Anakana Schofield – Award Winning Author of Bina, Martin John and Malarky

February 24, 2012

Blue Nights Joan Didion

Blue Nights Joan Didion

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” Joan Didion writes in her most recent offering, Blue Nights.

Blue Nights is the second book of Didion’s recording and consideration of a recent difficult period in her life. Readers of Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, will recall that in December 2003 Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo fell ill and was placed on life support. By January, Didion’s husband of more than 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, had died of a heart attack after returning from a hospital visit to Quintana.

Quintana pulled through that illness but 20 months later, on Aug. 26, 2005 (after four further medical emergencies), she died, leaving Didion bereft of her immediate family.

Blue Nights is a parallel elaboration rather than a sequel to A Year of Magical Thinking.

It takes up Quintana’s story, but also zigzags back and reprises territory covered in The Year of Magical Thinking. Where The Year of Magical Thinking was immediate, certain and assured, Blue Nights unrolls and wonders. It situates itself within the longer-term ache and gape of grief and the questioning that creeps in alongside that. Didion ponders the accumulation that is living with profound grief. She asks a lot of questions.

Blue Nights is described by the publisher as a memoir about losing a daughter, but it’s threaded with restraint and an authorial reluctance to reach into the material. Didion writes around the more uncomfortable stuff.

What Didion is desperately trying to resolve is her daughter’s suffering — and the fact her daughter died before she did — and how unprepared she or any of us are for such a thing. She sieves through moments of her life, pulling them apart and riddling them with questions to incredible effect.

Yet throughout the book, Didion fences Quintana out of it, and so continues to examine her from a perplexing distance.

Quintana Roo was adopted by Didion and her husband on March 3, 1966 when they received a call from an obstetrician asking them if they wanted the baby. What followed was a terrific amount of guilt on Didion’s part for this good fortune — and even more anxiety about Quintana’s welfare and experience in the world.

Both women were united in a mutual fear of not being able to care for the other. “Only later did I see I had been raising her as a doll,” Didion writes. This could certainly have been stifling to her daughter and their relationship — but at the same time, it reflected a prescient instinct that her daughter was, as it turned out, very fragile.

From here the trail dries up.

We know Quintana suffered from anxiety. We know she was depressed. We know she drank too much. We’re told she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

But we’re told about borderline personality disorder in the third person, offered only a DSM-type definition of “patients” with it. Where is Quintana in all this? Where are the daily peculiarities that distressed her and followed her into adulthood?

We are immersed instead in very particular details of places, occasions, events and moments — with a few anecdotes — that seem to trigger questions. It’s rather like a beautiful court transcript with no actual evidence.

We learn plenty about the weather, the flowers and what Quintana wore — a cashmere turtle neck sweater bought in London, a suede jacket, a black wool challis dress bought at Bendels on W. 57th Street — but only occasionally do we hear her speak.

It’s clear that Quintana was a much-loved and complicated human being, but we are given such insufficient information about her actual complexities that it’s difficult to understand why, or specifically how, if at all, Didion was implicated in them.

If anything, Didion seems less than curious, or even resigned, about those complexities, while beating herself up with laments such as, “She could have no idea how much we needed her,” “How could we have so misunderstood one another?” and “Was I the problem? Or was I always the problem?”

What becomes apparent while reading Blue Nights is that Didion’s comfortable writing life (hotels, cabs, airports, restaurants, hushed respect towards her) may have given us great literature, but it has isolated her from the grinding reality that driving a bus, stacking shelves or working in a factory might afford.

One suspects Quintana, by virtue of her cycles of despair and discombobulation, the repetition and revisiting, experienced more of this grind but could find no place to anchor herself. She didn’t fit — and she continues not to fit in this book. Perhaps the only disservice Didion did to her was to expect that she should fit.

Moving away from Quintana, the book solidifies with Didion’s honest recording of her own faltering, her health, her aging fragility her and isolation.

I think what’s quite marvellous about Blue Nights is Didion’s willingness to start discussions about mortality, adoption and mental illness.

Where we take it is up to us. Collectively, we need to understand a great deal more about all three and Blue Nights offers a departure point.


Vancouver Sun Dec. 16, 2011

Anakana Schofield’s novel Malarky will be published in April by Biblioasis.


February 27, 2011

Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women by David L. Chapman & Patricia Vertinsky

Got muscles? Expect scrutiny if you’re female. Venus with Biceps interrogates the history and taboos of female muscularity and pairs a taut consideration with a diligent pictorial unearthing.

This welcome book is interspersed with chapters outlining the limited perceptions placed on women’s bodies and how they have progressed, regressed and progressed again. David L. Chapman, who culled and amassed more than 200 images for this book, unveils a riveting history of strongwomen with roots in theatricality, athleticism, performance, ancient Greece and exhibitionism.

The images come in varied sources and forms: photos, advertisements, illustrations, comics, posters and even cigarette cards, up until the 1980s. We can understand plenty from these rare images, including what informs the continuing relentless scrutiny of women’s bodies today (a scrutiny that increasingly extends to expectations even of the pregnant body).

There have always been ardent opinions on the female form that often bore little relation to biology or the potential women have for developing strong musculature.

The obvious development of muscle -a sign of male power -in women was considered a masculinization of the female body. It is still subject to critique and reactions of fear and disgust in the mainstream celeb-obsessed media. As the art critic and novelist John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “Men are expected to act, women to appear.”

At the start of the 20th century the first strongwomen appeared on the fete, carnival and circus scene. They were viewed with freak-show bemusement by an audience of men seeking titillation. Curiously, there was often a family link to strongwomen; she might be the daughter of a strongman or in the case of Melina, the wife of strongman Louis Cyr. Athleta, a Belgian strongwoman known for lifting half a dozen men and a large barbell, had three daughters who were all raised to be strongwomen.

A shift began in the 1920s that saw a change in attitudes toward embracing a new model of “able-bodied womanhood.”

Victorian prudery was out; the flapper was in. There was more evidence in photos of displaying muscles in contrast to earlier attempts to disguise them, with the hourglass figure upheld as the ideal.

The Great Depression of the 1930s sent attitudes spiralling backwards towards “traditional expectations” and “womanly allure”, although a “lightly muscled body could be considered attractive.”

