Library Finds: ‘Nine Bells for a Man’ and ‘Victory Meat’

4710607Nine Bells for a Man by Peter Unwin (2000)

All along I thought I would read one of my Jane Urqhart books for the letter ‘U’ in my A-Z CanLit Project. But no, I couldn’t be sensible – I had to ignore the five Urquhart novels I have on my shelf and search the library for a book and author I’ve never heard of . Isn’t that more fun? But it paid off – this was such a great book that I would never have encountered if not for my ‘foolishness’.

I took three pages of notes while reading this book; a good thing since it’s been over a month now since I read it, and a bad thing because I really don’t have time for all that. But the book was full of fun tidbits of information about the lives of the people in the story and what happened to them on that fateful day, as well as other events in Canadian history that happened near or around the time and place of this one.

Nine Bells for a Man is a fictional account of the sinking of the Mayflower, a small steamboat that traversed the waters of Lake Kamaniskeg, and the passengers who were on board. The book starts out with the men tossing about in the cold water, trying to stay alive. Then it goes back to Saskatchewan and how it all started. Knowing full well what is going to happen had me on edge the entire time, like I could somehow intervene with my mind.

The wind cuts across the water and slashes at them. A slushy membrane of ice laps against their throats, breaks open in the chopping waves, and slides together with a terrible hiss… For a quarter of an hour they have clung together to a pine box without uttering a word. Except for the wracking yawns of hypothermia they’ve ceased making the sounds the others had, the exhalations that turn into screams, arrested shudders that seared out across the lake and then stopped, one after another.

Before we even know these men, we feel terrible for them. But then the book takes us back in time to introduce us to everyone, and then it’s even more horrendous to think about. I was especially rooting for the poor young man from Saskatchewan, just doing his duty by bringing home the corpse of his beloved wife’s brother. He had never been away from home before and was feeling homesick the whole way along, wishing to be back home again safe with his young wife and child.

But don’t be scared off by how harrowing all this sounds – there is actually quite a lot of humour in the book, which kept me smiling to myself and reading on. One of the main threads of humour and discord between the characters was about the East versus the West.

Oliver Tunney didn’t figure anything could taste better than a Saskatoon once it had been roiled up in a vat of jam, and he assumed that Herman Brown was making the thing up about blueberries. Probably there weren’t such a thing as any blue berry. Probably the same as with those Pickerel fish, too. He was just sick of hearing about the East.

Then there were Robert Pachal’s observations while traveling from Saskatchewan to Ontario, where he had never seen so many trees and rocks (in fact, he had never seen rocks at all). And water! “Now out that window he saw more water than the world could ever need.”

He had not imagined so much water lay upon the earth. His wife had spoken of it; words describing steamboats, canoes, swimming, fishing, trout that schooled at the bottom of enormous lakes. But he never imagined water like this. It spoke to him of the East somehow, of wealth hoarded, of wealth beyond necessity, and of greed; as though somehow men had conspired to keep water hidden here for their own selfish purposes.

It wasn’t what a man had that showed his mark, it was what he didn’t have, what he could do when he had nothing at all. Not even water.

And the people…

He watched the businessmen and the travelling men as they boarded, and kept his eye out for ladies in the hoopless skirt the newspaper had warned him about. He had read an account saying city women were as naked as Eve, wearing these new skirts. But Pachal did not see any naked women. It seemed to him the women had on as much clothing as they ought to have for November.

Easterners liked to talk and tell stories…

It remained a mystery to him; the constant speaking of words between people.

Even in the desperate survival scenes, the book is gently humorous. It describes the boat sinking from each passenger’s perspective, then moves on to the survivors clinging to the coffin who eventually reach the shore. Once pulled up into the woods, the men have to figure out how to stay alive in the cold wet November conditions until discovery (if discovery ever happens). They take turns wearing the warmest coat, slap each other awake when feeling drowsy, and spend three hours blowing on a cigarette lighter to dry it enough to attempt to start a fire.

