Nonfiction for Fall

This morning, I had a wonderful opportunity to hear about four fantastic new works of nonfiction. I am so excited for each of these books, and their wonderful authors, that I couldn’t wait to share these recommendations with you!

Many thanks to Ben, of Ben McNally Books, for hosting another successful Authors’ Brunch. Thanks, also, to the Globe and Mail (and books editor Jared Bland) who is an an event sponsor.

Now…on to the BOOKS!

1) First to speak this morning was Charlie Wilkins, and what an interesting man! His new book is called Little Ship of Fools.

LittleShipCover.inddFrom January through March of 2011, a crew of 16 rowers made their way from Morocco to Barbados. The journey was scheduled to take 33 days. It took 53 days. They ran out of food on day 43. No humans were cannibalized during this adventure.  But, desperate for food, Wilkins did consume a vacuum packed piece of chicken, whose packaging had torn, and upon which was clearly written: “If package is ripped or torn, do not consume.”  But hunger can do funny things to people. The issue, to Wilkins, wasn’t ‘What if this chicken is bad?”, but, rather, “What if this chicken is GOOD?” He had to try. He was fine. For two hours.

Since taking on this project, Wilkins noted that so many people have two big questions for him: 1) Why did you do this? and 2) Why would you do this at your age? (Wilkins was 61 at the time of the rowing.)  The short answer: “I felt like it.”  Fair enough.  In chatting with Charlie after the event, I noted that whatever this “thing” is…this thing that makes people want to row across oceans, climb Mount Everest, trek to the South Pole…I just don’t have that “thing” in my DNA. But I have an absolute respect and fascination with people who do. Along with this latest adventure, Wilkins has also walked from Thunder Bay to New York City. He has travelled with the circus, and soaked up the life of the famous Wallenda family. He has worked as a gravedigger. (Wilkins has written books about each of these times in his life.)

Wilkins is a really lovely man! He is curious and interested in our world and often contemplates the importance of our connection to this place we call home. Along with that thinking, comes further wondering: what happens when we become disconnected, fracturing ourselves from the planet? When everything we think about ourselves is stripped away, what happens to us? These are some weighty and important questions. But Wilkins is not a sombre or morose man. Rather, his “compulsion to go”, his inquisitiveness and examining nature have helped him become a wonderful storyteller and excellent human being. I hope you will check out his book!

2) Next at the podium was GQ magazine contributor and eight-time National Magazine Award nominee, Mike Paterniti. His newest book, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese has been getting all sorts of positive attention since its summer release, and it’s a book I have been very keen to acquire.

While working on his MFA in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Paterniti worked at a well-known deli, Zingerman’s. While Paterniti felt his MFA in fiction was “qualifying him for nothing”, he could make a sandwich. While working at the delicatessen, he was asked for input on the shop’s newsletter. (See, MFA’s can be useful!) Zingerman’s owner was quite particular in choosing excellent food and loved sourcing high quality artisanal products. One item, featured in the newsletter, caught Paterniti’s eye – a small mention of a type of cheese from Guzmán, Spain, that had been made in a cave by the same family for hundreds of years. For nine years, Paterniti carried this newsletter clipping with him until, finally, he ended up in Spain for a work assignment. With one day off, he decided to visit Guzmán, to try and learn more about the cheese and the man behind the cheese, Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras.

During the 8-hours Paterniti spent with Ambrosio, they sat in the “telling room” – a space within the family cave where everyone would “gather to drink and eat, share stories and histories and dreams.”   Paterniti heard the most incredible tale during his visit, and became wholly intrigued with Ambrosio, the cheese and this funny little village which very much resembles a “Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel – full of magical realism.” (They have a resident, named ‘Emmanuel,’ who is ‘the man that flew that one time’.)

Paterniti says this book is about keeping stories alive and reminding ourselves that we are making and writing our own stories every day.

3)  The inimitable Charlotte Gray was our next author. Her new book will, with hope, attract fiction readers who love a good crime tale. Gray joked about her genre-jumping from serious biographies to CRIME WRITER (!!), with her newest book, The Massey Murder. Gray loves bringing Canada’s “rich and detailed history to life” and is on a “self-appointed mission to share the love of Canadian history.”


