Monday, August 30, 2010

Crummey, Not So Much

The day that my boyfriend left for his deployment I consoled myself by going to the library and grabbing whatever drew even the most remote interest.  One of the books I checked out in the midst of this frenzy was Galore by Michael Crummey.  I own two of Michael Crummey's other books, The Wreckage and The River Thieves, but have never gotten around to actually reading them.  It's not a case of buyer's remorse, but when I buy books I usually take my sweet time before I actually get around to reading them.  Whereas with books that I borrow, I feel motivated to finish them quickly.  

With Galore I didn't really need extra motivation in order to wile away the hours reading it.  The story takes place in a small fishing village named Paradise Deep (in case you were wondering the name is a double entendre) where superstition, folk tales and witchcraft are incredibly influential.  Two families intertwined by marriage and mutual dislike form the heart of the story, one headed by the local "witch" Devine's Widow and the other ruled by King-me Sellers.  As the story begins, a mute man is discovered in the belly of a beached whale and taken in by the Devine family who house him in the shed to combat his unique smell.  This story, and unfortunately the fish stench, is passed down through the generations along with other tales surrounding these two controversial families.  

What interests me as a reader are the changes that take place in the village over the course of generations.  At the beginning of the book, stories and folk traditions hold the most sway over the small community.  As competing religions take hold, a doctor arrives from the United States and people become more politically active, the influence of the old ways lessens.  The process is gradual and there is a lot of suspicion with regard to progress within the community and the tension between different forces makes the story fascinating.  For me, the focus the author gives to the character of Dr. Newman, an outsider looking for adventure, is particularly riveting.  The difficulties associated with conducting medicine in rural Newfoundland hadn't really occurred to me besides the obvious transportation issues.  Even when a patient comes to his office, the person doesn't have the education or the language skills to properly describe what's wrong with them and there is a lot of guessing involved.  Eventually the doctor does adapt with the help of people in the village who take him under their collective wing.  

Without going into more detail and giving away the story I will say that Galore has been one of my favourite reads this year and I will most definitely take on his other books in the near future.  Though I don't like the fact that I am recommending two books set in Newfoundland so close together, I thought it was okay given the fact that Alligator by Lisa Moore is completely different from Galore.  They bear no resemblance to one another besides both being set in Newfoundland and both show the depth and variety of literature from that province.  Despite the success I have had with books from Newfoundland authors lately, I always try to vary the authors I read so I will take a break from them, unless compelled by another library frenzy.  It's happened before and will again.   

Friday, August 27, 2010

I Will Expose My Future Children to Racist Books

A while back I was at a book sale in the children's section looking for books for my cousin's infant daughter.  I was shooting the breeze with a mother about which books were appropriate for a little girl and she told me that there were a lot of books which she doesn't allow her children to read based upon their content.  She gave me the example of a Berenstein Bears book where Brother Bear is being picked on by a neighbourhood bully and Papa Bear teaches him how to fight in order to deter the bully from bothering him anymore. The mother felt this message to be inappropriate for her small children and thus the book never made it into their library.  I don't know why I was surprised considering the rampant political correctness within our society, but I thought her reaction was more than a little extreme.  

Her reaction to a pretty innocent, if outdated, plot makes me wonder how she would respond to a book like Herge's Tintin in the Congo which went on trial for its racist content.  A Congolese man living in Belgium spearheaded a campaign to ban the work based on the way that Africans are portrayed in the book.  After I heard about the controversy, I made a point to take a look at the book next time I went to the bookstore and I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that Africans in the book are represented as childlike and pliable.  There are a lot of classic works which contain racial slurs and discrimination, but I don't think that banning these books or restricting a child's access to them is necessarily the way to deal with their content.  By banning them, it creates a larger buzz around the works and may cause children to be even more curious about them. I know that when I was in high school, Chapters made the decision to ban the sale of Hitler's treatise Mein Kampf and this only increased my interest in buying a copy.  I am not so sure that this stance deterred any future neo-nazis, and as an unintended consequence gave the work more attention.  It also drove up the price of the book.  

