Tag Archives: Canada

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed


This book is published by Penguin/Knopf Canada in The Hogarth Shakespeare collection. It is a creative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I am not a huge fan of Shakespeare: the language usually stumps me and the plays I have seen were difficult to follow (and if held outdoors, we got eaten alive by mosquitoes).

Atwood offers a version of the story of revenge where the former creative director of a theater festival seeks revenge on the men that terminated his position. The occasion for revenge takes many years to show up and our mad man (mad in many sense of the word) lives in seclusion until he sees an opportunity to teach in a literacy program for inmates at the local prison. Coincidentally, after a few years of being involved with the program, the two men aforementioned are now government ministers and are scheduled to visit the penitentiary at the time where a literacy session ends and the inmates will be ready to perform the play they have been working on. The teacher gains the collaboration to stage a bit of interactive theater to scare the ministers into continuing funding for the literacy program as well as getting the teacher his former position back.

What I didn’t like in the book:

  • Too many coincidences! A coincidence may be a useful device to move action along, but there are many, many coincidences in this book.
  • Some parts are a bit too long and I was losing interest.
  • The ending is very unrealistic, with the mad man being reinstated in his former position with the theater festival. Too many assumptions here: the position still exists after many years, there wasn’t an incumbent (or one was easy to kick out – see my speculations on what could happen next with this), the mad man was still the right person for the job.
  • The teacher smuggles things into the jail way to easily.

What I liked in the book:

  • The dialogues are very good and very entertaining.
  • I am glad that I stuck through the parts I thought were too long. In the end, it was a rewarding read and I think I have a better understanding of the play.
  • There was quite a bit of humor, especially in the interactions with the inmates.
  • Showing the inmates are men with existing skills and the ability to develop new skills even though it was not always easy humanized those characters.
  • The book ends with a synopsis of the play, which helps to put a lot of the information in the book into context.

One of the exercises that the teacher asks his inmates-students to do at the end of the course is to come up with a story about what happens with a specific character after the end of the play. So I will do that with the character of the teacher in the book.

First option: In order to give the teacher his old job back, the current director had to be reassigned to another position. While he agreed to go along, he nevertheless carries a grudge and spends years waiting for an opportunity for revenge. And on it goes…

Second option: In the short term, the teacher gets what he wants, and all seems to go well for a while. He is getting on in age and is starting to have some short term memory loss. As dementia sets in, he starts having both nightmares and hallucinations in which the vengeful actions he took against the two ministers turn against him. So, similarly to option 1, he becomes himself the victim of revenge even though it is only happening in his own head… One day, in the middle of a very powerful hallucination, he runs across the street is struck by a van. The end.

I suppose there could be many other ways to continue the story. What do you think?


Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. Knopf Canada, 2016.

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Jared Young, Into the Current


I bought this book because the author’s mother is a friend of mine and so I had committed to reading it no matter what… And I was afraid I would not like the book! I found myself completely drawn into the book. The writing is very engaging, especially when the narrator is showing the main character’s thought process, his hesitations, repetitions, and what he tells himself when he is willing his body to do something that seems quite impossible in the real world. But the book is not quite set in the real world, but in the strange, at once suspended and stretched time, in between the moment at which the airplane blows up and the time at which the main character dies.

And this time is enough to tell the story of his life, his desires and yearnings, as well as his regrets. And he needs this time to resign himself, or better yet, to fully embrace, going into the void that follows the end of sentient life.

Who is this main character? He is a young man named Daniel Solomon, 23 years old, from Saskatchewan. At the beginning of the book, he is departing from Bangkok because his visa was not renewed and he is being expelled. The book tells the story of how he got there, and because this entails telling his whole life story, this could be considered a bildungsroman. We follow Daniel’s development, the origin of his interests and the building of his character through a number of experiences, most of which seem to consist of conflict-ridden relations with other boys and troubled relationships with young women.

The novel starts this way, at Chapter 0, a sort of prologue:

Hello, my love.

I suppose I really ought to explain.

So the narrator, first person, the person of Daniel Solomon, is telling this story to “his love”. And who might that be? This love is never given a name and as we go on with the story, we keep wondering to whom he is telling this tale, sometimes run-of-the-mill details of a teenager’s life, sometimes preposterous, where all the people he encounters do not seem to be this “love” that he keeps addressing throughout the book. Of course, we eventually do find out but it takes a while, and I won’t tell you who it is because that would spoil the fun.

Neither will I tell you about the ending… I thought for a long time that he would wake up from a dream… but no…

One thing I really liked about the presentation of the book are the little glyphs that appear at the beginning of each section that indicate whether the story is moving forward, flashing back, doing a rewind/retell, and so on. It helps the reading figuring out where the narrator is going with great economy of words.


Young, Jared. Into The Current. Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, NB, 2016.

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Book review: Jared Young’s Into the Current chronicles a young mans plummet to earth as his life flashes before his eyes


Brad Pattison, Unleashed: A Dog’s-Eye View of Life With Humans


After such a long hiatus publishing on this blog, the first post will not be about literature, no, no, no. I am reviewing a book about dogs I read recently. Dogs has been my obsession of the past few months. Somehow, I become obsessed with the idea of having a dog, so I began reading about dogs. I also offered to dog sit a friend’s goldendoodle for three weeks in the month of August. The reading about dogs was quite enlightening, especially combined with the experience of having one around the house (my four-legged shadow!).

Brad Pattison, the author, is a dog trainer and was at one time a dog-daycare operator. He developed a peculiar approach to training dogs that does not rely on treats and aims at having the dog be totally responsive to his or her master when off-leash, hence the title. His approach is based on ensuring that the dog’s psychological and social needs as a pack animal be met.

The most important thing is that the master must be considered the pack leader by the dog (yes, even of your pack of two!). Many dog behavior problems come from dogs not be sure who the pack leader is, which leads to confusion, anxiety, a lack of sense of safety.

Pattison’s method of dog training starts with what he calls “alpha umbilical training” or umbilical for short. Here is what he says about it:

I use the word umbilical because during training, your dog will be on a leash attached to your waist. And when you’ve finished the training, your dog will be so tuned into you and primed to follow your directions that it will be as if you’re joined to each other by an umbilical cord. Alpha umbilical training should happen during the first two weeks, and it should be combined with my no talking rule, which strengthens your ability to bond in your dog’s primary language: movement.

He then proceeds to explain in detail how to set up an umbilical session, and the rules to follow during the session. This book contains very practical information on how to implement elements of the approach. While I have not tested the approach, the principles and their application looked really straightforward. Each chapter ends with important points reiterated in a bulleted list.

The book is very readable with many anecdotes illustrating the approach that the author proposes. He tries to debunk some myths, explains why he disagrees with some approaches used by other trainers and explains the negative consequences of many behaviors of dog owners (such as baby-talking to dogs, carrying them, letting them sit on couches and sleep in their bed, etc.).

So overall, a very interesting book that I look forward to comparing with the other dog book on my pile: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know by Andrea Horowitz, a professor of animal behavior.

So the dog sitting was a lot of fun, little Mia was great to have around and the experience was a great reality check for whether I can live with a dog. And I think I can. However, the hubby strongly believes that we should wait until at least one of us retires before we get one, so that we don’t leave poor Fur-Ball alone in the house all day. He does have a point… but I still want a dog! It’s a long way to retirement.


Pattison, Brad. Unleashed: A Dog’s-Eye View of Life with Humans. Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2010.

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Ann-Marie MacDonald, Adult Onset


Ann-Marie MacDonald is on my short list of “must read” Canadian authors and I was really happy to see another novel by her. Mary Rose MacKinnon and her partner, Hilary, have a young son and a toddler named Maggie. Mary Rose used to write children’s books and put her career on hold to care for the children, while Hilary pursues hers in theater. The story is told from Mary Rose’s point of view and involves the exploration of her relationship with her partner, her relationship with her parents (Canadian military father and a mother of Lebanese origin) who do not accept her homosexuality when she comes out to them, her ethnic and sexual identity, her insecurities as a mother.

She is also plagued by phobias and panic attacks, strange childhood memories, and wearing the same name as her stillborn baby sister, usually referred to as “other Mary Rose”.  My mother had two sisters with the same first name, but they were both alive. Weird but in a different way.

And Mister (aka Mary Rose, “MR”) also carries shame, and insecurity and a blooming kind of anger that can surface at the oddest times. She is afraid that one day she will hurt the children.

She never knows when it might strike. The rage.  And when it does, she loses her grip on herself—literally. At times, she could swear she sees another self—shiny black phantom, faceless, as though clad in a bodysuit—leaping out of her, pulling the rest of her in its wake. Over the edge.

If someone had injected her with a potion labelled Mr. Hyde, it would make sense, for the rage always feels like it comes out of nowhere. It is only afterwards that she recognizes that whole sections of her brain have been shut down, whole circuit boards. For example, she loses language. Gone. It is akin to what used to happen to her in the bad old days when a strip of the world would cease to exist in her visual field, just as though it had never been. Or, equally disconcerting, when a giant yellow orb would appear right in front of her, blocking her view—it was like trying to see around a big yellow sun. “Incomplete classic migraine,” said the ophtalmologist. “Panic attack,” said Dr. Judy, and asked if she would like to “see someone.” But Mary Rose knew they were really evil spells—she needed a sorcerer, not a shrink.

Those times are like dreams or the pain of surgery however—they get filed separately. She has undone many evil spells since becoming a mother—even so, there is still a spinning wheel somewhere in the kingdom and she never knows when she might prick her finger…

There is nothing wrong with her life. She has a loving partner and two healthy, beautiful children. She has put money into education funds, she has put photos into albums. She can make pancakes without a recipe, she knows where the IKEA Allen key is, and has memorized the international laundry symbols—she has not Polaroided her shoes, she has her inner Martha Stewart in check.  That is a slippery slope; you start making your own ricotta, next thing you know you’re in jail.

So Mary Rose is striving to understand what drives her as well as to make sense of her life. Her coping strategies might be a little strange and she does have obsessions such as her forever sore arm and her mother’s battles with postpartum depression.

The beauty of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s writing is how it brings to life the details of the everyday lives of her characters. She also describes very well the complexity of the negotiations of multiple identities that people take on in the contemporary world.


MacDonald, Ann-Marie. Adult Onset. Vintage Canada, 2015. [2014]

Steve Stanton, Freenet


Once in a while, I like to dive back into a good science-fiction novel. Sci-fi used to be a staple of my reading diet back in high school where anything as far away as possible from the mundane, restricted world I lived in (home, school, the suburban town I lived in). Over time, other genres have displaced sci-fi but I will still gladly pick one up once in a while.

In Freenet, human beings from Earth have travelled to different parts of the universe and have set up colonies connected to each other through wormhole portals. In a remote corner of the universe, a young woman, Simara, seeks to escape from a lecherous stepfather by boarding a space capsule that she crashes on a desert planet called Bali.

Much of what follows is the classic stuff from space travel fiction: encounter with locals, learning about lifestyles and culture, dealing with misunderstandings, exploring the technological possibilities of escaping from an unwanted situation. For Simara and Zen, who rescued her from the crash, this also results in romantic entanglement.

A complication occurs when Simara is accused of murdering her stepfather. She is arrested and put on board a space ship travelling to another planet where she will be judged. Zen finds a way to follow her on this journey and is instrumental in proving her innocence.

Another complication more seriously affect their relationship: Simara is an omnidroid, a human with brain implants who is in constant interaction with an information network, with an incredible capacity for information processing. The omnidroids, a very small group of “freaks”, are under attack…

What distinguishes this book is the author’s tongue-in-cheek approach. It starts with the name of the desert planet, Bali… and it continues with descriptions of locations and scenes which make the novel nearly a satirical version of sci-fi/speculative fiction. However, this does not detract from the tension building as difficulties pile up for Simara and Zen, and I was captivated right until the end.

This book will be published April 12, 2016. Thanks to ECW Press and NetGalley for access to a review copy.



Stanton, Steve. Freenet. ECW Press, Toronto, ON, 2016.

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Anakana Schofield, Martin John


Anakana Schofield tells the pitiful story of strange Martin John, a slow-witted, obsessive compulsive hoarder who likes to touch girls (maybe he’s slightly psychotic as well). His mother sends him away from Ireland after an incident with a girl. He now lives in South London and works as a security guard on the night shift. He lives according to a rigid routine which includes visiting his aunt on Wednesdays.

Martin’s world includes religiously reading the newspaper, but avoiding P or p words, doing circuits around the train station, and avoiding Baldy Conscience. Baldy Conscience seems to be his upstairs neighbour, mostly likely a bald guy, but at some point I really wasn’t sure that he wasn’t a figment of his imagination.

The genius of Anakana Schofield’s writing is to give us a fascinating picture of Martin John’s twisted, fragmented thinking, showing his confusing world populated by hostile figures.

His best weapon for observing Meddlers is the puddle. He can stand by a puddle and wait for them to pass. He can stand in their way. Just. Like. That. Stop! Stop hard and abrupt in the middle of the pavement. Sometimes people bump into him. He likes that. They apologize. The Meddler will claim not to have seen him. They call him mate. Instead of bait. He is bait. Baited to them. But subtracted now because of a puddle. A puddle is the most successful way to separate from a Meddler

All Meddlers and the noticeable increase in Meddlers can be traced to the arrival of Baldy Conscience. There have always been Meddlers but never ever at this volume. It was Baldy Conscience who brought the maximum Meddlers out.

If you think that does not quite make sense because you are lacking context, that is not quite it… Martin John does not quite make sense. He has a odd perception of the world, he is incapable of developing and maintaining normal relationships, he enters into very odd behaviors and derives pleasure from pain. He thinks that he can be protected from his fears and from certain troublesome people by performing repetitive acts, such as doing circuits around the waiting area of a train station. When he was a child he used to drive his mother crazy by doing endless loops around lamp posts.

There is some suggestion that some of his psychological issues may have their origin in being mistreated as a child but that is never spelt out and Martin John never seems to blame this himself, nor to have a damaged relationship with his mother, although their relationship is a little odd.

And though his mother seems to have made a lot of efforts to keep him outside of institutions, living in the community, by providing some means, and making rules for him to follow, it may be that in the end, an institution is the only place where Martin John can be supervised and taken care of, for his own good. Right?

I read this book as an e-book. I understand from some comments I read some place that the text display in the paper version is also peculiar.


Schofield, Anakana. Martin John. Biblioasis, Windsor, ON, 2015.

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Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal


The first book by Yann Martel that I read was Life of Pi and I loved it. It did not, however, spur me to immediately look into the rest of his work, until I saw The High Mountains of Portugal. I found in this latest work, the same quirkiness and unusual look at the world that so much charmed me in Life of Pi, as well as the lively descriptions and the plot line that slowly builds to take you somewhere completely unexpected. Martel is unencumbered by any attachment to realism (with some surprising results).

Some of the descriptions are really quite flavourful such as the one of the wife of a pathologist who is one of the main characters.

When he met her for the first time — it was in the cafeteria of the university — she was the most alluring creature he’d ever seen, a serious girl with a beauty that lit him up. At the sight of her, song filled his ears and the world glowed with colour. His heart thumped with gratitude. But quickly she rolled her eyes and told him to stop twittering. It became clear to him that his mission was to listen to her and respond appropriately and not to annoy her with oral frivolity. She was the rich earth and the sun and the rain; he was merely the farmer who got the crop going. He was an essential but bit player. Which was fine with him. He loved her then and he loves her now. She is everything to him. She is still the rich earth and the sun and the rain and he is still happy to be the farmer who gets the crop going.

The pathologist thinks of this as his wife shows up at his office late one evening when he is working. She wishes to talk about a point of theology, which she relates to the works of Agatha Christie. It turns out though that this is only taking place in the pathologist’s mind since he is a widower. This reminded me of Nina, the main character in the movie “Truly, Madly, Deeply” whose boyfriend Jamie returns to her has a ghost to give her advice, to comfort her, to speak with her.

This novel is built from three inter-related tales spanning a century and all three of them take place in part in the high mountains of Portugal and the village of Tuizelo.

One of the elements that link all three tales is the presence of a chimpanzee, that appears in different ways, for reasons that are not always limpid.

[Mr. Martel: Why the chimpanzee?]

A wooden one, a dead one, a very large, very much alive one.

My favorite part in the book is the third tale which features a Canadian senator of Portuguese origin, Peter, who bought a chimpanzee and moves with him to Tuizelo, the village of his birth, in the high mountains of Portugal. The daily interactions with the ape have a profound effect on Peter.

While Odo has mastered the simple human trick of making porridge, Peter had learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing. He’s learned to unshackle himself from the race of time and contemplate time itself. As far as he can tell, that’s what Odo spends most of his time doing: being in time, like one sits by a river, watching the water go by. It’s a lesson hard learned, just to sit there and be.

I had a chuckle reading this part as a realized why the chimp’s name of Odo sounded so familiar… It reminded me of a simple-minded servant called Hodor in Games of Thrones who was named this way because the only thing he could say was “Hodor”….

All three tales are essentially quests: quest for an object, quest for the answer to a question, quest for meaning, quest for the cause of an unfathomable emotion. In the end, there may be wonder or horror and not necessarily closure… But I was fascinated by the pursuit.



Martel, Yann. The High Mountains of Portugal. Spiegel and Grau, New York, NY, 2016.

Rachel Cusk, Outline


Outline by Rachel Cusk was one of the books shortlisted for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The story seems simple enough: a young woman from Great Britain travels to Greece to facilitate a writing workshop and she tells us about a number of people that she met during the trip. I have seen some comments that the book somewhat lack in interest and seemed to be composed of a series of vignettes about the people that the narrator met. And at first sight, it does look like it. However, as I asked myself what the jury of a major literary prize saw in the book, I have come up with a different interpretation of the author’s intent, for what it’s worth.

Many books have a third person omniscient narrator who, like the proverbial fly on the wall, sees everything that is happening and can fully describe the events that compose the plot. More than the fly on the wall, this narrator can also sometimes share the characters thoughts and feelings that are not readily observable. This does not happen in real life… I cannot see the flash of anger in a family member’s eyes, although I may conclude they are angry from some other gesture of facial expression. What Rachel Cusk does is tell us a story in a very realistic way from one single point of view. Since the narrator is not a witness that the marital problems that the man she encounters on the plane went through, all she can do is tell about what the man shared with her. The result has a certain flatness, but the result provides a certain kind of realism that is very close the usual experience of not having input from simultaneous multiple points of view. And Rachel Cusk does this in an unwavering way throughout the book, which I think is actually quite a tour de force.


Cusk, Rachel. Outline. Harper Collins, Toronto, 2014.

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André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs


Hermes and Apollo are having some beers in Toronto. As they leave the bar, they make a bet: Any animal with human intelligence would be more unhappy than humans. The wager: one year’s servitude. If only one creature is happy at the end of its life, Hermes wins. This is the premise of this short novel by André Alexis, the winning entry of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Of course the statement of that bet will lead to an argument about whether what was meant was being happy at the very moment of passing away…

Because they are close to a veterinary clinic as they are having this conversation, they decide to bestow “human intelligence” on the fifteen dogs that they find in the kennel that night.

All around the kennel, dogs woke from sleep, startled by strange dreams or suddenly aware of some indefinable change in their environment. Those who had not been sleeping – it is always difficult to sleep away from home – got up and moved to the doors of their cells to see who had entered, so human did this silence feel. At first, each of them assumed that his or her newfound vision was unique. Only gradually did it become clear that all of them shared the strange world they were now living in.

One of the dogs figures out how to unlock his cage. Others dogs do the same or are helped out of their cages. Twelve of the dogs decide to escape and leave the premises as a group.

The dogs develop different a way of communicating, with a more elaborate language that is theirs only. Humans cannot understand it, nor can other dogs. One dog even composes poetry.

Humaneness messes up with their canine nature and disturbs the normal negotiation of dominance between dogs. A lack of tolerance for difference leads some of the dogs to murder the ones by whom they feel threatened.

One dog leaves to escape the violence and finds a human family. He learns to communicate with the female master. This will lead to tragic consequences.

At some point, Zeus is upset about the gods’ interference with life on Earth and asks them to stop it, which may be as effective as asking children to stop wanting candy.

I thought this book made a quite imaginative use of animal characters. It is also quite humorous, with funny descriptions of mischievous Greek gods having beers in Toronto pubs.

As I was reading this book I was asking myself what if this story had been written about 15 cats, or 15 horses, or 15 rabbits (oh, wait, it’s 150 already)? In fact, the gods of the story do raise this question…

– It would have been different if we’d given cats this so-called intelligence, said Apollo.

– It would have been exactly the same, said Hermes. What we should have done was give a human the intelligence and capacities of a dog.

– I’m tired of this business, answered Apollo. Let’s talk about something else.

And what if all coincidences we see in life, all accidents, all unintended consequences where just the results of some random bets by the gods?



Alexis, André. Fifteen Dogs. Coach House Books, Toronto, 2015.

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Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last


I have already said I was disappointed by the book, although it was not a bad read and I had a few giggles at the more ludicrous scenes. So what did I not like? The social setting was lacking some of the complexity of some other Atwood novels, the characters were for the most part quite unidimensional, and the writing was less crafted as I would have expected. I was asking myself if I would have the same reaction to the book if I had not seen the author’s name. Honestly, I think I would have found it a little simplistic.

The book starts with Stan and Charmaine living in their car because they are down on their luck, in a world where many have lost jobs and homes, and the world has become a much more dangerously place to live. It is a little like the cutthroat environment in Station Eleven, where even the sweetest person can have three tattoos of daggers on their arm, indicating they have killed three times. Or else, we are back in the pleblands of Oryx and Crake.

As they are both wondering how long they can last in that environment, Stan having no job and Charmaine waitressing in her dirty clothes for very little money. They are then offered an opportunity to move into a closed community where they can have a house, a job, an income, security. The downside? They can never leave (Hotel California, anyone?) and they have to enter the jail facility for a month on alternating months. So they have a job on the outside on alternating month, and then, they have another job while they are in jail.

The first question that comes to mind is why the alternating assignments? Wouldn’t it just work if people lived in their homes full time instead of having alternating occupants move in and out of jail on switchover days? What I have concluded is that some of the jobs that people are assigned to do while in jail are somewhat morally objectionable and one could hardly rely on “free” individual to choose to do them. Hence the contrivance of jail time to induce people to do this work.

As the whole business model of the closed community comes under scrutiny, some people from inside devise a scheme to smuggle out information to expose the questionable practices of the organization and the corruption of its leaders. This involves smuggling Stan out while passing as an Elvis look-alike sexbot and Charmaine flying out to a meeting with her boss who is the CEO of the corporation and who expects her to become his sex slave.

The attempt to expose the crooked business seems to work and Charmaine and Stan are reunited in the end. Whether it will be happily ever after depends on how each of them chooses to perceive their past experience and their current choices… And there is certainly more than one way to look at things.

Many other reviewers have found this book disappointing. I cannot recommend it, especially not to someone who is not already an Atwood fan.


Atwood, Margaret. The Heart Goes Last. McClelland & Steward, 2015.

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