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Friday, July 31, 2015

Some Literary Prescriptions for Your Ailments

I recently finished reading The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, a novel originally written in German and published in 2013.  The protagonist, Jean Perdu, is a pharmacie littéraire who recommends books “to treat all the emotions for which no other remedy exists.”

It occurred to me that I already had a book on my shelves which was written to prescribe specific fiction for life’s ailments.  This book, also published in 2013, is entitled The Novel Cure:  An A-Z of Literary Remedies and was written by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. 

I did a comparison of prescriptions: 

The Little Paris Bookshop recommends Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for “pathological optimism or a sense of humour failure” or “sauna-goers with exhibitionist tendencies.”  The Novel Cure recommends the same book for those who are unable to find a cup of tea “Because your need cannot be greater than Arthur Dent’s after one particularly trying Thursday” (363).

Don Quixote is recommended “when your ideals clash with reality” (The Little Paris Bookshop) and for lethargy (The Novel Cure).

The Novel Cure prescribes Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to those suffering from obsession whereas The Little Paris Bookshop recommends that novel for vegetarians.

George Orwell’s 1984 may help those who are consumed by hatred of any type (The Novel Cure) or those who are prone to gullibility or apathy (The Little Paris Bookshop).

The Novel Cure considers Bram Stoker’s Dracula one of the best novels for those over one hundred years of age, while The Little Paris Bookshop advises it “for those susceptible to boring dreams and those who sit, paralysed , by the phone (‘Will he ever ring?’).

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy can help “those who occasionally hear imaginary voices and believe they have an animal soul mate” (The Little Paris Bookshop); The Novel Cure states, “One of the best . . . antiloneliness vaccines is Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, as well as the other two novels that make up the His Dark Materials trilogy” (223).

The Novel Cure recommends José Saramago’s Blindness for people who suffer from a fear of commitment while The Little Paris Bookshop suggests it “helps you to tackle overwork, to prioritise, and to see your purpose in life.”

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer can help one “overcome adult worries and rediscover the child within” (The Little Paris Bookshop) and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the best novels for after a nightmare (The Novel Cure).

Elizabeth van Arnim’s The Enchanted April is prescribed “for indecision and for trusting one’s friends” (The Little Paris Bookshop).  The Novel Cure advises it for certain kinds of marriages:  “If . . . you find that marriage sometimes involves a struggle to maintain your sense of self in the face of constant compromise, if your marriage is stuck in a rut, or if the passing of the years has somehow pushed you and your spouse apart rather than bring you closer, take a burst of luminous inspiration from The Enchanted April by Elizabeth van Arnim” (240 – 241).

Franz Kafka may provide “a remedy for the odd sensation of being generally misunderstood” (The Little Paris Bookshop) or help those having an identity crisis (The Novel Cure).

I guess Jean Perdu, the literary apothecary, is correct when he says that books are like medicine:  “’There are books that are suitable for a million people, others only for a hundred.  There are even medicines – sorry, books – that were written for one person only.’”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review of "The Little Paris Bookshop" by Nina George

Product Details3 1/2 Stars

I decided to read this book because it made an appearance on the Maclean’s Bestsellers list.  It could best be described as a feel-good book for book lovers.

Jean Perdu owns a bookstore on a floating barge he calls the Literary Apothecary.  He has a unique ability:   “From a single conversation, he was able to discern what each soul lacked.  To a certain degree, he could read from a body’s posture, its movements and its gestures, what was burdening or oppressing it.  And finally, he had what his father had called transperception.  ‘You can see and hear through most people’s camouflage.  And behind it you see all the things they worry and dream about, and the things they lack.’”  Jean has made it his goal “to treat all the emotions for which no other remedy exists.”  Unfortunately, he is unable to diagnose and cure himself.  Jean was abandoned by Manon, the love of his life, 21 years earlier.  Manon had sent him a letter after she left, but he refused to read it.  Finally he is persuaded to open it.  The letter’s message has him unmooring the barge and setting off on a trip from Paris to southern France, picking up some passengers along the way. 

Of course, Jean’s trip is not just a physical one by water and road; his is a journey of the soul.  He has to discover what his soul has been lacking.  As his name clearly suggests, he is a lost man; he admits, “I miss myself.  I no longer know who I am.”  After Manon’s departure he put his life on hold; he describes himself as staying “in the background, a small figure in a painting, while life was played out in the foreground.”   Now he has to learn to live (and love) again.

I had some difficulty with the characterization of Jean.  It’s difficult to believe that he is 50 years old and that for 21 years he has lived as he has.  In his apartment, he boarded up one room which he hasn’t entered in two decades, and “he owned next to no furniture apart from a bed, a chair and a clothes rail – no knick-knacks, no music, no picture or photo albums . . . The two rooms he still occupied were so empty that they echoed when he coughed.”  Jean is an avid reader who tells a customer that “’Books keep stupidity at bay,’” but it takes him almost half his lifetime to say, “I’m scared I’ve done something terribly stupid”?  He is so intuitive about others but he has no self-perception whatsoever?  I found it difficult to identify with the protagonist and I had a similar problem with the other characters who are all very quirky. 

