Dirt: A novel

When I first heard David Vann had a new novel coming out I was filled with excitement. His first book of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, was one of the freshest, most exhilarating pieces of writing I'd read in a long time. Five short pieces nestled around a novella told the story of a father's suicidal decline in the far north, with the lives of his young son, ex-wife, new wife and new wife's family circling around the madness. The writing was spare yet rich and vivid, and the narrative's advance toward doom was infused with such clarity, understanding and formal brilliance that the story took us into uncharted literary territory.

Dirt, Vann's third book of fiction, is a novel of epic family dysfunction. But be forewarned: David Sedaris this is not. Galen, a 22-year-old youth with an indeterminate mental illness, lives in 1985 Sacramento, Calif., in a hotbed of familial hatred, meanness, greed, damage and dishonesty, a family with no hope of healing or redemption.

Women Are Not Chimpanzees

From the halls of the École Polytechnique in Paris, in a country where women are still resolutely women first and mothers second, where breasts are a female sexual organ first and a mammalian gland for feeding newborns second, and where adult-oriented parenting goes hand in hand with one of the highest birth rates in Europe, comes the bold, adamantine voice of Elisabeth Badinter, a philosophy professor, author, mother of three and famous (even notorious) feminist essayist.

Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl

As every woman who has had an amniocentesis test knows, the procedure is a haunting and morally uncomfortable one. A long needle penetrates the taut skin of the pregnant belly and a hard-edge white line shows up on the ultrasound screen as the needle invades the uterine sac where the fetus floats, utterly vulnerable and unaware that it is being tested for health problems. The fact that the pregnant woman has been informed that the procedure has a slight risk of miscarriage makes the moment even more emotionally freighted. If the results of my own two amnio tests had told me something was wrong, I did not know then and still don’t know what I would have done (cross that bridge etc.).

Breathing the Page by Betsy Warland

I’ve been going through a wordless patch. This week was the first anniversary of my stepfather’s sudden death. The deer had eaten everything we’d left on his grave, so I bought Shasta daisies, black-eyed Susans, Spanish lavender and golden oregano, carried a chair for my Mom to sit graveside, and dug new holes in the dirt our family had shovelled last year. The sandy soil had an abundance of stones, and I started using them to build miniature walls around each plant, creating a topography that took me back to childhood cities I constructed for my turtles with blocks my stepfather made me. Who knew then what moment I was practising for.

Mother of All Mothers by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

The time I had set aside to rewrite this review was spent at the clinic with my son, getting him antibiotics and a tetanus shot after a skateboard accident left sizable deposits of his skin on the neighbourhood pavement. Even now, when my children are older and in many ways can take care of themselves, I want an allomother. My children aren’t self-provisioning yet, nor would they have been back in the “old” Pleistocene days, when allomothers often made the difference between life and death.

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander’s first book, a collection of stories titled For the Relief of Unbearable Urges—unusual both in concept and in quality—got big advances, excellent reviews, a place on bestseller lists and translations into a dozen languages. Englander, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community in New York, moved to Jerusalem, perversely, to lead a secular life.

Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire

In July 2000, a man was found unconscious and drunk in a park in Hull, Que. People close to him feared he was suicidal. That man was Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian force commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 civilians were slaughtered by their countrymen and -women in 100 days. The reality of the genocide entered the core of his being. The visceral memories, his sense of responsibility and guilt, and brain changes resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder threatened to undo him completely.

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

In 1995 Carol Shields gave the Bill Duthie Memorial Lecture at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, where she alluded to the failure of contemporary novelists, herself included, to write about happy marriages. With Larry’s Party, her latest novel, she still hasn’t tackled that monumental plot challenge, but she does tackle the war of the sexes.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

With this new novel Margaret Atwood enters the era of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne (with an affectionate nod to Robertson Davies) and masters the art of the Victorian novel without forsaking her own trenchant, intensely observant and irreverently funny voice.

The Follow by Linda Spalding

At the centre of this book lies a problem. The problem is the subject won’t cooperate. So the book must take another shape around the absence of the subject.

JUMP and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer

Pleasure. Before you even read the first story in Jump you experience two perfect pleasures.

Visitors by Anita Brookner and Big Women by Fay Weldon

Reading Fay Weldon’s and Anita Brookner’s new novels is like going on a road journey with Carole Pope and Liona Boyd, or a rowdy talkative schoolgirl and a shy, though perceptive librarian. Initially the schoolgirl’s company is more pleasurable, her energy makes the journey seem fun and carefree, but over time the good manners and discretion of the librarian prove more conducive to seeing the countryside.