Author Encounter | Rachel Joyce

I have been looking forward to Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ever since the Random House Canada Blogger event, where the book was compared to Major Pettigrew’s Last StandSo when I received the following invitation from Chatelaine Books, I was so excited I sent in my RSVP right away.

The story of Harold Fry begins when he receives a letter from an old friend who has fallen ill. On his way to post a response, Harold instead makes the decision to walk across England to see his friend in person. I’m not much of a romantic, but the image of an elderly man painstakingly making his way across a nation just to see an old friend struck me as lovely. For some reason, Harold reminded me of Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day, and a character I imagined as dignified and honourable caught my interest. I still haven’t read the book, so I have no idea how accurate my impression of Harold’s character is. However accurate I turn out to be, however, this is still a testament to the power of Joyce’s concept that her story has captured my imagination so strongly even before I’ve opened the book.

Then, as if I needed even more reason to be excited, the week before the event, I learned that Harold Fry was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. So, even before I read Harold Fry and post a review, if you’re thinking about checking this book out, know that the Man Booker jury has given it a thumbs up. And yes, I have to admit, the idea of meeting a Man Booker long-listed author in person did have a thrill.

Image courtesy of The Oxley website

Thank you to Chatelaine Book Club for an awesome event. The Oxley Public House is gorgeous! When I heard the event was going to be at a pub, I was expecting a long table by the bar, or perhaps mingling around a few tables. Instead, it turns out Chatelaine booked the second floor bar, which looks like an old English drawing room.

The bartenders were really friendly. I saw one of them flipping through a copy of Harold Fry in the latter part of the event, and talking to his colleague about it. I love that they seem to be excited about the book as well, and I think I saw Chatelaine give them copies as well, which I thought was really sweet.

The food was also delicious — we had lovely fancy hors d’ouevres, but what I really remember is greasy fish and chips in paper cones. It fit in well with the British ambiance, and I at least mastered the art of eating fish and chips from one hand while still holding my martini in the other.

Rachel Joyce is just lovely in person. Laurie, the Books Editor at Chatelaine, said Harold Fry made her and her colleagues sob, literally. When Rachel read an excerpt, I had an uncomfortable feeling I’ll have a similar reaction. In the excerpt Rachel read, Harold calls the hospice where his friend Queenie is:

“Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that?”

[…] “I see,” said the voice slowly, as if she had picked up a pen and was jotting this down. “Walking. I’ll tell her. Should I say anything else?”

“I’m setting off right now. As long as I walk, she must live. Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.” [p. 19]

After her reading, Rachel explained how Harold’s story, originally written for radio, was inspired by her father being diagnosed with cancer. He was told it would be terminal, yet even after his operation, while lying in his hospital bed, her father would be dressed in a suit and tie, as if on his way to work. Harold Fry is Rachel’s way to honour her father’s legacy.

The book, Rachel says, has gone on a pilgrimage of its own. With each new reader, and in so many countries, Harold Fry has travelled far beyond her and her tribute to her father. I love how genuinely overwhelmed she seems at how much her book has touched so many people’s lives.

Rachel’s story about her father, along with the excerpt she read, touched me deeply. I wasn’t with my mother when she passed away, and I remember vividly the desperate plea — to god, to the universe, to whoever, really — to have her hold on at least until I arrived. I knew it was futile, even selfish, yet part of me wished I lived in a book or movie, where the big dramatic build up just makes the happy ending so much sweeter. So from Rachel’s excerpt alone, I’m rooting for Harold all the way. I don’t know if he’ll make it to Queenie in time; I don’t even know how much the race against time will play into the story. But I am rooting for him. This book has just become personal.

Thank you to Chatelaine Books and Random House Canada for the opportunity to meet Rachel, and to get together with fellow bloggers. It was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to reading the book.

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Rachel Joyce will be reading at the International Festival of Authors in October. Stay tuned to the IFOA website for updates on her schedule. Trust me: you’ll want to hear her read.

Review | Mr g, Alan Lightman

After reading Alan Lightman’s Mr g, I tweeted: “Mr g is the story of creation as narrated by Sheldon Cooper. I feel smarter already.” A couple of excited Big Bang Theory fans immediately tweeted me back, wondering where they could find this amazing book. With a twinge of guilt, I realized my tweet had been misleading. Thus, corrected: Mr g is the story of creation as narrated by god, who happens to have Sheldon Cooper’s IQ. (Minor aside – authors, there appears to be a market for novels narrated by Sheldon Cooper. Any takers?)

I don’t know what I expected when I heard Mr g took god’s point of view in telling the story of creation. I knew from the first sentence that I wasn’t in for Biblical language: “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” Still, that led me to expect a tongue-in-cheek Christopher Moore-ish take on a careless, impulsive deity who somehow lucked into creation. Add to that a meddling aunt and uncle, and I figured I was in for a hilarious read.

Mr g does have its humour, but it also presents a god I never would have imagined. Mr g is a nerd, an existentialist, philosophizing nerd. Upon creating the universe, he decrees that it should be governed by three laws: The universe should be simple (symmetry of position and movement). There are no absolutes, only relatives. Finally, every event should be necessarily caused by a previous event. Mr g then explains how his three laws tie time and space together and keep everything moving in a logical, rational order. I was struck by how scientific Mr g’s mind is. A Google search showed me these aren’t the three laws of physics, as I’d originally thought, but does anyone know if they correspond to any current set of scientific laws? Lightman is a physicist and Mr g’s approach to creation strikes me as very scientific.

Most interesting to me is that Mr g applies scientific thought in a creative way. He doesn’t create a hypothesis and perform experiments; rather, he creates the universe on a whim, institutes some basic laws of logic and symmetry, then steps back, cocks his head and observes. He views his creation with wonder, not the excited eyes of a child, but the fascinated view of a scientist. Because of his laws, the evolution of the universe “followed inexorably and irrefutably” and all Mr g had to do was “sit back and watch.” With all the debate about creationism versus evolution, I love how Lightman reconciles both in his novel, and explains this in such a logical manner.

Logic, indeed, is paramount to Mr g. (Perhaps he’s more Mr Spock than Sheldon Cooper?) A fellow supernatural being in the Void, Belhor, asks Mr g if he will create laws of morality for sentient beings. It’s not so much that Mr g says no that I find striking, as that Mr g clearly finds the idea so illogical. Sentient beings will already be governed by the three laws for the natural world; what use is there of creating new laws to constrain behaviour?

Belhor provides an interesting moral contrast to Mr g. For Mr g, sentience and morality both follow naturally from the natural world. He is stricken with guilt when Belhor shows him how people suffer, yet remains firm to his initial promise not to interfere with human affairs. Belhor, of course, has understood the potential for suffering and immorality from the beginning, and has no compulsion about interfering. Lightman provides a fascinating glimpse of the limitations of logic, that cannot fully comprehend the existence of illogic. I wanted to learn more about Belhor’s motivation. The creatures with him, especially, appear petty, almost childish, and while Belhor is clearly intelligent, he is also as inscrutable to us as he is to Mr g. What does Belhor want from the universe? Why does he interfere with human affairs? Mr g doesn’t know, and neither do we.

I especially enjoyed reading about Mr g’s aunt and uncle. They provide humorous, almost human, breaks in the midst of Mr g’s scientific descriptions and his philosophical discussions with Belhor. The aunt’s desire for a pink dress made of stars, for example, is wonderfully whimsical, while her complaint that Mr g’s creation of time forces her to think about something she’d rather forget is a fascinatingly existential take on the actual length of eternity.

I also like the political commentary Lightman makes with one of the other worlds in the universe. In that world, the nerves in women’s hands are severed at an early age, so that they grow up completely dependent on men. Both genders accept this as completely natural, and even though Mr g wonders why the women don’t rebel, he leaves that world’s society alone to its own natural evolution. He does consider what a fascinating case study it would be to have that world with the gender roles reversed, and having the inhabitants of both worlds meet. I love the social commentary in that concept, and think it would make a fascinating novel on its own.

