Happy Canada Reads!

Monday, 31 October 2011

While the rest of the world is out celebrating goblins and ghouls, I'm at home blogging about tomorrow's Canada Reads announcement. Though I love fiction, the majority of my favourite books are non-fiction, so CBC's decision to celebrate true stories this year seems perfect. Many of my favourites made the Top 40, and I'm hoping to hear at least a few of them tomorrow when Jian Ghomeshi announces the top ten. If I were the queen of all things books, these would be my top picks.

And No Birds Sang by Farley Mowat

This is a nostolgic pick for me. Buried in a box somewhere in storage is a high-school English essay that is covered in horrible clipart and probably way too many adjectives. And No Birds Sang was the first memoir I read about a World War, and only my second Farley Mowat book (following Lost in the Barrens, of course). I didn't know it then, but it would be the first of many more Farley Mowat memoirs I would devour. The specifics of this book have become hazy to me in the ten years since I've read it, but I remember being unable to put it down. Without a doubt, it helped to shape my love for memoirs. I'm long overdue for a second read.

The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown

If there is one book I want to see in the top ten more than any others it's The Boy in the Moon. It, to me, is the best example of why I gravitate toward non-fiction. It's so raw and beautiful in its honesty that I was captivated by it the second I cracked the book's spine. On one hand, it's the story of Walker Brown who was born with a rare disorder called cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome. But equally, it's a story about Ian Brown and his quest to find meaning in his son's life. I wouldn't normally call a book perfect, but if a perfect book exists, this could be it.

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll

This choice won't come as a surprise; I already gushed about Andrew Westoll's book last week. It may be a new release, but The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is affecting enough to deserve a top spot beside classics like Mowat's And No Birds Sang and Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I actually can't stop talking about it (and apparently I can't stop writing about it either!) It's truly an incredible read, and I think a spot on the Canada Reads top ten list could give it a lot of great exposure.

Review: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A week ago, if someone had asked me about the last book that made me cry, I wouldn’t have had an answer. Thankfully, I didn’t inherit the crying gene that causes my mom to lose it to Hallmark commercials. That’s until I read the last few pages of Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which completely did me in, forcing me to become that unstable girl with tears streaming down her face on the GO Train.

My favourite books are those in which an author paints pictures of characters that are so tangible and vivid that I can’t help but hope for their happy ending. I didn’t expect to find these characters in a non-fiction book about Westoll’s time living and working at a sanctuary for retired biomedical research chimps, but that’s exactly what happened. Westoll creates loving portraits of each of the chimpanzees rescued by activist Gloria Grow when she started her sanctuary outside Montreal in 1997, resulting in a book that I have been recommending to everyone I know.

The chimpanzees living at Fauna were lucky to escape their traumatic lives as biomedical test subjects; however, they carry the psychological scars of their horrific experiences, which for some included being torn from their mothers shortly after birth, social isolation, and hundreds of operations and other cruel procedures. The book is a stark reminder of how alike chimpanzees and humans are, as Fauna’s residents experience post-traumatic stress, grief, depression, and at times, even self-mutilation even years after entering the “labyrinth of private and communal living spaces” that make up Fauna.

What makes Westoll’s book exceptional is that he is not simply an outsider observing the chimps of Fauna Sanctuary and interviewing the staff who take care of them, rather he is an active participant in their day-to-day lives, scrubbing crusted excrement from their belongings, blending and serving them smoothies, and slowly learning to recognize their unique and colourful personalities.

“This understanding comes with an unexpected consequence. As much as seeing each chimpanzee as a distinct being fills me with happiness, it also fills me with dread,” writes Westoll. “Real empathy has two sides, the joyful one and the grieving one. Everything that has happened to these apes, for better and for worse, is now a lot more personal to me. They have welcomed me into their world, and with this new citizenship comes a responsibility I’m totally unprepared for.”

Most readers will find themselves totally unprepared for what they read in The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. As soon as one feels optimistic about the destiny of these often-misunderstood creatures, Westoll writes another startling scene, jerking readers away from any misconceptions that life at Fauna is a five-star retreat.

“Confronted with Annie’s body just moments after she died, Binky pounded on her with his fists over and over in a grief-fuelled attempt to wake her up,” writes Westoll in an especially affecting scene.

The emotions exhibited by the chimpanzees are so raw and written about so eloquently that my heart ached in a way that is usually reserved for unbelievable works of fiction. Thankfully, Westoll also shares the many small triumphs that Gloria and her team experience at Fauna, urging them to continue their heartbreaking, yet heartwarming, work.

“The Fauna team began to focus on these small triumphs, these passing moments of connection, to get them through the days: a faint expression of a unique personality, the pleasure of a happy memory, an act as simple as opening the fridge to a cacophony of hoots and hollers,” writes Westoll. “They had no choice but to persist; there was no turning back now. Somehow, they had to find ways to counter the profound distrust, fear, and anger that each chimpanzee held inside. Through simple acts of kindness and concern, Gloria and her sisters worked to lift, one small corner at a time, the veil of annihilation that had been cast upon these apes the moment they were born or sold into research.”

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary may not always be an uplifting read; however it is a necessary one that readers are unlikely to forget. Personally, in the week since I finished the book, I haven't been able to shake the colourful cast of characters that Andrew Westoll made me fall in love with.

What kind of person makes a good editor?

Sunday, 16 October 2011
"What kind of person makes a good editor? When hiring new staff, I look for such useful attributes as genius, charisma, adaptability, and distain for high wages. I also look for signs of a neurotic trait called compulsiveness, which in one form is indispensable to editors, and in another, disabling."

The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists by Arthur Plotnik,
a manual from 1982, which I picked up at a wonderful used bookstore in Halifax. 

Review: The Big Dream by Rebecca Rosenblum

Thursday, 6 October 2011

This review was originally published in This magazine, and Rebecca Rosenblum was nice enough to write about it on her own blog. It was a nice reminder that sometimes authors actually read the reviews that I write!

The characters in Rebecca Rosenblum’s second collection of short stories, The Big Dream, have one thing in common: they work at Dream Inc., a lifestyle magazine publisher struggling to stay afloat. Like the troubled company, most face an uncertain future, navigating their problems from trial separations and parenthood to a terminally ill parent.

Drawing from her own experiences working in an office, Rosenblum creates characters who, despite their canned lunches and obligatory office parties, are anything but dull. Anyone who has ever worked inside the partial walls of a cubicle, ignoring the constant hum of a computer, while counting the minutes until lunch, will easily relate.

There is Clint, a contract employee, slurring his words as the result of an infected wisdom tooth he can’t afford to have pulled. There’s Andrea, the new hire, who is “straight out of school” and “as jittery as a jailbreak.” And among the most memorable are Mark and Sanjeet, the company’s CEO and COO, who are likely to blame for the company’s demise.

Rosenblum has crafted a reputation as a Canadian writer to watch for, especially after her 2008 collection of short stories, Once, earned her the Metcalf-Rooke Award. The Big Dream only accelerates this expectation. Each short story is rich with memorable dialogue, capturing the empty banter, complaints, and flirtations that often fill the halls of an office. Rosenblum’s natural dialogue and descriptive prose result in a collection that successfully depicts the complex balancing act between home and work that so often define the lives of office workers who struggle to stay afloat inside and outside of their cubicles.
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