Since his first book, Barrel Fever, in 1994, author David Sedaris has been blushing his way into readers’ hearts. His likable musings—often torn from the pages of his diary, performed on National Public Radio and published in collections of short stories—go straight to the heart of topics like sibling rivalry and sexual identity. Nothing is sacred. That’s why, a couple of years back, when Sedaris announced he would stop writing things that could hurt his family or friends, his fans thought, “Good luck with that, David.” His best work is his most caustic.
That explains his cunning new book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. In it, Sedaris airs no dirty laundry. It’s comprised of 16 fables that lampoon human nature. The cast of characters is drawn exclusively from the animal world, except for the odd mention of a farmer and his wife. Most of the stories are two-handers (“The Squirrel and the Chipmunk”) that send up racism (“It’s not that I have anything against squirrels per se,” says the Chipmunk’s mother), homophobia, bigotry, infidelity and vigilantism.
Sedaris is careful not to hit the same note with every story. Cautionary tales are intermixed with unexpectedly touching stories about a cat joining Alcoholics Anonymous (“Hello Kitty”) and a bear nursing her grief for her dead mother (“The Motherless Bear”). Sedaris reminds us that you can’t fool Mother Nature (“The Mouse and the Snake”) and that positive thinking is only so useful when you’re a lab rat (“The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat”). Every story is wryly amusing, especially “The Migrating Warblers,” who fly to Guatemala each winter and complain about the lazy, superstitious locals.
Because of Sedaris’s fame, it’s easy to overlook artist Ian Falconer in this collaborative effort. But Falconer’s illustrations are essential, underscoring that Sedaris is talking through animals to highlight human foibles, like all good fables. The stories can be dark and mean, but at least nobody’s feelings get hurt. Where, we wonder, will he go from here?
– JOANNE LATIMER
Prisoner of Tehran, Nemat’s brilliant 2007 memoir, was at once an exquisite work of art about the burden of memory, and an astonishing story. Nemat details how she was arrested at 16 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (for the crime of asking her math teacher for more calculus and less religious propaganda); her incarceration in the infamous Evin prison (where she was beaten and tortured); her forcible marriage to Ali, one of her interrogators (her wedding-night rape graphically described); how Ali died and she lost their baby when assassins opened fire on them one night; how she escaped Iran for a new life in suburban Toronto. For two decades Nemat remained silent about her two years in Evin: her family didn’t ask and she didn’t tell, not until after her mother died in 2000, never having known her daughter’s experiences. That galvanized Nemat to write her story, in an effort to quiet her demons and regain her life.
And it worked. For a while. After Tehran is Nemat’s after-story: if her first book recounts her ordeal, the second counts the cost of telling about it. Once her memoir was accepted by her publisher, Nemat writes in her second volume, she had no idea what to do next, or even “what next meant exactly: I somehow believed that I was supposed to die the day I signed the contract.” But the past wasn’t done with her. As reaction to the memoir unfolded, Nemat had to cope with the responses of her family. Ghosts were resurfacing everywhere, some of them old friends she had thought dead, others fellow Evin survivors who decried her as a traitor who had literally slept with the enemy. Images of the baby she lost—that half-wanted, half-abhorred child—came to her mind, and when she heard a rumour that Ali was still alive, Nemat writes, “my world collapsed.” So she turned to writing, as she had before, to stitch her life back together, in an account as graceful, honest and revelatory as her original.
– BRIAN BETHUNE
It’s seldom a good sign when the authors of a biography sign off with an acknowledgement of their book’s chief shortcoming. Damien Cox and Gare Joyce evidently felt compelled, having written what was supposed to be an inside look at Alexander Ovechkin, a Russian star the likes of which hockey has never seen. Alas, the two sportswriters concede, months of cajoling Ovechkin and his mercurial stage mom, Tatiana, yielded no exclusive access, leaving them to pen the sort of unauthorized volume that requires many tales told out of school to be particularly interesting.
But this is hockey, where an admission of towel-snapping in the locker room qualifies as disclosure. Thus Cox and Joyce put together 273 pages of Ovechkin’s life using material that was already on the public record, exhaustive interviews with those who know the Washington Capitals star, and pages of first-hand game coverage. They need not apologize: The Ovechkin Project offers a textured portrait of the player’s early years, when he showed little hockey aptitude but the astonishing determination that would make him arguably the game’s greatest talent. And “arguably” is a qualifier Ovechkin will likely wear for his career. His legacy remains yoked to that of his nemesis Sidney Crosby, who in the past couple of seasons established himself as the transcendent athlete when it came to Olympic medals and Stanley Cups.
Cox and Joyce explore that rivalry with success, along with the “project” of packaging and selling Ovechkin as a celebrity athlete. The result, however, is to ignore the qualities that truly set him apart. More than a commodity, he is an exemplar of the Wild East, with its porn stars, vodka ice fountains and exposed pube lines. The Web is littered with snaps of Ovechkin getting jiggy at parties, or gimlet-eyed from drink with a bombshell on each arm. Cox and Joyce don’t much go there—maybe they worried about scuttling their chance of access. Instead, they opt for an intriguing look into the pressures and machinations of modern pro hockey, leaving the juiciest bits of the Alex Ovechkin story untold.
