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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review of "Us Conductors" by Sean Michaels

I’m ending this month with a review from my archives.  This book, which I read in January of 2015, is currently on the longlist of the 2016 Dublin Literary Award and won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.  As my review indicates, I’m not on the same page as the judges and nominators. 

2 Stars
Not being knowledgeable about physics and not being a lover of electronic music, I did not find this book’s subject matter appealing and so read it only after it won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Though I have not yet read the other books on the award’s shortlist, I must admit that this novel did not strike me as being of the quality I would expect for one of Canada’s foremost literary awards.

The book is very loosely based on the life of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, the Russian inventor of the theremin. He is sent to the U.S. to showcase his musical instrument and, by extension, the greatness of Mother Russia. As he meets with famous and influential Americans, he gathers contacts and intelligence for his homeland and falls in love with Clara Reisenberg, a theremin virtuoso. The novel is written as a long letter from Termen to Clara, “a letter that will never be read” (218) because he is a political prisoner.

My objection to the novel is what lies at the heart of the book: Lev’s love for Clara. He becomes obsessed with a girl who at eighteen is fifteen years younger. She periodically spends time with him, but there is no evidence of romantic feelings on her part. She seems to see Lev as a “dance partner . . . a diversion” (83) though Clara herself remains opaque and elusive; perhaps she could best be described as ethereal, like the music of a theremin. In fact, Lev’s love seems ethereal, in the sense of “tenuous” as opposed to “celestial.”

Lev remains emotionally distant with and ambivalent about other significant women in his life (Katia, Lavinia, his sister), yet we are to believe that he is capable of such an undying love for someone who does not return his love and even rejects him? Besides not being consistent with his detached personality, his constant mooning over the much younger Clara becomes annoying and is unbecoming if not a tad unsavoury. The novel may have been intended as a paean to love; its message seems to be that even unrequited love can help one survive. Unfortunately, Lev’s love seems more like obsessive infatuation, not genuine love, and a middle-aged man who is such a slave to an unrequited love is just pathetic. And after Lev’s last conversation with Clara, which we learn about only at the end, I could only shake my head in disbelief.

For an intelligent scientist and inventor, Lev seems very naïve, if not delusional. He thinks the theremin, because of its simplicity, is an instrument of public good: “Because it trusts the worker’s own senses, not the knowledge locked away in the lessons and textbooks of the elites, the theremin becomes a revolutionary device – a levelling of the means of musical production” (28). After being held as a prisoner on board a ship forcibly bringing him back to Russia, he still believes the Stalinist government will allow him to “build new wonders” (214)?!

The first part of the book, 214 pages, I found rather tedious. It reads like a dull journal: I did this and then I did that and then I met so and so. Events like marriages which should receive more detail are glossed over. Given the intended audience of Lev’s letter, one would expect more honesty if the depth of his love is to be convincing. He is certainly not given to self-examination and only in the end seems to fully realize that he has been a useful instrument of the state and admits, “What did I know of conducting” (293). He concludes, “I was in play. I was Lev Sergevich Termen, conducted” (301).

All this is not to say that the book has no merits. Its depiction of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s is marvelous. Likewise, life in a Siberian gulag is described in vivid if disturbing detail. And the writing is beautiful; lyricism is found throughout.

I will conclude by stating that perhaps the fault is not in the book but in my cynicism. Surely all those who have found the book to be a literary masterpiece, including the judges of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, could not be wrong.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Review of "Bone and Bread" by Saleema Nawaz

3 Stars
The novel begins with the death of Sadhana Singh.  Beena, her older sister, is the narrator.  As she clears his sister’s apartment and tries to uncover the circumstances behind Sadhana’s sudden death, she narrates the story of her family’s past and her present.  The sisters, the daughters of an American yoga instructor and a Sikh baker, grow up above the family’s bagel shop in the Hasidic community in Montreal.  Orphaned, they are left in the care of a traditional Sikh uncle.  As teenagers, Beena becomes an unwed mother and Sadhana begins a struggle with anorexia. 

The book examines the complicated bonds of sisterhood, what Beena calls “the deep trenches of our relationship.”  They are very different, almost foils.  Beena is introverted and self-conscious whereas Sadhana is an extrovert with numerous friends and causes.  Beena also lacks Sadhana’s artistic flair.  The title seems to refer to the two sisters, Sadhana being the bone and Beena the bread:  Sadhana is hard-edged and brittle and physically she is all bone while Beena is softer and physically tends to be heavier.  Sibling rivalry is certainly obvious:  the girls are competitive.  And things are not improved by the fact that they do not really communicate.  Beena’s final observation that “the work of getting closer, of loving harder, is the work of a whole life” is a good summary of their relationship:  they were not always as close as they should have been and didn’t always love each other as much as they should have. 

I found it difficult to like either sister.  Each tends to let anger affect her relationship with her sister, and both seem rather selfish.  Only after Sadhana dies does Beena try to understand things from her sister’s point of view, and Sadhana’s actions before her death suggest she too was not giving due consideration to her sister’s decisions concerning her son. 

Some of the characters lack sparkle.  The uncle becomes just a male version of the cruel stepmother, and Evan, Beena’s love interest, is just too good to be true.  Even Quinn, Beena’s son, is flat and uninteresting.  This problem probably stems from the fact that we see them only from Beena’s viewpoint and are never given their thoughts and feelings. 

The novel certainly has emotional depth in its showing the love and resentment and competitiveness of sisters, but I found the book unnecessarily lengthy.  The plot seems stretched.  For instance, the mystery around Sadhana’s death is supposed to add interest, but the suspense seems forced.  It takes Libby so long to tell her story!  And her revelation shows behaviour that is unbelievable for someone who supposedly loved Sadhana.  There are other events that serve little purpose other than to emphasize the differences between the lives of the two women.  The sub-story concerning the immigrants was too detailed, veering as it does into the political realm which has little importance in the relationship between the sisters.  Events that should have been detailed, like the meeting between Quinn and Ravi, are only sketched - again, this weakness derives from the point of view chosen for narration.

