The Mere Wife – Maria Dahvana Headley

The Mere Wife - Maria Dahvana HeadleyA strange story set in a dystopian future. A feminist story for sure – all the strong characters are women. And thus it is a book about motherhood but in a completely novel and somewhat bizarre fashion: two mothers in an American suburb fight to protect those that they love, so a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf with suburban monsters. Sorry to offer such cryptic comments but this is a hard book to categorize and characterize, but excellent speculative fiction.

The Two Of Us – Kathy Page

The Two Of Us - Kathy Page

Last month I raved about Ms. Page’s novel Dear Evelyn. In contrast, this book is composed of very fine short stories. Many of you will know that I typically do not like short stories but Page’s writing makes each story a joy to read.  There is impeccable detail when describing gardens, for example. But the best stories are about relationships. The tension in a meeting with a genetic counsellor is palpable and heart-breaking. Page is a literary treasure.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan OrleanMs. Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written some great fiction (The Orchid Thief). This is a non-fiction book about the Los Angeles Pubic library, written by someone who loves libraries. A particular focus is a devastating fire in the Central Library location in 1986 that destroyed and damaged a large number of books. But the book follows a non-linear path covering the library origins in 1872 to the post-fire restoration and recovery to an intelligent and passionate description of the modern role for libraries in a world that demands access to information and knowledge. The vivid descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of many Head Librarians are delightful, with all the gender politics over the ages. Here is a quote from Althea Warren, the Head Librarian in 1935: “librarians should read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training but because they’d rather read than do anything else in the world” (page 198). Highly recommended for all enthusiastic readers!

In A House Of Lies – Ian Rankin

In A House Of Lies - Ian RankinAfter more than 20 Inspector Rebus books, the stories are as good as ever. This most recent book has a Rankin characteristic, a complex plot with two cold cases. A dazzling feature of the Rebus stories is that lies, deceit and corruption are pretty evenly divided between the police and the criminals. These Rebus stories are also becoming more philosophical as he ages and deals with the medical and moral consequences of a mis-spent life. Very entertaining.

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy - Patricia LockwoodThe author leaves her Mid-Western home at age 19 to be married but after 12 years, financial constraints forces her and her husband to return to the parental home. This gives her the opportunity to remember an unconventional upbringing: a flamboyant and charismatic guitar-playing father usually (un)dressed in only his underwear, who, by the way, is a Catholic Priest with a wife and 5 children (how can that be, you may ask?); and a long-suffering over-protective mother. There are some eye-popping childhood experiences like attending an anti-abortion rally at a very young age. Ms. Lockwood also takes this opportunity for reflection, producing a memoir that is often comic but also poignant. And for a published poet, her writing is wonderful such as this description of a church space: “The ceiling is low and the lights flicker fluorescently and emit an insect whine. The whole place smells like where coffee goes to die”. Highly recommended; thanks to Sarah’s friend Elizabeth for this recommendation.

The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted - Rene DenfeldThis short book give a powerful and disturbing view of a prison in contemporary times. The two key external characters are unnamed: The Lady, a death penalty investigator hired by lawyers to evaluate evidence regarding death row prisoners; and the Fallen Priest.  There is also a death row inmate, also unnamed until the final pages of the book, who watches and listens. And a prison society that is revealed as corrupt and deadly. So be warned, this is a tough read but memorable for good and bad reasons.

By Chance Alone – Max Eisen

By Chance Alone - Max EisenCanada Reads winner. This poignant and powerful memoir, written by an Auschwitz survivor, in presented in three parts. First, a happy childhood in Southern Czechoslovakia. Then second, at age 15, Max and his family are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944; he is separated from his mother and three siblings instantly who are all killed. Initially Max and his father and uncle work as slave labourers but then are separated and his father and uncle are targeted for death. Max’s survival is by chance (hence the title). He is arbitrarily selected to work in the concentration camp infirmary; this provides a unique look at how this “hospital” worked while staffed by political prisoners. The third chapter is post-liberation which is fraught with problems leading to a complicated process as a young orphan to find his way to Canada. One striking feature of the Auschwitz story is that simple survival was the over-arching imperative so Max’s psychological and emotional response to the loss of his entire family had to be suppressed. The Canada Reads success was due to three factors. First the panel proponent, Ziya Tong, was well-organized and passionate. Second, the current emergence of white supremacy (e.g. New Zealand atrocity) in the world demands an understanding of the holocaust. And the third factor was sort of reverse ageism, that Max represents a disappearing generation of Auschwitz survivors and so it is important to give this book an audience.