Shadow Giller: Yiddish For Pirates by Gary Barwin


Gary Barwin’s imagination knocked my socks off. History and adventure come together in this remarkable tale full of word play and wit, all told by a 500-year-old Yiddish-speaking parrot.

So, you ask, how did this shell-less cheder-bocher – schoolboy – drawn from the waters of Ashkenaz find himself on the Spanish Main, the blade of his sword pressed against the quivering kishkas of Spanish captains? How did Columbus, the Inquisition, and the search for some books cause us to seek for life everlasting?

And, come to think of it, how did I, an African Grey, become his mishpocheh, his family, and he my perch, my shoulder in the world?

And so begins the tale of Moishe and Aaron, his parrot.

A bookmark without a book doesn’t know where it is. Moishe was my slim volume, my scrawny story. My shoulder.

Together they take on the Inquisition,

“Since the beginning, they have tried to kill us Jews, but ha-Shem – God – gives the story a little, what you would call, a drey, a twist, and then somehow, we aren’t destroyed. Until the next time.”

Christopher Columbus the pompous,

The ship’s master unfurled the flag of the Spanish Kingdoms and planted it in the sand. For we shall have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth and have a fancy brocaded flag to prove it.

and the Ocean Sea.

To be at sea is to know vastness, to understand the flight of clouds, the reach of the stars and of invention. He was riding the expanding ripples of God’s great cannonball. Moishe felt as if he were travelling in every direction at once, each direction away from home, toward story.

They seek “revenge and retribution from Spanish ships and their gold”,

Was I surprised my hopeful pink boychik Moishe had turned pirate? Feh.

God Hisself would have turned pirate if, on bumping into the New World, He had seen that the othershtupping Spanish had discovered only a larger canvas on which to paint their murderous scenes. The same hateful fire burned inside their poxy hearts as fueled Inquisition flames. They had persecuted Jews. Now they persecuted Los Indios.

and they search for the Fountain of Eternal Life.

“Ach, who needs immortal life?” I answered. “It’s but a larger sack to fill with misery.”

“But it works the other way, too,” Moishe said. “Trouble would scatter like ashes in the wind over a life-without-end. And anyway, it’s the Fountain of Youth, so you’re made young again. Younger than your memories, younger than your pain.”

“Eternal relief.”

“An everlasting finger to those who tried to erase us: here we are, a permanent stain on the pages of history.”

They suffer great sorrow but maintain hope for the future.

I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting. That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body. Sha. I’m only looking for this treasure, these books, this poxy fountain, because, like a shlemiel, I still believe – keneynehoreh – in life instead of death. But, takeh, it’d be easier to be dead.

And through it all, Aaron can’t help but crack his jokes.

I smiled sheepishly. If a parrot could be said to be sheepish. Or to smile.


This book comes with a warning: despite the jolly feel of the novel, there are some very graphic scenes of violence. You’re thinking it be the pirates. But, sadly, the worst of it comes from the “good guys”; the Catholics in Spain ridding the country of heretics, and the great explorers of the New World who think the Native Islanders are soul-less.

Yiddish For Pirates is not a quick read, but every word is enjoyable. I giggled and smirked, felt anger and awe, and at the end of it all I shed a tear. I was sad to see Aaron go.

In the Acknowledgements, Barwin says that he dedicates this book to his family: “I have tried to infuse it with wonder, thoughtfulness, wit, intelligence, culture, love and compassion. If I have succeeded in this in any way, it is because I have learned these things from them.”

He has succeeded.


With Yiddish For Pirates, Gary Barwin has earned every last ‘blurb’ about his book. Here are a couple that I especially like:

“All my life I have been waiting for the romantic tale of a Kabbalistic Jewish pirate as filtered through a uniquely Canadian perspective. Today, my prayers have been answered and then some.” Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure

“What an accomplishment! What an imagination! The wit, the wordplay, and the subversive humour make this a thoroughly original and delightful novel.” Lauren B. Davis, Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated author of Our Daily Bread and Against a Darkening Sky

For someone so accomplished, I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of him until his book made the Giller longlist. Happily, that has been rectified, and I hope the treasure that is Yiddish For Pirates will bring him much well-deserved recognition.


Yiddish for Pirates is also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

The review in the Globe & Mail claims that Yiddish For Pirates is “unlike anything else you’ll read this year”.

The review in The Star reveals some of what Barwin was thinking as he wrote his book.

“Pirates were these word-invention machines. These insults and swashbuckling threats are such a juicy joy to speak,” he says. “That’s a component of that in Yiddish as well. People who speak Yiddish love to revel in the Yiddishisms and clever charismatic ways of saying things. It’s so fun to riff off of those.”

Gary Barwin’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

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


If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie

21462154I’ve had this book for a while; picked it up a few times, put it back down for something else. But, when the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long-list came out, and this book was on it, I finally decided to dive in.

If I Fall, If I Die is about an agoraphobic mother and her son who live in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Although Will’s mother never demanded that he stay inside with her, he always has. Partly because he’s grown up with a mother who is fearful of the Outside, partly because that’s just the life he’s always known and he’s been content, and partly because he feels protective of her and wants to help keep the ‘Black Lagoon’ at bay. At 12, he has a pretty good idea of what will soothe his mother and what will set her off.


Part of the reason I was drawn to this book was to read about the experience of a mother with agoraphobia. It would be incredibly difficult and frustrating not to be able to be a part of your child’s outside life, not to mention one of your own. We get a good sense of what got Diane to this point in her life, and what it feels like for her, but I would like to have seen Diane’s present day progress explored more fully to get a better sense of where she will be with her life in the near future. Instead, Will’s story takes the spotlight. Which is okay, except…


The way Will’s character makes the adjustment from Inside to Outside, and then to school and trying to make friends, after having zero experience with any of it made sense to me; the ways he embarrasses himself, the fact that he found it easiest to hook up with the kids who were on the fringes like himself. I also liked reading about Will’s relationship with his mother, and his thoughts and feelings about having a mother who is afraid of everything. Once he gets Outside, he starts to realize how limited their life was/is, and begins to feel much more conflicted about his mother and their life.

Where I start to wonder about the story is when Will and his friend get in over their heads with the mystery they are trying to solve. Once we get near the end and the boys are confronted with the ‘bad guys’, I feel like the story shifts from literary fiction to teen mystery. It reminded me of old Batman episodes where the villains talk to their victims long enough for help to come along at the last minute; a bit silly and far-fetched. Another reviewer, Michael Hingston at the Globe and Mail, likened it to a Hardy Boys mystery.

But… at least these things didn’t also happen.

Things I was worried were going to happen but didn’t:

  1. A love interest for Will’s mother, Diane. You know, a man coming to the door and falling in love with her on the spot, falling for her beauty and mysteriousness. But, that didn’t happen, which is a good thing.
  2. A cure for Diane. Near the end, and at the climax of the boys’ mystery, I was getting afraid that Diane would be suddenly cured when she realized she cared more about helping her son stay safe than her own fears. This would have fit in nicely with the teen mystery type book, but just wouldn’t have been realistic at all.

The fact that I was worried these things were going to happen tells me that I didn’t feel confident in the hands of Michael Christie and his book. The first half had my full trust, but the second half let me down.

23346958Giller Prize?

Is this book Giller Prize calibre? I am certainly not qualified to be the judge of this, but I will say that I don’t think this one is quite good enough for the shortlist. Recommended for a good read, though, especially if you’re interested in anxiety issues/agoraphobia. Christie also does a stellar job of depicting the town of Thunder Bay; how it once was, and what it is like today; it’s industries, economics, and on-going racial tensions.

**Since writing this review, the Giller Prize shortlist has come out. I’m not surprised to see that If I Fall, If I Die is not on it. And, I’m happy to see that Fifteen Dogs and Martin John are.

Michael Christie, who used to be a professional skateboarder, talks to The Quill and Quire about If I Fall, If I Die. He talks about how his mother’s mental health issues shaped his life, and how the story in the book is based very much on his own. (Getting to know a little about the author and the origins of the book always helps me see the book in a different light.)

The Beggar’s Garden, a collection of linked stories, is Michael Christie’s first book and one which I would also like to read.

Martin John by Anakana Schofield


25074204We all wonder what is going on inside the mind of a sexual deviant, right?

Harm was done./ But he liked it./ It was hard to credit that harm had been done when you liked it.

This book is weird and uncomfortable. And the more you read, the more squirmy you will become. But, it’s worth it.

So you know he’s kept busy, so you don’t have to worry he might be beside you on the Tube, or following you about, or thinking about your body parts. He’s thinking only about words with the P at the start. So you do not need to worry about what else he has been thinking about. He has only thought about P words.

Anakana Schofield’s first book, Malarky, was one of my favourite books last year. This one is different; it is darker, creepier. But it is every bit as clever and bold. Fans of Malarky will feel a bit like they are back in the world of ‘Our Woman’, except, instead, you are in the world of another woman with a son who is causing her some troubles of a different sort. Martin John’s world is full of circuits and Meddlers, newspapers and flesh, Baldy Conscience and his mother’s nagging voice.

What would it be like to be the mother of a sexual deviant? How far would you go to help him? Stop him? Send him away? Or maybe tie him to a chair?

She did not like the idea she had a role in it./ You would not like the idea you had a role in it./ Did she have a role it it?/ Have you had a role in it?/ Do you have a role in this?/   These are some of the questions a mother may ask herself.

–We’ve got to get you out, mam said when she saw the state of him. If you can’t stop it, we’ve to stop it./   Could he stop it? What would he stop?/   –Stop what, he said. She will not go further. She would never give voice to that which she wished stopped.

And, then there is the girl, his victim of 20 years ago.

She remembers when she is nervous for her children. Never lets them alone. Calculates each and every situation for potential. The presentation of a smidgen of opportunity never evades her.

Schofield guides us on a tour of this man’s mind without telling us how or what to feel about it. She just lays it all out, and lets us decide for ourselves. There is confusion in the way we feel, just like there is confusion in the way Martin John feels about himself and his life, and the way his mother feels about him. Does it make us angry? Sick? Do we feel sorry for him? One thing is for sure, we hope to God we will never have to worry about it with our own children.

What was your reaction to this book?

Martin John is long-listed for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller prize this year, and I would be happy to see it make the short-list.

This review in the Globe and Mail talks about the book in more detail, and asks “Are we inside Martin John’s head, or someone else’s attempt to decipher him?“.

Joseph Boyden

9780670064182HThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden is going to be the next book in my CanLit Project.  I’ve been excited to read this book since it first came out, so when I picked it up at the library a few day ago I knew it was going to be my B book.

A couple of years ago I read Three Day Road and loved it.  It was horribly sad, but so so good.  Still unread on my shelf sits Through Black Spruce.  I have found that the ones that I already own are usually the last to be read.  The ones from the library always seem to come first.  Both The Orenda and Through Black Spruce are in this year’s Canada Reads Top 40.  And The Orenda is now in the   Top 5.

A bit about Joseph Boyden and his books:

*Boyden grew up in Willowdale, North York, Ontario.

*Boyden is of Irish, Scottish, and Anishinaabe heritage and much of his writing is about First Nations  heritage and culture.

*Boyden currently divides his time between Louisiana and Northern Ontario.

*Three Day Road won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was nominated for the 2005 Governor General’s Awards.

*Through Black Spruce won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

*The Orenda was long-listed for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize and short-listed for the 2013 Governor General’s Awards.

Confession:  I am almost done reading this book already.  I’m a little behind in my posts.  But take that as a sign that I’m having a hard time putting this book down.  That’s all I’m going to say.

You can read my review of The Orenda here.

The Cure for Death By Lightning; Not What I was Expecting

The first book of my CanLit Project was actually finished a few days ago, but I am only just now getting time to write about it.  I quite enjoyed it, but it was different than I was expecting.  I hadn’t read any of the reviews before reading it, except for what was on the back of the book.9780307363886 consumed

I was expecting to read a light, maybe quirky story about a young girl in the 1940s.  Instead, the story was dark, suspenseful, at times violent, with many magical and spiritual elements.  The main character, Beth, really has a rough time of it during the year this book takes place.

“My name is Beth Weeks.  My story takes place in the midst of the Second World War, the year I turned 15, the year the world fell apart and began to come together again.”

Beth has to put up with her unstable father, bullying from kids at school, the unwanted attention from the boys and men around her, a confusing friendship with a girl her age, and some strange and scary thing following her when she goes walking on her own.

“…I saw a motion in the grass coming towards me, a splitting of the grass as if an animal or a man were running through it, but there was nothing there.  Terrified, I pulled harder from the bramble, tearing my skirt.  The swishing of grass filled up my ears and came at me faster than anything possible.”

Beth listened to stories told by Bertha Moses, who was a friend of her mother’s from the reserve.  She told stories about coyotes and shape-shifters that sounded like they couldn’t possibly be true, but which scared her even more.

“The stories weren’t a welcome thing.  I’d have to carry them now into the woods with me, and they’d jump on me.”

There was almost nowhere Beth could go where she could feel safe.  Not even her own house.  Her mother did her best, but was already being pushed to her own limits.  Her brother ran off to join the war.  In the end, she was left with Billy, who was one of the hired hands on their farm, and who seemed to be the only one left watching out for her.

A part of this book I really enjoyed was reading about the scrapbook that belonged to Beth’s mother.  The scrapbook was her treasure, and it was filled with favourite recipes and other bits and pieces of her life.  The descriptions of the way the food was made was almost soothing for me as I read them.

“There was all our morning’s work laid out on the table, all wealth and good eating and joy.”

“All hell breaking loose, and I decided to make cake.”

So, where does the lightning come in?  One night when Beth is out in the fields, bringing in the cows, lightning strikes her arm.  From then on, she refers to it as her lightning arm, and from to time to time it behaves as though it has a mind of its own.

And, remember the flowers falling from the sky that was part of the praise on the back of the book?  Well, flowers did rain from the sky, and it was beautiful.

“I pressed my face against the window and saw a rain begin to fall, so gently the raindrops seemed to float.  Then I saw they weren’t raindrops, they were flowers, violet flax, fluttering to the ground.  In no time at all the rain covered the earth in flowers.”

Do I recommend this book?  Yes.  Although it was a lot darker than I expected it to be, the story drew me in, I liked the cast of characters, and I wanted to find out what the heck was going on.  This book is interesting, unpredictable, and unique.

A bit about the Author:  Since writing The Cure for Death By Lightning,                      Gail Anderson-Dergatz has also written A Recipe For Bees, A Rhinestone Button, and Turtle Valley.  A Recipe For Bees and The Cure for Death By Lightning were international best sellers, and were both finalists for the Giller Prize.

I will let you know what my next book for this project is in my next post!

The Cure for Death by Lightning

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the first book I am going to read for my CanLit Project.  The author’s name is Gail Anderson-Dergatz, and although I don’t remember having ever heard of her, I found her book on my shelf.  I have had it for a while, but have not read it yet.  (This will not be the first book to be found unread on my shelves.)

The Cure for Death by Lightning is a Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year, 1996, as well as a shortlisted book for both The Giller Prize and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

And, if that isn’t enough to make me want to read it, read this praise for the book from The Globe and Mail:

“Superlative….Flowers rain from the sky in this book….(It) is Canadian to the core.  You can trace a line to it from Susannah Moodie through Margaret Atwood (and..) Alice Munro.”

Yes, I think I will read this book.  But first I have to read a couple that are due back at the library soon.  If you are interested in a great website with a listing of many Canadian writers and their books, you can find it here:

Has anyone read or heard of this book?