Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cozied up with a steaming mug of “The Orenda” by Joseph Boyden

OrendaphotoeditI have been wanting to read Joseph Boyden’s new book since I heard all the buzz about its release last fall. Its place on the Canada Reads 2014 list gave me another good reason to buy it.

This book is from the perspective of three people and each chapter switches perspectives. The novel begins with the capture of Snow Falls (an Iroquois girl) and Father Christopher (a French Jesuit) by Bird, a respected Huron hunter and warrior. The novel explores the relationship of these three as Bird tries to adopt Snow Falls as his daughter and assimilate her into the Huron tribe, and the Crow (as he is referred to by the Huron) tries to convert the sauvages. With the introduction of these two people into the community, Bird sets into motion a series of events which jeopardizes his people’s existence. The bad blood between the Iroquois and the Huron deepen, and the presence of the Iron People (the French settlers) bring war, sickness, and a threat to the Aboriginal way of life.

This book felt like a warm cup of coffee on a cold day; so good I just kept my hands wrapped around it taking little sips and enjoying the full flavour it offered. I have been busy so I had to make do with enjoy little bits of this novel at intervals throughout the week; but each time I sat down, I was swept up into the incredible story and world that Boyden creates. It truly is a powerful tale of love and hate, and an exploration of a historical collision of cultures.

What I appreciated most was how Boyden approached the cultures and the historical situation. We all know how the story ends: the Aboriginal cultures are slowly wiped out by disease, war, and cultural dictatorship of the French and the British. And yet when Boyden describes what Father Christopher brings to the Huron villages and we see the historical disintegration begin, there is no blame placed. There is a definite sense of sadness as he describes the desolation of a nation, but he simply describes it. No blame. No anger. He lets the Crow vocalize his thoughts and his intentions (no matter how misguided or destructive I judge them to be) without putting any negative tone or judgement wording on them.

Boyden allows the same freedom of expression and explanation to Bird and Snow Falls. For example, when Boyden details the tortures that the Aboriginal tribes use on their captives (something I found difficult to read and I hear Boyden say was difficult to research and write), Bird (and even the Crow) explains the cultural reasons for these actions. These cultural idioms are explained not just left for us to associate as simply a savage way.

This respect shown to the stories of the French Jesuit and the Huron people took the focus off the blame game in this tragedy, and placed the focus on the people. I felt like I was connecting with both cultures and understanding their journey while deeply lamenting the destination. This book is full of beautiful stories about people, their capacity as communities and a celebration of their beliefs. And even with the sadness that permeates this ending, I left feeling respect for Bird, Snow Falls and Father Christopher, and hope that even with a disastrous ending, a life-filled future is still possible.

5/5 bacon strips

(I plan on re-reading “Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood and “Half-Blood Blues” by Esi Edugan in preparation for the Canada Reads 2014 debate on March 3-6 2014. I will then put forward my recommendation what Canada should read; which book I think has the capacity to change our nation. Just in case anyone wants to know.)

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The sour milk taste of “Cockroach” by Rawi Hage

hageeditEven Canada Reads 2014 admits that this book does not seem to fit well into the theme “One Novel to Change our Nation”. The title is a little squeemish and stacked up against major bestsellers like “MaddAddam”, “Half-Blood Blues”, and “The Orenda”, “Cockroach” seems the oddball out. But I was determined to read all of the Canada Reads books and managed to find this one at my local used bookstore. In an article with CBC Books on December 12, Samantha Bee, the defender of this book for Canada Reads, insists this book “lifts the veil” to reveal that there are more to people than what we see on the surface and by changing one person’s perception we can change a nation. She also emphasizes that the story is “beautiful written”.

Wow, were these statements misleading.

Yes, the book does lift the veil and show that people are not what they seem on the surface. The narrator at first appears as a depressed, lonely, and poor immigrant who is trying to survive in the cold Toronto landscape. But he is quickly unveiled to be literally insane when he begins hallucinating conversations with an albino cockroach, experiences distorted fantasies with women, and displays a disturbing trend of breaking into acquaintances’ homes and stealing items. So, if this unveiling of the person is supposed to change my perception and in turn the nation, it reveals that I need to be more cautious about who I let in my life because he could turn out to be some crazy man who thinks he is part cockroach and steals my slippers. Not really sure if that is the national change that Canada should be looking for from a book.

I would be more forgiving of the story if I got what the whole point of it is. Is it to show us the difficulties of new immigrants? Is it to give us a picture of insanity? I simply felt caught up in this monotonous pointless circle of events and disturbing thoughts. And then suddenly there is murder and the book just ends! I literally threw the book onto the couch and swore loudly. It was the final straw in a book that I felt strung me along thinking I was going to get a story and instead it was just a mess of jumbled thoughts and actions to no purpose and no resolution.