There will always be books which feature unsavory plots and racism, but what is important is how parents present these books to their children.  I think the mother at the book sale was wrong to shield her children from books which contain plots that she doesn't agree with philosophically.  Whether we choose to believe it or not the schoolyard can be an intolerant place and by the time a child is of a certain age they've seen racism and sexism in action.  Books with plots about bullying or racist characterizations allow parents to begin a dialogue with their children about these issues.  Keeping children shielded from controversial books does them no favours in terms of their development and if you have taught your children to be tolerant of others, than they will recognize intolerance around them.  Also parents need to prepare their children for the periods of time when they are not around to monitor what their children come in contact with.  If a child goes over to a friend's house and watches Peter Pan, they will not necessarily come home maladjusted and full of ignorant notions of Native culture.  

Overall, helicopter parenting isn't entirely effective when it comes to books and movies. Even if you carefully monitor what your children read and watch at home, other children's parents may not share your philosophy.  You can't regulate everything your child comes in contact with so you might as well talk about the big issues of life.  My parents never talked to me about bullying, sex, and racism and I was really ill-equipped when I entered junior high where I felt totally isolated in my ignorance.  In retrospect, I wish that my parents would have pulled out a book and shared the world with me and I refuse to pick and choose what books my future children will be exposed to.  

Monday, August 23, 2010

My Commitment Issues

I must admit that I have commitment issues with books and if I am stressed out for whatever reason, I become a veritable serial dater.  If a book fails to hold my interest, especially after the first hundred pages, I tend to cut my losses quickly and move on. This almost happened again while I read Brick Lane by Monica Ali.  I had genuine difficulty with this book up until I got about two-thirds through the novel and today I was trying to think of why I failed to be pulled in.  

The story's main character is Nanzeen, a woman from Bangladesh whose arranged marriage requires her to leave her small village and move to London.  Once there, she deals with the many issues faced by a woman adapting to a new country and getting to know her husband.  Luckily she has the support of other Bangladeshi women within her housing development who help her navigate through the streets of London and provide her with much needed entertainment. Her boredom during the day and general dissatisfaction with her ineffectual husband cause her to begin an affair with a young radical.  His passion is intoxicating and Nanzeen finds herself unable to end their affair even though she knows that the relationship won't last. 

Though Nanzeen is the lens through the reader views the world, I found her journey as a foreigner and a new bride less than compelling. Within the Bangladeshi community in London and in her homeland there exist women who provide the reader with far more entertainment than Nanzeen.  Razia, the strident widow who embraces the independence that England allows her, is the opposite of Nanzeen who relies on the concept of Fate to sort out her problems.  Also, Nanzeen's sister Hasina is another character who chooses a different path.  She eloped with a man her family disapproved of and even in the face of the tragic events that follow and the lack of options for women in Bangladesh, she maintains her optimism.  I found myself looking forward to reading Hasina's letters to Nanzeen because they provided an escape from Nanzeen's hopeless existence. 

I haven't been altogether generous in my praise of this book and I think I know the reason why it received such a lukewarm reception.  I really became more and more impatient with Nanzeen in her reliance on Fate to guide her in the right direction rather than listening to her own instincts and feelings.  What bothered me most about this is that passivity is a quality that I dislike in myself and I have little tolerance for it in other people, fictional or otherwise.  When Nanzeen is forced to act, the narrative became really engaging and the last third of the book made up for any moments of frustration. The book is well-written and paced in such a way that the reader is compelled to stay committed.  Overall, reading this book was a positive experience because it allowed me to examine my own views on inaction and gave me hours of entertainment in the process. Though I had my problems with the main character, I would still recommend this book, just not wholeheartedly which probably reflects more on my biases rather than the talent of the author and the quality of the work.   

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On a Personal Note

I was debating back and forth today about whether or not I should blog about my personal life and found it to be a huge struggle.  I can't recall ever being the subject of anything I've ever written, except for the writing assignments I had in junior high school which routinely featured less-than introspective accounts of my summer vacation.  The issue that has caused me to break with tradition is the absence of my boyfriend.  He is in the Canadian Navy and he is currently on a two-month sail to exotic destinations.  This sail isn't really plaguing my thoughts because it is the appetizer for the six-month sail which is scheduled for the spring.  Though he has been in the navy for almost two years, the longest that we have been apart has been three weeks and during that separation we spoke every night.

