Paretsky’s Warshawski—Aging Well!

From The Record, October 13, 2017     –Vincent Cuddihy

Another birthday present I received this year was Fallout (2017) by Chicago-based author Sara Paretsky. This is the 18th installment in the V.I. Warshawski series, which began in 1982. While browsing my shelves, I found a copy of Fire Sale (2005)—probably a gift from the same friend. These are but two out of the ten books in this series which are available at the Lennoxville Library (including one in large print!). Another four are available through ILL. I thought it would be fun to look at both of these works to see how the main character has changed (or not) in the intervening twelve years.

V.I. (Victoria Iphigenia) Warshawski (Vic to her friends) is a product of the mean streets of South Chicago. Her athletic abilities won her a basketball scholarship at the University of Chicago, where she eventually obtained a Law degree, unlike her creator, who holds both an MBA and a Ph.D. in History from that august institution. But now Vic lives in Lakeview, working full time as a private detective, which she has done from the beginning of the series.

In both stories, Vic starts out trying to do a favor for a friend and ends up being hired to look for missing persons. In both stories, she is looking for an oddly matched couple, so they should be pretty conspicuous. But in both stories, they seem to have vanished without a trace, leading Vic to fear the worst has happened. Her inquiries lead her to find dead bodies, but not those of the couples she has been engaged to find.

The two narratives take Vic into places that were Paretsky’s own stomping grounds. Fire Sale takes her back to South Chicago where Paretsky did social work during the 60s. Vic’s former basketball coach, who is dying of cancer, asks her to volunteer to coach her old school’s team. One of the players asks Vic to visit her mother, who has a problem that she wants help with. It turns out the factory where the mother works has been vandalized on several occasions. She fears that someone is trying to put the company out of business. Vic herself is badly injured when the factory blows up while she is investigating the premises.

Fallout takes Vic farther afield to Lawrence, Kansas. Paretsky grew up there because her father was a professor of Biology at the University of Kansas. This time the investigation is triggered by Vic’s cousin’s goddaughter, a Québecoise who plays hockey for Northwestern and has a friend whose cousin has disappeared. It turns out the missing cousin has been hired by an aging actress of some note to do a video of her life story, starting in Kansas where she grew up. No one has heard anything from either of them for several days, which gets Vic onto the road to the central plains.

Vic is invariably very quick to adopt conspiracy theories about why the people she is looking for have disappeared. But her instincts about who is conspiring to do what to whom are terrible…. Not only does this trait make her inefficient by sending her barking up wrong trees, but it also puts her in danger. One wonders how she can afford her medical bills on her earnings as a detective!

One of the charming features of these tales is Vic’s devotion to her dogs. They, in turn, are fiercely loyal to her, and sometimes help her uncover clues she could not have found on her own. Some friends, like her neighbor Mr. Contreras and her doctor Lotti stick with her for the twelve years. The men in her love life are another story.

An intriguing element in these adventures derives from Paretsky’s interest in small independent Christian churches. They play an important role in both stories, evincing in Vic considerable scepticism about the motives and beliefs of both the pastors and their parishioners. And Vic’s interactions with law enforcement officials are the source of some very witty dialogue.

On the whole, these mysteries are a good read. While Vic works hard at keeping in shape, she must be in her mid 50s by now, which makes some of her more athletic feats a bit hard to believe. We know Vic is getting older because Paretsky is careful to update her references to politicians, films, music and sports figures. In Fallout, the Cubs have just won the World Series.

Paretsky’s efforts have been well recognized by her peers. She is one of only four living writers who have received both the Edgar Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America (2011) and the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK (2002).

—Vincent Cuddihy

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Life and Death

From The Record, October 6, 2017 –Shanna Bernier

Life is filled with difficult conversations we must have with our children. With all the terrible things we hear on the news—from natural disasters to mass murders—being honest about the dark stuff can be really heavy. How do we share truth with them, and answer curious questions while balancing their need to remain pure and un-traumatized? Sometimes we can laugh it off, buck up, and share the difficult truths. Other times we might be paralyzed with fear of saying the wrong thing. One of the tricky subjects we face with our kids, sooner or later, is death. Death is a natural and inevitable part of life. It may be sooner rather than later that a child has to face this complex truth. Somewhere between a squished bug, a flushed goldfish, or any number of Disney Classics, your little one will be introduced to death.

My pre-schooler attended her first funerals during the 3rd year of her life. She had a number of logical and predictable questions which I felt mostly prepared to answer. The second funeral we went to as a family for a well-known parishioner from our church community was open casket. This experience was transformative for Bea as she had an unexpectedly direct visual experience with death. For weeks after the service she talked about it, and it wove into the fabric of her play. The statement which repeated itself over and over was, “When you are old and sick you die and lose your legs”. We were amused more than concerned, but it took us a long time to understand the reason why she was saying this. The casket hid the legs, and because she couldn’t see them, she thought they were gone. Bea developed her own understanding, based on observation, that one enters the afterlife legless.

Talking about death is a complex and personal matter. The way you choose to describe things would be different for different families with different faith backgrounds. What I think is important is honesty and using clear language. A lot of the ways we choose to talk about death in our culture use euphemisms which can be confusing to little kids. If you talk about Grampa as being “asleep” or “gone to a better place” it can be tricky for a literal-brained child to process.  As with every hard conversation we can have with kids, there is lots of wisdom by those who have lived it already, and consequently there are many great books to help open the door on this topic in a gentle and age-appropriate manner. Different situations might warrant a different type of book. The death of a beloved pet or a cherished Grandparent will be different to talk about than a miscarriage or infant death. None of these situations are easy breezy, and it is certainly challenging to think about when you might be feeling sad or grieving a loss yourself.

One of the first books I encountered which delves into this topic in a beautiful and simple way is called “Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children” by Bryan Mellonie. Available in the children’s section of the Lennoxville Library, this book aims to normalize the life cycle of all living creatures on earth, including people, without over complicating matters. It is written in clear and simple language and has beautiful illustrations. It is the kind of book which some kids might find a bit boring, as it repeats the same basic text with different types of creature experiencing their natural life-cycle. When I read it with my child, we had not experienced a loss. I took it out of the library as a curiosity rather than a tool, but many reviews online from parents and teachers claim is was vital in opening up a conversation with kids after experiencing a loss.

I am a big fan of the author and illustrator Todd Parr. His wildly colourful books are written on a number of great topics, ranging from family diversity, expressing our feelings, and accepting difference. His book about dealing with death and loss is called “The Goodbye Book” This reflective story shows a fish dealing with all the feelings and events after saying goodbye to another fish. It is a very simple and direct text, with a lot of open-ended conversations built in.

As much as we want to protect our kids from the scary and sad parts of life, they are woven into the rich fabric of our collective stories. The best we can aim to do is help our kids navigate the hard things so that they grow and learn and emerge stronger. And a good snuggle on the couch with storybook will only help on that journey.

—Shanna Bernier

Saturday morning at the Amédée-Beaudoin Center in Lennoxville there will be a play put on in French for children aged 5 to 11. Entitled “Réinventer la Bête,” this interactive work is designed to foster literacy and a love of reading. If your children are able to understand French, drop by for an interesting time. It will start at 9:30 and finish around 11:00. Admission is free but spaces are limited so please call the library at 819-562-4949 to confirm your presence.

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Stellar Dawg in Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain

From The Record, September 29, 2017 –Melanie Cutting

Over this past summer my sister came from the U.S. to the Townships for a visit. I insisted that we watch an episode of Downward Dog. This Pittsburgh-based show centres on a young woman’s dog, Martin, who keeps the audience in the know about his life as a canine millennial. Yes, he can speak, at least to the camera. Unfortunately, he has a limited understanding of the language spoken by the humans around him, and much of the humour of the show derives from Martin’s misperceptions about his life with Nan, his owner. I found it very quirky and often downright hilarious.

My sister said to me, “So, if you like talking dogs, you should read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain.” It sounded vaguely familiar, probably because it was a N.Y. Times bestseller for 156 weeks when it was published in 2008.  Although I was a little concerned that it would be a little too Marley and Me, I decided to go ahead and pick up a copy. Rather disappointingly, it turned out to be not at all funny: the narrator-dog, Enzo, cannot even talk, although he does a heck of a lot of reacting to what people around him are saying, and complaining about his inability to form words:

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively.  In order to make my point understood without question.  I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.


As you can see, he has a pretty wide vocabulary, for a dog.  What’s more, he is convinced that he is actually a human-waiting-to-happen, a hope stemming from a documentary on TV about dogs in Mongolia.  (Enzo is a TV addict; in addition to being a total fan of car-racing footage, he has a full list of favourite actors, including Steve McQueen and Al Pacino [NB NOT Rin Tin Tin].)

As an animal lover, of course, I knew—even with this prima facie lack of humour—that I  would nevertheless read and enjoy the tale. One problem is that I tear up very easily whenever a child or animal is sick, injured, endangered, etc. so I generally avoid books on these themes. (Note: Enzo’s demise is in the cards from the very start, so there is no spoiler alert necessary.)

The story concerns Enzo’s owner, Denny, a budding race car driver and mechanic in drizzly Seattle, and his family and friends—and most affectingly, his relationship with Enzo.  Named after famed Italian car designer Enzo Ferrari, Enzo the dog is a participant in virtually all aspects of Denny’s life over the course of their 10 or so years together.

Although initially somewhat resentful of Eve, Denny’s wife, Enzo quickly moves past his jealousy, eventually accepting both Eve and, later on, their daughter, Zoë.  As a much-smarter-than-average dog, he recognizes how much joy these two bring to Denny’s life, and he is suitably devastated by Eve’s death part way through the book. (Again, non-spoiler alert: this is related in the first few pages!)

While the lives of Denny, Zoë, and Enzo are shattered by Eve’s death, things get worse when Zoë’s custody is challenged by Eve’s parents, well-meaning but selfish people who never liked Denny.  Worse comes horribly to worst when they engineer a full-blown court case calling Denny’s fitness as a father into question.  Denny’s financial ruin is only one of the many consequences of their actions.  One especially moving segment of the book occurs when Denny is sorely tempted to give in to the pressure Eve’s parents have brought to bear, but is physically restrained by Enzo’s timely intervention.

Throughout the book there are references to the qualities that make for a successful race car driver, and, by extension, a successful person.  “Your car goes where your eye goes” is Denny’s mantra, and the art of racing in the rain in particular is used as a metaphor for life:

“Very gently.  Like there are eggshells on your pedals,” Denny always says, “and you don’t want to break them.  That’s how you drive in the rain.”  Balance, anticipation, patience.  These are all vital.  Peripheral vision, seeing things  you’ve never seen before.  Kinesthetic sensation, driving by the seat of the pants.  But what I’ve always liked best is when he talks about having no memory.  No memory of things he’d done just a second before.  Good or bad.  Because memory is time folding back on itself.  To remember is to disengage from the present.  In order to reach any kind of success in automobile racing, a driver must never remember.

The appealing cover of this 321-page paperback features the head of a Golden retriever-type dog from the nose up, staring directly at the reader.  American writer Garth Stein, author of two previous novels and one more recent one (2014), has parlayed Enzo’s story into a small cottage industry.  There are Enzo children’s books, an interactive website, and several versions of the original book, as well as a feature film in the offing.

All in all, an enjoyable tear-jerker,  loaded with life lessons and more race-car references than any person—or dog— actually needs. The Art of Racing in the Rain can be had in the Lennoxville Library.

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Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge: A Story for Our Times

From The Record, September 22, 2017 —Stephen Sheeran

Jerry: Boy, he’s a real bounder, isn’t he?
Elaine: Yes. He’s one of those bounders…

—Seinfeld “The Soup”

In that memorable episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine simultaneously discover the phenomenological essence of bounderhood. New Yorkers born and bred, they have finally encountered a genuine English bounder in the form of Elaine’s latest boyfriend. In a second-hand bookstore I recently stumbled across a copy of Charles Dickens’ classic Barnaby Rudge, and I must say that in the reading of it similar moments of cultural a-ha! reactions are common. Any of you who hark back to your brief Dickens encounters at school will remember that in his works bounders abound, and there are cads, knaves, scoundrels, rascals, popinjays, blighters, waifs, orphans, and paupers by the dozen.


In these days when viewers anxiously wait for the latest episode of Billionaires, Twin Peaks, or Peaky Blinders, it is hard to credit that for the mid-nineteenth century audience the latest episode of a Dickens novel (most of which were conceived as serial publications) filled the same exciting gap. Famously, fans were said to have lined the docks in New York and Boston waiting for the episode of The Old Curiosity Shop that would reveal the fate of Little Nell.


Barnaby Rudge (NB full title Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty) was Dickens’ 5th major publication and it appeared in 1841. It was an historical novel focusing on the events surrounding the Gordon Riots which had occurred 60 years previously. The causes of these riots were complex, but a central issue was a proposed legislation to eliminate long-standing discriminatory laws against Catholics—laws that impeded education, service in the military, and other basic rights. This proposed legislation led to fear and hate-mongering, especially on the part of Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, who spread the view that relaxing these anti-Catholic laws would pave the way to political and military weakness. At the head of an unruly mob, he presented a petition to parliament. This served as a flashpoint for widespread discontent amongst the poor, the oppressed, and the chronically malcontent. Lords were roughed up, Catholic churches and houses were burned, and prisons were stormed and prisoners set free. At this point England was in the midst of several foreign conflicts, not the least of which was the American Revolution, and the riots threatened the country’s internal stability. The rioters and ringleaders were dealt with harshly.


These real-life events provide the backdrop for the novel, and Dickens gives his readers their money’s worth when it comes to characters and plotting. We are introduced (on a dark a stormy night) to the denizens of the aged Maypole Pub, some 12 miles away from London: John Willet (blighter), the pub owner, who sorely oppresses his handsome and kindly son, Joe. We meet Edward Chester, the honest and well-intentioned son (paradoxically) of the villainous (scoundrel) Sir John Chester, Esquire, M.P. We are also introduced to a mystery, involving the murder some 21 years ago of Rueben Haredale at a nearby manor.  We are soon introduced to the title character, Barnaby Rudge, a young man who is mentally deficient—an innocent, an idiot, a mooncalf—but doted upon by his mother, Mary Rudge. Barnaby is very strong, gifted with a wonderful imagination, but he is easily distracted, and all too easily drawn by sinister characters into the political turmoil of London and the riots.


One of Dickens’ great strengths is that he is able to introduce a huge cast of characters all with deftly drawn backgrounds and generate plots which see their interests overlap, converge, and collide. We meet the sinister Hugh, a hostler at the Maypole Inn, who, as a child, saw his mother hung for a minor theft. He will soon become involved with a hangman, Ned Dennis, and they will both become deeply implicated in the mayhem. We meet Simon Tappertit, an unstable apprentice to a locksmith, who sneaks out at night to preside over the secret society of ’Prentice Knights aka United Bulldogs, a group that will contribute enthusiastically to the impending chaos. Most importantly we meet Lord George Gordon, and his evil and obsequious and conniving secretary, Mr Gashford, and his able servant John Grueby.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Barnaby Rudge is that it depicts perfectly the growth and explosion of a mass movement. Lord George Gordon is firmly convinced that he is acting out of noble principles and has the best interests of his country at heart. He has an almost mystical conviction of his own rightness and is very much an unconscious narcissist. He keeps seeking the approval of his underlings and at the same time feeding off their faith in him. His convoluted speeches, though frequently incomprehensible, tap into the discontent of his listeners. His calls for “No Popery” send them into transports of elation.


Dickens evokes perfectly the organic quality of mob behaviour. When the hapless Mr. Haredale (a Catholic) is confronted by a hostile crown the moment is well rendered: “They were not silent, however, though inactive. At first some indistinct mutterings arose among them, which were followed by a hiss or two, and these swelled by degrees into a perfect storm. Then one voice said, ‘Down with the Papists!’ and there was a pretty general cheer, but nothing more. After a lull of a few moments, one man cried out, ‘Stone him;’ another, ‘Duck him;’ another, in a stentorian voice, ‘No Popery!’ This favourite cry the rest re-echoed, and the mob, which might have been two hundred strong, joined in a general shout.”


It is uncanny that Dickens should be able to depict in such stark, real terms the nature of mob behaviour. The fact that we have witnessed this identical behaviour in political rallies south of the border over the past two years is an unfortunate testimony to his enduring relevance.


Barnaby Rudge can be ordered by interlibrary loan through the Lennoxville Library and it is also available online via Project Gutenberg  in a version that includes all the original illustrations.




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Father Brown? Phooey! Give us Max Tudor!

From The Record, September 15, 2017

—Vincent Cuddihy

On the occasion of my recent birthday [I won’t say which!], a friend from Boston gave me a book by G. M. Malliet. Malliet is a well-travelled American writer who spent several years doing graduate studies in the UK and now resides in Alexandria, Virginia. The somewhat redundantly titled A Fatal Winter (2012) is the second in the seasonally titled Max Tudor series, of which there are now six with a seventh due out next year. She is also the author of the Inspector St. Just series, one of which won an Agatha Award, and several of her other works have been nominated for the same prize. Six categories of Agatha Awards are given annually by Malice Domestic Inc. for the cozy mystery subgenre (closed setting, no sex or violence, amateur detective). Weycombe, her first stand-alone novel, is scheduled for release next month. The Lennoxville Library has three of her books: two in English and one in French translation, and A Fatal Winter can be speedily accessed through inter-library loan.

Malliet’s work has been compared favourably to that of both Agatha Christie and the Townships’ own Louise Penny, whose latest Inspector Gamache mystery, Glass Houses, is available at the Lennoxville Library.  In fact, A Fatal Winter reveals several links to our local celeb. There is an acknowledgement of of Ms. Penny’s generosity in supporting Malliet’s writing ambitions, and there is also a very strong endorsement from the Knowlton author herself. Of another work, Penny has said, “Rarely have I read descriptions that have left me gasping, in both their hilarity and their painful truth.”

Max Tudor is a former MI5 agent who has heard the call and taken Holy Orders. He is now vicar of St. Edwold’s church in the village of Nether Monkslip in South West England. (Mind you, this “village” does have train service, which is more than most of us villagers can say.) But Max has not forgotten the skills he acquired at MI5, nor has he lost his love of the chase. These facts are not wasted on DCI Cotton of the Monkslip-super-Mare police. So when Oscar Footrustle, lord of nearby Chedrow Castle, is found murdered in his bed, and his twin sister Lady Leticia is found dead shortly thereafter, Cotton knows the man he wants on the inside.

Ostensibly Father Max is brought in to offer advice on funeral arrangements and to provide grief counselling. He arrives to find the castle is full of the Footrustles’ children and grandchildren who have been summoned, much to their surpise, by Oscar (ante-mortem) from various places around the globe for a family Christmas celebration. Max quickly discovers that no one is interested in his ideas for funerals and that there is scant grief to counsel. Moreover, the siblings’ animosity towards each other is not much less than it had been towards their recently deceased parents.

One of Malliet’s strengths is her drily humorous renditions of characters’ thoughts: “Max was a peacemaker by nature, and conflict of any size sparked an overwhelming need in him to intervene, to quell the disturbance. Max now called on all his acquired skills in calming troubled waters. After all, he reminded himself, he had faced down a variety of rancorous church committees, not to mention the notoriously cranky Nether Monkslip Book Club, whose members often came to grief in deciding on the monthly read. Dealing with this dysfunctional family, a murderous psychopath among them, should be easy by comparison.”

Max’s cover is fully blown when Cotton invites him to sit in on the interviews with the survivors/witnesses/suspects. Everyone, including the servants, had hopes of receiving an inheritance, so they all had a motive to kill one or both of the twins. Moreover, most of them have had some experience in show business, so it is difficult to tell when they are acting and when they are not. Max’s worst fears are realized when there is another murder. While this death complicates matters, it also opens up new avenues of inquiry.

A Fatal Winter is a fun read, or as much fun as one can expect when there are three deaths. A big part of the amusement comes from the major sub-plot. Father Max is unattached, dashingly handsome, a skilled dancer, and a lover of animals. None of this goes unnoticed by the women of the village. If Malliet were a man and let her male characters talk about women the way her women talk about Max, she would probably find herself being roundly denounced from the second-storey windows as a sexist swine. “If I thought I’d be in with a chance, I’d dump my old misery-guts of a husband and go after Father Max myself.”

Readers are cautioned to have access to both an architectural and a horticultural dictionary. Malliet goes into considerable detail in her description of the castle and the gardens that appertain thereto. And like Louise Penny, she is well acquainted with good food. So keep the kitchen door locked when she is describing meals or trips to the bakery.

