Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Actually, I don't read many short stories as a rule. I've read my share, but don't actively seek them out. I just prefer the novel. By the way, good short stories are not as easy to write as most people think. When you consider that the short story writer has to establish and strengthen his/her main character, announce setting, plot lines, instill suspense(maybe), adhere to theme, present rising action, give a satisfactory climax and resolution, all within 20 pages say, is quite a feat. Novelists take 300 pages to do that. Many writers will not even attempt to write a short story.

Short Stories are excellent to read before you turn in for the night. Oh, by the way, I'm surprised how many people don't read before they go to sleep. Reading before you hit the sack is quite beneficial. It focuses your attention away from the stresses of the day; calms you down; puts you in a mellow mood; lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, blood/sugar thing, and prevents cancer--- Clinically Proven!(Ah, I'm just messing with you, I don't know this). It does help you sleep, though, I'm sure.

Children should definitely be read to before they go to bed, and should be kept up until they are much older. Oh, also, if your partner is a good reader, get them to read to you---that's a treat! I'm not that good at reading out loud, nope. I can read like the dickens to myself, but I tend to stumble a lot, mispronounce, cough, chuckle, mumble, and so on, when I read aloud. Not good. My wife, on the other hand, reads perfectly out loud. She has an even, soothing, distinct, error-free, reading voice. Quite nice. What you do is lie comfortably in bed, close your eyes, and watch your mind come alive with images while your partner beautifully reads a short story. Cool! It's a treat. Try it.

Oh! And sex! This is for adults now; Children, do NOT try this at home! Get your partner to read sexually explicit passages from,let's say, Anais Nin; Henry Miller, or Anonymous---Anonymous, that most prolific, truthful, trustworthy, underrated author. Of course, a sultry, sexy voice can read the instructions for changing gears in a car manual and be effective.

But I digress.

Short Stories, yes, well, I would probably say that Chekhov is the overall master of this literary form. Guy de Maupassant(French), beautiful stories. Joseph Conrad, HEART OF DARKNESS, and my all time favorite, YOUTH. YOUTH is an amazing sea voyage to the far East(It's that old sea theme again). Not many can write like Conrad. A CLEAN WELL-LIGHTED PLACE by Hemingway has got to be the absolute perfect short story. Ambrose Bierce: His short stories usually have a twist around the end, quite entertaining, quite powerful. Bierce was a journalist,I think; he disappeared in Mexico when he was older. Just disappeared. To this day no one knows what became of him. It's one of those literary mysteries. (I'm digressing, again)

Short story readers are going to get mad at me for not mentioning other masters of this genre. Ah... Poe, of course. Anything by E.A.Poe. It was Poe who elevated the short narrative to the short story as a viable literary form. The modern---as in recent---master of the short story is indisputably our own Alice Munro. She is a wonder. Her stories carry so much depth and emotion, no writer comes near her. Take Alice to bed and read her.

Next: Not quite sure yet.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Ian McEwan is probably the most well known of all the British writers today mostly because of ATONEMENT which was published under much public and critical acclaim. The movie version of this great novel was absolutely excellent. McEwan likes to put his characters in a moral dilemma and watch while they grapple with their conscience and record their behaviour which may lead them to ruination. I really like McEwan. His writing is so beautifully executed I don't think many writers can come near him. His book AMSTERDAM about two friends who both loved the same woman won the Booker Prize in 1998. This was the first novel I read by him which led to many others. Others worthwhile are: THE CHILD IN TIME, BLACK DOGS, ENDURING LOVE,SATURDAY. ENDURING LOVE is an excellent book, also made into a successful movie. The opening scene of this novel is spellbinding in the description of the runaway hot air balloon. THE CHILD IN TIME is one of my favourites mostly because it concerns Time and its relativity.

I was disappointed in SATURDAY even though I was captured by the writing style--which is always the way with this author. I understood what he was trying to convey; I just could not go along with the ending of this novel. ON CHESIL BEACH which is his latest book I didn't get. It's only a little over one hundred pages selling for near 30 dollars. It was not liked by the critics, some saying that it looked like a contractual obligation novel. I guess the publisher thought because McEwan was so popular right now, people will rush to buy it. Not so.

Martin Amis is the son of the great writer Sir Kingslsley Amis who had no time for Martin's writing style. Kingsley said Martin likes to mess with the reader and draw attention to himself. Martin gets a lot of criticism for his books. But he is widely read and very popular---so it goes. His novel TIME'S ARROW is quite interesting because the events go backward in time to a single statement. I liked this idea. The novel centers around a Nazi doctor. NIGHT TRAIN was Martin's attempt at being American which drew lots of criticism. DEAD BABIES is strange.

I read his latest novel HOUSE OF MEETINGS. I enjoyed it. There was a bit of controversy in this novel in that most people reading it did not know that the baby in it was Black. It took an astute reviewer to actually figure that out,it was never overtly stated by Martin. When he was asked by reviewers(they were pissed!)why it wasn't clearer, Martin said how clear do you want me to be? it was there, read it properly. Like his Dad said, he likes to mess with the readers. When I read it I already knew about the baby. It pays sometimes to read the reviews first. Interesting writer, though, you never know what to expect from him.

William Trevor. Well, W. Trevor is Irish, not British but that's close by anyway. Oh, this man is an amazing writer! He was introduced to me by a professor at university. Trevor won about every award there is, except the Booker where he is always short listed(that's amazing on its own!) People who don't read him will recognize FELICIA'S JOURNEY which was made into a great movie by Atom Egoyan. The book is better, always is. I haven't read as much Trevor as I would like to; I'll get around to it. DEATH IN SUMMER is such a wonderfully moving, well written novel that I still remember scenes from it although I read it many years ago. MISS GOMEZ AND THE BRETHREN is also an interesting and enjoyable read.

John Banville. I've only read THE SEA which won the Booker in 2005, I think. Beautifully written novel concerning love, loss, and returning to a summer cottage where memories become vivid and still haunt the main character. Excellent.

Next; Short Stories

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I didn't read this huge bestseller, but I bought it. It happened this way: When my wife and I were doing our annual book shopping for the winter months ahead at Chapters in Halifax in the fall, I threw in THE SHACK---just for fun. THE SHACK(or the Crap Shack, as I like to call it) is a huge, huge, religious-like, feel-good bestselling novel which is still number 1 on the charts today after being there for tons of weeks.

You see, I wanted my wife to read it, and report her findings to me. I waited months for her to get around to it, and she finally did. All the time, I was watching her reading it through the corner of my eye trying to register her reactions. She finished it! I asked her what she thought. The following is the dialogue that ensued.

Bernie: Ah, you read THE SHACK? What did you think?
Wife: (suspicious look) Why did you buy this? Why didn't you read it yourself?
B: I wouldn't waste my time, it's....
W: YOU wouldn't waste YOUR time!? But you think it's OK to waste MY time? You...
B: Wait! wait! wait! I can't read books like that because I'm too biased. You can read shi..cra..stuff like that and although it can be really sappy, you can find the worth in it. You can find a voice in the book and its intent which usually makes it a good read. I just wanted to know.
W: What?
B: What you thought of the book.
W: It was OK. Well written, suspenseful. It kept you reading, a good message I guess for some people.
B: And?
W: What?
B: Is that it? No great revelation? No breakthrough religious experience?
W: Read it yourself.
B: Well, tell me this. Overall. How is the book overall?
W: Ooooh, crappy.
B: Aha!
W: Oh don't go feeling so smug, it's a nice little fable for people who like that sort of thing. In the book, God was a big Black woman.
B: Oprah?
W: No. He meets God at the end, and she's a big Black woman.
B: I always thought of God as a midget with a big stick.
W: We're getting low on books, we got to go back to Chapters.

So there you are, my review of THE SHACK---well, around about review, anyway. But I'm confused, didn't you think God was a midget with a big stick?

Next: British writers

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Naughty. I know, lame word, but I can't use bad because it connotes not worth reading; disgusting, same thing; controversial...well, you see the problem. Naughty books simply mean books that cover certain subject matter that people don't want to talk about or even acknowledge they exist. These books are usually very funny and obviously thought provoking, sometimes evoking brutal responses.

The first is a novel that is burning through the bestseller charts all over Europe at present time selling well over one million copies. it's a German novel now translated into English and introduced to North America audiences. WETLANDS by first time author Charlotte Roche. You can watch an interview with her on YouTube. She's a delightful, intelligent, young woman who has that satisfied smile of knowing that she's now a multi-millionaire.

The novel's narrator is a promiscuous 18 year old woman who is fascinated by her body and her many and various sexual encounters. READER DISCRETION ADVISED. Without getting too specific, the narrator of this novel explicitly talks about her vagina, hemorrhoids, bodily fluids, sex acts...well, you get the picture. In Graphic detail! Ms. Roche has received numerous hate mails, and critics are widely divided as to whether this is literature or smut. I haven't read this book---I don't even have it, but I'm following its progress and controversy with keen interest. I really like to see a novel that shakes things up a bit.

101 USES OF A DEAD CAT by Simon Bond. OK. This one really upsets cat lovers. But, come on, doorstop? toilet paper holder? Frisbee? weather vane? pencil sharpener? feather duster? Maybe just a little smile from you?

