Monthly Archives: February 2014

The omelet has set: My choice for winner of Canada Reads 2014

It has been awhile since time has allowed me to be as engulfed in the Canada Reads process as I have been this year. I have read the 5 books, listened to the interviews of the authors with Shelagh Rogers, and participated in some of the Twitter discussions. Canada Reads has even made trailers for each of the books, which I found fascinating to see how they summarize these narratives. Check them out here: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2014/02/watch-canada-reads-book-trailers.html

And I am ready to announce my opinion on who should be the winner of Canada Reads 2014 (just in case anyone is interested). But first I want to address why I think Canada Reads is important. Canada Reads creates discussion about books, but its themes, like this year’s question “One Novel to Change Our Nation”, opens up conversations about the issues raised by these books. In Rawi Hage’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter in early February, he revealed that he thought this question was “the silliest question and I protested against it. I don’t think one book can save a nation”. I agree with the sentiment that it is silly to think one book can save a nation, but (sorry to disagree with you yet again, Rawi) I think the conversations that one book generates can change the perspective of people throughout Canada. And I think that is where the power of Canada Reads and the question of “what book can change our nation” becomes simply more than another literary marketing tool. Because of these books, we have people discussing issues like gender identity, Aboriginal social justice, environmental sustainability, immigration, and racism. Hopefully, these books will make us look differently at an issue because of the way the characters humanize that issue. And hopefully, the conversations raised by Canada Reads will cause people to talk about these issues differently and change their actions and attitudes regarding them. For example, I did not personally enjoy Rawi Hage’s book “Cockroach” but I appreciated the Twitter discussion from a few weeks ago. People’s comments made me look at his book differently by appreciating his character’s narrative more and seeing a point for the narrative. I realized that it wasn’t just a book from a crazy man’s perspective but also a story of a new immigrant in darkness slipping through the cracks in a country that promised him more. These discussions made me look at the book differently but also made me think about the experiences that an immigrant faces in Canada.

And yet despite all the great discussions, beautiful writing, creative plot points, and the issues brought up by these novels, only one book can be chosen as Canada Reads 2014. And my choice for the one novel Canada should read to change our nation is…….”The Orenda” by Joseph Boyden!

I found Boyden’s storytelling of the First Nations and Canadian colonizers refreshing. He presented a gentle perspective that I have not read before even in such a well-known history lesson, and he created a new balance in a conflict that we are still trying to resolve today. And this balancing perspective is why Canada should read this book and why it may have the capacity to change our nation. The book revisits the old hurts that are still trying to heal; not to make us see the wounds or emphasize the pain they have caused, but to make us see the need to hear each other, legitimize our stories, make amends, and move forward together.

Even if Boyden’s book does not win, it has changed me. It has reminded me to listen not to judge, to validate the stories of others instead of trying to assert my own, and to reach out in friendship instead of making enemies.

Let the debates begin!

(Debates take place from March 3-6 on CBC Radio, CBC-TV, and stream online through CBC Books http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2013/11/meet-the-canada-reads-2014-contenders.html)

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Reading “Half Blood Blues” by Esi Edugyan and dreaming of warm croissants

halfbloodblueseditI read “Half-Blood Blues” about a year ago and recalled enjoying it then. So I was only too happy to hear it was nominated as a Canada Reads 2014 book since it was another excuse to read it again. The scenes set in Paris made me even more excited for my upcoming trip to the city of love, and made me dream of cafe au lait and warm croissants in cafes as described in the book. “Half Blood Blues” is from the point of view of Sid, an American bass jazz player who was in Europe at the beginning of WW2. He returns to Germany decades later for a festival in honour of his deceased bandmate, Hiero; and discovers from his old friend, Chip, that Hiero is alive in Poland. This discovery leads Sid to reminisce on his days as a bass player in Europe, and his guilt in Hiero’s arrest and internment at a concentration camp.

This book delves deep into complicated characters and delicately weaves the stories of war, jazz, race, and love into a stunning narrative. I was surprised to hear Esi Edugyan on The Next Chapter saying she does not play an instrument and has little knowledge of music. She describes the feel of music so amazingly that it seems that music must run through her every vein in order for her to understand the movement of jazz so completely. For example, when Armstrong begins playing his trumpet, she writes: “he just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride” (p.231). For a music lover like me, I felt the jazz descriptions tug on my heart strings.

And then wrapped up in all this music and jazz slang speak is the very heavy reality of war and the racist rhetoric of Germany sweeping throughout Europe. The pain of knowing from the beginning of the book that Hiero is arrested right in front of Sid because he is a black German denied citizenship due to his racial ancestry. This scene scratches at the surface revealing all of the undercurrent issues of race during that era. For example, Sid himself is black but so light-skinned that he can get by as white. He left America because of the segregation of blacks from society and ended up a few years later in a country with even worse racial limits, where he watches Hiero, his friend and rival and bandmate, get arrested for being black.

This book is wonderfully written, and even though I wish Esi had explored the final scene between Hiero and Sid a bit more, I like that she left the book with the tinge of forgiveness and renewed friendship. Definitely read this book!

5/5 bacon strips

Reading “Wake” by Anna Hope is like eating Cheerios from the box

wakeeditSo I spent most of my weekend lying on the couch feeling sick, and when I woke up Monday morning feeling the same, I stayed home from work. I curled up in blankets on my beautiful Papasan chair, letting my aching body soak in the sunlight, drinking lots of water, and cracking open “Wake” by Anna Hope. It was the day of rest and reading that my body and soul needed. And Anna Hope’s book was just the one to make me feel like I was coming back to life. This book was excellent! I opened it expecting to read for an hour or so and then settle in front of the TV like I usually do when I sick. But every time I put down the book, I found myself coming back to it a few minutes later and reading it for another couple of hours. It was like an open box of Cheerios: if I don’t put it in a bowl, my hand keeps dipping inside for more  goodness until I realize I have eaten the entire box! And somehow, I ended up reading the entire “Wake” novel on Monday!

The book documents the lives of three women in London in 1920 and the effect the war has had on their lives. Hettie is a dance instructor at the Palais, too young to have really experienced the war but still feeling the after-war itch for something exciting, something life-changing to start. Evelyn struggles through the bitter sadness of life after her man is killed and she tries to find her place in this post-war world. It has been three years since Ada received notice of her son’s death on the front, yet a visit from a soldier shows her that she has not really let her son go. And weaved through all of this, in italics, every few pages is the story of the Burial of the Unknown Warrior for the Remembrance Day ceremony in London.

This italicized burial story is one of the brilliant facets of this novel. Through this narrative, Hope shows that it is not just these three women but an entire nation that is struggling with the effects of war and finding ways to move forward. I think it would have been helpful to have something as identifiable as a change in font to indicate the change in protagonist for the women’s stories as well. I found myself a little unsure for the first couple sentences of a new section which woman’s story was featured. Perhaps the woman’s name just above the section would have helped. Even with this small confusion, I still became quickly engrossed in this novel. Hope writes descriptively of the surroundings so I could really imagine the landscape, the cultural vibe, and the pulse of the people around each character. She explores each woman’s thoughts so thoroughly not shying away from their places of confusion and grief. Yet she displays they are women of survival and under the routine, all of them are longing for something more, something better in their post-war lives.

This novel is a beautiful and unflinching portrayal of the effects of war and the truths from WWI remain relevant even now. Evelyn’s brother Ed comments near the end of the novel: ” ‘And whatever anyone thinks or says, England didn’t win this war. And Germany wouldn’t have won it, either…War wins,’ he says, ‘And it keeps winning, over and over again.’ ” What a poignant reminder for us today to keep our eyes open to the great cost of battle, and to give respect to those who serve and those who are left behind in loss.

4.5/5 bacon strips

Coming back to a savoury favourite: Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy

I will admit it…I am a huge Atwood fan. So when I heard that one of her books, “The Year of the Flood” had been chosen for the Canada Reads 2014 debate, it was just another excuse to pick up the book again. I actually read this second book in the trilogy a few months ago as I was readying for the release of the third book, “MaddAddam”.  But I saw “Year of the Flood” differently this time around as I was reading it through the Canada Reads 2014 theme, a book to change the nation, instead of just reading it for pleasure. I will give my thoughts on its relation to that debate in a couple of weeks when I have finished Edugyan’s book. For now, I will give you my review of all three of the MaddAddam trilogy as I intended to do back in the fall (but fell off the blogging wagon for a bit).

yearofthefloodeditThese three novels take place in the near future where corporations have replaced governments and scientific experiments dominate the societal landscape. This worldwide dominance of corporate influence and dependence on chemical therapy make it easy for a plague, referred to as the Waterless Flood, to wipe out most of mankind. In book one, “Oryx and Crake”, we see this new world through Snowman’s eyes and receive insight into the events that led to this plague through his pre-apocalyptic identity, Jimmy. Through Jimmy’s stories centered in the Compounds, we are introduced to the Corporation world and meet Crake, his best friend and scientific mastermind, and Oryx, the woman they both love. This book sets the stage for our understanding of this futuristic world and why the plague was released upon the world hidden in a pill. In book two, “The Year of the Flood”, the story is told from the Pleeblands through Toby and Ren. The two women are connected through a green religious cult called God’s Gardeners, and their narrations explore their lives before, during and after the God’s Gardeners. We also read of their experiences in the post-pandemic world; their struggle to survive with leftover people, escaped strange animals, and an absence of societal structure. The stories of book one and book two converge together at the end, and book three “MaddAddam” picks up the converging of the narrators’ stories. The third novel, provides the background story of Adam and Zeb, central to God’s Gardeners, and delves further into the communities surviving in the post-plague world. The crisises in this novel centre on dealing with the Pigoons (pig spliced with human cells), surviving Painballers (criminals sentenced to gladiator tournaments), and guiding the Children of Crake (genetically modified humans designed by Crake to create a better world after the plague).

That is just a basic summary of what these novels are about. The long and short of this review is….read these books. They are creative, brilliantly written, heart-warming, frightening, hilarious, and action-filled. Atwood creates characters with depth whom I cared about and wanted to know more of their journeys and their struggles.

One of the things I love most about Atwood is how she takes the world we recognize and pushes it one step further to show us a possible future. We already live in a world where we are culturally dependent and governments are completely influenced by corporations. Atwood just imagines a world where what few perimeters are in place against corporations are taken away, and they openly run the world. We already live in a world where organs are being grown from human cells and chickens are genetically modified to increase meat and decrease features unnecessary for human consumption. Atwood imagines those concepts taken one step further where an organization called OrganInc Farms exists solely for growing organs and chicken breasts (known as ChickieNobs) are grown on a plant-like organism. And then Atwood thoughtfully explores what if a world like this imploded on itself, how would people who are dependent on corporations and chemicalized products survive. It is amazing how even in these dire circumstances, hope remains and people find a healthy way to interact with each other and the new world they live in. Nature begins to regain its territory and humans find a way to survive.

I could ramble on for pages about these books; I haven’t even touched on the God’s Gardeners’ hymns in “Year of the Flood” or the hilarious Children of Crake storytime in “MaddAddam” or the significance in the different chapter labeling for each book. So I encourage you to read these books and experience all of the creativity of Atwood yourself.

4.5/5 bacon strips for the whole series

(5/5 for “Oryx and Crake”, 4.5/5 for “The Year of the Flood”, 4/5 for “MaddAddam”)

The soggy scrambled eggs experience with “The Winter People”

So I joined this awesome book club with the National Post called The Afterword Reading Society. The awesome thing about it is that I get an email about their book for the week, I click on the link that I’m interested, and sometimes I get a free copy of the book to read. I do have to send back answers to some review questions, but I get to save my unbridled reviewing opinions for you beautiful people on my blog.

WinterPeoplephotoeditI received “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. I will openly admit my bias against ghost stories or anything resembling a horror book, so this book and I were bound to have a rocky relationship. But the leaf description sounded promising so I gave it a try.

This book is about West Hall, Vermont where mysterious stories centre around the Devil’s Hand behind the Shea house. The story begins in the 1900s with the horrific deaths of Sara Harrison Shea and her loved ones including her young daughter, Gertie. In the present day, Ruthie Washburne and her family live in the Shea’s old house. When the mother goes missing, Ruthie begins to discover the history and secrets that lie in the house as she looks for clues. Katherine is also searching for answers after her husband’s car crash and her discoveries lead her to the old Shea house. Ruthie and Katherine both find portions of Sara’s diary and her unbelievable secret of bringing back the dead for seven days as sleepers. Is it so unbelievable or is it the solution to the unanswered questions that plague the town’s history? And does Sara’s story connect to the disappearance of Ruthie’s mother and the death of Katherine’s husband?

The book starts off well enough with good character descriptions, and a fascinating chapter structure by year and differing first person narration. I had a sufficient amount of chills and curiosity midway through to continue reading the book, but felt slightly confused with the amount of storylines. I think that Sara’s and Ruthie’s stories were sufficient to carry the book, and Katherine (and the later introduction of Candace) add unnecessary plot chaos.

The stories were interesting and I did find myself wanting to know the answer behind Sara’s death and the fate of Ruthie’s missing mother. However, this book was plagued with the same issues I encounter in most horror or mystery stories: the ending is never as good as the mystery itself. (spoiler alert in italics) We do discover that sleepers exist and that Gertie was brought back to life by her mother, Sara. But so many aspects of this important revelation go unexplained, as if the revelation of Gertie’s sleeper existence is solution enough for the mystery. For example, why does little giggling, lonely girl ghost Gertie have violent tendencies (which appear only when convenient to the storyline such as killing the bad characters)? At the end, we are supposed to believe that Ruthie accepts that some scary creature lives in her backyard, and she is okay with giving up her dreams of escaping small town life to help protect the town, like she is suddenly some kind of Buffy-esque heroine with magical powers of controlling living dead people? Like I said…unexplained and unsatisfying ending to the mystery.

Although “The Winter People” was on its way to producing a good scrambled mystery of ghosts and murder, it wasn’t done quite right and ended up leaving a disappointing mess on my reading palate instead.

2.5/5 bacon strips

P.S. The only horror book I have found truly brilliant and horrifying (while still able to read through without crippling nightmares) is “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. Give it a try if you’re looking for a scare. I still remember stifling a scream when I read about those creepy red eyes staring out from a dark corner. *shiver* Make sure to leave the lights on!