Category Archives: Book Reviews

Poem of the Week: Voyage by Tony Hoagland via Poetry Mistress Alison

Voyage, by Tony Hoagland

I feel as if we opened a book about great ocean voyages
and found ourselves on a great ocean voyage:
sailing through December, around the horn of Christmas
and into the January Sea, and sailing on and on

in a novel without a moral but one in which
all the characters who died in the middle chapters
make the sunsets near the book’s end more beautiful.

And someone is spreading a map upon a table,
and someone is hanging a lantern from the stern,
and someone else says, “I’m only sorry
that I forgot my blue parka; It’s turning cold.”

Sunset like a burning wagon train
Sunrise like a dish of cantaloupe
Clouds like two armies clashing in the sky;
Icebergs and tropical storms,
That’s the kind of thing that happens on our ocean voyage —

And in one of the chapters I was blinded by love
And in another, anger made us sick like swallowed glass
& I lay in my bunk and slept for so long,
I forgot about the ocean,
Which all the time was going by, right there, outside my cabin window.

And the sides of the ship were green as money,
and the water made a sound like memory when we sailed.

Then it was summer. Under the constellation of the swan,
under the constellation of the horse.

At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
by pushing into it —
The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.

For more information about Tony Hoagland, please read his obituary.

Thanks to Alison McGhee for sharing these beautiful poems. WebsiteBlogFacebook page@alisonmcghee

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Books: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a treasure of a read. I grew up in Ontario but have lived most of my adult life in British Columbia. We were never taught indigenous, First Nation or Inuit history in lower and high school and although I went on to study history, I focused on Middle Eastern and American studies. Today, of course, I am much more aware of the sad history of my country and its first people and the more I learn the more horrified I am at the continued injustices that permeate our governance structure.

The Round House is a coming of age story that is told from the perspective of 13 year Joe Coutts, who grows up on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Set in 1988, the novel offers a glimpse of a young boy on the cusp of manhood, who over the course of a few months, avenges the horrifying rape of his mother. The tragedy drives the action in the novel but in many ways is a backdrop to the delightful cast of characters who live on the reserve with Joe including his close circle of friends Cappy, Zack and Angus. Joe’s father, Bazil is a judge and after the assault begins to share details of other criminal cases with his son. Joe and his friends become embroiled in solving the crime and in so doing, come to an understanding that the complex legal system and land issues could let the perpetrator go free.

While the story is dark, it is a beautiful evocation of the  complexities that have resulted from stealing indigenous land and creating reserves. It’s a coming of age story that is oddly funny, incredibly tragic with writing that captures the beauty of people at one with the natural world and the characters that fuel generational mythology. So happy I found this book and want to thank my book fairy Cynthia for pressing this into my hands and saying “Read it. Read it.”

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Poem of the Week: by Margaret Hasse via Alison McGhee

High School Boyfriend, by Margaret Hasse

You are hometown.
You are all my favorite places
the last summer I grew up.
Every once in a while
I write you
in my head
to ask how Vietnam
and a big name college
came between us.
We tried to stay in touch
through the long distance,
the hum and fleck of phone calls.

It was inevitable
that I should return
to the small prairie town
and find you
pumping gas, driving a truck, measuring lumber,
and we’d exchange
weather talk,
never able to break through words
and time to say simply:
“Are you as happy
as I wanted you to be?”

And still I am stirred
by musky cigarette smoke
on a man’s brown suede jacket.
Never having admitted the tenderness
of your hands, I feel them now
through my skin.
Parking on breezy nights,
in cars, floating passageways,
we are tongue and tongue like warm cucumbers.
I would walk backwards
along far country roads
through late evenings cool as moving water,
heavy as red beer,
to climb into that August.

In the dark lovers’ lanes
you touched my face
and found me here.

For more information on Margaret Hasse, please click here.

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Books: We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver freaked me out from beginning to end. Every word, sentence, and page draws you into the head of Eva Katchadourian as she writes to her estranged husband about the story of their family and their son who goes on a murderous rampage.

Eva is a successful travel book publisher and entrepreneur, and her husband is an equally successful location scout. Pre-children they are the NYC couple you’re jealous of. They own a loft, she travels extensively to exotic locales, she runs her company and when she’s not doing that she and Franklin enjoy drunken soirees with their equally successful New York hipster friends. But the time arrives when the meaninglessness of their existence tugs at them and they decide to have a child.

Eva entertains motherhood reluctantly while Franklin turns into Daddy monster, a man who now only thinks about the needs of the baby. Eva from the beginning is diminished by her husband’s pivot to fatherhood and when Kevin is born she slides further into existential crisis when she fails to bond with her child.

Kevin, she believes, has it in for her, and as a child he poses a threat to her, her lifestyle and her marriage. His refusal to speak, until he delivers full and complete thoughts and sentences demonstrates to her the deviousness of his mind. He bides his time to agonize and frustrate his mother. At six she is still changing his diapers, awkwardly cleaning the poop of the too large boy who refuses to potty train….until one day he simply decides to do it. She thinks that all along he knows precisely what he needs to do but simply chooses not to in order to frustrate his reluctant and increasingly bitter mother. Kevin is smart and she knows it.

Meanwhile Franklin does everything he can to support and love the boy, driving a wedge between the once happy and in-love couple. Eva never loses the sense that Kevin is not what he seems, that he is one thing to his mother and another to his father. There is no one true Kevin. Kevin is a master manipulator incapable of being true to anything or anyone. And he is unkind,

By the time Kevin commits the ultimate horrifying crime you don’t know who to believe. Is Franklin right? Is Eva a monster who has nurtured her son’s cold animosity through her own dislike of the boy? And there’s Franklin who to me, never feels real or genuine. His “Hey Son let’s play” hits a false note every time. Does he counter his son’s oddness by overcompensating and creating his own version of Leave it to Beaver? And then there’s Eva….who’s distrust of her own child starts with her pregnancy and never abates. It’s hard to know who the real monster really is. Admittedly, I didn’t sleep much when I was reading this book. The question of who we really are and how monsters are created is at the heart of this book. I loved it and hated it at the same time. But I still think about the book and the fictitious Khatchadourian family, which makes it a provocative read.

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Books: Bill Browder, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

Bill Browder

The non-fiction I’m reading lately is proving to me that real life is weirder than fiction. The world really is a dangerous place!

Bill Browder, the author of Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, discovers that his days of being a lucrative investment broker in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union is about to come to an abrupt end when he’s forbidden re-entry into the country he calls his home.

Through Hermitage Capital Browder becomes a prominent shareholder in numerous Russian gas companies, but his trail of research brings him in direct conflict with corrupt bureaucrats, law enforcement and Putin himself. His offices are raided, he’s accused of tax evasion and ultimately his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, is brutally murdered by the Russian state and a warrant is issued for Browder’s arrest.

Of course I’ve condensed hundreds of pages of this crazy story into three paragraphs so I’m not even beginning to do this book justice. Ultimately Browder turns activist in defence of Sergei and his tireless advocacy results in the passing of the Magnisky Act by Barack Obama. The act authorizes the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders, freezing their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S.

If there is an interesting thing about this book it’s just how nuts the whole story is. Like really? This is how the world of international investment and finance works? I guess so. And Bill Browder, is at the centre of it from the beginning when he saw the opportunity the Russian market offered to investors like himself and his wealthy clients. There is no question, he’s a driven guy. He’s either making crazy amounts of money or avenging his friends death. This man is a risk taker no matter what he does and there is something heroic if not a little crazy about this story.

The other “elephant in the room” is Russia. Russia is just a bit creepy these days with it’s wanting to take over the world by destroying western democracies. What we see is just the tip of the iceberg. I would love to have dinner and few drinks with Rob Mueller (I know, he’d never talk but one can dream). According to Bill Browder, Russia is a thug state. And that’s probably something we should all be just a little worried about. I give this book a thumbs up!

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Books: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

The Guardian UK wrote a great review of this book so for a more fulsome analysis of this funny tale you can go here. I’m mostly here to tell you that if you’re in need of something light, funny and poignant to get you through the dark winter months then this might be the novel for you.

The novel is the story of Arthur Less, a soon-to-be fifty, recently single, almost failed middling novelist, who escapes heart break by accepting invitations for literary engagements around the world. During his travels he rediscovers himself and the real meaning of love.

Arthur is pitiful, there’s no question about it. But there is also something about him that is so well….flawed, and human.  Arthur has no illusions about himself  which is why I found myself cheering him on, and crossing my fingers that things might go his way. 

There are funny parts all along the way but the German chapter made me laugh out loud for the entire piece. So all in all, well worth the read!

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Cunard-liner-Lusitania-de-009

I was looking for something to read and I found this book on my night table. I’m not a big consumer of non-fiction unless it’s news so I wasn’t sure how I’d like this. The good thing is that I really liked it. Erik Larson weaves a tale of intrigue, filled with historic details and characters that come to life under his pen.

The historic details lend themselves to suspense. A luxury cruise liner leaves its New York harbour to sail for Liverpool in May 1915. The ship would sail through enemy territory where German U-boats were sinking enemy ships. In spite of the warnings by Germany that the seas around England were a war zone, the Lusitania sailed to Liverpool with barely a thought that it would be the object of a German attack. Little did they know that the rules of war were changing.

Larson gives a vivid snapshot of the wealthy passengers including theatre folks and book dealers, and established wealth on board the ship. You get to know the families, and why they’re there, how the children occupied themselves, and how many tried to survive the sinking of the ship.

Chapters alternate between the different elements of the story giving the reader a 360 degree view of the unfolding of events that culminated in the sinking of the ship.   The strength of the book lies in discovering  the characters behind the historic fact. The reader is introduced to the Captain of the U-boat, the characters who occupied the office that decoded German war messages, Winston Churchill makes an appearance as does Woodrow Wilson.

If there is a weakness in the book it’s in the portrait of Woodrow Wilson who appears as a grief-stricken love-lost bumbling idiot. The author definitely seems to have it in for him! Aside from that I found the book a compelling and great read.

My personal takeaways are:

  • that well-researched  non-fiction can be fabulous and all the more interesting because it happened.
  • In war people will  be pawns.
  • Details are important like knowing how to put your life jacket on properly. Many people lost their lives unnecessarily because of this.

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