Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Why we think that fictional characters are real

The reboot of the TV series Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on the 21st of May, to a huge response from fans. What was interesting is how they responded, criticizing the producers if any of the characters deviated from their previous incarnations by so much as a word or gesture. They were commenting as if the people of “Twin Peaks”, “Detective Dale Cooper”, “The Log Lady”, “Laura Palmer”, etc., were real. What interests me, is why we identify with fictional characters and think they are real – or want to believe they are real. There has to be a psychological or neurological basis for this. In the linked pages of this post I discuss one reason at a time, from our ability to fantasize to the way our brains work. Continue reading

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum – A Modern Parable with Switzerland Substituted for Moral Subtext?

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Random House, New York, March 2015) 

The lead character in Hausfrau, “Anna Benz”, must be one of the most disagreeable people I have had the misfortune to experience in a novel. Not vicious or dangerous, but rather self-indulgent, passive, helpless, self-pitying, weak, out of control, and needy oh, good grief, so needy. To create such a memorably exasperating creature takes skill, so congratulations to Essbaum. All I could say at the end of this story of predestination, adultery, German grammar and psychoanalysis set in a charming Zurich suburb, was “good riddance”. I wondered, after I had finished it, what the point was – why Essbaum wrote this and what it is. It is rather the opposite of an erotic romance (in the Harlequin Desire mode) which is typically a story about the development of a romantic relationship through sex. This was the story of the death of romance through sex. And it’s not pure erotica, since there is more to the novel than that. But if it is actually a modern parable, the moral being something along the line of “The Wages of Sin Is Death”, then it’s cleverly done – but by no means short or simplistic. Continue reading

A face you’ll never forget, a story that will move you – Mary Coin, by Marisa Silver


Mary Coin, by Marisa Silver, Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, 2013

Recently, while PBS was airing the documentary The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns, I bought Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. I simply bought it because of the image on the cover which was in the film and which I had seen hundreds of times before – the photo of a worried, careworn woman with her children and baby, refugees from the 1930s Dust Bowl in the USA. That bony face, that might have been attractive once, the grimy children with their thick hair and backs to the camera, the bundle of rags on her lap that is her baby. The obvious hunger and hopelessness in her that have driven her beyond caring or embarrassment.

I always wondered how that photo came about. Who was that woman? This novel answers both questions – imagined answers, but even so pretty close to the truth. It is fiction, but the two main characters, the mother and her photographer, are based on the real people; Florence Owens Thompson, the “Migrant Mother” made so famous in the photo, and Dorothea Lange, the photographer, who became as famous as her subject.

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Have you read People of the Deer? You should, especially now

Grand old man of Canadian literature dies

Author and writer Farley  Mowat in his home in Port Hope  on May  07 2012. (Photo: VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR)

Author and writer Farley Mowat in his home in Port Hope on May 07 2012. (Photo: VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR)

Just last week I gave my copy of Farley Mowat’s Eastern Passage to a friend with a note saying: “Prescribed reading for all new Canadians”.

And today he died, just five days before his 93rd birthday. What a pity. There’s another famous author gone. Funny how it takes a news item like this to remind you yet again of something rather wonderful that you need to read again.

I was told, on arriving in Canada, that there are certain authors who wrote about Canada, and some Canadian authors, whose books I must read if I want some insight into the Canadian mentality:

  • Margaret Atwood, of course, Surfacing (Atwood wrote her own analysis of Canada’s Most Important Books for the Literary Review of Canada, listing her top 100 works, and adding that to do so is a thankless task that would cause a furore.
  • Annie Proulx – though she is American – The Shipping News, for her depiction of Newfoundland
  • Brian Moore, for Black Robe
  • Will Ferguson, because he’s funny and wrote How to be a Canadian (with Ian Ferguson) – in fact, our friends gave us a copy at our housewarming. (The Dutch equivalent would be The Undutchables, by Colin White, 1989. Can’t figure out how The Netherlands works? Read this.)
  • Alice Munro – of course.
  • Stuart McLean – naturally.
  • Stephen Leacock, old-school Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (the Canadian counterpart of the American series of Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • Robert W. ServiceThe Cremation of Sam McGee, Service’s famous poem about the Yukon Gold Rush. Actually I already knew the opening lines by heart: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold; / The Arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold; / The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, / But the queerest they ever did see / Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge / I cremated Sam McGee.”
  • And Farley Mowat – if you could get your head around his writing. Let’s just say he is an acquired taste – But what a taste!

Narrative non-fiction that will grip you

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The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt


the goldfinch by donna tartt

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, October 2013)

This beautifully printed novel merits serious consideration and stands up to in-depth analysis. It is has 700+ silky pages of narrative in practiced, elegant prose with multiple themes woven through it, primarily; the mesmerizing, redeeming nature of “the line of beauty”; the maniacal nature of the commercial market for art and antiques; the eternal nature of truly sublime art and the fatal, unchangeable, doomed nature of man. Whether Donna Tartt manages to successfully develop and convey all of these ideas in this book is debatable, but ultimately, it is an intriguing novel with interesting premises, posing thought-provoking questions. While the plot revolves around art, it is not a Künstlerroman about an artist’s growth to maturity, but rather a Bildungsroman about an art lover’s growth to maturity, with the 17th century artist, Carl Fabritius, as an ever-present type of Ghost in the Machine.

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