Diane Martin’s Book Club Blog

In which I talk a bit about the book we discussed at the book club, and other bookish things besides – Diane Martin.

May, 2015

Independent People by Halldór Laxness

For our final book club of the 2014/2015 season, we read Independent People by Halldor Laxness, which was chosen by Sandy Adams. It was originally published in two volumes in 1934 and 1935 but in spite of enthusiastic reception, was out of print in English for more than 50 years, probably owing to McCarthyism in the US, which made it difficult to publish this author who did have communist sympathies.The book has a wonderful introduction by writer Brad Leithauser, who asks, “What does greatness signify once you have met the book that was made just for you?”

Italo Calvino said “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” That seems like a perfect definition to me, and may explain why we think of classics as being ‘reread’ more often than ‘read.’

I wondered what books I’ve reread most and there aren’t many. I’m always more interested in reading something for the first time and don’t reread all that often. The books I do reread tend to be books for children. I wonder if that makes me a childish reader. I wouldn’t care much if so. Some of the best readers I know were children. By the way, if you spend time with kids and you want them to be readers, read to them. Works like a charm and is a lot of fun for the adults too.

Getting back to Independent People, it is said to have resulted in Laxness receiving the Nobel Prize in 1955, the only Icelandic author ever to be so honoured. We were struck by similarities to Newfoundland, and wondered if residents of isolated Newfoundland communities shared anything with Icelandic croft farmers who may have heard of Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland, but have never been there.

Iceland is a land of many myths and sagas that tell stories about ancient Nordic history, including Viking voyages and of feuds between Icelandic families. Many Icelanders still believed in figures like fairies and fiends, at least in the time this novel addresses.The land that Bjartur buys is said to be cursed by “the fiend Kólumkilli ” and haunted by an evil woman named Gunnvör, who made a pact with Kólumkilli. He travels to get a wife and brings her on the long hike home. His wife, Rosa, wants to leave a stone on the grave of Kolumkilli, but he dismisses her wish as superstitious nonsense and will not allow it. She is miserable as a result, thinks their land and home will be cursed, and pretty much stays that way until her early death in childbirth.Bjartur leaves his dog Titla to keep the heavily pregnant Rosa company while he attends to the more important work of finding a lost sheep.When he returns, the dog is curled around the baby girl, still clinging to life due to its warmth. The child survives; Bjartur decides to raise her as his daughter (even though she isn’t), and names her Ásta Sóllilja. I was rather confused when Rosa died and the book skips 13 years. Bjartur is now living with his new wife Finna, Finna’s old mother and their 3 grown sons as well as Ásta Sóllilja. So he was busy during those 13 years.

The most important theme of the novel is independence and cooperative economies, what they mean and what it is worth giving up in order to achieve them. Bjartur is a stubborn man, and while he’s undoubtedly principled, his narrow attitudes lead to the deaths or alienation of those around him. He is very proud to have paid off his debt to the bailiff and to be in possession now of his own miserly croft.It has been suggested that this novel disappeared for years in the US because of the McCarthy era perceptions about socialism and communism in Laxness’s work.Independent People also reveals Laxness’s anti-war leanings in a chapter that depicts Icelandic farmers sitting around talking about the economic benefits of the Great War.

The ancient Icelandic sagas and Icelandic folklore are still alive in the stories and fables that the characters live with on a daily basis. The imaginations of the characters are inhabited by elves, ghosts and demons. Bjartur is also a talented poet, a living embodiment of the great oral tradition of the sagas. It’s a long, complex novel, but worth the read for its stand-out writing and the character of Bjartur, not a nice man or a loving man but proud and determined. Newfoundland is a place where people do what they have to do to keep themselves fed, warm and healthy. One feels Bjartur would be a good Newfoundlander.

Now we’re off for the long summer and will meet again in October to talk about Camilla Gibb’s novel, Sweetness in the Belly. I hope you’ll read it with us and tune in again in October. In case you’ve forgotten any of the books we’ve talked about so far, here it is, with page numbers. I haven’t included author names because they’re easy to look up

April, 2015

Boundless by Kathleen Winter … & Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

First, a (long) explanation. (Skip to page 3 if you’re less than interested, which is fine. I guess.)

