Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Losing My Mind : An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer's by Thomas DeBaggio

In this incredibly brave book, Thomas DeBaggio describes what it’s like to suffer from Alzheimer’s. In a poignant autobiography, he offers a heart-breaking meditation on memory – and the role that memory plays in making us human – as well as a beautiful story of love, family and the power of words.

As the book progresses, we watch as DeBaggio struggles to hold on to the sentences that make up the description of his life, which seem to slip ever faster through his fingers. A writer of three previous books on herb farming, this loss of syntax and vocabulary is especially hard.

In the end, however, the reader can’t help but find a mysterious beauty in this tragic book. For as the author notes early on in his story, “Getting used to the idea of dying is difficult, emotionally and physically, but what awaits me is losing the idea of dying and that is incomprehensible and at the same time it may be liberating."

3 out of 5 stars

Grievance by K. C. Constantine

Wow. Just wow. This book is, without a doubt, one of the best novels that I have read in the past few years. On the surface, this is the story of a rich industrialist who is murdered, and the police investigation to track down the killer. To describe this amazing work with those words, however, with not do this book justice. For in reality, this is not a traditional police mystery, but the tale of how the working class in the United States has been manipulated, beaten down and cheated.

In his trademark brilliant writing, K.C. Constantine describes -- among other things -- how steelworkers in Pennsylvania were cheated by both management and their union. We hear about the power that insurance companies have with the quality of health care that blue coller people in the U.S. receive. We bear witness to the personal struggles of Detective Ruggiero "Rugs" Carlucci, the protagonist of this tale, whose vulnerability is portrayed in such vivid detail that the reader is left with the impression that they are eavesdropping on a real life family crisis.

For years, Constantine has captivated readers with the life story of Mario Balzic, the chief of police in the fictional town of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. After retiring Balzic, this wonderful series continued with the adventures of Detective Carlucci. Fans of Constantine's amazing series will simply love this book. (It seems that the series gets better with each novel). For those readers who have never visited Rocksburg before, this story will offer a taste of why Constantine is one of the best writers in the United States. In a word, this is a gem, and I highly recommend this book.

4 out of 5 stars

McTeague by Frank Norris

I am not sure what to think of this book. On the one hand, this novel is light years ahead of its time in terms of style and tone. First published in 1899, this dark tale about the self-destruction of a dentist feels like a modern terror story.

On the other hand, this book suffers from dozens and dozens of unnecessary pages that just drag on with pointless scenes and dialogue. By the end of the novel I was left with the impression that this could have been a brilliant story, if only the editor had cut out 100 pages or so. To make matters worse, the ending is slightly cheesy, which is too bad, for overall this is a very interesting tale.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Shooting the Stars by John Metcalf

This book compiles three novellas by British-born (but long-time Ottawa resident) John Metcalf. Within these pages we are introduced to a housekeeper who sells the furniture of her unwitting employers, a man who has a strange experience with a dating service, and another man who recounts -- in very funny and clever details -- the history of his sexual awakening as a boy.

At his best Metcalf is a fantastic writer. The last story in particular is quite clever, with hilarious (and all too true) anecdotes of the sexual yearnings of a young man. At other times, however, his writing seems a bit forced, as if he were a student in a creative writing class trying to impress his teacher. This being said, this is an enjoyable read and I will definitely seek out more books by Metcalf.

3 out of 5 stars

The Blank Page by K.C. Constantine

K.C. Constantine's wonderful work reminds me of why I love the HBO-drama The Wire. Unlike typical cop and robber shows that are formulaic -- Law and Order and CSI come to mind -- The Wire tells stories that are filled with rich characters, complex plot lines and wonderful dialogue.

Constantine's novels are as good as any HBO-drama. (Stephen King once
described his work as watching the Soprano's, but from the perspective of the police). In the Blank Page, Constantine begins his story with a college student who is strangled in her room, wearing only her panties and, to the puzzlement of police, a blank page that has been placed over her body. The ensuing story reveals a fascinating set of characters who, in their own way, struggle with the dilemma of writing the story of their lives on their own blank page.

At his best, Constantine's books are a brilliant sociological portrait of small-town United States. But even novels like the Blank Page, which is more of a traditional police mystery, contain writing that is so good that one cannot help but be drawn into this world. I normally do not read mysterious stories, as I find this genre to be cliche and repetitive. (Too many detective novels seem like clones produced in a word factory). But then there are those exceptional characters -- e.g. Sherlock Holmes -- that capture the reader's imagination. Constantine's set of characters, led by Police Chief Mario Balzic, fall into this special category. To paraphrase one of my favourite Canadian TV channels, Constantine's mystery books are too good to be mystery books. Though the Blank Page is not among Constantine's best novels, it is still a wonderful read, and I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates solid fiction.

3 out of 5 stars