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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Voynich Manuscript

Until a week ago, I had never heard of the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval manuscript  named after the Polish-American book dealer who bought it in 1912 (though ownership can be traced back to the 16th century).

It came into the news when it was announced that a small publishing house in northern Spain - Siloe – which specializes in very small runs of carefully re-created manuscripts has secured the right to replicate the document.  Siloe will release 898 volumes and sell them for about €8,000.

The 246-page quarto is written in an unknown, apparently encrypted language and is illustrated with imaginary plants, strange astrological charts, and drawings of nude women.  Carbon dating indicates that the parchment dates to the early 15th century. To protect the book, the only copy is locked away at Yale University.

Countless cryptographers have dedicated themselves to deciphering the language but to no avail.  Some people have apparently devoted years to trying to solve the puzzle.  “Those familiar with the manuscript say it should come with a warning. ‘The Voynich Manuscript has led some of the smartest people down rabbit holes for centuries,’ Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit curator Bill Sherman told The Washington Post in 2014. He was about to open a new exhibit featuring the book:  I think we need a little disclaimer form you need to sign before you look at the manuscript, that says, ‘Do not blame us if you go crazy’” (

There is the possibility that the manuscript is a hoax, though one study has argued that this is unlikely because the manuscript does follow the structural patterns of language — based on linguistic theories that were unknown in the 1500s.

If you, like I, will not be able to afford one of Siloe’s replicas, the Yale University Press has a printed facsimile being printed this fall.  And a digitized version is available through the Yale University Library's website ( 

Various news sources have written about this story if it intrigues you:

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Television Adaptation of THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

The BBC announced the other day that it will be making a six-part television series of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, who was born in Canada but raised in New Zealand: Catton will be writing the BBC adaptation, which will be six one-hour episodes.

The novel won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.  I posted my review of it last year:  It’s a big book (832 pages) but filming will not begin until next year so you have plenty of time to read it.  I’m a firm believer in reading a book before seeing its film adaptation. 

And if you are in the mood to watch other film adaptations, CBC Books has an interesting list of ten Canadian book-to-movie adaptations:

Monday, August 29, 2016

Literary Fiction and Emotional Intelligence

On August 15, I blogged about how research has shown that readers live longer (  Now a study has shown that people who regularly read literary fiction possess more emotional intelligence in that they understand others’ emotions better.

Researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano from the New School for Social Research in New York recently published their findings in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.  They found that those who were more familiar with literary fiction authors were better at inferring others’ feelings, a faculty known as theory of mind.

In their paper entitled “Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalising,” genre fiction is defined “by its focus on a particular topic and reliance on relatively formulaic plots”, while literary fiction is defined “more by its aesthetic qualities and character development than its focus on plot or a particular set of topics and themes”.

“Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of theory of mind, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, undergraduate major … and self-reported empathy,” they write in the paper.  “We propose that these findings emerge because the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.”

“The academics are keen to stress that they are not claiming a superiority for literary fiction. ‘What we are saying is that there are different ways of telling a story, and they have different impacts on the way we perceive social reality,’ said Castano. . . . ‘This is not to say that reading popular genre fiction cannot be enjoyable or beneficial for other reasons – we suspect it is,” agreed Kidd. . . . ‘Instead, it suggests that the broad distinction between relatively complex literary and relatively formulaic genre fiction can help us better understand how engaging with fiction affects how we think’” (

When I was a teacher, I often discussed the differences between what I called escapist and interpretive fiction.  I argued that interpretive fiction was better because it required the reader to think and analyze more, though escapist literature had its role.  My point was that a steady diet of only escapist literature was the equivalent of a steady diet of fast food.  I wish I’d had this study to reference because it suggests what I was arguing for years!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Food in Literature

Yesterday I posted about clothing in literature so I thought some discussion of food in books was apropos.  Some book clubs include food that is somehow relevant to the book being discussed.  I found an article in which a chef discusses preparing edible masterpieces from literature.  Chef Evan Hanczor encourages people to make their own literary meals:  “If you’ve never cooked and eaten a dish from a favorite book, do it.  Nearly any great book has moments of food in it, not just because characters have to eat, but because our relationship with food exposes so much about our identities, cultures, time, and place. What author forsakes a tool that can explore all that?”  ( 

Anyone interested in food in literature has any number of books to peruse:
Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature's Most Memorable Meals by Dinah Fried offers photographic interpretations of culinary moments from contemporary and classic literature.

Literary Feasts: Recipes from the Classics of Literature by Barbara Scrafford sets down recipes for foods mentioned in literature and includes essays which define the role of food in each of the literary works.

The Book Lover's Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature and the Passages That Feature Them by Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Jensen needs no explanation since the title is so clear.

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books by Cara Nicoletti serves up stories and recipes inspired by beloved books and the food that gives their characters depth and personality.

There are also cookbooks which focus on specific authors:
I once gave a friend of mine, a fan of Charles Dickens, The Charles Dickens Cookbook by Brenda Marshall.
There are several Shakespeare cookbooks:  The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew and Maureen Dalby, and Cooking with Shakespeare by Mark Morton and Andrew Coppolino, and Shakespeare's Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook by Francine Segan.

A favourite literary cookbook from Schatje’s Shelves is The CanLit Foodbook:  From Pen to Palate – a Collection of Tasty Literary Fare compiled and illustrated by Margaret Atwood.  It contains extracts from Canadian prose and poetry on the subject of various foods and recipes from more than 100 Canadian writers.  Included are recipes for Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse, Margaret Laurence’s Cauliflower Soup, Quick Baked Monster Cookies à la Dennis Lee, and Margaret Atwood’s Bourbon Pecan Christmas Cake.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Clothing in Literature

I’m not what would be called a clothes horse, but I have friends who are very passionate about clothes and style.  One of those fashion lovers is an avid reader and says she always notices what characters wear.  I seldom pay much attention, but then I came across an essay entitled “Clothes in Books and Ways to Go Wrong” by Rosa Lyster.  She argues, “Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked.  Done right, clothes are everything -- a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image” (  She makes an interesting argument; I will make a point of noticing more closely how writers clad their characters. 

This essay reminded me of a Warehouse Tour I took at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  The Warehouse Tour allows people to see one of the world’s largest collections of costumes; costumes have been archived since the conception of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and over 55,000 pieces have been gathered.  There are over 10,000 boots and shoes pairs.  The Festival Theatre’s Backstage Tour allows people to see milliners, shoemakers, and sewers at work.  The Festival prides itself on accurately using clothing appropriate to the time period of each play so anyone interested in clothing in drama should definitely take both tours.  And, of course, see a couple of plays too!  The official website is

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


3 Stars
The High Mountains of Portugal: A Novel by [Martel, Yann]
This novel has received rave reviews, but mine is not one of those.  Perhaps I’m just not intelligent enough to fathom its depths.

The book is actually three linked novellas, though the links are sometimes rather tenuous.  In the first part set in 1904, Tomás is a grieving young man who takes a road trip to the high mountains of Portugal to search for a religious relic.  In the second part set in 1938, a pathologist, Dr. Lozora, listens to a long monologue and then performs an autopsy at the request of Maria Castro, a widow from the high mountains of Portugal, an autopsy which reveals how her husband lived.  The last part is about a Canadian senator, Peter Tovy, who moves to his ancestral home in the high mountains of Portugal and brings with him a chimpanzee named Odo. 

Each of the three stories has sections that are ever so tedious.  Throughout Tomás’ story, there is detailed information about the driving of one of the first automobiles in the country.  Dr. Lozora has a lengthy conversation about the parallels between storytelling, especially the mysteries of Agatha Christie, and religious scripture.  And Peter’s story includes painstaking detail about his developing relationship with Odo. 

What is the book about?  Most obviously, it is about death and how the living survive the loss of a great love.  All three protagonists are widowers who struggle with life after the deaths of their wives.  Tomás has lost his father, wife and son and he decides to thereafter walk backwards:  “in walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving.  He is objecting.  Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object” (12)?  He sets out to find an unusual religious artifact which Tomás describes as impressive:  “’People will stare at it, their mouths open.  It will cause an uproar.  With this object I’ll give God His comeuppance for what He did to the ones I love’” (84).  Dr. Lozora loses himself in his work and in conversations with a ghost.  Peter, on a whim, rescues a chimpanzee and then realizes he needs to relocate to “a quiet spot, with lots of space and few people” so he returns to his ancestral homeland in rural Portugal with his new companion.

Martel, when asked what the book is about, replied, “’It's what I call a literary examination of faith.  It's in three parts, and each one has a different emotional tone.  So if you really want to simplify, part one is atheism, part two is agnostism, part three is belief’” (  In keeping with this explanation, it is noteworthy that the first part is entitled “Homeless”; the second, “Homeward”; and the third, “Home”.  Since Peter, in the third story, is the one who most closely heals his broken heart and achieves a sense of contentment, Martel’s suggestion seems to be that man needs to return to nature and believe in the interconnectedness between man and animals and maybe even the superiority of animals. 

In Life of Pi, a Bengal tiger is a major character; in this novel, it’s a chimpanzee.  Odo is a major character in the last story, but chimpanzees are mentioned in crucial events in the other stories as well.  (Unfortunately, Tomás’ epiphany about “risen apes” (131) made me think of Planet of the Apes.)  Martel’s message seems to be that we must stop thinking of ourselves as superior to animals; we too are animals, “random animals” (131) as Tomás identifies, and we must embrace animals as part of our lives, as Maria Castro’s arms “encircle both the chimpanzee and the bear cub” (209), and we must, like Peter, take the “movement down to Odo’s so-called lower status” and learn “the difficult animal skill of doing nothing . . . to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself. . . . being in a state of illuminated, sitting-by-the-river repose” (300).  Martel has spoken of animals possessing echoes of the divine in their ability to live in the present moment, and Peter speaks of being “touched by the grace of the ape, and there’s no going back to being a plain human being” (300).  In that respect, salvation is indeed found in the depiction of Christ that Tomás seeks. 

Of course, I could be totally wrong.  There is a great deal of ambiguity and quirkiness so I often felt lost searching for significance and trying to find thematic links.  If I re-read the novel, I would perhaps understand the book better, but I didn’t enjoy the book enough to want to read it a second time.  I like thought-provoking literary fiction, but this book is too vague, disjointed and mystifying for my taste.  There are touches of humour, especially in the first section, but they don’t make up for the boring bits.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Best Cities for Book Lovers

I came across an interesting article about how various cities around the world stack up when it comes to the number of books stores and libraries to be found within their boundaries. 