I have been conspicuously absent from the South Side blog. In fact, dear Anita Best noticed said absence and asked me about it. There is a good reason for my absence I said to her and will say now to anyone who cares to know.

I was wheeling my walker (I’m mobility challenged thanks to MS) over a slight bump in the floor where one room opens into another. I had my laptop in the tray on top of my walker and a full cup of hot tea in one hand. A foolish method of getting anywhere, I know, and yes, the inevitable did happen. The tray fell off my walker, my laptop fell off the tray and my full cup of hot tea landed on it. And I couldn’t get my poor laptop to wake up. Dave tried and he couldn’t get any life out of it either.

We had a trip planned to Toronto to see our (adult) kids. Our son Jake is a bit of a wizard with technology and he managed to get my laptop to struggle to life, but not for long. He did, however, remove the hard drive for me and volunteer to have the rest of it recycled. He also told me my laptop was nearing its natural lifespan. (Hunh?)

When we got home, I ordered a new one and it sure was a happy day when it arrived a few long weeks later. One thing I was rather proud of: everyone knows they should back up their computers regularly, and I’d done so just a couple of days before I killed it. Whew. It was like I planned it.

I had been able to get the book club’s discussion of Boundless by Kathleen Winter to VOBB, but there was to be no matching blog because, well, you know.

So once I got my new laptop, I got started on it, but wasn’t able to finish before needing to read Stone Mattress for the next one.

Well! I knew Margaret Atwood was familiar with the voyage of discovery made by Kathleen because she has written about the doomed Franklin expedition. She has also taken at least a few trips with husband Graeme Gibson for Adventure Canada as Honorary Co-Chairs of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club.

Kathleen Winter will be back on board as she joins this year’s Adventure Canada trip as a writer who will be part of what’s called a floating bookclub, along with Terry Fallis and Doug Gibson. If you’ve read Boundless, you’ll have some idea who goes on board with the passengers. If you’re curious to put faces to names or to see who else you might have heard of who is lucky enough to be take this trip gratis, go to: http://www.adventurecanada.com/leaders/.

Such a great adventure for anyone lucky enough to afford it or to be invited as an expert, i.e., a musician, historian, geologist, writer or birder to accompany the voyageurs. There are even people called Culturalists, some of whom appear to be native to the far north, who are able to talk to everyone about the local native populations. In Greenland, a major portion of the population is Inuit, as it is in Canada’s far north.

It seems to me there are many people in the Bonne Bay area who would be amazing ‘team leaders’ on such a trip. We can all name at least one visual artist, one musician, one ‘culturalist’, one historian, one birder, and one geologist. Am I right? Such riches we enjoy here!

In Boundless, Kathleen Winter makes us think of aboriginal people who must have had their own names for the all the places that dot the Northwest Passage, long before Franklin was even a twinkle in his mama’s eye.

Margaret Atwood writes about the Franklin expedition in one of the stories included in her collection called Wilderness Tips, published originally in 1998. The story is called “The Age of Lead” and tells the story through two parallel narratives, one contemporary and the other goes back to 1848 and Franklin’s doomed expedition, triggered by the narrator, Jane, watching a program about the discovery of the body of John Torrington, a member of that expedition.

Okay, now for my second “explanation”, which is really a “confession”. The recording for The Stone Mattress didn’t work. I like to think it was Dave’s fault because he got it ready for me, told me just to push the button when we were ready. He needed to go to Deer Lake and wanted to get it over with and I said, sure, go, just get the gizmo ready and I’ll take it from there. Ha, as usual, I either didn’t push it or maybe I pushed it twice: who knows. But now Dave knows he can’t set it up and go away. Not when I’m the one who has to take it from there. I didn’t think I was so hopeless in the technology department…

Stone Mattress was published last fall. It is a collection of what she calls ‘9 tales’ rather than stories. The word “tale,” she says, “removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller or tales.” The titles of these tales do support that idea. Consider “Dark Lady,” “Lusus Naturae,” which comes from Latin meaning ‘freak of nature’, “The Freeze-Dried Groom” and “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth,” which may be my favourite story because her novel The Robber Bride is one of my favourites. Zenia is a main character in it. Atwood wrote that one when the Walrus magazine invited “writers – I’m quoting from Atwood’s acknowledgments here – “to revisit a character from an earlier work of fiction by them, and I chose Zenia, and her friends or dupes, Ros, Charis and Tony, from The Robber Bride.”

