Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lullabies for Little Criminals - Heather O'Neill

The Basics: Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O'Neill, 2006, 330 pages, paperback, nominated for CBC's Canada reads 2007

How I found it: I am slowly working my way through the Canada Reads 2007 nominees list.

What's it about?: This is a coming of age novel. The protagonist, who's given name is actually Baby, has to grow up fairly quickly on the streets of Montreal. She lives in poverty with her junkie father and struggles to figure out what it means to not to a child anymore, to find friends, and to tell right from wrong. The book is written from her perspective at her twelve-year-old reading level, so at my library it was marked as a young adult book. However, I think that most kids reading this book would be quite scared.

Did I like it?: I liked this book on some levels because it opened my eyes to the situations that many children in poverty face. Growing up in a stable middle class home it is easy to say that people who area addicted to drugs, living on the street, and turning tricks are a lower class of people. Canadians love to distance themselves from our urban poor. O'Neill's novel humanizes this group and helps the reader to understand why poverty is cyclical. In a better off home, a tween child who is as unhappy as Baby would be sent to counselling, or encouraged to spend time with family. In Baby's world, when she is unhappy her solutions are drugs, sex and violence. I thought this would be something I wouldn't relate to, but somehow, O'Neill made me understand why Baby did the things she did.

Will you like it?: This book is probably nominated for Canada Reads to make us think about the situation of impoverished Canadians, and the book certainly does do that. However, it is a good read on its own. I didn't love it, and I think some of the other choices for Canada Reads are more deserving. If you are a parent, I think you might enjoy reading this book because (I assume) it will make you feel like you are doing a great job in comparison to the parents in this book. And if you aren't a parent, you can at least read this book and feel lucky to have escaped a life like Baby's.

But don't take my word for it: the usual collection of literary reviews and info from Amazon, a glowing reader review, a review from KGB Bar's online lit magazine, one from Dose Magazine (not to be confused with Dose the newspaper apparently), one from Toronto's Now Magazine, and an interview with the author.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Moral Disorder: Margaret Atwood

The Basics: Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood, 2006, 225 pages, hard cover

How I found it: This is Margaret Atwood's latest work, so I read it as soon as I could get it from the library. If it's by Margaret Atwood and it's fiction, I am required to read it.

What's it about: This is the latest of Atwood's short story collections. All the stories in this book are about the same woman, similar to the way David Bezmozgis structured Natasha. The stories are sometimes told in the first person and sometimes in the third person and range in the period in which they take place. This is the life of one woman from early memories to old age and much in between (but not told in that order).

Did I like it?: Like much of Atwood's work, I loved it. I flew through this book in only a few days. As usual I found I related easily to the protagonist and was interested in her life and the lives of the people around her. Atwood's prose has not diminished as she ages either, and as expected, she is brilliant. The only small quibble I have is that Atwood draws on the same scenarios again and again - the scenario of her childhood: the summers spent in a backwoods cabin while her father studies insects, the often distant older brother, the feelings of isolation and not relating to the city children each fall. We can't rehash the plot points of Surfacing, etc. repeated, although with different characters. It gets a bit old. That's a minor point though - I can't think of anything else to complain about.

Will you like it?: As with some of Atwood's book, this one takes being a woman to fully understand it. It's fairly accessible to the casual reader - it has none of the poetic or academic devices found in some of her books. It is very straight forward, and well written. A good one for book clubs.

But don't take my word for it: The usual round-up from (including one disgruntled reader review and what looks like a literary review of the audiobook version), one from the Guardian, one from the London Times, and one from the Washington Post.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Treading Water - Anne DeGrace

The Basics: Treading Water, Anne DeGrace, 2005, 302 pages, paperback. This is the author's first novel.

How I found it: Greg gave me this book for Christmas. He said he picked it because it was written by a Canadian female author so he knew I would like it. Little did he know that was filled with Mennonites!

What's it about?: This novel is about a small town in the mountains of BC, only accessible by water. The book traces the life of the town, and the town becomes a character in of itself, helped along by the various people who live there through the years. The book is told in a series of vignettes, each corresponding with a year. We proceed chronologically through these vignettes, each told by a different character, to watch the town come of age, mature, and subside into old age and decline.