Every year the World Cities Culture Forum collects information on how people consume culture around the world. Amongst other information, the forum asks its partner cities to self-report on cultural institutions and consumption, including where people can get books.

Hong Kong as the most bookstores - 21 per 100,000 people, and Edinburgh offers the most libraries -  60.5 for every 100,000 people. 

The one Canadian city in the survey – Toronto – has 13.9 bookstores and 3.9 libraries per 100,000 people.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dorothy Parker Witticisms

Were she still alive, today would have been Dorothy Parker’s 123rd birthday.  A poet, short story writer, literary critic, and screenwriter, she is best remembered for her wit.  In her honour, I thought I’d list my Top Ten:

“Don't look at me in that tone of voice.”

“You can't teach an old dogma new tricks.”

"I like best to have one book in my hand, and a stack of others on the floor beside me, so as to know the supply of poppy and mandragora will  not run out before the small hours."

“Of course I talk to myself. I like a good speaker, and I appreciate an intelligent audience.”

“Never complain, never explain.”

“A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

“Their pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon.”

“This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

“What fresh hell is this?”

Then there are the ones I used when teaching creative writing classes:
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
“Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”
“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
“I think that the direction in which a writer should look is around.”
“I hate writing, I love having written.”

And I wish I could write book reviews as she did:
"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly.  It should be thrown aside with great force."
"He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing."
"I find her anecdotes  more efficacious than sheep-counting, rain on a tin roof, or alanol tablets . . . you will find me and Morpheus, off in the corner, necking."
"I know that an author must be brave enough to chop away clinging tentacles of good taste for the sake of a great work.  But this is no great work, you see."
“The plot is so tired that even this reviewer, who in infancy was let drop by a nurse with the result that she has ever since been mystified by amateur coin tricks, was able to guess the identity of the murderer from the middle of the book.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Canadian Prime Ministers and Reading

Yesterday's post was about American Presidents and their reading habits, so, today, I thought I’d discuss Canadian Prime Ministers and their books.

Our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has a B.A. in English Literature, names Stephen King as his favourite author, lists reading as one of his pastimes, and would welcome a pen pal from abroad by taking him/her to the library on Parliament Hill (   He has also written a book, Common Ground, a memoir (without a co-writer); all proceeds from sales are donated to the domestic programs of the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Our previous Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was not known for reading extensively.  Apparently, he named The Guinness Book of World Records as his favourite book, though he did write one about the history of hockey:  A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & the Rise of Professional Hockey

Harper did inspire a writer, Yann Martel, best known as the author of Life of Pi to start what he called “the loneliest book club in the world.”   From 2007 until 2011, Martel sent our former prime minister a book every two weeks – a total of more than one hundred novels, poetry collections, plays, graphic novels and children’s books.  Each gift was accompanied by a letter discussing the worth of the book and exploring the importance of reading not only as a pleasure but as an essential way of knowing the world and understanding life. 

Martel began his quest to boost Harper’s love of literature after Martel and a delegation acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts, which fosters the cultural identity of Canadians, were ignored by the prime minister when they visited the House of Commons in March 2007.  Martel gave clear justification for his one-sided book club:  “As long as someone has no power over me, I don't care what they read, or if they read at all... But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do.”  Over the duration of his one-sided book club, Martel received five responses from the Prime Minister’s Office, but none from Harper himself.

The letters were published in book form in 2012:  101 Letters to a Prime Minister:  The Complete Letters to Stephen Harper For a complete list of the books that Martel recommended, go to

Saturday, August 20, 2016

American Presidents (and Presidential Candidates) and Reading

Yesterday, I posted about books that might help people understand what is going on in the United States presidential election.  Today I thought I’d mention what those who actually won such an election read. 

Recently, President Barack Obama released his summer reading list.  There are five books on that list, totally over 2,000 pages:

The Guardian recently had a short article on the reading habits of previous presidents  (  For example, JFK enjoyed Bond, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush were Tolstoy fans, Ronald Reagan favoured westerns, and Bill Clinton loved mysteries.   I was surprised to learn that George W. Bush averaged two books per week.

As for the current candidates, Hillary Clinton, a couple of years ago, was interviewed about her reading habits.  She mentioned a number of favourite authors:  “I will read anything by Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver, John le Carré, John Grisham, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Anna Quindlen and Alice Walker. And I love series that follow particular characters over time and through their experiences, so I automatically read the latest installments from Alex Berenson, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Katherine Hall Page, Louise Penny, Daniel Silva, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear” (

Donald Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t read, claiming he has no time.  “Trump’s desk is piled high with magazines, nearly all of them with himself on their covers, and each morning, he reviews a pile of printouts of news articles about himself that his secretary delivers to his desk. But there are no shelves of books in his office, no computer on his desk” (  The Washington Post article goes on:  “Trump said he has mastered the world of books; working with co-writers, he has published more than a dozen, most of them autobiographical or in the business-advice genre.”  And not reading doesn’t keep him from having strong opinions:  “Trump has no shortage of strong opinions even about books he has not read. He told The Washington Post that he has not read four biographies written about him, yet he called three of the authors of those books ‘lowlifes,’ and he sued one of them for libel.”

