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    Book Club in a Bag

    Off the Shelf

    by Cher K - 0 Comment(s)



    Will Ferguson

    If you have an email account, chances are you have received at least one scamming note. You are smart and you erase them. Laura’s father was not; he responded. He fell into the abyss of “419”, Nigerian slang for perpetrating a scam. In his novel, 419, Will Ferguson paints the fear and anger of lives dispossessed — those of both the scammed and the scammers.

    With dexterous intricacy Ferguson inserts us into the stories of Laura, habitué of Northill Plaza in Calgary; Nnamdi, boy and man from a once-remote part of Nigeria; Amina, a destitute pregnant woman walking away from her identity; and, Winston, skilled self-taught Lagos internet scammer. That these stories converge without obvious contrivance is the Ferguson’s triumph.

    After their father’s death, Laura’s family is incensed that he was a victim of an internet scammer, to the extent of losing all his financial assets. Laura’s mother leaves the mortgaged family home, moving into the basement of her son’s large home in Springbank. Slowly the police convince the family that internet scammers are absolutely anonymous. There is no way they can recoup money sent via wire transfers to someone with innumerable aliases.

    Laura, however, is an editor. She believes the pen is more powerful than the sword. Laura separates out a single writer of notes from the chaff of purported government officials and other veracity-inducing supporting actors. An author’s errors and quirks leave an indelible signature. Laura seeks revenge.

    Subtext to this well-woven tale is the question of whose morality is superior. The internet scammers self-justify their illegal trade as an extracting of revenge on white colonialists, even though the criminals pursue victims of any race with enthusiastic and perverse fairness. Plus, victims are greedy or they wouldn’t respond, right? Nnamdi is a genuinely generous person who undertakes illegal tasks to survive and be part of his community. Amina has nothing; isn’t she entitled to something in this world? Laura would rather be dead than accept her father’s undeserved fate! Fate: is it cast in stone?


    by Judith Umbach

    Off the Shelf: A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    When A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe opens, Wesley Case needs to “find himself”, although such terms were not used in the 19th century. He is not the son his father wants; his achievements as a military officer are middling; and, he isn’t particularly fond of his school friends as adults. He heads West.

    Case’s time working with Major James Walsh sets a theme for his life – the encroachment of the RCMP and neo-colonialists on the land and social structures of North American native peoples. After Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his people took refuge near the Cypress Hills, the policies of the United States towards the Indian nations were enacted much more harshly than Canada’s.

    In Canada, the flow of history was moderated somewhat by Major Walsh who tried to interpret his duties in a manner respectful to local Indian tribes and individuals.

    Against Walsh’s advice about his somewhat disreputable partner, Joe McMullen, Wesley Case sets himself up as a rancher near Fort Benton in the US. Joe and Wesley suit each other through their common ethic of hard work and in their contrasting styles of social interaction.

    Ada Tarr is woman of spirit, initially married to a local tyrant. Despite societal norms, Wesley is hopeless in avoiding his attraction to her. Only his voluntary responsibilities as a go-between for Walsh and the American military officer, Major Ilges, draw him away from Ada’s charms. Another man has also succumbed to Ada’s charms, but his attentions she definitely does not welcome. Already an enemy from Wesley’s early days, and initially blinded by his peculiar moral stance, Michael Dunne comes to the realization that his dreams are being destroyed by Wesley Case. He devises a plot to rid himself of the destroyer and win the fair maid.

    In romance, A Good Man can win. In the politics of conquest, he cannot.

    - Judith Umbach

    Off the Shelf: Maya's Notebook by Isabelle Allende

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    At first the dual settings of Maya’s Notebook seem to engender culture clash. Maya, recovering drug addict, has been sent to remote Chiloé, the southern island area of Chile from Los Vegas, the place of her willful captivity in the drug culture. Gradually, author Isabel Allende draws out the nuances of the two societies, showing us the modern world’s cultural symbiosis.