Emphasis on the female body distinctly changed after and during times of war. Women were required to participate in physical labour and that participation was recognized as vital. The attitude was that women needed to be fit and strong in order to serve their country and the war effort. The 1940s saw the advent of Wonder Woman and role models such as Rosie the Riveter, who personified working women. Towards the end of the 1940s, female athletes also saw more respect for their ability and physique.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, all the progress was essentially lost and muscular women appeared to vanish. Then, in 1977, the first bodybuilding competition that judged women’s muscles -not their beauty -took place at the YMCA in Canton, Ohio.

David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky are to be admired for this excavation and excising of these visual records and stories from obscurity. This is a reading opportunity that can only be described as uplifting, informative and delicious. The book is not weighed down with an overly academic tone; the tone is one of consideration, historical context and fun insight. It does not purport to be an exacting record, but it is a delightful departure point for readers and enthusiasts and a reference to aid the constant inquiries those with mysteriously large calf muscles must engage with, in the experience of this former gymnast reviewer.

Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women by David L. Chapman & Patricia Vertinsky

Arsenal Pulp Press, $29.95, 359 pages

Biblioasis will be publishing Anakana Schofield’s novel Malarky next year.


May 11, 2010

Pumped up prose captures the essence of being 15

Every now and then, a novel that is as solid as steel lands in readers’ hands. A novel needs the right proportion of its own hardening agents to deliver on the page. The Mitochondrial Curiosities of Marcels 1-19 is such a book.

As is appropriate for a book with a biological title, Jocelyn Brown’s young-adult novel and its characters possess a firm cell structure, hip-swinging hilarity and the full range of emotional rotation. The story crescendos with grief and crocheting, yet despite the cavorting high notes, manages to suffuse sufficient low notes so that sadness nests beside a pain in the reader’s left lung from laughing so hard.

The heart of the novel is grief, teenage grief wrapped up with the betwixt and between of teenage life — the drumming anxiety and wonder, along with the grinding sense of isolation and self-centredness that are the pillars of being 15. The universe has only one axis when you’re 15, and it’s you.

Dree, an obsessive crafter, finds her 15th-birthday plan to attend Toronto Renegade Craft Fair in ribbons upset when her father, Leonard, suddenly dies. Instead, she’s throwing up at his wake and navigating the bewildering aftermath of death and the bouncy bus to Grandma Giles’ house beside her sneering goody-goody sister, Paige.

The main weave of the story is Dree’s trying to relieve smug sis of her savings and convene with dead dad to figure out what his role was in the death of her friend Jessie’s father. Dree’s father worked in a psychiatric hospital where Jessie’s father was a patient.

The girls bond over wool and biology projects before Dree realizes this coincidence.

Plenty of dads and daughters. Plenty of slipstitch and buttons. Wee bit of a Sapphic undertone detectable between the young women but, their being 15, the evidence presents via Dree’s red face, the spout that’s first love and one quivering thigh. The only orgasm is searing excitement over mohair wool.

This is a novel where even the secondary characters rebound off the page with the immediacy of a just-pumped ball. One of my favourites is Joan, Dree’s mum and Leonard’s first wife. She’s described as The Terminator because of her ability to get people fired from their jobs.

At one point, in the car, while driving Dree and Paige, Joan confesses to being implicated in a “gay marriage type” being sacked at work for a time-sheet infraction and now all at work hate her.

‘I am not homophobic.’ Again, Paige and I go blank. ‘Gay people have to be accurate too. I could care less who sleeps with who. I don’t sleep with anybody, does that give me special rights?’

Dree hugs her intelligence tight while she thumps with teen anxiety. This lively voice and her endearing crafty sock creatures — the Marcels — lead us through the story.

Brown’s prose is astonishing. The Edmonton writer has a dynamic curve with words, yet their placement is precise and as disciplined as a tightrope walker. Her witty extrapolation captures the stultifying experience of having your parent, flawed or otherwise, ripped from your life just as you’re launching toward independence.

Launch this book at your teen, young adult or an adult reader — it’s easily a crossover book — and be very excited about the arrival of a major Canadian writer.

January 20, 2010

Hardship, Heroism and Heartbreak

A memoir about a family member and a historic event offers a double burden to its author: that of dual responsibility to the family member and to wider interest in the event. When the relative is a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the Antarctic, you’re staring down quite the load to distribute.

Three members of Adrian Raeside’s family — two great-uncles and his grandfather, Sir Charles (Silas) Wright — were on Scott’s Terra Nova South Pole expedition, and Raeside grew up in New Zealand steeped in the lore of it. Stories rattled around him, and in an effort to resolve some of the discrepancies he was exposed to in history books and images, he excavated papers and diaries that came into his possession from the expedition and admirably charts his grandfather’s story in Return to Antarctica.

Raeside’s book is a return voyage he undertakes both physically and historically to uncover what happened during Scott’s attempt to capture the South Pole for England.

It’s important to understand the time period when that expedition took place, and he does a comprehensive job of recreating this era for neophyte polar readers.

Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expeditions had just returned to England, in 1909, having failed to capture the South Pole. Many nations were making gung-ho traipses to the Pole, some more organized than others. The unconquered Pole held a potent allure that fired up explorers and the flag-waving nations behind them.

The folklore of polar expedition tends to settle on the man leading the charge. These single names become planted in our imaginations as mighty individuals plowing through unfriendly terrain to polar victory.

This omits the boatload of other people who collectively powered the likes of Scott.

Raeside’s delve reminds us that any attempt on a Pole or summit is never a single-handed affair. The passing of time allows space for such individual stories to receive the oxygen they deserve.

The pendulum of opinion has always swung on Scott. His instant-hero status gave way to a critique of his conduct, and in this decade opinion has again softened. By this account, Scott was a moody, unpredictable dictator of a leader whose British-Navy disciplinarian approach clashed with the patient scientists.

He needlessly risked his men’s lives, wouldn’t listen to anyone and didn’t learn from his mistakes. He was also a determined visionary with the competitive hunger that made him and his team blindly gallant to the final frozen breath.

Brain-freeze alert

More importantly, who was Silas Wright?

Charles Seymour Wright (1887-1975), referred to as “Silas” throughout, was born in Toronto. After finishing his education at Upper Canada College he became fixated on research and developing a tool to measure radiation.

