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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Banned Books Week

In the U.S., this week (September 27 – October 3) is Banned Books Week.  It is a national event founded in 1982 to raise awareness to the fact that people are still trying to ban books.

The American Library Association states, “By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.”  On its website, the ALA has lists of the most frequently challenged books (http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10).  It is certainly a worthwhile site to browse.  Some of the books on those lists may surprise you. 

An article appeared in Slate magazine arguing that Banned Books Week is an anachronism.  The author states that the event is fear-mongering about a non-existent wave of censorship:  http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2015/09/banned_books_week_no_one_bans_books_anymore_and_censorship_of_books_is_incredibly.html.   BookRiot posted a response which argues that “When books are challenged, even when the result is not a full ban, nobody wins” (http://bookriot.com/2015/09/29/hey-slate-banned-books-week-isnt-crock/).  Read both articles and form your own opinion.

Personally, I agree with Eugene O’Neill who said that censorship is “the last resort of the boob and the bigot.”  Censors are bullies who fear the power of the written word which might challenge their beliefs and assumptions.  Those in favour of censorship foster ignorance and narrow-mindedness; as Haruki Murakami, the internationally acclaimed Japanese writer, said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”  I think it is a parent’s responsibility to expose a child to different points of view and to guide him/her through the reading of books offering those.  A parent may decide that his/her child should not read a certain book, but that does not mean that all children should be denied access.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

2015 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award was announced today.  Here are descriptions of the five nominees (from http://www.amazon.ca/):

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
A bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic.  Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old 'dog' ways, and those who embrace the change.  The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings.
Note:  This novel also appears on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay
Starting with something as simple as a boy who wants a dog, His Whole Life takes us into a world where everything that matters to him is at risk: family, nature, home.  At the outset ten-year-old Jim and his Canadian mother and American father are on a journey from New York City to a lake in eastern Ontario during the last hot days of August.  What unfolds is a story that spans a few pivotal years of his youth. Moving from city to country, summer to winter, wellbeing to illness, the novel charts the deepening bond between mother and son even as the family comes apart.  Set in the mid-1990s, when Quebec is on the verge of leaving Canada, this novel is an unconventional coming of age story.  
Note:  I reviewed this novel on August 18.

Red Jacket by Pamela Mordecai
Growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Chris, Grace Carpenter never feels like she really belongs. Although her large, extended family is black, she is a redibo.  Her skin is copper-coloured, her hair is red, and her eyes are grey.  A neighbour taunts her, calling her “a little red jacket,” but the reason for the insult is never explained.  Only much later does Grace learn the story of her birth mother and decipher the mystery surrounding her true identity.

Confidence by Russell Smith
In the stories of Confidence, there are ecstasy-taking PhD students, financial traders desperate for husbands, owners of failing sex stores, violent and unremovable tenants, aggressive raccoons, seedy massage parlours, experimental filmmakers who record every second of their day, and wives who blog insults directed at their husbands.  There are cheating husbands.  There are private clubs, crowded restaurants, and psychiatric wards.
Note:  This short story collection also appears on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant
Hector, a young Zapotec fleeing Mexico for a better life in the U.S. with his friend Cesar, a biotech researcher, pays to be smuggled across the border by unscrupulous "coyotes," concealed in the tightly sealed, empty tank of a water truck packed with illegal migrants.  Abandoned by the smugglers in the desert, they are left to die, their only lifeline Cesar's phone.  When Cesar slips into unconsciousness, Hector reaches out to the one name with an American code--AnniMac--that becomes his lifeline to the world as he reveals what has brought him to this place, taking us back to an older Mexico, to the lives of his Zapotec grandparents and the ancient, mythic traditions, to the mystery behind the jaguar icon left to him by a mysterious archeologist, and the power of the corn myth.  The dangers Cesar is fleeing become apparent as does the importance of his survival.

The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced on November 3, 2015.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review of "A Cure for Suicide" by Jesse Ball


3 Stars

This book appeared on the National Book Award for Fiction longlist and it sounded interesting, so I decided to read it.  However, I didn’t find it exceptional.

The novel begins with a man known only as a claimant living in the Gentlest Village.  His only contact is with the examiner who is teaching him the names of everyday objects and the routines of daily life.  Gradually the lessons become more complex and eventually he is allowed to interact with others.  A woman named Hilda has an intense impact on him, and things become more complicated when she tells him the village is not what it seems.

The claimant is told that he was very ill and is now in recovery.    The recovery process is known as the Process of Villages.  As he progresses, the Claimant is moved from one village to another.  If he fails to meet expectations, he is forced to begin the process again; one examiner estimates, “that the claimant has been reprocessed a minimum of eight times.”  The examiner indicates that the Claimant is not “recovering” when she writes, “The claimant’s memories intrude at an alarming rate.”  She is happier with his progress when she records, “He speaks to me of his memories as I have invoked them – that is, as my memories which I have seeded into his dreams.”

The reader learns about the claimant’s situation gradually – like the claimant learns to function in the world.  Is Hilda correct when she suggests that the Process of Villages is actually a fogging:  “’It is an injection. . . . The injection changes you, sends you deeper into yourself, in order that you can learn to protect yourself from life’s difficulties.  It does other things, too.  It ruins your memory, and you lose most things you knew.’” Could that be the cure for suicidal tendencies?  In the last third of the book, in a conversation between a petitioner and an interlocutor “in the office of the cure,” we learn the full explanation of how the Claimant came to be going through the Process of Villages, but by then most readers will have surmised the truth. 

The book is really an examination of what it means to be human and asks the reader to consider to what extent he/she would go in order to escape emotional pain.  Is it better to become “a shell,” someone “who is somewhat absent”?  At one point, an examiner tells the Claimant, “Sometimes I will tell you stories.  They may be full of things that you do not understand.  That is not important.  It isn’t important that you understand what I say.  What’s important is that you behave as a human being should when someone is telling a story.  So, listen properly, make noises at appropriate times, and enjoy the fact that I am speaking to you. . . . Much of the speech we do is largely meaningless and is just meant to communicate and validate small emotional contracts.”  Is it possible to have a meaningful  relationship without the possibility of emotional pain?  Or does being fully human mean that one must experience painful emotions like grief?

The first part of the novel makes for interesting reading, but the second section, with its dense writing and convoluted sentence structure (“That is how I was as a child.  I want you to know that, Rana told me, so I said to the interlocutor”) is tedious.  Also, because we are constantly reminded that the petitioner is telling his story after the fact, we are distanced from what happened and the emotional impact is lost.  Of course, that is what the petitioner wants – some distance.  Is there an implied warning to be careful of one’s wishes?

The book does stimulate thought about what makes a person human.  It did not, however, engage me sufficiently to make me think that it is worthy of a major literary award. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fortunate are the Multilingual Readers of the World!

Through a friend from Europe, I learned that yesterday, September 26, was the European Day of Languages, a day designed to encourage people to learn more languages, at any age, in and out of school.  “Being convinced that linguistic diversity is a tool for achieving greater intercultural understanding and a key element in the rich cultural heritage of our continent, the Council of Europe promotes plurilingualism in the whole of Europe” (http://edl.ecml.at/).  Alas, here in Canada, we emphasize only bilingualism.

This got me to thinking about how I once spoke a language which I can no longer speak.  Though born in Canada, as a child I spoke Kashubian, which was once considered a dialect of Polish but is now officially recognized as an ethnic-minority language, the only remnant of the Pomeranian language.   “For Kashubians and the Kashubian language [the European Day of Languages] is of particular importance because it is the only regional language in Poland” (http://www.kaszubi.pl/aktualnosci/aktualnosc/id/1138).

When I began school, I could speak no English, but of course I became immersed in it and learned it quite quickly, necessity being a great motivator.  Gradually I lost my mother tongue.  Now I understand a few words and phrases, but that is all.  A great irony in my life is that though I could not speak English when I started school, I majored in English literature in university and eventually became a teacher and spent 30 years teaching the literature of my second language.

My husband and I visited Poland in May of 2014 and focused on the region of Kashubia southwest of Gdańsk.  There plaques of place names are in both Kashubian and Polish.  While visiting the region of my ancestors, I purchased a book, Mój słowôrz by Marzena Dembek; its purpose is to help children learn the Kashubian language.  Hopefully it will help me relearn my first language.

Near Leśno in the heart of Kashubia, we stayed at the Zamek Zaborski Guesthouse where one mission is to preserve Kashubian culture and traditions (http://zamekzaborski.com/index_en.php?page=history).
Image result for Jasiek, Walek & SzemekIts owner, Stanisław Frymark, is a translator, and he introduced me to some Kashubian literature in translation.  Stanisław has translated some work by Hieronim Jarosz Derdowski, arguably the most famous Kashubian poet.  I was able to bring home a signed copy of Jasiek, Walek & Szemek . . ., a translation of Kashubian tall tales, a rhymed story, and a short story in prose.  Published next to the English versions are the original words of Derdowski, but at this point I am restricted to the translations by Stanisław and his co-translator, Blanche Krbechek.  

What does this rambling have to do with books and reading?  It’s my way of encouraging reading.  Read, read and read some more, and if you are bilingual or multilingual, read in all those languages.  Avoid my situation where I can read in my third language (French) and even a little in a fourth (Dutch) but have to rely on translations of literature written in the language I first spoke.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

What is Your Favourite Childhood Book?

  We all have favourite books from our childhood – ones we read or ones read to us.  Mine is The Wonder Clock or, Four and Twenty Marvelous Tales, Being One for Each Hour of the Day by Howard Pyle.  The book was first published in 1887 so it had been around for over 70 years before I first encountered it, but I was so enchanted by the stories and illustrations that I re-read it for years and years.

Each story begins with a verse (written by Katherine Pyle) that corresponds to the hour of the day. These verses bring to life the household routines of the late nineteenth century:  lighting the fire, preparing breakfast, sending the children to school, making the noonday meal, milking, tea, bedtime.

The stories are illustrated with Howard Pyle's drawings.  Each tale has a frontispiece for the title, and the beginning of the text is heralded with an ornamental letter like those in illuminated manuscripts.  The illustrations are gorgeous and definitely a part of the "wonder" of the book.

The stories themselves are wonderful, full of kings, princes, princesses, woodcutters, swineherds, ruffians, rogues and magical creatures.  Although influenced by English, German and Scandinavian folk literature, most of the stories will be unfamiliar to modern readers.  As with Aesop's fables, the stories are meant to instruct, but the morals are secondary to the storytelling, at least until the conclusion of each tale, and a great deal is left up to the reader to interpret.

I am so please that this book is still available in print, but it can also be viewed online.  The Baldwin Online Children’s Literature Project has made the classic available online (complete with illustrations): http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=pyle&book=wonder&story=_contents.

What's your favourite book from childhood?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review of "We Are Called to Rise" by Laura McBride

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3 Stars

This multi-perspective novel is set in Las Vegas.  There are four narrators:  eight-year-old Bashkim whose father, a former political prisoner in Albania, and mother own an ice-cream truck; Avis, a middle-aged woman whose 29-year-old marriage is in upheaval and whose son, a wannabe policeman, seems to suffer from PTSD after three tours of duty in Iraq; Luis, a young soldier who was raised by his abuela but is now injured and traumatized by his tours of duty; and Roberta, a children’s advocate who works with at-risk children.  The lives of all four characters converge after a tragedy.

All of the characters, except Roberta, are interesting.  The inclusion of Roberta
is questionable.  Unlike for the others, there is little background given for her and her role could easily have been assumed by another minor character.  Another difficulty is Bashkim; he is such a sweet and innocent and likeable child yet at times seems too mature for his age.  There is also the problem with the prevalence of so many caring, almost too-good-to-be-true people:  Mrs. Monoghan, Dr. Moore, Dr. Ghosh, Mrs. Delain, Mrs. Reyes, Mrs. Stoddard, Mrs. Weiss.  Maybe I’m too much of a cynic?

The ending is problematic.  The solution to the problem is totally unrealistic given the age and circumstances of the person who comes to the rescue.  It’s a heart-warming ending which is necessary for thematic development but suffers because it seems forced. 

The book is an easy read because of its conversational writing style.  However, I think that the author attempted to cover too many issues.  Avis, Baba, Luis, Nate, and Bashkim could each have their own novels.   The novel examines the difficulties of the immigrant experience, how a person’s childhood affects one’s adulthood, the consequences war and of untreated PTSD, the interconnectedness of people, and how “the tiniest act, the smallest space of time, the most inconsequential of decisions, changes a life” (213).

Thematic development is sometimes rather heavy-handed.  The title immediately suggests an upbeat ending, as does the book jacket’s description:  “how ordinary strangers can rise to the extraordinary challenge of caring for each other.”  The importance of doing good is stressed since “this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do” (186).  The significance of small deeds is certainly emphasized:  “It all matters.  That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the wind-blown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, fold the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, make the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing” (197).  The theme is hardly original; we have all heard of pay-it-forward acts of kindness. 

Sometimes, the novel reads like a self-help book intended to make the reader feel good about his/her life.  For example, Avis talks about building a community with her friends:  “And what we built did matter.  Even if it didn’t last.  Even if it didn’t change the world.  Even if lots of families were doing the very same thing in lots of other communities.  It still mattered.  For a little while, a man and a woman fell in love and did the best they could for their children.  For a little while, a neighborhood of families helped each other out, and loved each other’s kids, and tried to make the world better.  And some of those kids will do the same thing.  And some of those kids will have a hard time.  And some of those marriages will last.  And some won’t.  And it all still mattered” (199 – 200). 

This novel has some interesting characters, but its theme could be developed with more subtlety.   And an unrealistic ending does little to convince one of a theme’s validity.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

In yesterday’s blog, I discussed the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that was awarded on April 20 – before I started this blog.  Today I want to focus on the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize for Fiction); the winner was announced on June 3 – again, before I started my blog. 

The winner of the award was Ali Smith for How to Be Both
The story is told from two perspectives: those of George, a pedantic 16-year-old girl living in contemporary Cambridge, and Francesco del Cossa, an Italian renaissance artist responsible for painting a series of frescoes in Ferrara, Italy.
Struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her mother, George attends counselling sessions at her school.  She also has to look after her younger brother and cope with her alcoholic father.  She recalls travelling with her mother to see the frescos in Ferrara and asking her about the elusive painter Francesco del Cossa.  George becomes obsessed with Francesco and travels frequently to London to view his portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer.
Francesco finds his disembodied self in front of his portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer as it is being examined by a boy.  He muses on how he came to find himself in this situation, thinking back to the events in his past life, and as he does, he becomes attached to the boy.

The other finalists were
1)            Rachel Cusk for Outline
Outline is a novel in ten conversations.  It follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during an oppressively hot summer in Athens.  She leads her students in storytelling exercises.  She meets other visiting writers for dinner.  She goes swimming with an elderly Greek bachelor.  The people she encounters speak, volubly, about themselves: their fantasies, anxieties, pet theories, regrets and longings.  And through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn by contrast, a portrait of a woman learning to face a great loss.
Note:  This novel also appears on the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

2)            Laline Paull for The Bees
Born into the lowest class of an ancient hierarchical society, Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, an Untouchable, whose labour is at her ancient orchard hive's command.  As part of the collective, she is taught to accept, obey and serve.  Altruism is the highest virtue, and worship of her beloved Queen, the only religion.  Her society is governed by the priestess class, questions are forbidden and all thoughts belong to the Hive Mind.
But Flora is not like other bees.  Her curiosity is a dangerous flaw, especially once she is exposed to the mysteries of the Queen's Library.  But her courage and strength are assets, and Flora finds herself promoted up the social echelons.  From sanitation to feeding the newborns in the royal nursery to becoming an elite forager, Flora revels in service to her hive.  But then Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen's fertility.

3)            Kamila Shamsie for A God in Every Stone
Vivian Rose Spencer is fascinated by the history of ancient empires, and in the summer of 1914 she finds herself fulfilling a dream by joining an archeological dig in Turkey.  It is here alongside young Germans and Turks that the young English woman will fall in love with an old family friend, the distinguished archeologist, Tahsin Bey.  As she begins to see the world through his eyes, she also shares his obsession with finding Scylax’s lost silver circlet. As her idyllic summer comes to an end with the outbreak of war in Europe, her friends will become her nation’s enemies and her loyalties will be tested.
Months later, in the battlefields of Europe, Indian soldiers are fighting for the British Empire.  At Ypres one Qayyum Gul, a Lance Corporal from Peshawar, will lose an eye, and find himself recuperating in a Royal Pavilion in England.  Surrounded by the glories of empire he will slowly begin to doubt his loyalties to the British King.  
Returning to Peshawar, Qayyum Gul will share a train carriage with Vivian Rose Spencer who is on her way to his hometown in response to a mysterious message from Tahsin Bey.  As she searches for the silver circlet, he searches for a new leader to believe in.
Fifteen years later, they will meet again and their loyalties will be tested once more amidst massacres, cover-ups, and the disappearance of a young man they both love.

4)            Anne Tyler for A Spool of Blue Thread
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon." This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family - their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog - is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before.  And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red's father.  The novel takes us across three generations of the Whitshanks, their shared stories and long-held secrets, all the unguarded and richly lived moments that combine to define who and what they are as a family.
Note:  This book, which I reviewed on August 2, also appears on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist.

