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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Glenn Gould Biography (in Graphic Novel Format)

A biography of Glenn Gould (in graphic novel format) will become available tomorrow in North America.  Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo was written by Sandrine Revel, a prolific French creator of graphic novels.
“Glenn Gould was a Canadian pianist, a child genius who became a worldwide superstar of classical music remembered for, among others, his almost revolutionary interpretations of Bach. This graphic novel biography seeks to understand the eccentric personality behind the persona. Who is the mysterious Glenn Gould? Why did he abruptly end his career as a performing musician? Why did he become one of the very first of his peers to disappear from the public eye like J.D. Salinger? Sandrine Revel delves into the life of Gould with hand painted illustrations and the viewpoint of an adoring fan” (

To see some of the illustrations, go to

Next year marks a number of important anniversaries for Gould: the 85th of his birth and 35th of his death but also the 60th of his legendary tour of Russia, a first for a Western artist, and of his debuts with the world’s leading orchestras.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

2016 Costa Book Awards Shortlists

 Last week, the shortlists for the Costa Book Awards were announced.  The Costa Book Awards is one of the UK's most prestigious and popular literary prizes and recognizes some of the most enjoyable books of the year, written by authors based in the UK and Ireland.  Uniquely, the prize has five categories - First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children's Book - with one of the five winning books selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year. It is the only prize which places children’s books alongside adult books in this way. 

In the Novel category, there are nominees:

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen,Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.  Having fled terrible hardships themselves, they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both witness and are complicit in. Their lives  are further enriched and endangered when a young Indian girl  crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life.  A New Yorker living in thewilds of Ireland, he  has  children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway.  He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890s, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way. They are Cora Seaborne, and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their  village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical  Essex Serpent, once said  to  roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist, is enthralled,  convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species.  But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment?  Gustav Perle  grows  up  in  a  small  town  in  'neutral' Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav's father has  mysteriously  died,  and  his  adored  mother Emilie is strangely cold  and indifferent to him. Gustav's childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.  As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav's life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav's are entwined.

For the nominees in all categories, go to

The category winners will be announced on January 3, 2017, and the Costa Book of the Year will be revealed on January 31, 2017.

Monday, November 28, 2016

World's First "Literary" Audiobook Found in Canada

One of the earliest audiobooks has been discovered in Canada.  A 1935 recording of Joseph Conrad's novella Typhoon has been discovered in Canada by Matthew Rubery, a professor of modern literature at London’s Queen Mary University.

Audiobooks, as aids for visually impaired people, have been around since the 1930s, but initially contained only short stories or poems.  Typhoon was one of three full-length books to be recorded as an audiobook, and the first “literary” audiobook.  The other two longer works were Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and the New Testament's Gospel According to St. John.

As It Happens on CBC Radio had an interview with Professor Rubery on Nov. 21; you can access it at and even hear part of the audiobook.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

R.I.P. William Trevor

Last Sunday, William Trevor, the Irish novelist, playwright, and short story writer, died at the age of 88.    I’ve admired his writing for a number of years. 

Schatje’s Shelves has several of his titles:

The Children of Dynmouth
Death in Summer
Felicia’s Journey
Fools of Fortune
Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel
Nights at the Alexandra
Two Lives

I found three great articles about Trevor:
and (where you can listen to Trevor reading two of his short stories).

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review of MISCHLING by Affinity Konar

3 Stars 
This Holocaust novel focuses on Jewish twin girls, Stasha and Pearl Zamorski, who arrive in Auschwitz and become inhabitants of Josef Mengele’s zoo, a special section of the concentration camp where he performed brutal experiments on those with genetic anomalies.  The novel has two parts:  the first deals with the time the girls spend in Auschwitz and the second focuses on what happens to them following the liberation of the camp.  Of course, the focus throughout is on survival.  With some exceptions, chapters are narrated alternately by the two.

Stasha and Pearl are 12 years old when they are sent to Auschwitz.  They are defined by their oneness; they have a special psychic connection such that they know each other’s thoughts and “pain never belonged to just one of us.”  They are fiercely devoted to each other and more than anything fear being separated.  Stasha screams when different numbers are tattooed on their arms because “they pointed out that we were separate people, and when you are separate people, you can be parted.”  Later she finds that one of the worst things about the experiments performed on her is that Mengele “imposed divisions on the matter I shared with Pearl.”

The book does not dwell too much on the specifics of the experiments.  Most of the details of the experimentation are kept in the sidelines.  What is described is horrific enough.  The girls notice the others who have been at the camp for a while:  “In nearly every pair, one twin had a spine gone awry, a bad leg, a patched eye, a wound, a scar, a crutch.”  Not much more needs to be said.  Those few who do survive Auschwitz become “an experiment for the war-torn countries, the disassembled, the displaced.”

It is not the physical torture but the emotional and mental suffering that most struck me.  Pearl and Stasha suffer when they are separated from their family and each other; their physical pain is given much less emphasis.  A Jewish doctor, Dr. Miri, suffers unimaginable emotional trauma.  She is forced to be Mengele’s assistant, compelled “to do things she did not want to do.”  Stasha speaks of Miri’s sorrow arising from “taking care of the children that Uncle [Mengele] claimed for his own.  It must have been like stringing a harp for someone who played his harp with a knife, or binding a book for someone whose idea of reading was feeding pages to a fire.”  In the end, Miri is “folded in a corner . . . She was awake, but absent.”

I feel guilty for having to admit that I found the book tedious.  Reading about their efforts to survive in such horrific circumstances was painful and I certainly hoped for their survival, but otherwise I felt emotionally distanced.  Perhaps the lyrical prose caused some of this disconnect.  The beautiful figurative language just does not seem appropriate to the subject matter and does not suit the age of the narrators.  The number of metaphors is sometimes overwhelming; at the beginning, Stasha describes their lives in utero:  “For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother.  I couldn’t imagine anything grander than the womb we shared, but after the scaffolds of our brains were ivoried and our spleens were complete, Pearl wanted to see the world beyond us.”  The girls’ thoughts and dialogue suggest they should be much older; for example, Pearl says she will never look away from the horrors “because in looking away . . . we would lose ourselves so thoroughly that our loss would require another name.”

There are coincidences that jar.  Pearl ends up in the same bed near the wall of which Stasha had scratched the words “Dear Pearl”.  The second part of the novel feels disjointed and the ending is just too simplistic.  The resolution is dependent on more coincidence, and the use of a zoo at the beginning and end is just too neat a structure.

There are certainly messages for the reader, one of the most important being that we not forget; one character makes a comment that really struck me:  “’The whole world will never look back.  And if they do, they’ll probably say that it never really happened.’”  The dehumanizing effects of the holocaust are emphasized; Stasha speaks of the Zoo’s most severe alteration being “the very damage it did to our notions of what it meant to be close to another living being” and she tries to tell her sister that “we had to treat ourselves as objects in order to get by.”  Knowing the degree of evil that exists in the world, an evil “in all its lowdown fullness, its beastly disrespect for all living creatures and their great variety,” is it possible to “learn to love the world once more”? 

I’m not sure whether to recommend this book to others.  Its subject matter is difficult and what happens to the characters is heart wrenching.  Those who enjoy lyrical writing will find much to like, but those looking for an action-filled plot will not.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Bad Sex in Fiction Award

Each year since 1993, the Literary Review has awarded the Bad Sex in Fiction Award to “an author who has produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel. The purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction” (

The nominees have been announced for the 24th award:
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin
Men Like Air by Tom Connolly
The Day Before Happiness by Erri De Luca
The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
Leave Me by Gayle Forman
The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

The winner will be announced on November 30.