CanLit Challenge Book #41: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge,Giller Prize,Man Booker Prize — Ibis at 2:37 pm on Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book 41, Alias Grace (1996) – Margaret Atwood
β€œIn 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Yet opinion remained fiercely divided about Marks–was she a spurned woman who had taken out her rage on two innocent victims, or was she an unwilling victim herself, caught up in a crime she was too young to understand? Such doubts persuaded the judges to commute her sentence to life imprisonment, and Marks spent the next 30 years in an assortment of jails and asylums, where she was often exhibited as a star attraction. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood reconstructs Marks’s story in fictional form. Her portraits of 19th-century prison and asylum life are chilling in their detail. The author also introduces Dr. Simon Jordan, who listens to the prisoner’s tale with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. In his effort to uncover the truth, Jordan uses the tools of the then rudimentary science of psychology. But the last word belongs to the book’s narrator–Grace herself.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Alias Grace

My thoughts:
This was a very good book, possibly my favourite of Atwood’s so far. So many layers of meaning and a wonderfully unreliable narrator. She had me guessing the entire time: manipulative? a psychopath who merely reflects back what her interlocutors expect? a victim of early abuse and tragedy who’s put out of her mind when faced with trauma and never really regains herself? or a placid philosopher who takes things as they come and reports things as they happened? And what of Dr. Jordan? and Jeremiah? and Jamie Walsh? People appear and disappear and are never surely who they seem to be. Loved it!

Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff
Filed under: Book Reviews,Man Booker Prize — Ibis at 8:30 pm on Sunday, June 6, 2010

From the jacket:
β€œAt the heart of Michael Ignatieff’s disquieting novel of a woman’s descent into illness are the tangled threads of a family, strained by tragedy yet still tenuously connected.

An anguished philosophy professor watches his dying mother’s measured steps into the mysterious depths of neurological illness: the misplaced glasses, kitchen catastrophes, and anecdotes told over and over to a family overcome with fearful sympathy. His strenuous efforts to make sense of his mother’s suffering lead him to learn all he can about her illness, renewing contact with his neurologist brother in the process. But medical science can do nothing to ease loss, and genetics now routinely predicts destinies that medicine is powerless to avert.

More than a tale of isolated tragedy, Scar Tissue explores the fragile lines of memory, their configuration in identity, and the ways in which both are at one moment formed and the next shattered. Nominated for the Booker Prize, Scar Tissue is an intensely personal novel about family, love in all its guises, and the ultimate triumph of life over loss.”

My thoughts:
This is the kind of book I’m normally thoroughly uninterested in reading. Disease (or disability) and people’s response to it are turn-offs when it comes to reading selection for me. If I want to experience a root canal, I’ll petition a dentist, if lameness, I could shoot myself in the foot. If I have to deal with my mother dying of Alzheimer’s, once will be enough. I don’t need a sneak preview.

I only wished to read it because this was the novel for which Michael Ignatieff got on the Booker shortlist. I hadn’t read anything by him and wanted to (start to) get a feel for him through his work, seeing as he could be Prime Minister some day (though that’s looking less and less likely). Can I say I enjoyed his writing without enjoying the book? Just a little too absorbed with the whole mental deterioration thing. It’s just not to my taste. If this is the kind of topic you like, it’s well worth reading. Lot’s of contemplation about what makes self, and how self-consciousness and self are integrated. Not sure how autobiographical it is, since it came across as incredibly authentic. On the plus side, I’d be very interested in reading more by him.

CanLit Challenge Book #8: What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies
Filed under: CanLit Challenge,Man Booker Prize — Ibis at 11:27 pm on Friday, January 20, 2006

Book 8, What’s Bred in the Bone (Book II of the Cornish Trilogy) (1985) – Robertson Davies
From the back cover:
“Francis Cornish was always good at keeping secrets. From the well-hidden family secret of his childhood to his mysterious encounters with a small-town embalmer, a master art restorer, a Bavarian countess, and various masters of espionage, the events in Francis’s life were not always what they seemed.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia article on Robertson Davies
the Wikipedia article on What’s Bred in the Bone
The Monarch of the Glen by Edwin Landseer
Sir Galahad by G.F. Watts
Love Locked Out by Anna Lea Merritt
The Virgin of the Consolation by William Adolphe Bouguereau
The Doctor by Luke Fildes
Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton
portraits done by Harry Furniss, caricaturist and author of How to Draw in Pen and Ink
An Allegory of Time by Angelo Bronzino

My Thoughts:
I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed this. I’m just past the half way point (Francis is in his second year at Oxford). One thing I noticed reading it a second time is how the narrative shifts. In the first part, Francis himself has no voice, but then suddenly he’s an adult having conversations and writing letters.

Davies is such a great writer. I said that Blue Mountains of China was like trudging through a snow drift and that Island was skimming the surface of a calm deep sea. What’s Bred in the Bone is like having hot cocoa with your grandfather on a long winter’s night while he tells you how things used to be. It’s very straight forward with hints of humour and little philosophical digressions.


I spent several hours yesterday finishing this. I love Davies’ discussions about art, the artist, the Mothers, etc. etc. This is real erudition and insight instead of the pretence and misinformation one finds occasionally (no names need be mentioned I think).

I’m very much looking forward to the next one. I want to find out what happens to Cornish’s posthumous reputation.