BOOK REVIEW: Tom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer, DetectiveTom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn continue in this novella as the duo travels to visit Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas in Arkansas. On the riverboat, they meet an old acquaintance who they didn’t know was still alive, the twin of a man who still lives near Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. He tells them how he’s in a bind because he conspired in a diamond theft with two partners, and subsequently swindled the two by making off with the diamonds. The reason he’s headed home is because he figures he can hide out there as long as he makes himself look like his twin, as long as no one sees the two twins together, he can play like he’s his brother. While Tom and Huck agree to be helpful, the last time they see this man, he’s jumped ship and is being followed by the two men, and Tom and Huck assume he’s a goner.

In time Tom and Huck arrive at Aunt Sally’s. Shortly thereafter a man goes missing, the twin of the diamond thief. Eventually, evidence mounts that the murderer is none other than Uncle Silas. Despite the fact that Silas has been a little off, Tom doesn’t believe his kind uncle, a pastor, is capable of such a feat. However, Silas confesses, having thwacked the man on the head, he believes that the man must have died from it. Testimony convinces Silas that he must have gone out to bury the man in an act of incredible somnambulism, and while he has no recollection of it, he believes it must be true.

When it comes to the trial, Tom sits in with the incompetent public defender, committed to proving Silas’s innocence — despite his Uncle’s vociferous admissions. At the last second, Tom does figure it out, and explains what really happened. He’s furthermore able to substantiate his claims using no more than the individuals in the courtroom. By the times he’s finished, even Uncle Silas acknowledges that he didn’t commit a murder.

This is a fine little mystery story, but what makes it really enjoyable is the first-person narration by Huck Finn. While Tom Sawyer does the brainwork to solve the crime, Huck offers a telling that is humorous and whimsical.

If you like “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huck Finn” don’t miss this follow-up.

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BOOK REVIEW: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

My Heroes Have Always Been JunkiesMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this story’s lead romanticizes drug abuse, to the point that she believes the only great art comes from those who are wasted. Said lead is a teenage girl who we know as Ellie, and whom we find in an upscale drug rehab center. She’s a troublemaker and resistant to treatment, and why wouldn’t she be as she believes that drugs make one a musical genius. (Most of her romanticization is directed toward rock-n-roll artists, but she also admires novelists such as William Burroughs and assorted other creative types who were generally blotto in the act of creation.)

Most of the story is a budding romance between Ellie and a young man who is a bit of a mystery but who encourages her to play along for her own good. Ultimately, however, his good influence is no match for her bad influence, and they end up running off together, hanging out in vacant vacation houses. In the latter quarter of the book, the story unfolds and we learn that the relationship isn’t the product of spontaneous chemistry that we’ve been led to believe.

Brubaker creates an addict driven to myopic and impulsive behavior, and so the reader can readily believe how she ends up in her own sort of hell in which she has no good options, only various flavors of terrible ones. The necessary foreshadowing was done for a twist ending, but it gets a little heavy handed at one point. However, to be fair, the reveal takes place in a short space as the overall work is fairly short, and the climax and resolution are late in the work.

I’m not such an expert on artwork in comics. The art and coloring seemed good to me, but I remember thinking that Ellie looked old to be approximately 18 – but then that could have been purposeful as she’s supposed to have drug years on her.

I found this to be a thought-provoking work and read it straight through. It’s not preachy, but does suggest an inevitability of life going sour when one lives such a life. I’d recommend this book for those intrigued by the premise.

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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson

Escape From KathmanduEscape From Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldy-but-a-goody. It was originally published in 1989, though I read a 2000 edition that I bought in Pokhara. Nepal is probably the only place one is likely to find this book on the shelves of a bookstore (other than used book sellers.) If you didn’t get your copy in Nepal (or haven’t been to the Himalaya) the one thing you need to know to admire the quirkiness of this book is that the grandiosity of what you experience in the Himalaya makes lost cities (ala, Shangri-La) or lost species (ala, the Yeti) seem less unlikely than you would ordinarily think them.

This isn’t so much a novel in the sense of a work with a single narrative arc as it is a novel-in-stories that consists of four adventure stories featuring the same lead characters — George Fergusson and George “Freds” Fredricks — some overlapping minor characters, and all of them set somewhere within Nepal. The cross-cutting theme of these stories is that of trying to rescue the magic of Nepal (dusty and dilapidated as it can sometimes be) from modernity and the grasping hands thereof. The point-of-view character varies from one story to the next (though not within stories.) The setting criss-crosses Nepal from Everest to Chitwan forest to ill-defined border areas, but always going back to — or cutting through — Kathmandu.

The titular first story of the book is about an attempt to rescue a Yeti that has been captured and taken King Kong style back to civilization by way of Kathmandu. The second adventure presents a race to hide the body of a famous deceased climber before it can be found and plundered by individuals who would like to take it from Nepal to make their names from the investigation of it (or, possibly, the novelty of it.) [You may or may not be aware that the bodies of most of the people who’ve died climbing Everest remain up there – often buried in snow and ice but, occasionally, exposed.] The penultimate story is about trying to save Shangri-La by stopping a road that is to be built too close to it for comfort. The final adventure imagines that there are ancient of tunnels under Nepal and centered in Kathmandu. In this story, the conflict between the old and modernity is brought to a head is a most challenging way by the fact that the threat to the secret, ancient tunnels is a badly needed sewer system for Kathmandu. While in the first three stories, the reader readily knows who to root for, in this last story, he or she is hung on the horns of a dilemma.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s humorous. The two Georges (though one conveniently goes by the name “Freds”) offer a classic odd couple dynamic. The stories and characters are quirky, but the book still manages to hang on to its theme and lessons. I’d highly recommend this book for those who like humorous adventure stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The story of “Twelfth Night” (a.k.a. “What You Will”) revolves around several men in the city of Illyria vying for the hand of Olivia, a woman both lovely and wealthy. The problem is Olivia is in the dumps, having lost both her father and her brother (which explains how she ends up head of such prestigious household, given the times.) The only thing that brings her out of her sullen state is her affection for a new arrival to the city named Cesario. The problem is that Cesario is not interested because he is secretly a she – the cross-dressing Viola. This tale might have been counted among the tragedies were it not for the fact that Viola’s brother Sebastian shows up on the scene. Since Sebastion is the spitting image of the cross-dressed Viola (i.e. Cesario) and bears other common traits of sibling experience, Olivia transfers her affections without even realizing it. [Viola and Sebastian had both been laboring under the impression that the other is dead.]

In “Twelfth Night” one sees the plot device of mistaken identity from “Comedy of Errors” replayed in a way that is a bit less believable, though in a sense riper with comedic potential. I say this because while it might be possible to imagine two siblings being confused even (if they are of different gender), when the confusion begins (upon Sebastian’s arrival) we find that he is anything but the boyish character we expected given Cesario, granted the difference between the clever but wimpy Viola and the brave and cocksure Sebastion makes for levity. Notably when Sebastian lays out Sir Andrew Aguecheek with the utmost ease. Granted Aguecheek is a Don Qixote-esque character, though perhaps with incompetence owing more to alcoholism than an addled mind (though his mind may be addled as well as pickled.) Of course, there is the love-triangle plot device common in Shakespearean comedies, though “triangle” seems an inadequate geometry.

I’m a bit fonder of “Comedy of Errors” than “Twelfth Night.” I think more is done with the identity confusion in that one, as well as it having some great lines (many delivered by the Dromios.) That said, “Twelfth Night” has its funny moments, particularly involving the two plotting drunks, Sir Toby Belch (kinsman to Olivia) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the aforementioned Quixote-esque knight.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Spoiler-laden summary: To be fair, you’ve had almost 400 years to read it or watch it.] The “nothing” that there is much ado about in this play is the [non-existent] hanky-panky of Hero, daughter of Leonato and the female lead. As it happens, a couple young and studly bachelors (Claudio and Benedick) roll into town after valorous service in the war. This causes some angst in Don John, bastard (Shakespeare’s word, not mine) brother to the Prince of Arragon, because his stock just plummeted. Don John, thus, devises a plot exploiting one of his minions and one of Hero’s attendants to make it look like Hero is flirting about with a strange man. This is a problem because it’s 1623 and Claudio wants his bride to be able to wear white.

When Hero is accused by some credible [but misled] witnesses including her fiancé, Claudio, she passes out from incredulity. Claudio takes off without knowing her condition. A Friar with a devil on his shoulder suggests Leonato tell everyone that Hero’s heart gave out and she died. Friar Francis is one of a handful of steadfast fans of Hero (as well as her cousin and best-friend Beatrice and – by extension – the man courting Beatrice, Benedick – who’s not so much sure of Hero’s virtue as he is sure that Don John is a jerk.) Sad as it is, Hero’s father and her fiancé are ready to relegate her to skanks-town, but her smart-aleck bestie / cousin Beatrice and the priest each have her / his own idea of how things can be set straight. As mentioned, the friar thinks that if Claudio believes Hero died, the better angels of his nature will make him come and atone for his accusations. Beatrice’s approach is to whip Benedick into challenging Claudio to a dual. (Which Benedick is not keen on because he’s war buddies with Claudio, but he plays it strategically by giving Claudio an opportunity to do the right thing while still challenging him.)

This is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and so in the end everything works out after the twists and turns. Unfortunately, things even work out for Don John – for the time being, at least. The bastard (Shakespeare’s word) goes on the lam knowing the jig is up on his plot. His man, Borachio, rolls on him, and with Hero “dead” things are about to get serious. So, if you were expecting the villain to get it Shylock-style, you’ll be sadly disappointed.

Of course, it’s brilliant; it’s William -frickin- Shakespeare.

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BOOK REVIEW: Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

CandyCandy by Terry Southern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist of this story, Candy Christian, is a caricature of a flighty, young beauty with daddy issues. Candy’s personality mixes cringe-worthy naivete with an endearing – if unjustified – optimism about the virtue of men. This, combine with her laudable but exploitable desire to render assistance, leads to a chain of events in which her trusting nature is repeatedly manipulated, usually without her ever becoming aware she’s been duped (or, at least, without it being admitted to the reader.)

This book claims to be a satire on Voltaire’s “Candide.” While readers may find varying degrees of commonality between the books, they do share some common ground. Both start with the protagonist being educated by a philosopher. In Candide’s case, it is Pangloss (i.e. “all talk”) who insists that Candide lives in the best of all possible worlds. In Candy’s case, it’s Dr. Mephesto (i.e. presumably derived from the Germanic demon “Mephestopheles” whose name means something like “scatterer of lies,”) and Candy’s philosophy teacher harps on the point that a person must find meaning in service, and to be willing to demonstrate that service as – of course – an attempt to bed Candy.

The books are also both episodic, jumping from location to location with adventures occurring at each locale. However, this episodic nature starts late in “Candy,” with the first two-thirds or so taking place in her hometown (Racine, WI) and – only then going on the move. Despite the availability of air travel, Candy doesn’t get around as much as Candide, though she does finish her journey at a Tibetan monastery. Both books have also been classified as being of the “education of a youth” (i.e. Bildungsroman) variety. However, they both have also been criticized on the basis that there wasn’t much of value learned by the lead. That said, Candide offers a clear moral to end the story, whereas Candy’s takeaway is in a more ambiguous twist ending.

“Candy” (the book) hinges on more than one absurd turn of events, but given that the genre is humor, I had no problem with that. [Even Shakespeare, in works like “The Comedy of Errors,” asks one to suspend disbelief in exchange for a laugh and some solid entertainment.]

I will point out one last similarity between “Candide” and “Candy,” they have both frequently been banned on the basis of moral arguments. Which brings me to to a couple warnings. If it’s not been made clear to this point, this book is sexually graphic, and individuals troubled by that may want to avoid it. The other class of reader who may be offended by the work are those disturbed by the book’s frequent victory of exploitative characters. In some ways, the book shares as much in common with Marquis de Sade’s “Justine” as it does with “Candide.” While the tone isn’t at all dark like Sade’s book, the story does suggest that world order is such that the weak and naïve will repeatedly be exploited by the strong and amoral.

I found the book to be humorous. The story is intriguing and well-developed, and – if one can suspend one’s disbelief regarding a few of the more absurd events – the reader will find it engaging. It’s not always a comforting read, but if you don’t mind (or enjoy) that condition, then you’ll likely to find it a pleasant read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

Dream StoryDream Story by Arthur Schnitzler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Suffering one-two blows to his masculinity, the lead – a doctor named Fridolin – engages in a risky chain of events that culminates in sneaking into the orgiastic masquerade ball of a secret society. The major drivers of this behavior seem to be his wife’s admission of a fantasy she had about another man and Fridolin’s embarrassment over a subdued response upon being run into by another man on the sidewalk. The former is the more important event, but it amplifies the effect of the latter event, and together they result in Fridolin goading himself to do something dangerous. It also drives him to ignore warnings and show undue bravado, which results in his being discovered as an impostor at the masquerade event.

If this sounds familiar in broad brush-strokes (but not necessarily in details,) it’s because the 1999 Kubrick film, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, “Eyes Wide Shut” is loosely-based on this story. The movie was set in modern-day New York, and the novella is set in Vienna contemporary to its composition (i.e. circa 1926.) The book was originally released in German under the title “Traumnovelle.“

I enjoyed this novella. There is excitement and tension throughout the work that varies from a bit of marital friction to life-and-death fear that the protagonist’s desire to redeem himself will get him killed. There’s also a fascinating instance in which Fridolin’s wife, Albertine, recounts a dream she had that has faint echoes of what actually happened to Fridolin in it. This leads the reader to wonder whether she knows more than she lets on, or whether her subconscious just made some lucky guesses based on their earlier interactions. The reader is shown the seedy side of early twentieth century Vienna. Certainly, what was going on there with regards to the fields of psychology and psychiatry play into the story.

If you’re looking for a short work of intrigue, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

SurfacingSurfacing by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young woman takes a double-date to her childhood home in rural Canada after her father goes missing. [OK, “double-date” sounds a bit trivial for the tone of the novel, but it’s the quickest way to say that she goes with her boyfriend, Joe, and a married couple, David and Anna.] At first all is well, and the four are enjoying time away from the city, living in a cabin on an island in beautiful lake country. In fact, the group decides to extend their stay, and — intriguingly — this decision isn’t advanced by the protagonist, who’s father remains missing, but one of the others who is enjoying the novelty of back-country living. During this extension, tensions rise within the group, both within each couple and between the couples.

In the third part of this three-part book, the protagonist descends into a feral madness. Her father’s disappearance, which the protagonist addresses with the stoicism of one accustomed to living in remote territory, is only one of several triggers. We discover that she was divorced, she’d been on the outs with her parents in relation to that marriage, and that her current relationship is falling apart because Joe wants to get serious but the protagonist wants to keep things casual – presumably because of the trauma of her last marriage.

As the novel progresses, we get little indications of what might have been responsible for her father’s disappearance, though the reader doesn’t have a good grasp on whether there is merit to the speculated motives, or whether they are just indication that the protagonist is beginning to lose a grip. We discover that there are parties interested in purchasing the property. Some vitriol is spoken over the fact that the prospective buyers are American, but we don’t know whether that reflects a reasonable curiosity about why foreigners would be interested in such a remote property or whether it’s the madness or whether it’s just a visceral dislike of Americans. It also seems like the protagonist may be on the trail of some sort of artifact and that her father may have left her clues about it. However, again, we don’t know whether this is all the crazed imagings of a person descending into madness.

This is a short, quiet novel, but it was nevertheless engrossing. A lot of the intrigue is packed into the very end of the novel, but as it’s a short novel that doesn’t mean that there’s and excessively long build. The protagonist’s madness offers nice opportunities for strategic ambiguity – i.e. the reader has some freedom to determine what is true and what is paranoia.

I read this as part of a personal project to read a piece of literature that offers insight into a country for every country that I’ve visited. I think it fits the bill nicely. The reader sees a little bit of what life in rural Canada is like. The reader also witnesses some of the conflict over language and nationalism as this takes place in predominantly French-speaking territory, and the protagonist has been living away long enough that her language marks her as an outsider — even though this is where she’s from. We also see how Canadians can feel an intense difference between themselves and people from the United States, even though much of the world sees Canadians as “the polite Americans.”

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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