Saturday, September 27, 2014

Man, by Kim Thuy

Man / Kim Thuy; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Toronto: Random House, c2014.
139 p.

I read this new Canadian novel fairly quickly -- it is quite short, and just like Thuy's previous, award-winning novel Ru, it's written like brief prose poems following one upon the other. (you can get a sense of her style with this excerpt in Chatelaine magazine).

In this novel, Thuy uses food as a central image in the story. Man, a young Vietnamese girl, has three mothers -- one who gave birth to her, the nun who found her as an infant, and Maman who raised her. When Man is grown, Maman finds her a husband as security. He's a lonely restaurateur in Montreal, and so Man comes to live in Quebec.

Each section of the story has a word in Vietnamese in the margin, a theme for that section. It's followed by the English translation beneath. I thought that was an interesting touch, but, because this was originally in French, and the translation of words (and experience) from Vietnamese to French was such an integral part of Man's story, I would have liked to have seen the Vietnamese to French retained, with the English popped in beneath both.

Nonetheless, the slow, quiet reflections and recollections of Man's previous life colour the story, giving it depth. I was fascinated by the stories of Vietnam and Man's precarious life there, as well as general sociological tidbits like the fact that Northern Vietnamese women traditionally coated their teeth with black enamel. But alongside this strong thread of Vietnam running through Man's thoughts, she's also learning her new culture, and uncovering her passions for food and for one married chef -- the second passion is completely unexpected, and shakes her internal life.

Man's name means "perfect fulfillment" and yet for most of her life she seems to hold everyone and everything at a distance. She doesn't find love in her marriage, just security and a general contentment (and two children). She has trained herself not to disturb her surroundings, to quietly fade into the background and not be noticed. This survival technique has stayed with her throughout her marriage, but when she meets Luc while on a brief stay in Paris as a guest chef, she understands that she has been seen, been noticed, examined, and desired. The sections dealing with her love affair have more physical, sense-based detail, as if the language reflects her deepening awareness of her physical existence. Emotion begins to reveal itself.

This is a slow-paced novel, one that the reader needs to have patience with as it slowly reveals parts of Man's character and circumstances. The language is lovely, with the structure supporting her quiet, poetic style. If you read and enjoyed Ru, you will likely also like this new novel. I enjoyed it, even if Man did feel a bit like a cipher at times; her story is a bit disjointed as she moves between various memories, and the stories don't always follow one another exactly chronologically or even necessarily thematically. But it was a delicately told novel that I'd like to dip into for another taste of her writing now and again.



Further Reading:

If you're interested in another story of love and passion and marriages coming undone (or not...), told in a similar style -- short sections following the thought process of the narrator, told in standalone paragraphs or pages -- try the recent Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. 

If it's the themes of immigrants in North America, mothers & daughters, and the food that truly intrigues, you might like to try the classic novel by Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (be aware however, that Man could fit into one chapter of Tan's more sprawling tale)


Friday, September 26, 2014

Plum Bun

Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset
London: Pandora Press, 1985, c1928.
379 p.

I want to get this review posted in time for the end of the Diversiverse reading project. I've been spurred to pick up this book which has been languishing on my shelves for ages by this project, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. If I mulled over it a bit longer, I might be able to draw out more of the political import and some of the depth of it. However, here are my general thoughts instead!

Written in 1928, it tells us the story of sisters Angela and Virginia (Jinny) Murray, and the differing paths their lives take thanks to their skin colour. Angela, like her mother, is so pale she can "pass" for white, while Jinny and their father are clearly "coloured" (I'll use that term as that is the one used in the book).

After their parents die, Angela decides that her life will be easier if she leaves Philadelphia and the people who know her, to move to New York where she can live as a white woman. Obviously, it wouldn't exactly work to take Jinny along.

It's an absorbing read, following Angela as she changes herself -- both her name (now Angele Mory) and her public identity. She follows her longing to become an artist, and all along the way comes face to face with new ways of living, more bohemian in some ways but also still rife with animosity to anyone with even one miniscule shade of "colour" in their background. Angele discovers that not only is it difficult to be coloured, it is still difficult to be simply a woman. This recognition, and the role it plays in her struggle to become someone, to get what she wants, seems quite modern. It reflects the current focus on intersectionality in the feminist movement -- the idea that race and gender are not divisible units to be dealt with discretely, but that they are inextricably linked.

Angele is a prickly person, one with huge longings and ambitions. She allows herself a relationship with a rich white man (her ideal for a husband) who reveals himself to be a reactionary bigot. She denies herself a relationship with the man she's truly emotionally connected with because he is poor and has unlikely prospects. She cuts her sister when acknowledging her would ruin the facade of whiteness that she's built. All of these denials, however, fester in her, finally bursting her idyllic imaginary world. Thankfully she comes out stronger and a much better version of  herself than before.

As you might tell, this story is all about Angela. Her dreams, her perceptions, her selfishness, her grand gestures -- all of these shape and drive the story. Angela sees herself as a modern woman, one can accomplish things, and her story reflects that in the ways that it refuses to make her a victim of her society. There are harsh realities but Angela is no meek character mired in hopelessness; she makes decisions and rationalizes them to herself if necessary, but she acts. Near the end, when she acts from her conscience, she realizes that things will not now turn out as she'd wished. But she figures out an alternative path and goes for it anyhow.

I loved the complexity of this character. She's unlikeable and selfish in some ways; but she is also strong and lovely in others. She is a very contradictory person...so, she's very realistic. I was happy to see that there was a hopeful ending for her; I wanted something to work out after all her struggles.

This book is a fascinating look at New York (and the US more generally) during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. The flavour of a flourishing artistic community is clearly shared -- all the levels and shades of belonging among the different circles are in evidence. It's lively, exciting, and it's wonderful to have an inside view via Angele. But, the casual, entrenched racism that lurks behind the nicest faces was startling...even from those whose own experiences might have seemed to be a reason to be on-side with anti-racist beliefs.

The story is also one of personal connection, and family strength. The ties that bind Angela and Jinny are too strong to be broken forever, and this sense of love and connection permeates the book. I was so absorbed in how the "coloured" characters wrestle with life, how they come out as strong and tested people, while those who are privileged and have life easy seem so weak and negligible in comparison.

This is a powerful and readable book -- it is not overtaken by the issue she's facing, it's completely of a piece with the human struggle of the story. Definitely one that made me think.


Further Reading

Nella Larsen's Passing is another powerful title published in 1929, which also deals with a light-skinned woman living as a white woman, with more disastrous effect. It engages with issues of race, gender, and sexuality as well.

Danzy Senna's hard-hitting novel Caucasia (1998) also tells the story of two sisters whose differing appearances tear them away from one another, when their parents separate and each take the one that looks most like them. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Station Eleven

Station Eleven / Emily St John Mandel
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
333 p.

Extraordinary. That's what this book is. So very good.

I've just finished racing through this book, pausing to catch my breath upon finishing, and now I want to start it all over again.

It's not your everyday apocalyptic novel; Mandel resists the easy grandiosity of despair that permeates so many "collapse of civilization" novels. Our world after disaster (this time a virus which kills off  99% of the world population) does not turn into a raging, violent patriarchy. Oh sure, there are some manly lunatics to be found, but Mandel also captures a more nuanced view of our possible future. Art remains, the longing for community remains. Female characters are still people.

The structure of the book supports this complex new world. Beginning in Toronto just hours before the start of the great pandemic, we see Arthur Leander in his last great role, that of King Lear. It's his last part, as he has a heart attack on stage and dies. The paramedic who tries to assist, the little girl (Kirsten) on stage with him at the moment he dies, his ex-wives, his best friend -- they are all part of what follows.

The story jumps back and forth between Arthur's life and Kirsten's life, the before and after of civilization's end. It builds with a slow burn, revealing the connections between characters and events bit by bit. Doing this emphasizes the continuation of life -- it doesn't just start anew after the disaster, parts of pre-virus life are still shaping and affecting the progression of humanity.

But much, much more than just the idea of a post-apocalyptic novel, this book is packed full of beautiful, harrowing images and characters. It's dream-like, elegiac, precise, mysterious, making the reader homesick for the world we haven't -- yet -- lost. What would you miss most? she asks. Whether it's an orange, ice cream, air conditioning, phones, electricity, or the loved ones left behind, Mandel manages to make each character's longings powerful, their memories as real as their new life. Despite -- or maybe because of -- the slower pace of this novel, I was completely drawn in, hypnotized by the structure and the slow revelations and the sudden violence and the horror and beauty side by side. By the losses and by the hope that Mandel allows to remain in this new reality.

Not only this, she uses Shakespeare and the Travelling Symphony to show how art remains, how it sustains. This travelling troupe of actors and musicians carries on the artistic tradition that is highlighted in the book's opening pages. In addition to that, Kirsten carries two self-published comic books, originally created by Arthur's first wife Miranda. They feature Dr. Eleven, named after the planet he lives on after the destruction of earth, Station Eleven. There are obvious resonances between the post-Earth and post-apocalypse settings. But aside from that, it's also incredibly beautiful. Even though the comic is only described in words, I felt like I'd read it myself, could picture the layouts. And the jacket designer for the UK edition has also drawn a two page spread from Dr. Eleven -- brilliant.

I could go on. I could describe the snow falling onstage in the opening pages, or the bread baking in the last pages, the airplane at the edge of a tarmac, the empty house with nothing touched since the virus, an empty airport turned into a settlement of 300 souls... but I'll just say that everyone needs to read this achingly beautiful book. To spend time with these complex, fascinating characters.

While I tend to avoid books that are getting a lot of hype, after reading this, I don't think it has been getting enough hype! It's an amazing achievement, a book I know I'll read again. If you like apocalyptic tales, read this one for a fresh vision on the theme. If you don't like apocalyptic novels, read this one to discover why you just might like one after all. It is exquisite.





Further Reading:

While the classic Brave New World by Aldous Huxley has a very different tone, its themes of the power of art and what it means to be human reflect some of the ideas explored in Station Eleven. Huxley also uses Shakespeare to highlight the connection between great art and free thinking.

If it's the beautiful writing and strong characters in a changed world that appeal, move 1000 years into the future and explore the tribal, low-tech world in John Crowley's Engine Summer. Similarly slower paced and nostalgic, it's a short novel full of longing for the old world.

One more random selection: Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Station Eleven is like the dystopian version of Emily's passionate plea "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Back of the Turtle

The Back of the Turtle / Thomas King
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
518 p.

I've been awaiting this novel with great anticipation; I've really enjoyed King's previous fiction, and have had a 15 year wait for this one! Meanwhile, of course, there have been his nonfiction works to enjoy and learn from...but I love fiction. It's quite a beautiful package; the cover suits the book wonderfully, which makes sense, as King's partner Helen Hoy painted it.

In The Back of the Turtle, King has created a kaleidoscopic vision of linked characters telling their stories discretely. It begins with Gabriel Quinn, a bio-engineer who has been working for Domidion for many years. Domidion is a massive multinational whose research, thanks to Gabriel, created GreenSweep, a nasty defoliant which, used in error, kills a river in British Columbia, travelling for miles, all the way to the sea and a further twenty miles offshore. It kills the vegetation, the animal life, and even many human beings living alongside -- including the residents of Smoke River Reserve -- Gabriel's estranged family among them. When Gabriel cottons on to his part in this disaster, he disappears from Domidion.

Gabriel has gone to Smoke River to kill himself. But life gets in the way. He meets Mara, who has returned to the reserve alone after years in Toronto. He also meets local Nicholas Crisp, a trickster figure. All of this happens within the context of a creation myth which they all tell to one another -- The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. 

Meanwhile, Domidion CEO Dorian Asher is trying to find his lost scientist. He's also trying to minimize the fallout from yet another environmental disaster caused by his company, this time a breach of a tailing pond on the Athabasca River (wait a second, is this really fiction?) He is fixated on his image, his power, and his money. To survive the stress, Asher pops out and buys expensive new watches, clothes, and even a new condo.

Switching back and forth between these two stories, from Toronto to BC, from rampant, destructive capitalism to a living being trying to take responsibility for his actions, trying to find his place in the world again, is quite effective. We can see how this small group of individuals are connected, and how their circle grows; of course, we can see this in the creation myth as well. And we can see what happens when someone disconnects from the greater community and thinks only of their own benefit and gain. Just as in the creation myth, Dorian and Gabriel are like the two twins of the Woman Who Fell From the Sky -- one builds up and one destroys. There are echoes set up in the story between native mythology, Christian mythology, humanism and more. It's an interesting read, which only occasionally dips too far into political commentary.

I enjoyed the structure, really liked some of the characters, and found the descriptions of Domidion's environmental follies all too stark and realistic. King is encouraging us to do something, to make changes in our world, even while telling us an entertaining, richly peopled story.

While there were a few flaws in the reading, for me -- some of the characters' tics became a bit irritating, the ending was somewhat inconclusive, for example -- as a reading experience it was rewarding. The story is completely embedded in our modern way of life, featuring characters with constant electronic connection but disconnection from the greater sense of Life. Less overtly based in native mythologies than Truth & Bright Water, perhaps, but still steeped in a spiritual recognition of our place in a wider world.

You can listen to a fascinating interview between King and Jian Ghomeshi over at Q on CBC, too.
This is also my first read for the Diverse Universe Reading Event this year!

Further Reading:

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor uses the same idea of native mythology coming to life in the modern world, and tells a story of regular people on a reserve who encounter a strange new interloper into their community. It involves historical land use and environmental concerns, but is also full of humour, too!

For a more sombre read featuring the coming-of-age of a Haisla heroine, which also involves the loss of family members, try Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson. This novel is similarly set in BC, and is steeped in West Coast mythology. It features a well-drawn cast of supporting characters.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Piersall's Animal Mandalas

Coloring Animal Mandalas / Wendy Piersall 
Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, c2014.

