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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review of EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh

3.5 Stars
I came across this title a couple of times because it was nominated for a couple of literary awards.  When it appeared on the longlist of the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was one I should read.

The narrator is Eileen Dunlop, a woman in her 70s.  She tells us the events in her life during a week around Christmas 1964 when she was 24 years of age, events which cause her to “run away from home and never go back.”  As she says, “This is the story of how I disappeared.”   Eileen lives with her drunken, emotionally abusive, and paranoid father, a retired policeman, in X-ville, near Boston.  She works in a detention centre for teenage boys.  Her life is regimented and seems pointless to her.  Then Rebecca is hired on staff and everything changes. 

There is a mystery in the novel.  We know that Rebecca is the catalyst to Eileen’s disappearance since there is the repeated refrain of “until Rebecca” but we don’t know exactly how.   The arrival of Rebecca “marked the beginning of the dark bond” but it is not until the last quarter of the book that events come to a climax and Eileen ceases to exist:  “There’s no better way to say it:  I was not myself back then.  I was someone else.  I was Eileen.” 

Though there is suspense in the book which has been classified as a psychological thriller, it is, more so, a character study of a troubled woman.  Eileen was full of self-loathing.  Early on, she admits, “I hated my face with a passion.”  She details what she hated:  “I felt my mouth was horselike and ugly, and so I barely smiled” and “My own eyes, I thought, were like shallow lake water, green, murky, full of slime and sand.”  Even “having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself.”

Eileen was emotionally repressed.  She describes herself as “terribly sensitive, and determined never to show it” so she wore what she calls a “death mask.”  She even practiced her death mask – “face in perfect indifference, no muscles twitching, eyes blank, still, brow furrowed ever so slightly.”  She admits she was “very unhappy and angry all the time,” so “I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.”  There’s a great image she uses to describe her life:  “life itself was like a book borrowed from the library – something that did not belong to me and was due to expire.”  She felt invisible though she didn’t want to be:  “I hoped they saw right through my death mask to my sad and fiery soul, though I doubt they saw me at all.”  She was self-obsessed:  “I was selfish, solely concerned with my own wants and needs.”

Her behaviour does not make her a likeable person.  She states honestly, “I was a shoplifter, a pervert . . . and a liar.”  Though she hid her body in her dead mother’s too-large, matronly clothes, she was fixated on her “nether regions”:  “I worried that when anyone’s eyes cast downward, they were investigating my nether regions and could somehow decipher the complex and nonsensical folds and caverns wrapped up so tightly down there between my legs.”   Though she calls herself a prude and admits that “sexual excitement nearly always made me feel sick,” she had dreams of rape:  “Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me.”  She “didn’t wash my hands after using the toilet” and didn’t shower, liking “to stew in my own filth sometimes.”   She had a peculiar way to keep her composure:  “When I was very upset, hot and shaking, I had a particular way of controlling myself.  I found an empty room and grit my teeth and pinched my nipples while kicking the air like a cancan dancer until I felt foolish and ashamed.” 

By chance, I just finished reading Martin John by Anakana Schofield which is also a character study of a misfit.  Like the protagonist of that book, Eileen arouses the reader’s sympathy and revulsion at the same time.  It is uncomfortable to be in Eileen’s head because she focuses so much on all that is ugly.  Unlike Schofield’s book, however, this one offers hope because we know that Eileen goes on to become a better person:  “I watched that old world go by, away and away, gone gone gone, until, like me, it disappeared.”

As a psychological thriller, this book is less successful.  Its pace is too slow.  But as a character study, it definitely succeeds.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Workplace Fiction by Women

I came across an interesting article in The New Yorker which I thought I’d share.
“The last two decades have seen a boom in workplace novels written by and mostly marketed to women, from books put out by major publishing houses, to cheaply produced small-press books, to self-published titles. If the author is a woman, workplace fiction is also domestic fiction, easily disguised as “chick lit,” “girlfriend literature,” or even “erotica.” Regardless of the packaging, these books provide mapping, contextualizing, and rich illustration of women’s working lives. They form a kind of counter-tradition of office literature, dealing with the same bureaucracies and white-collar doldrums that have inspired male novelists but reflecting the particular challenges and preoccupations of women in the workforce” ( 

The article mentions a number of books.  Workplace fiction by women is a genre that is particularly appropriate at the moment as Hillary Clinton tries to break the ultimate glass ceiling in American politics.  And if you are missing your workplace during your summer vacation, you might want to read one of the titles mentioned.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Longlist of the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was released today.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (U.S.)

