To give a book is to give a window into another world. Here are a few gift ideas for the 2021 Holidays.
First, my crime fiction suggestion:
The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, 2021. In The Dark Remains, Rankin completes an unfinished McIlvanney novel after his fellow Scotsman’s death. The story warms up slowly but is bubbling at the end. You can’t go wrong with Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir.
Bewilderment by Pulitzer-prize-winner Richard Powers, 2021. Bewilderment is set in the near-future, in a time of ecological collapse. Few adults are willing to confront the collapse. As with most dystopian fiction, there are didactic passages. However, the storyline eclipses them, as does Powers’ vision, which goes beyond the dystopic. A father and his son wrestle with the collapse, hoping that science will offer respite. It doesn’t. But the son’s love does.
Ring by André Alexis, 2021. Ring is a philosophical inquiry as much as a novel, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you have a literary fiction aficionado on your list, especially of 19th century fiction, Ring should please them. They’ll enter a contemplative world set in Toronto, a novel of manners à la Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy.
No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain, 2007. In a previous post, I noted that Kitchen Confidential is my favourite Bourdain book. No Reservations runs a close second. No one would call Bourdain an earth-shattering writer yet he’s pensive as well as informative. This book delivers an entertaining combination of food and travel, two things many people miss these days.
Anthony Bourdain had a cult-like following before he died (by suicide, in 2018). His following has not dissipated. He’s still revered by foodies, chefs, raconteurs, and travellers.
To my mind, Bourdain’s first food book is still his best: Kitchen Confidential (2000). It reveals his true self. His later books show a more polished version of the same man. Kitchen Confidential is as noteworthy today as it was two decades ago. In restaurants, the maitre d’, waitstaff, and bartenders are known as the front-of-the-house; the chefs, cooks, and dishwashers inhabit the back-of-the-house. Kitchen Confidential uncorks the back-of-the-house, a fiefdom known for foul language and Gulag-like labour.
Bourdain does not paint a pretty picture, but he does paint a true picture, a picture I happen to know. In my travelling days, I worked in 30+ restaurants, from L.A. to San Diego to Boston, from Perth to London to Toronto, in positions from waiter to line cook to sommelier. The great thing about the restaurant business is that you could land in a city and get a job in a day or two, often with few questions asked; you’d then work your way up the restaurant ladder, to a place with better food and/or money (usually both).
To Bourdain, good food was as much about cooking with honesty and craftmanship as exotic ingredients. He climbed his own ladder, eventually moving beyond kitchens to a career as a TV host and personality. He was a complex man, beloved for many things: his integrity, his enthusiasms, his no-bullshit persona. He was wired to go out on limbs, which fostered an I’ll-eat-anything attitude. To paraphrase Bourdain, your body’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.
On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimageby 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.
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.
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.”