The story reads like a quest myth; Jean goes through virtually all the stages of the hero quest myth as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Jean, the “peculiar” man who doesn’t quite fit into the ordinary world, sets out on an adventure, though like all heroes he is reluctant to accept the call:  “It was as though for the last twenty-one years his life had been leading up to this precise moment when it became clear to him what he had to do, what he should have done from the start.”  He sets out with trepidation, realizing only gradually that he has let fear rule his life.  He enters a new world with breathtaking sights; Jean describes himself as feeling “overrun by hyperintensive perceptions he had never experienced in the city.”  This world has dangers too; Jean and his passengers, for example, have to flee from a “frenzied mob of men.”  Every hero needs allies and Jean’s passengers, especially Jordan and Cuneo, serve as his helpers.  Jordan gives Jean a piece of paper at a crucial time; that slip of paper serves almost like a talisman which helps Jean through a crucial stage of his journey.  Others pass on their wisdom; Cuneo, for example, teaches Jean his worldview.  Eventually Jean must face his greatest fear; after considerable time, Jean decides, “Now he could go to Bonnieux and complete this stage.”  Eventually the hero is successful:  “Then, at last, Jean Perdu understood.”  By growing in spirit and understanding, he has proven himself worthy of his new life which is outlined in the Epilogue.  Success on a hero’s quest is often life-changing for others, and that is certainly true for all of Jean’s passengers.

I loved some of the comments about books and reading:  “Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you’ve got those autumn blues.  And some . . . well, some are pink candy floss that tingles in your brain for three seconds and leaves a blissful void” and “’what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry’” and “’Books keep stupidity at bay.  And vain hopes.  And vain men’” and “Reading – an endless journey; a long, indeed never-ending journey that made one more temperate as well as more loving and kind.”  Of course, the most important statement is one made by Jean towards the end: “’Books can do many things, but not everything.  We have to live the important things, not read them.  I have to . . . experience my book.’”

This book is good medicine for a languid summer day.  It offers the requisite romance, great wine and food, a boat ride, a car trip, hikes in the mountains, and time at the beach.  The novel provides
 some food for thought, but it’s not a heavy meal – a summer picnic perhaps.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

New Short Stories by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson came to mind the other day when I watched a movie, The Stoning of Soraya M., based on the true story of an innocent Iranian woman who was stoned to death.  Scenes in that film reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s famous story, “The Lottery.”

Then I came across a review of a new book of Shirley Jackson’s writings: Me Tell You features both fiction and non-fiction writing, but 22 of the 30 short stories included have never been previously published.  The book becomes available on August 4.

Let Me Tell You:  New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings
By Shirley Jackson
Edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt
Foreword by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin
Published by Random House

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review of Today's New Release: "Broken Promise" by Linwood Barclay

Product Details

2.5 Stars

I wish I had been forewarned that this book is really part of a series.  There are repeated references to an earlier book, Never Look Away, which I have not read.  Then it turns out that this latest book has an indefinite ending; readers will have to read Barclay’s next book, Far From True, which is scheduled for release in March of 2016, to find explanations for many of the mysterious events in Broken Promise.

David Harwood has brought his son to Promise Falls, NY; the two have moved in with David’s parents while he tries to find work.  He discovers that his cousin Marla is caring for a baby boy only to learn that the mother of that infant has just been murdered.  As the police, led by Detective Duckworth, investigate, David tries to prove his cousin innocent of murder and kidnapping.  At the same time there are other mysterious goings-on (animal killings, threatening warnings).

The main story involving Marla and the murder of Rosemary Gaynor is predictable.  From virtually the beginning, I had figured out the broad outlines of that plot.  Everything is just too obvious, and there are too many coincidences and unbelievable occurrences.  For example, both the medical examiner and the lead detective had to have been away during an earlier unsolved murder case, yet the father of that victim is friends with David’s father.  Would a nursing home hire an illegal immigrant?  A woman accuses a man of having sex with her “right there in the kitchen” when she is the one who had insisted the act be done in the kitchen, “’Right here’”? 

The ending is disappointing.  It’s as annoying as a then-he-woke-up-and-discovered-it-was-all-a-dream ending, except that this one is clearly intended to encourage purchase of the next novel.  Though the sequel will have to be read to find out the complete explanation, this book’s ending suggests that the solution to a case will be another coincidence.  I actually found the #23 subplots to be the most intriguing, but they are left unresolved. 

Characterization is also weak.  David is a bland, insipid person so it is difficult to care about him.  Everyone else in the town has deep, dark secrets.  One man replies, “’Don’t be so sure’” when he is told, “’You’re a good man.”  And what about this loaded conversation a man has at the grave of his murdered daughter:  “’Whoever did this to you, he didn’t just take you away from me.  He killed your mother, too.  It just took longer where she was concerned.  It was a broken heart that caused her cancer.  I know it.  And I guess, if a broken heart can kill ya, he’ll get me eventually too.  Of course, it wasn’t just him that broke my heart.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.  Truth is, I’m guessing it won’t be all that long before I’m joining you.’”  Certainly, the altercation David’s son has at school seems an obvious setup to introduce another character with a checkered past and difficult present. 

Many people rave about Barclay’s novels, so I was anxious to read one.  Unfortunately, it left me feeling let down, as if I were the victim of a broken promise.  The book is a fast, easy read, but it also lacks substance.  There are too many characters so none are developed fully, and there are too many subplots, so there is a lack of focus.  Then the final three sentences are so melodramatic that I am not left anticipating the sequel. 

Note:  I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Monday, July 27, 2015

3 Upcoming Canadian (Series) Mysteries

Canada has some great mystery writers.  Here are three who are adding books to their series:
The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny (to be released Aug. 25) is the 11th book in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series.
Over the River by Howard Engel (to be released October 15) is the 15th Benny Cooperman mystery.
The Princeling of Nanjing by Ian Hamilton (to be released December 31) is the 9th Ava Lee mystery.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Reviews Archive: "Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul" by David Adams Richards - A Must-Read for All Canadians

5 Stars

On a Mi'Kmaq reserve on the Miramichi, in 1985, seventeen-year-old Hector Penniac is killed while helping load pulpwood into the hull of a ship. Although there is no physical evidence indicating his guilt, blame soon falls on Roger Savage, a white man who lives on the border of the reserve.

