Distraught woman finds mysterious library

Plus, Charlotte Gray on the gold rush, memoirs about learning to speak Mandarin, and a cancer journey, a light approach to the Middle East and a search for giant waves

Audrey Niffenegger/Abrams ComicA

Audrey Niffenegger

A highly successful visual artist before she became a bestselling novelist with The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger is understandably drawn to graphic novels. Her newest, at 33 pages, is more a graphic novella, but it is rich in theme, atmosphere and the capacity to linger in a reader’s mind. That should almost be Reader, with a capital “R,” because Niffenegger’s tale of a distraught woman and a mysterious library is about reading as the actual point of living for its truest devotees. As the artist asks in her afterword, “What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with perfect light for an afternoon in eternity, reading the perfect book, forever?”

That’s an image reminiscent of a scene (the old lady in a chair) in Goodnight Moon, a volume significantly displayed within this one. In fact, the bookmobile, which protagonist Alexandra first encounters at 4 a.m. one day while wandering the streets of Chicago after an argument with her lover, holds everything she has read since childhood, and nothing else. That is literally everything: her own diary is on a shelf, and the ephemera section includes all the cereal boxes she ever perused. (Like Dr. Who’s Tardis, the battered Winnebago holding Alexandra’s life—in a way Niffenegger means to be exactly analogous to the number of stories within a reader’s mind—is much, much larger on the inside than it appears from the outside.) Other named texts include The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells—fittingly so, since Bookmobile was inspired by a Wells tale.

The librarian informs Alexandra of the dusk-to-dawn operating hours, and invites her in to browse happily within her past. But soon the bell rings—it’s dawn—and Alexandra must leave. It is years before she stumbles upon the bookmobile again. “Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it?” she asks. The rest of this disturbing and beautiful tale is about the price books exact in exchange for the pleasure they give, and the lengths to which we will go to pay it.

Charlotte Gray

Like the Klondike’s gold-laden streams, historians have been picking over the glory days of Dawson City, Yukon, for more than a century. The gold ran out long ago. Are there any stories left worth telling?

With Gold Diggers, Canadian biographer Charlotte Gray turns her formidable attention to the gold rush of 1896. Yet Pierre Berton’s Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, which first appeared over 50 years ago, still stands as the iconic popular history of that era. And the autobiography of his mother, Laura Beatrice Berton, I Married the Klondike, is equally dominant as a first-person account of life in post-boom Dawson City.

Despite all this competition from the Berton family, however, Gray manages a fresh approach to the well-told story of Canada’s most famous boom town.

Where Pierre Berton featured a “cast of major characters” that numbered nearly 50, Gray pares her attention down to just six key figures: prospector Bill Haskell, hotel owner Belinda Mulrooney, Jesuit priest William Judge, Mountie Sam Steele, British journalist Flora Shaw, and soon-to-be famous but struggling writer Jack London.

Freed from the obligation of having to tell the encyclopedic story of Dawson City’s meteoric rise and fall, the author uses her six Klondikers to reveal many untapped veins of historical interest. Of note, the competition in town was often as interesting, and fierce, as the competition in the gold fields to find the next productive mining claim.

Gray reveals a little-known ecclesiastical struggle over ministering to Dawson City’s sinful hordes. American and Canadian miners come into sharp conflict over which holiday—Independence Day or Victoria Day—should take precedence. She details the birth of a bitter rivalry between entrepreneur Mulrooney and mining magnate Big Alex McDonald.

And while Pierre Berton spent half a sentence on Shaw, the colonial correspondent for the Times of London, Gray provides a lengthy character sketch of this formidable woman and the surprising influence she wielded over Canadian government policy in the Klondike. The rush may be long over, but thar’s still plenty of story gold in them hills.
– Peter Shawn Taylor

Deborah Fallows

If Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book Eat Pray Love is guilty of rampaging narcissism, then Dreaming in Chinese is Deborah Fallows’s proof you can write a travel memoir without all the navel-gazing. Fallows spent three years in China with her husband trying to learn Mandarin. Her Ph.D. in linguistics didn’t help much, she says, but she picked up enough to fill an entertaining and informative book about how the language reflects a seemingly impenetrable culture.

Divided into 14 chapters organized by theme (“When rude is polite”), the book is light and breezy, filled with tidbits that are ideal for dinner party chit-chat: lacing conversation with please and thank you is rude because it increases the social distance between speakers; doubling the verb (“fix, fix”) softens an order into more of a request; number four is unlucky; there are only about 100 family names in China; taxi drivers work 24-hour shifts and therefore need encouragement to stay awake; Shanghai and Beijing have a low-grade rivalry that recalls Montreal and Toronto’s; and Chairman Mao spoke with such a heavy Hunan accent that most of the Chinese masses couldn’t understand his speeches.

The academic in Fallows wants us to know that Mandarin has a glut of homonyms and compound words. Gendered pronouns are considered unnecessary, while “I” barely exists.

(Fallows became self-conscious about using “I” too often. Je comprends.) There is precious little punctuation in Mandarin and no telltale spacing to distinguish words within sentences. Fine. But Fallows is at her best when interacting with her adopted countrymen—sneaking a Toblerone into the Beijing Olympics, taking tai chi, getting a massage from a blind man, ordering takeout from Taco Bell. Her quest to understand the language of love is hilarious.

