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Friday, September 30, 2016

This Fall's Film Adaptations of Novels

If you are a lover of film adaptations of novels, there are some movies to check out this fall. 

I imagine that one of the most popular will be The Girl on the Train based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, but I’m most looking forward to seeing the adaptation of The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.  See my review of the former to which I gave 3 Stars:

I will post a review of the latter tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New Librarian of Congress

Yesterday I posted about some of the most beautiful libraries in the world.  One of the books on Schatje’s Shelves, The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, includes The Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  That library made news recently for more than its beauty:  a new librarian was appointed. 

Dr. Carla D. Hayden was appointed to that position by President Barack Obama.   At 64, she is the first African-American and the first woman to lead the 216-year-old library, one of the world’s largest, and the U.S.’s leading repository of knowledge and culture.  The Library of Congress has a collection of more than 162 million items, 3,100 employees, and an annual budget of close to $650 million.

Dr. Hayden has a reputation as a fierce advocate for her patrons and employees.  In 2003 and 2004, while serving as president of the American Library Association, Dr. Hayden clashed frequently with Attorney General John Ashcroft over what she perceived as privacy overreaches in the USA Patriot Act.

More recently, Dr. Hayden made the news in April 2015 when she was Baltimore’s chief librarian.  Freddie Gray died after being injured in police custody and Baltimore erupted in violence.  Though the governor of Maryland declared a state of emergency, Dr. Hayden and her staff kept the library open. 
For Dr. Hayden, the unrest was the test that clarified her values:  Libraries are about far more than books.  “The people of that neighborhood protected that library,” Dr. Hayden said.  “There were young men who stood outside. It was such a symbol” (

Since more than 80% of librarians are women, it’s about time a woman was appointed to this position.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Beauty of Library Investment

I’ve written about the importance of libraries before, most recently on August 13 (  Since my local library is now closed, I was interested in an article in The Atlantic which stated that “there’s empirical evidence that usage tracks investment. If libraries receive more public funds, more people use them. . . . The correlation between investment and use makes sense. If libraries have more funds, they can have more staff, more classes, more copies of the latest bestseller, and—maybe most importantly—longer hours” (

I’ve also posted about beautiful libraries around the world:
The Library of Parliament in Ottawa and the Vancouver Public Library have both made lists of the world’s most beautiful libraries, so I was pleased that another Canadian library has made the list.  The Halifax Library has been added to the list of beautiful new libraries built in the last few years:

Though not all libraries can make a list of the world’s most beautiful, all libraries are important community resources.  “If you build it [and fund it properly], [they] will come!”

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review of CANADA by Richard Ford

Yesterday, I posted the longlist of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.  In researching this relatively new literary award which was established in 2012, I realized I have read four of the previous winners.

Here are the previous winners of this award:

2015:  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (

2013:  Canada by Richard Ford

2014:  The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The one book I have read from the above list but for which I did not post my review because I read it back in June 2012 (before I began my blog) is the one for Canada by Richard Ford, so I thought I’d post my review today.

Review of Canada by Richard Ford
3 Stars
Canada by [Ford, Richard]The novel opens in Montana in 1960. The narrator, Dell Parsons, is fifteen years old and lives a normal life with his parents and twin sister Berner. The parents are “regular people tricked by circumstance and bad instincts, along with bad luck, to venture outside of boundaries they knew to be right, and then found themselves unable to go back” (7). They ineptly execute a sketchily planned bank robbery and are quickly apprehended. The focus of the book is on the consequences this one event has on the family, particularly Dell who ends up crossing a boundary as well, the border into Canada, and living with a mysterious American, Arthur Remlinger, in Saskatchewan.

The book explores how one event can have dramatic consequences for others and how people react to personal catastrophes. Separated from his foolhardy parents and his sister, Dell faces an uncertain future with few role models. He has to figure out for himself how to live his life; he has to find his way “from a way of living that doesn’t work toward one that does” (395). More than anything, Dell wants to be normal and to lead a normal life: “things were happening around me. My part was to find a way to be normal” (142) although he admits “It’s hard to hold the idea of a normal life” (93). Of course he is reassured when he is told, “You could be normal in Canada” (325). In the end he adopts an attitude of detachment, deciding that perhaps it’s best “not to hunt too hard for hidden . . . meanings . . . and learn to accept the world” (395 – 396).

The novel moves at a very slow pace, as Dell meticulously reflects on his parents’ characters and actions and tries to understand their motives and reasoning. In the process it is Dell’s character which is also revealed. By the time readers have finished the book, they will feel they know the narrator intimately.

The style is clear and crisp. I love some of Ford’s comparisons: Bev and Neeva Parsons were obviously wrong for each other and “The longer they stayed on . . . the more misguided their lives became – like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense” (6 – 7).

The title of the novel has me puzzled, especially since half the book is set in the United States. I guess I’ll just have to accept Ford’s explanation that he felt a “visceral-instinctual rightness” to the title: “The title seemed inevitable.” In return for appropriating Canada’s “sacred name,” he has tried to give back “as good a book as [he] can write” ( In my opinion, that’s quite a good book.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

The longlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was released: 

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine
Dodgers by Bill Beverly
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan
Christodora by Tim Murphy
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout  (See my review:
The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
As Good as Gone by Larry Watson
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead  (See my review:
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year. The winner will receive a $5,000 cash award.

Finalists are announced October 26.  The winner will be announced January 22.

There is also an Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.  Go to for further information.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Kirkus Prize for Fiction Shortlist

The finalists for the 2016 Kirkus Prize for Fiction have been announced.  Sponsored by Kirkus Reviews, finalists are chosen from books that earned a Kirkus Star which is given to books of “exceptional merit.”  The winner will receive $50,000.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
When Margaret's fiancé, John, is hospitalized for depression in 1960s London, she faces a choice: carry on with their plans despite what she now knows of his condition, or back away from the suffering it may bring her.  She decides to marry him. Imagine Me Gone is the story of what unfolds from this act of love and faith.  At the heart of it is their eldest son, Michael, a brilliant, anxious music fanatic who makes sense of the world through parody.  Over the span of decades, his younger siblings -- the savvy and responsible Celia and the ambitious and tightly controlled Alec -- struggle along with their mother to care for Michael's increasingly troubled and precarious existence.  Told in alternating points of view by all five members of the family, this brings alive the love of a mother for her children, the often inescapable devotion siblings feel toward one another, and the legacy of a father's pain in the life of a family.

Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss Jr.
Carousel Court is the story of Nick and Phoebe Maguire, a young couple who move cross-country to Southern California in search of a fresh start for themselves and their infant son following a trauma.  But they arrive at the worst possible economic time.  Instead of landing in a beachside property, Nick and Phoebe find themselves cemented into the dark heart of foreclosure alley, surrounded by neighbours being drowned by their underwater homes who set fire to their belongings, flee in the dead of night, and eye one another with suspicion while keeping shotguns by their beds.  Trapped, broke, and increasingly desperate, Nick and Phoebe each devise their own plan to claw their way back into the middle class and beyond.  Hatched under one roof, their two separate, secret agendas will inevitably collide.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
The title refers to horse racing, and the novel centres itself within that world: a connected web of humans and animals, as well as a fertile patch of land, in the heart of Kentucky.   C.E. Morgan puts readers inside the consciousness of a range of characters who inhabit that patch of land through the years: an adolescent trying to grow up under the withering gaze of his landowner father; a brilliant black woman struggling with her seeming fate to be a household servant; a whip-smart boy who grows up in the ghetto but seeks to know more about his mysterious origins; and a girl whose uncompromising love of her family's legacy leads her to gamble with her own life.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx
In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France.  Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins.  René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing.  He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures.  But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business.  Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation.  Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors.  Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.  The novel relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits.  When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape.  Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.  Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens.  And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels.  Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

The winner will be announced on November 3. 

For the complete list of nominees, see   There you can also find the nominees for the nonfiction and young readers categories and links to the reviews of the books.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review of THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison

3.5 Stars
Toni Morrison’s first novel centres on a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a poor, unloved child who wants to have blue eyes.  Constantly rejected and told that she is ugly and worthless, she wants the blue eyes of a white girl so she can be loved and treated respectfully.  Through flashbacks, the reader also learns about the lives of Pauline and Cholly, Pecola’s parents. 

Pecola’s family is anything but the ideal family portrayed in the Dick and Jane stories found in children’s readers of the mid-twentieth century, the stories referenced at the beginning of chapters.  But though Pauline and Cholly’s treatment of their daughter is at least insensitive if not downright cruel, the flashbacks show what has shaped them and explain their behaviour.  Though it is difficult to forgive, we can at least understand what motivates them.  Morrison humanizes them and shows them to be victims as well.

The book examines a people trapped in fatal self-loathing, a self-hatred produced by a racist culture.  Fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed children are held up as the epitome of beauty.  What chance does a black child have when “black” has so many negative connotations?

The novel begins with first person narration, nine-year-old Claudia, one of Pecola’s classmates, being the narrator.  Though there are shifts in point of view, it is the innocence of Claudia and her sister that is most effective in conveying the injustices heaped upon Pecola.

The prose can only be described as poetic.  It is a style that invites the reader to savour words.  Because of the deadline of a book club meeting, I read it quickly and so undoubtedly missed much.  It’s a book that should be read slowly with individual sentences and even phrases being examined. 

The book is not an easy read.  It is unsettling and offers little hope.  Tragedy and sadness abound and there seems no end to the pain.  Perhaps only in Claudia’s rejection of a blue-eyed doll - “the big, the special, the loving gift” (20) - is there a suggestion that society’s racist standards of beauty may eventually be likewise rejected by black girls.

Morrison wrote about black girls in American culture, but I also found myself thinking about First Nations’ children in Canadian culture.  We have the horrific history of residential schools where aboriginal children were also told they were ugly and worthless.  Those children, ripped from their homes and parents, were, like Cholly, totally unprepared for parenthood:  “having never watched any parent raise himself, he could not even comprehend what such a relationship should be” (160).  The consequences for the children of residential school survivors were disastrous – just as Pecola suffers because of Cholly’s lack of parental role models. 

Perhaps that is part of Morrison’s achievement in the book:  her message applies not just to the situation of blacks in the United States, but also to other minority cultures elsewhere.  Because what she wrote about 45 years ago is still a problem (e.g. Black girls lightening their skin; Asian girls having cosmetic eye surgery), Morrison’s testimony is damning.  Though her specific perspective should not in any way be dismissed, her book transcends a specific time and place.  So though the book is an uncomfortable read, it is one that must be read. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize Finalists

The shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (celebrating its 20th year) was announced today:

After James by Michael Helm
A neuroscientist retreats to a secluded cabin in the woods, intending to blow the whistle on a pharmaceutical company and its creativity drug gone wrong.  A failed poet is lured to Rome as a "literary detective" to decode the work of a mysterious Internet poet who seems to write about murders with precise knowledge of private details.  On the heels of a life crisis, a virologist discovers her identity has been stolen by a conceptual artist in whose work someone always goes missing.  After James is told in three connected parts, each gesturing toward a type of genre fiction -- the gothic horror, the detective novel, and the apocalyptic.  As the novel unfolds in great cities, remote regions, and deadly borderlands, it weaves connections both explicit and subtle.

The Parcel by Anosh Irani
The novel’s narrator is Madhu--born a boy, but a eunuch by choice--who has spent most of her life in a close-knit clan of transgender sex workers in Kamathipura, the notorious red-light district of Bombay.  Madhu identifies herself as a "hijra"--a person belonging to the third sex, neither here nor there, man nor woman.  Now, at 40, she has moved away from prostitution, her trade since her teens, and is forced to beg to support the charismatic head of the hijra clan, Gurumai.  One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a "parcel" has arrived--a young girl from the provinces, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt--and Madhu must prepare it for its fate.  Despite Madhu's reluctance, she is forced to take the job by Gurumai.  As Madhu's emotions spiral out of control, her past comes back to haunt her, threatening to unravel a lifetime's work and identity.

