Comparing Shields’ Swann and Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne on a long sleepless night

Swann: A Mystery by Carol Shields and Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

The two books I’ve just finished reading, Carol Shields’ 1987 novel Swann: A Mystery and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne (published in 2015 in French as La femme qui fuit), could scarcely be more different.


Barbeau-Lavalette’s book was a sensation and a bestseller in Quebec. However, it only caught English Canada’s attention when the translation by Rhonda Mullins became a finalist in the 2019 Canada Reads contest. Suzanne is Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s novelistic telling of her grandmother’s life. Suzanne Meloche was an artist and activist during the early stages of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Her husband (and the father of her two children), Marcel Barbeau, was also an artist. The couple was part of a rebellious artists’ group called Les Automatistes.

The author scarcely knew the grandmother who had abandoned her mother when she was a small child, a grandmother who continued to shun closeness with both daughter and granddaughter right to the end of her life. Barbeau-Lavalette needed to write this story as a novel because exploring Suzanne’s inner life and her decisions could only be done through a sympathetic imaginative process.

Suzanne has been praised for its beautiful writing. It is easy to read and has an entrancing quality. The text is presented in short fragments mixed with Suzanne’s poetry. The author has said that she used this style to mimic the way Suzanne was impossible to pin down. In life she was always fleeing; she never stayed in one place very long.

In my opinion, Suzanne deserved to be the first book voted off in the 2019 Canada Reads competition; it was not “the one book to move you” that would be appreciated and understood by all Canadians. It is very much a niche work of art. Ironically, though, its greater significance became more obvious to me after reading Swann.

Carol Shields (1935–2003) was one of Canada’s best-loved novelists and short story writers, and her books won everything from the Pulitzer Prize (she was American-born) and the Governor General’s Award. Though Swann is one of her lesser-known novels, I enjoyed reading every page of it. The book displays Shields’ ability to create rich in-depth characters, and her astute (and often heartwarming) understanding of marriage and other relationships.


In many of her books, Shields engages readers by experimenting boldly with structure, and Swann is a good example of this. The story is told from the point of view of four main characters, in four separate sections, and there is a final fifth section written as a film script. In this novel Shields develops a mystery story about an uneducated woman named Mary Swann who lives on a poor farm in Ontario. Somehow, this deprived woman has managed to write many extraordinary poems, which she delivers to a Kingston publisher, Fredric Cerutti. This sophisticated European man is astonished and delighted by the quality of Swann’s poetry. However, the very day after receiving the poems, he discovers that the reclusive poet was brutally murdered by her husband only hours after he saw her.

One night soon after I started reading Swann, I had one of my terrible nights of insomnia.

The insomniac wants nothing more than sleep, oblivion, the escape from the prison of their own mind. Yet as I lay there I remembered something I had just read in Swann. Sarah Maloney, a scholar studying Mary Swann’s poetry, muses (after a reference to meditation), “I’ve never been able to see the point of emptying one’s mind of thought. Our thoughts are all we have. I love my thoughts, even when they take me up and down sour-smelling byways where I’d rather not venture” (p. 20).*

“Our thoughts are all we have . . .” I tried to be grateful for my relentless insomniac thoughts. And suddenly my mind started down a fruitful path. I was thinking about Suzanne Meloche and Mary Swann, two characters from such different books, and I suddenly realized what these characters shared. Skip the next section if you want to know the answer right away.


Insomnia is a life-long problem of mine. It’s a problem rooted in the fear of insomnia itself that started during my second year of university. I had a three-day period of difficult chemistry and biology exams and could not sleep during the entire time.

Insomnia is a problem unlike most others: it can’t be cured by willpower or hard work; it can even ferociously resist positive thinking when the dark wormy thoughts of the night try to induce panic.

It demands surrender and acceptance. It becomes an exercise in tricking the mind into thinking it doesn’t care whether it sleeps or not, no matter how exhausted both mind and body have become.

I’ve become expert at resisting that panic and remaining physically calm even though I feel the anti-sleep anxiety buzzing in my brain, forcing me to endure the hateful combination of extreme exhaustion coupled with extreme mental arousal . . . for hour after crawling hour.

I do try to counter the “dark wormy thoughts” with positive thoughts as best as I can. One technique is to remind myself of all the things in my life I am grateful for, huge things like my health, my continued enjoyment of running and cycling, and the people I am close to.

I often think about the comfort of my bed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have insomnia in a setting where physical interference actively prevented sleep.

I imagine being Mary Swann or Suzanne Meloche

In my wakefulness, I started thinking about what it would be like to have insomnia in the environments that the main characters in Suzanne and Swann endure. Both live in run-down buildings without indoor plumbing. Nights in Quebec and Ontario would be bitterly cold in winter and often sweltering in summer.

The novels portray women who have good reasons to be insomniacs. They are living in dire poverty, unable to even provide properly for their children. Mary Swann is trapped in a marriage with a violent, abusive, ignorant man.

I was suddenly struck by the ways these women are similar even though Suzanne is bright, articulate, and well-educated, and Mary is uneducated and virtually unknown even to her closest neighbours. The main thing is that both are artists living in times and circumstances that gave women few choices. In fact, it’s almost miraculous (especially in Mary’s case) that they can produce art at all.

Both “pay the price” for being artists. Both are trapped by poverty, biology (children being the almost inevitable result of marriage), and the subordinate role of women. Mary can’t escape and dies a violent death at age fifty.

Suzanne, in contrast, makes the bold and socially unacceptable choice to abandon her children and husband and live as an artist. But the consequences (for both Suzanne herself and for her children) are severe: Suzanne ends up isolated, lonely, and mentally ill; her son never recovers from the abuse he endured at the hands of his adoptive family and becomes a permanent resident at a mental institution; her daughter manages to become a successful filmmaker (Manon Barbeau) and has a daughter herself (Anaïs), but she never loses her feelings of being rejected.

All in all, Suzanne is a very sad story and it seems to me that Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette wrote it in an attempt to solve the mystery of her grandmother’s actions; how could Suzanne Meloche continue to reject her daughter and granddaughter’s presence in her life after the initial abandonment? At the heart of the mystery is the artistic impulse, and Barbeau-Lavalette tries to explain and justify the actions caused by complete devotion to the artistic calling. In this she is at least somewhat successful.

Perhaps Barbeau-Lavalette could have broadened her readers’ understanding by writing more about the context of Suzanne Meloche’s story. The Catholic Church was all-powerful in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. Almost all French-Canadian women were trapped by their religion’s prohibition of birth control; biology was destiny, and women often had twenty or more children, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and lack of higher education.

* Shields, Carol. Swann: A Mystery. Toronto: Stoddart. 1987.

Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman about grief and modern warfare


Elliot Ackerman is a novelist and an ex-Marine who was an active duty officer for eight years, including five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also spent three years as a journalist in Syria, covering that country’s civil war.

Recently I listened to his interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company, where he talked about his latest novel, Waiting for Eden. Novelists can reach people like me who aren’t always well-informed about current political events, because they present these events at a personal level; that is, they appeal to readers’ desire for characters and their stories. In this way a huge, often faraway event can be made real.

Wachtel’s entire interview with Ackerman was hugely moving, but the part that got me hooked—because it was heartbreaking—was the five-minute reading Ackerman gave from Waiting for Eden.

The passage he read is written from the point of view of a young, inexperienced nurse who is working at a veterans’ hospital. It is Christmas Day, and she is alone on duty on the floor where an injured soldier, sent back from Afghanistan three years earlier, is being tended. This man, Eden—reduced from a 220-pound soldier to a 70-pound multiple amputee—also has terrible burns and can’t speak or hear. None of the doctors expect him to survive.

The nurse is at her desk monitoring Eden’s vital signs. It seems awful to her that he’s lying there, not being allowed to die. She doesn’t plan to go to his room. She doesn’t want to see that being in the bed that she can’t think of as either living or dead.

However, at some point, “knowing she was spending her Christmas with him, and his with her, and that this might be his last Christmas,” she is compelled to go to him. She unplugs the small Christmas tree from her desk (it’s a tree with lights, like the ones Snoopy put on his doghouse) and takes it with her to Eden’s room.

When she first goes in, she looks around him, not at him. But when she opens the blinds, she can see him in a way she hadn’t before. She can see “. . . the white of his linens, the little pink stains where pieces of him had stuck against them . . . the great hollows of his wounds . . . ” The intricate, awful details continue, and Elliot closes the description with this: “His eyes blinked at her, unprotected by lashes, and she could see where they were rheumy without rest and soapy with pain, and how they teared against his pillow, always.”

I felt as though I could scarcely bear what I heard in this five-minute reading, yet Ackerman’s writing was so exquisite I knew I had to read the book.

As a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman had much to say about the reasons why these wars go on and on. He spoke about what he sees as the role of the American military in international wars. Also, he spoke frankly about his personal motivation to participate in a war—and what he’s come to learn about the nature of grief.