I read this novel because it appears on the shortlist of Canada Reads 2016 which has the theme of starting over - books about transformation and second chances, stories of people choosing, or being forced, to make major changes in their lives.  I shall be listening to the debates with interest because I find the theme of starting over is really not central in this book.  Though both girls have to move on after deaths and birth in their family, there is little transformation.  There is only the possibility of change in Beena’s life if she accepts “the work of a whole life” and tries harder to be more open in her relationships.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Readings for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an international memorial day which commemorates the genocide that resulted in the deaths of millions.  Here are some titles from Schatje’s Shelves which fit the category of Holocaust literature and would be appropriate reading for such a sad commemoration. 
The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman
This is the true story about the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

Katerina - Aharon Appelfeld
This is the story of Katerina, a Polish housekeeper who works for a succession of Jewish families in the years before WW II.  Raised in a culture permeated with virulent anti-Semitism, she must constantly try to overcome the prejudice instilled by her bitter mother, who beat her, and her callous father, who attempted to rape her.

A Time to Choose  - Martha Attema
Sixteen-year-old Johannes van der Meer’s homeland of Holland has been occupied by the Nazis for four years.  While enduring food shortages and nightly air raids, the people of the Netherlands wait patiently for liberation, but for Johannes the struggle to endure is full of bitterness.  The fact that his father is a Nazi collaborator has made outcasts of the entire family.

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust - Edith Hahn Beer
Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman in Vienna when the Gestapo forced her into a slave labour camp. When she returned home months later, she went underground and then emerged in Munich as Grete Denner. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who fell in love with her and married her though he knew she was Jewish. Edith recalls a life of constant fear.  She created a remarkable record of survival, saving every document, as well as photographs she took inside labour camps - now part of the permanent collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Seamstress - Sara Tuval Bernstein
She was born into a large family in rural Romania and grew up feisty and willing to fight back physically against anti-Semitism from other schoolchildren. She defied her father' s orders to turn down a scholarship that took her to Bucharest, and got herself expelled from that school when she responded to a priest/teacher' s vicious diatribe against the Jews by hurling a bottle of ink at him.  After a series of incidents that ranged from dramatic escapes to a year in a forced labor detachment, Sara ended up in Ravensbruck, a women' s concentration camp.

The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom
Corrie ten Boom was a leader in the Dutch Underground during WWII. With the aid of her family, she hid scores of Jews from the Nazi invaders. She was arrested along with every member of her family, spending the remaining war years in concentration camps.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen - Tadeusz Borowski
Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp stories were based on his own experiences surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. He describes a world where the will to survive overrides compassion and prisoners eat, work and sleep a few yards from where others are murdered; where the difference between human beings is reduced to a second bowl of soup, an extra blanket or the luxury of a pair of shoes with thick soles; and where the line between normality and abnormality vanishes.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - John Boyne
Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy whose family moves to Out-With where everyone calls his father Commandant.  Bruno hates his new home which is near a high-wired compound inhabited by sad looking people in striped pajamas. 

Daniel Half Human - David Chotjewitz
At the dawn of Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, Daniel and Armin swear eternal brotherhood by slitting their wrists and mingling their blood.  Then, with the scar on his wrist still healing, Daniel receives some life-altering news: he is half-Jewish and, as such, half-hated by a growing number of neighbours, teachers, and friends. Quickly, he decides to keep his identity a secret, conspiring with Armin to join the Hitler Youth.

The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
This is the diary of Dutch Jewish teenager, Anne Frank, written in an Amsterdam warehouse where for two years she hid from the Nazis with her family and friends.

Rena's Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz - Rena Kornreich Gelissen
Sent to Auschwitz on the first Jewish transport, Rena Kornreich survived the Nazi death camps for over three years. While there she was reunited with her sister Danka. Each day became a struggle to fulfill the promise Rena made to her mother when the family was forced to split apart, a promise to take care of her sister.

Prisoner B-3087 - Alan Gratz
Yanek Gruener, a Jewish boy in 1930s Poland, is at the mercy of the Nazis who have taken over. Everything he has and everyone he loves have been snatched brutally from him.  And then Yanek himself is taken prisoner and forced from one concentration camp to another, as World War II rages all around him. He encounters evil he could have never imagined.

Holocaust - Gerald Green
This book tells the story of the experience of two German families whose lives intersect at certain points. The Dorfs are "good" Germans, loyal to the new Nazi regime. The Weiss family is Jewish, also seemingly "good" Germans, but doomed under the new regime and its determination to exterminate the Jewish population.

Stones from the River - Ursula Hegi
The protagonist is a woman named Trudi Montag who has dwarfism. The book chronicles her life in a village in Germany in the years before, during, and after World War II.

Schindler’s List - Thomas Keneally
This novel is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than 1000 Jews from the Nazis at enormous financial and emotional expense.

The Thought of High Windows - Lynne Kositsky
Young, Jewish and on the run from the Nazis, Esther is one of a group of children who manage to flee Germany for Belgium and then France at the beginning of World War II. Since she is from a more traditionally Jewish family, Esther is an outcast among the youngsters in her group, many of whom consider themselves to be "modern Jews." They also tease her about being overweight.

Child of the Holocaust - Jack Kuper
This childhood memoir of the Holocaust follows the travels of eight-year-old Jacob Kuperblum, who comes home one day to find his family and friends gone, rounded up by the Germans only hours earlier

The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell
The book is narrated by its fictional protagonist Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer of French and German ancestry who helped to carry out the Holocaust and was present during several major events of World War II.

 Number the Stars - Lois Lowry
Set in Denmark in 1939, this novel gives an account of the fears and anxieties of the Danish people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, during the German occupation.

Daniel’s Story - Carol Matas
Daniel, 14 in 1941, describes his family's sense of belonging in Germany and their refusal to flee their country despite the initial instances of anti-Semitism they experience.

We are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust - Patricia McKissack
Diary entries written by five Holocaust victims document the ordeals suffered in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, Hungary, Belgium, and Holland.

Friedrich - Hans Peter Richter
This is the story of a Jewish boy in Germany during the 1930s.  The book tells about the Holocaust in Germany and the racism against the Jewish people.

