419: a book review

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From international bestselling writer Will Ferguson, author of Happiness™ and Spanish Fly, comes a novel both epic in its sweep and intimate in its portrayal of human endurance.

A car tumbles through darkness down a snowy ravine. A woman without a name walks out of a dust storm in sub-Saharan Africa. And in the seething heat of Lagos City, a criminal cartel scours the internet looking for victims. Lives intersect. Worlds collide. And it all begins with a single email: “Dear Sir, I am the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help…” Will Ferguson takes readers deep into the labyrinth of lies that is “419”, the world’s most insidious internet scam.

When Laura Curtis, a lonely editor in a cold northern city, discovers that her father has died because of one such swindle, she sets out to track down – and corner – her father’s killer. It is a dangerous game she is playing, however, and the stakes are higher than she can ever imagine. Woven into Laura’s journey is a mysterious woman from the African Sahel with scars etched into her skin and a young man who finds himself caught up in a web of violence and deceit.

And running through it, a dying father’s final worlds: “You, I love.”

First of all, 419 was the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is probably the most prestigious literary award in Canada. That alone piqued my interest in reading this, so as soon as it came out in paperback I was all over that like flies to honey – or corpses, because for some reason flies like both.

If you aren’t put off yet, keep reading!

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How To Be A Canadian: a book review

How to be a Canadian. Don’t worry: here, the phrase is not punctuated by the usual soul-searching question mark. Instead, the Ferguson brothers boldly assert that, since they have both been Canadian their whole lives, they are uniquely qualified to dissect Canadian society. Besides, Margaret Atwood told them to do this book, but that’s another story.

As a guidebook, How to Be a Canadian contains “a wealth of information gathered from fact-filled articles that [the authors] sort of remember reading somewhere,” but frankly, the facts are there as a framework for a wicked sense of humour. The jokes, which fill every page, are sometimes juvenile: “There are 30,000,000 people in Canada– all of whom have, at some point, frozen their tongues to the side of a flagpole.” They are sometimes pointedly amusing: “Often, when the UN needs a cereal box translated, they call in the Canadians, who parachute out of stealth bombers clutching boxes of Capitaine Crounche.” And they are often laugh-out-loud, fall-out-of-bed funny: “There is the assumption that Canada has only two seasons: Winter and Not Winter…In fact, Canada has no fewer than six distinct seasons: Tax; Hockey; More Hockey; Still More Hockey; Summer (also known as the July Long Weekend); and finally Good God, Isn’t the Hockey Season Over by Now?!”

Will and Ian Ferguson divide their guidebook into such useful sections as How to Find Canada on a Map; Canada: A Rich Tapestry (Who to Hate and Why); and my personal favourite, Twelve Ways to Say “I’m Sorry.” Nothing defines the national character more than our “sorry,” especially vis-a-vis the Americans. As the authors point out, “once you learn how to properly say ‘I’m sorry,’ you will no longer be trying to become Canadian, you will have rewired your brain to such a degree that you will actually be Canadian.” For a true Canadian, the opportunities for saying “I’m sorry” are endless, but there is one uniquely Canadian “sorry”: the one you use when someone else steps on your foot.

The book concludes with a quiz designed to evaluate your level of Canadianness. For example, if you hear the name “Elvis” and think of figure skating, you get 1 point. If you can’t remember if you’ve ever curled or not, because of how drunk you were, you get 50 points. If you know the words to “Barrett’s Privateers” but not the national anthem, you get 10 points. And so on. The perfect score is zero points; I’ll let the Fergusons explain why: “So, you couldn’t even be bothered to do the damn quiz. Too much effort, eh? You just skipped to the end. Talk about slack. Talk about lazy. Talk about Canadian! Congratulations. You are now one of us.” –Marven Krug

If you’re American, English, Zimbabwean, what-have-you – I’m sure at one point you’ve wondered just what it’s like to be a Canadian, and if all the national stereotypes are true.

Let me – and this book – tell you that yes, they are.

Will and Ian Ferguson teach the reader how to dress like a Canadian (mullet, plaid flannel shirt, jeans), how to speak like a Canadian (our bastard language of English and American), and the proper use of the word eh? – which, unbeknownst to all nonCanadians, is an art form in itself.

The book is excellently written, with self-depreciating jokes peppered throughout (because Canadians are world-class at making fun of themselves), and is so spot-on with the Canadian history and cultures that it should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in learning more about Canada.

Plus, Margaret Atwood suggested it. It has to be good, eh?