Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

A novel of family history, passion and menace, based on historical events in eastern Canada.

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In her fourth novel, Alone in the Classroom, Elizabeth Hay (Late Nights on Air) awakens the hidden histories of Saskatchewan and the small-town Ottawa Valley, as her narrator Anne Flood researches the life of her aunt, Connie.

Connie Flood taught for one year, 1929, at a small prairie school in the town of Jewel. Among her students, she worked closely with one challenged boy, Michael Graves. The strikingly portrayed principal, Mr. Burns, surveyed them with an ominous air. One of Connie’s students died a tragic and mysterious death; some 80 years later, the repercussions of that death still swirl through Anne’s life. Likewise, the unrelated murder of another child shortly thereafter haunts Connie, Mr. Burns and Michael Graves for years to come.

Alone in the Classroom is not really a murder mystery (although no slack is permitted in the plot); it’s a lyrical, thoughtful exploration of a town’s secrets. The Flood family’s history and the legacy of Mr. Burns make for a taut, suspenseful and compelling tale. There are threads of romance intertwined with obsession, sensuality paired with threat. Anne’s relationships with mother, aunt and grandmother–both sinister and everyday–form a central theme as well. Though it’s a slim book, at just over 200 pages, Alone in the Classroom begs to be read slowly; at the novel’s close, it’s easy to feel an intimate connection with Anne and her forebears and, having come so far with her, be strangely refreshed by the journey.


This review originally ran in the August 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 lakes.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Yannick Grannec

Following yesterday’s review of The Goddess of Small Victories, here’s Yannick Grannec: On Mathematics and Metaphor.


Yannick Grannec is a graphic designer, freelance art director, professor of fine arts and enthusiast of mathematics. The Goddess of Small Victories is her first novel. She lives in Saint-Paul de Vence, in France.

(Interview translation courtesy of Other Press.).

yannickWhy Kurt Gödel? Why did you feel the need to tell his story, or more accurately, Adele’s?

When I was 18, I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and became fascinated by the work of Kurt Gödel. Twenty years later, I read, by chance, an essay about the friendship between Gödel and Einstein and, as the subject interested me, read other essays. In one of them, I came across a few lines about Adele that struck me as condescending. This question was implied: How could such a genius marry such a common woman?

Knowing Gödel’s life–the man was paranoid, anorexic, depressed–I wondered: How could a woman love such a difficult man for 50 years? There was nothing scientific about it, but that seemed to me to be the real mystery.

I had the intuition of a human story that needed telling, one that came with an opportunity to share what has always fascinated me, the history of science, as part of the fabric. To tell it in the voice of Adele seemed to me completely natural: she was the Candide, which allowed me to transmit complicated ideas with simple words. I felt an immediate empathy for her, as though I’d always known her: she spoke to me of all these destinies of women, of these lives sacrificed for love or out of social obligation. She spoke to me of my mother, my grandmothers, and all those other women howling through my DNA.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for this writing?

Even before beginning to write, I read a great number of documents over the course of at least a year. Of course, I had begun with everything that was within my intellectual reach that had to do with Kurt Gödel, then Einstein, then the biographies of those scientists who shared their destiny. But as soon as I pulled on one thread, an infinite tapestry appeared: I had to stick my nose into epistemology, into history in general, into philosophy, etc. I admit to having had a few periods of discouragement. In particular about Husserl, on whose subject, clearly, I stumbled. Like Adele, I didn’t have the keys. I assembled a wide-ranging collection of photographs to nurture my imagination (the people, the period clothing, the places, etc.) and then I went on reconnaissance to Vienna and to Princeton, to soak up those places. In certain neighborhoods, those two cities seem to be stopped in time. It is very easy to imagine the era before the war in Vienna and the 1950s in Princeton. I had come up with a route, from house to café, from university to sanatorium, to follow in Gödel’s footsteps. I understood why, for example, they lived in the suburb of Grinzing: the 38 tram was direct from the mathematics university. Kurt didn’t like complications in his daily life. Each new discovery stirred up big emotions: seeking Kurt and Adele on the street where they lived, I found an old photography studio at the address that had belonged to Adele’s father. I’ve returned there since, only to discover it has been replaced by a snack bar. Destiny, in this case, gave me this gift. Three years later, I would have missed it. At Princeton, I timed the route Gödel walked with Einstein, to determine the length of their conversations. At the Gödels’ tomb, in Princeton, I cried. I’ve lived with them; they’re my family.

As for having the nerve to make Einstein, Gödel or Oppenheimer speak, I owe it to a kind of wild foolishness, the one that urges you to jump from a diving board into cold water. In retrospect, I shiver at the thought.

How did you come to the decision to switch back and forth between the latter-day view of Anna’s life, and Adele’s life history as it happened?

Anna was born in hindsight. I needed a character who would listen to Adele. And I felt a need to interrogate the Gödels about their lack of reaction to the rise of the Nazis. I needed to explore this gray area. I’m going to say something very pretentious, but the novel’s construction is meant to be a metaphor for the incompleteness theorem. The system observed here is not a mathematical system, but that of Adele and Kurt’s relationship. Extrapolating from the incompleteness theorem–Gödel forgive me!–we can say: one has to be outside of the system to understand the system. So I opted for a double construction: a subjective perspective, from the inside of the system where Adele recounts her story and her feelings in the first person, and a more objective perspective, in the third person, where the narrator observes Adele and the way she tells her story, completed by the letters of the Gödels’ nurse, Elizabeth Glinka.

Anna was therefore supposed to be an objective observer, but the more I wrote, the more her character developed. The relationship with the old woman became a creative re-creation, allowing me to work without documentation, following my intuition. Her destiny became a mirror of Adele’s with, obviously, different paradigms of social origins and historical circumstances. In the end, Anna is, for me, a very positive character: she gives Adele her affection and the possibility to pass on the vital force that defines her. So the novel doesn’t conclude with a disappearance, but with all the possibilities of a life being constructed.

Toward the end of the book, it felt like we got a more intimate look inside Adele’s head. Was this intentional?

The first part of the book takes place during the time of the events that tormented her: life in Vienna during the heady days, the rise of Nazism, the flight across the Pacific, the move to the United States, McCarthyism. At the end of the novel, we accompany the couple through their aging, in a life that’s more and more reclusive. We must understand Adele’s solitude, her boredom. I felt strangely compelled to make the reader feel Mrs. Gödel’s inner battles: her anger, her discouragement followed by a sort of abandon, the acceptance of her own weakness and inevitable decline.

Did you have any role in the translation of this novel by Willard Wood into English? What does the process look like?

My English is really not good enough to judge the translation. I have complete confidence in Judith Gurewich, my American publisher, and Stephen Carrière, my French publisher, both of whom are completely bilingual. I know it’s a very good translation. I loved working with the translator, Willard Wood: we exchanged numerous e-mails. Willard has a sensitivity, an attention to detail that moved me, and a deadpan sense of humor that I greatly appreciated. For other translations, I had to sometimes explain, literally, the idiom or the double senses, which can be very exhausting. That wasn’t the case with Willard, who has a perfect mastery of the second degree in both languages. It was very important to me to keep the humor of the original French, if I can allow myself to describe it that way!

How important is historical accuracy in fiction, and how faithfully does this novel stick to the historical record?

To slip into Gödel’s life demanded a great deal of exactitude. When you use someone’s life, respect is an imperative at every moment. For Kurt, it wasn’t difficult; his life had already been explored and dissected by different biographers, like the “bible” by John Dawson, Logical Dilemmas. For Adele, I had so little information. I had to make myself empathetic, attempt to guess her feelings, her emotions, through the few anecdotes I was able to gather: the aggression of the Nazis on the steps of the university, the naturalization scene in Oskar Morgenstern’s memoirs, Dorothy Morgenstern’s saying that she was very intelligent and funny. I constructed three chronologies: an historic and scientific frieze; a timeline of Kurt Gödel’s life (his trips, moves, work, depressions and health problems); and underlining it, one of Adele’s life as well. She was the unknown in the equation determined by history and the history of her husband. I tried to guess at and date her moods, her joys and, at times, her despair.

