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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

National Book Critics Circle Awards Winners

Recently, the National Book Critics Circle announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2016. 

The winner for fiction was Louise Erdrich for LaRose, a novel about an accidental shooting and its aftermath for two Native American families.

Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing, a novel that spans continents and centuries to wrap its arms around the African-American experience of slavery, was the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, recognizing an outstanding first book in any genre.  (See my review at  

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was Margaret Atwood. 
Named after the first president of the NBCC, the award is given annually to a person or institution---a writer, publisher, critic, or editor, among others---who has, over time, made significant contributions to book culture.  In her acceptance speech, Atwood spoke about the important work literary critics do:

“Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Awards are given annually to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. The awards are open to any book published in the United States in English (including translations). The National Book Critics Circle comprises more than 700 critics and editors from leading newspapers, magazines and online publications.”  For a complete list of winners in all categories, go to

Monday, March 27, 2017

Canada Reads Debate Begins Today

The Canada Reads debate begins today.  I’ve read four of the five books; here are my reviews:

The nominee I didn’t read is the non-fiction book The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
“The former head of the international Inuit Circumpolar Council and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, author and activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier chronicles the impact climate change has had on northern communities and makes the case that this environmental crisis is indeed a human rights issue. Weaving together environmental, cultural and economic issues, Watt-Cloutier makes a passionate and personal plea for change” (

I’m hoping for The Break; it is the best of the novels. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Trump Tries to Read a Book?!

I’ve posted in the past about how Donald Trump does not read books:  Ironically, he has inspired novels ( and lists of books to be read during his presidency ( 

On March 15, in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, Trump stated that he loved to read:  “Well, you know, I love to read. Actually, I’m looking at a book, I’m reading a book, I’m trying to get started. Every time I do about a half a page, I get a phone call that there’s some emergency, this or that. But we’re going to see the home of Andrew Jackson today in Tennessee and I’m reading a book on Andrew Jackson. I love to read. I don’t get to read very much, Tucker, because I’m working very hard on lots of different things, including getting costs down. The costs of our country are out of control. But we have a lot of great things happening, we have a lot of tremendous things happening.”

Using this statement as inspiration, Katy Waldman wrote this comic scenario in Slate magazine:   Check it out and have a chuckle. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Lost and/or Found Manuscripts by Famous Writers

In a couple of recent posts, I’ve mentioned rediscovered works by well-known writers.  There’s the novel by Walt Whitman ( and a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (

The fall 2016 issue of The Strand magazine included a newly discovered short story entitled “The Haunted Ceiling” by H. G. Wells written in the mid-1890s.   The story is about a man driven mad by a woman’s ghost in his ceiling:  (This plot sounds similar to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" published in 1843.)

Last fall, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, a new children’s story by Beatrix Potter, was published.  It’s about a serious, well-behaved young black cat, who leads a daring double life defeating villains.  For the story of its discovery, read

2015 saw the publication of What Pet Should I Get?  That’s a Dr. Seuss children's book believed to have been written between 1958 and 1962.  The book chronicles the adventures of Jay and Kay from Seuss' One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish in their attempts to buy a pet.  The New York Times wrote about its discovery in a box:

Of course, not all works by writers find their way into print.   Here’s an article about books you will probably never be able to put on your shelves because they've either been stolen or destroyed: 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review of THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

3.5 Stars
Middle-aged Evie Boyd looks back to the summer of 1969 when as a 14-year-old teenager she became involved in a Manson-like cult.  Drawn to a free-spirited rebellious woman named Suzanne, Evie is introduced to the commune of which Suzanne is a member.  Evie gradually becomes involved in the cult’s lifestyle of free love, drugs, and crime.    