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell  (This short story collection also appears on the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize)
These stories range from an island holiday gone wrong to a dive bar on the upswing to a yuppie mother in a pricey subdivision seeing her worst fears come true and are populated by barkeeps, good men down on their luck, rebellious teens, lonely immigrants, dreamers and realists, fools and quiet heroes.  Powell explores themes of belonging, the simmering potential for violence and the meaning of art no matter where it is found. 

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains by Yasuko Thanh
Vietnam is a haunted country, and Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh is a haunted man.  In 1908, the French rule Saigon, but uneasily; dissent whispers through the corridors of the city. Each day, more Vietnamese rebels are paraded through the streets towards the blade of the guillotine, now a permanent fixture in the main square and a gruesome warning to those who would attempt to challenge colonial rule.  It is a warning that Georges-Minh will not heed.  A Vietnamese national and Paris-educated physician, he is obsessed by guilt over his material wealth and nurses a secret loathing for the French connections that have made him rich, even as they have torn his beloved country apart.  With a close-knit group of his friends calling themselves the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, Georges-Minh plots revenge on the French for the savagery they have shown to the Vietnamese.  And it falls to Georges-Minh to create a poison to mix into the Christmas dinner of a garrison of French soldiers. It is an act that will send an unmistakable message to the French: Get out of Vietnam.  But the assassination attempt goes horribly wrong.  Forced to flee into the deep jungles of the outer provinces, Georges-Minh must care for his infant son, manage the growing madness of his wife, and elude capture by the hill tribes and the small--but lethal--pockets of French sympathizers.

The Break by Katherena Vermette
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break ― a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house ― she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.  In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim ― police, family, and friends ― tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night.  Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend.  Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain.  Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner.  Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre.  Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, sponsored by Rogers Communications Inc.,  recognizes Canadian writers for the year’s best novel or short-story collection as selected by a three-member, independent judging panel. The winner, who will be announced on Nov. 2, will receive $25,000.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Journey Prize Finalists

Earlier this week, the Writers’ Trust of Canada revealed the finalists for the Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, recognizing new and developing writers for the best short story first published in a Canadian literary journal during the previous year.

Charlie Fiset of Kenogami Lake, Ontario, was nominated for "If I Ever See the Sun," published in The Fiddlehead; Colette Langlois of Edmonton, for "The Emigrants," published in PRISM International, and J. R. McConvey of Toronto, for "How the Grizzly Came to Hang in the Royal Oak Hotel," published in EVENT.

Each of the three finalists will receive $1,000, and the prizewinner will receive $10,000. This prize is made possible by James A. Michener’s donation of his Canadian royalty earnings from his 1998 novel Journey.  In association with the prize, McClelland & Stewart will publish the 2016 edition of the annual fiction anthology The Journey Prize Stories, a collection of the 11 stories that formed the longlist for this year’s prize.

The winner will be announced on November 2.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

2016 National Book Award for Fiction - Longlist

The other day,  the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction was released:

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

The National Book Awards are a set of annual U.S. literary awards presented to American authors for books published in the United States during the award year.  National Book Awards are currently given to one book (author) annually in each of four categories:  fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature.  For a complete list of all longlists, see

A finalist list of 5 titles will be released on October 13; the winner, who will receive $10,000 and a bronze sculpture, will be announced on November 16.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Review of BARKSKINS by Annie Proulx

3.5 Stars
Every year I seem to read one big book; this year’s is Proulx’s 713 pages about the destruction of the world’s forests. 

This multi-generational historical novel begins with two French immigrants to New France.  Charles Duquet and René Sel are indentured servants.  Charles escapes his indenture and eventually founds Duke & Sons, a logging company that begins a dynasty.  René marries a Mi’kmaq woman; his Métis descendants become increasingly lost between the white man’s world and their traditional world and witness the destruction of their communities and culture.  In alternating chapters, the novel follows the descendants of these two men for 300 years as they take down not just trees but entire forests.

As would be expected, there are many characters.  Thank goodness for the two family trees at the end of the book!  Some characters are more developed than others.  I found that the ones at the end were more sketched than fully drawn; they made less of an impact on me.  The last 80 pages cover 120 years so these later generations are less memorable.  In the Sel family, René and Kuntaw stand out; in the Duke family, Charles and Lavinia leave the strongest impression. 

Proulx uses dramatic irony to reinforce her message; repeatedly, the reader sees their disastrous short-sightedness.  At one point, Charles is amazed at how quickly a forest is removed by a few men with axes and he momentarily questions the vulnerability of the forest but quickly decides, “No, the forest returned with vigor, resprouted from cut stumps, cast seeds, sent out mother roots from which new trees grew.  These forests could not disappear.  In New France they were vast and eternal” (118).  A hundred years later, a Duke descendant says, “’Take what we can get as soon as we can get it is what I say.  I am not interested in fifty years hence as there is no need for concern.  The forests are infinite and permanent’” (364).  Years later, the observation is made that “’So extensive are the forests here that Americans cannot see an end to them.  Therefore, they have no interest in preserving them’” (480).  And then attention turns to the Amazon and a character can be heard to say, “’The tropical forests are the most wondrous forests I ever saw. . . . I take comfort in the thought that none of them can really harm the massive heart of the world. The rain forest is so large and rich it defeats all who try to conquer it’” (646).

The greed of the white man is mentioned again and again.  His actions are justified with Christian rhetoric:  “the White Man who struggles and strives to reduce the Forest’s grip has exerted his God-given Right to claim the cleared Land as his own.  By virtue of the suffering of Indian Attack and severe Labor as well as the adversities of removing from their Homelands to take up a Place in the Wilderness it is the Destiny of the French to hold this Land as they have earned moral Title to it from God” (180).  An employee comments on Duke & Sons:  “Not for the first time he saw the acquisitive hunger of Duke & Sons was so great they intended to clear the continent.  And he was helping them.  He hated the American clear-cut despoliation, the insane wastage of sound valuable wood, the destruction of the soil, the gullying and erosion, the ruin of the forest world with no thought for the future – the choppers considered the supply to be endless – there was always another forest.  Rapine had been a force in the affairs of Duke & Sons since its beginnings” (466). 