Sarah’s Key - Tatiana de Rosnay
In Paris in July of 1942, Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Mottele - Gertrude Samuels
This true-life story tells of Ukrainian-born Mottele-Mordechai Shlayan--who at age 12 left his childhood behind when his family was murdered by German soldiers. The young violinist joined the Jewish partisans--resistance fighters-- to take revenge on their enemies.

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink
In postwar Germany, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg becomes the lover of Hanna, a woman twice his age. Then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.

Maus  - Art Spiegelman
This graphic novel tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus, by portraying the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, approaches the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust.

Sophie’s Choice - William Styron
This book concerns the relationships among three people sharing a boarding house in Brooklyn:  Stingo, a young aspiring writer from the South who befriends the Jewish Nathan Landau and his lover Sophie, a Polish, Catholic survivor of the German Nazi concentration camps.  The plot ultimately centers on a tragic decision that Sophie was forced to make on her entry, with her children, into Auschwitz

The Pianist - Wladyslaw Szpilman
On September 23, 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor live on the radio as shells exploded outside.  It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw: That day, a German bomb hit the station, and Polish Radio went off the air. Though he lost his entire family, Szpilman survived in hiding. In the end, his life was saved by a German officer who heard him play the same Chopin Nocturne on a piano found among the rubble.

Night - Elie Wiesel
This is Wiesel's best-selling memoir/novel of his year spent in four concentration camps as a 15-year-old during the Holocaust.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
It is 1939 in Nazi Germany.  Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbours during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Review of "The Piano Maker" by Kurt Palka

3 Stars
In the 1930s, Hélène Giroux arrives on the French Shore in Nova Scotia.  She becomes the pianist and choirmaster of the church in St. Homais.  Her integration into the life of the village is interspersed with flashbacks to her past:  her family’s piano factory in France pre-WWI, the effects of the Great War on her and her family, her immigration to Canada, and her involvement with Nathan Homewood who finds and sells valuable artifacts.  From the beginning it is clear that Hélène has a dark secret in her past, a secret which she ends up having to confront in a very public way.

I love novels with strong female characters.  And Hélène is certainly resilient and resourceful and stoic.  Unfortunately, I sometimes found her just too adept to be believable.  She is skilled at playing, tuning, and building pianos, so I was impressed.  But then she is able to effortlessly master commanding a dog sled team, so much so that she is told by a guide that “’You are good with the dogs.  They like and respect you.  I’ve seen that only once before.’”  Her being hired as part of a Canadian entourage which is touring Europe to promote Canada to potential immigrants seems incredible since she hasn’t ever been to Canada.  Surely Canada had some accomplished pianists who could have represented their country abroad!

The novel starts slowly.  It is only about half way through that I became more engaged.  What bothered me, however, is that information is constantly being withheld.  That is a cheap way to build suspense.  For example, there is a re-trial because of some new evidence, but the reader is not given any specifics of the case or that evidence.  This vagueness becomes annoying, and the support the defendant receives from so many people when they know virtually nothing about the case stretches credulity. 

It takes a while to become accustomed to the style.  To say the prose is straightforward and restrained would almost be an understatement.  Anyone reading the book aloud would read it in a monotone.  People speak as though some “thing that was in the room right now might break.”  The style is appropriate to the muted emotions that pervade.  The only person who seems to possess passion is the assistant Crown attorney when she is cross-examining the defendant. 

The book is not overly long, yet there are events which serve little purpose.  The assistant Crown attorney pushes the judge to let her introduce the new evidence in the case, but then she insists on asking questions and bringing in her first expert witness – none of this questioning advances her case in the least.  Likewise, the arrival of Hélène’s daughter seems irrelevant.  She arrives and then shortly afterwards returns to London.  Claire spends only one night at her mothers, and there are no mother-daughter conversations that address the serious issues faced by Hélène.  Characters appear and then disappear; this is the case with Lady Ashley.  And what is the point of insisting on Hélène’s going to confession when she insists that she does not believe in the sacrament?  The priest advocates hypocrisy? 

This is a quick and easy read.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Novels Inspired by Fairy Tales

On January 17, I wrote about novels inspired by mythology.  While working on that blog entry, I also found some titles of novels inspired by fairy tales though Schatje’s Shelves has only half a dozen of these:

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire is a retelling of the Cinderella tale and his Mirror, Mirror draws a connection between the poison apple in the original Snow White story and the Borgia family's well-known appetite for poisoning its foes.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi uses the classic Snow White conceit to explore issues of race in 1950s America. The wicked stepmother banishing her daughter for being too fair is seen in a whole new light.
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is a re-imagining of Rapunzel.
Snow White by Donald Barthelme is a satiric modern retelling of the classic fairy tale which provides a commentary on the absurdities and complexities of modern life.  The seven dwarves are men who live communally with Snow White and earn a living by washing buildings and making Chinese baby food.
Pinocchio in Venice by Robert Coover is a comic fable.  Pinocchio, his wish granted, is an aged, much-honoured scholar who returns home to complete a book on the Blue-Haired Fairy and to die: he is returning to wood.

Obviously, my collection is not extensive in this genre.  I did, however, come across a useful website ( which has a comprehensive list of novels, stories, and poetry collections which make use of fairy tales, folktales, and folk ballads, re-envisioned for modern readers.

And on the topic of fairy tales, research shows that some are much older than previously thought:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Nominees for the 2016 Edgar Awards

This past Tuesday was the 207th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe so the Mystery Writers of America announced the Nominees for the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards honouring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2015.

There are six books in the Best Novel category:

The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
Set in the wilds of 19th-century colonial India, this is a historical thriller introducing
William Avery, a young soldier with few prospects except rotting away in campaigns in India, and Jeremiah Blake, a secret political agent, a genius at languages and disguises, disenchanted with the whole ethos of British rule, who cannot resist the challenge of a mystery.  What starts as a wild goose —trying to track down a missing writer who lifts the lid on Calcutta society—becomes very much more sinister as Blake and Avery get sucked into the mysterious Thuggee cult.

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr
It’s 1942 and a superior has asked homicide detective Bernie Gunther to track down a glamorous German actress believed to be hiding in Zurich.  He takes the job because he has no choice:  the superior is Goebbels himself.  Soon Bernie finds himself involved in something much more sinister. The actress, it emerges, is the daughter of a fanatical Croatian fascist, the sadistic commandant of a notorious concentration camp. And the Swiss police have a cold case that they want Bernie to take a look at, one that seems to have connections to some powerful people back in the Reich.

