book review, short stories

Lost in the old world and the new: a review of Copernicus Avenue by Andrew J. Borkowski

By addressing moments in time through short stories, Borkowski is instead sharing pieces of these lives with us, conferring an intimacy upon the reader that might be missing from a larger, more sweeping narrative.

“The front pews are filled with the old women who always come to early mass to claim good seats for the funeral mass that follows this one. These babci are ageless. Smelling of wet wool in their scarves and galoshes, they could be the same women who jostled for the best places when St. Voytek’s opened its doors forty years ago.”

The Poland of Andrew J. Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue is a land of shifting borders but eternal meaning, shaping and shadowing everything that happens in each character’s life. A set of linked short stories, the book’s setting shuttles between Poland and the Polish Canadian neighbourhood of west Toronto, on the fictional Copernicus Avenue. Spanning many decades, the book tells the overarching story of the Mienkiewicz family, from Great uncle Stefan in wartime Poland to sweet, lost Blaise, the sometimes-narrator of the overall story, in present-day Canada. Along the way we are introduced to Blaise’s family and a host of other characters—and I do mean characters—and given precious glimpses into the minds and hearts of a war-torn and often adrift group of people who are just trying to find a new foothold.

I picked the book up at a recent short story reading. Borkowski stole the show with his animated, accented “Twelve Versions of Lech,” which is one of the book’s showstoppers, transporting a modernist Polish artist from the motherland to Canada. Lech is unlike anything the Polish immigrants and their Canadian-born children of 1980s Copernicus Avenue have ever encountered, and he represents a Poland that is distinct from the memories the older generation cherish and protect. Continue reading “Lost in the old world and the new: a review of Copernicus Avenue by Andrew J. Borkowski”

book review

In your own backyard: A review of Natural Order, by Brian Francis

Natural Order by Brian Francis is a sadness is worth sinking into, a nuanced and multilayered exploration of loss, of aging, of the sins we commit against those we love the most, and of human failings in all their multifarious abundance.

But, as she pointed out, she’d done more damage to herself. She created a world that left her utterly alone.

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning of the review: Natural Order by Brian Francis is really sad. Its sadness is worth sinking into, however; it’s a nuanced and multilayered exploration of loss, of aging, of the sins we commit against those we love the most, and of human failings in all their multifarious abundance.

Told from the perspective of octogenarian Joyce Sparks, the story unfolds almost exclusively in the small, single-industry town of Balsden, Ontario. Joyce is in a nursing home, commentating tartly on her fellow ‘inmates,’ the staff, and her surroundings. Her voice is one of the most authentic I’ve read in a long time—she’s a snappish, sharp old woman, more brittle than frail. Both her son and her husband are dead, and she doesn’t seem to have any friends. The only person who visits her is a young gay man who volunteers at the home and calls forth some of Joyce’s reminiscences. She could be my own grandmother when she refers to “the Filipina nurse” or the woman across the table who dribbles food down her front at each meal. She’s weak physically, bright mentally, but crippled by the guilt she’s been dragging around with her for most of her adult life. Continue reading “In your own backyard: A review of Natural Order, by Brian Francis”

book review

Fluidity of ocean and memory: A review of The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat’s Table is one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.

“I could see she was beginning to approach her memory of it now, glimpsing a few incidents…thinking deeper into herself.”
– Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

Amid the excitement surrounding the release of George R.R. Martin’s newest book, A Dance with Dragons, I also heard a common complaint: Martin, many of his truest fans contend, takes far too long between installments, leaving readers hanging for years at a time.

Michael Ondaatje, one of Canada’s literary superstars, doesn’t seem to garner the same complaint, despite breaks of five to eight years between titles. His admirers await his books with patient anticipation. In return, Ondaatje crafts works such as The Cat’s Table, one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.

I say narratives because The Cat’s Table encompasses many stories: in its seemingly straightforward telling of a boy’s 21 days on a ship bound from Sri Lanka to England, its deeply complex characters offer glimpses of chance encounters and intermingled lives. Continue reading “Fluidity of ocean and memory: A review of The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje”