Eclectic Closet Litblog, Book Reviews & Knitting Designs

A litblog dedicated to book reviews/recommendations, as well as literary and publishing news. Now enhanced with knitting designs.

Summer & Fall 2006 Book Lists


After reviewing the Fall 2006 offerings from the various publisher’s catalogues, I created a multi-part listing of my personal recommendations. This post is intended to provide a summary of the publishers I listed, with links to the relevant original post. If publishing houses are missing it is because I have not yet looked through their Summer/Fall offerings.

My disclaimer: These are the books which I personally am looking forward to hearing more about and perhaps reading. This is in no way a reflection on what I think is going to be a big hit this fall nor am I suggesting that any author is publishing a “bad” book by not listing it here. At the time the lists were created, I had not read the books (except for a few instances and then a link to my review is posted).

List of Publishers
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Ballantine/Del Rey
Berkley Publishing Group
Broadway Books
Bulfinch Press
Canadian Manda Group
Coach House Books
Conundrum Press
Cormorant Books
Douglas & McIntyre
The Dundurn Group
ECW Press
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
Goose Lane Editions
Greystone Books
H.B. Fenn
Henry Holt and Company
Independent Publishers Group
Key Porter Books
Knopf Books
Little, Brown and Company
Llewellyn/Midnight Ink
MBI Publishing Company
Medallion Press
Miramax Books
Oxford University Press
Penguin Group
Perseus Books Group
Raincoast Books
Random House
Rendezvous Press
Simon & Schuster Canada
St. Martin’s Minotaur
St. Martin’s Press
Stewart, Tabori & Chang
University of Toronto Press
Vehicule Press
Warner Books
Wilfrid Laurier Press

Initial Picks: BookExpo Canada picks for summer reading


Report from Book Expo Canada, Part Five


I may finally have conquered the pile of catalogues collected at Book Expo Canada! I used to work in book retail and so I always had access to the publishers’ catalogues. The exercise of reading through these catalogues as a reviewer/reader has helped me realize how out of touch I’ve become the past 10 years. I was always aware of the “big” titles, those being pushed by the marketing gurus, but was completely unaware of a lot of smaller press material.

Now, of course, I have to figure out how to fit all this reading into my schedule!

University of Toronto Press
* Writing to Delight: Italian Short Stories by Nineteenth-Century Women Writers edited by Antonia Arslan & Gabriella Romani (August 2006)

Greystone Books
* A Mermaid’s Tale: a personal search for love and lore by Amanda Adams (September 2006)

Wilfrid Laurier Press
* Love and War in London: a Woman’s diary 1939 – 1942 by Olivia Cockett (already in print)
* Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State edited by Yasmine Shamsie & Andrew S. Thompson (already in print)

ECW Press
* Joyland by Emily Schultz (already in print)
* Murder’s Out of Tune: an Amicus Curiae mystery by Jeffry Miller (already in print)
* Sign of the Cross: a Mystery by Anne Emery (already in print)
* The Haunted Hillbilly by Derek McCormack (already in print)
* The Molly Fire: a Memoir by Michael Mitchell (already in print)
* Where She Was Standing by Maggie Helwig (already in print)
* Rootbound by Grant Buday (September 2006)

* The Jane Austen Miscellany by Lesley Bolton (already in print)
* Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen (already in print)
* The God Part of the Brain: a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God by Matthew Alper (August 2006)
* Dissent in America: the Voices that Shaped a Nation by Ralph F. Young (October 2006)

Goose Lane Editions
* La Sagouine by Antoine Maillet (September 2006)
* The Elephant Talks to God by Dale Estey (September 2006)
* The Famished Lover by Alan Cumyn (September 2006)
* Wild Apples by Wayne Curtis (October 2006)

Ballantine/Del Rey
* Benighted by Kit Whitfield (August 8, 2006)
* Misspent Youth by Peter F. Hamilton (August 29, 2006)
* Mistral’s Kiss: a Novel by Laurell K. Hamilton (December 12, 2006)

* Not One More Death: Pinter, le Carre, Eno and others demand an end to war (September 2006)
* What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles by Eliot Weinberger (September 2006)
* Auschwitz Report by Primo Levi (October 2006)
* Pirates of the Carribbean: Axis of Hope by Tariq Ali (November 2006)