Commenting on the seventeen years of  war in Afghanistan, and the even longer Vietnam War, Ackerman said that wars are “shape-shifting entities”—they don’t usually continue for the same reasons they were begun. According to Ackerman, American leaders as far back as Kennedy knew the Vietnam War couldn’t be won, yet they kept it going for both domestic and international political reasons.

Then there is the role of grief in maintaining wars. As a journalist, Ackerman understood the Syrians’ desire for democratic reforms. They believed their cause was undeniably a good one, so their protests had to have a positive outcome. Instead, their country was destroyed. Elliot says, “You have people who have lost so much—they can just never be made whole. And that will keep a war going for a long, long time.”

Return to Eden is largely an examination of the nature of grief. Ackerman talked about the “narrative arc of grief”—that it’s a process we move through, and we eventually get over things. He said it’s just not true. Sometimes we just keep enduring the loss. Waiting. Waiting as Eden does in the hospital, as his wife Mary does in “holding faith” with Eden.

Part of the interview was about Ackerman’s background—he lived with his family in London between the ages of nine and fifteen, and he believes this gave him a “slant” view of what being an American means. Wachtel was subtly questioning whether it is possible to be proud of being an American in today’s political climate. But Ackerman’s response was firmly idealistic.

He still believes there is a “responsibility that comes with being an American. He said, “We’re a nation that all aspires to a collective ideal. We’re all immigrants. We all come here because we opt into this ideal of what it means to be an American.” According to Ackerman, the American ideal is to strive for perfection, to strive for a “more perfect union,” even though the ideal is never realized. He said that when people ask what it’s like to be an American, what they’re really asking is what it’s like to live in a society that’s idea-based as opposed to race-based or ethnically-based.

What kept him motivated when he was still on active duty? Ackerman said that when it comes to specific wars, people like himself are motivated to fight for personal reasons, not ideological ones. “I’m a Marine, it’s my job. I’m taking care of my buddies.”

Yet he has never stopped thinking about the reasons for wars, and the morality of them. He spoke passionately about what he sees as the moral hazard in modern wars. Why are wars so difficult to end? As mentioned above, it’s partly because of the grief and losses that the populations involved have endured. But it’s also because of the “outsiders” who are trying to intervene—including the US. The American military is fighting, but the American people as a whole are not engaged with the wars the US is fighting. These wars are fought solely by volunteers and funded by deficit spending. There is no incentive for the country as a whole to discuss the morality and financial aspects of war.

Ackerman mentioned “a modest proposal” he’s written about: he would like to see an American military where ten percent of the combat units would be draftees. Critically, these draftees would come solely from families in the US who file in the top income tax bracket. Ackerman knows this would never happen; yet his point is that if the wealthy elite segment of the American population had a personal interest in the overseas wars their military fights, politicians would have incentives for ending them.

War has influenced Ackerman’s views of both luck and grief. He commented that many people see their luck as something that is preordained. He sees luck as a totally random thing whose role is underrated. He described being shot at—and missed—and said that made the nature of luck very clear to him.

As for grief, he said it was the birth of his daughter that made him understand the enormity of personal loss. When Wachtel questioned him about why he left the military, he said a major reason was to be with his daughter. But also, he felt it was time to have a new purpose in life, and for him that meant writing novels.

Was it difficult for Ackerman to leave the military? He said, “You have to find another purpose. In life, we all derive our happiness from a sense of purpose.” He went on to say, “In the military there is a very clear and intense sense of purpose. . .  you see this with a lot of athletes, artists who’ve achieved early success—anyone who’s been up to the summit—you have to then reckon with the descent.”

To me, these words were inspiring. They reminded me that we can all be multi-faceted. We can embrace change, find a new purpose, and have the courage to believe we can reinvent ourselves.

Lisa Moore’s February: a perfect grip on the emotional truths of love, risk, and tragedy


Sometimes I’m astounded by a writer’s talent and finesse, and that’s how I feel about Lisa Moore’s writing. She writes like no one else I’ve encountered. In particular, I noticed how she gets inside the minds of her characters; she follows the way their thoughts move: back-and-forth in time, jumping from one subject to another, with fragments, without censorship, fixating on key memories that can’t ever be erased. After finishing February, I found myself flabbergasted the same way I was after reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with the same thought: How did this all come together, how did it work? Now I have to reread this book!

Moore’s protagonist, Helen, is a 56-year-old grandmother whose husband Cal died when the oil rig he was working on capsized off the coast of Newfoundland. Helen and Cal were only thirty and thirty-one. They were in love; they had three children; there was another baby on the way that Cal didn’t even know about. So this novel is mostly about tragedy and how it happens in ordinary life and to ordinary people. How does Helen go on? Why does she go on?

In February, Moore gets inside Helen’s mind, but at many different points of time that are not presented chronologically. Somehow, Moore is able to create an utterly compelling narrative out of all these fragments: thought-fragments that ring so true the reader can’t help but think, This is fiction but it captures reality better than anything else I’ve ever read. We recognize the emotional truth of the way Helen is tormented by the “accident”; her fixation on imagined scenarios, questions, and if-onlys. It’s a loop of thoughts that replays in her mind from the first moment she hears about the rig going down, to the days following, the months following, the birth of the baby girl who would never know her father, and the years that turn into decades.

February is about luck. And risk. And risk management. The first time Helen and Cal have sex, the condom breaks. Is that bad luck? Helen gets pregnant, yes, but they are in love; they get married, twenty and twenty-one years old.

Cal considers himself lucky to get a job on the rig. He and Helen know the risks, but they need the money for their growing family.

What about the oil company, the people at the top who didn’t even phone the families of their employees after the sinking? The families heard “no survivors” on the morning news at the same time as their friends and neighbours. There is an inquiry, of course. Moore’s powerful, scathing words cut through all the obfuscating language and evasions of the company’s “risk management policies.” Here are some of the things Helen learns, forever imprinted on her mind:

Inside the control room there’s also a panel with brass rods that allows the ballast control operators to control ballast manually, and here’s the thing. . . . Nobody knew how to use the brass rods. If they’d known, the rig wouldn’t have sunk.

. . . the water from the broken portal hits the electrical panel and short-circuits it . . . The man in the control room . . . he’s reading the manual, but here’s the thing: the manual didn’t say how to control the ballast if there was an electrical malfunction.

So he can read the manual all he wants.

He can read it backwards if he wants. Or he can read it in Japanese. It’s never going to tell him what to do. (p. 152)

Even more unbearable to Helen are the things she can never know. Did Cal, about to die, know that she loved him? Did he want to tell her the things she so needed to hear?

She would have liked him to tell her certain things, and she knows exactly what they are:

I’m not afraid.

Tell Helen thank you.

Tell the children I love them.

Tell Helen; tell Helen. (pp. 291–292)

Moore is fearless in confronting life’s ultimate, awful mystery—death—and Helen’s pain at being unable to share any part of Cal’s journey.

What Helen cannot fathom or forgive: We are alone in death. Of course we are alone. . . . Cal was alone in that cold. . . . Helen wants to jump into the ocean in the middle of the night when it’s snowing just to see what it feels like. (p. 292)

Helen is tormented by imagining Cal’s being alone during his last moments on the oil rig, but she too faces solitude—a solitude that extends to decades. She must go on living as a single mother who has had the love, help, and companionship of her husband wrenched away. When her children are grown up they encourage her to try online dating; on this subject, Moore manages to be both funny and pitiless as she describes Helen’s being stood up in a bar by a man who seemed exciting online.

Yet a few years after the bar incident, Helen realizes she might not have to give up on love and sex. She finds herself attracted to Barry, the carpenter who is renovating her house. I almost gasped with recognition when I read the line, “. . . she thinks again the thing every adult woman thinks of herself—that she is still her sixteen-year-old self.” (p. 242)

Helen knows:

How deeply she craves to be touched. Because what follows not being touched, Helen has discovered, is more of the same—not being touched. . . .

The only cure is to chant: I want, I want. (p. 242)

Still, Helen can’t stop thinking, “They are too old for love. It is laughable. For an instant she sees them fucking: grey pubic hair, puckered skin, creaking joints. It is a grotesque comedy . . . ” But Moore shows this isn’t true. With the story of Helen and Barry, February becomes a novel whose warmth and hope shines against tragedy and corruption.

This review has been mostly about Helen; I’m not doing justice to the complexity of the characters in this book, and the richness of their interwoven stories. The most disturbing and fascinating character is Helen’s oldest child, her son John, who is nine when his father is lost. Precocious, charming, sharply intelligent despite a learning disability, John causes Helen no end of grief yet takes on the role of helping his family from an early age. Moore forces us to confront the irony and moral ambiguity of a person who accepts a job with a company whose function is to “modify” and “trim” “redundant safety procedures” on oil rigs. By taking this job, with its obscenely high salary, John secures his own escape from the risky, physically horrible jobs he has done on oil rigs. He also gains financial security, and he supports his family generously. And when a casual, week-long vacation fling with a woman results in an unexpected pregnancy, John decides, with his mother’s help, to do what she would call “the right thing.”

February was the winner of Canada Reads in 2013. Risky in style and structure, it is yet a captivating, perfect novel, devastating in its emotional truth. I still don’t know how Lisa Moore did it—I can’t do justice to February here—just read it.


