On Foot to Canterbury and Beyond

On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage by Ken Haigh, 2021. University of Alberta Press. Shortlisted for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Near the beginning of On Foot to Canterbury, author Ken Haigh poses a timeless question: Why do humans travel? Haigh lets Robert Louis Stevenson answer: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe.”

On Foot to Canterbury is Haigh’s second travel book (following Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan). His new book recounts a walk from Winchester to Canterbury, England, hiking the Pilgrims’ Way. The narrative is immediately engaging; it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. In addition to being a personal journey and a tribute to his father, On Foot to Canterbury is a cultural journey. It delves deeply into England’s past. Haigh deftly weaves together three main threads — travel memoir, English literature, and English history — producing a vibrant tapestry.

With his journey coming to an end, Haigh asks himself why humans go on pilgrimages. In his words, “there is a wonderful simplicity about a pilgrimage. Each morning you rise and put on the same clothes …. You break your fast, hoist your pack onto your shoulders, and hit the road.” As you walk, you ponder and philosophize. Haigh’s journey took him beyond his physical destination, to a Pilgrims’ Way of the mind and soul. On Foot to Canterbury did the same thing for me. 

The Gift of the Gab: Tana French

During the course of 2021, I discovered a fine Irish-American novelist: Tana French, who writes literary detective novels set in or near Dublin (the Dublin Murder Squad series).

French’s dialog delivers the magic elixir of story-telling: presence. She can capture the essence of a character with a line or two of craic (conversation). She has the gift of the gab; like Elmore Leonard, her dialog will hook you.

French’s latest book, The Searcher (2020), is a stand-alone novel featuring retired cop Cal Hooper, a sympatico Yank who has washed up in the west of Ireland, looking to leave the mean streets of Chicago behind. Hooper worked Missing Persons in Chicago; as luck would have it, he becomes embroiled in a local misper case.

The story unfolds in rural Ireland, sans a slew of high-octane car chases or bloody gun battles. However, there’s no lack of drama. If you like stories told with a slow burn, yet plenty of flareups along the way, The Searcher is for you. If you want a policier with forensics and hardened criminals, look for French’s Dublin novels.

Tana French on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tana_French

The King of Southern Noir

Who’s the reigning King of Southern Noir? James Lee Burke. Some say he’s the best living novelist in the United States. I wouldn’t go that far. However, he is one of the best living crime/detective novelists. He’s also a Philosopher King, a crime writer who salts his work with references to thinkers as diverse as Saint Paul and Jonathan Swift.

A Private Cathedral, 2020: The latest novel in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, set in New Iberia, Louisiana.

Burke wrote A Private Cathedral in his eighties. It mines the moral ground of his earlier Louisiana novels, deploying variations of previous protagonists and antagonists: tough but good-hearted cops, cultured but evil killers. Hence, some of the novel covers repeat territory (be aware, it’s bloody terrain).

As always with Burke, there are beautiful descriptive passages. The narrative shifts as the novel progresses, swerving from a detective tale to a morality tale, from forensics to fantasia — with every detail expertly rendered, all gifts from Burke’s fertile mind. As well-described and inventive as the gifts are, some hijack the storyline. At times, the tale felt like a cross between Milton’s Paradise Lost and a Stephen King horror story. I still enjoyed most of it. Nobody writes detective novels like James Lee Burke. He delivers gentility and degeneracy in equal measure.

PS: If you want to check out JLB’s earlier work, try Creole Belle or The New Iberia Blues.

Click here for James Lee Burke on Wikipedia.

A few quotes from A Private Cathedral:

“The light was strained, as though it were draining from the western sky into the earth, not to be seen again, robbing us of not only the day but the morrow as well. Of course, these feelings and perceptions are not uncommon in people my age. This was different. As I mentioned earlier, I have long believed that my generation is a transitional one and will be the last to remember what we refer to as a traditional America.”

“This was the era that I always believed was the best in our history. But it was gone, and to mourn its passing was to demean it. The ethereal moment lives on in the heart, so what is there to fear?”

“There are epiphanies most of us do not share with others. Among them is the hour when you make peace with death. You don’t plan the moment; you do not acquire it by study. Most likely you stumble upon it. It’s a revelatory moment, a recognition that death is simply another player in our midst, a fellow actor on Shakespeare’s grand stage, perhaps even one even more vulnerable than we are.”

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier: A Personal Review

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier by Lesley Choyce, 2019. Dundurn.

Book reviews are supposed to be objective and largely impersonal. Caveat: This one is personal. Tune out if you wish.

Broken Man on a Halifax Pier swirls around Stewart Harbour, Nova Scotia, a fictionalized fishing post close to the real Sheet Harbour on the Eastern Shore, where I grew up. Although I left the shore at 17, I still feel it in my bones.

Some followers of this blog have been asking me to broaden my introduction. At the risk of boring others, here we go. [You can skip ahead to the review. See the last paragraph.] Shortly after leaving the shore, I headed to OZ, taking in the whole Red Continent, after which I kept goin’ down the road. Over a 20-year span, I “paused” to work many times – in Australia again and again, central and western Canada, the USA, England, and New Zealand – to fill my pockets and keep travelling, which I managed to do, seeing every continent except Antarctica. I only stopped because my pack was worn out. Just kidding.

But enough of my wanderlust. Back to the Halifax pier.

It could be that I’m prewired to like this book. Broken man on a Halifax pier happens to be a lyric from one of my favourite Stan Rogers songs: ‘Barrett’s Privateers.’

Now, the book review. To me, Broken Man on a Halifax Pier is an honest feelgood novel, not soppy but uplifting. I won’t recap the plot (I rarely do). Suffice to say, it’s a story of redemption and love. True love often comes across as unbelievable; I felt occasionally at sea as I read, but I didn’t mind. A beguiling woman (smart, sexy, and rich) falls for a completely down-and-out man. I fell for them and the setting. Choyce knows and loves the Eastern Shore. He brings it to life like no author has. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Brief Answers from Detective Stephen Hawking

I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Hawking recently – in some ways, the complete opposite of reading detective fiction. Then again, Hawking was a detective of sorts – searching for answers to mind-boggling questions from physics and cosmology.

My favourite Hawking book is his last one, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (from 2018, the year he died). It’s a pocket-size compendium that summarizes his work by addressing ten big questions – e.g., “How did it all begin?” – mysteries beyond the purview of even Sherlock Holmes.

Hawking didn’t believe in creation myths; on the other hand, he admitted science doesn’t know exactly how the universe started. He writes clearly, which doesn’t mean reading him is always easy. When he gets deep into black holes or singularities, your brain can go into its own black hole. Fortunately, he soon brings you back to earth – to good-old 4-dimensional spacetime.

Hawking was one of the greatest scientific minds of the last 100 years. He stood on the shoulders of Einstein, Newton, Galileo, and Aristotle. Like Aristotle, he was also a philosopher. To me, that is Hawking’s true genius. Through science, he tried to understand humanity.

A Hawking quote:

“I have led an extraordinary life on this planet, while at the same time travelling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics …. On Earth, I have experienced highs and lows, turbulence and peace, success and suffering. I have been rich and poor. I have been able-bodied and disabled …. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me.”