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Books for Older Teen Boys (by Janet Somerville)
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Books for Older Teen Boys (by Janet Somerville)

By 49thShelf
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Janet Somerville has been teaching Grades 11 and 12 boys a primarily CanLit curriculum for 15 years. Her students tweet about literature, popular culture and current events from September-June through @TeenBoyLitCrit.
This All Happened
Why it's on the list ...
In this fictional diary, Winter blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction as protagonist Gabriel English (a featured character in his short story collection ONE LAST GOOD LOOK as well) muddles through a year of his life in St. John’s. He struggles with figuring out career aspirations as well as his affairs of the heart. The prurient aspect of snooping about in someone else’ s life has infinite appeal.
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The Boy in the Moon

The Boy in the Moon

A Father's Search for His Disabled Son
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
More Info
Excerpt

One
For the first eight years of Walker's life, every night is the same. The same routine of tiny details, connected in precise order, each mundane, each crucial.

The routine makes the eight years seem long, almost endless, until I try to think about them afterwards, and then eight years evaporate to nothing, because nothing has changed.

Tonight I wake up in the dark to a steady, motorized noise. Something wrong with the water heater. Nnngah. Pause. Nnngah. Nnngah.
But it's not the water heater. It's my boy, Walker, grunting as he punches himself in the head, again and again.

He has done this since before he was two. He was born with an impossibly rare genetic mutation, cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, a technical name for a mash of symptoms. He is globally delayed and can't speak, so I never know what's wrong. No one does. There are just over a hundred people with CFC around the world. The disorder turns up randomly, a misfire that has no certain cause or roots; doctors call it an orphan syndrome because it seems to come from nowhere.

I count the grunts as I pad my way into his room: one a second. To get him to stop hitting himself, I have to lure him back to sleep, which means taking him downstairs and making him a bottle and bringing him back into bed with me.

That sounds simple enough, doesn' t it? But with Walker, everything is complicated. Because of his syndrome, he can' t eat solid food by mouth, or swallow easily. Because he can't eat, he takes in formula through the night via a feeding system. The formula runs along a line from a feedbag and a pump on a metal IV stand, through a hole in Walker's sleeper and into a clever-looking permanent valve in his belly, sometimes known as a G-tube, or mickey. To take him out of bed and down to the kitchen to prepare the bottle that will ease him back to sleep, I have to disconnect the line from the mickey. To do this, I first have to turn off the pump (in the dark, so he doesn't wake up completely) and close the feed line. If I don't clamp the line, the sticky formula pours out onto the bed or the floor (the carpet in Walker's room is pale blue: there are patches that feel like the Gobi Desert under my feet, from all the times I have forgotten). To crimp the tube, I thumb a tiny red plastic roller down a slide. (It's my favourite part of the routine–one thing, at least, is easy, under my control.) I unzip his one-piece sleeper (Walker's small, and grows so slowly he wears the same sleepers for a year and a half at a time), reach inside to unlock the line from the mickey, pull the line out through the hole in his sleeper and hang it on the IV rack that holds the pump and feedbag. Close the mickey, rezip the sleeper. Then I reach in and lift all 45 pounds of Walker from the depths of the crib. He still sleeps in a crib. It's the only way we can keep him in bed at night. He can do a lot of damage on his own.
_

This isn't a list of complaints. There's no point to complaining. As the mother of another CFC child once told me, "You do what you have to do." If anything, that' s the easy part. The hard part is trying to answer the questions Walker raises in my mind every time I pick him up. What is the value of a life like his–a life lived in the twilight, and often in pain? What is the cost of his life to those around him? "We spend a million dollars to save them," a doctor said to me not long ago. "But then when they're discharged, we ignore them." We were sitting in her office, and she was crying. When I asked her why, she said "Because I see it all the time."

Sometimes watching Walker is like looking at the moon: you see the face of the man in the moon, yet you know there's actually no man there. But if Walker is so insubstantial, why does he feel so important? What is he trying to show me? All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head, in his jumped-up heart. But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look into my own.
_

But there is another complication here. Before I can slip downstairs with Walker for a bottle, the bloom of his diaper pillows up around me. He's not toilet-trained. Without a new diaper, he won't fall back to sleep and stop smacking his head and ears. And so we detour from the routine of the feeding tube to the routine of the diaper.

I spin 180 degrees to the battered changing table, wondering, as I do every time, how this will work when he's twenty and I'm sixty. The trick is to pin his arms to keep him from whacking himself. But how do you change a 45-pound boy's brimming diaper while immobilizing both his hands so he doesn't bang his head or (even worse) reach down to scratch his tiny, plum-like but suddenly liberated backside, thereby smearing excrement everywhere? While at the same time immobilizing his feet, because ditto? You can't let your attention wander for a second. All this is done in the dark as well.

But I have my routine. I hold his left hand with my left hand, and tuck his right hand out of commission under my left armpit. I've done it so many times, it's like walking. I keep his heels out of the disaster zone by using my right elbow to stop his knees from bending, and do all the actual nasty business with my right hand. My wife, Johanna, can't manage this alone any longer and sometimes calls me to help her. I am never charming when she does.

