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Angie's LitPicks

By Angie Abdou
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I write a monthly book recommendation column for a local magazine. Here are the books I've recommended. Full reviews available at www.abdou.ca/litpicks
The Book of Stanley

The Book of Stanley

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged :

A riotous new novel from the #1 bestselling author of the hit sensation The Garneau Block.

By all accounts, Stanley Moss is an average man. A retired florist, he lives quietly with his wife, Frieda, in a modest bungalow in Edmonton. Stricken with cancer, Stanley has few wishes for the time he has left, except perhaps for his son to call him back. But on the day of an appointment with the palliative care specialist, Stanley experiences a boom and a flash, and then, a remarkable transformation. He …

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Two

The house on 77th Avenue was in a post-war subdivision three blocks from an industrial park. The park, a collection of manufacturing depots and warehouses, was bordered by car dealerships, gas stations, fast food outlets, a strip bar, and the most depressing Sheraton hotel in western Canada. From the subdivision — a collection of bungalows and semi-bungalows covered in stucco and vinyl siding — the industrial park was a constant, rumbling reminder of the blue-collar commerce that defined the city. On the uncommonly warm morning of Stanley’s visit to the palliative care specialist, Frieda was breaking the dirt in their backyard vegetable garden and cajoling him to sit on the patio and read newspaper articles aloud. One of his wife’s few superstitions: vigorous vocal exercise might just frighten cancer from the lungs.

Stanley wore his grey suit. There were others, but since he had lost weight Stanley felt insignificant and ghostly in them. It was an old suit, stitched and tailored more than two decades ago. On special days, Stanley wore it with a vest. He liked the idea of the woefully unfashionable three-piece suit, and saw it as a gentle act of rebellion in a world that no longer valued rituals and manners. Once rituals and manners were gone, at a vague date and time he associated with his own death, only blue-collar commerce and its accoutrements — snowmobiles, unnecessarily large trucks, ripped blue jeans, automatic weapons — would remain.

The story he read aloud was about Afghanistan. As he said words like Kandahar and Taliban, Stanley could not summon their meaning. It wasn’t just the names of Korean restaurants that he could not recall.

In recent weeks, whole chunks of Stanley’s memory had disappeared like dreams in the morning. One afternoon, he’d been looking at a black-white photograph of a man and a woman sitting on the shore of a lake in the Shuswaps; until Frieda commented on his parents’ youth, Stanley had assumed these were two strangers. Dead celebrities.

Since then, many of the most important events in his life had faded into shadow. The smell of barbecued meat, a show tune, a striped tie in his closet, or the bent spine of a book would inspire the fragment of a memory he knew was significant, even essential, but more and more often he couldn’t grab the whole of it.

And Frieda was beginning to suspect. She tried to trap him. At the end of the article about Afghanistan, she stood up from the hard soil, removed her gloves, and scratched at her grey-blond hair. “Remember that baseball game?” The morning of Stanley’s trip to the palliative care specialist, Frieda wore a turtleneck sweater, a jean jacket, a straw hat, and sweatpants with stripes on the side. She waved her gloves. “The night that boy from Lacombe went crazy and hit Charles on the head with the bat?”

On the patio, the newspaper rustling, Stanley remembered the summertime breeze in the Avonmore schoolyard, a warm breeze that slid in over the Rockies from the distant coast or farther, from the mysterious place where wind begins. It smelled of lilac and freshly cut grass, May trees, and leather. He remembered dogs barking in cheap apartment courtyards. Someone’s alcoholic husband playing country music out his window and yelling, “Shattap!” The chant of lawn mowers on 77th Avenue and the mosquitoes that always descended upon the diamond to collect the blood of parents. A symphony of crickets. Wheat trains piloted by lonesome and sleepy men, their horns wailing as they passed through Edmonton to cause traffic jams every hour. And crack — a hit, a single, clap, clap, clap. Was this what Frieda wanted to know? Did she want to know if he remembered parents smoking and taking nips from Pilsner cans in the late 1970s, only pretending to watch the game? Other parents, the parents who suffered their sons’ potential failures and successes before they fell asleep at night, screaming at their children, the umpire, and their saviour? The yellow and blue of the blanket Frieda wrapped around her shoulders when the sun threatened to dip beyond the houses on 81st Street?

“I remember.”

By the look of pinched disappointment on her face, Stanley knew that no one had hit Charles over the head with a bat. If Frieda asked what he had done in his flower shop for thirty-five years, what would he say?

Stanley glanced up at the sky, which was in the midst of transformation. Dark clouds eased in to colonize the light ones, and swirled gently. There was a crackling sound above them, distant thunder. In 1987, the great tornado had passed through the city just to the east of their house, and Stanley remained haunted by the monstrous deep green of the wind that had mopped the earth and killed twenty-seven people. Just beyond those clouds, as they’d torn up the land with the sound of a crashing jet, white-blue sky of the greeting-card variety. As he looked up, Stanley was reminded of that day in 1987. The dark clouds did not appear or sound ominous at first, only odd. He thought to call out to Frieda, “Look up!” But before he had a chance, the clouds swirled and a jolt went through Stanley. There was within him a pressure so great he thought his heart had stopped — or exploded. Now he desperately wanted to summon his wife, but as the desire reached his lips it became impossible.

The sound in the sky, conversing with the soil and clay of their backyard, progressed from a crackle to a rumble to a roar. It was the roar of the natural world, finally swallowing the city and its dull commerce. But it was also a voice. One voice magnified a thousand times. It did not seem to Stanley that he was hearing the voice, exactly. There was only pain, discomfort, the urge to communicate with his wife — all of it overwhelmed by an awful feeling of his own singularity. His fears and regrets and humiliations folded at once into a flash of abandonment. Everything he had learned about death was wrong. It was not easeful or romantic. There was no release in this, no connection or understanding. This thing, whatever it was, wanted to tear him apart. A pulse of blue light filled the yard and the land underneath the back deck quivered.

He gripped the arms of his chair and searched through the light and the sound for Frieda. But she was not with him, and neither was the deck or the chair or the garden or the house on 77th Avenue. It was over.

Then it was over. The blue light and the sound and the pressure and pain went as suddenly as they had come. His backyard three blocks from an industrial park returned to him. Stanley shivered with heat and lost control of his bowels. He looked down at the newspaper, which had remained on his lap, and felt a flock of geese flying overhead. Now, finally, his body obeyed him and he called out to his wife. Before she walked over to put her arm around him and ask if he was all right, Stanley knew she would put her arm around him and ask if he was all right. He knew the precise tone of her voice, the anxiety in it that she did not want him to hear. He heard bulbs and bugs quivering under the soil.

“Something just happened.” He looked around. “My heart. Or I might be going crazy.”

“Let me help you.”

“You’ll have to check me in somewhere soon. I don’t want you changing my diapers.”

“Let’s just see what the specialist has to say.” Frieda tried to guide him out of the chair and toward the door.

“What can he say?”

Just then, the intercom at the Ford dealership beeped its introduction. “Garry, line one. Garry, line one.”

“This is what we worked so hard for.” Frieda pointed toward the Ford dealership with one hand, and their small backyard with the other. “Retirement. This.”

Stanley was not yet in the mood to go inside. He dismissed the state of his underpants and regarded the majesty of their backyard in May. The budding branches of a sick fruit tree — what fruit? — leaning toward them like a beggar. The chain-link fence on one side of the lawn and the tall cedar hedge on the other. Peeling white paint on the 1951 stucco of their slumping garage. White and brown siding on their small semi-bungalow, crying out for a spring pressure-wash. All to the tune of their neighbour’s schnauzer, Ray Ray, barking at nothing, and a Harley-Davidson rumbling across the alley. “This,” he said, and wished Ray Ray would shut up for a minute. He wished the man across the alley would shut off his Harley-Davidson.

Ray Ray stopped barking. The motorcycle went quiet. Stanley heard the man across the alley slap the bike and cuss. He cussed again. A coincidence, Stanley thought, and then, for an instant, he thought otherwise.

“The fuck’s going on here?” said the man across the alley. “How does this thing work?”

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The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek

The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek

edition:Paperback

In describing the true events surrounding a series of frightening bear attacks in l980, a bestselling nature/adventure author explores our relationship with the great grizzly.

Many citizens of Banff, Alberta, valued living in a place where wildlife grazed on the front lawn; others saw wild bears as a mere roadside attraction. None were expecting the bear attacks that summer, which led to one man’s death. During the massive hunt that followed, Banff was portrayed in the international media as a …

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There are trails near the timberline, connecting between the ranges, whose purpose is known to very few, because they are not part of the trail system used by humans. Known as bear roads, they tunnel through the krummholz and slide alder where most people stop, baffled, unwilling to get down on all fours and crawl, unsure of their welcome in that hedged darkness. They are roads of ancestral knowledge, passed on from the mother bear to the cubs, imprinted in the brain to be recalled later, perhaps some years after the cubs have dispersed, maybe long after the siblings have gone their separate ways. Mothers and cubs might meet again on those roads, and recognize each other, and pass each other by without doing harm.

