Friday, September 2, 2011

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge Review #5: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

I remember that when this book came out a little while ago, there was a whole lot of fuss. On one hand, I heard some readers raving about how incredible it was. On the other hand, I heard about the controversy surrounding the author's use of a real individual's story. Either way, it seemed that plenty of people had plenty to say about it.

I, too, have a lot that I could say about it, but alas, I'm afraid that if I were to share all of my thoughts on this book, I would hurt the author's feelings too much - because the truth is, I couldn't get myself too excited about it as I read it. I found it rather repetitive, and the parts involving the sniper woman, Arrow - whom I initially really liked - reminded me of that movie with George Clooney in it called The American. In that movie, there is way too much time spent discussing guns - how to build them, how to select targets, how to shoot with them, etc. I think the same could be said about Arrow's chapters in this book, with very little actually spent on character development. Furthermore, I like the characters in the books I read to learn something - it doesn't have to be grand or beautiful or even politically correct; it just has to be something. By the end of the book - with the possible exception of Arrow - I'm not sure that they have.

Maybe I wasn't reading into this deeply enough. Maybe the occasional repetition of descriptions and even whole paragraphs was meant to symbolize the monotonous repetition of destruction in daily life. However, even amidst this kind of ugliness and brutality, I look for a writer - not just a character - to make something beautiful out of the situation and setting.

Let's face it - Sarajevo in the early 1990s was not a pleasant place to be. I'm not disputing that for even one second. I just hope that sometime in the future, it is handled more effectively.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge Review #4: Unless by Carol Shields

I must admit that after I read this book, I was very disappointed that it wasn't more widely embraced during Canada Reads 2011, especially since Carol Shields's work has become so respected both at home and abroad. I suspect that one of the reasons that Unless didn't win was because it tackles questions that make us very uncomfortable. What is goodness? What does it mean to be a good person? Is it even possible to be a good person in a very unequal world? And, perhaps the least appealing question of all - is feminism's work really done?

Most people nowadays hear the word feminism and groan. I've heard it associated with every radical trick in the book, from bra burning to political lesbianism to the use of animal hosts for pregnancies - none of which, in my view, are worthwhile. I think it's important to acknowledge that women, at least in North America, have made enormous gains in the past century or so. It's awfully nice to have things like the vote, pay equity, maternity leave, and independent bank accounts. Nevertheless, women still have a way to go; after all, we still make up a minority of authority figures and decision-makers in society. Men still hold most positions of power, and Carol Shields argues, in Unless, that this, among other things, limits the amount of goodness that can exist in the world.

There are tons of other things that Shields has to say about goodness, a key theme in the novel. Needless to say, it's a very challenging theme to take on, because everybody has something to say about it, and most of our individual answers vary widely. Nevertheless, in this book, Shields is reminding us that it's important to have these conversations about goodness - not just regarding its relationship to gender, but also to class, political affiliations, and even literature, since all of these things can be strongly impacted by power dynamics. I thought that her use of a writer as a protagonist was particularly effective in making this clear. However, what I believe to be the most profound thing about this book - and I hope you read it, if you haven't already - is that you will be wondering about the nature of truth itself. I believe that you will never think of literature, power, or goodness in the same way again.

Monday, July 25, 2011

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge Review #3: The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy

By reading The Jade Peony, I realized that Wayson Choy and I have something in common: We both believe that family is about people who love you. Hopefully, this love is provided to us by our relatives, but if not, then we must go looking for it elsewhere. In various ways, that is exactly what each of the three children in this novel - Sook-Liang, Jung-Sum, and Sek-Lung - must do, in the politically and socially uncertain setting of Chinatown during the 30's and 40's. These children may live in the same home, but the families they form are very different. Sook-Liang must look outside her home for an ally - which comes in the form of the elderly and friendly Wong Suk - because of the neglect that she faces as a girl, Jung-Sum must adapt to life as an adopted child after the suspicious deaths of his parents, and Sek-Lung must turn chiefly to his paternal grandmother for support after his mother shuns him for, in her words, "having no brain." Love isn't completely absent from their home, of course, but it is overshadowed by questions of identity and loyalty that have no easy answers. Sometimes these questions take amusing turns, like Sek-Lung's extensive discussion of how and why Chinese forms of address drive him crazy. Others, such as one young Chinese-Canadian woman's secret romance with a young Japanese-Canadian man in the wake of Pearl Harbor, are much darker, and force readers to recall the limitations and inner turmoil that many people have historically faced - and still do face - when it comes to love.

This book serves as an important reminder for each and every one of us. The family that you are born into is not the only one that matters; the family that you build is just as important. This lesson is what made Wayson Choy's approach to a favourite genre of mine - the family saga - so captivating.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge Review #2: Fugitives by Suzanne Jacob

If you don't know Suzanne Jacob, she's a Montreal writer who has won the Governor General's Award not once, but twice (although not for this novel). Furthermore, Sheila Fischmann, who translated this novel out of French, has done some fabulous translations before, most notably (in my view) for Roch Carrier. Those facts combined with my partiality for family sagas, and that's how I decided to give this novel a shot.

I am new to Suzanne Jacob, but I adore her writing style; to me, it bears strong resemblances to Virginia Woolf, gracefully moving in and out of the characters' thoughts. Both of these writers are also concerned about the events that define women's lives. In Fugitives, we meet four generations of women from the same family - from oldest to youngest, we have Blanche, Fabienne, Fabienne's daughters Émilie and Stéphanie, and finally the great-granddaughters, Alexa and Nathe. All of these women have been scarred by traumas that reveal frightening gender-linked inequalities, such as adultery, rape, and physical and sexual abuse, although because they are at different stages in life, their ability to understand these traumas varies widely. I'm quite used to reading about very serious subjects like this, although I definitely would not recommend it for people who aren't ready and willing to deal with them.

The only problem that I have with this book is that, at times, the novel seems to overdo the family's experiences in ways that aren't altogether realistic. I can't help but wonder how realistic it is to contain all of the above-mentioned tragedies, coupled with some other surprising discoveries, within this one family, but perhaps that's because, thankfully, my family isn't at all similar to the one in this novel. Nevertheless, there were a number of reasons why I kept reading this book. One, as I have said, is my love of Suzanne Jacob's writing style. Another is the fact that this novel is coming out of Québec, which likes to pride itself on gender equality, with its great child care services and high representation of women in government. However you or I feel about the plausibility of the "density" of events in this novel, the problems that the novel's female characters face are part of reality - even in the legally and socially liberal place in which we live.

Despite her heavy subject matter, I look forward to reading more work by Suzanne Jacob whenever I get the chance.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Japanese Literature Challenge 5 Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

This book revolves around losses - some self-imposed ones and some beyond human control. One of the first losses of the book was a self-imposed one that drove me a little crazy, up until the final page: the main character, Toru Okada, quit his job. I understand that without this decision, barely any of the book's action would have taken place, but at some points, when his imagination is taking him to brutal and dangerous places, I simply wanted to scream at him to get out of the house and get a job already.

The next loss was definitely one beyond his control, and was the one which I found the most fascinating: that of his wife's cat, who mysteriously disappears. This, as an animal lover, was what initially drew me to the book. Once this conflict was resolved, however, the lines between fantasy and reality became ever more blurred, so much so that I could barely keep track of which was which. Toru's experiences are definitely a testament to the power of the human imagination, but this power, Haruki Murakami seems to be warning us, doesn't always take us to the places that we would like it to. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but wonder at some points: Would this be happening to Mr. Okada if he just went out and got a job?

I'm not saying that a boring job is necessarily a good idea. However, something has always irked me about characters (and real-life people, too) that lack any kind of ambition. For this reason, I found myself rooting for secondary characters - such as the witty, sarcastic May Kasahara - instead. If Mr. Okada's life were in the hands of someone less skilled than Murakami, I would have only gotten frustrated and thoroughly confused. However, because this was a Murakami novel, I can say, despite my own personal biases, that is one of the strangest yet most beautiful books that I have ever read.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge Review #1: Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

I've sorely neglected Canadian literature in the past, and ever since I stumbled across this reading challenge (not too long ago), I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to read the unopened Canadian books on my shelves. To start off, I picked up a book - Divisadero - by a very talented writer that I know I ought to pay more attention to: Michael Ondaatje. As the winner of the 2007 Governor General's Literary Awards, I thought that this would be an excellent way to begin catching up on my Canadian reading.

I could go on and on about what I found interesting in the plot, setting, etc., because on those kinds of scores, there are plenty of things I could say in the book's favour. However, what I found most interesting was actually a quote that Ondaatje includes twice: once on the first page, and once a few pages away from the end. It is from Friedrich Nietzsche, and it reads, "We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth." Indeed, the truth threatens to destroy the lives of many of the novel's characters. It is a constant reminder of their shortcomings and their mistakes; their personal truths are things to be escaped, not embraced. The best-adjusted character in the novel - in the spirit of the Nietzsche quote - is the writer Lucien Segura, whose story takes up most of the third part of the novel (it is written in 3 parts). His complicated attraction to the married woman living next door, while trying to maintain good relations with her husband, is a force that does not destroy him, because by the end of the novel, it becomes the source of some of his most brilliant work. By contrast, the three main characters of the first half of the novel - Anna, Claire, and Coop - are transient, eager to escape their own pasts in whatever ways they can. However, I don't think that any of them ever fully come to terms with the tragic event that shattered their youth (I won't give it away in case you haven't read the book). Because they are not artists, they cannot manipulate the past events of their lives in ways that make sense to them.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; it was an excellent way to begin my return to the wonderful world of Canadian books.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In the beginning...

No, I don't mean to make fun of that very well-known story. I just think it's a fitting title for my first blog post!

First and foremost, you should know that I am a huge reader, which is mostly why I created this blog: to talk about books. So, you can expect to find my views on plenty of them - especially Canadian books, which I am trying to read in greater numbers. Of course, if you either love or vehemently disagree with what I say (or anything in between!), please tell me! I adore literary conversations; just hearing my own virtual voice can get pretty boring, after all :)