Category Archives: Surly Joe

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves – Stephen Grosz GUEST POST REVIEW


  • TELTitle: The Examined Life
  • Author: Stephen Grosz
  • ISBN: 0393349322 (ISBN13: 9780393349320)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: Published May 12th 2014 by Random House Canada
  • Format: Paperback
  • Genre/s: Non-fiction/Pyschology

SYNOPSIS – (From Goodreads)

In his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behavior. The Examined Life distils more than 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight without the jargon.

This extraordinary book is about one ordinary process: talking, listening, and understanding. Its aphoristic and elegant stories teach us a new kind of attentiveness. They also unveil a delicate self-portrait of the analyst at work and show how lessons learned in the consulting room can reveal as much to the analyst as to the patient.

These are stories about our everyday lives: they are about the people we love and the lies we tell, the changes we bear and the grief. Ultimately, they show us not only how we lose ourselves but also how we might find ourselves.


Before the preface of psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life, before the table of contents and the dedication, are three pages of praise by professional critics. It is described as “crystal clear and completely magical”, written with “an elegance and poignancy that would make Raymond Carver envious”. The New Yorker compared its short chapters to “minimalist, suspenseful detective stories”. The Sunday Times of Britain stated that “Grosz’s vignettes are so brilliantly put together that they read like pieces of bare, illuminating fiction…Utterly captivating”. It is an international bestseller and an award-winner. On the back cover, The Times called it “brilliant”.

So what did I miss?

This is my thirteenth review for Penny Dreadful and the first time that a book has left me completely uninspired, for better or for worse. I read it cover-to-cover, I took notes like I usually do. I also looked out the cafe window and watched the traffic and I kept checking my phone hoping somebody would text me.

The thirty-one chapters that make up The Examined Life are short anecdotes representative of Grosz’s twenty-five years of practice as a therapist. They are stories of patients with relationship problems, questions of sexuality, difficulties with parenting skills, struggles with love and hate and insecurity and suicidal tendencies. The issues themselves are fascinating, universal and unfortunately commonplace in our twenty-first century world. But at the end of each chapter, I felt I had just read a bunch of words. It was a vacuum, empty and then disappointing. Perhaps the chapters were just so short and presented so simply that there wasn’t enough time for my interest to develop. Maybe the subjects changed so quickly that I couldn’t keep up and so I turned off, an unconscious defence mechanism to help me deal with what felt like a very unsatisfactory situation, what felt like I was failing. The critics loved The Examined Life and selected it as “a best book of 2013”. Could my viewpoint be so far off? Was I oblivious? Or worse, were the book’s themes tweaking some of my own long-repressed insecurities and forcing them to the surface. It started to feel like I was reviewing myself.

And then just now, re-reading these paragraphs, a fascinating irony entered my thoughts. It appears that reviewing The Examined Life has triggered my own self-examination. If this book has caused me to question myself and, in essence, examine my own life, perhaps Stephen Grosz has succeeded. If this is the case, while I may not have enjoyed his book, I certainly now appreciate it.

About the Author

stephen_grosz,_stephen__c__mainStephen Grosz is a practicing psychoanalyst— he has worked with patients for more than twenty-five years. Born in America, educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Oxford University, he lives in London. A Sunday Times bestseller, The Examined Life is his first book.


CKIn his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.


Junkie – William S. Burroughs GUEST POST REVIEW


  • junkieTitle: Junkie
  • Author: William S. Burroughs
  • ISBN: 0450010627 (ISBN13: 9780450010620)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: Published 1972 (first published January 1st 1953)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Genre/s: Fiction & Literature

From GoodreadsBefore his 1959 breakthrough, Naked Lunch, an unknown William S. Burroughs wrote Junky, his first novel. It is a candid eye-witness account of times and places that are now long gone, an unvarnished field report from the American post-war underground. Unafraid to portray himself in 1953 as a confirmed member of two socially-despised under classes (a narcotics addict and a homosexual), Burroughs was writing as a trained anthropologist when he unapologetically described a way of life – in New York, New Orleans, and Mexico City – that by the 1940’s was already demonized by the artificial anti-drug hysteria of an opportunistic bureaucracy and a cynical, prostrate media.

Junkie is not a book to be enjoyed.  It is a book to be endured.  There are no likable characters.  There are no feel-good moments, there is no happiness.  It is ugly, blunt, emotionless, occasionally vile.  It is car-wreck fascinating and probably one of the most honest accounts of drug addiction ever written.

William S. Burroughs, the godfather of American Beat literature, author of The Naked Lunch,  and seminal influence to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others, wrote the semi-autobiographical Junkie, his first published work, in 1953.  He was ivy-league educated, a kid with financial support from a respectable Midwest family.  But he was also a bored misfit and an outcast who rejected conformity for drugs and extreme experimentation.  “You become a narcotics addict,” he wrote, “because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction.  Junk (i.e. drugs) wins by default.”

Junkie spans the course of a few years and Burroughs describes his existence as an addict, traveling from New York to New Orleans to Texas and finally Mexico City, always with the goal of the next high in mind.  He hangs out with thieves, dealers and other addicts, chasing drugs, fleeing the law.  He describes his acquaintances, members of the junkie community, as “basically obscene beyond any vile act or practice.”   The typical addict “is socialized as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function”.  They feel no remorse because they are completely chemically-controlled.  Once hooked, “life telescopes down to junk, one fix and looking forward to the next”.  It is life on “junk-time”.

There were instances where Burroughs tried to break his habit.  The results were painful and short-term, junk-sickness suffering – “My body was raw, twisting, tumescent, the junk-frozen flesh in agonizing thaw.”  He substituted drugs with alcohol, once drinking for ten days straight, not bathing, not eating, almost dying.  And after two months of being clean, he went back to his needle, found the vein, and described the hit as pure bliss, writing “If God made anything better, he kept it for Himself”.

As Junkie ends, Burroughs’ search for new highs is still in its infancy.  His travels would take him to South America, Europe and North Africa.  It is rumoured that, while living in Morocco, he did not leave his apartment for a year, never washing, never changing his clothes.  He wrote and was an addict.  But he survived and produced, his tortured existence resulting in fame, notoriety as a completely amoral, tragic figure, with the label as one of America’s greatest and most influential writers and a hero to the counterculture for pursuing freedom at all costs.  Was it worth it?  In an interview late in his life, Burroughs was asked if he regretted anything.  He replied curtly – “Everything”.  A junkie’s honesty still intact.

Free audiobook version:


william-burroughsWilliam Seward Burroughs II, (also known by his pen name William Lee; February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer. A primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author, he is considered to be “one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the 20th century”. His influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.

He was born to a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, and nephew of public relations manager Ivy Lee. Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studied English, and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Navy in 1942 to serve in World War II, he dropped out and became afflicted with the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of what became the counter-cultural movement of the Beat Generation.

Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a controversy-fraught work that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws. With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–64). In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1984 was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”, a reputation he owes to his “lifelong subversion” of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War”, while Norman Mailer declared him “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius”.

Burroughs had one child, William Seward Burroughs III (1947-1981), with his second wife Joan Vollmer. Vollmer died in 1951 in Mexico City. Burroughs was convicted of manslaughter in Vollmer’s death, an event that deeply permeated all of his writings. Burroughs died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, after suffering a heart attack in 1997.


In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia,  Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.


Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke GUEST POST REVIEW


  • letters-to-a-young-poet-a-beloved-classic-of-writerly-wisdom-400x400-imad8qzugsbtfyr3Title: Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter)
  • Author: Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Translator: Reginald Snell
  • ISBN: 0486422453 (ISBN13: 9780486422459)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: May 8th 2002 by Dover Publications (first published 1929)
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Genre/s: Non-Fiction/Classics
  • Print Length: 80 pages

From GoodreadsIn 1903, Rilke replied in a series of 10 letters to a student who had submitted some verses to the well-known Austrian poet for an assessment. Written during an important stage in Rilke’s artistic development, these letters contain many of the themes that later appeared in his best works. Essential reading for scholars, poetry lovers.

So why, in the twenty-first century, should anyone other than literature students, scholars and semi-obscure book reviewers care about a tiny volume of 100 year-old letters written by one poet to another? How could it possibly be relevant in our ultra-connected, always-frantic, constantly-distracted First World existence?

In 1902 a young and aspiring poet named Franz Kappus wrote a letter to Rainer Maria Rilke, an older established poet who he admired. Kappus was not even twenty years-old and already he was having an existential crisis. Studying at a military academy, he was, he explained, “on the verge of going into a profession which I felt was directly opposed to my true inclinations.” He needed guidance. He wanted Rilke’s opinion of his “poetic efforts”. Rilke’s response was a series of ten letters written between 1903 and 1908 and published in 1929, three years after his death from leukemia, as a small edition called Letters to a Young Poet.

Rilke’s advice centered on three themes that he felt were most important to any artist – embracing solitude, embracing difficulty, and not giving in to criticism. He wrote to Kappus, “works of art are infinitely solitary”. In order to create, “What is needed is this and this alone! Solitude, great inner loneliness!” And further, ‘love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you.” Parents, elders, friends will most likely not understand, nevertheless “ask no advice of them and reckon with no understanding”. The creative life will be difficult, however “it is good to be alone, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult should be one more reason to do it”. By the end of the tenth letter, and after a gap of four years from their previous correspondence, it appears Kappus had given up on the poetic life and accepted a military career. Rather than being disappointed, Rilke praised him for being true to himself, hoping that he was “living alone and courageous in a rough reality”.

Rilke was a masterful writer and he seemed to follow his own advice that he espoused to Kappus. He was a pure artist, traveling often, never staying anywhere long, never seeming content, never having much money. At one point, he even confesses to Kappus that he would love to buy him some copies of his books but he was too poor. But he continued on his own path, publishing several collections of poetry as well as prose, plays and nonfiction. He is considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.

But to circle back to the introductory question, why should we care about Letters to a Young Poet now? Precisely because it presents us with the forgotten alternative to today’s pandemonium. We can unplug, un-Tweet, leave our Facebook “friends” for a little while just to be with our own thoughts, to cultivate the good that can come from the silence and the solitude. It will be difficult, Rilke repeats often. And that’s exactly the point.

Solitude by Van Den Bogerd, Escha


You Who Never Arrived

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of
the next moment. All the immense
images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt
landscape, cities, towers, and bridges, and
unsuspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods–
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house– , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon,–
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and,
startled, gave back my too-sudden image.
Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…

Rainer Maria Rilke

About this Author

Rainer_Maria_Rilke,_1900Rainer Maria Rilke is considered one of the German language’s greatest 20th century poets.

His haunting images tend to focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety — themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets.

He wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. His two most famous verse sequences are the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies; his two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

He also wrote more than 400 poems in French, dedicated to his homeland of choice, the canton of Valais in Switzerland.


In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia,  Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.



If I Fall, If I Die – Michael Christie ARC REVIEW


  • IFFIFDTitle: If I Fall, If I Die
  • Author: Michael Christie
  • ISBN: 0804140804 (ISBN13: 9780804140805)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: January 20th 2015 by Hogarth (first published January 13th 2015)
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Genre/s: Fiction/Mystery
  • Print Length: 288 pages

From Goodreads – Will has never been to the outside, at least not since he can remember. And he has certainly never gotten to know anyone other than his mother, a fiercely loving yet wildly eccentric agoraphobe who drowns in panic at the thought of opening the front door. Their little world comprises only the rooms in their home, each named for various exotic locales and filled with Will’s art projects. Soon the confines of his world close in on Will. Despite his mother’s protestations, Will ventures outside clad in a protective helmet and braces himself for danger. He eventually meets and befriends Jonah, a quiet boy who introduces Will to skateboarding. Will welcomes his new world with enthusiasm, his fears fading and his body hardening with each new bump, scrape, and fall. But life quickly gets complicated. When a local boy goes missing, Will and Jonah want to uncover what happened. They embark on an extraordinary adventure that pulls Will far from the confines of his closed-off world and into the throes of early adulthood and the dangers that everyday life offers. If I Fall, if I Die is a remarkable debut full of dazzling prose, unforgettable characters, and a poignant and heartfelt depiction of coming of age.


Nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

Doom is the House without the Door –

T’is entered from the Sun –

And then the Ladder’s thrown away,

Because Escape – is done –

In his debut novel to be published in 2015, If I Fall, If I Die, author Michael Christie references this poem to describe the mindset of Diane Cardiel, a single mother who lives with her young son Will. Once a promising filmmaker, she is now completely controlled by paranoia, depression and agoraphobia, a reaction to multiple tragic events earlier in her life. Her world is reduced to what Will calls “the Inside”, a creation designed to keep them both safe. She has named the different rooms of her house after famous cities – London, Cairo, Venice – so that they can experience the world without its risk. She is so fearful of danger that the only kitchen appliances she owns are a slow-cooker and a bread maker because they have the least chance of scalding and the food they create is so soft that choking is almost impossible. Will wears a helmet all day. He calls her depression the Black Lagoon.

But as he grows, Will also experiences the curiosity of regular boys, and when he hears a strange sound from “the Outside”, he ventures from his enforced fortress for the first time. And he doesn’t die. He explores, he meets other boys, discovers skateboarding, and eventually decides he wants to go to school. It is with tragic innocence that he makes his discoveries, learns how to socialize, learns that there is pettiness, violence and racism all around. Will gets hurt, he gets embarrassed. But he doesn’t die.

If I Fall, If I Die is permeated with beautiful, vivid language. Author Christie’s descriptions of Diane’s panic attacks and mental frailty are supremely creative. The evolving relationship between Diane and Will, especially when Will leaves home with more frequency, is fascinating. The novel is engaging.

And then, all of a sudden, it isn’t. If I Fall, If I Die virtually transforms from a work of literature to an adolescent mystery reminiscent of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. The writing style becomes more juvenile, following the new plot line of Will and his friend Jonah as skateboard-riding detectives searching for a missing friend while trying to escape the clutches of underworld criminals. It is a completely unexpected and disappointing shift, almost as if the book’s original editor had quit halfway through and the replacement had a totally different idea how to proceed. The inconsistency makes staying engaged impossible.

Nearing the end of the novel, there is a description of Diane’s first panic attack that took place on a subway platform many years earlier and opened the floodgates to her phobias. The language and sentence structure are brilliant, the rhythm of the narration speeding up as her panic increases. It is a bittersweet chapter. It illustrates how good If I Fall, If I Die could have been.


MCMICHAEL CHRISTIE’s debut book of fiction, The Beggar’s Garden, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction, and won the Vancouver Book Award. Prior to earning an MFA from the University of British Columbia, he was a sponsored skateboarder and travelled throughout the world skateboarding and writing for skateboard magazines. Born in Thunder Bay, he now lives on Galiano Island with his wife and two sons. If I Fall, If I Die is his first novel.



In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia,  Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.

The Culprits – Robert Hough


  • culprits-cover_14Title: The Culprits
  • Author: Robert Hough
  • ISBN: 0307355640 (ISBN13: 9780307355645)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: September 11th 2007 by Random House Canada
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Genre/s: Fiction
  • Print Length: 320 pages

SYNOPSIS – Hank Wallins is a broken man working the night shift in a meaningless job. Tormented by the tinnitus constantly ringing in his ears, he sleepwalks through life, too scarred by a tragic love affair to try again. When a madman pushes him into the path of an oncoming subway train, this scrape with death re-awakens Hank to the world. Craving a reengagement with passion, he reaches out to a young slightly cross-eyed Russian beauty who he locates on a website. He ventures by plane to meet the lovely and mysterious Anna in her hometown of St. Petersburg.

Anna Verkoskova seeks to flee not only the hopelessness of her economic situation, but also the reminders of her own failed love affair with Ruslan, a womanizing Dagastani rock star look-alike from the Chechen region. Finding no particular reason to dislike the kind, lumbering Hank, she agrees to follow him to Canada. But once she has left Russia behind, she is overwhelmed by homesickness and a dread of disappearing into the grey Toronto winter. Then she receives a frightening note: Ruslan has been kidnapped. She races home immediately, carrying a bag stuffed with cash. Hank’s cash.

Held captive and tortured by the FSB, Ruslan has been crippled by his tormentors and injected with N20, a mysterious CIA-developed serum that fills its victims’ brains with the totality of human knowledge, rendering them insane. Ruslan is traded to Chechen radicals and ransomed. As Anna is now associated with a “rich” Westerner, she is now a target for the ransom. Ruslan’s former political disengagement has been replaced by a new sort of apathy, one that renders him a pawn to whomever has control of the omniscient demons in his ears screaming for blood.

Returned to St. Petersburg and reunited with Ruslan, Anna quickly realizes that her former lover has been lost to her forever, as has her nation. With few options, she returns to the safety of Hank and Canada and discovers that, with her passion for Ruslan faded, she has room for new passions to emerge. But she also carries with her a life-altering secret.


As strange as it may sound, getting hit by the subway was not the worst thing to happen to Hank Wallins, and the fact that he survives, barely, provides him with a motivation that he would not have otherwise experienced. As a lonely middle-aged, night-shift-working computer operator with chronic ringing in his ears, his life isn’t much more than day-to-day drudgery. But a prolonged hospital stay and a chance introduction to changes his direction and leads him to Anna, an email-ordered, catalogue-selected, occasionally-kleptomaniacal companion with a long list of her own problems stemming from her life in Putin-age psychotic Russia. She needs a physical escape, Hank needs an emotional and spiritual escape. Their baggage gets in the way.

The Culprits, by Canadian author Robert Hough, is a brilliantly written and completely engrossing novel that travels from Toronto to Russia and back. The characters are sad, desperate and not particularly likable, and the difficulties they experience are tragic, relentless and often violent. The story is perfectly complicated, told by a mysterious narrator whose identify, once made clear, is head-shakingly original.

If Hank and Anna expected their new life together to be more pleasurable and less difficult, only Fate and The Culprits’ narrator knew differently. For Anna, her new home in Toronto leads quickly to culture shock, home sickness, and an amazingly astute and debatable observation: “The people work too hard, and are boring because of it. They live in nice homes, and watch hockey on television. The cities are clean. The people do not like opera or ballet, and they have no famous writers. They are polite to one another, without ever being friendly. They keep their problems to themselves, and don’t know how to laugh properly.” Hank, in her mind, is a “from-life hider”, perfectly representative of her surroundings. She feels no love for him and has little respect. Yet her position is unwinnable, as a return to Russia means a return to poverty, terrorists, random violence and hopelessness. Hank recognizes her struggles and his insecurities only make matters worse.

These, then, are the culprits of the novel’s title, the motivators that make the story progress. For Hank – boredom, loneliness, disillusionment; for Anna – physical and economic safety and escape from the anarchy of modern-day Russia. Robert Hough takes these ingredients and blends them together into a delectable poisonous stew that is delicious from beginning to end.

The energy between people is an amoral minefield,” The Culprits’ unnamed narrator says.

Enter The Culprits’ minefield. It’s worth every dangerous step.


Robert-HoughI am an unapologetic Torontonian. Like my city, I am hard-working, irreverent to the point of caustic, and honest. I grow misty with nostalgia every time I pass beneath one of those ugly CN railway trestles of my youth. In addition to novel-writing (when Doctor Brinkley’s Tower comes out in February it will be my fourth) I also like film, chess, spelunking, turkmenestani thumb wrestling and babies.


CKIn his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia,  Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.

The Dragon and the Needle – Hugh Franks


  • dragonandneedleTitle: The Dragon and the Needle
  • Author: Hugh Franks
  • ISBN13: 9781909716261
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: June 26th 2014 by Book Guild Ltd
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Genre/s: Thriller/Suspense
  • Print Length: 174 pages
  • Source: Publisher

SYNOPSIS – The clash between the Orient and the West is put under the spotlight in this far-reaching novel of medical and political intrigue. A mysterious syndrome is striking down political leaders across the Western world. Named Extraordinary Natural Death Syndrome, or ENDS, it has baffled medical experts. The Western prejudice against the mysteries of Oriental medicine, and the growing acceptance of acupuncture as an effective method of treatment, are just two of the contrasting approaches explored in the story. Then a brilliant young British doctor, Mike, and a glamorous American acupuncturist, Eleanor, become involved in finding the cause of ENDS. They think they are on the right track, but the implications are shocking. Could this be an audacious ideological plan for world domination? And how does Eleanor’s dead husband Chen fit in? When the secrets of Carry Tiger to Mountain are revealed, where will Eleanor’s loyalties ultimately lie?


In the short span of 174 large-printed pages, The Dragon and the Needle, by British author Hugh Franks, delves into international intrigue, the philosophical differences between East and West, murder, conspiracy, politics, acupuncture and modern medicine, a husband who may or may not be dead, and a love affair that may or may not be doomed. Its premise is interesting enough. ENDS – Extraordinary Natural Death Syndrome – is killing politicians and VIPs throughout the world. There are no symptoms. There is no understanding. People are just dying. It must be stopped. The fate of civilization is at stake.

Cue the music. We’ll be back after this commercial break.

This is not a novel. This is a soap opera worthy of American afternoon TV. It is peppered with stereotypes, inane dialogue (“He was smiling like an open piano” – huh?), ridiculous melodrama and contrived plot progression. Mike Clifford, a young, attractive and brilliant university researcher and doctor, will save the day. Eleanor Johnson, a young, attractive and brilliant acupuncturist and doctor, will help him save the day. And while they’re saving the day, they may as well fall in love at the same time. “I think I have to kiss you”, Mike says after only knowing her for a short time. And then he did. But just a quick kiss. They still have to save the day.

Structurally, The Dragon and the Needle ricochets from plot point to plot point through questions asked by the narrator. What will happen next? Will Mike and Eleanor be ok? Will their love last? Are they in danger? Who is the strange Chinese man? There are no chapters, just breaks in the action and a lot of sentences that end in …

Perhaps the question that should be asked is whether The Dragon and the Needle should be critically reviewed at all? Just like a soap opera, there will be a large audience whose only aspiration is to be entertained. All My Children and General Hospital survived and thrived for years. It didn’t matter if the characters weren’t believable and the story lines were far-fetched. It only mattered that it was entertaining. Using this logic, The Dragon and the Needle may be a success. Maybe it is good summertime-by-the-lake reading, an escape from the pressures and stresses of real life. It doesn’t have to be literature, it just has to amuse.

It just has to make you smile like an open piano.

About the Author
Hugh Franks was educated at Hurstpierpoint College and Sandhurst. He joined his regiment, the 13/18 Royal Hussars, and with them took part in the Northwest Europe campaign from Normandy to the Baltic in the Second World War. He was twice mentioned in Despatches for bravery. After the war, he was a lecturer and instructor for the Army, then became executive director of a small successful business. He has also worked as a public relations consultant and director of a small recruitment consultancy, lecturing, recruiting and writing articles. He has written several novels, plays, books of humour, film scripts and short stories. A biography, Will to Live, won a US literary award in 1980.


CKIn his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia,  Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.


In the Night Café: A Novel – Joyce Johnson


  • ITNCTitle: In the Night Café: A Novel
  • Author: Joyce Johnson
  • ISBN: 1480481211 (ISBN13: 9781480481213)
  • Series: Stand Alone
  • Published: June 17th 2014 by Open Road Media (first published 1989)
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Genre/s: Literary Fiction
  • Print Length: 266 pages
  • Source: Purchased

In the vibrant downtown Manhattan art world of the 1960s, where men and women collide in “lucky and unlucky convergences,” a series of love affairs has left Joanna Gold, a young photographer, feeling numbed. Then, at yet another party, a painter named Tom Murphy walks up to her. “Why do you hang back?” he asks.

Rather than another brief collision, their relationship is the profound and ecstatic love each had longed to find. But it’s undermined by Tom’s harrowing past—his fatherless childhood, his wartime experiences, and most of all, the loss of the two children he left behind in Florida, along with the powerful red, white, and black paintings he will never set eyes on again.  Tom, both tender and volatile, draws Joanna into the unwinnable struggle against the forces that drive him toward death.

The synopsis on the inside cover of Joyce Johnson’s novel In the Night Café: A Novel describes it as a love story. This is somewhat misleading more accurately, it is a story of survival. It is a love story with holes, with little romance or tenderness. The characters make their best attempts to find and maintain a semblance of love, but they are all too damaged. The residue of their pasts is too constricting. The hope that they could write their own healthy love story seems unrealistic.

The origin of the damage is set early on, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York City in 1925. Tom Murphy is a boy in a poor broken home. His mother ”didn’t even like him as a baby, when he couldn’t have been doing anything wrong”. His father is gone. There is overriding sadness. The groundwork for future disappointment and disillusionment has been established.

With this as background, we jump to the early 1960’s, the declining years of the Beat Generation. Tom is now a struggling artist, an absent father with a wife and two kids of his own that he never sees. At a party one night, he meets Joanna, the narrator of the novel, a listless, searching character who is desperately trying to find some happiness of her own. They establish a relationship and, over the next few years, they try their best, but even her first impression is hesitant. She was attracted, but he had “a face that had been used a lot, fierce eyes set deep in smashed bone.” Together, they try to create a life of independence and nonconformity. Joanna works temp jobs while trying half-heartedly to be an actress. Turning down full-time job offers, she states, “I was afraid, afraid offices would get me and I wouldn’t be free anymore”. Tom tries to make his living as an avant-garde artist. But financial hardships infringe and, in time, they exchange their idealism for the reality that they are hungry and the Establishment, no matter the drudgery, can pay the bills.

As an intimate participant in the Beat Generation, author Johnson had the ideal perspective to write In The Night Cafe. In the late 1950’s, her companion was Jack Kerouac, iconic author of On The Road, The Dharma Bums, and other classic Beat novels, a period of her life she wrote about in her first book, Minor Characters. But the goal of ultimate freedom described by the male Beat writers seems disillusioned from Johnson’s female perspective. In The Night Cafe is sad and lonely, its characters broken and desperate. Johnson’s descriptions of them are simple, stark and perfect. A saxophone player, with whom Joanna had a brief affair, had a “warm, Russian-looking moustache over his lips, which hid, as it turned out, a small mouth of real meanness”. A child’s slowly-fading memory of his father is brilliantly compared to a “face dissolving slowly like a bar of soap dropped into water”.

In The Night Cafe takes place during the Beat period, but there is very little talk of the era itself, making the novel both timeless and placeless. It could just as easily be set in any modern location. Its examination of the search for freedom, happiness, identity and love is universal, yet Johnson explores these themes with a very unique voice. Supremely creative and artistic, both she and her novel deserve acclaim.


JoyceJohnson1-HiLoBorn Joyce Glassman to a Jewish family in Queens, New York, Joyce was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just around the corner from the apartment of William S. Burroughs and Joan Vollmer Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac were frequent visitors to Burroughs’ apartment.
At the age of 13, Joyce rebelled against her controlling parents and began hanging out in Washington Square. She matriculated at Barnard College at 16, failing her graduation by one class. It was at Barnard that she became friends with Elise Cowen (briefly Allen Ginsberg’s lover) who introduced her to the Beat circle. Ginsberg arranged for Glassman and Kerouac to meet on a blind date.
Joyce was married briefly to abstract painter James Johnson, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. From her second marriage to painter Peter Pinchbeck, which ended in divorce, came her son, Daniel Pinchbeck, also an author and co-founder of Open City literary magazine.
Since 1983 she has taught writing, primarily at Columbia University’s MFA program, but also at the Breadloaf Writers Conference, the University of Vermont and New York University. In 1992 she received an NEA grant.

CKIn his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom.  His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side.  After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia,  Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto.  He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.