Amos Paul, the 75-year-old chief, fears that Savage is being scapegoated by being seen as the incarnation of centuries of wrongs committed by whites. The chief, the voice of reason, strives for truth and peace, but many of the younger people view Amos' conciliatory approach as obsolete and favour a more confrontational style which demands immediate retribution. They attempt to remove Savage from his home; the crisis gathers force, and tragedy ensues.

Twenty years later, the chief's grandson, Markus Paul, who is an RCMP officer, sets out to unravel the mystery of Hector's death and to answer some questions surrounding subsequent events on the reserve. On the one hand, therefore, the book can be read as a mystery, but it is much, much more than that.

The author scours the community and examines the motives of everyone affected by Hector's death. No one escapes unscathed. Corruption and weakness are exposed everywhere. Markus observes, "Yes . . . we all have one [cheatin' heart]" (267).

One theme is people's "willingness to forego a certain integrity in order to belong to a group" (49). Chief Amos, the moral centre of the novel, explains people's behaviour with an analogy: "'There is always a big hidden giant in the room, and this giant attaches itself to people in a crowd, and moves them in one direction or another. Those who do not join this giant are outcast, and sometimes will get stepped on by great big feet. Those who join the giant have the benefit of puffing themselves up and acting like one, and sometimes do the stepping - until their friends leave and then they just get smaller and smaller. And sometimes after it is all over, they simply disappear'" (105). These words prove to be prophetic: many people, including the journalist Max Doran who covers the crisis, fall prey to this giant.

The author examines the lingering consequences of Canada's mistreatment of aboriginal people, and there is no doubt of his sympathy for First Nations people. However, he bravely suggests, as Rayyan Al-Shawaf summarized in The Globe and Mail, that "Legitimate historical grievances cannot justify the pernicious notion of inherited guilt. . . . attempting to redress sins of the past sometimes leads to victimizing innocent descendants of the sinners."

This is a book that all Canadians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, should read.

(from July 2010)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

3 More "Gone Girl" Read-a-Likes? Reviews of "Luckiest Girl Alive" by Jessica Knoll, "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins, and "Pretty Baby" by Mary Kubica

I read this great article in The Globe and Mail about how publishers have been comparing books to Gone Girl in order to encourage sales: (And I didn’t like the article just because one of its authors, Nathalie Atkinson, was a former student.)

This phenomenon is so true: within the last two months, I have read three books which have been compared to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster:  Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica; Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll; and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.  Here are my reviews of these three.  My conclusion is that Pretty Baby (to be released on July 28) is the best.

Review of Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
I read this book because Maclean’s described it as “smart, sexy, and sharp . . . with more than a bit of heart and hope to it.” I found, however, that it had little of these qualities.
2 Stars

TifAni FaNelli is a very status-conscious writer for a glossy women’s magazine. Not yet 30, she seems to have everything, including a privileged lifestyle with a rich, trophy husband-to-be. Beneath the surface, however, is a person damaged by events when she was a freshman in an elite private high school. A documentary being filmed brings what happened to her to the forefront.

The narrative alternates between past and present. Ani’s life in the present is interspersed with flashbacks to her past, and gradually the reader learns what made her the person she is.

And she is not a likeable person. She is so superficial, judging everyone based on appearance: are they wearing the appropriate designer clothes and do they have a sufficiently thin body? She is judgmental and hypocritical: she has clawed her way up the social ladder but she sneers at her mother’s attempts to do the same. As the truth of what happened to her is revealed, the reader is to have more sympathy for her and to realize that her personality is a façade she has “meticulously crafted” in order to survive. Perhaps I am as cold-hearted as Ani, but I just didn’t find myself empathizing as much as the author probably hoped readers would.

TifAni was gullible and shallow as a teenager, and she hasn’t matured. What happened to her was certainly traumatic, but she has learned little. She has had over a decade to reflect on what happened and why, yet she has realized nothing? In the end, she makes some decisions which are supposed to indicate a positive change, but I found myself unconvinced. For a character change to be convincing, the character must be capable of change. Ani’s attitude and behaviour are so entrenched that she seems incapable of change.

The author creates suspense by hiding what happened to TifAni. This works to a certain extent. The problem is that once the reader learns what happened – well before the end of the book – interest lags.

This is another of those books, like The Girl on the Train, which makes for a nice light read on summer vacation but does not stand up well when examined critically.

Review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
3 Stars

Anyone looking for a light summer read for the beach or hammock might want to consider this psychological thriller. It is not great literature but provides sufficient interest to help one while away a few hours.

Rachel is a thirtysomething heavy drinker who commutes daily into the city. As she travels the train, she watches the houses in the neighbourhood where she lived with her ex-husband. She takes an especial interest in Megan and her husband Scott who seem to have the perfect relationship. One day, however, Rachel witnesses something unusual, and then she reads that Megan has disappeared. Rachel feels she has information which could be useful to the police, but they dismiss her as an unreliable witness because of her drinking and erratic behaviour. About the night of Megan’s disappearance, Rachel had an alcoholic blackout though she knows she was in the vicinity of Megan’s home. Rachel tries to recover her memory of that night and insinuates herself into the lives of those who might have some knowledge of Megan’s fate.

The mystery is narrated from the perspective of three women: Rachel (the witness), Megan (the victim), and Anna (the wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom and neighbour of Megan). These points of view provide useful information and interesting backstories which aid in character development, but they also create suspense by introducing a number of possible suspects.

