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Queen's University

Richard J. Beninger  

Book Reviews- Fiction 

Andric, I. (1945/1977) The Bridge on the Drina.   University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Atwood, M. (2003) Oryx and Crake.  McClelland and Stewart Ltd: Toronto.

Chevalier, T. (1999) Girl with a Pearl Earring.  Penguine Putman Inc: New York

Gallant, M. (1981) Home Truths.   McClelland & Stewart: Toronto

Kafka, F. (1925/1956) The Trial.  (Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir). Vintage Books: New York.

Lawson M. (2002) Crow Lake. Vintage Books: Toronto

Nabokov V. (1955) Lolita.  Random House: New York

Pasternak B. (1958) Doctor Zhivago.   (Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari) Collins and Havill Press: London

  Pynchon T. (1966) The Crying of Lot 49. Bantam Books: Toronto

  Pynchon T.(1984) Slow Learner. Bantam Books: Toronto


Pynchon T. (2006) Against the Day.  Penguin Books: New York


Pynchon T. (2009) Inherent Vice.   Penguin Press: New York


Schatzing F. (2004) The Swarm.   HarperCollins: New York

Shelley M. (1931/1965) Frankenstien or the Modern Prometheus . New American Library of Canada Ltd.: Toronto (First published in 1816 and revised in 1831; this is the revised version)

Urquhart J.(2001) The Stone Carvers . McCelland and Steward Ltd.: Toronto.

† Added in June 2012   





Andric, I (1945/1977) The Bridge on the Drina.University of Chicago Press, Chicago. (translated from the original Serbo-Croatian version by George Allen and Unwin Ltd. in 1959)

The Drina is a river in the east of Bosnia. On the Drina is the town of Visegrad. In 1571 Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks decided to build a bridge over the Drina, the acclaimed bridge in this novel. This affected the people of Visegrad for the centuries to come as is chronicled in The Bridge. Andric (1892-1975) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961 for this novel and several others although this one was the most prominent. In his Introduction, William H. McNeill stated that, “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists” (p. 1).

A number of myths surrounded the bridge in more recent times. For example, the children of Visegrad feared the Arab who lived in one of the bridge’s piers and who would grab them if they went too near. Then we learn later that during the construction of the bridge centuries earlier an Arab worker was killed on that pier. Another story is told about a contemporary myth of twin children being walled up in one of the piers and then the origins of the story centuries earlier are revealed in the tale of a woman bearing stillborn twins who were taken from her and buried; she wandered among the workers grieving the loss of her children and asking for help finding them. These provide some of the examples of how Andric revealed the sources of legends and myths about the bridge.

The Turks occupied Bosnia from about 1400 until into the 1800s, converting many of the landowners to Islam and creating a mosaic of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Gypsies and Muslims. Andric vividly portrays the terror used by the Turks to rule their empire both in his descriptions of the brutality used in the building of the bridge and in the defense of the bridge during subsequent Serbian uprisings. One sure didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Turkish discipline.

In the late XIX century, the Ottoman hold on Bosnia was finally loosed and the Austrians arrived. This marked a period of transition form the “old” to the “new” ways. The Austrians were organized, they wanted to put numbers on the houses, take censuses, build new buildings, put in municipal water systems and new roads. To many of the people these foreigners seemed to be a strange breed of over-zealous workers bent on imposing order where none was needed. When they undertook to overhaul the bridge with major repairs and renovations, some of the townspeople viewed them with great suspicion; no good will come of it. On the other hand, the Austrians seemed to influence life from afar and they collected taxes more successfully and less brutally than the Turks had done.

Next came the railroad. And the gramophone. The modernization of the late XIX and early XX century seemed to change life for good. “…men could no longer go where there was neither noise, glitter or movement” (p. 226). There followed new ways of life, thought and expression. Many of these sentiments are revealed through the stories of the people of Visegrad and surrounding regions. The political winds that blew often through the region had the effect at times of turning people who had peacefully co-existed for generations into archenemies. In one example, a man who has been recruited by the Germans just before the First World War accosted an old Muslim who was his long-time neighbour. Alihoja could only react with astonishment. The man “…looked at him with eyes that could no longer recognize anyone and saw only their own fear” (p. 307).

The Bridge on the Drina is a captivating tale of the lives of individuals in a part of the world that has been subject to changing foreign influences for centuries. Reading this book helps a little to understand the recent strife and atrocities committed by peoples in this part of the world. The bridge is a brilliant metaphor for the crossing over through the ages of various political influences in Bosnia and the surrounding regions.

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Atwood, M. 2003) Oryx and CrakeMcClelland and Stewart Ltd.: Toronto

In a time not too far into the future when genetic engineering has become a viable and powerful commercial enterprise, Atwood imagines transgenic animals such as rakunks, pigoons, snats, bobkittens and wolvogs and transgenic plants such as giant cabbage trees. In an environmentally degraded world where the greenhouse effect has led to risen sea levels that have flooded coastal cities and the sun at midday burns even through clothes, the companies compete for business with enhanced beauty aids such as new skin. I imagined Atwood chuckling at her keyboard as she described future computer games such as Kwicktime Osama and websites such as She must have enjoyed coming up with names for some of the altered animals. She described chicken breasts grown in a pot somewhat like a plant but fed through a digestive system that was sufficient to grow the meat; she called the product “ChickieNobs”. I thought “coq a la vigne” might have been appropriate!

In spite of the fun in this book and even though it is fiction, Atwood presents a serious and thoughtful treatise. The environmental conditions that she suggests are the predicted outcome of our present trajectory with our extensive burning of fossil fuels. Some of the transgenic organisms that she mentioned in Oryx and Crake already exist. For example, on page 206 she refers to genetically altered goats that have had a spider silk gene inserted into their genomes so that they produce spider silk in their milk. This transgenic animal exists. It is being developed commercially as a source of large quantities of spider silk that can be used to make ultra-light but very tough fibers for use in making commodities such as flack jackets. Given these advances and the global power of the companies that have the biotechnology and control the products, the world that Atwood presents does not seem far away.

There is a continuing debate about how much of what we are is determined genetically and how much is conditioned by the environment. Evolutionary psychologists try to identify the influence of our ancestral environment on our current human natures and a persistent debate concerns the question of how extensively our minds have been shaped by the evolutionary past. In Oryx and Crake, Atwood comes up against this debate when one of her characters is described as trying to eliminate the G-spot in the brain, the cluster of neurons that is responsible for the belief in God (p 164). On the one hand, a cluster of neurons must represent the belief in God. On the other, I think it is unlikely that a specific cluster of neurons is genetically programmed for this belief. The belief in God provides an explanation for the mystery of our existence. There is no doubt that our brains have evolved to be effective problem-solving organs so it is no surprise that we have come up with what appears to be a reasonable solution to the problem of our existence. As additional evidence about the origins of life and the selectionist processes of evolution and learning accumulates, the same brain mechanisms that came up with God as a solution to the question of existence will come up with an appropriate solution based on that evidence. Atwood’s character who wanted to eliminate the G-spot said it was a difficult problem because if you, “…take out too much of the area …you [get] a zombie or a psychopath” (p 164). Zombie maybe, but probably not a psychopath. Just someone who is not very good at problem solving.

I don’t read a lot of fiction although I have read and enjoyed some of Atwood’s previous novels. I learned about Oryx and Crake from a review of the book published by S Squier in Science (2003, Vol 302, p 1154). It was Squier’s comment that Atwood, “…vows to inform us rather than merely to amuse us” that got my attention. Atwood was informed by a long list of non-fiction references in producing Oryx and Crake. This book is fiction but achieves its goal to inform. As a bonus, it amuses too

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Chevalier, T.(1999) Girl with a Pearl Earring.Penguine Putman Inc: New York

What a good book! Johannes Vermeer’s acclaimed XVII century painting by the same name as the title of this book inspired Chevalier’s fiction about the life of the young woman depicted in the picture. The narrative is written in the first person giving it a personal touch that combines with the haunting image of the “girl” in the painting to draw the reader in. There is a palpable tension that lasts until almost the last paragraph and is created by the reader’s knowledge that this simple girl from a working class family in Delft will eventually be the subject of the famous painting. Although the story is fiction, Chevalier has done a good job to recreate a sense of the period with details of day-to-day life for both working class folk and eventually for those who are better off. One example of the activities of the time that was credibly recreated was the artist’s preparation of pigments. It was particularly interesting to read about Vermeer’s apparent use of the camera obscura in executing his paintings. In recent years, the publication of David Hockney’s (2001, Viking Studio, Penguin: New York) book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, claiming that many of the Renaissance masters from about the beginning of the XV century used a lens to help create their images has engendered a great deal of controversy. One wonders if Chevalier was aware of this debate.

The girl, Griet, is 16 at the beginning of the story. With her the reader experiences her awakening to the sensitivities of visual artists and her awakening to her own sensuality. The story is beautifully written with many delicate descriptions, e.g., “His eyes came to rest on me like a butterfly on a flower…” (p. 40). Like its namesake picture, this book is a masterpiece. If you want to experience Vermeer’s paintings in the context of a quick and luxurious read, I recommend this book accompanied by a collection of reproductions of Vermeer’s paintings.

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Gallant, M. (1981) Home Truths. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto

Mavis Gallant was born in Montreal in 1922. Her father died when she was young and her mother sent her at the age of four to boarding school; in all she attended an astounding seventeen public, convent and French-language boarding schools. She lived for a time in the Eastern U.S. with a guardian and then returned to Montreal where she worked for a newspaper until 1950 when she moved to Paris. Home Truths is a collection of sixteen fictional short stories, many published in The New Yorker during the years 1956-1981. The stories are organized into three sections, the first “At Home”, the second “Canadians Abroad” and the third “Linnet Muir”. One brief biography of Gallant suggested that the stories in the third section came closest to her real experiences as a young woman in Montreal. While reading this section, I thought it was autobiographical.

Gallant is a skilled wordsmith. I loved her descriptive vignettes such as a woman who looked, “…smudged, as if paint had spilled over the outline of a drawing” (p. 4). I look at grass anew as if through a washed window after reading about the, “…old sidewalk with ribbon grass growing in the cracks” (p. 21). Ribbon images appeared again in, “…ribbons of tire tracks…” (p. 80) in the sand and, “The remains of daffodils lay in brown ribbons on the soil” (p. 93). She described prostitutes “…with faces like dead letters” (p. 87). Her descriptions often made the usual seem novel.