The main difficulty lay less in historical exactitude than in approaching scientific exactitude. First of all, it was necessary to attempt to understand. I could talk about this famous incompleteness theorem in a general way, but not in any detail; I’m not a mathematician, and I’m not at all conversant in the language of logic in which it’s expressed. Then, I had to betray. Because the language of mathematics is, by its very definition, objective–but to integrate it into fiction, and to share it, I could only use written language, a subjective tool. To go from sign to metaphor is a betrayal. So I needed to accept, and have others accept, an inevitable inexactitude.

For the part on the continuum hypothesis, I took a course taught by a mathematician friend. This part is more developed, because I thought I understood it better, and my intention was to use only what I thought I understood, because it was important to me to be intellectually honest. Of course, often, we think we understand, but it’s only the surface of things.


This interview originally ran on August 6, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on August 6, 2014.


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Kurt Gödel was a mathematician, logician and philosopher, best known for his incompleteness theorem, and often referred to as one of the greatest logicians since Aristotle. Born in Austria in 1906, he immigrated to the United States in 1940 to escape Hitler’s growing power and to pursue his scholarly work. Plagued by mental illness but also highly accomplished in his field, he would easily make an interesting subject to pursue. But Yannick Grannec’s first novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, is not about Kurt Gödel; it is about his wife, Adele.

Adele was six years older than Kurt, and was employed as a dancer at a cabaret when they met in 1927. They were a couple for more than a decade (during which time she nursed him through several rounds of institutionalization) before they married, with the continuing disapproval of his family. Adele would face rejection and isolation in the academic community as well, particularly when the couple finally settled at Princeton, where he worked at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).

These details are a matter of historical record. Grannec’s foray into fiction begins with her other protagonist: it is 1980, Gödel has recently died of anorexia, and Anna Roth, an employee at the IAS, has been tasked with recovering Gödel’s archives from his widow. Adele lives in a nursing home, and continues to hold a grudge against the academic establishment that shunned her; she is known to be a prickly old woman, and at first lives up to her reputation. But she sees something she recognizes in Anna, the daughter of two egomaniacal Princeton professors, who never felt that she fit into that society, being a more timid sort. Gradually, as Anna makes regular visits to the nursing home, the two women begin to open up to one another. Adele calls it a trade: she’ll tell her story if Anna tells hers. Chapters of The Goddess of Small Victories alternate between a third-person view of Anna’s visits to Adele in 1980, and a first-person telling of Adele’s story as it happened chronologically, beginning in 1928.

In this way, “the younger woman” (as Anna is often labeled) gets to visit Adele’s past worlds: Vienna in the 1930’s, postwar Princeton, McCarthyism, the Cold War; the difficulties of being an immigrant with poor English, the thrill of close friendship with Einstein and other luminaries and, centrally, the challenge of marriage to a tortured genius. Gödel is concerned with the infinite, but unable to handle the minutiae of his life: he is a consistently and increasingly troubled man–gifted, but also cold and demanding. He suffers from depression and paranoia, starves himself, meticulously tracks his body temperature and bowel activity, and refuses to see anyone outside a small circle that includes Einstein, Oskar Morgenstern, Robert Oppenheimer and their wives. He harangues his friends with conspiracy theories and an insistent rehashing of his unpopular notions. These few individuals naturally compose Adele’s entire social world, as well. Gödel tests Adele mightily, but in the end her love persists, as does her belief in infinity (a popular topic in the Gödel marriage and within their intellectual circle).

In exchange, Adele enjoys hearing about Anna’s life, though it has been marked by broken relationships and fear. The elder woman is outspoken, where the younger is reticent; Adele is enlivened by the challenge of spicing up Anna’s professional and love lives. Anna, as it turns out, has had a gifted-but-troubled mathematician in her own life as well. As the book and the women’s relationship unfold, the reader’s perspective moves more deeply inside Adele’s head, hearing her more intimate thoughts and becoming privy to her fears and insecurities, which increase as she ages and her marriage disappoints her. Anna and Adele make a journey together, and soon Gödel’s archives are no longer the point (except for Anna’s employer).

In an author’s note at the end, Grannec succinctly outlines which parts of the story are historically confirmed, which are relatively safe conjectures, and which she has created. Sticklers for historical accuracy should be satisfied. The translation from French to English by Willard Wood is smooth, establishing appropriate voices for the two different protagonists, and creating the evolving atmospheres of nervousness, fear and, eventually, desperation that characterize the Gödel household.

In the end, The Goddess of Small Victories delicately evokes both Adele’s varied experiences, in historical context, and also Anna’s more circumscribed life, which leaves room for future decision-making. While light is shed on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, he takes a backseat to his dynamic wife in Grannec’s compassionate telling. The finer technical details of Gödel’s work are outlined in narrative form, as Gödel reluctantly tries to tutor Adele, or discusses theories of philosophy with Einstein and the others. (Grannec also inserts footnotes regularly to offer further explanation, or to attribute quotations.) These mathematical and philosophical dialogues, the reader is reminded, are oversimplified; but they are enough to either whet the appetite, or impress upon one the magnitude of Gödel’s genius. The stars of this story, however, are two strong and intriguing women, who are stronger together.


Rating: 8 chocolates.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Grannec!

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo

A quirky illustrated reference guide to the oddities of the plant world and botanical history.

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Broccoli as we know it today comes to us as a product of early bioengineering (by the Etruscans around 800 B.C.). Eve’s forbidden fruit may have been not an apple, but a fig. In Aztec culture, virgins were not permitted to look upon the lusty avocado fruit on the tree. The blister bush contains chemicals that interact with human skin and then combust upon exposure to sunlight. In Greek mythology, the artichoke was created when Zeus became angry with his mistress and transformed her into the thistle as punishment. Bamboo blooms only every 65 or 120 years, and when it does, rat populations explode. Nutmeg has mild hallucinogenic properties.

From Absinthe to Żubrówka (“widely known as the plant that makes the best Polish vodka”), The Big, Bad Book of Botany is not your standard reference book. It is far from comprehensive; Michael Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts) instead hopes to entertain and educate by focusing on plants with odd characteristics and their history and roles in different cultures, including medicinal uses both current and bygone. Entries are alphabetically ordered (although some take a little hunting: oleander is filed under B for “Be-Still Tree”), and accompanied by some 150 illustrations by the artists of the Tropical Botanic Artists collective. Some entries include tips on gardening or on avoiding poisoning.

Simply written with an eye for humor and cocktail-party-friendly trivia, this botanical exploration can serve as a coffee-table piece or conversation starter. Just don’t mix up your yew with your yerba.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 5 petioles.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

An entrancing fantasy of a young man’s search for past and future in a single summer of change.

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Graham Joyce (Some Kind of Fairy Tale) explores family legacies and the struggle for new beginnings in The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit.

In the sultry English summer of 1976, David Barwise does not return home from college to work for his stepfather as the family expects, but instead takes a job at a run-down holiday resort. The economy is headed downhill, and the resort industry is especially depressed, but David is attracted to the seaside town where his biological father disappeared mysteriously when his boy was a toddler.

His coworkers are a rowdy bunch in which “everyone has an angle.” Among them, David is particularly drawn to Colin, a dangerously angry brooder, and his wife, Terri, beautiful and silent. Over the course of the summer he will find himself pulled against his will into a political association he finds hard to break. He’ll find lust and, later, love. And eventually he’ll solve the mystery of his father’s fate and build a new relationship with his mother and stepfather.

The cast of colorful characters includes some neo-Nazis, a woman with a mysterious past, a solitary Italian tenor, an unlikely pair of fortune-telling sisters and a friendly young dancer. But Joyce’s most remarkable achievement is the tense atmosphere of this slim and haunting novel, simultaneously dreamy and chilling, setting David’s preference for Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix against the backdrop of Sinatra, Como and Nat King Cole performed in a dying theater.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 sand castles.

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Like Vreeland’s previous novels about women in history and art, Lisette’s List is heartfelt, loving and lovely, and asks difficult questions beautifully.

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In Lisette’s List, Susan Vreeland (Clara and Mr. Tiffany; Girl in Hyacinth Blue) lovingly portrays Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist French art by way of a modest fictional character in Provence.

In 1937, newlyweds Andre and Lisette Roux move from France’s vibrant capital to the pastoral southeastern town of Roussillon to care for his grandfather, Pascal, who has written that he is dying. A passionate Parisian, Lisette is at first miserable in the backwater town, and infuriated when Pascal turns out to be healthier than he let on: he simply wanted their company, and to share what he remembers about the famous French artists he has known.

But Lisette is as fervent about art as she is about Paris, and Andre has trained in his grandfather’s trade of carving fine frames for fine paintings. She is captivated by Pascal’s collection of seven paintings: by Cézanne and Pissarro, and one possibly by Picasso. As a miner in the nearby ochre mines and later a pigment salesman, Pascal made the most of his access to these men, and now shares his recollections with the rapt Lisette–as well as his wisdom about life and love.

By the time Pascal eventually dies, Lisette has made a home of sorts in Roussillon; her love for the paintings further compels her to stay in Provence when Andre hides them (for fear of their destruction or seizure by German troops), not telling even Lisette where they’re stowed. Andre then enlists to fight for France, and Lisette is left alone, waiting for both the safe return of her husband and a reunion with the artwork.

Over the next decade and more, Lisette keeps a list of “Lisette’s Hungers and Vows.” Inspired by Pascal and his paintings, Andre’s love and the quiet strength and beauty of the Provençal surroundings, she pledges to “learn what makes a painting great,” “learn how to be self-sufficient” and “love without reservation.” She meets Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella, who are hiding in a nearby town. Upon receiving a gift painted specially for her by Chagall, she begins her own art collection and narrative. But war necessarily brings tragedy as well as new beginnings. Lisette will experience love and loss, joy and deep pain; learn animal husbandry as well as art history; and parse the moral questions raised under Vichy French rule, as the years go by. She finds new friends, undertakes small favors and large sacrifices, all in times of war and recovery, amid the paintings she loves so. Readers will likely rush through the lovely Lisette’s List, only to be bereaved when the final stroke is painted and the portrait is complete.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pieces of marzipan.

Never Mind Miss Fox by Olivia Glazebrook

An ominous tale of betrayal and past mistakes.

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Olivia Glazebrook (The Trouble with Alice) opens her second novel, Never Mind Miss Fox, by introducing her readers to Clive and Martha in their university days, at Oxford. Clive has fallen for Martha, and “realizing her worth–afraid to leave her unattended,” he’s brought her along on a family holiday to France. It is there, in a small seaside town where Clive’s family has been vacationing for decades, that the full cast of characters comes together: the new couple is joined by Clive’s younger brother, Tom, and his guest, a girl named Eliot Fox. Tom and Eliot are “just friends,” although everyone acknowledges that Tom worships her. The boys’ parents, Val and Peter, are secondary to this vivid foursome of young people, but their personalities are evoked in brief sketches.

The narrative then jumps forward in time. Clive and Martha are happily (or at least stably) married, and they adore their lonesome daughter, Eliza, who has just come home from school to announce that she has a new piano teacher, someone from her parents’ past. Eliza is happy to have found a friend in Miss Fox; but to Clive she represents something entirely different. Eliot brings with her a secret Clive has mostly forgotten after all these years, a dark secret unknown to Martha or Eliza or Tom, one that has the potential to tear apart his carefully constructed life. “Are you going to tell?” he asks her; Eliot replies, “I won’t have to.”

The chronology of Glazebrook’s haunting tale continues to alternate between the schooldays of the original four characters and their adult lives with the heartbreaking Eliza, whose world was just starting to make sense when it began to break apart. Readers will wonder at the nature of Clive’s transgression for much of the book, as the enigma is slowly revealed; then they’ll watch in horror as his family’s present hangs in the balance.

Never Mind Miss Fox is relatively brief–easily read in a single sitting–but powerful. Glazebrook draws strong characters: Martha, ambitious, and a reluctant mother; Clive, insecure and barely competent; Eliza, an affectingly awkward, intelligent child; and of course Miss Fox, mysterious, damaged, whose motives remain obscure. As the entangled players rush toward a conclusion that will change each of their lives in profound ways, the distressed marriage and mood of sinister suspense are apt to delight fans of Patricia Highsmith and all that is darkly engrossing.


This review originally ran in the July 31, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.
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