I was offered a lovely book for review recently, from the new-to-me Ulysses Press in Berkeley. Since I have both used and taught mandalas as an expressive art practice previously, I was instantly interested.

And this is a lovely book! It includes 31 intricate mandala images featuring cats, birds, sea creatures, horses, bugs and more. Some are very detailed, and would take much attention to colour in. Some are a little more free-form, with larger spaces to fill. All are very lovely.

I think my favourite ones are those featuring shells and fish. They seem to have an organic flow that really appeals to me. But there is one with swans that I'll have to work on first, considering my city's emblematic swans! I can see that these images are going to be quite enjoyable for a long while.

Have you ever used pre-made mandalas yourself? The act of concentrating and colouring them in is quite peaceful and relaxing. I usually like to focus in on the experience of colouring while letting my mind rest -- it's something we were quite skilled at as children but forget to do as grownups. Piersall's designs are unique and pretty, many of them resembling the intricate detail of a mosaic.

If you haven't tried this 'adult colouring book' experience before, I'd say that this collection offers a fun starting point. It's a nice size and printed single-sided for colouring, on paper that will play with crayons, pencils or markers equally well. Adults and older children would both enjoy these images, I think.

If you want to see some sample images, check out Piersall's animal mandala page on her larger website (which is full of activities and worksheets for kids, also great). Also, pop over to her blog to print off a free hedgehog design that didn't make it into the final book -- too cute.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Do you like Amish fiction?

Here's something I've been experimenting with for work lately -- book infographics made with Venngage. It has a free account option, which is actually quite limited -- 5 free templates and no download options. Though you can share on social media and embed the infographic. Testing it out -- tell me what you think!

Thursday, September 04, 2014

God is an Astronaut

God Is An Astronaut / Alyson Foster
New York: Bloomsbury, c2014
289 p.

I recently wrote a review of this novel for our local paper, the Stratford Gazette. You can find my thoughts below.

But for my blog readers, I also want to add that this book is a fine example of a modern epistolary novel. It's told in one-way emails, from Jess to her absent colleague Arthur (someone who is closer to her than we first realize). This one-way device adds some mystery and poignancy to the story, and I think as a technique it fits in quite well with Jess' character. Feeling alone and unlistened to, Jess would naturally write emails to someone who is -- or was -- there for her emotionally. Even though we see everything through Jess' eyes, all of the characters have a presence, though of course mostly in how they relate to her.

I enjoyed this one as a quieter read, with a focus on the internal shift that Jess is experiencing.


This review first appeared in the Stratford Gazette on Thursday, September 4th.

Jess Frobisher is all about plants; her husband Liam is all about space. Somehow they’ve always met in the middle – until now. Jess is a botany professor at a small college, and as the story opens she is madly digging up her yard to put in an enormous greenhouse. This greenhouse is fated to fail; just as in her wider life, growth and fecundity is stagnating. Liam, on the other hand, is in the midst of a maelstrom. His space tourism company, Spaceco, is being beseiged with press after their latest shuttle exploded after takeoff with four celebrity tourists onboard.

Jess wants to help, but Liam's propensity for secrets and emotional distance puts her at a major disadvantage. She is so thirsty for emotional connection that she talks to a reporter who has made overtures of friendship. This, as you might imagine, has vast repercussions on both Spaceco's crisis and on her marriage.

As this crisis continues, Liam jumps at an offer from a husband-and-wife filmmaking team to create a documentary about Spaceco and the families behind it. He’s hoping that it will result in some good PR spin. But being put in the spotlight (literally) changes the way the story unfolds for Jess and Liam.

The story is told in a series of emails that Jess sends to her colleague Arthur, who has gone on sabbatical to study trees in Manitoba. Yes, he is near Winnipeg, and there is some Canadian content here, including a discussion of the relative merits of Tim Hortons' doughnuts (or 'donuts' if you will). The format of the book – we see only Jess's one sided emails -- gives us a slowly expanding sense of the truth of all her relationships and of the major events that she is relating. As the emails get longer, and the story deepens, we see that sometimes our true desires are hidden even from ourselves, until they are suddenly there in black and white.

It’s an engaging read, set just far enough into the future that space tourism is a reality, but also very grounded in our everyday normality. Jess writes her way through a dramatic midlife crisis, and makes her way through to the other side, taking readers along for the ride. Readers who enjoy getting to know their characters well will want to pick up this book.


Further Reading:

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzger has a similar setup with an emotionally distant, space-focused husband and increasingly anxious/unsettled wife. It also focuses on character and relationship.

If you enjoyed the format, and the theme of a woman in an uncertain midlife marriage, try Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon next, a story told in emails, facebook updates, texts and more.