April 2015
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Galore by Michael Crummey


The invincible power that has moved the worldGalore
            is unrequited, not happy, love.

I will bring my people again from the depths of the sea.

And while we’re reading quotations, I like this one from the back of the book jacket:

“The guy can really write: atmospheric, lucid, sophisticated storytelling with real heart.”                              Anne Enright, Irish Times

Mary Tryphena appears on the first page as a child and I was taken captive by the name alone and soon by the character herself. On the beach at the end of April is a beached whale waiting to be butchered by the population of Paradise Deep. A population of “Irish and West Country English and the bushborns of uncertain provenance – were camped on the grey sand…on the feast day of St. Mark.”

“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels.”

Mary Tryphena is sent by her father to fetch Devine’s widow, her grandmother, who had that morning delivered Mary Tryphena’s brother. The work of harvesting the whale had been going on all day. Fires were burning on the beach to render the blubber, the stench was overpowering and the white underbelly was exposed with the stomach’s membrane floating free in the shallows.  “The Torcher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.”

“The body was dragged out of the water by Devine’s Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father. No one else would touch it though every soul on the beach crowded around to look. A young man’s face but the strangeness of the details made it impossible to guess his age. White eyebrows and lashes, a patch of salt-white hair at the crotch. Even the lips were colourless, nipples so pale they were nearly invisible on the chest. Mary Tryphena hugged her father’s thigh and stared, Callum holding her shoulder to stop her moving any closer.”

Eventually the bystanders decided that the “unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the day’s work to get on with.” Jabez Trim conducted a service from his incomplete copy of the Bible and Mary Tryphena’s father and James Woundy began to haul the body off the landwash. They stopped to argue about whether the man was dead or alive and “Mary Tryphena stood watching the pale, pale figure as the argument went on. A man delivered from the wale’s belly and lying dead in his own filth on the stones. Entrance and exit. Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not. Froth bubbled from the mouth and when the corpse began coughing all but the widow and Mary Tryphena scattered up off the beach, running fortheir homes like the hounds of hell were at their heels.”

They decide to take the man to Selina’s house which was a” Wexford-style farmhouse with a fieldstone chimney at its centre, polished wooden floors upstairs and down. Mullioned windows imported from the West Country of England, iron-latched doors. ” It was a wedding gift from Selina’s father but she had lived for seven years in a plain stud tilt, the rough logs chinked with moss and clapboarded with bark and she birthed three children in that shelter.

“On the morning of their (she and King-me Sellers) seventh anniversary, Selina refused to get out of bed. -I”ll lie here, she told her husband, until there’s a door on that house o close behind me.” Once the front door was hung,’Selina got out of bed and dressed, packed her clothes into a trunk and walked the fifty yards to her new home.”

Selina is just one example of the folks who live in Paradise Deep. You will meet her husband King-me Sellers, Jabez Trim the owner of the incomplete Bible, the Widow Devine who doctored the community, Callum Devine the son of the Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father Callum, his wife Lizzie, Father Phelan and, of course, “the albino stranger…known as Judah. There are also King-me and Selina’s son Absalom and Saul Toucher and his ten-year-old triplets and Olive Trim, Jabez’s wife who walks on her hands. Oh, and Levi and Henley and and and………

After Judah arrived, the cod reappeared in great numbers. People began to call him the Great White or St. Jude. Many believed he could heal. He recognized his name and came when called, even followed orders, but he didn’t speak and folks treated him as if he were deaf.

The book might have been called Mary Tryphena or even Judah because it covers each of their lives. But it covers so much more! There are stories galore and characters galore and tears and smiles galore! Entertainment galore you might say. I’m planning on rereading very soon.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“I was used to people looking at her. It had happened often in Pátzcuaro. Maribel had the kind of beauty that reduced people to simpletons. Once upon a time grown men would break into smiles as she walked past. The boys in her school would come to the house, shoving each other awkwardly when I opened the door, asking if she was home. Of course, that was before the accident. She looked the same now as she always had, but people knew – almost everyone in our town knew – that she had changed. They seemed to believe she was no longer worthy of their attention or maybe that it was wrong to look at her now, that there was something perverse about it, and they averted their gaze.
But this boy looked. He looked because he didn’t know. And the way he looked made me uncomfortable.”

Arturo exits the store. Maribel’s mother signals the presence of the boy to Arturo who tells her to just walk as he clasps Maribel’s hand and steps out.

The setting is Delaware. The boy’s name is Mayor. Maribel’s family has just Book of Unknown Americansarrived from Mexico.The boy’s parents have learned from another tenant in the same building that their last name is Rivera and they are legal (all of them have visas). The landlord’s name is Fito. The Riveras are being sponsored by the mushroom farm where Arturo Rivera will be employed.

Mayor (Toro) gets bullied all the time at school. He s in his second year. His brother Enrique was very popular and had been awarded a full-ride soccer scholarship to Maryland. Two weeks into practice the coach told Mayor to “just sit it out for awhile”. He “felt like a loser”.

Mayor’s dad was born in Los Santos in Panamá. His father had a bad temper and he modelled himself upon his dad. His wife Celia helped him change and then Panamá was invaded and life changed and they decided to leave.  When asked where his home is now he proudly says los Estados Unidos. He and Celia miss Panamá but only the Panamá of the past. “Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.”

The job at the mushroom farm was the only one with the a company that was near Maribel’s school that had been willing to sponsor their visas. Arturo had to stand in a warehouse for ten hours and pick mushrooms out of the dirt in the dark without water or food. There were quotas to be met. He had to take three buses to get to the job which was over the state line in Pennsylvania. In Mexico Arturo had owned a construction business.

They had to wait to hear from the school so that Maribel could start. The school they had understood that she would attend was the Evers School but Alma learns that Maribel does not have an Individualized Education Plan so she must first go to another school where it will be determined whether she is eligible for special education services.  This will take as long as two months. The doctor in Mexico had provided a letter and they had understood that entrance to Evers was a sure thing.

And so begins a new set of challenges for each member  of the family. “We had to push past trepidation and believe that by sending her off we were doing the right thing. What other choice did we have?”

Alma tried to learn English by studying people’s mouths as they spoke English. They had picked up an old television put out to the road for junk. She found the people spoke too fast and she couldn’t tell if she was “mouthing individual words or bunches of them strung together like grapes.” When she went out for food she thought she was being followed by a boy and she feared for her daughter but the landlord was able to reassure her that the boy need not be a source of worry.

The boy was Mayor and eventually he is introduced to Alma and Maribel by his mother Celia when they are shopping at the Dollar Tree. After the introductions, Mayor thinks:

“Maribel, I said to myself.  Forget about how she was dressed – white canvas sneakers straight out of another decade and a huge yellow sweater over leggings – and forget about the fact that her black hair was mussed up like she’d just woken up and the fact that she wasn’t wearing anything else that most of the girls in my school liked to pile on. Forget about all of that.  She was fucking gorgeous.
My heart was jackhammering so hard I thought people from the next aisle were going to start complaining about the noise.”

When Mayor learns that Maribel was supposed to go to the Evers School both he and his mom are surprised.

“I looked at the girl again. Evers? That was the school for retards. We all called it the Turtle School.” That’s when Mayor realized “There was something wrong with her. I never would have guessed it. I mean, to look at her…it didn’t seem possible.”

Interspersed between the ongoing story of the Riveras and the Toros are stories of other immigrants to Delaware such as Benny Quinto from Nicaragua and Gustavo Milhojas from Guatemala and Quisqueya Solis from Venezuela who lives in the same building as Alma and Arturo. And there is also the story of the landlord, Adolfo “Fito” Angelina who wanted to be a boxer but ended up as a building manager and who explains how that came about.

A love story between a boy and a girl and a love story between new citizens and their new home. You will enjoy meeting these people and you will be drawn into their stories and have a new respect for the challenges they have all faced in their lives.


No Known Grave by Maureen Jennings

No Known Grave is part of  the series,  The Detective Tom Tyler Mysteries. The two previous titles are Season of Darkness and Beware This Boy.  Maureen Jennings is also the author of the well-known Detective Murdoch Mysteries the first of which was published in 1997. In 2007 three of the latter were made into movies of the week and in 2011 the Murdoch Mysteries TV series was produced. The latter has been shown in the UK, in the United States as The Artful Detective, in much of Europe and in Canada on CBC TV.

The Detective Tom Tyler Mysteries are set in World War II England. This third in the series takes place at St. Anne’s Convalescent Hospital, Ludlow, Shropshire and begins on July 15, 1942. The dedication for the book lists “the town of Ludlow, our second home.” In an Author’s Note, Jennings explains that “St. Anne’s No Known GraveConvalescent Hospital is a figment of my imagination, as are the people who inhabit it. However, the town of Ludlow is real and has been for centuries. The events that are described in the letters that Tyler receives really happened, and I have rendered them as faithfully as I could. If in this small way I have created interest in that tragic event, I am glad. We must never forget.”

The house was an estate and the original bedrooms have been converted into wards. There were thirteen men on the second floor and four women on the third. The four women were in the former servants quarters but their small number compared to the male patients prevented them from having pleasanter rooms. The house had only been donated for the duration of the war and the sisters were grateful for the use of it.

In the first chapter we meet two of the patients at St. Anne’s: Daisy Stevens and Barbara Oakshutt. Daisy has just been given a wake up call because she goes to an early morning massage class. She pads over to the washstand to wash her face.

“The new skin on her cheek was still tender. Then she sat down at the dresser, examined the row of lipsticks courtesy of the Yank packages, and selected one. This was definitely a day for “Tru-Crimson.” She felt in need of a boost. …She had well-shaped, full lips that she was secretly rather proud of. At least they were untouched by the accident. That’s how she referred to it in her mind, although strictly speaking the bombing raid was no accident at all. It was premeditated and quite intentional. The only “accidental” part was that she’d been caught by flying shrapnel.
Her twenty-second birthday was this weekend. …She preferred to dress in her WREN outfit…the familar uniform gave her a feeling of purpose.”

Gradually, we are introduced to the other patients: Nigel Melrose, Victor Clark, and Eddie Prescott who share a room. Jeremy Bancroft stops by in his wheelchair and Melrose offers to take him down to breakfast. We learn that Victor Clark does not speak. Clark hands clothes from a chair to Eddie Prescott: “baggy black-and-white-checked trousers, a brown striped shirt, and a paisley waistcoat” then reaches for Clark’s shoulder.”Lead on. The lame leading the blind. What a bloody joke.” Through dialogue and description,  we continue to meet more characters and learn about each of them. The writing flows smoothly and the reader is quickly invested in the setting, the characters and the developing story.

Detective Inspector Tom Tyler comes to Ludlow to make a new start as the saying goes. You will very likely want to read the first two books in the series first so I will say very little about his personal life here except to say that he has one true love in his life: I’m sure you prefer to find out who that is for yourself.

He’d been in Ludlow three days when he got a telephone call at the house the local council provided for the senior officers of the constabulary. The call was from the almoner at the nearby convalescent hospital.

“The voice on the other end sounded far away. “Inspector, this is Sister Rebecca Meade. I am at St. Anne’s hospital. Can you come right away? There has been an, er, incident.” Suddenly her voice got louder. She’s moved the mouthpiece closer.  “There are two victims. One was a member of the staff, Sergeant Jock McHattie. The other is his son, Ben. They have been shot.”

I turns out that the car for the station is being repaired and the only choice is the motor cycle and sidecar in the shed.

“Damn it, I haven’t been on a motorcycle since I was a lad. I don’t think this is the time for a refresher course.”  Tyler tells Sergeant Rowell with whom he shares the house.

“The new WAPC is a qualified driver as I understand it. She’s reporting for duty this morning. She could take you.”

Tyler stared at him. “What the hell – I’m supposed to show up at a crime scene on a motorcycle? And with a woman rider.”

“I’m sure the young lady will be highly competant.” Rowell gave him an anxious smile. “These days, nobody is surprised at unorthodox travel arrangements.”

“Maybe I can hire a tractor.”

Mystery, humour, great setting and unusual characters. All the ingredients for a great read!


Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

I have wanted to read this book since forever and I have no idea why. Something I heard somewhere? Something someone told me? Whatever it was I should have heeded it much sooner because it turned out to be a rewarding and pleasureable read as well as informative.

Connie Danforth is writing from the perspective of a thirty year old,Midwives remembering a year when she was fourteen and living in the small rural village of Reddington, Vermont. Her mother Sibyl was a midwife and Connie accompanied her to deliveries if her father was not home or if a babysitter was unavailable.

“I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke. It wasn’t a swear exactly, but I knew it had an edge to it that could stop adults cold in their tracks. Vulva was one of those words that in every household but ours conveyed emotion and sentiments at the same time that it suggested a simple part of the basic human anatomy for one sex or an act – like vomiting – that was a pretty basic bodily function.”

Connie witnessed her first home delivery when she was not quite eight and it was the birth of Emily Joy Pine. An apprentice who had already helped Sibyl with approximately forty births was there before Connie and her mother. In Connie’s words: “I didn’t know then that a pregnant belly was a pretty solid affair, and so I expected it to flatten and slip to her sides like a dollop of mayonnaise when she lay back; when it didn’t, when it rose from the bed like a mountain, I stared with such wonder in my eyes that Lori (mother) rolled her face toward me and panted what I have since come to believe was the word “Condoms.”
MidwivesI’ve never figured out whether the word was meant for me as a piece of advice that I should take to heart, as in “Demand that your man always wears a condom so you don’t end up trying to push a pickle through a straw,” or as a warning against that particular form of contraception: “This is all the fault of a condom. There are better forms of birth control out there, and if I’d had any sense at all, I’d have used one.”

It was quite likely that Lori spoke Connie’s name which was what Connie’s mother assumed when she asked Lori if she minded whether Connie stayed in the room. Lori replied “What’s one more pair of eyes, Sibyl?”

“I hadn’t really seen an adult in pain until then”. Connie also gets to see her mother at work. Both of these experiences strike me as things that would have contributed greatly to Connie’s view of the world. She was an astute observer and records that she doesn’t think the pain scarred her but “to this day I do remember some specific sounds and images very, very well”.

At the beginning of most chapters entries from  Sibyl Danforth’s journals appear and these reveal much about Sibyl’s life and thoughts which Connie’s perspective would not reveal to us and so are essential to the story.  There follows an entry from Sibyl’s journal just preceding the central event of the book:

Lonely births are the saddest things in the world. They can bring me down for days.
Charlotte Bedford’s birth might be a lonely birth. At least the potential ‘s there. Charlotte has no family anywhere near here, except Asa. And Asa is a sweet man, but he’s so involved with his congregation he doesn’t seem to have enough energy left for Charlotte.
And I don’t think I’ve met a single female friend of hers. Female or male! She’s met very few people outside of her husband’s congregation, she says when we talk and they keep a certain respectful distance because she’s the new preacher’s wife. I may be her closest friend up here, and so her prenatal visits go on forever.
No doubt about it, hers could be a lonely birth……”

“Like everything else surrounding the birth of Veil Bedford, it didn’t work out as my mother expected. News of accidental death, especially when it is grisly, travels fast in our corner of Vermont…When people die, people talk-especially teenagers.”

What happens next is a suspenseful and compelling tale filled with drama and philosophical issues that will stay with you long past the last entry from Sibyl’s journal. Chris Bohjalian has written at least 15 novels: have you read any that you would recommend?


Intolerable:A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

“Intolerable is part memoir of an Arab family caught for six decades in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics, part personal coming-out narrative and part cultural analysis. This is a story of the modern Middle East, in all its irreconcilable differences, seen through a unique lens.” (Book Jacket)

Kamal Al-Solaylee left Aden when he was three years old. His father Mohamed had been one of Aden’s “most powerful and influential businessmen.” Kamal writes that he wishes he’d “known that father and that Aden.” There are photographs of the family in the book and the author says that he prefers the history represented in those photographs  to any other “more complicated and less rosy story” about Aden.

In the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS the author explains that Intolerable had its Intolerable“first outing…as a two-thousand-word article in The Globe and Mail’s Focus section in 2010 and was titled “From Bikinis to Burkas”. He worked on the article with the section’s editor Carol Toller and “the forty-eight hours we worked together were the most intense and rewarding in my life as a journalist. In a career of over fifteen hundred bylines, the final story was by far my most read and discussed. As it went viral, I felt part of a worldwide conversation about Islam, the middle East and social change. ”

The dedication to the book is:

To Toronto,
for giving me what I’ve been looking for:

a home

He introduces the book this way:

“I am the son of an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at fourteen and had eleven children by the time she was thirty-three.
My mother, Safia, was born and raised in Hadhramaut, a part of my home country of Yemen that is better known today as the birthplace of the bin Laden clan.When she and my father, Mohamed, were married in the fall of 1945, in the port city of Aden, than a British protectorate, he was fresh off serving a stint in the Allied army and she had just reached  puberty mere months before. A year earlier, she once confided to me, she had listened to the radio for the first time in her life and her older sister, Mariam, had talked of something called the cinema.”

Safia’s father-in-law (Mohamed’s father) “was a runaway from justice, having killed a man near the northern Yemeni town of Taiz as part of a long-standing tribal vendetta.” He had been on the run and ended up in Aden. There were no birth certificates at the time but it was believed that he was sixteen or seventeen. “He adopted the name Soylaylee – also spelled in English as Sulaili- from a small tribe that offered him shelter on the land near the border that divided what was then North and South Yemen.”

Solaylee kept in touch with his mother (he last saw her in 2006) and recalls many memories including one of her walking him home from school in 1977. “She often did that, because she worried about her youngest child crossing streets by himself. I was about to turn thirteen, a year younger than she was when she got married, and, like many children in Cairo, was discovering Western pop music.” After his year-end exams she bought him a copy of Olivia Newton John’s album Come On Over: a gift he still keeps “as a memento of time, lives and a family long gone.”

He writes that he was struck by “her ability to bridge the gaps between her lives as a young girl, a middle-aged mother and now an elderly woman.”

Solaylee’s trips back to Yemen were stressful, physically and emotionally. The gaps between himself and his family became more pronounced. His trips caused serious depression and “a lot of willpower to recover from.” He locked the pictures from one of his later trips in a filing cabinet in his Toronto apartment. “Not even my dearest friends have seen them and I rarely look at them. They represent a descent into a world that, to me, in intolerable.”

A difficult read in a number of ways but also rewarding for the information, comprehension and awareness that it provides. A Canada Reads choice in 2015.