Obviously, all is not as it initially seems. Rachel thinks Megan and Scott are the perfect couple. But are appearances deceiving? Anna and Tom seem happily married, though Rachel’s harassing phone calls do put a strain on their relationship. But is it only Rachel that makes trouble? What emerges are characters who are flawed and have secrets.

I admired the characterization of Rachel. She is not a protagonist who is easy to like. She is weak, self-pitying, and spiteful. While under the influence of alcohol, she behaves irrationally. She lies. Despite Rachel’s many lapses however, the reader still comes to sympathize with her situation. There are times when I found myself totally frustrated with her, but I nevertheless hoped all would work out for her.

Like much escapist literature, this novel is flawed. For example, motivation for behaviour is often unrealistic, so the psychology in this psychological thriller is suspect. But like summer cinematic blockbusters, it is entertaining. It does not stand up to careful scrutiny and literary analysis but is a fast read appropriate for a vacation.

Review of Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica
4 Stars

This is a great psychological thriller – one that will keep many people up late as they find themselves unable to stop reading.

Heidi Wood brings home Willow, a homeless teen, and Ruby, her infant daughter. Despite the objections of her husband Chris and her daughter Zoe, Heidi finds herself more and more drawn into the care of the two. We can guess from the beginning that things will not end well.

There are three narrators – Heidi, Chris, and Willow – who take turns giving their perspective. This narrative technique works well in that we learn what motivates each character. We also see how the behaviour of one person can be (mis)interpreted by another, the incident with the condom being a good example. But then it becomes clear that the reliability of all narrators can be questioned because of their being blind to what is going on, refusing to be truthful about motives, or keeping secrets.

There is a great deal of suspense. Much of the suspense is created by the mystery surrounding Willow because of her unwillingness to talk about her life. What is her story? Can she be trusted? Willow and Ruby may have been in danger on the streets, but does Heidi put her family in danger by bringing Willow home? And then there are the secrets that virtually all the characters have: Zoe barely talks to her parents, Heidi and Chris are not totally open with each other, and Willow is unwilling to tell her story to the family that has given shelter to her and Ruby.

Characters are well developed. All are flawed but the reader will sympathize with all of them because the author succeeded in humanizing them all. Even behaviour that might initially seem bizarre is made understandable because sufficient background has been provided. I especially liked the use of foil characters; Heidi and Chris serve as distinct contrasts to each other. Heidi is “driven by feelings and emotions” while Chris is left-brained and logical.

There are several twists as the plot unfolds. I guessed the truth about Willow and Ruby and what would happen to the Wood family because there are many clues to the truth, but that did not mean my interest waned.

Reviewers have compared this book to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, but I found Pretty Baby to be more psychologically plausible than both of these. I predict it will be the next thriller blockbuster.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Friday, July 24, 2015

First Harper Lee and Now Dr. Seuss

First there was Harper Lee’s discovered manuscript of Go Set a Watchman and now there’s a new Dr. Seuss book:  Both were written over 50 years ago.  Over 1.1 million copies of Lee’s book were sold in the first week, and the publisher of What Pet Should I Get? is having a first print run of 1 million copies.

Readers always want more of their favourite authors!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review of "Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf

Product Details

4 Stars

Why is it I have not read any other novels by this writer?!  This was a delightful read. 

Addie Moore and Louis Waters are both widowed septuagenarians, neighbours in Holt, Colorado.  One day, Addie approaches Louis with a proposal:  “I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me.  And talk.”  Louis agrees; he too misses the companionship and comfort of a partner.  As nights pass, the two get to know each other by speaking of their lives:  meeting their spouses, the joys and sorrows of their marriages, hopes and dreams, successes and failures in their lives.  All is well until people start to talk and Louis’s daughter and Addie’s son object to the arrangement. 

This short novel takes ordinary events and makes them seem extraordinary.  The two agree “to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.”  They take pleasure in the little things; Addie says, “I love this physical life with you.  And the air and the country.  The backyard, the gravel in the back alley.  The grass.  The cool nights.  Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.”  The book suggests that happiness can be found when one focuses on what really matters, and what really matters is often the simple things in life.

The novel also examines how people often sacrifice happiness for family.  Louis speaks of wanting to be a poet but “I started teaching and [my daughter] came along and I got busy.  I went to work in the summers painting houses.  We needed the money.  Or at least I thought we did.”  Now Gene, Addie’s son, wants his mother to stop seeing Louis; he even tells Louis, “I want you to stay away from my mother.  To leave my son alone.  And forget about my mother’s money.”  And Holly, Louis’s daughter, says the relationship “just seems embarrassing.”  Must Addie stop seeing Louis so Gene will be happy and she can see her grandson?  Allie says she doesn’t care about what people will say, “I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think” and Louis agrees, “I don’t give a damn.”  But opinion of family matters more than that of townspeople.

The style of this book is part of its charm.  Simple words and simple sentences are used throughout, yet that simple, spare prose creates a complex story.  The words chosen are perfect.  For example, the second sentence of the novel is “It was an evening in May just before full dark.”  That sentence doesn’t just establish setting; it suggests the subject of the novel – new love in the twilight years. 

There is not a lot of explanation.  Most scenes are graceful vignettes, and one is followed by another without elaboration.  There is no direct characterization; we learn everything about the characters from their words and actions, not from what the narrator tells us.  For example, we learn so much about Louis from the way he interacts with Jamie, Addie’s grandson.