One road, of many such, crosses rock slides where the shale is packed into the interstices between great fallen blocks of limestone by the coming and going of padded feet. Here a hole in the path marks where a boulder the size of a small car was grappled and shoved out of the way, and sent rolling down the mountain like local thunder. This road winds across avalanche chutes, over the flayed trunks of old-growth trees that can be three feet or more in diameter, trees that lived for a century or longer before a winter avalanche finally called them to account, leaving their bones like giant pick-up sticks between the boulders, the trunks now scarred by claw marks. Here and there will be a drift of snow, insulated by a layer of broken shale that fell, piece by piece, from the precipice high above earlier that spring, as meltwater loosened the rocks, so in the heat of summer there are still places where the traveller beast can stretch out and rub its back and cool off in the icy slush for a moment below a boiling of frustrated deer flies. The bear road curls through a mossy gulch now and then, where a brook purls down the mountain to form a pool of icy water in which a bear may stop to bathe its hot, cracked footpads in the mud

while slaking its thirst. And if, later, you came upon the spot by chance, you might think that a huge man had stood barefoot in the mud; you might wonder if the stories about Sasquatch are true, and then you might note how the mud is punctured at the end of each toe pad. And this fact will make you stand up quickly; it will make you turn around, and listen, and listen.

In the old-growth forest, where the deep layers of duff and moss sometimes serve as the flimsy roof over a rock crevice, a place to be sniffed at and passed by carefully, or else out on the flatter lie of a bog, the road is marked by tracks a foot deep and a foot or more long. These tracks were made over the centuries by the padded humanoid feet of bears that journey between mountain ranges; each has put its front foot and then the corresponding rear foot down in the same print the first of its tribe made here centuries before. It may seem as if this were a trail made by human footsteps, but you will look in vain for any other sign of their habitation or resort. There are no axe blazes, no fire circles or rusty tin cans. The road may be grown in with fresh green moss as if it had been unused for years, but it has not been forgotten, and won’t be as long as bears are allowed to live.

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King Leary

King Leary

edition:Paperback
also available: Audiobook (CD)
tagged : literary

Selected as the 2008 CBC Canada Reads Winner!

"A dazzling display of fictional footwork… The author has not written just another hockey novel; he has turned hockey in a metaphor for magic." Maclean's

Percival Leary was once the King of the Ice, one of hockey's greatest heroes. Now, in the South Grouse Nursing Home, where he shares a room with Edmund "Blue" Hermann, the antagonistic and alcoholic reporter who once chronicled his career, Leary looks back on his tumultuous life and times: his days …

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A sad tale’s best for winter.
I have one of sprites and goblins.
A Winter’s Tale
Chapter Two
I was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario — Bytown, as we say. The Ottawa Canal was practically in our backyard, and the reason I say practically is that we didn’t really have a backyard. There was this little square thing that was full of bricks, because my father was always planning to build something. I never did learn what the Jesus he meant to build, but he certainly had the bricks for it.

I thought the canal was a beautiful thing. I spent so much time beside the water that it seemed to the young me that the canal had moods. Sometimes it would be whitecapped and rough, and I wouldn’t think that the wind was up and blowing over a storm, I’d think the water was angry. Or sometimes it would be gentle, with little pieces of sunlight bouncing on it, and I knew that the canal was happy and that if I went swimming the water would play on my body.

But I loved her best when she froze.

A few nights of the right weather, and I’m talking thirty below, teethaching and nose-falling-off-type weather, and the canal would grow about a foot of ice. Hard as marble, and just as smooth. Strong and true. It gives me the goose bumps just thinking about it. Lookee there, see how goosebumped I am right now.

I can’t remember lacing on blades for the first time. Likewise with hockey. I’ve got no idea when I first heard of, saw, or played the game of hockey. Some years back, Clay Clinton and I were invited to one of those hockey schools for a seminar. It couldn’t have been that long back, come to think, because what we were discussing was something like The Development of Hockey in North America, which means we were trying to figure out a way of beating the Russians. So there was me there, and Clay (who was drunk much of the weekend, and occupied with the pursuit of somebody’s floozy wife), and this young coach from Minnesota.