That novel owes something to the Grimm tale called “the Robber Bridegroom,” in which the bride goes to the home of her betrothed in the darkest part of the dark forest. His house is gloomy and no one is home except for an old, old woman in the cellar and a bird in the cage who tells her to get out because she’s come to a murderer’s house.

In recent years, Margaret Atwood has become a master of speculative fiction

And she has a new novel coming this fall, called The Heart Goes Last, which is said to take place several years after the world’s brutal economic collapse. Interestingly, although it’s called a novel, which implies a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s apparently episodic, so the ending of the book isn’t the end of the story. One reviewer on amazon.com said she was afraid the whole story would cost her a fortune before it was finished. But she felt hooked by the premise and its execution so far in The Heart Goes Last.

Margaret Atwood is coming to Writers at Woody Point this year, which is incredible. At 75, she shows no signs of slowing down as a writer. Occasionally, Northern Lights can be seen from Bonne Bay, or so I’m told. My great wish is that they come to shimmer over late nights at the festival this year.

This time, we turn our attention to magic and illusion in The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. It’s the story of Harry Houdini and the man who killed him – twice as it turns out. It’s an engrossing, complex novel I’ve now read 3 times, and I’m still not sure I’ve unpacked all its ingenuity.















January, 2015:  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In January, the South Side Book Club discussed Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a post-apocalyptic novel chosen by Jennifer Crocker in the midst of this year’s flu season, an ironic coincidence that made reading this one all the more unsettling.

I went to Amazon to get a copy and was very impressed with the product description for this novel I’d never heard of.

Apparently, Station Eleven was a National Book Award finalist, a New York Times bestseller, Globe and Mail bestseller, and a Best Book of the Year in The Globe and MailThe Washington PostEntertainment WeeklyKirkus Reviews, and Time magazine.

On Day One in this novel, the description reads:

“The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb. News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

“On Week Two,

“Civilization has crumbled.”

Once again, I’ve been surprised by the work of a writer I’d never heard of. If you examine lists of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels, you may notice that very few of them are written by women. So I was predisposed to like this novel because it was written by a woman and also because turns out she’s Canadian.

Mind you, she’s not the only Canadian novelist who has nailed the complexity of a post-apocalyptic world. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – that’s Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam haves already been read and reread and studied as ‘one of the most significant works of 21st-century literature that you haven’t read,’ this according to Katherine Snyder at the website Public Books.

Apocalyptic novels are about the end of the world. Wikipedia lists causes in events such as nuclear warfarepandemicextraterrestrial attackimpact eventsupernatural phenomenadivine judgmentrunaway climate changeresource depletionecological collapse, or some other general disasters such as a zombie apocalypse.

There are ancient stories that come under this label, the one we all know best the story of Noah and the flood. Noah was instructed to build the ark and save life on earth so that a new society could be established post-flood. Similar deluge stories are found in the Quran and the Hindu Dharmasastra.

The Book of Revelation reveals a new heaven and a new earth, which provides a beatific vision of Judgment Day, revealing God’s promise for redemption from suffering and strife.

The oldest modern-age novel is Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826, which deals with a group of survivors in a plague-infected world.

As the name suggests, The Time Machine by HG Wells, published in 1895 tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who travels to the future after his own civilization has collapsed.

Among contemporary novels, one by Cormac McCarthy called The Road may be the most accessible of his novels and one of his best read. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and recounts the journey of an unnamed man and boy, in an undefined location, who search among the debris in the aftermath of some cataclysmic event for morsels of food and warmth.

Among lists of other novels of this sort, here are a few that looked most interesting to me:

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller set 600 years after nuclear holocaust in a Catholic monastery. First published in 1960. A Jewish electrical engineer converts to Catholicism after the war and founds a monastery. Literacy has no place in this new society so Liebowitz sets out to save the written word for the future and collects all cultural artifacts he can find. He is martyred and later canonized.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute, 1983. After a nuclear war, a few people have survived in Southern Australia but they know clouds of radiation are on their way and their days are numbered… I’m interested to know how people respond to knowing that death is coming to get them.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, expanded edition. About 200 years after a nuclear war has devastated the world’s population, humanity has regressed to an iron-age, semi-literate state. Hoban has created a more primitive language for these people and Riddley Walker is strikingly different from other novels of his.

Finally, A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren, also a woman. In the years following nuclear war, a writer and a painter eke out an existence on the Oregon coast, occasionally confronting Christian fundamentalist survivors known as the Arkites.

It’s interesting that so many of these books concerned themselves with nuclear devastation. That focus reflects the cold war preoccupations from 1947 following the end of World War II through the next 4 decades until the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

Since then, however, we’ve had SARS, H1N1, the avian flu and the always-mutating virus that means a different flu shot every year. We’ve had HIV and Ebola. Me? I’m more worried about the flu than about nuclear devastation. If that concern turns out to be misplaced, you can say, I Told You So after the fact (if we’re both still around).

By the way, Jennifer — I think it was — mentioned the movie Contagion, which it seems everyone had seen except me. So Dave and I watched it on the weekend following the book club. It’s also about a virus that swiftly travels all over the world and kills 25 million people before a vaccine is developed. If you read and enjoyed Station Eleven, you’ll like the movie. It was well-received by both critics and scientists. So here you go, a book recommendation and a movie recommendation from one book club.

Next time, we’re leave catastrophic fiction behind and are switching to a memoir: Boundless by Kathleen Winter: Tracing Land and Dream in a new Northwest Passage. She has a great surname for a writer who is unafraid to get a little chilly. We hope you’ll read it with us.

By the way, the music you hear before the Station Eleven book club spot on VOBB is Tom Waits’ “The Earth Died Screaming” and at the end, it is, of course, Stan Rogers’ iconic “Northwest Passage”.

See you next time.


Deember, 2015

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
chosen by Sharon Chaulk

There are many reasons to pick up this book, all of them excellent.

This novel was Sharon’s choice, but I’d read it already, as had Maggie. We both expected it to win Canada’s biggest literary award, the Giller Prize. It did not and we were disappointed, though it must be said that none of us have read the one that did win, called Us Conductor by Sean Michaels, a debut novel.

And we all agreed that while reading a novel about suicide before Christmas may seem like a downer idea, this is not a downer novel, but a funny, empathic, loving story about a decent family struck by severe mental illness. It’s actually a consoling novel that makes you feel better.

All My Puny Sorrows concerns two sisters, Yolandi and Elfreida – Yoli and Elf for short. Elf is a brilliant concert pianist with a loving partner, though no children, a devoted agent as well as a mad-about-her sister and mother, and a niece and a nephew who love her. Everyone admires her, even idealizes her.

Elf’s sister Yoli writes young adult novels about a character called Rodeo Rhonda, but her publisher is pressuring her to make the books more urban, since fewer and fewer teens would have any idea what a rodeo is. Yoli has two children by two different fathers, “as a type of social experiment. Just kidding. As a type of social failure.”

Both Elf and Yoli are in their forties and Yoli despairs of ever learning to be an adult, but she isn’t depressed. Elf is the one who wants to succumb to the noonday demon and kill herself. She has wanted to die for a long time. This great reluctance to go on living struck their father as well, and he finally did kill himself by sitting on train tracks and waiting for the train.

This is Miriam’s most autobiographical novel as a train really did hit her father, as he wished, and her beloved sister died exactly the same way in 2010. They lived their early years in a Mennonite community, where elders circulated like vultures, watching everyone and everything to make sure they lived good Menno lives. Their mother, Lottie, is a wonderful character, probably, I imagine, because Miriam’s own mother is. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, likes to read, and is able to move on after her husband kills himself.

Elf is in the psych ward of a Winnipeg hospital, as a result of trying to kill herself. The nurses in the psych ward are terrible – quite reminiscent of Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They won’t let Elf eat in her room. She has to walk to the dining room if she’s hungry. Elf won’t. Elf wants a day pass, but the nurses won’t give her one unless she cooperates. But Yoli begs them to keep her in the hospital, knowing that if given a day pass, it would be her last day on earth.

About the title, I thought it an odd title and so assumed it was a quote. It is, from a poem by Samuel Coleridge written for a friend that goes in part as follows:

I too a Sister had

She lov’d me dearly, and

I doted on her!

To her I pour’d forth all

my puny sorrows …

That e’en from

Frienship’s eye will

Shrink asham’d.

Here are some review snippets:

The New York Times Book Review is a tabloid section of the newspaper published weekly that enjoys a wide readership among bookish types everywhere. When this novel was published in the US, the NYTBR said, ‘“All My Puny Sorrows” is unsettling, because how can a novel about suicide not be? But its intelligence, its honesty and, above all, its compassion provide a kind of existential balm — a comfort not unlike the sort you might find by opening a bottle of wine and having a long conversation with (yes, really) a true friend.’

The Guardian UK: ‘A friend confides to Yoli that he heard Elf playing in Prague. “And I am not surprised. Surprised by what? I ask him. By her suffering, he said. When I listened to her play I felt I should not be there in the same room with her … It was a private pain … unknowable … There were no words.’

The Globe and Mail: “It’s actually a book about what it is to be a sibling, and particularly about what it is to be a sibling to only one other sibling. It is one of the most moving and accurate representations of that complicated situation I have ever read.”

If you listen to the show or read this blog, you may wonder if the book is depressing, but no one in the book club thought so. Unlike at least one person I heard on radio noon recently, depression is not the same as sadness. Sadness comes to everyone and is normal, but depression is not, especially depression that covers a person like a nasty, thin blanket that provides no comfort yet won’t be tossed off.

By the way, Jennifer mentions that she liked all the references to other books. I did too. The one I read immediately after finishing AMPS was Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire.” I’d read it years and years ago and remembered it as a nail-biting adventure of horror in winter. If you have an e-reader, it’s free and I recommend it as a great read and cautionary tale, though temperatures don’t fall below -50 in many parts of this province.

Everyone in the book club thought AMPS was an outstanding read and we agreed it was the kind of sad book that made you feel better as all really good books do.

It is said the number 1 cause of suicide is untreated depression, but it is suggested in the novel that in Elf’s case, she simply doesn’t want to live in spite of all she has going for her. Yoli’s life looks much bleaker than her sister’s. But Yoli wants to live and she wants Elf to want to live, but Elf, as Yoli begins to realize, or at least wonder, is simply weary of living, which in Switzerland can make you eligible for assisted suicide. Not exactly depression, but more like great fatigue.

Spoiler Alert: Although Yoli begs for her sister’s hospital nurses not to let her out, they eventually give her a day pass and Elf uses it to go straight to the railway tracks where their father killed himself and she is killed the same way. The hospital where Elf is temporarily incarcerated does not look good in this novel. The staff cares only about the rules they want Elf to observe and her psychiatrist is indifferent to her state of mind.

Her suicide cuts Yoli’s (and Miriam’s) family in half. There were four of them and now there are two. The novel is also autobiographical in that Miriam moved herself, her daughter and her mother to Toronto to try to begin a new chapter in all their lives. We all hope they succeed as Miriam’s novel has. We did lament that AMPS did not win the 2014 Giller Prize year, but there’s no way of understanding juries.

Next up for the South Side Book Club is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a Canadian writer I’d not heard of previously. Jennifer Crocker chose this one. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel about a deadly flu that kills off most of the world’s population – and this one isn’t depressing either! See you next time and …  HAPPY NEW YEAR!

December 4, 2014

IN NOVEMBER, we talked about Sweetland

by Michael Crummey, which was chosen by Sandy Adams and published by Doubleday Canada earlier this year.

The novel’s title is the name of the fictional outport island where the novel takes place and it’s also the name of the novel’s main character, Moses Sweetland. The islanders have been given an offer: if all residents agree to leave, they will be paid 100 to 150 thousand dollars. There are 3 who say they will not accept, then 2, then Sweetland himself is the only resident who refuses to leave.