The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee (South African-Australian)
Serious Sweet by A. L. Kennedy (U.K.)
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (U.K.)
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (U.K.)
The North Water by Ian McGuire (U.K.)
Hystopia by David Means (U.S.)
The Many by Wyl Menmuir (U.K.)
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (U.S.)
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves (U.S.)
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (U.S.)
All That Man Is by David Szalay (Canada-U.K.)
                                              Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Canada)

The shortlist of six books will be announced on September 13 and the winner, on October 25. 

I’ve read only one of the books thus far.  See my review of My Name is Lucy Barton at  I was so pleased to see the names of two Canadian writers.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, worth £50,000, is open to writers of any nationality, writing originally in English and published in the U.K. between October 1, 2015, and September 30, 2016.  For more information, see

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review of MARTIN JOHN by Anakana Schofield

4 Stars
Martin John by [Schofield, Anakana]
I first came across this book when it appeared on the longlist and shortlist of the 2015 Giller Prize.  It didn’t win but after reading it and the winner, Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, I’m even more disappointed with the jury’s verdict.  Fifteen Dogs is lackluster next to Martin John.  (See my review of the former at

This book is a look into the dark and chaotic mind of Martin John, an exhibitionist, public masturbator, and aggressive sexual molester.  In the end, though the reader will be disgusted and repulsed by Martin John’s behaviour, he/she will also feel sympathy for this lonely, confused man who struggles with his compulsions, delusions, and paranoia. 

The portrait of Martin John is discomfiting and incomplete.  We see his use of work routines and daily rituals to distract himself from his sexual compulsions.  We see him distancing himself from his responsibility for his actions by his refusal to answer questions about incidents (“To every question he said he did not know”), by his use of the passive voice (“Harm was done”), and by his insistence that his victims enjoy his actions (She must have liked it.  That was it”).   But just like the mental health care system which doesn’t understand his sexual deviance, the reader does not fully understand him either.  The reader is even warned at the beginning, “There are simply going to be things we won’t know.  It’s how it is.  As it is in life must it be unto the page.  There’s the known and the unknown.  In the middle is where we wander and wonder.”  But though we may not be able to totally comprehend Martin John, we come to understand his fear.  His continual references to Baldy Conscience, a (probably imaginary) tenant who lives above him “stamping all over my head”, clearly convey his paranoia. 

As the novel progresses and it becomes clear that denial of Martin John’s culpability is futile, the descriptions of his behaviour, including sexual assaults, become more detailed.  These explicit descriptions make the reader feel like a voyeur, and the narrator’s comment to the reader that “You’re involved now.  You have a role.  See?” is unsettling. 

One of the things that is emphasized is that Martin John has no support system.  Mental health professionals and institutions seem to be able to do little for him.  Mam, his Irish mother, is overbearing and has dominated his life so much that Martin John constantly hears her voice in his mind.  After her son was involved in an incident, she sent him away to London to protect him but also so she doesn’t have to deal with him.  It seems that her treatment of her son contributed to his behaviours; to her credit, she does think about her role:  “She did not like the idea she had a role in it. . . . Did she have a role in it?” 

The style of the novel is unconventional.  Paralleling Martin John’s fractured mind, chronology is unclear.  The gaps in his narrative suggest the many unanswered questions that remain.  Throughout, there are chapters with headings beginning with “What they don’t know.”  Repeated phrases mimic the endless circuits Martin John walks as part of his daily calming rituals.  The cryptic style, episodic vignettes, non-sequiturs, lists of words, and stream-of-consciousness passages are disorienting and that’s precisely the point. 

This book is not an easy read.  Because of its subject matter and its style, it is at times a very difficult read.  The narrator even admits, “this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.”  Nonetheless, it is a compelling, worthwhile book that should be read.  And it should have won the 2015 Giller Prize!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Merciful Minerva! Some Reading about Wonder Woman

Earlier this month, I wrote about how comics were one of my favourite genres when I was young.  I specifically mentioned Wonder Woman.  Well, a movie featuring that heroine will be released on June 2, 2017, but the official trailer was released yesterday:

Wonder Woman turns 75 this year, and earlier today, NPR featured a story about her entitled “At 75, Wonder Woman Lassos In A New Generation With An Ageless Fight”:

There’s a book I’ve been meaning to add to Schatje’s Shelves entitled The Secret History of Wonder Woman written a couple of years ago by Jill Lepore.  You can find  a review of the book at and highlights of an NPR interview with Lepore:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ernest Hemingway's Birth Day

117 years ago today, Ernest Hemingway was born.  One of my favourite Hemingway quotes is “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”  

Hemingway was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century who often commented on the craft of writing.  When I was a teacher of creative writing, I often referred to one of his statements:  “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”  Here is some more of his advice to writers:

I have never been a great fan of Hemingway’s because of his macho male characters, but I know he is loved by many.  If you are a fan of his, why not try this 10-question quiz to test your knowledge of this American writer:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review of BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

3.5 Stars
Before the Fall by [Hawley, Noah]
This book has appeared on a number of summer reading lists, so I thought I’d add it to mine.  It proved to be an enjoyable psychological novel.

The book introduces us to David Bateman and his family.  He is a media mogul married to Maggie, a former teacher, and they have two children:  Rachel and JJ.  They board a private jet for a short trip from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City.  Travelling with them is Ben Kipling, a Wall Street player, and his wife Sarah.  Maggie also invited a friend and artist, Scott Burroughs, to take the plane since he too needed to get to New York.  A Bateman bodyguard, a flight attendant, and the pilot and co-pilot are the others onboard.  “[None] of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from [takeoff] their plane will crash into the sea.”  Only Scott and four-year-old JJ survive. 

The book then follows the investigation into the crash and also gives the back stories of each of the people on the plane.  There are various theories as to the cause - mechanical error, pilot error, sabotage, and terrorist attack – and all must be investigated.  However, a talk show commentator, Bill Cunningham, suggests a fifth theory centered on Scott.  Focusing only on ratings, he uses illegal methods to advance his theory. 

A major theme detailed is that of random coincidences.  In the opening, the author suggests, “How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery.”  Later, Scott muses, “Two things happen at the same time.  By mentioning them together they become connected.  Convergence.  It’s one of those things that feels meaningful, but isn’t.”  A major investigator scolds a colleague:  “’you just can’t accept that life is full of random coincidence, that not everything that seems meaningful is meaningful . . . ‘” And Scott tells Bill, “’The universe is filled with things that don’t make sense.  Random coincidences.’” 

The novel is definitely character driven.  The reader comes to know each of the passengers and crew as well as JJ’s aunt and uncle and Bill Cunningham.  Bill, who wears suspenders like Larry King, is a conservative commentator, similar to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.  He is not beyond relying on half-truths to cast aspersions and ruin someone’s reputation though he makes comments like “’I’ll fight to the death before I let this administration take away our right to due process.’”  The character with whom I take exception is Doug, JJ’s uncle; everyone else is realistic, but he just doesn’t feel like a writer to me.  For instance, he doesn’t know the meaning of “pied-à-terre” but knows what a koan is?

Though there is suspense, I would not call this book a thriller.  The ending is not a surprise; in fact, the denouement is exactly like an actual 2015 event from the news, an event to which the chief investigator actually refers and which had regulatory agencies implementing new flight regulations.  From the beginning, the clues are just too obvious.

Despite its flaws, this book is indeed a good summer read.  It has sufficient suspense to keep the reader on task.  And I loved its skewering of archconservative media outlets and commentators.  

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Fall Fiction Releases

It’s mid-July and time to make note of the books being released this coming fall.  Here are 8 titles I will definitely be adding to my to-read pile:

The Spawning Grounds by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (Sept. 6)
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch (Sept. 6)
The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey (Sept. 6)
Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Sept. 13)
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley (Sept. 20)
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Sept. 20)
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Oct. 11)
The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (Oct. 25)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Happy 1st Anniversary to Schatje's Shelves!

Today is the first anniversary of my blog which I started on July 16, 2015, and entitled Schatje’s Shelves.  In the last year, I have posted 323 times; that’s an 88% success rate, if one post per day is considered 100%.

Those posts have included 82 reviews of books I read in that time period.  I also included almost as many reviews from my archives.  To have featured over 150 reviews in one year, I think is impressive. 

Writing a blog can be time-consuming, but I love reading and enjoy sharing books with others.  So I will continue reading, reviewing, and blogging and, hopefully, other book lovers will continue to follow my blog.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Review of DELICIOUS FOODS by James Hannaham

3.5 Stars
This novel came to my attention when it won the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. 

The book begins with Eddie Hardison, a 17-year-old black with no hands, driving a stolen vehicle from Louisiana to Minnesota.  Only towards the end do we learn how his hands came to be amputated.  The story flashes back to six years earlier where we meet Darlene, Eddie’s mother, who is a drug addict lured into working on a produce farm for a company called Delicious Foods.  She and the other workers are basically slave labourers kept subdued by crack cocaine and/or alcohol.  Eddie sets out to find his mother. 

The novel is narrated from the points of view of Eddie and Darlene.  But since Darlene is addicted to cocaine, her portions are narrated by Scotty, a personification of the drug that has control of her.  His original voice explains how he came to be Darlene’s friend and why she has difficulty leaving him:  “I am a badass drug with a reputation for keeping the loyalty of my friends and lovers in a very tight grip.”

The pacing of the novel is a bit of a problem.  Day-to-day life at the farm is detailed.  Then the ending moves very quickly when more detail would have been appropriate.  Because much is left out, the reader may have difficulty accepting the ending as credible.  The statement “It ain’t too often that the mother look at the child and get schooled” begins the change leading to the ending, but it is not accurate: parents constantly learn things from their children. 

It is the characterization of Darlene that is noteworthy.  The author succeeds in making a drug addict a sympathetic human being.  There are times she is so naïve and makes such poor choices, but the reader comes to understand her motivations and the depth of her despair.  The recurring image of a corpse as a piece of driftwood explains so much about her behaviour:  “that piece of driftwood” becomes “that damn piece of driftwood” and then “that goddamn piece of driftwood.”

The book touches on a number of serious issues; racial injustice is certainly a focus.  As an eleven-year-old, Eddie “understood for the first time that his classmates didn’t count for any more than he did.  It didn’t matter if they never acknowledged the shadow of worthlessness above them, poised to crush them like Godzilla’s foot.”  When a black man is killed in his store, Darlene observes, “Nobody white in the town admitted to seeing anything untoward.  Nobody white would take the word of anybody black.  It seemed sometimes as if an imaginary store had burned down and an imaginary black man had lost his imaginary life inside it.”  Darlene blames herself for that black man’s death rather than the whites responsible for killing him because “They was just white boys doing what come natural in the place they from – down south, white boys be hunting Negroes like lions be hunting gazelles out in the goddamn Serengeti.”  Certainly, Eddie’s lack of hands symbolizes the situation of the blacks who have virtually no control over their fates.

The exploitation of field workers in large-scale farming operations is also examined.  Darlene and her fellow workers on the farm find themselves in the same trap of indentured servitude as blacks did under Jim Crow laws.  One of the workers “often thought about the people who were going to eat the strawberries and lemons and watermelons he picked for Delicious, about what those folks would look like, how they might peel the fruit, how the fruit would taste, maybe about the fruit salad they would make, or the pie.”  Darlene sometimes “took off one her gloves and put her fingers up on the sticky watermelon skins.  She deliberately leaving fingerprints, hoping somebody gonna dust that damn melon for evidence and let her son know where she at.  Way far away, folks from America and Canada . . .”

The book is definitely a worthwhile read despite its uneven pacing and some unrealistic events (like Eddie’s ability to fix computers though he knows nothing about them).  After reading the book, the reader, like one of the characters, may “think about the people whose hands had touched those apples and that cantaloupe before I ate.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Comic Books, Manga, and Graphic Novels

I am not a comic book reader now, but I certainly was when I was young.  It was not unusual for me to spend allowance or gift money on comics like Wonder Woman and Archie.  In fact, my first introduction to many literary works was via Classics Illustrated, a comic book series featuring adaptations of classics.  I think there may still be some copies of those comics stashed away in the attic of my childhood home.  As a teacher-librarian, I saw first-hand how graphic novels and manga could get even the most reluctant of readers to open a book.  So it is re-assuring to learn that sales of comics have increased – I tend to read contemporary literary fiction and mysteries, but I cheer for reading of all genres.

I will add a personal note and recommend a shop for comic books, manga, and graphic novels; if you are in Toronto, stop by The Beguiling.  Check out their website which even includes reviews:  And even if you are not near Toronto, you can have your favourites shipped to you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Summer Reading Suggestions from Great Britain

 On July 2, I posted some summer reading lists from Canada:
On July 4, I followed with lists from American sources:

I’ve also come across a list from Great Britain.  The Guardian newspaper has issued their best books for the summer.  Various writers were asked to contribute their recommendations for summer reading and these were issued in two articles this past weekend:
Find out what 65+ writers (e.g. Julian Barnes, Anthony Doerr, Louise Doughty, Mark Haddon, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rachel Joyce, Colm Tóibín) are reading.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Happy birthday, Jhumpa Lahiri! Review of THE LOWLAND

Today, July 11, is the 49th birthday of Jhumpa Lahiri so I thought I’d post a review from my archives of her novel, The Lowland.

