Thursday, December 07, 2006

#65 & #66 - The Secret Mitzvah Of Lucio Burke & Before I Wake

The other day I finished not one but two books I had sort of been reading simultaneously. The first, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, was for my online book club, and I'll be honest, were it not for that, I probably would never have read this lovely and charming first novel. And speaking of first novels, it's very impressive that Robert J. Wiersema comes right out the gate with his own exceptional book, Before I Wake. Another novel that had I not heard the author read a few weeks ago, I also may have never read.

It's interesting, when you read two books side by side, to see the contrasts and the differences. Both books deal with issues of faith and fate, with family, love and friendship as secondary themes, and both authors have a gift in terms of crafting very readable stories that tug at your heartstrings. But they are also very different, the first being an historical novel of sorts, the second more of a fantastical commercial fiction-type outing. However, they are now books that I would absolutely recommend to people, if only because it's a mitzvah in and of itself to support first novels, to herald from the rafters new and exciting talent on the Canadian literary landscape.

Annnywaaay. The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, set in Toronto in the 1930s, is kind of a buldingsroman, in the sense that the main character, said Lucio Burke, comes of age in the novel alongside the young city of Toronto, which is also growing up, so to speak. There's a huge cast of characters that surround Lucio, his love interest, Ruthie, his next door neighbour and best friend, Dubie, and both of their families. The book opens with Bloomberg, a minor character who disappears after one fateful day, trying to give away his baseball, making all of the kids hit the ball to see who would end up with it. In the end, no one hits the ball, and this fantastic journey begins where all three characters, Lucio, Dubie and Ruthie, change in many different ways.

As the love story unfolds, a number of almost fantastical things happen, each geared to balance out the idea that many of the events in your life are the products of both fate and faith. And Steven Hayward writes such a convincing yarn that's so Richler-inspired that it's easy to be captivated by his charming, witty and truly engaging prose. If I have one slight criticism of this book, it's that there's a very long and rather important flashback toward the end, about Lucio's grandmother, that I thought would have made more sense had it been introduced earlier, especially considering the book's ending, which takes place during the riots in Christie Pits is just around the corner, it sort of pulled me out. But Hayward, who is himself the narrator "telling" his grandmother's story, both fiction and non, is adept enough that you just go with it, and my overall feeling is that this is a really, really good first novel.

Now, on to Before I Wake. I am going to honestly say that this book totally and utterly surprised me. It's not normally the kind of book I would read, that has no bearing on whether or not the book is of quality, but like The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, it's not a book I would have picked up on my own, without a little prodding. I know Scarbie read it a while back and really loved it, and the author himself answered some questions on her blog, and she's been telling me to read it for months. But like I said, until I heard him at the reading a few weeks back, it wasn't a book that cried out for me to read. I was so wrong.

It's a sweet story, perfect for holiday reading, about a family that goes through an unspeakable tragedy (their three-year-old daughter is hit by a truck crossing the street and is in a coma) only to find that their daughter is miraculous, not in the way she's able to recover, but in the fact that she can now heal other people. Coupled with the more fantastical elements of the novel, are the more day-to-day problems regular people deal with as they experience a tragedy.

In some ways, and I know this is a far-out there kind of comparison, but the book almost kind of reminded me of Dogma, which, to this day, is still my favourite Kevin Smith movie. As a girl who struggles a lot with ideas of faith and religion herself, especially the choice to believe or not to believe, I think I liked this book so much because the main characters, Simon and Karen, struggle throughout the book to not only be true to themselves, but to do the right thing in general, even if they don't necessarily believe in God and/or the miracle of Sherry's abilities. There's a mysterious aspect to the book as well, with Henry Denton, the driver of the truck that hit the little girl, fighting his own battles in terms of what happened, where he is now, and what he's sent back to do.

I can see why the Globe picked it to as a Best Book this year, because it's a really hard thing to achieve, a totally readable, utterly good piece of commercial fiction that feels to have been written by a thoughtful, compassionate and good first-time novelist.

On the whole, these were two surprises in terms of my reading this year, books that I had made up my mind about before actually giving them a chance, with both proving that, well, you can't judge a book by your own preconceived notions.


Beth said...

Two more added to my list of books to read. The list has become absolutely crazy - I love it!

Rob in Victoria said...

How did I miss this? I mean, I'm pretty used to the Kevin Smith comparison, but not when it comes to the WORK!

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor ...