‘City of Secrets’ by Stewart O’Nan – Jerusalem Right After World War II


‘City of Secrets’ by Stewart O’Nan    (2016) – 190 pages



A blurb on the back of this novel from fellow novelist Alan Furst said, “’City of Secrets’ will keep you up all night reading.”   Sorry, it did not work out that way for me.  Instead I would drag through a few pages, anxious to quit the whole time.  Then I would stop reading and find out I had read only four pages.  You can imagine that reading the entire novel seemed interminable.

Perhaps part of the problem for me was the ambiguity of the novel’s situation.  The year is 1946.  World War II is over.  Jewish refugees from all over Europe are rushing into Jerusalem, the capital of British Palestine.  Our hero, the Latvian Brand, is one of these Jewish refugees.  He lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  Brand survived only “because he was young and could fix an engine.”

For five years during the worst part of World War II, Great Britain allowed only 10,000 Jewish immigrants per year into Palestine. Also about 20-25,000 Jews illegally migrated to Palestine during that period, more power to them.  After the war, makeshift groups of Jews worked to undermine British rule by committing terroristic acts in Jerusalem.  Brand as a taxi driver was a member of one of these underground groups.  Ultimately by 1948, Palestine became the independent state of Israel.

“He wanted the revolution—like the world—to be innocent, when it had never been.”

So do we root for these terrorists against the British government?  Not Sure.  ‘City of Secrets’ describes the planning and execution of several of these dangerous assignments.

At its best, at times ‘City of Secrets’ reminded me of a Humphrey Bogart movie.  Here we have an exotic location in the 1940s and a shady group of people committing desperate acts.  Brand does have a girlfriend Eva who is a former actress now working as a call girl at the King David Hotel. Perhaps part of the problem for me is that Brand has experienced all of the trauma of losing his family during the war that he almost seems to be sleepwalking through his life in Jerusalem.

Why does one novel affect you deeply and another leave you cold?  I was much affected in a good way by Stewart O’Nan’s ‘Last Night at the Lobster’, the seemingly mundane story of a Red Lobster restaurant closing in Connecticut.  However ‘City of Secrets’ left me relatively unmoved, even though the story would seem to be much more dramatic and exciting.   I was more affected by the plight of a waitress losing her job in ‘Last Night at the Lobster’ than by a hotel bombing in ‘City of Secrets’.  Maybe that’s just me or maybe that’s the way reading novels goes.


Grade:   C     


‘Peacock & Vine’ by A. S. Byatt – The Designers: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny


‘Peacock & Vine’ by A. S. Byatt   (2016)  –  182 pages



Although my passion is fiction, I have been known to dabble in non-fiction once in a while.  However for a non-fiction book to appeal to me, it better not be mundane or prosaic, and the quality of the writing better be above average.  It helps if the book is written by a fiction writer whom I much admire like A. S. Byatt.

‘Peacock and Vine’ is a non-fiction book about two designers, William Morris and Mariano Fortuny.  William Morris was an English poet as well as a textile designer whose “green and flowery world” of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, England is still open to the public.  Mariano Fortuny who was originally from Spain but moved to Venice in 1889 was an artist but mainly a fashion designer who designed dresses for the rich and famous women of his time.  His studio, now the Fortuny Museum in Venice, is still open to the public. Both Morris and Fortuny researched the use of certain dyes all the way back to the Middle Ages, dyes which were no longer in use in their time. I imagine A. S. Byatt decided to write this book about the two designers after touring the two places.   ‘Peacock & Vine’ is a high-quality work with many fine illustrations of the two designers’ work.

William Morris Image

William Morris Image

There is some question in my mind as to why these two men’s stories are combined together in the same book.  Apparently they never met, and they were of two different generations with Morris being born in 1834 and Fortuny being born in 1871.  Morris was a gentleman of the English country manor while Fortuny had his ornate studio in the city of Venice.  The only explanation Byatt gives for combining the two stories is as follows:

“They were both men of genius and extraordinary energy.  They created their own surroundings, changed the visual world around them, studied the forms of the past and made them parts of new forms.  In many ways they were opposites.”

Yes, not much in common for the English gentleman and the Italian aristocrat.  However they were both designers working with the materials around them, and I would never have read a book about designers if it had not been written by A. S. Byatt.  With all of the beautiful pictures included in ‘Peacock & Vine’, reading it is like touring both of these museums on the same afternoon.  It does save the expense of traveling to Oxfordshire, England and Venice, Italy.

