Randy's reads in 2015

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Randy's reads in 2015

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des. 29, 2014, 9:15am

Welcome. This is my fourth year in the 75 Books Challenge. I live in Waterloo, Ontario. The photo below is of Meat Cove, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which was one of the many beautiful spots in Nova Scotia that my wife and I visited in 2014. Waterloo is not so dramatic, but it does have an excellent public library and a great independent bookstore within walking distance of where I live. So it suffices for now, but I anticipate further travel in 2015.

Feel free to comment on my reviews, or let me know about a book you are passionate about. Or just lurk. That's what I mostly do since I'm not very good at posting on other threads. However, I do read almost all of the reviews posted on the threads in this group, which can be dangerous because I end up adding too many books to my TBR list.

Best of luck on your challenge in 2015.

Editat: des. 30, 2015, 3:01pm

Books read in 2015

1. My Sky Blue Trades by Sven Birkerts
2. Peace by Richard Bausch
3. Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen
4. The Dinner by Herman Koch
5. Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder
6. Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano
7. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
9. How to be both by Ali Smith

10. Dune by Frank Herbert
11. Sweetland by Michael Crummey
12. Boundary Problems by Greg Bechtel
13. Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

14. Mr. Hockey: My Story by Gordie Howe
15. Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
16. Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
17. Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi
18. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
19. Caught by Lisa Moore

20. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
21. There but for the by Ali Smith

22. Building Stories by Chris Ware

23. Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li
24. Wildlife by Richard Ford
25. Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis
26. Can't we talk about something more pleasant? by Roz Chast
27. The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
28. The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury
29. Ayoade on Ayoade by Richard Ayoade
30. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken

31. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
32. Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn
33. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

34. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
35. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
36. Missing Person by Patrick Modiano
37. The Door by Magda Szabó
38. Munich Airport by Greg Baxter
39. The First Person and other stories by Ali Smith
40. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

41. Ubuntu Made Easy: A Project-Based Introduction to Linux by Rickford Grant
42. Linux Command Line and Shell Scripting Bible by Richard Blum
43. Driving Blind: Stories by Ray Bradbury
44. The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
45. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
46. The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
47. In the Place of Last Things by Michael Helm
48. The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam
49. Last Friends by Jane Gardam
50. Correction by Thomas Bernhard
51. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
52. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
53. The Martian by Andy Weir
54. A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn

55. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
56. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
57. Bream Gives Me Hiccups and other stories by Jesse Eisenberg
58. The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill
59. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
60. The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Egan
61. Martin John by Anakana Schofield
62. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt

63. The Journey Prize Stories 27 compiled by Anthony De Sa, Tanis Rideout and Carrie Snyder
64. Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge
65. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
66. The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood
67. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
68. On The Edge: a novel by Edward St. Aubyn
69. The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

70. His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay
71. My Ántonia by Willa Cather
72. Hunts in Dreams by Tom Drury
73. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
74. Pacific by Tom Drury
75. Debris by Kevin Hardcastle
76. Philosophy of Song and Singing: An Introduction by Jeanette Bicknell
77. Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald
78. Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks
79. The Professor's House by Willa Cather
80. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor by John Berger

Editat: des. 29, 2014, 12:34pm

Here are my top picks from 2014.

Five best reads of 2014

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford - a few good words that sum up Ford's long running character's (Frank Bascombe) take on grief, death and the fear of death, and what makes life worth living.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante - the continuing story of the entangled and contrasting lives of two brilliant friends, Lila and Elena.
10:04 by Ben Lerner - it's "the world just as it is now, but a little different", the difference being Ben Lerner's wondrous prose.
Jesus' Son: Stories by Denis Johnson - a classic collection of stories that established Johnson as one of the great short story writers of the late 20th century.
The Verificationist: A Novel by Donald Antrim - at once intensely written and as light a feather, this novel takes dissociative narrative to a new level.

des. 29, 2014, 2:05pm

Beautiful photo of Cape Breton, Randy. Happy New Year and here's to much glorious reading in 2015.

des. 29, 2014, 6:03pm

I was an occasional lurker on your threads last year so I thought the least I could do is say "Hello" and let you know that I am looking forward to following your reading for another year. I will try to be more of a poster in 2015. ;-)


des. 29, 2014, 6:52pm

>4 lit_chick: >5 lkernagh: Hi Nancy and Lori. Thanks for the visit and best wishes for good reading in the year ahead.

des. 29, 2014, 9:45pm

Welcome back! Nice pic...

des. 29, 2014, 10:45pm

Fabulous photo, Randy! I look forward to your excellent reviews in 2015.

des. 30, 2014, 6:23pm

>7 drneutron: >8 kidzdoc: Thanks, Jim and Darryl. I hesitate to describe the road I drove on to reach that isolated cove. Let's just say it was an adventure. And thanks, as ever, Jim for all your hard work setting up the group again this year. I really appreciate it.

des. 30, 2014, 7:59pm

Almost all roads in NS are 'adventurous'.

des. 31, 2014, 7:55pm

des. 31, 2014, 7:56pm

Wishing everyone here on LT a very Happy New Year and all the very best in 2015: good books, good friends, and good cheer.

gen. 3, 2015, 8:04pm

1. My Sky Blue Trades by Sven Birkerts

Eventually, Sven Birkerts became a significant American commentator on poetry and fiction. But before that happened he had a lot of growing up to do. Maybe he still does, if this memoir is any evidence. I note Susan Sontag describes it as a, “very American memoir.” Given that it is largely sentimental, self-absorbed, petulant, and unreflective, I wonder if she knew at the time the double edge to her assessment. However, Birkerts is a writer who has earned his reputation through diligence, if not brilliance, so it would be surprising if there were not moments of fine prose here. There are.

I especially liked his account of his enthusiasm for Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and the process whereby he wrote his first published literary essay, “Robert Musil’s Atlantis.” There were a few other points where Birkerts’ fine writing shines. They seem, however, to share one feature. They are all points in the memoir where is isn’t focused solely on himself. Of course a memoir in general is focused on the self, but at many points one’s life story is contextualized in a larger story. It is just these points where Birkerts’ writing strikes me as satisfactory.

Birkerts is the child of immigrants from Latvia. But his is no typical immigrant story. His father was an architect, one grandfather was an artist, the other (estranged) a writer of many books of history and psychology back in Latvia. Birkerts grows up in the suburbs of Detroit. His father drives a Jaguar. He is sent to a private school. His greatest childhood complaint is that his parents speak Latvian and aren’t typical white-bread Americans. Well, I guess he was really hard done by there! But this seems to be the source of a self-congratulatory (or self-imagined) conflict with his father, of which we hear much but see little. His petulant, hard-done-by, attitude follows him to the University of Michigan and a drug-filled initial year in which he takes a full set of “incompletes” followed by a summer bumming around Europe. Fortunately for Birkerts there are few consequences to any of his actions. His family continues to support him and, I think, love him. The tension he touts between himself and his father never develops into anything more substantial than his father urging him to complete his degree and, you know, maybe get a job.

This isn’t a poorly written book, but as memoir goes, it rarely rises above the banal, and you may find yourself wondering why it was written.

gen. 4, 2015, 7:25pm

2. Peace by Richard Bausch

The intense existential doubt precipitated by moments of life and death struggle, catastrophic moral choice, and, yes, the peace that passeth understanding meld in this frighteningly clear and poignant tale. It is 1944, the Italian campaign, and three men are tasked, along with an elderly Italian guide, to scout ahead up a low mountain in order to ascertain what forces of retreating Germans lie ahead. Go up a mountain and come back down. If that isn’t the basis of an archetypical narrative arc, I don’t know what is. Simple. But that stripped down symbolism and its corollaries reverberates throughout this haunting story.

Of course the three GIs are carrying far more than their packs. Bausch masterfully flashes back to their time before the landing, and in the case of one, Corporal Robert Marson, to his life in a suburb of Washington D.C. It is more than fear for their lives though that burdens them. An incident has occurred shortly before they are ordered out on this reconnaissance. That incident and their deliberation as to how to respond to it sets the moral choice before them. As if that weren’t enough, they find themselves encountering, from a distance, the slaughter of Jews by the retreating German forces, and on their return journey, the very real threat of death dealt by an unseen sniper.

Bausch’s writing here is so taut, so fully under control, so pitch perfect, that you will find your pace through the story to be almost breathless. This is fine writing indeed. And though it is a short novel, it feels replete. Highly recommended.

Editat: gen. 4, 2015, 11:52pm

My Sky Blue Trades sounds very American indeed; I'm sorry that you had such a bad book to start the year.

Peace, on the other hand, sounds fabulous. I'll add it to my wish list.

ETA: I see that our late friend JanetinLondon gave Peace 4-1/2 stars, so I'll definitely read it.

gen. 5, 2015, 12:24am

That's a beautiful topper picture Randy. Happy new year and good luck with your reading!

gen. 5, 2015, 4:13pm

>15 kidzdoc: I think you will enjoy Peace, Darryl. I'm glad to learn that it brought Janet some joy as well.

>16 The_Hibernator: Thanks, Rachel. It was my first time visiting Cape Breton Island, a truly wonderful spot, at least in the summer. It's rather colder there now, I fear.

Editat: gen. 5, 2015, 4:41pm

3. Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen

On rereading Pride and Prejudice in this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am struck by the almost irrepressible joy evinced at various points by so many of the actors in the drama. Take Jane, the oldest of the Bennet sister, and her perfect bliss at the familial joy that will result from her happy union with Mr. Bingley. She wonders, “how shall I bear so much happiness!” Or take her perfectly insensible youngest sister, Lydia, whose joy on becoming the first wed of the sisters burbles forth heedless of the shame brought on her siblings and parents by her escapade with Mr. Wickham. Or take Mr. Bennet’s delight at the obsequiousness of his cousin, Mr. Collins, or the inanities of Mrs. Bennet. And finally, take Elizabeth’s willingness to laugh at and with her proud husband to be, Mr. Darcy. Joy rises to the surface like cream. And it is joy to which we are fitted, each to our nature.

This is such a lovely edition. It is in a large format allowing the annotations to accompany the text directly. There are numerous notes discussing fine points of interpretation given generous presentation by Patricia Meyer Spacks, though at times she reserves judgement on their felicity. And there is an excellent introduction, also from Professor Spacks, which is fully conscious of the fact that most who pick up this edition of Austen’s classic will be rereading it. And the joys of rereading, especially of works that merit rereading such as this one, are many. For myself, I relish the slower pace at which I take the text, revelling in each expected but still surprising turn of events. And yet, subsequent to Elizabeth’s re-acquaintance with Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, I still find myself racing onward almost desperate to see Elizabeth reach her deserved joy.

For an early work, admittedly reworked and finally published after the success of Sense and Sensibility, I think that Pride and Prejudice points to much of what will solidify in Austen’s later writing, especially her very fine Emma. But perhaps it is the youthful exuberance that this novel cannot cloak which more than anything encourages the devotion so many readers have for it. After all, we will have our joy.


The above edition of Pride and Prejudice was a gift I received the Christmas before last. I held it in reserve through the year waiting for the ideal time to savour it. Events overtook me such that it wasn’t until this past Christmas that I felt the inclination to indulge myself. I’m glad I did. Hardly anything restores me the way rereading one of Austen’s novels does.

Editat: gen. 12, 2015, 12:32pm

4. The Dinner by Herman Koch

Structured over the courses of a dinner in a fine restaurant, this novel charts the fault lines in familial relations and potentially challenges presuppositions about the nature of moral responsibility. Paul and Serge Lohman and their two wives meet for dinner with the object of discussing an issue that has arisen with their two sons, each fifteen. The story is told from Paul’s point of view but, given Paul’s sociopathic tendencies, Paul is a somewhat unreliable narrator. However, it seems clear that the two boys have engaged in several acts of violent abuse of homeless people, up to and including the death of at least one. Although it takes some time for this information to be revealed, the real issue here is what to do about it. All of the adults have discovered the truth. Should they insist that their sons come forward and confess, or should they seek to cover it up?

It looks like we are faced with a moral dilemma. But are we? Is there ever an occasion of murder (and there is no attempt to get around the fact that this was a murder) which can be justified? At least one of the adults has a further concern. Serge is a leading politician who might well become the next Prime Minister of The Netherlands. If he insists that his son confesses, it will be the end of his political career. The stage is set for a potentially interesting dinner discussion. And yet, something just doesn’t work with this scenario.

The problem, for me, is that the characters are paper thin, like they are cardboard figures arranged in a maquette. At times you might suspect that the whole story is an allegory about Dutch imperialism and its consequences. You gain no useful insight into them, not even Paul, who narrates the evening and tells us much more about his own questionable past than we learn about the others. I found myself uninvolved in a curious way. Less like watching a train wreck and more like hearing in passing about a train wreck. In the end the apparent moral dilemma is hardly even motivating.

The writing is stiff, even stilted. So much so, that at first I thought it might have been a problem with the translation from the Dutch. But in the end I concluded that it was rather a problem with the original. So, curious, potentially interesting, but in the end not really. Not recommended.

Editat: gen. 13, 2015, 10:42am

5. Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder

Aganetha Smart is a born runner. Tall for her age and slender and fleet of foot from first youth. Not that running can be anything more than an opportunity to free her spirit and her mind in rural Ontario in the first decades of the 20th century. Faster than all the girls and boys, Aggie is not fast enough to catch her older sister, Fannie, who, like many of the other Smart children, has “gone on ahead”.

Fortunate circumstance (i.e. luck) gets Aggie invited to try out for a women’s track team in Toronto. Backed by the industrialist, P.T. Pallister, they are determined for Canada women to make a solid showing at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Miss Smart runs the longest distance available to women at the time, the 800 metres. It is a distance that women will not be allowed to run at the Olympics again until the 1960 Games, something that seems nearly incomprehensible now. Aggie’s life will be transformed by the race. But, inevitably, she will find that she is always chasing those who have gone on ahead.

There is some beautiful writing in this novel. As she demonstrated forcefully in her previous book, The Juliet Stories, Carrie Snyder has a real facility for writing from a young girl’s perspective. Here also, it is the young Aggie that leaps off the page, light as a feather. The challenge for such a writer is whether she can carry this forward into a complete life, in this case of a woman who reaches the age of 104. At times, over the course of such a long life, Aggie becomes a bit unclear, a bit thin. In part this is because Snyder wants to unbalance us in preparation for a significant reveal at the end of the novel. But it also felt as though Snyder herself was less certain about the adult Aggie.

This is a novel richly peopled with Aggie’s many sisters and brothers, some of whom appear more frequently as ghostly apparitions than they do in direct real-life interactions. In some novels, such as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, the use of such apparitions serve as a kind of glue for otherwise emotionally distant characters. And that is partly the purpose they fill here as well. I felt, however, that a bit more time spent with the living and breathing siblings might have done more to flesh out Aggie’s character. Perhaps though this reservation is in keeping with my not feeling a sense of place in the novel. Other than knowing that Aggie grows up in “rural Ontario”, I don’t have a clear idea of where she is. And when the scenes shift to Toronto, the sense of place is even more generic. (This was not a problem in The Juliet Stories, the first part of which is set in a vividly realized Nicaragua.)

Slight reservations aside, I am thoroughly impressed with this novel and with this author. I shall look forward to anything she might be writing in the future. Recommended.

gen. 15, 2015, 11:37am

6. Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

These three short novellas — “Afterimage,” “Suspended Sentences,” and “Flowers of Ruin” — originally published over a five year period in the 1990s, share a mood of wistful nostalgia, fleeting and uncertain memory, with an undercurrent of menace. Modiano appears to draw upon his own life, especially his childhood immediately before the years of the Occupation in Paris. On the surface it seems as though he is recounting specific events, drawing together memories. But nothing solid coalesces, as least in terms of plot. Rather we see the city of Paris emerging out of layer after layer of different moments in mid-century, with a steady recitation of street names, addresses, business establishments, and sometimes people, many of which no longer exist. It is a Paris that corresponds, perhaps, only to the author’s own memory and imagination. And certainly what, precisely, that Paris evokes is elusive at best.

This is the Paris of noir films, of George Brassai photographs, of fog and shadow, before the construction of the périphérique wiped out whole neighbourhoods and histories, when France was not yet reconciled to its collaborative past during the Occupation, and identities might be lost, invented, or exchanged merely through the theft of someone’s identity papers. That Patrick Modiano can’t settle on a clear image of this time is rather the point. Like his contemporary, W.G. Sebald, he endlessly mines an ineffable recent history in which memory and guilt, culpability and innocence, blur. Unlike Sebald, Modiano is teasing out the threads of familial responsibility rather than national shame. And thus there is always an undertone of accusation, especially against his father and whatever unsavoury acts he may have participated in, either willingly or through coercion, in those dark days.

The writing is almost picaresque as it catches the frothy tops of these waves of memory. It never bogs down or sinks in an effort to explicate fully or justify. Which is not to say that the inconclusive inevitably leads to the unsettled. Rather, Modiano’s embrace of the elusive suggests a wider, more encompassing, comprehension of the whole and an unwillingness to judge it prematurely. Certainly fascinating and definitely recommended.

gen. 16, 2015, 2:34am

Great review of Suspended Sentences, Randy. I bought a copy of it last month, and I'll read it in the third quarter of this year, if not sooner.

Editat: gen. 19, 2015, 10:46am

7. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Paul O’Rourke is smart, well-off (he has a successful Park Avenue dental practice), under appreciated (especially by women, but also everyone else), reasonably good looking and fit, single (not necessarily by choice), associated with the ludicrously wealthy, willing to indulge in obsessional behaviour whether it be following his favourite sports team or stalking an ex-girlfriend, and (sort of) tortured by an earlier trauma (his father killed himself when Paul was a boy). In short, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour has all of the hallmarks of Chucklit. Inevitably in a Chucklit novel, our protagonist will pursue some quixotic obsession. In most cases it is the love of a woman, or the right woman, or at least a beautiful woman. At any rate, it has to be something that could be everything. Something worthy of his special attention, his effort, and his love. Somewhat unusually here, Paul’s obsession seems to be deism. He flirts with many religions; indeed, they are coincident with his various female obsessions. But at heart he is an atheist. Because as the self-loathing protagonist of a Chucklit novel, if you can’t love yourself it is going to be very hard to love any god formed in your image.

The pretension to theistic exploration here is just a ruse. It provides fodder for Paul O’Rourke’s maundering, and sacred cows for his arch-nemesis (who is masquerading as Paul on the Internet) to skewer. And the result is tiresome. Tedious beyond belief. And almost unremittingly dull.

So, you’ll be thinking — not recommended. Right!

gen. 20, 2015, 4:33am

And the result is tiresome. Tedious beyond belief. And almost unremittingly dull.

Exactly. That, and its mystifying selection for the Booker Prize shortlist, is why I chose this piece of dreck as my worst book of 2014.

gen. 20, 2015, 5:10am

>24 kidzdoc: Yes, the Booker shortlist selection was inexplicable. Bizarrely, the British reviews I've read (as well as a number of American reviews) were glowing.

gen. 22, 2015, 1:09pm

8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Global disaster, when it strikes, will catch us unawares. When the Georgia Flu pandemic hits, some people are enjoying an innovative production of King Lear at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. Others are in New York. Some are on the far side of the world. No one, it is safe to say, is unaffected. And with mortality rates approaching 99.99 percent and less than 48 hours from first symptoms to death, when the hammer falls here, it falls quickly, decisively, and without remorse.

Wisely, Emily St. John Mandel has chosen to catch just a few figures, loosely linked prior to Day One, and thereafter, again, only loosely linked in the 20 years that follow. This allows her to move swiftly from one character to the next, moving forward or backward in time, teasing out threads, tantalizing us, and effectively sustaining both tension and pace. With such a method, the reader does not get the chance to delve too deeply into any one character. And that seems right here, since they are, for the most part, only sketched in. Not unlike the characters, perhaps, in the two issues of the self-published comic, Station Eleven, that play an intriguing part in the overall orchestration of the novel.

At issue are contrasting views of human destiny or fate. One view holds that, “Everything happens for a reason,” where ‘reason’ there entails some overarching intentional plan. Another view might be that although nothing occurs without a cause, reasons are confined to human actions. Mandel leads us to affirm the latter, whilst apparently undercutting that view through her selection of the tenuous links that connect the various characters on whom she focuses. That at least leaves the question moot, which is surely the right stance for the novel.

The writing has fine touches, very fine. I especially like the scenes in contemporary Toronto immediately prior to the outbreak. But also the earlier life points of Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart attack at the outset of the novel during that production of King Lear. It is harder to assess the scenes set years after the pandemic, but here too Mandel leaves room for wonder and tenderness, despite the obviously harsh living conditions. And the conceit of an itinerant symphony and company of Shakespearean actors is inspired.



Post-apocalyptic novels aren’t my usual cup of tea. But having read all of Emily St. John Mandel’s earlier novels, and especially enjoying her first — Last Night in Montreal — I wanted to at least give this a try. I’m glad I did.

gen. 24, 2015, 8:12am

Great review of Station Eleven, Randy. I bought a copy of it earlier this year, and I'll read it soon.

gen. 24, 2015, 5:08pm

"post-apocalyptic novels aren't my usual cup of tea" - mine neither. But thanks for the review and the "heads up" about her other novels. I've just checked and my local library has all of them, so I'm on to a new-to-me author.

gen. 25, 2015, 10:36am

>27 kidzdoc: Good luck with it, Darryl. Don't overthink it. A couple days after finishing it, you will begin to wonder, "Hey, what about all those nuclear power stations? Did they go into meltdown, or what?" I'm just leaving things like that aside since, perhaps surprisingly, Station Eleven is more a story about human connectedness and what that means than about doomsday scenarios and the practicalities of survival.

>28 catarina1: I hope you find something to like in her, Catarina. I was really enthused by her writing when her first novel came out. Less so for the next two. I suspect she was suffering, by analogy, that 'second album' funk. I think these days she is now also a staff writer over at The Millions http://www.themillions.com/

gen. 29, 2015, 7:41pm

9. How to be both by Ali Smith

Depending on which published version of How to be both you’ve got, you may have either the 15th century story first or the 21st century story. The version I read began with the 15th century story of the renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. As almost nothing is known about del Cossa, Smith is free to invent. She invents a brilliant and instructive mother for Francesco. She embellishes our knowledge that Francesco’s father was a mason, adding insight and tenderness and daring. But most inventive of all is that Smith’s Francesco is actually a girl/woman masquerading as a boy/man in order to pursue the talent for drawing and painting that so forcefully displays itself in her/his infancy. There are intrigues and friendships and recognition scenes enough to hold our interest and there is, moreover, a great deal of Francesco’s inner monologue about art, all of which is fascinating. Smith deploy’s a style here reminiscent of that she used in Girl Meets Boy — a lyrical tone, almost fable-like scenes, and iteration after iteration of indeterminacies. Boy or girl or both. Alive or dead or both. The latter is important in the artifice Smith employs to force a connection between the 15th century story and the 21st century story. On which, more anon.

The second half of the book I read was a story set in the present. It follows about six months in the life of 16 year old Georgia, sometimes called Georgie, but more often called George. George is a precocious teen living in Cambridge, with excessive verbal skills and a sardonic wit well-nurtured by her mother, Carol. George’s mother is an academic, a writer, a subversive artist, a target for government spies perhaps, and a great new enthusiast for some frescos painted by Francesco del Cossa. She is also dead. And George, Georgie, Georgia is going through however many stages of mourning it takes to resurface after her mother’s death. George is full of reminiscences of their time together, but especially of the past summer when her mother took her and her younger brother, Henry, to Italy to see the del Cossa frescos. Smith writes teenage girls so convincingly, so intelligently, that everything here is completely believable and completely unanticipated. Georgia comes to life. She has a burgeoning friendship with Helena which might be something more but doesn’t get fully developed before the story reaches a natural conclusion.

Both stories are beautifully written but I confess that I much preferred the 21st century story of George. Partly that is because there was less need for artifice in linking George’s story to something in Francesco del Cossa’s. The frescos and the one painting in the National Gallery more than serve that purpose. By contrast, Smith needs to turn Francesco into some kind of purgatorial spirit in order for him/her to witness a few events in the life Georgia. There is no way for this not to feel clunky.

What I like best about Smith’s writing here and elsewhere is that she challenges her readers to think, to use the novel as a crucible for ideas, whether these are socio-political or philosophical. I like the fact that Smith takes risks. And I don’t always find that she succeeds, especially when, as here, she is pushing a particular metaphysical line. But, equally, I don’t find that my philosophical disagreement with a point she is elaborating diminishes at all my admiration for her writing or my keen desire to read whatever else she may write. That’s unusual. And so despite some reservations on the architecture of this doubled novel and a more particular disagreement about the philosophical position she advances, I find that I want to heartily recommend this book. And who knows, perhaps if your printed version is the other way round, maybe even the architecture linking the two stories might work better for you than it has for me. Recommended.

gen. 31, 2015, 12:54am

I have Station Eleven here in the tbr pile--great review!

feb. 1, 2015, 3:26pm

Great review of How to Be Both, Randy. I didn't get to it in December, but I'll probably read it in the spring.

feb. 11, 2015, 7:23pm

10. Dune by Frank Herbert

Not a review as such. Just some thoughts on returning to a book I first read as a teenager. My paperback copy, which is currently held together with an elastic band, has a cover price of $2.75. I seem to recall purchasing it brand new at a bookstore, so the price should give some indication of just how long ago this was. I remember being spellbound by it, the audacity of using a whole planet’s ecology as not exactly a character but rather the very foundation of all the action of the characters, who themselves were effectively bound to the planet through an addictive relationship they develop to varying degrees to the healthgiving and consciousness enhancing spice that can only be found on Arrakis. I was prompted to reread Dune this time — admittedly letting it interrupt a novel that I was part way through — after coming across the DVDs of the mini-series of Frank Herbert’s Dune in the public library. This aired years ago when I was living in another country far away. I decided to give the discs a whirl and was pleasantly surprised at how measured and faithful the adaptation was. I dug out my copy of the novel, which I found hidden away behind the properly shelved books in one of our bookcases, and read the first few pages just to see if it still had that magic. It did. At least for me. And I soon found myself racing through it almost like that first time so many years ago.

It’s not a perfect science fiction novel, probably. These days I could drive numerous holes through the fancifully optimistic ecology, the unsettling eugenics of the Bene Gesserits, the patriarchy of the Great Houses, and the dubious notion of folding space to enable travel over great distances without the expenditure of energy. I could. But I won’t. It was enough to revisit both the novel and some of the spirit of that first reading.

I doubt I will go on to reread the others in the series. (I only ever read the ones actually written by Frank Herbert, and none of the prequels and sequels written by his son.) But I was glad to have read the first in the series again, no doubt for the last time.

feb. 11, 2015, 7:27pm

11. Sweetland by Michael Crummey

Moses Sweetland is an irascible elderly single gentleman living on a small island off the shores of Newfoundland that his ancestors had the audacity to name Sweetland. He is as swift with a clichéd Newfoundland curse as he is with a kind word for the autistic boy, Jesse, who lives next door, grandson of his dead sister, Ruthie. Along with Jesse’s mother, Clara, and her blind father, Pilgrim, there are a host of other “characters” eking out a small living on the island. But their days are numbered. The Newfoundland government has a plan to depopulate the island now that the fisheries are shut down. They are offering the inhabitants each a substantial sum to relocate to the mainland, but no one gets anything if a single one of them refuses the offer. Moses is one of the last few holdouts.

The first half of the novel consists in the episodic meanderings of the characters as pressure comes to bear upon those who don’t wish to leave their homes. The pressure is relentless, sometimes mean spirited, and ultimately effective. Then, just as it seems the novel must be reaching a close, despite being only about half way through, one of the central characters dies. And that seems to precipitate a rapid evacuation of the island and moves us into the second half of the novel which concerns Moses Sweetland as the sole remaining person on the island, though having faked his own death, no one else has any idea that he has remained behind after the last ferry has departed. What follows is, as you might expect, an unending bout of loneliness, dissipation, dissolution, and despair. That and some eerie ghost-like apparitions.

Moses Sweetland is a wonderful character, but his complex personal history takes too long to be made clear. The other characters are mostly character-types. It is Sweetland alone on whom the story depends. But there isn’t a lot that Crummey seems to be able to do with him. Especially when he is left alone on the island. He gets into one scrape after another, each of which ought to lead to death from hyperthermia for an elderly gentleman. But each time Moses just barely survives. It’s as though Crummey was at a loss for how to push the novel over the 300-page mark. Which sounds harsher than I mean it to. After all, I think Crummey is a great writer and there are moments here that are almost priceless. But they are just moments. It might have worked better as a novella, or perhaps a few linked short stories. But as whole it doesn’t really work for me. It won’t dissuade me from reading the next novel or book of poetry that Michael Crummey has on offer, but it does prevent me from recommending this one.

feb. 11, 2015, 7:30pm

>31 ronincats: Thanks, Roni! I hope you enjoy it.

>32 kidzdoc: Looking forward to your thoughts on it.

feb. 12, 2015, 1:58pm

Your thoughts on re-visiting Dune were sweet and honest. I'm glad you were to able to experience again some of that first love.

feb. 12, 2015, 6:19pm

>36 lottpoet: Thanks for stopping by, April, and for the kind words.

Editat: feb. 14, 2015, 5:28am

12. Boundary Problems by Greg Bechtel

Greg Bechtel’s narratives (some are more or less stories) sometimes feel intensely real, gritty, and typically dark. At other times they move slightly beyond the obvious, eclipsing the uncanny and heading right on over into surreal territory. But they somehow also come back to the rough ground. Whether he is walking us through the various strata of modern physics, or detailing life as car seventy-one in a Fredericton taxis service, or learning life lessons as a camp counsellor in Algonquin Park, or delivering advertising flyers under an assumed name, Bechtel’s descriptive and emotional language feels entirely earned. As though these might all be transcriptions from life. Or, more probably, so thoroughly written that nothing but the real remains. I was completely convinced.

Not surprisingly for a first story collection, the writing seems to test out different modes. The three iterations of “The Smut Story” have the clinical zeal of David Foster Wallace. Whereas “Blackbird Shuffle” edges into the macabre and feels a bit like Neil Gaiman. More typically, Bechtel’s narrator is a slightly distanced observer even of himself, as in the bildungsroman-like “Boundary Problems” or the lengthy and meandering “The Everett-Wheeler Hypothesis”. Bechtel uses this technique as well to surprisingly good effect in “The Mysterious East (Fredericton, NB)”. And this one nicely dovetails his knack for writing the bones of employment (here as a taxi driver) with the tentative suspicion of the quasi-mystical. It is fascinating.

I purchased this collection on a whim without previous knowledge of the author’s work. I’m glad I took a chance. Gently recommended.

Editat: març 3, 2015, 11:43am

13. Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

The past, even the relatively recent past, is as ephemeral as swamp mist. How then does one reach out to the past to engage with it, to interrogate it, to bring it into the light? And when nearly all evidence of the past has been systematically erased, or carelessly expunged, or judiciously demolished to make way for a future that may wish to pretend the past never was — what then? Patrick Modiano uses the disappearance of single young girl in 1941 as his touchstone to the past. Dora Bruder’s absence from her boarding school in Paris and the note in the New Year’s Eve edition of Paris Soir providing her description activate Modiano’s full novelistic powers of speculation and creation. From excruciatingly small bits of evidence pieced together over the course of decades, he constructs a life for this young woman, tracing her through to her eventually deportation to Auschwitz in September 1942. In the process, Modiano unearths the still mouldering remains of the suffocating occupation of Paris by the Nazi Reich and the dehumanization of its Jews, often with collusion of French workers, and the stench that still lingers over this period of French history, no doubt in part because so many of its chorus of dispossessed entered the atmosphere as smoke from the ovens of Auschwitz.

Dora Bruder’s story is by no means unique. By focussing on it, Modiano works against the inertia that overwhelms us when the past is painted by numbers: 1000 arrested on this date, 15000 deported on that date, tens of thousand gassed on some other date. Instead, Modiano seeks to concentrate on Dora as an individual, admittedly one of whom he knows very little. So he supplements his evidence and his speculations with his own tangentially related history as a child himself of Parisian Jews. Perhaps the most affecting moment in his story is when he wonders whether his own father shared a police van with Dora Bruder when he too was rounded up in early 1942. Of course he can never know. There is so much he can never know. And his experience of this loss is what brings Dora’s story fully to life.

This is a very short book and it drifts at times. The first half is more focused than the latter half. But it successfully generates a disquiet that will not be easily satisfied. And it opens your eyes to a Paris that, perhaps, many have wanted to forget, or pretend never existed. Gently recommended.

Editat: març 6, 2015, 10:24am

14. Mr. Hockey: My Story by Gordie Howe

As a child, I caught the last few years that Gordie Howe played for the Detroit Red Wings. He was already one of the oldest players in the NHL but he could still be counted on for numerous goals, assists, and elbows. He was never my favourite player growing up, but he might have been my father’s. When Gordie’s autobiography came available prior to Christmas, it seemed like the perfect gift. And safe to say, my father did enjoy reading about one of his hockey idols. Gordie’s only about six years older than my father, but he came into the NHL at such an early age and then persisted at the top level for a quarter century that for men of my father’s generation he personified the grit and determination they came to expect of the sport. That he might also have been a patsy of greedy team owners and unscrupulous management hardly counts against him. That he was more concerned with himself than with other players in the sport probably does. Each year, when he settled his contract with the Red Wings for the following year, he was told by the team’s general manager that he was getting the top salary in the league (at the time the owner’s enforced a rule that players could not disclose their salaries). He accepted that. In fact, despite being the league’s MVP numerous times, he was not nearly the highest paid. He wasn’t even the highest paid player on his own team. And when the opportunity arose for the players to form a player’s association to look after their interests, as the professional baseball players had, Gordie failed to step up and lend his potentially persuasive support. He was satisfied that he was being well looked after and that seemed to be enough for him.

Needless to say, Gordie’s eyes got opened a bit long after his career came to an end. Certainly his sons, who have also entered the NHL Hall of Fame, never suffered these uncertainties. By the time they joined the league, the era of the sports agent, players' associations, and collective bargaining had transformed the league’s antediluvian and corrupt management practices. No thanks to Gordie, sadly.

Some of this, of course, you have to read between the lines here. After all, this is a ghostwritten work — Gordie had limited education and a very limited way with words, and more sadly has been suffering increasing dementia over the past few years — and it is judicious in both its praise and blame of other players and former coaches and team owners. And it is certainly not self-reflective. But then, I suppose, neither was Gordie.
My father enjoyed the book well enough but was guarded in his praise. He had lots to say about Gordie the player. In the early 60’s, the Red Wings even visited our small town in southern Ontario to play an exhibition game and my father got to see his hockey hero in person. But he didn’t have much to say about the writing, which is pedestrian at best. This contrasts markedly with the book I gave him the previous Christmas — Chris Hadfield’s autobiography.

I’ve read Gordie’s book now as well, but more for topics of conversation with my father than for any hope that it would be scintillating or even revealing. It lived up to my expectations, which is about all, I suppose, you can expect from a book of this type.

març 15, 2015, 10:41am

15. Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

The novel begins with Nora Webster’s husband, Maurice, having died and it follows her protracted period of grief and reclamation over the ensuing few years. Maurice was a high school teacher who was greatly respected and much loved. By association, Nora falls under the care of her community even to the point of that care becoming suffocating. She has been left with two young sons and two older daughters. And somehow she will have to find a way to persevere, to make herself anew, or to find herself amidst the flotsam of her youthful inclinations and talent and what has remained to her after her years as a wife and mother. First, she returns to work in the office of a large company, a place that she worked before she got married. Later, she rekindles a love of music and, with the help of devoted music teacher, sets out to hone her voice which has lain dormant for many years. Of course the lives of her children, her sisters, and the other relatives who live nearby do not come to a standstill waiting on Nora to come back to life. So she is forced to deal with some of their challenges even as she struggles to deal with her own.

This is a quiet tale of grief, motherhood and more. Tóibín portrays Nora as initially filled with self-doubt, second guessing her own decisions and actions. Gradually she gains confidence, part of which no doubt draws on the steely determination she manifested as a child. And so she draws upon her earlier incarnations of self as she moves toward a settled new form of being, after Maurice, and in her own right. Of especial note here is the sensitive way in which Tóibín deals with the two sons, Donal and Conor, both of whom have been greatly affected by the death of their father.

The writing is patient and lingering. It never feels as though Tóibín is forcing his own impressions on to Nora or the others. Their individual complexities are their own and he seems satisfied to merely relate them to us. Perhaps not as subtle and understated as his earlier novel, Brooklyn, but enticing all the same. Gently recommended.

Editat: març 21, 2015, 9:46am

16. Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

As the narrator of Laughter in the Dark notes, “although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain…a man’s life, detail is always welcome.” Here the details of the life and death of Albert Albinus begin with smug self satisfaction and ennui, degrade into unrequited lust, collapse in fits of self delusion, farce, and debauchery, and end in self recrimination, cuckoldry, and murder. And while you might have been just as enriched by the tombstone version of his life, there is something of a brisk tour-de-force in Nabokov’s willingness to give himself over to the absurdities of his plot and, more especially, of his characters.

Albert is a middle-aged man in Berlin between the wars, who is comfortably middle-class. But his predilection is for very young women — very young — and despite restraining that impulse throughout his marriage to Elizabeth, he is tempted when he encounters young Margot ushering at a local cinema. To Albert she is all that innocence implies. Alas, Margot is far less, or more, and quickly settles on Albert as her ticket out of poverty and possibly into life on the other side of the silver screen. It’s all a bit sordid but mundane. However, when Margot’s first and only true love, Axel, turns up, complications ensue. Fortunately Axel is quite willing to borrow Margot’s affection at Albert’s expense and their shenanigans engender the laughter in the dark of the title.

This is a light romp that doesn’t stand up against Nabokov’s more serious comedies. But it does reveal that even early in his career he was already full of mirth at the expense of many of his characters and quite willing to point the finger at his readers as well.


Sometimes I discover a book on my shelf and can't for the life of me remember when I purchased it. This copy of Laughter in the Dark is a fading paperback published in 1961. I must have purchased it in England at a charity shop because it has a price of 1£ written in pencil inside. It has languished on my TBR shelf for many years, I think.

Editat: març 26, 2015, 11:47am

17. Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi

Quiet Chaos is a deeply structured though linear novel. A McEwanesque opening drama involving the simultaneous dramatic rescue of two drowning women even as, unbeknownst to one of the rescuers, Pietro, his own wife is dying of an aneurysm back at their cottage, gives way to the now bereaved father deciding to forego his important job in a large corporation in order to wait patiently in a park immediately across from his 10 year old daughter’s school. He waits throughout the day and then repeats his action the following day and again and again. In the process he becomes a centre of calm in the chaotic swirl of life and business that might otherwise overwhelm him and young Claudia. At first it is just something personal, or perhaps directly solely at Claudia. But later it becomes a form of refuge. From his work, which is fracturing under the stress of a global merger. From his personal relations. From his own thoughts and feeling, perhaps.

Pietro’s station in the park opposite the school, however, also becomes a stopping point for others, troubled or sorrowful. A succession of work colleagues, relations, even strangers, come to him to unburden themselves. He listens, mostly in silence, and for the most part does not judge. But like a saint of olden days his hermit-like existence is threatened by his increasing notoriety, both locally and within his company. Pietro does his best to discount the gossip and the speculation and concentrate instead on being there, literally being there, for his daughter. But eventually this daily cycle must reach an end. Whether that will happen before Pietro has completed his grieving process is part of the drama of the ending.

The writing here is thoughtful, full of rumination and exculpation. The characters are sometimes caricatures, thin types exploited for specific effect. And although Pietro, for the most part, stays in one place, this has the picaresque feel of a road story. You will either find it deeply affecting or mawkish — there is a thin line between them. For me, it worked sufficiently well. Enough at least to recommend it.


Only very rarely do I turn to a source novel after having seen the film which it inspired. In this case, I allowed myself the indulgence after learning that the original novel had won Italy’s Strega prize. However, I was unprepared for how slavishly literal the film version was. Virtually every scene in the film, including dialogue, is here in the novel. Another way of putting that is to note that the film is unimaginative, despite being well crafted. Yet another way of noting the same would be to say that the novel itself is written filmically. That’s not so unusual for popular fiction. But it was surprising for what is also touted as a work of significant literary achievement. Certainly some aspects of the film are more explicable in light of having read the novel. But the effect does not work in the other direction; the film does not enrich the book.

març 26, 2015, 4:17pm

18. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

David Sedaris’ acerbic essays tend to either send up his personal foibles, deflect his peculiarities (such as they are) onto his equally singular siblings, or scrutinize a common practice but from an oblique angle. They are witty and dry and discomfiting in turn. His writing is both familiar (I often think I may have read a particular essay somewhere previously) and strange (only David Sedaris, I think, would come up with that!). If you’ve got the right frame of mind, you will enjoy the collected essays in this book without stopping to think about them too much.

A couple of essays stand out for special mention. “The Ship Shape” details the Sedaris family vacations at the seashore and that special summer when their parents actively considered buying a cottage. Here the full range of characters in the family come to life and the whole is a perfectly rounded piece. On a different plane is “Possession” which is exquisitely uncomfortable as the now adult Sedaris contemplates how perfect the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam would be for he and Hugh to purchase and renovate. This one will have you cringing right up until the twist at the end which makes it heart-wrenchingly poignant.

But many other essays in the collection may strike your fancy just as much. So, enjoy!

març 28, 2015, 4:28am

Great reviews as always, Randy. I hope to get to Nora Webster this summer.

març 31, 2015, 6:26pm

19. Caught by Lisa Moore

From the opening sentence announcing the prison break that sets David Slaney on his cross-country journey to meet up with his childhood friend, Brian Hearn, you have the feeling that Slaney's recapture is inevitable. The clue, I suppose, is in the title. But what captures the reader is Lisa Moore's remarkable prose.

Ostensibly an action-thriller, Caught transcends its genre boundaries to become a meditation on being and becoming, on motion and rest, on love in a variety of forms, and, finally, on friendship. I was impressed, though perhaps I shouldn't be surprised since everything else I've read by Lisa Moore confirms her powers as a prose stylist. This is writing that is fully self-conscious but yet remains unaffected. Remarkable. And definitely recommended.

abr. 2, 2015, 11:05am

Woot! I'd been wondering about Caught. I loved Moore's February, but did not care so much for Alligator. Thanks, Randy.

abr. 5, 2015, 6:29pm

20. Out Stealing Horses by Pet Petterson

At the age of 67, Trond purchases a small property in the countryside near a small lake. His solitude has become a burden in Oslo — a widower from his second wife and long estranged from his first wife and daughters. Perhaps he will find peace amongst the trees as he undertakes the numerous projects of reclamation necessary for his new property and for himself. But peace is hard to come by. Instead he is troubled by memories — memories of a time in a similar environment when he was a youth and his father newly returned after the war. With a friend the same age nearby and loads of adventures for he and Jon to partake of, it might have been a perfect idyll. Instead it is an awakening of sorts — awakening into the casual brutality of accident and incident, the as yet not fully understood sexual drive, and the certainty that his knowledge of himself, his environment and especially of his father is limited if not entirely founded on lies. The memories of that eventful summer work in counterpoint with Trond’s present challenges and gradually over the course of the novel we gain a tentative understanding of this man and how he was forged through the events of fifty years prior.

The writing here is lyrical as seems appropriate for memories of youth in the countryside. But this at times masks the immanent violence that permeates nature (or just human nature?). Trond is defenceless, unprepared for what will occur or what he learns and though no preparation perhaps might have helped him, he nevertheless resents his inability to decide for himself when it will hurt.


abr. 5, 2015, 7:01pm

Both Out Stealing Horses and Nora Webster have been languishing on the shelves. I'll have to get to them soon. Thanks for the reviews.

abr. 5, 2015, 8:35pm

>49 catarina1: Well, you've got some nice shelves there Catarina :-) And no doubt many other hidden gems as well. Good luck with them!

>47 lit_chick: I also loved February, Nancy.

>45 kidzdoc: Thanks, Darryl. I look forward to your take on Nora Webster.

Editat: abr. 28, 2015, 1:35pm

21. There but for the by Ali Smith

With typical brio and dash, Ali Smith weaves an intricate tale of coincidence and consequence set in contemporary London, mostly in and around Greenwich. A dinner party at the home of an insufferably bourgeois couple serves as the locus of interaction where Mark Palmer, Miles Garth, Brooke Bayoude (and her parents), and a number of others spill secrets and wine while Mark’s memories, insistent and poignant, pummel him, and ten-year-old Brooke’s precociousness dazzles (or annoys) and Miles transforms the evening into something remarkable by, eventually, locking himself in the upstairs spare bedroom and not coming out for, literally, months.

Smith is at the height of her loquacious powers, especially (but not only) in the voice of young Brooke. This level of wit and banter, punning jokes and linguistic legerdemain, is usually reserved for BBC Radio 4 panel shows. Here, it just barely avoids becoming twee. Indeed, it might not be a style that travels well. But I liked it well enough and it certainly lends itself to superficially philosophical badinage, which might, if one were feeling generous, not in fact be considered superficial. Bring a breezy attitude to this work and you will find it may tickle your fancy or your funny bone. And on that basis, I recommend it.

maig 7, 2015, 9:04am

22. Building Stories by Chris Ware

In a large box, itself a witty graphic work of art, the reader discovers 14 discrete graphic publications ranging from books to folded “strips”. Everything, as billed, that the reader might need for building stories. This is Chris Ware at his finest, challenging the very form of the graphic novel perhaps to breaking point. There is no set route through the items contained in the box. The reader could choose any order. But of course there is a linear progression for many of the works since they follow a woman from youth to lonely adulthood, marriage, and motherhood. Other items concentrate on Brandford, The Bee. But all of them intersect at points and nothing is entirely isolated. And that might be Chris Ware’s overall theme, since the loneliness and self-loathing that the main character experiences are self-inflicted. Connectedness comes in many forms. And even when we feel most isolated and alone, one step back reveals an intricate pattern of lines linking, waxing and waning perhaps but still connecting, each of us to a host of others. It’s almost as though we can’t help building stories.

Of course this being a Chris Ware work, you also expect punning turns. And sure enough, at least some of the publications focus instead on the building in which the main character lives for a time.That building itself has an architectural and a social history and the story it could tell about life in Chicago over the course of a century would be just as fascinating, perhaps, as any story that focused on one of its inhabitants. But here too connectedness to a wider frame — the social architecture of an American century — draws our building into the lives of its inhabitants.

The tone across these works is nostalgic but melancholic. And although there are bright moments, even hopefulness, there are an equal number of dark moments and despair. What can’t be ignored, however, is the sheer audacity of producing such an artwork in an age of disposable literature and incorporeal “e”-books. Chris Ware and his publishers have re-established the necessity of physical publication and reconfirmed the notion that great literature is a treasure worthy of indefinite shelf life. But you’ll need an awfully big shelf for this box of wonders. Recommended.

maig 10, 2015, 9:08pm

I've looked at Building Stories several times but have yet to take it home from the library. It's size is intimidating.

juny 3, 2015, 8:19am

23. Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Three young people — Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu — are thrust together by circumstance and familial connection in a poor neighbourhood in Beijing shortly after the Tiananmen Square uprising. They must balance loyalty, fealty, and self-interest in their individual efforts to survive in a world beyond their grasp and possibly their comprehension. For some, love is the prime motivator. For others, the happiness of others. And for still others only the protection of an enclave of privacy matters. A suspicious possible poisoning and long-delayed death explodes their tiny network and the three take very different trajectories through life finding, each, their separate existential solitude. And whatever small additions that they allow to accrue or intrude upon that solitude.

This is difficult novel to like. Li’s theme of existential estrangement carries over into the structure of her telling as she follows the lives of the three young people separately twenty years after the events of their youth. Connection is frustrated (Moran and Ruyu never reply to Boyang’s email updates). Love, and even friendship, are impossible. To survive at all seems to require retreat into a theoretical shell of a human being. ‘Theoretical’ because it often feels as though Li is working through a narrative challenge set by French and Russian writers, some of whom she references, rather than exploring real relationships, if ‘real’ here can mean anything more than mundane. While I grew to respect the problem that Li had set herself, I didn’t warm to the execution, neither the structure, the characters, nor the plot, such as it is. Of course maybe I’m not supposed to warm to such cold figures. But then I think I would prefer even more heightened representation of reality to achieve that Brechtian emotional distance.

Perhaps on another day I might have appreciated this novel more. But for now, not recommended.

juny 7, 2015, 5:10pm

24. Wildlife by Richard Ford

A turbulent coming of age tale told from the point of view of 16-year-old Joe who is forced to bear witness to the immolation of his parents’ marriage. Joe’s father, Jerry, loses his job, unfairly, as the golf pro at the local course and his ensuing despair triggers a caustic reaction from Joe’s mother, Jeanette. Jerry eventually seeks his salvation, or destruction, in joining a crew fighting a mighty forest fire to the west of their town of Great Falls, Montana. Jeanette takes his abandonment as something more and also rushes headlong to her own dark night of despair, all of this witnessed by Joe who both wants to be present and wants to run away. But all of the actors here seem caught in eddies of passion and circumstance well beyond their control. And all that any of them can do is hope to ride out the storm.

Ford’s first novel is firmly situated in the Montana of many of his short stories and of his late novel, Canada. The teenage narrator, looking back some years after the events being narrated, is wistful, almost laconic, perhaps as befits a prairie tale. Certainly Joe is in a strange place - a town he doesn’t know well, and a place in life he is also unfamiliar with (the naivety of this teenager is only plausible due to the 1960 setting). Joe seems emotionally stunted, conflicted — saying one thing but often meaning the opposite, and then reversing himself almost immediately, and largely helpless in the face of his parents’ marital strife. Only the quick pace of the tale (this is almost novella length) can keep Joe in the reader’s sympathy. Had it gone on much longer I think the reader would get frustrated with him. With his parents all we can do is shrug and shake our heads.

The writing is fully controlled but may at times feel overworked, which might not be surprising for a first novel. It would be hard not to imagine, had I read this back in 1990 when it was first published, that more and better would follow from the pen of Ford. And I would have been right. As for now, gently recommended for those who would like to pursue the early flourishing of Ford’s Montana-vein of storytelling.

juny 10, 2015, 8:59am

25. Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis

The more than 120 “stories” collected together in Can’t and Won’t range from pieces as short as a dozen words, through a larger set of paragraph-length “dreams” and incidents sourced from Flaubert’s correspondence, to longer pieces typically “letters” to heads of foundations or businesses recounting a recent incident. Atypically for Davis, the majority of these items are not particularly humorous. They tend to be pithy but not necessarily instructive in any sense. The “dreams” are most often banal. And it is only in the longer pieces that Davis’ trademark irony flourishes.

