Category Archives: Fiction

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier

and the birds rained down

Translated by Rhonda Mullins

Winner of the 2011 Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie

Shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English Translation

Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Just over a week to go until Canada Reads 2015. The next shortlisted title I decided to pick-up was the other French Canadian title on the list, And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins. This is the first time in the history of the show that two French Canadian books have been featured at the same time. Of the five titles, this was the one that I was least looking forward to reading. It wasn’t that I was averse or hostile towards the subject or anything, it just didn’t excite me like the others did. Saucier’s novel is the story of two very senior citizens, living the life of hermits in the hopes of dying on their own terms. This was an interesting book with a lot of complex themes, but even a week after finishing it, I can’t definitively say if I enjoyed it or not.

The strength of this novel is how Saucier weaved such a thematically complex story with such a simple plot and a very small cast of characters. Many of the six living characters are really well rounded and probably the best developed of the three novels on the show this year. Tom and Charlie, the two octogenarians at the centre of the book, are instantly memorable. They are at the heart of what this novel is about: the right to live and die on your own terms.

Saucier’s writing is very heavy on theme, and big themes at that – life and death, falling in love, personal reflection, and man’s primitive connection with nature. My biggest problem with the novel, and the reason why I’m undecided if I like this book, is that at certain points, theme seems to come at the expense of everything else. Plot is often times slow, dialog is sometimes clunky, and narration is often direct and literal (although perhaps this could be a problem with the translation). The biggest problem I had though, at least in my reading, was the complete and utter lack of humour. The whole concept of this novel, two old guys living in the woods, surviving off the avails of a pot farm run by their quirky friends, and eventually the old guys are joined by a 65 year old escaped psychiatric patient. The comedic possibilities are endless, but almost never materialize. The result is a fairly dense and heavy book.

Of the four books for Canada Reads 2015 I’ve finished so far, this book least fits the theme of “One Book to Break Barriers.” There have been a lot of novels in recent years that take on this topic of dying on your own terms – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and Extraordinary by David Gilmour are a couple of examples. But, I don’t feel that And the Birds Rained Down hits as hard as those novels. As I’m writing this review, I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly what exactly it was with this novel that I didn’t connect with. But, if you read a lot, chances are you’ll come across the odd book where you’re only reaction is “meh, it’s alright.”

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Ru by Kim Thúy

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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.

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.

419 by Will Ferguson

419

Winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2012

I’ve been aware of Will Ferguson for many years but I’ve never read his work. He’s won several Leacock Medals and authored two well-received humorous novels, HappinessTM and Spanish Fly. But, when his novel 419 was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, I was surprised that he had written a dramatic novel, let alone a thriller. It didn’t seem to fit with what I knew of his style and subjects. Ferguson’s Giller-Prize winning novel tells the story of a daughter, Laura, dealing with the death of her father after he falls for a 419 scam. (A 419 scam is something along the line of one of those classic emails from the Prince of Nigeria saying you won the lottery, etc. Everyone has gotten dozens of these; some lucky souls, like me, get them at work every day). I bought this novel because I collect Giller winners, and I decided to read it because of an interesting extended interview Ferguson did with Shelagh Rogers about 419. The book sounded fascinating and exciting. An inside look at the Nigerian underbelly and those 419ers trying to bilk trusting/greedy Westerners out of their cash. I really wanted to like this book. For the most part though, it was a something of a letdown.

I’d like to start with the positives though, because no book is without some kind of enjoyment. There are two very strong points in this novel: Ferguson’s descriptions of Nigeria and his portrayal of the email exchanges between Laura’s father and the scammer. At his heart, Will Ferguson is a travel writer. These talents really shined when he was describing the countryside of Nigeria and the urban decay of Lagos Island. These chapters hit all five senses and capture both the beauty and danger of this part of the world. The landscape passages were punctuated with examples of how the Nigerian people survive in this environment. To my second point, the actual 419 scam itself was gripping. As you read the emails exchanged between Henry Curtis and Winston, in his many guises, your stomach just cringes. It’s that classic dramatic irony you learn in Intro to Lit…you know something bad is going down but the poor rube in the story has no clue. This was the most enjoyable part of the book for me. Unfortunately, past about page 75 the story has moved on from the actual scam that was the catalyst for the primary plot.