Contrasted with the white attitude towards the forests is that of the First Nations peoples:  “’The Indians were better managers of the forest . . . They were very good observers of water, weather, all animals and growing things.  And they forbore to cut lavishly.  They used many parts of many trees for different tools and medicines’” (481).  Unfortunately, the deep respect the aboriginal peoples have for the forest does not save the trees and does not save them either.  The wilderness dwindles and they are physically and culturally annihilated.  Achille Sel talks about how the forest changes once cutting begins:  “The forest began to alter in small ways.  It still lived but it was not what it had been.  Few noticed.  The forest was a grand resource and it was both the enemy and wealth.  Achille felt it was the same with the Mi’kmaq; the white settlers used them and took them down” (196).

A novel covering three centuries is bound to have deaths.  Proulx has a penchant for gruesome endings; in this novel, characters frequently die violent deaths, often totally unexpectedly.  People die because of various diseases (cholera, smallpox, cancer), shipwreck, scalping, fire, accident, infection, and assassination.  There is even an instance of cannibalism. 

Fortunately, there are some comedic episodes to relieve the seriousness.  Charles Duquet buys an absurdly big wig while visiting France, and it causes laughter even years later.  The entire chapter describing Captain James Duke and his relationship with Posey Breeley Brandon is full of humour. 

I grew up on the Madawaska River (mentioned on page 314) where lumbering was a way of life and I have many relatives who could have been called barkskins so the continent-wide history of the logging industry was of particular interest to me.  Recently, my husband and I camped in Marten River Provincial Park where there is a replica of a 19th-century logging camp and some remnant stands of massive pines including a 350-year-old White Pine along a hiking trail. 

There were times, however, when my interest waned.  There was detailed discussion of advances in woodworking technology which bored me.  And the various business dealings of Duke & Sons could be tiresome.   At times, a didactic tone prevailed:  “’Humans now outnumber every mammalian form of life that has ever existed.  Maybe unstoppable.  We have nightmares about oceanic currents and sea star die-off, melting ice, more violent winter storms.  And we think about forest degradation.  Forest, the beginning and likely end’” (698).  This tone is totally unnecessary to convey Proulx’s environmental message.

As I was reading this book, I often found myself humming Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”:  “They took all the trees/And put 'em in a tree museum/And they charged the people/A dollar and a half to seem 'em”.  And though I enjoyed the book, there is an inescapable irony:  so many trees died to print copies of this lengthy tome about the wanton destruction of our forests.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

2016 Giller Prize Longlist

Last week, I was on a short vacation so didn’t have the time to post news items.  By now most Canadian readers know that the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist was released:

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin
Pillow by Andrew Battershill
Stranger by David Bergen
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux
The Two of Us by Kathy Page (story collection)
Death Valley by Susan Perly
Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell (story collection)
By Gaslight by Steven Price
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

The shortlist will be revealed on September 26, and the winner will be announced on November 7.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

2016 Man Booker Shortlist

Today the shortlist of the 2016 Man Booker Prize was announced.  I was disappointed that My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stout did not make the shortlist.

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout
Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens―on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles―the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident―the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins―he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk
Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother's unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.
But Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Sofia's mother's illness becomes increasingly baffling. Sofia's role as detective—tracking her mother's symptoms in an attempt to find the secret motivation for her pain—deepens as she discovers her own desires in this transient desert community.

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project
A brutal triple murder in a remote northwestern crofting community in 1869 leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. There’s no question that Macrae is guilty, but the police and courts must uncover what drove him to murder the local village constable.
And who were the other two victims? Ultimately, Macrae’s fate hinges on one key question: is he insane?

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.

David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is
Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving--in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel--to understand what it means to be alive, here and now. Tracing a dramatic arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, the ostensibly separate narratives of All That Man Is aggregate into a picture of a single shared existence, a picture that interrogates the state of modern manhood while bringing to life the physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe. And so these nine lives form a new kind of novel, in which David Szalay plots a dark predicament for the twenty-first-century man.

Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations--those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989.  At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow's ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai's daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.
(This is the next book on my reading pile.)

The winner will be announced on October 25.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Humourous Look at Rare Book Sales

Recently, I’ve devoted several blogs to old and rare books.  I discussed the Voynich Manuscript on August 31, the world’s most expensive books on September 10, and the Kelmscott Chaucer yesterday.
Most of us, of course, will never be able to afford any of those books. 

Should that thought cause bibliophiles to be a bit saddened, I thought I’d share a humourous piece that recently appeared in The New Yorker, a magazine to which I have had a subscription for many years and never fails to provoke thought and laughter, sometimes in the same article.

Some of the descriptions are wonderful.
 A signed first edition of A Farewell to Arms:  “The pages are crisp, and accented by water rings where the original owner no doubt sat a few whiskeys down while mulling the narrative and yelling at someone belligerently in a bar. (Light urine damage.)”
The first goddam edition of The Catcher in the Rye:  “The edition has mild foxing to end corners, as you would expect, because everything good always ends up ruined.”
A newly discovered first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird:  “This rare first edition was recently recovered in mint condition from the knothole of a tree, a fact that, although astounding, is less so than the lack of progress in race relations since the time of publication.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Kelmscott CHAUCER: World's Most Beautiful Book?

Yesterday, I posted about the world’s most expensive books.  In the top-ten list is the 1477 first edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  Printed by William Caxton, it was the first major volume printed in England (

It is the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896 which the Irish poet William Butler Yeats called the “most beautiful of all printed books.”  Apparently, Morris, a major figure in the arts and crafts movement, spent four years designing what he believed to be the ideal book.  This edition made the news recently when it was announced that the University of British Columbia Library purchased a copy for $202,000 (US).

Saturday, September 10, 2016

World's Most Expensive Books

Schatje’s Shelves has a few old books, but there are certainly none that would be considered very rare or valuable.  I do occasionally buy Folio Society books which may have some value in the distant future though I purchase them because the quality of the books makes them almost works of art.

