These three books couldn’t be more different. There is one thing they have in common, though – they are all written by Nova Scotians.
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.
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 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.”
What (or where) have you been reading about lately?