Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Dead as a Doornail / Charlaine Harris

Small-town cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse has had more than her share of experience with the supernatural—but now it’s really hitting close to home. When Sookie sees her brother Jason’s eyes start to change, she knows he’s about to turn into a were-panther for the first time—a transformation he embraces more readily than most shapeshifters she knows. But her concern becomes cold fear when a sniper sets his deadly sights on the local changeling population, and Jason’s new panther brethren suspect he may be the shooter. Now, Sookie has until the next full moon to find out who’s behind the attacks—unless the killer decides to find her first…

I read this book quickly this morning, while waiting for visits from my condo board & a plumber. It was a good distraction from the water leaking from my bathroom ceiling AGAIN. I swear these Sookie novels are addictive, I immediately wanted to read the next one (I’d go shopping, except I’m still waiting to hear from the plumber).

I’ve never been one to watch soap operas, but that is the only thing that I can think to compare this series to. I read to find out who did what to whom, figure out why they did it, and to see who Sookie ends up with eventually. There’s a lot of men in the running—Eric, Bill, Sam, Alcide, Calvin, maybe even Quinn. That’s a lot of guys to juggle, especially when they all seem to be using some kind of tit-for-tat scoring system that seems to make Sookie beholden to each of them. But you know, all women in our society have to deal with entitled men all the time—the neighbour who wants to carry your groceries so he can see the inside of your house, the guy who “helps” you with your suitcase so you feel obligated to go for coffee with him, the guy who is paid to paint your bathroom (and you suspect that he wants to be alone to go through your underwear drawer), the friend’s husband who thinks it’s okay to make a suggestive comment. Hey, I’m an old, fat lady and I still have to deal with all these guys. This is life as a woman—worse for single women, but a fact of life for all of us. It’s tiresome and omnipresent.

So I feel for Sookie. She attracts the supernatural sorts, I attract the creepy guys. We’re both just a little too friendly, a little too nice. I’m working on my force field and Miss Sookie needs to as well. My parents raised me to be polite and pleasant to other people. I just can’t believe how many of those people seem to think that makes me an easy mark. And how many men think that lifting something for you somehow entitles them to much more of your attention.

I guess there are plenty of people in the world who are dying for attention of any kind, and if you treat them like a human being, they read far too much into that. What a sad comment on the state of our world.

But back to Sookie, I can hardly wait to get my hands on the next volume and see which of this bunch of guys manages to win her attention.

The Wizard of Oz / L. Frank Baum

4 out of 5 stars
***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***
Can you believe that I have never before read this book nor have I ever seen the movie? And yet it is such a part of our world that I feel like I already knew the story. I mean, Elton John sings about the yellow brick road, we all claim “there’s no place like home,” anybody small can be referred to as a Munchkin, and the whole concept of “the man behind the curtain” is common (I can remember an original series Star Trek episode that’s completely built upon it).

There were quite a few details of the story which were brand new to me. I loved the Queen of the Field Mice for example and the fact that the tiny mice manage to save the Cowardly Lion. And the flying monkeys come away with a much better reputation in the book that I would have expected. Plus, there was more violence in it than I would have anticipated—the Tin Woodman uses his axe on more than trees!

A very iconic story and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. Who knows, maybe the movie will be next!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

True Crime Addict / James Renner

5 out of 5 stars
When an eleven-year-old James Renner fell in love with Amy Mihaljevic, the missing girl seen on posters all over his neighborhood, it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with true crime. That obsession led Renner to a successful career as an investigative journalist. It also gave him post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2011, Renner began researching the strange disappearance of Maura Murray, a University of Massachusetts student who went missing after wrecking her car in rural New Hampshire in 2004. Over the course of his investigation, he uncovered numerous important and shocking new clues about what may have happened to Murray but also found himself in increasingly dangerous situations with little regard for his own well-being. As his quest to find Murray deepened, the case started taking a toll on his personal life, which began to spiral out of control. The result is an absorbing dual investigation of the complicated story of the All-American girl who went missing and Renner's own equally complicated true-crime addiction.

True Crime Addict is the story of Renner's spellbinding investigation, which has taken on a life of its own for armchair sleuths across the web. In the spirit of David Fincher's Zodiac, it's a fascinating look at a case that has eluded authorities and one man's obsessive quest for the answers.

”Closure is for doors.”

James Renner is a fascinating guy. He was told by his psychologist that his results to the MMPI test were “very similar to those of Ted Bundy, the serial killer” but that he also tests as very smart so he should be able to channel his darkness into socially acceptable work. He has a tendency to get fixated on things—sometimes those things are missing women. He flings himself into the investigations under the banner of “it takes a psychopath to catch a psychopath.”

He believes in sharing his thought processes and all the data that he collects as he pursues the question of what happened to Maura Murray. It’s a compelling and fascinating story and quite a number of people who regularly followed his blog become associate investigators with him, and he comes to refer to them as his Irregulars, giving a nod to Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, this public sharing also attracts its share of nut bars, one of whom has the nerve to publically threaten Renner’s son. He manages to find a place of calm, but reports his feelings: “I knew him for what he was: a crazy man only pretending to be dangerous. And he had no idea who I really was: a dangerous man working really hard not to be crazy.”

There are so many things that just defy belief—things that Renner refers to as fearful symmetry. Coincidences, strange synchronicities, things that verge on the paranormal. Renner doesn’t limit himself to just Maura’s case. He also throws in details from other cases that he has investigated, including his own family history, which has horrors of its own.

It’s a wonder that Renner is as well-balanced, albeit medicated, as he is. His intelligence does seem to be mostly keeping him out of trouble (though his temper does get the better of him more than once). He writes one hell of a story that sucked up two evenings and made me resent the necessity to do laundry or feed myself. I’ll be searching out more of his work asap.

Often, I think that I would like to have coffee with certain authors. This time around, however, I think I am just as glad not to know Mr. Renner personally. No offense, if you run across this review Mr. Renner, but I already have enough darkness in my life.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Broken Habour / Tana French

5 out of 5 stars
Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, the brash cop from Tana French’s bestselling Faithful Place, plays by the book and plays hard. That’s what’s made him the Murder squad’s top detective—and that’s what puts the biggest case of the year into his hands.

On one of the half-built, half-abandoned "luxury" developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.

At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointing at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spains’ computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks.

And Broken Harbor holds memories for Scorcher. Seeing the case on the news sends his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family one summer at Broken Harbor, back when they were children.

 Tana French is such a great writer—her work just grabs me from the first page and pulls me along for the story whether I like it or not. And I found this one really difficult, simply because of the subject matter. Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is not a sympathetic character, but that isn’t an issue for me—my issue was that I identified with him a bit too strongly at times.

Scorcher believes in playing by the rule book and square dealing—to the nth degree. Not too keen on shades of grey or of making allowances for people’s circumstances. The rules are the rules and he follows them and expects everyone else to as well. And he knows better—he has a mentally ill sister who quite simply can’t follow the rules. He knows this and makes allowances for her, but he can’t extend this kind of consideration to those outside his family circle.

This case, the murder of a family of four out in a half-deserted, mouldering housing development, will test Scorcher to his limits. Can he accept the wisdom offered by his sister Dina? Sometimes there aren’t reasons for things. Sometimes things just are.

Maybe I didn’t like Scorcher, but I felt for him. What family doesn’t have to cope with mental illness in some form? Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, substance abuse….they are common, there is still stigma associated with them, they are difficult to deal with. I’m an eldest child, oldest surviving member of my family and both of my siblings turn to me when they need someone to talk to. I’ve learned the hard way many of the lessons that Scorcher is confronted with in this novel. It’s hard watching anyone, even a fictional person, go through these experiences. It was the death of my parents in a car accident that triggered my learning—it’s often trauma, isn’t it, that makes us grow.

This book stirred my emotions, stirred up old memories, recalled that old ache from learning the hard way. I’ve learned to forgive the guy who caused the accident, to take more responsibility for my own life, to see more things from other people’s perspectives, indeed to realize that there are as many perspectives on a situation as there are people who observe it.

I started with a four star rating, but I’m bumping it up to five stars because it has moved me so strongly. If you have not yet read a Tana French novel, what the hell is keeping you? Pick one up and get started!

Friday, 17 June 2016

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 1

4 out of 5 stars
For the first time ever, award-winning editor Jonathan Strahan has assembled the best science fiction and the best fantasy stories of the year in one volume. More than just two books for the price of one, this book brings together over 200,000 words of the best genre fiction anywhere. Strahan's critical eye and keen editorial instincts have served him well for earlier best of the year round-ups in the Best Short Novels, Science Fiction: Best of and Fantasy: Best of series, and this is his most impressive effort yet.

 An interesting collection—in anthologies like this one, a reader will obviously encounter some stories that they enjoy more than others. I do have to say, however, there was only one that I found rather opaque and several that I really, really enjoyed.

My favourites:

In the House of the Seven Librarians by Ellen Klages, which I have reviewed separately.

I, Row-Boat by Cory Doctorow, a tale of a sentient machine (said row-boat) who ponders Asimovian philosophy and the nature of life.

The Night Whiskey by Jeffrey Ford, in which a whiskey distilled from a certain fruit can provide the drinker with a one night encounter with a dead friend or family member. The amount of whiskey is limited & distributed by lottery in the small town where this plant grows.

Eight Episodes by Robert Reed, in which a television show of debatable provenance seems to be manipulating people into abandoning space exploration—or is it?

D.A. by Connie Willis, which, as the introductions states, hails back to Robert A. Heinlein, but this time with women that I can actually admire. Hectically paced, smart, and funny.

A worthwhile read if you enjoy SF/F short stories.

The Egypt Game / Zilpha Keatley Snyder

5 out of 5 stars
The first time Melanie Ross meets April Hall, she's not sure they'll have anything in common. But she soon discovers that they both love anything to do with ancient Egypt. When they stumble upon a deserted storage yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop, Melanie and April decide it's the perfect sport for the Egypt Game.

Before long there are six Egyptians instead of two. After school and on weekends they all meet to wear costumes, hold ceremonies, and work on their secret code.

Everyone thinks it's just a game, until strange things begin happening to the players. Has the Egypt Game gone too far?

 ***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

This book is one of the reasons that I love mysteries so much as an adult! I read it when I was 9 or 10 and I distinctly remember that it scared the pants off me!

It had just the right amount of creepiness for that age—a potentially sinister man whose storage yard that the children choose to play in, a secret club that they have to protect from children who wouldn’t appreciate the intricate Egypt game, and a murderer roaming the town and making adults reluctant to turn their kids loose to play.

Although I was raised in a Christian church, I had a very pagan soul as a little kid and I would have given my eye teeth to have friends who would have acted out Ancient Egyptian rituals with me! Plus, I had a vivid imagination and managed to get myself freaked out while playing other imaginary games with a neighbour girl. As an older child with no siblings to plot & plan with, I lived in my own head a lot and the research & planning of this role-playing would have been heaven for a little nerd like me.

The murders in this story barely made an impression on 10 year old me—I don’t remember that aspect at all. What terrified me was when the Egyptian oracle started to answer the children’s questions. That made my hair stand on end for several days, even after I knew how the book ended. I treasured the feeling that incredible things were possible.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Charlotte's Web / E.B. White

5 out of 5 stars
Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte's Web, high up in Zuckerman's barn. Charlotte's spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur's life when he was born the runt of his litter.
E. B. White's Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come. 

 ***Wanda’s Summer Carnival of Children’s Literature***

I distinctly remember my grade one teacher, Doris Wright, reading Charlotte’s Web to us, a chapter or two per day. I suspect there was some snivelling when we reached the end of the tale.

Boy, could I identify with the main human character, Fern. I grew up on a small farm like the ones in the book (without the work horses—we used tractors during my childhood) and it was primarily a hog farm. I was very familiar with how sweet baby pigs are. In fact, when children came to visit, my mom would assemble her camera and some old towels and we would head to the pig barn. She would scoop up a piglet in a towel, hand it to a child, and photograph the proceedings. That cute little round snout on a piglet is irresistible to a child—we have many photos of kids kissing piglets right on the snout! Mostly, however, we didn’t spend much time getting to know the pigs—they would be leaving after they were weaned, sold on to farmers who would raise them to market weight. Not a good idea to get too attached.

I also had a spider phobia as a child (which has thankfully subsided as I’ve aged) and I do remember Charlotte being an example that I told myself about, trying to convince myself that spiders were not the horrible creatures that I had imagined them to be.

Like Fern, I spend many happy hours in the barn, watching chickens, pigs, cows and horses. In fact, when I was about 3, my uncle gave me some duck eggs and a Bantam hen to incubate them. She hatched four ducklings from the eggs (and was quite distressed when her charges went swimming in mud puddles) and those ducks lived for many years! They would stand and quack at us when we were playing baseball if they wanted to cross the yard for some reason. When we paused the game, the ducks would quickly waddle across, as if they didn’t want to hold up play for very long.

Farms have changed so much! Not just horses being replaced by tractors, but the mixed use family farm being lost in favour of large, single purpose farms. Wheat farms, chicken farms, intensive hog farms, cattle feed lots, etc. Fewer children learn to milk cows, gather eggs, and weed gardens. I feel like mine was an idyllic childhood and I’m so glad I grew up when I did.

Charlotte’s Web was a great exercise in nostalgia for me, remembering all those wonderful childhood details.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Wide Sargasso Sea / Jean Rhys

3 out of 5 stars
Jean Rhys' novels and stories continue to win new popularity and critical acclaim as fresh generations of readers discover her poignant and disturbing insights into women's lives. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys brilliantly and imaginatively constructs the girlhood and marriage of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, the mysterious madwoman in Jane Eyre. It is a romantic and tragic novel of spellbinding intensity.

 The accepted wisdom of writing is to “write what you know.” And Jean Rhys knew the Caribbean area, about being a woman there, and about the effects of colonialism. Like Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway (the future madwoman in Mr. Rochester’s attic in Jane Eyre), she was a Creole woman from Dominica and she led a difficult life when she was sent to school in England. Did she feel like she belonged in neither the Caribbean culture nor in England, perhaps feeling mired in the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea which separates the two areas? Rhys certainly knew poverty, alcoholism, and struggling to survive in a system which favours men.

The heat of the tropical location matches well with the heated nature of Antoinette’s relationship with Rochester and contrasts nicely with the coldness so evident in Jane Eyre in both climate and people. Rochester, being young and used to emotionally controlled, cooler English women, has no idea how to deal with her. He truly only wants her money, not her person, so he uses his Victorian male prerogative to declare her mad, to change her name to Bertha, to force her to move to England and to be confined to the attic. She is in practical terms owned by Rochester, just as any slave would be, by virtue of having married him, despite where she may fall along the white/black continuum (too white to fit in to Caribbean society, not quite white enough for England).

Who wouldn’t go mad under those conditions?

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

In the House of the Seven Librarians / Ellen Klages

5 out of 5 stars
A charming and elegant tale of a young girl raised by feral librarians.

A delightful short story, especially if you work in a library, as I do. A library is closing, the contents moving to a new building across town. But of course, not all of the books are going to move, quite a selection will be left behind to make room for new acquisitions in the new facility. And seven librarians also stay behind and lock the doors, making the old library their very own. They go feral.

Soon, a drastically overdue book is left on their doorstep with a note—I can’t afford the library fines, so here is my first born. So the seven feral librarians acquire a baby girl. This is her story.

I adored all the lovingly used library stereotypes! For example, I think we all know (or knew) a librarian who wore a shapeless old cardigan. There is plenty of stamping of cards and books and mending of bindings. And seriously, how many of us who work in libraries haven't dreamed about shutting out the public and just enjoying the library by ourselves!

A love letter to libraries and their staff.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Falling in Love with Joseph Smith / Jane Barnes

3 out of 5 stars
When award-winning documentary film writer Jane Barnes was working on the PBS Frontline/American Experience special series "The Mormons," she was surprised to find herself passionately drawn to Joseph Smith. The product of an Episcopalian, "WASPy" family, she couldn't remember ever having met a Mormon before her work on the series--much less having dallied with the idea of converting to a religion shrouded in controversy. But so it was: She was smitten with a man who claimed to have translated the word of God by peering into the dark of his hat. In this brilliantly written book, Barnes describes her experiences working on the PBS series as she moved from secular curiosity to the brink of conversion to Mormonism. It all began when she came across Joseph Smith's early writings. She was delighted to discover how funny and utterly unique he was--and how widely divergent his wild yet profound visions of God were from the Church of Latter-day Saints as we know it today. Her fascination deepened when, much to her surprise, she learned that her eighth cousin Anna Barnes converted to Mormonism in 1833. Through Anna, Barnes follows her family's close involvement with Smith and the crises caused by his controversial practice of polygamy. Barnes' unlikely path helps her gain a newfound respect for the innovative American spirit that lies at the heart of Mormonism--and for a religion that is, in many ways, still coming into its own. An intimate portrait of the man behind one of America's fastest growing religions, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith offers a surprising and provocative window into the Mormon experience.