And the change itself: a task to be approached with all the delicacy of a munitions expert in a Bond movie defusing an atomic device. The unfolding and positioning of a new nappy; the signature feel of the scratchy Velcro tabs on the soft paper of the nappy, the disbelief that it will ever hold; the immense, surging relief of finally refastening it–we made it! The world is safe again! The reinsertion of his legs into the sleeper.

Now we're ready to head downstairs to make the bottle.

Three flights, taking it in the knees, looking out the landing windows as we go. He's stirring, so I describe the night to him in a low voice. There's no moon tonight and it's damp for November.

In the kitchen, I perform the bottle ritual. The weightless plastic bottle (the third model we tried before we found one that worked, big enough for his not-so-fine motor skills yet light enough for him to hold), the economy-sized vat of Enfamil (whose bulk alone is discouraging, it implies so much), the tricky one-handed titrating of tiny tablespoonfuls of Pablum and oatmeal (he aspirates thin fluids; it took us months to find these exact manageable proportions that produced the exact manageable consistency. I have a head full of these numbers: dosages, warm-up times, the frequency of his bowel movements/scratchings/cries/naps). The nightly pang about the fine film of Pablum dust everywhere: Will we ever again have anything like an ordered life? The second pang, of shame, for having such thoughts in the first place. The rummage in the ever-full blue and white dish drainer (we're always washing something, a pipette or a syringe or a bottle or a medicine measuring cup) for a nipple (but the right nipple, one whose hole I have enlarged into an X, to let the thickened liquid out) and a plastic nipple cap. Pull the nipple into the cap, the satisfying pop as it slips into place. The gonad-shrinking microwave.

Back up three flights. He's still trying to smash his head. Why does he do it? Because he wants to talk, but can't? Because–this is my latest theory–he can't do what he can see other people doing? I'm sure he's aware of his own difference.

Cart him into the bed in his older sister Hayley's room on the third floor where I have been sleeping, so I can be near him. Hayley, meanwhile, is downstairs with her mother in our bedroom so they can get some sleep. We take turns like this, reduced by the boy to bedroom Bedouins. Neither Johanna nor I has slept two full nights in a row in eight years. We both work during the day. After the first six months, I stopped noticing how tired I was: my days and nights simply became more elastic and similar.

Lay him down on the bed. Oh, fuck me dead–forgot the pump! Build a wall of pillows around him so he doesn't escape or fall off the bed while I nip back into the other room. Remember 4 cc's (or is it 6?) of chloral hydrate, prescribed for sleep and to calm his self-mutilation. (I tried a dose once: the kick of a double martini. William S. Burroughs was thrown out of school as a kid for experimenting with it.) Reprogram the pump, restart the familiar mild repetitive whine, his night pulse.

At last I sink into bed beside him and pull the wriggling boy close. He begins to hit his head again, and because we know of no acceptable way to restrain him mechanically, I hold down his small right hand with my large right one. This brings his left hand up to his other ear–"he's a genius for finding ways to hurt himself," his teacher told me the other day. I grab his left in my left, which I have threaded behind his head. He begins to kick himself in the crotch with his right heel, so hard it makes me wince. I run my big leg over his little leg, and lay my right hand (holding his right hand) on his left thigh, to keep it still. He's stronger than he looks. Under his birdy limbs, he's granite. He'll mash his ears to a pulp if no one stops him.

There is a chance, of course, that none of this will work. Every once in a while, the chloral hydrate rebounds and transforms him into a giggling drunk. It's not unusual to have to perform the entire routine again an hour later. When he has a cold (eight, ten times a year), he coughs himself awake every twenty minutes. Sometimes he cries for hours for no reason. There are nights when nothing works, and nights when he is up and at it, laughing and playing and crawling all over me. I don't mind those nights, tired as I am: his sight is poor, but in the dark we're equal, and I know this makes him happy. In the night, there can be stretches when he is no different from any normal lively boy. It makes me almost cry to tell you that.

Tonight is a lucky night: I can feel him slip off after ten minutes. He stops grunting, strokes his bottle, turns his back and jams his bony little ass into my hip, a sure sign. He falls asleep.

I hurry after him. For all this nightly nightmare–the years of desperate worry and illness and chronic sleep deprivation, the havoc he has caused in our lives, threatening our marriage and our finances and our sanity–I long for the moment when he lets his crazy formless body fall asleep against me. For a short while, I feel like a regular little boy's father. Sometimes I think this is his gift to me–parcelled out, to show me how rare and valuable it is. Walker, my teacher, my sweet, sweet, lost and broken boy.
_

In the early years, after Walker was first diagnosed with CFC syndrome at the age of seven months, the estimated number of people who suffered from the syndrome changed every time we visited the doctor. The medical profession–at least the handful of doctors who studied cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, or knew what it was–was learning about the syndrome as we did. The name itself was nothing more than an amalgam of the syndrome' s most prominent symptoms: cardio, for ever-present murmurs and malformations and enlargements of the heart; facio, for the facial dysmorphia that was its signal characteristic, a prominent brow and down-sloping eyes; cutaneous, for its many skin irregularities. The first time a geneticist ever described the syndrome to me, he told me there were eight other children in the world with CFC. Eight: it wasn't possible. Surely we had been blasted out to an unknown galaxy.

But within a year, after our doctors had begun to sweep the medical literature for references to CFC, I was informed there were 20 cases, because more had turned up in Italy. Then there were 40. (The speed with which the number changed made me sneer at the doctors: they were trained medical professionals, surely they ought to know more than we did.) More than 100 cases of CFC have been reported since the syndrome was first described publicly in three people in 1979; some estimates are as high as 300. Everything about the syndrome was a mystery, an unknown. It was 1986 before it had a name. Symptoms ranged wildly in severity and kind. (Some researchers believe there may be thousands of people with CFC, but with symptoms so mild the condition has never been noticed.) Some CFC children hit themselves, though most didn't. Some could speak or sign. All but a few were anywhere from mildly to severely retarded. Heart defects ranged from serious to unimportant. (Walker had a mild murmur.) Their skin was often sensitive to touch, to the point of agony. Like many CFC children, Walker couldn't chew or swallow easily; he couldn' t speak; his vision and hearing were compromised (he had narrowed optic nerves, one more than the other, and skinny ear canals subject to incessant infection); he was thin and wobbly, "hypotonic" in the medical jargon.

Like virtually all CFC children, he had no eyebrows, sparse curly hair, a prominent brow, wide-set eyes, low-set ears and an often charming cocktail-party personality. The CFC features grew more noticeable, more "abnormal," as he grew older. I assumed my little boy was an average example of the condition. It turned out I was wrong. It turned out the average didn't exist– not here.

Nor did those conditions change. Today, at thirteen, mentally, developmentally– I'm terrified even to write these words–he's somewhere between one and three years old. Physically, he's better off than many CFC children (he doesn't have frequent seizures, doesn't have ulcerated intestines); cognitively, less so. He could live to middle age. Would that be good luck, or bad?

Minus a few new genetic details, this was and still is the sum total of what the medical profession knows about CFC. It isn't widely studied, as autism is. Most parents of CFC children know more about the affliction than their pediatricians. The CFC population isn't large and politically powerful like that of Down syndrome, which more than 350,000 people live with in North America, and which occurs once in every 800 births. CFC shows up no more often than once in every 300,000 births, and possibly as rarely as once in a million. The National Institutes of Health Office of Rare Diseases characterized CFC as "extremely rare," way out at the far, thin end of the statistical branch, alongside bizarre genetic anomalies such as Chédiak—Higashi syndrome, a bleeding disorder caused by platelet dysfunction and white cell abnormalities. There were only two hundred known cases of Chédiak—Higashi, in part because so few born with it ever survived.

Raising Walker was like raising a question mark. I often wanted to tell someone the story, what the adventure felt and smelled and sounded like, what I noticed when I wasn' t running through darkness. But who could relate to such a human anomaly, to the rare and exotic corner of existence where we suddenly found ourselves? Eleven years would pass before I met anyone like him.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
This memoir has opened up remarkable conversations about disability and Brown’s radical way of thinking about it as he struggles to understand his son Walker’s place in the world. Because of Brown’s intrigue about the L’Arche communities he visits and contemplates as a possible future home for Walker (founded by great Canadian Jean Vanier), each of the boys joins me for an evening at L’Arche Toronto, where they meet folks like Walker who accept them entirely as they are.
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The Song Beneath the Ice
Excerpt

YOU MAY RECALL THIS STORY from the newspapers:

A year or so ago, during a recital of Pictures at an Exhibition, the concert pianist Dominic Amoruso stopped, got up from the piano, turned to the audience, paused – and walked away with­out a word. Just like that, he disappeared.

There were suggestions at the time of an attack of stage fright; the onset of some sudden illness; a temperamental reaction to some careless noise in the audience; perhaps a nervous breakdown. I was there that night. I saw what happened. I’m still not sure I understand.

He was performing in the Walker Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was playing the piece with which he launched his career, and with which he is most closely associated. He’d begun with his usual brilliance. There was no hint of anything unusual.

He plays the Musorgsky as written – more powerful, per­haps more jagged than you are used to hearing it. Closer to Richter than Horowitz; closer to Ashkenazy than Richter; but all Musorgsky. Or so I am told. I am not a music critic. But I do have particular knowledge of Amoruso. I have known him since childhood. He has the nerves of a burglar. He often joked that he could play Pictures in his sleep, that he played it better in his dreams. That night, however, he became progressively more tentative as he made his way through the music and, towards the end, his hands began to jerk back from the piano as if he feared the keys might bite him.

He appeared puzzled. Then frightened. He grimaced. He fought himself. He froze. He sat for a moment with his hands raised high in front of him, unable or unwilling to move. The image was that of a child shielding his face from the attentions of a large black dog.

