trade paperback $22.95
Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet
Starring Brian Linehan
Mystery secondary to travelogue
The cover carries, after the title, the words in smaller print that publishers include in case there could be any doubt: "A Novel".
I checked this a couple of times, because even well into Eric Wright's new work, I was unsure.
The Toronto writer is well known in Canada for his award-winning crime fiction, especially featuring detective Charlie Salter, but one book, Always Give a Penny to a Blind Man, was a memoir of Wright's childhood in working-class London, England.
Finding Home reads like a sequel to that memoir, covering a period when the senior Wright goes back to the scenes of his youth after an adult life spent in Canada. However, the returning emigrant in this story is named Will Prentice, and the reminiscences in the old country are fictional, recalling a different early life from Wright's. This is A Novel.
Nonetheless, great swatches of Finding Home are travelogue. Prentice spends much of his time riding around England, making observations about the old country, which he plans to include in a travel guide. The guide turns out to be called—wait for it—Finding Home.
His companion on the jaunt is a distant British cousin, who wants to know all about Canada. So another chunk of the novel is devoted to long passages about the history and culture of each and every province of the new country, as well as about cities like Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls. You get the idea that Wright—I mean, Prentice—expects his Canadian readers to find his observations fresh and novel, coming as they do from a temporary expatriate. But really, they are so mundane. Rene Levesque was a key figure in Quebec politics and Tommy Douglas was Saskatchewan's favourite son. Despite Toronto being less picturesque than Montreal, it is more multicultural.
The most interesting aspect of Finding Home is actually a mystery, worked out between all this travel and talking. Prentice's mother, whose death has brought him back to England, apparently was living a double life and Prentice has some questions about who his father was. But the solution to the mystery comes as an anti-climax—too little too late after all the digressions into travel writing.
One wants to like such a good-hearted, well-intentioned work. Wright can write. But he needs material with a finer focus to keep himself from wandering all over the place.
A normal life behind the Iron Curtain
What's so interesting about Tina Grimberg's life that we should read a book about it? Well, the Toronto rabbi was raised in Kiev when it was part of the Soviet Union and she came to Canada when Jewish families and other "undesirables" were allowed to leave three decades ago. Even that background though might not make for interesting reading if the story were told as a dull recitation.
But Grimberg is able to draw warm and compelling pictures of her childhood. That might come as a surprise to readers, with envisioning grim life under the repressive Soviet regime in the 1960s and early –70s. And part of her story is indeed about long food line-ups, crowded flats, corrupt officials and arbitrary arrests.
But her story is also about the joyful occasions of daily life, about loving family relationships, about a young school girl drawn to and fighting with an odd-duck male classmate, about a florist who gives her his last flower because they both love classic Russian literature....
In short, life is also as meaningful and as full of normal pleasures and pains in the Soviet Union as anywhere else.
It's not exactly Gorky, but Out of Line provides insights into a kind of life about which most of us have received only a one-dimensional idea of through other media. Grimberg fleshes it out with real people memorably drawn.
And that's worth reading a book about.
Like countless other North Americans I loved Brian Linehan's interviews with movie stars. I also loved Martin Short's take-off, Brock Linehan, about a long-winded interviewer who invariably got all his facts wrong.
The real Linehan of course was famous for his long questions, but also for bowling over the celebrities with his encyclopedic knowledge of their lives.
But he was a more conflicted character than his fans, like me, knew at the time. His friend George Anthony, the former Toronto Sun entertainment writer reveals all in this warts-and-all, but loving, biography.