Book Reviews

Kathy Page:  Dear Evelyn                                              reviewed by Danni Crenna

This story grabbed me from the first page and never let go, though at times I would like to have been released!  Each character is well-defined and stays true to type throughout their long marriage and long lives.  It was interesting to have characters arrive as they were being born and live out their lives to advanced old age by the last pages.  At times frustrating, because Evelyn was an unlikable woman and Harry was such a devoted mate, it was nevertheless completely believable and moving.  Interesting to have a female author portray the man as being the more admirable of the pair ….

Each era felt very authentic and there was a certain bittersweet tang reliving some of these times.  Life in the trenches was portrayed as being incredibly brutal and miserable.  The Fifties radiated the glow of success and big spending; the Sixties reflected the new sexual freedom and parents’ outrage with this.  There is a wry sly wit underlying much of the revealed thoughts of our main leads and we laugh at them as well as grieving for them in their life struggles.  You cannot but believe in the reality of their lives.

I am thrilled that a writer of such caliber will be coming to Denman’s Readers and Writers Festival.

 

Ryan Knighton:  Cockeyed:  A Memoir                                     reviewed by Louise Bell

How could a book about the onset of blindness be engaging, informative and highly amusing?  Well, this one is!  One would expect the idea of a fourteen-year-old showing signs of losing his vision to be depressing.  That’s the subject of the first chapter in this rollicking memoir by Ryan Knighton and it’s perhaps the funniest, describing his adventures in his first job learning to drive a forklift in a warehouse.  The guys there called him a “bumbler” but really, he was experiencing early loss of peripheral vision and the onset of night blindness.  In the ensuing chapters, Knighton entertains the reader with humorous stories about motor vehicle accidents in his teen years, none of which was serious; his decision to move out of the Langley family home and live on his own; his diagnosis with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that leads to total blindness; his capitulation and subsequent lesson in ‘caning’ at the CNIB; his adventures teaching English to school kids in Korea; and his double disorientation trying to navigate the Richmond IKEA store.  During this time, he meets his loyal and perceptive partner Tracy and is hired to teach literature and creative writing at Capilano College, where he is to this day.  As well, in a poignant chapter, he loses his beloved younger brother, who was probably a victim of bipolar disease, but untreated, and who dies in a heart-wrenchingly sad suicide resulting from a drug mix-up.  Woven throughout all of this are Knighton’s philosophical musings on the costs of denial and the rewards of acceptance, the narcissism of blindness, the relationship among our senses, the ambiguity of language, and the pain of being referred to in third person (e.g. “Does he need some help?”)  As with the rest of the book, his remarks on these sober topics are coloured by his rich sense of humour.  I most certainly won’t miss hearing this award-winning writer at our festival this summer.  I gather a movie of Cockeyed is in the works.  I won’t miss it either.

 

Andrew MacLeod:  All Together Healthy: A Canadian Wellness Revolution                                                     reviewed by David Scruton

All Together Healthy is primarily about the social and environmental determinants to health.  MacLeod notes that Canada ranks 24th of 30 countries in its spending on public expenditures and in comparing 11 developed countries on health care The Commonwealth Fund ranked Canada at 9th place overall.  The fact that Canada is the only developed country not to have a privately funded alternative to the publicly funded health care system was barely mentioned.

The author discusses the impairment of health outcomes that occurs with reduced socio-economic status, with its increased burden of chronic diseases and shortened life expectancy, and that the members of the lowest quintile of income smoke more tobacco and drink more alcohol.  The common theme throughout the book is that reduced income is associated with poorer outcomes and that the solution is to increase the incomes of those at the bottom of the social strata.  He mentioned a study that showed that increasing the income of the lowest economic quintile was associated with a reduction in their use of tobacco and alcohol.  One of the factors associated with poor adult health was physical, sexual and emotional abuse during childhood.  This contributed to reduced educational achievements and reduced income and can then affect future generations.  The proposed solution is improved early childhood education and more family supports which in turn is dependent upon increased societal funding.  Targeting the funding can be difficult.  There has been a lot of money spent on a program to reduce smoking rates.  Although it is the poorest groups in society who smoke the most, it was the wealthy groups whose smoking rates declined the most.  There are early trials of communities having guaranteed minimum incomes, to see what changes that would induce, but that is subject to political interference, as has recently occurred in Ontario.  Without such trials we cannot learn what works and what does not.  There was discussion of First Nations reduced health outcomes compared to the rest of Canadian population, attributed to reduced income, childhood traumas and rural and remote homes.  The solution is for increased funding in terms of incomes, education, local health care and child care amongst others.

I thought the book interesting but daunting in the complexity of the issues and the logistical and economic difficulty of trying to address them all.  I think a more apposite sub-title would be “A Canadian Fiscal Revolution”.

 

Beverley McLachlin:  Full Disclosure                                              reviewed by DD Fuchs

Beverley McLachlin says that she gave serious thought to writing fiction many years ago, but put the idea aside when she was called to the bench.  In 2018, shortly after her retirement, her first novel Full Disclosure was released.  Full Disclosure is the story of Jilly Truitt, a criminal defence lawyer, living and working in Vancouver.  Jilly is an ambitious 34-year-old who has a complicated backstory.  She was abandoned as a child and raised in foster care; she has a boyfriend from a “prominent” Vancouver family who lives alone in a Shaughnessy mansion; and she’s a risk taker who is willing to take on her legal mentor in court.

Jilly decides to defend a wealthy businessman who is accused of murdering his wife.  While the plot has lots of twists and turns, the story is slightly predictable but still enjoyable.  There are plenty of references to Vancouver’s high-end neighborhoods, to Toni Onley prints and Aboriginal Art, and glimpses of Vancouver’s darker side with references to murdered and missing Indigenous women, drug abuse and Robert Picton.

Full Disclosure is an entertaining legal thriller which suggests some of the issues McLachlin faced in her career.  Jilly struggles with the conflict between her personal beliefs and her role as a lawyer with a duty to represent.  For more of this weighty stuff, we have McLachlin’s memoir to look forward to.  She promises it will explore, “some of the issues I have grappled with over the last 40 years, like diversity in our society, like Indigenous rights, like the Charter”.  After that, perhaps another Jilly Truitt thriller.

 

Heather O’Neill:  Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father (non fiction) and The Lonely Hearts Hotel  (fiction)                                                      reviewed by Annette Reinhart

There is no mystery where Heather O’Neill gets her fantastical and subversive ideas once you read Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father.  This slim publication contains a list of advice her unconventional father gave her such as “Never Tell Anyone What Your Parents Do For a Living”.  The reason for that advisory becomes clear as Heather O’Neill describes how her dad grew up in 1930s Montreal amidst the heyday of bars, prostitution and corrupt gangsters.  As a poor, scrappy Irish kid, her dad assisted petty criminals for money and goods and became streetwise in the ways of the underworld.  As a single dad, he worked as a janitor while raising Heather; he regaled her daily with tall tales and brash lies from his youthful days, and surrounded her with a community of misfits and homemade adventures – occasionally shoplifting for luxury goods to please her.

Based on the period of her father’s wild youth, Heather O’Neill’s most recent novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel spins a carnivalesque narrative set in those raucous times.  1930s Catholic Montreal was a time when unwed mothers were sent to institutions where they waited out their pregnancies then, after birthing, most were severed from any contact with their child.  The Lonely Hearts Hotel begins with two such orphans, Pierrot and Rose, neither of whom has any idea of their heritage but come to bond together during their orphanage upbringing.  Both had lucrative talents which were discovered and farmed out as entertainment in salons of the wealthy.  After leaving the institution, each has a twisted journey of dramatic ups and downs before reuniting again.

The surprising thing about this novel is how the author takes a playful, whimsical approach to some very brutal realities her vulnerable characters encounter.  This switch between fairy-tale mode and gritty street life gives a fable-like quality to her story that runs the gamut of enthralling spectacles, dark humanity, and unexpected gender roles.  These children grow up with much more to deal with than they should.  They are survivors restructuring the conventional definition of family much like Heather O’Neill’s own experience, “My dad had all sorts of ideas about what family was and none had to do with biology.  A family was a group of trusted associates.”

This is a both magical and grim tale that tackles escape from class and gender expectations as well as traumatic abuse.  This isn’t really a combination that should work, being simultaneously life affirming and heartbreaking – but it certainly does in Heather O’Neill’s very creative handling.