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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review of "My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante

I feel I’m a little late in getting to the Neapolitan quartet of which this is the first book.  Now that I’ve started on the journey, I don’t think I’ll be stopping until I’ve finished all four.

4 Stars
At the age of 66, Lila Cerullo has decided “no only to disappear herself . . . but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind” so her friend Elena Greco decides to write “all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory” (23).  What follows is the story of the first ten years of their friendship, from the age of six to sixteen. 

The two girls grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s.  Theirs is an intense but complicated friendship:  they love and admire each other but they are also jealous and competitive, and though they long for freedom, they also depend on each other.  Elena says that from the beginning “I decided that I had to model myself on [Lila], never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away.  I suppose that that was my way of reacting to envy, and hatred, and of suffocating them” (46).

The two are foil characters.  Elena is polite, obedient, dutiful, and well-behaved whereas Lila is impulsive and rebellious.  Elena states that Lila “immediately impressed me because she was very bad” (31).  Virtually everyone is afraid of Lila because “Lila was malicious: . . . she knew how to wound with words [and] would kill without hesitation. . . . an essence not only seductive but dangerous emanated from Lila” (143).  Even Lila admits, “’The difference between you and me, always, has been that people are afraid of me and not of you’” (294). 

The similarity between the two is that both do well in school, Elena by dint of hard work and Lila through natural intelligence.  Elena is the one who continues in school, but she clearly regards her friend as the brilliant one.  At first both girls dream of escaping their patriarchal society full of ignorance, poverty and violence, but eventually Lila has little choice but to accept “the confines of the neighborhood” (79).  The two girls end up taking very different directions in life and at the end, one wonders if Lila is correct when she calls Elena “’my brilliant friend’” who must keep studying and “’be the best of all’” (312).  Of course, Elena, having chosen a path as a student is left feeling “completely alone” (322).

One of the themes is the tragedy of unfulfilled potential.  Though Lila is the most intelligent student in her elementary school, Lila’s parents deny her permission to attend middle school and continue on to high school.  Her father says, “’why should [Lila], who is a girl, go to school?’” (69) so their teacher, who had nurtured both girls, turns her back on Lila and tells Elena, “’And if one wishes to remain a plebeian, he, his children, the children of his children deserve nothing.  Forget Cerullo and think of yourself’” (72).  Years later, this same teacher slams the door in Lila’s face:  “’I know Cerullo, I don’t know who this girl is’’ (308).  Just before a climactic event in her life, Lila says, “’But yes, look: the mind’s dreams have ended up under the feet.’  She turned with a sudden expression of fear.  ‘What’s going to happen to me?’” (314) as though she knows both her potential and dreams will be unfulfilled.  And the twist in the last paragraph suggests that her fear is justified. 

One of the things that stands out in the novel is the violence of the girls’ world.  They are surrounded by the macho behaviour of brothers and fathers who feel they must fight to defend their honour and that of their families.  Insults are almost always met with violence.  Elena admits, “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.  Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, . . . we grew up with the duty of making it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us. . . . The women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other’ (37).  Elena witnesses a husband and wife fighting:  he “yelled, threw things; his rage fed on itself, and he couldn’t stop.  In fact his wife’s attempts to stop him increased his fury, and . . . he ended up beating her” before he threw his daughter out the window “still screaming horrible threats at his daughter.  He had thrown her like a thing” (82).  It is understandable why Elena wants to escape from her mother’s world (322).

There are a lot of characters so I was often confused as to who is who.  It is easy to confuse Alfonso with Antonio.  To complicate matters, people often have more than one name:  Lila is also called Lina but her proper name is Raffaella; and Elena is sometimes called Lenuccia and sometimes, Lenù.  There is an Index of Characters at the beginning and it is helpful, but having to check it frequently becomes annoying. 

I’m hooked.  I’m anxious to get to the next book in the series, The Story of a New Name, to find out what happens to the two brilliant friends.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Michael Crummey wins $50K Writers' Trust Fellowship

Last week, on November 18, I posted a review of Michael Crummey’s latest novel, Sweetland, in honour of his 50th birthday.

This week, on November 25, Mr. Crummey won the inaugural Writers’ Trust Fellowship valued at $50,000.  On being named, he responded humbly:  "'The Writers' Trust Fellowship was so unexpected, so extravagant and unlikely, that I'm still in shock,' said Crummey in a news release. 'It means time to work of course, something all writers fight for. And, given the literary talent in this country, it's a huge honour even to have been considered'" (http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/11/michael-crummey-wins-inaugural-50k-writers-trust-fellowship.html).