To the problem of being too busy, Trump might be interested in the response of Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi:  “We’re all busy.  Meditating monks in their cells are busy.  That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing.  (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.)  But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table.  In that space, at night, a book can glow.  And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep.”

A President that doesn't read worries me; I believe in what Dr. Seuss said: "The more that you read, the more things you will know."

Friday, August 19, 2016

Writers and the American Presidential Election

These days it is impossible to read newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch television news without being bombarded to the latest about the American election.  Certainly Trump’s misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic comments can’t be avoided. 

The British newspaper, The Guardian, recently featured an article in which a dozen writers recommend books which might help people understand the U. S. Election.  The article has some wonderful commentary on the Republican candidate: 

“Trump is not charismatic. He is artless and politically clumsy, and wears his egotism on his sleeve. Nor is Trump mesmerising, except in the sense that a train wreck is mesmerising. . . . Trump can’t string a single grammatical sentence together, and at the podium he is lumpen and awkward.” (Lionel Shriver)

“There is something called historical truth.  Trump is not post-factual. He’s non-factual.” (David Hare)

“A property developer who made a fortune from luxury condos and golf courses, Trump now presents himself as the voice of the silenced white masses.” (Rich Benjamin)

“The idea that someone in service to the American worship of wealth could through sheer force of will drive himself near to the top is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s morality play [The Great Gatsby]. The world that he envisioned was one in which character was increasingly sacrificed for wealth – and that is the world that Trump embodies, and which he would like to rule.”   (Sarah Churchill)

Like the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, Trump “blinds voters with sham opulence, terrifies them into submission, and promises to make their wishes come true.”   (Maya Jasanoff)

And then I came across an article from Poets & Writers magazine in which 50 American poets and writers offer advice to the next American president:   Interestingly, over a dozen of those writers address a female president!  That's probably just as well because Trump doesn't read; he has been quoted as saying he has no time to read.  "I never have," he has said.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review of I LET YOU GO by Clare Mackintosh

4 Stars
I Let You Go by [Mackintosh, Clare]If you are looking for a good psychological thriller to read this summer, this is it.

The novel begins with a hit-and-run accident in which 5-year-old Jacob is killed as his mother watches.  The mother withdraws into grief and guilt because she let go of her son’s hand as he crossed the street.  In Part I, there are alternating chapters from two different points of view.  In third person narration, we follow the investigation into the case led by Detective Inspector Ray Stevens and his team.  In first person narration, we follow Jenna Gray who flees home in the accident’s aftermath; she rents an isolated cottage in Wales and slowly tries to rebuild a life for herself.  Then, in Part II, the reader is introduced to the voice of a third character after a major plot twist.

There is also a subplot in which Ray Stevens finds himself attracted to a new colleague Kate while his wife has to deal with their son and his problems at school.  This secondary plot could be deleted without affecting the main plot, but it helps to develop the personality of the lead investigator. 

The writing is very clever.  There are a number of subtle evasions which will pique the reader’s interest and will have him/her guessing at what is really going on.  The plot twist that occurs midway through the book may leave readers feeling disoriented and re-reading the first part of the novel.  That plot twist is entirely credible.  Re-reading will just prove that the writer has not cheated:  all the clues are there.  There is another plot twist towards the end of the book that I did not find entirely credible.  It is just a tad over-the-top, relying on too much coincidence. 

After the description of the actual accident, the pace of the novel slows considerably.  The first part continues very leisurely, but it is necessary for full character development.  In the second part, the pace speeds up considerably and suspense builds and builds.  The ending with the type of final confrontation expected in this genre of books is predictable, but that will not stop readers from continuing to the final page.

The police investigation is very realistic.  The tediousness of some of the work is not dismissed like it is in television shows.  Considering that the author spent twelve years in the police force and investigated crimes, the realism of the investigation is not surprising. 

One problem I had was with acronyms.  There are statements like, “There have been no ANPR hits . . . [and] it hasn’t been declared SORN” and “No trace on PNC” which left me shaking my head in frustration.  For a North American reader, such British terminology can be confusing if not sufficiently explained.

This is a difficult book to review without revealing spoilers. It’s a wonderfully entertaining read which will have you playing detective.  You will have difficulty letting go of I Let You Go.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Readers Live Longer!

A study conducted by Yale University researchers has concluded that readers live longer.  Overall, the researchers calculated that book reading (but not necessarily newspapers, magazines or other sources of written material) was associated with an extra 23 months of survival.

