John Klassen


Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Winner of the Giller Prize, 2017;shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) Saga exploring upheavals in Chinesepolitics from 1949 to the present through several generations of friends, families and lovers; intersecting destinies overturned by social, political,economic events.

James Salter: Light Years The story of a marriage that seems perfect, but appearances deceive. Partly a satire of youthful hopes and conjugal ambition, but throughout great writing that explores individual psychological depths.

Olivia Manning: The Great Fortune This is the first novel in The Balkan Trilogy. The other two are, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. All threeare a semi-autobiographical account of British couple living through their strained marriage in the Balkans and north Africa before and during WWII.Great stories, a panoply of interesting characters, and a wonderful evocationof the times and tensions of geo-political maneuvers and war.

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time This is one of the best from Julian Barnes.Based on the life of Dmitri Shostakovitch, it is a study of personal integrityin the cauldron of the Soviet Union when Shostakovitch was continuallyhumiliated and threatened by Stalin, and even by ‘the system’ after Stalin’sdeath. Many condemn Shostakovitch, but for Barnes the questions of moralcompromise are not always straight-forward.

JG Farrell: Troubles (Winner of the 1971 Booker Prize.) This is the firstnovel in what is known as The Empire Trilogy by Farrell, the others are The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip; all are excellent, but Troublesstands out among them as a brilliant, often hilarious, but always trenchant depiction of the final years of the British ascendancy in Ireland. (Reviewedin JustOttawa, June, 2017)

Colm Toibin: The House of Names This is a retelling of the Orestian Trilogy by Aeschylus which revolves around the murder of Agamemnon by his wifeClytemnestra (when he returns from Troy), the subsequent murder ofClytemnestra by her son Orestes, and the trial of Orestes by the Gods. What isoften forgotten or passed over lightly in references to Agamemnon’s death, isthat he sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to secure favourable winds for thefleet to sail to Troy. Tobin tells this story from Clytemnesta’s point of viewwhich is sufficient grounds for any mother’s fury and madness for revenge.This is the most powerful part of the book, but throughout Toibin also addresses questions of honour, justice, revenge, familial duty, the role andplace of women. (Reviewed in JustOttawa, August, 2017)

David Vann: Bright Air Black Another re-telling, this time of the myth of Medea best known through the play by Euripides. Vann’s writing is sparse andlyrical, tight and tough; I liked it very much. From a review that I agreewith: “Where Vann succeeds is in creating a Medea who, at the climax of hertragedy, feels convincing and sympathetic. Far from a monster who sacrificesher sons for spite, he shows her as a fierce woman who, faced with losingeverything, will not surrender control when it matters most; if her childrenmust die, it will not be at the hands of Kreon’s soldiers while she watchespowerless.” (Reviewed in JustOttawa, Sept-Oct, 2017)

Andre Alexis: Fifteen Dogs (Winner of the Giller Prize) The gods Apollo and Hermes agree on a wager: would having human intelligence make animals happier,or more unhappy, than humans are. The premise did not excite me when the bookfirst came out, but it is a treat: a fantasy that very cleverly explores aplethora of emotions, relationships, ethical questions, moral and immoralactions.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Going, Went, Gone This is a departure for Erpenbeck whopreviously examined the layered history of her own country, Germany, throughwonderful novels such as Visitation and The End of Days. Here, through thegradual enlightenment of a retired professor of the Classics who gets involvedin refugee projects, she explores the social, political, and economic issuesbut most importantly the discovery, behind every newcomer, of the human beingwith his/her own complex of history, hopes, fears. (Reviewed in Just Ottawa,November, 2017)

Arundathi Roy: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness This is a complex and broadnovel with strong political (domestic and international) and social overtones.It may meander here and there, but I think Roy does a wonderful job ofbringing her multiple characters to life in all their complexities asindividuals and in the circumstances that determine and often force theirpaths of life, and death. India is a vast, complex, stratified country ofhuge, and growing, differences and inequalities. Roy has written from theheart about her multifaceted perspectives on India. (Reviewed in JustOttawa,January, 2018)

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