I think that what bothered me most about his sail was the lead-up.  I knew his departure wasn't going to be pretty and it did not disappoint.  I tried my best to get my crying over with while he was in the shower, but he saw through my thin veneer of poise.  Poise was the last thing I was capable of in that moment.  What upset me was not just the fact that I wasn't going to see him for two months because I am confident that I can do two months standing on my head.  The thing that really bothered me was that this time is going to be the first major test of our relationship.  My boyfriend was in the navy and committed to a contract before I came along and I had a small idea of what I was getting myself into when we started dating.  It will only truly dawn on me the sacrifices I will have to make when I am in the midst of a long sail and the loneliness sets in.

For now I am only at the beginning of a baby sail and it doesn't seem so bad.  Being in the apartment by myself feels weird, that is the best way to describe it.  I'm still at the stage where I'm almost expecting him to walk through the door and tell me that his sail has been cancelled.  At the moment I'm keeping myself busy with all of the little projects I've cooked up with the sole goal of expending excess energy.  By the end of his sail I expect that the apartment will be unbelievably clean and I will possibly have used my elliptical for something besides hanging laundry.  Hopefully that sentence convinced somebody.  Meanwhile I will deal with my mother's unwanted helicopter parenting, missed holidays and unpleasant reminders of my life as a single woman.  Fortunately I have many people and things to to provide me with adequate distractions and will try not to lose sight of the fact that I am a lucky girl in every way that matters.  Who happens to have one of the best libraries in the city and access to horrible reality television.    

Monday, August 16, 2010

Alligator With Bite

As a reader there are three moments that I like the best. When I reread an old favourite and it still gives me that comforting, fuzzy feeling very few experiences can top that.  Also, I love it when an author I like writes another great book which I enjoy as much as their previous work.  Lastly, I love it when I discover a new author whose work just blows me away.  That was definitely the case when I read Newfoundland author Lisa Moore's novel Alligator

I had been wanting to read this book for some time and because of my carefully honed book-sleuthing skills and managed to find it amongst the thousands of books at this year's Times-Colonist Book Sale.  What really drew me to the book was that I thought that the book's plot revolved around an alligator showing up in St. John's and terrifying its citizens.  I was totally wrong.  Though there is an alligator in the book (and it shows up pretty early on), it never appears in Newfoundland.  Nevertheless, this book is amazing with memorable characters and a plot like a runaway train.  The story is told from the points of view of ten different characters that are all interconnected, and it's a style that runs the risk of creating a lot of one-dimensional characters.  In this case Moore manages to draw the reader in with compelling characters such as Valentin, the Russian psychopath, and his victim, Frank the enterprising young hot dog vendor.  The cast is rounded out by Colleen, a lost teen who tries to emulate her eco-terrorist idols, her grieving mother Beverly, and her aunt Madeleine, a dying filmmaker.  

Not only are the characters memorable, the plot moves quickly too.  With the sheer number of characters involved in this tale and their complex backgrounds, this novel had the potential to be one of those character-driven works which move at a snail's pace.  Some people prefer this style of book and others like books that revolve around a compelling plot.  I feel that ultimately the best books are a combination of both and Alligator is a great example of it.  I found it hard to tear myself away from this book and often exclaimed out loud when a new plot twist was revealed. Even though it is always a risk to take a chance on an author whose works I've never read, in the case of Lisa Moore I'm glad that I took the risk and I look forward to reading her other books in future. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Everything in Moderation

I was at home this morning listening to CBC Radio 1 when I came across yet another debate about the place of Chick Lit within the literary world.  The debate was between two authors, one of which went to the dramatic step of changing her pen name from Diane Connell to DJ Connell so that readers would take her book seriously as a valid contribution to the humour genre rather than lump her in with Chick Lit writers.  For those not in the know about the term Chick Lit it basically applies to books which fall into the romantic comedy category that are written by women for a female audience.  Some of the more famous Chick Lit books which easily come to mind are Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding or the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella.  Though this phenomenon is a recent version of it, women have been writing novels in this style for centuries.  Many books in this genre owe a large debt to Jane Austen, whose works shaped the romantic comedy model while still being considered pieces of great literature.  Since Austen there were many female writers whose target audience was the literate women of the upper crust and similarly to some Chick Lit authors of today, their work was not taken seriously in literary circles.

And now for my opinion.  When I was in university reading books considered to be good literature for my classes, I liked nothing better than to crack open a trashy romance novel or Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella in order to take my mind off the serious plots of my required reading. In the radio debate and in her written reply to DJ Connell's thoughts on the subject, author Michele Gorman makes some pretty good points about the validity of Chick Lit as a genre.  I agree with her argument that there are terrible books written in every style and that people seem quicker to criticize the merits of Chick Lit books as opposed to mystery novels and science fiction thrillers.  One of the main problems that critics have of Chick Lit is that it fails to address the serious issues that ordinary women face in their day to day lives.  I've read enough dramatic realism to know that there are moments where you would prefer not to be transported to the generally dreary existence that is "real life".  At the end of a tiring day sometimes I don't want to read about the very real problems that plague women and am sick and tired of hearing people put down books that allow me to unwind.

Now that I am not a student and haven't been for a number of years I can choose to read what I want, when I want and that freedom is empowering.  I try to vary what I read in the same way I choose my food; a little bit of everything.  There are times though, that I come home and I eat a bag of microwave popcorn.  It's convenient and it is what it is without the usual surprises of my cooking attempts.  I know what I'm getting with Chick Lit too, and am more than slightly peeved that I have to justify reading it in a way that I don't have to with crime or science fiction.  Arghh!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tudor Drama Revisited

I've had a fascination with Henry VIII since childhood mostly because I wondered how he could coldly discard his wives in such dramatic fashion.  In recent years I haven't been alone in my interest in the Tudor family with the success of the tv show The Tudors, Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl and Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Elizabeth I.

Hilary Mantel's book Wolf Hall is definitely a welcome addition to the recent group of Tudor-related projects in that it presents the story of Henry VIII through the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell.  In other books Cromwell is seen as a somewhat one-dimensional figure, a typical bureaucrat who unquestioningly carried out the wishes of his king.  Not so in this book.  Mantel goes into detail throughout the book outlining the years before Cromwell joins the civil service and provides us with a picture of a well-rounded, shrewd and downright intimidating figure.  From his humble beginnings as a blacksmith's son in Putney (a fact which the Dukes all seem to want to bring up whenever he gets the best of them) and his days as a mercenary, he became the most powerful civil servant in the country.  Due to his colourful past and proximity to Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII, Cromwell reveals himself as a fascinating narrator both as an individual voice and as a player in a larger political drama.  And this book contains drama aplenty as it follows the royal struggle between Henry and Katherine of Aragon and his tempestuous romance with Anne Boleyn.

One last aspect of the book worth noting is the treatment of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's sister who became Henry's mistress prior to Anne.  Mary is the narrator of the popular novel The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory where she is portrayed as being a victim of her relatives' political aspirations who eventually finds freedom by leaving royal intrigues behind.  Cromwell has a slightly different opinion of Mary.  Though he finds himself attracted to Mary, he is mistrustful of her because he feels that her flirtations mask her shrewdness. I tend to believe Mantel's characterization of Mary more than others because it makes more sense than those who cast her as a mere pawn.  Whatever I think of Henry as a person, he was most definitely particular about the women in his company.  A fact that sent a few women to country estates and others to the executioner.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Another Exercise in Humiliation

I have been toying with the idea of creating a book blog for a few years now but always talked myself out of it whenever I've been on the verge of actually starting.  My biggest concern was that I would run out of things to write about or generally lose interest in writing after the novelty wore off.  Another worry that I had was that my blog would be read by a devoted audience of two.  That got me thinking.  My big charm is my own imperfection, my innate ability to be awkward and embarrassing in most social situations.  So it is a large bonus to humiliate myself in front of a small group for once.

Another aspect of writing that I need to get used to, is that with this blog I am writing exclusively because I want to.  This is weird for me.  Up until now I've only written anything for professors or prospective employers and so you'll have to bear with me if my style isn't as casual as other bloggers.  Once I'm more used to doing this I should get more comfortable writing with my own voice rather than writing the way that I feel I should.  Also it's going to be interesting for me to write about books that I choose to write about.  I'm open to any suggestions and I'm not ashamed to say that most of my reading choices are based upon the advice of my sister, Jessica, the real book guru in the family.  She reads like a fiend and does not steer me wrong.  I also wanted to point out that most of the books that I will write about are going to be Canadian.  My books just skew in that direction and I am an unapologetic patriot when it comes to talented Canadian writers.

I feel proud of myself that I've been able to get through this first post because beginning this blog has been a huge challenge for the technophobic procrastinator in me.  For the next few weeks I'll be tooling around with different design settings and I'd appreciate any feedback that my two-person audience can give me.