Life or Death by Michael Robotham
Audie Palmer has spent a decade in prison for an armed robbery in which four people died, including two of the gang. Seven million dollars has never been recovered and everybody believes that Audie knows where the money is. For ten years he has been beaten, stabbed, throttled and threatened almost daily by prison guards, inmates and criminal gangs, who all want to answer this same question, but suddenly Audie vanishes, the day before he's due to be released. Everybody wants to find Audie.

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near the Baines family.  It’s been that way since Joseph Carl Baine was hanged in 1936.  But on a dark Kentucky night in 1952 Annie Holleran crosses over into forbidden territory because local superstition says that Annie can see her future in the Baines’ well. What she sees instead, there in the moonlight, is a dead woman. And suddenly the events of 1936, events that have twisted and shaped the lives of Annie and all her kin, are brought back into the present. And if Annie is to save herself, her family and this small Kentucky town, she must face the terrible reality of what happened all those years ago.

Canary by Duane Swierczynski
Honours student Sarie Holland is busted by local police while doing a favour for her boyfriend. Unwilling to betray him but desperate to avoid destroying her future, Sarie becomes a confidential informant. 
Philly narcotics cop, Ben Wildey, hungry for a career-making bust and desperate for results, pushes too hard and inadvertently sends the nineteen-year-old into a death trap, leaving Sarie hunted by crooked cops and killers.

Night Life by David C. Taylor
This historical mystery, set in 1950s New York City, has a protagonist caught between police and Mafia ties.  Detective Michael Cassidy is assigned to the case of Alexander Ingram, a Broadway chorus dancer found tortured and dead in his apartment. Complications grow as other young men are murdered one after the other.  And why are the FBI, the CIA, and the Mafia interested in the death of a Broadway gypsy?

If you are interested in the nominees in the other categories, go to this website:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review of "Nora Webster" by Colm Tóibín

Yesterday I posted my review of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.  In the book, I noticed two references to a woman named Nora Webster.  There is mention made of Nora’s attending a funeral:  “But Nora Webster had come . . . with Michael who had taught the boys in school, and they were the nicest people in the whole town.”  And there’s a second connection between Eilis and Nora:  Eilis tells a friend, “’We used to stay here years ago for a week or two in the hut that Michael Webster and Nora bought.’”

These references caught my attention because I’d already read Tóibín’s most recent novel, entitled Nora Webster, which was released five years after Brooklyn.  It is a characteristic of Tóibín to mention a character in one novel and then have him/her reappear in another book. 

Here’s my review of Nora Webster which I read in September of 2014.  (The novel is on the 2016 Dublin Literary Award longlist.)

4 Stars
The eponymous protagonist of this book, set in southeastern Ireland, is a 40-year-old widow left with four children: “the problem for her was that she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live.” We see her over three years (1969 – 1972) as she grieves and rebuilds her life.

As the publisher’s description indicates, this novel is a character study. Nora emerges as a real person, both likeable and unlikeable at the same time. At times she seems very self-centered, critical of others, and even lazy, but at other times we can only admire her feistiness as she stands up to her boss and her elder son’s principal. Watching her find her voice (both literally and figuratively) and realize a sense of freedom is almost mesmerizing. Music makes her realize that she is not alone in suffering; a melody tells her that “someone had suffered, and moved away from suffering and then come back to it, let it linger and live within them” – a good description of her own journey.

This book also examines relationships. We see Nora’s relationship with her two sisters and her brother- and sister-in-law. It is, however, her relationship with her children, especially the two boys, which caught my attention and which I tried to understand. In many ways Nora is disconnected from her children. “She had trained herself not to ask any of the children too many questions” so it is not surprising that she learns about their lives only when others visit and spend an evening with them: “By the time the evening was over Nora felt that she knew more details about the lives of her children than she had found out in months.” She seldom shows her emotions: “She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings.” At times I could not help but feel that she should have pried some more and expressed her grief more openly. Some of her decisions regarding her sons are certainly questionable; for example, she left her sons with an aunt for two months when her husband was dying and never once visited them. She does nothing to address a stutter one of her sons develops. Nonetheless, what is most striking is how realistic her behaviour is; much of it stems from having been raised by an overbearing mother. And what parent does not make a mistake or “a series of misjudgments,” especially when under emotional duress.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town is conveyed very convincingly. Having grown up in a small town in the time period depicted, I could identify with Nora’s predicament. Everyone knows what is happening in her life, and people tend to be censorious. Her decisions are often parenthesized by her concern about what people will think; even the joy of purchasing a record player has to be weighed against the opinions of others. Of course, it is the people of this community who give her support in unexpected ways.

There are unanswered questions which I found somewhat annoying. Something seems to have happened when her sons stayed with Aunt Josie, but we are left to guess. Was it only her absence that affected her boys so much that even a visit from Aunt Josie leaves them uncomfortable? One of her sons mentions hating the Christian Brothers and I could only think of the child abuse charges against the Congregation. Who is “the other one” that Maurice mentions in his appearance? Why exactly are her sisters afraid of Nora?

I am amazed at Tóibín’s ability to depict the inner life of women. Though I was not as impressed as I was by his Mary in The Testament of Mary, this portrayal of an ordinary woman’s struggles with life’s vicissitudes is worth reading.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review of "Brooklyn" by Colm Tóibín

4 Stars
This novel won the 2009 Costa Book Award, was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award.  A film version is currently receiving rave reviews and nominations for awards.

Eilis Lacey is a young woman living in Enniscorthy in the early 1950s.  She is encouraged to immigrate to Brooklyn since there are few opportunities for her in southeast Ireland.  Just as she is adjusting to life in New York, she is summoned home and is then faced with a decision about where to make her home.

In many ways, the book is a character study of Eilis.  She has several dominant traits; she is unsophisticated, incurious, and wants to please.  She is passive, allowing others to make decisions for her.  She and her sister Rose are foil characters:  Rose is lively and decisive and she takes an interest in the world around her whereas Eilis, though diligent, accepts a rather dull life, happy to be more of an observer than a participant in life.  Eilis reminds me of the protagonist in the short story “Eveline” in James Joyce’s The Dubliners:  a passive young woman living in a stifling environment who chooses duty above her personal desires.

It is Rose who arranges for Eilis to go to the United States; that is not something she would have chosen for herself.  Eilis, in fact, would have been happy with a conventional life:  “Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone,, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets.  She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children.  Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared . . . “

Once in Brooklyn, Eilis remains docile and lets others make major decisions for her.  Father Flood arranges her job and evening courses, and her landlady changes her room in the house without Eilis raising an objection.  Her relationship with Tony is directed by him; she just goes along with his wishes.  In virtually all instances, she takes the path of least resistance.  When she returns to Ireland, Eilis allows her mother to dictate how she spends her time.  Her behaviour with her friends there might seem perverse but, once again, she just goes along with plans made by others.  She has reservations about those plans but allows herself to be lead in directions she would not have chosen for herself.

Some people have suggested that Eilis becomes decisive at the end, taking her own destiny into her hands, but I would argue that, again, the decision is made for her by the decisive actions of someone else, actions which leave her little option.  She remains totally consistent in behaviour, choosing duty above her feelings, just as she chooses to emigrate from Ireland because she feels it is her duty and returns because “her duty lay in being at home with her mother.”

The inability or unwillingness to express one’s feelings is a major theme.  Eilis, Rose, and their mother all have difficulty communicating:  “they could do everything except say out loud what it was they were thinking.”  Though she does not want to leave Ireland, Eilis never mentions her misgivings:  “She would make them believe, if she could, that she was looking forward to America, and leaving home for the first time.  She promised herself that not for one moment would she give them the smallest hint of how she felt. . .”  Eilis’s letters home are full of omissions and Rose certainly keeps a big secret from her entire family.  Eilis meets with her brother Angus before she departs for Brooklyn, and he too refuses to discuss his feelings of homesickness.  When Eilis returns to visit, her mother asks her not “one question about her time in America, or even her trip home.”
Tóibín’s style is understated.  The tone is restrained and the diction is simple, but complex emotions and complicated interactions are depicted.  My one reservation about the book is its portrayal of the immigrant experience.  Eilis seems to have few hardships; other than experiencing seasickness (a wonderful metaphor for the upheaval of her life) and homesickness, she adapts surprisingly easily.   She quickly earns sufficient money to support herself and even treat herself.  And should she have any problems, Father Flood, her landlady, and her employers are very understanding and supportive.  

This author seldom disappoints.  In his books, he excels at portraying the emotional lives of ordinary women, and this novel is no exception.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

2016 Canada Reads Finalists

CBC today announced the five finalists in Canada Reads 2016.  This year’s theme is starting over.  All five books centre on themes of transformation and second chances; stories about people choosing, or being forced to choose, a dramatically different course in life.

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
Birdie is a comic novel that follows a Cree woman as she leaves her northern Alberta home on an adventure that forces her to revisit tragedy in her past.

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz
Bone and Bread is a portrait of two sisters who struggle with their cultural identity when they are orphaned as teens and raised by their traditional Sikh uncle.

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill
In The Illegal, a runner flees his homeland in hopes of starting over in a new country.  But when his plans fall through, he must run for his life in this take on the plight of undocumented immigrants everywhere.
(See my review on my blog entry of September 19, 2015.)

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter
Minister Without Portfolio is a portrait of a man who uproots his life while trying to recover from a difficult breakup.

The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami
Set in a small town in India, The Hero's Walk is an intimate look at a troubled family.  When his daughter and her husband are killed in a car crash, an Indian man must take in a seven-year-old Canadian granddaughter he has never met.
(I read this book in 2000 when it was first published, but I wasn't writing reviews at that time.  I do remember liking the book, as I have enjoyed all of this author's books.)

Check out

I have some reading to do before the debates begin on March 21.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

National Book Critics Circle Awards Finalists

Nbcc-logo.pngYesterday, the National Book Critics Circle Awards finalists for the outstanding books of 2015 were announced.  The Awards are a set of annual American literary awards by the National Book Critics Circle to promote "the finest books published in English."  These are the fiction finalists:

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout
Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies
Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth
Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno
Ottessa Moshfeg’s Eileen

If you are interested in the finalists in the other five categories (Nonfiction, Poetry, Memoir/Autobiography, Biography, and Criticism), check out this website:  This site also gives all the winners in previous years.

Winners for 2015 will be announced on Thursday, March 17, 2016.  

Monday, January 18, 2016

In Honour of Martin Luther King Day - Novels about Racism

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the U.S.  This holiday inspired me to take a look through Schatje’s Shelves for books dealing with racism.  I found 50 novels:

Sounder by William Armstrong traces the sorrow and abiding faith of a poor African-American boy in the 19th century in the South.
In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – A murder pits black, big-city homicide expert Virgil Tibbs against the bigoted police department in a small Southern town when they are forced to join forces to solve the crime.
Stones by William Bell - Garnet Havelock, who knows what it’s like to be on the outside and not one of the crowd, becomes caught up in a mystery centred in his community.  As he and a friend draw closer to the truth, they uncover a horrifying chapter in the town’s history, and learn how deep-seated prejudices and persecution from the past can still reverberate in the present.
Philida by André Brink - The year is 1832 and South Africa is rife with rumours about the liberation of slaves.  Philida, the mother of four children by the son of her master, is sold but, unwilling to accept this fate, Philida tests the limits of her freedom by setting off on a journey determined to survive and be free.
Your Blues Ain't Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell recalls the racially motivated murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. 
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – An English Quaker is stranded in Ohio in 1850 and forced to rely on strangers.  She becomes drawn into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad.
More by Austin Clarke - Idora Morrison reflects on her life as a black immigrant to Toronto.
The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke is set on the post-colonial West Indian island of Bimshire in 1952.  The novel unravels over the course of 24 hours but spans the lifetime of one woman and the collective experience of a society informed by slavery.
The House Girl by Tara Conklin tells the story of two women:  a seventeen-year-old slave planning her escape from a plantation in 1853 Virginia and a young lawyer in 2004 New York looking for a good plaintiff for a class action suit seeking reparation for the descendants of American slaves.
Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - Nineteen-year-old Mikey and his parents, Silas and Lydia Ali, are members of the black middle class in post-apartheid South Africa.  Mikey discovers that he may be the product of his mother's rape by a white police lieutenant and sets out to explore his familial roots.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison chronicles the travels of a young, nameless black man as he moves through the hellish levels of American intolerance and cultural blindness.
Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner - An aging black who has long refused to adopt the black's traditionally servile attitude is wrongfully accused of murdering a white woman.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg - Told in anecdote format, including short articles in the local newspaper by Dot Weems, this story focuses on Mrs. Threadgoode, an old lady in a nursing home, looking back on her life in Whistle Stop, Alabama. The book deals with a number of themes including racism.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines is a novel in the guise of the tape-recorded recollections of a black woman who has lived 110 years, who has been both a slave and a witness to the black militancy of the 1960's.
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines - Set on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation in the 1970s, this is a depiction of racial tensions arising over the death of a Cajun farmer at the hands of a black man.
Catherine Carmier by Ernest J. Gaines is a love story set in Louisiana, where African-Americans, Cajuns, and whites maintain an uneasy co-existence.
Of Love and Dust by Ernest J. Gaines introduces us to Marcus, a young African-American man who refuses to kowtow to the racist customs that defined life in the South in the 1940s. Marcus is awaiting trial for murder.
Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady is about a black Canadian who has spent his life trying to pass as white.
A Time to Kill by John Grisham - Life becomes complicated in the backwoods town of Clanton, Mississippi, when a black worker is brought to trial for the murder of the two whites who raped and tortured his young daughter.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom brings to life a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War.
Mama Flora’s Family by Alex Haley tells the story of Flora, a black girl born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi who later moves to Memphis, Tennessee, where her husband, Booker, is killed by white landowners. 
Roots by Alex Haley re-captures his family's history in this drama of eighteenth-century slave Kunta Kinte and his descendants.
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill spans the life of Aminata Diallo, born in West Africa in 1745 and kidnapped at the age of 11 by slavers.
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson is about an emancipated and very educated slave who stows away on a ship bound for Africa.
A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata tells the story of a blind white girl and a black man who find love together.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is the coming-of-age story of Lily Owen set in the early 1960s against a background of racial violence and unrest.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd - Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the wealthy Grimke household where she serves as the handmaid of Sarah Grimke.  What follows is their journeys over the next thirty-five years as they dramatically shape each other’s destinies.
Places in the Heart by Thomas Kinkade - Edna Spalding is a woman recently widowed who suddenly has to figure out how to support herself and two children during Depression times.  She is assisted by a Black man and a blind boarder who understand the bigotries and harshness of life in the 1930s.
To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – In the first novel, Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in 1930s Alabama defends a black man accused of rape; the second is about a visit Scout makes to her father Atticus twenty years later.
Small Island by Andrea Levy examines class, race, and prejudice in London in 1948, when a new multiracial England began to form.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis begins with Hattie leaving the Jim Crow South for a better life in Philadelphia.  Spanning the years 1925 to 1980, the book follows Hattie’s children as they strive to find a place for themselves in the world.
Beloved by Toni Morrison tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who is still shackled by memories of her murdered child.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley – A 91-year-old black man re-visits his life and the events that shaped it.  Racial issues are addressed since he and his family were not always treated fairly.
The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch gives a glimpse into South Africa in the early to mid-1900’s, when Apartheid is becoming more of a threat and danger to all who live there: black, white and coloured are all affected by the rules and dangers of breaking those rules.
The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks shows the life a black boy named Newton Winger who, at a young age, learns how to deal with racism and prejudice.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is about a black South African, Absalom Kumalo, who murders a white man.
Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton tells the story of Pieter, a white policeman in South Africa, who has an affair with a native girl. He is betrayed and reported, and thus brings shame on himself and his family. 
The Street by Ann Petry is about a young black woman and her struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the later 1940s.
A Taste of Reality by Kimberla Lawson Roby - When Anise, a black woman, applies for a promotion to manager of human resources, she's impeded by a management team that wants an all-white male staff. As Anise fights racism, job discrimination, and sexual harassment, she also finds herself in the midst of a divorce from her light-skinned husband, who wants a white wife.
Caucasia by Danzy Senna - Growing up in a biracial family in 1970s Boston, Birdie has seen her family disintegrate due to the increasing racial tensions. Her father and older sister move to Brazil, where they hope to find true racial equality, while Birdie and her mother drift through the country, eventually adopting new identities and settling in a small New Hampshire town
Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange - This novel about a black family living in St. Louis in 1957 centers on Betsey, 13, who is restless, wants to "be somebody" and is being bused to a white school. Her mother and grandmother oppose and her father supports integration. When the father plans to take Betsey and her siblings to demonstrate against a racist hotel, the mother leaves home.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett - in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi,  as white socialite and a black maid join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe tells the trials of an old slave.  Published in 1852, this book won support for the anti-slavery cause in the U.S.
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron is an accounting, from Nat Turner's point of view, of the events that led to the only long-term revolt in the history of American slavery.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is the story of a boy and a runaway slave Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft.
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker takes place in the South and spans thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman.  Alice Walker portrays the life of an innocent girl who is put through physical and emotional abuse.       
Meridian by Alice Walker takes a complicated look at black-on-white and black-on-black relations.  A large section of the novel deals with a marriage between a white woman and a black man.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker - Black tenant farmer Grange Copeland leaves his wife and son in Georgia to head North.  After meeting an equally humiliating existence there, he returns to Georgia, years later, to find his son, Brownfield, imprisoned for the murder of his wife.  As the guardian of the couple's youngest daughter, Grange Copeland is looking at his third -- and final -- chance to free himself from spiritual and social enslavement.
Native Son by Richard Wright explores the race relations in Chicago in the 1940s. A black twenty-year old named Bigger Thomas accidentally kills a prominent white woman and then tries to cover it up.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Novels Inspired by Myths

On Thursday (Jan. 14), I listed 30 titles of novels inspired by well-known fiction/classics.  On September 1 and October 10, I discussed Shakespeare-themed novels.  Today I thought I'd focus on some novels based on ancient myths.