—Vincent Cuddihy

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Moovin’ Blues!

From The Record, September 8th, 2017

Viorst Alexander images

September is upon us, a time of new beginnings, great transitions and major life changes. Many members of our community have just returned to school: the children and teens and CEGEP-goers have already been back for over a week, and the University students have just arrived. Moving away from home for the first time is one of life’s greatest transitions. Suddenly far away (or not as close) to parental support, laundry services and home cooked meals, a first-year student might feel lonely or ill prepared. Let us all take a moment in our varied communities to send positive thoughts to the new students as they embark on this great journey.

Moving in general is hard. My young family is in the thick of packing boxes, sorting our belongings and building IKEA furniture. I know that if I was given the opportunity I could lament until the cows come home about how challenging and stressful moving is. I am a naturally tidy and organized person, and this experience is forcing so much chaos into my habitat. Moving forces us to open old wounds, examine sacred memories, and shed unnecessary items which you have been keeping (sometimes for no discernible reason). All of this is stressful enough for an average adult—trying to pack and move and go to appointments related to moving while maintaining some semblance of normal life—but take a moment to ponder how this can effect a child. I have two kids, ages 4 and 1. Both of them seem to be trucking along fine despite the major upheavals which are going on around them. Baby Merry is too young to understand what we are doing, but gets to enjoy playing with boxes and running around the (so-far) empty rooms of our new house. Bea is older and has a pretty good understanding of what it happening. It isn’t going to be too different for her once we actually move. We are only going 1km down the road. Her life will continue on as it has, but at the same time, I can see that she is affected by this ordeal. Several times she has asked me if “Marcus,” her favourite dolly, will make the move with us. She sometimes asks if the new house will have our furniture in it. She is excited about all the new, but I wonder how she will feel when we say goodbye to the only home she has ever lived in. She has lived here long enough to form long-term memories, and I hope that someday when we look at baby pictures, and when we walk in the neighbourhood she will remember.

I think most kids are pretty good at adapting to new experiences. They quickly adjust to starting a new school year, moving to a new neighborhood or a new city, making new friends, and creating new connections and new memories. I try to not spend too much time worrying about whether or not this experience will be traumatic or difficult for my kids, because I am not taking them to a new community or a new school. Even so, as with any parenting issue I am faced with, I turn to children’s books as a source of wisdom. Children’s books take hard stuff of life and boil it down into stories and pictures that little ones can understand and relate to. If there is turmoil, we can work through it by exploring those feelings through a book.

The two stories I have chosen which are about moving are both generally favourites of mine. They are also both available at the Lennoxville Library.

The first, “Augustine” by Melanie Watt, tells a lovely story of a young penguin moving from the South Pole, all the way to the North Pole. Watt, who hails from Montreal, is the author and illustrator of several wonderful children’s books, including the “Chester” cat books. Augustine is an artistic and pun-filled tale. The story is simple enough:  Augustine moves, and feels sad, and misses his home and his friends. He manages to find his voice and his place though drawing pictures in his new school. Each page is a magical collection of art history references and hidden “easter eggs” of illustration. The little penguin feels some big feelings, but is able to adapt and make new friends.

The second story, which can be found in Judith Viorst’s “Absolutely Positively Alexander : The Complete Stories” is called  “Alexander, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to move”

The character Alexander is a somewhat whiny boy, whose life is generally filled with young boy misfortunes which he laments. The prose is written in hilarious-to-read run-on sentences and it captures the raw emotions of a younger brother determined not to leave his home and refusing to pack, because he isn’t going to move. I really like the Alexander books because they aren’t really happy. They are amusing, because they ring so true. Life is hard when you are a kid, which I sometimes forget, because life is hard when you are an adult.

Sometimes when standing still is impossible, we have to move—even when moving is hard.

—Shanna Bernier


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Thien is to China as Díaz is to Dominican Republic as Marquez is to Colombia as…

From The Record, September 1st, 2017








The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz… Now, I am no lackey to the pundits or critics, but those who saw fit to award Díaz’s work the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize got it right. I durst not enter into a battle of superlatives with the dust-jackets and websites, but the work is immediately arresting and compelling, and—for a comparatively traditional reader such as yrs sincerely!—very young and fresh in its use of language.

The main character of the story is Oscar de Léon, a native Dominican Republican who enjoys, as an immigrant kid in New Jersey, a few golden years as a casanova, then morphs into a fat, bezitted ghetto nerd with zero appeal for the ladies: “at best they ignored him, at worst they shrieked and called him gordo asqueroso!”

“Gordo asqueroso”, loosely translated as “fat, disgusting”, is something which, one discovers after some research, is glossed at a website entitled, an indispensible aid to readers. This is because one aspect of the work that is both daunting and rewarding is a rich, dense use of language. Spanglish, Hispanic inner-city slang, allusions to Dominican history, contemporary nerd culture, and grunge bands appear with alarming frequency, and there are really no superfluous references. They all somehow drive the story ahead. In short, be prepared to do some digging if you want to appreciate the nuances of the story.

We follow Oscar through his painful high school years which see him bullied, rejected, mocked, and terminally sexually frustrated because of his character and appearance and obsession with science fiction (aka “genres”).

The narrative then leaves Oscar to take up with Oscar’s sister, Dolores (Lola) de Léon, who goes through a violent stage of teen-age rebellion which sees her embracing Goth culture, dropping out of school, selling french-fries on the Jersey Shore boardwalk, and moving in with a 19-year-old bumper-car operator. She is ultimately secured and de-programmed by her family and packed off to the Dominican Republic to live with her adoptive grandmother, La Inca.

You will have to summon all your powers of concentration as the story advances because Díaz uses a broken chronology—he focuses on Oscar (1974 – 1987), Lola (1982 – 1985), then their mother, Belicia Cabral (1955 – 1962), Oscar (1988 – 1992), then Belicia’s father (1944 – 1946), then Oscar again. So as Oscar’s main narrative advances, we are taken back in history to see how his mother and grandfather suffered under the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, Dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 – 1961. In effect, the comparatively banal and sordid accounts of the two siblings coming of age opens up into a sweeping history of generations of horror and trauma.

Throughout the story we see the characters being buffeted by their external circumstances—poverty, rejection, oppression—but also, by elements of personality and supernatural forces that alternately bring misery upon or protect them. The most significant of these is the FUKÚ which we are introduced to in the early chapters. It is a curse or an evil karma that was hatched, unleashed, born (???) with the arrival of the Europeans in the New World. This curse is what has brought about unremitting suffering at the hands of various dictators and is like a jinx that will randomly claim victims.  In addition there is a force of “bruja” which seems a type of witchcraft, a wanderlust, at times a sexual adventurism, which seems to drive characters to destruction. There is also “zafa” which is a positive spell or positive magic conjured up to ward off evil.

As the story unfolds, we discover the unfortunate circumstances (including ill-fated encounters with Trujillo and associates) which first orphan Belicia Cabral then force her to flee the Domican Republic in fear for her life. Oscar himself, harmless old Oscar, runs afoul of members of the fascist establishment with dire consequences. At various odd moments we are introduced to guardian specters like the Mongoose and the Faceless Man, who seem both harbingers of evil and protectors. In the end Oscar seems to embrace his destiny and in a way absorb all the aspects, good and bad, of his family legacy.

In keeping with the tradition of Magic Realism it is difficult to situate exactly where the fiction leaves off and reality takes over. The background is (for the most part) meticulously constructed, with details of Dominican history woven in with the personal histories of the various family members. Those familiar with Jorge Luis Borgés and Gabriel Garcia Marquez will note more than a passing similarity. Oddly enough, this novel bears a resemblance to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (reviewed in the Record, Good Reads, November 18th of last year) but this resemblance is explained when we discover that Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude influenced both Thien and Díaz profoundly. All three stories deal with the history of one family over several generations with a backdrop  of hardship, tragedy,  and political turmoil. Underlying all works is the idea of identity—how the individual consciousness and meaning are fashioned out of the events and beliefs of previous generations.

Yep! We do have this in the Lennoxville Library.

—Stephen Sheeran

If you are moving or downsizing or in any way contemplating lightening your load of books, consider donating them to the Lennoxville Library. We will either use them in our collection or sell them to book enthusiasts who will provide them with happy homes. Contact us at 819-562-4949 or drop by at 101 Queen Street to make a book donation.

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