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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review of MEDICINE WALK by Richard Wagamese

4.5 Stars
This book was chosen by my book club and I was very pleased because this is a book I’ve long wanted to read.  I’ve read Indian Horse by the same author and enjoyed it very much.

Sixteen-year-old Franklin Starlight is summoned by his biological father Eldon to take him on a journey to a site where he wants to be buried.  Franklin was raised by a white foster father, identified as “the old man,” and has had only sporadic and unhappy contact with Eldon, an alcoholic, but he nonetheless agrees to bury his father on the land like a warrior.  On the 40-mile trek, Eldon tells his son about his past:  the death of his father, his Korean War experience, his descent into alcoholism.

Of course the journey is more of an inward journey.  In the Acknowledgments, the author writes, “In the Ojibway world you go inward in order to express outward.  That journey can be harrowing sometimes but it can also be the source of much joy, freedom, and light” (247).  Franklin tells his father, “’You gotta spend time gatherin’ what you need.  What you need to keep you strong.  [The old man] called it a medicine walk’” (65).  Eldon wants to give his son a legacy of sorts and seeks forgiveness.  Franklin clearly states what he is looking for:  “’Me, I always wanted to know more about where I come from’” (69).  From his father’s story, Franklin learns about his family and comes to understand the sacrifices of other people which have shaped him.  He wants a connection with his Native heritage and in the end receives a vision.

Franklin is a young man who will touch readers.  He is confident and self-reliant:  he provides food and shelter with minimal supplies.  He may be a teenager but he is wise beyond his years.  Though “he never did take to school,” he follows the old man’s advice that “’There’s better and more important learning to be had out here on the land’” (30 – 31).  Franklin has indeed formed a connection with the land; he speaks of coming to a favourite spot:  “’I could come and sit here for hours.  I spent three days here once when I was thirteen’” (69) because “’out here things just come all on their own sometimes.  Thoughts, ideas, stuff I never really had a head for’” (66).

In an encounter with a bear, Franklin shows that he can “move through fear,” something his father was not able to do during most of his life.  In fact, he is his father’s foil in other ways too:  he possesses a warrior nobility and strength of spirit Eldon lacks.  The old man raised him to be a good man and he has succeeded: Franklin is so honourable that he performs a filial duty for a man who emotionally abused him throughout his life.

The old man is another impressive character.  At first, he seems merely a taciturn farmer, but as we come to learn more about him, he earns the reader’s admiration.   He has been hurt badly but shows the redemptive power of love and compassion.  He, like Franklin, is not perfect.  He occasionally gives in to anger just as Franklin sometimes gives in to bitterness.  It is these flaws, however, that make them fully human characters.

The book examines the role of stories in our lives.  Eldon speaks about how his mother’s storytelling was very much a part of his childhood; in fact, he talks about his family name:  “’Starlight was the name given to them that got teachin’s from Star People.  Long ago.  Way back.  Legend goes that they come outta the stars on a night like this.  Clear night.  Sat with the people and told ‘em stuff.  Stories mostly, about the way of things.  The wisest ones got taught more.  Our people.  Starlights.  We’re meant to be teachers and storytellers’” (159).   As an adult, however, Eldon saw little use for stories; he tells his son, “’Most of the time I was just tryin’ to survive.  Belly fulla beans beats a head fulla thinkin’.  Stories never seemed likely to keep a guy goin’’” (69).  But he has come to realize that he might have been wrong:  “’Somethin’ your grandmother said.  Stories get told one word at a time.  Maybe she was talkin’ about life.  I didn’t have the ears to hear it though’” (142).  He also realizes he owes his son for his negligence and feels he can “’pay back a little of what I owe’” by telling him his life story:  “’I got some story that’s needed telling for a long time’” (80).  Franklin listens, perhaps because he remembers the old man telling him, “’But folks need hearing out sometimes, Frank’” (56).  Through his stories, Eldon gains some redemption, and they give Franklin a better understanding of both his father and the old man.  A woman encountered on the journey expresses it best:  “’It’s all we are in the end.  Our stories’” (103).

The language in the book is beautiful.  There are sentences that may take your breath away:  “Shadows fell on his face and the branches pushed by the breeze made it appear to move, to shift, to alter, and the kid felt hollow watching life dance across his dying father’s face” (142).

This is a quiet, contemplative book.  It is unquestionably worth reading  -  and reading again to find the gems of wisdom dispersed throughout.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Reviews of THE BAT and POLICE by Jo Nesbø

Today, March 29, is the 56th birthday of one of my favourite mystery writers:  Jo Nesbø.  This Norwegian writer is probably best known for his series of crime novels featuring Inspector Harry Hole. The series follows a tough detective whose investigations may take him from Oslo to Australia to the Congo Republic. Hole takes on seemingly unconnected cases, sometimes found to involve serial killers, bank robbers, gangsters or the establishment, but also spends a significant amount of time battling alcoholism and his own demons.

The 10 books in the series are
The Bat
Cockroaches
The Redbreast
Nemesis
The Devil's Star
The Redeemer
The Snowman
The Leopard
Phantom
Police

I’ve read all ten books and would certainly recommend the series.  I actually started with the third book, The Redbreast, which was the first to be translated into English; the first and second books were actually translated last.

I’m featuring my reviews of the first and last book in the series.

Review of The Bat
3 Stars
This is the first novel of the Harry Hole series but it was passed over for translation until now; in English the first book to appear was actually the third one.