And the lad from Minn. starts talking about the origins of hockey. He went on and on about soccer and lacrosse, English foot soldiers playing baggataway with the Indians, some Scandinavian entertainment called bandy. I bit my tongue, but the truth of the matter is, I never knew that hockey originated. I figured it was just always there, like the moon.

Now, there were three of us Leary lads, Francis, Lloyd, and myself, Percival. We all early on got reputations in our neighbourhood as good hockey players. Even though I was the youngest and the smallest, I was rated the best. Little Leary, they called me, a puff of Irish wind.

So one day — and this I remember like yesterday, better even, because what the hell happened yesterday other than Blue Hermann tweaking Mrs. Ames’s enormous bub, eliciting a shriek that popped my eardrums — this strange young lad shows up at the canal.

The strangest thing about him was the way he was dressed, namely, a full-length fur coat with a matching little cap. We just wore sweaters, one for every five degrees she dropped below freezing, and on this particular day I had on maybe six. This boy in the fur coat and matching cap stood by the snowbanks and watched us for almost half an hour, not saying a word. I was pretending to ignore the lad, but really I was studying him. He was fat, but
not the kind of fat that would get him called Fatty. Mostly what I noticed about him was his face, which was handsome as hell. The lad had gray eyes that seemed to have slivers of ice in them.

I decided to impress him, don’t ask me why. The next time I got the puck I danced down the canal like I was alone. Then I made like Cyclone Taylor. I still loved Taylor even though he had, the year previous, abandoned the Ottawa Senators for the loathsome Renfrew Millionaires. As you may know, Cyclone claimed that he could score a goal skating backwards, and he did this against the Senators, and that’s what I did myself, turning around and sailing past the pointmen, slapping the rubber with my heaviest backhand. The little boy standing between the two piles of snow that was the goal — who had been pretending to be Rat Westwick of the Silver Seven — just covered his head and let the puck fly by.

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Fatal Tide

Fatal Tide

When The Race Of A Lifetime Goes Wrong
edition:Hardcover
tagged :

On June 1, 2002, dozens of "weekend warriors"and other after-work athletes set off from Saint John, New Brunswick, for a day of competitive adventure: trail running, mountain biking, and sea kayaking on the legendary Bay of Fundy, home to the world's highest tides. However, as a storm swept across the coast, what had begun as a fun introduction to the fast-growing sport of adventure racing turned into an anxious struggle to survive that ultimately drew two young men together in a fateful encount …

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Midnight Hockey

Midnight Hockey

All About Beer, the Boys, and the Real Canadian Game
edition:Paperback
tagged : hockey

From Giller-nominated author Bill Gaston, proof not only that hockey players can read, but that some of them can even write.

Midnight Hockey tells the story of Gaston’s final season, as he contemplates hanging up his skates, and looks back on the sport that has meant so much to him.

Sometimes lewd and hilarious, sometimes (though not as often) reflective, Midnight Hockey is a portrait of Canada’s fastest-growing athletic phenomenon: beer-league and oldtimers’ hockey. Gaston spills the beans …

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A Few Words about This Book

One of my favourite writers is Annie Dillard, despite what she once said about writers who write books designed for specific audiences or markets, which is: “It amounts to a wasted and sad life.”

Well, I wasn’t sad, or even all that wasted, while writing this book. Though writing a book for hockey players does sound a little iffy. I mean, the suspicion is not only that hockey players don’t read, it’s that they probably can’t. But my equally strong suspicion is that this won’t deter them. So if this applies to you – that is, if you can’t read but have gotten this far – I salute you for helping me prove Annie Dillard wrong.

That rumour’s all nonsense, that hockey players are dumb. I know of several hockey players who read really well. And Eric Nesterenko, while playing with the Chicago Blackhawks, actually published a book of poems. (To my knowledge he was never beaten up for it – at least not by his own team.) During Hockey Night in Canada interviews, Ken Dryden’s lawyerlike mouth almost single-handedly succeeded in putting an end to that dumb-rumour, but it only half took hold. What I’m getting to in my roundabout way is that oldtimer hockey players only act dumb for a few hours a week, and they actually lead other lives. I’ve played oldtimers with truckers, doctors, mail carriers, chicken farmers, Buddhists, retirees, dirt hippies, preachers, dot-com millionaires, policemen, wood cutters, drug dealers, sea captains, witches, and eighteenth-century explorers. I’ve never played against an all-gay team – that I know of – but that’s probably coming. So, while as hockey players we may in fact not know how to read, in our other life we probably do.

This Season So Far
September

In life, nothing is so delicious as anticipating that next hockey game.

Well, okay, let’s not exaggerate, there’s that anticipation when, well, remember when you were nineteen and half the buttons were undone and your hands, hers too, were shaking and moving faster? That and, sure, I guess there’s also the anticipation of food, when you’re starving and the waiter slides that steaming plate of grilled garlic prawns under your face and you make an involuntary noise, and people from other tables look.

So sex, food, and maybe also shelter during a storm. But a hockey game is right up there.

Sitting in a schoolroom in Winnipeg, every Monday morning I would begin daydreaming about Saturday’s game and I would not stop. That next game was basically all I looked forward to in life. (No sex yet, and I doubt there were prawns in Winnipeg in those days.) In the meantime I would read my Hardy Boys books, and go to Cubs, and watch black-and-white TV, and hang around doing stuff, but all I was really doing was biding time. Physically inert but mentally on fire, I was scoring goal after goal in my imagination.

Same when I started playing oldtimers, I would go to work, stay interested enough to not get fired, and feel a constant pull in my gut about the game that night. Home from work, I’d bounce a kid on my knee, and he’d ask me what I was staring at, and I’d say, “Nothing, Connor,” and he’d say, “I’m not Connor, I’m Lise.” My gear would be bagged and waiting by the door an hour early. I remember once I had a game and my wife, the tardy FeeFee, was late coming home. I recall pacing, and shooting fierce glances at the clock every ten seconds. She didn’t show up with the car, didn’t show up with the car, didn’t show up with the car. She’d forgotten about my game completely and eventually it was too late for me to make the game at all. When she did finally get home, she said I looked as if someone had died.

So, after a whole summer off, anticipation of the first game of the year, well, that’s usually a pretty fine bit of excitement too.

But not this year. I’m not sure why.

I got the call from Lyle yesterday. I was at the kitchen phone, standing in the open door to the deck. Outside, the warm September sun shone and the evening birds chirped in that melody we assume has something to do with human happiness. It seemed far too early in the year for this particular phone call, but apparently we have a practice next week, then our first game the week following.

I picture the practice. It’s always the same. This single practice, which we humorously refer to as our training camp, will begin with a few three-on-twos. That’s to make it seem like a practice, which is where you do drills to “make you a better team.” Everyone will look horrible. Hardly any passes will connect, even from ten feet away. After five minutes of this ragged fiasco, Lyle will interrupt things and we’ll split in two and have a scrimmage. We won’t look any better, and passes still won’t connect, but a scrimmage is more fun. Which of course is the whole point.

So another season begins, but not for me – not yet, if at all. Which likely explains my dramatic lack of enthusiasm.

I’ll be missing this year’s training camp, and the first games. My back just doesn’t seem to be healing. I own a two-man kayak, a hog of a boat so big and stable you could probably stand up in it, throw your head all the way back and chug a beer. That information alone should explain the state of my back, but I’ll supply a bit more detail. Camping the past summer with my family, I was on the beach and the tide was coming in, and in order to keep my kayak from being swept away I had to haul it up one hundred yards of sand single-handedly. Picture a guy digging in his heels, reefing on a twenty-foot craft that is sticking to the sand like Velcro. The guy is greying and paunchy and has no discernible muscles, but he’s acting like he thinks he does.

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The Good Body

The Good Body

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary, sports

The Good Body is a triumphant blend of mordant humour and heartbreak. It tells the comic and poignant story of a retired pro-hockey ruffian named Bobby Bonaduce who is stubbornly ignoring a disease - multiple sclerosis - that may be killing him. Bobby returns to his hometown and scams his way into university in a misguided attempt to redeem his messy past and lay emotional claim to a son he abandoned twenty years earlier.

With this terrific novel, Bill Gaston demonstrates yet again that he is "a …

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Earth After Rain

edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian

Earth After Rain flourishes in sensuous delight and plumbs the depth of topography, memory and family. Benning brings Saskatchewan’s boreal forests, lakes and fauna alive, absorbing detail and meshing it with the sinews of bone, the half-light of moon, and the silent majesty of stone.

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