Quotes from:

Moore, Lisa. 2009. February. Toronto: House of Anansi Press

Book review of Essbaum’s Hausfrau: NOT a modern Anna Karenina story

A couple of weeks ago I found two books at my local library using one of my common techniques for choosing books—browsing randomly. These books were in a corner of the library set aside for a summer reading club. This summer’s theme is “Walk on the Wild Side.” Two books piqued my curiosity and I checked them out.


I first read Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. The back cover blurbs suggested that the novel could be compared to a modern Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. High praise, indeed, and all the blurbs gushed about Essbaum’s masterful writing.

As I started reading, I wasn’t disappointed. Hausfrau is the story of an expatriate American wife, Anna, living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children. Anna is not happy; after nine years in Switzerland she still feels herself to be an outsider and has no close friends. She is bored, without personal ambition or direction, and feels distant from her husband. At first I found her story compelling, mainly because it includes a lot of well-written sex scenes. Anna starts an affair with a fellow student in her German class. Only weeks later she gets drawn into another affair, this time with a family friend.

But Hausfrau is not a steamy romance or an erotic novel—it is neither of these. Essbaum is asking serious questions about how a woman creates her identity and becomes fulfilled. What roles can marriage and extramarital sex play in that process? What is love? Why does Anna feel so isolated? Why is she so troubled by the question of what comes after death? She has regular psychotherapy sessions with a Doktor Messerli, and their conversations make up many scenes in the book. Yet the psychotherapist seems unable to draw Anna into a state of greater self-awareness, or penetrate her depression.

Hausfrau engaged me completely and in that way it is a successful novel. It made me think not only about the questions above, but about how my reactions to the book changed as I continued reading it. I’m fascinated by the fact that different readers analyze and respond to the same book in different ways. For example, the jacket cover calls Anna an “electrifying heroine,” and a blurb on the back compares her story to the nineteenth-century heroines of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. I, instead, found myself puzzled and frustrated by Essbaum’s Anna. In my view she was unbelievably passive, and strangely indifferent towards her husband, lovers, and friends.

What I didn’t understand about Anna is that she has tremendous sexual energy, but seems unable to transfer any energy or joyfulness to other areas of her life. The sex scenes are powerful and erotic—yet the overriding message seems to be that sex is, for Anna, her only form of escapism and self-affirmation. At one point Doktor Messerli asks Anna what she is good at. Anna thinks, but doesn’t say, that the only thing she is good at is fucking.

She feels no emotion for her sexual partners; in fact she knows little about them and has no interest in getting to know more. Also, there seems to be no adequate explanation of what has gone wrong with Anna’s marriage to Bruno. Why are they so distant? There is one scene in the book where they have wild, rough sex after a party, and it’s clear that Anna still finds him very attractive, physically. Yes, they have their cultural differences, but Anna knew that going into the marriage.

Why do Bruno and Anna seem to have no interest in strengthening their marriage? There is one scene where Anna’s pseudo-friend Edith (a thoroughly unlikeable character) says she doesn’t have a clue what her husband does at work; Anna admits that she knows nothing about Bruno’s work, either. Anna says, “We should care enough about our husbands to know what they do.”

Edith replies, “The only thing we need to know is this: they bring home a paycheck.” So Anna, passive though she is, feels more compunction than Edith; Anna at least recognizes that this level of disinterest about one’s life partner is callous and strange.

One clue about Anna’s distance from Bruno is a backstory about an affair she had with a man named Stephen a couple of years before the present-day events of the novel. Of all the men mentioned from Anna’s life, Stephen was, apparently, the one she loved passionately. In fact, we learn that Anna’s third child is actually Stephen’s daughter, not Bruno’s, but Anna has never told anyone this. Stephen left Anna for a job in the States. He never wanted Anna to be a permanent partner. She wasn’t realistic about what she meant to him.

Yet Anna doesn’t tell Doktor Messerli about Stephen.

As I progressed through the book, I continued to be drawn in by Anna’s predicament but I was increasingly frustrated by her apathy. To me, comparisons with the heroines of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are not apt. Tolstoy’s Anna is passionately in love with Vronsky. She is the victim of the rules and conventions of her time. By choosing to live with Vronsky, she not only becomes an outcast from Russian society, but her petty bureaucrat of a husband bans her from seeing her beloved son. For Anna Karenina, every choice leads to heartbreak.

Emma Bovary is more similar to Anna in Hausfrau, in that both are unhappy and bored by their social environment. Both Emma’s and Anna’s first lovers (Rudolf and Stephen) don’t love them. But Emma is trapped in ways that the contemporary Anna need not be. Modern women aren’t severely limited in their choices the way women were in the nineteenth century. Emma’s provincial town has nothing to offer her in terms of personal development or stimulation. Also, Emma doesn’t love her husband or even feel any physical attraction to him.

Eventually Anna’s affairs can no longer be hidden, and can no longer shield her from some awful real-life events. Her son Charles dies in a freak accident. After that, Bruno finds out he’s not the father of their third child. He beats Anna up and then tells her she has to leave their home for a while so no one sees the marks he’s put on her. Now Anna has genuine causes for grief and desperation. Yet I still found her actions in the last part of the book inexplicable. How could she be so unhinged as to leave her purse and suitcase on the train? Why does she throw her cellphone—her last link to getting help—into the water? Is Essbaum implying that the only way out for Anna is suicide, as it was for Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary?

After reading most of Hausfrau eagerly, the ending left me dissatisfied and depressed. What was Essbaum’s purpose in writing it? In the end, the book seemed to convey messages only about failure: Anna’s failure to develop herself; her failure to find intimacy with others, including her husband, her lovers, or her friends; and the failure of the people surrounding her, including Doktor Messerli, to help her.

Despite the fact that Hausfrau disturbed me, the fact that it left me asking questions and postulating answers speaks to its success in engaging me. The novel seems real and honest, in part because it doesn’t shy away from exposing people’s darkest, weakest thoughts and actions.

It left me wondering how other people will react to Hausfrau and its “heroine.” How will they interpret the book’s conclusion? To me it gives a warning about the dangers of being passive—going with “the flow” of accidents and others’ choices without adequate self-awareness and reflection. Perhaps Anna should not have married Bruno. Perhaps she shouldn’t have had children. Perhaps she should have terminated her affair with Stephen early on, by admitting to herself that he didn’t love her the way she loved him.


When I was almost finished reading Hausfrau, I came across a quote from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings website. She quoted the prolific writer Robert Penn Warren (best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King’s Men) on the subject of “finding oneself” through taking time off from work or school to do extensive travelling. Warren’s words were:

. . . the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.*

Anna doesn’t make choices about her own work, productive leisure activities, or friendships. She only accepts, passively, the choices that others impose upon her. She never “finds” herself. Instead, she loses everything by leaving her suitcase on the train and willfully discarding her cellphone. It seems the only choice Anna is capable of making is that of self-destruction.

* From Democracy and Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1975)

Eleanor Wachtel interviews Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: “That resolution into light”

Every Sunday I listen to Eleanor Wachtel interview writers on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company. Last Sunday, when I heard that the guest was a poet, I was mildly disappointed. I don’t read much poetry. I’ve concluded that I can only consume poetry in small doses, when I’m prepared to read slowly and think deeply about what I read. I especially like ambiguous poetry, where the interpretation remains a puzzle and can vary hugely from reader to reader.

In any case, I was completely wrong to think that last Sunday’s replay of a 2006 interview with poet Derek Walcott would not fully engage me. First of all, Walcott (who died in March, 2017) was from St. Lucia, and I found his Caribbean accent delightful and comforting because my father is from Trinidad. Although my father emigrated to Canada at the age of 20, his voice still retains slight nuances of his Trinidadian accent, and Walcott’s pronunciation reminded me of my father’s.

Secondly, almost the instant I heard Walcott speak, I was also reminded that although writing is the only art I follow avidly, I believe that all artistic expression, be it painting, photography, music, dancing, sculpture, theatre, or something else—is ultimately about the same things: striving to transcend our mere biological existence and the mundane necessities of life. It seems that most human beings, if they can get beyond putting all their energy into survival, thirst for more and want to express more. Artists want to give their interpretation of grappling with the deepest questions we have about human existence: about joy,  about suffering, about beauty, about why and whether an individual life must end.

But back to Derek Walcott. The whole interview was fascinating, but the section between minutes 13:58 and 16:24 was especially meaningful to me. Here, Walcott struggles (with dazzling eloquence) to explain just what it is that poets—writers—indeed, all artists—strive for.

In this section, Walcott is responding to Wachtel’s query about what he means in his book The Prodigal when he talks about “the anguish and emptiness of the poet.”

He answers that all experience has a dual aspect, and that the duality has to do poets’ sense of incompleteness,  “a perpetual condition of being unfulfilled.” They recognize an identity, an “I” (ego) and its incompleteness, and in their poetry they are striving to remedy that. He says that the parts of poetry that move us are the times when we experience a “sense of fusion happening, when ambiguity is resolved.” Walcott calls this “a resolution into light . . . ”

According to him, this resolution is “absolutely, celestially confirmed best of all in Dante, in the last cantos of Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], where what you feel is radiance, what you feel is completion, you feel light coming off the page.” He says this also happens in the last speech of Prospero in The Tempest (Shakespeare).

This is what all poets strive for, says Walcott. He is talking about “the dissolution of the identity of the poet in terms of blending with what’s around him.” Thus, the poet’s sense of incompleteness is “resolved into light.”

Moreover, “All art strives at that—that light—it is a completion.”

Walcott expresses all of this much better than I can do in this summary. It’s necessary to listen to every second of the interview in order to fully understand and appreciate his words. But what he’s saying here seems to me to be the same thing Buddhists talk about when they talk about the attaining Nirvana, when the borders of the ego are erased and an individual consciousness merges into the One.



You can listen to the podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Derek Walcott here.

This interview reminded me of what I love about Writers & Company. Not only does Wachtel introduce us to outstanding writers and their works, but interviewees in turn reference the great books and other kinds of art that have inspired them. The writing (and reading) life is one of endlessly rich entanglements and connections.


The extraordinary new “Dictionary of Canadianisms”: An insider’s view


Jacques Plante’s goalie mask. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo: M. Pick (from Dollinger and Fee, 2017).

Just over a year ago, I started proofreading The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP‑2). The creation of this unique online dictionary was led by Dr. Stefan Dollinger (editor-in-chief) and Dr. Margery Fee (associate editor), with the assistance of many students working out of the Canadian English Lab at UBC.

Today (March 17, 2017) the DCHP-2 goes live online at It is available in open access, free of charge, for anyone to view and use (with appropriate citation, see Dollinger and Fee (2017) below). After eleven years of work, Dollinger and his team have been able to achieve their goal of releasing the dictionary in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary (sesquicentennial).

It isn’t a coincidence that the DCHP‑2 builds upon the foundation of the DCHP-1, a dictionary published in 1967 (Canada’s centennial) under the direction of editor Walter Avis. However, the huge advances in computer technology and linguistics research have made it possible to produce a much more ambitious and expansive dictionary.

Note: For a full account of the history, methodology, and linguistics research involved in the production of the DCHP-2, please refer to the Introduction and Project History sections of the online dictionary at

The DCHP‑2 is not like any other dictionary. First of all, as its title says, its words are “Canadianisms” (with the exception of a few words, now labelled “non-Canadian” that were previously thought to be Canadian). So, what is a “Canadianism”?

To quote from Avis, the editor of the DCHP-1, a Canadianism is

a word, expression, or meaning which is native to Canada or which is distinctively characteristic of Canadian usage though not necessarily exclusive to Canada (Avis 1967: xiii).

 The DCHP‑2 adds a mere 1002 words (or expressions) to the DCHP-1’s legacy data for 10,974 headwords, but each entry includes much more information than did the DCHP-1 or any traditional dictionary. Part of the work done to produce the DCHP-2 was the gathering of over 51,000 new quotations (double the number found for the DCHP-1); these quotations comprise the Bank of Canadian English (BCE), and almost 9,000 of them were incorporated into the new dictionary.

Each entry begins with the word’s etymology, a definition, and the “type” of Canadianism it is. In addition to these basics, there is a detailed Word Story that explains such things as the word’s origins, how its use has changed over time, regional differences in its use, and other details. Some words have more than one meaning.

Each meaning’s Word Story is followed by quotations found in written records or sometimes spoken records such as radio broadcasts. Some of these quotation lists span a period of a hundred years or more, and provide a comprehensive picture of how a word’s use has developed, as well as a more general impression of how everyday Canadian writing and speech have changed over the years.

Some of the dictionary’s entries contain thousands of words of text; that’s why proofreading all of it consumed a significant portion of my working hours in 2016! And thanks to the internet, which eliminates the need to limit the amount of text and audio/visual enhancements, the DCHP‑2 contains many other distinctive features. Most entries are accompanied by “Frequency Charts” that compare a word’s use in English-speaking countries worldwide; some words also have regional Frequency Charts to illustrate how a word is used (or not used) across Canada’s provinces and territories.

Entries are also enriched by photos, charts from linguistics research, and YouTube videos. This is a cutting-edge dictionary!

Why explore the DCHP-2?

Reading the DCHP-2 provides a learning experience unlike any other: it is a comprehensive and quirky immersion in Canada’s history, politics, language, customs, and culture. Canadians reading it will feel a glow of recognition and pride because it shows how specifically Canadian words or meanings of words reflect what is distinctive about Canada; in other words, the DCHP‑2 displays our “national personality”: our origins (Indigenous, English, French, and others), our politics (particularly the French-English conflicts), predominant industries that have shaped Canada, and our culture. Culture includes our foods, our celebrations, our arts, and our sports, the latter dominated, of course, by the huge influence of hockey on our national consciousness.

If you are a Canadian, you will not only learn from the DCHP-2, but you will have fun as you “test” yourself against its findings. How many Canadianisms have you never heard of? Do you actually use the words in the ways the dictionary describes, including the regional differences given for many of the words? Were you aware of the many differences between Canadian and American English (these involve much more than some spelling variations).

A quick peek into some of the DCHP-2’s entries


As a humble proofreader, I am the only person in addition to Stefan Dollinger (editor-in-chief) and Margery Fee (associate editor) who has read the entire text of the DHCP-2. This means I can give readers an overview of notable topics the entries cover, as well as examples of words from each topic.

To me, an enticing quality of the DCHP-2 is the way every Canadian can relate to many of its words in a personal way. We can recognize our own everyday expressions, our activities, our special events—the myriad of things that “make us” Canadian. I’ve included a few words at the end of this post that I particularly liked or that had personal significance for me.

Words relating to Canada’s roots: Indigenous words and politics, French words, Newfoundland words

Some Inuit words or words from other Indigenous languages are included in the DCHP-2. In addition, there are many extremely long entries related to the complicated relationship (past and present) between Canada’s mainstream population and its Indigenous peoples. Some examples are amautik, Qalunaat, skookum, Assembly of First Nations, missing and murdered women, and reconciliation.

As one of Canada’s founding languages, French remains pervasive in Canada, not only in Quebec French but in French words that have been adapted into English versions or used in their original French form in the everyday speech of anglophones. Some examples are cabane á sucre, bloquiste, and depanneur.

Newfie words

Newfie” itself is an entry in the DCHP-2! Newfoundland is a special case in Canadian linguistics. There are so many words that are used in Newfoundland and nowhere else in Canada that it must have been difficult for the dictionary’s editors to decide which words to include. The DCHP-2 contains 132 words from this distinctive Newfoundland dialect; these words comprise the majority of the DCHP-2’s entries that were completely unfamiliar to me. A smattering of the many colourful entries follows: angle-dog, away, chin music, gut-foundered, dry diet, upalong, bonnyclabber, squidding, and baywop. And of course, the expression “Newfie joke” is a well-known Canadianism, though not one that Newfies like.


Of the many Canadianisms from the topic of Canadian politics, a good percentage relate to the long-standing clashes between Canada’s English and French cultures. Some examples: language police, bear-pit session, Trudeaumania, Bill 101, have-not province, and Meech Lake Accord.

Industry and Inventions

Many of the dictionary’s terms are related to Canada’s historically important forestry industry: terms such as bush ape, cork boots, catskinner, honey bag, and beehive burner. Words related to Canadian inventions include bombardier, Robertson screw, and Canadarm.


Amongst the many entries in this category are Canadian Screen Awards, Genie Award, Giller effect, CanCon, and National Film Board.

Cultural—food and brands

A great many of the DCHP-2’s entries relate to specifically Canadian foods. Again, the influence of Quebec and Newfoundland is especially noticeable. Many of the brand names included in the dictionary also relate to favourite Canadian foods. Canadians’ love of beer is reflected in a few expressions that would be mysterious to non-Canadians. A taste of these entries: Molson muscle, two-four, smoked meat, dry diet, Jiggs’ dinner, poutine, bumbleberry, cretons, figgy duff, Timbits, Kraft Dinner, and Cheezies.

Cultural—hockey and other sports

I’m not an ardent hockey fan, but like virtually all Canadians, I have a connection to the game. Until I was nine years old, my family was unusual in that we didn’t have a TV—but every April my father would rent one so he could watch every game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For that month, I watched hockey games (or heard them in the background) almost every night.

And hockey cards! Like all the other kids at my elementary school, I collected and traded them.

Hockey is a cornerstone of the Canadian identity. The DCHP-2 captures this. The entry for the word “hockey” is one of the longest in the dictionary. Moreover, it includes a huge number of words related to hockey. Many of them are well known, and are part of our everyday speech: for example, hockey mom, back of the net, slapshot, shinny, and game seven. There are other words I was unfamiliar with that a more dedicated hockey fan would understand—like puck-ragging. Hockey terms are so influential that some have metaphorical meanings—take a look at the entry for “hang up one’s skates”!

If you are a real Canadian, you know who The Great One is.

Other Canadian sports are mentioned in the DCHP-2 as well. I was ignorant about barrel-jumping—but the dictionary soon remedied that.

My favourite entries

One of the most fun aspects of reading the DCHP-2 is “testing” yourself to see if your understanding of a word’s meaning is in agreement with the scholarly findings reported in the Frequency Charts, especially the regional ones. I’ve spent roughly half my life in Toronto and the other half in Vancouver, so I expected to have a good understanding of words that were used predominantly in Ontario and British Columbia.

In a few cases, having grown up in Ontario gave me an especially nuanced understanding of certain Ontario terms. The most notable example of this was the word “Scarberia,” which is a nickname for Scarborough, a municipality outside of downtown Toronto. As it happens, I grew up about 400m from the Scarborough boundary, and had used the word “Scarberia” many times. This was the one entry in the dictionary when I went beyond my simple proofreading duties and suggested nuances in the meaning of “Scarberia” to the editor-in-chief that he incorporated into the Word Story.

Another entry I could relate to personally was “browner.” This word was used extensively when I was a junior high and high school student in Ontario, and indeed I might have been called one. However, our use of the word was often not as derogatory as the DCHP-2’s definition implies.

Running shoe ((1))” made it into the DCHP-2! Naturally, being a runner for over 40 years, I was interested in this entry, and satisfied to discover that my use of the term “running shoes” rather than “runners” is consistent with my Ontario background.

Finally, here is my nomination for the dictionary’s cutest term: “bunny hug.” If you are from Saskatchewan, you will know what a bunny hug is. Otherwise, look it up in the DCHP-2! I’m sure you will have great fun browsing, learning, and feeling a warm glow of patriotism as you read this special dictionary.

Note: You can read an excellent article about the DCHP-2 written by Michael Valpy and published in The Globe and Mail on March 10, 2017. He has a lot to say about “eh” but the dictionary itself will give you the full story!

March 23, 2107

Just published: Jesse Sheidlower, writing in The New Yorker, has a lot of good things to say about the DCHP-2 in his article too!

References Cited

Avis, Walter S. 1967. Introduction. In: Avis et al. (eds.), xii-xv. Also in DCHP‑1 Online (5 Dec. 2016)

Dollinger, Stefan (chief editor) and Margery Fee (associate editor). 2017. DCHP-2: The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, Second Edition. With the assistance of Baillie Ford, Alexandra Gaylie and Gabrielle Lim. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia,


Book Review of My Struggle 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard


I’ve just finished reading A Man in Love, book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,600-page, 6-volume autobiographic “novel,” My Struggle. This work was a sensation in Norway, where one in nine citizens has bought a copy. My Struggle has been translated into many languages; the first volume published in English by translator Don Bartlett was released in 2012 and the sixth volume will be published shortly (in 2017).

Reading My Struggle is addictive. It’s like getting inside another person’s head and following their stream of consciousness. Knausgaard’s topics range from the utterly banal details of his domestic routines (including cigarette breaks, coffee breaks, and garbage disposal) to peak moments of ecstatic happiness. There is no censorship as he analyzes his friends’ personalities and relationships, his own rocky marriage, his pitiless self-criticism and despair (which sometimes extends to suicidal thoughts), and musings about life’s existential questions and their treatment by philosophers and writers both famous and obscure.

I can think of three reasons why My Struggle has become a massive success wherever it has been published:

  1. Knausgaard is emotionally honest. We, the readers, are not simply voyeurs of his life. We recognize our own fears, insecurities, joys, and irrationalities.
  2. The sheer amount of detail makes this book more like “real life” than a normal book. My Struggle breaks the rules of writing. There is no editing, no winnowing out the unimportant. This is part of his point, part of the paradox of life: we have to live with this deluge of everyday domestic routines and repetitive conversations and thoughts, which at times contrasts so ridiculously with our most sublime experiences and emotions.
  3. Knausgaard can write. His work has been compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu  (In Search of Lost Time). However, the rest of us could not get away with 3,600 pages of autobiographical meanderings.

One evening I read a short passage in the book that demonstrated all of this. Here is what I wrote about it:

I just finished reading a description of an evening they [Karl Ove and Linda] had together. They were about to watch a movie. She gave him a small touch and looked at him and the movie was ignored. They made love instead. That’s really how it happens. And he describes this in just a few spare sentences, yet makes it clear how profound it was. He was sure they were creating another child that evening. Somehow, in those simple sentences he conveys his awe, his love for Linda, his utter physical and spiritual satisfaction, and his sense of being overwhelmed by fate in this matter of creating a new human being.

My Struggle will resonate with every reader in different ways. What I found compelling is that Knausgaard expresses the unresolveable duality and ambiguity of life in so many ways. A Man in Love, is about the part of his life following his first, eight-year marriage. It is about his falling in love with Linda, and the four years soon after that, during which time they had three children.

How can there help but be conflict when a man’s daily life revolves around childcare and the endless domestic tasks of being a house-husband, yet what he burns for above all is to be alone with his writing?

His description of his first months with Linda shows a man so brimming with happiness he can’t contain it, and the couple’s friends see that they are each other’s entire world. But from this height, he falls to a state where his most frequent emotions are resentment, anger, frustration and boredom. He seems ruthless when he states that Linda needs him more than he needs her—he admits that for him writing is more important than anything, and if Linda won’t give him time for it, he will leave her. They go through a repeated cycle in which Linda suffers from depression and lethargy, and Karl Ove must do far more than his “share” of the domestic work. He does so—however unwillingly—but writes that the only outlet for his anger, the only “revenge” he can take, is to withhold his love from Linda. Yet because he still does love her, they always make up again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Almost anyone who has ever been a parent can understand Knausgaard’s conflicting thoughts about fatherhood. On the one hand, he analyzes his children’s personalities and is filled with joy, pride, and amazement about his children’s abilities and the distinctive personalities they express even as very young children. He and Linda welcome the news of each pregnancy with happiness and excitement. Yet the daily demands of taking care of children dramatically affect the couple’s relationship. Karl Ove and Linda fight about who gets time to relax and who “gets” their firstborn, Vanja—even though they both love her so much.


Above all I enjoyed reading Knausgaard because he doesn’t simplify life or come up with neat answers, despite his endless self-examination. He wants to be a good father, he wants to be a good person, but he often can’t. He agonizes about being two-faced—he says he can’t be himself with most people because he can’t bear conflict and therefore just says and does what he thinks others will accept. He writes about the psychological torment he feels before giving lectures about his books—even though his talks are successful, he says he’s just spouting falsehoods.

Yet he chose to write and publish My Struggle, to expose himself and those closest to him to the scrutiny of the world. The inside cover of my copy of A Man in Love quotes him saying, “I will never do anything like this again . . . I have given away my soul.”

It may have been the childhood abuse from his alcoholic father (which he sees as a major force in shaping him) that drove him to write about his life. The first book in My Struggle (entitled A Death in the Family) is about his father. (In my typical random fashion, I have read only Book 4, Dancing in the Dark—two years ago—and now, Book 2.)

But also, isn’t it true that writing is an attempt to capture our never-ending stream of thought—our very “aliveness”? Isn’t this what is behind the compulsion to write? It is for me. Karl Ove Knausgaard has done this—his My Struggle sequence of novels is an extreme case. He succeeds because of his exceptional energy and talent as a writer, the richness of his mind (I have to admit some of his philosophical digressions and analyses of Norwegian writers were beyond me), and his emotional honesty.

Further reading

The first five volumes of My Struggle has been translated into English by Don Bartlett. Martin Aitken has joined Bartlett to translate Volume 6, to be released in 2017.

You can read a fascinating interview with Don Bartlett in The Los Angeles Review of Books, in which he talks about the stamina and creativity he needed to translate My Struggle.

For an extensive review of Volume 1, A Death in the Family, read James Wood’s 2012 review in The New Yorker. This review is an excellent piece of long-form journalism. Wood felt it essential to include lengthy quotes from the book; it’s the best way to reveal the breadth, tone, and subjects of Knausgaard’s writing.

Another article in The New Yorker, Maria Bustillos’ “By Anonymous: Can a Writer Escape Vulnerability?” addresses the aftermath of the publication of My Struggle in Norway. What happens when a writer makes public the most intimate secrets of his friends’ and relatives’ relationships and afflictions? For Knausgaard, the consequences have been severe. His father’s side of the family threatened to sue him. His brother isn’t speaking to him. His wife had a nervous breakdown and their marriage almost fell apart.

He has said he wouldn’t do it again—but luckily, for us, his readers, My Struggle is out there and perhaps it can give us solace with our own struggles.

Books 2016: A sampling of novels with strange characters and structures

This year I wished I had a blog that functioned as an online readers’ salon. I read many books, and though most of them were neither new nor at the forefront of literary discussions in Canada, they each deserved a full review. I wanted to write about them because they were all in some way unusual, ambiguous, and thought-provoking.

