Monthly Archives: January 2014

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Allow me to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wonderful and perceptive guest book reviewer. Natasha Hesch loves novels. She started out as a public librarian, and now works at BiblioCommons. She regularly shares short reviews of what she has read as tegan on BiblioCommons’ library software.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

I had been wanting to read Annabel by Kathleen Winter for quite some time, but it had just not made it to the top of my reading list. When Vicki asked me to read and review one of the 5 selected Canada Reads books, I jumped at the opportunity to review Annabel.

As I made my way through the novel on my daily TTC commute, I kept thinking about this year’s Canada Reads big question “What is the one novel that could change Canada?” I haven’t read the other 4 Canada Reads titles, but by reading Annabel I think Canadians could become more open-minded and accepting of other people’s differences. Discrimination against people who don’t fit neatly into sex and gender constructs persists today.

The main character of Annabel is a child who is born a hermaphrodite. Treadway, the father independently decides that the child should be raised as a boy: “[Treadway] knew his baby had both a boy’s and a girl’s identity, and he knew a decision had to be made.” (Winter, 26). Although Jacinta and Treadway’s baby is born in 1968, I wonder how different of a situation parents would be in today? I didn’t look into what the typical medical practices are today, but there is still a definite requirement to label a child: governmental institutions still impose the binary of male vs. female upon parents right from the start. I took a quick look at the Ontario and Newfoundland form for getting a birth certificate, and both forms still have only two check boxes available for sex: male or female. At a federal level, Statistics Canada also erases the existence of intersex individuals: on the 2011 Census of Population, only male and female populations are recorded.

Annabel really makes you think about the labels that are placed upon people, and the problematic nature of trying to label everything to try to understand it. Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to naming, defining and labeling things: “Everyone was trying to define everything so carefully, Jacinta felt; they wanted to annihilate all questions” (Winter 45). By labeling things, we are often imposing limits; as Winter eloquently writes “You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name” (Winter 350).

As a reader you can’t help but want Wayne to just be who s/he is. There is a very sweet moment early on in the book where Wayne longs for a girls orange bathing suit. He begs his mother for one, but knows his father would not approve: “Could we get me a bathing suit like Elizaveta Kirilovna’s and not tell Dad?” (Winter 86). I wanted to buy the swimsuit for Wayne/Annabel. The innocence of Wayne’s desires are at times heart-breaking. I think if all Canadian’s read this book, they would empathize with Wayne, and be more open to accepting the blurry lines that exist with sex and gender identity.

There is much time spent in the novel on bridges. Thomasina, who accepts Wayne/Annabel for who s/he is, sends postcards of bridges to Wayne/Annabel. S/he is obsessed with these bridges, s/he is constantly looking at the postcards and redrawing the bridges. I couldn’t help but think that the bridges were a symbol of the interstitial space that Wayne/Annabel lives in. A space bridging two places, not male, not female, but in between.

Wayne/Annabel as a character is a very inspiring one. S/he never complains about his/her situation, no matter what happens to him/her. Although at times Winter writes Wayne/Annabel through very difficult experiences, I was very happy and relieved that Winter wrote Wayne/Annabel to a ‘happy ending’. I think that Annabel as a novel has the ability to create empathy for people who are different than one’s self. I look forward to the Canada Reads debates.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Natasha is the second – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

I’m delighted to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another thoughtful and insightful guest book reviewer. Cheryl Finch is an editor in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in non-fiction manuscript development; website copywriting and SEO; online article writing; and content marketing. Cheryl can be reached at

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

Set in the mid-1600s, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is a fascinating and often harrowing account of life during the French colonization of New France, when warring Huron and Iroquois nations fiercely battled for control of the fur trade, and resolute Jesuit missionaries were determined to convert their Huron allies to Christianity.

The Orenda chronicles the experiences of Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary. As the story unfolds, Bird has led a small war party out to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughters, who were killed by the Haudenosaunee. Christophe is delivered to Bird’s temporary camp as part of the Wendat’s crucial trade arrangement with the French colonists, and Snow Falls is captured after Bird and his warriors attack a Haudenosaunee hunting party, killing her family. Christophe and Snow Falls are brought back to Bird’s village as captives.

Thus begins an uneasy and forced association among the three. They mistrust each other, but they also need each other. They feel superior to each other, but they also envy each other. They have many differences, yet they share common drivers: loyalty to family, spiritual conviction, the will to survive. And they are united in their fear of brutal torture and slow death by their current or future captors.

The Orenda is narrated alternately in the first person by Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe themselves, each character speaking directly to a loved one with the freedom and honesty accorded to only the most trusted of confidantes. They reveal their intentions, motivations and knowledge, giving us, the readers, a fully informed understanding of their conduct. We see that each character has virtues and flaws; each character is truly human, worthy of our understanding and empathy.

The characters themselves do not have the benefit of this insight about one another – they see the “what” but don’t know the “why”. They must simply interpret each others’ actions in the context of their own experiences and belief systems. Incorrect assumptions and misunderstood behaviour foster suspicon, judgment and intolerance. Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe slowly grow to accept, and eventually appreciate, respect, even care for one another, but this is a long and arduous process made all the more difficult by language barriers, religious differences and subjective frameworks.

Can The Orenda inspire social change? In some ways, things are no different today than they were for Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe 400 years ago. In both the national and international contexts, people of diverse cultures, belief systems, lifestyles, customs and languages live together but don’t necessarily understand or respect each other, resulting in misinterpretation, judgment and prejudice. Warring nations fiercely battle for economic and religious control, often resorting to ritual brutality rooted in tradition and vengeance. Change will only be possible if we make the effort to listen to each other, consider differing viewpoints, and understand the “why” behind the “what”. We must focus on our similarities rather than our differences, and learn to empathize. We must recognize that every human being is capable of great compassion and extreme cruelty, depending on past experience and present circumstance.

These are not quick or easy undertakings. Important change takes significant time and effort. But if we don’t start, it will never happen. The Orenda closes with the words “Now is what’s most important … the past and the future are present”. This book certainly has the potential to change Canada and even the world, if we choose to take its lessons to heart.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Cheryl is the first – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Canada Reads – how I’m approaching it in 2014

Canada Reads

About a year ago, as I was musing about the upcoming Canada Reads debates – having read all the finalists, read and collected reviews, taken parts in discussions and online chats – I made this observation:

“… you know, part of me wishes I could go into the debate one of these times to be convinced without having read any of them, or to test with some purity whether the debates stand on their own as a truly useful way of being introduced to the books. Of course, the debates can’t help but be predicated on some beforehand knowledge of the books and authors. Anyhow, it’s not how Canada Reads books have come to be marketed nowadays, is it? The five-book packages and bookstore displays started in November, and we’re meant to respond. Still, don’t you think it’d be an interesting approach to learning about the books to intentionally go in blind one year?”

Well, that’s pretty much what I’ve decided to do heading into Canada Reads 2014. I’m not going in utterly tabula rasa, but I am going in open to being convinced. Here is what I’ve done or not done:

  • I did previously read one of the books – Annabel by Kathleen Winter. I’m not rereading it, nor have I read or am I going to read any of the other contenders until after the Canada Reads 2014 debates and outcome.

  • I have been gathering and reading reviews and articles about all of the finalists. Links to those pieces are assembled in my ongoing Canada Reads 2014 virtual book club blog post.

  • I have recruited five wise and articulate readers to review the finalist books, with a view to the strength of each book and how it fits the Canada Reads 2014 theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?” I’m excited to be publishing my friends’ pieces here in the days to come. Stay tuned!

Here are the Canada Reads 2014 pieces by my guest reviewers:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life offers a fascinatingly structured and choreographed approach to the “what if’s” of both an individual life’s journey and the broad sweep of history. The individual journey Atkinson traces is that of Ursula Todd, born to an upper middle class British family before the First World War. Ursula, her lively, loving and personable family, her friends and colleagues contend with the upheavals of both World Wars and beyond. That is, they go beyond the Second World War in some variations of Ursula’s and their lives … and in some variations, they don’t.

Atkinson posits intriguingly how a matter of minutes or a minute recalibration of your decision making or the decision making of people around you can have a profound impact not just on personal outcomes, but on the fate of those around you. Those outcomes can spiral out into influencing sequences of wider events and, ultimately, the course of history.

To describe Atkinson’s approach as “choreographed” might suggest it’s too calculated, but that’s not the case. There is a wonderfully natural feel to dialogue and character that has you falling in love, worrying about (especially during the vivid, heartwrenching and intimately horrific sequences set amidst the Blitz) and missing even the most peripheral characters as the story unfurls, rolls back and unfurls again in increasingly captivating waves. What will change, even ever so slightly, in the next rendition of Ursula’s life, and what repercussions will result? Not only will you want to ride each new wave, but you’ll want it to continue long past the last tantalizing ripple. Life After Life might even inspire you to ponder your own “what if’s” …

See also: Kate Atkinson’s notes on Life After Life (with spoiler alert)

Examining our household book traffic

When everyone started taking #shelfie pictures recently, I thought it might be fun to take some pictures of where books come to rest, pile up and make their home in this household. For example, here is where we keep a selection of current and “next up” reading atop a cabinet in which we keep first edition books:


Here is the poetry shelf, above my home office desk:



Here is one of several random places where books just seem to accumulate …

In addition to these spots, we do have a room devoted to books, with floor-to-ceiling shelves and two comfy reading chairs – you could call it a small library. I did take pictures of that room, too … and that’s when my husband told me I could not post those pictures. Not only were the shelves untidily crammed with books, it appears it’s impossible to do anything other than pole vault into the room to land in one of the reading chairs … because the floor is entirely covered in stacks and stacks and stacks of books. Along with it looking like we don’t know how to take care of our treasures, as he put it, “We look like hoarders.” And he was right.

That observation has inspired me to launch a year-long look at how books make their way into (and out of) this household. We both have an admitted weakness for bookstores, which we can rarely pass without entering, and from which we can never emerge empty-handed, regardless of how disciplined we might strive to be from a household budget standpoint. However, on the other side of the bookish balance sheet, we regularly give, lend and donate books. Why does the net result seem to be that we’re swimming in books, as delightful as that is in many respects?

On a month-to-month basis over 2014, we’re going to do our best to record:

  • Books purchased
  • Books purchased and given as gifts
  • Books received as gifts
  • Books provided (by writers, publishers, clients, employers, etc.)
  • Books given (to Little Free Library boxes, small acts of poetry, fundraising/donations, workplaces/colleagues, etc.)
  • Books borrowed (from libraries, friends, colleagues, etc.)
  • Books loaned
  • Books damaged, otherwise disposed of …

While this taking of stock will probably largely focus on print books – because that is the preferred book format in this household – it will also account for borrowed or purchased digital books.

In light of the news of another bookstore closure (After 37 years in the Annex, BookCity to close, CBC News), I’m also going to strive to keep track of book purchases in bookstores versus online, and new versus not-new (secondhand, antiquarian) purchases.

I’ve drawn “Incoming” and “Outgoing” columns on my home office whiteboard, and so far this month, four have come in (three purchases, one from a publisher) and six have gone out (four to a workplace shared library, two to a local Little Library box).

At this point, we’re just interested in seeing what our book behaviour is, without necessarily constraining or modifying it. I do hope I’ll find that we’re at least equally generous with others as we are with ourselves when it comes to acquiring, enjoying and celebrating books – and if we aren’t, then perhaps some book behaviour modification is in order.

Have you ever kept track or do you currently keep track of your household book traffic?


Celebrating the beautiful book object – Correspondences, by Anne Michaels (portraits by Bernice Eisenstein)

I was blessed to receive a most beautiful book object this holiday season just past.

Correspondences, by Anne Michaels (portraits by Bernice Eisenstein), published by McClelland and Stewart

Correspondences, by Anne Michaels (portraits by Bernice Eisenstein), published by McClelland and Stewart

Correspondences, by Anne Michaels (portraits by Bernice Eisenstein), published by McClelland and Stewart

Reminiscent in exquisite form and haunting tone of Anne Carson’s Nox, Correspondences actually takes the gatefold book structure and the unfurling conceit even further. There are, in fact, at least two literary streams contained in this beautiful package. The first stream is a series of dour but entrancing portraits by Bernice Eisenstein of artists, philosophers, intellectuals and activists (including Paul Celan, Fernando Pessoa, Frank Kafka, Primo Levi and Anna Akhmatova) alive during and affected directly by the Second World War. The portraits are matched with excerpts from each portrait subject’s words or writings.

Before you turn the book over to discover the second literary stream, you’ll observe that the volume’s endpapers (in both “directions”) contain brief biographies of each of the portrait subjects. Those biographies reveal that many of the subjects crossed paths in varied and interesting ways.

The second literary stream is Anne Michael’s long poem that gives this beautiful bound compendium its title. In large part an elegy to her father, the poem also intertwines references to the intense and unusual correspondence between Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, as well as individual poetic experiments and set pieces.

The excerpt engraved directly on the book cover on one side captures well what Correspondences encapsulates in its compelling interweaving of physical and textual forms:

Correspondences, by Anne Michaels (portraits by Bernice Eisenstein), published by McClelland and Stewart

“not two to make one,
but two to make
the third,

just as a conversation can become
the third side of the page”

See also:

What I read in 2013

The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc

I’m already off to the races with some delicious 2014 reading, but I know I need to take a look back … so here are the books I read in 2013, with links to reviews (here on this blog or on Goodreads) where I have them. Again, as I’ve done in previous years, this is an exhaustive, “all of” list, not a “best of” list. (Have we had enough “best of” lists, perhaps?)

In addition to the interesting and often challenging complement of books I enjoyed this year, I continued my commitment in 2013 to a daily devotion to at least one poem … and usually more, as more and more friends on Twitter began to generously share their poem choices and reflections via the #todayspoem hashtag. Now two years in, it continues to be a truly revelatory and wonderfully communal experience. I’ve now pondered the works of over 450 unique poets, writers, songsmiths and wordsmiths I’ve revisited or unearthed myself, and countless more via others wielding that often eye-opening hashtag. I’m continuing with my #todayspoem habit every day heading into 2014, and I hope many will continue or join anew.

As I did in 2012, I also celebrated some beautifully built books in 2013, including:

The books I read and relished in 2013 …

  1. The Age of Hope
    by David Bergen

  2. May We Be Forgiven
    by A.M. Homes

  3. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
    by George Saunders

  4. Pastoralia
    by George Saunders

  5. Red Doc>
    by Anne Carson

  6. Tenth of December
    by George Saunders

  7. Traveling Light
    by Peter Behrens

  8. Stories About Storytellers
    by Douglas Gibson

  9. How Should A Person Be?
    by Sheila Heti

  10. Seldom Seen Road
    by Jenna Butler

  11. The April Poems
    by Leon Rooke

  12. The Shore Girl
    by Fran Kimmel

  13. Li’l Bastard
    by David McGimpsey

  14. 1996
    by Sara Peters

  15. One Bird’s Choice
    by Iain Reid

  16. Clear
    by Nicola Barker

  17. Under the Keel
    by Michael Crummey

  18. Coping with Emotions and Otters
    by Dina Del Bucchia

  19. The Miracles of Ordinary Men
    by Amanda Leduc

  20. What’s the Score?
    by David W. McFadden

  21. Bone & Bread
    by Saleema Nawaz

  22. Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012
    by John K. Samson

  23. Journey with No Maps: A Life of PK Page
    by Sandra Dwja

  24. Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock
    by Jesse Jarnow (read aloud)

  25. Rosina, the Midwife
    by Jessica Kluthe

  26. October, 1970
    by Louis Hamelin, translated by Wayne Grady

  27. Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility
    by Theodora Armstrong

  28. All We Want is Everything
    by Andrew F. Sullivan

  29. The Soul of Baseball – A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America
    by Joe Posnanski (read aloud)

  30. Let Me Eat Cake
    by Leslie F. Miller

  31. We So Seldom Look on Love
    by Barbara Gowdy (reread)

  32. Minister Without Portfolio
    by Michael Winter

  33. Hellgoing
    by Lynn Coady

  34. Caught
    by Lisa Moore

  35. How to Get Along With Women
    by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

  36. The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland
    by Wayne Johnston

  37. Leaving Howe Island
    by Sadiqa de Meijer

  38. Cataract City
    by Craig Davidson

  39. Going Home Again
    by Dennis Bock

  40. The Embassy of Cambodia
    by Zadie Smith

  41. A Fairy Tale
    by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated by Charlotte Barslund

  42. The Dove in Bathurst Station
    by Patricia Westerhof

  43. Monoceros
    by Suzette Mayr

  44. Correspondences
    by Anne Michaels (portraits by Bernice Eisenstein)

  45. Knife Throwing Through Self-Hypnosis
    by Robin Richardson


A read aloud book is a book that my husband Jason and I read aloud to each other, typically while one was, say, cooking dinner, doing dishes, driving, what have you … and the other was, well, reading aloud. Each read aloud book was read in its entirety. Other than the read aloud sessions that took place in cars, zesty beverages were often consumed. It’s a wonderful way to read and share a book.

A reread is a revisit with a previously read book. The book is completely read again, not just browsed. I try to reread at least one book every year … but I think I’d like to up that quotient, even just a bit.

Currently in progress, heading into 2014:

Writer Pasha Malla made some interesting year-end observations about achieving balance in one’s reading (be it gender, genre, region and more), which should remind us to expand our reading horizons by being aware of our defaults (Globe Books 2013: How can you change what (and who) you read? Globe and Mail December 27, 2013). Inspired by his books “numbers game” (male/female author split in reading), I checked my own 2013 reading. I read 45 books, with two in translation, so 47 writers and translators: 22 men and 25 women. In terms of gender, that looks like a pretty balanced reading selection in 2013. I suppose I could tip and turn that list a few more ways: between fiction (novels and short stories), non-fiction and poetry; author nationality and race, and more. I don’t want to get overly conscious but I do want to be aware of the balance of choices I’m making, while still going with the lovely flow of natural discovery and kismet and all the rest as I go from one book to the next.

Looking back fondly on my 2013 reading, looking forward eagerly and with anticipation to my 2014 reading, I’ll simply conclude (as I did last year) …

It’s not how many you read that counts. It’s that you read that counts.