By keeping the focus outward, she performs the neat trick of making readers want to know more about her. Take that, Liz Gilbert.
– Joanne Latimer

Gregory Levey

“The situation in the Middle East is a festering wound,” the author writes, “only without all the charm.” If you don’t find that funny, then, oddly enough, you’re just who Levey is looking for in a reader. Levey, now an assistant communications professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, was once an English-language speech writer for Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Living in New York after his stint in the Israeli PMO, he found that the rough pragmatism on both sides that governed daily life in the Mideast was largely absent in North America. Here debate seemed more fervent and emotional, dominated by “armchair extremists more fanatical than their on-the-ground equivalents and peace activists so strident they seemed on the verge of violence.” And so, tired of the cacophony and the mutual deafness, Levey set out to settle the entire mess by himself, from the comfort of his home.

The book’s strength is precisely in its tone. Levey is right that the texture of human life is comic, however tragic its outcomes often are, and that humour can help adversaries see each other’s essential similarity. In everything from proudly (albeit secretly) wearing his peacemaker boxer shorts to attempting to engage in dialogue with his neighbourhood Palestinian fruit-stand operator to going undercover at a militantly pro-Israel evangelical Christian convention, Levey shows that in North America a little levity could go a long way.

That same lightness is, of course, the book’s main drawback. It’s one thing to write that the broad outlines of a solution have long been apparent: two states, with a reasonable division of Jerusalem, a limited right of Palestinian return and the dismantling of most Israeli settlements. But the details of those adjectives contain entire armies of devils. Small wonder Levey—spoiler alert!—doesn’t achieve his title’s stated goal, even if wringing a few laughs out of a festering wound is no small achievement.

Ruth Rakoff

Before her own diagnosis with breast cancer, Ruth Rakoff gave some advice to a friend. In the muck of battling the disease, the woman had confided she felt people had certain expectations of her: “Like the flowers should smell sweeter.” To which Rakoff replied, “Just because you have had cancer doesn’t make you a better person, or oblige you to change your perspective on life in any way.”

In her memoir of her own journey, Rakoff says she stands by that advice—mostly. Cancer undoubtedly changes your perspective on many things, like it or not. Does it make you a better person? Hard to say. But if you’re part of a supportive and quick-witted family (Rakoff is the sister of comic essayist David Rakoff; another brother, Simon, is a comedian), you can share your tale of how the disease narrows your world, with humour and honesty.

A busy wife and mother, Rakoff’s life was stalled by her diagnosis in 2005. She writes about the disorientation of a questionable mammogram and the resulting biopsy (“full-blown heaving and sobbing . . . I am not that person”). After losing her right breast to a mastectomy, it takes her weeks to find the courage to look down at her chest, yet she is still able to find the fortitude to later ask her breast surgeon to remove the other as a pre-emptive measure. The toll on her body of eight rounds of chemo is heartbreaking. Along the way, Rakoff sorts out how to talk to her three young boys about her breasts, figures out what to buy herself as a “cancer present,” and dreams up a T-shirt she hopes to one day wear: “Cancer Club—Not Accepting New Members.”

Despite the pervasiveness of the “C” word, Rakoff’s book is filled with the sense of a life (even one that might be waning) that’s being fully lived. Where her perspective shifts the most is around acceptance: “No flowers needed [to] smell sweeter . . . I had made good decisions.” She had chosen to make family and friends a priority. Judging by how they rushed to her side with ginger tea, polka-dot pillows and powerful sedatives, she chose well.

Susan Casey

In a high school physics classroom, waves behave with satisfying simplicity. They’re governed by easy-peasy equations and lend themselves to cute, idiot-proof demonstrations with water. But in recent times oceanographers have learned something sailors have been trying to tell them for centuries: that the linear, periodic basics break down under extreme conditions in the real sea, and that waves of unimagined size and brutality can appear almost out of nowhere, crushing supertankers like shoeboxes.

These “rogue” or “freak” waves are the subject matter for Toronto-born Susan Casey, a sports and adventure journalist who became editor-in-chief of O, The Oprah Magazine last year. Don’t be fooled by the naff job title; Oprah hires the best.

Casey’s scheme is to switch back and forth between two narratives. One is a journey through the world of mariners, physicists, actuaries, and others who have studied rogue waves scientifically, sometimes from terrifying vantage points. The other is a portrait of a small group of half-mad elite surfers who have developed a complicated, dangerous tandem technique for riding giant waves that appear at great intervals in a few special, scattered, perfect locations.

With the scientists, Casey plays the naïf, breezily professing confusion at chalkboards full of sigmas and integral signs and contenting herself with nerd-watching. The surfers, on the other hand, send her into an undisguised estrogen frenzy. Her prose about surf messiah Laird Hamilton and his musculature suggests, at times, that her past might include an undisclosed Harlequin Enterprises apprenticeship.

But the reader will find it hard to put the book down, let alone fling it. Casey is a strong writer and a brave observer. Under her pen, the nerds take on something of the glamour of the old-time Jesuits who risked death and torture to evangelize the heathen. And Hamilton emerges as an unexpectedly ambiguous figure—a taciturn, single-minded guru who feigns hatred of media attention (even though he accepted part of Casey’s advance to help research the book) and who proves coldly willing to risk the lives of acolytes in search of adrenalin highs. An ounce of honest reporting, as always, outweighs a gallon of bias.

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