3 Stars
I chose this book because it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, but I was disappointed with it. It left me cold.

Two Bengali brothers grow up in Calcutta in the 1960s and ‘70s. Though emotionally close, they are very different and choose different paths. Subhash, the elder, is cautious and strives “to minimize his existence, as other animals merged with bark or blades of grass,” while Udayan is daring and “blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colors” (11). Subhash becomes a scientist who emigrates to the U.S. while Udayan becomes involved with a radical political group and defies his family by marrying Gauri, an independent-thinking woman. Udayan’s decision to take part in violent acts of insurrection has a devastating impact on his family, as does Subhash’s decision to “rescue” his sister-in-law from a “joyless house” (115). The majority of the novel is a long and painful examination of the consequences of these decisions.

My disappointment with the book stems from its characters; it contains a cast of not very interesting characters. Subhash has the positive traits: he is responsible, loving, and capable. Unfortunately, he is dull. The charismatic brother is irresponsible and selfish; by his own admission, he lies to and manipulates those he loves. “Udayan had given his life to a movement that had been misguided, that had caused only damage, that had already been dismantled. The only thing he’d altered was what their family had been” (115).

Gauri is the least sympathetic character. She suffers from what could be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but her thoughts are not given in sufficient depth. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, she makes a decision regarding her family which seems inappropriate for someone suffering from grief and guilt and which removes any sympathy a reader might have felt. Even when she is first introduced, she doesn’t behave as one would expect a person intelligent enough to study philosophy to behave. For example, she agrees to help Udayan by passing on information to sympathizers and by observing the movements of a policeman, but never really questions the significance of what she is doing: “She wondered exactly how she was contributing” (292). Her ambivalence left me feeling ambivalent towards her.

All of the characters seem to experience feelings of isolation and not belonging. Subhash feels “doubly alone. Unable to fathom his future, severed from his past” (63). Gauri always feels like a foreigner (236). These feelings are understandable; the problem is that other feelings are never really examined so the characters feel flat. Furthermore, characters don’t evolve: they never express their emotions to those they love, and they don’t grow. Gauri has some insights about herself (242), but they are long in coming.

Having harped about characterization, I must admit that the novel does develop worthy themes. For instance, there are discussions of time and memory (151 – 152). Unfortunately, the weak/superficial characterization overshadows the novel’s strengths.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Shirley Jackson Awards Winners

On May 9, I posted about the Shirley Jackson Awards which are given for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.  Today the winners were announced. 

The winner in the Novel category is a Canadian, Gemma Files, for Experimental Film.
 “Fired at almost the same time as her son Clark's Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, former film critic turned teacher Lois Cairns is caught in a depressive downward spiral, convinced she's a failure who's spent half her adult life writing about other people's dreams without ever seeing any of her own come true. One night Lois attends a program of experimental film and emerges convinced she's seen something no one else has - a sampled piece of silver nitrate silent film footage whose existence might prove that an eccentric early 20th-century socialite who disappeared under mysterious circumstances was also one of Canada's first female movie-makers.
“Though it raises her spirits and revitalizes her creatively, Lois's headlong quest to discover the truth about Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb almost immediately begins to send her much further than she ever wanted to go, revealing increasingly troubling links between her subject's life and her own. Slowly but surely, the malign influence of Mrs. Whitcomb's muse begins to creep into every aspect of Lois's life, even placing her son in danger. But how can one increasingly ill and unstable woman possibly hope to defeat a threat that's half long-lost folklore, half cinematically framed hallucination - an existential nightmare made physical, projected off the screen and into real life?” (

A Canadian also won in the Edited Anthology category:  Aickman’s Heirs edited by Simon Strantzas.

The awards, voted upon by a jury of professional writers, editors, critics, and academics, are given for the best work published in the preceding calendar year in the following categories:  Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Single-Author Collection, and Edited Anthology.  For winners in all the categories, go to

Happy birthday, Alice Munro!

Today, July 10, is Alice Munro’s 85th birthday.  Everyone knows this Canadian writer; she’s a literary legend.  In 2013 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, being recognized as a "master of the contemporary short story."

She has 14 original short story collections:
Dance of the Happy Shades – 1968 (winner of the 1968 Governor General's Award for Fiction)
Lives of Girls and Women – 1971
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You – 1974
Who Do You Think You Are? – 1978 (winner of the 1978 Governor General's Award for Fiction and short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1980)
The Moons of Jupiter – 1982 (nominated for a Governor General's Award)
The Progress of Love – 1986 (winner of the 1986 Governor General's Award for Fiction)
Friend of My Youth – 1990
Open Secrets – 1994 (nominated for a Governor General's Award)
The Love of a Good Woman – 1998 (winner of the 1998 Giller Prize)
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – 2001
Runaway – 2004 (winner of the Giller Prize and Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize)
The View from Castle Rock – 2006
Too Much Happiness – 2009
Dear Life – 2012

In her honour, CBC Books has compiled a list entitled “85 fascinating Alice Munro facts for her 85th birthday” (  Actually, if you go to, you will find all sorts of interesting information about our revered author, including her favourite books.  You can listen to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with her and even sign a birthday card for her.  (Thank you CBC Books.)

And if you happen not to have read this author, check out this article, "Where to Start with Literary Bliss:  An Alice Munro Primer" (

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Review of DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg

4 Stars
I came across this title last year when it appeared on the longlist of the Man Booker Prize, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now, after a friend recommended it.  I’m glad I read it, though I understand why it didn’t make the shortlist.

June Reid loses her entire family on the eve of her daughter’s wedding.  Lost in a fire caused by an explosion are her daughter Lolly; Lolly’s fiancé, Will Landis; June’s much-younger romance interest, Luke Morey; and June’s ex-husband, Adam.  June feels like an untouchable, “Not from scorn or fear, but from the obscenity of the loss.  It was inconsolable, and the daunting completeness of it – everyone, gone – silenced even those most used to calamity.”  A reporter asks June how she’s surviving and she replies, “No one survived.”  The magnitude of her loss leaves June emotionally overwhelmed with grief and guilt and she runs, driving away from Connecticut and finally taking shelter in a motel on the Pacific Coast.

The novel, however, is not just June’s story.  From multiple viewpoints we see the reactions of a number of people, all connected in some way to the victims or their families.  Besides June, we hear from/about Luke’s mother, Will’s father, one of Luke’s teenaged employees, the wedding florist, the wedding caterer, the owners and the cleaner of the motel, and George whose connection to the tragedy is initially unclear.  Some sections are narrated in first person and others, in third person; some sections describe the present and others, the past. 

The book becomes a series of character studies.  We learn the back stories of virtually everyone, even the secondary characters.  As would be expected, it is the parents who are most developed as more and more details emerge.  Lydia, Luke’s mother, emerges as the most memorable.  Unfortunately, the characters given first person narratives all sound similar since there is little differentiation among the voices.

The book is also a study of grief.  There is a quiet, understated tone throughout, a tone most apt to convey the numbness experienced by those grieving.  Sometimes silence conveys the depth of one’s grief better than words:  one character observes that “There are no words precise enough to describe how wide and empty the world is when you lose someone that matters to you” and Will’s father mentions learning that “grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.”

And how does one get through grief?  The question posed by characters and the reader is “How do you recover from that?  How would you even begin?”   Luke’s mother concludes, “Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part. . . . Someone down the line might need to know you got through it.  Or maybe someone you won’t see coming will need you. . . . And it might be you never know the part you played, what it meant to someone to watch you make your way each day.  Maybe someone or something is watching us all make our way.  I don’t think we get to know why.”

The book is not flawless.  I found it very difficult to believe that Luke’s mother acted as she did towards her son when he was a teenager, though there are news stories describing extreme non-maternal behaviour.  The unsent letter that is discovered near the end seems too convenient.  Some of the epiphanies experienced by characters are forced and trite, and many of these epiphanies are announced the same way for different characters:  “Funny how disasters can make you see what you could lose” (Rick) and “Funny . . . how things change when you look at them with older eyes” (Lydia) and “Funny how you think people are one way or the other and most of the time you end up completely wrong” (Rebecca) and “It’s funny to think that the wind has a shape but it does” (Lolly) and “The truth will set you freeFunny, she thinks . . . “(Lydia).  And don’t get me started on why there’s no question mark at the end of that awkward title!

Despite its weaknesses, this book is still a worthwhile read.  The depth of its character development and its authentic examination of people experiencing unimaginable sorrow will remain with you. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Shakespeare in Art

In this year marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I have posted about a number of books about the playwright and his plays and poetry.  Today I thought I’d feature the Shakespeare book from Schatje’s Shelves which I probably browse most often:  Shakespeare in Art by Jane Martineau et al.

