Book Review – The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

I’ll admit that I’ve never quite gotten the fuss over Houdini. Does there really need to be another book about him? That said, having enjoyed both The Cellist of Sarajevo and Ascension by Steven Galloway, I gave The Confabulist (Knopf Canada, 2014) a shot and I’m glad I did.

The Confabulist contains stories within stories. We meet our narrator, Martin Strauss, in present day where he is given a final, unhappy diagnosis by his doctor. Martin is losing his memory and it will soon by gone entirely, replaced with artificial memories. Moments that will seem completely real to Martin will never have actually occurred.

And so, he tells us his story. The day he met Harry Houdini and the day he killed Houdini.

Making up the bulk of the novel is Houdini’s story. His rise to fame, his wife, his mother, his travels, his efforts to debunk spiritualists and mediums. Everything that leads him to the day he met Martin Strauss, as told to us by Martin.

This is key, of course. Houdini’s story is inter-spliced with Martin’s, both in the present day and Martin in 1927, following Houdini’s death. In the ’20s, Martin was a poor young student in Montreal. He drank a little more than he should have, he was fascinated by magicians, and he loved a girl named Clara. Then he kills Houdini and his whole life changes. Throughout the novel, this moment is set-up as the turning point of Martin’s life, the reason everything happens next. But our glimpses at Martin’s life in the present day cause the reader to increasingly doubt the accuracy of Martin’s memories. Is what he tells of Houdin’s life true? Did he really kill Houdini? Who is Alice? A simple history becomes a mystery story and a message on the frailty of human memory.

Galloway tells the story of Houdini’s life, wrapping fact and fiction together artfully. We watch Houdini’s development as both a magician and a man. His rise to fame, some of his most famous escapes and tricks, and his backroom dealings. Out of a real life person, Galloway creates a character with depth and emotion until I didn’t much care what was truth and what was fiction. We witness Houdini’s constant desire to please his mother. His combined love and frustration for his wife, Bess. His moral struggle with tricks that prey on the griefs and fears of others and his subsequent vehement attempts to discredit and ban spiritualism.

These attempts becomes central to the plot of the novel, bringing characters together in a web of secrets and deceits. This was a struggle that Houdini really did engage in, at a time when mediums often held a lot of power, through the manipulation of those in authority. We witness Houdini’s dealings with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Romanov family, and Margery Crandon, the witch of Beacon Hill. Into these historical encounters, Galloway weaves a fictional account that becomes surprisingly convincing, until the reader can’t be sure what’s true and what’s made up. Which is precisely where Martin Strauss’ memory has brought him.

In the end, despite turning up my nose at another Houdini story, I found the Houdini sections of the novel more interesting than Martin’s. Houdini’s story takes us all over the world, into secrets gatherings and behind the curtain of some of the most famous magic tricks. It isn’t until further into the novel that the clues of Martin’s life begin to come together to reveal an entirely different secret.

I was spellbound.


Dog Days

A few from the last few weeks. Sunny days are starting to be more common around here, though there’s been rain too. Here’s some of what’s been filling our days, including good times with the dog-in-law.

Easter lilies

Easter lilies


I love cherry blossom season.

I love cherry blossom season.



I love this sight.

I love this sight.

Magnolias in bloom.

Magnolias in bloom.


What may look like a nice moment between Peter and Bella but was actually Peter prying something out of Bella's mouth. She likes to find gross things on the beach and try to eat them.

What may look like a nice moment between Peter and Bella but was actually Peter prying something out of Bella’s mouth. She likes to find gross things on the beach and try to eat them.


Morning - reading in bed and a dog.

The perfect morning – in bed with a book and a dog.


There is so much about God that I don’t understand and I often struggle to worship what I think of as the unfathomable nature of God. Generally, when I think about God being unfathomable it refers to the hard stuff. Death, punishment, suffering – all the things that happen and that I know break God’s heart and yet they continue to occur. That stuff is hard to understand. I’m not designed to understand it. Mostly, I think, because it isn’t the way God meant for things to be. Instead, sin entered the world. We invited sin into our world and we continue to do so. But why doesn’t God stop it? Why does He let us suffer so much sometimes?

In Exodus, God tells Moses and the people of Israel of the land that He prepares for them. The land that He will bring them to and make their own.

You shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.”

Exodus 23:25-26

A perfect land awaits the Israelites. A Garden of Eden where food is plentiful and none get sick. The Israelites reach the landscape but they never live in the land that God describes. A quick glance around will tell you that we don’t live there either.

This weekend, as we mourn the death of Christ and we celebrate His resurrection, I am reminded of another unfathomable aspect of God.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8

What is harder to understand than someone sacrificing their own child? Someone sacrificing their own child for me? for my neighbours? for the boys who shot up Columbine? for (insert whatever terrible person you want here – Christ died for them too). What kind of love is that? Are we worthy recipients of that kind of love?