Now for the fairly large problems that cost 419 a couple stars on Goodreads. There are too many unnecessarily detailed plot lines, the vast majority of characters are very one-dimensional and undeveloped, and the dénouement is frustratingly bad. I’m only going to get into the plot line problem; undeveloped characters are a pretty straightforward problem and I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Ferguson has several independent story lines going throughout the novel: Laura’s discovery and investigation of her father’s misfortune, the scammer Winston’s rise in the Nigerian criminal underworld, Amina’s story – a pregnant Muslim woman roaming the Nigerian countryside for some unexplained reason, and Nnamdi’s – a village boy who finds success in the oil patch and then falls unwillingly into the grip of Nigerian organized crime. The four plots eventually come together. Amina’s story comes out of nowhere and is frustratingly slow. Had this storyline came earlier, I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel. Nnamdi’s story is more gripping and he is the most developed character in book. My big problem is that the interaction between Amina, Nnamdi and the central character Laura is, while very important, rather miniscule. I felt like their story could have been told in a 5 page digression rather than taking almost 60% of the book.

This is a relatively heavy book, 400 pages with medium sized print. After finishing it and mentally marinating in it for a few days, I think I have my issue with 419 figured out. Will Ferguson took a great concept for a short story and inflated it into a novel. The title, the description on the back, and all the promo around the time the book was released and at the Giller ceremony led me to believe this was a story about a man being duped by financial predators. 419ing only took up maybe a third of the book. This is part story of an internet scam, part story of life in Nigeria. I can understand Ferguson’s motivation in telling the story this way; I could see his desire to give an accurate description of life in Nigeria beyond the 419ers and how a life of crime seems somewhat inevitable for the country’s down trodden. But instead we got a bit of a mish mash and a frustrated reader saying “get on with it.” I’ve read a few other titles from the Giller shortlist that 419 beat and I’m surprised this took the title. 419 by Will Ferguson was one of the few novels I’ve read in the last year or two that has been a disappointment.

The Perfect Order of Things by David Gilmour

Perfect order of things

Shortlisted for the 2012 Trillium Book Award

A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2011

National Post Best Book ~ 2011

Toronto Star Favorite Book ~ 2011

David Gilmour has to be one of the most underrated novelists in contemporary Canadian literature. Other than his 2005 Governor General’s Award win for The Perfect Night to go to China, he generally doesn’t receive a lot of attention from award juries or even the general reading public. People who follow CanLit closely would be familiar with him and his frequent contributions to The Globe and Mail and his interviews on CBC’s The Next Chapter. His books tend to be short, punchy, direct, and, frankly, they’re usually quite depressing. His 2011 novel The Perfect Order of Things was his first work of fiction since his GG win and his first book since his well received 2007 memoir The Film Club. This was an interesting little book and an enjoyable choice for my last novel of 2014.

This short novel is an exposition on two general themes: living life through the arts – the unnamed narrator reflects on Tolstoy, film, The Beatles and their collective effect on his character; and coping with the end of romantic relationships. The second theme, in my reading, is by far the most prevalent in the book. The narrator is a really unlikeable guy; he’s arrogant – borderline narcissistic, he has a taste for prescription pills, and he collects ex-lovers like young boys collect comic books. In the end though, you find yourself hoping for him to pull through, and I can’t put my finger on why (thanks English degree). My one theory in reflection is the connection you build with Gilmour’s conversational first-person storytelling. The narrator, in the immediate current time of narration, is in his sixties and has had time to marinate in the sometimes baffling decisions he has made over the decades, but because of that, he approaches his sordid life with a wisdom that would be absent had the narration been in the present tense rather than in its reflective form. Looking back, he knows he’s a different person now than he was. That being said though, a lot of the chapters in this book are really goddamn depressing.