This is a short novella telling a tender tale.   It is written in a delicate, eloquent style, but its simplicity does not mean that the book is facile.  I will definitely be checking out Haruf’s other books, especially the Plainsong series.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

When is a Trilogy NOT a Trilogy?

I loved the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; The Girl who Played with Fire; The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest).  Now apparently the trilogy will be continued.  Another Swedish writer, David Lagercrantz, has been hired to continue the series.  The Girl in the Spider's Web is scheduled for release in North America on Sept. 1, 2015.  The British newspaper, The Guardian, had an interesting article concerning this upcoming publication: 

Will this sequel be as good as its precursors?  Should series even be continued by other writers after the death of an author?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review of "Popchuck's Ghost" by Paul Toffanello

Product Details

3.5 Stars 

I must begin by stating that I am no expert on Teen Fiction.   I am considerably older than the intended audience of 10 – 15-year-olds, and I have no memory of ever liking ghost stories, so I am not the best reviewer of this book.  I read it because it was written by a friend and former colleague.  With those provisos, here’s my review:

Twelve-year-old Neil Wybred  arrives at summer camp with his best friend Adam.  The week  has the usual fun activities, but Neil is soon pre-occupied with other things:  why are odd things happening in Cabin 5, why are his athletic feats strangely sabotaged, and who is that “old geezer . . . [who] was wearing old, raggedy clothing and had long scraggly hair and a beard” (15) whom no one else seems to see?  Neil and Adam and their friend Ally discover secret tunnels which seem to have some connection to the strange happenings at Camp McAbre.  But the trio must investigate while avoiding the watchful eyes of the camp director, Charles Atrom.

The book opens with sufficient suspense to catch the reader’s interest.  The opening mentions a “lonesome figure” (5) waiting at the camp, and the first chapter ends with Neil’s brother warning him, “’Make sure you don’t get stuck in Cabin 5.  Seriously’” (8).  Within the first ten pages, Neil twice spies a mysterious figure who just seems to evaporate.  From there, the plot moves at a quick pace.

Neil and Adam are clearly differentiated:   Neil is the brave one whereas Adam is his foil, being constantly nervous and fearful.  Unfortunately, they do not emerge as fully round characters.  The other cabin-mates and campers remain largely opaque, though the touches of humour added by the Chung brothers are welcome.  The inclusion of Ally is a nice touch, extending the appeal of the book to girls, especially when it is mentioned that “both boys had not-so-secret crushes on Ally” (7).

There are some unanswered questions which are problematic for me.  Why is Neil the camper chosen by the ghost to be his “contact”?  Neil first sees the eerie apparition staring at him when he’s on the bus enroute to the camp so how can the ghost know that Neil is curious and courageous, the two traits he needs to have?  Why can another person “neither see nor hear Arnold Popchuck” (175) even though that person is of especial interest to him?

And there are some other events that indicate plot weaknesses.  Adam claims to win a race because he was so angry at Neil, yet there is nothing in the earlier conversation between the boys that indicates Adam was so upset.  Later the three sleuths are told by the camp director to report to the campfire after their walk (111), yet they return directly to the cabin (118) and risk Mr. Atrom’s wrath?  Ally does something in the tunnel for which no explanation is given (136); her action becomes important later so a logical motive should be provided.  Why is everyone struck silent by the ghost when one of the group cannot see or hear the ghost (175)? 

The book should appeal to young teens and might be especially useful for reluctant middle-grade readers.  The plot does not drag, and there is a lot of dialogue and no unnecessary lengthy description that might be a turn-off.  There is considerable suspense so interest should not lag.  My only reservation is those unanswered questions and plot inconsistencies, but perhaps they would not be noticed by young readers?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review of "All My Puny Sorrows" by Miriam Toews

4 Stars

This book has been on my to-read pile for quite a long time.  I resisted reading it because of its sad and serious subject matter.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I am not sorry I did.  Though emotionally raw at times, it also has wonderful comic moments, and in its examination of suicidal depression and its effects on the family of those afflicted, it is amazing.

The novel focuses on Yolandi (Yoli) and Elfrieda (Elf), two sisters.  Yoli is the narrator; her conflict is trying to determine how to help her older sister who has repeatedly attempted suicide.  She desperately wants her sister to live though she knows that her sister wants, just as desperately, to die.  The book is an examination of the many emotions Yoli experiences:  sorrow, confusion, guilt, anger, fear, and frustration. 

One of the things Yoli tries to understand is why Elf cannot be happy since her life is seemingly perfect:  she is beautiful, she is beloved by many, she has financial security, and she even has world-wide acclaim because of her talent as a pianist.  She asks why Elf suffers from such fathomless sadness:  “Did Elf have a terminal illness?  Was she cursed genetically from day one to want to die?  Was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile, every song, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist-pump and triumph, just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and oblivion” (90 – 91)? 

Ironically, it is Yoli whose life is more of a failure: “Listen! I want to shout at her.  If anyone’s gonna kill themselves it should be me.  I’m a terrible mother for leaving my kids’ father and other father.  I’m a terrible wife for sleeping with another man.  Men.  I’m floundering in a dying non-career” (111).  Yet she continues to muddle through. 

What comes across very clearly is the author’s unwillingness to pass judgment.  Yoli cannot always understand her sister’s depression, but she does not blame her for feeling as world weary as she does:  “She doesn’t need forgiving” (40).    All that the author has is compassion for those suffering with mental illness, a compassion missing from society.  Toews knows that mental illness gives one invisibility:  “they think I’m insane so they look away which is the same as being invisible” (94). 

