Friday, July 29, 2016

Madeleine Thien's Masterful Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Do Not Say We Have Nothing / Madeleine Thien
Toronto: Knopf, c2016
480 p.

This is one of the best books I have read yet this year -- and apparently the Man Booker jury agrees with me, as it has just appeared on the Man Booker longlist! I am so glad it is getting wider exposure, as it is an important, disturbing story, and yet also a hopeful and beautiful one.

It follows three generations of a musical family, from their countrified past to the more international present. And in between -- lies the Cultural Revolution.

Marie lives in Vancouver with her mother. Her father Kai left them to travel to Hong Kong some years before, where he killed himself. They are bereft and uncertain about what happened or why.

Into their life comes Ai Ming, the daughter of Kai's  best friend Sparrow, a composer who never escaped China. Ai Ming has left China and needs a place to live. She comes to them briefly, and then drifts away, attempting to enter the US. Marie loses track of her, and in trying to both find her again and to find out the truth of her own father's life, the whole story unfolds before us.

It moves from present day Canada back to Sparrow's childhood, as the Maoist revolution is beginning. The horrors and betrayals of those years are clearly and chillingly told. The family uses its connections to survive, but as the revolution grows, their musical credibility turns into a liability. As musicians and professors are changed into elites who must be destroyed, this family crumbles into re-education and prisons. The role of art and beauty, books and stories recorded in beautiful calligraphy, is essential to the story and to this family's continuation. Eventually the next generation, Ai Ming's, finds a slight lessening of the political control, a crack to slip through to go to Canada. Even then the persecution is internalized; Ai Ming can't stay with Marie & her mother, or trust that she is free.

It's a powerful story. The content is striking -- with the stories twisted around one another so that they can't be separated. The contrast of love and beauty with the complete cultural destruction of China's past and history is unbelievably stark. It's terrifying, and it's brilliant. The writing is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, the story is so important. The way Thien has approached this family's story creates a narrative that makes perfect sense whether past or present. Each is told slightly differently, but cohesively. The structure of the book made it very satisfying to read, and the conclusion fit the long build up to get there. The musical content is reflected in the text, with themes recurring and overlapping, with variations to the stories from different angles; it's like a composition in itself.

I could go on about the many different characters, how they affect one another, the things they face -- but this is a long book and it would take a long time. Plus, the impact comes from just reading it and getting carried away by these stories.

I prefer to talk about my own personal reading experience when I share books here; I don't consider these posts to be "reviews". If you'd like some official reviews, try these:

A glorious review by David Hobbs at the Globe & Mail which says all I wish I could say, so well. 

Leslie Shimotakahara at the National Post reviews it as well

Isabel Hilton at the Guardian shares this book with British readers

Donna Bailey Nurse shares some thoughts and some similar reading at Macleans

As for me, I'd strongly recommend finding a copy as soon as you can, and settling in with it for a while. These characters will stay with you for a long time. Those who love beautiful, powerful writing, strong characters, and a setting that will overwhelm your senses will love this one.


Further Reading:

The memoir Wild Swans by Jung Chang also tells a story of three generations of women across 20th century China. It was an overwhelmingly successful book when it was first published, and the raw stories of the Cultural Revolution are still powerful.

For a story of unrest and change over three generations, but set in a different country dealing with repressive goverment, try Carolina de Robertis' The Invisible Mountain, a story which, as I said when I first read it, "illuminate[s] the tangled relationships between mothers and daughters, and between a country and its citizens."

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Wrinkle in Time: How Timely

So Chelsea Clinton gave a very bookish speech tonight. Very inspiring to hear her mention Pride & Prejudice & A Wrinkle in Time among others -- and to hear a shout out to libraries!

Apparently this caused these titles to trend on twitter almost immediately. I do hope it will also encourage people to read them, especially this one. A Wrinkle in Time is an exquisite read, and it is also a perfect one for right now. 

The Murry family is made up of many misfits, especially Meg, icon to smart gawky adolescent girls everywhere. They're all clever; her parents are also brilliant scientists. They are always committed to the good; to peace, to inclusivity, to understanding. And they are also under attack, via Meg's father, by an hateful overlord of another planet, Camazotz. His shtick is control of his planet through fear and hate. Meg's final freedom comes when she faces down IT on Camazotz, and defeats him.