Absolutely not. Paul says it right there in Romans – we were sinners and God did that for us. But we don’t push against this unfathomable act as much as others because this act benefits us. This act saved us. We will never understand it.

Did you know that unfathomable actually means “incapable of being measured”? A fathom is a unit of measurement used for water. Unfathomable means the fathoms cannot be counted – the bottom cannot be reached. It is the measurement of His love for us.

There is a lot that I don’t know. I have no idea how much God loves me. It is unfathomable.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour or each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 31:33-34

Happy Easter. He is risen indeed.

Book Review – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This book was okay.

That’s exactly what my dad always refers to as “damned with faint praise” but I can’t muster up much more enthusiasm about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Viking, 2014). I wish I could because I know a few people who read this novel and enjoyed it immensely. I simply don’t find myself in their ranks.

The novel is short – an easy weekend read. My guess is those who love it the most will be book lovers who have spent time working in bookstores or publishing houses. Though, obviously, that doesn’t guarantee anything. For a short novel, The Storied Life spans many years in its characters lives. We open with the first meeting between Amelia Loman, sales rep for Knightley Press (she’s a saleswoman and her last name is Loman!), and A.J. Fikry, owner of Island Books on remote Alice Island. A.J. is a grump – partly by nature and partly due to his wife’s recent death. He’s left alone in her small hometown, running the business they both started, and steadily drinking himself to death. The first meeting between Amelia and A.J. does not go well.

Then A.J. goes for a run one night and returns to find a baby in his bookstore. More specifically, a two-year-old named Maya. Here’s where my problem with the book began. The normal reaction to finding an abandoned child – even one with a note from her deceased mother pinned to her – is not to choose to raise that child as your own. Especially when you are a grumpy widower with a failing business and a drinking problem. That isn’t the next logical step and so the author has to convince me as to why a character might make that leap. (M.L. Stedman does an excellent job of this in a similar scenario in The Light Between Oceans.) Why does A.J. want to or choose to raise this child? Why do the authorities let him? Aren’t there legal procedures that he has to follow? The whole adoption process is really glossed over in the novel. Yes, I understand that adoption isn’t really what this book about but you have to give the reader something. There’s a single scene between A.J. and the social worker where he says he wants to keep Maya – after spending a single weekend with her, mind you – and the social worker thinks that Maya is one of the lucky ones. Wouldn’t she be just as likely to think that A.J. is some sort of pedophile? Show us why the social worker thinks this will work!

I suppose this issue is only a symptom of my greater problem with the novel. It’s cheesy and unrealistic and it didn’t have to be. I think there’s a lot of good material and some glimmers of greatness, which makes the kitschiness and unrealism all the more disappointing.

The format is appealing. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story and a blurb (written by A.J.) as to why he likes this particular story. Any booklover will enjoy that. The novel is full of book references that a well-read reader will love picking up on. And if you’ve worked in a bookstore you can’t help but smile at many of A.J. frustrations and excitements and the relationship he begins to build in his community through his business and love of the written word.

Yet it’s not enough. The novel spans many years in A.J.’s life (as well as a handful of other important characters who circle around him). Perhaps this book should have been longer, delved a little deeper and let us discover things about A.J., rather than simply throwing these events at us and bashing the emotions over our head. The supporting characters are fun but not particularly deep. Maya always seems a little too smart for her age. Lambiase, the local police chief who starts a book club is charming but never quite expands past a police officer. I found the most interesting secondary character was A.J.’s former brother-in-law, Daniel Parish. A once popular author, whose subsequent books have never been as successful as his first novel, Daniel is also a fairly horrible man. Zevin shows that she can do subtlety well as Daniel demonstrates who you can love a book and still hate the author. I only wish she had used that talent more widely through the whole novel.

In the Valley

I’ve celebrated Easter my whole life. It is the pivotal week in the Christian calendar. Those three dark days when evil seemed to win. And then, sunrise service on Easter Sunday, coloured eggs in a basket, Jesus arose. Love wins. Good triumphs. God is not dead.

I’ve heard the story a hundred times. I’ve told it myself. To Sunday school classes, in Bible studies, to a friend in the middle of a Vaisakhi Parade.

Sometimes it is so hard to worship God. It is so hard to follow an unfathomable God. A God who chooses who lives and dies according to no criteria that makes sense to me. A God who seems to punish the undeserving. A God who makes me so angry and so hurt because I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”

Psalm 22:2

I have often taken comfort in God’s response to Job. His powerful reminder that we humans are only a speck, of how little we actually know.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?” God asks Job. “Have you entered the storehouse of the snow, or seen the storehouses of the hail?”

God knows. He was there. He commands the morning and causes the dawn to know its place. The gates of death have been revealed to Him. (Job 38)

But sometimes, some days, that doesn’t comfort me. I don’t want the keeper of the dawn or the one who scatters the wind. I want someone to hold my hand, to let me cry, to change my story to a happier one. God feels very far away on those days.

Reading this week, of Jesus’ final days before His death, I was struck by His prayer in Gethsemane.

“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”

Matthew 26: 39

Jesus’ last night, His last hours before His betrayal, and He prayed to be saved. He asked God to change His course, His story.

Jesus’ prayer wasn’t answered.

Jesus experienced every facet of what it is to be human. Including that devastating silence from God. And just as the psalmist cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried out too, as He died on the cross. (Matthew 27:46)

Jesus didn’t end His prayer there though. His closing statement was a desire for God’s will to be fulfilled.

My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; neverthless, not as I will, but as You will.”

And the Psalmist still managed to worship God.

“Yet You are Holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”

Psalm 22:3

Even Job, before God made His response, worshipped God in the midst of his suffering.

“Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.”

Job 13:15

So though we may pray for our circumstances to change, for God to save us from the path He leads us on, we also have to pray – at the same time, in the same breath – for the strength to walk that path. For the faith to know that God does lead us through the shadow of the valley of death.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Book Review – The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

How much would you do for someone you love? What would you sacrifice? Where is the line between right and wrong? What does it mean to be a parent?

These are all questions that The Light Between Oceans (Scribner, 2012) forces the reader to ponder. We all want to believe that we know right from wrong. That, when the moment comes, we will do right. But what about when that line isn’t so clear?

Tom Sherbourne is attempting to escape the horrors of his four years spent in the army during the Great War. He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, located at the tip of Australia. He loves the island and he loves his light. Despite his own expectations, he falls in love with Isabel too and he brings her back to the remote island. They’re deeply in love, creating a whole world for just the two of them on their rock. But after two miscarriages and a stillborn baby, their life is not what they thought it would become. And then a boat washes onshore. A boat carrying a crying baby girl and a dead man.

Tom and Isabel make a decision that will change their own lives and the lives of everyone around them.

Stedman does a masterful job of creating a place both wild and beautiful in Janus Island. We never forget how disconnected Tom and Isabel are from the rest of the world – every three months a supply boat visits but their trips to the mainland are years apart. This was a wise decision because it allows the reader to buy more fully into their states of mind and their subsequent decisions. Just as compellingly, Stedman makes Janus Island a place you might actually want to live. Tom and Isabel create an idyllic life there. One that, as we learn, cannot be sustained anywhere else.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that The Light Between Oceans made me cry. And I’m not someone who cries over a lot of books. The characters felt real, the location felt real, but beyond that, Stedman created a real situation. Maybe not a realistic one, but she created a family who truly loved each other, who were faced with an impossible choice. And what do you do when no happy ending is possible?

Book Review – Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

There’s a reason very few books are written in the second person. It’s a difficult feat to pull off without sounding like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. The problem, of course, is that, at some point or another, the reader will stop and say, “No. That isn’t me. I didn’t do that.” And the illusion is destroyed.

For the most part, Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage Books, 1984) succeeds in the second person format, in telling the story of an unnamed character entirely through the use of “you”. And that’s saying something because I could hardly have less in common with this “you”. I’m not male, I’m not divorced, I’ve never been to New York City, I’ve never done cocaine, and I wasn’t even alive in 1984.

We follow our “you” as he stumbles through his life following his wife’s departure. A phone call from Paris (she’s a model) where she tells him she isn’t coming back. Which, it turns out, means coming back to “you”, not New York. You do a lot of drugs, mostly cocaine (it is the 80’s, after all) and you drink too much. Your friend, Tad Allagash, is a terrible influence on you and you know this but seem powerless to resist. Perhaps because he’s the only one to whom you’ve confessed Amanda’s abandonment. You’re smart but doing terribly at your job because you’ve become more than half-hearted about everything.

It isn’t until closer to the end of the novel that we learn of the greater sadness in our character’s life, the larger difficulties. We spend the book wondering if it’s too late, if it’s already hopeless or if somebody can save “you”. All in all, it’s a sad book. It’s a sad book about giving up.

Does it need to be told in second person? Probably not though it is well done. Mostly I would forget about the point of view and then, every now and then, I would stop and re-read a sentence, thinking, “Did it just say ‘you’?” So, yes, sometimes it took me out of the narrative but mostly I forgot about it. I never felt like the story was talking about my life but I can’t say whether or not that was the author’s intention. More often, I felt frustrated by “your” poor decisions, the inability you have to save yourself. It was hard to feel sympathetic for most of the novel, until that late reveal threw everything that had come first into a new light.

There’s a reason very few novels are written in second person perspective. But if more are to come, Bright Lights, Big City is a good how-to primer.