Monthly Archives: February, 2015

Ru by Kim Thúy

RuKimThy5573_f

Translated by Sheila Fischman

Winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction

Winner of Canada Reads 2015

Shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award

I’ve been moving through the Canada Reads 2015 novels at a good pace. I’ve gotten through three and have over two weeks to get through the final two, so I should have more than enough time to be ready for the show. After finishing Intolerable, I decided to tackle Ru next as it seemed like the logical next book to read. The author, Kim Thuy, is a Vietnamese –Canadian who lives in Quebec. I recognized this title from the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist and the 2010 GGs, but I wasn’t overly familiar with the content of the novel. This is the story of Vietnamese woman who was a young girl during the Vietnam War, subsequently lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually grew up in Quebec. The main character, An Tinh Nguyen, is mother to a child with autism and eventually works for several years in Vietnam as an adult. Ru, for me, fell somewhat flat. This book is an example of form over function.

The inherent issues that surround a translation aside (even though this is done by the master of Canadian translation, Sheila Fischman), the structure and form of this book make connecting with Nguyen in any meaningful way very difficult (for example, I had to flip through the book to even remember the name of the protagonist). Ru is told through a series of vignettes. They range from a half-page to 2 pages, with the majority being about a full page. So, at 141 pages, there are a lot of vignettes. Each individual snippet resembles a prose poem more than it does a work of fiction. It is high on metaphor, symbolism, and imagery, but low on forward-moving narration with very little linearity. This is, without a doubt, a post-modern novel; interestingly enough though, the individual vignettes have an air of modernist stream-of-consciousness. While none of these points are inherently negative, for me, Ru just didn’t connect. I had trouble buying-into the narrator, because I was too wrapped up in the poetic nature of the book. I found myself reading this as if it was poetry – focusing on those associational elements you look for in the genre and not keeping those mental notes on the progress of the story.

So, as I’ve explored with the last two books, how does this title hold up when examined through the lens of this year’s theme, “one book to break barriers?” In my reading, not well. This was a beautiful book, but it doesn’t hold up to the critical examination that this theme requires. Ru touches on different threads that could “break barriers” – the immigrant experience, returning to your homeland, raising a disabled child, but none of these threads are pulled to the point of adding anything new to the discussion. On a more positive note, there are interesting scenes and passages of a childhood in the midst of the Vietnam War and spending time in a refugee camp.

Ru was just ok. Not great, not terrible, just ok. It was a very fast read so it’s not a huge time commitment. As I said, the language and the “poetry” of the novel are quite beautiful – it loses points because of difficulties with plot. This may be right up someone else’s alley, just not mine (as evidenced by its list of accolades). Even though I have 2 books left to read, I think it is a safe bet that Ru will not be taking the title.

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Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

IntolerableKamalAlSolay5584_f

Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Winner of the 2013 Toronto Book Award

Shortlisted for the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

I don’t read a lot of memoirs. It’s not that I have something against the genre, I have at least 10 on my to-read list, I just never seem to pick many up. This year’s Canada Reads included a memoir by journalist and professor Kamal Al-Solaylee – Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes. This books charts his development as a gay man in the Middle-East and his eventual relocation to his adopted home of Toronto. This short memoir is so much more than an individual man’s coming-out narrative. Intolerable is a thought-provoking blend of personal memoir, family dynamics, history, economics, and political science. Ultimately, this is the story of Kamal Al-Solaylee, but the sentiments he espouses are no doubt almost universal amongst the millions of immigrants in Canada.

What I loved about this memoir was the holistic approach Solaylee took. There are three broad topics that he tackles: his own development and coming out as a gay man, his relationship with his family, and the increasing religiosity and intolerance in the Middle East. Each of these three threads is tied into the others and seamlessly flows into every chapter.

This book really grabbed me. The author’s background as a journalist really shows in his easy to read and highly informative prose. With the perspective of a Yemini who lived in Cairo and Beirut over the course of several decades that is now solidly Canadian, the author gives a stellar account of the rise of religious intolerance in the Arab world and succinctly gets down to the root causes as he experienced them. It would be surprising for a lot of readers to realize that this state of affairs in this part of the world is a relatively new thing. Solaylee discusses how when he was a kid his sisters would go bikini shopping for their summer vacation while now they must wear a niqab and be accompanied by a man. He gets into the root economic causes that spurned this social change and even throws out some ideas about what the cures may be – including some thoughts on the Arab Spring.