Unfortunately, I also did not experience the beautiful written word that I was promised by Ms. Bee. Hage relies on endless amounts of similes to express a situation instead of utilizing creative skills to paint a picture or common sense to say I think I’ve described this enough. Here is a representative sentence: “Are you a relative of Shohreh’s? I asked, blowing breath onto my fingers like a cold God creating the world, rubbing my hands like a happy thief, sticking my neck into my shoulders like a turtle, sniffing like a junkie, shivering like a ghost, inquiring like a Spanish inquisitor dreaming of a flamenco dancer to warm my heart” (p 145). Six similes in one sentence!!

There were some redeeming sentences and I did find myself about 3/4 of the way through realizing that I did want to find out how this character’s story progressed (although I am still seriously pissed off with the ending). To continue the simile obsession, this book was like sour milk. You know when you pull the bag out of the fridge wondering if it has gone bad. You do the sniff test but you’re still unsure, so you pour a little bit in a glass. You see no chunks in the bag when you pour, so you know it isn’t really bad. You take a tentative sip from the glass and it seems okay, not fresh but not really sour. You optimistically pour a huge glass and take a swig after eating an Oreo. And then you realize as your mouth is flooded with the gagging sourness that the milk is bad, and you run to the sink to spit it out. That experience of sour milk pretty well describes my experience with this book. I needed to try it out just to be sure it wasn’t good but I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth and won’t be trying it again.

Good luck, Cockroach, in Canada Reads 2014 but I think it is fair to say you will end up down the drain.

1/5 bacon strips

Munching on thoughts about “Annabel”

kathleen winter editSo I was at my local Chapters drooling over my books when my husband finally insisted “just buy one then already!” The Canada Reads 2014 list had just come out and I headed over to the display rack containing the books. I picked up “Annabel” by Kathleen Winter and commented to him, “I have been looking at buying this book for awhile now. The cover looks so familiar to me.” I arrived home and went to place the book in its W place on my bookshelf when I discovered a copy of the book already sitting there. I began laughing as I remembered picking out that book from a stack of potentials at my trip to The Book Vault in Stratford that summer. No wonder the cover looked familiar to me!

Well, my fascination with this book was well founded and I applaud Canada Reads for having this book in their selection this year. The book was exquisitely written with beautiful portrayals of complex characters and descriptions of the Labrador landscape. “Annabel” is about a child born as a hermaphrodite in a small town in Labrador in the 1960s. This book explores how the parents’ decision to chose the gender of the child, who they name Wayne, affects his identity. And yet despite the obvious physical anatomy and the cultural expectations for him to be a boy,  there are parts of himself he thinks of as “Annabel” and a yearning towards the feminine that remains despite the forced gender selection by his parents and the doctors.

Balance is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think of how Winter writes this story. She balances the complexity of Wayne’s inner and outer gender characteristics while also not overdramatizing so he no longer fits into the normal landscape of his Labrador society. Most of his gender complexities remain a private ground for him and she describes these complexities so well that you feel like you understand Wayne and Annabel. And when adult Wayne does explore his gender confusion outwardly, Winter does not shy from the reality of reactions to this man/woman duality including a heartbreaking humiliation perpetuated by cruel teens on Wayne. She writes this struggle of identity in a very real world setting.

Winter also balances the inner battle of the parents about their child’s identity while maintaining a level of family calm. Yes, there are family issues but they don’t seem that different from the struggles that parents face as they raise a family. Winter also highlights their own strange idiosyncrasies: Jacinta’s habits that cause her to descend into a period of madness and Treadstone’s choice of nature over people to the point where he is getting guidance from owls instead of his wife. However, even this strangeness is counterbalanced when Winter reflects on how the townspeople continue to paint Jacinta and Treadstone as normal Labrador folk. I think this exploration shows that the “abnormal” (like hermaphrodites) are not so different from the “normal” we uphold in our society.

This book outlines the dichotomy of how in a society where things are starkly black and white, the grey situations still survive and remain within it. And when these grey situations come to light, Winter doesn’t try to separate them and wrap them up neatly. Although Jacinta and Treadstone seem to find some sense of peace in their own lives and with their child’s identity, there is still a sense of incompletion because it is one of the few points in the book where we don’t get to see how their inner thoughts brought them to that point. Jacinta’s thoughts get subdued in her depression and Treadstone’s musings are lost in the wilderness. Most of all, Wayne finds a place where he can be dual-gendered; Winter doesn’t force him to be less complex and choose. I like the sense of ambiguity that Winter ends her story with and the fact that we don’t need to know if Wayne is acting, dressing, or functioning as a man or a woman. He is simply Wayne and Annabel, with all that encompasses, who manages to find people and a place who accept him as she is. Excellent read that provoked a lot of thought and told beautiful journeys.

5/5 bacon strips (yep, it was that good!)