* Satanic Purses: Money, Myth, and Misinformation in the War on Terror by R.T. Naylor (September 2006)

Broadway Books
* Swimming Upstream, Slowly: a Novel by Melissa Clark (September 12, 2006)
* Kabbalah: a Love Story by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (October 10, 2006)

Knopf Books
* Grayson by Lynne Cox (August 2006)
* The Emperor’s Children: a Novel by Claire Messud (August 2006)
* St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves Karen Russell (September 2006)
* Decca: the Letters of Jessica Mitford edited by Peter Y. Sussman (October 2006)
* On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt (November 2006)

Random House
* Summer Crossing: a Novel by Truman Capote (already in print)
* Human Traces: a Novel by Sebastian Faulks (September 12, 2006)
* The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascos, and Palace Coups by Ron Rosenbaum (September 19, 2006)
* The Handmaid and the Carpenter: a Novel by Elizabeth Berg (November 7, 2006)

Perseus Books Group
* The Sound of No Hands Clapping: A Memoir by Toby Young (already in print)
* The Foundation: Inside the Hidden World of America’s Non-profit Giants by Joel Fleishman (September 2006)
* Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town by Nate Blakeslee (September 2006)
* Famous Writers School: a Novel by Steven Carter (October 2006)
* Jesus Land: a Memoir by Julia Scheeres (Paperback, October 2006)
* Oasis: a Novel by Laureen Vonnegut (October 2006)
* The Case for Goliath: How America acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century by Michael Mandelbaum (Paperback, January 2007)
* The Truth About Lou: a Novel by Angela von der Lippe (January 2007)

Oxford University Press
* Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the AQ Khan Network by Gordon Corera (September 2006)
* The Information-Literate Historian: a Guide to Research for History Students by Jenny L. Pressness (September 2006)
* The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: a new look at betrayer and betrayed by Bart D. Ehrman (October 2006)
* The Nature of Narrative: Fortieth Anniversary Edition by Robert Scholes, Robert Kellogg, and James Phelan (October 2006)
* Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media by Marina Warner (November 2006)
* The English Reader: What every literate person needs to know by Diane Ravitch & Michael Ravitch (December 2006)


Report from Book Expo Canada, Part Four


Here’s my next “list” of Summer/Fall 2006 titles. As Blogger continues to have problems, pictures will come later. More to come as I still have many catalogues to go through. Stay tuned!

Conundrum Press
* Something to Pet the Cat About by Elisabeth Belliveau (November 2005)
* Beauty is a Liar by Valerie Joy Kalynchuk (May 2006)
* My Own Devices: Airport Version by Corey Frost (October 2006)

Llewellyn/Midnight Ink
* The Last Secret: a Cotten Stone Mystery by Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore (September 2006)

Berkley Publishing Group
* Goodbye Lemon by Adam Davies (August 1, 2006)
* A Walk on the Nightside by Simon R. Green (September 5, 2006)
* Charmed & Dangerous by Candace Havens (September 5, 2006)
* Mona Lisa Awakening by Sunny (September 5, 2006)
* The Vampire Files, Volume 2 by P.N. Elrod (September 5, 2006)
* Washington Story by Adam Langer (September 5, 2006)
* The Saint of Lost Things by Christopher Castellani (October 2, 2006)
* Bond of Blood by Diane Whiteside (October 3, 2006)
* Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris (November 7, 2006)
* Harrowing the Dragon by Patricia A. McKillip (November 7, 2006)
* The American Plague: the Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemice that Shaped our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby (November 7, 2006)
* The Story of Chicago May by Nuala O’Faolain (November 7, 2006)
* Bit the Jackpot by Erin McCarthy (December 5, 2006)

* Waltzing at the Piggly Wiggly by Robert Dalby (August 2006)
* Persian Girls: a Memoir by Nahid Rachlin (October 2006)
* The Sun Over Breda by Arturo Perez-Reverte (December 2006)
* Find Me by Carol O’Connell (January 2007)

Penguin Group
* Giraffe: a Novel by J.M. Ledgard (August 17, 2006)
* Governor of the Northern Province by Randy Boyagoda (September 2006)
* The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther (September 2006)
* Witches in the Kitchen by Blair Drawson (September 2006)
* The Ghost Map: the story of London’s deadliest epidemic – and how it changed the way we think about disease, cities, science and the modern world by Steven Johnson (October 2006)
* Extraordinary Evil: a Brief History of Genocide by Barbara Coloroso (December 2006)
* The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson (December 2006)
* Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay (December 2006)
* The Teahouse Fire: a Novel by Ellis Avery (January 2007)

