Gerry B's Book Reviews

Island: The Complete Stories, by Alistair MacLeod

This review is in commemoration of Alistair MacLeod (July 20, 1936 – April 20, 2014), the “bard of Cape Breton,” whose voice has been silenced in life, but his meticulously crafted stories will live on as long as people enjoy outstanding literature.

 

Island - allistair mcleod

“The genius of his stories is to render his fictional world as timeless.” —Colm Tóibín

 

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island - coverA thumbnail synopsis:  The sixteen exquisitely crafted stories in Island prove Alistair MacLeod to be a master. Quietly, precisely, he has created a body of work that is among the greatest to appear in English in the last fifty years.

A book-besotted patriarch releases his only son from the obligations of the sea. A father provokes his young son to violence when he reluctantly sells the family horse. A passionate girl who grows up on a nearly deserted island turns into an ever-wistful woman when her one true love is felled by a logging accident. A dying young man listens to his grandmother play the old Gaelic songs on her ancient violin as they both fend off the inevitable. The events that propel MacLeod’s stories convince us of the importance of tradition, the beauty of the landscape, and the necessity of memory.

 

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Alistair MacLeod reciving the Order of Canada from Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean, 27th Governor General of Canada.

Alistair MacLeod reciving the Order of Canada from Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean, 27th Governor General of Canada.

About the author: When MacLeod was ten his family moved to a farm in Dunvegan, Inverness County on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. After completing high school, MacLeod attended teacher’s college in Truro and then taught school. He studied at St. Francis Xavier University between 1957 and 1960 and graduated with a BA and B.Ed. He then went on to receive his MA in 1961 from the University of New Brunswick and his PhD in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame. A specialist in British literature of the nineteenth century, MacLeod taught English for three years at Indiana University before accepting a post in 1969 at the University of Windsor as professor of English and creative writing. During the summer, his family resided in Cape Breton, where he spent part of his time “writing in a cliff-top cabin looking west towards Prince Edward Island.” ~ Wikipedia

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Review by Gerry Burnie

There are only two ways one can go with a review of Alistair MacLeod’s works, i.e. short or long. While not a prolific writer—his one novel, “No Great Mischief” is his only lengthy work—his sixteen short stories, ranging from 1968 to 1999, are nuggets of the writer’s craft. Brought together in a single collection with a simple, but oh-so-appropriate-name of Island: The Complete Stories [Emblem Editions, December 3, 2010] they represent his evolution from an academic style of writing—i.e. tight, and word-perfect—to a more open form without loosing any of the precision.

I think what stands out about Macleod’s stories is the indisputable fact that he understood his characters. The same thing applies to his beloved Cape Breton setting, which is a continuing theme in all his stories, and which both challenges and shapes the people who cling to it.

Nonetheless, set against this rugged background is a quiet sort of love (of both people and loyal animals) that prevails in spite of the challenges. Like the wife who keeps an anxious vigil for her overdue husband until the trees seem to take on human forms to move in her direction.

There are also tales of family, like the miner who laments that his sons will probably leave the island to pursue an easier life ‘down the road’, and of the pull of ancestry versus fading memories and evolving attitudes.

There is something for everyone in the collected works of Alistair MacLeod, but most of all it is a celebration of excellence in short story genre. Five bees.

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Viewers of Gerry B’s Book Reviews – 67,609

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 Interested in Canadian history? Want to know more? Then visit my new page:  In Praise of Canadian History.

 It is a collection of people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post:  The Family Compact of Upper Canada: Democracy has never come easily …

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If you would like to learn more about my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.

       

        

Notice to all those who have requested a book reviewThank you for your interest, and my apologies for not responding to your request individually. I’m getting there, but the numbers have been overwhelming. Please extend your patience just a bit longer.Thanks again!


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April 28, 2014 Posted by | Canadian content, Canadian Irish tradition, Fiction, non GBLT, Nova Scotia Setting | Leave a comment

To Every Thing There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story, by Alistair MacLeod

Bookshelf copy

A short story you’ll want to make part of your Christmas – 

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to every thing - coverStory blurb: The story is simple, seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the farm on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas. On Christmas Eve he arrives, to the delight of his young siblings, and shoes the horse before taking them by sleigh through the woods to the nearby church. The adults, including the narrator for the first time, sit up late to play the gift-wrapping role of Santa Claus.

The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow. Not a word is out of place. Matching and enhancing the text are black and white illustrations by Peter Rankin, making this book a perfect little gift.

Available in e-book – 287 KB, 48 pages.

to every thing - macleodAlistair MacLeod was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and raised among an extended family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He has published two internationally acclaimed collections of short stories: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986). In 2000, these two books, accompanied by two new stories, were published in a single-volume edition entitled Island: The Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod. In 1999, MacLeod’s first novel, No Great Mischief, was published to great critical acclaim, and was on national bestseller lists for more than a year. The novel won many awards, including the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Alistair MacLeod and his wife, Anita, have six children. They live in Windsor, Ontario.

Peter Rankin was born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He specializes in illustrating the traditional way of life there. A fisherman as well as an artist, in 2004 he illustrated Making Room, a children’s book by Joanne Taylor that was published by Tundra Books, for which he won the 2004 Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration. He lives in Mabou Coal Mines with his wife and their five children.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

To those who might not be familiar with Cape Breton Island, here is a brief orientation via Wikipedia:

cCape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. The 10,311 km2 (3,981 sq mi) island accounts for 18.7% of the total area of Nova Scotia. Although physically separated from the Nova Scotia peninsula by the Strait of Canso, it is artificially connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the 1,385 m (4,544 ft) long rock-fill Canso Causeway. The island is located east-northeast of the mainland with its northern and western coasts fronting on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; its western coast also forming the eastern limits of the Northumberland Strait. The eastern and southern coasts front the Atlantic Ocean; its eastern coast also forming the western limits of the Cabot Strait.[1] Its landmass slopes upward from south to north, culminating in the highlands of its northern cape. One of the world’s larger salt water lakes, Bras d’Or (“Arm of Gold” in French), dominates the centre of the island.[2]

to every thing - landscapeTo Everything Thing There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story, by Alistair MacLeod [McClelland & Stewart, 2012] harkens back to the 1940s, but like most rural communities, including the Ontario one in which I grew up, its roots go back to a much earlier time. Indeed, in Cape Breton, its roots go back to a time when:

“…the English set out to destroy the clans of Scotland, [and] the most independent of the Highlanders left their homes with the pipes playing laments on the decks of their ships. They crossed the ocean and the pipes played again when they waded ashore on the rocky coast of Cape Breton Island.”– Hugh Mclennan

In the 1940s, rural communities were predominantly ‘closed’ communities with a proud, self-sufficient way of life, i.e.

“Most of the families, if they did not live in the town or work in the mines, would have a small farm where cows and sheep and pigs and hens and a small garden provided a living. Things would be easier with the help of the wages of a husband or son who worked on the fishing boats or in the woods or, like young Neil in the story, on “the lake boats” in Ontario.”

to every thing there is a season - lobster treeThere were few indulgences, therefore, except for Hallowe’en and Christmas, and MacLeod—in his flawless and evocative style—has captured this anticipation in the voice of an eleven-year-old boy.

“We have been waiting now, it seems, forever. Actually, it has been most intense since Hallowe’en when the first snow fell upon us as we moved like muffled mummers upon darkened country roads.”

Indeed, this entire story is a collection of evocative memories, seemingly random at times, but always moving the story forward at the same time.

“The ocean is flat and calm and along the coast, in the scooped-out coves, has turned to an icy slush. The brook that flows past our house is almost totally frozen and there is only a small channel of rushing water that flows openly at its very centre. When we let the cattle out to drink, we chop holes with the axe at the brook’s edge so that they can drink without venturing onto the ice.

“The sheep move in and out of their lean-to shelter, restlessly stamping their feet or huddling together in tightly packed groups. A conspiracy of wool against the cold. The hens perch high on their roosts with their feathers fluffed out about them, hardly feeling it worthwhile to descend to the floor for their few scant kernels of grain. The pig, who has little time before his butchering,  squeals his displeasure to the cold and with his snout tosses his wooden trough high in the icy air. The splendid young horse paws the planking of his stall and gnaws the wooden cribwork of his manger.”

For those of us who grew up on a family farm, one can almost hear, feel and smell these scenes, and for those who didn’t it is a wonderful glimpse of a simpler way of life when people had time to notice such things.

And to put the topping on it, it is  illustrated throughout with the marvellous sketches of Peter Rankin—of the same Rankin clan as the world-renowned “Rankin Family” musicians.

This is a short story (only 47 pages long) that you will want to make part of your Christmas tradition. Five bees.

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Notice to all those who have requested a book review

Thank you for your interest, and my apologies for not responding to your request individually. I’m getting there, but the numbers have been overwhelming. Please extend your patience just a bit longer.

 

Thanks again!

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If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.

      

Thanks for dropping by. At this time of year, may I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and much happiness and prosperity. Regards, Gerry B.


[1] Named in commemoration of explorer and navigator, John Cabot, who landed on the coast of Cape Breton Island in 1497.

[2] Bras d’Or Lake is where Alexander Graham Bell had his summer home at Baddeck. It is also where his design of a heavier-than-air-aircraft (the “Dart”) was the first to fly in the British Empire (which included Canada), in 1917. The pilot was J.A.D. McCurdy, who would later be named Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Nova Scotia).

December 17, 2012 Posted by | Canadian author, Canadian content, fiction/autobiographical, non-GLBT | Leave a comment

River of the Brokenhearted, by David Adams Richards

A dynastic novel as Canadian as maple syrup…

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Click to purchase at Barnes and Noble. Also available in Kindle format.

Click to purchase at Barnes and Noble. Also available in Kindle format.

(Non-GBLT)

Publisher’s Story blurb: In the 1920s, Janie McLeary and George King run one of the first movie theatres in the Maritimes. The marriage of the young Irish Catholic woman to an older English man is thought scandalous, but they work happily together, playing music to accompany the films. When George succumbs to illness and dies, leaving Janie with one young child and another on the way, the unscrupulous Joey Elias tries to take over the business. But Janie guards the theatre with a shotgun, and still in mourning, re-opens it herself. “If there was no real bliss in Janie’s life,” recounts her grandson, “there were moments of triumph.”

One night, deceived by the bank manager and Elias into believing she will lose her mortgage, Janie resolves to go and ask for money from the Catholic houses. Elias has sent out men to stop her, so she leaps out the back window and with a broken rib she swims in the dark across the icy Miramichi River, doubting her own sanity. Yet, seeing these people swayed into immoral actions because of their desire to please others and their fear of being outcast, she thinks to herself that “…all her life she had been forced to act in a way uncommon with others… Was sanity doing what they did? And if it was, was it moral or justified to be sane?”

Astonishingly, she finds herself face to face that night with influential Lord Beaverbrook, who sees in her tremendous character and saves her business. Not only does she survive, she prospers; she becomes wealthy, but ostracized. Even her own father helps Elias plot against her. Yet Janie McLeary King thwarts them and brings first-run talking pictures to the town.

Meanwhile, she employs Rebecca from the rival Druken family to look after her children. Jealous, and a protégé of Elias, Rebecca mistreats her young charges. The boy Miles longs to be a performer, but Rebecca convinces him he is hated, and he inherits his mother’s enemies. The only person who truly loves her, he is kept under his mother’s influence until, eventually, he takes a job as the theatre’s projectionist. He drinks heavily all his life, tends his flowers, and talks of things no-one believes, until the mystery at the heart of the novel finally unravels.

“At six I began to realize that my father was somewhat different,” says Miles King’s son Wendell, who narrates the saga in an attempt to find answers in the past and understand “how I was damned.” It is a many-layered epic of rivalries, misunderstandings, rumours; the abuse of power, what weak people will do for love, and the true power of doing right; of a pioneer and her legacy in the lives of her son and grandchildren.

About the author: David Adams Richards (born 17 October 1950) is a Canadian novelist, essayist, screenwriter and poet.

Born in Newcastle, New Brunswick, Richards left St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, one course shy of completing a B.A. Richards has been a writer-in-residence at various universities and colleges across Canada, including the University of New Brunswick.

Richards has received numerous awards including 2 Gemini Awards for scriptwriting for Small Gifts and “For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down”, the Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Canadian Authors Association Award for his novel Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace. Richards is one of only three writers to have won in both the fiction and non-fiction categories of the Governor General’s Award. He won the 1988 fiction award for Nights Below Station Street and the 1998 non-fiction award for Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi. He was also a co-winner of the 2000 Giller Prize for Mercy Among the Children.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

The present day City of Miramichi, on the river from which it derives its name.

The present day City of Miramichi, on the river from which it derives its name.

I must admit that I have been working on this novel, River of the Brokenhearted by David Adams Richards [Arcade Publishing, January 12, 2012] (450 pags.) for a while, but like a glass of mellow wine it never suffered from age.

The people of Canada’s maritime region are great story tellers, as witness Alistair MacLeod, Linden MacIntyre, and now David Adams Richards, the latter two being both Giller Prize winters. Part of this remarkable ability may come the maritime provinces themselves, which, like most seafaring cultures, seem to have an uncommonly large population of characters just waiting to be written about.

This, coupled with David Richards’ keen ability to capitalize on every nuance of a character’s personality, makes this pithy read from that point of view, alone.

Plot wise it covers four generation, and so the pace is understandably slow in places, but never tedious. The topic of generational feuds on Canadian soil could, I think, only ring true in the Maritimes with its large population of Scots and Irish, as could the iron-willed resilience of Janie McLeary, but both are rich fodder and credible in every way.

One of the interesting touches was the inclusion of Nova Scotian, Max Aitkin (“Lord Beaverbrook”), for no story about Nova Scotia for the time would be complete without him.

I am unimpressed by the both the Giller and the GG awards, but in this case I believe they are well placed. Five bees.

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Interested in Canadian history? Want to know more? Then visit my new page:  In Praise of Canadian History.  It is a collection of people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post: Frank Augustyn, OC, Canada’s ‘Principal’ Principal Dancer…

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If you would like to learn more about my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.

       

Notice to all those who have requested a book reviewThank you for your interest, and my apologies for not responding to your request individually. I’m getting there, but the numbers have been overwhelming. Please extend your patience just a bit longer. Thanks again!

Thanks for dropping by! I’ll have another novel ready for next week, same URL, so drop back soon.

June 2, 2014 Posted by | Canadian content, Fiction, Historical period, non GBLT, Nova Scotia Setting, Twentieth century historical | Leave a comment

Some Canadian Christmas Selections

This book is on order but hasn’t arrived as yet. However, I do want to include some Canadian Christmas books while there is still time to order. I will add a review as soon as it arrives.

canadian christmas traditionsa - cover

Canadian Christmas Traditions (Amazing Stories) by DeeAnn Mandryk

Included in this book are 28 traditional recipes by Chef Jeff O’Neill, showcasing Canada’s multicultural heritage, plus a special section of 18 Christmas recipes from across the country, highlighting Canada’s regional diversity. The origin of a Canadian Christmas is a fascinating blend of different traditions and festivities. The stories behind the celebration originate from around the world, and paint a wonderful picture of a season of joy, faith, superstition, and celebration stretching back over thousands of years.

Note: Amazon only carries a hardcover edition of this book for a very expensive price. However it is available in e-book format for $7.95 CAD from the publisher, James Lorimer & Co.

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Here is another Canadian Christmas selection:

christmas in canada - cover

Christmas in Canada: A Collection of Heartwarming Legends, Tales and Traditions (Amazing Stories) by Megan Dumford

“But even as the darkness and chill settle in, there is a glimmer of hope, a feeling of growing excitement. For the start of winter also means the beginning of the Christmas season, a time of celebration that goes back to the earliest days of Canadian settlement and far beyond.” This book contains selections from the following Amazing Stories: Christmas in Atlantic Canada, Christmas in Quebec, Christmas in Ontario, Christmas in the Prairies, and Christmas in British Columbia Christmas is a time for celebrating with friends and family and for sharing stories, memories, and good cheer. This compilation brings to life the very best holiday stories from across Canada. From the early days of exploration to the modern day, and from heartwarming inspirational tales to dangerous escapades, this is a collection to treasure for many years to come.

 

It is only available as a hardcover edition from James Lorimer & Co. as well.

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christmas in Ontario - coverAlso, see my review of Christmas in Ontario: Heartwarming Legends, Tales and Traditions (Amazing Stories) by Cheryl MacDonald

“Every year, he put on the red Santa suit. Every year, there were more sick and needy children to attend to. And every year, as word of his activity spread, Jimmy collected more money and gifts to distribute.” This book will be especially fascinating for all readers interested in: history and human interest stories. Christmas is a time for celebrating with friends and family and for sharing stories, memories, and good cheer. This compilation brings to life the very best holiday stories from across Ontario. From the early days of exploration to the modern day, and from heartwarming inspirational tales to dangerous escapades, this is a collection to treasure for many years to come.

Available in e-pub format, James Lorimer & Co.

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Also see my review of To Every Thing There Is a Season: A Cape Breton Christmas Story

to everything - coverThe story is simple, seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the farm on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas. On Christmas Eve he arrives, to the delight of his young siblings, and shoes the horse before taking them by sleigh through the woods to the nearby church. The adults, including the narrator for the first time, sit up late to play the gift-wrapping role of Santa Claus.

The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow. Not a word is out of place. Matching and enhancing the text are black and white illustrations by Peter Rankin, making this book a perfect little gift.

Available in ebook format from McClelland and Steward

Do have a very Merry Christmas!

December 17, 2013 Posted by | Canadian Christmas Stories, non GBLT, Non-fiction | Leave a comment

   

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