I was therefore interested in a visual essay in The Telegraph on the world’s most expensive books:  I was familiar with the Gutenburg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio, but I was surprised to learn that a J. K. Rowling book has the record for a modern literary manuscript and a children's book.

Schatje’s Shelves always has room for donations of any of these!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

International Literacy Day - Review of A DREADFUL MURDER by Minette Walters

Today, September 8, is the United Nations’ International Literacy Day; its purpose is “to raise people's awareness of and concern for literacy issues in the world.”

“Whether it’s reading or writing, literacy is an outlet to an untouchable world – your imagination. Not only is literacy a basic human right, it is a fundamental building block for learning as well as a personal empowerment tool. It is the catalyst for social and global progress” (

To celebrate the day, I read a novella which was published as part of the British “Quick Reads,” a series of short books by bestselling authors and celebrities “designed to encourage adults who do not read often, or find reading tough, to discover the joy of books” (

Review of A Dreadful Murder by Minette Walters
3 Stars
A Dreadful Murder: The Mysterious Death of Caroline Luard (Quick Reads 2013) by [Walters, Minette]This is the fictionalized story of the murder of Caroline Luard who was shot and killed on August 25, 1908 at an isolated summerhouse in Kent.  She and her husband, Charles Luard, were pillars of late-Victorian society.  A vitriolic letter-writing and whispering campaign suggested Charles was the murderer:  “As if a close-knit family had turned on itself because no one believed the victim had been killed by an outsider.  Instead of peace, there was war.  Instead of mutual support, there was suspicion.”  Officially, however, the case was unsolved.

The book is a walk-through of the case.  It seems to follow closely real events as outlined in, the site recommended at the end of the book.  Walters, however, uses fiction techniques to bring the story to life, including imagining some characters. 

The novel includes some social commentary about class divisions and the inequality of the sexes at the turn of the twentieth century.  It also sheds light on crime investigation at that time.

This is one of the Quick Reads series of books intended for reluctant adult readers or those who struggle with reading.  For those readers, I think it’s a good choice.  The tale might encourage further reading/research into the actual case.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review of DEAR MR. M by Herman Koch

4 Stars
This is a “literary” thriller:  it has a mystery to be solved but also examines the literary world.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator (later identified as Herman) stalking his neighbour, a writer known as M. There is a definite undertone of menace as the narrator makes statements like “Yes, I have certain plans for you, Mr. M” and “I’m here, and I won’t be going away, not for a while yet” and “I consider you a military target” and then proceeds to follow not just the writer but his family.  Gradually, it is revealed that in his bestselling book, M used events from Herman’s adolescence and distorted them to create an exciting plot.  Using a highly publicized case involving a teacher, Jan Landzaat, who went missing and was never found, M distorted events in his fictionalization and basically portrayed Herman and a friend as killers. 

The novel examines the connection between fact and fiction and the process of creating and crafting a work of fiction.  Does a writer have the right to appropriate facts and use people as material for fiction, especially if by rearranging events for the sake of the plot he negatively impacts the lives of the real-life people involved?  Herman certainly wants to exact retribution because he feels M exploited his life.  Authors observe people and the world around them and inevitably incorporate them in their work, but should they be allowed to do so with impunity?  Writers are taught to eliminate coincidence because “Coincidence undermines a story’s credibility” and “Coincidence ruins the credibility of a writer” though “reality is glued together with coincidence.”  What if a coincidence is a key factor in a real-life event and its omission totally distorts reality?  Koch introduces his theme in a tongue-in-check epigraph:  “Anyone who thinks he recognizes himself or others in one or more characters in this book is probably right.  Amsterdam is a real city in the Netherlands.”

There is considerable suspense in the book.  Koch uses a number of techniques to keep tension.  When action reaches a dramatic point, the perspective is abruptly shifted to a different point of view.  The viewpoints of a number of characters are given, some in first and some in third person narration, and there are frequent shifts between past and present.  There is more than one unreliable narrator so the reader is left to try and decipher the truth.  And, yes, there are unexpected twists in the plot. 

One benefit of the changing points of view is that the reader’s feelings about a character change.  Herman describes M as a fading, mediocre writer who is narcissistic and exploitative.  When M becomes the narrator and the reader becomes privy to some of his thoughts and feelings, a more sympathetic picture emerges.  When the opinion of others is added, like that of M’s wife, another dimension is added.  By the end, M is fully developed.  The same is the case for Herman; parts of his personality are described by various people with whom he comes in contact.  Flashbacks to his youth help round out his character. 

What is interesting is how similar M and Herman are.  Herman accuses M of invading his life and stealing it for his purposes, yet Herman does the same with his video camera.  He photographs people in personally devastating moments, invading their privacy, and then mocks those people in a public way.  There are other similarities:  both have troubled pasts, both are jealous of others who are more successful, and both have mean streaks that occasionally come to the fore. 

One aspect I really enjoyed is the way characters mock others for things which worry them.  Herman constantly refers to Landzaat’s long teeth and Landzaat agrees that “his own teeth weren’t exactly his ace in the hole” but when he thinks of Herman he describes his teeth at length:  “And his teeth!  His teeth were too weird to be true.  To call them irregular would be putting it mildly.  Those front teeth that curved inward and the open spaces between his canines and the molars behind made him look like a mouse more than anything else.  A mouse that had been smacked in the teeth by a much bigger mouse.  How could a girl be drawn to that?  They were teeth that let the wind through, a girl’s tongue would have a hard time not getting lost in there.”  M is married to a much younger woman and worries about growing older and being forgotten, yet M and his wife mock N, an older colleague who always has a young woman on his arm, and M comments that N’s “countless wrinkles and folds in his cheeks and around his eyes seem to deepen even further – the landscape of gorges and deep valleys above which the sun is now doing down.”  Koch definitely knows a lot about human psychology.

Readers who enjoyed Koch’s previous books The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool will certainly enjoy this one.  There are sections that I found a tad tedious – the discussion of Dutch politics and the changing relationships among Herman’s various friends – but there is much to recommend this book.  Koch is an author who pokes fun at authors but examines serious issues as well.  And provides well-rounded characters and an entertaining plot that keeps the reader guessing. 

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

Review of THE FORTUNATE BROTHER by Donna Morrissey

The Fortunate Brother by [Morrissey, Donna]

4.5 Stars

This is the third in a trilogy which began with Sylvanus Now and was followed by What They Wanted.  Readers who are familiar with the Now family will want to read this third installment, but the book can certainly be read as a standalone.

This book focuses on Kyle Now who is still mourning the death of his brother Chris who died working on an Alberta oil rig.  The family is a troubled one.  Sylvanus, the father, takes refuge in alcohol; Abbie, the mother, is facing breast cancer; and Kyle’s relationship with his sister Sylvie is strained because of what he sees as her role in Chris’ death.  Then a local bully, Clar Gillard, is murdered and suspicion falls on the Now family with whom he has had confrontations. 

Characterization is amazing.  All characters are fully developed, round characters, their traits consistent with those in the first two books of the trilogy.  Kyle is a dynamic character.  At the beginning he sees nothing positive in the world:  “Felt like the one long day for three years now.  The one long dull day, caught on a cloud of grief hovering over his house.”  He has no hope:  “Nope.  Kyle Now was done with wishing.”  He does not talk and share his grief with others but worries about everyone else, his constant fingernail-chewing and foot-jiggling clearly indicating his tension.  His typical response is to run:  “he’d pushed [Sylvie] away and ran and was still running.  Running from everything.”  The novel shows how Kyle goes from such desperation to finally running towards someone and seeing the beauty around him:  “The moan’s broadening smile rose above the hills and glimmered amongst stars that were mostly dead and yet whose lights still shone through the eternal sky.”

Kyle’s foil is his mother.  Addie, despite all her troubles, always remains hopeful.  Chris is “struck once more by her fortitude.  That whatever this new thing thickening her cloud of sorrow, hope was already ignited in her heart and offering itself as a shelter for him and his father.”  The contrast is obvious when Kyle is described:  “But he was done with hope.  It took her babies and Chris and he had no more courage for hope.  Hope had failed her too many times.  Rather that she had never hoped.  Rather that it was just those babies she grieved and not the pain of lost hope as well.”  Kyle needs to learn what Addie has, that “hope eventually creeps through darkness, making inroads through to an easier tomorrow” and that “’There’s good to be found in everything, even grief.’” 

There are, of course, other lessons that Kyle must learn:  “’Some people have illness, everybody has something.  It’s how you carries it – that’s what you take into the other world with you.  That’s the only thing we takes’” and “’You can’t go getting down and blaming yourself for stuff you got no control over’” and “’You needs to be like everyone else, tending to your own concerns.’”  I love the references to Job:  “’We’re blessed like Job then, when we feels the fear of something and does it anyway’” and “’we’re sainted like Job when we can stand the pain and thrive in the end.’”  A person may be given advice but does not necessarily listen, and part of the interest of the novel is in seeing if/how Kyle will learn these lessons.

As suggested, a major theme is that of hope.  It is introduced in the epigraph, a quotation from George Eliot’s Adam Bede:  “There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and to have recovered hope.”  Repetition is used to emphasize the need for hope:  “’And you can’t lose hope, either.  You got to trust some things’” and “’Hope’s a powerful thing.  It’s what takes us into the next world, hopes of a better life’” and “’There’s always hope’” and “Hope’s contagious like that:  if one believes, then another might.”
It is not just characterization and theme development that are amazing.  There is such pleasure in reading Morrissey’s style.  The dialogue is truly that of a Newfoundland outport.  The images are also wonderful.  An abstract like guilt is made concrete:  “Guilt rotting him like an old shack built on wet ground, leaving no shores strong enough to shelter himself or his family.”  And descriptions of setting say so much:  “Sulphuric smells rose from a smoking pulp mill that headed the harbour while nice shingled homes and shops and oak trees encircled the mill’s land side as ribs might encircle the life-giving heart.” 

I strongly recommend this book; it is literary fiction at its best.  If you haven’t read Sylvanus Now and What They Wanted, read them first, but if you have been fortunate enough to meet the Now family, reunite with them by reading The Fortunate Brother.  You will not be disappointed.

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

Review of THE SPAWNING GROUNDS by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

3 Stars

The events take place near one of the spawning grounds of the sockeye salmon in British Columbia.  The river, once teeming with fish, is dying, its flow reduced to a trickle because of erosion caused by human activities like ranching, logging and mining.  The main characters, Hannah and Bran, are the descendants of Eugene Robertson, the first white settler to homestead in the area, “the first to take down trees on the thin strip of river plain; the first to put up fences; the first to water his livestock in the river and pollute its waters.”

The novel begins with Bran falling into the river trying to rescue his grandfather, Stew Robertson.  When he emerges for the water, Bran is changed.  His strange behaviour has some people, including Bran’s father Jesse, arguing that he is schizophrenic, like his deceased mother Elaine.  But Alex, Hannah’s Indian love interest, suggests Bran is possessed by a “water mystery,” a river spirit who needs a human body to fulfill a mission. 

It is not just the river that needs to be reborn; many of the characters are struggling to renew themselves.  Jesse moved from the area once Elaine died years earlier, and left his children to the care of his father Stew.  When Stew is hospitalized, Jesse finally returns reluctantly and is faced with trying to answer a question:  “’Why would any parent abandon their kid?’”  Will he stay and try to re-establish a relationship with his children or will he, as Hannah suspects, run as he did in the past?  Hannah, a college student, is described as possessing “the uncertainty of a girl who didn’t yet know herself.”  Gina, the Robertsons’ neighbour and one of Jesse’s former lovers, struggles between staying with her husband in an unsatisfactory marriage or reuniting with Jesse who is not known for his faithfulness and commitment. 

Central to the story is a Shuswap myth.  When Eugene arrived on the river, “one of the Indians had warned him to stay out of these waters or he would be taken by the spirit that haunted the river at this place.”  Later, it is explained that the spirit is that of a salmon boy who, angry at the senseless destruction of the salmon, in the past took revenge by “[cleansing] this place of its sickness.”  Is it this spirit that has taken control of Bran?  Has it come back to take revenge once again? 

Unfortunately, the foreshadowing is rather heavy-handed.  When Bran emerges from the water, he crawls up “like a lungfish making its clumsy journey onto land” and wheezes “as if breath itself was something foreign to him” and walks “as if his legs were new to him.” The reader must suspend disbelief and accept that there is a gateway to the salmon world in the river and that the salmon boy has taken over Bran’s body, though “it would be sometime before he was strong enough to wrangle full control.”  Actually, the reader must believe there is an “assortment of ancient spirits that populated the river valley, all of them part animal and part man.”

Suspense is also created rather heavy-handedly.  Alex warns, “’If that water mystery has him, if Brandon’s soul is out walking, he could die.’”  This danger is emphasized as flashbacks to the consequences of earlier “possessions” are revealed.  Then the suspense is ramped up with statements like, “’it may already be too late for the rest of us as well.”  Suspense is also created by withholding information.  For example, Alex tells Hannah a story about the water mystery but then says, “’When you’re ready to hear me out . . . I’ll tell you the rest of the story.’”  Later, Alex tells her the rest of the story and advises her to “’Ask the mystery’” but withholds crucial information:  “’we’ve got to make sure Bran’s spirit is still here first’” After revealing this important step, he adds,” ‘And it may already be too late to do anything.’” This technique left me feeling manipulated. 

A major theme is that man and animals have lost their connection.  An Indian elder mentioned that in the past, “’when animal and man were still family, a man’s soul could flit away as an owl, or the spirit of a bear could slip under a man’s skin.’”  This connection has been severed though, from the beginning, the interdependence of man and animal is emphasized.  The narrative is prefaced by a quotation:  “Without the salmon, the land and the rivers would only survive as a corpse survives the death of the nervous system and the departure of the spirit.”  Later a full explanation is given:  “Every living thing around them depended on the return of the salmon [to the spawning grounds where they lay and fertilize the eggs before dying].  The rotting fish would nourish the water this fall and again in early spring when the sun warmed what was left of the sockeye’s frozen bodies.  Their flesh would feed the tiny creatures that in turn fed the sockeye fry when they burst from their stone nests come spring.  In this way, the sockeye fed their young with their own bodies and were resurrected within their children’s flesh.  If not enough sockeye returned during this run, if not enough died here, the river would starve, the lake would starve, the eagles and bears and the land around them would starve.”  The novel is like a fable with a moral at the end.

The novel has a message that needs to be heeded, but the delivery of that message lacks subtlety.  What needs to be done to help the salmon is obvious from the beginning because Hannah outlines the necessary steps to her father when he first arrives.  The unwillingness of people to listen means there is a predictability to the sequence of events, but the ending then seems rather sentimental.

Some of the characterization is problematic.  Jesse’s behaviour when his wife was dying and his virtual abandonment of his children for years show him to be an untrustworthy and selfish person, yet Gina , who admits to needing a sense of security, is drawn to him?  Stew believes the stories of a native elder, but has little respect for Indians?  Hannah “disliked her father when he was high” yet when he offered her a toke, “She took the joint, breathed in deeply and held it before exhaling and handing it back to him. . . . [and] Hannah took the joint from him before he’d offered it again”?

I can see this book being used in literature classes in high school.  Students would not have difficulty identifying its themes and analyzing its various elements.  The novel has a relevance to today’s issues (e.g. man’s degradation of the environment, relationships between whites and First Nation peoples) and has characters with whom teenaged readers can identify. 

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

Review of THE PARCEL by Anosh Irani

4 Stars 
The protagonist is Madhu, a 40-year-old who identifies as a hijra, a person belonging to the third gender, neither male nor female.  Born a boy with very effeminate behaviour, she was seen as a source of shame by her family.  In her teens, she ran away from home and became part of a group of hijras in Kamathipura, the red-light district of Bombay.  Much of her past is revealed via flashbacks; in the present, she is asked to prepare a 10-year-old Nepalese girl, known as the parcel, for her opening and subsequent life as a sex worker.

This book is not an easy read.  It shows the daily life of hijras in great detail.  Rapes, assaults, suicides, AIDS, drug addiction, human trafficking, castration, prostitution, and sexual slavery are depicted.  And there is no sentimentality in the depictions.  A sex worker is taught that “Rape was like the common cold.  You had to catch it at some point.” A hijra dying of AIDS is described:  “The very things that made one human – love, hope, health – had been ripped from her calmly and precisely, the way a syringe extracted blood.” A similar fate awaits the parcel:  “once the pojeetive worm entered her, ruptured its way into her being, her weight would drop and drop, and she would be abandoned, left to rot and dry under a bridge somewhere, or in an alley soaked in garbage.  Even rain would hurt her skin.”

It is the portrayal of Madhu, a representative of the hijras, which most effectively conveys their loneliness and suffering.  Madhu is full of self-hatred; she feels constantly at war with herself.  She speaks of not having a face but “a visage confused beyond measure, man and woman fighting it out to see who gained possession.”  At 40, she is old, like “a mere lemon peel lying on the road.”  Her entire body is in rebellion:  “Each day she woke up rougher, her body in some sort of race to look fifty.  It wanted to be ahead of its time.”  She doesn’t think of herself as a human being but as “a soft, ungainly pulp” and she knows that others see her as “a thing in a green sari.”

The emotion that rules Madhu is despair.  She speaks of “the hot Sulphur of failure . . . eating her bones” and concludes, “Everything she did, everyone she touched, ended in dust.  She was a master at one thing:  failure.”  Like every human, she wants love and acceptance.  Sadly, she has learned that hijras are not accepted; they “had been pushed to the fringes and were left sitting on the margins the way flies sat on the rim of a plate, unwanted, circling the perimeter to find a way back in, but never succeeding.” And “in Kamathipura, love meant ‘temporary relief’.”

It is quite clear that Madhu’s soul does not possess peace.  There is a telling description about midway through the book:  “On most days, she managed to keep the piercing reminders of the past at bay by wrestling with them, by crushing them to the ground until they stopped thrashing about and behaved.”  She has not been “truly liberated” as she was promised.  And “For forty years she had lived inside this body.  No matter how much she accepted who she was, she was still afraid.  She was still angry.  She still wanted answers.” 

It is obvious that Madhu is trying to help the parcel by referencing her own experiences.   Madhu wants to prepare the parcel for her life so she will not lose her mind like some girls who have gone “completely mad.”  The parcel, like Madhu did, must “sever old ties, physically and emotionally.”  Madhu wants the parcel to realize that there is no hope of escape from her fate; she works to remove any spark of hope “because that was the deadliest of sparks”. 

There is some social commentary throughout.  Society’s argument that prostitution is essential because, otherwise, streets would not be safe is addressed:  “But, scoffed Madhu in spite of herself, has anyone asked whose streets would be safer?  As long as the people outside of Kamathipura were not harmed, what happened inside the cages was justified.  It prevented rapes.  But in order to prevent rapes, parcels were being torn from their homes and raped every minute. . . . It was the way the city worked, the survival of the privileged and selfish. . . . how warped the human mind is.  How blind, how bent, how convenient.”  There’s a news story about the rape of a bride on her wedding night, and Madhu rages:  “It also bothered Madhu how much coverage this incident was getting:  a bride had been violated on that most sacred of nights.  But what about ordinary women on ordinary nights?  Or indecent women, perhaps, like sex workers?  Or hijras?  What happened when less-than-ordinary souls got violated?  Why not create a furor then?  Why let their pain slide away like rainwater into a gutter?”   At one point, Madhu sees a poster for a workshop to save birds, and she asks, “Were birds worth saving because they could not tell their stories, tell of the cruelty and injustice they had encountered over the years?  Or was it because it was possible to fix them, bandage a wing or two, and then make them fly away, out of one’s life forever?”  Religion gets equal sarcastic treatment:  a statue of Jesus is described as facing “away from the brothels, just like everyone else” and “The only comfort his arms could provide was as a resting place for crows, and even they knew not to stay too long.”

The book is certainly informative about the lives of hijras and others on the margins of society, but at times the explanations overshadow the narrative.  One example occurs when the difference between true hijras and fake hijras is explained.  Another instance is the description of how hijras are used to bless weddings and births. 

I definitely recommend this book.  Though sometimes exposition overwhelms the narrative, there is a memorable character that cannot be easily forgotten.  The book forces us to look at some people from whom some of us too easily turn away. 

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

Monday, September 5, 2016

Campus Novels

Tomorrow, the day after Labour Day in Canada, is the day I associate with students going back to school because that was usually the day I first met my students for the fall semester.  In some places, of course, students have been in classes for a couple of weeks.  Nonetheless, the back-to-school season always has me thinking about campus novels.

A campus novel, also known as an academic novel, is a novel whose main action is set in and around the campus of a university. The genre in its current form dates back to the mid twentieth century.  Many well-known campus novels are comic or satirical, often counterpointing intellectual pretensions and human weaknesses, but others attempt a serious treatment of university life.  As would be expected, the novels are usually told from the viewpoint of a faculty member or a student.

Recently, The Guardian newspaper recommended what they called six of the best campus novels (  I was pleased to see that one of my favourite books (Possession by A. S. Byatt) made the list.

Of course, there are other lists out there.  Last year The Huffington Post suggested ten campus novels:  Its list includes a title by another of my favourite authors, In One Person by John Irving, though that novel is actually set in a high school.

But if you’re looking for a more extensive list, check out Flavorwire’s list of 50 novels of the genre:  Though the list is three years old, it is still useful.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Fall 2016 New Releases

With the arrival of September, summer is almost over.  September also sees the release of many new books.  On July 17, I mentioned some new titles I would be purchasing and included links to lists of upcoming releases offered by various media outlets (

Literary Hub released an interesting list; they had a slightly different approach to compiling a fall releases list:  they asked booksellers in the United States and Canada for books that they were anticipating ( 

On the topic of new books, make certain to check out Schatje’s Shelves on Tuesday, September 6, when I will be posting reviews of four books being released that day:
The Parcel by Anosh Irani
The Spawning Ground by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

September ushers in many new book releases, but it is also begins book awards season.  Several major literary award winners are announced in the fall.

On September 1, the short list for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize was announced:  Two that I've repeatedly seen recommended are The Girls by Emma Cline and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

The Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize is awarded to the best debut novel published between January 1 and December 31 of the award year.  The author of the winning book is awarded $10,000 and each shortlisted author receives $1,000.  This is a relatively new prize; it was first presented in 2006.

Previous winners have included The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. 

The Center for Fiction, originally called the New York Mercantile Library, is a not-for-profit organization in New York City which works to promote fiction and literature and to give support to writers.

The winner will be announced on December 6.  (If you are interested in the long list of 25 titles, go to

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pokémon Go with Books

The last long weekend of the summer is here and, undoubtedly, there will be people playing Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that has become a global phenomenon.  In the game, players use a mobile device's GPS capability to locate, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon, who appear on the screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player.

Though I love geocaching, I have not played Pokémon Go, but I came across a version which I thought I would love to try.  An elementary school teacher in Belgium, Aveline Gregoire, has created a simplified version that anyone can play – but with books instead of Pokémon.  She set up a Facebook group a few weeks ago, called Chasseurs de livres (“Book hunters”).  Members post photos and hints about where they’ve hidden a book, so others can look for them.  Once a book has been found and read, it can be “released” back into the wild for other players to stumble upon

Her Facebook group ( has over 61,000 members.  Gregoire is considering creating a Chasseurs de livres app, but in the meantime, if the game sounds intriguing to you, all you need to start one in your area is a Facebook group.  If you check out her Facebook group site, you will see that she shares information about how to set up your own group.