Monday, February 27, 2012

The Book of Negros by Lawrence Hill

The Book of Negros by Lawrence Hill is the literary equivalent of your parents keeping an important secret from you because they don't want you to worry. And you're 35.

Oh man. This is a bit of a hard one. Everyone I've talked to and all the press surrounding this book have all been very complimentary of The Book of Negros, and I completely understand why. This is a story that historically and morally must be told. But when I read it, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't getting the full brunt of the subject and that I was being protected from something unseen, something horrible. Aminata's story is undeniably full of suffering; however, a lot of the suffering is relegated to a third party. We see scores of nameless slaves being marched off to their destiny and we hear stories of lynchings, rapes and mob riots. Are we ever burdened with the full weight of Aminata's surroundings? Is it better that we are not?

Sometimes I feel that fictional storytelling has the ability to do a huge disservice to difficult subjects. A story must have a main character that works through the entirety of the story, that survives from, at least, the first page to the last. In other words, the main character must live to tell the story. It is far too pessimistic (and also untrue) to assume that the story of slavery is only about the non-survivors, but I feel the story conveniently glossed over the legions of people who are not as fortunate as Aminata. Aren't these people, unfortunately, the real main characters of this story? The hard edges of Aminata's life somehow seem to be smoothed away by the simplicity of the narrative, a choice that means the novel is accessible to a larger audience but one that may oversimplify the urgency of her story within a larger context.

After thinking about this for a while I've come to the conclusion that the parts of this novel that irk me are, in fact, my own problem. My preference is for books that present a very intricate and very complicated portrait of the main character. In certain ways, The Book of Negros is so heavy with subject matter, it makes perfect sense for the novel to be intensely readable and pull the reader into the story. If made too complicated, it could very well turn off readers and dissuade them from engaging with this subject. The perfect showcase for this novel would be in a Grade 10 English classroom. It deserves to be an integral part of Canada's national consciousness and it is important for kids to have a gateway into difficult subjects with books that both address difficult issues and present them in a digestible way.

Just keep in mind that as you read The Book of Negros, it will have your heart safely kept in check.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady is the literary equivalent of watching your kid win gold at the Olympics.

I received Lynn Coady's third novel, Mean Boy, as a Christmas gift about four or five years ago and I let it sit on the shelf until well after New Year's Day. The fact that it was written by someone I had never heard of before was only one of the reasons why I let it linger for so long. When my parents buy me books, unless I instructed them on the correct ones to buy, I hesitate. Or at least, I used to. But Lynn Coady single-handedly made my father's book-buying choices credible. I couldn't put Mean Boy down. One time on the bus, I looked up from the book and realized I was in Burnaby. I simply took it as a sign and skipped work that day. Mean Boy was the gate-way book, and soon I was addicted to Coady. (That sounds like slang for Codeine! Interesting!)

Can you imagine my reaction when I heard she was putting out another novel? You don't have to, it went like this:

Mom: What?
Me: Oooooo Oooooo Oooooo!
Mom: What's the matter with you?
Mom: Would you get that out of my face?

This went on for several more minutes, much to my mother's annoyance. When my Mom is annoyed, she knits her brow AND bulges out her eyes. That's hard to do!

The book is an nouveau-epistolary novel; instead of written letters, it's emails. The novel begins with Rank, the skull-smashing, alcohol-swilling, bruiser-of-a-bastard protagonist, reaming out some guy named Adam over email. It takes a while before the back story comes to light and we discover that Adam has gained moderate notoriety by writing a book that exposes Rank's life as a veritable tossed-salad of questionable wrong-doings. To put it simply, Rank is somewhat miffed with the portrait Adam has painted of him and he alerts Adam to this fact. Put simply. But in true Coady style, the simplicity of the idea is put to sleep, disemboweled and left in a big mess on the operating table.

Initially, I was a little disappointed that the novel took an epistolary format. Lynn Coady is one of the best writers of dialogue I've ever read and I was worried this style would not showcase her best assets. By referring to events in the past, and often transporting the reader back to these events with tense changes and flashbacks, the dialogue makes an appearance and lives up to the traditional Coady standards. Her male characters in particular, have a way of turning phrases with the rough elegance of a sea mariner, and the dirty mouth to match. That's another thing: if you want to learn how to swear properly, read a Lynn Coady novel. Her characters are as comfortable using the word fuck as British people are with the word brilliant.

As the novel progresses, Rank's anger slowly changes into a more contemplative emotion, somewhere between hurt and self-justification. Rank initially struggles to tell his story in a linear way, but eventually he allows his narrative to dip in and out of the past so that he comes to craft his story in a way that serves his purpose. He tells the story of a boy so completely misunderstood by society on account of his monstrous physique that he comes to almost believe the hype himself. Rank's irrevocably fractured self-image, once a source of intense psychological dissonance, is eventually remoulded as a sort of badge of honour. The ending to the novel is one of my favourite endings of all time. So smoke that!