FINAL EXIT: THE PRACTICALITIES OF SELF-DELIVERANCE AND ASSISTED SUICIDE FOR THE DYING. This huge International bestseller by Derek Humphry had many attempts trying to ban it but to no avail. It came out in 1991. I remember when I bought a copy my wife followed me around everywhere for a week; she had this quizzical look on her face. It's actually a very practical book, as it says. It gives many wise tips for those inclined to check out early. An example is the fact that taking a hand full of pills may very well put you in a coma where you spend your days amassing numerous bed sores instead of checking in at the Pearly Gates. Or, a misaligned gun barrel to your head turns you into a drooling idiot with a hole in your head. Helpful hints! This book should be up there on your kitchen shelf next to 101 Stain Removing Hints, or, 101 Uses of a Dead Cat, for that matter.

STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS by Mary Roach. This is a good book, quite funny at times, and extremely informative and interesting. This was a bestseller, too. Mary Roach explains what happens to dead bodies that have been donated to science. They have numerous and varied uses, to be sure. Along with being used by would-be surgeons for practice, they are used by plastic surgeons to hone their skills(would you like a new nose Mr. Abernathy?), bones are strung together and placed in a lab for anatomy students. Cool! hang around academia with the student body. Cadavers are even used to test seat belts and crash impacts. Yeah, you thought they only used crash test dummies, too---The dummies are only understudies. Some cadavers are just left out in a field---imagine tripping over them! The reason is to monitor and assess the degree of decomposition for forensic science. So anybody can have an exciting life after they die, although the actual excitement for the cadaver is not palpable, as far as we can tell. Interesting book.

There are more books like these, but that will be for another post.

Next: British authors

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Many years ago I was given a book by a coworker of mine who told me that this particular American author was absolutely great, and that this novel was amazing. The author was Toni Morrison; the novel was BELOVED. I read it, as did my wife, and we both agreed it was one of the best books we had ever read. I had not read a more involving, intriguing, beautifully written novel in a very long time. It was a clear delight. Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for this, and should have easily won all the others but didn't for some strange reason. It's not an easy novel to read, she shuttles back and forth in time, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. But once you check into her style it becomes an absolute delight. You have to read her closely, staying with her. it's well worth the effort.

The New York Times Review had said at the time that BELOVED was the best novel written in the past 25 years. Easily. Oprah(God, her again!) financed a movie version of this book(she starred in it too, of course)which failed miserably. I (my wife also) actually liked the movie, but you can't really make a movie from this book because of the intricate, superb writing which makes it so great.

I've read a couple more of her novels: SONG OF SOLOMAN, JAZZ, which I also enjoyed. But none come near BELOVED. She has a new book out this year A MERCY that I'll probably pick up. Sometimes coworkers can be helpful.

Joyce Carol Oats: She is an amazing writer, extremely prolific with essays, short stories, novellas, novels...you name it, to her credit. She also writes Mystery stories under the pen-name Rosamond Smith. My wife reads anything she can find written by her, and I read a lot of her too. My all time favourite is BLACK WATER. The book tells the story(without giving names) of Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy, and 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne who drowned in the accident. The short novel is told in proslepsis style going back and forth from the party to the bridge---very effective.

Other great novels by this excellent author are: FOXFIRE, ZOMBIE, WE WERE THE MULVANEYS, MIDDLE AGE-A ROMANCE, THE TATTOOED GIRL, THE FALLS, THE GRAVEDIGGER'S DAUGHTER. There are too many to list---most of them are packed away in boxes here. Anyway, you can't go wrong reading any Oates' novels.

For Southern US dark drama(excellent stuff) read Flannery O'Connor. She's amazing. You have to read WISE BLOOD. If you want a really scary ghost story better than King could ever write read THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. She also wrote THE LOTTERY. Sylvia Plath THE BELL JAR, Alice walker THE COLOR PURPLE... There's lots of truly great female writers in America today.

Next: British writers(some)

Monday, March 9, 2009


Canada has many great and wondrous writers comparable to any other English speaking country. It just seems that in the past two or three decades Canada has emerged as leading force in excellent literature. I'm only going to touch on a few who have thrilled and delighted me with their writing skills.

Guy Vanderhaeghe who resides in saskatoon has won numerous awards both here and abroad for his work. I really like him. Lately he has been writing about he old west in the style of McCarthy and McMurtry only with a much more interesting Canadian twist. THE LAST CROSSING is an amazing novel. The scope and detail of this brilliant, unforgettable book that traces a family's hardships and trials through three countries are quite powerful and secures Vanderhaeghe as a major Canadian storyteller. I loved it! By the way, I urges my daughter to read it, but she said there's too much testosterone in it. So there you go. A book like that is just not everybody's cup of tea(Didn't I say I hated that expression?)