As Scott was putting together his second expedition, Wright met Douglas Mawson, who had just returned from Shackleton’s failed one. Mawson’s descriptions inspired him to write to Scott “applying for the position of physicist.”

Scott politely turned him down.

Griff Taylor, another Raeside relative, had been accepted on the expedition as geologist. He told Wright to go to Scott’s office in London and appeal to him. The two walked from Cambridge to London with nothing but 12 hard-boiled eggs to eat!

Scott relented, and later said: “One of the greatest successes is Wright. He is very thorough and absolutely ready for anything . . . Nothing ever seems to worry him, and I can’t imagine he ever complained of anything in his life.”

The vast number of characters and the matter of their not all going in the same direction provides a mighty challenge to the writer — and readers — of this book. The expanse of the tale can sometimes overwhelm a reader trying to snowshoe his or her way through, with mounting perplexity over who is a man, which is a pony and “Was that ice axe driven into the head of a pony or a man to prevent a more painful death by leaping killer whale beside ice floe?”

The book can induce moments of brain-freeze in which it is necessary to flip back to the crew list to effect a thaw. Raeside has inserted helpful, catchy text boxes; the trouble is, so many people were flinging themselves in the region of the South Pole at the time that there are too many text boxes.

Then there are the animals. Between the named ponies and the savage starving dogs and the relationship of men to individual ponies and the reduction in the penguin population, the narrative can digress into overwhelming anecdotes about dogs falling down wells, dogs’ sleeping arrangements, murderous dog attacks on ponies and decisions over which pony to eat or not eat.

Again, man and pony began to blur, the room began to swim and I was back consulting the crew list.

Bested by Amundsen

An awful lot happens when you’re trying to reach the South Pole, and then not much happens when you’re pacing yourself for conditions to be right for the final leg to the Pole. So the wild adventures and the panic of ponies leaping from ice floe to ice floe is intercut with unbelievable physical pain, the misery of the men and the endless winding months of boredom and monotony as they settled into their fate.

The unique detail Raeside has collected here, by virtue of his access to firsthand accounts and documents, offers a deeper, much more humane (rather than heroic) look at the whole episode. Ultimately, it was a first-class effort only to be pipped at the Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s nabbing it just before them.

The conclusion of this effort was pure and unmitigated disappointment. The men had to walk home and meet their end, starving, exhausted and destroyed by scurvy, surrendered on the vicious landscape that had held so much promise for them.

Raeside’s approach (informed by his years of experience as editorial cartoonist at Victoria’s Times Colonist newspaper) is flexible. This is no dry historic nor simple hero retelling — it’s a highly accessible melange. He uses almost a scrapbook approach that includes funky line drawings, photography and PowerPoint-style information boxes.

His grandfather’s experience on Scott’s journey, culled from Wright’s memoir and papers, is buttressed by a clipped first-person narrative of his own journey to the South Pole in December 2008.

Raeside enlightens us on the current state of the preserved huts at Cape Evans and Cape Royds and on less enticing spots like Inexpressible Island, where the Northern Party survived a winter in an ice cave.

Irreverent tone

Somehow, the description of what the men left in their trail all these years later and the image of them huddled together is nearly more riveting than the high-action descriptions of drowning ponies, feet falling off with the cold and getting beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian.

It’s the reduction of the massive down to the ordinary daily steps — the idea that great, brave polar explorers have to open a tin of pemmican, need to use the toilet, disagree regularly and quickly run out of reading material — that appeals and engages.

Raeside’s irreverent and humorous tone charms, for the most part, but his prose is fluid more than solid.

It’s a wonder he didn’t employ more of his cartooning talents here. I hope he has a graphic novel, especially for younger readers, in the works to complement this enlightening and flexible book.

Vancouver writer Anakana Schofield reviewed young-adult novel by Jocelyn Brown last weekend.

October 15, 2009

Young readers: Can’t get your kid to read? Graphic novels for young readers

High school English teacher Guy Demers doesn’t hesitate to recommend graphic novels for young readers. “Comics are an art form, much like the novel or poetry,” he says. “They offer us new ways to read and to put together meaning.

“The richness in subject matter and approach has given us a body of work that we can see as something truly rich and worth celebrating.”

Demers, who teaches English at Sir Charles Tupper secondary school in Vancouver, says his goal with graphic novels is no different than with a novel or short story: He wants to challenge his students to expand and develop their literacy.

“When I suggest students read graphic novels, I don’t hand them a stack of Archies or a standard superhero story. I give them a copy of a Tale of One Bad Rat, Palestine or American Born Chinese — all amazing works (by Bryan Talbot, Joe Sacco and Gene Luen Yang, respectively) and all completely different.”

Perhaps you recognize this drill: Your child enters the library and races to rummage the Tin Tin, Asterix, Garfield baskets or Bone shelf and returns either satisfied or dejected based on what the rummage produces. Increasingly, the demand exhausts the supply and it’s time to look farther afield for graphic novels to satisfy insatiable young appetites.

In my quest to unearth diverse graphic titles, I discovered there are plenty for teenagers but not quite the same plethora for boys below the age of 12.

Fortunately, I got some help from the approachable lads at RX Comics and Lucky’s Comics, both in Vancouver, who also reminded me that many vintage comic titles (pre-1985) are suitable for all ages.

Basic reading level

The best place to commence — if your child is an emerging reader — is with a wordless graphic novel. Together you can discuss the pictures. This will ignite interest in the format and build vocabulary.

Matthew Forsythe’s Ojingogo (Drawn & Quarterly) may look simple, but the possibilities are delightful in this funny adventure of a young girl, a squid and her walking camera.

If your child is struggling with reading or not wildly interested in books, the Marvel Comics Collectible Pop-Up series (Scholastic Canada), which include titles like X-Men, may appeal. The high attraction of the pop-up format and the visual drama of the presentation will produce an instant attraction. The text is not particularly simple, though, so you may need to read these books to your child.

The DK (Dorling Kindersley) Graphic Readers books have historical themes and a very low word count, with an emphasis on bright pictures and engaging themes. The Spy-Catcher Gang, a short tale set during the Second World War, has both literacy and historical merit. At the bottom of each page, descriptive prompts reinforce the storyline factually and the final pages contain a glossary of the words highlighted in bold throughout. The series covers everything from Martin Luther King to hockey.