In the audience: silence, whispers, murmurs, gasps. Men and women shifting in their seats. A few rows behind me, a man began to clap and a shrill, two-fingered whistle pierced the rising murmur. Someone hissed at the rudeness; then, as if to explain that the hiss was meant to admonish the whistler and not the pianist, the crowd broke into earnest, almost apologetic applause.

Dominic let his hands fall. His shoulders sagged. He pushed himself up from the piano bench and faced us as if he were about to speak. I held my breath; we all did. He made a useless gesture with his hands. No words came. He looked up and flinched as if he thought something might fall on him. He turned on his heel and walked away, without so much as a sideways glance.

The director of the gallery tried to catch his elbow.

Thomas Carter is a small slim grey-haired man who favours a crisp black suit and an impeccable white shirt. Amoruso brushed past him.

Carter took centre stage and apologized briskly on Dominic’s behalf. Said he was sure it was nothing serious. Efforts were being made to take care of him, there was indeed a doctor in the house – a remark that caused a titter. There were plenty of them in the house.

And then, with a confident smile, Carter made a few remarks about the evening’s exhibition, about which more in a moment. He invited us to join him for a glass of champagne, after which he said we might like to take a stroll through the gallery.

*****

I caught up with Carter and asked if I could help in any way. He directed me to a makeshift green room off to the side of Walker Court. Dominic was nowhere to be seen. No one could tell me where he was. And so I resolved to find him.

I left the gallery and went to look for him in his usual post-performance haunts. I went to Pho Pasteur, Dai Nam – his favour­ite noodle shops in Chinatown: No, sorry, we ­haven’t seen him, not tonight, we don’t know where he is.

I went to the Fran’s on College St. No, dear, he ­hasn’t been in. At least not this evening. If he drops by later, is there a message? I took the subway to the Fran’s on St. Clair, the one near his apartment; the same response. I walked to his apartment building and rang his buzzer. Nothing doing. The doorman said he ­hadn’t seen him that evening, although I was sure this was an act of loyalty.

I was stumped.

As nearly as I can determine, he made three phone calls that evening: first, to Claire Weller – they were intimate; second, to his agent, the elderly but formidable Anne Langelier. And there was a brief and simple message on my machine when I finally got home: It’s me. I’m sorry. –Don’t worry. I’ll be in touch. His voice sounded altogether serene.

It seems to me that when someone does something quite out of character, says ­“Don’t worry,” and then drops out of sight, it is prudent to worry in earnest. I tried to return his call. I was not the only one – his phone rang busy all night long. Eventually I gave up – either several of us were trying to get through all at once and we were blocking the line, or he had taken his phone off the hook.

I finally got through the next morning.

His voice mail kicked in after half a dozen rings. His mailbox was full and would no longer accept new messages.

*****

It ­didn’t add up.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
With a punk pianist protagonist who behaves as idiosyncratically as Glenn Gould and has synesthesia and plays word games with anagrams, THE SONG BENEATH THE ICE appeals especially to quirky kids who court eccentricity, of which there are many. The mystery element of Dom’s disappearance to figure out keeps the boys puzzling on through to its satisfying end. Set in Toronto and Iqualuit where Fiorito worked for the CBC. David Young’s play GLENN (about the four stages in Gould’s career: prodigy, performer, perfectionist, puritan) is a remarkable companion piece.
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Seduction
Excerpt

PART 1: PEN PALS

Chapter 1: CELLULAR ACTIVITY

Look into the depths of your own soul and learn first to know yourself, then you will understand why this illness was bound to come upon you and perhaps you will thenceforth avoid falling ill.
—Freud, One of the Difficulties of Psychoanalysis
It's really embarrassing to admit, but I forget why I killed my husband.

The vast majority of people do not kill their spouses. I’ve faced that I’m in an extreme minority. Since I’m locked in here anyway, I decided to try to figure out what I missed that everyone else seems to understand. In a former life I studied Darwin and examined how drives become instincts. It was great for watching birds make their nests and fly south, but it didn’t give me any clues as to why I killed my husband, or help me figure out how to conduct myself when, and if, I ever get out of this cinder-block cell. I tried reading religion, but it didn’t grab me. Philosophy was interesting, but it only made me wonder if I was here at all.

However in 1974, about eight years ago — I’ve been in this cooler surrounded by frozen tundra for nine years now — I ran across Freud. I started with volume one of his collected works, because I’m that kind of person, and read all twenty-three. (I’m that kind of person too.) Freud’s theory is a turnkey operation. You only have to buy into the unconscious and the rest falls into place. It’s like buying the model suite: you may have quibbles with the furnishings, but you have somewhere decent to live.

My greatest interest was early Freud, in all the discoveries he made before he was famous. In his letters he would explain that he’d seen patients all day and was then alone in his small study working through the night. Even when he went to sleep, he had dreams of planing wood — still honing the theory. Freud called this first decade of his most original discoveries, before he had any followers except for one loopy buddy named Wilhelm Fliess, his time of “splendid isolation.”