The characterization of the teenaged Evie is a strong element in the book.  Evie’s parents are virtually absent from her life; nothing seems to be happening in her life; she feels alienated from her peers; and her crushes on boys are unreciprocated.  As a result, she is bored and drifting through life and is desperate for attention and love.  The older Suzanne sees her neediness and gives her the attention she desires.  Evie thrives on being noticed and focuses on trying to please Suzanne and the cult leader, Russell Hadrick, so their love and attention will not be withdrawn.  Of course, Evie is being manipulated:  she is forced into sexual service and encouraged to steal to supply food and money for the group. 

It becomes clear how certain people can be drawn into belonging to a cult.  Both Russell and Suzanne are adept at recognizing young women who lack confidence and self-esteem.  These insecure, lonely women are easily malleable.  Some attention makes them feel, like Evie, that they are “the center of a singular drama.”  As an adult, Evie can recognize the tactics Russell used on her during her first evening at the commune:  “Russell had put me through a series of ritual tests. . . . Attracting the thin, harried girls with partial college degrees and neglectful parents, girls with hellish bosses and dreams of nose jobs.  His bread and butter. . . . Already he’d become an expert in female sadness – a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash.  A subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying.  Russell did the same thing to me that he did to those girls.  Little tests, first.  A touch on my back, a pulse of my hand.  Little ways of breaking down boundaries” (125). 

The novel examines the world of young women and does not present a pleasant picture.  Young girls are objectified and their self-esteem is directly connected to how they meet society’s ideals of feminine beauty and deportment.  Young girls are often targets of sexual exploitation; Evie lists several instances of how men saw her need and used it against her:  “a stranger at a fair who palmed my crotch through my shorts.  A man on the sidewalk who lunged at me, then laughed when I flinched.  The night an older man took me to a fancy restaurant . . . [and] later placed my hand on his dick while he drove me home.  None of this was rare.  Things like this happened hundreds of times.  Maybe more” (349 – 350).  I’d bet there are few women who can’t list such encounters from their personal experience. 

The message is that times have changed but what is expected of women has not.  Women are expected to accept the dehumanizing demands of men.  Evie sees her behaviour paralleled in the behaviour of a young woman named Sasha whose boyfriend Julian coerces her into exposing her breasts to a friend of his.  Then Sasha “barely said goodbye.  Burrowing into Julian’s side, her face set like a preventative against my pity.  She had already absented herself, I knew, gone to that other place in her mind where Julian was sweet and kind and life was fun, or if it wasn’t fun, it was interesting, and wasn’t that valuable, didn’t that mean something” (338)?  This is so similar to Evie’s 14-year-old self “trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love” (47). 

If you’ve ever wondered how women could have been attracted to Charles Manson and why they would have killed for him, you might want to read this book.  You may find yourself wanting to shake Evie out of her naivety but you may also come to an understanding of the appeal of cults for certain people whose vulnerability makes them targets for the unscrupulous.   

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Literary Colouring Books

Colouring books for adults have become very popular recently.  If you are a reader as well as a colourer, you might be interested in this article listing 11 colouring books based on literature:

Besides the ones listed above, there are a few others that caught my attention: 

Little Red Riding Hood: An Adult Coloring Book with Classic Fantasy Characters and Relaxing Country Scenes (Based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales)



Pride & Prejudice: An Adult Coloring Book with Romantic Country Scenes, Historical English Women, and Vintage Floral Dresses (Inspired by the Best-Selling Novel by Jane Austen)


The Official Outlander Coloring Book


                                          The Literary Romance Coloring Book

This last one I think might be the most fun.  Perhaps “literature” is not the appropriate word to use for romance comics, but these types of comics are often introductions to more serious reading.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Man Booker International Prize Longlist

The Man Booker International Prize 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.

