Days Without End by Sebastian Barry


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A fiction pick by Jean-Louis

Viking, 2016

In Days Without End Sebastian Barry achieves a masterpiece of narration. Our main character is young Tom McNulty who has fled the famines of Ireland, survived the crossing to Quebec, and has made his way to the Western USA in the late 1840s. Young Tom is glad to be alive but is not certain what that status confers upon him, if anything. Barry moves his character about the continents buffeted by the great historical upheavals of the times.

Young Tom must make his way as best he can and lands up teaming up with another teenager, John Cole, working as an entertainer for miners. Their youth and tenderness is marketed in female garb to lonely men who crave companionship. When they grow into young men, the two friends move on to the army and here the very last vestiges of innocence are lost as they find themselves in the throes of the so-called Indian Wars. And ultimately they move on from those atrocities to fight with the Northern States in the American Civil War. In these battles, McNulty recognizes his own kind among the men who are to be his new enemies. Poor soldiers–many who are Irish diaspora–are made to fight out the desires of others further up the food chain.

In all of these battles and travails, Tom and John have each other and even find and kindle a love that will sustain them. Along the way the pair save a young Sioux girl, Winona, and she becomes a daughter to the young couple. Sebastian Barry explores loyalty and love amidst a truly chaotic time in American history and he delivers a magisterial novel in doing so.

Kingdom of the unjust: Behind the U.S – Saudi connection by Medea Benjamin

kingdom of the unjust2

O/R Books, 2016

If you are an armchair activist you may be interested in Medea Benjamin’s latest book – Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S. Saudi connection.  In it she tackles the many inconsistencies in U.S. / Saudi foreign policy.  Saudi Arabia has one of worst track records for human rights abuses in the world – restricting freedom of speech and assembly, treating women as second class citizens, imprisoning dissidents, torture, and executing people for non-violent offences.  Despite this the dynasty enjoys rather comfortable relations with the United States.  This is surprising as other countries with lesser offenses are quickly called out for human rights issues.  Not surprisingly, politics are at the heart of this toxic relationship and this due to a number of different factors- oil contracts and massive military transactions between the two countries being the major contributors.  Read what this author has to share about the topic; it will definitely cause you reflect upon our mixed up world.

Commonwealth: A Novel by Ann Patchett




HarperCollins, 2016

One of the curses and joys of working in a library is that you cannot keep up with reading all of the books you would like to read and learning more about all the authors you discover. And if you are a buyer for your library, the problem is even worse. I know a little about a wealth of authors (enough to make a decision to buy the latest book) and then I move along to more authors and titles. In library world, books are a river! For some reason in the last week or so the time came for me to finally make time for Ann Patchett and her novel Commonwealth. To complete the metaphor, this was like landing on a wonderful island full of adventures and interesting characters.

The novel follows two families who crash into one another (metaphorically) at a child’s christening party. Bert Cousins attends an event for a work colleague to whom he is only tangentially acquainted and within hours the trajectory of the Cousins and Keating families is changed forever. The novel follows the two families over the next five decades. In 300 or so pages, Patchett weaves together the truly genuine and captivating  adventures of all four parents and six children. The action ping pongs from Virginia to California and ultimately around the world. Such is the nature of large families.

Along the way, Franny, the child at the christening, becomes involved with Leon Posen, a successful novelist who has found himself a little low on inspiration. Franny’s family life, full of siblings, step-siblings, parents and step-parents, captures his attention. These borrowed family stories become the basis of his next runaway successful novel. And because we are in America, the novel becomes a movie. Commonwealth explores the ideas of inspiration and creativity. Who owns a family story? What place does the individual have within a family? How do you carve out your own space and are you entitled to that space? In my own family I am the 7th of 10 children and I know the challenges and joys of an extended family. Who gets to tell the “story” and how do you control it once it is out there are very real questions for me and Ann Patchett does a wonderful job of playing with these ideas.

In the periphery of my knowledge about Ann Patchett I knew that she was also a book seller. This week I made time to visit her author website and learned more about her and the charming bookshop she owns and operates in Nashville. The shop is called Parnassus Books and they even have a mobile which is, of course, called “Parnassus on Wheels”  (inspired by another great novel with the same name). I heartily recommend stopping by the “island” of Ann Patchett’s novel and I think I will plan another vacation in Patchett world soon–and maybe even a vacation to Nashville and Parnassus Books!

The Water Beetles by Michael Kaan



Goose Lane Editions, 2017

I read once that each of us has a novel in us somewhere. If you are a reader you may have even asked yourself what novel you have to share with the world. Michael Kaan, a Manitoba writer, has penned a gripping and intense novel based on a family connection and I am guessing that this is the novel he had to write. While I was a student at the University of Manitoba, Michael Kaan’s sister was a classmate of mine and it is interesting to read a novel grounded in the DNA of a family I knew for a short time.

In December of 1941, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong and pre-war life ended for its inhabitants. The Water Beetles is the story of the Leung family’s experience of the Japanese occupation. The youngest boy, Chung-Man, is our focal point as the family moves from a luxurious and grounded life in Hong Kong, to a perilous existence with family members dispersed across China. The novel follows Chung-Man and his brother and details their experiences during and after the war. The physical and emotional travails of those years are imprinted on the family and have generational effects

Kaan acknowledges that he based characters on his own father’s journals from the war years.  Kaan’s father survived the war and eventually made his way to Canada where he became a doctor in Winnipeg but the dislocations of war had an effect long after the Japanese were defeated. One generation away and the son has tackled this experience from within the pages of a novel. As Kaan has said in an interview, stories of dislocation and heartache of war are far too common. In his first novel, Michael Kaan has produced a very powerful and true account of this too common human experience.

Nonverbal messages: cracking the code My life’s pursuit by Dr. Paul Ekman

Some may be familiar with the popular TV program “Lie to me” which ran for three seasons starting back in 2009. If not, the story-line centred around the idea that nonverbal body language and “micro-expressions” can provide indications of emotion and potential deception. The program follows the character “Dr. Cal Lightman” and his team as they aid law enforcement agencies and other groups who seek to profile suspects and the like.

What most may not know is that it was the work of Dr. Paul Ekman that provided the basis and structure for the series. He was consulted in the production of the show.

I had hoped to learn all of these juicy secrets by reading this book. Little did I know before requesting it that it is mostly an autobiography of his life rather than a reporting of his findings. That’s not to say that there aren’t tidbits thrown in here and there that aren’t interesting. His book “Telling lies” promises to provide more of the how-to and is accordingly on my reading list. Or, you can visit his website and pay money for some of the tools he has developed.

While his research sheds light on this world of ‘hidden’ communication, he also admits that accurate perception is not always that easy – even for those who are trained to do so.

Closer to the end of the book he talks about being consulted to evaluate a photo of Abu Ghraib prison guard Sabrina Harman who is depicted smiling and giving a thumbs up next to the corpse of an Iraqi soldier. He reports that her smile was not ‘genuine’ yet I think most would say otherwise. Is a photo like this not in violation of a basic human right put forth by the United Nations? For this reason I would be somewhat troubled if this new ‘science’ was used as proof to convict someone in a court of law.

How aware are you nonverbal cues? If you are at all interested you might find that research in this area to be rewarding.

The Stone Gift by Deborah Delaronde


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Kegedonce Press, 2016

Kegedonce Press, 2016

A Young Adult pick by Jean-Louis

This week the press and social media have been full of stories about who gets to tell Aboriginal stories and this is a very legitimate concern. Who owns stories, who has the right to tell them, and how are they shared? In The Stone Gift, Deborah Delaronde-Falk very capably addresses this very issue in her first YA novel.

Many people will know Deborah’s work as an award-winning writer of children’s picture books. Her own Métis heritage is celebrated and shared in her nine story books. In 2015 Deborah was named the first recipient of the Beatrice Mosonier Aboriginal Writer of the Year at the Manitoba Book Awards ceremony. At the Parkland Regional Library, we are glad to have Deborah among our library staff. After a long career at Duck Bay school, Deborah joined us in the public library service at the Winnipegosis Public Library.

In her novel, young D.J. awakens from a coma and is unaware of who he is or what has happened to him. Slowly, with the assistance of his grandparents, he begins to piece together who he is and how he came to be where he is. His healing journey will take him through school transition, culture clash, gang initiation, the foster care system, traditional aboriginal knowledge, and even to the adventures of commercial ice fishing.

At the heart of the story is a stone: what are its gifts, who has the right to the gift, and who guards the gift? D.J. and his family will have to negotiate all of these questions on his path to healing.

Deborah has written a true-in-its-bones story about Métis youth and shares her own wisdom in a generous fashion. This book is a gift in itself from a talented story-teller. We should all look forward to more of her stories!



The Hidden Keys by Andre Alexis


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Coach House Books, 2016

Coach House Books, 2016

A Fiction pick by Jean-Louis

Anyone who follows the book prizes in Canada will recognize the name of Andre Alexis. Many of his novels have been nominated for awards and last year he took home the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller prize for his highly successful novel Fifteen Dogs.

Alexis kept his nose to the grindstone and this year he brought out the new novel, The Hidden Keys. This is the third novel in what Alexis calls a quincunx–a series of five novels that each give a nod to a certain kind of storytelling. The first novel of the series was Pastoral, a novel set in a bucolic setting featuring a young pastor. Last year’s Fifteen Dogs was a kind of fable / animal wisdom novel, and this year’s The Hidden Keys, is a nod to the treasure narrative. Alexis is actively revisiting types of stories that had an impact on his own writing and this latest novel is inspired by Treasure Island.

Tancred Palmieri is a small time thief who operates by a very strong moral code. Tancred is a kind soul who, despite his own preferences, is fiercely loyal. One of the characters he develops a loyalty to is Willow Azarian, a notorious heroin addict who also happens to be heiress to a vast fortune.

As the friendship between Tancred and Willow evolves, she engages Tancred to help her solve a family mystery. Her father, upon his death, left each of his five children a legacy item which Willow believes will lead them to an even greater fortune. With his promise made, Tancred is drawn further and further into the mystery in search of a real or imagined treasure. Along the way he will have to deal with drug dealing cut throats and also with his best friend, who just happens to be a police detective.

Alexis has written an exciting book which truly honors the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Read the book and discover the treasure for yourself. And now we wait to see what books Alexis will write to complete the quincunx.

The Waiting Place: A Novel by Sharron Arksey


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A fiction pick by Jean-Louis

Turnstone Press, 2016

Turnstone Press, 2016

According to the end notes, the gestation period for this book was long but very well worth the wait. Sharron Arksey has written a captivating novel grounded in the physical and emotional landscape of Manitoba’s ranch country. She has captured the thrill and heartache of making your living on the land, linked to the beasts that are your livelihood and your life.

I am so pleased to read this first novel by one of our library’s former board members. Sharron is a great promoter for her community and she has written a fictional story that is a fine expression of the complexities and beauty that is ranch life ranch life in Manitoba. Not all the great stories in life happen within the city limits, rural Canada is also full of wonderful stories and Sharron has given us all a gift in this novel. Kudos also go out to Manitoba’s Turnstone Press for bringing forth this novel.

Susan and Glenn are married and live on the family farm. Around them are two sets of parents, several siblings, and a herd of cows. The multiple generations are all intertwined and bloodlines are a theme throughout the novel. One might say that this a particularly fecund novel as birthing is a constant theme. Throughout the the novel we check in, chapter by chapter, as Susan is delivering her first child. If you have grown up on a farm or ranch, you know that birth has its beauty and its grizzly patches. Our author spares us neither the angst, terror, nor the beauty. Come along for the ride and read this book–it is definitely worth it!

An astronaut’s guide to life on earth by Chris Hadfield


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A non-fiction pick by Jean-Louis

Random House Canada, 2013

Random House Canada, 2013

Chris Hadfield is easily Canada’s best known astronaut and he may be among the most recognized in the world. This guy is a rock star! Thanks to his wonderful photography and his music video transmitted from the International Space Station (ISS), he connected about 11 million earthlings to the space world. Twitter and YouTube were his tools and like most of us in our 50s, he got a little help from his son to connect through social media.

In the book, Hadfield shares his journey to become an astronaut right from his nine-year-old self watching the first moon landing. He set his sights on becoming an astronaut even before Canada had a space program–luckily, our country got on board and when they did, he was ready.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is sprinkled with some advice on how to achieve one’s goals, but it is not really a how-to book. And Hadfield is keen not to get too preachy or technical. There are a host of acronyms to navigate, but even these are not distracting.

As Hadfield moves through his career, he stresses how the life of an astronaut is really a team sport. Individuals might be the best test pilot, or have multiple PhDs, but when the space toilet stops working you better be ready to get hands-on and figure it out.

One interesting observation by Hadfield goes something like this. In any situation you have three kinds of people: plus ones–individuals who achieve beyond expectation and make a unique contribution; zeroes–those people who do their job perfectly and may not get noticed; and minus ones–those whose actions or attitudes detract from the success of the group/team. In the astronaut world, everyone wants to be a plus-one, and likely all have the ability, but humility and dedication to the team makes them perfectly okay if they end up being zeroes.

This is a fun book to read about a man whose contributions are really out-of-this-world!

The boy who was raised as a dog : and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook : what traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing / Bruce D. Perry, Maia Szalavitz.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (Basic Books, 2006)

A non-fiction pick by Glenn

This book has opened my eyes to the hidden world of anxiety disorders.  We all have stress in our lives.  I suspect that the modern world has likely exacerbated the amount of it.  Most of us have adequate coping mechanisms that enable us to negotiate the challenges that come our way.  But with the explosion of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications that are dispensed maybe even this can no longer be said.  What is most troubling is how early childhood trauma can inhibit normal development.  The stories told here are heart-wrenching…. children surviving violent environments – even murder, sexually abuse, neglect of all kind, and abandonment.  The incidence of this is staggering.  A large survey reported that aprx. 27% of women and 16 % of men reported being sexually victimized during childhood.  It is estimated that more than 8 million American children contend with severe trauma-related psychiatric problems and then there are many more with lesser difficulties.  Why is the world such a hostile place?  Is it any wonder why trust is in such short supply?  I walked out of Co-op the other day to read the back of a rather muscular man’s t-shirt.  It read “trust no one”  I wanted to tell him that he could trust me and I regret that I kept on walking instead.  Healing does not come easy and often the effects of this early trauma are lifelong.  Skilled therapists who understand the brokenness are invaluable.  “being harmed by the people who are supposed to love you, being abandoned by them, being robbed of the one-on-one relationships that allow you to feel safe and valued and to become humane– these are profoundly destructive experiences”.  Genuine altruistic love is the essential key to making things right.  Undeniably many of you have been affected or know someone who has been affected by trauma of some kind.  This book is a light to understanding the buried giant that lurks in many people.  At the very least read the final chapter ‘Healing communities’.  This points the way to hope and and brighter future whereby love might blossom once again in the hearts of those who have been crippled.  What can you do to help heal the life of someone you care about?