Perhaps surprising, the list of acknowledgements at the end of the book reveals that virtually every piece here has been previously published, often in small literary journals, but also in such esteemed outlets as The Paris Review. That makes one wonder whether publication, individually, would impact a reader’s opinion of many of these literary morsels. Gathered together, perhaps, the weight of any single item may be lost. Or perhaps that’s wishful thinking. For I regret to say that I didn’t find many of the items in this collection particularly illuminating. They are never poorly written. Just a bit dull. Enough so that I found myself wondering more than once, “Why did she bother writing that?” Of course that might be the effect she was hoping for. In which case, this is a brilliant success. But otherwise, probably recommended only for the half dozen or so pieces that do not illicit that questioning response.

juny 11, 2015, 1:17am

Hmm. I won't rush out to buy Can't and Won't.

juny 12, 2015, 5:30am

>57 kidzdoc: Hi Darryl. Can't and Won't may not be for you, but this next book is well worth a visit.

Editat: juny 12, 2015, 11:01am

26. Can't we talk about something more pleasant? by Roz Chast

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir traces the steady decline into senility and serious age-related illness over their final decade of her nonagenarian parents, George and Elizabeth. Her account is frank and uncompromising, as honest and insightful as the shaky cartoons which appear in The New Yorker for which Chast is duly famous. We learn of Roz’ loving but fraught relationship with her father, who seems to have lived his entire life in a quiver of anxiety. And we experience the domineering presence of her brilliant but short-tempered mother. Their physical and eventually mental disintegration forces Roz out of her home in Connecticut back to her parents’ dingy apartment in Brooklyn. An only child, Roz takes on the responsibilities necessary to see her parents through extended stays in hospital, a hugely challenging move into assisted care, and from there into hospice and first one death (her father) and finally the death of her mother less than two years later.

For anyone who has been through a related period with their own aging parent or parents, this book will feel both entirely familiar and fully unique. The overall narrative arc of decline through old age toward death may be infinitely repeated, but for each of us the path is walked alone. And as we learn more about George and Elizabeth — George, as a WWII veteran who taught high school French and Spanish for most of his working life and Elizabeth, who enforced the rules at an elementary school as a vice principal as ruthlessly as she did at home with her husband and little girl — we see that they are more than mere case studies in decline. They have been, and often still are, people with whole lives that shape each step. We may only see them close up at the end, but Roz’ gaze also looks back over their lives in their previous 90 years. And it is that gaze that helps both us and her put her parents’ end into perspective.

This is a book that might easily be recommended to anyone who will eventually face the challenge of caring for ageing parents but will probably only be fully appreciated by someone who has walked that path through to the end. Recommended.

juny 13, 2015, 7:17am

Yep. I read that book earlier this year, and I highly enjoyed it.

juny 15, 2015, 7:45pm

27. The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater is back. A bit less sullen, a bit less full of adolescent angst and Oedipal issues, a bit more ready to face the music — but then he is pushing 30 and at least temporarily a teacher at Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. True, his one love is dead and transformed into a blue demon who delights in wreaking havoc in his life. True, he has been banished from the one magical land that he felt at home in, i.e. Fillory. And oh yes, his father just died. But other than that things are going well. And with a bit of adult stick-to-it-ive-ness and some help from those who are a bit more magically gifted, and, yes, some serendipity, or luck, or what have you, he still just might make something of his life.

Meanwhile back in Fillory things are just as adventure laden as ever for Quentin’s old chums. The current high king, Eliot, and the high queen, Janet, have things running smoothly, whilst their co-royals, Josh and Poppy, are enjoying wedded bliss. The downside is that the Fillory is certain to come to an apocalyptic end. But everyone’s got problems.

Lev Grossman dances through a series of well-orchestrated set-pieces as he brings his Fillory trilogy to a close. He may not be as smooth in moving between the set-pieces, and he seems required to go through vast efforts to tie all his various threads together before the end. But he does. And while this may not be great literature, I found it enjoyable and, periodically, surprising. But only recommended if you’ve read the first two in the series and are a compulsive completist.


Clearly I am one of those compulsive completists since I really had no plan to read this third novel in the trilogy after the merely workmanly second volume. But then I saw it on the shelf in the library and somehow it ended up in my bag on the way out (duly signed out, of course). Sometimes you just can't fight it :-)

Editat: juny 19, 2015, 10:50am

28. The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury

Tom Drury’s dry, obliquely funny style of writing perfectly captures a certain tone of the mid-west. His characters are completely unique and yet recognizable types. And although they do many things, it is usually through what they say that we know them. Dan Norman, the taciturn Sheriff of Grouse County, loves Louise Darling, the estranged wife of Tiny Darling, a petty thief and electrical jinx. Louise, who works as a photographer’s assistant to old Perry Kleeborg, has put aside her rebellious youth and Tiny with it and is prepared for a bit of the happiness she deserves, even if she has to prompt Dan out of his respectful silence and into action. Through their relations and friends and passers-through, we come to not exactly know Grouse County, but at least to feel comfortable with it. It’s a bit like Lake Wobegon, but without the twee. More than anything, Drury’s people seem real, full of hope, but subject to immense sadness. Some wander endlessly, like Tiny, looking for where they fit, while others, like Louise, grow into themselves, or, like Dan, have their direction and motivation thrust upon them.

Perhaps due to the lengthy gestation of the book — much of it appeared over a number of years in numerous short stories in The New Yorker — the three sections of the novel have a somewhat different feel. The first third of the book best displays Drury’s ironic style. In the latter sections he seems more concerned with pitiable developments in the lives of Louise and Dan, which changes the emotional tone of the book. In a sense, it becomes more of a typical novel as it develops. However, flashes of Drury’s dry wit surface even through Louise’s sadness.

Well worth reading and, for me at least, tracking down whatever else Drury has written. Recommended.

juny 22, 2015, 4:46pm

29. Ayoade on Ayoade by Richard Ayoade

I haven't written a review of this book. It's just a silly lark that actor, comedian, and auteur film director Richard Ayoade undertook which is as insubstantial as his very light (but charming) comic incarnations. In Britain, of course, he also shows up on panel shows offering off-the-wall badinage in the manner of other Cambridge Footlights alumni of his vintage. And if that isn't enough he also sporadically directs music videos. Anyway, I find he makes me chuckle in interviews and on the screen, so I picked up this book for a gentle laugh, which, in its modest way it delivers. But probably not recommended for anyone who isn't also a closet Ayoade fan.

juny 30, 2015, 2:17pm

30. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken

Mose Sharensky, better known as Mike Sharp, is an ex-vaudeville straight man looking back on his life and career from extreme old age. Despite his father’s expectations that Mose would follow him into the family dry goods business, Mose and his sister Hattie have plans to escape Des Moines to the vaudeville stage as a double act. But Hattie’s unexpected death at eighteen puts an end to their dreams. Mose decides to continue on his own and barely ekes out a living until fortune brings him into the sights of Rocky Carter, a fat funny man in need of new straight man for his act. He takes Mose (by this time, Mike) under his wing and together they make a winning combination. First vaudeville, then Broadway, then Hollywood and some way off in the future, even the youthful medium of television. For a time it all works out and then it goes a bit sideways and then it fizzles entirely. Meanwhile, Rocky cycles through a seemingly endless series of ‘the current Mrs Carter’ and Mike settles down to married bliss with his dancer wife, Jessica, and their growing family.

Although it isn’t obvious from the outset, this is a story of a long life — more than 70 years. But in a way it is surprisingly uneventful. Tragedy, as you might expect in any story about comedians, abounds. But it doesn’t always move us as readers. I think it is because we never get fully on board with Mike, who is also our narrator. Or maybe it’s because Mike is quintessentially a straight man. It is rather Hattie who is funny and tragic, or Mimi who is funny and tragic, or Rocky, or Penny, or any one of the other characters who people these pages. Enough so that when Mike experiences truly tragic circumstances such as the death of his young daughter, we find ourselves looking to the others around him to reveal the meaning of this event rather than him.

McCracken’s writing is steady and workmanly. She keeps the story ticking along but never seems to generate either the raucous laughter that a tale of comedians might offer or the sadness that all too often underlies comedy. In the end we are left with a curiosity, a tale about comic men told in a voice that is not entirely believable. Sadly, not recommended.

jul. 14, 2015, 4:05am

31. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, at least in song. In Jonathan Franzen's novel of the same name, it is a garrulous, possibly incoherent, concept that applies without restraint to everything from existential self-absorption to sexual monomania to political profiteering to small acts of defiance and large acts of indiscretion. In fact, just about anywhere there is a gaping hole in the internal coherence of character or plot, motivation or understanding, Franzen drops in the F-word to backfill the landscape.

If you can ignore the conceptual grandstanding, then the novel consists in following the lives of three people who meet in college and whose life trajectories repeatly bring them into contact with each other over many years. They have disparate backgrounds. They have disparate motivations. They have disparate talents. But they share an indefatigable power for love and self harm. Indeed, and rather unfortunately, when you strip away the contingent superficialities they seem to share one voice. Which could mean that Franzen has latched on to the universal but more likely means he doesn't really have different characters here at all.

Amongst the many dissatisfying aspects of this novel, two deserve mention here: the inexplicable moral vacuum found in Joey, the son of two of the main characters, and the level of anger and despair found in each of the main characters. The reader is bludgeoned by rants and hectoring but dubious moralising couched in the form of one-sided conversations. At some point it all seems a bit one note and you can't help losing interest or even caring what happens.

Perhaps this was intended to be one of those weighty novels that capture the Zeitgeist or come to define America. If so, I think it does not succeed. Or perhaps it really is a novel with nothing left to lose. Not recommended.

Editat: jul. 15, 2015, 6:03am

I loathed Freedom. Reading it was a complete waste of time.

jul. 15, 2015, 8:02am

Thank heavens I'm not alone. The only advantage of taking it on vacation with me is that I can leave it behind.

jul. 20, 2015, 4:46am

32. Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn

The cutthroat world of high literary competition, or middling mendacious merit, is ready fodder for playful mocking and gentle reconsideration. Edward St Aubyn's approach to the vagaries of a panel of literary judges is both light and glancing. Nothing too much can be made of it. The insights, such as they are, are banal. The criticism is superficial. The barbs are all rhubarbs. And perhaps this lightness of touch is precisely the approach St Aubyn is proposing we ought to take to literary prizes themselves. They're just a bit of fun. Enjoy them like meringue, but don't make a meal of them.

While such a novel provides plenty of opportunity for settling scores, I don't see anything like that happening here. Even the more absurd characters, such as Didier the French culture critic, are given worthwhile observations even if these are couched in outlandish theoretical flights of fancy. It is clear that St Aubyn has a genuine fondness for each of these comic creations despite the awkward positions he places them in. And that amicable affection more than rescues this novel from the clutches of spiteful satire.

I'm not really recommending it, but if you are on a soulless sunny beach this summer with nothing but time between you and a return to life proper, then you might pass a few pleasant hours in these pages and be no worse for it.

Editat: jul. 28, 2015, 4:24pm

33. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Surgeon Dorrigo Evans can only embrace the absurdity of life and death and plunge on quixotically toward the windmills as his world collapses in the stifling heat and despair of a Japanese POW camp in Burma. The mad dash to complete The Line — the railroad that the Japanese high command have decreed must be built through jungle, rock, and swamp — and the forced labour or slavery of the Australian prisoners will be the end of them all, or nearly all of them. And even years later, as the few who got out alive look back the realization is keen that none of them, not one, really did make it out alive. Dorrigo, known to the troops as the Big Fella, does what he can to spare his men some of the indignities of their situation, though the gangrenous amputations higher and higher up one patient’s leg vividly encapsulate the diminishing returns for both Dorrigo and his Australian compatriots. For some, death will come as a welcome release, while for others it will not come soon enough.

This is harrowing stuff. Difficult to even read about let alone appreciate. Inevitably the telling probably lets us off the hook, if only because when it gets too much we can set the book aside for a time. And equally inevitably it sets all of the other parts of this novel — that which comes before and that which comes after — in pale relief. Not even the supposedly earth-shaking love between Dorrigo and Amy can hold a candle to the horrors of the POW camp. Indeed, ordinary things like love and family and children and careers just seem so banal in comparison. It’s both a problem in the lives of the men who have gone through such an experience and a problem for a novel such as this which attempts to encompass both.

The writing here is lyrical as befits a work peppered with poetry. Both Tennyson and Basho loom large as many of the senior officers, Dorrigo included, are cultured men, one way or another. It is both shocking and dismaying that that culture has so little practical impact. Poetry is spouted by both those perpetrating and those enduring acts of cruelty. And we are left without a safe port in this. Nowhere to turn and no one to turn to as redemptive or especially exemplary. It seems as though even Flanagan himself must surely have sunk into despair at points as he wrote. And to the extent that the novel meets this nihilism head on, it is indeed as superb as its cover quotes suggest. That it fails to do so throughout is perhaps only to be expected. It is, after all, a narrow road.

Gently recommended.

Editat: oct. 24, 2015, 5:18pm

34. Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Sir Edward Feathers is retired, renowned (in legal circles), redoubtable, and almost entirely alone. Even his companion in life, his wife Betty, doesn’t know everything about him. And yet, it is said even of lawyers, that they once were children. Sir Edward’s childhood was both singular and sadly typical. A Raj orphan, he is spirited away from his Malaysia village as a small child to be taken Home for safe keeping, or in this case to Wales, where he suffers unspecified horrors that scar him for life. Of course in a life like his, what is one scar more or less? For shocks and betrayals and tragedy abound in his life. As do moments of wonder and light. And when all is said and done, it only remains to note how little has been said of what has been done.

Jane Gardam brings Sir Edward to life. Known as ‘Old Filth’ (Failed In London Try Hong Kong), he is a delightfully complex and almost inscrutable character. His life is so rich in event and masque that Gardam seems barely able to keep a grip on the reins of his story as it races round its curves. But that too is an effect that only a novelist like Gardam could achieve. And this is surely an achievement. With gentle touches and fitful forays into the past, Gardam humanizes Sir Edward. And while some of what happened to the young Eddie might come across as melodrama, the fact that Sir Edward contains and suppresses it all, doesn’t speak of it even to Betty, makes it seem merely the norm

The writing is fresh and rich with detail and even emotion, for such an apparently emotionless man. The other characters are suitably enigmatic, at least to Sir Edward who little understands himself. Indeed most of the people we encounter here are damaged in one way or another, and most often by events in their childhood. And yet it all adds up to something satisfying, and terribly British.

A most fascinating and surprising read. Recommended.


The is the first novel by Jane Gardam that I have yet read (more will follow very soon). For some reason, I had put off reading Old Filth because I had it in my head that this was some kind of Rumpole of the Bailey story with an eccentric and irascible but charming old barrister. Certainly there is a bit of that here, but it is clear within the first ten pages that we are dealing with something altogether different and more affecting. I was utterly captivated. Thanks go out to the friend who disabused me of my wayward presupposition and urged this book upon me. Surely that must be the definition of friendship.

Editat: ag. 11, 2015, 5:10am

35. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

Jessamy Wuraola Harrison is eight, the child of a Nigerian immigrant author, Sarah, and an English accountant father, Daniel. Jess is precocious, intensely verbal and disarmingly sensitive. She is awash with feelings and emotions that she doesn’t understand or even accept. And she can’t even put into words the depths of her fears. So when, while on a visit to her Nigerian grandfather’s compound, she meets a little girl who seems to just ‘get’ her, Jess is understandably delighted and a bit in awe. Moreover, Titiola, who Jess calls TillyTilly, appears to have remarkable powers. TillyTilly can open locked doors, float in the air, appear at an instant and is willing to put her powers to use at Jessy’s behest (even if Jessy doesn’t say she wants this) in order for Jess’s enemies to be ‘got’. When TillyTilly shows up in London after Jess’s Nigerian summer holiday, Jess is at first over the moon. But soon she is a bit frightened at what TillyTilly is capable of. And soon enough, terrified.

Bracketed by sections set in Nigeria, the lengthy middle section of this intriguing novel takes place in London. We follow Jess through her unhappy school year, her tantrums and friendships, and her numerous ‘illnesses’. Clearly something is wrong with Jess, but her parents are at a loss as to what it might be. And while light begins to shine on various areas of her life, the source of Jess’s internal strife remains obscure. This might be an account of childhood mental illness. Or it might be an intrusion into the real world by the not entirely real. Or, it might be ancient Nigerian spirits wreaking havoc.