Did I like it?: I loved this book. It was beautifully written and by the end I wanted to visit the town, even though it is fictional. The town took on a life of its own for me. Even though the characters who lived there through the generations had lives of their own, which were interesting, the way the townspeople interacted and shaped the town was much more compelling. The book begins in 1904 and ends in 1967; the lifetime of a person is the lifetime of the town.

Will you like it?: This is a great book, and a good one for book clubs. I even cried at the end! DeGrace is a talented writer and I look forward to seeing more of her work. In the meantime, go out and read this book. I really enjoyed reading it and you probably will too.

But don't take my word for it: The usual literary reviews and reader reviews from, info about the book from BC Book World, and a link to a CBC radio interview with the author (scroll down) were all I could find.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cabin at Singing River: Building a Home in the Wilderness - Chris Czajkowski

The Basics: Cabin at Singing River: Building a Home in the Wilderness, Chris Czajkowski, 1991, 149 pages, paperback.

How I found it: My dad has read most of Czajkowski's books (along with most of the non-fiction section of his local public library) and recommended that I read something of hers. I chose to begin with her first book.

What's it about?: Czajkowski was born in the UK but apparently has lived all over the world. She moved to Canada in the late '80s, settling in Salmon Arm, BC, but found city life too hectic. If you've ever been to Salmon Arm, you might find this a bit laughable. Nevertheless, Czajkowski ended up in the Chilcotin area of BC, south of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in her search for solitude. Some friends of hers had an old homestead that could only be reached by a float plane or a 2 day hike in from the road. They agree to let her erect a cabin on their property. This book details her struggle to build the log cabin herself, and to make her home in the wilderness. Oh, and did I mention she had never used a chain saw before?

Did I like it?: While Czajkowski is definitely an odd character, I definitely related to her in a lot of ways. The idea of setting out nearly alone in the bush, building your own home, and being self-reliant is very appealing in a lot of ways. The fact that a woman with no carpentry experience accomplished this is admirable as well. I would love to be able to walk out my front door and do a multi-day off-trail hike. Czajkowski is not an exceptionally gifted writer, but her succinct and personal style, coupled with her interesting subject matter make for a good read.

Will you like it?: Many of Peter Gzowski's CBC listeners did. Czajkowski wrote periodic letters to his morning radio program, and reading them became a regular feature on his show. Many Canadians were interested to hear the story of an independent woman living alone in the wilderness. She is the Susanna Moodie of our time. Of course, if you hate the outdoors, you might not like the book, but that will be your loss.

But don't take my word for it: A collection of reviews on, a bio on the author from BC Bookworld, a review from the blog Classical Bookworm (complete with a reply from the author in the comments section), and finally the author's web page with info about her books, as well as the guiding operation she runs out of one of her newer wilderness cabins.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

The Basics: Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002, 529 pages, paperback, winner of the of Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003.

How I found it: My youngest sister gave it to my for Christmas. Apparently she quite liked it.

What's it about?: A story of three generations of a Greek immigrant family in the American Mid-West, the youngest member of which happens to be a hermaphrodite (hence the title). Cal (or Callie) the narrator lets the viewer in on his secret on the very first page, but we have to wait until about 2/3 of the way in to find out the details of how he discovered he was a hermaphrodite and what that has meant for his life. Cal tells the story as if he is speaking to the reader in his free time. He takes us through the lives of his grandparents and his parents, and finally his own life up to the present.

Did I like it?: I couldn't put this one down. Eugenides' style of writing made me believe that I was reading an autobiography, not a work of fiction. Even if the author were to have left out Cal's portion of the story, the section on his grandparent's flight from Greece to America and their struggle to establish themselves in their new country would be a good book all by itself. The only thing I didn't like about this book was that it is a little long. At over 500 pages, I felt it would have been better off as two books, one a sequel (or a prequel) to the other.

Would you like it?: I highly recommend this book. It's a great story about an immigrant family and their family dynamic. In addition, this is also a coming of age novel (although the person coming of age happens to be a hermaphrodite. I didn't know anything at all about intersexed people, so this book was rather educational in that regard.

But don't take my word for it: A review from, one from CNN's archives, the usual collection of reviews from, some reader reviews, a review from New York Magazine, and finally one from The Guardian.