Michael’s Picks

An interview with local author Alexander Boldizar

Boldizar Jacket Phot 5x5x300dpiTell us about your book, The Ugly.

It’s the story of Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth, a 300-pound boulder-throwing mountain man from Siberia whose tribal homeland is stolen by an American lawyer out to build a butterfly conservatory for wealthy tourists. In order to restore his people’s land and honor, Muzhduk must travel to Harvard Law School to learn how to throw words instead of boulders.

Boldizar - The Ugly Cover front page only as JPGIt’s a satire of law and society. At its best, it sat at the #2 spot in Amazon’s “dark humour” category between Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, and it’s been generally treated as humour, which has been somewhat surprising. It’s currently a finalist competing against the founder of The Onion for the Indies humour “Book of the Year” prize—but the humour is sort of an accidental by-product. I saw it more as an attempt to create existentialist fiction for the modern era, with the strongest debt to writers like Kafka, Musil and Borges. But I also wanted to make it fun.

If I may be forgiven for quoting a review that picked up on this side of the novel, William Morris, the Emmy-nominated writer for NYPD Blue, wrote in the Buffalo News that “Like a boisterous Borges ignoring the delete key or an angry Celine forced to write in a language he hates, Alexander Boldizar plays with our minds by mixing fact with fiction in The Ugly… Borrowing from every fabulist he knows he turns Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on its head. Kurtz’s “horror” has become Boldizar’s “Ugly”… It’s as if the Harvard Lampoon turned on itself…Kurtz has returned from the jungle and the horror is our institutions.”

I guess any book about the horror of our institutions has to end up absurdist and funny.

kafkaWhy do you write?

I love seeing things from odd angles, simultaneously from the outside and the inside, like a cubist painting that never quite fits together. Kafka once wrote to his father that “Life is not a jigsaw puzzle.”

Writing gives me the opportunity to flesh out crazy perspectives, mismatched puzzle pieces, and crash them into each other and see what happens.

slovakiaDescribe your first ever piece of writing.

I had an intense dream when I was 12, one of those seminal dreams that you remember for a lifetime, that I turned into a short story immediately upon waking up. The key to the story was a passphrase to get out of a trapped situation. I was born in Slovakia and had been in Canada four years by then, but still had frequent dreams growing out of our escape and the six months we spent in a refugee camp. The passphrase was in Czech: Strch prst zkrz krk. It means “Stick your finger through your neck.” It’s a complete, grammatically correct sentence without a single vowel.

herringI didn’t write before that, and nothing after until university, where I wrote for the Red Herring (McGill’s version of the Harvard Lampoon). But it’s remarkable how well Strch prst zkrz krk foreshadowed my entire writing career. Though I do try and use vowels when writing in English.

castleI’ve read your book.  What should I read next?

The Ugly is not the lightest book, and it was inspired by novels that took some work to get through but have stayed with me for decades. If you enjoyed it, then the books I’d recommend are ones you’ve probably already read. The Castle, by Kafka, is probably my favourite book of all time. The Man Without Qualities by Musil is a close second. The Good Soldier Svejk by Hasek. Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Anything by Bohumil Hrabal. Radetzsky March by Joseph Roth. Independent People, by the Icelandic writer Haldor Laxness—the main character there has some similarities to Muzhduk. I remember feeling the sheer weight of the book, of the Icelandic winter, while reading it, but twenty years later I still remember the entire novel. It’s an amazing book.

If what you liked about The Ugly is mostly the humour, then anything by Heller or Vonnegut. Or, something that had never crossed my mind until multiple reviewers made the comparison, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

jjleeWhat local authors do you love?

Depends on the genre, I guess. I recently met JJ Lee at a North Shore Writers Association workshop, and his The Measure of a Man is great. If you like serial-killer thrillers, Jackie Bateman is here on the North Shore, and I really like the way she cuts against the formulas at just the right moment. And I have a young son and was very happy to discover Michael Kerr’s riffs on classic fairy tales. I actually discovered his The Nervous Prince and Other Stories thanks to this blog, so thank you on behalf of both my son and me!

oveWhat is the best book you’ve read so far this year?

This year? Probably A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. Ove is a great, beautiful curmudgeon, and the book is a perfect balance between laughter and tears assembled with a very light touch.

libraryhallWhere can fans find you?

My website points to all the various events, news and social media, but I’m most active on Facebook and Goodreads. I’m also trying to figure out Twitter, @Boldizar, though there I keep getting distracted into sending nasty tweets to Trump. The Ugly is in all the usual places, Indigo-Chapters, Amazon, and the North Vancouver City Library. Just this week I found out that it’s being translated into Czech—I wonder if it will end up in Prague’s Klementinum library? I love libraries, and that’s one of the most stunning in the world.

Thanks, Alex!

If you are a published local author who would like to be interviewed for The Top Shelf, please be in touch!  Email me at plesku@cnv.org


Farewell from your Non-Fiction Librarian (with a few upcoming Current Event recommendations as I go out the door)

It has been fun contributing to the library blog, but I’m leaving my role as non-fiction librarian – so this will be my last blog (at least for now). I’ve been seconded to library administration for the next year which will bring a whole new set of non-blogworthy challenges and interests. I hope some of my bloggy suggestions and observations over the past few years have been useful. As a goodbye, here are a few current event titles I’m looking forward to reading when they come out:

DifferentKindOfDaughterDifferent Kind of Daughter, by Maria Toorpakai (May 2016)

What to do if you’re a girl interested in sports, but live in a tribal area of Pakistan? Dress as a boy, of course. Toorpakai’s choice to live as a male, as well as her athleticism, put her into the crosshairs of the Taliban. This is the story of her remarkable journey as she rose to become the number one female Squash player in her country before fleeing to Canada – where she remains a voice for oppressed women everywhere.

Brown: What Being Brown Means in the World Today (To Everyone), by Kamal Al-Solaylee (May 2016)Brown

From the 2015 Canada Reads finalist (for Intolerable) comes this new look at the global implications of being brown-skinned. Full of stories and street-level reporting, Solaylee travelled four continents and ten countries to research the lives of persons like himself – neither black nor white, but something in between.

BoysInBunkhouseThe Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland, by Dan Barry (May 2016)

From 1974 to 2009 a group of intellectually disabled men lived in an old Iowa schoolhouse. They were paid $65 per month plus food and lodging in return for their work in a meat-packing plant. They endured neglect, exploitation, and physical and emotional abuse before finally being freed. A reminder to us all to be vigilant; that we are responsible for the social justice issues of our age.

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, by Barton Gellman (July DarkMirror2016)

Gellman was one of the three journalists Snowden chose to receive his collection of NSA documents. Building on his twenty plus years as an investigative journalist for the Washington Post, Gellman was able to access sources in government and the tech industry to help make sense of Snowden’s massive leak. Soon Gellman himself became a target. A true-life spy story, dealing with the surveillance revolution that impacts us all.

GirlWhoBeatISISThe Girl Who Beat ISIS: Farida’s Story, by Farida Abbas (June 2016)

When ISIS Jihadists overran her village killing all men and boys, Farida Abbas was taken captive. Beaten and sexually assaulted, Abbas was taken to a market where ISIS sold female prisoners. But by then Abbas had realized that fighting back made it harder for her captors to continue their abuse. This is her heroic struggle to escape the unthinkable.

Esther the Wonder Pig: Changing the World One Heart at a Time, by Steve EstherWonderPigJenkins and Derek Walter (May 2016)

On a lighter note, Steve knew his partner Derek wouldn’t be keen on adopting a micro piglet, but he decided to go ahead anyway. This tiny pig turned out to not be so micro after all – ultimately growing into a 600 pound pet. When space became an issue, Steve and Derek bought a farm where they created a refuge for other animals in need. A charming tale about accidental animal-rights advocates.

Place a hold for a title or two today!

Brain Books!

Given the popularity of Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing and the current interest in neuroplasticity, it is plain that neuroscience is a hot topic just now. Here are a few additional non-intimidating titles that will inspire and fascinate.

TaleDuelingNeurosurgeonsThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean

Popular science at its best. Historically, brain research consisted of waiting for a traumatic event, and then observing the patient’s strange shifts in personality, focus, and interests. Kean’s book is chock full of fascinating anecdotes which he uses to illustrate the development of modern neurology. It’s an entertaining, compelling, and educational read.

My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte TaylorStrokeOfInsight

This is the astonishing journey of a brain scientist who suffers a stroke. Because of her neurological training, she is able to identify and articulate the different brain functions affected as the trauma progresses. What’s more, her observations will make you think about issues ranging from spiritual insight, to childhood perceptions. Fascinating.

AutisticBrainThe Autistic Brain, by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek

Reporting from the forefront of autism science, the irrepressible Temple Grandin weaves together her own experiences with new discoveries from neuroimaging and genetic science. She advocates for a strength based approach to treatment, focusing on what kids on the spectrum can do, rather than on their weaknesses. This is a human and enlightening narrative about a condition the author knows from the inside.

A Leg to Stand On, by Oliver SacksLegToStandOn

What list of popular brain books would be complete without something by the late Oliver Sacks? In this extraordinary book, Sacks relates his own experience with the mysteries of neurology. After a hiking accident, Sack’s recuperation is complicated when he finds that his injured leg no longer feels like it is part of his body. A remarkable narrative told with signature Sacksian humour, curiosity, humanity, and wonder.

ConcussionConcussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas

When an immigrant doctor performed an autopsy on “Iron Mike,” a hall of fame football player, he didn’t expect to become the target of the powerful and moneyed National Football League. But his research revealed that Mike’s mental deterioration and death were the result of repeated blows to the head from years of playing football – research the NFL did everything in its power to discredit and suppress. Recently made into a film starring Will Smith.

The Future of the Mind, by Michio KakuFutureOfMind

Smart pills that enhance cognition; uploading a brain to a computer; recording memories; the ability to control computers with our minds – these are some of the ideas Kaku floats in this tour of what our neurological future might hold. Written by a theoretical physicist, this book provides a captivating look at the amazing research currently being done in the field of neuroscience.


Black History Month

February is Black History Month in the United States. In honour of that observance, and in light of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, here are a few books on the Black experience in North America that will enrage, enlighten, and fascinate.

BookOfNegroesThe Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill

This compelling and award winning novel gives a sweeping vision of the 18th century slave trade. At the request of British abolitionists, Aminata Diallo writes her life story, beginning with her abduction from an African village, her life as a plantation slave, her transfer to Nova Scotia following American independence, and finally her journey to England. All of this is fascinating, but it is the narrator’s voice and character that make this book sing.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle AlexanderNewJimCrow

“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it,” observes Alexander. And she lays out in devastating and scrupulously researched detail how mass incarceration in the U.S. (nearly at the levels achieved by Stalin) has created a new version of the abhorrent Jim Crow laws – which permitted racial discrimination in the American south. A disturbing but essential and timely read.

HangingAngeliqueThe Hanging of Angelique, by Afua Cooper

We don’t ordinarily associate the idea of Canada with slavery, except perhaps as the terminus for the underground railway. This is the historical account of a Canadian slave who was convicted of setting a fire in Montreal in 1734, but who may have been guilty of nothing more than being a woman who refused to accept bondage.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBetweenWorldAndMe

Still showing up on all kinds of bestseller lists, this short book looks at what it means to be Black in America today. Structured as a letter to his teenage son, Coates writes of his childhood, his education, his fears as a parent, and underlying all this is the issue of race. There is rage, kindness, love, and a kind of painful wisdom, all delivered with a James Baldwin vibe.

RosaParksThe Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jean Theoharis

Famous for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Rosa Parks has entered the civil rights pantheon as a mild, self-effacing, almost accidental activist. This biography sets the record straight, revealing her life as a protester both before and after the bus incident. She may have been quiet, but she was also thoughtful, passionate, and dedicated. A true hero of her time.

If you’ve read all of these, here are a few other books on this topic that aren’t to be missed: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin; Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (or anything else by her); and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Gong Hey Fat Choy

February 8th is Chinese New Year – so Happy New Year! Here are a few reading selections to help expand your understanding of this fascinating culture.


AgeOfAmbitionAge of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos

Looking at the clash between individual aspiration and authoritarian control in the new China, New Yorker staff writer, Evan Osnos, delivers a vivid portrait told through the stories of everyday people. With great narrative flair, the author explores the themes of economic change, censorship, and personal values. Winner of the 2014 National Book Award in Non-fiction.

MasteringChineseCookingMastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

So what’s not to love about Chinese food? This cookbook provides skill-building lessons, brush drawn illustrations of step-by-step techniques, and great photographs of finished dishes, ingredients, and landscapes. This beautiful book is a great way into the ancient cuisine of China, and is a delight to leaf through as well.

CountryDrivingCountry Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler

Road Trip! Acquiring his Chinese driver’s license, Hessler sets out to track how the automobile and improved roads are transforming China. He follows the Great Wall, and then moves to a small farming village which dramatically alters before his eyes. Finally he ends up in a city where he witnesses the shift from agriculture to industry. Along the way, Hessler writes movingly about the average people who are reshaping the nation.


frogMo Yan – Frog

You might know Mo Yan as the 2012 Nobel prize winner for literature.  Mo sheds light on the far-reaching implications of China’s one-child policy in Frog.  Tadpole is a playwright writing a play about his aunt Gugu, a midwife and steadfast Communist who performs abortions to demonstrate her loyalty to the party.


threebodyCixin Liu – The Three-Body Problem

2015’s Hugo Award Winner was this hard science fiction Chinese novel in translation. The Three-Body Problem attempts to answer an age-old SF question: What happens when humans and aliens make first contact? The book is the first in an anticipated trilogy; volume 2 is due out later this year.

americanbornchineseGene Luen Yang – American Born Chinese

Yang made news earlier this year when he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US.  If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his graphic novels starting with American Born Chinese. It tells three intertwined stories about characters longing to fit in.