The big question that seems to surround this book in amateur reviews is the idea of form, i.e. novel versus memoir. I don’t doubt that, for the most part, this is a work of fiction; David Gilmour is after all know in general as an autobiographical writer. But, there are numerous plot points that are inarguably taken directly from David Gilmour’s life: he worked at the CBC, he was involved with the Toronto Film Festival (although his wife took this role in the novel), he is an extreme admirer of Tolstoy, he’s now an academic, he’s had three wives and has two kids (a boy and a girl), and wrote a book called The Film Club about exactly what was described in this novel. The Perfect Order of Things is a textbook example of autobiographical fiction. This is a novel.  Gilmour simply used his life as a template for a fictional story, with some elements being more transparent than others.

This was a very satisfying read. The chapters were very well delineated to the point that many could stand alone. The prose is punchy, efficient, and direct. And Gilmour continues to develop his highly intellectual style of writing; he manages to fuse very sophisticated and polished language with the conversational. The Perfect Order of Things further cements my hope that Gilmour’s writing will grow in popularity and that he will be recognized as one of the best writers of his generation.

Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson

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Based on the lyrics of Neil Peart and the Rush album of the same name

I am as die-hard of a Rush fan as one can be. I know their whole history, have all their albums, know a huge chunk of their songs note-by-note, and as a life-long drummer I worship at the altar of Neil Peart. Their 2012 album Clockwork Angels followed their excellent record Snakes and Arrows and continues Rush’s long tested style of fusing traditional hard rock with the funkier elements of old-school prog rock. My wife and I were lucky enough to see Rush live in Halifax in 2013 (it was my son’s first concert, as my wife was very pregnant at the time). This was a fantastic album, the musicality was aggressive and highly complex and the lyrics married Jules Verne-esque imagery and socio-political themes. The album was masterful, and I think their best since Signals (bold statement, but I stand by it).

I didn’t know that a “novelization” of this record existed until the publisher, ECW Press, held a twitter contest to win a signed copy of the hardcover book. I assumed Neil Peart authored it, but it was only based on his lyrics, Kevin J. Anderson was the actual author of the novel (all I know about him is that he’s written numerous Star Trek and Star Wars novels). Clockwork Angels may be unique; I cannot find any references to another album being adapted into a novel. My expectations were not high. And that was a good thing.

This novel was steampunk through-and-through. It’s the first such novel I’ve read and it is a genre that I’m not overly familiar with. Essentially, it’s reminiscent of what hard sci-fi from the Victorian Era would have looked like (H.G. Wells’ The Time-Machine could be considered a precursor). So what can I say…this is a genre novel, by someone who writes Star Trek and Star Wars fiction, based on a prog rock album… Clockwork Angels wasn’t a bad book, it was ok, but it’s better described as airport reading and it certainly isn’t a classic.

My biggest issue with this book is whether or not I’m supposed to take it seriously or not. Rush has a real self-deprecating sense of humour. If that is the case with this book, it makes the story a little better. Every few pages, Anderson managed to jam in some Rush lyrics or song titles, so this produced a lot of groan moments. The story also dragged a little bit. The novel portion of the book runs 290 pages (the volume also includes all of the album lyrics and an afterword by Peart – the best part of the book), but the story could have easily been told in a 100 page novella.

This book wasn’t all bad though. Anderson played with some interesting themes, like despotism and the classic coming-of-age story; he also did a great job of capturing the imagery of Peart’s lyrics. The author’s strength is how he writes action scenes; these were very vivid and really capture the moment (much the same way Michael Bay movies are really good at making things go boom). The highlight of the book has to be the actual physical book itself. The page design is beautiful, each chapter starts with a page that looks like parchment, and the novel is filled with incredibly eye-pleasing illustrations by Hugh Syme, the Juno-winning artist who designs all of Rush’s record covers.

If you’re into steampunk or just looking for a book that doesn’t require a whole lot of deep thought then this may be a book for you. If you’re a hardcore Rush fan, like myself, than I would recommend you read this simply for the novelty of experiencing the adaptation of an album into a book (I really think, despite what Peart says in his afterword, that Rush fans are really the sole target for this novel). If you fit neither of these categories, you’d be safe to skip this and move on.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

OryxAndCrakeANovelMarg1949_f

Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Selected for Canada Reads 2005

Whenever I sit down to read a Margaret Atwood book, I know I’m in for a good time. One of my favorite authors, this literary icon’s skill has developed to the point of being one of the true living masters of English letters. I still remember when Oryx and Crake was released; it was 2003 and was the first year I really started following the Canadian Literature scene. Despite not having read it, it was my pick to win the Giller – it didn’t. This novel was essentially the runner up of the year – it was shortlisted for the Giller, the GG, the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin, and came in second when it was on Canada Reads in 2005. I really wanted to read this book when it hit the shelves, but I was a university student, was poor, and couldn’t afford to shell out $30 for a hardcover book. So two years later when the economical $10.95 mass market paperback was released, I picked it up. But, for some reason, it just sat on the shelf and I never actually read it. This past week, I felt it was finally time to knock this book off the to-read shelf. Oryx and Crake is in the same class as the best work by Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke and is, without a doubt, one of the best sci-fi/post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels I have ever read. This is a novel that could only be written by a master writer like Margaret Atwood; she creates an entirely unique world of the future that answers every detail, down to diet, a reader may be looking for. Additionally, the story is grounded in perfectly plausible scientific principles.

There are really two levels to a good reading of Oryx and Crake, one is the social/environmental level and the other is human level. These two thematic threads are very intertwined and complement each other – one doesn’t work without the other.

On the social/environmental level, which deals with the heavier scientific elements of the story, Atwood delivers a conceptual punch without an overtly didactic tone. As I was reading this novel, what impressed me was just how logical the story’s conclusions were. I’m not an anti-GMO flag waver, for the most part the idea of GMOs is grossly misunderstood, but genetic modifications is only a step away from genetic engineering – which is a much more controversial notion. Oryx and Crake traces genetic engineering to its ultimate conclusion if left unfettered – the creation of a being that will replace humanity.

On the human level, this novel has so much going on. On its most fundamental level, this is a coming-of-age story. We see Jimmy develop from a young overachiever, into a university-aged slacker, and eventually into Snowman, where he sheds his old identity to live up to his ultimate role – guardian of the Crakers and possibly the last remnant of his species. The allegory and metaphor is just staggering. Finally, this book explores other human notions such as personal and scientific ethics, class divisions and social cleavages, and the roots and origins of theological belief.

Genre-wise, Oryx and Crake crosses the boundaries of sci-fi, dystopias, and the post-apocalyptic. There are obvious elements of sci-fi (gene-splicing, genetic engineering, etc); the world of Jimmy’s youth is an unmistakable dystopia (lack of governments, hermetically sealed cities holding in the poor masses, large corporations controlling and manipulating the masses at will); and finally, the post-apocalyptic nature of the novel is self-evident. Atwood clearly demonstrates that a dystopia will almost always eventually lead to an apocalypse like event.

Literally hundreds and hundreds of academic articles have been written on this novel – in fields as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, political science, biomedical ethics, and linguistics. It is an absolute aberration for a novel this young to have this much critical attention. Oryx and Crake along with its two sequels (The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam – which I’ll be reading in short order) is being developed into an HBO mini-series by Darren Aronofsky. And, even though it didn’t win any, this novel turned up on the nomination list of pretty much every major award for which it was eligible. So, I think that my assertion that this book is a true masterpiece is not an understatement. Atwood has created a world from scratch and created characters that are unforgettable. Oryx and Crake is an important book and a must read for everyone.