Two book club members weren’t able to finish this novel but came anyway, having loved what they’d read and wanting to hear how the rest of us felt. The rest of us loved it.

We felt the sense of place in Sweetland to be so acute that we believed it must be a real place. Moses knew the island like the back of his hand. He used to man the lighthouse before it was automated. He knows every resident, how efficient they are at looking after themselves and others, including any animals.

The novel is set in contemporary times.

Sweetland isn’t always a nice person, but he seems real and even familiar: Michael C has said: “There is a “type” of Newfoundland man, the old time Newfoundlander, who fit the bill. Brusque, a bit contrary, self-reliant to a fault, but emotionally soft as butter underneath the crust.” We all agreed that was a good description of his character.

He treated his sister Ruth badly, forcing her into a marriage she didn’t want, to a man named Pilgrim, who was born blind. They have a daughter, Clara, though she may not be Pilgrim’s. Although Sweetland feels guilty about the way he treated Ruth, when Clara leaves for the mainland to go to school, Sweetland is not impressed and is disdainful of her choice. As a young man, however, Sweetland had gone, grudgingly, to Hamilton for work in a steel mill. An industrial accident damaged his face and his “lap” so that he remains a virgin all his life, fatherhood not possible. He never marries.

Clara returns to Sweetland pregnant and without a husband. She gives birth to Jesse, who seems clearly autistic, though that word never appears. Sweetland does become very fond of Jesse, and their relationship is endearing and becomes essential for Sweetland’s happiness.

The novel opens with Sweetland in his boat, in dense fog, when he hears sounds that lead him to a boatload of Sri Lankan refugees, who are starving and colder than they ever thought it possible to be. One is dead. Sweetland is able to get them safely into the cove where he calls for help.

In familiar Newfoundland style, the islanders rally around the refugees, billeting them in the residents’ homes, though not Sweetland’s because it is felt a woman needs to be present to ensure that they are kept warm and well fed.

Sweetland is well-liked by most folks on the island, but his fellow residents grow tired of his refusal to join them in taking the resettlement package and he begins to receive threatening notes that he tucks into a drawer.

There is a very elegiac tone to this novel. Resettlement is a way of dealing with dying communities. According to MUN archives, “Overall, some 307 communities were abandoned between 1946 and 1975, and over 28,000 people relocated.” By then the programme became unpopular as people were disappointed when the promise of better jobs, housing and healthcare did not make up for the fact that they’d had to leave their homes. However, others were satisfied, especially by educational opportunities that had not been available to them previously.

Resettlement continues. Harbour Deep and Little Bay Islands have grappled with this issue quite recently. It does seem that the collapse of the fishery is ending the outport way of life. Although only 90% of the population is now needed to sign on and the money on offer has raised significantly, there is still both controversy and sorrow involved in resettlement.

Says Michael Crummey, “The Newfoundland of small, tightly knit communities that relied on the cod fishery for survival — is disappearing. And this will inevitably affect the culture of the place. The unanswered question is how will it affect the culture, and to what extent. I think you could argue that Newfoundland has been going through extreme social change since confederation. The world I grew up in was vastly different from the world my parents were born into. But my parents made me who I am. And in that sense, I think “culture” survives the social conditions that created it. But I couldn’t begin to guess how many generations down the line that follows.”

We hoped to have Michael Crummey join us for the bookclub but he was touring the Maritimes and unavailable. Besides, the necessary technical requirements intimidated me. So we settled for a couple of questions directed at him based on our reading and enthusiasm for the novel. Since he was touring, he responded when he had a chance but a little late for this November blog and our recording. So my apologies for the fact that you’ll be reading this, and hearing the book club in December. In fact, the December book club will be coming soon too, but not till closer to Christmas.