In the middle of the XX century, Canadians were just beginning to find their identity. Especially as our neighbor the post-war U.S. moved into position as a dominant world power, Canadians searched for a definition of themselves. Gallant was keenly aware of this identity crisis and commented on it often in her stories. A young Canadian girl: “I’m English-Canadian only I can talk French and I’m German descent on one side” (p. 25). Of an American boy: “…he is American, and that does it” (p. 25). In one of her stories a Canadian girl is going to school in the U.S. and refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance; she “…had never been thought offensive, only stubborn. Americans then were accustomed to gratitude from foreigners and did no demand it; they quite innocently could not imagine any country fit to live in except their own” (p. 253-254). One of her Canadian girl characters observes for the first time people laughing in the cinema in New York. She goes on to question whether this is vulgar. “Perhaps the notion of vulgarity came out of some incapacity on the part of the refined” (p. 262). Here Gallant’s multi-leveled wit and distain for the traditional snobbery of English Canada are at their best in the context of contrasting Canadians and Americans.

Gallant contrasts the French and English too. She describes the pervasiveness of magical thinking among the French. “Montreal was a city where the greater part of the population were (sic) wrapped in myths and sustained by beliefs in magic” (p. 281). Boarding school girls walked in their sleep and had visions and the nuns were quite at ease with this. By contrast, “In an English school visions would have been smartly dealt with – cold showers, parents summoned…” (p. 281). “These two populations, these two tribes, knew nothing whatever about each other” (p. 281). “…when you looked up “Darwin” in the card index of the Bibliotheque de Montreal you found “See anti-Darwin”” (p. 286).

I particularly loved the stories of Linnet Muir, the heroine of the last six stories and, I think, the author during her twenties as a young woman making her own way in Montreal. These stories paint a vivid picture of the low status of women in the work place during and after the war. They are filled with humor and sarcasm and the brilliant insights into people that permeate all of her stories. I am embarrassed that it has taken until now for me to read this Canadian author and pleased that I have now met her at least briefly through her stories.

Kafka, F. (1925/1956) The Trial(Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir). Vintage Books: New York. 

Franz Kafka lived from 1883 to 1924 in Prague except for a brief stay in Berlin near the end of his life.  This was a period of time that saw the dismantling of the European aristocracy and the emergence of the nouveau plutocracy in the West, the socialists in the East.  The Austrian empire ceased to exist and Prague emerged as the capital of the new country Czechoslovakia.  Kafka was of German descent and the proportion of Germans in Prague had dropped precipitously during his lifetime as the city filled with Czech citizens of Bohemia and Moravia.  The iconic technology of the XX century was rolling out in everything from lighting to flight, the relativity of time and space was revealed, the artists were dismantling realism and Stravinsky was being Stravinsky. 

Perhaps this context provides one way of understanding the detachment of Joseph K., the main character in The Trial.  K. has a good job and is a regular citizen of the community but almost as soon as the story begins, he seems to be drawn into a dreamlike world.  He becomes caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of officials and legal dealings.  At unusual hours he goes to remote parts of the city, is surrounded by children as he searches from office to office to find the Court of Inquiry.  Just when the reader is convinced that he must be in the wrong place, there he is in the center of a large crowd standing before the Examining Magistrate.  We never know what he is being charged with; the Magistrate says almost nothing as K. launches into a lengthy and at times paranoid defense of himself.  He plays the crowd, sometimes winning them over, sometimes not. 

K. has several interactions with women that are equally dissociative.  With Fräulein Bürstner he apparently wants to explain why things in her room might have been disturbed but ends up making unwanted romantic advances.  With the usher’s wife, he seems to unexpectedly get drawn into a romantic interaction.  Then, equally as unexpected is her exit up a stairs in the arms of the Student who is apparently acting on the orders of the Examining Magistrate.  K. goes to see a lawyer who is charged with helping him with his case and there encounters the lawyer’s nurse Leni.  Instead of interviewing with the lawyer (whom we encounter most of the time in bed, apparently not well), K. sneaks off with Leni for a liaison in the next room.  As in a dream, events are unconnected, they are a mix of the novel and the familiar, and their outcome is unpredictable or, often, unknown.

K. at one point goes to visit a painter who may be able to help him with his “case”.  We have no idea of what K.’s case is about and little idea of what the painter might be able to do for him.  The atmosphere of the book is often gloomy and the images or scenes are indistinct like those in a dream.  The description of the building where the painter lives provides an example:  “This was an even poorer neighborhood.  The houses were even darker, the streets filled with sludge oozing about slowly on top of the melting snow.  In the tenement where the painter lived only one wing of the great double door stood open, and beneath the other wing, in the masonry near the ground, there was a gaping hole out of which, just as K. approached, issued a disgusting yellow fluid, steaming hot, from which some rats fled into the adjoining canal.  At the foot of the stairs an infant lay face down on the ground bawling, but one could scarcely hear its shrieks because of the deafening din that came from a tinsmith’s workshop at the other side of the entry” (p. 176). 