Sadly, I didn’t have time to write when each book was still fresh in my mind. Instead, I hastily typed out some reactions and comments, and these formed the basis of what I wrote about the books below:

Hope Makes Love and Practical Jean by Trevor Cole

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop by Amy Witting

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by Lina Wolff, translated by Frank Perry

Charlotte by David Foenkinos, translated by Sam Taylor

Summertime by John Coetzee

Of the six authors included above, three (Cole, Ferrante, and Coetzee) are currently well known and have earned multiple prizes and accolades. The other three, I suspect, might not be familiar to many Canadian readers.

What they have in common, and what intrigued me, is the strangeness of their characters. All of their main characters are damaged, isolated, crazy, or tragic in some way. Another common feature of these books is an unconventional structure or point(s) of view. They are highly sophisticated in their openness, their willingness to describe unconventional characters and relationships. This strangeness both comforted me, and at times puzzled me.

These books satisfied my curiosity about people. They are all classified as fiction, but at least some of the characters are based on real-life people. Whether “real” or not, each book gave me characters that satisfied my need to “meet” new people, to try to understand minds that are entirely different from my own. Part of the pleasure of reading is that it offers an escape, not only from the physical place and routines of one’s real life, but from the confines of one’s own mind.

At times my mind torments me with its anxieties, or I realize its smallness and its need to escape.

I like books that make me think—even about the writer’s purpose in producing them. I thought the books above captured the chaos and ambiguity of life more accurately than conventional narratives.

These novels were extraordinary and well written; yet I also saw flaws in them, and in some ways they left me unsatisfied. But perhaps this is a characteristic of writers who are not writing according to any kind of formula; they are not seeking, above all, to please their readers.

Part of my purpose in writing about these books is to ask questions about them. What gripped me? What puzzled me—in a good way, in the sense that I became an “active” reader who was wrestling with the questions and uncertainties they raised in my mind? What do other readers think?

What I’ve written below is taken from the hasty notes I made while I was reading (or shortly after finishing) each book. These notes are incomplete and fragmentary. They can’t be taken as book reviews. They simply give some insight (I hope) into one reader’s thought processes in attempting to interpret books and relate their ideas to personal experience. I have put the books in the order I read them.

My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the Lost Child

storyoflostchildjpg(by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein)

Note 1: These books are the first and fourth of the four “Neopolitan Novels.” Because of availability (and the quirkiness of the way I choose to read books), I skipped the second and third books in the series.

Note 2: The Neopolitan Novels have received rave reviews from all over the world. Elena Ferrante added to the mystery of her books by using a pseudonym and refusing to interact with the press. I heard that her true identity was “outed” in 2016, but I choose not to write about that here.

The 800 or so pages I read would be overwhelming to describe and critique in detail. The notes I made (see below) mainly express my dissatisfaction with the books. Yet I read these two volumes because I wanted to—I didn’t tire of them—they gripped me.

I’ve finished reading The Story of the Lost Child. I’ve been immersed in the book for weeks. Most of the time I enjoyed it, it intrigued me, but it left me unsatisfied. For a book that has received such huge accolades, it seemed flawed to me. For a while the mystery of Lila (the narrator’s “brilliant friend”) attracted me, but then I became frustrated because I couldn’t understand her at all. I felt as though the writer and the narrator, Lila’s friend Elena, were giving so many contradictory accounts of Lila that they didn’t know her either. Why would the “brilliant friend” not have gotten a higher education, moved away from the neighbourhood, and travelled? Was Lila paralyzed by her strange psychological affliction, the “blurring” of people? If she was mentally ill, I didn’t recognize her illness. What was it?

The way she had power over people was explicable when she was young; she was a beautiful woman, and obviously bright. But what explanation was there for the continued hold she had over people?

Why did Elena love Nico for so long? Nico reminded me of Paul [my ex-husband]. Yes, I loved Paul passionately for a long time, just as Elena did Nico. Yet he was not really the person I thought him to be. Like Paul, Nico was a womanizer, but he was apparently sincerely and utterly in love with each woman he was with. Well, there is my answer, I guess.

The book puzzled me because the many “characters of the neighbourhood” came into the story again and again, so they came to life—in a way. But I have a sense that something was missing—they never came to life fully; only Elena herself did.

Why did Lila disappear at the end? Did she commit suicide? Was there no other answer to explain the mystery of her?

I feel as though Ferrante (also named Elena) might be telling her own story, though calling it fiction.

Hope Meets Love and Practical Jean (by Trevor Cole)

Hope Meets Love cover

Hope Meets Love was published in 2015 to rave reviews. Cole’s writing compels readers to love his characters, quirks, flaws and all. This page-turner alternates points of view between Zep, an ex-major league baseball player trying to win back his estranged wife’s love, and a neuroscientist named Hope who guides Zep through a scientific experiment designed to do just that.

Their voices are utterly different; Zep’s is at times profane, almost always funny, and casual in an endearing way. Hope narrates with the clinical tone of a scientist; yet Cole manages to put enough clues into what Hope writes that we can “read between the lines” to understand the human being behind the clinician. In fact, Hope is a deeply scarred person. The section of the book that reveals the source of her trauma leaves readers hanging on a razor’s edge of horrified suspense.

I had the good fortune to accidentally tune into a radio interview of Cole months after I finished reading Hope Meets Love. I was surprised to hear that he was worried about how he handled the subject of childhood sexual abuse; he was afraid that it made the book too “dark.” What surprised me was that Cole didn’t seem to realize that in creating the astonishing and beautiful love story between Hope and a young man who falls unshakeably in love with her, he had written a book that was overwhelmingly about the hope and power of love, its ability to outshine all darkness. Also, Cole’s writing is deeply funny because it makes obvious the striking contrast between Hope’s clinical analysis of love and her subjective experience of it.

I was so impressed with Hope Meets Love that I vowed to read everything else by Trevor Cole. I managed to pick up Practical Jean at my local library. This book about an outrageous murderer who believes she is killing her victims to spare them pain and suffering is meant to be a satire; I actually found it fairly plausible at first, until the murders became too grisly. It was an enjoyable read, though, filled with humour and the suspense of “Who’s next?”

Bret Eton Ellis and the Other Dogs (by Lina Wolff, translated by Frank Perry)


Bret Eton Ellis and the Other Dogs was a strange yet compelling book. It was convincing as a portrait of real people, though most of its characters were desperately sad. The book seems realistic because of its strange characters and apparent aimlessness—it’s more like “real life” than a standard novel would be. It certainly wasn’t uplifting, and I was trying to figure out why I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

Maybe I liked it because its unusual structure and unpredictability kept leading me on. The book is roughly divided into three parts, each of which focuses on one major character; yet all three parts are united by the character of Alba Cambó, a fascinating woman who lives life to the hilt but knows she is dying of cancer. Each part of the book is a story-within-a-story, narrated by the main character from the first story, a young girl named Araceli. All of the three main characters are unbearably alone and sad, each in his or her own way.

Araceli never meets a man who matches Benicio Mercader, a man she fell in love with as a child. In her imagination, she created a romance between the two of them, and no real man could fulfill this fantasy.

Madame Elaine Moreau, Araceli’s French teacher, has no friends and hates her pupils. She is unable to connect with people properly. She even rebuffs a young boy who is in love with her—she is hostile to all warmth.

Rodrigo Auscias is a man who comes to Araceli, ostensibly for paid sex, but what he really wants is someone who will listen to his sad story of estrangement from his wife, Encarnatión. Even within their marriage, he is unable to achieve any intimacy with her, and she finally leaves him.

Madame Moreau is a mysterious character. She is totally unlikeable and blunt. She has a bleak outlook on life. Yet for some reason she is drawn to Alba. (There are suggestions that she worships Alba because she is a writer whose stories have been published in the magazine Semejanzas.) When she finds out that Alba is her student Araceli’s neighbour, she invites Araceli and Alba over for dinner at her flat.

The dinner is a failure; yet at the end of the book, we find out that Madame Moreau was Alba’s devoted caregiver during the last weeks of her life, after Alba’s lover, unable to cope with her illness, deserts her. It is Madame Moreau who takes care of all the funeral arrangements and the distribution of Alba’s possessions.

Rodrigo Auscias comes to Araceli as her first client for sex. (We find out later that Alba set up this meeting before she died; she wanted Araceli’s first john to be someone who would be gentle with her). But it turns out Rodrigo doesn’t want sex; he just wants someone who will listen to his story; for that he is willing to pay double, and he stays up all night to tell Araceli his story. This forms the last third of the book.

I became frustrated trying to understand this story. Rodrigo describes a marriage during which he spent many years being distant from his wife, watching her from afar in a worshipful way as she spent hours doing crossword puzzles. They hardly communicated. Why was Rodrigo initially so satisfied with this relationship?

As time passed, Encarnatión became a serious alcoholic, but Rodrigo still didn’t probe into the causes of her unhappiness.

As Rodrigo tells his story to Araceli, he keeps insisting that he has always loved his wife, but as a reader I can’t understand what he means by that. What unites him with his wife? Nothing, it seems, and it’s clear to readers that throughout the marriage she was always terribly depressed.

Then, Rodrigo relates, Encarnatión fell in love with Ilich, a man that Rodrigo has painted as a manipulative bastard. How can she love this man? What kind of man is Rodrigo, really, if Encarnatión prefers Ilich to him? Does Ilich have characteristics that make him loveable and attractive to women, that Rodrigo is incapable of seeing? Is the explanation simply that many women fall for men who are “bad boys”?

Wolff’s skill is her ability to make Rodrigo’s mysterious story enjoyable, somehow, and to make him a sympathetic character—at first. But the novel keeps unfolding to reveal the complexities of how all the characters’ lives are intertwined. Readers find out that Rodrigo is an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to describing Ilich. It turns out that Rodrigo, Alba, and Ilich had a sexual threesome one night. This was part of a plan Alba had for getting Ilich out of her life. She knew Ilich would be able to blackmail Rodrigo with phone videos of the escapade. Ilich needed Rodrigo’s connections to get into the lucrative timber business.

At the end, Rodrigo is horribly callous to Alba. Near death, she tells Rodrigo that there is one thing that keeps her going—“The idea that I have done some good … that I’ve had some kind of positive impact on the people closest to me. If I have managed to make them feel happiness, my life won’t have been in vain…And I can die in peace.” (p. 289)

And Rodrigo narrates, “…I could hear my own voice saying that fuck no…she hadn’t been a positive force in my life. A curse is what she had been, an absolute curse and nothing else.” Rodrigo blames Alba for allowing Ilich to ruin his business and steal his wife. After this scene with Alba, readers suspect that Rodrigo has been a cruel man all along, ignoring his wife, being unfaithful, and generally being an idiot.

The great achievement of Bret Eton Ellis and the Other Dogs is that it seduces the reader into becoming engaged with characters who are almost unbearably estranged and sad.

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop (by Amy Witting)


This book by an Australian author I had never heard of was a lucky find at the library, presented as a new book though it was actually a reprint of a book published in 1989. Though it was the second book about Isobel (I For Isobel was published in 1990), it stood well on its own.

This was another book with strange characters. The main character, Isobel, discovers that she has tuberculosis and must go to a sanatorium. This is the setting for most of the book.

A sanatorium can be a microcosm for the larger world, and despite being in an institution, Isobel experiences close friendship and love. Particularly in the final section of the book, I found myself pondering what Isobel’s story suggests about the nature of love and its possible bonds.

When Isobel is finally healthy enough to leave the sanitorium, Dr. Stannard (whom she has a crush on) asks her if she would like to start a part-time administrative job working for him there, with the possibility that it would turn into a regular paid job once she is fully recovered.

Her initial reaction is to say yes, but she is criticized by Dr. Wang, who is a good friend of hers. Wang’s memorable advice is, “It is better to love those who give rather than those who take.”

But it’s the words of the “cold and contemptuous” Dr. Hook (whom no one likes) that rouse Isobel to change her mind. He says, “Why don’t you get out of here and grow up?”

He makes Isobel see that many of the patients who are cured have chosen to stay at the sanatorium in some capacity. And by doing so, they are voluntarily accepting a kind of permanent prison. They are doing it out of a refusal to grow up, a fear of striking out in the big world.

I realized how Isobel’s situation can apply to many people. There are many kinds of prisons that people choose to remain in. They can include a sterile marriage or a job that has become rote and doesn’t use one’s greatest abilities. Any refusal to change can be a kind of prison. Sometimes we have no choice (or no decent choice), and sometimes we accept imprisonment temporarily, if we have good reasons. But most of the time we dohave other choices; it’s habit and fear that make us remain in our prisons without bars.

Isobel ends up telling Dr. Stannard that she will be leaving. But she still finds his smile “enchanting.”

She thought, You may be a selfish, exploitative bastard, but in one corner of my mind, I’m going to love you all my life. (p. 311)

I had a flash of recognition when I read that line. I like the honesty of it, the wry admittance of our susceptibility to physical beauty and the way it can tug on our heartstrings.

Charlotte (by David Foenkinos, translated from the French by Sam Taylor)


One of the strangest things about this book is that it owes its creation to the self-admitted obsession Foenkinos has for Charlotte Salomon, an artist who died in Auschwitz during World War II at the age of 26. The book was written as an act of homage to her after Foenkinos discovered her art, which has been exhibited all over the world. He based his book on her unusual autobiographical project, published as Life? or Theatre?, which is a combination of writing, musical scores, and paintings.

Foenkinos calls Charlotte a novel or an “imagined biography.” Half a million copies of the book have been sold in France. This is impressive given the unconventional style of the book, which is written entirely in paragraphs consisting of one sentence or sentence fragment. This structure creates a stark, urgent tone. There is always a sense of compressed and repressed emotion. Foenkinos chose this style, perhaps, as the best way to convey the exceptional quality of Charlotte’s art and the depths from which it came: the rampant incidence of depression and suicide in her family, and the tragedy of the young artist who was forced to separate from the love of her life, then thoughtlessly betrayed—another victim of the evil of World War II.

Summertime (by J.M. Coetzee)summertimecoetzee

Summertime is the third volume of a “fictionalized memoir” about a writer named John Coetzee by J.M. Coetzee. (I haven’t yet read the previous two volumes, Boyhood and Youth.)

It is an unusually structured book. Although the first short section is written from the “fictional” John Coetzee’s point of view, the remaining sections are narrated by women (and one male colleague) who were at some time close to John Coetzee, and are responding to an interviewer’s questions about their relationship with Coetzee.

The interviewer is seeking to understand Coetzee in order to write a detailed biography of a man who is now a successful writer.

The curious thing is that all of the women, despite being closer to Coetzee than anyone else, remark on his inability to be truly intimate with them. They all judge Coetzee as being incapable of sustaining an intimate relationship of any kind, whether a marriage, fatherhood, or any long-term relationship. All of the women express a strange dichotomy in their feelings about Coetzee; though they are attracted by something about the man, they all end up “giving up on him,” with varying degrees of anger, hurt, or frustration.

This book left me, the reader, with the question, “Is this how Coetzee, the real man, sees himself, or sees himself as reflected by the opinions of others?” What was his motivation for revealing himself in this way? Would I have understood Summertime better if I had read the previous two volumes? It makes me curious to find out more about the man, and to read more of his books.

Summertime is also a book about South Africa in the time of apartheid. The “fictional” Coetzee makes a point of doing rough labour on his own house instead of following convention and hiring black workers, which he could do very cheaply. I believe the author wants readers to think about how the Afrikaaners’ historical place in South Africa, their maintenance of apartheid, and their knowledge that this situation cannot endure affects an individual’s sense of belonging in South Africa. Also, how does it affect a person’s self-identity and ambitions? This sounds vague, but I would have to read more of Coetzee’s work to understand this, as I suspect it is one of the “real” Coetzee’s lifelong preoccupations.

The End … Not

The ramblings above show part of one reader’s book intake during 2016. I read many other books during this period, most of them excellent. For me, there can be no end to thinking about books and writing about them. In fact, I’ve just remembered two more books that fit in with the others in this post because of their rich and unusual characterization: A Curious Kindness, by Miriam Toews, and A Natural Curiosity, by Margaret Drabble. But this post is far too long already.

The journey of reading is an endless one. Part of it can be guided by recommendations one hears or reads. But I love the way the stops along the journey can be random and surprising. A book is discovered by accident at a library or a bookstore while searching for another book or another author. Something mentioned in one book leads to another book. And there is the magical way that a character, event, or philosophy in a book can speak to me personally to address something about my own life that is troubling me at the moment.


The art of writing short stories: masters of the form at the 2015 Vancouver Writers Fest

Note: This article was first published a year ago on the West Coast Editor blog. My thanks to Meagan Kus for copy editing.

Granville Island. Photo by Keith Dunn

For many years, I’ve been an eager attendee at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Granville Island.


(2016 was no exception, and my review of a recent event will be published soon on West Coast Editor.)

Like most editors, I’m an avid reader and an aspiring writer, and I never fail to be amazed and inspired by the panels of writers at each event. In 2015, one of the events I attended was the True to Form session, which focused on short stories. The writers on this panel were David Constantine, Steven Hayward, Greg Hollingshead, and Irina Kovalyova; the panel was expertly moderated by book critic, editor, and writer John Freeman. All of the authors are seasoned short story writers, with the exception of Kovalyova, who has just published her first book.

Why go to the Writers Fest?
There is nothing like a live performance, whether we’re talking about a rock concert, the theatre, or a Writers Fest event. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole 90 minutes. It is wonderful to see these authors on the stage, to get some idea of the personalities behind the writing, to appreciate that most of them are consummate performers as well as writers (especially when reading their own work), and to get some understanding of what motivates them as writers. What are the seeds that germinate in these writers’ minds as they create their stories?

Sitting in a packed audience of people who were all there because they love literature, I felt a vast kinship with everyone in the room. As the writers shared some ideas about where short stories come from, I was reassured that I was grappling with key questions in my own attempts to write. These authors gave many helpful insights into what makes a short story a winner.

