Review: Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

2017: 52
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 1997

This is the second book I’ve read by one of Canada’s esteemed authors. Richler has been publishing successful novels since the late 1950s. I previously read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and enjoyed it and I chose Barney’s Version for my second Richler. The story is about the life of Barney Panofsky as told by his good self, a man in his late 60s whose health and memory are both precarious and whose freedom is in some doubt. He may or may not have murdered his old friend, Boogie, 30 years ago and though he was deemed innocent by a jury of his peers, the scandal and doubt hangs over him like an Atlantic fog. The body was never found, m’lud, so there was no murder is Barney’s defence. We do find out what happened at the end of the book.

Anyway, he’s writing his autobiography that centers around each of his three wives, one of whom doesn’t even get named. The book is sectioned off by each wife but don’t think that means the story is told in any sort of alignment. It’s all over the place, with anecdotes and his personal history told as it occurs to him in random order as one thing reminds him of the next and you’re not even sure he’s remembering incidents correctly. He also revisits some of the incidents as need be. His life is filled with crises and scrapes, and he’s not portrayed as all that sympathetic a character nor is he portrayed as a scallywag that the reader treats indulgently. He makes bad judgments and choices, he drinks, he curses, he’s obnoxious,  he has more failures than triumphs, and you wonder how his children and friends can stand him at all though most of them do seem to keep him at arms’ length.

I guess I can’t relate to Barney that well but it doesn’t take away from Richler’s talent at bringing the characters off the page. His humour is dark and cutting, his observations on life’s aspects are as jaded as the characters but spot on.  I have to say I found it a bit more difficult to like at first but it soon hit its stride and carried me along for the ride.

There has been a movie made of this starring Paul Giamatti, released in 2010 and it’s quite a good film, particularly because it puts the events of the novel in their proper order! Duddy Kravitz gets name checked and makes a few brief appearances, now a grownup and it appears he’s as successful as he always planned. The Gursky name also gets a mention which probably relates to Richler’s book, Solomon Gursky Was Here.  I think I will come back to Mordecai Richler again.

Not one of my #20BooksOfSummerChallenge because I started it about a month ago but I am going to use this for my Cross Canada Challenge for Quebec.

Lost in the translation

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye – book cover

I’ve been a big fan of the Steig Larsson books, the Millennium trilogy (Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo….that series). The author died but a couple of years ago, another Swedish writer took up the mantle. David Lagercrantz released The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I read it. I thought it was not *quite* as good or gripping but… not bad either. A Worthy successor and it was popular enough to become a legitimate best seller. Why did they even bother, some might ask? Leave well enough alone. Maybe yes. But why not? There are a lot of books and series that take up the characters in Star Wars, Star Trek etc. Not quite the same thing since they weren’t books to start with but authors are still creating new works about well known characters.

There was a sequel written many decades after Gone With the Wind, approved by the estate of Margaret Mitchell called Scarlett. It wasn’t bad but it was more of a bodice ripper type historical romance than the original which was very, very good and while did centre on Scarlett O’Hara’s loves, was also set in the Civil War and the lives of people in the South during and after. The sequel was more about Scarlett’s campaign to get Rhett Butler back. The mini series they made from it was appalling. Even though the author of the sequel wrote the mini series, she still changed the ending which made no sense to me. Why have a different ending from the book you wrote if you figured you’d be selling the filming rights to it anyway? (without looking it up. perhaps she even got the contract to write the book with the knowledge that she’d be writing a filmed version, for all i know).

Never mind that. The Spider’s Web book was quite good even if not quite the same treatment of the characters that Larsson created. There’s a new sequel coming out this fall called The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. Oh dear. Not too keen on that title. I don’t really like the cover either. The series has mostly not had the same English titles as the Swedish books. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was titled differently and was a translation from the Swedish to English title “Men Who Hated Women”. “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is a direct translation. “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” should have been “The Air Castle That Exploded” when translated from the Swedish which sounds very awkward and Spider’s Web translates to “That Which Does Not Kill Us”.

Sure enough, the new book is titled in Swedish as Mannen som jagade sin skugga and translates to ”The Man who Chased his Shadow”. Again, why couldn’t they have gone with that? Probably because the publishers for the English Speaking World originally wanted to use something that ties them all together and make it a recognizable series. I would think they might not have wanted to alienate people with The Man Who Hated Women and since the plot centers on Lisbeth Salander, they went with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and a series was born.

What baffles me is why the Lagerkrantz books, at least, didn’t stay with “The Girl Who…” titles since that’s what they would inevitably be in English anyway. Larsson’s books weren’t published until after his death so he didn’t know what they’d be titled in English. I expect the publisher took the title of the second book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and ran with that as the theme.

The plot of the new book, according to this Swedish site (though it’s in English), says that Lisbeth is in a harsh women’s prison and gets new information about her past. It’s about Lisbeth taking revenge. Nothing new about that. That’s been a common thread in all of these books. I think the more I look at it, the more I intensely dislike the English title they’ve chosen for it.

Entertainment Weekly has a short interview with Lagercrantz. He says that the plot will revolve around the history behind the massive dragon tattoo on Lisbeth’s back. The author is also contracted for another book after this one.

One thing I have to mention, however, is the overall translation of the book to English. It is quite an accomplishment to translate a book from one language to another and have the essence of what the original author wanted to convey captured really well. Authors have a style, they have their own ways of using language and grammar, and it brings the book and the characters to life. That must be very difficult for a translator to do well. I don’t read any other language so perhaps the English translations would be a let down, I don’t know. But translations I’ve read from various languages all seem to be excellent and these are no different. I read these books and have never felt like the story suffered for the translation, that it didn’t flow or that it felt awkward at all. I’ve read books translated from Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Japanese, Russian and French, just to name a few. Translators are unsung heros, I think, and I wonder how many of them must be writers in their own right?

The next news on this same subject is the films. I saw the original three Swedish films with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. They were excellent. Sony made an American version of the first book in 2011 starring Rooney Mara and it did ok I think. I liked it well enough but the Swedish version had a bit more atmosphere, I think. The second and third books were supposed to be filmed with the same cast but have had scheduling problems and I haven’t heard anything about it. I don’t think they’re going to be made at all because there isn’t even a placeholder for either film on IMDB. It seems that Sony is jumping into Spider’s Web instead but not using the same cast as the first American version. It will be interesting to see who they end up casting. The IMDB placeholder is here but they only have credits for the director and writers so far.

The trivia on the IMDB page speaks about the possibility of casting either Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johansson but I wouldn’t like either of them in the role. Far too “Hollywood”. The first Hollywood version used an actor who was less known and I think it worked better. Another name that’s been mentioned is Alicia Vikander who is Swedish and was the robot in Ex Machina. Might have possibilities there. She appears to be filming a new version of Tomb Raider so she will likely have the chops to do action.

I’ll be following this with interest and I am pretty sure I’ll be buying the book when it comes out in the fall.

Ooh, and in doing some research, I discovered a Wiki for the Millenium books, here. Excellent. I shall have a good rummage around there.

Update on A Handmaid’s Tale

I mentioned in a past post that Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is being made into a 10 episode series by Hulu, a cable network in the U.S. There was no word at the time that any station in Canada would be airing it.

This week there is good news on that front. Bravo in Canada will air A Handmaid’s Tale starting April 30, four days after the debut on Hulu! I can watch it legally! Once the series is finished, it will also be uploaded to Crave TV. We have that, but I’m not waiting 10 weeks when I can see it on Bravo. I’m quite excited about this. I have started rereading the book in anticipation. (edited: Finished! Review here)

Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men is cast in the main part of Offred.

The story takes place in the future in a totalitarian society in the Republic of Gilead where a Christian Fundamentalist group has overtaken the U.S. and quickly moved to create a society where human rights are a thing of the past and women are subjugated even moreso. Because of the pollution and increased levels of STDs, fertility is adversely affected and to keep the population from dying out, women called handmaids are used to be the bearers of children. The story is told from Offred’s point of view where we get flashbacks of her life before her current situation including when she and her husband and daughter tried to escape to Canada.  Handmaids are subjected to the sexual act in the presence of the wife of the couple in a ritualistic manner, hoping they will get pregnant.

Offred is attached to a high ranking official who defies the law and becomes obsessed with her, allowing her privileges in secret. The official’s wife is also trying to manipulate Offred who hasn’t become pregnant yet. She’s setting up an alternative situation with the chauffeur to help get Offred pregnant and Offred’s subsequent relationship with the chauffeur could end up making or breaking her. Offred also discovers an underground resistance movement but by the end of the book, her future is uncertain.

Another Margaret Atwood book, Amazing Grace, is also being made for tv. CBC and Netflix are cooperating on this 6 hour mini series about a mid 19th century maid accused of murdering her employer. The book starts off after Grace has been in prison for 10 years though she continues to say she has no memory of committing the crime. The story is told by Grace to a doctor. Margaret Atwood is going to appear in the series in a cameo role. Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley wrote the script with Atwood also having a writing credit. CBC will air the series in Canada and Netflix will carry it globally. There doesn’t seem to be an air date yet though one place I read speculated end of 2017 or early 2018.

Begorrathon Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (book and movie)

In another entry for the Begorrathon 2017 Reading Ireland Month at blogs by  Raging Fluff and 746Books,  I bring you a look at the book and movie, Brooklyn.


Brooklyn (2009) by Colm Tóibín is a  little slice of life telling the story of a shy young Irish woman, Eilis, who emmigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s. She’s drifting through life, unable to find a good job. Her sister and local priest find an opportunity for her to give her a new start. She is to sail to America,  to Brooklyn, New York. We follow her on the journey as she settles into a boarding house run by a commanding landlady and is set up with a job. A nearby Priest looks out for her and she works in a local department store for a strict supervisor. She decides to take a night school course that the priest finds for her, in order to get a bookkeeping qualification and ends up meeting a fella. Life is starting to look pretty good.

But she returns to Ireland after her sister dies and things conspire to keep her there including the promise of a good job and the temptation of a new boyfriend.

But all of this really wasn’t in Eilis’s life plan, something she doesn’t really have.  It just happens to her almost by chance, and when she can’t decide what to do, she just goes with the flow. When she can’t decide to speak up and speak her mind even though we can read that she most certainly does have an opinion, she says nothing or does nothing. It’s not really even a coming of age type book because she never really comes to any particular realization, just takes the path of least resistance through her life which is why she ends up getting tangled up with two men. I found the character of Eilis to be weak and submissive and not very interesting. She had no spark at all.

It’s a nice little story, well written, but you get the feeling that the rest of her life is going to be more of the same, never doing or saying what she wants and letting everyone else decide for her, no matter which side of the Atlantic she ultimately chooses.


The movie Brooklyn was released in 2015 and was adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby. It stars Saoirse Ronan, Domhall Gleeson and Emory Cohen with supporting performances from Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. A top cast. How can you go wrong?

The movie Eilis seems a tiny bit more confident than the book Eilis, though still not a force to be reckoned with as far as taking her life in her hands. She starts her life in Brooklyn trying to adapt to the new culture, while feeling homesick for Ireland. Little by little, and with the added attraction of a handsome, polite Italian man, she is making that life for herself until she has to go home for a funeral. Once there, she seems to fall in with another man just as easily as she fell in with the first one though she’s not chasing these fellas.

As in the book, things happen and she goes with the flow in spite of herself and her better judgement. Will she return to the U.S. to Brooklyn, New York, a career that she’s building for herself, and the man that loves her or will she take the chance on a life in the small village where she grew up, living up to everyone’s expectations, with a man that .

The movie captures the time period of the early 50s in both locations. Montreal stood in for most of the Brooklyn scenes. The lovely Saoirse Ronan is very good as Eilis and I’ve heard her in interviews later where she’s said that she identified very strongly to Eilis’s situation, leaving home to establish her life elsewhere and struggling with homesickness. Movie Eilis has a bit more about her than book Eilis but both versions are shy, not very forth coming and a bit of a doormat over all. Emory Cohen as Tony and Domhall Gleeson as Jim are both good in parts that really aren’t fleshed out all that much. But the story isn’t theirs.

Links to lots more of the Begorrathon posts are here.

Begorrathon Review: Room by Emma Donoghue (book and movie)

My next entry for Reading Ireland Month is a look at author Emma Donoghue with a review of her book Room and a look at the movie that was made from it, screenplay also by Ms. Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-born writer now living in Canada so we claim her as one of ours as far as CanLit goes. She was born and grew up in Dublin where she also attended university. She was awarded a PHD from Cambridge in England and spent a few years traveling back and forth between Ireland, England and Canada but moved to London, Ontario in Canada in the late 90s where she now lives with her family.

Her 2010 novel, Room, is told from the point of view of five year old Jack and it won many awards, shortlisted for a number of others including the Man Booker prize. Room is the only one of her books I’ve read so far, but I do own a copy of her recent book The Wonder, on my bedside table.

Book Review: Room is told from the point of view of 5 year old Jack. He was born in this room and raised there and aside from what he sees on television, which isn’t “real” to him, it’s all he knows. His mother was abducted when she was 19 and has been held captive in this room which was built into a garden shed, for 7 years. The man that took her comes most nights and rapes her.

We are taken through their days and nights, what they do, what they eat, how they cope. Jack is quite happy, and he’s very smart and articulate, though his grammar and sentence structure is still that of a young child so it takes a bit to get used to it. You can read between the lines from Jack’s observations about his mother and her reactions that he doesn’t always understand her reality.

Eventually they emerge from Room and the rest of the book is about them coping with the real world, still from Jack’s point of view. The outside world isn’t “safe” and it’s vast and unknown and filled with people and is overwhelming to him. Although Jack is very close to his mother, “Ma”, you can also see that she is trying to raise him to be his own person.

I liked the book very much, and it was one I had a hard time putting down. It’s touching, sad and happy, too.

Room: released in 2015
Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her novel and captured the book’s essence quite well, I thought. You can’t always get inside the characters’ heads as easily in a filmed version of a book without the dreaded voiceover and she did it. She brought Ma and Jack to life, as believable people. She drew out Ma’s fear, sadness, desperation, frustration and insecurity and Jack’s innocence and joy, fear at the new world that overwhelmed him and his curiosity about it, too as both of them adapted to freedom.

The “Room” part of the movie is all from Jack’s point of view, with some of the freedom part of the movie from Ma’s point of view as she struggles to figure out who she is, dealing with the media and her family and trying to help Jack adapt and gain his own confidence. Mostly, though it’s Jack and the child that plays him, Jacob Tremblay, does an astonishing job for one so young. Brie Larson who plays Ma aka Joy plays it just right, too, first, with Ma’s determination to take back her life or at least give Jack a chance at one and then, with the weight of guilt, media attention, and post traumatic stress overwhelming her. She won the Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Critic’s Choice, a Screen Actors’ Guild and British BAFTA award for this role and deservedly so.

Emma Donoghue’s  website.

IWD: Favourite Women Authors

Meeting Diana Gabaldon

Today is International Women’s Day, so I’m told. It may be as good a time as any to write a few notes on some of my favourite female authors. Number one on the list is Diana Gabaldon. She’s been on the top of my list since I discovered her very first book in 1990, Outlander. I love her style of writing and her characters and their stories are well researched, well written and thoroughly enjoyable. Her ongoing saga tells the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser and their family.

Minor spoilers if you’ve never read the books are included in this paragraph: Nurse Claire Randall “fell” through the standing stones in a stone circle in Scotland to find herself in the mid 18th century during the Jacobite Uprising where she met Jamie Fraser. They fell in love and married. Claire’s healing abilities served her well but also, on occasion, got her into trouble where women that could heal were sometimes suspected of being witches in that time period. During the series of books (8 so far), Claire returned to the future just before the battle of Cullodden but when she discovered Jamie didn’t die in the battle, found a way to return to him. Her daughter, Briana, also has the ability to travel through the stones as does Briana’s two children. (I’m covering a lot of ground here!)  Over the years, the Frasers end up in pre-Revolution America in West Virginian mountain country but get tangled up in the War of Independence.

There’s so much more detail, of course, with adventures galore, villains, heroes and everything in between. Diana has also written a few spin off books and stories about a secondary character, Lord John Grey. The books are in the process of being made into a television series on the American network Starz. The first two books have been aired so far with season three following book three coming later this year. Some people find Diana’s books have far too much detail in them but fans of the books wallow in every word! The television series pulls out the best of the books and keeps to the storyline very well with some differences that are inevitable due to the logistics of film/visual storytelling. Her website has excerpts from her books including the one she is currently writing and there is news and appearance schedules when applicable.

As you can see from the photo, I’ve met her (two or three times, actually) when her book signing tours have landed in Halifax. She’s very interesting and a real joy to listen to. She’s intelligent and funny and warm. She really seems to appreciate her fans and all the support they’ve given her over the years.

I could go on and on about Ms. Gabaldon but I was meant to write about other favourite authors as well.

I couldn’t talk about female authors without mentioning Canada’s Margaret Atwood. She really has become the First Lady of CanLit over the past forty years. She writes fiction, poetry, short stories and recently, she’s authored a graphic novel, working with the artist to create Angel Catbird. I own the first volume and I think the second one is due out soon. Her books span a variety of types of fiction though many have a sci-fi Dystopian theme. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of her best known books and has been filmed once already. A new series is due out later this year, debuting at the end of April in a 10 episode series on the American network Hulu. The most outrageous thing is that there is no apparently Canadian debut for this series based on a classic Canadian book. Not that I’ve heard , yet. And they wonder why people continue to download illegally or buy proxy VPN services to circumvent the restrictions between countries.

On the positive side, her novel Alias Grace is going to be a mini-series and will air on CBC in Canada in addition to Netflix in the US. Another recent book, The Heart Goes Last, is going to be filmed as well. It seems like the world at large is finally realizing the gem that we always knew we had here in Canada.

Some years ago, I discovered a series of books about witches in the modern world. The author’s name is Debora Geary. She wrote well over a dozen of these charming little books, filled with a community of strong women who were the hearts of their families and friends. Their abilities varied from fire, water, earth and air, with different witches having different strengths. Not just women, but some of the men and boys were also witches with abilities as well. One small boy will prove to be the most powerful of them all and it’s a challenge to raise a little one like that! It really does take a village! The books are only available on Amazon Kindle and this page on her website gives you more details on the series.

Anyway, I was gutted when she gave up writing about witches a few years ago but she’s still writing under the name of Audrey Faye. I haven’t read any of her newer series but a couple of them seem to be more science fiction and fantasy  and I think I would probably like them just as much. Her books are “clean”, that is, no swearing, no sex (though it’s alluded to among the happy couples). If you were concerned, you would have none were you to give them to your teenagers, though I think they’d appeal more to girls than boys but everyone’s different.

That’s pretty much my top three but I enjoy books but quite a few women. In random order: Anita Burgh, Penny Vincenzi, Miriam Toews, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fiona Walker, Sharon Kay Penman, Alice Hoffman, Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue, Susanna Kearsley, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Frances Itani, Maeve Binchy, Barbara Erskine, and Val McDermid.

Review: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

4/5 stars
Published 2008

There’s a character in this book that says (and I’m paraphrasing) that the teen years are merely a rehearsal for the rest of your life. That would seem to be both the case and the strong theme here. The story follows two streams, a scandal regarding a teacher who has had an affair (or was it abuse/rape?) with a student at an exclusive girls’ school and a young man making his way in an acting school.

We never really find out the truth of the scandal. The book is more concerned with it’s effects on the girl’s peers in school and on her younger sister. The first year acting students take on the scandal and present it as their first year play. The two streams don’t really cross over too much until late in the book when Stanley, an acting student meets Isolde, the younger sister of Victoria who is at the centre of the scandal.

Also involved in the plot is the saxaphone teacher, a middle aged woman who seems to have had an unrequited crush on her own past music teacher and is still obsessed by what could have been, her imagination making up for what never was between them. She also seems to live through her young female students, encouraging the gossip, slyly manipulating and influencing them, especially Isolde and a student, Julia, who is a loner and a bit of an outcast. The teacher seems to see in them herself (Julia) and her former teacher, Patsy (Isolde) and seems intent on pushing them together to make up for what she didn’t have with Patsy.

The novel is about reactions, dreams, gossip, jealousies, and the nature of teenage girls mainly, how they are, how they feel, their own micro-society with a predetermined pecking order, all sardonically observed by the saxaphone teacher or by the dialogue and descriptions by the author. Characters make speeches and have thoughts that can be profound, philosophical, enigmatic, insightful and better suited to stage or film than in a book. People don’t really talk/think that way in real life, teenage girls certainly don’t but since theatre is not a reflection of reality, rather that it’s insulated, isolated and exaggerated, perhaps that’s why the book is written in this style. It gives you the feel of watching a play.

Stanley and the acting school seems to be only a more minor part of the book as he tries to figure out his own life. You get the feeling everything his does is just another role.

The timeline jumps around a lot and it’s not always easy to follow. Apparently, Stanley’s story is told in the proper sequence but the girls’ story is the one that’s out of order. I found it a bit confusing at times. One other aspect of note is that almost none of the teachers in the book are named aside from the teacher in the scandal and one other. They are referred to by their roles, Head of Acting, Head of Movement, the Saxaphone teacher. The movie listing at IMDB gives them all names. It keeps coming back to the theatre and Ms. Catton’s style of writing really enforces that feel. It’s a very different style but once I got used to it, I stopped thinking “people don’t really talk like this! A teacher would never say things like that to a student or parent” and I just relaxed into the narrative.

The Rehearsal is Eleanor Catton’s debut novel, written when she was 22. She’s considered a Canadian writer as she was born here but has lived in New Zealand for some time. The book has been made into a movie in New Zealand and it was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016. This book also fills one of my “Bingo” squares for the CanadianContent group’s 2017 Bingo challenge on Goodreads, for “Book made into a movie or television show”.

Here’s the trailer:

You can already see some differences. The student in the book that has the relationship with the teacher is a musician, but in the movie, she’s an athlete having an affair with her coach. I don’t know if the saxaphone teacher or that whole aspect is in there at all though from one of the voiceovers, it might be.

Her second novel, The Luminaries won the Mann Booker prize and the Governor’s General prize and will also be filmed as a television mini-series. It’s a historical epic taking place in 19th century New Zealand.