Into the Volcano, by Don Wood (Blue Sky Press/Scholastic), is another strong choice to help readers seven and up progress to more challenging texts. It’s the dramatic story of two brothers who end up lost in the lava tube of an erupting volcano.

Basic proficient readers

Sardine in Outer Space, written by Emmanuel Guibert and illustrated by Joann Sfar, and Sfar’s Little Vampire (both published by First Second) are collections of short tales ideal for kids who’ve bonded with the graphic format. The accessible language and humorous stories, with Sfar’s vivid, high-energy illustrations, highlight the quality of what’s now available in this format.

Sardine tells the story of a little girl aboard a spaceship who, with her cousin Louie and Uncle Yellow, must take on Supermuscleman. Little Vampire is spooky, with themes that will appeal to boys.

Lewis Trondheim is another prolific French animator. My nearly nine-year-old son and I chortled our way through his Tiny Tyrant, illustrated by Fabrice Parme (First Second). This book, about a king who rules like a six-year-old, has a theme with which kids can relate.

Trondheim’s other well-known title is Kaput and Zosky (First Second). The interplanetary box-ups of this alien duo, who look like a bat and ball, offer a commentary on the state of the world. Most important, they’re energetic and hilarious.

My son Cuan, my test reader, gave his overall victory card, surprisingly, to Ramp Rats, by Liam O’Donnell (illustrations by Mike Deas), from Orca’s Graphic Guide Adventures series. Not only did he read it 143 times, but he expressed amazement that a novel could teach you how to do skateboard tricks.

The story concerns the politics and tussles of a group of young skateboarders, both in and out of the park. We’re already looking forward to Soccer Sabotage, due out next spring.

The most endearing tale I discovered — Jellaby, by Kean Soo (Hyperion) — began life as a web comic and is printed in a lavender hue. It tracks a secret friendship between Portia Bennett and a dinosaur-cum-Gummi-bear called Jellaby, as Portia tries to find his home. While so many graphic novels are scary and dark, there’s something heartwarming about the Jellaby creature. You wouldn’t mind looking out the window to find his donkey nose looking back at you.

The good news is that it’s to be continued, so there will be more Jellaby titles.

Confident proficient readers

My belief that graphic novels can bridge literacy gaps was strengthened when I discovered Classical Comics, a British publisher with North American distribution. Their graphic-novel adaptations of literary classics are faithful to the authors’ original vision. This concept will convert even the most ardent anti-graphica parent, and Shakespeare need never elicit a teenage groan again.

Each Shakespeare play is published in three different formats based on the language: original text, plain text and quick text.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (Tundra Books) was another revelation because my son, generally a classics fiend, has always had an inexplicable aversion to this work. Yet in this bold format, we read the entire book in one sitting. If I now reintroduce the original novel, I’m sure his resistance will have abated.

Fortunately, the third volume of Tove Jansson’s adorable Moomin (Drawn & Quarterly) — Finland’s answer to Peanuts — has just been released. Volume Two, my favourite, includes the appropriately-themed-for-2010 Moomin Winter Follies, in which the Moomins must deal with the over-enthusiastic and emotional organizer of the Moomin Valley Winter Games, Mr. Brisk.

Tove Jansson died in 2001. These three volumes celebrate her extraordinary talents and are sure to become family favourites.

Non-fiction graphica

Don’t dismiss the role graphic works can play in the acquisition of general knowledge. One of my favourite series is Horrible Histories, written by Terry Deary and illustrated by Martin Brown (Scholastic), described as “history with the nasty bits left in.” Titles such as Rotten Romans and Frightful First World War tackle history in a fun yet informative tone.

Scholastic has now added a Horrible Science series, which similarly gives kids “science with the squishy bits left in.” The books exploit the yuck and goofy factor while building up interest in important basic science facts.

Dorling Kindersley continues its pioneering visual output for young folk with Take Me Back: A Trip Through History from the Stone Age to the Digital Age. Like all DK titles, it’s high on visuals and design, giving kids the history of everything from Mesopotamia to the moon in small, manageable bursts. Reading it is like taking a subway ride through world history. Later, when education demands more from them, they’ll have some familiarity with the stations.

I leave the last word on the debate over the value of graphic novels to teacher Guy Demers. “There are too many startlingly good pieces being created today to ignore,” he says. “Our kids deserve the best and so we, as teachers, need to be open to finding it for them, even if it means going against a bias.”

Hear, hear.

Anakana Schofield, Canwest News Service
Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009

October 15, 2009

Summer reading: Banish boredom with lively literature

To Jocelyn Brown, the Edmonton-based author of a unique new young-adult novel, summer reading in childhood meant “days long and spacious enough for fiction to feel real and reality to feel hazy and strange …. On camping trips with my father, in the tent my five sisters and I fought for space and terrified ourselves with moody gothic novels until it was too dark to see.”


Given the way Brown describes her childhood camping trips, it’s no surprise she has penned one of the finest YA novels I’ve read in years. In The Mitochondrial Curiosities of Marcels 1 to 19 (Coach House Books), 15-year-old Dree hopes to head to Toronto to attend the Renegade Craft Fair but has to come to terms, instead, with her father’s death.

Dree submerges herself in philosophical kooky craft making (the 19 Marcels of the title are sock creatures) as this hilarious, undulating and moving tale unfolds. Marcel by Marcel, she finds the courage to unearth a family secret, something that doomed her father. This is a most distinctive novel.

The mightiest combination for young female readers has to be smart, sassy girls plus strong prose. Another great title from a well-regarded literary stylist is All-Season Edie (Orca Book Publishers), by Annabel Lyon, who lives in Metro Vancouver. Set on a Gulf Island, it concerns a friendship between Edie and a boy she meets there, combined with her city life of spells and flamenco dancing and an annoyingly perfect sister.

If you can’t afford to rent a cottage this year, hand Edie over to your child. My son had no problem relating to these bright girls; when prose is this rich, every reader delights.

In recessionary times, it helps to keep it local. Orca publishes Currents, a line of short adventure novels that will appeal to young male readers.

My son responded to Crossbow, by Dayle Campbell Gaetz. It’s a suspenseful adventure story in which a teenager finds a stranger in his cabin in the woods. Other titles in the series include Pam Withers’s Camp Wild, a summer camp adventure, and Christy Goerzen’s Explore, an outdoor recreation adventure.

Attracted mainly by its kitschy cover, I found that Barkerville Gold, also by Gaetz, is like a B.C. version of an Enid Blyton or Hardy Boys book: local history mixed with tents and ghosts. The prose can be clunky and heightened, but my son and I found reading it aloud rather a hoot.

For younger emerging readers, Maple Tree Press (which also publishes wonderful craft books) has Frieda Wishinsky’s Canadian Flyer Adventures, in which a bequeathed sled transports Matt and Emily to different parts of the country back in various historical time periods. Here you’ll find simple language, short books and Canadian content.

Caroline Adderson’s Bruno for Real (Orca), the sequel to the Vancouver writer’s popular I Bruno, is another great choice for emerging readers.

In the more commercial but never-fails realm comes HarperCollins’s Warriors series, which provided the comforting sight of a belly-prone child reading for endless hours in this apartment. Engrossing and captivating, the books feature a clan of warring cats going up against each other.

Author Erin Hunter (a pseudonym with three writers behind it) also has a newer series, Seekers, which gives us three endearing bears who go on a testing journey together, guided by a shape-shifting grizzly bear cub.

The fourth series of Warriors books will be out in the fall. Remember that while books like Warriors are not David Copperfield, reading begets more reading, books give way to books.


Summer can feel long to parents spending time with increasingly bored children. With the recession nipping at our heels, the right books can stimulate affordable — and, better still, free — adventures. Three simple steps: Create the appetite, feed the appetite, and exit the house to match it with a practical experience.

For younger readers, Nick Arnold’s Ugly Bugs (a Horrible Science book from Scholastic) is most entertaining. It’s filled with facts, humorous tales and attractive illustrations by Tony De Saulles. Share it with your child, then open the front door and let him or her loose with a magnifying glass. Bugs, creepy-crawlies and birds are suddenly abundant and visible.

Once you’ve identified the bugs and bees, it’s time to invite them into your garden or patio. Wildlife Gardening: How to Bring Birds and Bugs to Your Backyard, by Martyn Cox (Dorling Kindersley) is a gem of a book that explains the food chain and how insects relate to it. It offers a step-by-step photographic guide to coaxing wildlife into your garden.

After we read it together, my son saved the life of a bee I almost ran over with my shopping trolley. And I vowed to stop exterminating the moths that chew my knitting.

Voyage: Ocean (also from DK), by John Woodward, is an intriguingly O-shaped book, perfect for a small lap in the car or on the couch. It gives a complete tour of the ocean plus information on tides, marine life, hydrothermal vents and deep-water submersibles. There’s a section on the Pacific Ocean, so at a suitable moment you can point out the window and shout, “Ahoy!” This book will lift a visit to the beach into a scientific expedition.

Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea (Chronicle Books/Raincoast Books) is an elevating philosophical read, recommended for parents who fancy some contemplation before embracing the back garden or window boxes. This elegant memoir is designed to infuse others with the desire to transform a public or community space — in this case, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, an inner-city school. It may have begun with space, but it transformed the way children at the school experienced food.


A number of recent books promote the idea of family projects, an excellent way to spend quality time with your children.

Annabel Karmel’s Cook It Together (DK) has delicious recipes with colourful ingredients and facts about them. The photos depict single actions for the child (chop, whisk, pour, de-stem), alongside more detailed instructions for parents or confident readers. The size and design of the book accommodate two people enjoying it simultaneously.

Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness series has so much variety there will be no child in the city who won’t be interested in several of the books. This summer, I selected Eyewitness Shakespeare and Eyewitness Islam to inform the pair of us.

Newer titles include Eyewitness Oil, while Eyewitness Olympics has a certain relevance to Vancouver families.

Scholastic’s The Family Book: Amazing Things to Do Together is reminiscent of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Fun and rousing, it suggests activities as varied as creating a family percussion section to slicing a banana without peeling it.

My Listography (Chronicle/Raincoast), written by Lisa Nola and illustrated by Nathaniel Russell, is the kind of creation that the right child will delight in. He or she probably needs to be predisposed to writing and lists.

Subtitled My Amazing Life in Lists, it’s a journal. Using it, groups of cousins or friends will be able to compose a book within a book, having hours of fun handing it back and forth. One can ask questions and note down the answers while the others ponder. The graphics are very enticing.

The revelation of this past year came courtesy of Grade 4 teacher Suzanne Carry, who taught her class to knit. This became a huge part of our reading ritual: my boy knitting while I read to him. Blanket, wristbands, scarves and squares emerged as literature was consumed.

Klutz publishes Knitting, by Anne Akers Johnson. It’s the perfect set, including book, needles and wool, to get your child started. It’s very self-contained, with projects and all the yarn and buttons the child needs.

Again, it’s a book that will give way to many books. Summer should be all about giving way to books.

September 8, 2007

On the ambition of being a great reader

Let the greats explain the novel to you: Apply the insights of Milan Kundera and Francine Prose to your reading and writing.

British poet and author Ian Patterson thinks daily and deeply about novels. Whether he’s stuffing a chicken to roast or teaching his students in the English department at Cambridge University, the novel is on his mind and in his life with the same solidity with which countries sit on a map. Patterson, a respected Proust translator and the author of Guernica and Total War, describes thinking about novels, especially the style in novels, as “a kind of ethics.”

“Novelists who write well make me wonder at the way in which something so randomly humdrum, bizarre and chaotic as life and the world can be shaped into such an intelligible surface,” he told me by e-mail. He suggests we give careful consideration and equal curiosity to “the forces that are invisible in the novel (invisible perhaps to the writer), but you sense their presence, you know they’re there and you can feel a pressure to understand what they are.”

Such forces, he says, are “caused by the way the achievement of the writing pulls in an unconscious awareness of the world which operates on the writer’s language, and therefore on the reader’s mind, like surface tension in a liquid.”

Not all of us have the contemplative powers that keep a Proust translator in his seat, resisting the lure of a cricket match, but fortunately a handful of authors have written insightfully on the topic in recent years. If you’re bewildered by reading novels, or befuddled by writing them, here’s a brief tour.


Few thinkers are as informed about novels as the world-renowned Czech novelist Milan Kundera, likely because his own books are not merely novels but, collectively, a kind of philosophy that searches and poses questions. In 1985 he published The Art of the Novel, which he described as “the reflections of a practitioner.” And we are fortunate that he has written on the novel again this year, in The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (HarperCollins Canada; translated by Linda Asher).

A novelist talking about the art of the novel, he writes, “is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls.”

It’s a studio I happily stepped into and suggest readers and writers who love the novel do the same. In The Curtain, Kundera gently and beautifully dissects the art of the novel. Reading as he ponders nation and literature is like taking your brain out of your body and off on a holiday for 168 pages.

The book argues or whistles, since the prose is far too tuneful to describe as an argument — that the novelist’s job is to rip through the curtain of the pre-interpreted world. What matters is a novel’s ability to reveal some previously unknown aspect of our existence.

Kundera tracks the history of the novel and illustrates how novelists influence one another. Unveiling his love affair with central European literature, he reminds us of writers who are important to visit and revisit, such as Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz.

There’s a lovely reassurance in part seven of the essay, where he describes how unreliable readers’ memories, including his own, are for details as they progress through a novel. He contrasts this with how writers pay loving and pedantic attention to every detail while constructing their novels. He urges each novelist to build his or her novel as “an indestructible castle of the unforgettable, even though he knows that his reader will only ramble through it distractedly, rapidly, forgetfully, and never inhabit it.”

I crawled through this slim book, sucking up Kundera’s words like a vacuum cleaner. His affect slows us down to appreciate every sentence and breeds in us the longing to be smarter people.


California writer Jane Smiley had plenty to contemplate in 2001 when she ground to a halt in the process of composing her novel, Good Faith. Previously, her novels had been “unceasingly in my mind,” but not this twisty beast. So she closed the file in her computer and read 100 books instead.

Part literary memoir, part literary criticism and part writer’s advice, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) is the result of this interruption.

There’s something cheerful and indefatigable about Smiley, but the strength of this book is her stated ambition to read 100 novels (her 13th way of looking at the novel) and her suggestion that we do the same. (In the other 12 other ways, she flits about. She also harps on about her own work, even analysing various reviews she’s received. And she tends to oversimplify the process of writing, implying it’s as possible as doing your sums or sewing a quilt.)

Her discussion of the history of literature will seem a little flighty if you’ve just arrived from Planet Kundera, but the clarity with which she briefly documents each of the 100 novels she chose will inspire a passion in you to read unceasingly, hopefully 100 books at a time.

The ones she read were diverse. They included an Icelandic saga and volumes by George Eliot, Emile Zola, Muriel Spark and Naguib Mahfouz.


A true companion to understanding the architecture of the novel comes from the ultra-intelligent New York novelist Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006). It pulls the chicken away from the bone to reveal exactly what matters to the novel.

There’s much to glean here, with entire chapters dedicated to words, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue — and my favourite, “reading for courage.” The application of her insights will enrich your reading experience. You may even be infused with a similar level of devotion to the stories of Anton Chekhov as the one she demonstrates.

Prose cites many major works of literature and, instead of cloyingly analysing her own work, lets the literary heavyweights illustrate her points. She concludes, sensibly, with a list of books to be read immediately.


Consider Jan Lars Jensen, who found out how troublesome and powerful a novel can be when, upon the American publication of his first novel, he began hallucinating episodes from it. This landed him in the psychiatric ward, an experience he describes in his intriguing 2004 memoir, Nervous System, or Losing My Mind in Literature. (It strikes me that this could practically be a new form of literary criticism, since if the novel’s bad, the hallucinations might not be up to much, either.)

Consider, too, that among the many miseries a novel can create for its author is another writer beating him or her to the finish line with a similar book. In The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel – With Other Essays on the Genesis, Composition and Reception of Literary Fiction (2006), England’s David Lodge documents how deflating this can be.

He found that Irish writer Colm Tóibín had written a novel, The Master (eventually shortlisted for the Booker Prize), with identical subject matter — a particular period in Henry James’s life — to that of his forthcoming Author, Author. Not only that, but it was scheduled to appear on bookshelves before his own.

Lodge acknowledges that Tóibín’s book was the more successful, though, confusingly, he still refuses to read it. Unfortunately, The Year of Henry James is a whinge of a read.  Tóibín emerges from the flap as the more gracious party and perhaps the better writer.

Anakana Schofield

(published Vancouver Sun, 05/09/2007)

June 26, 2007

Reluctant readers: High interest boys books

First, just connect;

Picking the right book for a boy means finding ‘the right level of reading and the right level of interest’

When British writer Val Wilding got the idea for her Toby Tucker books, about a boy who becomes his ancestors, she wanted to make them attractive to boys, especially those who are reluctant to read. She wrote the main part of the story in very short sections, in the first person, so it would be less daunting. And she considered factors like typeface and line spacing. She understood that the low-tech printed word now has to compete for boys’ attention with a myriad of contraptions like PlayStation and computer games.

I kept in mind the importance of readers connecting with the books they read, as I surveyed a promising summer’s worth of reading for boys.

Fabienne Goulet, an experienced French-immersion teacher and literacy mentor, explains that “conversation is an important activity before, during and after any reading activity” and that “picking the right book means both the right level of reading and the right level of interest.” Fortunately, book publishers have responded with great material designed to attract and sustain young male interest this summer.


Among the more cutting-edge visual offerings this season is a beautiful and unique novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. Described as a novel in words and pictures, it contains 287 pages of charcoal line drawings to enrich the text. The story, a mystery, concerns Hugo, an orphan, clock keeper and thief who lives in the wall of a Paris train station. The book offers reluctant readers a chance to conquer a 500-page novel. Non-fiction titles can be a boon to parents seeking to entice reluctant readers. Boys’ fascination with battle can be explored through fiction and non-fiction. The My Story series titles — Battle of Britain and Flying Ace — are engaging, accurately researched first-person fictional narratives of fighter pilots, while the indispensable Eyewitness: World War I and World War II offer a pictorial and factual approach. At Vimy Ridge, by Hugh Brewster, documents the Canadian soldiers’ experience in 1917.

Pick Me Up: Stuff You Need to Know is a funky encyclopedia with the most reluctant reader in mind. Bright and snazzy, it whets a child’s appetite without being overwhelming. It succeeds at mirroring the click and zip of the online experience.

