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Monday, December 5, 2016

Review of THESE ARE THE NAMES by Tommy Wieringa

4 Stars 
 I’ve an interest in Dutch culture because of my husband’s Dutch heritage so when I came across this title by a Dutch writer in some Best Books of 2016 lists, I decided to read it.  I’m glad I did.

Alternating chapters tell two stories which eventually merge.  In a fictional Eastern European town bordering on the Western Steppe, 53-year-old Pontus Beg, the police commissioner, searches for meaning for his lonely life.  Walking west on the steppes is a small group of refugees fleeing poverty and repression.  Eventually, Beg meets the migrants when they arrive in his town carrying evidence of a crime.

The novel’s title taken from the opening lines of the Book of Exodus clearly indicates one of its major themes:  migration.  The frail and starving refugees spend months on the featureless and desolate steppes, like the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness.  They are not identified by name; they are known as the tall man, the poacher, the young boy, the woman, the Ethiopian, etc.  Over time, they lose their possessions and their pasts; some even lose their lives.  Even “Their footsteps were wiped out quickly behind them.”  Considering events in Europe, this is a very relevant theme.

The human desire to begin again, to be reborn to a new life, is emphasized.  Obviously, the refugees left their homes so they could find new lives for themselves and their families.  Beg, when he sees a synagogue’s ritual bath, imagines being immersed in it and becoming a new person:  “What a pleasant, comforting thought . . . to shed his old soul, that tattered, worn thing, and receive a new one in its stead.  Who wouldn’t want that?  Who would turn down something like that?” 

Our common humanity is also emphasized.  Beg is told by a rabbi that Jews are “’a braided rope, individual threads woven to from a single cord.  That’s how we are linked’” but that connection obviously applies to all humanity.  A refugee looks at the body of one of his fellow travelers and makes a realization:  “What were the differences between them again?  He couldn’t remember.  It had to be there, that bottomless difference, but his hands clutched at air.  Now that the delusions had lifted, he saw only how alike they had been in their suffering and despair.” 

Part of that humanity is an instinct for self-preservation.  What people will do to survive is amazing.  The woman in the group resorts to eating sand.  The young boy is horrified and understands the feral nature of her actions when he says, “’You can’t eat sand!  People don’t eat sand!’”  The need to survive means stripping bodies of their clothing and precludes kindness towards others.  When one of the refugees gives some food to another who is so weak from lack of food that he is struggling to continue, his compassion is perceived as strange.  Even the one who is saved by the man’s self-sacrifice questions his benefactor:  “The black man helped him move along and supported him when he could go no farther, but that also meant he was to blame for the way his earthly suffering dragged on.  Gratitude and hateful contempt chased each other like minnows at the bottom of a pool.”  The young boy best summarizes the disturbing behaviour he witnesses:  “And along his way he has seen almost every sin you could imagine – there are so many more of them than he’d ever realized!” 

As I read this book, I was reminded of Voltaire’s statement that, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”   Voltaire was arguing that belief in God is beneficial and necessary for society to function.  The migrants, trying to find meaning in their circumstances, form beliefs resembling a religion: “a shared conviction took hold.” One of the travelers justifies their plundering an old woman’s food supplies by stating, “’She was there for us, so that we could go on.’”  They believe they were lead to her by their bodiless god because “they had been chosen”; Beg questions one of the survivors:  “’He was on your side; he was only there for you people.  Not for some feeble-minded woman; only for you.  He allowed you to rob her of everything she had because you people were his favourites, am I right?’”  Of course this idea of chosenness is to remind the reader of the belief of the Jews that they are God’s chosen people. 

This novel could be called a parable for contemporary times.  It seems a simple story but has several messages.  A re-reading would undoubtedly reveal more depths. 

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 5) - "E" is for Ekbäck

For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “N” and “X” and “Y”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“E” is for Cecilia Ekbäck
Cecilia Ekbäck was born in Sweden, but now lives in Canada, so for the purposes of my advent calendar, I’ve classified her as Canadian.

I loved her first novel, Wolf Winter; see my review at 
Her second novel, In the Month of the Midnight Sun, will be available in Canada on March 7, 2017. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 4) - "D" is for Davies and Donoghue

For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “N” and “X” and “Y”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“D” is for Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies was one of Canada's best known and most popular authors.  He wrote a number of trilogies; all are great reads but the one I would most recommend is The Deptford Trilogy.


The Salterton Trilogy
        Leaven of Malice (winner of 1954 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour)
        A Mixture of Frailties

The Deptford Trilogy
        Fifth Business
        The Manticore (winner of 1972 Governor General’s Award)
        World of Wonders
    The Cornish Trilogy
        The Rebel Angels
        What's Bred in the Bone (shortlisted for 1986 Man Booker Prize)
        The Lyre of Orpheus
    The "Toronto Trilogy" (incomplete)
        Murther and Walking Spirits
        The Cunning Man


“D” is for Emma Donoghue
Most readers will have heard of Emma Donoghue because of her novel Room.

Novels (which I recommend):
Room (shortlisted for 2010 Man Booker Prize, winner of 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, shortlisted for 2010 Governor General’s Award, shortlisted for 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction)
The Wonder (shortlisted for 2016 Giller Prize)   See my review at

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 3) - "C" is for Callaghan, Clarke, Cohen, and Crummey

For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “N” and “X” and “Y”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“C” is for Morley Callaghan
Callaghan was recognized as one of the best short story writers of the day. In 1929, he spent some months in Paris, where he was part of the gathering of writers in Montparnasse that included Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.  Edmund Wilson, the American critic, ranked Callaghan among the giants of literature.  Of the more than 100 short stories Callaghan published in his lifetime, 21 appeared over a ten year period in the New Yorker.  These stories were collected in one volume in 2001:  The New Yorker Stories.

Novels (which I recommend):

Such Is My Beloved
They Shall Inherit the Earth
More Joy in Heaven
The Loved and the Lost
Our Lady of the Snows


“C” is for Austin Clarke
Austin Clarke was a Barbadian novelist, essayist, and short story writer who was based in Toronto. His most notable book is The Polished Hoe.

Novels (which I recommend):

The Origin of Waves (winner of the 1997 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize)
The Question (nominated for 1999 Governor General's Award)
The Polished Hoe (winner of the 2002 Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize)


“C” is for Matt Cohen
Matt Cohen wrote both mainstream literature under his own name and children's literature under the pseudonym Teddy Jam.  His greatest popular success as a writer was his final novel Elizabeth and After.

Novels (which I recommend):

The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone (nominated for 1979 Governor General’s Award)
Last Seen (nominated for 1997 Governor General’s Award)
Elizabeth and After (winner of 1999 Governor General’s Award)


“C” is for Michael Crummey
Michael Crummey is one of my favourite Newfoundland writers.  I’ve read all four of his novels and would recommend them all.  Each has been nominated for at least one major literary award.

 River Thieves (shortlisted for the 2001 Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and longlisted for the IMPAC Award)
The Wreckage (longlisted for the 2007 IMPAC Award)
Galore (shortlisted for the 2011 IMPAC Award)
Sweetland (longlisted for 2016 International Dublin Literary Award and 2016 Canada Reads)  See my review of this book at

Friday, December 2, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 2) - "B" is for Badami, Baldwin, Boyden, and Burnard

For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “N” and “X” and “Y”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“B” is for Anita Rau Badami
Anita Rau Badami is a writer of South Asian descent living in Canada. Her novels deal with the complexities of Indian family life and with the cultural gap that emerges when Indians move to the west.  I would recommend all four of her books.


Tamarind Mem
The Hero's Walk
Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?


“B” is for Shauna Singh Baldwin
Shauna Singh Baldwin is a Canadian-American novelist of Indian descent.

What the Body Remembers (2000 winner of Commonwealth Writers’ Prize)
The Tiger Claw (2004 Giller Prize nominee)
The Selector of Souls

 Review of The Selector of Souls   (3 Stars)
This novel is set in India in the mid-1990s. There are two major characters whose stories are told in alternating sections. Damini, a Sikh-Hindu, is a widowed grandmother who, after she loses her job because of the death of her long-time employer, moves in with her daughter and her family. Damini begins working at a health clinic. Anu, a Christian-Hindu, is a battered wife who leaves her husband after sending her daughter to Canada; she joins a convent and works at the health clinic which also employs Damini. The two work together to improve the lot of women.

This book is primarily about the (mis)treatment of girls and women in India, a supposedly democratic country but one dominated by a patriarchal society which views females as expendable. After assisting with the birth of her granddaughter, Damini wonders, “What terrible deeds must this soul have done in a past life, to now be punished by taking form as a girl. What will she face but suffering that leads to more suffering” (236). In the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, the author mentions, “Demographers estimate that 45 million baby girls were missing in India in the nineties, and 42.4 million from 2001-2008 as a result of prenatal selection. Worldwide, 160 million girls are estimated missing since the 1970s. Those missing girls inspired this novel” (545). The novel touches not only on prenatal gender selection (abortion of female fetuses), but also on infanticide of baby girls, arranged marriage, rape, and domestic violence.