The Writers' Trust Fellowship was established to celebrate Canada's sesquicentennial anniversary in 2017. Two more fellowships will be awarded in the next two years so a total of $150,000 will be given to Canadian writers in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The money is “intended to free writers substantially from financial concerns and provide a window in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible.”  Each fellowship will be awarded “to a writer who has demonstrated exceptional creative ability by producing an outstanding body of literary work and displayed the promise to add to that work” (http://www.writerstrust.com/News/News-(1)/Press-Release-Archive/Press-Releases/WT-Fellowship-(Nov-16-15).aspx).  Writers in various genres will be considered, including fiction, literary non-fiction, poetry, and young adult literature.

Congratulations, Mr. Crummey!  What a wonderful way to celebrate the end of your first half-century and the beginning of your second.  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review of "The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin



I read this book back in March of 2014; I'm posting my review because this is one of the books that appears on the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award longlist.  I gave it 4 Stars.

This is a book for bibliophiles; it is an affirmation of the love of books and reading. The protagonist is A. J. Fikry, the eccentric, curmudgeonly owner of a “persnickety little bookstore” on Alice Island, a ferry trip from Massachusetts. His wife recently died and he isolates himself, taking solace in alcohol. His life changes with the arrival of two females: Maya, an infant left in his shop, and Amelia, a publisher’s sales representative.

Each chapter begins with a note about a short story, a note written by A.J. Each one gives a glimpse into the heart of A.J.: “My life is in these books . . . Read these and know my heart.” In many ways, the book is really about the influence of books, booksellers and bookstores on people’s lives: “People are attached to their bookstores . . . It matters who placed A Wrinkle in Time in your twelve-year-old daughter’s nail-bitten fingers or who sold you that Let’s Go travel guide to Hawaii or who insisted that your aunt with the very particular tastes would surely adore Cloud Atlas.”

The plot is simple and sometimes sad and sentimental, but the book is much more than its plot; it is an examination of life (“We are not quite novels. . . . We are not quite short stories. . . . In the end, we are collected works”) and the role of reading: “We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone.” Even books that are unsatisfactory serve a purpose: “We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.” One of A.J.’s life lessons is an indirect allusion to E.M. Forster’s Howards End: “this is what the point of it all is. To connect . . . Only connect.” Not all of the observations of life are literary in nature, however: “She was pretty and smart, which makes her death a tragedy. She was poor and black, which means people say they saw it coming.”

The touches of humour are wonderful. Sometimes knowledge of literature is needed to appreciate the humour: “’The Fall of the House of Usher’ is a pretty good primer on what not to do with children.” At other times, a simple description is comic: “Though it’s just a gymnasium (the scent of balls of both varieties is still palpable) . . .” One episode is hilarious. An irate 82-year-old customer returns The Book Thief with its spine broken; she wants a refund: “’Yes, I read it. . . . I most certainly did read it. It kept me up all night, I was so angry with it. At this stage of my life, I would rather not be kept up all night. Nor do I wish to have my tears jerked at the rate at which this novel jerked them. The next time you recommend a book to me, I hope you’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Fikry.’”

This is a gentle yet intelligent read. In its literary focus, it is reminiscent of 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. In its enchanting tone, it is reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Unlike the unhappy customer in A.J.’s bookstore, readers of this novel will not be returning it for a refund; they will want to keep it in order to re-read it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Contemporary Adult Fiction with Non-Human Narrators/Main Characters

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis recently won a couple of prestigious literary awards and that book got me thinking about other adult novels featuring animals as main characters.  As children, we were exposed to several books with non-human protagonists; Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Books, Black Beauty, The Call of the Wild and White Fang come immediately to mind.  As students we read Animal Farm.  And who can forget Archy and Mehitabel, the classic tale of Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat?  

But there is still adult fiction being written which has animal narrators or animals as major characters.  Here are ten titles from Schatje’s Shelves; all would be classified as contemporary fiction.

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis features a group of pet dogs who are suddenly given human intelligence.

Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller, about women turning into animals and animals turning into women, is a feminist satire of gender roles.

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy is a classic quest story featuring a herd of elephants.

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam is narrated from the dual perspectives of a family that has adopted a chimp and a group of chimpanzees in a research institute.

The Bees by Laline Paull has a sanitation worker bee as its narrator.