9781443409254Gray was in a bookstore when she noticed all of the real estate taken up by crime fiction. “A-HA!”, she thought. And decided, in that moment, her next book would be a work that would bring the story of a crime in Canada’s past to life for readers. She began asking around her friends (judges and lawyers) for interesting crime cases she could research – “the more sex and blood, the better!’ – and was amused to discover that Canada, known for being a polite and dignified country, actually has “quite a lot of sleaze” in its past. Gray “had such fun writing this book” and in the end, she really didn’t know who was the victim in this story. Colour me intrigued!

The Massey murder took place at a crucial moment in Canada’s history and gave Gray the chance to explore three big ideas:

* In 1915, Canada had just sent its second contingency of men to WWI and families were beginning to receive notices about their husbands and sons being killed in action.
* Toronto was in a state of turmoil. During the ten years leading up to this crime, the population had doubled and extraordinary social dislocations were taking place. Many people coming into the city were not all from the U.K, and not all were protestant. Immigrant communities were growing and the pains being experienced were impacting the city.
* The Massey murder occurs during a backdrop of the changing role of women in Canadian society. At this time, “a woman either worked as a servant or had a servant.”

4) Our final author for the morning was Adam Leith Gollner. His new book is called: The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief and Magic Behind Living Forever9780307368188_0.

Do you ever have dreams that sit with you for days and days, preoccupying your thoughts? Gollner had such a dream, about a fountain. While thinking and thinking about this dream…he realized it was the fountain of youth, and with this understanding, he had discovered his next book’s topic – immortality. He then spent five years thinking “about this thing that doesn’t really exist, that has no end. Or does it?”

Divided into three sections, belief, science and magic – Gollner spent time with spiritual leaders, people of faith, scientists…and magician David Copperfield. Oh, yes he did. Copperfield, apparently, discovered ‘magic water’ on the island of his vacation home. Dead bugs dipped in this water would spring to life and fly away. Browned, dead leaves would return to green life when put in this water. This is, clearly, some very special water. Gollner was eventually given permission to visit Copperfield on his island. Though Gollner would not be allowed to see the ‘magic water’, Copperfield agreed to talk to him “with great verbal aplomb”, about the water. So…magic water, you guys!!


I hope you are all very intrigued by each of these books!!  This group of authors was truly fabulous and while their books are very different, it was wonderful to hear about overlapping themes and ideas.  Many people avoid reading nonfiction because they feel as though the genre might be dull or the narrative flow not captivating enough. With these four books, I think lovers of fiction and nonfiction alike will be thrilled.

Please do seek out these books, whether at your local library or independent bookseller. Each of these authors are great – engaging, smart, interesting and positive. They are helping bring our histories and social relationships to life and giving voice to people, times, places and ideas we may not ever otherwise know about.

A Man in Uniform by Kate Taylor

Released today, A Man in Uniform is, according to the description offered by the publisher, Doubleday Canada,:

“A seductive new novel from the author of the award-winning bestseller Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen.

At the height of the Belle Epoque, the bourgeois lawyer François Dubon lives a well-ordered life. He spends his days at his office, his evenings with his aristocratic wife — and his afternoons with his generous mistress. But this complacent existence is shattered when a mysterious widow pays him a call. She insists only Dubon can rescue her innocent friend, an army captain by the name of Dreyfus who has been convicted of spying. Against his better judgment, Dubon is drawn into a case that will forever alter his life.”

I read this novel quickly, over one weekend. I feel Taylor has created a compelling story using an historical event that divided the nation of France. The Dreyfus Affair began in 1894. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent Jewish Officer in the French Army, was convicted on false evidence, manufactured with military approval, for a crime of high treason. He was stripped of his rank, publicly degraded and deported to the penal colony of Devil’s Island to serve a sentence of life imprisonment, in total isolation, and under inhumane conditions. The fight to prove his innocence lasted 12 years.

The Dreyfus Affair caused a deep rift between intellectuals not only in French society, but in all of Europe and the United States. It unleashed racial violence and led to the publication of history’s most famous call for justice, J’accuse, addressed to the President of France by Emile Zola (in January 1898); Zola became, in the words of Anatole France, “the conscience of mankind”.