Ultimately though, this is a story of family. Solaylee has a relationship with his family that is complicated beyond what any native born Canadian could really comprehend. The youngest of over 10 kids, and the son of an illiterate lower class mother and former business tycoon father, Solaylee could tell from an early age he was different from his siblings – and this feeling only got stronger as time went on. As more and more distance was between him and them, and the situation in the Middle East deteriorated, things became even more complicated. And as his cosmopolitanism grew, his unhappiness with their situation increased.

So looking through the lens of this year’s Canada Reads theme, “One Book to Break Barriers,” this book shatters a lot of them. Solaylee’s memoir explores homosexuality in the Third World, the nature of Islamic intolerance in the Arab world, post-colonialism and its lingering effects, multiculturalism and its downfalls, and the immigrant experience. This eye opening memoir is informative, but not dry. It takes points-of-view on issues but doesn’t sound preachy. And, near the end of the book, it is a deeply moving love-letter to Toronto.

Intolerable is one of the best memoirs I have ever experienced. The problem I sometimes run into with this type of writing is that it is so self-centered and devoid of context that as you read you continually ask “why should I care.” Kamal Al-Solaylee is now, without any disrespect intended, a relatively average urban Canadian. He was a journalist for numerous publications after paying his dues and working his way up, and he is now a journalism professor. But, the story of how he got there is fascinating, because it is not simply his story, it is the story of him, a family, and very volatile region. I still have 3 Canada Reads picks to read, but I’m thinking this book may be hard to top.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid

when everything feels like the movies

Winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature – Text

Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Time for my first thoughts on the Canada Reads 2015 picks – When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid. This book already has quite the history considering it was published just a year ago. There’s a huge, gigantic really, market of adult readers who are immersed in the world of young-adult fiction, many almost obsessively so. I am not one of those. Frankly, unless a book warrants special attention for whatever reason, I feel no compulsion to read “kids” books; that is simply my own bias. Prior to being the first young-adult novel chosen for Canada Reads, the first time author won the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature (Text) and subsequently caused a huge stir (for some reason the Children’s Lit text award seems to be a magnet for controversy, I can think of at least 3 others off the top of my head). The hoopla surrounding this particular book is the graphic nature of the main character Jude’s sexuality, the explicit language, and the violence. The faux-outrage by the literary busybodies culminated in a petition to revoke the award. I feel the need to pontificate on this prior to getting into my review. While the title of the GG category is “Children’s Literature (Text)”, the criteria are as broad as any of the other categories. Essentially, to qualify for this award, the book needs to be written for someone under the age of 18 and can be any genre – pre-school books, poetry, graphic novels, and young-adult novels aimed at teens. Yes, this book is graphic and at times shocking, but the subject matter is important, relevant and perfectly appropriate for readers in junior high and above. Thankfully, the GG jury and Canada Council dismissed this petition for what it was – pure nonsense. This is an attempt at censorship which is a fundamental affront to Canadian values that are best espoused in our culture and literature. As with any book that one may find offensive, the choice exists to simply not read it.

So now to the book. Reid has certainly weaved an interesting tale in When Everything Feels Like the Movies. This is the story of Jude, a junior high aged boy who is flamboyantly gay and very comfortable with his sexuality even though very few of his peers are. He is unapologetic for who he is. He comes from a messy family situation – a stripper mom, an abusive stand-in step-father, and an absent father whom he rarely sees. His best friend Angela is a proud self-proclaimed “slut” and Jude’s only real friend. His only other source of comfort is his little brother Keef, for whom Jude plays the role of surrogate parent. The whole motif that sets up this novel is the fantasy world in which Jude has built up; he sees himself as the star in a movie and his world is an elaborate Hollywood wonderland where drug overdoses and cat-fights are seen as part of the lifestyle.

This novel was inspired by a true story; a few years ago in the US, a 15-year-old boy asked another boy at school if he would be his valentine and was subsequently shot and killed for this show of affection. Reid has said that this was the spark for this story, but I feel this book is worth reading for reasons beyond the shocking act of violence that concludes it or the story of a gay teen finding his way in a hostile environment. In my reading, When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the story of how a child’s world collapses when there is absolutely zero support system. A useless mother, an abusive step-father figure, a biological father who is essentially non-existent, and, importantly, a seeming lack of support for gay youth in the community are all catalysts for Jude’s behavior – associating with people of less than stellar repute, drug abuse, poor academic performance, hyper-sexuality, and admiration of general vice. How does Jude cope? He builds this fantasy Hollywood world into which he can escape. It didn’t matter if he was gay, straight, a Martian, whatever – Jude did not have a chance from the moment he was conceived. This is the strength of the book and what I hope the Canada Reads panelists focus on. There is also an interesting thematic thread on the nature of victimization and what exactly constitutes the victim in a bullying situation, but in the interest of brevity, I will omit this and hope the panelists pick it up.