Here’s what Michael had to say in response to our reaction to the novel: “Just wanted to say how much I appreciated hearing from you and the book club. Love the thought of people sitting around talking about the place as if it’s real. And yes I did have a size in mind. In fact, the model for Sweetland is Baccalieu Island at the tip of Conception Bay. I’ve spent a bit of time out there with [wife] Holly when she was managing the seabird reserve for the province. Baccalieu has an abandoned lightkeeper’s house on one end, complete with an iron ladder rivetted into the rocks down to the water, and a southend light at the opposite. It also has a valley choked with deadfall on the ocean side that we had to climb through to get to the top of the island. I more or less took Baccalieu and shoved the community of Francois into the middle of it.

“I did have a pretty good idea of how many people were on the island at the time of the vote, but I’ve since forgotten. 48 people voted, so add in the handful of youngsters and it would come to somewhere around 60 I guess.”



When Jesse dies unexpectedly, Sweetland decides to add his name to the vote and resettlement is the result. But at the last minute, realizing he can’t leave Jesse’s grave behind, he fakes his own death and the boat leaves without him. A little dog also goes missing and doesn’t get on the boat with its owner. Sweetland connects with him some time later and the dog provides him with companionship. But staying had been a snap decision and he’s ill-prepared for life alone on the island, with no electricity, not much food, not enough firewood, not enough gas for his quad. He’s 70 years old, alone but for the ghosts in the cemetery and the spectral figures he sees in the nighttime.

Incidentally, the song we played at the beginning of the book club on VOBB, was “The Government Game,” which was a poem by Al Pittman sung by Pat Byrne. You can see many photos of abandoned outport communities while the song is playing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTU7tKtCVlc We finished with a tune called ‘Years” by Amelia Curran from the Spectators album. It’s a favourite of Michael Crummey’s.

Later this month, we’re meeting to talk about another not-quite-laugh-riot novel in time for Christmas: All My Puny Sorrows by former Winnipegonian Miriam Toews. Hope you can read it in the next two weeks. Beats Christmas shopping, that’s for sure.


The Oct/14 South Side Book Club Blog, Part 1

In which I talk a bit about the book we discussed at the book club, and other bookish things besides – Diane Martin. The blog is divided into two parts, the first for ‘other bookish things’ and the second for the Bone Clocks.

On October 24 we got together to talk about the Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published at the beginning of September this year by Knopf Canada. It’s a long book, about 600 pages. It airs on Saturday at 1 pm. You’ll hear our discussion about The Bone Clocks if you tune in.

We began our first post-summer meeting by mentioning a few titles we’d read since we last met, in April – 6 months ago!

Here are most of the books we mentioned, starting with Maggie Purchase, who reads a lot:

In the Light of What We Know, a first novel by Zia Haider Rahman, which the publisher claims is “A bold, epic debut novel set during the war and financial crisis that defined the beginning of our century”. Maggie just couldn’t recommend this one highly enough. Challenging, engrossing, fabulously well written, etc.

She also read a few novels by Tana French, featuring Detective Cassie Maddox, as well as London PI Maisie Dobbs Mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear, and Laurie R King’s mysteries that pair Sherlock Holmes with a young female apprentice who becomes his wife, Mary Russell. It surprised me to learn of the latter series. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is famously disinterested in women. So lucky Mary Russell!

Alison Normore has a great interest in antiquity and Celtic mythology. She read Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, a writer I’d not heard of but who has 210 stellar customer reviews on Amazon.ca, which is most impressive. She also read The Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Patrice Some. The publisher says through that book, readers can come to understand that the life of indigenous and traditional people is a paradigm for an intimate relationship with the natural world that both surrounds us and is within us. The book is the most complete study, it says, of the role ritual plays in the lives of African people–and the role it can play for seekers in the West.

Sandy Adams read The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta, and a handful of titles in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith – all this whenever she had a little down time in a busy summer full of travel.

Jennifer Crocker worked all summer and had very little time for reading. But she did read the Oh She Glows cookbook by Angela Liddon, which is a collection of Over 100 Vegan Recipes to Glow from the Inside Out. She isn’t vegan herself, but is very interested in trying out many of the recipes in the book. This cookbook began as a popular blog, also called Oh She Glows. It’s still going so, if interested, we can try a few of the recipes posted online. Meatless Monday anyone?