I’ve been looking for a painless way to learn more about Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), in order to better understand Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker series. After reading the first book, I was convinced that Card was using Joseph Smith as source material for many aspects of Alvin and being non-Mormon, I wanted more details to confirm or refute my theory. This memoir seemed to be a way to fulfill that desire in an enjoyable way.

Jane Barnes starts her exploration of the LDS Church as part of a TV documentary series that she is working on. She discovers that the history of Joseph Smith appeals to her sense of humour and whimsy, that she has a number of relatives (fairly distant) who have converted to Mormonism (including Smith’s “body guard” and one of Brigham Young’s wives), and that the community of the LDS church feels very comfortable to her.

Ironically, although Barnes is perfectly okay with all the LDS details, it is the Christianity part that gets in her way—she just can’t feel like she has any particular need for Christ. Despite the fact that she is truly a religious seeker, ultimately she stays on the outside of any church because she just can’t swallow that particular aspect of religion. Another interesting aspect was that she felt most at home with a polygamist LDS sect in Utah because they acknowledged and celebrated Joseph Smith more than the mainstream LDS establishment.

As a genealogist who has spent time in LDS family history centres and a person who has Mormon friends, I knew a little bit about the LDS church. I’ve been to a service, which I can confirm did feel very welcoming. I was happy to learn more accurate information about the baptizing of ancestors and I could empathize with Barnes’ wrestling with religious questions.

I did learn a fair bit about Joseph Smith, although not in the detail that I was hoping for. Back to Wikipedia for me. Recommended for those who would like a gentle introduction to the LDS faith, some historical background on the only all-American mainstream religion, or those who are enthused about memoirs.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Charlotte Brontë / Claire Harman

4 out of 5 stars
A groundbreaking biography that places an obsessive, unrequited love at the heart of the writer's life story, transforming her from the tragic figure we have previously known into a smoldering Jane Eyre.

Famed for her beloved novels, Charlotte Brontë has been known as well for her insular, tragic family life. The genius of this biography is that it delves behind this image to reveal a life in which loss and heartache existed alongside rebellion and fierce ambition. Claire Harman seizes on a crucial moment in the 1840s when Charlotte worked at a girls' school in Brussels and fell hopelessly in love with the husband of the school's headmistress. Her torment spawned her first attempts at writing for publication, and the object of her obsession haunts the pages of every one of her novels--he is Rochester in Jane Eyre, Paul Emanuel in Villette. Another unrequited love--for her publisher--paved the way for Charlotte to enter a marriage that ultimately made her happier than she ever imagined. Drawing on correspondence unavailable to previous biographers, Harman establishes Brontë as the heroine of her own story, one as dramatic and triumphant as one of her own novels.

 What a strange, isolated and yet amazing life! The sheer volume of intense emotion simmering beneath the reserved, Victorian surface of Charlotte Brontë is simply staggering. It’s a wonder that she lived as long as she did while repressing that ocean of feeling.

And oh how the Brontës hated having to go to work and earn a living! They were a family of huge egos, every one of them convinced that they were geniuses and that such trivialities as going to work and dealing with regular people were far beneath them. If you were admitted into their magic circle, you were one of them for life (as several servants were) but everyone else was suspect (and stupid).

They were talented—they were right about that—but they let that talent turn them away from the world, leaving them awkward and inappropriate when they had to go out into regular society. Branwell, Charlotte’s brother, seems to have been the most at ease among non-family, but he managed to always screw up any opportunity that presented itself, either by drunkenness, opium consumption, or fooling around with the master’s wife. His casual entitledness consistently ruined his chances at recognition or advancement, things which Charlotte would have cheerfully murdered for. As children, Branwell had been her alter-ego and partner in the role-playing imaginative world that was the basis for their writing. As an adult, she seethed with resentment, knowing what use she could have made of his situations. When he returned home in disgrace after his disastrous affair with his employer’s wife, he simply refused to work any longer and basically killed himself through substance abuse. Harman points out that Charlotte was “secretly furious at the ease with which he had been able to indulge his passions, while she was almost killing herself with the suppression of her own.” She is still, at this point, obsessed with her Belgian school master, a married man who wisely won’t answer her letters.

The old saying goes that if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. Once the Brontë women could support themselves through writing, their lives improve immeasurably simply because they can live the way they want to, i.e. isolated. Unfortunately, only Charlotte lived long enough to enjoy this state of affairs, and she is haunted by the loss of those siblings and servants who provided the snug, creative circle in which she wrote.

When Charlotte finally unbent enough to marry the parish curate, her life improves again. She discovered that the “grand passion” of love couldn’t compete with an ordinary guy who actually cared about her. One wonders what exactly her former obsession, her French instructor in Belgium, thought of the torrent of fiction which feature men who are obviously based on him. He and his wife were well aware of Charlotte’s books and must have spent some uneasy hours speculating on what she might do next.

We are the recipients of the glorious fiction produced by the Brontës, fiction that probably would never have existed if they had lived an untroubled, ordinary, comfortable life.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? / Frans de Waal

4 out of 5 stars
What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future—all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame. Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long.

People often assume a cognitive ladder, from lower to higher forms, with our own intelligence at the top. But what if it is more like a bush, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours? Would you presume yourself dumber than a squirrel because you’re less adept at recalling the locations of hundreds of buried acorns? Or would you judge your perception of your surroundings as more sophisticated than that of a echolocating bat? De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the mechanistic view of animals and opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. De Waal’s landmark work will convince you to rethink everything you thought you knew about animal—and human—intelligence.

Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are.

The field of animal cognition needs to take a lesson from the field of human education—the multiple intelligence model. Not every student will be good at every part of the curriculum, but it’s a rare person who isn’t talented at anything! Physical talent in sports or a love and understanding of nature count as kinds of intelligence, acknowledging that the academic subjects are not necessarily the be all and end all.

De Waal writes clearly and engagingly about the history of the study of animal intelligence, pointing out the many prejudices that humans bring to this endeavour. Human subjects are tested by a member of their own species and in surroundings that they are comfortable in. Animal subjects are being tested by a member of another species (whom they are not necessarily interested in) and in a captive setting that adds to the stress of the situation. Ask any university student about the stress of exams and they will tell you that it is not an ideal way to take tests.

He points out that these studies are hampered by the human tendency to try to set ourselves outside the animal world, to set a barrier between us and the rest of nature. He also discusses our relationship with the apes, especially our close link to the two chimpanzee species. Being very hierarchically focused, like chimps are, we spend a lot of time trying to set ourselves at the top of our perceived hierarchy of nature. We truly need to let go of this need to be superior and to evaluate other species according to their own talents.

When I was a volunteer nature educator, I was often asked about animals, “How smart are they?” I guess people were hoping to feel superior to other species. My answer was always, “Just as smart as they need to be to survive.” Each species is adapted to its own environmental niche and is expert at living there.

I would recommend Mr. de Waal’s books to anyone interested in animal cognition or in ape studies in general.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Master Butchers Singing Club / Louise Erdrich

3.5 stars out of 5
Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher's precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis's life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine's life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.

 When I first started reading The Master Butchers Singing Club, my initial response was “Not another war book!” as I am not a fan of war fiction. Both World Wars do feature in the book, but they do not overpower the story, for which I am very thankful.

I don’t think that I have ever before consciously encountered a book set in the period between the two World Wars and that is odd—it’s a very rich period of history to explore. The author’s style reminded me strongly of Canadian author Robertson Davies (a compliment coming from me, as I adore his Deptford series, which also deals with small town characters). Her characters are very unique and yet they are ordinary people, living ordinary lives in many ways. Alcoholics, orphans, poor people, butchers, singers, Native people, circus people, murderers, undertakers, pilots, children, all making their way through the world as best they can. Erdrich doesn’t make them flamboyantly odd, just the regular peculiar that one finds in small communities. It strikes me that this could have been a Canadian book—the northern U.S. shares many environmental and cultural threads with Canada, I think.

This is probably also the best depiction of a love triangle that I have ever encountered in literature. Several triangle relationships hinge on Fidelis, the master butcher. His wife Eva and her friend Delphine. His sister Tante and Delphine. Fidelis, Delphine and Cyprian. And yet, as his name would indicate, Fidelis is faithful to each of the women in his life. (view spoiler)

Another pseudo-Canadian theme in the novel is that of identity, a well-worn Canuck obsession. We get to watch Delphine struggle with her lack of knowledge about her origins, and see each of Fidelis’ sons forge lives for themselves and decide where their hearts lie.

So many underlying themes, well written, and thought provoking.