I was also alone, reading Freud day and night in my six-by-nine-foot cell. Maybe it was the similarity of our splendidly isolated circumstances, but I felt Freud was writing to me. I even answered his letters in a notebook that I kept hidden in my cell. When I got on a real roll in the middle of the night after ten straight hours, I felt we were co-authors.

They say prison is hell and I suppose it is in most conventional ways, though I look at it as a monastic opportunity where all distraction is mercifully wiped away. Not many people share a cell for nearly a decade with one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Of course, I never said as much to my prison psychiatrist — he would think it was delusional — but I feel doing time with Freud kept me sane.

Fifty percent of female prisoners have a grade nine or lower education; forty percent are illiterate; the majority were unemployed at the time of their crime. Even though Native people make up two percent of the population nationally, they are thirty-eight percent of the Canadian prison population. Two-thirds of female prisoners are single mothers. Eighty percent have histories of sexual or physical abuse. Less than one percent of women in prison are there for violent crimes. On the rare occasions when their crimes are violent, the aggression is almost always toward a spouse who has repeatedly abused them first.

Not one of these statistics applies to me. And I’ve always been a fan of stats, since numbers pretty well paint the picture.

The only thing I’ve had in common with my fellow prisoners, as my psychiatrist likes to remind me, is that we’ve all committed crimes. Somehow I don’t find that an icebreaker. Now Freud, on the other hand, was a biologist turned psychologist, like me. In fact he described himself as “Not a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker . . . I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador — an adventurer, if you want it translated — with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.” These are traits I also have in spades. In terms of curiosity I’ve studied everything I could get my hands on since I was a kid. If you want to talk about daring, then let me remind you that I killed my husband. If these are the qualities that make a conquistador, then Freud was a great one and I, albeit pathological, am one as well. No wonder I bonded to him.

I was determined to read everything to find out why I was so unusual. Depending on what psychological assessment you read on me, you can substitute the word psychopathic or paranoid for unusual. I never got too riled up over those labels because, let’s face it, psychiatrists get paid to call you something.

Before prison, I liked science with all the bells and whistles — hypothesis testing, finding physical or numerical results, and measuring the difference. It’s called hard science when you have something hard or physical to measure. There’s a lot of comfort in measuring something you can see. Although Freud was a medical doctor, his greatest love was physiology and the biological research it entailed. When, at the age of forty, he didn’t get the academic research appointment he wanted, he qualified as a neurologist and set up a private practice. Back in the days before psychiatry was an official discipline, the psychotics wound up in insane asylums run by doctors who were called Alienists. As far as I can tell, they were fairly alienated from the patients. Their job was to make sure the doors were locked and the lunatics had straw in their cells. The neurotics of the nineteenth century had nowhere to go, and out of desperation wound up dragging their anxiety, hysteria and nervous tics into neurologists’ offices. Freud, one of the few neurologists who agreed to investigate hysteria, spent hour after hour seeing patients, mostly women, who had all kinds of symptoms with no apparent physical basis. Wanting to follow the rigours of the scientific tradition, Freud was in a quandary because he needed to study the mind in order to help his patients, but the hard sciences didn’t have any methodology for doing so. You can’t measure and quantify mental phenomena. Wanting to stick with the sciences, he had to invent his own science or method, which became known as psychoanalysis.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
There isn’t a finer introduction to Darwin or Freud than this crime fiction caper that opens in a women’s prison in the early 80s and journeys to the Freud museum in Vienna, to the Freud mansion in London (where Anna Freud resides) and through the streets of Toronto in the company of eccentric Freud and Darwin devotees. It relies heavily on Darwinian clues and provides an opportunity to also consider the always provocative work of Richard Dawkins.
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Green Grass, Running Water
Why it's on the list ...
This magic realism romp features the trickster Coyote, four Natives who’ve escaped from a mental institution and are bent on “fixing the world” and is rife with popular culture and literary allusions including the assassination of JFK, Maxwell House commercials, MACBETH, MOBY DICK, Milton, Lone Ranger and Tonto and the Bible. The unconventional structure makes it a bit of an enigmatic puzzle that the boys enjoy figuring out.
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There Is A Season
Excerpt

“If what we know is what resembles us, what we know is a garden.”
I stood alone among yellow glacier lilies and the windflowers of spring, the western anemone, their petals frail disks of trembling clotted cream. I was a boy and the mountain ridge I’d climbed was only a half-hour hike from the back door of my home. In the east the blue peaks of the Monashee Range rose up against the Selkirks and beyond them the far Rockies and the plains. I had wandered that morning among sheltered coulees and rocky hills and, finally resting, stared out at the paling distance.

The high hills and mountains were my solitary land and I hiked the trails year-round. The days were all one to me back then, and the scuffed pad of a cougar’s track in the wet clay of Six-Mile Creek in summer was no less wondrous than the spread toes of a coyote’s paw print in a fringe of January snow on the BX Ranch where he had braced to leap upon a vole or scurrying mouse who had come lucklessly into the thin winter sun.