“Previous studies have suggested reading is beneficial for mood, sleep and may even help delay Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive conditions, but the new study extends the benefits of reading to the rest of the body, researchers say”  (

“The researchers found that people who read books showed stronger cognitive abilities, like recall and counting backwards—skills that, combined with reading, showed a positive relationship with living longer. Avni Bavishi, the master’s student who led the study, believes it’s the deep engagement required by the narrative and characters of fiction, and the length of both fiction and nonfiction books, that increases cognitive skills and therefore extends lives” (

“Perhaps the news will encourage even more people to head to their local library or book store and get into books again. But for readers who already can’t wait to get cozy with a new book—or share their recommendations with other bookworms—there are plenty of other reasons to read. Whether it extends the life or not, reading extends the world of information and imagination, turning the act of reading itself into its own reward” (

Live to read and read to live.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Public Libraries: Essential for a Democracy

Library closures have come to my attention recently.  Back in April, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, in its provincial budget, announced that over half of its public libraries (54 of 95) would be closed in the next two years in order to save money.  There was great public outcry, and the government has suspended the closures until an operational review of public library services is completed by a consulting firm.

Closer to home, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Library Board recently voted to close 3 of its 18 libraries by the beginning of September.  One of those slated for closure is my local library in St. Andrews West.  The closures were announced without the public consultation which had been promised so people are obviously upset.  One Library Board member even resigned in protest.

Why are libraries often the first to be affected when financial cuts need to be made?  Perhaps people do not understand the value of public libraries. 

Public libraries encourage literacy.  They provide access to books in all genres and on any conceivable topic; if they don’t have a particular book, they will get it for you via interlibrary loan.  Audiobooks are usually available, useful for busy people who have little free time to read and a need for those with visual impairment.  Ebooks, DVDs (including those for very expensive interest courses with professional lectures geared towards lifelong learners), language-learning tools, and digital newspapers can be accessed. 

In our digital age, there are still people who do not own computers or reliable, unlimited internet access; libraries provide both.  They are the great equalizers, ensuring that everyone, regardless of economic status and area of residence, has equal access to accurate information. Equal access to correct information is, I think, a right in a democratic society.

As a former teacher-librarian, I know that there are many users who cannot search the internet correctly.  Most people simply select the top result in Google rather than ensuring that the source is reliable. Entries in Wikipedia are not always of high quality.  Librarians are trained in using the internet properly to find reliable information for patrons and can teach internet literacy skills.  Libraries also provide access to online encyclopaedias and research databases, reliable information sources which are not available without costly subscriptions.  Many libraries will have sections specializing in local history materials not available elsewhere. 

And then there’s the sense of community that libraries can help develop.  Many libraries provide meeting space for community groups.  (I will certainly miss my library’s book club - St. Andrews Lassies Book Club.)  Most libraries have specialized programs (e.g. teen services, children’s summer reading programs, seniors socials, craft nights, board game nights) which foster learning, provide fun, and facilitate social interaction and the formation of friendships.  (When I first moved to SD&G a couple of years ago, the local library’s book club gave me an opportunity to meet people from the area.)

If libraries are closed, we increase the likelihood of a society that is poorly equipped to succeed in our information age.   An ill- or misinformed society is a dangerous prospect for a democracy.  (I can’t help but make reference to the current American election and the need for fact-checking of political speeches.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review of THE CELLAR by Minette Walters

3 Stars
The Cellar: A Novel by [Walters, Minette]
It’s been a while since I’ve read Minette Walters whose psychological suspense novels I’ve always enjoyed.  This novella is as eerie and chilling as any of her other books.

The protagonist is Muna, a 14-year-old girl who has been held captive for six years.  She was illegally taken from an orphanage in West Africa and brought to London by an African immigrant couple, Yetunde and Ebuka Songoli.  Locked in a cellar, she has been beaten by Yetunde and raped by Ebuka.  She is malnourished and has been kept ignorant, allowed no contact with the world outside the house in which she is basically a slave.  When the youngest son of the family goes missing, Muna’s “fortunes changed for the better” because she is brought upstairs to pose as a brain-damaged daughter to avoid police suspicion.  As the investigation continues, Muna takes advantage of her improved status to take revenge on her abusive family.  She proves to be both more and less damaged than everyone thinks.

This book is really an examination of the effects of abuse.  When she starts taking what revenge she can, Muna tells her “parents” that “I am what you’ve made me. . . All I know is what you’ve taught me.”  She has never learned empathy since her own pain and suffering have allowed no room for concern for others:  “The feelings I have are the ones you’ve taught me.  If they aren’t human the fault is yours.”  And then there’s an observation:  “They had moulded Muna into mirrors of themselves yet they disliked their reflections.”

A weakness is characterization.  Muna’s behaviour is motivated and understandable considering her life, but the other members of the Songoli family have no redeeming qualities.  They all are repulsive and unsympathetic people, capable of the utmost cruelty.  Yetunde in particular becomes a caricature of evil.  I wanted some more nuanced characterization.

There is suspense, but it’s created mostly by wondering how Muna will carry out the next step in her plans for revenge and how will she evade detection.  There are some plot twists along the way as would be expected.  The ending is definitely a surprise and may leave the reader puzzled; it certainly moves the book more into the horror genre.  I was interested to learn that “The Cellar has a different ending for its US and Canadian editions because the publishers wanted it to be more redemptive” (  I obviously read the non-redemptive version.

Potential readers should be forewarned that the book delves into the dark side of the human psyche.  It is a short, quick read, but not always an easy read with its reminders of the pain humans are capable of inflicting on each other.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Newly Re-Issued Collection of Mavis Gallant Short Stories

I don’t know what it is about Canada but we do produce great short story writers!

A new Mavis Gallant collection is being re-issued today; Everyman’s Library is releasing Mavis Gallant: The Collected Stories  I believe it is a re-issue of The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant (1996).   

I don’t read short stories all the time, but I do like to read one or two between novels, so I love Gallant’s comments about reading shorter fiction:  “Stories are not chapters of novels.  They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along.  Read one.  Shut the book.  Read something else.  Come back later.  Stories can wait.”  (Gallant, Mavis.  The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant.  Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1996, p.xix.)

Because of the re-release of this collection of stories chosen by Gallant herself, The New Yorker featured a great article about Gallant’s writing entitled “Mavis Gallant’s Magic Tricks”:  From this site, you can also hear Margaret Atwood read “Voices Lost in Snow”, a 1976 story which first appeared in that magazine and is included in the book. 

I just re-read one of my favourite Gallant stories, “Irina” written in 1974.  It is a wonderful tale about Irina, a widow.  We are told about her deceased husband who dominated the lives of Irina and their five children.  Then we overhear a very revealing conversation between Irina and a friend, a conversation that suggests how little her children know about her life.  If you’re not familiar, with Gallant’s stories, I’d recommend this story as a great one with which to begin.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Happy birthday, Sarah Dunant! (Review of BLOOD AND BEAUTY)

Today is Sarah Dunant’s 66th birthday.  In honour of the day, I’m posting a review of her most recent novel, Blood and Beauty:  The Borgias.

3 Stars
Blood And Beauty by [Dunant, Sarah] 
The book covers the ten-year period between 1492 and 1502, beginning with Roderigo Borgia’s election as Pope Alexander VI and ending with Lucrezia’s third marriage. Once the family patriarch has ascended the Throne of Peter, he is concerned with consolidating his power: “For the Borgias to achieve the next rung of immortality the bricks and mortar must be human ones: sons and daughters, cousins, nieces and nephews, each one bringing another silken thread of loyalty and influence into the web of family, secure and powerful enough to run Rome and beyond” (67). To create his dynasty, the pope uses his progeny as pawns to arrange alliances and has no qualms about bending the rules and breaking agreements if necessary. Cesare, the eldest son, perhaps best summarizes the Borgia tactics when he argues in favour of causing outrage in society: “’The more outrage the better. This way people will fear us while we are alive and never – ever – forget us when we are dead’” (486).

Dunant obviously did considerable research in preparation for writing this work of historical fiction. The bibliography at the end of the book is extensive. She seems to have sifted through various books about this notorious family and then set out to write a realistic portrayal. She avoids some of the most salacious speculations which suggest incestuous relations between father and daughter and between Cesare and his sister.

The author is most successful in humanizing Lucrezia. She emerges as a fully rounded character who provokes both understanding and sympathy. She proves to be as intelligent as the men in her family and to possess more honour. At the beginning she is an innocent, romantic twelve-year-old but her experiences strip away her naivety. She realizes she is “’just a piece on a chessboard to be moved or taken when and where it suits [Borgia] ambitions’” (466) and learns to “roll her sorrow up into a small tight ball and swallow it deep down inside her” (316) until “her sorrow becomes strategy” (453). Gradually, she discovers “disobedience. She, who has been brought up to honor her family and to do everything she is told. She, who has asked only for two things directly in her life: that the two men for whom she felt affection should be spared, only to see both of them slaughtered” (455).

Her third marriage, to the Duke of Ferrara, she sees as an escape since she understands Cesare is correct when he says, “’Regardless of whom you marry, if your next husband is not powerful enough to take you away, you will always be a Borgia first and someone’s wife second. . . . the next marriage must be another kind of union; a legitimate ruler with real power, from a family with roots deep enough to withstand the gales of history’” (466). Dunant has planned “a concluding novel in a few years’ time” (504) and it will presumably explore whether Lucrezia’s marriage into such a family is happy and whether she is able to satisfy her yearning “to build a court of [her] own, poets and musicians around [her]” (466).

Cesare is the character who is least sympathetic. Even his father recognizes “the coldness in his soul” (68). He seems to have no positive qualities to fully redeem his viciousness and brutality, except a love for his sister, and that love often seems inappropriate. To emphasize that his love for Lucrezia is genuine, Dunant has him obsessing about being forgiven by her for killing her second husband; his last words to her in the novel express his desire to hear “’The words that say you love me and that I am forgiven’” (498).

This was an entertaining read, although sometimes the continual political machinations and changes in allegiances became somewhat confusing.  A knowledge of Italian history would be helpful in understanding the context of the novel. Having watched The Borgias, the television series starring Jeremy Irons, I found myself making comparisons with the two interpretations of the infamous Borgia family.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review of THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire

3 Stars
This is another book from the 2016 Man Booker longlist.  Unfortunately, it turned out not to be my type of book.

It is 1859 and the owner of the whaling ship Volunteer is putting together a crew.  Amongst that crew is Henry Drax, a harpooner who within the opening pages shows himself to be a murderer.  Also aboard is Patrick Sumner, a decent but weak man addicted to opium who serves as ship’s doctor.  The rest of the crew members are a rather unpleasant lot, and the trip soon becomes nightmarish with violence being routine.  And, as expected in the Arctic setting, there is soon a struggle for survival.

