Thursday 22 December 2016


By Annie Proulx

At one time, forests, seemingly endless and eternal, covered much of North America.  These forests were occupied by aboriginal people who understood the symbiotic relationship between humans and the forest ecosystem.   As the Europeans arrived, wood became more than a source of shelter and heat: it became a commodity.  Annie Proulx’ Barkskins is the story of the rise of the lumber industry and the subsequent decline of the forest.

When Charles Duquet and Rene Sel arrive in the New World in 1693, they are indentured servants.  They are immediately confronted with “dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.”  They must work for the cruel Claude Trepagny for years before acquiring land to work as their own.

Rene Sel works diligently, chopping trees and clearing the forest, waiting for his promised land.  Eventually he marries Mari, a Micmac woman, producing several children.

Charles Duquet, however, will not be subject to Trepagny’s whims and disappears into the forest, eventually joining the fur trade.  Duquet shows himself to be a skilled businessman, driven by ambition.  Unlike those around him, he sees an opportunity in the infinite forest that surrounds him.

He starts his own logging business: Duquet and Sons.  Over the years it becomes Duke and Sons, taking the English name to reflect the changing times.  Duquet, like other Europeans, has no qualms about removing the forest; it is an endless and renewable resource.

Rene Sel’s descendants, part French and part Micmac, lose their Micmac heritage over time.  European ideology becomes the predominant way of thinking: land is there for the taking and humans must bend it to our will.  It is the white man’s duty to cut down the savage forests and subjugate its inhabitants.

Fast forward to today.  Sel and Duquet descendants, still working in the woods, become biologists and activists.  Even those in the lumber industry finally begin to understand that the vast ecosystems of old growth forests can never be replaced.

Of course, there is much more to this 700 page story.  At its heart, Barkskins is a family saga.  Generations of Sels and Duquets are born, grow, marry, have children (often with each other) and die.  It is also a history, not only of logging but ideology.  Proulx explores the idea of man versus nature, and asks whether the two are indeed in conflict.  Perhaps, as the first peoples of this continent believed, we are one.

Saturday 17 December 2016


by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth, grabbed me from the first page. Some stories take a while to get into, but this one had me from the opening section of the novel, set at a family christening party. It flows — from character to character and room to room and even house to house — with such visual grace that it’s almost like a movie. Everything is vivid, from the sounds of the party to the scent of the drinks. Patchett is descriptive but not flowery, an author who always seems to know just what needs to be written.  

The novel focuses on two families, the Cousins and the Keatings, and their messy association. Stories about dysfunctional families can tend toward cliché; it’s become a rather well-worn device. This isn’t that, a woe-is-me tale of divorce and hostile step-children. The novel surprises at every turn and I rarely knew what would happen next due to its layered characterizations. 
I’ll give you the bare minimum: the two families become interwoven by events that are set in motion at an orange-and-gin saturated suburban party. Fix Keating- a police officer in Torrance, California — watches as Bert Cousins, a co-worker who is barely an acquaintance, turns up at his daughter Franny’s christening.  This will have a disastrous effect on Fix’s marriage- before the night is through, Bert will kiss Beverly Keating. Bert eventually leaves his own wife and children, and he and Beverly will take the Keating daughters and move to Virginia. Franny is as close as this novel gets to a main character, though the novel regularly follows Bert, Fix, Beverly and others.  

The novel shifts very successfully between past and present, covering five decades in the lives of these characters. It’s both funny and poignant, and as I began to reach the last pages of the book I already knew I would miss them. You won’t find a huge overarching plot, it’s just life — just the lives of a number of semi-regular people- and that Patchett can bring such energy and interest to it is a sort of magic. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Trains and Lovers

Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith

The lovely setting of a train journey between Edinburgh and London lends itself to the tales we hear as we eavesdrop on four travellers who share a compartment in Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith. These travellers are thrown together by way of train tickets and have no other connection to each other, yet as a way to pass the time, they each share their personal stories of love as the train rumbles along the tracks. 

McCall Smith introduces us to the journey we are about to take with his own thoughts on love and the human connection. He reminds us that the journey we take is not only about the destination, but also about the people we encounter along the way, and are often what we remember about a trip or an event, rather than the experience itself. 

Kay recounts her parents love nurtured in the Australian outback; Andrew’s first love chanced to emerge in the ins and outs of the art world, David thinks fondly of his unrequited young love, and Hugh recalls a chance encounter on a train platform leading to love.
In each of the tales tellings, we learn a bit about the individual character through their personal thoughts and reactions to the others’ stories. Through this insight we discover each passenger’s doubts and feelings which influence their decisions about what to share. Because of this, we learn a bit more about the human condition with regards to love, family, and personal struggle in a timeless way that is full of emotion. 

This charming book is a stand-alone McCall Smith that is sure to warm your heart with its delightful stories that roll along to the rhythm of the train ride. The storytellers draw you into their lives for the short time we are all together, yet they linger for a time after the last page is read.

Readers of McCall Smith whose other books include The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street, and the Isabel Dalhousie series, to name a few, will want to grab a cup of tea, their favourite blanket and settle down for a pleasant journey.

Thursday 3 November 2016

Three Day Road

Three Day Road
Three Day Road
By Joseph Boyden

The violence and brutality of war are not my idea of enjoyable subject matter.  Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road is indeed a story of war.  But it is also the story of best friends.  Their physical journey from the Ontario bush to the trenches of Europe mirrors their interior journey -- from peace and solitude to horror, and back again.

Elijah and Xavier are two young men from the Cree nation who join the Canadian army in World War I.  Both are experienced hunters who are comfortable in the bush.  The choice to immerse themselves in a European war is mostly Elijah’s, but Xavier follows.

Elijah is accustomed to life in a remote wilderness, but before going to live with Xavier and his Auntie Niska, he spent years in a residential school.  On the surface he appears unscathed by this experience, despite the abuse that he has undergone. He blossoms around people and quickly wins over his fellow soldiers.  His charm and wit become legendary in the Canadian army and his facility with language allows him to find a place with his compatriots.

Xavier, however, is happier in the company of animals than in the atmosphere of forced companionship of the army.  His English is poor, and he often relies on Elijah to translate for him.

Both Elijah and Xavier prove themselves to be skilled with firearms.  They quickly become a team of snipers, at times given privileges the others are not.  But while Xavier cannot reconcile the idea of killing another man, Elijah thrives on it.  Elijah becomes progressively more obsessed with killing, all the while charming officers, lieutenants and privates alike.  Xavier watches his best friend descend into a flurry of slaughter and madness, and must then ask himself whether he has the power to stop him.

The war narrative is interspersed with Niska’s tales.  Niska has great power inherited from her father and has tried to pass her skills onto Xavier.  Her stories of the Wendigo, a spirit that can possess a person, are particularly powerful.  Xavier’s traditional knowledge may be his saviour in this world of indescribable misery. 

Three Day Road is a graphic and unflinching portrayal of trench warfare, contrasted by the love that exists among Elijah, Xavier and Niska.  Their history and stories are poignant and beautiful.   Somehow, in this novel, the beauty wins out.