Here’s a summary of the book from the flyleaf: 
“Shakespeare is one of the most influential writers of all time, but it was the rediscovery of his work in the eighteenth century that was a key factor in launching the Romantic movement.  At the height of the Shakespeare craze of the early nineteenth century a handful of plays--Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet--created the mindset of a generation, affecting every artist, writer, composer and politician in Europe. Shakespeare in Art tells the remarkable story of how one of many Elizabethan dramatists, for centuries virtually unknown outside England, became a truly European author, inspiring German nationalist thinkers, French dramatists, Italian opera composers, Russian novelists and painters everywhere. Everyone agreed that the plays were untranslatable and yet everyone tried to translate them.
“Shakespeare in Art looks especially at the huge variety of painters who made Shakespeare's extremes of passion, his evocations of nature, his spirit world and his eternally familiar characters the subjects of their own work. Also explored is the influence of Shakespeare on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, theatre, music and printmaking.”

The book includes 11 in-depth essays by ten different contributors. One of my favourite is “Shakespeare and Music” by John Warrack (pp. 40 – 47).  But the highlight of the book is 88 full-page, colour reproductions of artworks.  Each plate is accompanied by particulars about the plate and an explanatory text.  21 of Shakespeare’s plays are represented. 

This is a book to treasure and savour.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review of THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

2.5 Stars

I chose this book because it appeared on a number of summer reading lists.  My conclusion is that it is indeed a book for the beach – entertaining but not requiring much thought.

The Plumb siblings expect an inheritance meant to be divided amongst the four of them when Melody, the youngest, turns 40.  Unfortunately, a few months before her birthday, Leo, the eldest Plumb, makes some choices that have disastrous consequences; to avoid publicity, the Plumb matriarch depletes the nest egg so there is only $50,000 for each rather than the $500,000 expected.  The problem, of course, is that they have pre-spent their anticipated portions, so they must now figure out how to deal with their financial problems.

The story is about four privileged, entitled adults who have built their lives on the promise of a trust fund.  I found it difficult to identify with any of them or to feel any sympathy for them.  They have only themselves to blame.  Leo is the most irresponsible but all are self-absorbed and shallow.  And they keep believing Leo’s lies because of his charm and charisma though he has repeatedly shown himself to be unreliable and selfish!  Their problems are definitely what one character identifies as “’luxury problems.’”  Their preoccupations make them blind to their advantages.

Obviously, the siblings have to learn a lesson.  Could it be that it is not wise to “count the chickens before they hatched”?  Could it be that with hard work and realistic ambitions, they can achieve their goals without relying on an inheritance?  Could it be that there are more important things in life than money (e.g. family, love)?  Can you guess that this is not a complex novel?

Apparently, the author received a million-dollar advance on the book, but I don’t understand why.  There are some humourous sections where the author pokes fun at the foibles of the four siblings and other idle rich New Yorkers, and the narrative is entertaining.  But there is nothing exceptional about the writing, and the ending is predictable and sentimental.

Pick up this book only if you want an unchallenging, feel-good read.

Monday, July 4, 2016

For July 4: Summer Reading Lists from the U.S.

Because I’ve been celebrating Canada Day, I’ve posted about Canadian books and Canadian summer reading lists.  I do, however, read reviews in a number of American publications.  On July 4, Independence Day in the U.S., I thought I’d mention the summer reading lists from 5 American sources:

Kirkus Reviews has two lists.  One is entitled “10 Summer Reads Everyone is Talking About”:  And though many book clubs do not meet over the summer, Kirkus Reviews also offers 11 summer reads for book clubs:

The Boston Globe suggests 80 books in different categories (fiction, non-fiction, mystery, and sports):

The Chicago Tribune offers 30 suggestions:

The New York Times recommends 18 books, some new, some not so:

And the Washington Post has also released a list:

Of course, I hope you’ll peruse my reviews on this blog for suggestions for good reads – in the summer or anytime of the year.

Happy July 4th to all my American readers!

Sunday, July 3, 2016


3.5 Stars

This psychological thriller is bizarre.  Beyond knowing this, the reader might be wise to just read the book before reading my analysis or any other book review because there will be inadvertent revelations in any discussion of this book.

Ostensibly the book is about a girl driving with her boyfriend Jake to meet his parents at the family farm.  She, the narrator, remains unnamed.  Her relationship with Jake is fairly new, but she is thinking of ending it.  An awkward visit with the parents is followed by the drive home in a snow storm with a detour to an empty high school where things become really strange.  And then there’s the ending which reveals that nothing is as it seemed.  The ending invites the reader to re-read the book from a different perspective:  “You should read it.  But maybe start at the end.  Then circle back.”

I did re-read it and certainly understood more than I did on my first reading.  I could probably go back and read it again, but more books await, and I’ve lost interest in puzzling this one out any more.  Admittedly, the second reading made me appreciate the many subtle clues dispersed throughout.  The author must be commended for being able to write in such a way that statements can have two different meanings right from the beginning:   “I’m thinking of ending things.  Once this thought arrives, it stays.  It sticks.  It lingers.  It dominates.  There’s not much I can do about it.” 

This book will appeal to readers who enjoy books who leave them feeling uneasy because things just don’t feel right.  The information given about Jake suggests he is an unusual person.  After all, who would want a trivia team to be called Ipseity, “just another way to say selfhood or individuality,” because “there are many of us but we aren’t like any other team.  And because we play under a single team name, it creates an identity of oneness”?  He calls his girlfriend “therapeutic”?  He claims a childhood photo is of him, but the girlfriend says, “It doesn’t look like Jake.  Not at all.  It looks like a little girl.  More precise: it looks like me.”  Who keeps an envelope labelled “Us” with close-up photos of body parts?  Yet, despite his oddities, the girlfriend feels “a real connection, a rare and intense attachment”?  Obviously, all of these statements are clues to what is really going on.  And, of course, it’s not only Jake who is quirky; there are other strange characters. 

The setting is also used to create suspense.  The family farm is remote, and its deteriorating state with its animal carcasses adds to the sense of unease.  The farm’s isolation is emphasized when Jake and his girlfriend drive through a storm on the way home.  It was a dark and stormy night . . .   The girlfriend’s anxiety is passed on to the reader, especially when she makes statements like, “I’m scared.  I feel a little crazy.  I’m not lucid . . .  I can feel my fear growing.”  Most interesting, at one point, the author even tells the reader how he is creating suspense:  “My story is not like a movie . . . It’s not heart-stopping or intense or bloodcurdling or graphic or violent.  No jump scares.  To me, these qualities aren’t usually scary.  Something that disorients, that unsettles what’s taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality – that’s scary.”

The book is really about how we cannot really know each other.  The girlfriend wants “someone to know me, really know me, almost like that person could get into my head.”   She realizes, however, that “We’re never inside someone else’s head.  We can never really know someone else’s thoughts.  And it’s thoughts that count.  Thought is reality.  Actions can be faked.”  And “We can’t and don’t know what others are thinking.  We can’t and don’t know what motivations people have for doing the things they do.  Ever.  Not entirely.”  

The novel also addresses the importance of memories and stories.  “Stories based on actual events often share more with fiction than fact.  Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold.  They’re both forms of stories.  Stories are the way we learn.  Stories are how we understand each other.”

If you are a reader who is a cruciverbalist and enjoys elaborate metaphors and symbols, this book is for you.  Be prepared to not “understand the [novel’s] world through rationality, not entirely . . . [but] to accept, reject, and discern through symbols [which are] important to our understanding of life, our understanding of existence and what has value, what’s worthwhile . . . ”  And when you’re done, why not read Pincher Martin by William Golding?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Summer Reading Lists from Canada

Summer has well and truly arrived so it’s time for summer reading lists.  A number of such lists have been released.

Being Canadian, of course, I like a Canadian perspective.  CBC Books has two lists, a general list ( and a list of mysteries (   I also like 49th Shelf which focuses solely on Canadian books:

Of course, I hope you’ll peruse my reviews on this blog for suggestions for good reads – in the summer or anytime of the year.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Canadian Books for Canada Day

Today is Canada Day, the 149th birthday of the greatest country in the world.  I certainly won the birthday lottery when I was born in this country.

Obviously, it’s a great day to read some Canadian authors, and our national broadcaster has useful lists to help us select great Canadian books.

A couple of years ago, CBC Books compiled a list of 100 books that make us proud to be Canadian:  I’ve read about half of the titles on the list so if I were to make a list of my own 100 must-read Canadian novels, it would include many of these.  (I’ll make that list one of my projects for Canada’s 150th birthday.)  Some of the authors who appear have several novels which I would recommend.

Last year, CBC Books added a list of 100 must-read young adult fiction (, and this year compiled a list of 100 non-fiction books: