The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

The Bishop’s Man was the 2009  Giller Prize winner. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Giller, it’s Canada’s largest annual prize for fiction, netting the winner $50,000. MacIntyre, a well-known Canadian journalist who has won nine Geminis for broadcast journalism, beat out Anne Michaels, Colin McAdam, Annabel Lyon, and Kim Echlin.

I’m not sure The Bishop’s Man is a book I’d pick up on my own, but it’s this month’s book club pick. Still, the novel’s opening pages had me intrigued.  Its narrator, Father Duncan MacAskill,  is an intriguing character, but then he starts to spiral out of control and so does the book.

MacAskill is known as the “Exorcist.”  The Bishop  sends him to clean up after fallen priests – men who have sullied the name of the priesthood by engaging in sexual relationships with – well – anyone. As we all know, celibacy is one of the tenets of the priesthood.

MacAskill isn’t without his own secrets, though. When the bishop decides to send him back to his childhood home, MacAskill is forced to confront his own demons. Isolated from the world in backwoods  Cape Breton MacAskill suddenly realizes how lonely he is and he begins to drink heavily.

The Bishop’s Man is a page-turner. Lots of things are hinted at, enough to make the reader wonder: about the suicide of a young man and his relationship with a charismatic priest who has since left the order and married; about MacAskill’s time  in Honduras, revealed in snippets from his diary; about where his relationship with Stella, a woman in the village, might be headed; about his childhood.

MacIntyre juggles all these various threads and I guess this is where the book failed for me. I’m not a moron,  but sometimes the out of sequence narration was really a pain-in-the-ass. I’m all for the elliptical, but I’m not sure it served the story in this instance (unless MacIntyre was trying to mimic the disordered state of MacAskill’s mind.)

I haven’t read the other novels on the Giller shortlist and so I’d be curious to see how they stack up against this one. I guess the one thing The Bishop’s Man has going for it is a sense of immediacy. The Catholic Church has certainly had its share of troubles. Whether or not the novel’s verisimilitude is enough to overlook its other issues is up to the reader, I suppose.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen is my first Young Adult novel by Sarah Dessen, although I was certainly aware of her name. She’s always on Best Books for Young Adults lists and so I figured that, as a teacher of young adults, I should at least see what all the fuss was about.

It also gave Mallory and I another opportunity to share a book. She read this one a couple weeks ago, but I was in the middle of something else which I had to finish first.

I’ll let Mallory start by telling you a little bit about the novel.

Mallory: This book is about a model named Annabel Greene.  She’s the youngest of three girls and both of her older sisters are models, too. Even though on the outside it would seem as though Annabel’s got it all (the looks, the best friend, the beautiful house, basically a charmed life) she’s actually going through some pretty serious things. For one thing, her middle sister, Whitney, has an eating disorder that weighs down the whole family. Secondly, Annabel’s best friend is no longer speaking to her. In fact, no one is speaking to her. This is a book about how Annabel learns how to express her true feelings about things.

Christie: That’s a good summary of what the book’s about.  One of the book’s main points is about how appearances can be deceiving. Annabel often comments about the glass house her architect father has built and how people slow down when they drive by. What they might see is a family sitting down together to dinner, but Annabel knows that it’s much more complicated than that.

Did you like the book?

Mallory: Yes, I liked the book. I’ve read a couple of books before this one about eating disorders. They’re pretty scary, but this one seemed easier to read. Instead of describing everything Whitney does to deprive herself of food, it explains how even though she’s beautiful, she’s still struggling with her appearance. I really liked that part of the book. What about you?

Christie: Well, what I liked was that Whitney’s struggles were only one part of the book. What I liked was how Annabel struggled to make her own voice heard. Something horrible has happened to her (something I found sort of easy to guess at), but she isn’t able to say anything. Instead, she lets her former best friend, Sophie, treat her badly.  It isn’t until Owen, the school’s misunderstood ‘thug’ (by reputation only) befriends her, that she allows herself to be more assertive.

Mallory: I agree. Owen seemed to open up something that Annabel didn’t even know was inside of her. Even though she and Owen only talked about music, she was allowed to express her opinion (mostly about her hate of techno) without any repercussions. And I too predicted the reason for the fallout  between Annabel and Sophie. But I knew all along that Annabel was the real victim, not Sophie. She just didn’t know how to explain the truth.

Christie: There are lots of novels out there that deal with these subjects: eating disorders, failed friendship, parents who don’t understand their kids (although I have to say that the adults in this novel were decent)…what do you think Dessen did well in Just Listen?

Mallory: The main thing that I loved about Just Listen is the way Dessen built up her character’s personalites. By the end of the book I knew that Annabel was a complicated person on the inside, Owen was extremely misunderstood, and Sophie was crazy- basically a wildchid. She made it so clear who each one of these people were. It makes a book so much more enjoyable when you feel like you know the characters. Like they’re your friends.

Christie: I agree. I think Annabel’s voice was well done here. And I have to admit that I fell in love with Owen from the very beginning. I guess I have a soft spot for big, hulking, slightly off-center guys.

Mallory:  I must say that I also knew that Owen wasn’t a ‘thug’ or anyhing that people had said at the start. I always try to see the character in a couple different ways before really deciding if they’re the good guy or the bad guy in a book. I didn’t really have to do this with Owen. He was the quiet, music-lover that was stereotyped for his height and tough persona. Just by Dessen’s description I could tell that Owen was protective, but gentle. And I loved his lttle sister from the very moment her name was mentioned. Mallory. That says it all.

Christie: So – overall..would you recommend this book?

 Mallory: One of my friends is a Sarah Dessen fan and she raved about this book when she saw me reading it at school. She pulled out Dessen’s novel Someone Like You and said “You must read this when you’re done.” I think she basically recommended it for me. But I would like to add that if you can sympathize with the characters in this book, and the situations that they’re in, you’ll love it. It has a moral, it teaches a lesson, and it’s a great read for young adults. I’d definitely say that if you’ve never heard of Sarah Dessen you need to read this book- and check out her other books as well. They look very promising. 

Christie: I don’t disagree. I think she’s topical. The writing is generally crisp. The characters are well drawn. Young adults could do far worse. 

The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

The Secret of Lost Things is a quiet book inhabited by a cast of eccentric characters who all work in a labyrinthine book store in New York City.

If I start with my own beginning you will understand how I came to the Arcade, and how it came to mean so much to me.

18-year-old Rosemary Savage leaves her homeland of Tasmania after the death if her mother. Rosemary really only knows two things: the hat business (her mother was a milliner) and books (her mother’s only friend , Chaps, owned a bookstore.) Upon her arrival in New York, Rosemary stumbles across the Arcade and lands a job.

The Arcade reminded me immediately of The Strand. Any book lover who’s spent time in NYC has likely visited The Strand. It’s a sprawling, book-crammed paradise for bibliophiles.

As it turns out, Sheridan Hay actually worked at The Strand for nine months, so the similarities I saw in her fictionalized  bookstore were no doubt based on her real-life experiences at The Strand.

Rosemary’s colleagues are a strange crew. There’s Pearl, the man transitioning to become a woman. There’s Oscar, the beautiful gay man in charge of the Non-Fiction section. And there’s Walter Geist, the bookstore’s manager who is an albino.

Although the blurb on the back of The Secret of Lost Things makes it sound like a literary thriller, that’s not what the book is really about.  The characters who work at the Arcade are bookish types, more comfortable with the dusty tomes they sell than with each other. Each of them guards their little book store nook like jealous lovers. Rosemary’s arrival awakens all sorts of feelings and pettiness and passions. Rosemary develops a crush on Oscar even though he’s clearly not interested in her. (In fact, he’s downright mean.) But it’s Geist whose life is forever changed by Rosemary’s arrival. In retrospect she remarks:

Walter Geist’s blindness is important, but it’s my own with regard to him, that remains a lasting regret.

The Secret of Lost Things is a coming of age story. It’s a story about loss and grief. And it’s a story about the transformative power of literature. While there is a literary mystery at the book’s core, it’s not nearly as interesting as the mysteries of the heart.

An unexpected gift…

A colleague presented me with a gift the other day. While digging through the books at The Salvation Army, she came across the book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. As English teachers, we’re always looking for books to add to our collections and she thought this might be a good one for me (I’ve only just returned to teaching after many years doing other things.) She bought the book and then, while flipping through it, discovered that the book had been mine!
No joke – my name and student number and dorm name and room number were printed on the inside front page.  That younger version of myself is 25 years ago…at least! And I’ve lived all over in the interim. What a strange and wonderful  thing to have the book back.

Have you ever had a book reunion?

Here’s a novel idea…

Novelist Fiona Robyn is releasing her new novel Thaw via the blogsphere and I’m thrilled to be able to offer the first part here. You’ll be able to continue to read the novel by following the link at the end of the first entry.


These hands are ninety-three years old. They belong to Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. She was so frail that her grand-daughter had to carry her onto the set to take this photo. It’s a close-up. Her emaciated arms emerge from the top corners of the photo and the background is black, maybe velvet, as if we’re being protected from seeing the strings. One wrist rests on the other, and her fingers hang loose, close together, a pair of folded wings. And you can see her insides.

The bones of her knuckles bulge out of the skin, which sags like plastic that has melted in the sun and is dripping off her, wrinkling and folding. Her veins look as though they’re stuck to the outside of her hands. They’re a colour that’s difficult to describe: blue, but also silver, green; her blood runs through them, close to the surface. The book says she died shortly after they took this picture. Did she even get to see it? Maybe it was the last beautiful thing she left in the world.

I’m trying to decide whether or not I want to carry on living. I’m giving myself three months of this journal to decide. You might think that sounds melodramatic, but I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether it’s all worth it. I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes. Stiff suits travelling to work, morning after morning, on the cramped and humid tube. Tarted-up girls and gangs of boys reeking of aftershave, reeling on the pavements on a Friday night, trying to mop up the dreariness of their week with one desperate, fake-happy night. I’ve heard the weary grief in my dad’s voice.

So where do I start with all this? What do you want to know about me? I’m Ruth White, thirty-two years old, going on a hundred. I live alone with no boyfriend and no cat in a tiny flat in central London. In fact, I had a non-relationship with a man at work, Dan, for seven years. I’m sitting in my bedroom-cum-living room right now, looking up every so often at the thin rain slanting across a flat grey sky. I work in a city hospital lab as a microbiologist. My dad is an accountant and lives with his sensible second wife Julie, in a sensible second home. Mother finished dying when I was fourteen, three years after her first diagnosis. What else? What else is there?

Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. I looked at her hands for twelve minutes. It was odd describing what I was seeing in words. Usually the picture just sits inside my head and I swish it around like tasting wine. I have huge books all over my flat; books you have to take in both hands to lift. I’ve had the photo habit for years. Mother bought me my first book, black and white landscapes by Ansel Adams. When she got really ill, I used to take it to bed with me and look at it for hours, concentrating on the huge trees, the still water, the never-ending skies. I suppose it helped me think about something other than what was happening. I learned to focus on one photo at a time rather than flicking from scene to scene in search of something to hold me. If I concentrate, then everything stands still. Although I use them to escape the world, I also think they bring me closer to it. I’ve still got that book. When I take it out, I handle the pages as though they might flake into dust.

Mother used to write a journal. When I was small, I sat by her bed in the early mornings on a hard chair and looked at her face as her pen spat out sentences in short bursts. I imagined what she might have been writing about; princesses dressed in star-patterned silk, talking horses, adventures with pirates. More likely she was writing about what she was going to cook for dinner and how irritating Dad’s snoring was.

I’ve always wanted to write my own journal, and this is my chance. Maybe my last chance. The idea is that every night for three months, I’ll take one of these heavy sheets of pure white paper, rough under my fingertips, and fill it up on both sides. If my suicide note is nearly a hundred pages long, then no-one can accuse me of not thinking it through. No-one can say; ‘It makes no sense; she was a polite, cheerful girl, had everything to live for’, before adding that I did keep myself to myself. It’ll all be here. I’m using a silver fountain pen with purple ink. A bit flamboyant for me, I know. I need these idiosyncratic rituals; they hold things in place. Like the way I make tea, squeezing the tea-bag three times, the exact amount of milk, seven stirs. My writing is small and neat; I’m striping the paper. I’m near the bottom of the page now. Only ninety-one more days to go before I’m allowed to make my decision. That’s it for today. It’s begun.

Continue reading tomorrow here…