This is Helen Oyeyemi’s first novel, which was written when she was a teenager. As such, it displays remarkable agility and imaginative power. It may also suffer from a certain degree of exuberance and meandering (in the middle section). But if you set aside the precociousness of the writing, you’ll still be left with a remarkable tale of cross-cultural conflicts and anxieties, and a sensitive treatment of the switchback emotional confusions of childhood. In the end, the reader is left bemused, perhaps, and possibly a bit anxious. But not disappointed. Oyeyemi’s career will be a pleasure to watch develop. Gently recommended.

ag. 11, 2015, 3:54am

Great review of The Icarus Girl, Randy. I'll add it to my wish list.

ag. 12, 2015, 8:43am

>72 kidzdoc: Thanks, Darryl. Oyeyemi was new for me. I read The Icarus Girl for a book club I sometimes frequent. A pleasant surprise.

ag. 12, 2015, 8:44am

36. Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

Guy Roland describes himself as nothing. And he might just be right. Certainly the name ‘Guy Roland’ is as made up as his dubious identity papers. But when Hutte, at whose detective agency he has worked for the past ten years, got him the name and papers, he thought he was doing him a favour. With no memory of his past, Guy might as well be ‘Guy’. And something also must have forewarned Guy not to search too assiduously for himself, because he has been working at a detective agency for ten years before he even begins to search in earnest. By now the trail is mostly cold. As are the bodies that many people tell him are just part of the past.

With elements of noire — fog shrouded Parisian nights, murders witnessed or abetted, false identities, and a host of Russian, American, and British ex-pats — Modiano’s novel leaps the boundaries of genre. Neither the hard-bitten detective story, nor the existentialist mire. For how could the nothing that is Guy have enough presence to even define himself through action? Guy is not much more than smoke, and like memories of childhood, ever fleeting and retreating. Even his best clues lead him astray. And when he does settle upon who he thinks he might have been, he is as uncertain as he might be if he had simply invented his past.

The writing here is crisp and pressing. And the pacing is precise. Even when you think the novel may be headed toward a satisfying (in one sense) denouement it switches back and leaves you, along with Guy, bereft.

Highly recommended.

ag. 12, 2015, 10:36am

Nice review of Missing Person, Randy. I read it several years ago, and although I did like it I don't remember much about it.

ag. 16, 2015, 8:21am

37. The Door by Magda Szabó

A struggling writer and intellectual, Magda, and her husband (also a writer) hire an older local woman, Emerence, to clean their apartment and cook meals for them. Magda gradually forms a bond with the woman, a bond that is both intimate (they share guardianship of a dog) and distant. Over the course of many years, Magda learns almost nothing about the taciturn and somewhat secretive Emerence. For example, Emerence will not allow anyone into her ground floor flat in the building nearby. Indeed, Emerence’s closed door comes to symbolize the barriers, both deliberate and unintentional, that frustrate our attempts to know one another. Despite these frustrations, it is clear that Emerence cares deeply for Magda and her husband. And, on occasion, Emerence does gift Magda with partial glimpses into the troubled and traumatic events of her life that have brought her to her present state.

The relationship between Magda and Emerence is the centrepiece of the novel, yet it is neither comfortable nor particularly exemplary. It is typified by long periods of indifference punctuated by shrill, seething rage (felt by one or the other or both). The spikes in their relationship are nearly inexplicable since they are brought on by seemingly minor actions or events. (And why does the emotional level always jump to seething rage?) But equally hard to fathom is the repeated return to their more standard state of modest indifference that follows each crisis. I felt that perhaps Szabó thought more was being conveyed through these episodes than reached me through this translation. The extremity of Emerence’s psychological makeup undermines any hope for a universal message that the author might be seeking. I ended up not understanding Emerence but also not understanding Magda herself, who apparently has learned so much from her long relationship with Emerence.

Set in post-war Hungary, a period of significant political upheaval, the novel undoubtedly will carry more weight for those steeped in the political history of the state, nuances that I suspect passed by me unnoticed. However, since Szabó makes no effort to contextualize these political layers of meaning, she must intend for the novel to work regardless of access to them. Although there are moments when I’m sure she succeeds, overall I would have to say that it doesn’t really work. Regrettably, not recommended.

ag. 16, 2015, 3:04pm

Thanks for your useful review of The Door, Randy. Monica (@JustJoey4) didn't think much of it either, so I'll pass on this novel.

ag. 23, 2015, 8:38pm

38. Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

An ex-pat American living in London learns that his sister, Miriam, who had been living in Berlin has died of starvation. The news is both a shock and possibly expected. At any rate, it catalyses arcane reactions in her brother, who has not spoken to her in at least five years, and in their elderly widowed father whose estrangement from her extends even further into the past. Father and son meet in Berlin and undertake the repatriation of the body with the help of a consular official named Trish. Apparently standard bureaucratic delay prevents the release of the body for more than two weeks. And in that time both father and son, and to a lesser extent Trish, undergo flights of alienation and excess — renting a furnished luxury penthouse, hiring a car to undertake a trip down the Rhine and into Belgium and Luxembourg, immodest gourmandising, drinking to excess, sexual profligacy, and self-harm. This, followed by a starvation diet which may purge them of both their excess and their reason. Once Miriam’s body is released, they can begin their journey home. The father has chosen to fly them all out of Munich Airport so that they will not need to change planes, but when they reach Munich, the airport is socked in with heavy sleet and fog. So much so that their flight — indeed all flights — has been delayed interminably. And this is where we pick up the story with the brother narrating their current predicament interspersed with reflections on what has preceded that in the previous two weeks as well as earlier moments in the lives of Miriam, her brother and her father.

In the stateless state of those who have already passed through security at an international airport, grounded by the murky fog that paralyses airports and action, and faced with a constitutional ambivalence about his father, himself and everything else, we follow the brother’s not always trustworthy impressions. But ultimately nothing is clear or fully explained. An underlying sense of menace pervades but it has no clear source. Emotions are fractured and changeable. And perhaps the only moments of clarity come when the son speaks about the advent of twelve-tone music and especially the music of Alban Berg.

That singular break with tonality seems also to be the model for Baxter’s treatment of the novel. Not so much a case of anti-narrative as the abandonment of narrative, or rather narrative as the underpinning structure of the novel. Themes of death and excess cross against those of loss and abandonment or harm and self-harm. But there is no centre, per se, and so we are carried along solely by the power of Baxter’s prose itself. And what prose that is! I was transfixed. Constantly unsettled. And ultimately a bit in awe. This is a novel that warrants re-reading almost immediately. Highly recommended.

ag. 25, 2015, 2:20pm

39. The First Person and other stories by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s charming playfulness, a kind of flirting with language, lends itself to stories of love — first meetings, sudden realizations, and piquant disagreements. The stories collected here are brief, typically oblique, and have aspects of fable about them. Together they reveal a singular voice. And it is perhaps a strength of the form that it can accommodate such reinvention or rediscovery. Readers steeped in the north american short story may find these tales to be slight. Certainly they are as satisfied with the happy turn of phrase as they are with any painful insight or dramatic sacrifice. Clever, here, is not a pejorative descriptor.

Because the stories are of a piece and each written to an equally well-turned level, there isn’t much to choose amongst them. Any one might be your favourite. I particularly enjoyed, “the history of history,” “the second person,” “writ,” and “the first person.” Smith’s remarkable ability to catch the air of the precocious young teen is put to good effect, especially when she is interrogating her fourteen year old younger self. But even more remarkable, perhaps, is her lightness of touch when enthusing on love’s first flush. Delightful. Full of charms and gently recommended.

ag. 27, 2015, 1:41pm

40. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Set in the post-modern land of deconstructive textuality, a confessed liar, Harun, affirms his affinity by blood to “the Arab”, the unnamed other in Camus’ famous novel, L’Étranger, the one whom Camus’ narrator, Meursault, murders in cold (or hot) blood on that sandy beach in Algiers one afternoon. Harun names the unnamed victim to be none other than Musa, his brother. Now, fifty years later, in a wine-soaked, maundering rant, Harun wants to share his story. His chosen interlocutor is an unnamed academic, a researcher exploring the broader aspects of Camus’ existentialist novel. Harun describes his mother’s investigation into the death of her son, the empty grave, her abandonment of Algiers with her younger son, and the years of lassitude followed by one decisive act in the middle of night on the 5th of July, 1962.

Daoud’s novel is brilliantly set in the shadow of Camus’ novel but equally in the shadow of Algeria itself and its blood-soaked transition from French rule to, most recently, a quasi-religious state. Daoud’s narrator is ambivalent in the extreme but for this one certainty — that he is the brother of the slain unnamed Arab of Camus’ novel. It is a claim both definitive and absurd, as befits an inheritor of Camus’ mantel. Daoud plays with the possibilities, including numerous allusions to Defoe’s savage, himself re-imagined by Michel Tournier in his famous novel Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique. Indeed, there are levels of play at work here that only an adept may be able to discern. That, of course, makes Daoud’s novel fascinating but also challenging; neither an easy read nor an entirely satisfying one. Nevertheless, for the sheer audacity of it I could hardly do less than at least gently recommend it.

Editat: set. 3, 2015, 10:17am

Catching up with a few books that don't really warrant reviews.

41. Ubuntu Made Easy: A Project-Based Introduction to Linux by Rickford Grant
Just some fun I was having with an old computer I hauled out of the basement.

42. Linux Command Line and Shell Scripting Bible by Richard Blum
A bit more fun after I replaced my Ubuntu install with Linux Mint. So I thought maybe it was time to actually learn a bit about bash shell scripting.

43. Driving Blind: Stories by Ray Bradbury
A friend passed this on to me for one particular story and I then went on and read the entire collection. Yes, we did once write this way! There are a few clever tales here, but it's almost impossible for them not to seem like juvenilia, even though Bradbury wrote a number of them very late in his life.

set. 3, 2015, 9:54am

44. The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

A surprisingly touching story of family, fealty, and friendship set in present-day Hanoi but steeped in the history of that troubled land. Old Man Hung is an itinerant pho’-seller (a Vietnamese noodle soup) whose customers loyally follow him from one location in the city to another as he gets pushed along. The doi moi (the relatively recent Vietnamese embrace of limited capitalism) has not transformed Hung’s business. He is faithful to his ancient formula and the care of his community, admittedly a community on the edge, literally, a shanty town on the shore of a polluted pond. He looks after his neighbours much as he looks after his customers. But his greatest care is for the memory of the artists and intellectuals who used to gather in his pho’ shop (when he still had a shop) back in the early 1950s. This clique of committed artists thought there was no incompatibility between the welcome encroach of communism which would depose their colonial rulers and the individual, subjective critical perspective that art demands. They may have been naive, but their belief, commitment, and deeds (continuing to publish a banned art journal) were heroic. It is this artistic movement — the beauty of humanity movement — that gives the novel its title. Despite losing everything in the interim, even the journals of his treasured poets and artists, Old Man Hung clings to their vision. But his own vision is failing and his memory is too. And it looks as though he has lost the words of the poet, Dao, that he once knew as well as his own heart.

Into this environment comes Maggie, the daughter of one of Old Man Hung’s artists. She was born in Vietnam but fled with her mother to the USA at the fall of Saigon. She has returned to Hanoi to take up a post as curator for a cache of artworks discovered in the hold of the Metropole hotel, but also on a quest for information concerning the fate of her father, who did not escape. Maggie comes into contact, eventually, with Old Man Hung and gradually the story emerges of both her father, the artistic movement to which he belonged, and the abiding love that Hung has harboured all these years for Lan, his estranged neighbour.

The writing here is measured and aromatic. Gibb’s descriptions of Hung’s culinary creations will leave you with an overwhelming desire to visit a Vietnamese restaurant, knowing all the while that it will not live up to Hung’s food. But equally stimulating is Gibb’s sensitive treatment of art and its demands, and the horrors that we visit upon each other in the name of political progress. The novel does not attempt to be a definitive statement on the conflict that so plagued the Americans. Rather it is, in many respects, a quiet exploration of a single simple man’s life and the myriad lives that he touches one way or another. Nicely done.

set. 5, 2015, 4:36pm

45. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Over the years, a lot of people have told me that I’ve got to read Stephen King’s On Writing. Now I have. And I’m prepared to pass along that bit of unsolicited advice, conditionally. If you haven’t read any other books on writing fiction, then Stephen King’s On Writing would be no bad place to start. If you have read a lot of books on writing fiction, then you probably won’t learn much new in reading this book. He urges aspiring writers to read a lot. And he urges them to write a lot. Oh, and if you have the choice, put your writing desk in the corner of the room under the eave. I’m with him 100% with the admonition to read a lot and write a lot. But I suspect the placement of your writing desk is down to personal taste. The rest of the specifically craft-related advice here is all good stuff, but not exactly rocket science. (Of course if it were also rocket science, that would be really impressive.)

What makes On Writing worth reading even if you’ve already read about a million other books on writing is the opening section, “C.V.” Through a series of brief anecdotes, King takes us on a journey through his life, and especially his writing life up to the point at which his first novel, Carrie, becomes a success. He writes with unsentimental verve about his mother and brother, his earliest writing efforts, and his various successes and failures along the way. You can’t help but be impressed by his sticktoitiveness. Even as a youth, he was relentless in writing stories. He doesn’t seem to get discouraged. And he is neither filled with unwarranted self-belief nor unwarranted self-doubt. He is a journeyman writer, skilled enough in his way and more than able to keep at it when many another hopeful might have fallen by the wayside. He doesn’t pretend that he is a great writer, but he thinks that he is a good writer and that with this book he might be able to help a few competent writers take that next step up to becoming good writers. He might be right about that. Of the millions of aspiring writers to whom this book gets recommended, I’m guessing that a few are going to make that leap. And some of them might point to this book as the turning point them. So with that possibility in mind, I’ll gently recommend it as well. And good luck!

set. 5, 2015, 4:42pm

>82 RandyMetcalfe: Thanks for the wonderful review. Alas, my local library does not have the book but Amazon did!

Editat: set. 6, 2015, 3:05pm

46. The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

Often described as the ‘companion’ novel to Gardam’s Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat covers much the same ground but focuses instead on Sir Edward Feather’s wife, Betty. Not exclusively, and not in the way in which Old Filth tells the tale of Sir Edward from earliest boyhood through his traumatic youth to his formative years prior to his career in law. Rather, we catch up with Betty on the verge of her engagement to Eddie. And this forces a disparity between the two characters. For Sir Edward, the reader (of both volumes) has a reasonable grasp from the start of his troubled inner life and this underwrites our sympathy for him both in his youth and his later life. With Betty this is simply not the case. And so a number of her positive actions seem virtually inexplicable, as least to me.

Despite the reservation noted above, I think Gardam’s writing is wonderfully spare, elegant, and multi-layered. Betty may be an illusive character, but she is nonetheless fascinating. And she establishes a marked contrast to the other ex-pat women in Hong Kong, both with her opinions, her local knowledge, and her unblinking recognition of the essential untenuousness of British Rule in these colonies.

If you’ve read Gardam’s initially offering on these characters, then you’ll need no further inducement to renew acquaintances and carry on. Gently recommended.

set. 11, 2015, 8:34am

47. In the Place of Last Things by Michael Helm

Some novels are made of light and air. Others are made of earth and water. But earth and water are light compared to the density of In the Place of Last Things. Each page, paragraph, even sentence presses down with neptunian gravity, a density that becomes curiously physical (yes, the book is remarkably heavy). That makes reading the novel a daunting project. It’s like wading through molasses. That’s just what it felt like. Those individual sentences were often so rich in meaning and metaphor that they each seemed to be demanding to be savoured, which rather slows the pace of the prose and of the plot.

At times a meandering road novel, at other times a meditation on the impossibility of true communion, Helm seems uncertain whether he wants to write a noir thriller or an academic love story. Russ Littlebury, the principal of the tale, is a burly Saskatchewan farm boy who is the muscle on the local hockey team but also, apparently, a natural talent with latin and greek. His once hell raising father, Mike, is a born again Christian whose fundamental goodness grates on Russ. In Mike’s last cancerous year, Russ finds himself in Toronto teaching the foundations of western thought in a college, finding love and conflicts of principle, before shedding his academic and amorous skin to head home and see Mike through his final days. Yes, and after that it becomes a road novel as Russ and his “aunt”, Jean, and an orphan whom Mike has fostered, Skidder, head south to Tucson. Along that route they pick up a possibly pregnant teen named Lea who charges Russ with the improbable task of finding her absconded lover, Jack Marks, somewhere on the Mexican border and delivering to him a letter in which she sets out her plight. That’s when things switch into noirish mode. Any one of these stories might have made a rich and thought-provoking novel. Compacting them into the space provided, presumably by exhuming all the air and light, has resulted in a fragrant, undoubtedly bio-rich, mulch.

Michael Helm is clearly well-versed and capable. He can write a sentence with heft. I just wish he’d let his story breathe a bit. Regrettably not recommended.

set. 11, 2015, 8:21pm

48. The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam

For fans of Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth” novels, the title story in this collection is everything you might hope it could be. Indeed, this short story might just as easily have been a chapter in one of the novels. Here you will find Sir Edward Feathers (‘Old Filth’ himself), his nemesis Veneering, the ever tight-fisted Fiscal-Smith, and the well-meaning but simple Dulcie. They are all well into their anecdotage, gathering at Dulcie’s with numerous others to send off a young priest of Dulcie’s acquaintance, Father Ambrose, on his way to St Umbrage’s on the isle of Skelt. The badinage is perfectly pitched, the possibilities for farce are rife, and Gardam carries it off without a hitch. Thoroughly delightful.

The downfall, if there is one, is that the title story rather sets all of the others collected here in the shade. Indeed, you might be forgiven for wondering whether they are even written by the same author. Most lack the verve of that first story. Almost all suffer from excessively thin characters. And some are sadly dependent on what in an earlier era might have been considered to be a twist ending. Not all suffer equally. The final story, “The Last Reunion,” is very rich and I rather enjoyed, “The Hair of the Dog.” And of course none of the others are so very disappointing, though they all tend towards a curiously English conception of the short story and are limited thereby. So, gently recommended for those few gems and especially the “Old Filth” title story. Otherwise not.

set. 15, 2015, 8:32am

49. Last Friends by Jane Gardam

Late in the day, Jane Gardam has returned to some last, best friends — the redoubtable Sir Edward Feathers (known to all as ‘Old Filth’), Terry Veneering (Sir Edwards’ nemesis in court), the ever dull Fiscal-Smith, the dim but faithful Dulcie, and there flitting on the edges, the sylph-like Isobel. Everyone it seems is over 80 and past it. Some, such as Terry, Edward, and Edward’s wife Betty have passed on. And all that remains are the interminable memorial services and the gradual slipping away of one’s memories and self.

Ostensibly focused on the early life of Veneering (a name from Dickens that gets gifted to the young Terry Veratski), there is as much here about Fiscal-Smith (who had a very early connection with Terry) as there is about Dulcie and even about the new family of bustling, friendly outsiders who have taken over Terry’s former house in the Dorset village of Donhead St. Ague. Indeed village life might easily be the subject, its ebbs and flows, and the sense we are given that even in the far east in the days of empire, at least for a certain class, life was very much as close and familiar and whispering as any English village back Home.

The writing is a touch uneven, but at its best, as for example when Gardam catches the tincture of fear that invades Dulcie’s aging mind as she considers that she may be not all there, it is very haunting. Indeed it is just such moments throughout the Old Filth collection of novels and stories that I would say warrant the acclaim that Gardam has sometimes accrued. She has a wonderfully airy but hesitant technique that paints her scene in watercolours without a background wash. Almost everything in such a style is inferred, gently alluded to, then challenged or reversed by contrasting memories. It is, I imagine, no easy thing to accomplish. And so, despite some mild reservations, gently recommended.

set. 15, 2015, 1:24pm

I do like your reviews, Randy. I've added a number of books to a wish list based on them. The Meursault Investigation is one of those. But I'll probably want to read The Stranger first. :-)

Driving Blind is one I may skip now. I got a copy cheap at a library sale in anticipation of the AAC next month. Sounds like I better keep looking for a copy of The Illustrated Man.

set. 15, 2015, 7:30pm

>89 weird_O: Thanks. And yes, there are other Bradbury books out there that are worth the wait.

Editat: set. 17, 2015, 5:37pm

50. Correction by Thomas Bernhard

The suicide of Roithamer, the protagonist of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, prompts his unnamed friend, literary executor, and our unnamed narrator, to undertake a review of and possible future publication of Roithamer’s important final work, “About Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, with special attention to the Cone.” It is a work that Roithamer was correcting until the day he died, most frequently in the garret of his friend, Hoeller, a room that he used often during the planning and construction of a conal habitation for his, Roithamer’s, beloved sister. The narrator is tasked with exhuming Roithamer’s various writings and influence and sets about his work in the very garret that Roithamer himself used so assiduously. The novel, then, divides into two sections, the first being the narrator’s attempts to come to grips with Roithamer’s literary legacy, and the second being a concerted presentation (corrected?) of Roithamer’s final and definitive work. Of course Roithamer has already undertaken the ultimate existential correction by erasing himself. But his action is not singular. Rather, according to Roithamer, it is the ever present choice before all those especially in his home country of Austria. Indeed he has already lost three uncles and a cousin to suicide and it is suggested that a statistically high number of others in the vicinity have followed suit. With his increasing agitation at the enormity of his task, it seems all too likely that our narrator may join Roithamer in his choice. However, that action is set beyond the limits of the novel. We are left, primarily, with Roithamer’s deteriorating mental state and his screeching opposition to his family, especially his mother, and ultimately himself.

Reading Correction is exhausting. Other than the division into two halves, the work contains no paragraph breaks, and the convoluted iterations within a sentence can easily stretch a single sentence beyond the length of a page. The mere level of concentration involved in reading such a work is daunting. I often wondered, instead, what it might be like to hear it read aloud in one continuous stream.

Clearly Bernhard’s methodology is particular, but is there more available here than method? That, I don’t know. Even if I can imagine why someone might embark on writing in such a manner, I find it hard to imagine what readers the author could have thought he might attract. And yet this is undoubtedly a modernist masterpiece of its kind, and it certainly has spurred imitators though few could hope to reach Bernhard’s level of self-loathing. Certainly worth reading in order to see why Bernhard is revered in some circles, but very hard to love.

Editat: set. 20, 2015, 2:29pm

51. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko lose their cat which is named after Kumiko’s brother Norobu Wataya, a rising economist, political pundit, and, latterly, a politician. Later Toru loses Kumiko as well. Toru quits his job and spends increasing amounts of time at the bottom of a dry well, presumably hoping to lose himself also. It almost takes. But fate, it seems, has other things in store for Toru Okada, whom his young neighbour, May Kasahara, dubs Mr. Wind-up Bird. Fate has apparently been acting on lots of people over the past fifty or sixty years, all leading to Toru’s attempts to find his cat and his wife, Kumiko. Eventually the cat comes back. And so does Kumiko.

On the surface it isn’t a compelling tale, but Murakami adds moments of spice in the form of gratuitous extreme violence and gratuitous sex, be it physical or mental (in a Murakami novel dream sex is as good as real sex). There are also a number of exceedingly dubious forays into the nature of the self, quasi-mystical communication and healing, and fashion. And of course, in keeping with Murakami’s other writing, you will encounter many references to western classical music, jazz, and pop, lots of product placement for western consumers, and, in just over 600 pages, almost no references to anything that originates in Japan.

The writing here is very flat, almost atonal. The protagonist, Toru Okada, is a near blank slate. The women characters are almost entirely reduced to their sexuality (so much so that when they cease to have sex either mentally or physically with the protagonist, they disappear from the novel altogether). On the plus side, I suppose you could say that it is a quick read. On the other hand, I feel like in a few days I won’t remember anything that happened. Not recommended.

Editat: set. 22, 2015, 9:17am

52. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

For those who love Anne Tyler’s novels, there are a great many things to love about A Spool of Blue Thread. Here you will find that not-quite-dysfunctional nuclear family, the sprawling house in Baltimore which is as much a member of the family as anyone else, the one sibling whose contrariness passes for an antagonist in a Tyler novel but who is really good at heart, and a tidiness (or ruthlessness) that almost takes your breath away. By that last, I refer to Tyler’s habit of disposing of characters who no longer serve a function in the principal story. Here she does away with the grandparents in a sentence consigning them to a stalled car on a railroad crossing. And then moves on to wherever her real interest lies. Brilliant!

The main focus here appears to be the accommodations we make for others, whether consciously or unconsciously. This theme is played out in the later years of Abby and Red. They still live in the house Red’s father built (though initially he built it for someone else). Both are in their 70s and Red is slowing down at the family construction company he still runs, and Abby is starting to lose focus and even blank out for stretches. They need help and help arrives when their son, Stem, and his family move home to take care of them, and it arrives again when their other son, Denny, also moves home with the same intent. Their largely indistinguishable sisters, both with husbands named Hugh, are also soon in the mix and confusion and mild conflict ensue.

The long opening section is followed by three codas, as it were, two of which take us back in time providing backstory for the opening section. We witness the day that Abby falls in love with Red, though she had until then had her heart set on another. In the next coda we drop further back to the relationship of Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae. And finally we return to the time of the opening section and see the wrapping up of Red’s life at the house on Bouton Road.

There is a great deal to love about A Spool of Blue Thread. Perhaps the writing is a bit inconsistent. Perhaps there is over-lingering on some episodes and then far too little time available to breath life into certain characters. Perhaps some themes are presented as an afterthought (as is the source of the title). It’s not a perfect novel by any stretch. But then, just like Tyler’s not-quite-dysfunctional families, you end up with guileless affection for it. And that’s probably recommendation enough.

set. 26, 2015, 5:57am

53. The Martian by Andy Weir

Pure fun. From the moment that Mark Watney regains consciousness to discover himself stranded on Mars, the clock is ticking and the pages are turning. On the one hand he is marooned millions of miles from earth with limited food, water, and oxygen. On the other hand, he's not dead. So at least he has something to work with. Plus he is a botanist and an engineer, which is a fortunate set of skills given his situation. Indeed, as he wryly notes, he is the best botanist on the whole planet. And that self-deprecating sense of humour is going to be one of his key assets as he sets about saving himself. Of course he'll eventually need a fair bit of help from lots of people on earth, but for the moment he's got to get busy farming.

There isn't a lot of soul searching in this latter day Crusoe tale. But there is plenty of science. Science and duct tape. Which will solve most of our problems after all. There is also an overriding optimism, which probably explains why these astronauts were out there exploring Mars in the first place.

The writing is crisp and well-paced. It's not great literature but it does bring the science back to science fiction and that's got its own charms. Recommended for the botanist-engineer-astronaut hiding in all of us. Enjoy!

set. 26, 2015, 1:29pm

Wow, man! More good, helpful reviews. Keep up the good reading and reviewing.

set. 30, 2015, 9:56am

54. A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn

Charlie, a successful screenwriter, has been given six months to live. He wants to do something useful with his time remaining. He will write a novel of and about consciousness. But first, to put himself in the proper artistic frame of mind and squalor, he’ll liquidate his assets and drop half of it onto the roulette table in Monte Carlo. Unfortunately, Charlie wins and it takes him longer than planned to purge himself of his fiscal solidity. But with the help of Angelique, a gambling fiend who demands that he give her 1 million francs per day in order for her to be his muse, he succeeds. He has somewhat less luck with his novel, which involves three characters on a train returning to London from a conference on consciousness at Oxford. Stiff with received opinions, his characters become as marooned in the fog of consciousness as their train is in the fog that halts them at Didcot Junction (ever the bane of the Oxford to London line). While Angelique gambles, Charlie sits in the Salle Privée writing furiously, and his characters on the train disport the various prominent positions on consciousness. But it’s not working and eventually Charlie needs other remedies including a failed “long swim” off a Mediterranean isle, and a sojourn alone on the Saharan dunes.

St. Aubyn’s concept for this novel of consciousness is audacious. That it fails is consistent with the ineffable nature (perhaps) of his subject. But that it entertains, that it delights, that it raises our emotional hackles is entirely down to St. Aubyn’s lyrical prose. His sentences are pure pleasure to read, often grounded in the rapturously real but never far from a metaphor or an extended simile. And very funny! More so, probably, for those who are au fait with debates on consciousness in philosophy and cognitive science. Of special note is Charlie’s New York agent, Arnie, whose brief appearances come with zingers attached. He’s priceless.

As with many comic novels, the subject matter here is serious in the extreme, bathetically so. Beyond the wit and maudlin excess lies an honest struggle with a topic that may tragically (or comically) be beyond our grasp. Well worth the challenge for a writer of St. Aubyn’s intelligence. Recommended.

Editat: nov. 2, 2015, 8:31am

55. The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Cheryl is isolated, unconnected to others (even her work colleagues; she works from home), unaccustomed to love and yet she is bursting with potential for sexual and maternal love most of which gets aired only in her imagination. When circumstance puts Cheryl in the way of new actualities (though ones she hasn’t previously imagined), she has the good sense to follow her instincts and let love take its course, whatever that might be.

At once tender and tentative, July follows Cheryl through a year of changes, kooky changes you might say, in which Cheryl grows, adapts, and thoroughly transforms, but she still seems very much herself at the close. July’s fictional world is peopled with initially odd but genuinely caring individuals. Almost fancifully so. And that might be consistent with the near fairytale-like quality of this story. What we get here is an ethereal overview of love in a few peculiarly individual instantiations. You can’t help but fear for Cheryl, she seems so fragile and unable to defend herself. Yet July never places obstacles before her that she can’t overcome or that don’t dissolve as soon as she faces up to them. And you can’t help but wish that the world were actually like this.

Of course, once you catch the cadence of July’s humour, you also find her writing to be immensely witty, indeed delightful. And that will undoubtedly be the impression you take away. Gently recommended.

oct. 4, 2015, 11:17am

56. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Once again, Elena Ferrante brings the intimate friendship of her principle characters, Elena and Lila, to life, though much of what occurs in this final novel in her Neapolitan series is harmful to their friendship. Elena rushes into her relationship with Nino Sarratore, all the the while trying to suppress her suspicion of Lila’s disapproval. Indeed, much of what Elena does and thinks and even writes in her growing career as a novelist and intellectual is shaped and conditioned either by Lila’s explicit critique or by Elena’s imagined version of what Lila might say. And so Elena acts both for and against her childhood friend, desperate to attain some form of autonomy even whilst she foregoes it in her anxiety. Elena has moved back to Naples, though not the old neighbourhood, with her two daughters. And it is motherhood comes to dominate the themes here as first Elena and then Lila herself become pregnant. Their shared condition is emblematic of just how entwined their lives have been throughout whether they were conscious of it or not.

Eventually Elena moves with her now three daughters into the flat above Lila’s in the old neighbourhood. Here the ties with the past are strong. But so too are the ties with elements from the earlier three novels. Ferrante weaves the stories together so tightly that everything in the current novel feels as though it might have been there in the very first one, just hidden around a corner. The lives of Elena and Lila, their lovers and children, and their friends from the old neighbourhood breathe with fire. And once that fire catches you, it is nearly impossible to put the book down.

Ferrante’s Elena narrates the whole of this volume but she is not spared. Even when she is most critical of her friend, the reader sees through her fears to the self-doubt at its root. While not an unreliable narrator, we come to see her view as slanted, as given to jealousy and pettiness as any other, and so she becomes, unsympathetically, even more believable. It is a remarkable balancing act. By the end, I found myself reading ever more slowly, fearing with each page the inevitably loss of this brilliant friendship. Fortunately, I can start again almost immediately, which is surely one of the great blessings of novels as fine as these. Highly recommended.

oct. 4, 2015, 11:50am

I want to pause just for a moment in order to reflect on the achievement of Elena Ferrante and to enthuse.

I tend to read many works by any individual author. But very few authors, for me, become touchstones. By that I mean authors whom I return to over and over again for inspiration, especially inspiration regarding the very possibility of the novel. Over the past few years, Elena Ferrante has joined that select group for me. Others on the list include Jane Austen, Richard Ford, and Penelope Fitzgerald.

The first book by Ferrante that I read was My Brilliant Friend which was given to me by a (brilliant) friend, I imagine, because she had read James Wood's piece on Ferrante in The New Yorker. I was completely amazed. Since then I've sought out all of Ferrante's earlier novels and waited impatiently for each volume in her Neapolitan series to be published. (It was originally advertised as a trilogy, but at some point evolved into the tetralogy we have today.) Her writing is full of passion and despair. It is thoroughly earth-bound, unembellished with simile. Her short early novels are almost frighteningly intense. Yet, as this later series demonstrates, she is entirely comfortable as well in the long-form novel. I have no idea how these novels come across in their original Italian. But it must surely be some sign that, even in translation, they each, at least for me, have been remarkably effectively.

I look forward to many years annoying my friends with the recommendation that they read Ferrante, just as I've annoyed them in the past insisting that Jane Austen's Emma is one of the few perfect novels.

Editat: oct. 12, 2015, 1:32pm

57. Bream Gives Me Hiccups and other stories by Jesse Eisenberg

If you’ve ever stumbled across a humorous piece on McSweeney’s or in The New Yorker with the by-line “Jesse Eisenberg” and wondered whether that might be the Jesse Eisenberg you’ve seen in The Social Network or failed to see in Richard Ayoade’s The Double, then this book will set the record straight. Yes, they are in fact one and the same person: intriguing actor and comic occasional writer. And by the evidence of this collection, Eisenberg could just as easily go full-time as a writer because these short items are consistently delightful. Eisenberg typically offers up a monologue in the voice of an awkward, put-upon and sometimes embarrassing narrator whether it be a 9-year-old restaurant review writer or an 18 year old student at a mid-western college. His narrators are always believable and often too silly for words (or just silly enough). Of course it is always a bit strange to read straight through what were written as occasional pieces published singly at some remove from each other. But in this case the proximity doesn’t harm the humour. I especially enjoyed the section on “Family” but everything here is excellent. Dip into it at your leisure or read it straight through. Either way you are sure to enjoy it.

oct. 18, 2015, 8:21am

58. The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

When the elderly Dr. Siri Paiboun gets drafted in to become the chief and sole coroner for the new People’s Democratic Republic of Laos he is not amused. He’d hoped to retire gracefully now that the great struggle for freedom was over. But it seems he has to offer yet more to the nation that has claimed his life and, 11 years ago, his wife. But at 72, Siri is only just about to discover his real talent and murderers in Laos had better beware.

Apart from the curious setting — Laos in the mid-1970s — much of this crime thriller follows a well worn formula. The curmudgeonly Dr (with a heart of gold) has two able assistants, his nurse and future apprentice, Dtui, and the Mr. Gueng, who suffers from Downs syndrome. He has a valuable confidant in the Politburo named Civilai and finds a new friend in a police detective named Phosy. But what sets The Coroner’s Lunch apart is the assistance that Dr. Siri gets from the dead, and not just from the forensic evidence they provide. The spirits of the dead tend to visit him in the night and offer guidance to the cause of their demise, especially when that has been as a result of foul play. His special skill in this regard comes to a head when he is asked to investigate some mysterious deaths in the south of the country and liaises with the superstitious Hmong people. There his alter ego, the ancient shaman Yeh Ming, emerges.

All of this makes for a surprisingly complicated procedural but as the principal characters are all appealing and distinctive, it is an easy read.

oct. 18, 2015, 9:03pm

>101 RandyMetcalfe: It's good stuff!

oct. 21, 2015, 8:19pm

59. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

‘Too clever by half’ is often a pejorative description, but here I think it might be turned to one of outright praise. Especially so if you come to this novel without any knowledge whatsoever of what it is going to be about or how it will be working its magic. It starts innocently enough with the writer St. John Fox and his muse or temptress or torturer, Mary Foxe, and his long suffering wife, Daphne rounding out a fragile trio. Fox’s stories typically involve the death of female characters and his muse is not pleased. There is also some question as to whether he too is tempted towards violence. Is Daphne at risk? Is he just another Bluebeard? Will Mary come to supplant Daphne in Mr. Fox’s affections? And can you really fight a duel with stories?

Once you allow yourself to fall fully under Oyeyemi’s playful spell, the writing starts to float. It always seems gossamer light, despite the ofter gruesome subject matter. It has the virtue of never fully betraying its intentions and this, I think, prevents it from ever feeling heavy-handed. Of course it may also limit engagement with the characters and potentially with the subject. But I think the real story here is Oyeyemi’s growing mastery of her craft. Along with writers like Winterson, Byatt, and Ali Smith, Oyeyemi takes up the challenge of transforming the very archetypal narratives that have underwritten the craft, often to women’s cost. And yes, her name fits easily with those others despite her relative youth.

I wasn’t always convinced by this novel. Indeed, it perhaps only loosely warrants that label. But on the other hand I never found myself giving up on it. Oyeyemi is a writer who consistently surprises. Perhaps one day she will also astound. Gently recommended.

oct. 23, 2015, 12:09pm

60. The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Egan

Sifting through the hundreds, maybe thousands, of short stories published in North America in any one year must be an arduous but rewarding task. Jennifer Egan’s selection here tends towards fairly traditional short stories but with enough variation that the collection still has room to surprise. A quarter of the stories in the short list come from The New Yorker, a much higher representation than in the long list, so Egan’s preferences do show through. However, since at least some of those stories are the best ones in this collection, nothing turns on it.

For me the stories that stood out were Joyce Carol Oates’ “Mastiff”, O. A. Lindsey’s “Evie M.”, Joshua Ferris’ “The Breeze”, and Ann Beattie’s “The Indian Uprising”. Is it surprising that Oates and Beattie can still astound? Probably not since they are clearly masters of their craft. I was surprised by the Joshua Ferris because I’d recently been disappointed by one of his novels. Here he shows that he deserves his reputation despite my reservations. And Lindsey’s story is perhaps the most raw and harrowing of the bunch. Altogether a worthy collection that continues to remind us of the enduring power of the short story form.

oct. 24, 2015, 1:06pm

Great reading here as always Randy. Noticed you have taken a shine to Jane Gardam this year. If you have any left to read, she is likely to make the BAC challenge for next year and it would be nice to have you along for the ride.

oct. 24, 2015, 5:20pm

>105 PaulCranswick: Thanks, Paul. I've never done any of the author challenges because my reading path is so unordered. But maybe I'll give it a try next year.

Editat: oct. 28, 2015, 4:27am

61. Martin John by Anakana Schofield

Disconcerting probably best sums up Martin John. It is undoubtedly a tour de force. Anakana Schofield has imagined a thoroughly distasteful and disturbed individual and sustained a close first person narration of his actions and thoughts for much of the novel. I suppose it is a sort of achievement. Of course his thoughts are rather random, fixated, and perverse. It is not pleasant to be inside his head for any length of time. And it is unclear how much of the surrounding details we can fully trust.

I don’t know if a novel like this gives us any insight into the mind of a seriously disturbed individual. With such extremes, how can the reader ever judge? We are either forced to accept the novelist’s point of view whole, or reject it entirely, I think. Or perhaps we vacillate between those poles as we push on to the end of the book. In the end, I guess I come down on the side of not thinking that I learn much through such a book despite its technical achievement. And so, not recommended.

oct. 30, 2015, 1:23pm

62. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt

Lucien Minor isn’t having such a good life. A severe illness has him on death’s door but his father walks through it in his stead. The love of his life (so far) is engaged to another, someone considerably larger than Lucy. And his self-serving lie that might have sown discord between them has backfired. It’s a good thing he is leaving town soon to take up the position of Undermajordomo at the nearby castle of Baron Von Aux. Unfortunately the Baron is mad, which has its dangers. And even when he isn’t mad, he and his friends are substantially depraved. It hardly seems likely that Lucy will find happiness in his new surroundings. But he does. For a time.

Patrick DeWitt writes with a beguilingly simple style. His dialogue borders on Beckett. The absurdist comedy that permeates the book is a thin surface over sadness and disappointment, love found and lost, and the veil between thought and violence. The reader might easily feel lost in this unnamed country and time. But the lilting style pulls you along and you find, in no time, that you’ve completed the book. All is not right with the world, but at least Lucy has a direction and a clue as to where his happiness lies. I enjoyed the book much more than I expected to and that’s enough warrant to gently recommend it to others.

nov. 7, 2015, 7:53am

63. The Journey Prize Stories 27 compiled by Anthony De Sa, Tanis Rideout and Carrie Snyder

The annual compilation of the best fiction from Canada’s many literary journals and magazines is always something to look forward to. Although the selection is often variable, subject to the whims of a different set of selectors each year and fickle literary taste, there are usually a few stories that stand out above the crowd. This year was maybe not the best of years. I don’t know why. Many of the selections seemed filled with the same tropes, similar fascinations, almost as though they’d been written to the ‘Canadian literary journal’ formula. Maybe it is because nearly all of the writers have come out of MFA programmes, which might tend towards a certain conformity. Or maybe this just does reflect the state of writing in Canada over the past year (though I rather think it more likely that it reflects the state of journal editor decision making). Alas.

One of the stories that I found satisfying was Anna Ling Kaye’s “Red Egg and Ginger”. Set in Hong Kong, it is a story of family, divided loyalty, bi-racial love, and existential choice. I was heartened to learn that it eventually was selected as a runner-up for the Journey Prize. The prize-winning story, Deirdre Dore’s “The Wise Baby” was also fascinating though it didn’t grab me as much. I find it hard to take reference quotes from Heidegger seriously either in the original or when studded into a cake of fiction. But maybe that’s just me.

Even though I didn’t find much here to enjoy, I think it is worthwhile to continue reading the Journey Prize compilations. And there’s always next year.

nov. 9, 2015, 4:40pm

64. Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge

Ian Bostridge, one of greatest Lieder interpreters of our age, writes movingly of the subjects, themes, and historical context of Franz Schubert’s last great song cycle, Winterreise. Offering a chapter for each of the twenty-four songs of the cycle, Bostridge’s discourse ranges from performance issues (his own and other great performances in the history of the cycle) to subtle decisions that each singer and accompanist must make. He discusses Wilhelm Müller’s romantic poems against other romantic efforts of the era. He explores the repression of artistic and political aspirations in the fractured post-Napoleonic Germanic states. He teases out intriguing moments in Schubert’s life that might have led him to this last burst of song. And although he affects at times the jaundiced, superficial style of writers like David Shields or Adam Mars-Jones, he can’t help his natural enthusiasm for the songs, native optimism, and erudition (Bostridge holds a D.Phil. in history from the University of Oxford) from coming through. And we are all the better for it.

This is a beautiful book. Printed on heavy gloss paper with full colour reprints of paintings and historical documents, it presents itself as a labour of love. And perhaps reading it must be that as well. Despite Bostridge’s expressed hope that the book might bring newcomers to Schubert’s winter cycle, I think no one would pick up the book who was not already intimately familiar with Schubert’s work whether through Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s definitive recordings or through Bostridge’s own. But even those familiar with the work will find it difficult to recall each individual song as they read the chapter that relates to it. I found I wanted to put each song on repeat on the stereo as I read Bostridge’s musings or shared his careful research. As that might have been intolerable for others in the household, I made due with simply playing the cycle through numerous times.

If you already own one or more renditions of Winterreise, you are the perfect reader for this fascinating work. I recommend it heartily.

Editat: des. 1, 2015, 5:01am

65. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

There are so many impressive aspects in any Oyeyemi novel — form, subjects, character, dramatic scenes, etc. — that I’m at a loss for why they don’t work better. Here, an abused daughter in mid-20th century New York escapes to a town in Massachusetts where she begins a new life, falls in love with a man, and gives birth. Is it a fairy tale ending? No, it’s just the beginning of a completely different story about race, difference, passing as white, and motherhood. But then, just as that story is about to close we are treated to yet another substantive subject: sexual identity and transgender misidentification. It’s a bit much.

The writing is vivid. Oyeyemi has a knack for startling images. She writes first-person narratives, especially from the point of view of a pre-teen, with sensitivity and insight. All of which sounds great except that throughout the novel it is nearly impossible to know where or when the story is taking place. So, voice over place, subject over narrative. No wonder things seem muddled.

Oyeyemi is clearly a novelist with immense potential. I will continue to read her novels in hope that she pulls it all together at some point. And on that basis, I would gently recommend her to others. Still one to watch.

nov. 19, 2015, 6:16am

66. The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood

James Wood has an affinity for serious noticing, in literature and in life. In these essays he applies that talent to both as he reflects upon his life as a journeyman critic. For Wood, everything is available to the critic; his whole life can be brought to bear in his criticism. But the critic, or the best kind of critic, must become an active participant in the drama, reading through the work as a sort of performance, like a great actor or a pianist performing a score. It is an appealing notion even if it may not sustain intense scrutiny.

These essays began life as orations, lectures at Brandeis University and the British Museum. They both benefit and suffer from this. They are lyrical and often playful, an entertainment of sorts despite their sometimes academic subjects. But they lack substantive detail that might not have been easily graspable in the immediacy of the lecture hall. They are at their best when Wood works directly with the literatures that he thinks warrant serious noticing. They are weakest when he moves into theoretical realms, either critical, religious, or philosophical.

And they are charming when he draws details from his own life — the choir boy in Durham Cathedral, the sound of coal shuttling into the basement, the distinctive language of northern England, and the ‘homelooseness’ he experiences as an ex-pat now living in America. Wood is, as usual, a pleasure to read. His enthusiasm for certain writers like Penelope Fitzgerald or W.B. Sebald is infectious. It makes recommending this thin volume an easy thing to do.

nov. 21, 2015, 9:31am

67. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Tooly Zylberberg’s meandering through life has brought her to World’s End, a former pub now bookstore, in a small Welsh village near the English border. Of course no one ends up owning a bookstore by mere chance. Yet that is precisely what happened to Tooly as she spotted an ad for the quaint little shop in a literary magazine whilst travelling on the far side of the world. Now she walks the Welsh hills, takes a variety of evening classes, including ukulele lessons, and immerses herself in books. But for Tooly, her life has yet to catch up with her, and when it does, she’ll have to travel half way around the world again in order to reach the end.

Having set it’s own conditions, the novel then revisits moments in Tooly’s life in three decades. We see her with her father in Thailand as a little girl, in New York about a dozen years later insinuating herself into a group of NYU graduate students, and back in Wales. Gradually details emerge that reveal Tooly as having led an extraordinary life. And while it often borders on the tragic, Rachman’s is essentially a romantic view of people, places, and events. Tooly usually encounters good-hearted people and even the scoundrels have hearts of gold. It makes for a curious lack of tension over the course of a long novel, which is disguised by the interleaved periods of Tooly’s life and the drip-feed of information about what her real situation was and is. The effect is a certain detachment. Although the reader will feel attachment to the many sympathetic characters, it is hard to feel as though you really know any of them, including Tooly, despite Rachman’s desperate need to explain them all in the end.

The writing here is interspersed with wit and charm, as well a fair dose of quotation, allusion and reference, as befits a novel so tied to a life submerged in books. It is a pleasant read for anyone who also delights in the life of books, and on that basis can easily be gently recommended.

nov. 26, 2015, 8:10am

68. On The Edge: a novel by Edward St. Aubyn

Everyone, it seems, is seeking a better life, more bliss, greater authenticity, sexual fulfilment, and spiritual enrichment. Or at least all of the characters in On The Edge have these goals. Whatever their reasons or their circuitous paths, they all end up spending a week at the Californian new-age retreat, Esalen, pursuing workshops on rhythmic drumming, or silent mediation, or self-recreation, and culminating, for those couples with staying power, in a weekend of tantric sex. Will they find what they are looking for? And if they don’t, is there really no other option than taking the big leap off the edge? Or is this just a set-piece for Edward St. Aubyn’s comedic stylings, riffs on muddy spiritualism, and opportunities for extensive and extended use of similes?

Like a ‘70s mega-disaster movie, the cast of characters in this novel is immense and consequently tends toward stereotype and caricature. St. Aubyn somewhat awkwardly manoeuvres them to Esalen in separate chapters so that by the time we get everyone in place, we are well ready for the main feature to take off. But this isn’t going to be a French farce, which will be either a disappointment or blessing depending on your tastes. Rather, St. Aubyn’s deliciously acerbic wit confines itself to the observational, the satirical, and the deadpan. There are a number of British characters that provide the opening for weak insights into America, and a French philosopher is present toward the beginning of the novel to remind us of Baudrillard’s analysis of simulacra. But the apparent satire of new-age charlatans always verges on awe. Maybe it’s because St. Aubyn finds it difficult to not lend his native eloquence to such characters. Maybe it’s because he is essentially a romantic and wants to think well of his characters regardless of the nonsense they might be spewing. The effect is that the edge we are on does not seem as sharp or as cutting as it could easily have been.

The ending confirms the opening in that the meandering beginning spills overs into a meandering ending. Some characters have found a bit of bliss. Others are determined to change their lives. A few minor characters storm off in a huff. It’s a bit like a British romantic comedy or pudding — too sweet and yet insubstantial. St. Aubyn can, has, and will write better than this. You can leave this one on the shelf.

nov. 30, 2015, 8:09am

69. The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Alexi Zentner’s novel is bursting with ambition. 300 years of Kings on a small east coast island on the cusp between Canada and the USA (and claimed by both); a cache of paintings by the first of the Kings, Brumfitt, that it is said to depict both the history and the future of the Kings; an ancient bond with the sea and its cost in male heirs; territorial disputes between Loosewood Island and James Harbour; encroaching violence from meth runners; tempestuous storms; and a large cast of characters including the Kings family itself with three daughters and a patriarch. And overlaid, a reflected take on Shakespeare’s King Lear. It’s a lot for any author to deal with. Maybe too much.

There are sections of the novel that read beautifully. Zentner handles action scenes, whether of boats caught in storms or people storming at each other, especially well. And his minor characters all come across solidly. But his principals — Cordelia and her father, Woody — seem to be missing something. The first person voice of Cordelia is never really believable, in part because she sounds too much like her father, whom she adores. Woody, meanwhile, is so powerful both on the island and beyond as to be nearly a Prospero-like figure. Inevitably that dehumanizes him, whereas on the surface his personal story is the one that ought to garner all our sympathies. That is doesn’t, I suspect, is due to Zentner tasking himself with juggling too many balls at once. There is neither the time nor the breadth available (or taken) to develop our understanding of these characters, which forces a reliance on mythic tropes and sketched-in motivations. Ultimately the extremely violent climax (or possibly second climax) finds us drained of interest. So it plays out like the ending to an overlong movie. That’s too bad because this novel had immense potential and the writing shows an author on the verge of something truly amazing.

I’d gently recommend this book to those looking for an up and coming author. And I look forward to his next offering.

Editat: des. 2, 2015, 10:02am

70. His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

There is so much that is admirable about Elizabeth Hay’s writing: her deft treatment of voice flitting across multiple first-person perspectives; her mastery of mood; her women, both the put upon, and the larger than life; her love of the Canadian woods and the way it serves character and action; her longing to tackle large political themes through the personal lives of her characters; her small turns of phrase that can immobilize you with wonder.

Here Hay follows a nine year span in the life of young Jim Bobak. So not his whole life, certainly, but events and moments and realizations that will last his whole life. They are eventful years for Jim and for his put upon mother, Nancy, smothered by a failed marriage to an ineffectual but often cruel man (as opposed to the more effectual and violently cruel man who was her first husband). They are also important years for Nancy’s friend from her youth, Lulu, a flamboyant actress, fierce sibling, and lush. Summers at the cottage in Eastern Ontario where Nancy can connect with her Canadian roots. The rest of the time in New York City, home of Jim’s father. And always in the background (and sometimes oppressively in the foreground) the battle for Canada’s identity and its future as it played out during the months leading up to the 1995 Quebec referendum. Loyalties divide both in the near breakup of Jim’s family as much as in the near breakup of Canada.

It is a heady mix that feels intruded upon by the overtly political. Hay is at her best in the close tracing of the rueful thoughts of her characters as they struggle to make sense of their lives to that point and to make sense of what their lives might yet become. She is on less sure ground when she loads her characters with the political allegiances of the time. Writing that is typically so light it is almost ethereal suddenly feels clunky. A related worry is the heavy handed references to specific Alice Munro stories or Joni Mitchell songs. It’s as though Hay loses faith in her readers, or herself, and wants to insist that we catch her import. We would. We do.

Of course I recommend this novel. There are scenes here so perfect that they might as well be poems. If I have reservations, they are small and should not impede delighting in Hay’s writing when it is at its best.

Editat: des. 4, 2015, 1:52pm

71. My Ántonia by Willa Cather

Jim Burden narrates the story of his life growing up in Nebraska as an orphan boy living with his grandparents and especially of his encounters, from his moment of arrival there, with Ántonia, the daughter of a neighbouring family of newly arrived Bohemian immigrants. Jim’s Ántonia is ever the Ántonia of those early idyllic days when he was ten and she was fourteen, of wandering together across the prairie, facing hardships of weather and snakes, and growing ever in affection. Later they both live for a time in Black Hawk before he moves to Lincoln to begin his schooling in earnest. But even in Lincoln he learns of Ántonia through their mutual friend, Lena. Indeed, Ántonia becomes a touchstone for Jim, one that always takes him back to those halcyon days. Even when she is married and has numerous children, Jim’s overarching nostalgia always returns them to those early days when he might have safely called her my Ántonia. Late in life, Jim knows that his Ántonia will always be only a version of her, but nonetheless he treasures it and her and, through her, her children.

Cather sets up a frame narrative for Jim Burden to (un)burden himself of his particular relationship with Ántonia. And thus, although Ántonia might be said to be the subject of the novel, we often encounter her obliquely. Certainly we are closer to Jim, since this is first person narration, but Ántonia is ever the sympathetic focus. Indeed Jim periodically reveals unsociable flashes. But he always returns eventually to sociability and to fond remembrance of Ántonia. And in relating his story of her, he conveys a story of America itself, even if in keeping with the partiality of the title it might be better to think of it as Jim’s America.

A true classic that can be recommended unreservedly.


This was my first encounter with Willa Cather. A friend from a local book club urged me to read this and I’m glad she did. I will certainly pursue other Cather novels. One thing that struck me was how this story compares with Anne of Green Gables. They were written only ten years apart. Both involve orphans coming to live on a farm with much older guardians. I don’t want to push the comparison too far, especially as the latter novel only takes Anne to the age of sixteen. But there is, I think, a similarity in tone. Of course the biggest difference is that Cather’s novel have more mature subject matter Montgomery’s anticipates a young reader.

des. 7, 2015, 7:59am

72. Hunts in Dreams by Tom Drury

Charles (formerly ‘Tiny’) Darling now has a wife, Joan, a young son, Micah, and an older step-daughter, Lyris, who had been given up for adoption at birth by Joan, but has been returned to her as a teenager by an aggressive organization reconnecting those of the same blood. Despite his primary role as the antagonist of Drury’s first novel, The End of Vandalism, Charles here is the sympathetic glue holding together, mostly, this family. Over the course of one weekend each of the Darlings will lose themselves and find themselves, connect and disconnect, and generally, with a bit of good will, muddle through.

Drury returns to the oblique style of his previous novel with great success. Minor characters step onto the scene, impart puzzling wisdom or back stories, and then step aside. There are brilliant moments of comedy that are never over-egged. And the comedy never obscures the underlying tragedy of their condition or the redemptive power of just being decent to one another. Charles, it turns out, is a great dad. Joan, ever looking for signs, has been struggling with what surviving a tornado in the company of Dr. Palomino means. She is willing to go a long way to find out. Micah’s take on the world is as oddly skewed as his parents, and Lyris, who grew up mostly in a benevolent orphanage is probably the most stable and sane of the bunch. You will end up loving them all as much as Drury clearly does.

Highly recommended.

des. 9, 2015, 2:21pm

73. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

With a remarkably assured tone and gentle touch, Cather tells the story of the first Bishopric of New Mexico. Bishop Latour and his devoted vicar Father Vaillant travel southwest from Ohio to take up their new diocese. There travels and travails are many. They are threatened by murderers, sandstorms, snowstorms, and the arid desert. But they also find friendship and devout catholics in need of shepherding. These two men of very different temperament complement each other. Where the bishop is wise in the ways of men and the world, his companion knows the heart of the poor and the native inhabitants of these lands. Together they bring restoration to the church in this area and rebuild it on a solid edifice of hard work and faith. Their end, when it comes, as it does to all, is as a pleasant rain in mid-summer — as something earned if not overtly desired.

Cather’s style here is remarkable. In an after note drawn from a letter to the editor of The Commonweal, she notes that she had, “all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment.” And indeed she has managed just that. The episodic vignettes that make up the novel are none of them working toward some larger dramatic end. Rather they function as provocateurs of a particular mood, which might as well be called reverence. It feels both ancient and at the same time intensely modern. And it fully justifies her reputation.

Very highly recommended.

des. 12, 2015, 3:57pm

74. Pacific by Tom Drury

Once again Tom Drury leads us into the world of Charles “Tiny” Darling, his former wife, Joan, and their two children, Lyris and Micah. Joan is now living in California and Micah is heading out to live with her. Lyris has started her own life with Albert Robeshaw, but she is periodically mothered by Tiny’s first wife, Louise, who is now married to Dan Norman, the former sheriff. Their lives entwine and go their separate ways. Joy and sadness, infidelity and faithfulness mingle. Violence and disappointment sometimes erupt. And underneath is a swift current of myth or madness.

Drury has settled in to his style in this novel. He moves easily between his characters, unsurprised by the sometimes surprising things they say. If he is sometimes lost, he is no more lost than his characters, especially Micah and Tiny. And as ever, there is a general feeling that this just might be the way life really is, in spite of the almost palpable love that seems to surround everyone. Maybe it’s just the way Drury wishes life were.

Warmly recommended.

des. 14, 2015, 7:31pm

75. Debris by Kevin Hardcastle

A number of the stories in this collection I read in the journals in which they first appeared or when they were later honoured in The Journey Prize anthologies. Reading them again here, they are just as powerful. At his best Hardcastle writes crisp, clean, meaty prose with unsanitized violence and just a touch of sentiment. There are hard men here, some good, some bad, some broken. Hard men facing hard times, typically, and not always certain about what is required of them.

Perhaps my favourite is the first of the collection, “Old Man Marchuk”. Here is a story that just leaps out at you. It is tense and unrelenting and makes you fret for the RCMP officer and his pregnant wife who are the central figures of concern. I also really like “To Have to Wait” in which two sons travel a distance to collect their father from a mental institution where he has been undergoing treatment. But lots of other stories are worthy of special mention, including “The Rope,” “Montana Border,” and the title story, “Debris”. The latter features a very strong female lead in a murkily symbolic hinterland.

For a while now I’ve been ready to read any story by Kevin Hardcastle that comes along. I hope this collections brings more people to his excellent work and look forward to whatever comes next. Recommended.

des. 14, 2015, 7:36pm

Well, I made it to 75 this year.


I didn't quite get there last year, so I'm pleased that things worked out. But I'm even more pleased that so many of the books I read this year have been excellent. And there is still time for a couple more before the year ends.

des. 14, 2015, 8:06pm

Congratulations on reaching 75! I'm still far behind - too many other things going on lately. I always look forward to your reviews. I've looked for the Drury's but my library only has the last one - I guess I have to go to Amazon.

des. 14, 2015, 8:29pm

>123 catarina1: Thanks, Catarina! Drury's books are surprisingly hard to track down. I had to get my local independent bookstore to order The End of Vandalism for me because I couldn't even, at the time, get it on Amazon.

des. 14, 2015, 8:48pm

Congratulations on hitting the 75 book mark, Randy, and with a couple of weeks to spare, too!

des. 14, 2015, 9:46pm


des. 15, 2015, 8:07am

>125 ronincats: >126 drneutron: Thanks, Roni and Jim!

des. 16, 2015, 2:26pm

76. Philosophy of Song and Singing: An Introduction by Jeanette Bicknell

I won’t be offering a review of this book on its work page. I would have to declare an interest, since I’m a friend of the author and have known her so long that back in the mists of time I was her younger sister’s first piano teacher. However, just here in my thread I’d like to say that this is an excellent book. It is clear, concise, and concrete. With constant reference to actual musical practice across different genres, it lays out some of the ontological, aesthetic, ethical, and communicative aspects of song. It does what well-written, modest philosophy in the analytic tradition ought to do: it makes thing clearer. Although analytic aesthetics is a large field, song and singing rarely gets addressed. This book helps refocus attention on this subject and opens up the field to considerable further analysis and study (this being an introduction). I heartily recommend it for those engaged in teaching aesthetics, music theory and appreciation, some sociology, or simply for those keen on thinking more seriously about this curious practice in which almost all of us engage.

des. 23, 2015, 3:45pm

For my Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/Holiday image this year (we are so diverse!), I've chosen this photograph by local photographer Mark Lenoce of the pier at Pacific Beach to express my holiday wishes to you: Peace on Earth and Good Will toward All!

des. 23, 2015, 4:43pm

77. Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald

In mid-50s Florence, the Ridolfi family is both an historical sport of nature and precious stock that needs grafting to the deep roots of political consciousness that will herald the future. The count and his daughter are both of the world but also strangely absent. However, when the teenage Chiara falls head over heels for Dr Salvatore Rossi while standing in the rain during the intermission at a concert, she sets in train a sequence of events that will eventuate in romantic bliss or disaster. Meanwhile, Salvatore, who as a child met the dying marxist Antonio Gramsci, is as perplexed as he is smitten by both Chiara and her famous family. He is driven to distraction, which is not a comfortable state for a psychiatrist. How can he go on? How can he not? It is, as ever, the unanswerable question.

Fitzgerald’s prose here is both delicate, almost fastidious, and gaudy. The humour, when it arrives (and it comes often and in droves) is beyond farcical. Yet there is such a sweetness about Chiara, the disturbed Salvatore, and Chiara’s blundering English friend, Barney, that you can’t help falling in love with all of them. The fact that the novel doesn’t really go anywhere makes it hardly any different than life itself. And Fitzgerald clearly sees both the muddle and the majesty of life.

The wandering style and the Italian families might be confusing at first, but this is a novel with as much evidence of Penelope Fitzgerald’s mastery as any in her oeuvre. Recommended, as ever.

des. 23, 2015, 4:44pm

>129 ronincats: Thanks so much, Roni! And all the very best to you both now and in the year ahead.

des. 24, 2015, 6:10pm

78. Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks

On rereading Sense and Sensibility slowly and with immense pleasure, as befits this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am awestruck by Austen’s maturity and delicacy in this her first published novel. The opening two chapters which set the scene with the death of Henry Dashwood and then set the plot ticking with the magnanimous ungenerosity of the sole heir, John Dashwood, toward his step-mother and his three step-sisters are so finely polished that you might imagine Austen writing and rewriting them for years on end. Indeed, much of the first volume is near this level of concentrated effort. The second volume, less so, and the third more sprawling still. But by then the reader hardly notices being so caught up in the all too real lives of Elinor and her sister, Marianne. And the horridness of John Dashwood and his wife is equalled, or possibly surpassed, by the self-serving self-love of the faithless Willoughby.

Apart from the mixed characters of Elinor and Marianne, who partake of both sense and sensibility in different measures, the reader is struck by how generous Austen is with the less than perfect men, Edward and Colonel Brandon. These are specimens not on a par with Mr. Knightley from Emma, though clearly gentlemen. They are sad men, stunted in some ways. And it isn’t until their happiness is realized at the end of the novel that the possibility of their being more than they seem can even be considered. Or take a character like Mrs Jennings, who is comic in many respects yet in Austen’s hands becomes the very essence of generosity, kindness, and fellow feeling. These are characters who are determined to think well of and do well by others. If only the same could be said of all of us.

The lengthy opening essay in this edition by Patricia Meyer Spacks is wonderful. After an entire career teaching and writing on Austen and related authors, Meyer Spacks still writes with verve and economy and real interest. Proof, if any could be given, that Austen’s novels have enduring charm and bear repeated readings. By all means, if you are planning to reread Sense and Sensibility, do consider this lovely edition.

des. 24, 2015, 9:23pm

Wishing you a happy holiday and a year filled with wonderful books.

des. 29, 2015, 8:59am

As I don’t think I will finish any more books this year, I will post my top picks from 2015 now.

Five best reads of 2015

Munich Airport by Greg Baxter - a father and son, having passed through passport control at Munich airport, wait in liminal space for heavy weather to lift while transporting their dead daughter/sister back to the USA for burial.
Peace by Richard Bausch - existential doubt precipitated by a life and death struggle as three soldiers are tasked with a reconnaissance mission up a mountain during the Italian campaign in 1944.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante - the concluding novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series is every bit as riveting as those that preceded.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather - idyllic frontier days on the American prairie punctuated by hardship and violence, constant striving for betterment and remembrance of friendship.
Old Filth by Jane Gardam - the hard knocks of a long life of duty and effort delicately etched with affection and love and the longing for a lost childhood.

I read so many excellent books this year that I could easily have doubled or tripled this ‘best of’ list.

My thanks to all those who visited my thread this year whether they added comments or silently lurked. I’m already looking forward to some excellent reads in the year ahead.

des. 30, 2015, 2:49pm

I was mistaken about not finishing any more books in 2015. I've completed two more today, both of them excellent!

des. 30, 2015, 2:56pm

79. The Professor's House by Willa Cather

Godfrey St. Peter, by all accounts, is doing well. He is a professor of history with a distinguished publishing record, a beautiful wife, two married daughters one of whom has become surprisingly wealthy, and over the years he has had a few pleasant colleagues, a handful of good students, and one very important, even transformative, relationship with a student, protege, and later fiance to his oldest daughter. Unfortunately, Tom Outland then went off to do what he could in the First World War and died there, leaving all his worldly possessions, including a patent on a gas that would become very lucrative, to St. Peter’s daughter. At the opening of the novel, Godfrey and his wife are in the process of moving into a new house that he has built with money his multi-volume historical work on Spanish adventurers has won. But Godfrey is uncomfortable in his new house and wants to keep his pokey study in the old house that they rented. The truth is that Godfrey is uncomfortable in his own skin, and like his former protege, he would like to shed it.

The novel follows Godfrey over the course of a year with one extended intermission telling the story of Tom prior to his arrival in the university town of Hamilton. It is utterly fascinating. Characters step forward and recede without a later nod. St. Peter’s daughters and their spouses reveal admirable and not so admirable facets of character but without apparent purpose. Indeed, all are merely window dressing for the existential crisis that Godfrey is about to undergo.

I’m astounded by the surety of Cather’s writing and the fact that every novel of hers that I read seems to be a new departure. As is the case with all challenging novelists who challenge themselves. Well worth reading, pondering, and then reading again.

des. 30, 2015, 3:00pm

80. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor by John Berger

John Berger’s study of a country doctor named Sassell is as thought-provoking as it is ground-breaking (still). Accompanied by numerous poignant photographs from Jean Mohr, Berger’s essay considers what it is to be a country doctor and in particular how Sassall became one, how it changed him, and how he changed it. With an almost clinical detachment, Berger reflects on Sassall’s accomplishments and import of his role. It is both philosophically and phenomenologically rigorous and yet full of light and empathy. Absolutely fascinating.

Of course Berger would not be Berger if his very process of documenting this doctor were not itself a subject of study and reflection. And as Berger struggles with the meaning of a biography that is not of or about some famous political or military figure, we are led to wonder about wider issues, both social and political. Highly recommended.