Shakespeare's Dog by Leon Rooke is the story of William Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne Hathaway as narrated by his dog.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage is about the coming-of-age of a well-read rat living in the basement of an old bookshop in 1960s Boston.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein features Enzo, a lab terrier mix, as a narrator.   In his twilight years, Enzo thinks back on his life with a race car driver and reflects on all he has learned about the human condition.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann is a mystery with a flock of sheep as the detectives.

A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny is narrated by Snuff, dog-companion to Jack the Ripper.

In the same vein, CBC recently came out with this list:  http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/11/10-canadian-novels-to-read-if-you-love-animals.html.

Suggestions for other titles in this sub-genre?  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Reviews Archive: "A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki



5 Stars

Wow! Whee! Whew! Finding the words to clearly express my feelings about this book are difficult: “Sometimes the mind arrives but the words don’t.” It is an enthralling, mesmerizing read which leaves the reader with much to ponder.

The plot seems simple. Nao Yasutani is a 16-year-old living in Tokyo in the early years of the twenty-first century. In a diary she is writing, she describes herself as a “time being” who has decided she is “going to drop out of time.” Before she commits suicide, however, she wants to write the life story of her great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a Buddhist nun who was also a “novelist and New Woman of the Taisho era . . . an anarchist and a feminist.” Although we do meet Jiko and learn a bit about her, it is not her life story but Nao’s which fills the pages of the diary.

About a decade later, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan, on a remote island on British Columbia’s coast, Ruth discovers Nao’s diary, along with some other artifacts, inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Ruth, the novelist, becomes Nao’s reader. Ruth also becomes a detective of sorts as she tries to find out how the lunchbox found its way to her and what happened to Nao and her family.

That the book is a meditation on time is obvious from the beginning. The book’s title and the opening definition of a “time being” as “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” are the first clues. That Nao’s diary has the cover of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is no coincidence. Included are quotes from an ancient Buddhist master: “Time itself is being . . . and all being is time . . . In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.”

As suggested by the above quotation, the interconnectedness of life is another major theme. For example, the book explores the connections between writer and reader. Nao claims that she and her reader together will “make magic” and Ruth eventually wonders whether Nao conjured Ruth into being.  The connections between past and present are also examined. Nao discusses the difficulties of writing about the past: “Maybe that Nao of the past never really existed, except in the imagination of this Nao of the present. . . . the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction.”

This is a complex metaphysical novel. Its references range from thirteenth-century Buddhist writings to quantum mechanics. The depth and breadth of the book should not, however, discourage potential readers. It is very readable. Anyone who watches The Big Bang Theory will be able to follow the discussions of quantum physics and the experiment involving Schrodinger’s cat!

Besides being able to explain some rather esoteric subjects, the author also has the ability to develop believable and likeable characters. Both Nao and Ruth become characters the reader will care about; both are developed so intricately that there is never any doubt that their behaviour is motivated and consistent with their personalities. I wondered whether I would find anything relatable in the diary of a suicidal teenager, but from the beginning I found myself drawn to this adolescent; I became as fascinated as Ruth is as she reads the diary.

This novel is very difficult to disentangle. The author briefly discusses “the interconnectedness of entanglement,” a principle of quantum mechanics, and her novel illustrates entanglement or intertwinement in that all elements work together to create a complex whole. Not one word or image is out of place; all contribute to the total meaning. The difficulty the reader or reviewer faces is doing justice to the book while discussing its separate elements.

This book is a must-read and will probably become a must-re-read for many. It is intelligent without being incomprehensible. It has everything: an interesting plot, credible and appealing characters, and thoroughly developed themes.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review of "Fifteen Dogs" by André Alexis

I read this novella because it won both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find it as extraordinary, insightful, and original as suggested by the juries’ citations.  It gets only 3 Stars from me.

The book begins with Hermes and Apollo discussing “what it would be like if animals had human intelligence” and Apollo betting that animals “would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.”  This bet leads them to grant human consciousness and linguistic skills to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist their new consciousness, fearing the loss of canine pack mentality, and want a return to their old instinct-driven ways, and those who embrace the change.  And human intelligence does not necessarily foster dog/human relationships; only a poodle named Majnoun ends up forming a real bond with a human.   

The book does offer some interesting speculation about how dogs see the world – a place of almost overpowering sensual experiences, especially of the olfactory kind:  “There was, first, the lake itself:  sour, vegetal, fishy.  Then there was the smell of geese, ducks and other birds.  More enticing still, there was the smell of bird shit, which was the kind of hard salad sautéed in goose fat.”  And the dogs’ observations about humans point out some of the absurdities of human behaviour:  “it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still.  Was there something about white that brought status?  If so, what was the point of drawing black circles around their eyes or red ones around their mouths?”  Having a dog companion, I found myself agreeing that my behaviour towards her might be interpreted as condescending. 