There were black bears and the occasional cougar or bobcat in those hills, but when I saw one I felt awe, not fear. Even then I knew what a blessing an animal was. Any creature’s appearance was a gift the wilderness gave me. The animals of the backcountry were unused to humans in those days and they stepped around me as much as I did them. Sometimes a cougar would take a lamb or two in the spring from some flock and then the game warden would walk his dogs into the hills to track the big cat down. He hated killing cougars.

Often he would take me along on those trips; why, I don’t know. Perhaps he felt sorry for me or perhaps my father asked him to in the hope it would make me a man. Gazing at a cougar lolling on a high limb of a ponderosa pine above Lumby while the cougar dogs slung their howls from the foot of the tree at the flick of its black-tipped tail was to look at a god. I watched from the back of an old white horse as Mr. Frisbee pulled his Winchester from beside his saddle and brought the cougar down with a single shot. The cougar falling from the sky was my first huge death.

I remember touching the rough blond hair of a dead cat’s nape, the curve of its long yellow incisors, and the dead ball of its eye as it stared sightless through me to the fading sun. These deaths drew me toward a compassion I didn’t fully understand. All I knew was that such sentiments were not spoken of among men or boys. Feeling deeply about something was never shown.

But it is not the cougars or bobcats, the bears or rattlesnakes of that early wilderness I think of now. It is another early memory that stays in my mind. I was up in the Bluebush hills west of Kalamalka and Okanagan Lake. I had hiked back into the hills with a peanut butter and jam sandwich, two apples, and a water bottle in the army satchel my father had brought back from the Second World War. I took it with me whenever I hiked out for a day. I stood on a crest in a frothing meadow of glacier lilies and anemones, and their fragile beauty remains with me. It lives in the blood and muscle of me and I can still call it up and bring it into spirit.

Grasses, their stalks flattened and flung by the winter snow, lay like fallen hair upon the earth, and their new green spears caught the wind with frail hands. A mountain meadow and a boy in the long-ago of the last century. Did I know then it was a garden I looked out upon? Had I been asked I would not have understood the question. Garden? Wilderness? I gave the meadow no thought. Had someone asked me if what I saw was beautiful I would not have known what he meant. A boy is a boy and he is the place he inhabits. He is what surrounds him and the boy I was remains with me in the image of yellow lilies and creamy anemones among the grasses and scattered stones.

What was I, ten years old? A child, a stripling boy, but those mountains and deserts live in me still and when I go back into that country my heart surges with sudden blood. The past hurls itself at me at times. My bones remember the water and the stones. I grew my body from that mountain earth, and my cells remember the cactus and pines, the lilies and grasses. I am as much blessed as burdened by this.

It is such beauty that made me into a gardener. Perhaps by planting flowers and shrubs and trees I am trying to return to that earlier paradise. Yet finally, not. My garden today is another kind of paradise, and I am not the boy wandering in what another might call loneliness but to me was solitude.

What I do remember is squatting and building a small cairn of stones in the middle of the meadow. There was no death to cover over, no occasion to ritualize other than the day itself and the curious busyness of a boy. But, like all animals, I wanted to leave some mark that I had been there so others who followed would know of my passing. Perhaps the mound of stones is still there or perhaps it’s been kicked over by a deer or coyote or some other boy who pillaged the cairn to make his own curious mark. Perhaps the snow, ice, and wind have spilled it. Whether or not the cairn is gone, the stones remain like ghosts in my hands and that is enough.

Today, fifty-two years later, I am not in a mountain meadow in southern British Columbia. I am in my garden on Vancouver Island and it is early January in the first year of the new century. The sky is grey and the small drops of rainwater gathered on moss and fallen leaves glimmer like opals in the winter sun. In the declivities of grass, apples lie where they fell three months ago. Under the scrabbled branches of the apple tree a red-shafted flicker carves white flesh from a fallen fruit. He feeds on the slim bounty of the season and doesn’t fully trust the grass and moss I still call a lawn though each year I starve it, encouraging the mosses to flourish. The flicker’s claws are better suited to the bark of trees where he spends the day climbing patiently up the trunks in search of insects who have buried themselves in slits to sleep out the gloomy winter months.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
Ostensibly a diary chronicling Lane’s first year of sobriety, there is a found poem on every page. His humility and frankness offer genuine lessons about “how to man up” in especially difficult circumstances. And, THERE IS A SEASON is written with a wondrous respect for the natural world.
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Trade Mission

Trade Mission

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
This is a gritty literary thriller about two hot-shot dot-commers, Marcus Wallace and Jonathan Bates, now 24, who have been joined at the hip, heart, and brain since they were inseparable companions as boys at school where they were bullied by everyone, including the prefects. As “boy geniuses of Canada’s Great White Web,” Wallace and Bates travel to the heat of the Brazilian rain forest in the trade mission of the title to pitch their “vaporware” software called Hypothesys; it “helps you make the best decision of your life!” In THE TRADE MISSION morality and danger are heady companions.
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Young Men
Excerpt

"So." Dominic looked across the table at Gordon. Gordon smiled at him. He wore dark glasses, in which Dominic could see his own tiny, warped reflection. Dominic was also wearing dark glasses. They were both wearing linen shirts which fluttered slightly in the breeze. King Street rustled around them; it seemed full of women in dresses.