I feel, in an off kilter, round about way, to be somehow a part of the greatness of this novel. In the same way that a mother takes a slice of responsibility when her child stands on the podium, sings the national anthem and accepts the gold. "Yeah but I loved her from the beginning", she'll say, "I waiting up for her to come home at night and even though she never noticed, I cheered her on from the sidelines."

It's got to count for something.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt is the literary equivalent of the winner in the Miss America pageant. She deserves to win because she looks fantastic in evening wear, her smile never wavers and she cares about shut-ins, but it's all just a little too much sugar. I like a little wrong with my right. I like the literary equivalent of Miss Canada, peeking her head out and awkwardly waving from behind the curtain.

I have to admit, this book is very hard to review. All I can really think to say was good. This isn't meant as a backhanded compliment in the least, good is good. Good is solid, good is satisfying, good is good. I'm not surprised that it's been nominated for awards. But good isn't the type of thing that makes you want to get up and run around the park or tongue kiss the person sitting next to you. DeWitt makes all the right editorial choices and while the plot is definitely not sugar-coated or safe (i.e. Tub the horse's eyeball extraction with a spoon), something about the entirety of the book was just so...perfect. Everything from the cover design to the fully realized characters to the pacing and tension was an out-of-the-park home run. But if every hit is a home run, the magic can start to wane. Ultimately, this book was just a little too fantastic and therefore, there isn't much to discuss.

On the cover of the book, there is a quote by Gil Adamson that cites The Sisters Brothers as "A bright, brutal revision of the Western." Even though terms like revision can easily be lumped in with other useless terms used in book reviews (my personal least favourite being tour de force), Adamson offers the best explanation of what this novel does. The Sisters Brothers is undoubtedly Western in its motifs, but the focus of the story weighs heavily on the fraternal tension between Eli and Charlie and how their personalities, Charlie's cool insouciance and Eli's soft-heartedness, both complement and segregate them from one another.

So going back to my earlier comment of "there isn't much to discuss". So yeah. It was really, really good.

P.S. What does tour de force mean anyway? Whatever it means, I'm sure The Sisters Brothers is one.

P.P.S. I'm sorry, this was a dreadful review. It's very hard to review something you thought was great and didn't need to change in anyway. Am I right?

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Rain Ascends by Joy Kogawa

The Rain Ascends by Joy Kogawa is the literary equivalent of trying to get a straight answer from a witch doctor.

If you've read the About Me page on my blog, you'll know that I expressed concern about only reviewing books I was inclined to enjoy. Well, I guess I didn't need worry. I did not enjoy this book at all but I read it all the way through. In past years I would have quickly deemed it "not to my taste" and tossed it aside. But I slogged through The Rain Acsends because I want to discuss what I hate and why just as much as what I love.

First of all, I have to acknowledge that this book deals with some heavy subject matter: pedophilia, abortion, incest. I feel that there is a general tendency to favour books that engage difficult and sometimes taboo subjects, even when quality is distinctly lacking. Subjects that are "safe" are deemed wimpy and scorned outright, especially by literary fiction readers. These are the sorts of people that when you say, "This book deals with pedophilia in the Church", they will bob their heads in unison, glass of Pinot Nior in hand, and reply in a knowing voice, "Hmmmm, yes, yes, quite." To be honest, I'm probably one these drones myself. What I don't agree with, however, is the automatic brownie points authors get for simply using these topics. Just because someone writes about abortion doesn't mean that it will be a courageous masterpiece by default. And moreover, if they do choose to write about abortion, they better bring their A game. Treacherous subjects require skillful footing and, in my opinion, Kogawa traverses the slippery terrain like an oiled hippo, falling deeper and deeper into gaudy sentiment.

Millicent, the main character, doesn't know her father, a high-ranking clergyman of the Church of England, used to molest young boys. Told in Millicent's voice, the narrative structure is fractured as Kogawa moves the reader through different time periods and Millicent's different states of understanding. Millicent's sister in law, Eleanor, is the main vehicle for justice in the novel and the book begins with Eleanor reprimanding Millicent for not confronting her father about his indecency. This carries on FOR THE WHOLE BOOK and Millicent weakly buckles under Eleanor's screechingly moralistic presence again and again. She often speaks indirectly to Eleanor and also to a multitude of spirits, goddesses and entities. Millicent seems to spend more time talking to questionable beings from an alternate universe, or to someone when they aren't there, than she does talking to real people.

This brings me to another point: sop. The sheer soppiness of this novel is my number one annoyance. But I can go further.

I used to go to Church every Sunday with my friend's family when I was about 9. My sole reason for attending was to hustle the Church out of their supply of Scotch Mints. I can remember the day when I actually began to listen to what the Minister was saying and I remember getting very angry. I felt as if I were being told what to do and yet, I didn't understand what was being asked of me. Only as I've gotten older have I begun to realize why I felt such a strong reaction; it was the language. Everything seemed to be a metaphor for something else and it was impossible for me to come to any logical conclusions. Kogawa's writing, intentionally perhaps, reads like a sermon. The Rain Ascends is so mired in metaphor, the true gravity of the situation is unable to surface. The plot is not the issue; in fact, I find the idea to be compelling. But Kogawa obscures the plot line with such unnecessary imagery and language that I would go so far to say that it felt like her writing insulted the complexity and gravity of child abuse by subjecting it to a world of metaphor and deferred meaning. Here, Millicent rhetorically addresses her father, denouncing him for his misdeeds:
You took the pastel shadings of their dreams and splashed crimson and dung across the canvas of their innocent days. You swooped upon the sheltered nests of infant birds, their beaks open, their heads awkwardly angled upwards in a trust as large as the sky. With your unseeing hunger, you plucked the trust from their upturned faces and fed yourself till you could eat no more.
There is nothing to hold on to here, everything is a signifier of something else. I won't ever be able to get behind this type of language, especially when it's used to describe horrific situations. In the book, 300 children were raped by Millicent's father and Kogawa chooses to spend her time talking about the Goddess of Mercy, the Maker of Hope, the great Shadow Boxer and the Father of Lies. What does this mean? Who are these people? It's like asking for a glass of wine at a restaurant and the waiter reciting a lengthy poem about the Goddess of the Grape instead. Except, we are talking about child molestation, which changes this scenario from confusing to enraging.

I am not a religious person and I'm sure my reading of this book would have been drastically different if I were. I also know that Kogawa is undoubtedly skilled at her craft. But I would suggest that true discussion can only begin when truth is confronted, not obscured.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

This Week's Highlights

Blue Jays vs. Yankees: Best seats in the house

The "beach" in Etobicoke: Not really a beach

Bata Shoe Museum: If only these were for real...

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Dangers of Loving Books Too Much

Sometimes, reading can be the literary equivalent of a torrid summer time love affair. Sometimes, you can't get enough. You stay up into the darkest hours of the night, fawning over one another, face to face, revealing yourself, your heart. Your world becomes tinted with the colours of the book and you begin to pull away from the realities of your life to sneak back under the covers with your beloved. You feel like a poet's lover, an artist's mistress, a genius' paramour. You live and die for each other.

And then sometimes, you'd just rather sit in a chair and stare at the damn wall! I'm trying to understand this. Occasionally, I feel shame because as a English Literature Major, I should have a swingin' love life when it comes to books. I should be devouring books like Mae West devoured men. I should be putting out a sign that says Open for Business, totally indiscriminate about what I read and what proverbial diseases I walk away with after the affairs have cooled. But sometimes picking up a book feels like too much of a gamble and my heart cries out, "Don't do it, it'll just end up hurting you!"

And maybe I'm misguided in thinking that it's the bad books that have the ability to emotionally hurt you. You read a bad book, you just put it down and start a new one. All you stand to lose is your time. Maybe it's the books that skillfully give voice to the parts of yourself that you thought to be speechless which have such high potential for emotional vulnerability. What you stand to lose here, is yourself. Books that are emotional excavators are the ones that we claim to be the most worthwhile and the most dangerous.

Wait. This means I'm scared of reading good books?

A couple years ago I was waiting to get the go-ahead for some crazy sinus surgery that couldn't come fast enough. My plan was to have the surgery, recover, then zip off to Asia for the trip of a lifetime. I had plans to meet up with a few friends but the majority of the trip was going to be solo. But as departure day got closer and closer I became more and more anxious and upset. It wasn't because I was scared to go, it was because I was scared to come back. I was scared that I would be so changed as a person when I came back, the life I was living before I left wouldn't match who I would be. I thought that this trip would change me so much, that my world would be in such disconnect, I'd be forced to become someone else. Most people get anxious about getting robbed in the back alleys of Bangkok or missing their train in Japan. I was worried that I would lose myself. It's the same worry that I have when I pick up a book. At the outset, you don't know what will become of yourself as you read and long after you set the book down. Reading is dangerous and wonderful and the most dangerous writing is often the most wonderful.

This whole post has been a round about way of explaining why I don't have another book review yet. But I will soon. I am deciding between The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud or The Rain Ascends by Joy Kogawa. Both books threaten to lure me in under the covers, whisper to me that I'm the only one, and then tie me up in a burlap sack and boot me head first out of the passenger door. Oh well. I've chosen this life and all I can really do is tuck and roll.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What's that? I couldn't hear you over my autographed book...

I tapped her on the shoulder and burbled something about signing my book, as I struggled to free it from my bag. She asked my name and I guess I said Caroline. Her friend complimented me on my toenail polish, to which I replied "Yeeeaaaahhhhh" and wiggled my foot at him. Then she said "Bye Caroline!" and I just stood there, my mouth opening and closing like a guppy, as she shimmered into the night.

cake is for ME!