The Canongate Myth Series is a series of short novels in which myths from myriad cultures are re-imagined and re-written by contemporary authors.  

The series begins with A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.  A history of myth is a history of humanity, Karen Armstrong argues in this book: our stories and beliefs, our attempts to understand the world, link us to our ancestors and each other. This is an introduction to myth in the broadest sense – from Palaeolithic times to the “Great Western Transformation” of the last 500 years.

Here are some of the titles in the series:
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood has the myth of Odysseus told by his wife Penelope.
Weight by Jeannette Winterson re-tells the myth of Atlas and Heracles.
The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin is a cyber-age re-telling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Lion’s Honey by David Grossman is an examination of the story of the Biblical Samson to look into what the life of this extraordinary man must have been like.
Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith is about the Celtic god of dreams; in this version, Angus is a Scottish psychotherapist who helps people understand their dreams
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith re-tells the gender-shifting myths of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers brings Sigmund Freud together with Tiresias for a retelling of the Oedipus myth.
The Fire Gospel by Michael Faber is a re-vamping of the Prometheus myth.
Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt re-tells the finale of Norse mythology.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is a re-telling of the life of Jesus.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Review of "A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson

4.5 Stars

This companion novel focuses on Teddy Todd, Ursula’s favourite brother from Life After Life.  The reader is given vignettes from his childhood, his wartime experiences as a fighter pilot, his post-war years when he lives the quiet life of an English gentleman, and his old age.  We are also given glimpses into the lives of Nancy, his wife; Viola, his daughter; and Bertie and Sunny, his grandchildren.

Some people might object to the lack of chronology because the narrative moves back and forth through time, often in the same paragraph.  I liked this time shifting; it is done seamlessly and is a reminder of the connection of the past and the future with the present.  The omniscient narrator often steps in and reveals what will happen in the future.  Objects - like a silver hare pendant – reappear, and events are seen from the perspective of several characters.  This technique certainly adds depth.

Teddy is the favourite sibling of his sister Ursula and it is easy to understand why.  He is such a decent, dutiful, and selfless person.  Teddy vows during the war that if he survived, “he would always try to be kind, to live a good quiet life.  Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden.  Quietly.”   And that is exactly what he does.  True to his scouting code, he performs “the most laborious and humble offices with cheerfulness and grace.”  Viola at one point discusses her father’s “stoicism . . . cheerful frugality . . . and his persistent patience.”  His other outstanding trait is his love of nature; he finds beauty in all of the natural world, even in a rodent like the water vole. 

The war is the pivotal event in the book:  “The war had been a great chasm and there could be no going back to the other side, to the lives they had before, to the people they were before.  It was as true for them as it was for the whole of poor, ruined Europe.”  Obviously, death is ever present.  The phrase, “The dead were legion” is used at least a half dozen times, and the numbers of dead are even summarized at the end:  “Fifty-five thousand, five hundred and seventy-three dead from Bomber Command.  Seven million German dead, including the five hundred thousand killed by the Allied bombing campaign.  The sixty million dead overall of the Second World War, including eleven million murdered in the Holocaust.” 

Teddy certainly did not expect to survive the war.  He compares plane crews to birds:  “Teddy realized that they were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good.  Birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.”  This metaphor adds poignancy to Teddy’s comment about “All the birds who were never born, all the songs that were never sung and so can only exist in the imagination.”  It is not surprising that “He had been reconciled to death during the war . . . [so] part of him never adjusted to having a future.”  The war is something that affects him deeply; he is a god in ruins who “had believed once that he would be formed by the architecture of war, but now, he realized, he had been erased by it.”

There is a shocking twist at the end of the novel.  It was certainly not one I expected, but it had me saying, “But, of course!”  In the Author’s Note, Atkinson says that this twist is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.”  It will certainly have the reader looking back at the novel from an entirely different perspective; the quotes I included in the previous two paragraphs, for example, take on an entirely new meaning.  The epigraphs also take on new meaning, especially the statement that “The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.”

As a former English teacher, I loved the many allusions to poetry.  Bertie walks along the Thames and quotes lines from Spenser’s “Prothalamion” about “the shoare of silver streaming Themmes” and then there’s a wonderful line:  “Spenser handed over to Wordsworth who met her at Westminster Bridge.” Bertie admits “London really was all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”  Not everyone will recognize the line from Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” but those who do will appreciate Atkinson’s style even more.  One page has references to Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Emily Dickinson, and William Shakespeare.

The one weakness for me was the portrayal of Viola.  She is unlikeable as a daughter, wife and mother.  A tragic event from her youth obviously has affected her relationship with her father, but since the reader understands that event from Teddy’s perspective, it is Teddy who receives more sympathy.  As an adult, she should certainly have understood what happened.  And her behaviour towards her children, especially Sunny, is unforgiveable.  She is the opposite of her father; she puts her own desires above the needs of her children, and her attempts at redemption come too late.   I have to admit, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter entitled “Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace” in which Viola is expertly skewered!

A God in Ruins recently won the 2016 Costa Book Award in which the judges spoke of it as an utterly magnificent book.  And I agree!  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Review of "Small Blessings" by Martha Woodroof

From my archives, I’m choosing another book that appears on the 2016 Dublin Literary Award longlist.  I read the novel in August of 2014, and, obviously, I wouldn’t have recommended it for a literary prize.

3 Stars 
This is the story of a group of people living in a small university town in Virginia. Tom Putnam is an unassuming professor whose life revolves around work and looking out after his wife who suffers from a number of debilitating neuroses. His life is turned around after an unexpected family event and after the arrival of Henry, a son he didn’t know he had. Another arrival, that of Rose Callahan, the new employee at the campus bookstore, also changes the lives of many.

The plot has a number of twists and turns, some of which are rather unrealistic. The amount of chance and coincidence is occasionally suspect. One event, a major twist near the end, left this reader shaking her head; it is precipitated by behaviour that is totally out of character and seems intended to add suspense, but it is just too jarring. The ending is predictable and ties everything into a tidy, neat package.