The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani

Kahunsha

Selected for Canada Reads 2007

Contemporary CanLit has a large and important sub-group of stars like M.G. Vassanji or Rohinton Mistry who are, in the scope of literature, Canadian only in terms of residency. Typically relocating here as an adult, these writers’ style is informed by the culture and events of their home countries. Stories rarely take place in Canada, and if they do it is often only as a reflection point in the present while the meat of the book is set in Africa, or India, or Pakistan in past times. This category of Canadian writing has been very influential on the literary scene, all of the major literary awards have been won by immigrant writers with non-Canadian settings, several have appeared on Canada Reads, and many find their way on bestseller lists. These writers greatly expand the very definition of CanLit and enrich our literary culture and canon with a variety of perspectives and experiences that the average Canadian could not even imagine.

Anosh Irani is one of those writers. Born in Bombay, India in 1974, Irani moved to Vancouver in 1998 to attend university and has since made a steady name for himself as a fiction writer, playwright, and creative writing professor. His nationwide big-break came in 2007 when Donna Morrissey championed his 2006 novel The Song of Kahunsha on Canada Reads.

Set over three days in 1993 in the midst of the sectarian riots in Bombay, The Song of Kahunsha tells the story of Chamdi, a ten-year-old boy who is forced to leave his orphanage and survive on the mean streets of the city. He befriends two other street-kids, brother and sister Sumdi and Guddi. The pair is trying to scrape enough money to survive after their father was killed and their mother lost her mind. Chamdi reluctantly joins them and subsequently falls under the control of the ring-leader, a vicious sociopath named Anand Bhai. As the city degenerates into violence, Chamdi is dragged further into this underworld, albeit unwillingly, and ultimately makes a horrific choice that will no doubt haunt him for life.

I greatly enjoyed this book. It was a nice change to venture outside of Canada and get a different perspective and set of values. While I really enjoyed it, The Song of Kahumsha is a very sad book with very little hope in it. Themes of slavery and the nature of freewill permeate the novel and, ultimately, it feels like there is no chance of escaping this desperate situation. While this is perfectly realistic, you may need to pop out some Zoloft by the time you get through the book. The one tiny sliver of light in this dark and gritty story is buried deep in Chamdi’s soul. He had a rough ride over the three days we spend with him: he has to leave the orphanage, he finds out his father abandoned him when he was an infant, he must compromise his morals by begging and thieving, he endures physical harm, people close to him die, and he is forced to make a terrible decision that is incomprehensible to anyone let alone a ten-year-old. But, throughout all of these hardships, Chamdi never loses his sense of morality; he knows the difference between good and evil and this is why his choices, even though they’re made under duress, eat at him. Jim Cuddy criticized this novel as being picaresque because Chamdi doesn’t really change significantly as his world collapses. In my reading though, this is the one glimmer of hope – the spirit of this precocious child remains intact.

Overall, this is a great book, a fast read, and powerfully written. It’s definitely worth the read.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach

Winner of the 2008 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008

Rawi Hage himself is an interesting character; he’s a Lebanese immigrant to Canada, suffered through his home country’s civil war, he’s lived in New York, is an accomplished photographer, drove a cab, and somehow managed to end up and settle in Montreal in 1992. In addition to all of this, he has a dark brooding look that just oozes intensity. He seemed to explode out of nowhere onto the Canadian literary scene in 2006 with the now contemporary classic De Niro’s Game. Hage’s first novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor-General’s Award and won the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – one of the world’s richest literary prizes and at the time, one of the only worldwide English language awards. Hage published novel number two, Cockroach, in 2008. The accolades and nominations quickly rolled in further cementing his place in 21st Century Canadian literary culture.

This was my first introduction to Rawi Hage. I haven’t yet read De Niro’s Game or his third novel Carnival. Cockroach is the story of an unnamed narrator making his way through a cold Montreal winter in an unspecified time. The narrator is an Arabian immigrant who lives in utter poverty. He recently tried to kill himself and is forced to have regular sessions with a therapist where he delves into his shady and pragmatic past growing up in his home country. In Montreal, he befriends and falls for Shohreh, a member of the Iranian diaspora into which he has been adopted. All the while, the narrator has recurring fantasies and hallucinations of himself becoming a cockroach, slithering and crawling his way through the underworld and into the homes and lives of those he admires and despises. This unnamed narrator is very gritty and dark but at the same time is very “real.” His pragmatism and survival instincts trump all else – including his better judgment.

This novel is equal parts psychological, psychedelic and Kafkaesque. Frankly, other than the flashbacks during the therapy sessions, very little happens in terms of plot in this novel. We are taken on a journey through the narrator’s exploration of the mundane and every word of it is riveting. We see the plight of the impoverished immigrant, the closed-in nature of the a diaspora in a large city, the baggage that a newcomer brings with him from his homeland, and just how far someone can go to survive and how the very definition of “survival” is entirely subjective. We join our storyteller as he collects welfare cheques, works as a busboy, smokes hash and snorts coke with his Iranian friends, and talks out his past with his therapist; we then join him through kaleidoscopic fantasies and delusions of becoming the cockroach.

The highlight of Cockroach was the quality of the writing. Rawi Hage uses a poetic language that is free of pretension that is so hard to find in contemporary fiction; it exudes elevated prose but doesn’t reek of MFA syndrome.  He uses highly imaginative metaphors and spares no graphic detail.

Rawi Hage is at the forefront and very representative of the current generation of future CanLit icons: born outside our borders, a working class background (i.e. he’s not an English professor), highly original stories that are rooted in literary tradition, and willing to take risks in his writing. That being said, Cockroach is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. This is a novel for anyone that wants to delve into the dark nether-regions of the human soul with the possibility of never coming out.

Jason’s Quest by Margaret Laurence

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In the last couple months I’ve read novels about a mother and son being held captive for years, a photographer with PTSD working at a porn studio, a family drama, and two books of very dark and somber poetry; so I figured it was time to lighten it up a bit with a novel for children. There is a great tradition in Canada of great writers contributing wonderful books to the world of children’s lit; Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Adele Wiseman, and Margaret Laurence have all contributed greatly to the genre.  Jason’s Quest, published in 1970, is Margaret Laurence’s first children’s book and her only children’s novel – her other three titles for kids are picture style books. Margaret Laurence has long been my favorite writer and was without a doubt the catalyst for my love of Canadian writing. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time – at least 5 years. Like my other favorite CanLit icon Mordecai Richler, I’ve be very leery to finish all of Laurence’s books; once I’ve finished them all, that’s it, no more are going to appear. Now that this title is on the “read” shelf, I’m down to only 4 Margaret Laurence books left to read for the first time.

Jason’s Quest tells the story of Jason, a mole from Molanium who is worried about his town-folk being infected with an “invisible sickness.” He decides to go on a quest to London to find a cure. On the way to London, he teams up with Oliver, a motor-mouthed owl who is on the hunt for some wisdom, and a pair of stray cats – Calico and Topaz – who want to perform noble deeds to give cats around the world a better name. Along their journey they run into memorable villains, interesting new friends, and have wild adventures that are fun for readers of any age.

The 193-page Wizard of Oz-inspired story is kid-friendly but not watered down. There are some violent scenes, including a villain being killed, there are some scenes of Jason’s posse doing questionable things to achieve their goals, and there are a number of shady characters. Like a lot of great novels for kids, Jason’s Quest is jam-packed with allegory. Laurence takes on urban decay, crime, religion, and generational change in very subtle ways. The book is also highlighted by wonderful black-and-white illustrations by Leslie Morrill. Each chapter is highlighted by a picture that really captures the mood and themes of the book, so there are enough illustrations to be an important element of the story but not so many that the text is overwhelmed.

I read very little children’s lit, but when I do, I look for a few things: I want the story to be as cohesive and the plot to be as consistent as would be expected in any high-caliber adult novel; the text must be kid friendly but not talk down to the reader; and I want the story to be filled with allegory so as to make the book relevant and more than just a cute story. Jason’s Quest met all of those expectations and then some. Laurence brought her signature strong character development, great dialogue, and solid vignette-style story telling that was so prevalent in her Manawaka Cycle to this book for young readers. This is essential reading for any Margaret Laurence fan and a great choice for someone looking for a warm yet action filled story for their young reader.

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