The short story as a metaphor for—?
Moderator John Freeman got the ball rolling by asking each panel member to suggest a metaphor for the short story. Irina Kovalyova said a short story is like a very small canvas that, despite its size, contains a whole world.

David Constantine introduced a new idea by saying a short story is like a container you scoop into a rushing river, removing a small part of that river, and then pouring it back in again. He was making the point that a good story has no closure (though convention pushes us to want closure in stories), because in real life there is never closure, and the river never stops moving. Constantine commented that Chekhov was a master at showing that any arbitrary closing is at the same time a new beginning.

I was comforted by Constantine’s analysis, because I’ve always struggled with my inability to contain my stories, to keep to a word count. Now I understand that beginnings and endings to stories are arbitrary. As a writer, I must choose a beginning and an ending, but it is inevitable (and desirable) that the story evoke the larger story of which it is but a part.

Greg Hollingshead followed Constantine by suggesting another water metaphor. He compared the short story to a whirlpool. His key point was that a short story contains centripetal energy—it’s spinning toward a crisis, not closure. In contrast, Hollingshead suggested, a chapter in a novel has centrifugal energy—it spins out into the world, forward and back.

Steven Hayward compared the short story to an unhealthy breakfast. He told a funny anecdote about lying to his mother on the phone about what he had eaten for breakfast—he told her he had had “the melon plate” when in reality he had eaten a breakfast called The Authentic. I’m unclear about how a breakfast is a metaphor for the short story—perhaps he was just making the point that an authentic short story has to be complete and honest?

Form in short stories
Freeman next steered the panelists toward a discussion of how writers can be creative with the form of short stories. When whole worlds have to be implied within such a constrained number of pages, are there special techniques that writers use? In answering this, some of the panelists segued into explaining where their story ideas come from and how their creative process expands the germ of an idea.

Kovalyova began by describing one of her short stories from her debut collection, Specimen. It’s a story about a mother and child trapped in an underground parking garage after an earthquake. She structured her story with two different scripts, one on each side of the page. On the left side of each page runs the narrative of what is actually happening as the mother tries to keep her child calm. On the right side of each page is the mother’s interior dialogue as she struggles with her panic and the knowledge that she must stay calm for her child.

Hayward talked about his use of footnotes in short stories, a format used extensively by the late magnificent David Foster Wallace. Footnotes can be a way of cramming more into a short story and may actually contain all the punchlines or subversive comments about the more conventional words in the main text.

Hollingshead, speaking after Hayward, explained that he uses a very conventional structure in his stories in order to get away with having extremely weird characters. In fact, he said, his weird characters come from real life. He uses 4″ × 6″ cards to write down notes about unusual people or incidents that he might later incorporate into a story. He said that the conventionality of his structure allows him to disguise his real (but weird) characters as fiction.

Just as Hollingshead finds inspiration for his stories in real-life events and people, Constantine also draws upon real life for his ideas. Constantine spoke at length about the critical importance of place to his writing. He talked about his attachment to one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall in England. These islands, said Constantine, though made of enduring granite, are “in a state of pure flux,” changing every moment with the tides, winds, light, and seasons. For him they illustrate the impossibility of writing a story with complete closure, when real life is ever-changing.

Finding things to write about, said Constantine, depends on paying attention to what William Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars.” We write about things that grip us, things that obsess us. We are compelled to write. Creativity doesn’t mean grabbing ideas out of the blue. It’s about working with memory and your own interpretation. I left the event feeling reassured that the “minute particulars” in my own life are worthy of writing about.

A few lines of dialogue can bring characters to life quickly. Hollingshead quoted Mavis Gallant, who used the expression “the dialogue of the deaf” to make the point that people typically don’t listen to each other. One speaker often uses the last few words of the other person’s speech as a springboard for what they want to say, whether there is any real connection or not. So in a story, the only dialogue that sounds real is dialogue that captures this “failure of communication.” For example, when three people are talking, it might sound like they are reading three separate scripts.


Unless you’ve been to the Writers Fest, you might not realize the sheer entertainment value it offers. All of the panelists in True to Form read portions of their latest stories, and they were all dramatic performers. But the star of this show had to be Steven Hayward. Before he went to the podium to read his story, he gave us the real-life backstory. He talked about living in Colorado Springs, where everyone is either an Olympian-in-training or a former Olympian, and about his discovery of Strava, a software program that measures and ranks athletic performance (in this case, in cycling).

When Hayward started reading his story at the podium, he turned into his fictionalized protagonist—a very funny fat guy. Hayward showed great dramatic flair and timing in his reading. His story was a perfect illustration of how to take an incident from your own life, exaggerate it, and give it to your created character to produce a fictionalized story that is even better than the original true story.

It was obvious why Hayward has been a successful stand-up comedian!

Masters of the short story
True to Form concluded with the panelists discussing which writers had particularly influenced them. All of them named Chekhov as the great master of the short story. Kovalyova read Chekhov first in Russian when she was young, and she commented that some nuances are lost in translation, yet good translators can add something too, with their own interpretation of the stories.

Hayward said that Alice Munro is the best at the modern, sophisticated short story. Though she doesn’t have as wide a range as Chekhov, she shows technical mastery. Hayward recommended Jim Shepherd highly. He also likes Charlie Baxter and Richard Ford. Kovalyova cited Edgar Allen Poe as one of her big influences.

I left True to Form with a renewed eagerness to read—I can’t wait to devour all of the panelists’ new books! In addition, I feel inspired and hopeful about writing my own stories.

Book Review: Yes, I Could Care Less

Review of “Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk” by Bill Walsh.

Notes: This review was first published (February, 2015) on the West Coast Editor blog. My thanks to Karen Barry for copy editing this article.

Yes I Could Care LessYes, I Could Care Less is a funny book for editors. It’s for editors because, like Bill Walsh, we care about words deeply. We recognize aspects of our own personalities in his self-mockery about his obsessive-compulsive quirkiness and his editorial pet peeves. It’s a book for editors rather than a general audience because Walsh, a copy editor at The Washington Post since 1997, tackles some of the most difficult copy-editing conundrums that often stymie editors. Topics include subject-verb agreement “follies” with expressions like “a lot” and “one of those people,” restrictive/non-restrictive clauses with their tricky use of commas and the which/that choice, how to handle trademarks, difficult decisions about hyphenation, and the pitfalls of typesetting technology.

Yes, I Could Care Less reveals what a subjective task editing can be. There are rules, style books, and house style guides, but there are many issues upon which even expert copy editors will not agree. The book opened my eyes about the potential for creativity and what Walsh calls “tiny acts of elegance” in editing work.

As the title suggests, Walsh addresses the ongoing debate about the importance of correct word usage, punctuation, and other subjects dear to editors’ hearts. In the modern world, are editors irrelevant jerks? Individual copy editors may have their differences, but according to Walsh, the real battle is between thesticklers and the spoilsports. How much do the sticklers concede to the reality of ever-evolving language and usage? What the spoilsports call non-standard, the sticklers call errors. The spoilers’ point is that the function of language is to communicate; perfectionism isn’t necessary. Walsh’s answer to this is that language is an art, and in the arts, form is everything. We sticklers are language enthusiasts.

Walsh is, however, always diplomatic and good-humoured. He informs us that spoilsports aren’t all uneducated or stupid people who use poor grammar because they either don’t know better or don’t care. There are professors of linguistics among the spoilsports, and Walsh grants respect to some of their arguments, enabling readers to gain a broader understanding of the complexity of the debate about expressions such as “I could care less.”

He allows himself a nice diatribe on the “meta-stupid,” defined as “those who go out of their way to do stupid things, especially in the name of being smart.” And if you want to be confident you’re not a “meta-stupid” editor, be sure to read his two-page section on how to not be a jerk about correcting grammar and spelling (pp. 61–62), as well as Chapter 7’s “Rules That Aren’t.”

Walsh packs Yes, I Could Care Less with high entertainment value, and not only from the abundant wordplay you’d expect from the author of Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style. He adds interest with samples of his tweets from @TheSlot, “A Dictionary Dissent” boxes (though these are less relevant to Canadian editors since he cites leading American dictionaries), and “A Reel Mess” boxes containing misquotes (and corrections) of famous movie lines.

Another humorous part is his introduction to “egg corns” (if you don’t know what these are, you should!), with clever examples such as “Old Timer’s Disease,” “site-seeing,” and “a 10-year professor.”

Make no mistake, though—Yes, I Could Care Less is a helpful book as well as an entertaining one. Walsh’s many examples of “tiny acts of elegance” demonstrate his vast editorial experience and common sense. Does he always follow the rules when hyphenating modifiers? No, but he uses his best judgment when evaluating possible ambiguous meanings. Another notable section shows his elegant fixes for “downsyUpsy” problems—when capitalization styles for employee titles and the companies they represent make text look ridiculous.

Finally, to ensure your understanding of current word meanings is up to date, refer to “The Curmudgeon’s Stylebook,” a 70-page alphabetized section at the back of the book. Here, Walsh explains tricky words and expressions that are often spelled, pluralized, or punctuated incorrectly, and word pairs that are commonly confused or misused.