As for me, since I spent summer in the hospital, I wanted entertaining books, whodunnits especially, as page-turners to distract me from hospital life. I read all of Toronto writer Howard Shrier’s Jonah Geller mysteries: Buffalo Jump, High Chicago, Boston Creme and Miss Montreal. He does a great evocation of the cities in which his books are set, has a great side-kick in a 6’ blonde woman raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, and often elicits the help of a ‘retired’ mob hitman named Dante Ryan. He also has one standalone book called Lostport, about a town populated with several criminals in the Witness Protection Program, assembled in one place to do the dirty work of a very corrupt sherriff.

When tired of reading, I listened to audiobooks, music and podcasts, especially Freakonomics, which I recommend highly.

Anyone with access to the internet, which I hope is all of you, can check out these books on Amazon.ca. I find Amazon a great resource for research and for good deals. I just bought a Tana French novel for my kindle for $.99! I love finding deals like that!

Thus endeth Part 1….



The Oct/14 South Side Book Club Blog, Part 2

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

We struggled in the book club to name the genre to which this book belongs. Is it Fantasy? No one thought so, but that’s how the publisher has labelled it.

Everyone except yours truly finished it. I felt lost in a section set in Baghdad, continued reading anyway, and was well into the Crispin Hershey section when the time was up. I did read “about” David Mitchell, however, who is rich in ideas of all sorts, not just things literary, and he’s a world leader, I read, in all things nerd.

Here’s how the New York Times begins its review, by looking back to two novels previous:

His genre-defying 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, sold a million copies in North America and was adapted into a feature film. Academics and superfans alike pore over his works with the intensity of Talmudic scholars, and gather at David Mitchell conferences that feature panel discussions on subjects like “Narratology and the Mitchell Multiverse.”

I must say that no one at the book club mentioned either Narratology or the Mitchell Multiverse, not specifically, though I’m sure we were all thinking about them.

Some of us thought Sci-Fi was more accurate than Fantasy, and one floated the label Speculative Fiction. In a loving long profile I read in Vulture.com, which seems to be a general popular culture rag published online, the author felt that Metaphysical is the only accurate label. Being an investigation into the nature of reality, it does seem apt. It is referred to on Amazon as Science Fiction & Fantasy. When it doubt … call it Genre-defying, as one NYT critic said about Cloud Atlas.

The author has also said all of his books together he intends to be one uber- or super-book. One reader – the enthusiast who wrote the profile in Vulture.com — said she found 23 characters in the Bone Clocks that make appearances in earlier books, and not just the The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. So there is much to keep the Mitchell nerds among us very happy. Or even just everyday word nerds, like me, who enjoy expanding their vocabularies.


Next time, I’m very happy that we’re leaving Science Fiction and Fantasy behind; at least I think we are, with Sandy Adams’ choice Sweetland by Michael Crummey, who’s a very popular writer from in St. John’s whose books are read well across the country. Russell Wangersky told one newspaper that this is the fall 2014 book he was most looking forward to:
“Crummey’s an almost magical writer,” he wrote. “His characters and places form up inside my head, and won’t leave. . . . The biggest letdown for me is when I’ve run out of Crummey. On top of that, the premise for Sweetland—the internal conflict of an isolated Newfoundland town where residents have to vote unanimously to collect government payments to leave—is an intriguing one, to say the least. In his hands, it will surely rock. I look forward to a slow, delightful read.”
—Russell Wangersky, The Globe and Mail

Speaking of Russell Wangersky, before I draw this blog to a close, I’d like to urge you to read Walt by Russell Wangersky, his latest novel. A grocery store janitor collects discarded shopping lists and find they each tell a story, and sometimes the writer’s name and address can be found on the other side of the list, on a blank cheque or unopened window envelope. It may be that Walt becomes a stalker…

Editing the show for the Bone Clocks turned out to be easy; we veered off-topic only to discuss psychopaths who live among us. I may have mentioned our prime minister and found out who among us likely voted for the guy. Good blackmail knowledge, I’d say!

And so to end, I’ll just say, Do try to read Sweetland as we do, for our next meeting on November 21. We’re all looking forward to that one. Our show will air shortly afterwards.

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