5)            Sarah Waters for The Paying Guests
The year is 1922, and London is tense.  Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change.  In South London, in a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances are obliged to take in lodgers.  With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, the routines of the house and the lives of its inhabitants will be shaken up in unexpected ways.  And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far, and how devastatingly, the disturbances will reach.

(Book descriptions from www.amazon.ca)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review of 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner - "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

Fall is the season for book awards.  The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature are all awarded in the autumn – and those are just the major fiction awards.

I’ve already posted the shortlist for the Man Booker (September 15), the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller (September 9), and the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction (September 17).  The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalists will be announced on September 29, the Governor-General’s nominations will be announced on October 7, and the Nobel Prize for Literature recipient will be revealed sometime in early October.

One 2015 award that has already been presented – before I started my blog – is the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  This year it went to Anthony Doerr for All the Light We Cannot See.  Here’s my review of that book:

  4 StarsWith its examination of what war does to ordinary people, especially two children, this book has some heartbreaking scenes, but it is entirely absorbing, a wondrous read. In alternating chapters, the novel focuses on Werner Pfenning, a German orphan, and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl living in Paris.

 Werner is a science prodigy who proves especially gifted in his understanding of electrical circuits. This gift allows him to escape life in the coal mines and gets him into an elite Nazi school where he receives military training and advances his knowledge of radio mechanics. He becomes adept at finding the senders of illegal radio transmissions and so is sent by German army hierarchy to various parts of Europe, eventually arriving in St. Malo shortly after the D-Day invasions just as the siege of the town begins.

Marie-Laure is also a science prodigy of sorts; she becomes fascinated by marine life after being exposed to the displays at the Museum of Natural History where her father works and to books such as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of The Beagle. In 1940 when the Germans occupy Paris, she leaves the city with her father and travels to St. Malo to seek refuge with her great-uncle Etienne, a hermit suffering from shell shock from WWI. As he had done in Paris, Marie-Laure’s father builds a detailed scale model of St. Malo so she can learn to navigate the town which is her home for the duration of the war.

Anyone familiar with Nazi atrocities has asked him/herself how the German people could commit those acts. Werner’s story illustrates how many Germans had little choice. As an orphan he is destined for work in the coal mines, a fate he dreads since those mines claimed his father’s life. His intelligence wins him a coveted position at a school, but it becomes a hell of a different sort: “never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded” (139) where the boys are taught by a man “capable of severe and chronic violence” (168). There he is taught that, “’You will eat country and breathe nation’” (137). Werner is a curious boy who was first exposed to science through radio broadcasts from France and often recalls the broadcaster urging children to “Open your eyes . . . and see what you can with them before they close forever” (48). So “For Werner, doubts turn up regularly. Racial purity, political purity” (276). In the school, however, he is told that he must not question: “’minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds’” (263). The students are told, “’You will strip away your weakness . . . you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause’” (137) and are encouraged to identify the weakest amongst them for punishment or expulsion. Werner, above all else, fears being named the weakest and becoming one of “the old broken miners . . . waiting to die” (476), so he tries to forget his sister’s question, “’Is it right . . . to do something only because everyone else is doing it?’” (133), and does what he is told to do: “Werner laces his boots and sings the songs and marches the marches, acting less out of duty than out of a timeworn desire to be dutiful” (277). A friend summarizes Werner’s predicament: “’Your problem, Werner, . . . is that you still believe you own your life’” (223).

The characterization of Marie-Laure is equally interesting. She is shy but intelligent and never is she self-pitying. She has to learn to navigate through darkness, both literally and metaphorically, but does not let it circumscribe her existence; she is determined to conquer her fear and make a difference. She answers the question, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” (327) in the affirmative. One woman describes her as an “amazing child” (402) though Marie-Laure does not see herself that way: “’When I lost my sight, . . . people said I was brave. . . . But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life’” (469). Hers, like Werner’s, is a coming-of-age story in the most difficult of times. If there is a weakness in Marie-Laure’s characterization, it is that we see few flaws.

There are other characters that are either too good or too evil. Frederick, Werner’s friend at the school, is of the former category. Frederick “moves about as if in the grip of a dream . . . [his] eyes are both intense and vague” (184) and “He sees what other people don’t” (163). He is the one cadet who refuses to do as the commandant orders, his fate illustrating what happened to those who refused to behave like ostriches. Sergeant Major von Rumpel is of the latter category in that he has no redeeming qualities. In fulfilling his job, he is ruthless. He becomes the stereotype of a Nazi officer. To make matters worse, von Rumpel is involved in the search for a diamond, a sub-plot which is largely distracting and superfluous.

An element of the novel that deserves mention is the lyrical style employing numerous poetic devices and figures of speech. Alliteration is used: “Shearwaters skim the ramparts; sleeves of vapor enshroud the steeple” (409). Metaphors abound; bombs dropping are described as “A demonic horde. Upended sacks of beans. A hundred broken rosaries” (148). The occupation of St Malo is conveyed so effectively: “Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. . . . So many windows are dark. It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished” (347 – 348). Repetition such as “Fog on the sea, fog in the streets, fog in the mind” (288) describes setting, creates atmosphere, and reveals mood. Literary and Biblical allusions appear frequently, usually to develop theme: “’That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?’” (449).

The novel’s title refers to one of the themes. In one of the children’s science broadcasts, Werner hears, “The brain is locked in total darkness. . . It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light” (47). The brain has power to create light in darkness, and in the novel characters are occasionally able to see goodness even in the darkest of times, to believe “that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts” (492). The school Werner attends tries to snuff out his human decency but in the end it is recognized that “his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness” (515).

As a child, Werner learns that “the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, . . . mathematically, all of light is invisible” (53). Later, “Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves . . . flying invisibly . . . over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? . . . That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? . . . the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world” (528 – 529). In this novel, the reader, like Werner constantly listening to radio waves, can hear two of the stories stored in the library of invisible light around us.

Despite its weaknesses, this book is a must-read. It will have the reader experiencing a gamut of emotions: sadness, anger, joy. It is a beautifully written story about people caught in a time when “history has become some nightmare” (284) and people’s potential is misused: “What you could be” (459).

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Dear Life" by Alice Munro Set to Music

  “Dear Life” is the titular story of Alice Munro’s 2012 collection.  Actually, it is not a story so much as a memoir.  It first appeared in The New Yorker in the September 19, 2011, issue as a “Personal History” with the subtitle “A childhood visitation.”  You can read it at:(http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/09/19/dear-life).

In Dear Life, the piece is the last entry, one of the four prefaced with the following short note:  “The final four works in this book are not quite stories.  They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.  I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my life” (255).  The four pieces give snapshots of the narrator’s childhood in a small Canadian town and evoke a girl’s coming of age — her efforts to articulate an identity of her own. 

As was noted in The New York Times, “These ‘not quite stories’ do not force their contents into tidy shapes, like some of the “real” stories in this volume; instead they have a flexible, organic shape, opening out to encompass Ms. Munro’s unsentimental thoughts on life and art and storytelling”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/books/dear-life-stories-by-alice-munro.html?_r=0).

In regard to Munro’s thoughts about life and fiction, it is interesting that the “Dear Life” in the short story collection omits the last paragraph of The New Yorker’s version:  “When my mother was dying, she got out of the hospital somehow, at night, and wandered around town until someone who didn’t know her at all spotted her and took her in. If this were fiction, as I said, it would be too much, but it is true” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/09/19/dear-life). Truth is stranger than fiction?

Earlier in the piece Munro makes another statement about life versus fiction:  “Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life” (307).  A reviewer in The Guardian noted, “One is stopped short by "only life" with its implication that fiction can be – and do – more.  Roly Grain reminds us how Munro's short stories work.  She has a gift for introducing characters who seem walk-on parts but who redirect and transform narrative. . . . If Roly Grain had not been inconveniently real, she would have handed him a story and let him run with it” (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/29/alice-munro-dear-life-review).

When asked about how she came to choose the title “Dear Life,” Munro said, “Those words are very wonderful to me because I heard them when I was a child, and they had all kinds of meaning. ‘Oh, for dear life!’ would just mean that you were kind of overwhelmed with all that had been required of you.  I liked the contrast between that and the words ‘dear life,’ which are maybe a joyful resignation, but when you say ‘dear’—the word—it doesn’t bring up sadness. It brings up something precious” (http://www.vqronline.org/vqr-portfolio/interview-alice-munro).  She seems to view her childhood experiences as precious; certainly her recollections of life in southwestern Ontario were crucial to her writing. 

Now a young Canadian composer, Zosha Di Castri, has set “Dear Life” to music.  The concert entitled “Echoes of Childhood” will premiere at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre later this week (http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/09/young-canadian-composer-sets-alice-munros-dear-life-to-music.html). 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Reviews Archive: "Road Ends" by Mary Lawson

In the category of books everyone should read are three by one of my favourite Canadian authors, Mary Lawson.  All three are set in northeastern Ontario where I lived for years.  Anyone who hasn’t yet discovered her has three wonderful  5-Star books to read.  Below are plot summaries of Crow Lake (2002) and The Other Side of the Bridge (2006) and my review of her most recent novel, Road Ends (2013).

Crow Lake
This novel is set in northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur.
Centerstage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive.  Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protégé, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world.  Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life.  And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.
This is a universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harboured and driven underground.

The Other Side of the Bridge
Two brothers, Arthur and Jake Dunn, are the sons of a farmer in the mid-1930s, when life is tough and another world war is looming.  Arthur is reticent, solid, dutiful and set to inherit the farm and his father’s character; Jake is younger, attractive, mercurial and dangerous to know – the family misfit. When a beautiful young woman comes into the community, the fragile balance of sibling rivalry tips over the edge.
Then there is Ian, the family’s next generation, and far too sure he knows the difference between right and wrong.  By now it is the fifties, and the world has changed – a little, but not enough.
These two generations in the small town of Struan, Ontario, are tragically interlocked, linked by fate and community but separated by a war which devours its young men – its unimaginable horror reaching right into the heart of this remote corner of an empire.

Review of Road Ends
5 Stars
 Mary Lawson’s third novel focuses on the Cartwright family: parents and eight children.  It is narrated from three perspectives: Edward, the father; Tom, the eldest son; and Megan, the only daughter. Edward, the town’s bank manager, hides in his study reading about cities he dreams of visiting and ignoring the family that is disintegrating around him.  Tom, in the depths of a guilt-ridden depression because of the death of a friend, has abandoned his career as an aeronautical engineer and seeks only solitude.  Megan, after looking after the family for 15 years, escapes to England.

Each of the three protagonists has a conflict between duty and dreams.  Edward is in a marriage which has brought him children he did not want; he wants to see the world but has to remain an armchair traveler.  Unfortunately, because he isolates himself in his study, his children flounder, especially since his wife/their mother is increasingly unfocused and forgetful.  Tom had dreams but an unexpected death derails him and now he wants only peace which becomes more difficult to find in the chaos that overtakes the family.  Megan wants to start her own life after years of taking responsibility for the family and succeeds in making her way in London, but her family is never far from her thoughts.  It is a conflict experienced by many: wanting, because of love and a sense of duty, to do the right thing and wanting, with a great sense of guilt, to escape the sacrifices required by that love and duty: “How are you supposed to stop loving someone you love” (231)?  One of the characters comments, “Love was not an idea; you couldn’t choose to get it or not get it any more than you could choose to catch or not catch flu” (268).

One of the strengths of the novel is characterization.  All of the protagonists are flawed.  At times they become oblivious to the needs of others because they are driven by concerns of their own.  For Megan, “leaving home, living her own life, that mattered” (16).  For Tom, peace is paramount: “This was exactly what he’d been afraid of, the way one thing led to another, the way you got sucked into things, the way your painstakingly, designed routine . . . all in solitude, solitude above all, could be shot to hell and you’d be in it up to your neck, you’d have no control over anything, there’d be no end to it, no peace, and he couldn’t handle it, he just couldn’t handle it” (43 – 44).  Edward retreats to his study and its books because he wants to broaden his “very narrow life” (192).

Nonetheless, none of the three is totally heartless.  Megan may seem selfish at times, but she looked after her family for 15 years - even her father acknowledges, “’I dare say you’ve earned [your freedom]’” (16) – and her family is never far from her mind.  Tom wants no one “making any demands on him” (151), but he is unable to disregard the distress of his brother Adam.  Even the self-absorbed Edward is humanized when the reader comes to understand that he has struggles of his own and that he is capable of compassion and forgiveness.  This detailed and realistic portrayal of characters cannot but draw in the reader.

I lived in the part of northeastern Ontario in which Lawson has set all her novels, and I can attest to the fact that her descriptions are accurate. A review in the National Post stated it perfectly: “[Lawson] can justifiably lay claim to an oeuvre as well as a personal geography. If the part of Ontario west of Toronto is [Alice] Munro country, then the area northwest of New Liskeard and Cobalt — where her fictional towns of Struan and Crow Lake are roughly located — may well end up being dubbed Lawson Country.” 

As the title Road Ends suggests, a sadness permeates the book and, indeed, more than one character faces grief and loss, but that does not mean there is no hope offered.  Again, more than one character comes to realize that one road may end but there is another that can be taken.

I loved Lawson previous books, Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, and I loved this one as well.  I found myself totally enthralled.  It is a beautifully written story of duty, sacrifice and family love which will remain with the reader for a long time.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review of "The Illegal" by Lawrence Hill


   4.5 Stars


I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I hesitated to read it because I heard it was about a marathon runner, and running is not a sport in which I have much interest.  I’m glad I overcame my reticence because the book is about so much else and, considering the news from Europe, proves to be so timely.  The book is about undocumented refugees and the uncertainty they face:  will they be accepted, persecuted or deported?

Keita Ali is a refugee from the island nation of Zantoroland; he has to flee because his father was a journalist critical of the dictator ruling the country and because he is a member of an ethnic minority.  Dissenters and members of the minority are routinely tortured and killed so many escape to Freedom State where they live in AfricTown, a makeshift settlement of shipping containers.  Freedom State is the island nation closest to Zantoroland; its economy was built using slaves from Zantoroland, and though slavery was abolished, the descendants of those slaves are marginalized, and undocumented migrants are deported to the country from which they fled.  Keita is an elite runner who hopes to use his talent to win his freedom and citizenship in Freedom State, but he ends up running from authorities and running to save a family member. 

Zantoroland and Freedom State (with its wonderfully ironic name) are fictional countries separated by the fictional Ortiz Sea in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Undoubtedly, the author used invented countries so they can represent any number of actual countries.  Zantoroland could be Cuba or Vietnam or Mexico or Syria and Freedom State could be the United States or Canada or any number of European countries.

The characters are many.  There are villains:  corrupt politicians, power-seekers, money-launderers, torturers, and thugs.  There are also the good people who are willing to subvert the laws in order to assist those labelled as illegals.  The reader will find him/herself cheering for the latter.  The major characters are realistic, possessing both good and bad traits.  Lula DiStefano, for example, helps refugees by providing shelter and food in AfricTown, but she also exploits them to her benefit.  Rocco Calder is a minister in the corrupt government of Freedom State but he struggles with his role.   Viola Hill and John Falconer are both ambitious, in-your-face investigative journalists, but they are determined to expose some unpleasant truths

The book examines serious issues, especially the treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants.  I loved Viola’s argument that “it was fair to accuse somebody of doing something illegal but not to say that they were illegal” (71).  The novel also touches on racism, ageism, discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, the tenuous position of mixed-race people, global inequity, and the hypocrisy of the richest nations not acknowledging that their economies owe much to the marginalized.

Despite its seriousness, the book also has comic relief.  Often it stems from the antics of Viola Hill and John Falconer as they relentlessly pursue the truth, making many uncomfortable in their willingness to ask incendiary questions.  There are also the tongue-in-cheek comments about Canada:  “The tenth [runner] was a Canadian.  But he didn’t really count as a Canadian, because he was black and born in Kenya. . . . Canada, all the way across the world, had been smart about recruiting the immigrant, giving him Canadian citizenship.  Now the country of snow and ice had a chance to win a medal in the next Olympic marathon” (126).

And there is suspense and romance.  Will Keita be able to win the races and get sufficient money in time to rescue a threatened family member?  Will he be able to elude the marathon agent wanting money from him?  Will he be able to avoid the authorities who want to deport him?  Can Keita really trust Lula and Ivernia to help him?  Should he have a relationship with Candace who hides from him her occupation in the service of Freedom State? 

Marathon running serves as a perfect metaphor.  Keita runs to freedom in Freedom State, but he ends up running from imprisonment in that state.  Citizens of Freedom State run from the truth about their government and its deportation policies.  A marathon is a long endurance test.  Refugees undertake marathons (three-week journeys on overcrowded fishing boats) to escape Zantoroland but then run figurative marathons every day, trying to avoid the deportation raids.  An elderly woman must survive a six-month administrative marathon in order to keep her independence. 

One element that bothered me is how the villains tend to reveal all when they think they have nothing to lose.  This happens a couple of times (354, 372).  The confessions of an important figure (349, 360) are also made to two people at very convenient times.  Such plot manipulation is a weakness.

In the end, the conflicts are tidily resolved.  All loose ends are tied up.  But, like all good literature, this book will have a lingering effect.  It raises moral issues that people should consider and debate.  The novel is set in 2018 but its moral questions are relevant to the present.