The Onion Girl | Charles De Lint

The cover of De Lint's Onion GirlJilly Coppercorn is an irrepressible bright spirit. Her friends are so enlivened by her life, they can’t imagine she would have any enemies. Then she was struck in a hit-and-run and put in the hospital. The darkness of her past caught up with her present.

This is the first story I’ve read that was set in Newford, a fictional Canadian city. According to a list on LibraryThing, ten stories precede this one in the series. While the relational dynamics of Jilly’s posse quickly become evident, it would have been a much richer experience to have first read some of the earlier stories to better grasp the group situations.

There is much to laud in this novel. The “dreamworld” structure led to many interesting plot opportunities. It reminded me of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time world structure. Furthermore, the characters were realistic and behaved like real people. The overarching message of the story is important: dealing with your past and bringing that healing into your present.

My struggle with the book might seem a bit ironic, given my profession as a preacher. The moralistic message of the book felt too preachy. The beautiful message lost most of its subtlety and impact when the characters mused on it in detail.

All said, this was an interesting story to read.

—Charles De Lint, The Onion Girl (New York: TOR, 2001).

Outdoor Bible | Wendell Berry

I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a “hypaethral book,” such as Thoreau talked about—a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.

—Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 103.

Quicksilver | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's QuicksilverHow on earth can I review of a book as complicated as Quicksilver?

Let’s start with scope. This book is volume one of The Baroque Cycle which continues in The Confusion and The System of the World. As a whole, these three volumes consist of eight “books”—the first three of which are included in Quicksilver. Are you confused yet? (Just wait for the second volume—Stephenson alternates chapter by chapter between the two books in that volume!) The work as a whole is approximately 3,000 pages long.

The plot is as sprawling and complicated as you might expect. The story takes place in New England, (Old) England, and all across the rest of Europe. Stephenson wields a cast of character which take ten pages in the back of the book to list. Major players include both historical figures (Newton) and inventions (Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza).

The range of topics is immense. You’ll learn about alchemy, vivisection, gall stones, cryptography, world finance, religion, hanging, and court politics—as these things existed in the later 1600s.

I’ll be honest—I barely kept my head above water throughout this volume. It would have helped me immensely to know more about the history of that era before jumping into Quicksilver. There were pages clearly set up to be “a-ha” moments that were somewhat lost on me.

In the end, I kept reading because there’s something compelling about the way Stephenson writes. He incorporates belly-laugh humour into his novels like no one else. It was also interesting to experience 17th Century Europe through his prose. This well-researched book makes you feel like you’re a part of the era.

The details are fascinating. At one point a character muses about how the word “shop” is changing. What used to refer to the businesses which lined the street (i.e. the cheese shop) is transforming from a noun to a verb in certain circles. Now we don’t “go to a shop,” we “go shopping.”

As dense as these 1,000 pages were, I picked up volume two as soon as I finished the last page of Quicksilver. The intellectual workout continues!

—Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003).

419 | Will Ferguson

The cover of Fergusson's 419In 419, Ferguson has created a juxtaposition of worlds that will grip you from the first page  to the last.

In Calgary, police investigate the car tracks which lead to a fatal plunge through the guardrails. In Lagos, Nigeria, young shysters pack internet shops to write emails to rich Westerners from Nigerian Diplomats (a crime known by its Nigerian criminal code number, 419). In northern Nigeria, a young marked woman walks south for survival. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, trees are bulldozed and old traditions come to an end as multinational oil companies move in.

My first exposure to Ferguson was his travel narrative of Japan, Hitching Rides With Buddha. Although he’s also known as a comic writer, humor takes a back seat in 419. He uses his skills as a travel writer to make the various locations come alive.

While 419 is a page-turner, there’s far more to it than an average mystery novel. Ferguson has so fully fleshed-out the various settings and character perspectives, you will turn the chapter only to find yourself sympathizing with the villain.

Another fine element of this book was the conclusion (which I won’t give away). While it’s incredibly satisfying, it’s also unexpected. From a Christian perspective, it was fittingly redemptive. That’s all I can say about that!

If you read fiction, buy and read 419. Just be sure to set aside enough time to finish it. You will not want to put it down.

—Will Ferguson, 419 (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2012).

Greed and War | Farley Mowat

Perhaps a hundred years hence the bloodied remnant of humanity will, in its ultimate desperation, find a way to eliminate the twin cancers of greed and war, but I doubt it.

—Farley Mowat, My Father’s Son: Memories of War and Peace (Toronto: Key Porter, 1992), 134.

Catch-22 | Joseph Heller

The cover of Heller's Catch-22Have you ever watched M*A*S*H? If so, you owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph Heller. In Catch-22, Heller is the first person to bundle wit with horror, slapstick with satire, and set it in a war-camp.

Catch-22 is a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters—almost caricatures. My favourite was Milo Minderbinder. Starting as Mess Officer, he quickly used the airplanes at his company’s disposal to set up a trading syndicate. He grew his business (of which everyone had a share, of course) to service both the allies as well as the Germans! After all, Milo would say, isn’t the future of capitalism what we’re fighting for? The height of satire was reached when Milo bombed his own squadron when he was paid to do so by the Germans.

Another jab at military incompetence (of which there are many) is the case of Major Major Major Major. His father named him Major M. Major, with pride. Of course, with a name like that, it wasn’t long before a paperwork problem led to Major’s promotion!

Chaplain Tappman was another character who’s life was laced with irony. He was an Anabaptist minster (a pacifist) in the middle of a war. He’s befuddled when his superior officer asks him to pray for tighter bomb patterns. His only real desire was to return to his family.

I don’t know anyone aside from Kurt Vonnegut who puts such poignant observations in such a zany container. This is the sort of book that will cause you to laugh (literally) out loud, only to realize what you’re laughing about and wince.

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955, 2011).