Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Many readers (of which I am one) remember with vivid clarity the first time they read a book written by Oliver Sacks. My first was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I remember how the cases almost leapt off the page, effortlessly transporting me to another place and time. I also remember being left with an impression of his insatiably curiosity and absolute reverence for life. But what I remember and appreciated most was Sacks’ talent for making the complex and impenetrable approachable, even simple.

For those readers who have come to expect this quality in Sacks’ writing, Gratitude does not disappoint. It is a summary of one man’s life work, yet its sentiment is universal. Although there are only four essays in this trim volume, each is picturesque, profound and without one extraneous word. The essays currently comprise Sacks’ definitive words on living his own life, the contribution of his generation, and an articulation of the intense gratitude he feels to have been a sentient being on this beautiful planet. Savor this book, read it several times, and then give it to someone you like.

- Carolyn Pletsch

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Last summer, I became engrossed with reruns of Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model, Cycle 7. I found myself rooting for Anastasija Bogatirjova, whose quirky and extroverted personality amused me the most. However, as I read about Anastasija, I discovered that her journey was not easy. A company recruiting models persuaded Anastasija to move to Milan and model for them. However, a problem with her travel documents prevented Anastasija from travelling there. The police later informed her that it was actually fortunate that she did not go, since the man that approached Anastasija was a trafficker looking to trick women into prostitution.

This chilling revelation set an eerie backdrop for my reading of Chris Bohjalian’s The Guest Room. This captivating new novel traces the messy aftermath of a bachelor party gone wrong in an otherwise sleepy Tudor neighborhood in suburban New York. The consequences are life-changing for all those involved. However, unlike Bogatirjova, who narrowly escaped traffickers, the young women hired for the party live the nightmarish reality of enslavement to the sex trade.

The Guest Room centres on Richard Chapman, an upstanding working father whose younger brother Philip is getting married. Richard grudgingly hosts Philip’s bachelor party at his family home. The party grows far more out of hand than expected, with drunkenness en masse and the “strippers” turning out to be potentially underage prostitutes. Even worse, the two women hired for the party are in fact imprisoned sex slaves from overseas, who decided that night to kill their captors and escape. In the aftermath, Richard’s home turns into a crime scene and those close to him are irrevocably changed by the events of that one night. Richard’s strength of character is rare but believable as he endures the humiliating scrutiny of those around him. Bohjalian’s intricate network of minor characters, some of whom only appear for a few pages, explore the community’s reactions. Despite their brief appearances, their curiosity and judgements are equally as human and conflicted as those of the protagonists.

Far from a formulaic thriller, Bohjalian’s The Guest House is in fact a philosophical and probing exploration of topics ranging from the sex trade, life in Eastern Europe, and the delicate thread that holds a marriage together. The novel alternates between the characters Richard and Alexandra, whose lives become intricately linked. Richard’s succumbs to Alexandra’s charms at the bachelor party, yet withstands temptation. However, the lingering question of whether he did or did not participate in the party’s rampant sex haunts his wife Kristen and their young daughter Melissa. Despite the focus on Richard and his family’s struggle through their crisis, the true hero of the story to me is Alexandra. Through Alexandra’s entirely different yet parallel trajectory, we learn about her childhood in Armenia as a naïve girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina. However, through a string of family deaths, she is left alone and unprotected. Promised a life of glamour, she is instead tricked into the violent and unpredictable world of sex slavery.

However, despite the novel’s initial exploration of familial and marital problems of a typical American family, the most haunting and shocking impressions of The Guest House for me are its candid unveiling of the issues of trafficking and forced prostitution. Bohjalian calls attention to the grim realities of victims who have no voice and often stay imprisoned and abused, with their passports and freedom taken away. It is a grim reality in places such as Armenia, Russia, Dubai, and right even under our noses in North America. After reading The Guest House, I felt angered and disgusted by such bitter truths about trafficking that still occurs today worldwide.

Bohjalian’s complex and multilayered impressions of his achingly human characters certainly leave the reader much to think about, putting into perspective the entitlement of the North American upper middle class compared to those suffering from daily realities of modern slavery. It is refreshing but sobering to encounter a literary work that not only thrills and entertains, but opens our eyes to the terrors in the world around us that are more horrifying than any imagined storyline. Hopefully, through novels such as Bohjalian’s The Guest House, we can gain a greater awareness of the world’s issues as well as become motivated to seek ways to improve the lives of those around us.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical vocalist. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. Follow @MikeZFan or visit for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Written in the third person, Richard B. Wright’s memoir reads like a novel, yet is highly personal. When you think about tackling several decades of your life, it can be daunting to capture what that little girl or boy inside you was really like. Wright’s choice of using the third person is a wonderful tool to frame his life story.

This entertaining read starts out in Midland, Ontario, where Wright grew up during the 30s and 40s. At that time, the Midland port, with shipbuilding capabilities and large granaries, was a hive of activity that supported wartime commerce opportunities.
Having read many author biographies and interviews, I so enjoyed the commonplace human things that Wright includes in his memoir. Early in his career, for instance, while in a sales role, he states he had in his "new attaché case, 3 sales memos, a tuna fish sandwich and a paperback copy of Zorba the Greek…” which painted a delightful picture of the balance between the banalities of work life and learning his craft. 
Halfway through the book, I’m thinking, I like how this young boy has evolved to adulthood. He was creative and lucky in landing his first few jobs by that age-old method of sending out masses of letters offering up his skills. His first few bosses were interested in his humour and talent for using his words well. It made me want to meet this character – the man who would become “author Richard B. Wright.” Another warm image that resonated for me was Wright’s early and steadfast awareness of his love of words, his desire to be around them every day, and for words to factor in his daily work. While I might share that love of words, I, along with many others, remain in the "wannabe" writer camp!
Wright recalls advice from early mentors that “he had to remember that a serious writer was interested not just in providing entertainment but also in using the power of language to understand experience.”
Another aspect of Wright’s ‘writerliness’ that I enjoyed was the varied techniques he employed to tackle the work of writing, which includes determining how to overcome the inevitable struggles. “Thinking and feeling his way into this book … after a while (he) began to feel and sense those times…” of which he is writing, captures how he launches into a new project. Clearly having an innate penchant for early editing, he “knew he had to overcome this compulsion to tinker endlessly with his sentences.” Wright would often reflect on his father’s snow shoveling advice, evolved as a result of the regular and heavy snowfalls of Midland winters: “Just go through and don’t try to make it perfect. You can widen it later.” He applied this to his editing process over time.

As I came to his third last chapter, “The Age of Longing”, his memoir was beginning to feel like a mystery novel with the ever-mounting tension suggesting that a difficult life experience was imminent. Not so. As it turns out, Wright’s tension was more about what is usually experienced by published novelists who regularly have the “will (I) be able to write another book that the publisher would accept” type of anxiety. Considering this, my admiration for Wright grew after seeing the impressive list of 13 books that he has written to date.

I appreciated his comments following his mother’s death: “After the death of parents we make our own grim calculations; now orphans in middle age we consider, if only briefly, the time remaining to us…” This leads me to the one area of disappointment in Wright’s memoir: I would like to have heard more about this talented man’s emotional and social experiences. We’re not given much understanding of the nature of his family life, or that with friends and colleagues. References to his wife are positive. His wife Phyllis clearly has supported him throughout his career, including moving to different locations and changing occupations from time to time.

But as I write this and re-read some passages, perhaps there is more about his inner life than I realized. When Wright reflects on his own journal comments during his writing process, “… I offer a few random notes from journals, kept under lock and key lest they fall into the wrong hands and my lazy and infrequent observations be revealed for what they are, a perfunctory record of banality…” So apologies, Mr Wright if there is more here than my remarks suggest and, I would be delighted to know more about you as a husband, friend, or father should a ‘memoir sequel’ be something you consider!

Wright’s closing essay, “What Happens When We Read Stories”, is brilliant. He writes: “Without words we are reduced in our capacity to endure vicissitudes or express our wonder at being alive.” May I express my sincere gratitude to Richard B. Wright for sharing his life’s work to date in this beautifully crafted memoir. He provided me with inspiration and entertainment. I expect it will for others: readers and wannabe-writers alike. 

Jennifer Mackie has lived in Guelph for over 40 years, is a business consultant with never enough hobby time for reading, sports, online puzzles and quilting. She reads for entertainment and to discover the world of ‘curious’. Along with finding value in the story, she enjoys experiencing different writer’s styles and methods for how they entice one into their made up worlds.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Soundless is one of my favourite reads of the year! This book simply can’t be described in full without spoiling it, but I do highly recommend that it goes on everyone’s TBR list! Richelle Mead has created this amazing one-of-a-kind concept, an exotic and gorgeous setting, and an extremely likeable main character.

This novel has one of the most unique and interesting concepts I’ve read in quite a while. In Soundless, the all characters but the main are deaf. The way the world is imagined without sound is extremely intriguing. Sign language is used instead of words, and the news is painted by apprentices. What is really special about Soundless is the fact that since the characters can’t hear, there is no actual dialog. Yes, the characters communicate, but there are no quotation marks, since they don’t actually speak… They sign. When they communicate, the words are instead italicized, so don’t worry about the book being hard to follow.

Soundless is set in a mountain village in China, which I have always wanted to visit. Something about China is so majestic and is the perfect place for a book like this to take place. The descriptions of the setting are so beautiful and vivid, so the reader can actually see the mountains and the mines. These descriptions make this book even more incredible than it already is!

I really enjoyed the main character in Soundless, Fei. She is an artist, and since I have been really into art books lately, I especially enjoyed this characteristic. Fei is the only person in her village who can hear, and it must be terrifying hearing sound for the first time and not be able to describe it to anyone. She handles it well and uses her ability to help her friend. Fei doesn’t whine, which can be irritating in a book, and is quite strong. She is actually the perfect character for this book, and I’m glad that she is so enjoyable.

Soundless has a super unique concept, a breathtaking setting, and a likeable main character. This book is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year! If you are a fan of mythology, this is a must-read!

- Olivia Whetstone

Sunday, November 1, 2015


My first encounter with Mr. William Shakespeare was in a Grade 7 English class. We studied Romeo and Juliet, watched the modernized film version with Leonardo DiCaprio, and acted out scenes from the play. A decade later, I am delving back into Shakespeare with the role of Malvolio in a Laurier production of Twelfth Night. Our director’s vision is to be free with time and era, providing some fresh air to the play. This seems to be the trend with presenting Shakespearean plays today as well as in film, opera, and other works – reinterpreting old classics in contemporary ways.

Jeanette Winterson’s new novel The Gap of Time is indeed such a modernization. In fact, it is one of a series of retellings of Shakespeare's work by a plethora of renowned authors such as Margaret Atwood and Tracy Chevalier. The Gap Time is a "cover" of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which has little to do with the infamously cold season. For those not familiar with the 17th century play or intimidated by Shakespeare’s early modern English, Winterson helpfully provides a summary of the play at the outset of the novel. For those less faint of heart (such as myself), reading the original Shakespeare will make comparing and appreciating Winterson’s cover much easier and more interesting.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale centres on the crazed King Leontes of Sicilia, who accuses his wife Hermione of adultery along with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. Their infant daughter, once born, is banished and raised by a shepherds, only to return to her native Sicilia at the close of the play to be reunited with her family. Winterson updates the novel to the present, with many clever name changes and surprises. The antiquated Kings Leontes and Polixenes become Leo and Xeno, two childhood friends who in Winterson’s novel were at one point also lovers as teenagers. Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione is reincarnated as a famous French singer named Mimi. Their daughter retains her name of Perdita, which still refers to her exile.

Winterson’s retelling is substantially darker than the Shakespeare play. Leontes’ sexual obsession is exaggerated, the famous bear which attacks Antigonus is translated into murderous robbers, and the bucolic shepherd scenes are scrapped for an African-American family living on modest means. Winterson’s novel explores Shakespeare’s themes of Othello-esque jealousy, class, and family in further depth than a play is able. She also underpins her rendition with further themes, many of which would not have been comprehensible in Shakespeare’s time – technology, sexual identity (or lack thereof), and celebrity culture.

Winterson’s tale edges more on the perverse and sexually charged at times, which creates a new “Leo” that is perhaps more understandable to modern audiences in his sexually-charged, businessman guise than a King that seems to descend into madness by accusing his pregnant Queen of adultery. Mimi is a more talented Hermione, but she does not die, become a statue, and then magically return to living human form again. Following the original Hermione storyline would certainly not be as credible to modern audiences as realistic fiction – unless Winterson decided to write The Gap of Time as a sci-fi fantasy. Oddly enough, as musical as many of Shakespeare’s plays are, there is not much music in the original Tale. Winterson rectifies this, with Mimi’s vibrant musical career, Shep’s piano bar, the HollyMollyPolly band, and many other occasions for music-making.

The Gap of Time is a meticulously constructed and interesting re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Although in English-speaking countries Shakespeare may seem ever-present in classrooms, there is still so much to discover in his brooding and humourous work, especially remarkable given that he predated the field of psychology by so many centuries. Winterson affirms that Shakespeare is as as relevant as ever in his mastery of the art of storytelling and his probing insights into the human condition that still ring true today. From The Gap of Time, to the Met’s new, controversial production of Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Othello which has done away with blackface, to the upcoming film adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Shakespeare is very much alive and kicking, in a countless array of guises and disguises that continue to startle and amuse contemporary audiences. I look forward to recreating my own version of Shakespearean magic with my reincarnation of Malvolio in January. In the mean time, I have lines to learn!

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical vocalist. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages fluently (with a few in progress). After obtaining degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, it became clear that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Some Turbid Night. Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Timothy Snyder’s previous book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, was well received in 2010. Since then, Putin left one of his massive estates, took a Stalin pill, ordered the assassination of more of his critics, and seized the Crimean peninsula in March 2014. This last action finally provided Russia with a fresh water port. Putin’s quislings then invaded eastern Ukraine, and infamously shot down a Malaysian Airline jet, killing all 298 passengers. Subsequently, world wide invasions of talking heads landed on many beaches. During that time, Snyder’s live interviews proved him to be one of the most informed and reliable commentators on the history leading up to, and during, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Black Earth he returns to Second World War Ukraine, Poland, and other east European countries to examine in close and fine detail the devastation wrought upon these countries and their Jewish populations by Hitler and Stalin.

Black Earth is not a book that adds some incremental history to what we know about interwar and war time eastern Europe. It is a wide ranging and detailed history of the devastating decisions and actions taken by Hitler and German officials, as well as those taken by Stalin, that led to the outbreak of the Second World War, and to the genocide of millions of Jews and other innocent people. Snyder writes knowledgeably, and looks clearly at the decisions that many officials made in many countries to betray the innocent into the hands of Hitler and Stalin’s murderers.

During the time covered by Black Earth, the borders between many countries changed significantly, or disappeared, only to reappear in sometimes unrecognizable forms. In some cases, large areas of some countries became part of other countries. And small areas such as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia simply disappeared. Without maps, much of Snyder’s history would have often been difficult to follow. However, he has provided extensive and detailed maps throughout Black Earth—an average of two maps in each chapter, and on some occasions three or four maps in other chapters. These maps ensure that the close reader may easily follow the often complex, yet unfailingly clear history that unfolds in each chapter.

I say “close reader” while recalling that Michael R. Marrus in The New York Times Book Review of September 6, 2015 wrote, “I suspect that Snyder will have lost many readers by this point” (About 60-70 pages into the book). I was about 130 pages into the book when I happened to read the Marrus review, and I was deeply engaged by Snyder’s clarity and detail, as I examined each map. Maybe Marrus wasn’t attending to the maps.

Two hundred pages into the book, and Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jewish people has not yet begun. But once any country is occupied by German forces, or by Russian forces, some members of the local police, military, and some residents take up arms and begin evicting Jews from their houses, and murdering them wherever they see a Jew. This is very difficult reading. In each country, the responses vary. Some residents volunteer to betray Jews into German hands. Other residents, at great personal risk to themselves, hide Jews in their houses, and care for them. Sometimes local police forces take part in killing innocent Jews. At other times, police officers sometimes save as many Jews as they can.

If you have an interest in this period of European history, Black Earth is a compassionate, wide-ranging, and troubling history of that time. Snyder concludes this fine book with informed warnings about how easily the murder and genocide of innocents occurs, and has occurred since the Second World War. He surveys how these genocides are occurring, and touches briefly on how these terrible choices will occur yet again. Snyder’s compassion extends to his friends. When his colleague Tony Judt was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Snyder was one of Judt’s caregivers. At different times, Snyder and Judt have both quoted the Polish Army Officer Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to enter Auschwitz, in order to understand it: “I bade farewell to everything I had hitherto known on this earth and entered something seemingly no longer of it.” (The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, p. 13).

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Thirty-seven years ago, in 1978, Patti Smith shook up the music world with the release of her album Horses. “Gloria” and “Redondo Beach” from that album can still get the joint jumping. In the same year she released her underarm album, Easter. “Because the Night” from that album is still powerful, and “Easter” is a lament to end lamenting.

In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres—France’s highest honour for an artist.

In 2010 she published Just Kids. It became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and won a National Book Award. The American writer Joan Didion said this about Just Kids: “This book is so honest and pure as to count as a pure rapture.” And Johnny Depp landed long enough to praise her book as well: “Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.” I remember not being able to put Just Kids down until I finished reading it.

It’s 2015 and Patti Smith has just released another book, M Train, a reference to something she saw in a shot glass after two tequilas, “I closed my eyes and saw a green train with an M in a circle; a faded green like the back of a praying mantis.” (p. 123). Smith never repeats herself and M Train alternates between memoir, diary, travelogue, real estate deal, good meal/bad meal stories, and her lust for more and more good coffee, and impossibly good stories, that in another writer’s hands, you simply could not believe were true.

For example, how could the following story be true? Smith is attending a conference of the Continental Drift Club in Iceland, and is excited to be invited to photograph the chess table where Boris Spassky played Bobby Fischer in 1972 in “The Chess Match of the Century” in the breathless deathless words of The New York Times. She lingers in the room where the modest table is preserved, and tries to frame the table in her camera viewfinder to get the best photograph. Then she has the honour of meeting Fischer, who begins to spew “a string of obscene and racially repellent references that morphed into paranoiac conspiracy rants.”

“Look, you’re wasting your time, I said. I can be just as repellent as you, only about different subjects.”

Fischer has finally met more than his match, and settles down and eventually he and Smith spend part of the evening singing songs such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fischer in falsetto. True story.

Could the following story be true as well? Smith is staying in a big Hotel in London. She’s anticipating the forthcoming Cracker TV marathon staring Robbie Coltrane, about to be aired in Britain.

(Haven’t seen Cracker yet? Go to Thomas Entertainment on Baker Street in Guelph now and rent it before the other person reading this review rents it. Now, back to Smith’s story...)

Standing by the elevator I suddenly felt a presence beside me. We turned at the same moment and stared at one another. I was stunned to find Robbie Coltrane, as if I’d willed him, some days ahead of the Cracker marathon.

“I’ve been waiting for you all week, I said impetuously.”

“Here I am, he laughed.”

And here she is. On the M Train. I couldn’t put her second book down either.

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