Rendezvous Press
* When Hell Freezes Over by Rick Blechta (Fall 2006)
* Dead in the Water: an Anthology of Canadian Mystery Fiction edited by Violette Malan and Therese Greenwood (Fall 2006)

Cormorant Books
* Coureurs de Bois: a Novel by Bruce MacDonald (September 2006)
* Gently Down the Stream by Ray Robertson (Paperback, September 2006)
* Terracide by Hubert Reeves (October 2006)

Douglas & McIntyre
* A Good Death by Gil Courtemanche (September 2006)
* The Earth’s Blanket: traditional teachings for sustainable living by Nancy J. Turner (Paperback, February 2007)


Report from Book Expo Canada, Part Three


I arrived home today to find the first box of publisher’s catalogues on my doorstep – a very heavy box from H.B. Fenn and Company Ltd.

Of course, I had to dig right into the catalogues and so, before moving on to the rest of the catalogues picked up at Book Expo Canada, I’m going to report on the Fall releases from Fenn.

Key Porter Books
* The Last Generation: How Nature will take Her Revenge for Climate Change by Fred Pearce (September 2006)
* Homeland: a Novel by Paul William Roberts (October 2006)
* Orphan Love: a Novel by Nadia Bozak (February 2007)

* The Town That Forgot How to Breathe: a Novel by Kenneth J. Harvey (September 2006)
* After the Victorians: the Decline of Britain in the World by A.N. Wilson (Paperback, October 2006)
* Jar City: a Reykjavik Thriller by Arnaldur Indridason (Paperback, October 2006)
* Time was Soft There: a Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer (Paperback, October 2006 – see my review)
* The Brooklyn Follies: a Novel by Paul Auster (Paperback, November 2006 – see my review)
* Deep Water: the Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment by Jacques Leslie (December 2006)

St. Martin’s Minotaur
* Unseen: a Mystery by Mari Jungstedt (September 2006)
* Still as Death: a Sweeney St. George Mystery by Sarah Stewart Taylor (September 2006)
* Silence of the Grave: a Thriller by Arnaldur Indridason (October 2006)
* Murder 101: a Mystery by Maggie Barbieri (November 2006)
* Village Affairs: a Mystery by Cassandra Chan (November 2006)
* Night Falls on Damascus: a Novel by Frederick Highland (December 2006)

Miramax Books
* Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (July 2006)
* The Last Siege: a Novel by Jonathan Stroud (Paperback, October 2006)
* Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko (January 2007)
* Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love by Myriam Cyr (Paperback, February 2007)

Henry Holt and Company
* One Country: a Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse by Ali Abunimah (September 2006)
* The Interpretation of Murder: a Novel by Jed Rubenfeld (September 2006)
* Kate: The Woman who was Hepburn by William J. Mann (November 2006)

Medallion Press
* Shinigami by Django Wexler (October 2006)
* The Gold Covenant by Roberta Clark (March 2007)

Bulfinch Press
* A Book of Books by Abelardo Morell (Reissue, November 2006)

* Spellbinder: a Love Story with Magical Interruptions by Melanie Rawn
(October 2006)
* The Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin (October 2006)
* A Taste of Magic by Andre Norton and Jean Rabe (November 2006)
* The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi (November 2006)
* The Prestige by Christopher Priest (Paperback, November 2006)
* Glass Soup by Jonathan Carroll (Paperback, December 2006)

St. Martin’s Press
* How to Read a Novel: a User’s Guide by John Sutherland (October 2006)
* Pompeii: the Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence (October 2006)
* Indiscretion: a Novel by Jude Morgan (December 2006)
* The Sidewalk Artist: a Novel by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk (December 2006)

Little, Brown and Company
* Breadfruit: a Novel by Celestine Vaite (September 2006)
* The Adventure of English: the Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg (Paperback, September 200)
* One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (October 2006)
* The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (Paperback, October 2006)
* A Day of Small Beginnings: a Novel by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum (November 2006)
* Consolation: a Novel by Michael Redhill (January 2007)
* The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (Paperback, February 2007)
* Then We Came to the End: a Novel by Joshua Ferris (March 2007)

Warner Books
* Knitting Under the Influence by Clare Lazebnik (September 2006)
* Spring and Fall by Nicholas Delbanco (October 2006)
* Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler (January 2007)
* How to Marry a Ghost by Hope McIntyre (January 2007)
* Because She Can by Bridie Clark (February 2007)
* The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman (Paperback, February 2007)
* Some Like It Haute by Julie K.L. Dam (Paperback, February 2007 – see my review)

MBI Publishing Company
* Knitting Memories: Reflections on the Knitter’s Life edited by Lela Nargi (September 2006)

* Love and Ghost Letters: a Novel by Chantel Acevedo (September 2006)
* My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding: a Collection of Stories edited by P.N. Elrod (October 2006)
* The Inheritance: a Novel by Annabel Dilke (Paperback, October 2006)

H.B. Fenn
* This Body by Tessa McWatt (September 2006)
* Liar’s Landscape: Collected Writing from a Storyteller’s Life by Malcolm Bradbury (February 2007)
* The Hourglass by Julie Parsons (February 2007)


BOOK REVIEW: The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue


“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”
The Stolen Child by W.B. Yeats

Children often express their displeasure by running away from home, wandering a short distance before returning once they feel their parents have been sufficiently punished. The parents, awash with joy at once more having their child, brush off any minor personality differences as residual shock from a traumatic experience. But what if the child brought home isn’t their child at all, but a changeling?

This is the premise behind Keith Donohue’s haunting debut novel, The Stolen Child. Drawing its plot and title from the W.B. Yeat’s poem of the same title, Donohue has crafted the modern fairy tale of Henry Day and the changeling (or hobgoblin) who replaces him. One summer night Henry runs into the forest and hides in a tree. It is there that he is taken by the changelings, who have been covertly watching him. If changelings wish to reenter the world, they must find a child to replace who is exactly the same age as the changeling was when he/she left. Henry becomes the magical Aniday and the changeling who replaces him becomes the new Henry Day, suddenly a musical prodigy. The Stolen Child is the story of the two young boys searching for identity in a world turned upside down.

The new Henry slowly adjusts to the life of a twentieth-century family. Having spent more than one hundred years in the forest, he spends his time in intense concentration, “I set my mind to forgetting the past and becoming a real boy again.” Aniday spends learning a way of live beyond civilization and it is only by a similar amount of effort that he maintains the ability to read and write.

Yeat’s poem shows life in the woods as one full of innocence; however, many experts suggest that the forest of fairytales is really about the journey of sexual awakening as the child moves through puberty into adulthood. Unknown creatures, dangers and pain lurk in the dark forest, a journey of pitfalls every child must travel on the road to maturity.

In Donohue’s forest, the tribe of hobgoblins exists in a life free from memories, familial ties and responsibility. Their life a perpetual existence given to the baser instincts of the body, one in which all sense of self disappears along the way.

As decades pass, Aniday lives as a permanent child in the wilderness, making friends and enemies among the hobgoblin band, struggling for survival, and trying to remember his past. The other changelings tell Aniday to “stay away from people and be content with who you are.” By settling for the life in the forest however, Aniday would lose the innocence of his dreams of a future. Both Aniday and Henry are tormented by the fleeting memories of half-remembered paths and it is these memories that keep them tied to a search for identity – destined to lose their innocence.

Donohue has created a mesmerizing world that seems to exist shifted slightly outside of our time. The Stolen Child quickly engages the reader in the familiar rhythm of childhood fairytales, allowing the magic to infuse the carefully crafted words. It is only upon stepping outside, back to reality, that questions slowly seep into the reader’s mind.

Has Henry really lived as a changeling or could he be suffering from split personality, everything being a fantasy his illness has created? Donohue says in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review: “The subconscious world, the world underneath, is a real world, and it’s just as valid, our imaginative reality, as our everyday reality.” Whether readers choose to approach Donohue’s offering as it is written or choose to engage the novel on an existential level, The Stolen Child is a timeless, magical novel that will linger with readers long after they read the last page.

See the review posted at ReadySteadyBook.


Report from Book Expo Canada, Part Two


I’ve done a first wade through the publishers’ catalogues (and I should state here that I don’t have nearly all of them) and on first impression – it’s going to be an exciting fall. At first glance I’m not seeing a lot of “big name” authors but again that could be because I didn’t pick up catalogues from a lot of the publishers (I can only carry so much before I become more of a stooped wreck than I already am). Some of the publishers are mailing the catalogues to me and for the rest I’ll probably peruse their fall lines on their websites.

This is all in preface to this disclaimer: These are the books which I personally am looking forward to hearing more about and perhaps reading. This is in no way a reflection on what I think is going to be a big hit this fall nor am I suggesting that any author is publishing a “bad” book by not listing it here.

Okay, with all that stuff out of the way, here is the beginning of my list. I’ll probably post this over several days because there are a lot of books (more than I could possibly read between now and the end of the year to be honest).

Raincoast Books
* Atomic Sushi by Simon May (August 2006)
* Terry Jones’ Barbarians by Terry Jones & Alan Ereira (August 2006)
* Windflower: a Novel by Nick Bantock & Edoardo Ponti (August 2006)
* The Museum of Lost Wonder: a Graphic Guide to Reawakening the Human Imagination by Jeff Hoke (September 2006)
* Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home: Life on the Page by Lynn Freed (September 2006)
* Remainder by Tom McCarthy (September 2006)
* So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (September 2006)
* Empress of Asia: a Novel by Adam Lewis Schroeder (October 2006)
* The Joke’s Over: Bruised Memories of Gonzo: Hunter S. Thompson and Me by Ralph Steadman (October 2006)
* The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia (October 2006)
* Zugzwang: a Novel by Ronan Bennett (January 2007)

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
* Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton (November 2006)

Coach House Books
* Miss Lamp: a Novel by Chris Ewart (already in print)
* King by Tanya Chapman (October 2006)
* The River of Dead Trees: a Novel by Andree A. Michaud; Translated by Nathalie Stephens (October 2006)

The Dundurn Group
* The Restoration of Emily: a Novel by Kim Moritsugu (already in print)
* Does Your Mother Know by Maureen Jennings (September 6, 2006)
* Deadly Sin: a Chief Inspector Bliss Mystery by James Hawkins (January 2007)
* A Sharp Intake of Breath by John Miller (January 6, 2007)

Vehicule Press
* Dead Man’s Float by Nicholas Maes (August 2006)
* Optique: Stories by Clayton Bailey (September 2006)

Fitzhenry & Whiteside
* Keturah & Lord Death by Martine Leavitt (August 2006)

Simon & Schuster Canada
* Palestine: Peace or Apartheid? by Jimmy Carter (October 2006)
* The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (November 2006)
* American Bloomsbury: Louise May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever (December 2006)
* Gideon the Cutpurse: Being the First Part of the Gideon Trilogy by Linda Buckley-Archer (already in print)


Report from Book Expo Canada


I’ve been meaning to post this since Monday night but I think I required a bit of time to digest everything I observed.

First off, even though Monday was supposedly “slow”, compared to Sunday, at Book Expo Canada (BEC) I was amazed at how many people were around. The place was hopping and there were many well-known authors available for for signings – Guy Gavriel Kay, Brad Meltzer, Tommy Chong.

I have to admit that standing in the long lines for autographs did not appeal, so I focused on visiting the smaller presses for author signings and took the opportunity of the “quieter” day to visit with a few of the publicists and get a handle on some of the exciting offerings for summer and fall.

Here’s what I’m going to be reading for review over the next few months (reviews to come later) in anticipation of summer and early fall releases:
1. Conduct in Question by Mary E. Martin (in print, sequel to be released shortly)
2. The Abode of Love: Growing Up in a Messianic Cult by Kate Barlow (September 8, 2006 from Goose Lane Editions)
3. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (October 2006 from Harper Collins)
4. The Uncrowned Queen by Posie Graeme-Evans (June 6, 2006 from Atria)
5. The Garneau Block by Todd Babiak (August 15, 2006 from McClelland & Stewart)
6. Drina Bridge by Jim Bartley (July 11, 2006 from Raincoast Books)
7. The 25 Pains of Kennedy Baines by Dede Crane (August 10, 2006 from Raincoast Books)
8. Before I Wake by Robert J. Wiersema (August 8, 2006 from Random House)
9. The Book of Fathers by Miklos Vamos (July 25, 2006 from Abacus)
10. The Testament Of Gideon Mack by James Robertson (September 5, 2006 from Penguin)

I’ll be posting further updates with information on other Summer and Fall releases once I get a chance to peruse all the publisher’s catalogues.

My overall impression? There are many really exciting books being released from small and large publishers alike. It’s a great time to be a reader!

BOOK REVIEW: The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster


Good opening lines and paragraphs are tough to find but Paul Auster came up with a doozy for The Brooklyn Follies: “I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there…” The I is Nathan Glass; divorced, retired insurance salesman, estranged from his daughter, lung cancer patient (in remission) who’s looking for a place to die. To wile away the moments until then, Nathan begins by consigning to paper the human blunders, foibles, inane act and embarrassments committed by himself and others. He calls these his “Brooklyn Follies.”

Soon after his arrival in Brooklyn, Nathan runs across his nephew Tom, working at a local bookstore. A scholar destined for greatness, Tom has derailed and after years of penance driving a taxi cab, has chosen to sell rare books. What follows is a story of redemption, lost souls and the lives that intersect with Nathan and Tom’s saga.

Nathan is a lovable rogue. He exists in the calm eye of a storm while all around him chaos rules. His reentry into Tom’s life helps Tom regain his will to live and slowly reengage life. The novel thrusts the reader into this storm, disorienting the smooth flow of plot by adding new characters and continually altering the pace. The chaos is thrilling and serves to absorb the reader more fully into the search of the main characters.

Near the end of Brooklyn Follies, Auster shares a thought that permeates the novel: “Most lives vanish. A person dies, and little by little all traces of that life disappear.” Nathan goes on to wonder who publishes books about the forgotten one. Auster has answered that question with The Brooklyn Follies, a novel chockfull of forgotten ones and little lives. Redemption for Nathan and another enthralling read from a master novelist for those of us fortunate enough to enter his Brooklyn.

As Auster reminds us, “Never underestimate the power of books.”

Read my review at Armchair Interviews – The Brooklyn Follies.

BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugreši?


“…stimulating the memory was as much a manipulation of the past as banning it.”

The Ministry of Pain (Ministarstvo boli) explores what it means to be a refuge, to live in exile from your country. Told through the eyes of Tanja Lucic, a temporary teacher in the Department of Slavonic Languages at the University of Amsterdam, Dubravka Ugreši?’s novel follows Tanja’s journey as she and her students explore their memories of a lost country, language and the meaning of language.

Throughout The Ministry of Pain, Ugreši? invokes the idea that the life of an exile is like living in a fairy tale or a parallel world. Early in the novel Tanja states:

“I had the feeling I might well – if like Alice I should lose my footing and fall into a hole – end up in a third or fourth parallel world, because Amsterdam itself was my own parallel world. I experienced it as a dream, which meant it resonated with my reality. I tried to puzzle it out just as I tried to interpret my dreams.”

Fairy tales provide resolution, heros winning and justice prevailing. In a world of chaos, Ugreši? expresses that the simple plots and “literary heroes who are brave when ordinary people are cowardly, strong when ordinary people are weak, noble and good when people are mean and ignominious,” are what appeal in a country where “languages were used to curse, humiliate, kill, rape, and expel.”

For émigrés, exile means defeat and dysfunction. On her return from a trip to Zagreb, Tanja meets another émigré who councils her to forget anything as a way to create a new life for herself. Through his voice, Ugreši? suggests that for émigrés time moves slower than reality. Those left behind have moved on and adapted to the new reality while émigrés are still stuck in their own time. The return home means a return of the memories, and a search for a fairy tale land that no longer exists. To achieve peace and a release from the past, émigrés must forget using the “miraculous little erasers we all have in our brains.”

Ugreši?’s fundamental questions appear to be these: For those lost in time and place, does forced remembrance equal torture? Can pain lead to reconciliation, a penance that allows émigrés to live outside their former country without guilt? Ugreši? has created a novel that leaves the questions without answer, compelling each reader to search inside for an answer.

In The Ministry of Pain, there is much discussion among Tanja’s students on the value of Yugonostalgia: the yearning for a country and culture that have vanished into the maw of history. Ugreši?’s gift is in creating a novel that functions both as Yugonostalgia and a paean to the resilience of the human spirit.

Dubravka Ugreši? was born in the former Yugoslavia (Croatia), left her homeland in the 1993 and currently resides in The Netherlands. A novelist, essayist, and literary scholar, The Ministry of Pain is her seventh work to be published. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages. Ugreši? has received several international awards, including the Italian Premio Feronia 2004 (previously awarded to José Saramago, J.M. Coetzee, Günter Grass, Ismail Kadare, and Nadine Gordimer).

Michael Henry Heim, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, translates works written in Russian, Czech, German, Serbo-Croatian. The Ministry of Pain is the fourth work by Ugreši? in whose translation he has been involved.

See the review posted at Curled Up with a Good Book – The Ministry of Pain.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue


“I learned the constellations when I was little…At one time, I believed the mythological creatures and objects were truly there, held in place by giant pins. The light points of their configurations, you see. I thought if any of those pins came loose, they would be at the mercy of thin air – and they’d fall to the ground and crush me. So for a couple of years, I’d only go outside on cloudy nights. I decided that would give them something on which to land, other than me.”

An astonishing novel is always a gift to readers but, when that gift comes as a debut novel, the reader is left floundering. How can this illuminating author be so in tune with her craft so early in her career? Ronlyn Domingue has gifted the world with a literary novel that is unique on so many levels; a novel that compels the reader to think and to challenge their conception of reality and love, as well as the construction of the novel itself.

The Mercy of Thin Air is first and foremost a novel of discovery. Set in the past, present and “between”, on the surface level, it tells the story of Raziela Nolan, who dies before experiencing most of life. Razi reflects on growing in the 1920s as a woman determined to become a doctor and who becomes a fierce advocate for women’s emancipation and reproductive rights. Through her narration, readers are slowly drawn into the story of her love affair with Andrew and the circumstances of her death. Interspersed into these reminiscences, Razi spies on the turbulent relationship of Amy and Scott, a young couple whose home she currently inhabits.

On a deeper level, this novel delves into philosophy, on the nature of love and loss, existence and memory. Grief defines characters in The Mercy of Thin Air. It is a buffeting force that polishes some into individuals who are lean in emotion, able to withstand the all-consuming nature of grief. Others give into loss and live in the pit of despair. Domingue provides readers with subtle examples of the role this enigmatic emotion can play in our lives and beyond. Emotions, for some, are the mooring that holds us in place – the pins – which can be dislodged by an overflowing of strong feelings, leaving us in a free-fall where anything can happen. This theme – “the mercy of grief” – creates a strong foundation in the novel.

The Mercy of Thin Air also provides an interesting insight into the history of women’s rights. Both Razi and Amy are heavily involved in activism and it is this political aspect of their natures which draws Razi to explore the mysteries surrounding Amy’s life. Domingue cleverly utilizes this plot line to force readers to confront their personal views on reproductive and gender issues.

The Mercy of Thin Air began as a short story, with the second draft being submitted as Domingue’s thesis at Louisiana State University. The comparisons to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones are inevitable but, as Domingue states in an interview with Cynthia Harrison (February 12, 2006):

“As for The Lovely Bones, it wasn’t an influence. The Mercy of Thin Air began as a short story in January 1999, and I started to work on it as a novel shortly after that. I didn’t read Sebold’s novel until I was nearly done with the last draft of The Mercy of Thin Air. I was curious about her novel but didn’t read it so that it wouldn’t interfere with my creative process. I knew comparisons would be inevitable, and I wanted to be prepared when agents and others asked.”

The character of Lionel, someone Razi meets “between”, acts as the “chorus” – asking the questions Razi is unable to and focusing the reader’s mind on the nature of existence. What is the nature of those “between” and how is it that they still “are”? Domingue has addressed that question by researching quantum physics and various religions and philosophies, all of which play a part in shaping this extraordinary novel. She allows the question to exist throughout and she forces readers to draw their own conclusions, rather than taking the easy way out by answering.

In the end, The Mercy of Thin Air is a different novel for every reader. For some, it relates the quantum physics answer that all possible actions/lives exist at once. For others, it is the Buddhist concept that the past, present, and future are all found in the present moment. Still others will find it to be, as Domingue states, “…about how fragile we are as physical and spiritual beings.”

See the review as it is posted at Curled Up with a Good Book – The Mercy of Thin Air.

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