An Opera Singer, A Coffee Franchise Contest, and OCD

These three books couldn’t be more different. There is one thing they have in common, though – they are all written by Nova Scotians.


Portia White: A Portrait in Words by George Elliott Clarke

I have written about George Elliott Clarke before – sometimes I love his words, sometimes I don’t understand them, and sometimes they make me uncomfortable.

I was excited to see he was writing a book about Portia White. Portia White was the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim (Canadian Encyclopedia). In addition, she grew up in Nova Scotia and was George Elliott Clarke’s great Aunt.

Clarke uses poetry to tell Portia’s story. Each chapter is dedicated to a stage of her life, with artwork done by Lara  Martina.

“Music is perfume”–I do think–

If notes are flowers, if scents are ink;

And songs are bouquets that arise

From vases of throats, and surprise

The air with Beauty…

At the end of the book, you’ll find a biography – it includes old photographs of Portia and her family that I poured over just as much as I poured over the words.

Ron Fanfair: 50 years after her death, Portia White exhibit brings family together



Roll Up the Rim by Leo McKay Jr.

With the exception of the fact that the protagonist in this book lives in the same Nova Scotia town that Portia White was born in, these books are worlds apart.

I believe Leo McKay had some fun writing this book. It’s definitely not written in the same tone as Twenty-Six – a novel about the 1992 Westray Mining Disaster. Roll Up the Rim is about a a Tim Horton’s employee who is obsessed with winning the vehicle in the roll-up-the-rim-to-win contest.

Owen closes his eyes. His heart pounds in his chest. So much is riding on this moment. He takes in a cleansing breath, centres himself, and pushes up at the rim, feeling the little sting where the flesh of his thumbs wants to tear away from his nails.

Play again. Dammit!

Owen’s future was bright until his parents were killed in a car accident right after graduation. Now he lives in a pigsty of an apartment with a stoner roommate and a girlfriend with a sex addiction. On top of that, one of the local police officers has it in for him because of something that happened when they were in High School. So when he gets implicated in a preposterous Tims heist, he doesn’t stand a chance. Or does he?

It doesn’t really sound like my type of book… so why did I read it? Because Leo McKay Jr. is a well-loved local author and this book is set in the town I live in (“Hubtown”, in the book). And I had a good time reading it (although I think it would appeal most to Tims fans and locals).

I could argue, though, that there’s more to this book than what I’ve described. As well as the obvious message that Owen is capable of doing more with his life, there is also a theme of addiction/obsession running through the book. Every character is addicted or obsessed with something; hash, sex, rolling up the rims of cups, cell phones, mischief, and even grudges. Small town characters stuck in a way of life that is serving none of them well.


Drive-By Saviours by Chris Benjamin

Drive-By Saviours is more my speed; a compelling and well-researched novel that tells two stories: the life of a boy from Indonesia with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and the woes of a man living in Toronto who is stagnating at work and in his relationship.


We accompany Bumi as he grows up, first on a tiny island with his parents and sister, then as a reluctant schoolboy in Makassar after being taken, along with a few others from his island, to attend school. Bumi is miserable there, but never makes it home to visit his family. He learns to live without them, and although he hates school, he loves to read and learn. (“Reading was needed for information, and information was needed for joy.“)

In nine years Bumi had gone from a knowledge-hungry child who brought joy and prosperity to many adults around him to an adult who wished he could give back the knowledge he’d acquired and re-attach the pieces of the heart he’d voluntarily severed so long ago.

As Bumi gets older, he develops some curious ticks and a strong need to protect himself and others through odd, time-consuming rituals.

So afraid was Bumi of being late that his alarm-clock-checking-rituals intensified and he barely got two hours of sleep each night. He’d walk twenty minutes to work, dodging all imperfections in the pavement, catching them through one sleepy eye. He was unsure of the exact consequences of stepping on those imperfections, but he knew that it would shift the universe toward some greater degree of evil, further away from rightness.

In the end, these compulsions indirectly lead to his need to flee the country. And he ends up in Toronto, Canada.

Toronto is everything good and everything bad about a city. It is everything tense, frenetic, and exciting, everything dull, drab, and dreary. Everything fun and everything frightening can be experienced here. It is a place you can do anything you could do anywhere else: eat the food, dance the dance, hear the language of any culture in the world. It is segregated, sanctioned and compartmentalized. it is all things to everyone and it is fully satisfactory to no one.


As a social worker, Mark hoped he would make a difference in people’s lives. But lately he’s been feeling indifferent about work, as well as his relationship with his girlfriend. Nothing is easy, and things just don’t seem to be working out for him.

I hated talking about myself, especially my past. My present was no fun either. And I didn’t have a lot of hope for the future.

Matching worldview, philosophy, religion, even mid-level politics is easy. What is hard is deciding who will wash the dishes on Tuesday, how much dirt on the floor is acceptable, whether to watch TV after a hard day’s work or give each other foot rubs, who pays for coffee.

When Mark and Bumi meet by chance on the Toronto subway, he kind of takes Bumi on as his ‘project’; someone to help. But it quickly becomes clear that Bumi is helping Mark just as much as Mark is helping Bumi.

Review at The Globe and Mail:Benjamin’s depictions of life in Indonesia and Toronto are affectionate, the voices of his characters occasionally joyful and often witty. His characters are humanly flawed, authentic.

(Note: I have been following Chris for several years on Twitter and through his work at Atlantic Books Today, and am happy to have finally read his novel.)

What (or where) have you been reading about lately?

21 thoughts on “An Opera Singer, A Coffee Franchise Contest, and OCD

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I like biographies and memoirs written in verse. I think the Benjamin is the one that appeals to me most, though. Looks like you still have a few library books to keep you busy 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I only have a couple very thin ones left, but LOTS of my own books. I’ve gotten to a few I probably wouldn’t have if the library was still open. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      The book review in the Globe and Mail states that “The title Drive-By Saviours refers to the power brokers of the world who finance and enact aid programs without understanding the people they’re trying to help.”
      I really enjoyed it!

  2. annelogan17 says:

    I like the sounds of each of these books for different reasons-especially the Tim Hortons one, strangely enough. Why is Tim Hortons such a Canadian thing? I don’t understand people’s obsession with it, although a good donut is a nice treat haha. What I’m really wondering is-how popular is Tim Hortons delivery right now? Are people literally ordering double doubles to their doorstep?

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t know about that, but lots of people are still using the drive-through. And right now they have the #NSStrong donuts, so if you feel like a donut, go for one of those ones! 🙂

  3. Susan says:

    Yeah I think the third book by Chris Benjamin seems enticing. I like stories where two dissimilar people meet by chance and end up helping one another sort of unknowingly. I’ll look for it. Hope you & your family are hanging in there. Is it hard without school? Also wanted to ask if you’ve read Gil Adamson? I haven’t read her books … yet but she has a new one coming out … that makes me want to read her. take care.

    • Naomi says:

      Let’s just say it’s different without school – a whole new routine to get used to. And once we’re used to it, we’ll get to change it again!

      I read The Outlander years ago and loved it, so I’m really looking forward to her new one. Just have to wait for the libraries to open back up… 🙂

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I’d love to see the pictures in the George Elliott Clarke book too. I loved the images for his novels too, the way he’s so often inspired by history. The collection of stories by Leo McKay Jr that I read was quite good, so i’d be interested in this one. (Years ago, a friend who was living in NYC came to Canada and one of the places she specifically wanted to visit was Tim Horton’s because she’d heard so much about it. *giggles*) Drive-By Saviours is on my TBR; I think part of takes place in a Toronto that I find quite interesting. (Unlike the character, I find this city perfectly satisfactory, but, then, I’ve chosen to live here and have had a lot of good fortune; I can see where the experience would vary, especially if you hadn’t elected to be here.)

    • Naomi says:

      And this particular character is more of a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy… he probably wouldn’t find any place completely satisfying.

      I also love that Clarke’s work is often inspired by history…. very specific people and/or places, too.

      Your Tim Hortons story is funny. I pulled out his short stories to read at the same time as Roll Up the Rim, but got side-tracked!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s