife of comedy to lay bare the bonds that bind each family. Ever-repeating situations and emotions that occur in life—love, loss of virginity, suicide, rape, revenge, death, triumph over fear, the accomplishment of personal goals—are acknowledged fearlessly and evaluated with insight, honesty and humour. Each character's all-too-human foibles are used to highlight events, simultaneously droll, weird, serious, and yet recognizable, that result in the creation of aphorisms which cling like barnacles to the rock: "Keep passing the open windows" ... "Sorrow floats" ... "Just couldn't grow enough" have the ring of truth, as does this book which stands the test of time and can be read and reread with profit and pleasure.
Dr. John Bart has lived and worked as a family physician in Toronto since 1973. He also has degree in comparative vertebrate anatomy. He is an original member of the Toronto HIV Primary Care Physicians Group, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). He is married, with five children and seven grandchildren. Middenrammers is his first book.
Dalton McGuinty picks A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
There are many books by Canadian authors that I have enjoyed over the years, but my all-time favourite is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It wasn't long before I was completely lost in the story. I could hear, feel and see India. It is a tragic story and yet uplifting at the same time. It made me marvel at the strength of the human spirit. It is a wonderful human story of great challenges and small triumphs.
Dalton McGuinty, the twenty-fourth premier of Ontario, served from 2003 to 2013—the first Liberal to serve three successive terms as premier of the province in over a century. He is now the special advisor to the president of Desire2Learn, and a Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. His memoir, Dalton McGuinty: Making a Difference, came out in Fall 2015. He currently lives in Ottawa.
Adebe DeRango-Adem picks Forecast, by Clara Blackwood
Forecast is the second poetry collection to appear from Toronto-based poet, artist, and tarot expert Clara Blackwood. Though “High Priestess” might also be relevant here: for herein lies the words of a poet doubling as “guardian of transparency—/keeper of worlds/we can’t talk about.” Yet, and with a dark but unwavering grace, Forecast does not shy away from talking about such worlds, and what it means to navigate the strange dimensions of this life.
The odyssey begins with the section “Stars in an Indigo Cosmos” (part I of V), where the reader is invited to visit “old site[s] of an aboriginal curse,” the mystique of “dominatri[ces]” who conveniently “[flee] at dawn” and the ongoing “secular miracle” of contemporary urban life. Forecast is a book whose poems take refuge in encounters with the spiritual, while simultaneously providing a thoughtful refuge from our chaotic “modern” world.
Written with a curious mix of realism and mysticism, Blackwood is a poet invested in the influence of the tarot and its symbology in everyday life. Much like the late Yeats, who bore a keen interest in the occult, Blackwood’s voice is “accustomed to phantom spaces” (from “Asphodel”), and invested in the study of that which has been hidden from view.
Curiously, tarot reading becomes a kind of metaphor for the act of writing itself. It appears, she writes in “The Beginnings of Poetry,” that the origins of the art are a mix of “solitary rooms and a love of the hermetic,” as well as “throes of images,” “momentary angels,” and, plainly, “loss.” Indeed, as noted in the book’s title poem, “Forecast,” one must expect that “the weather ahead is unpredictable” and that in our attempts to weather the storms of this life, we “may find love,/or spite. Always ambivalence.”
Ultimately, Forecast is an ambidextrous book, bound by “what [one] can’t know and the inevitable” (where “inevitable” might just be another word for intuition). Clara (dare I say, clairvoyant?) Blackwood’s Forecast is a book that proves the uncanny can be enchanting, and one that pleasantly levitates the reader to new mystical and intellectual heights, reminding us of the blessed unrest of this realm (and others) that keep us inevitably more alive.
Adebe DeRango-Adem Descant, CV2, Canadian Woman Studies and the Toronto Star. Her debut poetry collection, Ex Nihilo (Frontenac House, 2010) was one of ten manuscripts chosen in honour of Frontenac House's Dektet 2010 competition, using a blind selection process by a jury of leading Canadian writers: bill bissett, George Elliott Clarke, and Alice Major. Ex Nihilo was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the world’s largest prize for writers under thirty. She is also the co-editor, alongside Andrea Thompson, of Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out (Inanna Publications, 2010). Her most recent collection, Terra Incognita (Inanna Publications, 2015), explores various racial discourses and interracial crossings buried in history’s grand narratives.