This book has some serious weaknesses though that knocked a few stars off. There was some of the awkward dialogue that is common in first novels, the plot dragged at points, the fantasy-world motif was sometimes beaten a little too hard, and, most bothersome, the characters often seemed older than they were at points creating inconsistencies in how you perceive them. Angela is very promiscuous and it is insinuated that she has had multiple abortions, every kid seems to be sleeping with every other kid, they skip school regularly, and they drink like fishes and take drugs like candy. These are junior high kids. My own experience in the education field with this age group make me wonder if Reid perhaps didn’t push the envelope a little bit for shock value – literary license perhaps. Or the author, who is about a decade younger than me, went to school with some of the most hardcore junior high kids in the history of rebellious teens.

I did enjoy this book. It does fit the theme of this year’s Canada Reads competition and there are lots of points, both pro and con, to discuss. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts of the show this year, I really hope the conversation looks deeper than the superficial. Raziel Reid is a talented young writer who has generated controversy but also raked in accolades, the mark of an important writer. I’m hoping he is not simply a flash in the pan and continues to develop as a noteworthy author.

Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

Stephen leacock

After reading a couple non-Canadian titles, I’ve been getting geared up to roll through the choices for Canada Reads 2015 so I can pick a horse. Before that though, I wanted to knock off another title in the Extraordinary Canadians series. Canada Reads is a celebration of Canadian writing and the particularities that make it unique; in that vein, I decided to read Margaret MacMillan’s entry in the series, Stephen Leacock. Why is Leacock worthy of being named an extraordinary Canadian? Simple, he was one of the most important writers in Canadian cultural history and is one of the fathers of the CanLit movement. Additionally, he is the father of Canadian humour (Haliburton being the grandfather) and his sketches paved the way for comic and satirical writers like Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Stuart MacLean, Terry Fallis, and the list goes on. Without Leacock, 20th century Canadian literature would look a lot different.

In terms of the book, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Leacock and know of his importance to our literature, but I really knew very little of the man himself. Margaret MacMillan, the acclaimed Canadian historian/academic and author of the well-known volume Paris 1919. Stephen Leacock is a mix of the standard and the interpretive forms of biography. In the first few chapters, MacMillan lays out the overarching legacy of Leacock, an overview of his life and career, and of course his writing. The subsequent chapters follows a more chronological telling of his life with enough detail that you can really sense what made Leacock tick. And finally, a short chapter at the end details the legacy of the great humourist.

The strength of this biography is the way MacMillan weaves in quotes from Leacock’s writing and her unflinching honesty about much of his writing and his personality in general. Leacock has legendary books – Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches, Arcadian Adventures, My Remarkable Uncle – but he also wrote a lot of rather dull pieces and much of his humour, especially his later works, haven’t aged well, if they were ever funny to begin with. But, the great works produced an international celebrity on the lines of Stephen King today. The author also does a great job tracking his rise as a public intellectual, his mediocre career as an academic, and his rather unremarkable personal life.

The central thesis of this biography is this – Leacock was arrogant, he was greedy, and he carried many of the sexist and racist views of his time. Ultimately though, who cares? He was a paradigm changing writer who is an essential cornerstone of CanLit who’s still widely in print today.

Margaret MacMillan’s short book gets to the major points quickly, is highly readable, and really explores his writing in an accessible and non academic-ese language. Like Maurice Richard, the book also does a great job or outlining why Leacock is, in fact, an extraordinary Canadian. This is the second book in the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series that I have read, and so far I’m very pleased. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t read a huge multi-volume biography of most of the subjects in the series, including Leacock. But, because of this series and MacMillan’s pared-down book, I now know the essential story of an important Canadian.

North End Love Songs by Katherena Vermette

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Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry

Katherena Vermette pulled off an impressive accomplishment, winning a Governor General’s award with her first book. North End Love Songs is an incredible collection. I’ve been lucky lately; my last few reading picks have been fantastic. Vermette is Métis and this identity permeates every line of her writing. This is autobiographical poetry of the highest degree, but it takes on a variety of topics. The author blends humour, sadness, hope, hopelessness, and coming-of-age using a style that is a throwback to Modernist American poets like ee cummings.

The most moving part of the collection is the author’s recounting of the disappearance of her brother. I enjoyed these poems for several reasons, mainly though because it addresses so many themes. Vermette tackles the personal sadness that comes with a situation like this; the stereotyping that comes with being aboriginal, including from the police – such as assuming since he’s young and Native he must just be on a bender; and on being Native in general – the good, the bad, and, of course, the ugly.

The structure of poetry is magnificent and, as I mentioned before, is a throwback to Modernist poets. There is no punctuation and the author doesn’t stick to any stylistic constant – be it enjambment, stanza structure, etc. This is free verse in its most pure form. Lines contain as few as a single word and individual poems can range from a few lines to extended sequences over 10 pages. This use of free verse and colloquial north end Winnipeg language really takes you inside the poet’s thoughts. One could even argue that Vermette is using a poetic stream-of-consciousness style in her writing. Finally, my last thought on structure, the poet ties her sequences together with highly intertwined themes, images, and symbolism – be it birds, seasons, holidays, or music.

One more thing I have to throw out there is Vermette’s use of music as metaphor and “image.” I am a huge 80s music fan, specifically, hair metal (Poison, Skid Row, Guns N Roses… I’m actually listening to Great White as I write this). If you are a serious fan of this musical genre, I really think you will get much more out of this book. The sequence “November” is really the thematic climax of the collection, and so much of this section relies on these musical references to help illustrate the speaker’s state-of-mind. The poem “mixed tape” goes as far to use individual songs (I’ve actually created a playlist on Google Play of the songs in this poem if you’d care to listen).

Overall, a great read. This collection is funny in places and gut wrenchingly difficult in places. Vermette pulls no punches and uses her old-school writing style to connect you with the depths of her own soul. Childhood memories, personal pain, music, and North End Winnipeg all shaped this collection of poems in a highly coheasive collection even though the poems are more lyrical than they are narrative. I think that North End Love Songs is a triumphant announcement  proclaiming that Katherena Vermette is an important new voice in Native Canadian literature.

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

The December Man

Winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Award for Drama

The 1989 Montreal Massacre was one of those rare moments of violence on a grand scale rarely seen in Canada. As Canadians, we often assume that mass murders such as this are reserved for our neighbours to the south. Fortunately, they are infrequent in Canada but, for this reason, they often have longer lasting legacies and impacts. The December Man, the 2007 play by Anglo-Quebec playwright Colleen Murphy, uses this tragedy as its backdrop. I really really enjoyed this book; many scenes and conversations really hit me hard. With only three characters, you really get pulled into the family dynamic and feel for the young man, Jean, who is the centre of the story.

This Governor General’s award winner is a short play, only 61 pages, but it is very deliberate in its pacing. What this particular play has become known for in the decade since its premiere is its narrative technique – it is told backwards in time with each scene moving a few months in reverse, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, with scene one taking place in March 1992 and the final scene unfolding in December 1989. It may sound odd if you haven’t experienced a play or novel like this before, but it provides an interesting dynamic with the characters. The play opens with two parents grieving the death of their son while they gas themselves to death in their living room. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reverse time that Colleen Murphy uses is really the only way to tell this story and once you finish it, you realize that linear forward time simply wouldn’t work.

The December Man is ultimately a story about what happens at the periphery of these public tragic events; what goes on beyond and outside the view of TV news cameras. Jean is terribly affected by what he experienced and witnessed at Ecole Polytechnique; in 2015 he would be treated with PTSD, no questions asked, but 1989 was a different time. The driving catalyst of Jean’s breakdown is his mother (remember high school chemistry – a catalyst isn’t the cause of a reaction, merely an accelerant). Kate doesn’t understand what her son is experiencing and simply wants him to move on and get over it. She cares deeply but doesn’t know how to properly deal with what has happened. This is very difficult and painful to read because you can so empathize with Jean. At one point, on the one year anniversary of the massacre, Jean admits to his mother that he hasn’t been going to classes; she replies with “If you’d been really smart you’d have skipped classes this exact day last year and saved us all a lot of trouble.”

This is a hard book to review because of the reverse chronology. I can’t say too much without giving away huge spoilers. Not much happens in terms of plot in this play, but it is a masterful combination of psychological and domestic drama where often times silence or a single word speaks huge volumes. I would love to see it staged. This short book can easily be finished in one sitting, but it will haunt you long afterwards. A must read for a fan of Canadian drama, Quebec literature, or anyone who likes to read sad stories.

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