Twitter Account

Follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski)

Friday, December 9, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 9) - "I" is for Irani, Irving, and Itani


For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “X” and “Z”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“I” is for Anosh Irani
This Indian-Canadian novelist is certainly a writer to check out.

Novels (which I recommend):

The Song of Kahunsha
The Parcel (nominated for 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and finalist for 2016 Governor-General’s Award)  See my review at http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2016/09/review-of-parcel-by-anosh-irani.html.

***********

“I” is for John Irving
Irving probably needs no introduction to most readers of literary fiction.  His A Prayer for Own Meany is one of my all-time favourites.

Novels (which I recommend) : 

The World According to Garp
The Hotel New Hampshire
The Cider House Rules
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Son of the Circus
A Widow for One Year
The Fourth Hand
Until I Find You
Last Night in Twisted River
In One Person

Review of In One Person (3 Stars)

The narrator is Bill Abbott, a bisexual novelist. In retrospect he describes his life from adolescence to old age. Half the book focuses on his teenage years at a private boys school in Vermont where he has his first "crushes on the wrong people," including his stepfather, the local librarian, the mother of his best friend, and Jacques Kittredge, the school's star wrestler and bully. The rest of the novel outlines his later years and those of his family members, friends, and lovers.

Bill is described as the writer of "sexually explicit novels - those pleas for tolerance of sexual differences" (314). This is a perfect description of Irving's novel. To emphasize his theme, Irving has his narrator repeat the words of his one true love: "'please don't put a label on me - don't make me a category before you get to know me'" (425). He also has Bill quote Shylock's speech in which "Jew" could be replaced by "bisexual": "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed? . . . If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die" (310 - 311)? There is no doubt that Irving is well-meaning and feels passionately about the need for tolerance and acceptance; the problem is that sometimes he comes across more as a didactic essayist than a novelist.

Shakespearean allusions are not the only ones to be found; there are references to several of Ibsen's plays and Dickens' novels, Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," and James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room." Besides literary allusions, the novel has many other of the typical Irving elements: wrestling, bears, a missing father, a prep school setting, gender-bending, a trip to Vienna.

There are a few problems with characterization. For example, Bill is not very astute, a trait that would hinder a writer who should have keen observational skills. Several times the reader will reach conclusions about a character's sexual identity long before Bill does. Too many of the female characters seem sexually repressed or damaged. Also, the number of people with sexual identity issues that Billy encounters in his youth seems large. Bill has a transvestite, a lesbian and a gay family member. Furthermore, half the people in his prep school turn out to be gay, transvestites or transgendered, especially those who were wrestlers in their adolescent years.

There are many touches of humour, especially in the performances of the First Sister Players, the amateur theatrical group in Bill's hometown. There are also scenes of unrelenting horror, particularly in the section detailing the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic. The statistics are harrowing - "By '95 - in New York, alone - more Americans had died of AIDS than were killed in Vietnam"(321) - as are the descriptions of the deaths of friends and lovers Bill witnesses.

This novel is a clarion call for tolerance for people of all sexual persuasions. I doubt it will rank as one of Irving's great novels, but it is nonetheless an entertaining read.

************
“I” is for Frances Itani
I’d recommend Deafening and its sequel Tell; the third book in the trilogy will be released in 2017.
 
Novels (which I recommend):
Deafening (shortlisted for 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Award and winner of the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize)
Remembering the Bones (shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers Prize)
Requiem
Tell (shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize)   See my review at http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2016/10/review-of-tell-by-frances-itani.html.

Review of Requiem (4 Stars)
This novel examines the injustice of the internment of thousands of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War and the scars that remain for the survivors and their families.

The narrator is Bin Okuma; chapters alternate between his boyhood at an internment camp in interior British Columbia and his westward journey from Ottawa to the camp 50 years later, after the sudden death of his wife Lena. Lena recognized that Bin is full of suppressed anger about his past and wished him to reconcile with his past, especially with the man whom Bin holds responsible for fracturing his family.

As a child Bin was told his fate based on his birth in the Year of the Tiger: "'A tiger may be stubborn, but can chase away ghosts and protect. . . . But . . . you are destined to be melancholy, and you will weep over nonsensical things.'" The reader soon realizes that this description fits Bin perfectly. His stubbornness is evident in his refusal to even visit B.C. for decades. He definitely has periods of deep melancholy which, like Lena suggests, will continue until he makes peace with his ghosts. It is clear that Bin wants, more than anything, to protect Lena and their son Greg from life's vicissitudes, just as it becomes obvious that some of his harsh judgments are ill-conceived. The problem is that this description of Bin, given in the opening pages, too clearly foreshadows the development of Bin's life story.

Throughout the book, rivers are a metaphor for life. Bin is trying to complete a series of river paintings in time for an exhibition, but he feels there is some essential element missing. To express the essence of rivers through his art has been his lifelong pre-occupation. Obviously, this quest is a metaphor for his trying to come to terms with his life. Towards the end of the novel, he admits that "there could be a soft or hard look to water, that there could be many ways of depicting rivers, that this was a matter of technique and choice" and perhaps some of his attitudes were the result of his choosing a harsh interpretation. In the end he finally chooses a title for his exhibition, a title that reflects his changed attitude to the past.

This book possesses similarities with Joy Kogawa's Obasan in its examination of a dark episode in Canada's history; nonetheless, it offers additional insight both in terms of history and human nature