You can read his inspiring inaugural speech online; his powerful closing sentiments echo our own,

Let me end by encouraging you to read without walls. Find a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you. Find a book about a topic that you don’t know much about. Find a book that’s in a format you’ve never tried before: a graphic novel, a words-only novel, or a novel in verse.

Read without walls and see what happens.

I bet it’ll be something amazing.


-Michael and Patricia

BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction

Since 2005, British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction has recognized and rewarded thoughtful and provocative Canadian non-fiction works. It is the only national prize that originates in BC, and has a top prize of $40,000. The winner will be announced on February 4th. Here are the finalists:

BeyondPaleBeyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, by Emily Urquhart

When her newborn daughter is diagnosed with albinism, the author embarks on a quest to understand the condition. Urquhart is a journalist and folklore scholar, accustomed to interpreting the world through other people’s stories, so this is her approach. Part parenting memoir, part travelogue, and part cultural critique, this is a unique look at how we explain human differences through our cultural beliefs

The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole RightToBeColdPlanet, by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

In this memoir, Inuk Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes the tumult of climate change in human rights terms, not just economics. The jarring changes in the Arctic, where warming rates are double compared to the rest of the globe, threaten the Inuit way of life and serve as an early warning system for the rest of the world. Her personal story is entwined with her passionate desire to preserve the future for her culture and her grandchildren.

StalinsDaughterStalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan

In 1967, Stalin’s daughter shocked the world by defecting to the United States. But coming to America did not free her from the legacy of her father’s name. Accessing KGB, CIA, and Soviet archives, Sullivan pieces together the epic life of a woman who never escaped the shadow of her monstrous father. It’s an intimate portrait, which also illuminates the broader context of her time.

StephenHarperStephen Harper, by John Ibbitson

The first part of this biography examines the very private life of our former Prime Minister. Ibbitson portrays him with all his moody flaws, giving a compelling portrait of a famously secretive individual. The second part deals with Harper’s achievements, such as uniting the Reform and Conservative parties, trade agreements and his government’s economic guidance. Neither hagiography nor mud-slinging tirade, the book is a balanced picture of an important and enigmatic figure.

Who do you want to win?

Terrific Canadian Graphic Literature

I started a post on graphic novels and found that I had selected all Canadian books, and they’re great. So here are my top graphic picks (3 of 5 are non-ficiton), none of which could be confused with comic books.

OutsideCircleThe Outside Circle, by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, art by Kelly Mellings

From the 2016 Canada Reads Longlist comes this striking graphic novel about Pete, a young First Nations man caught in a cycle of poverty, violence and trauma. Ending up in prison, Pete realizes that he must make changes in order to survive and to be an example for his younger brother. It’s a hard-hitting but hopeful story, beautifully illustrated and beautifully told.

Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, by Sarah LeavittTangles

Graphic storytelling might seem like a counterintuitive choice for a poignant memoir about a daughter and a family coping with the mother’s dementia, but the spare artwork and candid prose work really well here. Though it is something of a harrowing read, Leavitt manages to incorporate humour along with the tragedy. Ultimately this is a moving story of a family’s love during an excruciating time.

EssexCountyEssex County, by Jeff Lemire

This trilogy of graphic novels set in Ontario explores the Canadian psyche through community, hockey, winter, loneliness, and great art. A superhero-obsessed orphan, estranged brothers, and a community nurse draw us into this small-town world. Lemire’s spare text is beautifully wrenching and the illustrations perfectly match. By turns poignant, sad, and amusing, this is a great read.

Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Gillian TamakiSkim

Goth teen Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim), is an outsider, a wannabe Wiccan, and in love with her female English teacher. When a classmate commits suicide, Skim descends into a depression that no guidance counselor platitude can reach. A lovely coming-of-age story with artwork derived from the best Japanese traditions. Lovely.

FatherlandFatherland, by Nina Bunjevac

This memoir / family history deals largely with the author’s father – a Serbian nationalist – whose experiences during the Second World War left him an embittered drunk. When the father dies by accidentally setting off a bomb he was preparing for a terrorist act, the family must deal with the consequences and face their unsettling history. The illustrations drive the narrative in this one and are truly extraordinary.

What’s your favourite piece of graphic lit?