The main conflicts are good versus evil and man versus nature.  The cruelty of nature is matched, if not surpassed, by the savagery of the men.  The book immediately calls to mind Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but there are also echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.  Because of its blood and violence, it is reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel. 

It is the character of Henry Drax that is most memorable.  He is totally amoral.  He is described as a man with “fierce and sullen appetites.”  He is not burdened by his past, unlike Sumner, and he also “has no fear of the future, no sense of its power or meaning.”  He is motivated entirely by his compulsions; in a conversation with Sumner, Drax says, “’I’m a doer, not a thinker, me.  I follow my inclination.’”  Lying comes naturally to him:  “Words are just noises in a certain order, and he can use them any way he wishes.  Pigs grunt, ducks quack, and men tell lies.”  When he kills a polar bear, “Drax feels pleasure at this work, arousal, a craftsman’s sense of pride.  Death, he believes, is a kind of making, a kind of building up.  What was one thing, he thinks, is become something else.”  When asked about good and evil, he replies, “’Them’s just words’” and “’The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.’” 

But the novel is one of action, not one of character.  And there is definitely a lot of action, most of it very violent:  seals and whales are slaughtered, boys are sexually assaulted, a man’s arm is ripped away by a bear, men’s brains are bashed in.  This book is not for the faint-hearted because blood and gore abound.  The descriptions are very graphic:  “The air is filled with a fetid blast of butchery and excrement” and “The top portion of the Shetlander’s skull detaches and flies backwards against the steeply pitched canvas roof, leaving a broad red bull’s-eye and, around it, a fainter aureole of purplish brain matter” and “the back of Price’s head explodes in a brief carnation of blood and bone” and “The blocks of blubber they slice and peel away are miscolored and gelatinous – much more brown than pink.  Swung up onto the deck, they drip not blood, as usual, but some foul straw-colored coagulation like the unspeakable rectal oozings of a human corpse” and “As soon as he pierces the cavity wall, a pint or more of foul and flocculent pus, turbid and pinkish gray, squirts unhindered . . . The discharge is fibrinous, bloody, and thick as Cornish cream; it pulses out from the narrow opening like the last twitching apogee of a monstrous ejaculation.”

This is a novel about death, violence, betrayal, and depravity, all depicted in gruesome detail.  With its focus on man and nature’s destructiveness, it is not uplifting.  I will be truly surprised it this title makes it on the Man Booker shortlist.  

Saturday, August 6, 2016

World's Highest-Paid Writers

Forbes, the American business magazine, released a list of the world’s highest-paid authors:
James Patterson heads the list at $95 million (though of course he has co-writers that help him publish a dozen books a year); Jeff Kinney is second at $19.5 million; and J. K. Rowling comes in third at $19 million.  Can you guess who else makes the list?  How many of them have you read?

I wish all writers earned these type of figures!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Reading and the Olympics

The Summer Olympics in Rio begin today.  I’m not a sports fan, though I certainly do cheer on our athletes.  I thought about books I have read about the Olympics but the only one that came to mind was Chariots of Fire by W. J. Weatherby based on the screenplay by Colin Welland.  Of course everyone remembers that Oscar-winning film  –  the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice.

The British newspaper, The Guardian, just released a list of fiction they consider “literary accompaniments to the key Olympic sports” from archery to wrestling.  See the complete list at

CBC Books also has a list of suggested reading during the Olympics:

For a non-fiction perspective, see “Summer Olympics Primer: 10 Books for the Rio de Janeiro Games” at

And then there’s an article at which is really interesting.   Twenty writers from around the world answer four questions:
What event will you be following most closely during this year’s Summer Olympics in Brazil?
What sport has the most interesting literary tradition in your home country?
Which of your country’s athletes would make the most compelling hero/ine of a novel or subject of a biography?
Which Olympic sport is most like your experience of writing?

Finallly, if you’re interested in the future of the Olympic Games, check out what seven science-fiction writers predict:

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review of HIS BLOODY PROJECT by Graeme Macrae Burnet

4 Stars
I came across this title on the 2016 Man Booker longlist issued recently. 

The story is about a triple murder committed in 1869 on the west coast of Scotland.  The narrative is presented as a collection of documents:  statements to police; medical reports, including that of J. Bruce Thomson, a criminal anthropologist; the suspect’s account, written at the behest of his legal advocate; and an account of the trial, compiled from contemporary newspaper coverage. 

There is never any doubt that Roddy Macrae killed Lachlan Mackenzie and two of his family members.  Roddy confesses to the murders, offers no resistance to his arrest, and repeatedly states his willingness to accept punishment.  What is in doubt are his motivation and his state of mind at the time of the killings:  at the trial, Roddy’s advocate states, “What is at issue here are not the bare facts of the case, but the contents of a man’s mind.”  Roddy gives his reason for his actions but it seems rather weak, and there is doubt as to his sanity at the time. 

At the trial, statements are made that verify what Roddy claims in his account of what transpired, but there are also statements that contradict Roddy’s version.  These latter statements call into question Roddy’s reliability as a narrator:  Is he telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  The reader’s sympathies shift as conflicting information is offered.  In the end, the reader is left to reach his/her own verdict. 

The book asks whether it is possible to actually know another person’s mind.  Roddy’s father states, “’One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.’”  The criminal anthropologist agrees:  “And I wondered if there might have been some inadvertent truth in the crofter’s remark about the difficulty to determining the contents of another man’s mind.”   There are even suggestions that Roddy does not fully know himself.  And the statements of others, like those of the criminal anthropologist, are supposed to be objective, but we can see that some of his observations are very subjective, relying on his own biases. 

In the end, not only is it uncertain whether the verdict is fair and just, there are behaviours that are not satisfactorily examined, behaviours which might have a bearing on the case.  Roddy’s relationship with his sister Jetta could use more attention, and Roddy’s nocturnal activities as described by a neighbour seem relevant. 

At first this book struck me as an unusual choice for the Man Booker longlist, but by the end I was convinced that it belonged there.  It is a book that begs re-reading.  Are there clues that were missed on first reading that might clarify what exactly Roddy was thinking/feeling at the time of the murders?  Does he sometimes unintentionally reveal things about himself?  Is Thomson’s theory correct, especially when one notes the few times Roddy becomes agitated?  A book that leaves the reader thinking for a long time after the book is finished is a good book indeed.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Happy birthday, Jussi Adler-Olsen! (Reviews of THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES and THE HANGING GIRL)

Today is the 66th birthday of Jussi Adler-Olsen, the Danish writer of the Department Q novels. 
There are six books in the series thus far:                               The Keeper of Lost Causes
                                                                                                The Absent One
                                                                                                A Conspiracy of Faith
                                                                                                The Purity of Vengeance
                                                                                                The Marco Effect
                                                                                                The Hanging Girl
If you haven’t read these crime novels, they are definitely worth checking out.  The books, about a special police division that investigates cold cases, routinely top the bestseller lists in northern Europe.

On the occasion of the author’s birthday, I’m posting my review of the first book in the series and the most recent one.

Review of The Keeper of Lost Causes
4 Stars
The Keeper of Lost Causes: The First Department Q Novel (Department Q Series Book 1) by [Adler-Olsen, Jussi] 
This is the first of the Department Q series featuring Detective Carl Morck and his assistant Assad. The two men comprise the entire staff assigned to investigate high-profile cold cases but relegated to a windowless basement office.

They decide to re-open the case of the disappearance of a promising politician, Merete Lynggaard, who went missing off a ferry when accompanying her mute, handicapped brother on a weekend getaway. No body was ever found. Did she accidentally fall over? Did she commit suicide? Was she kidnapped or killed? The novel is narrated from two perspectives; the reader follows Carl and Assad as they investigate but flashbacks reveal Merete's torturous fate.

The strength of this book is characters. Carl is definitely flawed. He can be lazy, morose and rebellious; in short, he is rough, tough and gruff. To complicate matters, he is dealing with post-traumatic stress and survivor's guilt after a shooting left one partner dead and another paralyzed. He also has a problem with relationships. His relationship with colleagues is antagonistic at best. Nonetheless he is a topnotch detective with unerring instincts.

Assad is a mysterious figure with a past he will not discuss. Wht soon becomes obvious, however, is that he has an amazing aptitude for and great insight into detective work. He manages to enervate Carl by reawakening his professional curiousity as he succeeds again and again in finding nuggets of useful information.

Together, Carl and Assad make for interesting foil characters. Carl seems devoted to his grumpiness and laziness, while Assad is indefatigably cheerful and hard-working. A dynamic between the detective and his sidekick develops over the course of the novel. Eventually they find a mutual respect.

What also makes this book so enjoyable is that it totally involves the reader who will experience a gamut of emotions: humour, heartbreak, and stomach-twisting suspense. The reader will probably puzzle out the mystery but following Carl and Assad as they investigate is engrossing.

This book has it all: it is fast-paced; it introduces characters the reader will want to meet again; the case is complex but not too difficult to follow. The Keeper of Lost Causes is a keeper.

Review of The Hanging Girl
4 Stars
Department Q is back. Carl, Assad and Rose are joined by an additional member, Gordon. This time they investigate a case from 17 years earlier. Alberte Goldschmid was found hanging from a tree on Bornholm, one of the Danish islands. The policeman, who found her body and became obsessed with discovering who was driving the vehicle that hit her, commits suicide but not before bequeathing the case to Department Q. The investigation has them delving into a sun-worshiping cult from whose centre, the Nature Absorption Academy, people are disappearing.

This is the sixth Department Q novel, and I would advise readers to read them in order since each one adds to character development. As in the previous books, we learn a bit more about Assad’s mysterious past though not all is revealed. Apparently there are four more books to the series.

The book excels at showing the road an actual police investigation takes – with twists, turns, and dead ends. This does not make for a fast-paced story, but ensures a more realistic plot. What also unifies the plot is the theme of jealousy. The reader sees several examples of how people react to a perceived threat to a relationship. The resolution does have some surprises, but logic is not sacrificed.

As in the other books in the series, there are humourous touches. The banter between the members of the department continues.

If you have not already discovered this Danish mystery series, do check it out. As Queen Elizabeth II says in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, “Can there be any greater pleasure . . . than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two . . . “?