This event in France’s history involved not only political and military scandals but also murder, deceit, corruption and treachery. Using the documented truths of the Dreyfus Affair as the launching point for her second novel, Taylor becomes a master weaver, braiding the intricacies of historical fact with her own imagination and linear storytelling. Taylor also punches up an already bountiful chain of events through the introduction of femme fatales, seduction and villainy. Characters, both real and invented, co-mingle in her mostly solid novel.

I have had a hard time creating a review for this work because, while so many elements work ~ the plot, the historical context, the characters ~ I was very let down by the use of coincidence and convenience. Taylor is a gifted writer and a talented, award winning Canadian journalist. (She writes an Arts column for the Globe and Mail, was previously their Theatre critic and has been on staff with the paper since 1989). Through research, I discovered the initial manuscript for her new novel “went through three significantly different drafts that involved major plot changes… Draft number two had serious tweaking…Draft number three involved a major rewrite then a major set of cuts” before the manuscript was considered ready for publication. Learning these details made me wonder what elements were sacrificed from a story that could have achieved literary perfection in order to make the novel more broadly appealing?

The novel is very well-paced and enjoyable; I debated calling it a fun read; it definitely makes for a perfect “summer read”. While looking at other reviews for A Man in Uniform, the terms “a romp” and “rollicking” were encountered again and again. The novel definitely engages the reader and seems to have all of the components of a very good historical, literary mystery. For me, the novel is hard to categorize by genre. I have read many reviews that refer to the book as a ‘hardboiled mystery’, but to my understanding, these types of stories are distinguished by an unsentimental portrayal of crime, violence, and sex. I think there is a lot of emotion in Taylor’s novel, and her writing, so I am a bit dismissive of that particular classification. In the end, though, I don’t think this matters. My only issue, really, has to do with how “neat” the story was; how conveniently it climaxed and resolved. The novel is good so I am hopeful it will be embraced and enjoyed by readers. Kate Taylor is a great writer and the story is strong.

I recommend A Man in Uniform and rate it 3.5 our of 5.

What’s Black & White and Read All Over?

I realized I have not posted my articles as published in The Globe and Mail (when you click on the link, scroll down a bit and the story is on the right side of the page). Going through the writing process, in Vancouver, was easy enough for me, once I got over the nerves and doubt, you know the little voice in your head that likes to, sometimes, rain on your parade? I do a lot of writing but it is not what I would call ‘journalism’. It is definitely creative fiction that I spend my time working on. Of that writing, I am quirkily, oddly and perhaps absurdly over-protective. I don’t share my fiction writing with anyone. It makes me feel sick to my stomach to think about sharing it or showing it to anyone.

There have been exactly two occasions when I have shared my writing. One instance – maybe 6 years ago – occurred when I let the husband read about 20 pages of a story I had been working on. Happily that went very well – his feedback was helpful and his comments very supportive. Biased, or not! Ever since then, though, he wants to see more of my writing and wants to know what is happening with ‘the girls’ from the bit he read. I don’t like that one bit. I find it invasive and uncomfortable. So silly!

The second occasion of sharing took place about 3 years ago. I had decided to take the plunge and join a local writing group. (This only after several conversations with a writer friend whom I trust and respect. His encouragement to ‘give it a try’ really allowed me to be a little more open to the group process.) The woman who started the writing group had become an acquaintance through the book group I attend. She is also a writer and had mentioned her group to me. I attended several meetings and managed to evade contributing my work for scrutiny. Of course, that only lasted so long and eventually I was asked. I felt too protective of any of the current projects I was working on so I opted to create a new piece to offer my group-mates. I was pleased with what I created but didn’t feel emotionally attached or invested in the piece. Well, come the day I had been worried about, I was a mess beforehand. I had physical pains in my belly and wanted to throw-up. Charming, I know. I even, briefly, thought about not going to the group meeting but that would be too sucky. If nothing else, I am a glutton for pain and punishment. Okay, maybe not a glutton but the tolerance level is absurdly, ridiculously high! (Also another genetic trait with the women in our family.) So, I went and gave out my work. With the meetings we would talk about projects we were working on and anything related to writing. Then, at the end of the meeting copies of work would be handed out to be read and critiqued at home and then brought back to the next meeting.

A few days after our writing group meeting, my phone rang. It was one of the members from writing group. She was calling about my piece. I took a big breath and waited for, I don’t know what, but I felt the need to brace myself. Well, what came next caused me a bit of embarrassment but was a tremendous (if short-lived) boost to the writing ego. The feedback I was offered was very positive and bordered on gushing. I don’t take compliments well so this is why I felt embarrassed. It was awkward for me hearing good things about my writing. Anyway, my critic made a literary comparison between my work and the work of a known, published author that floored me. “I have no response to that.” I uttered. I still don’t. The first person to guess to whom my work was compared wins a free book! Seriously. I know it is a huge stab in the dark, but give it a shot! I offer one clue – it is a male fiction writer. If you know me and know this story, you can’t play! Sorry!!

Since then I haven’t shared any fiction writing. I don’t truly understand what my resistance is all about so, if you have any ideas please send them my way! I suffered the implosion of my hard drive and lost 90% of all of my writing. It was the scream heard ’round the road the day that happened. Followed by the tears of anger at myself. I hadn’t done a recent back-up because I was either naively detached or cockily arrogant. I had never had any computer problems, ever, so I was blase about regular back-ups. I lost my entire hard drive that day, including 3 novels in various states of completion – 300+ pages, 170+ pages and 90+ pages – and many, many ideas in different stages of hatching.

When this happened I was so defeated; I didn’t write anything for nearly one year. It was a bad time in my small bit of the world for many reasons but the lack of writing as an outlet was an additional challenge to overcome. Now that I am back into writing mode. I am hopeful to complete a novel this year but don’t ask me about it, please! 🙂

My recent journalism experience has also tweaked an long-held interest so ‘things’ may develop in that area also. This type of writing does not feel as personal to me and I don’t have any qualms about ‘putting it out there’, the way I do with my fiction writing. Both styles of writing are wonderful and I like each of them for different reasons. Wherever the path leads now, I am enjoying this feeling of possibility!

February 15th – The Continuing Story

When last I left you, Ed Robertson and Sean Cullen were just finishing a musical spoof of “Sundown”, a song written and performed, originally, by Gordon Lightfoot. My favourite lyric (I hope you are humming the tune in your head here.): “Sometimes I’m feeling real great, I hope we win another gold medal or eight.” There was an appreciative roar of support for that sentiment.

Molson Canadian Hockey House An intermission in entertainment then occurred and it was a good opportunity to dive into the great buffet in the VIP section of Molson Canadian Hockey House. The food was arranged by the Wolfgang Puck Catering Team and was delicious. We enjoyed beef bourguignon, which was melt in your mouth yummy; lamb; whitefish in a tomato & black olive sauce; smashed red baby potatoes; aromatic saffron rice and a cornucopia of salads and vegetables. It was so good!

After we finished eating we were introduced a number of writers and editors from The Globe and Mail. Winning photographer, John Fearnall, and I had previously been told that both the publisher, Phillip Crawley, and the editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse, wanted to meet us. Uh-oh! I was a bit nervous about this. It turns out Mr. Crawley had flown home earlier in the day so meeting him wasn’t going to happen. Stackhouse, however, was in the house and Sean Humphrey (Director of Marketing for The Globe and Mail) made the introductions. Stackhouse was very congenial and asked a lot of questions about my experience so far. We talked for 5 or 6 minutes and I found him to be supportive of “the Dream”.

I then met Andy Willis and he was terrific. He was funny and inquiring. Seeing me taking my notes in a small coil-bound ‘mead five star’ notebook, he pulled his scribbler out of his pocket, tore off the ten or so sheets of paper he had already made notes on and presented it to me for my keeping! WOW! I was so pleased by his gesture and, I think, he was happy to do something so small that became the source of much happiness. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write in his ‘official reporter’s notebook’. It is a treasure, for sure.

Next, I was introduced to Patrick Brethour, who is the BC bureau chief for The Globe. Patrick was pretty curious about the whole contest and experience and was very friendly and keen to hear about what I had been up to since arriving in Vancouver.

Jane Taber then came over and introduced herself. She was terrific. We chatted for a long time about journalism, generally, and writing, specifically. She offered a great perspective on her career noting each day she can see and appreciate her achievement as, at the end of every work day she has a tangible result and something to show for her efforts and time. She is absolutely right.

Intermission over, the entertainment was about to start again but first, John Stackhouse was invited on stage. On this evening, The Globe and Mail was hosting ‘Ladies Night’ at hockey house and we were going to get an opportunity to see every member of the Canadian team on stage. The purpose of the event? To recognize the importance of the Ladies First Hockey Foundation. This non-profit group is sanctioned by the individual and collective members of the National Women’s Hockey Team. The Foundation was established by a group of individuals that recognized the hardships that these athletes face in striving to compete in their sport on the International Stage. The Foundation provides financial assistance to the team members and their families at various times throughout the year. We were very lucky to be sharing our hotel with many of the women’s hockey team family members. In particular we got to know some of the ladies from Gina Kingsbury’s family. They are terrific women and we loved seeing them at breakfast in the morning, particularly if they had been celebrating a win the night before! The Globe and Mail is a supporter of Ladies First Hockey Foundation. It was a great moment, seeing the entire team on stage (after being led out by some mounties) and the crowd gave a lot of love to the women! The crowd went absolutely bonkers as “our greatest collection of female hockey talent” stood on stage soaking of the adoration. Tyler Stewart had taken over MC duties and after the crowd calmed down a bit he let us know about an auction being held to benefit the women’s team. Gibson Canada has donated a white baby grand piano and it is valued at $50,000. All of the women are going to sign the piano and the entire Canadian men’s hockey team is also going to sign it. The estimated value of the autographed piano?? $500,000. Whoa!

9:00 pm – the Canadian Women’s Hockey Team has left the stage and it is now time for the headliner of the night – Tom Cochrane! Cochrane will be 57 in May and he is rocking, backed by his band Red Rider, like a madman. He plays to the crowd, favouring us with his big hits: Victory Day, Sinking Like a Sunset, Big League, White Hot.

9:30 pm – During Cochrane’s performance there is so much energy in the building. As the crowd is cheering, Donald Sutherland walks by – right in front of our noses (in the VIP area). I could have reached out and touched him without even fully extending my arm. Okay, the very large body guards probably would not have let that happen, but…still. He was that close and is very dashing and suave! While I was a student at Bishop’s University I would see Sutherland from time to time as he maintains a country home in the townships. He is as lovely today as he was (cough, cough) 20 years ago.

Sutherland made his way up to the stage and is shortly introduced by Cochrane. Sutherland comes out with Hailey Wickenheiser and the audience, again, is crazed with excitement. She presents Sutherland with a signed hockey jersey. He throws of his sweater and promptly puts on his new, awesome shirt! Funny thing though, when he throws his own sweater off and it lands on the floor, Hailey immediately bends down and picks it up (I guess the mothering instinct in women is always present). Sutherland, noticing this, swishes the sweater out of her hands and throws it back down on the ground! It was a funny moment. Sutherland then got the crowd going some more when he asked, in his lovely, TV friendly voice: “Do you believe?” We believe, Donald! We BELIEVE! They left the stage and Cochrane starts back into his set. We are treated to: The Untouchable One, Good Times and Human Race.

This day has been incredible and there is still so many more days of adventure ahead.

Photos taken by John Fearnall. His work is amazing and he was the photography winner of The Globe and Mail’s Journalism Dream contest. Besides being a great and talented photographer he is also a very good man. Please check out his site and all of his beautiful images.


I have a lot yet to write about and catch everyone up on all of the adventures we have been having out here in Vancouver. It has been fairly busy and I am sorry there are just not enough hours in a day to get everything done they way I had hoped.

I head home today. I am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed again (although the beds in our hotel have been exceptionally comfortable; there’s just no bed like your own) but I am sad to have reached the end of my “Journalism Dream”. It truly has been a dream come true. I have enjoyed experiences I had previously only fantasized about and been thrilled beyond explanation for every moment in Vancouver. My excellent friend, Cathy, summed it up with the perfect word: abundance. I am filled with a sense of overflowing fullness and it is wonderful.

So far, 2010 has been an exceptional year! Cheers!