All Robert Pachal knew about water was that it fell down on him from up top, or lay like clear glass marbles on the leaves of alfalfa, and damped the wheat stooks into a dark shade of tan. It did not come up from underneath him, like blood oozing out from a wound.    Sometimes it runnelled down the side of a train window, like a series of clear tongues, or lay in deep black pools in the rock holes of north Ontario. He’d seen that himself, on his travels… But it did not heave up at a man and swallow sections of a boat in front of his very eyes.

Harper’s hands were visible and naked against Peverly’s coat. He couldn’t feel them at all. Nor did they hurt in any particular way. They just didn’t exist, except as two white claws grappled to a coat, extending like bones into his own sleeves, where they disappeared. He doubted if they were attached any longer to his body.

The instrument was passed from one man to the other in turns, and in turn they fired their breath onto it. Harper’s buffalo coat moved in the opposite direction. They huddle on rocks, trying to spark life into Joe Harper’s automatic gas lighter. They pressed insensate fingers to it; Harper’s thumb grew cloven and dented from flicking at the stone… He held the instrument in his hand and glared. It irritated him that such an efficient-looking device could not keep men from dying.

And all this, just to get a dead man back home to his family.

The man lies in the plush interior of a fine coffin while four dying men and the storms of the world bang against the lid. It’s true that he had never known the supercilious air of a vested waiter like some, or the taste of a finely seasoned turtle soup. He did not know the ornate mansions of Buffalo, or the crush of humanity pressed on the platform at Union Station. But in his own reckoning what he had known was much better than any of that, for he had seen Rebecca Chiles, the third daughter of Wallace Chiles, half-undressed in a field of raspberries at twilight after a day of berrying. Her breasts lolled like two perfect puddings exposed for him alone, and her shoulders were more naked than it was possible for any man to know.

All in all, I found this to be an engaging book of historical fiction. Well written, well researched, and able to keep me smiling despite the known trajectory of the story. An unexpected treasure. And I learned some new stuff about the history of my country, which I always love.

 

1031815Victory Meat: New Fiction from Atlantic Canada, edited by Lynn Coady (2003)

This is another book I chose by browsing through the shelves at the library, under the letter ‘V’ – a collection of short stories written by Atlantic Canadian authors; some I’ve read before and others I haven’t. Because it was put together in (or before) 2003, many of these stories are written by writers who were not as well known then as they are now. Authors represented in this book are Carol Bruneau, Goerge Elliott Clarke, Christy Ann Conlin, Kelly Cooper, Libby Creelman, Michael Crummey, Larry Lynch, Rabindranath Maharaj, Lisa Moore, Peter Norman, Karen Smythe, Lee D, Thompson, R.M. Vaughn, and Michael Winter.

Out of the 14 authors with stories in this book, I’ve read and reviewed books by six of them – Carol Bruneau’s These Good Hands (and have just finished reading Glass Voices), George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue, Christy Ann Conlin’s Heave (I have also recently read The Memento), Michael Crummey’s Sweetland and River Thieves, Lisa Moore’s Caught and Flannery, and Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio.

Of the authors I haven’t read yet, I have Libby Creelman’s Split on my to-read list, as well as Peter Norman’s Emberton, and Maharaj’s Amazing Absorbing Boy.

Then, of course, there is Lynn Coady, the editor of this collection of Atlantic Canadian Fiction. I’m embarrassed to say that I still haven’t read any of her books, even though, at times, I’ve had the odd one out of the library. Her short story collection, Hellgoing, won the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. But I’m more interested in her novels: Saints of Big Harbour, Mean Boy, and The Antagonist. Most recently, she’s written Who Needs Books?; Reading in the Digital Age.

