Sunday, August 31, 2014


David Bezmozgis' The Betrayers layers questions about forgiveness, betrayal, moral direction and compromise in a plot focused on an Israeli politician's principled (to him) stand against the withdrawal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In taking such a stand, our protagonist, Kolter, is blackmailed and refuses to compromise: as a result his affair with a younger woman is exposed. In an effort to avoid the media spotlight, Kolter and his mistress flee to the Crimea where they encounter - in a twist of coincidence or "fate" (an idea thoroughly explored in the novel) - characters from Kolter's past that dramatize for the reader ideas of fated encounters and fated actions; morality and moral codes; and how, when and under what conditions, forgiveness can be given?

The novel reads quickly, has compelling back stories for its characters, takes on a sizable, yet intimate, plotline and set of questions. And it does what good fiction should do: it makes the reader consider a viewpoint that may be different from their own. The book is pro-Zionist and unapologetically so. Its presentation of the Zionist position is not one I am comfortable or familiar with, but I nevertheless - in the reading - was granted a way to think about this position and its people with something closer to empathy than I'd otherwise have been capable of. The novel and its characters aren't making an argument for Zionist ideas. Zionism is, instead, the undercurrent and setting against which the action, character development and thematic questions are explored; it is taken for granted and given. This sort of philosophy/politics-as-setting allows the reader - or this reader at least - to suspend potential responses or arguments, and to instead explore with the characters the contours of their stories and discoveries.

When's she not reading, Erin Aspenlieder is teaching, running or eating cookies (sometimes all at once). She prefers fiction and books made of paper. She blogs at

Monday, August 25, 2014


Cross-cultural and global stories always interest me, if only because they invite me to explore places I haven’t been able, on my student budget, to travel to yet. In the case of Kim Thúy’s most recent novel, Mãn, characters move from Vietnam to Montréal to France, destinations which each have a distinct atmosphere and historical significance for both the readers and the characters.

Mãn begins her narrative in Vietnam where she has been passed from her birth mother to a nun to, finally, Maman, who becomes her devoted caretaker, all in the setting of wartime. When she grows up, Mãn is married to a Vietnamese man who lives in Montréal and with her first migration, she leaves behind her home and her beloved adoptive mother. Despite the initial loneliness that comes with the move, Mãn quickly becomes dedicated to her work in her husband’s restaurant, and as the food gains popularity amongst the city’s Vietnamese, French, and English population, she meets people who add colour and meaning to her life. One of these characters is Luc, a Frenchman whom Mãn encounters when travelling to France to promote her Vietnamese cookbook. Through their relationship and others formed in Montreal and France, Mãn discovers the differences between cultural expressions of love and more importantly, she finds her unique purpose in the initially strange and unknown world that exists beyond Vietnam.

Aware of the struggles of immigrant families through personal experiences, I found Mãn’s easy and quick adjustment to Quebecois life somewhat unrealistic and a bit too rosy. She has few issues with her husband, except that their relationship is unexciting, and though she misses Maman, these emotions are not particularly immobilizing. While this might be a sign of the character’s strength, one might think that such major cultural migrations would induce more conflict. However, the familial relationships portrayed in the book feel authentic, and appear modern as the bonds between characters are often based on much more than simple blood ties or marriage. For instance, Julie, a resident of Montréal, and Mãn become something close to sisters, and Julie refers to her group of close friends as adoptive mothers of her children. In fact, the theme of motherhood is reinterpreted multiple times throughout the book. After all, the narrative opens with Mãn’s description of her three mothers, though only one technically qualifies as her biological parent. These relationships reveal the fluidity of the concept of family, which is a welcome change from the traditional and rigid depiction of families in recent works of fiction.

As a food lover, the images of Vietnamese and French cuisine described by Mãn are mouthwatering. Mãn’s progression into a chef is an interesting and unexpected development that reveals how cross-cultural friendship can be formed over something as simple as a shared fondness for a dish savoured during childhood or in times of struggle. Characters come together over food in many instances, like the French baker, Philippe, who joins the restaurant when it expands and reinvents the Vietnamese pastries, or Francine, a fan of Mãn’s book La Palanche, who is drawn to the cover photo of a fish steak on the cookbook that brings her back to her childhood in Vietnam. Having experienced many significant moments in my life during a meal, I appreciate and can relate to the importance of food in Mãn.

The short length of Thúy’s work should in no way indicate a lack of depth in the narration. Over what seems like a limited number of pages, the author suggests powerful character development that is accented by unforgettable images. Mãn’s day spent with Luc’s children, Maman’s numerous small but impressive acts of bravery in Vietnam during the war, Mãn learning how to read French with Maman’s help in spite of the ban on foreign books; Thúy dwells on these and other moments with beautiful and meaningful prose that force the reader to slow down and appreciate her lyrical writing. I felt myself savouring the book, much like Hông, a Vietnamese friend of Mãn’s in Montréal, savours the tomato broth that reminds her of her father or the restaurant clientele savour the Vietnamese-style banana cake made by Mãn and remade by Philippe. Thúy’s work spoke to my sense of adventure, the importance of family, my love for food, and most readers will be able to find at least one, but most likely more, aspects of Mãn’s story that will intrigue them and leave behind a lasting impression.

Alicja Grzadkowska is beginning her first semester as a graduate student studying Journalism at Ryerson in the fall. Her bookshelf is stacked with yet-to-read fiction titles, which hasn't stopped her from regularly adding to her collection. Traveling to big cities across North America is another one of her obsessions, and one which she hopes to indulge in again as soon as possible.

Monday, August 18, 2014


In high school, I spent my lunches at the dweeb table, and I always wondered what it was like to be one of the cool kids. So, to my amusement, reading Megan Abbott’s novel The Fever provided a peek into the souls of the coolest kids at a high school in small-town USA. As several reviewers have noted, Abbott is worth reading for her insight into the teenage mind alone. An Edgar Award winner, she has a PhD in literature from New York university, and she has published seven previous novels.

For fans of psychological suspense and mystery, The Fever doesn’t disappoint. But it’s not “just” a crime novel, for two reasons. First, it has achieved a marriage of the mystery pattern with the psychological novel: a combination of “whodunit,” “what the heck’s going on with this person,” and “will she do it?”

Second, The Fever explorers teenage yearnings and troubles, but it ain’t no YA novel. Instead, the dark blooming of sexuality and social competition—think “frenemy”—echoes through the story. I was surprised, even shocked, that the brightest, most popular girls might be hiding their own unrequited crushes and emotional confusion; blocking fresh memories to avoid the truth of their sexual escapades; feeling bewildered by their own acts of revenge upon rivals.

My one quibble is that the book could have been shorter, or else the pacing better handled. To my taste, the story dragged for a couple of chapters around the two-thirds mark.

Beyond her strength at characterisation, Abbott’s style is unobtrusively poetic, as in this description of a winter day: “Outside, it was bitter cold, the sky onion white”; or in this passage, describing an outdoor skating rink: “branches strewn across the thawing ice. Prickly globes split, seeds spilling, white petals pulped, spores that spilt red onto the ice.”

The spores in the quotation above relate to this novel’s theme—fever. Abbott explores two senses of the word: the “fever” of teenage hormones and the actual fevers that toxins infect humans with via polluted water. There’s actually a third of treatment of “fever” in the story, but revealing it here would be a plot spoiler. 

Whether or not you were a nerd in high school, read The Fever for a its fresh hybrid of mystery and psychological suspense; its poetry; its thematic depth; and its frank, searing look into the pain of adolescence.

Bob Young’s short stories have been published in the literary journals Other Voices, Postscripts to Darkness, and Great Lakes Review. He has completed his first novel, a mystery that partially involves the Grand River land dispute of 2006-07, and he’s currently submitting it to literary agents. Any takers? Visit his website:

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Orlando Figes is the award-winning author of numerous books and articles on Russian history. His most recent, Revolutionary Russia, is the most informative book I’ve read on Russia since working—and I mean ‘working’—my way through Solzhenitsyn’s groundbreaking, and permafrost breaking, Gulag Archipelago. Unlike Solzhenitsyn’s often overwhelmingly grim, yet necessary Gulag trilogy, Revolutionary Russia is hard to put down.

Figes’ approach here is to look both back and ahead at the significant revolutions and internecine conflicts that shook Russia over the course of one hundred years. This period ranges from the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy to the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991. He manages this long challenge with a deep knowledge of Russia, and occasional touches of welcome humour.

Early on, he reveals a censorship gaffe that changed the life of hundreds of millions of Russians. Tsarist book censors allowed Marx’s Capital to enter Russia uncensored. They assumed that “very few people in Russia” would read it, and “even fewer would understand it”. How many other books have had such a profound effect on so many nations? The Russian political economist Petr Struve took a different path to Marx. He said that the famine (one of many) “made much more of a Marxist out of me than the reading of Marx’s Capital.” Figes’ take on Marx and Lenin is, “It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary, but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary.”

The arc of Russian history here is long. And it does not often bend toward justice, but toward repeated injustice, as Russian supported violence continues to unfold today in Ukraine. Figes’ history begins in the late 1800s. Russian rule of Poland under the Tsar leads to the brutal suppression of uprisings in Poland in 1830 and 1863. But Tsarist rule is approaching its end. Looking back at that time from 1917, a Polish farmer reveals, “I myself did not know that I was a Pole till I began to read books and papers.”

The arrival of Soviet socialism during the 1917 Revolution had other unexpected results. “Some soldiers refused to fight for more than eight hours a day, claiming the same rights as the workers.” The Russian revolution in 1917 sweeps away both the past, and Russia’s class society. In that year, Tsar Nicholas, Alexandria, and their five children are sent to the “provincial backwater” of Tobolsk. Then they are all transferred to Ekaterinburg, where they are executed at night at close range by a Bolshevik firing squad. At night, in secrecy? Or in shame? Trotsky put it bluntly, “the country had so radically vomited up the monarchy that it could not ever crawl down the people’s throat again.” He was only partially right—the current Russian oligarchy has crawled its way to great power and wealth.

The Tsarist secret service, OKRANA, is the first in a series of shapeshifting acronyms that became, sequentially, the CHEKA, OGPU, NKVD, NKGB, MGB, KGB, and to the FSB, the last acronym change of which was instituted by Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. For over a century, regardless of who was in power, each of these secret service organizations has spied on and often destroyed the lives of millions of Russian citizens.

Figes covers this long arc of history through “the Revolution’s rise and fall in three generational phases”. First, “the lifetime of the Old Bolsheviks, mostly born in the 1870s or 1880s”. Second, “Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’”. And third, “Khruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes marks the Revolution’s third and final phase’”. Khruschev’s astonishing speech changed Russia forever—it is available and worth spending some time with HERE.

Khruschev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress had astonishing effects. Some delegates were so shocked by Khruschev’s attack on the once all powerful Stalin that they were felled by heart attacks. One delegate committed suicide. Khruschev’s speech triggered massive changes in Russia, that many feel ultimately led to the collapse of Soviet hegemony in Europe. The Berlin Wall, and all those SSRs (Soviet Socialist Republics) that kept the Cold War hot have all disappeared.

Figes’ divisions into three historical periods are not rigid, as he repeatedly looks back and forward in time to link long historical trends during the one hundred year period under consideration. He also enjoys a good story, such as the one about the Czech army soldiers in Russia who intended to cross Russia, the United States and the Atlantic Ocean in order to reach Europe in order to fight the German army during the Second World War.

However, I have a concern about omissions in Revolutionary Russia 1891 - 1991. The title is engaging, but Figes does reference events as late as 2011. For instance, the bombings of the Moscow apartment towers in September 1999 were blamed on Chechen terrorists, just before the election that returned Putin to power, just after he blamed Chechen terrorists for the bombings. However, the ‘signature’ left by the explosives in the bombs indicated that the explosives used were only available to members of the Russian secret service, the FSB, formerly, and probably still directed by Vladimir Putin. See The New York Review of Books HERE.

Figes book was published halfway through 2014. So the book manuscript may have been in final draft and on its way to printing before the 2012 bombing article in the NYRBooks. However, there are other omissions. There is no mention of the professional execution of one of Putin’s fiercest critics, the journalist Anna Politskovkaiai in 2006. The security camera in her residence videotaped the murder, three bullets to the chest, and a final “control shot” to her head. She was murdered on Putin’s birthday. Her assassin got away with more than murder. There is also no mention of the violent government response under Putin that led to the Beslan School massacre (2004), including the deaths of 186 children. There is no reference to bloodshed in Grozny or Starye Atagi. However, there is significant and appropriate description of positive initiatives by Putin. 

Will Figes treat these areas of deep concern about Putin in a future book? Or does Putin’s reach extend beyond the largest country in the world, the Russian Federation?

James Edward Reid’s Justice Denied: Janowiec et al versus Russia Before the European Court of Human Rights will be published in the January issue of The Sarmatian Review at Rice University in Houston.

Friday, August 15, 2014


Russia’s Catherine the Great is remembered for her provocative reign, spanning 34 illustrious years. Yet Empress Catherine is equally as infamous for her unabashedly modern approach to life: her numerous public love affairs, the overstepping of both husband and son as ruler, and her sheer ambition. Eva Stachniak revisits the life of this captivating and enigmatic woman in Empress of the Night. Stachniak’s previous novel, The Winter Palace, was another exploration of Catherine’s life and became an international bestseller. Fortunately, despite such popularity, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Empress of the Night avoids shallow embellishment and is startlingly refreshing: profound, moving, sensual, and sumptuous by turns.

In Empress of the Night, Stachniak inhabits this powerful yet incredibly vulnerable woman. We meet Catherine at the end of her life: the entire novel takes place in the span of her two fateful final days on Earth. Stachniak paints the Empress with uncanny facility and poetry of description that obviously comes from immensely detailed research. Even more impressive are Stachniak’s freedom of story structure and her moving, complex explorations of time, memory, and aging. The novel dips from Catherine’s terrifying, scattered old age back into her early days as the vibrant ingénue from Germany named Sophie. We discover Catherine’s perilous journey to the throne as well as her personal struggles and losses through her own eyes, at once nostalgic and strikingly universal. We discover Catherine as a woman who desires love and Catherine as the great Empress.

Stachniak’s narrative is achingly human and well-written; in my opinion, it is one of the most unsettlingly realistic written recreations of human thought and recollection. Although I expected a potentially intrigue-laced, superficial piece of entertainment, Empress of the Night instead proved to be a masterpiece in both its beauty and its stark realism. Despite Empress Catherine’s riches, good fortune, and power, Empress of the Night brings Catherine the Person close to our hearts and souls. She is every bit a human in this novel; Stachniak’s incredible imagination and empathy creates a Catherine that leaps out of the history books and implores us to hear her story and to see our own journey in hers. Eva Stachniak’s real witchcraft in Empress of the Night is her reincarnation of one of history’s most controversial and fascinating women. All the while, beyond the story itself, Stachniak makes us realize that whether under ermine-trimmed gowns or jeans and T-shirts, we are all wonderfully yet achingly fragile mortals.

Mike Fan is a Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three and a half languages. He holds degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, but it was obvious from an early age that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

Monday, August 11, 2014


How did Letitia Elizabeth Landon die?

Since her untimely death in Ghana circa 1838, several theories have been put forward by historians, among them accidental overdose, suicide, and murder.

Faced with this real-life mystery, author Audrey Thomas chose to tell Letty’s story using first-person accounts. The novel opens with Letty’s posthumous voice stating, “I can speak freely now that I am dead.”

Letty’s life was an unconventional one. When her father lost his fortune and died of a heart condition, Letty became the sole breadwinner, supporting her mother and siblings with her poetry. As one of the most widely read poets of her day, Letty attracted considerable attention and incited several rumours about her personal life. Still unattached in her thirties, Letty wryly contemplated her future as an older, single woman: “’Do offer Auntie the last crumpet.’ And Auntie, with butter dripping down her whiskery chin and death spots on the backs of her hands, gives a grateful mew.”

Her chance meeting with Captain George Maclean at a dinner party inspired a lukewarm courtship that eventually morphed into marriage. In Letty’s mind, it was an excellent opportunity to escape London society and reinvent herself as the governor’s wife and chatelaine of a castle on the Gold Coast of Africa.

But when we hear George’s voice, we learn that Letty was the last person he should have married. He tried to dissuade her with talk of snakes and poison berries, but she refused to listen. He confided to his father: “This is a woman who lives in her head; she has no idea...In fact, I think she finds all this exotic.” On the verge of breaking the engagement, he receives a letter from Letty’s brother accusing him of dishonourable behaviour. Left with the choice of fighting a duel or marrying Letty, George resigned himself to the inevitable.

Three other voices emerge in the narrative: Mrs. Bailey, a female companion; Thomas Freeman, a Wesleyian missionary, who provoked and frightened Letty with tales of poisonous plants and slave mistreatment in the dungeons below the castle; and Brodie Cruickshank, another displaced Scot, who provided companionship and helped ease Lettie’s culture shock. When George objected to Brodie’s afternoon visits, she commented, “He’s become one of my best friends. Maybe my only friend.”

In writing this novel, Audrey Thomas has demonstrated excellent storytelling ability and meticulous attention to detail. I was fascinated by her description of insect life on the Gold Coast: “Termites chewing away, mosquitoes whining at night, driver ants who can deliver a sting like a wasp, things munching, marching along, relentless armies of minute destroyers. And spiders! Huge spiders. Everything seemed excessive out here and vaguely—or not so vaguely—tinged with malevolence. There were only two things I grew fond of: the little geckos that hid behind picture frames waiting for unsuspecting flies, and the orange-tailed lizards that sunned themselves on the battlement and gazed at me with such ancient, knowing eyes.”

Easily read in one sitting, this captivating account of Lettie Landon’s life and mysterious death will appeal to fans of historical fiction.

After retiring from a 31-year teaching career, Joanne Guidoccio launched a second act as a writer. Her articles, book reviews and short stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online. In September 2013, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea, as an eBook on Amazon. You can visit her website at

Sunday, August 10, 2014


In The End of Absence, journalist Michael Harris (best known for his work in The Walrus and Frieze) takes on the question of whether we've given up something nigh-undetectable in our vaunted quest for connection. He opens (and spends the first half of the book) declaring his worries that our obsession with having immediate access--to information, to one another, to memories--has robbed us of the ability to enjoy absence: the moments of tranquility where our attention is not vied for by dozens of nagging, pinging notifications.

For a book with absence in the title, I wish that Harris had spent more time talking about it. As previously mentioned, the first half of the book is a treatise of “what's wrong with the Internet culture of today” in a way that makes Harris seem like the Chicken Little of the Information Age. That's not to say that the unprecedented connectivity brought to us by the world wide web doesn't have its problems, but numerous books (Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson and The Blind Giant by Nick Harkaway to name a couple) have tackled these issues in a much more even-handed (and frankly, better informed) way. Rather than starting with a question and examining the facts to assess its validity, Harris starts from a very specific perspective, and at least seems to come across as falling victim to confirmation bias, highlighting information that reinforces his original thesis rather than opening it up to discussion.

The above is a shame, because once the reader enters into the latter half of the book, the first gets put into a much more reasonable perspective. When taken as one man's personal journey, wrestling with the desire to slow down and enjoy life in a world that obsessively tugs at the mind's periphery like an impatient toddler, The End of Absence becomes much more interesting. Much like a character arc in a fictional tale, its not until 3/4 of the way through EoA that Harris begins to realize that no magical epiphany is to be found through the mere 'presence of absence', for lack of a better term. The value of absence comes in the possibility for generating new ideas and genuine understanding in those moments of repose where we are unable to get lost in the digital labyrinth of Wikipedia, buffeted by hailstorms of email.

To give credit where credit is due, Michael Harris brings the value of quiet repose into stark relief with a prosaic style that draws upon inspiration from Thoreau's Walden, and acknowledgement of the parallels of his situation with that of scholars and scribes following the invention of the printing press. While his tragic martyring of “the last generation that will know the pre-Internet age”, and kvetching over the ubiquity of common, aggregate opinion makes him come off as more than a bit of a curmudgeon, somewhere within this whinge-storm is a kernel of truth that's worth paying attention to. It's ironic that while, at first reading, I bristled in response to his opinions, upon further reflection I believe that his desire for moments of silence in a world that can't stop talking (tweeting?) is one that we can all relate to.

End of Absence is a book best read at a pre-Internet pace, but one worth reading nonetheless.

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I was prepared not to like Kelly Wilder.

Widowed at age fifty-two, the Southern belle and trophy wife learns that her dead husband Mark has put her on an allowance of eleven thousand dollars a month. Grateful but frustrated with the “high-class problem” of too much time and money on her hands, Kelly chafes when Mark’s lawyers deliver multiple assurances that nothing has to change.

Kelly wants things to change.

On a whim, she signs up for ballroom dancing and slowly rebuilds her life with help from Nik, a young Russian dance teacher; Carolina, a cancer-stricken woman in hospice; and Elyse, Kelly’s quirky best friend.

As Kelly embarks on a long-delayed journey to a purpose-filled life, she re-evaluates her twenty-year marriage where she pretended “to be a whole lot more conservative and stupider and nice” and kept the “safe man” happy. No longer content to hide behind the picture-perfect tablescapes she once delighted in creating, Kelly learns to apply one of the primary lessons of dance: “You have to lose your balance in order to find it.”

Kim Wright's writing flows beautifully and rhythmically in this well-crafted novel about the transformative power of second chances. Forty something and fifty something women who find themselves at a crossroads will enjoy reading The Unexpected Waltz.

After retiring from a 31-year teaching career, Joanne Guidoccio launched a second act as a writer. Her articles, book reviews and short stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online. In September 2013, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea, as an eBook on Amazon. You can visit her website at