Toews, however, is less willing to be non-judgmental with mental-health-care providers:  “Imagine a psychiatrist sitting down with a broken human being saying, I am here for you, I am committed to your care, I want to make you feel better, I want to return your joy to you, I don’t know how I will do it but I will find out and then I will apply one hundred percent of my abilities, my training, my compassion and my curiosity to your health – to your well-being, to your joy.  I am here for you and I will work very hard to help you.  I promise.  If I fail it will be my failure, not yours.  I am the professional.  I am the expert.  You are experiencing great pain right now and it is my job and my mission to cure you from your pain.  I am absolutely committed to your care. . . . I know you’re suffering.  I know you are afraid.  I love you.  I want to cure you and I won’t stop trying to help you.  You are my patient.  I am your doctor.  You are my patient” (176).  Likewise, she has no difficulty pointing a finger at the “usual squad of perpetual [Mennonite] disapprovers” (251).  She says to the “Mennonite men in church with tight collars and bulging necks”:  “You can’t go around terrorizing people and making them feel small and shitty and then call them evil when they destroy themselves” (181).

Characterization is outstanding.  A reader may not have experience with the type of depression from which Elf suffers, but he/she will have no difficulty having compassion for her.  Because of the flashbacks to Elf’s earlier life, we see her as a real human being.  We see the contrast between the defiant and irrepressible free spirit Elf was and the emaciated woman who takes refuge in silence.  Her passing can be seen only as a tragedy.

What surprised me in the book is the humour.  There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny.  During a memorial service, a toddler manages to open the urn and begins putting the ashes of the deceased in his mouth.  The toddler’s mother just continues with her story, and Yoli concludes, “I learned . . . that just because someone is eating the ashes of your protagonist doesn’t mean you stop telling the story” (254).

I loved the style of the book.  On the one hand, it is very erudite with its many literary and pop culture allusions, but it is also “playful, good with details and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating” (243). 

The book offers no definitive answer to how to live life with its joy and its real and puny sorrows.  Perhaps a suggestion can be found in a wonderful analogy included:   Yoli is writing a novel about a harbourmaster who ends up “not being able to get off this ship and not being at all prepared for a journey” (190).  We all try to navigate through life the best we can even though we are often unprepared for the voyage.  Sometimes may have “to go back and retrace our steps in the dark which I suppose is the meaning of life” (316).  Or maybe life “should just move really fast, like pedal to the metal, so it doesn’t get boring. . . . You want to go in, get the job done, and get out.  Like . . . septic tank cleaning” (200). 

This book won the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and appeared on year-end best-book lists in Canada, the U.S., and England.  I do not understand why it didn’t win the Scotiabank Giller Prize for which it was shortlisted because it far surpasses the chosen winner.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

3 Upcoming Releases I'm Anxious to Read

Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last (Sept. 29)
Several years after the world's brutal economic collapse, Stan and Charmaine, a married couple struggling to stay afloat, hear about the Positron Project in the town of Consilience, an experiment in cooperative living that appears to be the answer to their problems - to living in their car, to the lousy jobs, to the vandalism and the gangs, to their piled-up debt. There's just one drawback: once inside Consilience, you don't get out. After weighing their limited options, Stan and Charmaine sign up, and soon they find themselves involved in the town's strategy for economic stability: a pervasive prison system, whereby each citizen lives a double life, as a prisoner one month, and a guard or town functionary the next. At first, Stan and Charmaine enjoy their newfound prosperity. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who shares her civilian house, her actions set off an unexpected chain of events that leave Stan running for his life.

Robert Galbraith's Career of Evil - the third Cormoran Strike novel written by J. K. Rowling  (Oct. 20)
When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman's severed leg.  Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible--and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality.  With the police focusing on the one suspect Strike is increasingly sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands, and delve into the dark and twisted worlds of the other three men. But as more horrendous acts occur, time is running out for the two of them.

Jussi-Adler Olsen's The Hanging Girl - the sixth Department Q mystery  (Sept. 8)
Carl Mørck, head of Department Q, receives a call from a colleague working on the Danish island of Bornholm. Carl is dismissive when he realizes that a new case is being foisted on him, but a few hours later, he receives some shocking news that leaves his headstrong assistant Rose more furious than usual. Carl has no choice but to lead Department Q into the tragic cold case of a vivacious seventeen-year-old girl who vanished from school, only to be found dead hanging high up in a tree. The investigation will take them from the remote island of Bornholm to a strange sun worshipping cult, where Carl, Assad, Rose, and newcomer Gordon attempt to stop a string of new murders and a skilled manipulator who refuses to let anything—or anyone—get in the way.

(All descriptions from

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Reviews Archive: "The Orenda" by Joseph Boyden - A Must-Read for All Canadians

5 Stars

To say that The Orenda is a compelling read would be an understatement. Reading Boyden’s latest novel was for me an intense experience which I think will haunt me for a long while. It is not an easy, comfortable read; it is, in fact, provocative, demanding that we examine our history with an unflinching eye: “What’s happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always just a breath away” (487).

This historical epic is set in the mid-1600s in Huronia at a time when the Hurons and the Iroquois are involved in skirmishes just as the Jesuits arrive and begin their conversion campaign. A member of each of these three groups serves as a narrator: Bird is the warrior leader of the Wendat (Huron) nation; Snow Falls is a young Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl whom Bird captures and adopts in retaliation for the Iroquois killing his wife and daughters; and Christophe is a priest, whom the Hurons call Crow, who has come to convert the “sauvages” to Catholicism.

