Etta and Otto and Russell and James

January 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

My review of Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James appeared in the National Post last week. Read it here.


Childhood by Jona Oberski, translated by Ralph Manheim

January 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Born in Amsterdam to Jewish parents, Oberski was just a year old when World War Two broke out. He published this slim autobiographical novel in 1978, almost forty years after the events in it, and it is a truly astonishing accomplishment.

oberski pushkin

The novel opens in Bergen-Belsen, with the four-year-old narrator being reassured by his mother:

There’s been a mistake, but everything will be all right. We’ve gone away for a few days with a lot of other people, but we’ll be going home soon and Daddy will be there too. They’ve made a mistake, so we’ll have to stay here for a few days, visiting the way we visited with Trude a while ago.

The mother’s words seem to be setting up the most terrible kind of dramatic irony. We are sure we know how this ends, and it certainly isn’t with them going home. But somehow, mysteriously, a week later they do go home. “A few other people went,” writes the boy, “but most stayed.” This matter-of-fact reporting of the situation is one of the most astounding features of Childhood. Somehow Oberski has managed to capture a wonderful and realistic child’s voice, rooted firmly in the moment and barely concerned, even at such a time, with events that will have an enormous impact on his life. Or perhaps he didn’t have to try; perhaps what happened was seared into Oberski’s memory so deeply that these memories were unable to be later tainted by adult knowledge, hindsight and the desire to ponder what-ifs. Either way, this technique is used here flawlessly and successfully.

After the mistaken trip to the camp, short chapters describe how the narrator celebrates a birthday, experiences an instance of bullying because he is Jewish, is taken by his parents on a trip on the ferry, during which he is allowed to drive for a brief moment, and goes to work one day with his father, where the boss helps him use the typewriter. These give us a rapid, blinkered view of the narrator’s world, and furnish details about the time period and the family’s life. The birthday celebration excepted, each of these instances shows the reader how hyper-aware Jews had to constantly be of their position in society. First there’s the grocer’s son who stamps on the boy’s mud pies and taunts him, and when his father goes to complain, the grocer tells him in a telling non-sequitur that “it couldn’t have been his son; he said he’d always sold us everything we wanted, which had got him into plenty of trouble.” Then there’s the ferryman, who merely compliments the boy’s grasp of Dutch without rudeness or hostility. The recognition of difference is there, creating suspense, but nothing happens. And finally, the day the narrator goes to the office with his father, he mentions that “My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, ‘Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy.’ I thought the star was pretty, but I’d rather have gone without.” He then moves seamlessly onto something of more pressing concern: “We had a long way to go. Luckily my father lifted me up on his shoulders now and then.”

oberski penguin 2

I give all these examples to try to show all the different currents moving around the boy, who remains largely unaware and seemingly uninterested. His parents, devoted to him, are trying to protect him from the worst, trying to build up his self-esteem (for example with the star) in situations where other people are intending to destroy it (even when the grocer’s son stamps on his pies, the worry that lingers is the loss of the mould to build them).

Throughout the novel he’s resolutely just a boy growing up. His perspective is narrow, short-sighted and short-term; he does not try to think things through or come to terms with his situation or with other people’s inhuman cruelty. Things happen, but he does not become precociously wise or develop feelings of inferiority. There is no need to reflect on his own self because he is still too immature to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him, even while he seems resigned to the fact that in his world he is in control of nothing. Others take advantage of his innocence, even in the camp, when he and his parents are permanently interned after their brief reprieve: a group of older children egg him on to thumb his nose at a guard, and later encourage him to sneak into the morgue. When children take it in turns to clean the cooking pots, he doesn’t understand that this is a way of sneaking them extra food. It’s potato peelings, not dinner, and in any case, he doesn’t have a spoon.

Despite the lack of analysis, or inserted reflection on what his parents must have been feeling and enduring, this is a stark yet deeply profound book. The reader is drawn in by the skilful contrast of what’s important to the boy and what we know—from history and from the context of the novel—he should be worried about. And that should is an interesting word. Should he be worried about anything? Is it better that he is cocooned from the true understanding that so many people wish him deliberate and dreadful harm? Or is this refusal to understand, almost but never quite disingenuous, a mechanism to protect himself? The narrator certainly does not flinch at reporting how his own selfishness at times puts his family in grave danger.

Childhood provokes a great many interesting questions. It’s a book about the Second World War, something familiar to us from so many films, novels, first-hand accounts and so on. But this child’s perspective, at once determinedly unself-conscious, detached, and heartbreaking, is worth reading.

Other reviews of Childhood:

John Self at The Asylum

Dorian Stuber at Open Letters Monthly

Reading around the world

January 15, 2015 § 2 Comments

There’s been an idea percolating in my brain for a while. Why not read a contemporary book from every country round the world? Give it a deadline of a year, say, or maybe two. This totally unoriginal idea has evolved into something marginally less gimmicky: read a handful of books from each country (countries in strict alphabetical order, of course), with the timescale to be … as long as it takes. I still want to read plenty of everything else while I’m doing it. And other things might get involved too: non-fiction, films, restaurant visits: why not?

I haven’t quite decided what definition of “country” to use; most likely it will be the 193 member states of the UN. But whatever list I go with, Afghanistan is first. I’ve got four candidates so far, but none of them have always lived in Afghanistan, as far as I can tell. They are:

 three jeegareh

qais2 hashimi2

I definitely don’t want to read Khaled Hosseini, and in truth I’m a little concerned about the Hashimi. The cover alarms me. But it’s in my local library, so no harm done if I don’t like it.

It seems that only Atiq Rahimi originally wrote in Dari (and later in French); the others in English. Words Without Borders had a great Afghan literature issue back in 2011, but it’s hard to track down books by the featured authors.

Any other recommendations?


January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve always been fascinated by languages. One of my favourite series of children’s books (The Chalet School) was set in a boarding school in Austria and the pupils, who were from all over Europe, had to speak English one day, French the next, and German the next. I wished that it was a real school.



When I was 17 or 18 and thinking about university applications, I knew I wanted to study languages. I’d done seven years of French, five of German, four of Latin and one of Spanish. I was keen on doing something a little more out of the way. Icelandic was my top choice, followed by Dutch. Unfortunately for me, my class tutor advised me not to go for something so obscure because it wouldn’t be useful. Having no idea about the world, I didn’t realise that he meant this in a very narrow sense that bore no resemblance to anything I wanted to do with my life. I now understand that careers advisors saw languages as an added extra to offer in your career as a business person or in the civil service; I already knew I never wanted to work in an office, an opinion that later temp experiences confirmed.


So I stuck with French. During my degree I lived in France for a year. The expat community I ended up with was mostly Swedish (the other anglophones were housed on campus) with a sprinkling of Dutch. I soon realised I preferred Swedish to Dutch, and was quickly able to understand quite a lot of it (to my surprise, German + English helped a lot more with spoken Swedish than with spoken Dutch). Apparently, after a few glasses of vin rouge, I was even pretty good at speaking it, although in cold hard daylight I was always too embarrassed to be my friends’ performing seal (they thought it was hilarious because I sounded like the Swedish queen).


That was a long time ago now, but ever since then I have been telling myself that I would learn Swedish properly. And now, finally, I am. 2015 is my year of Swedish. I’m doing a combination of DuoLingo, Language Trainer and podcasts at the moment. Why bother? Well, for no reason other than I love learning languages.


One of the most fascinating things is when words for the same object are far apart. I was thinking recently about the word “toy.” In French it’s jouet, in Spanish juguete. The link in the Latin languages is clear (although intriguingly, the actual Latin word for toy seems to be the rather ungainly crepundia). German is Spielzeug (literally, plaything), and Swedish is leksak (leka and spela both mean “to play”). So I assumed “toy” must come from the second half of Spielzeug, but the OED tells me that the word is Middle English and of uncertain origin. There is a Middle Dutch word toy, and the later speeltuig. Wiktionary traces the word back through Old Dutch and Proto-Germanic to Proto-Indo-European: dewk, which means to pull or lead (like the Latin–and Italian–ducere).


Isn’t language brilliant? Icelandic next year.


[And there might be no photos on this blog until WordPress cooperates with my Mac…]

Bertrand Laverdure in the TLS

January 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

My short review of Universal Bureau of Copyrights by Bertrand Laverdure was published in the TLS towards the end of last year. You can read it here as long as you have a subscription….


Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson

January 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

What separates a good book from a mediocre one? For me, it’s always the writing, the individual sentences. Caroline Adderson recently remarked, in a Globe and Mail interview, that the best literary advice she’s ever received is that “character is more important than plot,” but I suspect if she were giving the advice it would be more along the lines of an answer she gives later in the interview to the question “What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?” Adderson replies, “Nobody has ever asked, ‘Is the moment when you transform a mediocre sentence into a better, truer one the absolute best moment of your day?’” And I suspect for Adderson it really is the best moment of her day.

I read a lot of novels that make my heart sink, and usually it’s simply because they are not finished—because they need hours and weeks and months (and if they’ve already had it, they need more) of concentrated attention to nothing but words and sentences. Ellen in Pieces, Adderson’s fourth novel, uses language so skilfully, so lightly and yet fully, that it is wonderful yet somehow invisible. It dances along the line between good writing and over-writing, but what keeps it good, in other words controlled, is that any exuberance, any flourish, is always perfectly in keeping with the character.


The novel’s protagonist, Ellen McGinty, is impulsive, a little self-obsessed to the point of occasional obtuseness regarding other people and their inner lives and emotions, and mostly doing the best she can with what she’s been given. Her relationship with her ex-husband is hardly any less charged than it was the day they met, and its history unspools tensely through the book. When Ellen’s world is thrown into crisis, this relationship undergoes yet another evolution.

The book is in pieces, as Ellen is too (both because of the crisis but also because of the way she is shown in different contexts and different relationships) each one a separate incident in Ellen’s life, broadly chronological but with some flashbacks and twists. It opens with a story that will be familiar to readers of Eighteen Bridges: “I Feel Lousy,” in which Ellen learns that her younger daughter—the promising one studying to be a doctor—is pregnant after a one-night stand she had mainly for the sake of experience.

Towards the end of the book we start to see Ellen from the perspective of the other characters, which are less vibrant, more tentative than Ellen, with all her anger and raw emotion. In some ways I missed Ellen, because these insertions felt more like separate short stories—related, but sometimes not even about Ellen and instead about that particular character’s life away from her. At times I wondered if this was more a lesson for Ellen than for the reader, as Ellen is accused by her friends (and I confess I didn’t always agree with them) of lacking a developed theory of mind (I paraphrase). The novel is about Ellen, after all; surely she’s allowed some leeway in terms of self-centredness.

This is the first book of Adderson’s I’ve read, and an author of whom the phrase “deserves to be better known” seems highly appropriate. Ellen in Pieces is one of the best Canadian novels I read in 2014.


January 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Happy new year to any readers still here after the last year’s unintended hiatus. No promises for 2015, but lots of plans.

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