    Maya’s grandparents are her bedrock. Emotionally and often physically abandoned by her parents, she grows up spoiled (as she admits) by her eccentric Chilean grandmother and her warmly loving American grandfather. Rules are loose, when they exist, in favour of creativity and spontaneity. The family is so passionate that they collapse when struck with tragedy.

    Sent to Chile in a protective exile by her grandmother, Maya has been instructed to keep a notebook of everything she does, thinks and feels. In exile, her home is made with a friend of her grandmother, a taciturn professor who is writing a book about the myths and anthropology of Chiloé. Modern Maya, banned from using the internet and without most of her electronics, drops into an eighteenth century village. After she learns to stop chattering and rebelling, she begins to appreciate the genuine strength and friendship of a self-sufficient community.

    Maya’s Notebook moves ahead and backwards in a well-modulated rhythm. The joy of her early life helps her make friends in the village. Her knowledge of the wider world helps her see that the village is not so very isolated. Committed to sobriety, she takes full responsibility for her rehabilitation, while recognizing that she needs the emotional support of others. As she becomes sensitive to the troubles of other people in the community, she begins to assess her own period of self-destruction and sheer danger. Her evident healing encourages her friends and neighbours to include her in their traditions and beliefs.

    With great skill, Isabel Allende offers the reader the opportunity to join Maya on a journey of self discovery and cultural exploration.

    Judith Umbach

    Off the Shelf: The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    Grief is inevitable and for some unbearable. In The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse, grief is both old and ever present. Freddie Watson’s brother George was lost at the Somme; his parents, unable to bear their grief for their beloved son, forgot to comfort or love the younger child.

    A decade later, still mired in regret and sorrow, Freddie seeks relief through a change of scene, motoring through the Pyrenees in the late fall. Crashing his car on a lonely, icy road, he has to walk through the woods to a small village, Nulle, where a reserved hotelier takes him in.

    Is the rest of the story in Freddie’s mind or is it real? And what is reality? Can Freddie and others struggling with the will to live balance on the boundary of the real world and the world of spirits? Undoubtedly, some of Freddie’s actions are real, because evidence exists. Equally without doubt, he suffers from a severe fever brought on by his injuries and subsequent exposure to the cold and the exhaustion of his walk through the woods.

    Grief is almost a way of life in Nulle. The townsfolk are quiet people who mind their own business, yet care for this solitary soul who so obviously needs help. They feel little need to talk about the ghosts, but they all know that their village and their environment are haunted by voices and apparitions. The Winter Ghosts are part of their own existence.

    Freddie sees their ghosts and hears their mysterious words. In fever and as he recovers, he threads the wishes of the all-too-real into his own decisions. Growing in faith, and away from his own crippling emotions, he tears the fabric of silence and inaction. His embracing of being alive restores the vitality of both himself and the villagers.

    -Judith Umbach

    Off the Shelf: No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    The liberation of South Africa was a fundamental aspiration for people in the 1960s through the 1980s. In No Time Like the Present, Nadine Gordimer, the preeminent South African writer, brings us into the lives of Steve and Jabu, children of the struggle and travellers into the present. They married when it was illegal for a mixed-race couple, they moved to a suburb with their comrades from the struggle, they had children, and they developed “ordinary” careers. Is this not the life they desired?

    The present has been disillusioning for Steve and Jabu. As the novel evolves they have to overlook many compromises, for everyone must understand that reality is never as good as the country of their dreams. Yes, voting is a right for all, and it was well exercised. But after Mandela, Mbeki was a disappointment. And after him, Zuma is frightening. Or are they being too demanding of their politicians. Are these leaders worse than those in other countries?

    Social problems abound. Jabu is a lawyer in the Justice Centre. Daily she sees the destitute suffer from lack of services, work and family. AIDS is a scourge. The increasing number of refugees from Zimbabwe is blamed for much disorder, a blame made violent by impoverished locals who seek a focus for their frustration. Steve is a university instructor who seeks to interpret and implement the principles of freedom in the classes of his institution. He recognizes that young people taught so poorly under apartheid cannot quickly become viable university students. Unfortunately, education is one of the lower priorities of successive governments with too many priorities; thus, educational standards are not improving. When will they, if ever?

    Rising above this litany of disasters is the loving marriage of Steve and Jabu. Nadine Gordimer has accomplished one of the most difficult feats in literature – evoking the steady, warm, supportive joy of a good marriage.

    Their children are anchored by a good family life, allowing them to pursue their individual interests and friends. However, as their children grow through their teen years, Steve and Jabu are forced to confront the staggering difference between the society they wanted for their family and the society outside the doors of their home.

    -Judith Umbach

    Off the Shelf (9)

    by Jasna Tosic - 0 Comment(s)

    Frank Adams must be the most silent protagonist in fiction. Perhaps his humble voice is what allows the reader to experience the cacophony of the Boer War in The Great Karoo, by Fred Stenson. What seems like a radical departure from Stenson’s usual and successful scenes in western Canada quickly becomes an extension of southern Alberta, as cowboys go off to war in South Africa at the behest of an ungrateful Great Britain.

    Frank is a follower, a man uncomfortable with any sort of attention. He loves and knows horses, particularly Dunny. Along with many other cowboys, he and Dunny are shipped first to Halifax and then to South Africa in the roughest of conditions. Already Frank has started to develop a sort of confused resentment at the waste and incompetence of war.

    In The Great Karoo, the Boer war is exposed as a shambles. Many characters, both fictional and historic, direct the troops according to their past experiences or to satisfy their own egos. The Boers have their own egotistical leaders, who often outwit the British, yet also disregard human life in pursuit of their goals. Scattered across the desert, plains and hills are Boer farms and towns, eerily reminiscent of Alberta. Naturally, the Boer farmers are uniformly angry and disdainful of the armed interlopers who fight for their subjection.

    Despite the death, illnesses, cold, heat, lice, hunger and every other calamity of war, Frank persists even longer than his enlistment requires. He makes friends with Ovide, another man who does what he is told, until he falls fatally for a bad “joke”. And after much persistence, he becomes the true friend of Jeff Davis, a man of ambition and leadership. Frank’s persistence is his most endearing quality. Many times he withdraws, but then he returns to his deep need to be friends with a few select people and horses.

    The Great Karoo is a finely crafted novel that teaches us history while defining the value of the quiet voice.

    Judith Umbach

    Off the Shelf

    by Jasna Tosic - 0 Comment(s)

    Human Traces

    Sebastian Faulks

    By Judith Umbach

    Perhaps hearing disembodied voices is a gift, not a psychopathology. Could the carrying of voiced instructions in our heads be the true mark of being human? Occasionally, it all goes wrong and we call it mental illness. Yet, the interior hearing of the voices of our loved ones, our leaders, and our past selves is so common as to be universal.

    In his novel, Human Traces, Sebastian Faulks explores our understanding of the human mind in the framework of early psychological research at the turn of the last century. At the story’s beginning, Jacques is a boy who would be considered abused in our times but who then was considered to be a farm labourer, the natural course of family life in rural France. His older brother, Olivier, has descended into madness, kept shackled in the barn for his and the family’s safety. A friendly local priest rescues Jacques from his fate of subjection and frustrated ambition, giving him an unorthodox education.

    Thomas is a bright, eccentric English boy - loved by his family, given wide-ranging freedom to explore his world, and educated according to upper-middle class standards. On holiday in France, the two boys meet and in the way of some friendships, they become immediately inseparable. For life.

    As professional medical men, and with Sophie, Thomas’s sister, then Jacques’ wife, they establish a therapeutic spa in central Europe to treat the exhausted, the psychosomatic, and the mentally ill. The three owners demonstrate a sensible approach to the economics of business, in order to achieve Jacques’ goal of first caring-for and then curing his brother. The men are determined to advance the knowledge of psychiatric factors in illness and wellness.

    Faulks occasionally strays from his fictional style to speak almost directly to the reader about the early research in this field; however, since the information is interesting in light of our more sophisticated current knowledge, this is easily forgiven. Human Traces is a fascinating, slow-moving novel, in which we share the false starts and tiny progressions towards a better understanding of ourselves.