Lynn Coady wanted to put together a collection of Atlantic Canadian fiction to help shed the stereotypes that come with being from the Atlantic Provinces. We’re more than just lobster traps and fiddle music, Newfoundland accents and Highland flings. “The new literary work coming from the Atlantic provinces very much demands your respect… You will enjoy it no matter where in the world you are – not for reasons of nostalgia or quaintness but because it’s just so good.

In this collection, you will encounter an angry immigrant who can’t find a job, women who are still in love with their lost husbands, an insomniac (who rents movies from Video Difference in the middle of the night), illegal moose hunting, a little girl whose father is living with chronic pain, a detective spilling his secrets about the ‘scum’ he encounters, a beach party gone wrong, a parade of whales, and sacrificial ceremonies by the sea.

A few good lines: 

Dreaming of going and dreaming of returning. Everybody dreaming. Nobody waking. — Bitches on all Sides by Rabindranath Maharaj

I hear the foghorns in the harbour – like great whale-cries, wired for sound. What power in those subtle bellows, those echoes across the miles, murmured to their own. — Stubborn Bones by Karen Smythe

To please her, Dooley stopped drinking beer and took up cooking and going discreetly to the bathroom whenever the urge hit to talk about a client. — Why Men Fish Where They Do by Carol Bruneau

The nightair is thrumming with song, with haunting intertwining melody, with harmony that is all prayer, and the younger whale ripples to our driveway, flattens our prickly hedges, and settles in for the night.     Its song, says our daughter, who is delighted, makes my feet tickle. —The Whales by Lee D. Thompson

Fair warning. Let it be clear. You are not the first. Before you enter. Before you do. Remember. The leaving will kill you. — Conjugal Approaches by Kelly Cooper

Her new loneliness was something with presence and heft, a physical thing chafing at her insides. She was sure it would show up on a chest X-ray like a tumour, a cloudy mass with clearly defined edges. — That Fall by Michael Crummey

What wonderful treasures have you found at the library lately?

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

It’s hard not to compare books by the same author. I was a little nervous going into Swimming Lessons, because I liked Our Endless Numbered Days so much. I couldn’t help but wonder how she was going to top it. Or at least equal it. Well, she did. The stories are very different, but the compelling nature of her writing is the same.

Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.

30304221Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.

Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. –[Goodreads] 

Chapters alternate between Ingrid’s letters about her marriage and the present day narration of Flora and Nan keeping watch by their father’s death bed. This structure allows the slow release of knowledge over time of both Ingrid’s life and the impact of Ingrid’s disappearance on her family.

The story of the marriage was the most compelling part of the book, for me. It revealed a hard, painful truth of a marriage based on lies and deceit. It made me angry and full of regret for Ingrid. I felt her deep sense of loss of the life she had hoped to have. I sped along, hoping the letters would eventually reveal to me the mystery of what happened in the end.

I thought it was clever the way Ingrid hid her letters in books with titles that suited the content of the letters. I also enjoyed Gil’s “hobby” of buying used books that contained items inside, or interesting marginalia. His books are piled up all over the house – imagine the hours of exploration! Unfortunately, that’s the only thing I like about Gil. Gil, as a person, is an egotistical sleazeball. It’s a wonder Ingrid held out as long as she did.

Another interesting topic this book considers is the nature of motherhood. Ingrid struggles in her role as a mother, and I believe she feels her ‘mistakes’ even more acutely knowing that she is not as ‘in tune’ with her children as she believes she should be. Does her crumbling marriage play a part in this? Or the fact that she is often isolated with her children for long stretches at a time? Or maybe motherhood just doesn’t come as naturally to her as it does to others. We can’t know for sure, but it’s inevitable that she will be judged by her actions as a mother… differently than a father would.

Flora would have liked to ask her parents why the words ‘to father’ have such a different meaning from the words ‘to mother’.

Further Reading:

My review of Claire Fuller’s debut Our Endless Numbered Days

Blogger reviews of Swimming Lessons at Rosemary and Reading Glasses, Literary Hoarders, and Novels and NonFiction. (If I’ve missed any, feel free to leave a link in the comments!)