Prior to reading this book I had been reading about life in Stalinist Russia.  It is now very clear that Stalin authorized random arrests throughout his years as leader.  These began during the early years of collectivization of the farms when the often-innocent Kulaks were used as scapegoats for the people’s resentment of sovietization.  In later years, the internal police would be told how many arrests were needed to create the prisoner labor force that was required for the completion of a large project such as the building of a canal.  Many people were arrested on trumped-up charges and they were tortured until they confessed.  Then they were pressed into labor on a large project or in the mines and forests of the Gulag where many perished.  Although Kafka wrote The Trial before any of this took place, the apparent randomness of K.’s arrest and the nonexistence of a charge had an eerie similarity to what went on in the Soviet Union for the next 50 years.  K.’s fate also resonated with the fate of so many innocent Russians under the hand of Stalin. 

“Kafkaesque” is an adjective one sometimes hears.  From reading The Trial I would guess it means being caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare where no-one can help or even seems to understand what you want.  My closest recent Kafkaesque experience was trying to change my userid on a website.  Although I never succeeded in doing it, at least I didn’t share Joseph K.’s fate!  (May 30, 2009)

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Lawson M (2002) Crow Lake.  Vintage Books: Toronto

If you leave Toronto driving north on Yonge St., it turns into Highway 11 and goes a long way north, past Huntsville, past North Bay, past New Liskeard and still northward (but bearing west).  Not too far north of New Liskeard is the fictional lake that gave its name to this book.  There are thousands of lakes up there and there are probably several called Crow Lake.  For an Ontario boy who has traveled often in that northland and who has been to many little towns and settlements like the one depicted in this novel, it felt like home.  The characters seemed real and their lives were like the lives of some of the people I knew or heard about when I was a boy living closer to Crow Lake than I do now.  The main character, the third-born in a family of four, who went on to become a university professor living in Toronto seemed real to me too.  The schism she experienced between her busy academic life in Toronto and her humble beginnings in Crow Lake provided energy to the story.  Her many hours trip by car north from Toronto at the climax of the story was a trip both back in time and into the future as she resolved unanswered questions from her youth and faced the person she had become.  I felt like I knew the characters, the places and the feelings.

Mary Lawson grew up in Ontario not too far from where I grew up and she went to McGill, my alma mater.  After that she moved to England where she still lives.  Apparently she has just released a new book.  It will be interesting to see if it gets as much acclaim as Crow Lake.  A great way to spend a few hours with fictional people who have interesting lives that are a lot like the lives of real people. (July 26, 2007)

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Nabokov V (1955) Lolita .  Random House: New York

A lot has been written about this fictional story.  The main story line is painful and heartbreaking (she cried every night) at the same time that the wit, especially the plays on language, of the main character, Humbert Humbert, who writes in the first person, is delightful.  Although I am not an expert on psychopathy, there are many suggestions that Humbert is a psychopath.  He has few friends, uses other people mercilessly, refers to many other people as fools or frauds, lies chronically, and shows very little remorse.  He wants us to understand that what he did is not so bad.  In the end, he seems to have some flashes of empathy for his child victim Lolita but it is possible to see this behaviour as self-serving as he perhaps is trying to soften the sentencing.  

In speaking about looking for a wife, Humbert tells us, “…I was looking for a soothing presence, a glorified pot-au-feu, an animated merkin…” (p. 25).  The description of the breakup is hilarious as Valeria reveals that she has fallen in love with someone else who turns out to be driving the taxi they are in.  Humbert speaks of someone he knew who got married and went to India for his “honey monsoon”.  There are many such gems in the book.  There are also many detailed descriptions that make scenes seem real.

Navokov is a fine writer.  For example, “The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me in a furry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used tissue that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the observation car” (p. 15).  “I was still a vibration rather than a solid” (p. 244).  (Dec. 9, 2007)

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Pasternak B(1958) Doctor Zhivago (Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari). Collins and Havill Press: London

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) won the Nobel Prize in literature shortly after the publication of this book.  He could not publish the book in Russia in the 1950s when he wrote it because of the censorship by the State and he arranged for it to be smuggled to the West where it was published in Italy in 1957 and then in English and many other languages in 1958.  It wasn’t until 30 years later in 1988 that Russians finally could read Doctor Zhivago in its original language.  Pasternak was forced by Soviet officials to decline the Novel Prize but the Swedish Academy declared that this did not invalidate the award, only that they were unable to present it.  The Prize was finally presented posthumously, to Pasternak’s son in a ceremony in 1989.  I was aware of the political context of Doctor Zhivago when I read it and I was watching for the passages that may have been problematic for the officials.  There were many.  Some say that the novel was semi-autobiographical with Zhivago being Pasternak.

In the early years of the Revolution, Zhivago has little patience with the excesses of the rich and often expresses socialist ideas of spreading the wealth around.  He seems to happily accept the partitioning of Tonya’s house and being confined to a couple of rooms while the Agricultural Academy moves into the remaining rooms.  “…there really was something unhealthy in the way rich people used to live…too much furniture, too much room”  (p. 156).  But as the Bolsheviks tighten their grip on Russia, he begins to see another side of the Revolution.  The peasants are rising against the new order because they see that they have “…only exchanged the old oppression of the tsarist state for the new, much harsher yoke of the revolutionary super-state” (p. 202).  The censors would certainly have removed the section that contained these words.

The book is filled with reflections on life.  “But all the time life, always one and the same, always incomprehensibly keeping its identity, fills the universe and is renewed at every moment in innumerable combinations and metamorphoses.  You are anxious about whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you have risen already – you rose from the dead when you were born…” (p. 70).  “…art has two constant, two unending preoccupations:  it is always meditating upon death and it is always thereby creating life” (p. 89).  Of Lara’s and Yuri’s love:  “To them – and this made them unusual – the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of timelessness were moments of revelation, of ever greater understanding of life and themselves” (p. 355). 

And comments on life in Soviet Russia:  “…what’s going on isn’t life – it’s lunacy, it’s an absurd nightmare” (p. 237).  About the communists, “…they haven’t any real capacities, they are ungifted” (p. 269).  In Soviet Russia, if you were associated with someone who was arrested, you were immediately also under suspicion and were expected to report all you know to the authorities.  Often family members of arrested individuals were ostracized and refused state support leaving them hungry, often homeless and desperate.  This reality of life in Soviet Russia is reflected in the fears for Lara and her daughter Katya that follow from the falling from favor of her husband, who became known as Strelnikov, “I am so appalled by the news about Strelnikov… According to our present-day logic, once they have settled accounts with Strelnikov, Lara’s and Katya’a lives are also threatened” (p. 402).  It is little wonder that the censors would not have allowed the publication of this book.

Lara, speaking about the revolution says that, “It was then that falsehood came into the Russian land.  The great misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of faith in the value of personal opinions… The social evil became an epidemic” (p. 363).  “The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity” (p. 432).  This idea of personal falsehood appears often in the book, “No one had a clear conscience” (p. 409).  In Figes book that chronicles the oral history of people who lived through Stalin’s time (2007, The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia.  Henry Holt and Co: New York), he records people’s experiences of duplicity.  They said what they were expected to say according to the party line but at the same time did not really feel that way at all.  At the same time, most people were afraid to say what they really thought even privately to family or friends (the State discouraged friendship) for fear that the listener was an informer and the divulger would be arrested as an enemy of the state.  No matter how often I have read about this reality of life in Soviet Russia I find it hard to comprehend life under these circumstances.  Dr. Zivago provides much thoughtful reflection on the impact that this madness had on the lives of ordinary people and how it destroyed the normal fabric of society.

“…revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track minds, men who are narrow-minded to the point of genius.  They overturn the old order in a few hours or days: the whole upheaval takes a few weeks or at most years, but for decades thereafter, for centuries, the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshiped as holy” (p. 406).  These prophetic words reflect Pasternak’s insight into the enduring impact that the communist revolution has had on Russia.  Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, after an economic reorganization and apparent movement towards democratization, Russia seems to remain mired in the “narrowness” of the revolution.  Current talk of Putin’s efforts to rehabilitate Stalin in Russia’s history reinforce Pasternak’s idea about how the effects of the revolution live on for decades; let’s hope he was wrong about centuries.

Dr. Zhivago is filled with passion and the wonderful love story of Yuri and Lara that became the centerpiece of the Hollywood movie based on this book (year, D. xx).  It is rich, however, if its portrayal of the impact of the communist revolution on the day-to-day lives of people and on the politics of the time.  For those who have seen the movie, there is still much in Dr. Zhivago, the book that recommends its serious reading. (Aug. 2, 2009)

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Pynchon T (1966) The Crying of Lot 49.Bantam Books: Toronto.

This short little book was Pynchon's second novel. It takes place in southern California in a combination of fictional places (San Narisco) and real places including San Francisco. Who would have thought that philately could play such a central role in the pursuit of unraveling a mystery? Like Pynchon's other books, wonderful characters with great names (e.g., Manny Di Presso) and a tantalizing admixture of historical fact and fiction.

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Pynchon T(1984) Slow Learner. Bantam Books: Toronto

This is a collection of short stories written and published by Pynchon during the period 1959-1964. For readers who are familiar with Pynchon's excellent books over the years since, these stories provide an insightful look at the developing artist. As a bonus the book has a preface written by the author himself, reflecting on his own early writing. A recurrent theme in Pynchon's writing is entropy and he makes some comments on this in his preface. He says, "... I have kept trying to understand entropy, but my grasp becomes less sure the more I read" (p. xxiv). I wonder if the irony in this comment was intended?

Pynchon's signature style is identificable in these stories and some of them reveal that genius that emerges so clearly in his later writing. In "Low-Lands", for example, he writes, "He was swept out of the train, propelled by briefcases and folded copies of the Times, and up to the parking lot, where he stole a "51 MG and set out to find Flange, who has been his division officer during the Korean conflict" (p.43). Here the flood of ideas and the descriptive details portend the porse to be found in Gravity's Rainbow and other Pynchon novels.

I liked "The Secret Integration" best. This story is about boys hanging out together and plotting anarchistic actions. Pynchon's style with its spontaneity and sudden shifts of narrative fits perfectly the carefree meandering of the boys in the story in much the same way that the postwar disarray of Europe suited the rapid transitions of Gravity's Rainbow. The boyhood innocence of the characters, observing what was going on around them without completely understanding it, made the story sensitive. The story commented on racial integration but never directly. Like in so much of his writing it was very political, anti-establishment, but not directly. "The Secret Integration" was a wonderful preview of what was to come from Pynchon. One of his characters, a black man, was observed by one of the boys while making a collect long distance call to be "groping across the whole country in the dark, trying to touch one person out of all the millions that lived in it" (p. 188). (August 3, 2011)   

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Pynchon T (2006) Against the Day .  Penguin Books: New York

It took me months to read this book.  After about 300 or 400 pages, I found myself seriously questioning whether I wanted to commit the time to finishing it as I weighed the possible benefits of continuing to plow through the almost 1100 pages against the two or three other books I might read in the same period.  Having previously read Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland and Mason and Dixon, I felt that I knew Pynchon and had always enjoyed his writing.  Gravity’s Rainbow stood out as his most remarkable book and Against the Day is better.  I used to say that if I was stranded with only one book to read, I would want a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow.  Now I would have a hard time choosing between that one and this one.

Pynchon’s writing is often described as postmodern.  Gravity’s Rainbow certainly seemed to embody the canonical lack of a central hierarchy or organizing principle and the embodiment of complexity, ambiguity, diversity and interconnectedness.  By placing the events at the end of and in the immediate aftermath of World War II Europe, the style of writing suited perfectly the disarray of the time.  Against the Day is written in the same style but is much more tightly written with clear themes and story lines.  The ability to embed these themes and story lines within the postmodern format is nothing short of brilliant.  I found myself fully engrossed for the many hours I spent with this book. The events take place over perhaps a 30-year period from about 1890 to 1920.  Many of the events and characters are real like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Nikola Tesla, the notorious criminal Blinky Morgan, the Michelson-Morley experiment, Quaternions and the Tunguska Event, to name only a few.  Pynchon clearly has researched this period extensively and he is especially focused on the emerging technologies of the time such as electric lighting and powered flight and on the current state of scientific thought and mathematics.

Pynchon’s descriptions often create vivid mental images for the reader and reveal his mastery of words and observation.  For example, “…green life passing in such high turbulence, too much to see, all clamoring to have its way.  Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, downy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day – flowers in bells and clusters, purple and white or yellow as butter, star-shaped ferns in the wet and dark places, millions of green veilings, before the bridal secrets in the moss and under the deadfalls…” (p. 70), “…the gibbous presence of the airship…” (p. 144), “…the desert floor was populated by pillars of rock, worn over centuries by the unrelenting winds to a kind of post-godhead, as if once long ago having possessed limbs that they could move, heads they could tilt and swivel to watch you ride past, faces so sensitive they reacted to each change of weather, each act of predation around them, however small, these once-watchful beings, now past face, past gesture, standing refined at last to simple vertical attendance” (p. 209).  “She was a virgin bride.  At the moment of surrendering, she found herself wishing only to become the wind.  To feel herself refined to an edge, an invisible edge of unknown length, to enter the realm of air forever in motion over the broken land.  A child of the storm”  (p. 267).  “The days would then proceed to drag their sorry carcasses down the track of Time…” (p. 478).  “…her eyes, which even allowing for this Venetian light seemed strangely silver-green.  Green eyes in a redhead, nothing too unusual in that – but irises set in a ground somehow lambent as unpolished silver, to which all other shades of color were referred…” (p. 734).  “…before they fell prey to Time, all in a cascade unstoppable as a spring thaw, what he not that slowly at all understood to be accelerated views of her face and body, of hair lengthening to prodigal fair masses to be then pinned up, and released, and re-piled again and again, woman upon woman settling into the lamplit ends of days full of care, the gingham redoubts of matronhood, the rougings, redefinings, emergences and disguises, dimples and lines and bone realities, each year’s face tumbling upon the next in a breathtaking fall…” (p. 1060).

There are often strong emotions: “…her hair, for Lord sakes, was enough to divide a fellow into two, one saying, calmly, would you just look at her, how can any man begrudge and so forth, an the other wounded enough to soak a whole restaurant tablecloth with the snot and tears of it, never mind who was watching” (p. 464).  “For days Reef and Yashmeen each latched into separate sorrow, couldn’t even talk about it.  Reef gave up his restless scouting of likely honkey-tonks, and when evening came and the gray light fell like fine ash, he only sat heartbroken, indoors preferably, by a window, holding the baby sometimes.  Being in her own partial vacuum, Yashmeen knew of no way to chirp him out of it” (p. 962).

Great and often humorous names:  Webb Traverse, Edwarda Beef, Clovis Yutts (member of the KKK, and really dumb), Dr. Willi Dingkopf (“…framed by a haircut in violation of more than one law of physics, and a vivid necktie in fuchsia, heliotrope, and duck green…” p. 623), Wolfe Tone O’Rooney, Bevis Moistleigh (graduate of the Modern Imperial Institute for Intensive Instruction in Idiotics – the M6I, p. 823).

And humour:  “…the dog barked for awhile, not warning or angry, just being professional” (p. 82),  “…the Museum of Museumology, dedicated to the history of institutional collecting, classifying, and exhibiting” (p. 149), and see the exchange between Kit Traverse and Gunther von Quassel on pp. 599-600, “Obviously, we must now a duel fight”.

Pynchon’s heroes are all anarchists or otherwise antiestablishment figures and the villains are all establishment types, the latter personified in Scarsdale Vibe.  Vibe is the evil force behind the killing of anarchist bomber Webb Traverse and personifies all of the bosses who exploit the workers, hire scabs and prevent unionization.  Hatred for Vibe and his hired guns is one of the driving forces behind the movements of Webb’s sons Frank and Reef and to a lesser extent Kit.  Kit Traverse begins to see the toxic layers below the surface of Yale, to understand how little it had to do with studying and learning, a high hat technical school for learning to be a Yale man.  At one point a visitor from the future tells of the failed capitalist experiment, of food shortages, worldwide famine and poverty.  When a young man fails a test of character, it is decided that Cambridge University is the place for him.  America has sold out to Christers and capitalists!

It is difficult to relate the richness of this book.  It is filled with the technology of the time, the mathematical thinking of the time, the politics of the time.  The characters are interesting and very well developed.  Their lives unfold in complex and unexpected ways all over the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Asia.  A multitude of real historical events and people make an appearance.  The foreshadowing of the First World War is prevalent especially in Part 3.  There is love, hate, sex, birth, death, accomplishment, failure, exotic and familiar.  If you have the time, spend some of it with this book.  You will be surprised at where it takes you. (Aug. 19, 2008)

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Pynchon T (2009)   Inherent Vice. Penguin Press: New York

Arising as a theme in Vineland and forming the central theme in Against the Day, Pynchon's antiestablishmentarianism continues to dominate in Inherent Vice. The corruption and failure of the capitalist system and its law enforcement agencies is a perfect foil for Lawrence (Larry, Doc) Sportello's hippie ethic of sharing the wealth. The time is the late1960s-early 1970s instead of the late XIX-early XX century in Against the Day, but the corruption and greed of the American bosses and their stunned consumer millions (flatlanders) is the same. See, for example, Sauncho’s rant in the middle of page 119 about Charlie the Tuna. But all of this is the packaging for a good old fashioned murder mystery complete with an eccentric but insightful private investigator, his cadre of hippie freak friends, bikinied Californian beach women, a transitional classy female district attorney and the evil forces vaguely embodied in the Golden Fang. Mostly, I laughed my guts out!

Thomas Pynchon is a very funny fellow. His opening chapter will have you rolling in the aisles and the reader needs to pay close attention, especially through the ever-present dope-smoke haze, not to miss many gems liberally seeded throughout the narrative. Take, for example, Doc’s pal Denis, pronounced to rhyme with “penis”, at times his comical sidekick. “So Doc, I’m up on Dunecrest, you know the drugstore there, and like I noticed their sign, ‘Drug’? ‘Store’? Okay? Walked by it a thousand times, never really saw it – Drug, Store! man, far out…” Denis’ pizza: papya chunks, pork rinds, boysenberry yogurt and marshmallows.

Pynchon’s books are always well researched. In Against the Day, he paid particular attention to the emerging technologies at the beginning of the XX century. In Inherent Vice, the forerunner of the internet, ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) makes several appearances along with other 60s devices. .

His writing is masterful for its descriptions and the images he creates. For example, “Customers at tables leaned towards each other and then away, in slow rhythms, like plants underwater” (page 81). This image was in a restaurant where there were lots of illicit drugs being smoked, giving it a double entendre. Another example: “Inside, the woman at the front gave Doc the impression of having been badly treated in some divorce settlement. Too much makeup, hair styled by somebody who was trying to give up smoking…” (page 316). In the next paragraph he refers to, “Heated downtown smoglight” filtering in through the window. Out on the water in the distance, a schooner with all her sails set was described as, “blooming like a cubist rose” (page 355-6). Brilliant and beautiful.

One last thing: I have always liked learning those often-esoteric collective terms for things like a pod of whales or a murder of crows. Imagine my delight when Pynchon referred to, “a driveling of dopers” (page 131).

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Schatzing F(2004) The Swarm. HarperCollins: New York

After reading Boris Worm’s review of The Swarm in Science (“Armageddon in the oceans”, Books et al., 8 Dec., 2006, vol. 314, p. 1546), I ordered a copy and promptly read it.  I was disappointed in the science and was left wondering at the willingness of scientists to accept speculation about behavioural control by a “greater intelligence” while at the same time being more conservative in their speculations about phenomena in the physical sciences.  

Peter Dodson wrote an excellent review in Science of Rob DeSalle and David Lindley’s book, The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World (“Raising the Dead”, Book Reviews, 1 Aug. 1997, vol. 277, p. 644) that prompted me to read their book.  It provided a critical look at state-of-the-art science vis-à-vis the claims in Crichton’s fiction, for example, the realities of trying to extract dinosaur DNA from mosquitos trapped in amber.  In the end it was clear that this was highly unlikely but, at the same time, the logic of the idea was sound and was an extension of existing technology and theory.  Although reading Jurassic Park or The Lost World may have required a suspension of belief, the reader could still tie the science in the books to real science.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake A Novel provides another example of science fiction that is based on an extension of existing science.  In her review in Science (“A Tale Meant to Inform, Not to Amuse”, Books, 14 Nov. 2003, Vol. 302. p. 1154), Susan M. Squire points out that,  “Oryx and Crake offers an entertaining and only slightly exaggerated satire of commercial biotechnology”.  I read Atwood’s novel after reading Squire’s review and was not disappointed.  As a bonus, Atwood provided a website that listed the books that she had consulted to provide the biotechnology background for her novel.

When I read Worm’s review of Schatzing’s novel, I was expecting the same level of scientific rigor to form the basis of the fiction.  As he pointed out, some of the book may be closer to reality than we would like.  He provided several examples from his field of marine biology including over-fishing and noxious algae blooms.  However, much of the book’s fiction was not well grounded in existing science, especially the neuroscience.  Although there was a patina of scientific facts about molecular mechanisms of learning and the role of signaling pathways in modifying gene expression during plasticity, the leap from these phenomena to learning in amoeboid aggregates was pure fantasy.  The uncritical use of “intelligence”, the idea that knowledge (e.g., about the molecular structure of water) can come about without scientific experimentation and the creation of a fictional “being” without any consideration of its evolutionary origins or motivations spoiled the scientific background of the book.  

Fiction is fiction, of course.  My own preference is to avoid it in favor of nonfiction science books.  However, Crichton and Atwood showed that science fiction can be informative too.  It is useful to read science fiction books that provide scientific facts within a context of fictional extensions of those facts.  It is less useful to be led to a book that provides some interesting facts but at the same time is pure fantasy on other points.  I should have been wary of Schatzing when I noticed that there were no references in his book.  Throughout the almost 900 pages of text, the book makes no reference to another book although perhaps a dozen movies are mentioned.  The Swarm is likely to become a thrilling movie and will probably be great entertainment, although it will perpetuate naïve and inaccurate ideas about psychology and neuroscience.  (Oct. 9, 2007)

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Shelley, M. (1831/1965) Frankenstein Or the Modern Prometheus .New American Library of Canada Ltd.: Toronto (First Published in 1816 and revised in 1831; this is the revised version)

After reading Patricia Fara's book about women in science during the enlightenment (2004, Pandora's Breeches), in which she spends a chapter on Mary Shelley, I decided to read this classic to look for some of the things Fara mentioned. In her book, Fara argued that women played a larger role in scientific discovery than is normally acknowledged. Women had few opportunities for education and were not expected to participate in intellectual activity yet some women became well educated and participated with their husbands or brothers in scientific work; however, they were not co-authors in the published reports. In the case of Shelley's work, Fara suggested that one could get a flavour of the role of women in science from this fictional narrative. In this regard, I did not find the examples that she suggested. Frankenstein worked alone during the period that he created the monster and again during the period when he was working on a second one. His beloved Elizabeth was never involved. The book provided a clear look at the sexism and classism that were the norm for the time.

I did find some interesting things in this book. It is well written with a good use of foreshadowing and the creation of interesting and thoughtful characters. After the monster is created, there are long periods of tension brought about by not knowing where it is or what it might do. Frankenstein's mental torture keeps this tension palpable. The book lives up to its status as an enduring classic.

I wondered whether some of the other horror classics that became movies in the 1930s as the horror genre was born in Hollywood might have found their origins in Frankenstein. On page 57, for example, Shelley wrote in the voice of Frankenstein saying, "A mummy endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch." Again, on page 207, she refers to the appearance of the hand of the monster as being, "…in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy." The movie, The Mummy (1932, d. Karl Freund) came shortly after the blockbuster success Frankenstein (1931, d. James Whale). The screenplay for The Mummy was based on a story, Cogliostro, written by the American writer Nina Wilcox Putnam (1888-1962). I was not able to determine if Frankenstein influenced her creation of this story.

While reading Frankenstein it struck me that there was a strange familiarity in some of the descriptions of the monster. Upon returning to Geneva, Frankenstein decided to spend some time in the mountains to try to come to grips with his anguish over having created the monster when he sees it. On page 94, Shelley wrote in his voice, "…I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man…Its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes." On page 141, "…he suddenly quitted me… I saw him descend the mountain with greater speed than the flight of an eagle, and quickly lost among the undulations of the sea of ice." Here we had a very large human-like creature high in the mountains that seemed to be quite at home there. It made me think of the Yeti. According to what I could find on the internet, the first reported sighting of the Yeti was by a Brit in the Himalayas in the year 1832. Subsequent sightings were also by Brits in 1889, 1914 and 1921, with a number of additional sightings in the later XX century. Many of the sightings were at altitude, often over 15,000 feet, a height where oxygen is scarce and people's imaginations often play tricks on them. I wonder if B.H. Hodson, the British representative in Nepal who first reported seeing the Yeti in Nepal in 1832 had read the edited version of Frankenstein published in 1831 or, perhaps, the original?

A great line from the book: "Of what a strange nature is knowledge. It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock." (p. 115)

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Urquhart, J. (2001) The Stone Carvers .McClelland and Stewart Ltd.: Toronto.


What attracted me to this book was the setting in a small village in southwestern Ontario. Although the village has a fictional name in the book, it is the village of Formosa where I lived as a boy. As the story of the settling of the village, the building of the church, hotel and brewery unfolded, I was able to recognize many places from my youth. I knew the history of the magnificent church, far too big for such a small village. The general store in the story was the same general store that my grandfather owned and my father attended the 1930s schoolhouse mentioned in the story. The book was a bestseller, though, not because of its appeal to natives but because of its engaging characters and their adventures.  One particularly interesting aspect of the story is the history of the building of the Canadian World War I memorial in France and its creator Walter Allward. After reading The Stone Carvers, I will make a point of visiting this site on one of my next trips to Europe.

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