As long as I stay angry enough IT can't get me.
Is that what I have the IT doesn't have?
"Nonsense," Charles Wallace said. "You have nothing that it doesn't have." 
"You're lying," she replied, and she felt only anger toward this boy who was not Charles Wallace at all. No, it was not anger, it was loathing; it was hatred, sheer and unadulterated, and as she became lost in hatred she also began to be lost in IT.... with the last vestige of consciousness she jerked mind and body. Hate was nothing that IT didn't have. IT knew all about hate...
....suddenly she knew.
She knew!
That was what she had that IT did not have.
She had Mrs. Whatsit's love, and her father's, and her mother's, and the real Charles Wallace's, and the twins', and Aunt Beast's.
And she had her love for them.
I believe that this message of love as the only response to hate and fear resonates now, even for those of us who aren't Americans. It's a wider message that bears repeating. And this book shares it in a beautifully accessible way. 

Time to reread it. All together now.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Mistress Pat of Silver Bush

Toronto: Seal, 1988, c1933.
278 p.

Toronto: Seal, 1988, c1935.
277 p.

The last few weeks I've been slowly rereading this duo of books by L.M. Montgomery. I recall enjoying them when I was much younger, though I didn't really grasp Pat's pathological fear of change then. This time around, while I was often impatient with the emphasis on this characteristic of Pat's, I also understood her melancholy at how fast time was passing, how quickly things changed, how time wouldn't just stand still for one minute so she could get a grasp on it.

I also knew, this time around, that L.M. Montgomery felt that Pat was most like her, of all her heroines. That she was going through some dark times as she was writing these books, and Pat's feeling of everything being cursed by being connected with her was part of Montgomery's own fear. Pat loses her friend Bets in the first book to sudden illness, and her next friend Suzanne Kirk in the second book to sudden marriage - both of these seemingly random occurrences reflect Montgomery's own sense of uncontrollable loss at this time in her life. 

Pat's resistance to change is really her most observable characteristic. And yet at the same time these books seem changeless. Pat spends 10 years doing much the same things, for the whole second book, and it's notable how often spring turns to summer turns to autumn, how frequently she is gazing at a sunset as the day ends. Every now and again there is a little bit of self-awareness, a little glimpse at her loneliness and dare we say boredom, a glimpse that she pushes away to continue on with the same routine. Her childhood friend Hilary Gordon (Jingle) is absent through most of the second book, although we all know what has to happen at the end. And unlike many other readers, I find Hilary much more appealing than Gilbert Blythe or Teddy Kent.

There are some odd elements in these stories. Pat's angelic mother, who doesn't really have a role in the book other than being invalided in her room, is largely absent as a character - Pat's true maternal figure is their Irish servant Judy Plum, who recalls other servants like Rebecca Dew from Anne of Windy Poplars, or Susan Baker from Rilla of Ingleside. Judy talks in a constant brogue (which, yes, gets a bit old quickly), and has her own particular way of saying things -- she is a "character". And yet she is the only one who truly understands Pat's sensitivity and character, and it is Judy who sets things right in the end.

Through both of these books, Pat is obsessively attached to Silver Bush, letting her connection to her home shape her life -- in the way she turns down a teaching career to stay home and run the show when her mother is invalided, in the way she rejects many suitors who would take her away from Silver Bush, in her loathing of her brother's wife who is seen as an interloper into their world. And in the end, it takes catastrophic, unavoidable change to convince her to leave PEI and admit who it is that she truly loves -- and it's not Silver Bush.


What I find most interesting in these books is the idea of tradition vs. modernism -- while Montgomery despised modernist writing & poetry, there is almost a breath of it here in Jingle's character. He loves Pat, but is also able to leave to follow his own dream of being an architect. He travels the world and takes in inspiration from other places, eventually building a house for Pat in BC. It's this sense that the world is becoming wider, and that in creating a literal firestorm at the end of this book, Montgomery isn't leaving Pat any choice; she'll have to join the modern world. Did she feel that way herself - that her past and her attachment to it couldn't be shaken loose, but that somewhere deep down, she wanted everything leveled, to be given a chance to start over? We will never know, but since she wrote these books while struggling through awful times in her life, perhaps a clean slate was a tempting idea, one that she gave Pat in the end.

Rereading these two as an older reader really gave me much more to ponder. Pat is not as fey, ambitious or clever as Anne or Emily, but there is something to her that is memorable nonetheless. And I found the domesticity in this much easier to take than in Jane of Lantern Hill, where it seems strange and overdone to me. If you've read any or all of these books, feel free to weigh in with your comments!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Umbrella Man by Peggy Blair

Umbrella Man / Peggy Blair
Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, c2016.
320 p.

Inspector Ramirez' fourth adventure is a quick and satisfying read. I've really enjoyed the first 3 books in this series, all set in Cuba and featuring a detective who can see the ghosts of the murdered victims whose deaths he's investigating.

In this volume, Russia and the US are both running secret spy manoeuvres which affect the progress of Ramirez' apparently straightforward murder case. The book opens in a James Bond-like chase through the streets of Havana, with a shocking conclusion. Ramirez is called in, and the story starts to unravel in ways he never could have predicted.

A Russian agent arrives in Cuba soon after, letting the government know that the CIA has an agent in Cuba planning to kill Raul Castro. But is that really why he is there? And just who is this CIA agent? And why are multiple airline staff turning up dead in mysterious circumstances?

Blair's mastery of intricate plotlines means that I didn't even guess at the extent of the machinations until the very end. And yet it all seemed to make sense once it was explained -- the very different storylines all connected in a great ending -- which was very cinematic in scope, and again, quite spy thillerish. 

This was a bit different from her first books, a little more action-oriented, but was plausible and very fun to read. The Russian agent in particular was a great creation, entertaining and yet totally ruthless at the same time. As always, the evocation of daily life in Cuba is excellent, and educational. I loved the way the characters are deepened in this novel, from Inspector Ramirez himself, and his wife and family, to Hector Apiro (the coroner) and his girlfriend Maria, to side characters like Ramirez' coworkers and various locals, like his grandmother's contemporary, Mama Loa. Another subplot in this novel is Ramirez' loss of the ability to see ghosts, something he thought he didn't want anymore -- until he can't. He ponders this throughout the book. 

All in all, you'll find warmth, friendship, terror, clandestine plots, violence, explosions, and true love in this story. It's a perfect summer read.


Further Reading:

Leonardo Padura's Mario Conde mysteries are set in Cuba as well, and feature a world-weary policeman trying to solve crimes despite a corrupt government. This author is Cuban so there are many fascinating details included in his stories.

If daily life in a different culture is what appeals, try Argentinian writer Claudia Pineiro, who writes literary crime novels that focus on domestic darkness.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Kutsukake's Translation of Love

The Translation of Love / Lynne Kutsukake
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2016.
336 p.

What's a girl to do when she is repatriated to Japan after the end of WWII, when her family is released from an internment camp and told to go East or go home? Post-war Japan is not a great place; still reeling from its wartime experience, still occupied by American forces.

Aya Shimamura has to find a way to fit into her new life, while her father is depressed, bitter and distant, and they are both mourning Aya's mother. She makes a friend at school, Fumi, who is trying to solve the mystery of her older sister Sumiko's disappearance.

The story then weaves together the stories of Aya, Fumi & Sumiko, and Matt Matsumoto, who works for the Occupation forces, translating letters sent to General MacArthur.  Fumi's decided that the only way to find Sumiko is to write a letter to General MacArthur, and Aya is going to help. The letter comes to the attention of Corporal Matsumoto, who haltingly decides he should help find Sumiko himself.

Anyone who knows me knows that letter writing is one of my 'things', and so the idea that an entire populace wrote letters to General MacArthur in the wake of the war, begging for help, offering gifts, and generally thinking of him as a kind of all-seeing dispenser of justice, was quite astonishing. I hadn't known this historical fact, and the pathos of some of the letters that Matt translates was quite strong. I was touched by this element.

There are many facets to Japanese life and identity in this book, both North American Japanese citizens like Aya or Matt, and those who have remained in Japan. How one retains a self in the face of circumstances differs according to each character. There are issues of women's status at this time -- Sumiko's choice to keep her family afloat is to work in the Ginza region in soldier's bars, Aya & Fumi come across many shocking situations in their search for her -- and there are issues of sexual identity, as Matt Matsumoto conceals his attraction to his Lieutenant. And of course there are issues of a larger cultural identity in postwar Japan.

But the story is really driven by the two young girls at the centre of it, and the characters' journey to a resolution is the important thread. This is an era that I haven't seen much of in fiction, and so it was a fascinating read. There is a bit of an emotional remove in the telling, which kept me from being totally swept away by the story, but it was a solid, historically intriguing tale. I wanted to know each character's story, and hoped that they'd all get a happy ending. I'm glad I picked up this debut novel by a fellow librarian.


Further Reading:

For a story of a Japanese family who stayed in Canada, dealing with racism in a small Alberta town, try Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi. While it's set  in a different era, it is also told from the perspective of a young girl, and features a character who is in love with the 'wrong' person.

If it's the idea of letters, hundreds of them, desperate to be read but never getting to their intended recipient that catches you, read Kyo Maclear's meditative The Letter Opener, which also focuses on issues of identity.     

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Zorn's Five Roses

Five Roses / Alice Zorn
Toronto: Dundurn, c2016.
320 p.

This new novel was an enjoyable discovery -- it takes place in Montreal, which always catches my attention. And I was pleased to discover that it's set in Pointe St Charles, an area that doesn't get a lot of fictional play (and which is overshadowed by the large illuminated Five Roses factory sign, where the title comes from). It's also an historically depressed area which is now being gentrified, which is clearly reflected in this novel.

But besides that particular setting, there was a lot that I loved about this book. It begins with Thérèse, a young and quietly sullen woman who leaves her cabin in the woods to move to Montreal briefly in the 70s. The repercussions of her brief stay shape the rest of the story, which then moves into the present.

And the present is wonderful. I loved all the characters that Zorn brings into play. We have Thérèse's daughter Rose; we have a youngish couple, Fara & Frédéric who've just bought a house in Pointe St Charles (all they could afford) in which a young man has hung himself previously; we have Maddy, of Polish background, who works at a bakery alongside her Trinidadian friend Yushi (at the Atwater Market - one of my own favourite haunts when I used to live in the neighbourhood); and then we have Leo, a young black homeless man who meets Rose in her art studio. They are all artists or employed in ways that aren't staid office jobs, and the flow of their days feels very natural.

Each of these people are connected, in ways that they don't know about, but that the reader begins to discover. I really enjoy this kind of story, when a group of disparate characters circle closer and closer to one another. While there is a tiny bit of coincidental overload here, it was still nearly perfect. The setting is so strong, and vital to the story. And yet the characters are also extremely interesting; they are well-developed and individual, having their own problems to face and their own differing personalities. I appreciated how each one is recognizable, since sometimes with large casts there are some too-similar characteristics that can confuse.

Because of the complications of the storyline and how each person's trajectory ends up crossing, I can't describe a plot. Basically, they each face a decision and the question of how to live -- and they each end up having to accept someone's help. The way that an unwilling dependence on others is so vital to their happy endings is really quite fascinating. Some may say that no man is an island, but Zorn shows how that works. Even the most incidental interaction can cause ripples in many lives.

This was a very enjoyable, complex read. Great as a virtual trip to Montreal when you can't get there in person.


Further Reading:

Montreal's multicultural nature is also shown in other novels, such as Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner. While Nikolski is a little more fanciful, it also features a group of young people who don't know they are all connected, and they also wander Montreal (though more in the area of the Jean Talon Market, rather than Atwater).

Saleema Nawaz's Bone & Bread starts out in Montreal and later ranges to the Ottawa area, but it is also very character driven.  The leads are two eventually orphaned sisters who viscerally inhabit their busy Plateau neighbourhood. The book tells a rich story, scented with bagels rather than pastries, in this case.

Friday, July 15, 2016

No Fears, No Excuses: Larry Smith's practical career advice

No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need to Do to Have a Great Career / Larry Smith
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2016.
255 p.

What do you want to be when you grow up? I mean really want to be? And how will you get there? If you're not sure about either of these things, I strongly suggest you pick up Professor Larry Smith's new book and figure it out.

Smith is an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, and wrote this book to expand on the points he first covered in his Tedx Talk "Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career", viewed over 5 million times so far. (see below)

I'm always a little suspicious of these kinds of career books - will they tell you how to follow a plan that the author is fond of and assumes will work for everyone no matter what their situation? Will they be full of platitudes about following your bliss, without any practical tips? Luckily, Smith avoids both of these flaws by combining both ideas. He talks about how important it is to love your work - for the reason that if you are working at something that you think you 'should' be doing, while you are surrounded by others who love that work, it is unlikely that you will be highly successful. But he doesn't leave it there. He provides pointers on how to figure out your passions (and how these differ from your interests) and most importantly, how to make a plan for success.

The book is divided into three parts: Finding your Passion, Creating your Career Plan, and Confronting Fears and Excuses. I think it is the most level-headed and useful book of this kind I've ever come across. Smith is basing his approach on his years of experience in counselling his students on their career ambitions. He is a natural teacher, and so draws the answers from the student - it is their goals, and their ambitions, that matter. He will just help to facilitate the planning to get there.

He does the same in this book. The reader can follow the same steps, and answer the questions at the end of each chapter to really formulate a career vision. The many examples in each chapter are both realistic and inspiring. And the structure of the book provides a useful process to examine what you might want, how you might achieve it, and what might block you from following through on your plan.

I felt that Smith recognizes that dreams, logic and fears all affect how we live our lives, and they must all be acknowledged. It is a complex and yet straightforward presentation of his ideas, which I can't imagine anyone would be the worse off for studying. I highly recommend this to all students who are just embarking upon their university journeys, so that they can learn how to find their 'edge' early on and learn to support their own goals in their education. I also recommend it to those who may be a little further on in their own careers and are wondering if they should make a change. The steps and questions apply just as well to those who may have a longer stretch of 'good' career to upgrade into 'great'.

And for those who like to have things nicely tied up, Smith also includes a quick & dirty cheat sheet at the end listing the steps and questions; using this as a regular benchmark checkup for yourself would be a great way to keep the momentum going once you've gone through his process. All in all, this book provides great value for the career minded reader.