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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Some Articles about Elizabeth Strout

Earlier today, I posted my review of Elizabeth Strout’s just-released book, Anything is Possible.  In that review I mentioned that people might want to read My Name is Lucy Barton which is a kind of prequel to Anything is Possible.  My review of the former book can be found at 

Coincidentally, I came across a great profile of Elizabeth Strout in the latest issue of The New Yorker which arrived in my mailbox today.  I still prefer to read the print version, but an electronic version is available:

When My Name is Lucy Barton was released in January 2016, The New York Times had a lengthy article about the author ( and NPR Books had an interview with her (  And since Strout is internationally known, the British newspaper, The Guardian, featured her as well (  All three pieces make for interesting reading in tandem with Strout’s latest books.

With today’s release of Anything is Possible, expect more articles about this author.

Review of ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE by Elizabeth Strout (New Release)

4.5 Stars
I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reading copy of My Name is Lucy Barton, a book I loved, so I was very excited to receive an advance reading copy of Anything is Possible, which is really a companion book.  The second proved to be as good as the first.

Anything is Possible is a collection of linked stories set in or near Amgash, Illinois, where Lucy Barton grew up.  We are given the stories of the characters that are mentioned in the conversations between Lucy and her mother.  All characters are somehow connected to Lucy; some are relatives while others have just a tangential connection. 

Lucy’s mentor told her that the job of “a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition” and that is what Strout does.  One of Strout’s women thinks, “But this was life!  And it was messy!”  This messiness is what Stout shows:  people struggling with the harsh realities of life.  All have sorrows, fears and secrets.  Many live in private misery.  More than one character suffers from sexual dissatisfaction.  Almost all battle class prejudice.  Abandonment, loneliness, jealousy, guilt, unhappiness, and shame are some of the emotions which dominate lives.    Everyone seems damaged in some way because of poverty or because of a lack of loving relationships - or both. 

Despite their damaged lives, people endure.  Patty, one of the characters, points out that despite Lucy’s shameful upbringing, “she had risen right straight out of it.”  People’s lives can be redeemed; Dottie, another character, comes to understand “that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live.”  Abel, Lucy’s cousin who used to go dumpster diving with her for food but who has become a successful and wealthy man, has an epiphany at the end:  “Anything was possible for anyone.”

Another major theme is that of family bonds.  Several of the characters come from dysfunctional families and they have been scarred.  Yet love remains strong.  Lucy does come to visit her brother Pete and sister Vicky.  Though Vicky is resentful and jealous of Lucy’s success and feels abandoned by her sister who never visits, she shows Lucy some compassion and even tells Pete, “’She’s not coo-coo, Pete.  She just couldn’t stand being back here.  It was too hard for her.’”  An elderly woman wants to tell her daughter, “Listen to this!  Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father . . . But Lucy loved them, she loved her mother, and her mother loved her! We’re all just a mess . . . trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly . . . but that’s okay.”  This is exactly what Lucy’s mentor said to her about her novel in My Name is Lucy Barton:  ““This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter.  Imperfectly.  Because we all love imperfectly.’”

The characters in the book are diverse; some are good, decent people like Tommy Guptill; some are forgiving and compassionate like Patty Nicely; some, like Lila Lane, are judgmental and mean-spirited; others are difficult or troubled.  What is amazing is that each emerges as a multi-faceted character, both complex and complicated.  Even characters who are not admirable or even likeable are shown to be vulnerable.  Linda is a despicable person who married a predator but we are told that she married him “who with his intelligence and vast money seemed to offer a life that might catapult her away from the terrifying and abiding image of her mother alone and ostracized.”  Shelly Small may be an insufferable snob but it is obvious that she was humiliated and hurt by the comments of someone she had considered a friend. 

The prose is concise and lucid; there is not one superfluous word.  Such writing inspires me to go back and re-read My Name is Lucy Barton and then to re-read Anything is Possible too.  Each is a standalone but they also illuminate each other.  

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

75 Facts About L. M. Montgomery

In 1942, 75 years ago today, Lucy Maud Montgomery, best known as the author of the famous Anne of Green Gables series, died. 

For this anniversary, CBC Books has compiled a list of "75 facts you might not know about her life, death and enduring legacy":

A reddit user has put together a literary map  of the world; each book represented in the map is marked by that country’s "most famous or important novel."  Canada's book is Anne of Green Gables

There are 8 books in the Anne series: 
Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Avonlea
Anne of the Island
Anne of Windy Poplars
Anne's House of Dreams
Anne of Ingleside
Rainbow Valley
Rilla of Ingleside.

If you haven't read the Emily trilogy (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily's Quest), I would recommend it as well.

For a complete list of Montgomery books, go to


A couple of days ago, I posted about classics being re-imagined as murder mysteries.  I suggested that Pride and Prejudice might make a good mystery, but of course P. D. James beat me to it with her Death Comes to Pemberley.  I read her spin-off a number of years ago.  Here’s my review: 

3 Stars
Before I read this book, I re-read Pride and Prejudice because it seemed a great opportunity to refresh my memory and to enjoy Austen's prose and social satire. Perhaps I should not have done so because my enjoyment of the mystery was greatly lessened; reading the two books together served only to emphasize that P. D. James is not Jane Austen.

Set in 1803, six years after Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage, the orderly life of Pemberley is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth's drama queen sister, crying that her husband has been murdered. It soon becomes clear, however, that Capt. Denny, her husband's friend, has been killed and the scoundrel Wickham is the suspect. An inquest and trial follow. The ultimate solution is revealed through a clumsy deus ex machina: there are several last-minute revelations, including the cliche of a death-bed confession.

