David Waltner-Toews, One Foot in Heaven, 2005.
This book may be the best thing I've read that Jim Bartley's "First Fiction" column in the Globe & Mail's Books section has reviewed since Kelly Cooper's Eyehill last summer. Well, this book and Stephen Marche's Raymond and Hannah.
Bartley's reviews are always worth reading, and he finds some treasures. Waltner-Toews' collection of linked stories is breathtaking, the sort of book for which the cliché "I couldn't put it down" accurately describes.
I did find the book a bit difficult to get into. It's very much the product of a Mennonite culture, with worries and concerns that seem exaggerated to me because of the differences between that culture and the one in which I was raised, so I found it difficult to relate to the characters at first. It's odd, though, that my feeling that slipped away. By "Mennonite Baking", I was hooked. It's a beautifully structured story of a young love affair conducted almost entirely through notes, and that is closely linked with the tactile experiences of baking. It's simply brilliant.
The book's back trumpets a snippet of Rudy Wiebe's review: "insightfully, profoundly human," and while I'm normally inclined to snark at such reviews, this happens to be a good description. Waltner-Toews has an eye for people and how they are, how they live, how they think. He never patronises his characters. I'm convinced he must have an impressive pastoral relationship with any animals and their caretakers for whom he's served as a vet--and his clinical, careful attention to detail and ability to present the story in such a compelling way makes me think he must be very good as an epidemiologist.