It’s funny what you find when you dig for treasure and a most unlikely-sounding book rises up out of the pile. The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden, is dangerously engaging.  There are instructions on everything from how to build a go-cart to the essentials of soccer, navigation, skimming stones and maps. The Dangerous Book is easily my favourite pick for parents and boys this summer.

Information-rich books with a practical or interactive approach really hold my son’s interest. Secret Agent Y.O.U.: The Official Guide to Secret Codes, Disguises, Surveillance and More, by Helaine Becker, is one that surprised me. Although it’s shaped and designed like a picture book, it keeps the child riveted with the thoroughness of its concept — i.e., quizzes and challenges to one’s suitability to be a spy. Espionage led me to forensics, so I paired it with Crimebusters: How Science Fights Crime, by Clive Gifford. Again, the format is manageable chunks of text with sharp, engaging photography and graphics.

To my astonishment, two small books in Dorling Kindersley’s Nature Activities series on birdwatching (Bird Watcher) and the weather (Weather Watcher) were huge hits. Perhaps it helped that we could step outside the door and experience the birds and clouds firsthand. In the interests of blasting away stereotypes, pick up I Love Ponies, by Louise Pritchard. It’s colourful and gentle in tone, and the text is manageable for emerging readers. Boys can love ponies, too.


It’s foolish to overlook the potential in reliable series-type books, such as Geronimo Stilton. David Copperfield they’re not, but with their brightly coloured words and other graphic tricks, boys respond to them when they’re placed in their mitts. They’re an important steppingstone in building vocabulary, and beause you can immediately hand a child the next one in the series, they encourage the act of consistent reading.

Boys who respond well to their fellow Vikings can laugh through July and August with Cressida Cowell’s Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III’s hilarious fourth epic memoir, How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse. I held a copy in a playground recently and three boys rushed up to express their delight in all things Hiccup, Toothless and Snotlaut. Cornelia Funke’s fourth Ghosthunters book, Ghosthunters and the Muddy Monster of Doom will keep Hetty Hyssop, Tom and Hugo fans busy as the Ghosthunters negotiate the delightfully named ASGs (Averagely Spooky Ghosts) and IRGs (Incredibly Revolting Ghosts).

For more reluctant readers, adventures like Horrid Henry, by Francesca Simon; Jake Cake, by Michael Broad, or Toby Tucker, by Val Wilding, are accessible choices.


For visual learners, the graphic novel is a good solution. In stores July 15 will be Bone 6: Old Man’s Cave. The humour of Jeff Smith’s unlikely hero, Fone Bone, who, with his cousins, is trying to save an idyllic valley from the forces of evil, has delivered readers through five earlier books to this instalment. First-time author Gareth Hinds’s graphic version of Beowulf offers a decent history and classics fix. And bear in mind that the Vancouver Public Library has a wide range of graphic novels in its collection these days, well worth a gander at the downtown shelves. For soccer fans, David Beckham’s Soccer Skills has practical tips, though it’s a bit overloaded with snaps of Becks. No such problem exists in Jeff Rud’s more interesting biography, Steve Nash: The Making of an MVP. My two 15-year-old test readers, Corey and Bradley, loved it, especially the description of Nash’s early life. Also, I highly recommend Keeper, by Mal Peet. It’s a rich, poetic novel about a World Cup-winning South American goalkeeper telling his life story to a journalist.

For teen readers looking for edgy, thoughtful stories, Deborah Ellis’s Jakeman tackles families and prison via a superhero called Jakeman the Barbed-Wire Boy. Ellis is a Toronto writer who uses serious themes to connect her young readers with the world beyond Canada’s borders.

Finally, Raincoast Books distributes quirky general-knowledge books intriguing to boys of every age. If you keep on hand Everything You Need to Know About the World, by Simon Eliot, or 101 Things You Need to Know and Some You Don’t, by Richard Horne and Tracey Turner, you’ll be able to interrupt sibling disputes with distractions like, “Hey, let’s find out why we don’t fall off the Earth.” It’s less dentally detrimental than “Let’s go out for ice cream.”

Vancouver Sun Saturday, June 23, 2007 Page: C9 Section: Weekend

November 29, 2006

BECKETT REMEMBERING, REMEMBERING BECKETT — Edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson

BECKETT REMEMBERING, REMEMBERING BECKETT – Uncollected interviews with Samuel Beckett & Memories of Those Who Knew Him Edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson.

(Bloomsbury/Raincoast 313 pages), Published in Vancouver Sun (July 2006)

Review by Anakana Schofield.

For Samuel Beckett enthusiasts, unable to hop across the water to Dublin for the Beckett centenary celebrations, the arrival this month of Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett – Uncollected interviews with Samuel Beckett & Memories of Those Who Knew Him will be a fresh delight

The most immediate thing we learn about the Nobel Prize winning Irish writer, who lived much of his adult life in Paris, eventually choosing to write in French, was that he was a very decent bloke. In friendship, he was loyalty personified, genuinely concerned more for others than himself — he even inquired after the health of people’s children.  He endured a tense relationship with his mother, with being a teacher and on occasion with life itself, but all this tension was neatly diluted by a sharp sense of humour and a unique talent that provided us with some of this century’s most significant plays (Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape) and literature.

The Knowlsons set out in this collection, which is solely comprised ofrecollections and essays written by those who knew or worked withBeckett, to “depict the evolution of Beckett as a personality, to look athim from the point of view of people who had very different relationswith him”.  They achieve this with an entirety that James Knowlson  previously displayed in his acclaimed and definitive Beckett biography “Damned to Fame.”

Knowlson, a passionate Beckett scholar for twenty years and author of 10 books on Beckett, had unparalleled access to Beckett and a plethora of material during the writing of his book. His wife Elizabeth actually quit her teaching post to assist her husband with the biography. Together they have now thoughtfully re-excavated surplus material that was passed over for inclusion in the biography. One can see why Beckett trusted James Knowlson so much and remarked to friends that he knew his work better than anyone else.

“We wanted to depict someone in the round, as it were.” Knowlson told me by email last week from England. “I think many misconceptions of him abound. The dedicated, loyal, generous friend was something that needed to be stressed.”

In the course of the book, which is divided into different periods of Beckett’s life, we hear either in essay or interview form from people as diverse as actors, directors, visual artists, translators, writers, and playwrights. Beckett himself discusses his relationship to James Joyce and his family. (“his seriousness and dedication to his art influenced me”)

What surely must have been a coup in piecing this collection together is the discovery of a surviving set of lecture notes from Beckett’s disastrous spell as a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin. Beckett actively loathed the job. Various students weigh in on whether he was any good. The jury is mixed. As one less than impressed student put it:  “The only thing which roused us from our somnolent lethargy was when he set himself on fire by letting the sleeve of his gown drop into the open fire when he was leaning his fevered brow on the marble fireplace.”

We begin to see the complete circle from his influences to his lasting influence in the contributions of J M Coetzee, Paul Auster and Anthony Minghella. Curiously fascinating are the memories of Beckett’s translators Richard Seaver and Patrick Bowles, where it’s clear Beckett had an ease and respect for those who enhanced his work. Far from being some intransigent pessimist, he was remarkably receptive to their suggestions, pointing out to Bowles that “not having spoken or worked in English for seventeen years he felt out of touch with the language.”

Beckett had a particular vision for the performance of his work and he required a rigorous adherence to the rhythm and direction laid down in his texts.

Envisioning the play visually was very important to Beckett and he was in this sense as much a visual artist as a ‘word man’, witness the number of video and installation artists who admit a big debt to Beckett.”Knowlson attests.

Beckett’s lifelong resistance to explaining his work caused some consternation for actors who were looking to him for insight. Yet despite the huge toll it took on him to be involved in various productions of his plays, he continued to do it, according to Knowlson because “he was such a perfectionist and it allowed him to accommodate the staging to his vision, to ensure that there had been at least one (and often as with ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ many) production which conformed to his very special vision.”

Seventeen years after his death Samuel Beckett’s relevancy continues to deepen and the significance of his contribution resonates.


November 25, 2006

Colum McCann/Patrick McCabe article

The last time I ran into the Irish writer Colum McCann,  he was on a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, had thrown away a hundred pages of his novel, Zoli, that morning and “wasn’t in great form over it.”

“Oh, that always happens,” he recently said cheerfully in an e-mail. “It was the toughest book to force my imagination into. It was a whole new world. I had to start from scratch.”

Zoli (Orion/McArthur & Co., 352 pages) is loosely inspired by the story of a travelling Roma poet, Bronislawa Wajs (nicknamed Papusza), who was feted by the Polish literary establishment but then exiled by her community because, in “writing things down,” she was perceived to have “collaborated with the enemy.”

As you read the novel, the scale of McCann’s incessant hunger for what he calls “the small story that tells the big story” and the rewards of his having set himself such a challenging excavation are both evident and enthralling. Thankfully, he’s not some self-appointed expert tinkering around with exotic subjects for the sake of it. Instead, he manages to grab his characters around the upper arms, bring them toward him and push them to life through his page.

“I suppose what I’m interested in is empathy,” McCann, who is coming to next week’s Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, tells me. “My job is to live outside the immediately apparent parameter of myself and tell the story that I think needs to be told.”

It is his resolute discipline, and courage of “writing toward what [he wants] to know,” that enlightened him on earlier literary journeys, producing memorable, significant novels like Dancer and the highly lauded This Side of Brightness. If you open his first short-story collection, Fishing the Sloe Black River, you won’t need to read past the first story, “Sisters,” to realize how well his work endures. It’s as resonant and relevant today as it was when he put the print on the page.

For Zoli, McCann, a father of three young children, says he felt a “vast cultural responsibility.” He travelled to Slovakia, visiting Roma camps, initially with two guides and then staying alone. He diligently applied himself to understanding the much-derided Roma people and their experience, the same way he lived with the homeless in the tunnels of New York for This Side of Brightness and grappled with ballet and Rudolf Nureyev for Dancer.

Zoli is a timely European novel dealing with issues of ideas of ethnic identity, politics, exile and the voiceless. Such issues are dancing their way across European borders and should soon be ringing in the ears of the European Parliament and governments worldwide.

New-York based McCann inspires us to be courageously informed as readers and writers; he’s awake to the role of art beyond the daily buoyancy of his own career and ego. He has a reputation for being active in the American Irish Historical Society, generously supportive of his fellow writers and a decent bloke, which are remarkably similar traits to those of his hero, John Berger, the thinker, writer and artist.  “I walk along with his every word,” he says of Berger.

You get the sense that as he trots with his present humility, his important and unique stories will continue to be told.


Another Irish novelist you may wish to discover at the festival is the entertaining, forthright Patrick McCabe, whose work intrigues in an altogether different way.  McCabe, who is probably best known for The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, both adapted for the screen by Neil Jordan, appears to be entering a new, musical chapter in his work. Historically, this Monaghan-born and -based author penned novels so gregarious and original in tone, they’d have your legs swinging while you read them. Your stomach would also be turning because their content was often very dark, resulting in the mistaken notion he was a gothic novelist. “My previous work had too much colour in it to be gothic,” he disputed by telephone last week. “So I’ve finally written a gothic novel.” He went on to explain that he “wanted to write a scary, spooky story about contemporary Ireland, drawing on the tradition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

His new novel, Winterwood (Bloomsbury/Raincoast Books, 242 pages), has a much quieter tone to it, yet maintains his now-legendary streak of darkness. It’s an unsettling lament of the life of a man (with multiple name changes) as he struggles to reconcile his own sexual abuse and separation from his daughter and wife. Redmond Hatch is a chameleon of a creature who initially has you in the palm of his hand with his despondent wailing about how everything went wrong for him. But ultimately he sent me into a spin because, infused with this undertone of creepiness, you’ve no idea quite what he’s going to admit to next. There’s a universality to this story, which curiously manages to maintain its claustrophobia while its pace lifts like a horse hopping fences. McCabe is a master of architecture over subtlety; in the hands of a less capable writer, some of it could verge on the ridiculous. Fear not: He has a hand tightly on each rein and commands the story in and out of the corners, up and down his octaves assuredly, exactly as he wills it. It’s a compelling and disturbing tale right up to the last full stop and McCabe, as he ages, has become a better conductor. “Winterwood is a departure from my other novels,” he concluded. “It doesn’t bother with humour, but then I am getting older. Every book demands its own style. This is a story of a man of advanced years and, hopefully, more wisdom.”

Colum McCann appears next Friday and Saturday at the writers’ festival; Patrick McCabe, next Friday and Sunday.

Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Oct. 14/06, page C8