What is least enjoyable about the book is the characters. Elizabeth, the smart, sharp-tongued character of Austen's novel, has become dull and self-effacing. She says little and seems concerned only with propriety and the need to keep up appearances. She is very much a secondary character because the men soon become the focus.

Gone is the self-assured Darcy. After initially taking charge of the situation when Lydia appears, he soon becomes befuddled. Elizabeth and Darcy have become an old, too earnest, too dutiful couple, who seldom interact, much less exchange the witty banter which endeared them to Austen's readers.

In addition, other characters do not remain faithful to their depictions in "Pride and Prejudice." Rev. Collins becomes Mr. Bennet's nephew, instead of his cousin (3)? Colonel Fitzwilliam does not behave as Darcy's friend and has become a snob. James does try to offer an explanation for his change (25, 109), but it's not convincing.

The servants, Mrs. Reynolds in particular, are annoying in their efficiency. Mrs. Reynolds distributes candles in the hall (99), appears with water and towels outside the gunroom (101), provides hot soup in the dining room (105), and ensures there are blankets and pillows in the library (107). She does all this in a short period of time without the help of staff whom she ordered to bed to prevent any untoward inquisitiveness (99). James takes great pains to emphasize that Mrs. Reynolds is invaluable to Elizabeth and believes that "the family were never to be inconvenienced and were entitled to expect immaculate service" (20), but the woman can't be everywhere doing everything.

There are problems with continuity. Darcy somehow manages to do things he has no time to do. Darcy admits that he and his wife "have scarcely seen each other" (76) but she somehow manages to warn him about the conversation Col. Fitzwilliam wants to have about Georgiana (109). Furthermore, Denny and Wickham have a conversation enroute to Pemberley; this conversation leads to Denny vacating the chaise. No reader, once he/she learns the topic of that conversation, will believe that it would be discussed in front of Lydia, the other passenger in the chaise.

Then there are the anachronisms. Darcy looks at his wristwatch - about a hundred years before such timepieces came into popular use. Some of the dialogue uses diction (such as "subconscious") inappropriate even to the loose approximation of nineteenth-century prose that James attempts. The references to characters from other of Austen's novels seem contrived and introduce problems with time elements. James' attempt to appear to be an Austen expert (by alluding to several of Austen's novels) serves only to reveal the opposite.

James may have written the book as an homage to Austen, but it does not succeed. In its dark mood and supernatural elements it is more reminiscent of Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte. In her author's note, James even apologizes to Austen because she strongly suspects Austen would disapprove of her bringing "odious subjects" to Pemberley.

Combining a mystery with a comedy of manners makes an uneasy mix of genres. The mystery is mediocre with too-obvious clues. Missing is the sparkle provided by Austen's clever social commentary; as a result, the book can only be described as lacklustre. Fans of P. D. James may enjoy the book more than fans of Jane Austen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

World Book Night

Tonight is World Book Night in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  It was first celebrated in 2011 on March 5.  A year later, it was moved to April 23, the UNESCO International Day of the Book and, probably, the birth and death date of William Shakespeare.

World Book Night is a celebration of reading.  Books are given out with a focus on reaching those who don’t regularly read, and are gifted through organizations including prisons, libraries, colleges, hospitals, care homes and homeless shelters, as well as by passionate individuals who give out their own books within their communities.

World Book Night is run by The Reading Agency, a national charity that inspires people to become confident and enthusiastic readers.  For information about the event, go to

A couple of years ago, in honour of this event, The Telegraph newspaper featured a quiz of 30 opening lines of classics.  See how many you can identify:

Saturday, April 22, 2017

R. I. P. Julia Wagg

Julia Wagg (nee Alarie) was a student in my creative writing class from February to June of 1998.  She was one of the most creative students I ever had the privilege to teach.  She died on April 14; today, her memorial service is being held.

Her obituary ( indicates that she was an extraordinary person, as does this story ( written about her in The Ottawa Citizen.

At the end of each creative writing course, I compiled an anthology featuring the best work of the students.  The anthology of Julia’s class was entitled Playing Famous; six of Julia’s pieces appear in the book. 

In honour of Julia, I’m copying the poem that Julia included in that anthology.  I don’t think she would mind my sharing it.


I am your ugly, ugly instant kid
   By default
   Because it was a cabbage patch
   Full of rejects
   From which you carried me away

Your heart deifying regret
   Since the day
   The papers were signed
   You keep them in a cigar box
   On the top shelf of your closet
   Like the car registration in your
   Glove compartment

And you gladly deny accountability
   For my mistakes –
   Like breathing.
   Blame the genetic Pez dispenser
   For my conduct on this earth

You forget that ownership
   Is nine-tenths of the law

You’d even gnaw your hand off
   That you might trade me in
   A pointless exchange
   Because forsaken
   Was the merchandise
   From conception

The residue of a walking womb
   Afraid to use coat hangers
   For anything but hanging coats

Sympathizing with no one
   Save myself
   Personal pity party

Do unto others
   As you would do unto yourself
   Well, that’s fine for the prophets
   But in suburbia
   Murder isn’t legal

Me, myself, and I
   Rejects are we all

Though she may not have been famous for her writing, Julia was certainly a writer.  Here’s what she wrote one week before she died:  She never lost her skill with words.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Happy 91st Birthday to the Queen!

Today is Queen Elizabeth II’s 91st birthday.  To celebrate the longest reigning monarch in British history, CBC Books compiled a list of a dozen nonfiction, fiction and children's books that feature Elizabeth and document her extraordinary life:

The only book on that list with which I am familiar is The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett which imagines the queen’s literary odyssey.  One of the highlights of the novella is the observations about literature and reading.  I featured my favourites in an earlier blog entry:

Happy birthday, Your Majesty!