The book is full of historical, political, and religious references which often obscure the narrative. There is no doubt that the author is writing from experience and has done extensive research, but sometimes the novel reads more like non-fiction because it is so crammed with data. The author’s voice overshadows the characters’ stories.

Another problem is that the book has much too many coincidences. Damini and Anu are very different in terms of background, age, and social status, yet their lives repeatedly intersect. In a country with a population of over a billion, they meet not only in New Delhi but also in a remote mountain town in northern India. People who figure in the life of one character eventually feature in the life of the other. For example, Amu’s husband’s first love is the daughter-in-law of Damini’s employer. Amu’s husband also eventually employs Damini’s son. The list goes on and on; the number of coincidences stretches credibility.

In terms of characterization, the men receive short shrift. Most are flat characters and all are misogynists to some extent. The one liberal-minded man mentioned is Anu’s father and he’s dead. Even Anu’s liberated aunt, who publically fights for women’s rights, is married to a man who, despite physical evidence, wants Anu to return to her abusive husband.

A further weakness is that the author uses vocabulary that would be very familiar to an Indian but not to a Western reader. Terms for clothing, caste, and religious ceremonies are often not explained, so the reader is left unable to visualize what is being described. A glossary would definitely have been helpful.

This book is worth reading because it certainly opens one’s eyes to a major issue in India (and other parts of the world as well), but it is unfortunate that the narrative is not allowed to speak for itself.

“B” is for Joseph Boyden
I’ve mentioned Joseph Boyden several times in my blog.  I would rank him amongst my favourite Canadian authors.  All three of his novels are must-reads for all Canadians.

Three Day Road (winner of the 2005 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, longlisted for the 2007 IMPAC    Award)
Through Black Spruce (winner of the 2008 Giller Prize) – See my review at
The Orenda (longlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize, shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General's Award for English fiction, winner of the 2014 Canada Reads competition) – See my review at

“B” is for Bonnie Burnard
This Canadian novelist won the inaugural Giller Prize.


A Good House (winner of the 1999 Giller Prize)

Review of Suddenly   (3 Stars)
Sandra, a middle-class, middle-aged woman is living through the last stages of breast cancer.  As the plot races forward to the inevitable end, it also meanders backwards as Sandra, via her journals, revisits happy and significant events in the past.  Sandra’s point of view is supplemented with that of Jude and Colleen, her best friends who help Jack, Sandra’s husband, care for her.

There are several themes:  how the process of dying changes those involved and their loved ones; how the lives of ordinary women contain stories worth telling; how memories are a kind of salvation.

A weakness is that although the novel is about female friendships, there is little direct dialogue among the three women who supposedly share everything; instead, there are only individual musings.

This is not a novel for those who enjoy action-packed books; this is a novel driven by character and relationships.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 1) - "A" is for Atwood

Advent is upon us once again.  Last year, I did a Book Advent Calendar so for the 24 days leading up to Christmas, I recommended a book – a book to which I had given at least 4 Stars but for which I had not yet posted a review on my blog.  I went through the alphabet (using author’s surnames), skipping "Q" and "X".

This year, I thought I’d recommend Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make it more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, this time skipping “N” and “X” and “Y”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“A” is for Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is a novelist, poet, and short story writer; her work is acclaimed internationally and has been published around the world.

Since this blog focuses on novels, here’s a list of hers:
The Edible Woman
Lady Oracle
Life Before Man (finalist for the 1979 Governor General's Award)
Bodily Harm
The Handmaid's Tale (winner of the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award and 1985 Governor General's Award, finalist for the 1986 Booker Prize)
Cat's Eye (finalist for the 1988 Governor General's Award and the 1989 Booker Prize)
The Robber Bride (finalist for the 1994 Governor General's Award and shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award)
Alias Grace (winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, finalist for the 1996 Booker Prize and the1996 Governor   General's Award, shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction)
The Blind Assassin (winner of the 2000 Booker Prize and finalist for the 2000 Governor General's Award,  shortlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction.)
Oryx and Crake (finalist for the 2003 Booker Prize and the 2003 Governor General's Award and shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction.)
The Penelopiad (nominated for the 2006 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and longlisted for the 2007 IMPAC Award)
The Year of the Flood (longlisted for the 2011 IMPAC Award)
Scribbler Moon (2114; written in 2014 as part of the Future Library project)

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.