This book is a gentle, unchallenging read. It does not require the reader to ponder profound philosophical ideas though it does suggest that people need to appreciate life’s small blessings. Simple things like a conversation can be enough “to build a bearable day on.” “Small pleasures, deeply enjoyed . . . [provide] the true joy of living.”

The characters are all rather quirky and all have distinct personality traits. My complaint with regards to characterization is that Tom is just too good to be true. He is a “sweet, dutiful, loyal guy” who is “one of the rare few who had the courage to accept – without malice – other people exactly as they were.” His 20-year marriage has been dysfunctional because of his wife’s mental illness; his is a marriage “anyone except for Tom would have fled years ago.” When a friend behaves in a way that is meant to hurt Tom, Tom sees the behaviour as a cry for help and chastises himself for not having been sufficiently supportive: “The truth was that he, Tom Putnam, had been an iffy friend.” Tom is not perfect; his indecisiveness, for example, can be truly annoying, but his goodness knows no bounds and everyone holds him in high esteem. A little less shine on his armour would have made him more convincing.

I can see this novel as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. It has lovable characters about whom the reader comes to care. There are poignant moments as well as humourous ones. It has the requisite charm and warm-heartedness with a simple message that everyone can appreciate.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

30 Contemporary Adult Novels Inspired by Well-Known Fiction

In my 2016 Reading Challenge (posted on January 4), I suggested that readers read a contemporary novel inspired by a classic.  Here are some suggestions of novels which take characters from well-known fiction.  Young Adult fiction often uses plots and characters from classics and modernizes them, but I’m focusing on books written primarily for adults. 

Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, a sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, has Scarlett traveling to Charleston to visit estranged husband Rhett Butler's family, and then going to Savannah and Ireland.

Cosette by Francois Ceresa, a sequel to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, follows Jean Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette and her marriage to Marius, who is dissatisfied with life and proves to be a less than model husband.

March by Geraldine Brooks, a companion to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, tells the story of the March family patriarch and his experiences during the Civil War as his wife and four daughters wait at home.

60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by John David California follows a man named "Mr. C" - who seems to be J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield - as he escapes from a nursing home.  (This book was the subject of a court case when author Salinger sued the author. The American judge said the book was too close to The Catcher in the Rye, and currently it is banned from being sold in North America.  The judge ruled that neither the author nor anyone who publishes the book can mention The Catcher in the Rye in connection to the book.)

The Innocents by Francesca Segal re-imagines Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.  Scandal-ridden 1870s New York is replaced by a tight-knit Jewish community in modern day London.

A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck imagines the relationship between Frankenstein’s monster and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, if she had met him as a small child, intertwining the musings of the monster on his own life with Shelley’s own fictionalized letters, and allowing him to watch his own legacy up to the present.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham is based not only on Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, but also the life of Virginia Woolf herself. The novel follows three generations of women:  Woolf as she writes the book, struggling with mental illness; Mrs. Brown, a WWII wife in 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, a contemporary woman whose best friend is dying from AIDS.  All three are affected by and also parallel Mrs. Dalloway herself.

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith is a modification of Jane Austen's Emma, wherein a recent college grad spends the summer flexing her advice and matchmaking skills to varying degrees of success.

Great by Sara Benincasa is an all-female version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Brazil by John Updike, a re-interpretation of Tristan and Isolde, is set in Brazil.  A boy from a Rio slum falls in love with a white girl from a privileged family and together they must flee into the far-reaching jungles in order to escape her family's judgment.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë has inspired spinoffs:
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a prequel which explains the madness of Mrs. Rochester.
Re: Jane by Patricia Park imagines Jane Eyre as a half-Korean, half-American orphan living in New York and working as an au pair for a Brooklyn professor.
Jane by April Lindner has Jane Moore taking a nanny job at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star on the brink of a huge comeback.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesay transports Charlotte Brontë's heroine to Scotland in the 1950s and ‘60s, resurrecting the themes of Jane Eyre, as well as adding autobiographical elements of the author’s life.

Dorian by Will Self modernizes Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Dorian Gray tries to work as a model in the looks-obsessed art scene of London.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith can be seen as a companion piece to E. M. Forster’s Howards End with the same basic plotline about a pair of families with very different ideals that become irrevocably linked over the years.

Solsbury Hill by Susan M. Wyler re-imagines Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.  An American woman is decamped to the moors of England to settle an estate and is subsequently pulled between two very different men.
Heathcliff by Jeffrey Caine imagines what happened to Heathcliff when he disappeared from Wuthering Heights.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has inspired numerous novels.  Here are four of them:
Longbourn by Jo Baker has the servants taking centre-stage in this downstairs answer to the classic.
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding is a modern spin on the book.  Elizabeth Bennett is re-imagined as the hapless Bridget Jones who has numerous trials and tribulations - and a Mr. Darcy.
Pemberley by Emma Tennant is a sequel in which the original characters are brought back to life and in which their pasts catch up with them.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James has Elizabeth and Darcy solving a murder mystery.

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jetter Naslund is narrated by Una, the wife of the captain of the Pequod mentioned in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin tells the story of Lavinia, Aeneas’ second wife in Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid.

Grendel  by John Gardner has the first monster in English literature, from the epic Beowulf, tell his side of the story.
Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton is a variation on the Beowulf tale from the perspective of a contemporary reporter, an Arab man who traveled with a group of Vikings.

Foe by J M Coetzee reimagines Daniel DeFoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe.

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin is told from the perspective of the dutiful and intelligent housemaid in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Gregory Maguire has written four novels based on The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum beginning with Wicked:  The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

After Alice by Gregory Maguire is a new twist on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  Ada, a friend of Alice’s, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late and tumbles down the rabbit-hole herself.  She embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home.

Note:  I have not included titles inspired by Shakespeare since I discussed these in my entry of September 1, 2015 in which I listed over 20 titles.  (And for the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, there is The Hogarth Shakespeare initiative which will be publishing modern re-tellings of Shakespeare’s plays - adaptations written by well-known contemporary authors ; I discussed these in my blog on October 10, 2015.)