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Friday, February 24, 2017

Tom Hanks and other Fiction-Writing Actors

A collection of short stories by Tom Hanks will be published October 24, 2017. 

“Titled Uncommon Type: Some Stories, the collection comprises 17 stories, each having something to do with a different typewriter.  (Hanks has an affinity for the machines, owning a collection of over one hundred vintage typewriters.)  But outside of that particular shared detail, the plots and characters vary wildly: There’s a man immigrating to New York City after fleeing a civil war in his country; a person who becomes an ESPN star after bowling a string of perfect games; a billionaire and his assistant on a ‘hunt for something larger’; and an actor enduring a life of press junkets” (

This is not Hanks’ first published work.  In October, 2014, a short story of his entitled “Alan Bean Plus Four” was published in The New Yorker:

Of course, Hanks is not the first actor to write a work of fiction.  In 2010, Steve Martin wrote An Object of Beauty which received good reviews.  And Hugh Laurie of House fame wrote a comic detective thriller titled The Gun Seller which was also positively received. 

There are of course the bombs.  An article in The Guardian recently claimed that “most books written by actors are dogmuck” and proceeded to pan fiction written by Pam Anderson, Sylvester Stallone, William Shatner, John Travolta, James Franco, Chuck Norris, and Macaulay Culkin:

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review of THE BREAK by Katherena Vermette

4 Stars
This is one of the finalists for Canada Reads 2017. 

In a series of shifting narratives, the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime on a community in Winnipeg's North End.  The book could be called a whodunit (Who attacked the young Indigenous woman?), but it is much more.  The reader does see how the police investigate the case, but the identity of the perpetrator and the motive soon become obvious.  The focus is on the effects of the crime on the victim, her relatives (e.g. great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunts, cousin) and her friends.  In total, ten different viewpoints are given; except for the Métis police officer leading the investigation, the voices are those of women.

This is a compelling read though not an easy one.  It is the first book I have encountered which has had a trigger warning:  “This book is about recovering and healing from violence.  Contains scenes of sexual and physical violence, and depictions of vicarious trauma.”

This is a very timely novel.  Statistics show that Indigenous women are three times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Aboriginal women, and the Canadian government has launched a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.  Virtually all the women in the novel have experienced sexual abuse and/or domestic violence and/or addiction and/or cultural loss and/or family fracturing.  These are such common experiences as to be almost inevitable.  The title refers to a piece of undeveloped land in the middle of the community which becomes the scene of a crime, but it also refers to broken people, broken relationships, and broken links with the past. 

Besides a novel about the difficult lives of urban Native women, this is a book about resilience and survival.  The message is that women need to support each other to give each other the strength to survive.  It is the connection to family and the love for one’s family which allow for healing and provide the assurance that “Everything will be okay.”  Stella has distanced herself from her family but when she re-connects, she feels so comforted that she doesn’t’ want to leave.   The eldest speaker says, “I know I have my people.  I can feel them, even when they go away.  It means so much to have people.  It is everything.” 

Of course, not everyone has a supportive, caring network.  Phoenix, for example, has no one except an uncle, an ex-con, drug-dealing gang leader.  Her mother Elsie was gang-raped when she was a teenager and became a drug addict, losing her three children to the child welfare system.  Phoenix’s behaviour therefore becomes understandable and the reader cannot but feel some sympathy for her.  The added tragedy is that the dysfunction will continue into the next generation.

The number of characters is a weakness.  Some (Phoenix and Stella) are well-developed, but others (Cheryl, Louisa, and Paulina) are not sufficiently differentiated.  A family tree is provided but the number of nicknames adds to the confusion:  Cheryl is sometimes Cher; Louisa is sometimes Lou; Lorraine is sometimes Rain; Zegwan is Zig and Ziggy; Alex is Bishop and Ship, etc.  Why does everyone’s name have to be reduced to one syllable?  Phoen?!  The use of Paul for Paulina is particularly annoying because of its gender confusion.  The connections between non-familial characters are sometimes difficult to keep straight (StellaElsiePhoenixCedar-SageLouisaRitaZegwanEmily). 

Men in the novel are not portrayed very positively.  Young Native men are gang members and older Native men retreat into the bush:  three of the major characters have been abandoned by husbands.  Absentee fathers for Native children seem to be the norm.  Only three white men make an appearance.  One is Officer Christie, a stereotypical doughnut-loving cop who is lazy and bigoted.  Jeff and Pete, partners of Indigenous women, remain flat characters.    

The book does not offer excuses or assign blame; it just shows the situation and lets readers draw conclusions as to responsibility.  We know that the plight of Aboriginals is a consequence of colonization by whites, but this is not explored.  Neither is the role of residential schools.  However, the racism encountered by Aboriginals in the health care system and among police is shown.  The novel’s achievement is putting a human face to issues that are often misunderstood. 

This book is unflinching in its gaze at life for contemporary Indigenous women in urban Canada.  It is certainly a book Canadians should read. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dystopian Literature

Since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, the popularity of dystopian literature has risen dramatically.  For example, sales of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have soared.  It seems readers are searching for stories that describe what’s currently happening and what has the possibility of happening due to recent events.

Various publications have prepared lists of dystopian books and I thought I’d recommend a couple of sites:

The Savvy Reader includes both Orwell and Atwood and also mentions Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel which I reviewed (

Refinery29 also suggests Orwell, Atwood and St. John Mandel.

Wikipedia lists dystopian novels chronologically.
The Guardian listed books about American authoritarianism. 

Over the years, I have read and taught a number of dystopian novels.  Here are a dozen authors I recommend:
The Handmaid's Tale and the MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam) by Margaret Atwood
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle
The Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Children of Men by P. D. James
It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

If you don’t have the time to read a book, how about a short story?  "By the Waters of Babylon" is a post-apocalyptic short story by Stephen Vincent Benét.  You can read it here:

Monday, February 20, 2017

Review of THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware

2.5 Stars
This is a locked-room mystery à la Agatha Christie (e.g. Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None).

Lo Blacklock, a travel journalist, is given a dream assignment aboard a luxury cruise ship.  She thinks she hears a body being thrown overboard from the cabin next door to hers, but there is no evidence of an occupant in that cabin, though she encountered a woman there earlier.  Her reliability as a witness is called into question for a number of reasons so Lo investigates on her own.

I found the book was heavy-handed in a number of ways.  First of all, Lo’s unreliability as a witness is emphasized so much:  she is suffering trauma after a recent home burglary, she suffers from anxiety attacks, she is sleep deprived, and she drinks excessively.  Her heart is always thumping (12 references), or pounding (7 references) or beating hard/fast (9 references).  She vomits three times.  And she never speaks in her own voice:  “I wanted it to sound like a command, but it came out like a plea” and “I tried for a laugh, but it came out sounding fake and shaky” and “It came out harsher and louder than I meant” and “It came out like the growl of an animal – not quite human” and “I didn’t mean it to sound the way it came out” and “My voice came out cracked and hoarse” and “I didn’t mean to sound quite so curt” and “I said at last, in a voice that didn’t seem to be mine” and “my voice low and hard and totally unlike my own” and “there was a note in my voice that sounded like a whining little child”!  At least three times, she screams and doesn’t recognize that she is the one doing it!

Lo is irritating, rude, and shallow.  For instance, she makes observations like, “There was a little knot in the far corner who looked like they could survive for several weeks off their fat reserves, if we were ever shipwrecked” and describes people as “sleek and rotund as a walrus” or “whippet-thin and wearing jewelery weighing more than she did”.  At least a dozen times she refers to doing something stupid and even makes comments like “I groaned, at my own stupidity . . . ” and “groaning with my own stupidity”  and “Stupid, stupid Lo” and “Stupid, stupid, stupid” and “I should have thought of that” and “How could I not have thought of it?” – comments with which the reader can only agree. 

There are some other things that had me shaking my head in disbelief.  An adult would pack her copy of Winnie-the-Pooh every time she travels:  Pooh has always been my comfort read, my go-to book in times of stress”?  A journalist reads so little that a children’s book is the only one that gives her comfort? 

The book supposedly has “surprising twists” but I found none.  The ending is certainly not a shock and in some ways lacks logic.  The murderer at the end takes some actions that match Lo’s in terms of stupidity.

I read the author’s In a Dark, Dark Wood and was disappointed.  I wish I hadn’t given her a second chance. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

R.I.P. Stuart McLean - Canada's Storyteller

Today is Sunday, and for years and years, I spent an hour each Sunday listening to Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Café on CBC Radio.

Many of the stories from the radio show were compiled in books:  
Stories from the Vinyl Cafe (1995)
Home from the Vinyl Cafe (1998)
Vinyl Cafe Unplugged (2001)
Vinyl Cafe Diaries (2003)
Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe (2006)
Extreme Vinyl Café (2009)
The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks (2010)
Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe (2012)
Time Now For The Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange (2013)
Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (2015)

He received the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for three times and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian culture as a storyteller and broadcaster, as well as for his many charitable activities.  I’ve mentioned more than once how the reading of Stuart’s story “Dave Cooks the Turkey” is a Christmas tradition in my home. 

As I’m sure all Canadians know, Stuart McLean died earlier this week.  There will be a hole in my weekly listening to CBC.  Thankfully, many of the stories are available in both print and audio form so it is possible to read the stories only Stuart could write and listen to them as only he could read them.  I know I will be revisiting Dave and Morley and their family and friends for years to come.

R.I.P. Stuart McLean 
An entire country thanks you.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Another Literary Destination: the World's Oldest Library

For your next vacation, why not visit the oldest library in the world?

The al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, in northeastern Morocco, was founded in the year 859.  Until recently, it was reserved for academics and theologians, but following an extensive renovation, the library opened its doors to the public this past summer. 

The al-Qarawiyyin library was founded by a woman.  Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Tunisia, arrived in Fez in the ninth century and began laying the groundwork for a complex that included the library.  Inside were kept many prized tomes, works of such immense import that the iron door leading to the library had four locks; each of the four locks had separate keys held by four different individuals, all of whom had to be present for the door to be opened.  The library now houses 4,000 rare texts and ancient manuscripts; among its most valuable texts is a ninth-century copy of the Qur’an written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin.

The library had several small additions and renovations over its millennium-long existence, but it has now been totally restored by a Canadian-Moroccan architect, Aziza Chaouni.