"So," said Gordon. "How are you?"

"I'm good. It's good to see you too. I just thought I'd call because—"

"Oh, of course, it's great to—"

"Just to see how you —"

"Would you gentlemen care for something to start?"

"Are you going to have something?" asked Dominic.

Gordon looked at his watch. "I have to be back at the office."

"I'll have a soda with lime," said Dominic.

Gordon said, "Do you have a fumé blanc by the glass?"

"Ah ..." The waitress's blue eyes wandered over them. "I'm not sure."

"Could you check for me?" said Gordon quietly.

"What I do have, which is similar, sir, is a Pinot Grigio, which is a little fruitier, but I find it —"

"You've had it?"

"I like it." She smiled, and Dominic had to look away from her bare neck and smooth bust. "Shall I get you a —"

"I'll have a glass of Chardonnay, whatever you have, the biggest you have," said Gordon, passing her the wine list with the tips of his fingers as if he didn't even want to touch it. "Something oaky, something I can chew on. I trust you." He smiled at her from behind his glasses.

Dominic resented not having ordered a drink; he felt cheated. He almost called her back as she swung away, but hesitated too long. He resented the feeling, distant as a hangover, that he still wasn't quite sure of the rules.

"Attractive," said Gordon.

"Terrific, in fact," said Dominic. "Monster. I'd forgotten what it was like, downtown. Stuck up in the frozen north." He had been teaching at a university in a suburb.

"It's particularly wonderful today." They both looked over the railing — they were practically right in the middle of the sidewalk — at the suits, walking quickly past them, and the folded newspaper and the bare legs. It was one of the first days warm enough for them. The breeze was enough to make Dominic shiver. A streetcar rumbled past and drowned something that Gordon said. Gordon took his cellphone from his pocket and laid it on the table.

"So," said Dominic.

"So," said Gordon. "How was it?"

"The teaching?"

"Well, everything. You got a lot of thinking done too, I suppose?"

"Oh, more than that. I got a couple of my own projects finished."

"Really? Did you? Well, that's good. That's terrific. And you have any, you have any definite plans for them?"

"Oh yes."

There was silence.

"Good." Gordon looked at the menu. "I always enjoy the carpaccio. I like a wet carpaccio."

"So do I. It's wet?"

"Wettish."

The duck crêpe with wasabe cream looks good."

"Actually, I'd warn you off that one."

"Ah."

"The crêpe is heavy. Stodgy."

"Forget it. I'll have carpaccio too."

"Let's start with that and decide on mains later."

"Fine." They folded their menus and smiled at each other's glasses. "So how are you?" said Dominic.

"Actually," said Gordon, "I'm good. Very good. A number of ... a number of things on the go."

"Excellent. Are you still at — "

"Well, for the time being, yes."

"Ah?"

"Yes. Something — a possibility has just presented itself to go somewhere else. It looks like a pretty sure thing. You understand that I can't be specific just yet about what it —"

"No no, of course, no no no. But you're happy — excited about it?"

"Oh yes. It would be a pretty interesting position. As I say, things are just about to be finalized, and I'll let you know as soon as I know for sure, and actually, I probably will want to talk to you then, because there are ways in which you might be able to, to —"

"To get involved."

"To contribute. In some way. Yes. This is one of the reasons I wanted to see you, to just touch base with you, see what you were up to, see if you had any projects on the go, if you were looking to get involved with any —"

"Oh, I'm always looking to get involved," said Dominic.

"Good."

"Have you gentlemen decided?"

Gordon opened his mouth but Dominic spoke as quickly as he could. "We'll have two carpaccios to start, please. And we'll order the mains later."

"All righty then." She leaned to gather the menus.

"Could we hang on to those?" said Dominic.

"Oh. Certainly." She was looking around as if someone was going to catch her.

"Since we haven't decided yet."

"Of course." She was still hesitating. "I'll just leave these with you then."

"That's what I'm getting at," said Dominic, and Gordon snorted. Dominic felt a wave of guilt like sudden nausea, but he smiled at Gordon.

As she swished away, Gordon said, "Her boss has told her never to leave the menus."

"Isn't that tough?" said Dominic, and felt it again.

"Isn't it. So." Gordon took a sip of his white wine. The glass was large, round and yellow with wine, misty with condensation.

"You know, that looks so good I think I might have a drink after all." Dominic looked around for the tall girl.

Gordon was frowning. "That's not exactly what I'd call oaky." He swallowed again and grimaced. "You know," he said, his voice deep with concern, "I'm not even sure that's a Chardonnay at all."

"Excuse me," said Dominic to the girl as she passed. "I'm sorry, I've changed my mind. I'll have a glass of wine too."

"Don't order this one," said Gordon, just so she could hear, and Dominic cringed again.

"I'll be right with you," she said. She was carrying plates of food.

"Anyway," said Dominic. "So."