The death of Inger Holter, a young Norwegian, results in Harry being sent to Sydney, Australia.  The Head of the Crime Squad clarifies Harry’s role:  “’What you’re gonna do is watch carefully while we haul the bastard in . . . ‘” (9), but Harry, along with his Aboriginal partner, Andrew Kensington, soon becomes much more deeply involved.  A series of unsolved murders is uncovered and it is obvious that a serial killer is involved.  It also becomes clear that Andrew seems to know more than he is willing to reveal directly.   Early on, Andrew narrates the Aboriginal creation story and Harry comments on its parallels with the Biblical version, “’Despite all the differences, sooner or later, we still come up with the same answers’” and Andrew repeats, “’Let’s hope so’” (53).  Much of the time Harry seems to have to find the answers Andrew has already reached.

The plot is mediocre.  There are the requisite number of red herrings and twists and turns, but sometimes the story is far-fetched.  Andrew’s reticence to divulge what he knows, except through enigmatic fables, is not totally convincing.  Furthermore, the ending is peculiar, especially the location of the final confrontation with the killer; no explanation is ever given for his choice of this place as a hideout.

What I enjoyed about the book is learning about Harry’s background.  The reader learns about the origins of Harry’s tortured psyche.   In subsequent books, we see the depressive alcoholic who is tormented by the past, but explanations for his behaviour are sketchy.  As well, in the subsequent books, allusions are made to Harry’s Australian adventure and now we can understand why it haunts him.

What also comes across very strongly is Nesbo’s sympathy for the Aborigines.  Much of their mythology and the history of their mistreatment are woven into the narrative, albeit sometimes rather heavy-handedly.

This book won the Glass Award for best Scandinavian crime fiction, but I found it weaker than the other thrillers in the series, understandably since it is the author’s debut.  Perhaps it is just as well that it was not the book that introduced Harry Hole to the English readers of the world.  If I had read it first, I might very well have skipped the rest, and that would indeed have been my loss.

Review of Police
4 Stars
 
This is a very difficult book to review without spoilers, but I will endeavor to do so. First of all, it must be mentioned that this book is a follow-up to Phantom and readers would be strongly advised to read it first as Police continues the plot without detailed explanation.

Police officers are being gruesomely murdered at the scenes of unsolved murder cases which they helped investigate. After the shocking ending of Phantom, readers are not surprised that Harry Hole is unable to assist in solving the deaths of former colleagues (though a complete explanation of what happened to Harry is not given for the first third of the novel). A team which had worked with Harry in the past leads the investigation into the police murders, drawing on everything they learned from his tactics.

Harry’s absence from the police force allows Nesbo to focus on the other investigators. Although they have appeared in previous Harry Hole mysteries, the ensemble players are more fully developed in this one. The ones that stand out are Beate Lønn, the head of forensics “who had a reputation as a kind of Rain Woman because of her ability to recognize faces” (16); Katrine Bratt, whose specialty is “tracking down people who had apparently vanished from the surface of the earth. Seeing patterns where others only see chance” (73); and Stȧle Aune, the mild-mannered psychologist who misses his former job as a police consultant “profiling sick souls who killed people with such gruesome acts of brutality that he was deprived of sleep at night” (22). Each of these secondary characters emerges as a round character; in fact, even the more minor characters and villains do not remain flat.

To say that the plot is dense would be an understatement. A concise plot summary is impossible not only because of the introduction of spoilers but also because of the complexity of the plot. The book never fails to surprise with its many twists and turns. Time and time again the reader becomes convinced that one thing is happening only to discover his/her assumptions were incorrect. Some reviewers complain about feeling manipulated but I think Nesbo is a master of misdirection who uses the mystery reader’s tendency to be like Silje Gravseng, a student at the police college who thinks she could tell Harry Hole how to solve a case. In the end, when the case is resolved, the reader should not feel cheated: all the clues are there.

Suspense is definitely a strong element in the book. Several suspects have credible motives, so some of the suspense derives from trying to determine the real culprit(s). More than one investigator finds him/herself in a dangerous situation so the tension diminishes for only brief pauses. One scene involving one of the team suspecting that a family member has been killed is brilliant in the way it ratchets up the suspense, especially since the author does not hesitate to have even major characters killed.

The one flaw is the use of coincidence. Most are acceptable, within the realm of plausibility, but the one that made me uncomfortable is the explanation of what happened to Harry at the end of Phantom (180).

Aune describes Harry Hole as “a starved, exhausted, monomaniacal hunter” and “the tall, grumpy alcoholic with the big heart” (23), but agrees that the former investigator “had been impossible not to love” (501). That’s the way it is with this book; it is not perfect, but it is a compelling read.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Virginia Woolf on Books and Reading


Today, March 28, is the 75th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death.  In her honour, I am posting some of her quotations about books and reading:
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” 

“Books are the mirrors of the soul.”

“Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us.  Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.  Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

“I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.”

“Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

“I was always going to the bookcase for another sip of the divine specific.”

“Come indoors then, and open the books on your library shelves. For you have a library and a good one. A working library, a living library; a library where nothing is chained down and nothing is locked up; a library where the songs of the singers rise naturally from the lives of the livers.”

“Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, and with extravagant enthusiasm.”

“Literature is no one’s private ground, literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”

“Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.” 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Treats for Readers?

It is Easter Sunday and many people enjoyed Easter egg hunts this morning.  Since it is difficult to share chocolates online, I thought I’d share another type of treat:  a list of bookish books.  For a reader, the only thing better than books is bookish books: books about the power of reading, books set in bookstores, books set in libraries, and books about librarians and their adventures.