Mr g is a short book, and despite the scientific jargon, a fairly easy read. Things unfold naturally in Mr g’s universe, and, despite Mr g’s occasional flashes of guilt, he mostly rationalizes events as being natural results of the past. In this, while Lightman’s book begins with a lot of questions about the meaning of existence and the consequences of consciousness, it ends up providing more answers than it raises questions, simply because everything, save perhaps Belhor, is logical. Mr g presents a new take on god, and like him, we experience the wonder of the universe without immersing ourselves in it. As Mr Spock would say, fascinating.

* Thanks to Chatelaine Book Club, I was fortunate enough to have met Mr g author Alan Lightman. He’s an intelligent, interesting man. My post here.

Author Q & A | Robert Hough (Dr. Brinkley’s Tower)

I loved Dr. Brinkley’s Tower! Not only did it transport me to 1930’s Mexico, but I was also struck by how relevant some of the themes still seemed today. The story is lush, romantic, beautiful, and I fell in love with the characters. You can read my review here and comment for your chance to win a copy, courtesy of House of Anansi.

House of Anansi was also kind enough to set up an interview for me with Dr. Brinkley’s Tower author Robert Hough. From the publisher website:

Robert Hough is an award-winning novelist. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Visit Robert Hough’s website:
http://www.roberthough.ca

Follow Robert Hough on Twitter:
http://www.twitter.com/robert_w_hough

Q  & A with ROBERT HOUGH

1. Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is based on an actual historical figure. What about the real-life Dr. Brinkley inspired you to write this novel?

It wasn’t so much Brinkley himself that inspired me: it was more the effect that his radio tower had on the town. When living next to a million-watt radio transmitter, you can’t get away from the signal. It broadcasts through anything metal: braces, fencing wire, forks, weather vanes, you name it. Also, at a million watts, radio waves light up green in the skies. So I just imagined these poor Mexicans being driven crazy by the radio tower’s signal, and not being able to sleep at night. In other words, it was an irresistable environment in which to set a novel.

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: I’m fascinated that the part about the signal actually causing radio waves to transmit through metallic objects is based on fact. This causes quite a few problems for the residents of Corazon de la Fuente. The effect of this phenomenon on one resident in particular actually made me downright detest Dr. Brinkley for erecting that tower in the first place. – JQ]

2. Among my favourite scenes in the novel are the gumball contest and the scene where the Corazon de la Fuente mayor stands up to a racist foreigner. Having grown up in the Philippines, I was struck by how real your depictions of poverty and racism were. Why did you decide to make these themes so prominent in your novel, and did you do any research on this?

In the book, the townsfolk are delighted when Brinkley decides to build his tower: they’re poor and emotionally drained from the Mexican revolution, and they need the jobs and sense of promise it will bring. Of course, they don’t wager on the tower being such an obnoxious presence. As the tower starts to drive them all crazy, it stirs up old divisions and resentments, and they all start to fight; yet it all hinges on them being poor and desperate at the beginning of the book.

As for research, I already knew Mexico pretty well, though I did take a trip to northern Mexico, where I was just the third visitor to a tiny town on the border that served as a model for my fictional town.

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: You can read about Robert’s visit to this tiny Mexican town in his essay for the National Post. – JQ]

3. With such a colourful cast of characters, is there any character in particular who surprised you while you were writing this book? As well, is there any character particularly close to your heart?

I loved all the characters in the book, even the bad guy Brinkley. The great thing about Brinkley is that he really did believe that his goat-gland operation had merit, and that his radio transmitter was helping the people of Corazon de la Fuente. As for all the Mexicans in the book, I just liked them all because each one was so colourful in his or her own right. They were a pleasure to spend time with, and I think the reader picks up on how much fun the book was to write. People are telling me that they’re reading the book in one or two sittings, and that’s really what I’d hoped for.

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: They were a pleasure to read about! – JQ]

Thank you very much to Robert for participating in the Q & A, and thank you to Trish from House of Anansi for organizing this!

GIVEAWAY

Again, just a reminder that I’m giving away a copy of Dr. Brinkley’s Tower. Details on my review.