“A Secret Sisterhood” by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

This book tells the quite fascinating stories of a number of famous women writers and the support they received from female friends.

The authors are successful women writers themselves who have become friends through their writing – and so they know wherof they are writing in this book. We are all familiar with male literary friendships – all the way from Byron and Shelley to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the most celebrated female authors are mostly known as solitary geniuses or isolated eccentrics.

In this book we learn of the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants called Anne Sharp, who used to write plays for the children and helped criticize Austen’s work. There is an amazing description of the way Harriet Beecher Stowe, a successful writer, sent off a letter to “My Dear Friend” across the Atlantic to an equally successful writer who had taken the nom de plume George Eliot, and they became friends. As did Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. This book does a very successful job of offering a new perspective on established literary figures.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“I Am, I Am, I Am” by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell is a well-known Irish writer with a number of prize-winning novels to her name. In this one, she looks at the near-death experiences that have jarred her own life. She takes the title from another writer, Sylvia Plath who, in The Bell Jar, wrote: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

O’Farrell describes the man she meets on a mountain path who puts his binocular strap around her neck, but then frees her, only to turn up later in police records. O’Farrell was born with a childhood illness, encephalitis, which damaged those parts of her brain involved in movement and balance. She tells of some occasions when this caused real danger. She also had a dangerous experience in labour in an understaffed hospital and almost lost her child.

She had other children, however. One of them, a daughter, is living in permanent danger from a condition called anaphylaxis. It is a daily struggle for O’Farrell to protect her from this medical condition that leaves her vulnerable to many dangers. It is no wonder O’Farrell feels nothing is given in this life, every day is precious, every moment a gift.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Ghost Orchard” by Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys is a prize-winning writer, living in Kingston, Ontario who loves to write about nature, agriculture, and how people relate to them.
This book was inspired when she found a White Winter Pearmain – considered the best-tasting apple in the world – growing beside an abandoned cabin near her home. The book has superb colour photographs of this apple as well as a number of others. It has an imaginary chapter on how Pearmain might have been discovered, in England, AD 1200. But there are lots of actual facts about the history of apples, including how bountiful orchards run by the indigenous people of North America were stolen or wiped out by the white settlers and their armies. It was reckoned that there were some 17,000 varieties of apple available in the 1800s, and the U.S. Department of Pomology made a record of these.
There is a fascinating chapter on Robert Frost, the poet, who had an orchard on his farm in Derry, New Hampshire and puts apples in many of his poems. When he moved to the UK, he became friends with Ezra Pound, as well as the English poet Edward Thomas, who loved to walk in the country, look for apples, and put them in their poems. It all makes this a charming book.
Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Chosen Maiden” by Eva Stachniak

This is a stunning book on the history of ballet as it played out in the tumultuous years of early 20th century Europe.
The Chosen Maiden was in fact the real-life sister of the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Bronislava Nijinskaya was dancing at the same time as her brother. She was also writing many of the ballets, including one of the most spectacular, The Rite of Spring with its role of Chosen Maiden. The Nijinsky family did not let jealousy ruin their careers and on the whole they helped each other along in every way.
Eva Stachniak has already written five historical novels which hold prizes around the world. They include The Winter Palace, which tells the intimate story of Catherine the Great. In this one, she works with the Memoirs of Bronia, which run up to the end of August 1914. After that she explored the Bronislava Nijinskaya Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and from a vast collection of diaries, correspondence, photographs and scrapbooks she has built what she calls an archival fantasy, or fictional blend of facts and imagination. It makes for a wonderful read.
Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“An Irish Country Practice” by Patrick Taylor

Dr. Patrick Taylor has written more than a dozen novels on every aspect of his beloved village of Ballybucklebo in Northern Ireland. They introduce us to a family doctor, whose practice has grown by leaps and bounds to include a trusted partner and, in this book, a new trainee.
Dr. Taylor was born and raised in Bangor, County Down, in Northern Ireland and is a distinguished medical researcher himself. He is quite familiar with all the medical problems he describes in his mythical Ballybucklebo. The doctors see their patients through difficult challenges, including a housewife whose frequent “accidents” may have a disturbing cause in her own household.
There is also plenty of fun and merriment, from a visiting circus to racing and sailing. Critics consider Taylor probably the most popular Irish-Canadian writer of all time. He is the father of two grown children, and presently living on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.
Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“At the Stranger’s Gate” by Adam Gopnik

This is an unusual memoir by a writer about a writer. Adam Gopnik tells us all about himself, his blessed marriage, and his hugely successful career in New York City where he is famous as an essayist and a novelist.

At the Stranger’s Gate covers the 1980s when Gopnik and his bride left a secure spot in their hometown of Montreal and decided to go for the bigger challenges that New York offered. Gopnik had a fellowship in art history and planned to get writing jobs on the side. He was soon working at the Frick Art Reference Library, the Museum of Modern Art, and sending essays to the The New Yorker which quickly earned him a permanent spot.

He and Martha could only afford a basement studio which measured 9 x 11 feet and was situated on the Upper East Side. They called it their Blue Room, after a popular song of the day and were apparently happy for three years. They explored the whole of Manhattan, often by walking, and the book’s title refers to a distant corner of Central Park which they loved.

Adam’s writing career continued to flourish, thanks to his funny and frank way of expressing himself. There were also some terrible moments, however, as when his brand new suit trousers fell out of the garment bag on the way home and he never did find them. In the 80s, New York was becoming a city of greed where its beauty (like art and music) and its necessities (food and real estate) went to the highest bidder. This book gives an excellent picture of how one family persevered in making it a successful home.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Break” by Katherena Vermette

This is the up-close story of a number of Indigenous girls and women living in a northern Canadian town and suffering some form of hurt and disaster for which they have not been helped. We hear about these women as a group, but this book shows what they suffer individually.

It begins with a possible incident on The Break, the name given a strip of barren land that runs through a poorer part of town. Stella, a young Metis mother, looks out and sees a body knocked down and blood on the ground. When the police come, they don’t believe her story. The rest of the book introduces a number of other girls and women from First Nations who have their own tragedies. They all turn to each other for comfort, and usually have a wise and kind grandmother, called Kookom who helps them through. There is also Officer Scott, a Metis policeman, who feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city.

This is Katherena Vermette’s first book of fiction (she has published North End Love Songs, a book of poetry). She does a fine job of showing the resiliency of Indigenous women and the power of family love and also helps the rest of us try to understand how to help them.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

“The Great Gould” by Peter Goddard

There have been many books written on Glenn Gould but this one, by the music critic of The Toronto Star and author of a number of musical biographies, brings new light to this complicated genius.

Born in the northern edge of the Beaches neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, Gould happened to live next door to the leading print journalist, Robert Fulford. Fulford watched Gould’s talent bursting forth but also noted the relentless pressure from his mother. Fulford and Gould formed the New Music Associates, a concert series that didn’t last long, unlike Gould’s piano-playing career which took off and had Gould playing in Russia in 1957, all over Europe in 1958 and in a U.S. TV debut in 1960 with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.

In 1955 Gould made his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and this has become one of the greatest recordings in music history. While Gould’s musical career was flourishing, his personal life was not. He lived at home into his thirties, had few friends and one short-lived love affair with a married woman. Goddard notes his loneliness, and difficulty in making and keeping friends. He had many eccentricities in playing, and insisted on using a particular chair with cut-off legs. By 1964 he gave his last public performance in Los Angeles and from then on made recordings only.

They are famous recordings, however. A recent BBC documentary on Gould suggests he may have suffered from Asperger syndrome, or autistic spectrum disorder. This would explain his need to have control of things as well as his intense concentration on what he was doing. Gould died aged 50. He has left the rest of us a wonderful musical legacy.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore

This is another novel by Helen Dunmore, the American writer who has become famous for some fifteen books in which she uses huge canvases of actual history as backdrops to up-close human tragedies. Birdcage Walk is not only her latest book, it is also her last. Dunmore died in the spring of 2017.

Birdcage Walk takes place as the French Revolution is boiling up. It is set, however, in the UK, in the town of Bristol. Here, as elsewhere, England is at the height of the Romantic era and British radicalism. A young bride, Lizzie Fawkes, has grown up in radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. She is married to John Diner Tredevant, however, who is a property developer and heavily invested in Bristol’s property boom. He is looking for money to finance a particularly fine terrace overlooking the city’s two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge. As the Revolution in France sharpens, the investors are dropping away. John is angry that his wife continues to express her radical views and does not put his business interests first.

This is the story of a marriage and how it struggles to survive against forces far away that it can’t control. Dunmore is highly praised for writing that is both elegant and revealing.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” by Kathleen Rooney

This is a passionate love letter to the city of New York inspired by the life of an American woman who lived there in the 30’s and became the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world

The woman was called Margaret Fishback, and the author of this book bases Lillian Boxfish on her life, but apart from that writes an entirely new novel. Lilian was born in 1926 to a comfortable family living in Washington. She found she could write, and was determined to get to New York and earn her own living that way. Her family helped her initially, and insisted she live in the Christian Women’s Hotel in Midtown, until she could afford her own apartment. It didn’t take very long before Lilian landed a job at R.H. Macy’s writing advertising copy. She was original and witty and very soon earning a top salary. She also wrote poems, funny and charming. Her first book Oh, Do not ask for Promises was a smash hit and sold out, as did all her others up to the last Nobody’s Darling.

Lilian lived in six apartments altogether. She also fell deeply in love with a manager of a department at Macy’s, married and had one son whom she adored always. What distinguished her from other successful New Yorkers was her passion for the city, the actual streets. She walked every day, usually about five miles, on the way to work, at lunch time and in the evening to parties. She felt the street was the source of the latest things humans have invented and she looked for these all the time. She never ran into danger in her walking.

It’s a very original book and a new look at a city many have tried to describe before.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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