Last week the longlist was released:
Title; Author (Country); Translator
Compass; Mathias Enard (France); Charlotte Mandell
Swallowing Mercury; Wioletta Greg (Poland); Eliza Marciniak
A Horse Walks into a Bar; David Grossman (Israel); Jessica Cohen
War and Turpentine; Stefan Hertmans (Belgium); David McKay
The Unseen; Roy Jacobsen (Norway); Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
The Traitor’s Niche; Ismail Kadare (Albania); John Hodgson
Fish Have no Feet; Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland); Phil Roughton
The Explosion Chronicles; Yan Lianke (China); Carlos Rojas
Black Moses; Alain Mabanckou (France); Helen Stevenson
Bricks and Mortar; Clemens Meyer (Germany); Katy Derbyshire
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal; Dorthe Nors (Denmark); Misha Hoekstra
Judas; Amos Oz (Israel); Nicholas de Lange
Fever Dream; Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Megan McDowell

For more information about the books, go to

The shortlist will be announced on April 20 and the winner, June 14. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review of OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein (New Release)

3 Stars
Karen Neulander is a single mother with Stage 4 ovarian cancer with perhaps two years left to live.  She writes a book for her six-year-old son Jacob, the book we are reading but which is intended for Jacob when he is older.  At Jacob’s request, Karen contacts his biological father Dave whose desire not to have children led to Karen’s breakup with him.  Karen has to deal with her mortality and her fears about what will happen to her son once she dies.

The structural framework of the novel is awkward.  Karen writes the book because “It seems like the right way to tell you everything I want you to know.”  She also clarifies that she will include “whatever wisdom I have, whatever lessons I’d pass on to you later . . . [and] my hope is that whenever you miss me or whenever you just want to know more about the person I was, you’ll be able to open this book and read these pages and remember me.”  Would a mother really keep describing her extreme physical pain?  Why would she include such details about her job as a political consultant and her major client at the moment?  Though the book shows a growth/change in Karen’s thinking, why would she want to show her son the events that led to her epiphany?  Since Karen writes a day-by-day account of events, a diary or journal format would be more appropriate. 

Karen is not a likeable character.  In her professional life, as she admits, she has no qualms about using “dirty tricks” to smear an opponent’s reputation and whitewash her client’s scandals.  She describes her current client as “one of the least trustworthy people I’d ever met” yet she never considers dropping him.  She is very self-centred as well though, given her circumstances, her selfishness is totally understandable.   At times, her only redeeming quality is her love for her son.   Were it not for her terminal cancer diagnosis, it would be difficult to have much sympathy for her.

Karen’s character change is convincing.  Her fierce love for her son makes her capable of change and she has sufficient motivation to do so within the duration of the novel.  Dave’s change is less realistic.  He seems so very different from how Karen describes him.  Not only is he handsome and wealthy with a supportive wife, he seems totally reformed.  His lack of experience means he makes mistakes as a father, but he is so well-meaning and tries so hard to be a good father.  He just seems too good to be true. 

Of course, there is the spectre of unreliability in Karen’s narration.  At the beginning of the book, she states, “I plan to be honest here.  I plan to be excruciatingly, extraordinarily honest.  I will not edit out the truth; I will not try to make myself look better than I really was.  Than I really am.”  But does she really portray Dave as he was or have her emotions negatively coloured her portrayal?  At one point, she writes to Jacob that, “Your father was remembering what he wanted to remember in order to make himself feel better.”  Is the same not true for her?  And again, is it fitting that in her book to her son, Karen writes things like “no matter what else he turned out to be in life your father was also, indubitably, a moron” and “He was lying; your father was a liar”? 

The novel examines parental love.  What does it mean to really love a child?  Unfortunately, Karen’s realization is expected so the ending is predictable; in fact, much of the book feels like waiting for Karen to finally see the light. 

The book is written in a conversational, informal style which makes it easy to read.  It is insightful in some respects but its unwieldy framework detracts from the whole.  

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Literary Festivals in Canada

Spring begins today so I thought it appropriate to preview spring literary festivals in Canada.  49th Shelf has a list of the various festivals across the country:

Chances are there’s one somewhere near you. 

If you want specific information about a favourite festival, a good place to go is The Writers’ Union of Canada website: