Tag Archives: Giller Prize

Anakana Schofield, Martin John

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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.

Reference:

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

Other things:

https://pacifictranquility.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/getting-to-understand-the-situation-of-that-guy-review-of-martin-john-by-anakana-schofield-2015-biblioasis/

http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/finalists/2015shortlist/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/review-anakana-schofield-probes-the-mind-of-a-disturbed-man-in-her-brilliant-second-novel-martin-john/article26333164/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/05/martin-john-by-anakana-schofield-review

Rachel Cusk, Outline

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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.

Reference:

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

Other things:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/books/review/rachel-cusks-outline.html?_r=0

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/07/outline-review-rachel-cusk-daring-greek-chorus

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/05/told-2

Thursday Night Ramblings: The Giller Prize Shortlist and Other Things

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This has been quite a hectic return back from vacation, full of workshops, meetings and travel, and hardly any time to read… or breathe, for that matter. Flew back home last night and I am happy to be sitting at my home desk but somewhat lacking energy to write.

The Giller Prize short list was announced this week. You can see it here: http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/finalists/2015shortlist/.

I bought my Giller-related selections for 2015 out of the long list and none of the books I bought made the shortlist. So here is what I have to read:

Marina Endicott, Close to Hugh

Alex Hawley, All True Not a Lie in It

Patrick DeWitt, Undermajordomo Minor

I already had a copy of the original French version of Arvida by Samuel Archibald, and the English translation did make the Giller shortlist. I should get to these four books at some point in the next year. And I will mostly likely buy the Giller Prize winner when it is unveiled.

I had to give up reading a book this week, which I hardly ever do and I felt really bad about it. There were no particular reasons why I should not like this book. It was a family saga, set in a country of some interest to me, with quirky characters, and it explored the changing social and political context this family lived in. But I just couldn’t connect with any particular character, did not care about what happened to them and found myself just trying to turn the pages faster to get through the book. I read the first two chapters, the last one, tried for a random start in the middle of the book, but I finally had to give it up. It was The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergovic, written in 2003 and coming out in English translation with Yale University Press towards the end of October. I am sure this book will be of great interest to people with an interest in literature from Eastern Europe.

I am off to the Trois-Rivières International Poetry Festival for the next couple of days, and the weather forecast is decent if a little cool, but that should work out well with rushing around town from one venue to the other.

Sean Michaels, Us Conductors

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The Giller Prize-winning novel from 2014 tells the life story of Lev Termen, creator of the theremin, a Russian scientist and inventor that came to the United States on a pretty fuzzy mission that may have been part spying, part propaganda. The novel tells the story from the point of view of Termen, showing speculatively his thoughts on his life, his marriage to his first (Russian) wife, his marriage to his second (American) wife, his ambiguous relationship with his Russian handlers, and his infatuation with Clara Rockmore, a violinist who became a theremin virtuoso.

The book starts this way:

I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox — the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.

The tone, both playful and wistful, foreshadows the drama of the life of this young man, intense and creative, wishing for a better life filled with music and love, but finding himself the instrument of others’ designs.

After a time in the US, where his Russian handler/impresario Pash runs up an astonishing deft, Termen is asked to return to the Soviet Union, where he is alternately imprisoned and assigned to work in a scientific institute. He even spends some time in a labor camp, in Kolyma.

The novel describes in detail the scientific principles that the theremin is based on, its construction, and its playing techniques.

Raise the right hand first, toward the pitch antenna, and you will hear it: DZEEEEOOOoo, a shocked electric coo, steadying into a long hymn. Raise the left hand, toward the volume antenna, and you will quiet it.

Move your hands again, and the device will sing.

My theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. Its two antennas rise up froma closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your right hand gets, the higher the theremin’s tone. The farther away, the louder it becomes. But always you are standing with your hands in the air, like conductor. That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.

Towards the end of his life, Termen is working for the state, electronically spying on the American ambassador in Moscow. When trying to clean up tapes of conversations held within the embassy, he thinks he hears Clara’s voice. He would like to keep the tapes where he thinks he can hear her but they are taken from him.

I hear your voice speaking and I do not know what I am to do with it. Does it mean that we are touching? Does it mean that we are destined? There is no destiny. There is no touch. My unrequited love, speaking across the sky. You cannot see me hearing. This letter will not reach you. These words will not be read.

Still I hear your voice. It is what I have.

The book reads like an extended letter to Clara, trying to make sense of what they had (and did not have). Leon, living a life he did not choose, holds to memories of Clara to the end. Whether that reflects what he lived through we will never really know. That is what can be so beautiful about fictional recreation of someone’s life, speculating about emotions and intentions, beyond the mere known facts.

Reference

Michaels, Sean. Us Conductors. Random House Canada, 2014.

Other things

http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/227734/us-conductors#9780345813343

http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/finalists/2014-shortlist/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A9on_Theremin

http://www.moogmusic.com/products/etherwave-theremins/theremini

Sunday Ramblings: Do I need a focus?

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I have arrived at a point again where I am trying to read too many books at the same time. And it causes stress. Every time I sit down I wonder which one I should get into. I worry about reading rates and when I will manage to finish another book so I can blog about (as if anybody cares about that really). Several people read my blog but I am sure no one waits impatiently for the next post.

Whenever this happens, I have to give myself a good kick in the butt and remind myself why I read. Because (1) I love getting into a good story, (2) it’s a way to learn something, (3) it’s a great escape from my day-to-day work life, (4) it’s an exposure to another world, another mind, another way to use language. And in that context, there should be no concern about speed of execution; it should be all about enjoying those moments.

As displayed at the moment on the blog: I am reading Pérez-Reverte’s El tango de la guardia vieja, a good story with some mystery to it. It has what I could describe as a “X” shape construction. It tells a story about two people, a man and a woman, describing in parallel for a while the past life and present predicament of that man. It eventually dips into the past of the woman as well, after they meet again in the present time and start revisiting old times together. So you have the four segments of the “X”, man-woman-present-past, eventually meeting in the middle, where presumably all makes sense (I still have to get to that point) and we can progress to the future, if a (common) future is possible. Nothing is so certain… Both protagonists are rascals of a sort, one with money and one without (I will let you guess which is which), which obviously provides them with different resources and choices in life.

So I am about one third of the way through this fairy large novel, which I suspect is about a 15-hour read. I have also gotten about 20% into the 7-hour long Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, the 2014 winner of the Giller Prize. I have read some of the short list and at least one long listed book, so here we are with the winner. So far, I failed to be entranced by the book and its protagonist, a somewhat self-centered Russian scientist who invented the theremin, this electronic musical instrument that is used for the other-worldly Star Trek theme. This one is on my Kobo, so I have mostly been reading it in public transportation.

It’s been a slow start on Guillaume et Nathalie.

The event of the week is that the new book of poetry by Rafael Courtoisie (Parranda) that I ordered through the Libreria de las Americas in Montreal has finally arrived after a four-month wait. I had called for an update about 2 weeks ago and they told me it was arriving that week, but they did not call me back until Wednesday of this week to tell I would pick up. A big order to unpack perhaps? It is a tiny bookstore with a small staff and not very long opening hours. I dropped by yesterday to get my book, and bought a couple more since I was there (one has to encourage small niche businesses, right?).

Now, look as I may, I cannot find a publication date on Parranda. The front does say that is the winner of the 14th Premio Casa de América de Poesía Americana, but the copyright page does not explicitly say it was published in 2014, save for the legal deposit number including the number 2014. That is not the way it is usually done with other books, so I was puzzled.

So Parranda won a poetry prize for poets from the Americas which is handed out at the Case de América in Madrid. It is published in Spain by what seems to be a fairly small publisher and one whose books are difficult to order in Canada. Rafael Courtoisie is an Uruguayan writer who was recently named to the Academy of Letters of his country and has had so far an interesting career both a writer and teacher, and more to come I hope. I have had an interesting time exploring his work so far and I am in the process of formulating a study course on Uruguayan literature (which I hope will be a good preparation for a vacation in Uruguay in 2-3 years from now).

The other course of study I am pursuing is the short Coursera offering on Australian literature, a six-week exploration of Australian literature fundamentals with a professor from the University of Western Australia. So far pretty interesting, although I have already fallen being and am trying to catch up. The first week was about varying perceptions of land and space from current and early writers, as well as from aboriginal culture. The second week focuses on the original of Australia as a penal colony and how this theme as been used in literature. The main part of the course are the video lectures and little actual reading (short extracts only) which makes it a good introduction but certainly invites one to more in depth reading. In terms of workload, it is much less daunting than the 2 previous lit courses I did on Coursera which required reading a full-size novel each week (or the equivalent in smaller works).

So, my head is all over the place… Oh well, back to reading (and cooking and housework, as it is Sunday and there are other demands on my time as well).

And here we go for the humorous link:

Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory) playing the Star Trek theme on the theremin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YYABE0R3uA

Shani Mootoo, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab

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Mootoo’s novel is my pick from the Giller Prize long list that did not make it to the short list. It was quite on par with the two shortlisted novels I did read (see here and here) in terms of quality and likeability. So however those judges make their final decision, there must be a number of novels that could just have easily made it to the short list.

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab tells the story of Sid, a Trinidadian lesbian who emigrates to Canada so that she can have more freedom to be who she really wants to be as a person and as a painter. It is questionable whether she does achieve this goal. She moves in with a Canadian woman who has a little boy to whom she becomes a second mother. When they break up the mother refuses to let her see the boy anymore who does not know details of the breakup and feels like Sid abandoned him. The boy, Jonathan, later regains contact with Sid who has had a sex change procedure and now lives as a man called Sydney in her parents’ old house in Trinidad. He visits regularly over the next ten years and is present during Sydney’s dying days. Through Sydney’s obstinate storytelling and journals and letters he leaves him, Jonathan comes to understand Sydney’s journey as well as the most traumatic experience of his live, the murder of his best friend Zain.

This novel explores themes of gender identify, cultural identify, and the nature of friendship and family ties.

The novel makes extensive use of Sydney’s journals and correspondence, a common motif in literature. The first part of the book is called “From Sydney’s Notebooks”. It is mostly likely written towards the end of Sydney’s life, when he is trying to share some important information with Jonathan, but can feel that Jonathan is getting impatient with the pace and tenor of his storytelling. It starts this way:

Surely it is a failure of our human design that it takes not an hour, not a day, but much, much longer to relay what flashes through the mind with the speed of a hummingbird’s wing.

There is so little time left now, and what Jonathan want to know and I to say are not the same.

I was rather confused that as the book continues from Jonathan’s point of view, he talks about Sid and not Sydney. Of course, this all clears up in due course. Overall, this was a likable story, but not a big wow in terms of theme, treatment, or writing.

The Giller Prize winner was announced last Monday, and it was Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, who seemed genuinely surprised to win. It will be interesting to read this book, which has something to do with the theremin, that musical instrument that produces these otherworldly sounds in the Star Trek sound track.

Padma Viswanathan, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao

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Ashwin Rao is a psychotherapist based in India who has lived in Canada in the past. He has spent nearly 20 years building his career in India following a breakup with his Canadian girlfriend and has never married. He decides to write a book about how the family members of the June 1985 Air India crash off the coast of Ireland have coped with their losses. He calls this book The Art of Losing. He is doing this as the trial for the bombers gets under way in Vancouver. He travels to Canada to conduct interviews.

Ashwin himself lost his sister, nephew and adored niece in the crash. He constantly worried about his ability to retain sufficient objectivity as he researches the book.

On the subjects he wants to interview is a Statistics professor called Venkat who lives and work in the fictitious town of Lohikarma in interior BC. Venkat lost his wife Sita and his adult son Sundar. He is a difficult and unlikeable man but he can count of the support of his faithful friends Seth and Lakshmi to help him through tough time. Because of this, Ashwin also communicates with them.

Seth and Lakshmi and their daughters feature prominently in the book because of their closeness to Venkat’s family and their own history of dealing with the loss of Sita and Sundar who they loved very much. At the end, they are quite shocked by what they learn about the death of Sita and Sundar.

The themes that are explores through the telling of the story includes:

  • The impact of immigration and acculturation on Indian families
  • Endogamous vs exogamous marriage
  • The place of religion in life (Seth becomes the devotee of an Indian guru following the death of Sita and Sundar, in contrast to his wife’s more personal practice of meditation)
  • The roles and obligations of mothers
  • Altruism, generosity and selfishness
  • The various ways of grieving

This is my second book from the 2014 Giller Prize shortlist. It is well written and the plot is well constructed but there are some things that I did not appreciate. In particular, some parts that talk about Indian history or politics sound a bit too much like a lecture. And none of the characters are dlikeable; they all have flaws that make them somewhat unsavory. Maybe it is meant to highlight that no one is perfect, that we somehow all have to make do with the imperfect people we are surrounded with in this imperfect life.

References:

Viswanathan, Padma. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Random House, Toronto, 2014.

Other things:

http://wordfestblog.wordpress.com/tag/british-columbia/

http://www.vancouverdesi.com/lifestyle/air-india-tragedy-backdrop-to-b-c-born-authors-latest-novel/735986/

http://padmaviswanathan.com/

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

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In The Orenda, three narrators tell us the stories of love and revenge, of struggle and survival, of discovery and loss in the wilderness inhabited by the Huron and Iroquois, and in which the French and the Catholic Church try to gain allies and benefit from the riches of the land.

Bird is a Huron warrior whose family was killed by the Iroquois. He takes revenge by doing some killing of his own and kidnapping a young girl whom he makes his daughter.

This young girl, Snow Falls, has a strong rebellious streak, but eventually integrates into the Huron Village and and a father-daughter relationship does develop between her and Bird.

Father Christophe is a French priest who lives in the Huron Village for a while and does gain an understanding of his hosts. However, his strong Catholic faith provides a distorting lens that prevents full understanding.

As I became more and more familiar with each of these narrators point of view and unique ways of looking into events, I really looked forward to the shifts to see the same event through someone else’s eyes.

I especially like Father Christophe, who is presented as someone with his own mind, intent of fulfilling his mission as a Jesuite priest in North America of course but also a young man with spontaneous thoughts that can be anything but priestly. He enjoys getting in better shape by working along side the Hurons, working in the fields with the women, or canoeing with the men. He never states doubts about his faith but certainly does wonder about what God has in store for him… It’s a good he does not see it coming.

Snow Falls grows up into a perceptive and resourceful young woman and the cocky young she despised as a youth turns out to be courageous and caring companion. In the end, however, faith is not good to them, and their new born daughter is captured by the Iroquois who intend to make them their daughter. A cruel twist of faith perhaps, or justice?

Bird is old, has suffered much, but has also learned a lot from this long life. Yet, surprisingly, he is one of the few that remain at the end of the story, with a faithful female companion and twin infants, a boy and a girl. Life does go on.

Another interesting feature in this story are the religious discussions between the French priests and the Hurons, as they try to understand each others’ beliefs. The priests seem to maintain that the native beliefs are wrong and must be replaced by the Catholic religions, whereas the Hurons try to see how such beliefs could be integrated with their own. Well, it’s not that simple… There are many different ways of trying to reconcile these views, as many as there are believers in this book. It almost looks like conversion is doomed to fail.

So, as much as I had trouble getting into this, I really enjoyed it in the end and I strongly recommend it, both for the interesting view into native lifestyle, politics, and belief systems around the time of the French coureurs des bois and Jesuit priests exploring the wilderness that was North America. Not so wild when you consider that large Huron or Iroquois villages could house thousands and that these where well organized agricultural societies. Quite a lot in the book was reminiscent of some college anthropology classes I took, especially one called archeology of North America.

This book made the Giller Prize long list last year, but not the short list. Joseph Boyden won the Giller Prize in 2008 with Through Black Spruce.

 

References

Boyden, Joseph. The Orenda. Penguin, 2013.

http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/09/06/joseph-boyden/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/joseph-boyden-tackles-native-torture-colonial-amnesia-and-ongoing-racism/article14308176/?page=all

http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/wab-kinew-defends-the-orenda-by-joseph-boyden.html

David Bergen, The Matter With Morris

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The first sentence reads thus:

Morris Shutt, aged fifty-one, was syndicated journalist, well liked and read by many, who wrote a weekly column in which he described the life of a fifty-one-year-old man who drove a Jaguar, was married to a psychiatrist, played pickup basketball, showed a fondness for Jewish novelists, suffered mildly from tinnitus, had sex once or twice a week depending on how much wine he and his wife drank, and who cared for his mother, a hypochondriac and a borderline narcoleptic.

This sentence introduces both to Morris the journalist and to the character he has created in his column. The first problem is that both come to be confused, merge and contaminate each other. The second problem with Morris is that he is a columnist, and as it appears in this book, he writes as if he is a journalist but since he can play with reality, and he does, the pretense of a life of a fifty-one-year-old man comes to create confusion for him and others. Following the death of his son from friendly fire in Afghanistan, his agent asks him to take a break from writing, because he his “own life has seeped too much into those columns”. This has also caused conflict within his family circle and some family members have accused him of using them in his column.

This sets the stage for a sort of breakdown. Morris and his wife separate. Morris sleeps with escorts, sells possessions, cashes in investments and puts the cash in a safe at home, takes a lover which he then rejects, and starts living like a hermit. He also takes this time to write and reconsider a lot of choices he has made and things he has taken for granted. The whole process is in effect an extended grieving period for the death of his son.

Nothing is simple in this book, most threads interact somehow, the reflections of Morris sparked by one event blend into the next one. In the end, he regains his balance and his ready to reclaim his place in the world. Here are other elements of the plot:

  • He feels driving to “save” Christa, an escort who used to be a friend of his son, with whom he cannot sleep because he sees too much in her the young girl he used to know.
  • He yearns for a more sustained relationship with his grandson, who he does not see much because of an ongoing conflict with his eldest daughter.
  • He has a close relationship and feels great tenderness towards his youngest daughter who appears to be wise beyond her years (or to be totally innocent).
  • His psychiatrist wife who seems to be cold, remote, and somewhat oblivious to how her cold sparkly intelligence can hurt others (and lacks self-consciousness).
  • Morris belongs to a men’s support group and they are an odd bunch of characters.

Oh, and I never mentioned that David Bergen is a Canadian author from Winnipeg (now I have never been to Winnipeg so I cannot comment on that) and that the story is set in Winnipeg (with side trips to Minneapolis and the Shilo military base).

The first book I read by Bergen was The Time in Between for which he won the Giller Prize some years ago. Then I read The Retreat which was about a family who move into some kind of derelict camp which was supposed to be used for retreats. I do not remember the details of the plots of either. What I do remember is the haunting sadness of some characters, the bleakness of the atmosphere at time, and the growing sense of hope at the end. The same rhythm and atmosphere exists in The Matter With Morris but in a different social setting and location. Bergen is very good at depicting sadness, depression, and alienation but also the sudden climb out of it, not as an explosion of relief, joy or ecstasy, but as a slow unfolding of dew-covered petals in the morning.

 References:

Bergen, David. The Matter With Morris, Harper Collins, Toronto, 2012.

Bergen, David. The Retreat. McClelland Stewart, Toronto, 2008.

Bergen, David. The Time in Between. McClelland Stewart, Toronto, 2005.