Guy Vanderhaeghe also wrote THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY, another Western style novel that was made into an absolutely wonderful TV miniseries a couple of years back. It's also an excellent book, despite what my daughter says. I'm really looking forward to Guy's next book. You know, I feel kind of sorry for successful writers because I would imagine there is a lot of pressure on them to bring out another masterpiece. But you can do it, Guy.

Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD which was published in 2005 marked a auspicious beginning for this Canadian writer. What an amazing novel this is! It's possibly the best war novel to ever be written in Canada---I think so anyway. The story of two Native boys fighting in the trenches of France during WW1 with flashbacks to their lives growing up in bush of Northern Ontario is absolutely compelling. Boyden's horrific scenes of Xavier and Elijah skulking around no-man's land at midnight sniping at the Germans in their trenches is quite powerful. This is a great book! This novel missed getting the top literary Canadian prizes which is just unbelievable in my opinion.(More about prizes for novels later).

Joseph Boyden's THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE which came out this year was an instant bestseller and won all the prizes, so it goes. THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE continues the story of the Bird family in their contemporary aboriginal life in present times. I really enjoyed this book also, but it does not match the intensity and beauty of THREE DAY ROAD, in my opinion.

Nino Ricci's THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, which I just finished reading, is quite an enjoyable novel. It's still on the bestseller list, and the main character's(Alex) ill-fated trip around the Galapagos Islands on an old fishing boat with an irritable skipper and a mad scientist is worth the price of the book alone(it's that old sea theme again, always gets me).

Next: American female writers

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Canada Reads started this week with five books to be perused. They are: THE BOOK OF NEGROES by Lawrence Hill, FRUIT by Brian Francis, THE FAT WOMAN NEXT DOOR IS PREGNANT by Michel Tremblay, MERCY AMONG THE CHILDREN BY David Adams Richards, and THE OUTLANDER by Gil Adamson. Canada Reads is an excellent vehicle to get people reading and talking about books, but whether the selections are actually worth reading, I guess, is the point.

I've only read one of the selections this year, but it's not going to stop me from commenting on this years lineup( by the way, my wife told me NOT to do this). By using my vast reading experience, and my acute, discerning literary sense(ahem), I'm able to give my two cents worth on this matter(which is probably what it's worth).

THE BOOK OF NEGROES: OK. I didn't read this novel but I've read a few like it many years ago. It's an extremely unsettling subject matter that always makes me squirm. The guilt, shame, and tears spread evenly like a virus throughout the reading public. But that being said I can only add that this is an old format that has been used successfully many times in the past. I'm a bit surprised it has come up again.

This is probably a very well written novel, and very engaging, but in a sense, the writer knew what he was doing. There will be very few who will actually criticize it, and many who will champion it. And if he gets Oprah's eye on this, he's away to the races, so to speak. I don't know if this is an "Oprah pick" or not, but I would bet my next pension cheque it is or will be. I probably won't read this novel because as I said I find the subject matter extremely unsettling and heart wrenching.

FRUIT: This novel is about a rather fat pubescent possibly gay boy whose nipples talk to him. I had an friend one time who swore his penis hummed after he had sex. I think I will pass on this book.

MERCY AMONG THE CHILDREN: Oh, David Adams Richards. I find his work very heavy, clumsy sometimes. Sometimes he writes very poorly and other times it's excellent, he's usually never consistent. I think I'll pass, it's not my cup of tea(I hate that expression).

THE FAT WOMAN NEXT DOOR IS PREGNANT: Michel Tremblay is without doubt a remarkable playwright. I have seen stage productions of his work and have read many others. His ear for dialogue and keen eye for his character's idiosyncratic ways are amazing. I really didn't know he wrote a novel, and I think I may be interested in reading it. I'm quite sure it would be enjoyable.

THE OUTLANDER: Yes, this is the one I read---and I didn't like it! Gil Adamson is a poet with a few poetry books published and awards won. A note to poets: Don't write novels! OK? Just don't. This novel is a hybrid between poetry and prose, and it doesn't work---in my opinion anyway. There are strange, odd, often funny(not intended) descriptions and metaphors. There's too much attention payed to details that have nothing to do with plot, and less attention paid to character. There are too many adverbs(I hate adverbs!). But the worst problem with this novel is the main character. She is referred to only as "the widow" which secludes her from any reader identification. She has no personality! And with no personality, the reader finds they care very little about her. One reviewer said she wanted the widow to be devoured by wolves. Well, that's a bit harsh, how about field mice? killer bees? Soviet space junk?

Well, that's my take on the Canada Reads selection for this year, for what it's worth.

Next: Canadian writers(some)