– CHARLIE GILLIS
The capital is not a place given to reflection—indeed, memory on Parliament Hill rarely exceeds the previous 48 hours. Few bother to connect the dots that fly past each day and many fail to fully comprehend the larger stories unfolding in these harried moments. So here now is Lawrence Martin’s Harperland, perhaps the first serious attempt to take stock of Stephen Harper’s time in power. With commentary and insight from select players in Harper’s Ottawa, Martin, an experienced political columnist who helped define Jean Chrétien with a two-volume biography, catalogues this tumultuous time from controversy to calamity. Indeed, everything is here from A (Abdelrazik, Abousfian) to Z (Zytaruk, Tom).
Underpinning it all, of course, is Martin’s thesis. And as the title might suggest, the Prime Minister here is nothing less than a relentless and merciless force who dominates everything and everyone in the capital. Often not in a good way. Some—many for partisan reasons—may have already decided as much.
Some—many for partisan reasons—will quibble. But what’s here is a record that should have to be reconciled. And perhaps all sides could agree that, however you view that record, the nature and extent of Harper’s tenure is often misunderstood and wildly underestimated in the rush to the next headline.
“While it’s obviously better to view the record when his stewardship is completed, his is too important a force to await the final reckoning before putting pen to book,” Martin writes in the foreword. “In 4½ years his impact on the country has been profound.” In that regard, this should be but the first attempt to make sense of it all.
– AARON WHERRY
Not long before his death in 1917 at 39, the man who is now the iconic Canadian artist contacted his patron, James MacCallum, about selling one of the small sketches he used to dash off—hurriedly, because of the bugs—in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. Should it fetch “$10 or $15, I would be greatly pleased,” Thomson wrote; if not, “let it go for what they will give.” In 2008, one sketch went at auction for just shy of $2 million. It is impossible, as MacGregor notes, to separate the prices from the fame, or to doubt that the romance and mystery of Thomson’s death is as responsible as his undoubted artistic brilliance for the monetary value of his work.
MacGregor, 61, ought to know. One of the most prominent journalists in the country, he began his career by freelancing an article to Maclean’s in 1973 about Thomson and his park connections, some of them MacGregor’s relatives, including the woman in his subtitle. Forty years later, MacGregor, who has never stopped writing about the painter, has a fair claim to an unrivalled knowledge of Thomson’s life and his controversial demise.
So what did happen to the creator of The Jack Pine? His decomposing body was found in Canoe Lake over a week after he was last seen. Thomson could have accidently drowned (although he was a fine canoeist) or he could have killed himself (he was often in a depressive state). Or he could have been murdered, and there were no end of suspects for that, from a man who owed Thomson money to several locals who believed he was acting in a less than gentlemanly manner to MacGregor’s relative, Winnie Trainor, who may have been pregnant. The author does a masterful job of navigating through this thicket of possibilities, and comes to a conclusion that seems virtually unassailable. The only remaining question, in fact, may be that first asked by a member of the Thomson family: if the mystery is ever solved, will interest in the artist begin to fade?
– BRIAN BETHUNE
Paul Murray asks his readers to take a serious leap of faith with his new, Booker Prize long-listed novel, his first since An Evening of Long Goodbyes (2003) paid admiring homage to P.G. Wodehouse. There’s the self-explanatory title, backed up in those first few pages with an account of Skippy (the nickname for 14-year-old schoolboy Daniel Juster), who has wound up dead after a donut-eating race with his operatically named friend Ruprecht van Doren. And then there are more than 650 pages that follow, attempting to explain the whos, the whats and especially the whys of Skippy’s adolescent existence, his premature death and the goings-on at Dublin’s Seabrook College for Boys. In most writers’ hands, such seemingly flimsy source material could never have justified the gargantuan length. But Murray has far more to impart to his readers than mere overexpansion of a school-set comedy, though the humour is arch, caustic and frighteningly true to what courses through the minds of most barely teen boys, never mind those who, like these private institution regulars, are adept with wordplay, puns and philosophical ruminations.
Seabrook is where dreams soar and then drop to the surface with the pace of a blown-out balloon, where disappointing graduates like Howard become teachers disappointed in love and in life, where the likes of van Doren can make sex jokes and debate string theory with equal aplomb, where drug-fuelled menaces named Carl loom like a nagging spectre, and where Skippy pines for Irish teen queen Lori who’s both too good and not good enough for him, her confused thoughts and thoughtless actions elevating the would-be romance from cliché to near tragedy.
Skippy Dies loses its momentum somewhat once the narrative catches up to the prologue. But by then we’re engrossed in how Skippy, Ruprecht and their peers navigate the darkness filtering into what should be a cloistered world but which, thanks to technology and curiosity, is anything of the sort. Murray has issued a welcome reminder that adults know too little, while the emotions of adolescents never quite catch up to what they know intellectually, mining that discrepancy for a stellar literary tale.
– SARAH WEINMAN