The Western Light by Susan Swan, BA’67
The Western Light is a highly evocative novel, conjuring up mid-century Canada in a coming of age story that’s also a rollicking yarn with a nail-biting conclusion. The book’s narrator is 12-year-old Mary “Mouse” Bradford, a favourite character of Swan’s who previously appeared as an older adolescent in The Wives of Bath.
In this prequel, Mouse struggles to capture the attention of her widowed father Morley, a small-town doctor who devotes his life to his patients. As painful as it is for her, Mouse sees his sacrifice as heroic. “I was proud to be neglected by Morley.” Her yearning for male attention leaves her vulnerable to the overtures of a convicted murderer, former NHL star John Pilkie. Pilkie has been returned to his Ontario hometown to be incarcerated in the local mental hospital. Is he really an “insane killer” or a victim of post-concussion syndrome? Is his interest in Mouse innocent or something more sinister?
Exploring issues of celebrity, morality and heroism, Swan weaves in oil industry history (North America’s first commercial well was in rural Ontario), hockey culture, and gender roles. Her depiction of small-town life is vivid and fifties references abound, including poppit beads, giant Zenith TVs, limited options for women – and polio, a disease that has left Mouse with a withered leg. As Swan’s characters all cope with their own flaws, The Western Light offers masterful storytelling.
Diana Grier Ayton
An Illustrated History of Quebec: Tradition and Modernity by Peter Gossage, BA’80, MA’84, and J.I. Little
Pop quiz: what two competing forces have defined Quebec history, politics and culture from the province’s founding to the present day? Anyone? Everyone?
For history professors Peter Gossage (Concordia University) and Jack Little (Simon Fraser University), the co-authors of the concise and lively An Illustrated History of Quebec: Tradition and Modernity, the answer is not as obvious as you might think. Rather than viewing Quebec’s history through the lens of language (French versus English), religion (Catholic versus Protestant), or politics (sovereignist versus federalist), Gossage and Little frame the province’s unique character as the result of an ongoing negotiation between the attractions of tradition and modernity; continuity and progress; and inherited values and new forms of identity.
Although at rare moments this framework seems slightly strained (as when the authors cast the 1998 ice storm as a crisis of modernity, as embodied by hydroelectric infrastructure), far more often the result is a fresh perspective on Quebec’s well-rehearsed historical narrative. Enlivened by more than 100 illustrations of everything from 17th-century maps to seventies-era political cartoons, this worthwhile volume provides an accessible entry point for those wanting to learn more about the history of La Belle Province, and a range of thoughtful new insights for those with a little more expertise.
Dianne Fagan, MA’97
Understanding Pain by Fernando Cervero
Everybody hurts sometimes. R.E.M. told us so. But why?
Fernando Cervero, the director of McGill’s Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, supplies many of the answers in Understanding Pain. While non-specialists will no doubt find themselves wrestling with unfamiliar phrases like “nociceptor-specific neurons” and “endogenous opioids” throughout the book, Cervero’s smooth, straightforward prose makes it worth the effort.
Pain has its benefits, Cervero explains. It warns us when we’re experiencing harm (but not always – he notes that our pain sensors don’t detect the damaging effects of radiation). In one jarring section, Cervero describes children born with a rare congenital insensitivity to pain. They tend to repeatedly suffer from injuries that they can’t feel, which go untreated until they’re noticed by someone else. “A life without protective pain is not a happy life,” he explains.
Cervero covers a lot of ground in this slim book and offers surprises along the way. Much of what we know about neuropathic pain, for instance, comes to us from a doctor who treated gunshot wounds during the American Civil War. Watching a loved one in agony activates many of the same regions of the brain as experiencing the pain yourself.
Cervero acknowledges that while much progress has been made, researchers still have only a partial understanding of how pain works. “We may never achieve a pain-free world, but we must try.”
Daniel McCabe, BA’89
Solo Piano II by Gonzales
As a pianist, entertainer and provocateur, Chilly Gonzales (né Jason Beck, BMus’94) has made a career out of larger-than-life collisions: art and pop, rap and classical, exaggerated performance and careful composition. Yet his most famous album, Solo Piano, simply brought together 10 fingers and 88 keys, an aesthetic he returns to eight years later with a proper sequel. Less steeped in the European cabaret tradition than its predecessor, Solo Piano II instead highlights the melodic sensibilities at the core of Gonzales’s more extreme cross-genre compositions: his knack for novelty and his ability to conjure simple, evocative patterns that excite, stick and never overstay their welcome. A musical omnivore, Gonzales consumes and rewrites codes from jazz, classical and pop, switching between them effortlessly. Some will treat Solo Piano II as a “classier” listen than his more garish oeuvre, but within its contrasts it’s every bit as clever, inventive and entertaining.