BookRiot recently compiled a list of books about libraries and librarians: 

For other biblionovels, see my blog of February 5, 2016 (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2016/02/biblionovels.html) in which I listed 15 novels which have a bibliophilic theme or main character.

I’m off to enjoy a good book and to eat some of my Godiva chocolates.
Happy Easter!  Happy Reading!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Shakespeare Curse Ignored?


This is a rubbing of the epitaph on William Shakespeare’s tomb in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  It hangs in the master bedroom of my home, and I point to it when I want to be allowed to sleep in and not have “my bones” disturbed. 

It seems that the warning on Shakespeare’s tomb has been ignored.  Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that they say indicates that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave by Frank Chambers, a local doctor, in 1794 and is not with the rest of his body.

If you live in England, you have the opportunity to view a documentary entitled “Shakespeare’s Tomb” which is being aired at 8 p.m. today on Channel 4.  For those like I who cannot see the show, here’s an article that tells more of the story:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/25/theater/alas-poor-william-shakespeare-where-does-his-skull-rest.html?smid=tw-nytbooks&smtyp=cur.

Shakespeare died 400 years ago, but interest in him and his works is very much alive!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Canada Reads 2016 Winner


 
The Illegal by Lawrence Hill is the winner of Canada Reads 2016. 

It was a great “title fight.”  There were several highlights; all panelists made impassioned defenses.  I think all the books deserve a reading.

I was very impressed by the fact that Bruce Poon Tip is donating 10,000 copies of Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, the book he defended, to Canadian high schools.  Teachers can go to www.10000birdies.com to request copies.

To honour the winner, I’m reposting my review of it which I originally posted on September 19, 2015.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I hesitated to read it because I heard it was about a marathon runner, and running is not a sport in which I have much interest.  I’m glad I overcame my reticence because the book is about so much else and, considering the news from Europe, proves to be so timely.  The book is about undocumented refugees and the uncertainty they face:  will they be accepted, persecuted or deported?

Keita Ali is a refugee from the island nation of Zantoroland; he has to flee because his father was a journalist critical of the dictator ruling the country and because he is a member of an ethnic minority.  Dissenters and members of the minority are routinely tortured and killed so many escape to Freedom State where they live in AfricTown, a makeshift settlement of shipping containers.  Freedom State is the island nation closest to Zantoroland; its economy was built using slaves from Zantoroland, and though slavery was abolished, the descendants of those slaves are marginalized, and undocumented migrants are deported to the country from which they fled.  Keita is an elite runner who hopes to use his talent to win his freedom and citizenship in Freedom State, but he ends up running from authorities and running to save a family member.

Zantoroland and Freedom State (with its wonderfully ironic name) are fictional countries separated by the fictional Ortiz Sea in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Undoubtedly, the author used invented countries so they can represent any number of actual countries.  Zantoroland could be Cuba or Vietnam or Mexico or Syria and Freedom State could be the United States or Canada or any number of European countries.

The characters are many.  There are villains:  corrupt politicians, power-seekers, money-launderers, torturers, and thugs.  There are also the good people who are willing to subvert the laws in order to assist those labelled as illegals.  The reader will find him/herself cheering for the latter.  The major characters are realistic, possessing both good and bad traits.  Lula DiStefano, for example, helps refugees by providing shelter and food in AfricTown, but she also exploits them to her benefit.  Rocco Calder is a minister in the corrupt government of Freedom State but he struggles with his role.   Viola Hill and John Falconer are both ambitious, in-your-face investigative journalists, but they are determined to expose some unpleasant truths

The book examines serious issues, especially the treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants.  I loved Viola’s argument that “it was fair to accuse somebody of doing something illegal but not to say that they were illegal” (71).  The novel also touches on racism, ageism, discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, the tenuous position of mixed-race people, global inequity, and the hypocrisy of the richest nations not acknowledging that their economies owe much to the marginalized.

Despite its seriousness, the book also has comic relief.  Often it stems from the antics of Viola Hill and John Falconer as they relentlessly pursue the truth, making many uncomfortable in their willingness to ask incendiary questions.  There are also the tongue-in-cheek comments about Canada:  “The tenth [runner] was a Canadian.  But he didn’t really count as a Canadian, because he was black and born in Kenya. . . . Canada, all the way across the world, had been smart about recruiting the immigrant, giving him Canadian citizenship.  Now the country of snow and ice had a chance to win a medal in the next Olympic marathon” (126).

And there is suspense and romance.  Will Keita be able to win the races and get sufficient money in time to rescue a threatened family member?  Will he be able to elude the marathon agent wanting money from him?  Will he be able to avoid the authorities who want to deport him?  Can Keita really trust Lula and Ivernia to help him?  Should he have a relationship with Candace who hides from him her occupation in the service of Freedom State?

Marathon running serves as a perfect metaphor.  Keita runs to freedom in Freedom State, but he ends up running from imprisonment in that state.  Citizens of Freedom State run from the truth about their government and its deportation policies.  A marathon is a long endurance test.  Refugees undertake marathons (three-week journeys on overcrowded fishing boats) to escape Zantoroland but then run figurative marathons every day, trying to avoid the deportation raids.  An elderly woman must survive a six-month administrative marathon in order to keep her independence.

One element that bothered me is how the villains tend to reveal all when they think they have nothing to lose.  This happens a couple of times (354, 372).  The confessions of an important figure (349, 360) are also made to two people at very convenient times.  Such plot manipulation is a weakness.

In the end, the conflicts are tidily resolved.  All loose ends are tied up.  But, like all good literature, this book will have a lingering effect.  It raises moral issues that people should consider and debate.