The setting of Toronto will have added appeal for some readers, especially since actual street and place names are used.  These names are somewhat disconcerting, however:  how would the dogs know these?  I agree with a review in the National Post which suggests that the author “misses out on an opportunity to let the dogs have a stab at naming their own world” (http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/andre-alexis-fifteen-dogs-reviewed-speaking-truth-to-happiness).

The book addresses questions like “What . . . did it mean to be human?” and “what it meant – if it meant anything at all – to be a dog.”  Is human intelligence a gift or just an “occasionally useful plague”?  What is the value of human consciousness if, as one of the dog argues, humans are so limited in their perceptions?  Does awareness of one’s death hinder happiness?  What is the connection between abstract thoughts and language?

The problem is that I found that the philosophical musings often overshadowed the storyline.  The book is more like a series of anecdotes about the fate of each of the fifteen dogs.  Only Majnoun’s story and that of Prince, the dog poet, really held my interest.  And though it allows us to see the world from a different perspective, the book does not provide profound insights.  I have to read the other books on the shortlists of the Giller and Writers’ Trust awards to determine if I agree with the judges’ decisions, but I don’t see Fifteen Dogs as exceptional in quality.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 Costa Book Awards

   
One of the last literary awards of the year is the Costa Book Awards.  These awards, launched in 1971, honour the outstanding books of the year written by authors based in the UK and Ireland.  There are five categories - First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry, and Children's Book.  One of the five winning books is eventually selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year. It is the only prize which places children's books alongside adult books in this way.

The shortlists were announced this past week.  In the Fiction category, there are four books:
                A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
                The Green Road by Anne Enright
                A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
                At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

In the First Novel category, there are also four books:
                Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
                The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer
                The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
                Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh

For information about all the categories, books, and authors, check out http://www.costa.co.uk/media/364247/combined-pdfs-v2.pdf.

The category winners will be announced on January 4, 2016; the Costa Book of the Year will be named on January 26, 2016.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review of "The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson


On Tuesday of this week, the winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction was announced:  Adam Johnson for his short story collection, Fortune Smiles:  “ In six stories, Johnson delves deep into love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal. “Nirvana” portrays a programmer whose wife has a rare disease finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States. In “Hurricanes Anonymous”a young man searches for the mother of his son in a Louisiana devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” follows a former warden of a Stasi prison in East Germany who vehemently denies his past, even as pieces of it are delivered in packages to his door. And in the title story, Johnson returns to his signature subject, North Korea, depicting two defectors from Pyongyang who are trying to adapt to their new lives in Seoul, while one cannot forget the woman he left behind” (http://www.amazon.ca/Fortune-Smiles-Stories-Adam-Johnson/dp/0812997476/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448060093&sr=8-1&keywords=fortune+smiles).


I have not read this collection, but certainly plan to do so.  I have read Johnson’s Pulitizer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son.  Here’s my review of that book which I read in June of 2013.
4 Stars
This Pulitzer-Prize-winning dystopian political satire focuses on the absurdity of life in Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea. Jun Do (a Korean John Doe) begins life in an orphanage and at the dictates of the state becomes a soldier in the tunnels beneath the DMZ, a kidnapper of Japanese and South Korean citizens, a spy on a fishing boat monitoring and transcribing intercepted radio broadcasts, and a prisoner in a prison mine. Eventually he moves into the upper echelons of Pyongyang society by impersonating a military commander and there he meets Sun Moon, the Dear Leader’s favourite actress whom Jun Do falls in love.

A major theme is the importance of narrative in a totalitarian regime. Jun Do is told, “’Where we are from . . . stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change’” (121 – 122). In other words, only that which the state wants to be true is true. Several people refer to this fact of life. When the crew of a fishing trawler has its flag and portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung confiscated by American sailors, the consequences for which could be imprisonment or death, the captain asks Jun Do what they will tell the authorities: “’When they ask you what happened to our flag and portraits, what story are you going to tell them’” (63)? Later, to cover up a crew member’s defection, a farfetched story is concocted and Jun Do says, “’Sharks and guns and revenge . . . I know I thought it up, but this isn’t a story that anyone could really believe,’” but the captain says, “’You’re right . . . But it’s a story they can use’” (83). When the bizarre story is accepted by the Ministry of Information, Jun Do is astounded and blurts out, “’But the facts . . . They don’t add up.’” The state representative replies, “’There’s no such thing as facts. In my world, all the answers you need come from here.’ He pointed to himself . . .” (90). When a diplomatic mission does not go well, those involved “concoct a story to mitigate their failure” (162), a story that “’will speak to the Dear Leader [and] might save [their] lives’” (165). An interrogator for the state thinks of his job as learning a subject’s secrets and writing his/her biography: “When you have a subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state. That’s harmony, that’s the idea our nation is founded upon” (181).

There is considerable humour in the book, much of it found in the sections where the words of the state’s propaganda machine are given over the loudspeakers located so everyone can hear. North Korean citizens are told that they live in “a land so pure it knows nothing of materialist greed” (343) ruled by a man who scored eleven holes-in-one in a golf game and whose very presence leaves people feeling all “earthly worries fall away” (224). The U.S. is portrayed as “a land where doctors chase pregnant women with ultrasounds . . . where huge populations . . . babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches” (351), a nation where “Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites” (261). Humour also exists in the contrast between what actually happens and the state’s version of what happened where even birds do the bidding of the Great Leader.

Jun Do behaves consistently, is sufficiently motivated in his actions, and is largely plausible. The one difficulty is his command of the English language. He is sent to language school: “The school officials had no interest in teaching Jun Do to speak English. He simply had to transcribe it, learning vocabulary and grammar” (39). “He’d heard that the language school where they taught you to speak English was in Pyongyang and was filled with yangbans, kids of the elite” (42). He has to sound out “life raft” because “he’d barely spoken English before, it had never been part of his training” (59), yet he is soon talking with Americans with ease?

The author apparently did a great deal of research and was even able to visit the Hermit Kingdom, but it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction. (I would have appreciated a bibliography listing the materials which comprised his research.) The picture of life in North Korea, which Jun Do describes as “his small, backward homeland, a land of mysteries and ghosts and mistaken identities” (146), is surreal.  Unfortunately, the book may be more fact than fiction; certainly what little we know about the country suggests that the prevalent paranoia depicted in the novel is very real.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review of "Avenue of Mysteries" by John Irving


3.5 Stars

A middle-aged writer, Juan Diego Guerrero, is on a trip to the Philippines.  Other than having sex with a sexually voracious mother (Miriam) and daughter (Dorothy) and arguing about Catholicism with a friend/former student of his, Juan Diego spends much of his time on that trip reliving his life in memories and dreams.  “Juan Diego lived there, in the past – reliving, in his imagination, the losses that had marked him” (300) because “The past was where he lived most confidently, and with the surest sense of knowing who he was” (95).  He and his sister Lupe, the children of a prostitute, grew up in a garbage dump in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Through a circuitous route, Juan Diego eventually ended up in Iowa where he became a writer of some renown.

Like Irving’s other novels, this one is peopled with quirky characters:  a transvestite, circus performers, a mother and daughter who may not be mere mortals, Jesuit priests, a Vietnam War draft dodger, and an animated statue of the Virgin Mary.  It is Lupe who is the most interesting character; she reminds me of Owen Meany:  Owen speaks in a high-pitched shouting voice whereas Lupe speaks in such a garbled way that only her brother understands her; Owen is advanced in his intellect and self-awareness and predicts both the manner and the importance of his own death, and Lupe has the ability to read minds and predict the future to some extent, including the circumstances of her death; and both share a view that Lupe expresses when she says to her brother,  “’We’re the miraculous ones’” (428).   

At one point, Juan Diego compares writing a novel to treading water; it is “’a lot of work, but you’re basically covering old ground – you’re hanging out in familiar territory’” (300).  In this novel, Irving is very much in his home territory.  He explores his usual motifs of motifs of religion, sex, and friendship.  Sometimes, Juan Diego seems to be a stand-in for Irving; Juan Diego has written a novel in which an orphan performs abortions (like The Cider House Rules) and a circus novel set in India (like A Son of the Circus).

We’ve all hear it said that life is a highway.  Irving’s theme is that life is an avenue of mysterious miraculousness:  “The chain of events, the links in our lives – what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do – all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious” (382).   Life is full of mysteries that cannot be fully understood: “Maybe . . . the way the world worked was ‘somewhere in between’ coincidence and fate.  There were mysteries Juan Diego knew; not everything came with a scientific explanation” (334), but “These mysteries were what Juan Diego was part of” (428).  Juan Diego even admits that “’Miriam and Dorothy are just mysteries to me’” (287).  Again, there are similarities with A Prayer for Owen Meany.  At the end of Irving’s seventh novel, John Wheelright  is left with the memory of his friend and a belief that Owen and his life were a miracle; in Irving’s fourteenth novel, Juan Diego concludes, “And wasn’t Lupe herself the major miracle?  What she had known, what she had risked . . . ” (428).

Like Irving’s other novels, this one has both tragedy and comedy.  There are chapters that will have the reader laughing out loud (“Two Condoms”) and others that will have him/her both crying and cheering (“Act 5, Scene 3”).  I did find, however, that I had less interest in the middle-aged Juan Diego; I was much more fascinated by the flashbacks to his life with Lupe.

I really looked forward to reading another John Irving novel.  Unfortunately, I found the plot and characters and themes very similar to those encountered in previous of Irving’s novels.  A walk through Avenue of Mysteries felt like a walk through Irving’s earlier books.  It is not just Juan Diego who lives in the past.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Birthday Review - "Sweetland" by Michael Crummey

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, today is Margaret Atwood’s 76th birthday, but there is another Canadian poet and novelist who celebrates a landmark birthday today.  November 18, 2015 is the 50th birthday of Michael Crummey, a writer from Newfoundland.  He has written four novels:  River Thieves, The Wreckage, Galore, and Sweetland, all of which I recommend.  In honour of the author’s birthday, I’m posting my review of his most recent novel which recently appeared on the longlist of the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award.

Review of Sweetland
4 Stars
 
Seventy-year-old Moses Sweetland lives in the outport of Chance Cove on an island off the southern coast of Newfoundland. The inhabitants of this island – named for Moses’ family – have been offered a substantial financial incentive to relocate. The proviso is that everyone has to accept the offer but, not surprisingly, Moses is the last holdout. Moses’ life on the island in its waning comprises the first half of the novel: “The whole place was going under, and almost everyone it mattered to was already in the ground” (92). The second half details Moses’ solitary life after he fakes his death just before the last Sweetlanders leave.

Moses is certainly memorable. Just as I have never forgotten Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, I am unlikely to forget this character. Initially, he seems to be an old curmudgeon but gradually we discover, especially through his relationship with his great-nephew Jesse, that he is capable of great love and compassion. Through flashbacks, we learn about the events that shaped Moses’ life and come to understand the reasons for his brusque exterior.

Many of the other inhabitants also come to life as fully realized characters. Many have an eccentric trait which distinguishes them, but that does not mean they are flat characters; they prove to be complex people with both positive and negative qualities. Duke Fewer, the barber who for 20 years has never actually cut hair or shaved any man, is one example of someone who emerges as being more than first impressions suggest.

In the second part of the novel, Moses is the only living resident on Sweetland, but he has several phantoms for company. At times I found myself wondering whether Moses had actually died and was himself a spectre, especially considering the last conversation in Part I, so I kept looking for Pincher Martin clues. In that vein, the constantly incorrect weather forecasts are suspicious: “there wasn’t a single reliable detail in the announcements. As if the island had drifted into its own latitude, beyond the reach of the CBC’s meteorologists” (293).

Moses does a lot of thinking about life and death as he struggles to preserve island life from vanishing. He muses that “A life was no goddamn thing in the end . . . Bits and pieces of make-believe cobbled together to look halfways human, like some stick-and-rag doll meant to scare crows out of the garden. No goddamn thing at all” (141). Our place in the universe is like that of people set adrift in a lifeboat: “To be set adrift without warning or explanation, with nothing to say if they would ever be found. Or if anyone was even looking for them. Orphaned on an ocean that seems endless” (143). And there is no stopping change: “There was a new world being built around him. . . . The generations of instinct they’d relied on to survive here suddenly useless . . . like the VHS machines and analog televisions dumped on the slope beyond the incinerator. Relics of another time and on their way out” (277).

This novel, like all of Crummey’s books, has realistic characters confronting universal issues. Furthermore, there is the Newfoundland setting which is painted so vividly; by the time the novel comes to an end, the reader is left feeling he/she could fill in the names on a map of Sweetland.

To read this book is to indeed enter a sweet land and, like Moses, to feel “of a sudden like singing” (318).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Prepare a Gift for Margaret Atwood - 76th Birthday Tomorrow

Tomorrow, November 18, is Margaret Atwood’s 76th birthday.  Last year, in honour of her landmark 75th birthday, both CBC and BookRiot composed lists. 

The CBC’s list was entitled “75 Surprising Facts about Margaret Atwood” (http://www.cbc.ca/books/2014/11/75-surprising-facts-about-margaret-atwood.html).

BookRiot listed “75 Reasons Why Margaret Atwood is Awesome” (http://bookriot.com/2014/11/18/75-reasons-margaret-atwood-awesome/).

In preparation for her special day, I thought I’d post links to those two lists and challenge people to add a 76th reason why she is awesome. 

Here’s my contribution:  she is currently working on a revisitation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which is scheduled for release before her next birthday.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Reviews Archive - "On Canaan's Side" by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry is an Irish writer I have always admired.  Today, from my Reviews Archive, I am featuring one of his novels to which I gave my highest rating.  Sebastian Barry has appeared on the Man Booker lists three time, most recently for this book in 2011.

Review of On Canaan’s Side
5 Stars
The narrator is 89-year-old Lily Bere. Over seventeen days after the death of her grandson, she recounts the major events of her life beginning with her childhood in Ireland and continuing through her adulthood in America.

America does not prove to be Canaan, the Biblical Promised Land. America is not a place of refuge since Lily's life and the lives of her loved ones are dominated by violence. Her story includes many of the historical events of the twentieth century (war, racial tensions). These events are not detailed; the focus is on the damage they leave in their wake. Her presence in the wings of so many momentous events might seem far-fetched, but there is an emotional truth in Lily's narrative.

Lily is a character who will long remain with the reader. Her life story is full of hatred and vengefulness, but it is told by a humble, kind, non-judgmental, and compassionate woman. Her stoicism and indomitable will in the face of multiple bereavements and separations and hardships is remarkable, as is her joy in small pleasures. Lily attributes all of these qualities to Mrs. Wolohan, her long-time employer, not realizing she herself possesses them in abundance.

Obviously, this is a novel of memory and remembrance. Early in her "confession" Lily mentions that "There is no inoculation against [memory]" (83). It is this very remembering that brings her deliverance: "To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness. Because you have planted your flag on the summit of the sorrow. You have climbed it" (217).

Barry's language is wonderfully poetic. The figurative diction is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot: "The sea sat out on the beach like a thousand patients at a surgery, still, vexed, worrisome" (253) and "the sun was falling away under the table of the world, like a drinking man" (254). The book is worth a re-read just to savour the lyricism.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The First of the "Best of 2015 Books" Lists

The 2015 literary awards season is coming to an end; now it’s time for the Best Books of 2015 lists to be published.  The first has already appeared:  Amazon has released its Top 100 Books of the Year

I have read 3 of the 20 titles in the Literature/Fiction category:
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (reviewed on August 10)
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (reviewed on August 2)
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (reviewed on August 27)

From their Mysteries/Thrillers category, I’ve also read 3 of the 20 titles:
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (reviewed on October 31)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (reviewed on July 25)
The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen (reviewed on September 16)

Library Journal has also come out with its list.  Check out http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2015/11/best-of/best-books-2015-more-of-the-best/.

And Publishers Weekly just issued its list as well:  http://best-books.publishersweekly.com/pw/best-books/2015.

Look for more of these lists to be published in the next few weeks.

Friday, November 13, 2015

2016 International Dublin Literary Award Longlist

International DUBLIN Literary AwardThe 2015 literary award season is winding down, but a 2016 list has already made an appearance.  The longlist for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award (formerly the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) was announced earlier this week.   At €100,000, this is the world’s most valuable annual literary prize.
The Award, presented annually for a novel written in English or translated into English, aims to promote excellence in world literature.  Nominations are submitted by library systems in major cities throughout the world; to be eligible for the 2016 prize, books must be of high literary merit and must have been first published in English or in English translation in 2014.   

Canadians on the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award Longlist
Ten Canadian novels appear on the longlist; those titles are
Sweetland by Michael Crummey
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill
Who by Fire by Fred Stenson
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Will Starling by Ian Weir
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Libraries in Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa, Saint John, St. John’s Sydney, Toronto and Winnipeg nominated books for the 2016 award.  To see what books were nominated by which libraries, check out http://www.dublinliteraryaward.ie/libraries-2016/.

Two Canadians have won the prize in the past:  Alistair MacLeod for No Great Mischief in 2002 and Rawi Hage for De Niro’s Game in 2008.


Other Nominees
For the complete longlist and information about each book, visit http://www.dublinliteraryaward.ie/nominees/.  It looks like a great list to peruse when looking for your next read.
I have read 15 of the titles from this list.  If I have not already posted reviews of them, I will do so in the next few weeks.
                Sweetland by Michael Crummy (reviewed on November 18)
                All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (reviewed on September 22)
                The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (reviewed on October 20)
                Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (reviewed on August 22)
                Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
                The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce (reviewed on September 13)
                The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
                Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (reviewed on September 5)
                The Children Act by Ian McEwan
                Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
                Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
                All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (reviewed on July 20)
                Nora Webster by Colm Tóibin
                Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof
                The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (reviewed on November 26)
               
A shortlist, up to a maximum of ten titles, chosen by judges will be announced in April, and the winner will be announced in June.

I have only 145 more books to read!!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner

This past Tuesday, the winner of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced:  André Alexis for Fifteen Dogs.  The book is a modern-day parable about what happens when 15 dogs in a Toronto veterinary clinic are given human consciousness. 

 
The book, which also won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award last week, “begins with a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo: ‘that animals would be even more unhappy than humans are if they were given human intelligence.’ This leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings” (http://writerstrust.com/Awards/Rogers-Writers--Trust-Fiction-Prize.aspx). 

Of his novel, the Giller jury wrote "What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It's a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what's the meaning of life?" (http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/11/who-will-win-the-2015-scotiabank-giller-prize.html)

Check my blog of October 5 for brief summaries of the other four books on the shortlist.

I have not yet read this award-winner, but it has already earned its author $125,000 in award money.  I will put it on my to-read pile and hope I agree with the judges.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Books for Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day, a day to contemplate and honour the sacrifice of our veterans.  It is so important that we never forget, but perhaps the best tribute we could pay our veterans would be to abolish war.  Doing a quick perusal, I was surprised by the number of anti-war novels on Schatje’s Shelves.  Some of these have explicit anti-war messages; others convey anti-war sentiments via their portrayal of the horrors of war and its effects on people.                                                                                                                                                                                                Here are the titles of some of those books:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows the effects of the Nigerian civil war.
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard tells of a young boy's struggle to survive World War II in China.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah details the experiences of a child soldier.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian portrays life in German-occupied Italy.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières is “nearly unbearable in its portrayal of European darkness during the war.”
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne explores the horror of WWII through the eyes of the young son of a concentration camp commandant.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche is a brutally blunt account of the events that led to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephan Crane depicts the harsh realities of the American Civil War.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks has some brutal depictions of life in the trenches of WWI.
The Wars by Timothy Findley depicts the horrors of combat in WWI.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is an account of Australian POW experiences as slave labourers and emphasizes man's inhumanity to man during war.
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, set in a Croation village after the War of Independence, chronicles how war reverberates in the daily lives of those touched by it.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain has been described as the Catch-22 of the Iraq War.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is a young girl’s journal written while her family was in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier paints a desolate picture of the American Civil War and its consequences.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway depicts life in Sarajevo in 1992 during the siege of that city.
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass is considered a classic of post-World War II literature.
The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek explores the pointlessness and futility of conflict.
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi heightens the grotesqueness of life in Nazi Germany.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a satire on the insanity of war.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway examines the tenuous nature of love in a time of war.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway graphically describes the brutality of the Spanish civil war.
Hiroshima by John Hersey is an account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, set in Afghanistan, examines the effect of warfare on individuals, societies and nations.
Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally is a testament to the horrors of Hitler's attempts to eradicate Jews from Europe.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer is partly based on the author’s experiences during the Philippines Campaign in World War II.
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik examines the impact of the Liberian civil war.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra portrays life in war-torn Chechnya.
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason examines the effects of the Vietnam War.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky depicts life in France during the German Occupation.
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian examines the consequences of the Armenian genocide.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje “traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II.”
All Quiet on the Western Front by  Erich Maria Remarque explores the impact of World War I on German troops during the war and afterwards.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay offers a portrait of France under occupation.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute imagines the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Maus by Art Spiegelman is a graphic novel about living and surviving in Hitler's Europe.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron emphasizes the universality of the suffering under the Third Reich.
The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman is a Holocaust memoir which depicts the grim details of life in Warsaw under the Nazi occupation.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo is a classic anti-war novel narrated by a young American soldier injured during World War I.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which depicts the horrors of bombing directed against civilians, is considered one of the world’s great anti-war novels.
Night by Elie Wiesel details the author’s experiences in Nazi German concentration camps.
My Heart is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik explores the brutality and impact of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, set in Nazi Germany with Death as its narrator, depicts the devastating effects of war.