One of the aspects of the novel that is impressive is the characterization. All of the main characters emerge as complex characters with both negative and positive traits. Bird is fierce and vengeful, but also capable of great love; Snow Falls is self-centred and vindictive but possesses an admirable feistiness. Christophe is narrow-minded, but his dedication is unquestionable. Furthermore, each character grows and develops. Bird acknowledges how his actions led to an escalation of violence: “I acted without thinking about what I was doing for the long term (111).” Snow Falls initially thwarts all attempts to integrate her into her adoptive family and accept Bird as a father, but she comes to realize that Bird and her father are similar: “My adopted father, Bird. Is he like you once were, my real one? I remember you were considered great by our people. I remember you were loved very much. You were like Bird, were you not” (198)? The priest feels racially superior, but comes to see the Hurons as “more generous and even gentle than any I’ve ever had the pleasure to know” (459). These three fully developed and dynamic characters demonstrate Boyden’s skill, but what is also exceptional is that even the minor characters (e.g. Fox, Gosling, Gabriel) are nuanced individuals.

What is also impressive is Boyden’s unwillingness to blame. Each of the three parts of the novel has a prologue spoken by a chorus of First Nations voices. The first begins with an admonition: “It’s tempting to place blame, though loss should never be weighed in this manner” (3). The role of the priests in the decimation of native culture is not diminished, but the second prologue cautions, “It’s unfair, though, to blame only the crows, yes? It’s our obligation to accept our responsibility in the whole affair” (153).

One cannot help but admire the writer’s balanced depiction. Christophe represents the ignorant Europeans who bring diseases that have a devastating impact on the aboriginal peoples, but he proves to be a man of compassion and courage. The Jesuits attack native beliefs, but are pawns as well; Christophe, for example, wrestles “with the grave worry that our work is being exploited by those who wish not for the souls of the sauvages but for the riches of the land, and that they are using us as the tip of the spear for their earthly gains” (141). The Iroquois are feared for their brutality, but after ritually torturing two Iroquois captives, Bird states, “’These two are the bravest men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting’” (276). The Iroquois torture captives mercilessly, but the Hurons are equally cruel in their “caressing.” And then their savagery is contrasted with their unstinting generosity; Bird describes a feast he hosts: “As is the custom, I refuse the food but instead make sure everyone has everything they desire” even though, by giving away all of his food, he knows, “Tomorrow, I will have nothing” (380 – 381).

It is obvious that Boyden did considerable research for the writing of this book. His depiction of daily life among the Hurons is detailed. The Feast of the Dead (79 – 84) and the significance of wampum belts (107 – 108) are meticulously described. The importance of community needs over those of the individual is emphasized (73, 291, 406). The native belief in the orenda is explained: “all have within us a life force . . . [called] the orenda. . . . not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground” (31). Christianity’s belief that “’everything in the world was put here for man’s benefit . . . and that all the animals are born to serve him'” is contrasted with the native belief that “’humans are the only ones in this world that need everything within it. . . . But there is nothing in this world that needs us for its survival. We aren’t the masters of the earth. We’re the servants’” (163).

Despite the cultural differences shown to exist, the novel’s focus is on commonalities. Over and over again, characters emphasize similarities among people. Bird admits that his behaviour is no different than that of the Iroquois (105); Snow Falls admits that Bird and her father are so much alike (134); an Iroquois leader tells Bird, “’We’re not so different . . . And our nations aren’t so different’” (252); Christophe admits that the native torture rituals are not much different than the Spanish Inquisition, the church’s burning of witches, and the Crusades (256); and Bird tells a priest, “’Sometimes our differences aren’t so many’” (407). And is there much difference between a man singing a death chant as he prepares for death and another man singing a hymn as he does so?

The novel is a masterpiece. There are scenes of horrific torture that are difficult to read, but they are Boyden’s way of not ignoring any aspect of the past. He seems determined to want us to face the full truth of our complex history. No one emerges innocent, yet everyone is given dignity. This is a book that all Canadians should read.

(from September 2013)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review of "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee

3.5 Stars

Many people have been asking whether they should read this book.  Some fear having their image of Atticus Finch tarnished and some are concerned about the circumstances surrounding the book’s publication.  I suggest that people read it but with an appropriate mindset.

DO NOT read this as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Superficially it might seem to be one; after all, Jean-Louise is twenty years older when she goes to visit her 72-year-old father Atticus in Maycomb.  We learn what has happened to some of the characters encountered in TKAM:  Jem, Dill, Calpurnia.  And, yes, it is a type of coming-of-age novel, like TKAM.  This time Jean-Louise learns that her father has flaws:  “[She had] confused [Atticus] with God.  [She had] never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings” (265). She also learns that she has to let her own conscience guide her; at first she declares, “I need a watchman to lead me around” (181) not realizing until later that her conscience, not some other person like her father, must be her guide because “’Every man’s island, . . . every man’s watchman, is his conscience’” (265).

DO read the book as “the parent” of TKAM, which is supposedly what Lee called it.  GSAW was written before the book that has become so beloved by so many.   Parts of GSAW appear verbatim in TKAM:  “Instead, Maycomb grew and sprawled out from its hub, Sinkfield’s Tavern, because Sinkfield . . .  induced [the surveyors] to bring forward their maps and charts, lop off a little here, add a bit there, and adjust the center of the county to meet his requirements.  He sent them packing the next day armed with their charts and five quarts of shinny in their saddlebags – two apiece and one for the Governor” (43 GSAW; 133 TKAM).  At other times, minor wording changes are made.  “when the time came for John Hale Finch to choose a profession, he chose medicine.  He chose to study it at a time when cotton was one cent a pound . . . Atticus . . . spent and borrowed every nickel he could find to put on his brother’s education” (89 GSAW) becomes “he invested his earnings in his brother’s education.  John Hale Finch . . . chose to study medicine at a time when cotton was worth nothing” (9 TKAM).  Certain events are obvious parallels:  Aunt Alexandra hosts a Coffee to welcome her niece in GSAW whereas in TKAM she hosts the Missionary Society; in GSAW, Jean-Louise observes her father at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council from “her old place in the corner of the front row [of the Colored balcony], where she and her brother had sat when they went to court to watch their father” (105).