More reviews listed on Claire Fuller’s website.

*Thanks to House of Anansi for providing me with a copy of this book for review!

 

 

 

Nova Scotia Rug Hooker, Laura Kenney

I have a good friend who likes to hook rugs. Years ago, when I first learned about her hobby, I thought it was pretty cool and enormously envied the rugs she had up all over her house (I still do). I suddenly wished to be a rug hooker, but realistically knew that I just wanted Laura to make them for me. Because, let’s face it, I like to read too much to start making rugs.

Meet Laura…

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Her rug-hooking room and her home-dyed wool…

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Some things to know about Laura’s rugs…

  • they’re so beautiful that they hurt to look at
  • they’re so wonderful that you cringe at the thought of each sale (I don’t now how she does it)
  • they can be fun and whimsical
  • they can be dark and depressing
  • they can be political and timely
  • they have graced the walls of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, as well as many other smaller galleries around Nova Scotia

And now for the rugs… There are so many great rugs, I tried to contain myself. But who wouldn’t want to look at these for hours?

Ballerinas

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Families

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Empty Nest

Scenes

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Lighthouses

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Now, meet Judy…

Judy

This is Judy, a lively character is many of Laura’s rugs.

Judy saving the lighthouses

Judy saving the lighthouses

Judy waiting for the cat to let her out.

Judy waiting for the cat to let her out.

Judy at the end of a hard day.

Judy at the end of a hard day.

Judy attempting a selfie.

Judy attempting a selfie.

Judy hanging out the wash.

Judy hanging out the wash.

Judy getting ready to go out.

Judy getting ready to go out.

Judy caught in a wind storm.

Judy caught in a wind storm.

Judy on election night.

Judy on election night.

Judy welcoming the Syrian refugees.

Judy welcoming the Syrian refugees.

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Judy thinking of the victims of Orlando.

And, because you knew it was coming, a couple of bookish rugs…

I would rather read than iron.

I would rather read than iron.

A little bathroom reading.

The rugs I have on my own walls… (my photography skills are lacking)

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I made this little beauty myself.

I made this little beauty myself.

Laura made this rug of my kids for me a few years ago. My favourite. :)

Laura made this rug of my kids for me a few years ago. My favourite. 🙂

Laura’s rugs amaze and inspire me. She hooks the same way I read; compulsively, and with passion. I think this is why we understand one another.

In this interview with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Laura talks about her connection to making art in Nova Scotia, and her plans for the future (more hooking!).

For more information about Laura and her rugs, and oodles of ruggles to goggle, visit her website.

*Thank you Laura, for letting me write a post about you! And for letting me use all your pictures! 

 

 

 

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin

23231115From what I have seen so far, Under the Visible Life has not been getting the attention it deserves. Thanks to Susan at A Life in Books, I bumped it up my list, read it over the Holidays, and loved every minute of it. Both Susan and Naomi (The Writes of Woman) included it on their Best of 2016 lists. Perhaps you’ll see it on my Best of 2017 list in another 11 months…

Under the Visible Life is the story of two women, their friendship, and their individual quests for independence. Mahsa and Katherine come from different backgrounds, but have three things in common; music, a mixed heritage, and a fierce determination to be free and independent (from societal norms and family circumstances).

The most radical thing a woman can do is live.

25734151Katherine: Katherine was born in Ontario, Canada to a single mother in 1940. Her father is Chinese and married her mother, but had to return to China. At birth, Katherine was taken away from her mother (and her mother was incarcerated for “incorrigibility”) under the Female Refuges Act. Her mother fought to have her back, then fought to earn enough money and raise her as a single mother in the 40s and 50s.

Katherine grew up vowing never to be like her mother; a lonely woman smoking in a dark basement apartment. She saw marriage as a way to avoid ending up like her, but Katherine’s marriage resulted in its own set of troubles, and Katherine was left (much of the time) to raise her three children on her own.

What I love most about Katherine’s story is that motherhood is not swept aside for her career – and neither is her career ended because of motherhood. Despite her struggles with money and marriage, she finds a way to go after her dreams while raising three children. She puts a priority on both herself and her children and shows us it can be done.

This music is what marriage could be, playing solos at the same time and ending up together.

You have to keep doing it all. You have to keep chasing your favourite things. Don’t stop. Don’t wait. Keep going.

29394815Mahsa: Mahsa was born to an Afghan mother who had run away to Pakistan with an American. For the first 13 years of her life, she knew love and happiness, until her parents were murdered by her uncles. As a result of this, Mahsa had the idea that “women who married got murdered by their families”, and decided to do her best to avoid marriage.

Mahsa was sent to Montreal to study, where she got a taste of freedom and independence, but in the end could not avoid the marriage her family wanted for her. She tried to make the best of it, but felt trapped and confined, and at times betrayed.

I believed I could do what I wanted if no one saw… I believed in a hidden life for women.

Both women are in marriages that are wildly different and fascinating. I could write a whole other post on just their marriages alone.  (Literary Wives, keep this one in mind!)

31195605I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially to readers who like stories about women, marriage, and friendship. In a world where we so often tear each other down, it’s nice to read a book about women building each other up. Kim Echlin had me mesmerized.

To live, you must risk calamity. Abandon old ways to create something new. Love the life under the visible life.

Further Reading:

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Kim Echlin explains why she wrote Under the Visible Life:

Under the Visible Life is about love and I wanted to think about how the hidden lives of our families and cultures – our mother tongues, our customs and laws, the lives of our parents, grandparents – thread through our own lives whether we know them or not. I wanted to think about the resistances we face when we live authentically.

At CBC Books, Kim Echlin explains how she wrote it:

The book started when I discovered the Female Refuges Act… During the Second World War it was used to discourage women from cross-cultural dating. I was fascinated by how recently it had been repealed. My grandmother and mother had been born into it. I had been born into it, although I was too young to be subject to it. It was startling to understand the degree of legislative control our Canadian laws have had over women.

I wanted to work with alternating first person narration because I wanted the two main characters to tell their own stories, but to reflect on each other’s as well…

 

 

An Emily Readalong

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Two years ago I participated in the Green Gables Readalong. We read one Anne book a month starting in January and ending in August. Ever since then, I have wanted to do the same with Emily. It’s been at least 20 years since I read about her.

I was originally going to start this month, but I’m getting a bit of a late start back to the blog after the Holidays. And I’m still working on The Blythes are Quoted (which is delightful). So, I think I’ll start in February with Emily of New Moon, then Emily Climbs in March, and end with Emily’s Quest in April.

I would love to have company, if anyone wants to join in! No sign-ups, no links, no pressure. Just fun. And if anyone wants to suggest a good hashtag for Twitter, feel free! (#ReadEmily? #Em-along?) Let me know in the comments if you’re interested, so I can keep track of you more easily!

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

26797014The Ballroom was as good as I was hoping it would be. Like Anna Hope’s first book Wake, the story is told through alternating narrators: Ella, John and Charles.

Ella and John are both patients at the Sharston mental institution, neither of them ‘mad’ or ‘feeble-minded’. Just bad luck, really, has landed them there, at a time when bad luck or being born into the wrong circumstances is all you need to get yourself institutionalized. They fall in love during the Friday evening Ballroom dances, which brings hope back into their lives. Their love story is somewhat predictable, as many love stories are, but played out against the backdrop of an asylum in the early 1900s adds tension and interest.

John sat himself in the corner and took small, shallow breaths, trying not to let it in; it was a terrible dangerous contagion, hope.

I like the fact that Ella can’t read. Often, in historical fiction, we are reading about female characters who are educated, against the norm, and we admire them. But I’m sure there were many smart, strong women who didn’t have the opportunity to educate themselves or learn to read, and I appreciate the chance to read about, and admire, them as well.

Ella knew about being good. Had known it since she was small. Being good was surviving. It was watching while your mother was beaten and staying quiet so you wouldn’t be next. Feeling sick because you were a coward and didn’t do more. Taking the blows once she had gone and never crying, or showing how much they hurt. Tucking in your plaits, shutting up and working hard. Day after day after day.

28109870Clem, Ella’s friend, adds more depth to the story. The doctors have a hard time figuring her out, but the readers are eventually let in on her story; how she came to be at the asylum and why she is not keen to be let out, despite the fact that she comes from a good family who seem to be very concerned about her progress.

Charles is the character that I found most interesting. He joined on as one of the medical advisors at the asylum as a young man full of self-importance and the desire to show everyone how great he is. He becomes interested in Eugenics and, although he starts out optimistic about proving that pauperism is not hereditary, he eventually comes to believe sterilization is a good option for weeding out the ‘bad apples’.

Charles becomes obsessed with getting Winston Churchill’s approval; he writes letters and dreams about a day when Churchill will come to the asylum and pat him on the back for all his good work. But the other interesting (and sad) thing about Charles is that he seems to be terrified of himself. He finds himself attracted to a man at the music store and it terrifies him, consumes him, and along with his obsession with greatness, he feels overwhelmed – showing the fine line between the people who have found themselves inside the asylum and the ones who are smugly on the outside.

“When men at the bottom have their souls leave them, they end up in here. But when men at the top do, they end up dangerous.”

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Ultimately this novel is about the importance of human connection for hope, happiness and survival in a world that can be dismal and cruel.

How the beauty of life and the world struck him like a fever sometimes, but how it was all mixed up and mangled with the hate.

As for the ending… there is something to be said for modern technology.

*Thank you to Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of this book for review!

Further reading: Other blogger reviews of The Ballroom can be found at A Life in Books, The Writes of Woman, and Word by Word. If I’ve missed your review, just add a link in the comments!

My review of Wake, which I also loved.

 

Highlights of 2016: Part 3

In Highlights of 2016: Part 1, I focused on books from Atlantic Canada. In Highlights of 2016: Part 2, I focused on the rest of my Canadian content. In this post I will focus on…

Everything else

… and then I’m done!

Standouts: (in no particular order)

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – read for Reading New England

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell – read for Reading Ireland Month

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann – read this with TJ for her Twelve German’s in 2016

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Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – read this because I’m a biology geek

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford – read this for my Real Life book club

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – tied with City of Thieves for best book on this list

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City of Theives by David Benioff – tied with Homegoing for best book on this list

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa – read this for Novellas in November

The Ballroom by Anna Hope – read because I loved Wake

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Favourite non-review posts:

My Children’s Bookshelves – check out my kids’ book shelves!

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Introduce Yourself in 5 Books – see which books helped to shape me as a reader

Poetry Month: Book Spine Poetry – this is just fun

Book Spine Poetry #2 – more fun

A Literary Scavenger Hunt – a book tag created by Naz at Read Diverse Books

My Bookish (and not so Bookish) Summer – see what I did this summer (it doesn’t seem like that long ago)

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Posts with the most views/visitors:

At this time of year I like to have a look at which posts on my blog have had the most traffic.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis – still going strong with a nomination for the International Dublin Lit Award

boobs: Women Explore What It Means To Have Breasts, edited by Ruth Daniell – hmm… I have a feeling the traffic for this one isn’t solely based on its merits as a good book

Shadow Giller: Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin

Shadow Giller: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

Shadow Giller: The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux, translated by Lazer Lederhendler

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A big thank you to all my readers and fellow bloggers who have helped to make this a terrific year of reading (if not terribly great in other ways). That’s it for me this year. Happy Holidays to all of you!

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Our new library during The Festival of Lights.