The novel is set in 2018 but its moral questions are relevant to the present.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Today's New Release: THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson

4 Stars
Simonson’s second novel, after her debut Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is set in 1914 in the seaside town of Rye. Championed by Agatha Kent, 23-year-old Beatrice Nash has been hired to be the Latin teacher at the local school.  Beatrice arrives, more free thinking and attractive than expected, and becomes involved in the social life of the town.  She encounters many colourful characters but becomes especially close with Agatha and her two nephews:  Hugh Grange, a medical student, and Daniel Bookman, a bohemian poet. 

This is a comedy of manners; à la Jane Austen, it is full of dry wit and sparkling dialogue.  Beatrice, left penniless after her father’s death, decides she will live like a spinster earning her financial independence by pursuing teaching and writing.  Of course, the possibility of romance is introduced early on though there are complicating factors.  There is one potential suitor, the odious Mr. Poot, who is very similar to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

The novel certainly has its light moments.  Class snobbery and small-town intrigue are often rendered with a comic touch; the scenes involving various women manipulating for power are wonderful.  Agatha in particular is very eloquent when verbally fencing with others, especially Mrs. Fothergill who is the model of a small-minded, small-town gossip who yearns for status and power. 

But the book also examines serious issues. It focuses on gender, class and social mores.  We see society’s reaction to ethnic background, divorce, pregnancy outside marriage, the feminist movement, and homosexuality.  Most strongly, we see how social constructs limit people.  Beatrice, like other women of the time period, has difficulty getting a job and maintaining her independence; the slightest rumour of the scantest association with scandal risks her job security.  Another example of society constraining potential is evidenced in Snout, an exceptionally intelligent boy whose future is limited because of his Gypsy blood.

As the title suggests, the setting is England at the cusp of World War I.  What is disturbing is that the townspeople idealize war as an adventure.  Of course the reader knows what horrors await the men who enlist; I often found myself cringing at phrases like “civilized warfare” and shaking my head at the naivety of both civilians and the military.  Hugh’s mentor envisions a specialist hospital as close to the front lines as possible, offering “the opportunity to catalog every possible type and severity of brain injury”!  A brigadier insists on holding a drill and parade “only a couple of miles from the German lines,” not thinking that the enemy could use the sound of the full brass band to recalibrate “the range and direction of their artillery”!

It is the female characters who steal the show.  Agatha, Beatrice’s patron, stands out as an intelligent, diplomatic woman who loves life and enjoys verbal jousts with the pretentious.  She is not perfect, however, and, though more progressive than most, is, as she admits herself, “as small-minded as the next woman.”  Beatrice finds a soul-mate in Agatha; she is intelligent and determined and feisty, so she has “to work harder to cultivate an appropriate attitude of grateful subordination.”  Beatrice is also a dynamic character who learns “what it meant to be of limited income” and re-examines her relationship with her beloved father.

Though the novel is set one hundred years in the past, its discussion of refugees seems timely.  The town decides to shelter some Belgian refugees and the attitudes of the various residents remind me of comments I have heard and read with regard to the refugee crisis in Europe and whether Syrians should be welcomed so openly to Canada.

This is quite a lengthy novel and at times is very slow-paced but, nonetheless, I enjoyed it.  It needs to be approached leisurely.  It will undoubtedly be described as a gentle, quiet read but its charm is not a disguise for fluff.  The book has its comic moments, but it also accurately recreates a time of innocence before a major cataclysm which ushered in the age of experience.

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

Canada Reads 2016 Debate Begins Today

Canada Reads 2016 begins today:   “5 books.  4 days of debate.  1 winner.  Five prominent Canadians chose a book they believe is the one novel all of Canada should read.  Over four days of live debate, they narrow the list down until only one remains.”

This year’s theme is starting over.  All five books centre on themes of transformation and second chances, stories about people choosing, or being forced to choose, a dramatically different course in life.
The five books are                  Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
                                                Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz
                                                                (See my review posted on January 29, 2016.)
                                                The Illegal by Lawrence Hill 
                                                                 (See my review posted on September 19, 2015.)
                                                Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter
                                                The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami


Here you can find information about how to tune in to the debate:  http://www.cbc.ca/books/2016/03/how-to-tune-in-to-canada-reads.html.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Some Suggestions for Spring Reading

Image result for reading for springToday is the first day of spring.  To honour the beginning of the season of renewal, I’m recommending an article entitled “8 Rejuvenating Books to Read in the Spring.”  It appeared in the Huffington Post on March 14, 2014, but though it is two years old, its suggestions are still relevant.  Check out http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/14/spring-books_n_4956736.html.To this list, I will add one of my own, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  It’s a perfect spring read because the characters blossom and because there is hope in the midst of struggles, like buds on bare branches.  I reviewed this book on December 18, 2015.             Note:  I will be posting a review of Simonson’s latest novel, The Summer Before the War, this coming Tuesday when the book is released.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Today's New Release: TEARS IN THE GRASS by Lynda A. Archer

4 Stars
It is 1968.  Elinor Greystone is a 90+-year-old Cree woman living in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan.  As she nears the end of her life, she feels an urgent need to find her first daughter, Bright Eyes, the result of a rape at a residential school.  Elinor enlists the help of Alice, her granddaughter, and Louise, her daughter, to find Bright Eyes, the child forcibly taken from Elinor over seven decades earlier.