The Tom Robinson trial figures prominently in TKAM but it is mentioned only briefly in GSAW and with a major change.  In the precursor novel, Jean-Louise mentions, “he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge” (109); in TKAM, Atticus has only a moral victory.  There are other interesting deviations; for example, in GSAW, when Scout is twelve she wonders, “Would Jem cry?  If so, it would be the first time” (135) whilst TKAM has Jem crying after the guilty verdict at Tom Robinson’s trial:  “It was Jem’s turn to cry” (214).

I would add that, like Atticus, GSAW is a flawed parent.  The first one hundred pages meander:  Jean-Louise returns home and visits with Aunt Alexandra, Atticus, and Henry Clinton, her wannabe husband.   It is only with Jean-Louise’s discovery of her father’s reading of a pamphlet entitled The Black Plague (101) that the novel seems to find its focus.  Even then, in terms of plot, very little happens:  there are a lot of long conversations especially between Jean-Louise and her uncle and her father.  Certainly in terms of plotting, GSAW is weak.  In these conversations, much may be beyond the understanding of readers.  Uncle Jack launches into a long history lesson about Southern racial history; realistic dialogue it is not.  And Atticus and his daughter argue about the Tenth Amendment and a Supreme Court decision, though neither is ever explained; only someone versed in states’ rights and the Brown vs Brown ruling will be able to make sense of that discussion, even though it is part of a climactic scene.

That is not to say that GSAW does not have strengths.  A twenty-six-year-old Scout is exactly as readers of TKAM would expect her to be.  She refuses to submit to conventional expectations of women so she and Aunt Alexandra continue to butt heads.  The flashbacks to Scout’s adolescence are wonderful, probably the best part of the novel.  Especially because of when it was written, the book provides a very clear view of what most whites in Alabama in the 1950s would have felt in the face of the civil rights movement; even Jean-Louise admits she was “furious” when she heard about the Supreme Court’s school-desegregation ruling because “’there they were, tellin’ us what to do again. . . . to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could – that could affect the vast majority of folks. Adversely ‘” (238 – 239).  It seems that Jean-Louise shares her father and uncle’s “’constitutional mistrust of paternalism and government in large doses’” (198).

Which brings us to Atticus’ racist comments which have already been quoted so often.  He does say, “’Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?  Do you want them in our world?’” (245) and “’Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?’” (246) and “’you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people’” (246). We even learn that Atticus once joined the KKK though Jean-Louise is told, “’Mr. Finch has no more use for the Klan than anybody . . . You know why he joined?  To find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks.  . . . all the Klan was then was a political force. . . He had to know who he’d be fighting if the time ever came to –‘” (229 -230). He introduces a speaker at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a speaker who proceeds to spew hatred, though Atticus tells his daughter that he considers that man a sadist but he let him speak “’Because he wanted to’” (250).  This is certainly a harsher portrayal of Atticus than that found in TKAM, yet he is certainly recognizable in his willingness to let people speak their views regardless of his agreement with them.  Jack’s description of his brother certainly sounds like the Atticus of TKAM:  “’- the Klan can parade around all it wants, but when it starts bombing and beating people, don’t you know who’d be the first to try and stop it? . . . The law is what he lives by.  He’ll do his best to prevent someone from beating up somebody else . . . but remember this, he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law’” (268).

GSAW may have people returning to TKAM for a closer look at Atticus.  He, for example, didn’t choose to defend Tom Robinson; “the court appointed him” (165).  What about his comments about the racist neighbour, Mrs. Dubose:  “’She was [a lady]’” (116)?  And he does comment on the KKK:  “’Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything’” (149).  Perhaps the reader, like Jean-Louise, has to see Atticus in a more realistic way, has to “welcome him silently to the human race” (278)? 

Despite being disenchanted, the reader should not see GSAW as totally dishearteningThe title of the book, a Biblical allusion, refers to the prediction that Babylon will fall.  The implication is that Maycomb and the South will fall; Uncle Jack says as much to his niece:  “’The South’s in its last agonizing birth pain. . . . It’s bringing forth something new . . . but I won’t be here to see it.  You will.  Men like me and my brother are obsolete and we’ve got to go’” (200).  Jean-Louise is colour-blind and has no difficulty expressing her views; she may be seen as the new moral compass. 

So . . . read Go Set a Watchman, keeping in mind that it is an unedited manuscript from which To Kill a Mockingbird was derived.  Written in the 1950s, it provides a look at Alabama in the early years of the civil rights movement from a white person’s point of view.  It may not be a pretty picture but one need only look at the news to see that much has not changed.  It may not become such an integral part of school curricula but, as an early draft, it can be especially useful for writing classes.  If I were still teaching, I could see many discussions:  Why does the first person point of view in TKAM work so much better than the third person used in GSAW?  Why is plot structure so much more effective in TKAM?  Why would the portrayal of Atticus have been softened in TKAM?  Which novel is more effective in developing the theme of disillusion?  When there is a discrepancy between events, why was the version in TKAM chosen?

So . . . read the book, and like Jean-Louise is required to do, become your own watchman/woman.