"So. How's life otherwise? On the personal front, I mean."

"Well, you heard I — me and Christine are no more."

"Yes, I heard that. I'm sorry to hear it. Was that ... tough?"

"Yes, it was."

"That's too bad."

Another streetcar passed, so they didn't have to talk about it for a second. Finally Gordon said, "But I suppose it's better in the long run?"

"Oh yes. Much."

"Good." Gordon drank from his glass and grimaced again. "You know, I don't think this is what I ordered at all."

"Well, you did say you trusted her," said Dominic gently.

"I didn't trust her to give me a goddam Riesling or something. Hello."

"What can I get you?" She was at their side again, blushing a little, Dominic thought, but perhaps he was being optimistic. He studied her flawless skin.

"I'd like a glass of the Pinot Grigio you mentioned, and my friend —"

"Are you sure that's not what you brought me?" said Gordon.

She hesitated. "I'm sure that's the Chardonnay, sir. You don't like it?"

"I don't think it's a Chardonnay, but never mind. Let me try something else."

"Certainly." She shook her head slightly to clear a wisp. It was very controlled. "What would you like?" Her voice had a fine edge now; it was crisper.

"I'd like a fumé blanc, but I guess I'll have to —"

"There's a sauvignon blanc, a Pinot Grigio, and another Chardonnay, it's from Oregon, it's a little lighter, so —"

While this went on, Dominic stared at Gordon's cellphone, lying flat and small and heavy and meaningful on the table, as if it was threatening to ring, a silent threat to everyone around.

"Anyway," said Gordon, once she had gone. "Whatever happened to that project you had going with Pyramid?"

"Oh, Pyramid, that just, they really —" Dominic shook his head.

"Fizzled out?"

"I think they kind of took me for a ride." He sighed. Suddenly he was tired of caution. "They read my proposal, liked it, brought me in, I had all kinds of meetings, and then it was like everybody forgot about it all of a sudden, as if nothing had ever happened." Dominic squeezed his napkin into a ball. The waitress was weaving towards them.

"Who were you dealing with there, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Not at all. Mimi Bean."

"Ah. Mimi Bean." Gordon leaned back, smiling widely.

"What? You know her?"

"I've had similar dealings with her."

Dominic felt exasperated. He leaned forward. "Well what? Tell me what you know about her."

"Pinot Grigio," said the waitress, "and the Eyrie Vineyards Chardonnay. Are you finished with the first one, sir? I'm so sorry you didn't like it. We won't charge you for this one, sir."

"Thank you," said Gordon, as if to a small child. He smiled up at her like a grandmother. Dominic half expected him to pat her on the head. He wondered what Gordon had that made people react to him like this. Even he, Dominic, wanted Gordon to be pleased all the time.
Absently, she began to gather the menus again.

"If you don't mind," said Dominic.

"Oh, of course," she said. "I'm sorry."

He watched her hips slice the air in their tight black fabric and felt a sudden bitterness, at her, at Gordon. "Nice girl," he said, "but obviously not blessed with vast intellect."

Gordon laughed loudly. He threw his napkin onto the table and laughed some more.

Dominic blushed with his own success.

"Listen," said Gordon. "Did you ever have the impression that Mimi Bean'smotivation, in her dealings with you, did you ever have the suspicion that her motivations weren't entirely professional?"

"You mean, that her motivations may have been more social than professional?"

"So to speak."

"Did I ever feel that she might have just wanted to —"

"To bag you. So to speak."

Dominic laughed. "That's exactly what I thought. I thought it was my self-flattering imagination."

Gordon shook his head, leaned forward, and in a murmur began to tell him stories of Mimi Bean. Dominic listened closely, his heart pounding. This was the exciting part of being with Gordon. This was really lunch, this was really lunch on King Street. As Gordon spoke and chuckled, and he chuckled too, he watched the women passing on the sidewalk, brushing past him in envelopes of perfume, and felt that he was watching them knowingly, and thought that he might even try, today, before the end of lunch even, to smile at one.

"But I'll tell you one thing you may not have noticed, in case you ever do need to know," said Gordon, finishing up. His voice went even lower. "She's a little heavy in the leg."

"Ah." Dominic raised his eyebrows.

"Dresses very carefully. You'd never notice. But she's a little heavy in the leg."

"Thank you." They both nodded sagely and sipped their wine. The wine tasted marvellous. Dominic felt marvellous. He knew their linen shirts looked great together. When the waitress came back, he would not be afraid to make some crack about the menus and her boss watching, or even about the wine. He glanced at a woman on the sidewalk who had a white skirt and top on, and blonde hair; she carried a bunch of flowers. He pushed his glasses down and caught her eye. She stared for a second, and he smiled, as confidently as he could. She quickly looked away and quickened her pace as she passed, as if she had seen something that frightened her.

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Why it's on the list ...
These interwoven stories, written with Smith’s trademark élan, follow the trajectory of three Toronto men-- Dominic, Eddie and Lionel-- making their way in the world both professionally and personally as they try to reconcile their youthful dreams with the men they have become.
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