Red Sky in the Morning, a.k.a. Elinor, is a character the reader will come to love and admire.  She has not had an easy life, as she herself admits, having “’survived residential school, the theft of my first-born, the loss of babies, the murder of my husband.’”  Yet she retains a stamina and tenacity that belie her years, and she sees beauty in the natural world around her.  Her wisdom and her connection to nature especially make her a memorable character; she speaks to animals, even a stuffed bison in a natural history museum which she visits regularly. 

This is the first novel I have read which is written from the perspective of a residential school survivor.  What makes the novel’s message powerful is that we see the treatment of Indians from a personal perspective.  This book could very well have become a political diatribe about the horrors of residential schools, but the author merely touches on some of what happened, and that is enough to convey the horrors of that experience.  Elinor’s comment that the school was “a canker, sucking life from all that entered” is an effective description.

It is not just Elinor who emerges as a round character.  Her daughter Louise and her granddaughter Alice are also developed.  Each of these women has secrets because “shame holds secrets like a banker’s vault” but “Secrets are like pods of the milkweed.  They always burst open.”  Each woman is also compelled to examine herself to acquire a better sense of who she is, especially in terms of her relationship with her Native heritage.  Louise escaped the reservation on which she lived and has long been alienated from her culture; Alice wants her heritage to inform her life.

This book is definitely a worthwhile read.  It has a strong, memorable character and it addresses an aspect of Canadian history of which we should all be aware.  The novel speaks to both the mind and the heart.

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

Friday, March 18, 2016

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Fiction

Yesterday, the National Book Critics Circle announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2015.  The Fiction winner is Paul Beatty for The Sellout.

The Sellout is a biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court.  Born in Dickens, on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, the narrator 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 (https://www.amazon.ca/Sellout-Novel-Paul-Beatty/dp/0374260508/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1458310977&sr=1-1&keywords=the+sellout).

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Three Contemporary Irish Authors for St. Patrick's Day

Since today is St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d suggest some contemporary Irish authors worth reading. The Emerald Isle has blessed the literary world with the talents of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, Shaw, Synge, Yeats, Swift and many more. Those are tough shoes to fill but, fortunately, the country of St. Patrick continues to produce a steady crop of skilled storytellers.There are any number of names that come to mind; for example, I’d recommend Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, and William Trevor.  But here are my top three:
Colm Tóibín
Tóibín’s work often explores Irish characters moving into unfamiliar cultures, though the plots are fairly simple. He is definitely my favourite living Irish author.
I’ve reviewed three of Tóibín’s novels:   The Testament of Mary (December 19, 2015)
                                                                  Brooklyn (January 21, 2016)
                                                                  Nora Webster (January 22, 2016).

Emma Donoghue
Donoghue's work often incorporates LGBTQ themes and explores the status and role of women in the modern world.  Her novels have alternated between contemporary settings like Room‘s and historical tales. Frog Music, and her upcoming novel, The Wonder (to be released in September), are both historical fiction. Although Donoghue now lives in Canada, Ireland still claims her as one of its best living writers.
I reviewed Frog Music on October 24, 2015.

Sebastian Barry
Barry is noted for his dense literary writing style and is considered one of Ireland's finest writers. 
He has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novels A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), the latter of which won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year. His 2011 novel On Canaan's Side was longlisted for the Booker. 
I reviewed On Canaan’s Side on November 15, 2015.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review of A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING by Jackie Copleton

4 Stars
Forty years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Amaterasu Takahashi, now living in the U.S., is visited by a badly scarred man who claims to be her grandson Hideo.  Amaterasu is skeptical having been convinced that her grandson and his mother, her daughter Yuko, died on August 9, 1945.  Yuko’s diaries, which she finally reads, and letters from Hideo’s adoptive parents force her to revisit her past:  her life before, during and after the war and her relationship with her daughter.  A lot of family secrets are revealed.

Each chapter begins with a thematically relevant Japanese word; each adds to the cultural context of the novel.  The reader learns the cultural influences which affect the behaviour of the characters.  For example, one of the first words is haji with the explanation that “the Japanese live in a typical shame culture” and “the Japanese have internal behavioural standards and a deep sense of conscience regarding personal conduct.”  Other words are seken-tei (decency) and yasegaman (endurance) and kenkyo (humility), all concepts of virtue to which Amaterasu adheres.

Amaterasu is a very complex character.  She has a great deal of regret and intense guilt.  She believes that she is responsible for her daughter’s death because she insisted on meeting Yuko at what became the epicentre of the bombing:  “my daughter might be here today if it had not been for me.  I tell myself I acted out of love and a mother’s selflessness but how important is the motivation when you consider the consequence?”  She admits that she has tried to forget the past so she can have “a bearable life” and “to ease the guilt just enough to function.”  She doubts that the man on her doorstep is Hideo:  “my grandson was too pure for any world that would keep . . . me alive but claim my daughter.  Only scavengers and liars and cheats survived.  The best of us died young back then.”

The book is an emotional roller-coaster ride.  There are times when the reader will be so angry with Amaterasu but then later will cry for her.  The same is the case for Sato, a family friend with whom Yuko has a relationship.  Sato is a villain and yet he has redeeming qualities.  In reality, humans are complicated with both positive and negative traits, and the characters in the novel are very realistic. 

There are a number of themes.  Obviously, the book examines why people make certain decisions and how they live with the repercussions of those decisions.  Amaterasu must try to find some peace when there may be no definitive answers to her questions:  What was Yuko going to tell her on the day of the bombing?  Is the man who claims to be her grandson related to her?  In her treatment of her daughter, was she motivated by love for her or by “hurt fossilised to anger, of rejection turned to hate”?

When I reached the end of the book, I promised myself that I would re-read it.  There is undoubtedly much I missed in my first reading.  I found this title on the longlist of the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I certainly understand why it appears there.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Some JULIUS CAESAR Quotations for the Ides of March

Today is March 15, the Ides of March, the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.  The day has me remembering the famous quotation from Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar:  “Beware the ides of March” (I, ii, 18).

Of course, this is not the only memorable quotation.  On this day, I thought I’d highlight my top ten from this particular play; these are not necessarily the most famous but ones I have found useful in everyday life.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come (II, ii, 32 - 37).
. . . when needing some courage?

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings (I, ii, 139 - 141).
. . . when needing encouragement?

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries (IV, iii, 217 - 220).
. . . when needing to avoid procrastination?

The evil that men do lives after them (III, ii, 77).
. . . when needing a reminder to do no evil?

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things (I, i, 35)!
. . . when admonishing students for not doing their work? – in jest of course!

He reads much;
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men (I, ii, 201-203).
. . . when praising the benefits of reading?

You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart (II, I, 289 - 291).
. . . when needing a quotation for an anniversary card?

But I am constant as the northern star, 
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality 
There is no fellow in the firmament (III, I, 61-63).
. . . when assuring someone of one’s loyalty?

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears (III, ii, 75).
. . . when trying to get people’s attention for an important announcement?

It was Greek to me (II, ii, 284).
. . . when my husband started talking about mechanics!

Remember that 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, so why not choose a play and make your own list of favourite quotations.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review of THOSE GIRLS by Chevy Stevens

3.5 Stars
This thriller is set in rural Alberta and Vancouver.  The three Campbell girls (Dani, Courtney, and Jess) have to flee after an incident involving their abusive alcoholic father.  Enroute to Vancouver, they stop in Cash Creek, a small town where they encounter Brian and Gavin Luxton, and things go from bad to worse. 

The second half of the novel finds the girls in Vancouver 18 years later, living with new identities; they have become Dallas, Crystal and Jamie.  Crystal disappears and Jamie’s daughter, Skylar, sets off to find her aunt whom she believes has gone to Cash Creek on a revenge mission. 

The first part of the book is narrated by Jess, the youngest sister; the second part adds chapters narrated by Skylar, her daughter. 

The novel is fast-paced and action-packed so readers looking for a thriller will not be disappointed.  Some of the sections are difficult to read: there are graphic descriptions of violence made even more horrific because the narrators are young girls.

An issue I have with the book is characterization.  Brian and Gavin are pure evil; they have no redeeming qualities so they are not convincing characters.  The fact that they reside in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business makes their hidden activities unrealistic.  Other supporting characters tend to be the opposite:  too good to be true. 

The characterization is also problematic when it comes to the three sisters.  They have been raised to be tough.  They have few illusions about life and people so their stupid and risky and naïve decisions just do not ring true.  And Skylar makes the same poor choices!

The aspect of the book that is a definite positive is its examination of the bond between sisters.  The three girls love each other and remain loyal regardless of what an individual sister does.  They are survivors because of this bond that gives them strength. 

There is a great deal of tension, but the plot is rather predictable and the characterization is weak.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Notes on THE BOOK OF NEGROES by Lawrence Hill

At the Canadian Screen Awards, the big winner in drama was CBC’s miniseries The Book of Negroes, which took home nine CSAs, including best direction in a dramatic program or limited series for Clement Virgo, best original music score for a program for Philip Miller, best performance by an actor in a leading role in a dramatic program or limited series for Lyriq Bent, and best performance by an actress in a featured supporting role in a dramatic program or series for Shailyn Pierre-Dixon (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/awards-and-festivals/film-awards/book-of-negroes-big-winner-at-canadian-screen-awards/article29105686/?cmpid=rss1&click=sf_globe).

These wins inspired me to post my notes on the book by Lawrence Hill which I read back in September of 2008.

4 Stars
The Book of Negroes is narrated by Aminata Diallo as an old woman.  She tells her story beginning with her life in Mali (1745), her abduction by African slavers, her voyage aboard a slave ship, and her work on an island off the coast of South Carolina.  She escapes to New York and then to Nova Scotia.  Eventually she makes her way to Sierra Leone and finally to London where she works with abolitionists of the slave trade.  This inclusive narrative around one memorable character is reminiscent of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

I especially enjoyed the insight into Meena’s African childhood and the migration of the Black Loyalists to Shelburne and Birchtown (Nova Scotia) which I have visited. 

I admired Aminata’s struggle to control her own life.  She learns quickly the power of language and literacy and uses it to begin her political resistance against slavery.  Unfortunately, she was not totally realistic.  She is almost too good to be true.  She seems to lead a charmed life despite the horrors she endures.  She is intelligent and beautiful, with a facility for languages, traits that always distinguish her and ensure her survival.  And her unlikely discovery in a London crowd threatens the integrity of the narrative.

At times it seems that the author tried to put too much into the book.  I appreciated his historical research but felt that the focus was sometimes on history, not the narrative.  Though not totally engrossing, it is definitely a worthwhile read.  I would expect it to be picked for Oprah’s book club.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Longlist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize

The 13 books in contention for the Man Booker International Prize were revealed today.  It is given to a book in English translation, with a £50,000 prize for the winning title, to be shared equally between author and translator. Its aim is to encourage more publishing and reading of quality works in translation.

The longlist is as follows:  Author (nationality), TranslatorTitle
José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola), Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion
Elena Ferrante (Italy), Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child  (I reviewed this title on December 18, 2015)
Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian
Maylis de Kerangal (France), Jessica Moore, Mend the Living
Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia), Labodalih Sembiring, Man Tiger
Yan Lianke (China), Carlos Rojas, The Four Books
Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo/Austria), Roland Glasser, Tram 83
Raduan Nassar (Brazil), Stefan Tobler, A Cup of Rage
Marie NDiaye (France), Jordan Stump, Ladivine
Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan), Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water
Aki Ollikainen (Finland), Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger
Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind
Robert Seethaler (Austria), Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life

A shortlist of six books will be announced on April 14 and the winner, on May 16

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Longlist for 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

The longlist for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was released yesterday: http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/2016/announcing-the-2016-baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-longlist.  The prize was established to recognize the literary achievement of female writers.  One of the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary prizes, it is awarded annually to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom in the preceding year.

Here are the 20 novels on that list:
Kate Atkinson:  A God in Ruins    (United Kingdom) – See my review posted on January 16, 2016
Shirley Barrett:  Rush Oh!    (Australia)
Cynthia Bond:  Ruby     (U.S.)
Geraldine Brooks:  The Secret Chord    (Australia)
Becky Chambers:  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet    (U.S.)
Jackie Copleton:  A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding    (United Kingdom)
Rachel Elliott:  Whispers Through a Megaphone     (United Kingdom)
Anne Enright:  The Green Road     (Ireland)
Petina Gappah:  The Book of Memory     (Zimbabwae)
Vesna Goldsworthy:  Gorsky     (Serbia)
Clio Gray:  The Anatomist’s Dream     (United Kingdom)
Melissa Harrison:  At Hawthorn Time     (United Kingdom)
Attica Locke:  Pleasantville     (U.S.)
Lisa McInerney:  The Glorious Heresies     (Ireland)
Elizabeth McKenzie:  The Portable Veblen     (U.S.)
Sara Nović:  Girl at War     (U.S.)
Julia Rochester:  The House at the Edge of the World     (United Kingdom)
Hannah Rothschild:  The Improbability of Love     (United Kingdom)
Elizabeth Strout:  My Name is Lucy Barton     (U.S.) – See my review posted on January 12, 2016
Hanya Yanagihara:  A Little Life     (U.S.) – See my review posted on August 10, 2015

The shortlist of six titles will be revealed on April 11 and the winner, who will receive £30,000, will be announced on June 8.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reading Lists for International Women's Day

Today, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, is International Women’s Day.  I came across a number of sites with lists of reading suggestions for the day.  Here are three I found interesting.




I am not a reader of much non-fiction but from these lists, two titles stand out as ones I might read:  I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out by Janet Silman.

New (Paperback) Release: THE BIRDS by Tarjei Vesaas

3.5 Stars
This book was originally published in Norway in 1957; now an English paperback version is being released.

This is the story of Mattis, a mentally challenged man in his late 30s, known as Simple Simon by the people in the small village in which he resides.  He lives with his sister Hege who looks after him.  Their quiet lives change when a lumberjack arrives at their lakeside cottage, and Mattis becomes increasingly concerned about his future.

This is not a book for lovers of action/adventure novels because this is not a plot novel.  This is a portrait of man who doesn’t fit into the world, but wants to.  He is very much aware of how he is different from other people; he wants to be different in the three ways that matter to him:  beauty, wisdom, and strength.  He has difficult doing even menial labour and suffers anguish because of his ineptitude.   He clings to the familiar, being afraid of change, but he wants to find a role for himself which he does for a short time when he becomes a ferryman. 

It is unclear what Mattis’s disability is, but it seems to be autism.  He struggles to express himself, he has obsessions which occupy his thoughts, and he becomes easily frustrated.  He lacks connections to people, but he is attuned to the natural world.  He sees meaning in events in that world, events like the flight of a woodcock and a lightning strike. 

I found that the book did not maintain my interest because there is so little suspense.  It is true that Mattis is not always able to accurately interpret people’s actions and so there is always the risk of his doing something inappropriate.  But since he is middle-aged, he has learned how to behave in a socially acceptable way.  And his fear of mockery ensures that he usually reacts and speaks cautiously.  I did not have the same concerns as I did when reading Of Mice and Men.

The novel’s strength is its psychological insight.  The reader sees Mattis’ fears, loneliness, unhappiness, and his sense of childlike wonder.  Mattis’s thoughts may be muddled and he may have difficulty communicating them, but his emotions become very clear.  And all of this is accomplished in very sparse, stark prose. 

It is also Hege who receives the reader’s sympathy.  Her life is almost unbearably lonely as she struggles to look after her brother.  She is “worn out and miserable” and though she is only 40, her hair is turning grey.  At one point, she screams in frustration:  “’Leave me in peace, please!  I can’t go on any longer if you don’t –‘” 

Apparently there is a Polish film entitled Matthew’s Days which is based on this novel.  I recommend the novel, but readers should be forewarned that sadness pervades the book.

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

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review of THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE by Joseph Boyden

In yesterday’s blog entry, I mentioned that Through Black Spruce is being made into a film.  I thought, therefore, I’d share my review of that book which I read back in October of 2008 – though my notes are rather sketchy, I do remember I loved the book, as I did its precursor.

4.5 Stars
This novel is a follow-up to Three-Day Road.  The two narrators are related to Xavier Bird, one of the two Cree snipers whose stories are told in Boyden’s first novel.  Will is Xavier’s son and Annie is his granddaughter.

Will Bird, a legendary bush pilot, lies in a coma.  While in his deep sleep, Will's mind is in a state of active dreaming, looking back on his life.  A sense of urgency compels him to share his life's story, a tale of survival, with his niece.  And Annie, Will’s niece, tells her story to Will after some reluctance to talk to a comatose.  She describes to her uncle the events of the last months that took her to Toronto, Montreal and New York City and, eventually, brought her back to Moosonee.

Will’s story is much stronger, the locale being portrayed much more realistically.  The New York scenes do not seem real, although the glittering artificiality may have been intentional.

One of the themes is the death of traditional ways of life.  Drugs are one of the contributing factors but there is also passing reference to residential schools.

The novel is also a study of the formation of identity.  Annie finds herself shedding her tomboy past and slipping into the role of Indian Princess in New York.  What she eventually discovers, as does Will, is the inescapable ties of family.  Both characters are lost or stuck, peering through black spruce, but eventually escape the shadows.

One weakness is the ending.  It is much too melodramatic so the tone of the novel is lost.  It is a disappointing finale that does little justice to the rest of the novel.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Upcoming Film Adaptations of Canadian Novels

Some excellent Canadian novels are going to be made into films.  Bell Media has announced funding for a number of film adaptations of award-winning novels.

“Screenwriter Michael McGowan has signed on to write All My Puny Sorrows [by Miriam Toews], which won the 2013 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The novel follows a woman named Yolandi, who grapples with her sister's request to help end her life. [See my review on July 20, 2015.]

“Jason Buxton is writing Three Day Road, [Joseph] Boyden's debut novel that took home the 2005 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The book focuses on two Cree snipers haunted by their experiences on the battlefield during World War I. [I read this book back in 2005 and loved it, but I didn’t write reviews back then, so I have none to post.]

 “Bell Media renewed the option on the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner 419 written by Will Ferguson. Suzette Couture is writing the script. 419 is a dark thriller about the criminal underworld behind notorious Nigerian internet scams. [This novel I have not yet read.]

“Funds have been committed to production on Indian Horse based on the book by Richard Wagamese. Stephen Campanelli will direct the film, with the script written by Dennis Foon. Indian Horse is about an Ojibway hockey player who struggles with an alcohol addiction.  [See my review on November 6, 2015.]

“Screenwriter Barbara Samuels is working on a second draft of the script for Through Black Spruce, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Joseph Boyden in 2008. [I read this book in October of 2008 – I will post my review tomorrow.]  Through Black Spruce follows the parallel journeys of a Cree bush pilot and his niece, as they face heartbreak, fierce love and ancient blood feuds.”  (http://www.cbc.ca/books/2016/03/joseph-boyden-miriam-toews-and-richard-wagamese-books-getting-the-movie-treatment.html

Friday, March 4, 2016

Review of AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini

Today, March 4, is Khaled Hosseini’s 51st birthday.  He is best known for his novel The Kite Runner, but in honour of his birthday, I decided to post my review of his most recent book, And the Mountains Echoed.

4 Stars
Three-year-old Pari is separated from her ten-year-old brother Abdullah when their father makes a decision which he thinks will improve his family’s future. The novel examines the reverberations of this difficult choice – consequences which are felt far from his small rural village in Afghanistan and for 50 years hence.

Spanning the years from 1942 to 2010 in various locations (Afghanistan, France, Greece and the United States), the novel is really a collection of nine interconnected stories featuring a large cast of characters, some only tangentially related.

The stories set in the past, particularly those of Parwana and Nabi, are the most powerful. The ones set in the present have less emotional resonance. Sometimes there is extensive description of the lives of people who did not engage me emotionally. Markos and Idris fall into this latter category. Nonetheless, what is positive about the characters is that they are all three-dimensional. Most are good, well-intentioned people with flaws. What is striking is that sometimes a character will be viewed in one way because of his/her actions in a scene but being shown that same scene from a different perspective forces the reader to reconsider first impressions. What is also notable is that despite the myriad characters, I experienced no confusion; it is not difficult to remember who is who.

As mentioned, the various characters are related to varying degrees, although all have some connection to Pari and Abdullah. One chapter, for example, focuses on Pari and Abdullah’s stepmother; another, on the Greek doctor who takes up residence in the home inherited by Pari and Abdullah’s step-uncle; a third, on the son of a drug warlord who becomes friends with the son of Pari and Abdullah’s half-brother. There are also other connections, however. All either lose someone or reject/let down someone in some way. Usually this someone is a sibling/pseudo-sibling or a parent. Several yearn for “escape, reinvention, new identities” and unmoor themselves “by cutting loose the anchors that weigh [them] down” (328). Naturally, many of the characters seek redemption for their betrayals. Parwana and Masooma, and Markos and Thalia, and Pari and Nila are obvious examples. Pari perhaps best summarizes the shame and regret many characters feel: “’I did careless things. Reckless things. . . . I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that. . . . It would not have been so difficult . . . I should have been more kind’” (382 – 383).

Readers should be forewarned that not everyone finds a satisfactory resolution. For some it is too late to have a happily-ever-after ending. There are, in fact, several unanswered questions: What happens to Gholam? Does Thierry really reconnect with his mother? This open-endedness may bother some people, but I found it realistic. To have Pari remember an object from her infancy would have been unbelievable.

Early on, one of the characters says, “A story is like a moving train” (74). Reading this sprawling tale is like hopping on a train and encountering various passengers who tell you their stories; some disembark without your knowing what happens to them. Nonetheless, at the end of your journey with this book, you will have a feeling of shared humanity and the interconnectedness of people across time and space. It is definitely a journey worth taking.