Dresses designed by Mariano Fortuny

Dresses designed by Mariano Fortuny

Byatt does give an adept background of both men’s lives.  Before reading ‘Peacock & Vine’, I probably considered art to be mainly about splashing paint on a canvas like Rembrandt or Van Gogh.  I had never considered textile or fashion design as that much related to art.


Grade:   B+


O Canada – My Ten Personal Favorite Canadian Novels or Story Collections


Here are ten works of Canadian fiction which have, over the years, particularly moved me.  This list is by no means authoritative or complete, just ten books. There are way too many Canadian fiction writers and works for any one person to be familiar with all of them. Many major works do not appear on my list.  This is only my subjective list of ten Canadian novels or story collections which have meant a lot to me. I live a few hundred miles south of Canada but often look north to find good fiction.


 fifthbusiness‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies (1970) – This is the novel which more than any other got me started, for better or worse, down the road of reading literature.  I wound up devouring the entire Deptford Trilogy and thus realized that there were writers I never heard of out there writing great stuff.  Davies was a magician with words.

9780224059732‘Autobiography of Red – A Novel in Verse’ by Anne Carson (1998) – Carson brings the Greek tale of Geryon into modern life as only she can do.  This is poetry for people who generally don’t read poetry.  There is a place reserved on Mount Olympus for Anne Carson.

‘The Wars’ by Timothy Findley (1977) – This novel, more than any other, depicts trench warfare and the other nightmares of World War I as we follow a Canadian enlisted man to France.  ‘The Wars’ was one of the first war novels to bring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to our attention.

roseflo‘The Beggar Maid – Stories of Rose and Flo’ by Alice Munro (1978) – In Canada, this collection was called ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.  This is the story collection that got me started reading Alice Munro, and I have never stopped since.   She has been called a modern-day Chekhov.

‘The Loved and the Lost’ by Morley Callaghan (1951) – This is a novel about a white woman who becomes fascinated with black music and culture and men in Montreal jazz nightclubs of the 1950s.  Morley Callaghan was probably most famous during his lifetime for knocking down Ernest Hemingway in a boxing match refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

a_fine_balance‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry (1995) – This novel offers a vivid Dickensian view of the city of Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay).  It was picked by Oprah’s Book Club back in 1996.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood (1985)  – This is science fiction, but not too far-fetched, of a totalitarian Christian fundamentalist takeover of the United States government.  The Christians are able to quickly take away all women’s rights.

51fhrw1-72l-_ac_ul160_sr104160_‘No Great Mischief’ by Alastair MacLeod (1999) – This novel tells of a Scottish clan who settled on Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia.  It is written in austere majestic prose.

“I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it.” – Alastair MacLeod

1791074‘A Fairly Good Time’ by Mavis Gallant (1970) – Mavis Gallant published 116 stories in the New Yorker, and her stories are excellent.  Here is one of her two novels which are now available at NYBR Classics.  She is a pleasurable writer you read for the well-crafted sentences.   I want to read another of her short story collections very soon.  Here is the best sentence I found regarding Mavis Gallant.

“We feel that if a story doesn’t illuminate a whole life, Gallant’s not interested in writing it.” – Francine Prose



‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ by Mordecai Richler  (1959)  – This is an hilarious satire of juvenile delinquents in a Jewish slum district in Montreal.  This you read with a perpetual smile on your face.



Do you have Canadian favorites? I would like to hear from you as to your favorite Canadian writers.  Surely there are many I have missed.


‘Cry, Mother Spain’ by Lydie Salvayre – The Atrocities of Fascism

‘Cry, Mother Spain’ by Lydie Salvayre (2014) – 240 pages     Translated from the French by Ben Faccini


Although Lydie Salvayre’s novel ‘Cry, Mother Spain’ won the Prix Goncourt in 2014, there has been little fanfare and few reviews for the English translation which was released in June of this year.  This is unfortunate, because ‘Cry, Mother Spain’ is an excellent passionate fictional account of the events leading up to the Spanish Civil War which occurred before World War II.  At that time Lydie Salvayre’s own parents had to flee Spain and take refuge across the border in France where Lydie was born.  ‘Cry, Mother Spain’ is the account of a daughter listening to her ninety year-old mother tell of the tragic and ugly events that led to their fleeing Spain.

At the end of World War II, fascism was defeated in Europe.  Only one country retained its oppressive fascist rule, and that country was Spain.  Francisco Franco continued to rule Spain with a heavy hand up until his death in 1975.

Salvayre tells of the summer of 1936, the last summer before the civil war.  It is not at all difficult to tell where her sympathies lie.  Her mother and her father were Republicans.  In order to give her story more depth, Salvayre often quotes from an account of the events of that time (A Diary of My Time, 1938) by French author Georges Bernanos.  Although deeply Catholic and conservative by nature, Bernanos became repulsed by the atrocities committed by the Spanish nationalists under Franco.

  “Month after month, squads of killers were transported from one village to another by trucks which had been requisitioned for one purpose alone, to murder thousands of so-called suspects in cold blood.”  – Georges Bernanos

“I believe my greatest service to honest men is to warn them against the imbeciles and bastards who cynically exploit their deepest fears.” – Georges Bernanos    

Lydie Salvayre implicates the Catholic Church and its priests in the atrocities more directly than Bernanos:

“The Nationalists were carrying out a systematic purge of suspects and between killing sprees Catholic dignitaries were granting them absolution in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  The Catholic Church had become the executioners’ whore. “ – Lydie Salvayre

Salvayre does mention some of the violent attacks against priests by the Republicans before the civil war began, but this violence seems minor compared to the wholesale execution of Spanish citizens carried out by Franco.

“The bonfire of hatred was lit, and it spiraled out of control.” – Lydie Salvayre

This systematic extermination of whole groups of liberals in Spain reminded me of the systematic murder of leftists carried out by several South American dictators in the 1970s.  The threat of fascism has not gone away.  In fact as we forget the circumstances of Hitler and World War II, fascism has become even more of a threat in the 21st century.  We are seeing fascism rear its ugly head in places like the United States and Russia that had fought most valiantly against fascism in World War II.


Grade:    A-


‘Work Like Any Other’ by Virginia Reeves – Electrifying and Not Electrifying


‘Work Like Any Other’ by Virginia Reeves   (2016) – 260 pages



‘Work Like Any Other’ is one of the 13 novels on the Man Booker longlist for this year. So far I have read three on the longlist:’The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty, ‘Eileen’ by Otessa Moshfegh, and, now, ‘Work Like Any Other’ by Virginia Reeves.  The shortlist for the Man Booker will be announced on September 13, and the winner will be announced on October 25.

‘Work Like Any Other’ is both an historical novel about rural Alabama in the 1920s and an Alabama prison novel. At that time only the cities and towns had electricity, and the poles ran from town to town.  The farms had to do without electricity. These major plot points are revealed in the first few pages of the novel, so I don’t believe I am giving anything away by saying that the book’s main character, Roscoe T. Martin, is arrested for stealing electricity for his farm.  Unfortunately a power company employee accidentally discovered Roscoe’s illegal feed to his farm and in the course gets electrocuted.  Roscoe receives a prison sentence of ten to twenty years for both theft and manslaughter.  All of the above is revealed in the first few pages of the novel.

“We are born with some things in our veins, coal for my father and farming for Marie’s and a deep electrical current for me.”  

Roscoe’s neighbor, Wilson, who helped him steal the electricity is also arrested.  Since Wilson is a black man, he is not sent to stay in prison but is instead leased to a mining company as cheap convict labor.

Roscoe’s wife, Marie, has no use for Roscoe after he is arrested.  She doesn’t hire him a lawyer, so he must use the state-appointed one.  She doesn’t visit him or let their son, Gerald, visit him. Roscoe never did amount to much as a farmer as he was more of a bookish sort of fellow.  Another reason his wife has such disdain for him is because of Wilson.  Marie came from a family with a tradition of fighting racism, so it makes her angry that her husband got this black man in trouble needlessly.  She doesn’t even answer his letters.

‘Work Like Any Other’ is a solid well-written novel, but it didn’t, pardon the pun, “electrify” me.  Life in the prison is brutal, and some of the prison guards and authorities are drawn as comic-book villains.   On the other hand, those black neighbors in the novel are saintly, too good to be true.  The wife Marie and the son Gerald are too sketchily drawn to be fully realized.   The resolution that occurs in the novel could never have happened in real life at that time due to the Jim Crow laws that were in place in Alabama at the time.  The only character who is fully developed is the main character, Roscoe.   He is essentially a good man who got caught up in a bad situation.

I doubt that ‘Work Like Any Other’ will make the Man Booker shortlist.  However my very favorite novel for this year has been ‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift which did not even make the longlist.  So what do I know?


Grade:    B     


‘Heroes of the Frontier’ by Dave Eggers – North to Alaska for a Mother and Her Two Kids


‘Heroes of the Frontier’ by Dave Eggers   (2016) – 385 pages



Here is an appealing novel about a woman and her two kids traveling around Alaska.  One trend I have recently noticed is that a few male fiction writers including Graham Swift, Colson Whitehead, Yuri Herrera, Rupert Thomson, and here Dave Eggers will create a female main character or narrator for their novels.  This is a healthy trend since it stretches the imagination of the male writer to see things in a different view from his usual own.  But ultimately it all depends on the execution…

In ‘Heroes of the Frontier’, things have fallen apart for mother Josie in her late thirties back in Ohio, so she took her two kids, eight year-old Paul and five year-old Ana, up to Alaska without telling anyone.

What better way to move about in the great spaces of Alaska than in a used RV called ‘The Chateau’?  So ‘Heroes of the Frontier’ is essentially a road trip with no destination, just traveling around this monster state.  Josie and her kids encounter scenic mountains and breathtaking views, eccentric people in RV parks, forest rangers, ferocious and not-so-ferocious animals, wild fires, thunderstorms, and everywhere exorbitant prices for campgrounds, groceries, and restaurants.

If you are looking for a tightly plotted adventure story, ‘Heroes of the Frontier’ is not for you.  This story meanders from RV park to RV park.  We get Josie’s backstory, why she had to leave Ohio.  There’s an insufferable ex- who is now marrying someone else and a lawsuit that destroyed her practice as a dentist.

Although not much happens in real time in this story, the writing here is likeable and engaging and held my interest throughout.  I practically coined the term “pleasantly uneventful”, but this novel takes it to extremes I never even considered.  Much of the story is about mother Josie dealing with her two kids, and the kids emerge as major characters in the story. Only the ever present dangers of uncontrollable forest fires and spine-cracking thunder and lightning storms give the story any urgency.

But the story has its diversions along the way.  Consider the following bit about leaf blowers to which I concur:

Seward3-640x400“Oh no. A leaf blower.  The easiest way to witness the stupidity and misplaced hopes of all humanity is to watch, for twenty minutes, a human using a leaf blower.  With this machine, the man was saying, I will murder all quiet.  I will destroy the aural plane.  And I will do so with a machine that performs a task far less efficiently than I could with a rake.” 

So far I have read four Dave Eggers novels.  I considered ‘A Hologram for the King’ and ‘The Circle’ spectacularly good, but ‘Your Fathers, Where Are They…’ was a disappointment.  I see ‘Heroes of the Frontier’ a solid comeback of sorts, perhaps not quite to the level of the first two novels, but a well-written engaging read.  It does capture Alaska except for some of its crazier people, and really there is nothing more heroic than being a good mother.

I will eagerly look forward to reading my next Dave Eggers novel whether it has a male or female main character.


Grade:   B+


‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead     (2016) – 306 pages


‘The Underground Railroad’ is a novel about the United States’ most brutal atrocity, human slavery.  If a slave ran away from the plantation but was caught, the white slave owner could chop off his or her foot.   The white slave owner could drag a couple of the fourteen year old girls out behind the woodshed to breed them and invite his teenage sons to join in the fun.  The white slave owner could do whatever he wanted to his slaves.  The slaves were his property.

What makes ‘The Underground Railroad’ powerful is that it is not an impassioned plea against slavery, but instead an objective enactment of the details of life for the slaves.  We see slavery through the eyes of the slave Cora whose grandmother Ajarry was captured in Africa and shipped to the Randall plantation in Georgia.  Cora’s mother Mabel ran away from the plantation when Cora was ten never to be heard from again. The plantation is now divided up between the two Randall sons, the northern half to James and the southern half to his younger brother Terrance.

“James was as ruthless and brutal as any white man, but he was the portrait of moderation compared to his younger brother.  The stories from the southern half were chilling in magnitude if not in particulars.”  

When James dies, and Terrance takes over the whole plantation, Cora and her friend Caesar decide to run away.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses of people who would help the runaway slaves to escape to free states.  The conceit of Colson Whitehead is that there really was a railroad and train running underground which will take runaway slaves to different parts of the country.  Thus the sections of the novel after Cora and Caesar run away take place in different states which are stops on this imaginary railroad: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and finally the free state of Indiana.  Each state has its own severe brutal racists, including Indiana. Ever present is the slave catcher Ridgeway who is following just behind Cora and Caesar to catch them and bring them back to the Randall plantation.

In actual fact, very few of the slaves in the deep southern states of the United States could ever successfully run away what with all the slave catchers and night riders and other assorted vicious folk working in league with the despicable white slave owners.  The Underground Railroad did not operate that far south.

Every location that Cora stops has its own cast of characters, and the story gets somewhat diffuse as Cora and we travel from state to state.


Grade:   B+ 

%d bloggers like this: