Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Cast Stone

The Cast Stone / Harold Johnson
Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, c2012
208 p.

Imagine a world in which Canada has suddenly been annexed by the United States. Imagine American troops invading, and a Canadian underground resistance movement emerging. Imagine this is in Western Canada and Native communities are a big part of the resistance. Imagine this book.

Ben Robe is a retired poli-sci professor who has moved back to his reserve for his retirement. He is pulled back into political life reluctantly when Monica, a former student, engages him in the fight against annexation. There is a strong resistance movement including many long-time activists, former students, native radicals, farmers, and Mennonites. Ben gets involved in one of their meetings, which turns ugly and is a shocking episode which drives home the reality of resistance.

But aside from all this political upheaval, Ben's northern reserve is a bit removed; the people there are not in immediate danger. They remain distant from the struggle, as much as they can, but it eventually comes to them, in many ways.

This was a fascinating read. The dystopian concept was actually handled quite well, with strong characters backing up their differing views on resistance. The community at Moccasin Lake was complex, with many connections between families and friends -- including the appearance of a son that Ben never knew he had -- to make life interesting. Many issues around Native life in Canada are discussed, but in a unique way, thanks to the set up of this book. Ben's community spreads out to include everyone around him, not just relatives but all of the members of the reserve and their hidden lives as well.

The urgency of living in a politicized country and the dignity and strength of each individual (or lack thereof) combine into a powerful story. Some scenes are quite violent or horrible, some are heartbreaking. The setting is finely drawn and the interplay of elements is balanced and keeps the story moving along rapidly. I also found that he didn't draw lines between good/bad, rather, there is courage, honour, and goodness on both sides, just as there is dishonesty, self-interest and cruelty found in both camps.

The only problem I had with this is that it doesn't conclude. It stops. There is much more to tell, to tie up, to complete! I can only hope "part two" will be coming out soon -- I want to know what happens to Ben, to Monica, to the traitor in their midst who is revealed in the last few pages. There are new plot elements opened up near the end which are never concluded, instead, they set up further action to come. I need to know whether Canada is becoming a US territory or not, so I do hope Johnson writes a sequel quickly!

(This is obviously a Candian book but I'm also counting it toward the RIP Challenge, as it has dark and dystopian, speculative elements as well)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Keturah and Lord Death

Calgary: Red Deer Press, c2006.
200 p.

This is one I read after hearing some chatter about it -- plus seeing it at work. The cover is pretty and appealed to me with its colours and font ;)

It's a tale redolent with fairy tale elements. There's Keturah Reeve, main character, a storyteller and beautiful peasant in the small village of Tide-by-Rood in the country of Angleland. There's a fine lord, a king and various roles for the villagers: midwife, baker, tailor, choirmaster and so on.

Keturah doesn't quite fit in; she weaves tales about mysterious animals and more, and one day she sees the great stag of her tales, and follows him into the woods. Of course, she gets lost, and after three days of wandering she gives up and sits down under a tree. Then she meets Lord Death, who has come for her. She distracts him and gains more time by starting a story and promising to reveal the ending later. So she's sent back to the village to find her True Love -- if she doesn't by nightfall, she will belong to Lord Death. Since she doesn't immediately find this Love, she keeps putting off Death by continuing her tale.

There are shades of Scherazade, Beauty & the Beast, various Grimm tales and a generalized historical setting. It's a dreamy story, with Death personified and time rather flexible. For example, Keturah seems to take much more than one day to do all that she is supposed to do before meeting with Death once again. There is much more plot development occurring than seems likely that one day, dawn to dusk, could hold.

I liked it, especially the depiction of Keturah with her two best friends. They are supportive and sweet together, no mean girls in this story. But I wasn't keen on the ending. I could see it coming, and disagreed with Keturah's decision to -- wait, spoilers -- read no further if you don't want to know the ending!

But if you do, just highlight the following:

Keturah decides that her True Love is Lord Death himself. As the end of the story nears, she is feeling more and more distracted and distant from village life and her fellow residents. The lord's son is clearly in love with her but she withdraws and discovers that she is longing to go along with Lord Death and remain still and unchanging along with him. Lord Death admits his love for her (why? her beauty?) and she gives up her life for him. There are all sorts of problems with this for me. If the knowledge that Death is waiting makes life more precious (which seems to be a theme) why then did Keturah not decide to embrace life for as long as possible, to grab on to the opportunity held out to her to 'marry up' and enjoy a long and beautiful life? She knew Death would always be there in the end. Her sense of being distant and apart from everyone around her and then deciding to embrace Death is a terrible example to teens who may be feeling that common teenagery angst -- does every beautiful girl who feels alienated believe she is so special that Death values her over everyone else? Does she then choose Death? I am sure that was not the intended "message" of this book -- in fact, it is quite fantastical and fairy tale-ish so does not need to be read that way. Still, this element bothered me enough that it has been niggling at my brain ever since.

As an antidote of sorts, a great companion read would be Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. There would be room for discussion about whether living (or dying) forever, the lure of being unchanged, is enough to give up our mortal existence in all its uncertain glory. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Reading and Empathy

I was at a library workshop day today, focusing on readers' advisory (my favourite thing). This is library speak for the art of helping people to discover books. One of the speakers was Dr. Raymond Mar, who studies the connections between reading and social development; I've been following OnFiction, the website that he cofounded, for a long time now and it is always fascinating.

I found this interview from last year and thought I'd share a little about his work. Here he is talking about how reading and empathy are connected, as it relates to children's development.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Woman Who Died a Lot

The Woman Who Died A Lot (Thursday Next. #7)
The Woman Who Died a Lot / Jasper Fforde
New York: Viking, c2012.
366 p.

Another entry into the classic Thursday Next series, this is absolutely enchanting. Thursday is recovering from an assassination attempt, and her SpecOps unit is in disarray. As the story opens, this unit is being re-formed and Thursday expects to get the head job. She does not. Instead, her former boss hands her an easier job: Chief Librarian of the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat at Fatso's Drink Not Included Library.

As a librarian myself, this was a great start: seeing Thursday take over this job that she knows little about, and meeting all her support staff -- kind of like civil servants to her PM -- was very entertaining. Fforde gets in a lot of nods to the library world (even the dedication is "to all the librarians who have ever been, ever will be, are now") But I have to say, my favourite moment is when her assistant Duffy explains the emergency 'red phone' to her:

"This is your desk," said Duffy.
In a bit of a daze, I sat down on a plush armchair and looked around. I was parked behind a desk that seemed like an acre of finely polished walnut. There was a large internal phone with a separate button for every library in Wessex, and next to this was an old-fashioned red telephone without a dial -- just a single button with NP etched onto it.
"That's the emergency hotline to Nancy at the World League of Librarians," explained Duffy. "She'll be on the first tube from Seattle if you call her. But make sure it's a real emergency," he added. "If Nancy is dragged all this way for nothing, you'll be in big trouble."

Anyone in the library world will recognize the reference to master librarian Nancy Pearl in this bit; I'm a fan and so found this amusing. The craziness inherent in any Thursday Next novel continues with synthetic Thursdays popping up trying to take her place, with domestic issues revolving around the presence of  memory-altering villain Aornis, with trips to elaborate private libraries in search of new acquisitions and so on and so on. It's a never-ending ride when you're reading Jasper Fforde, and all of the literary references are augmented with library references in this one!

This one was vastly entertaining; if you've been reading this series you'll really enjoy it -- if you haven't read any of the earlier books you may be quite confused. If that's the case, start at the beginning and get ready to enjoy the literary trials and travels of Thursday Next.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Your House is on Fire, Your Children all gone / Stefan Kiesbye
London: Penguin, c2012.
198 p.

I picked this up for the RIP VII Challenge, thinking it would be a creepy, chilling read for this time of year. It was that...actually, it was more than that -- I found it quite disturbing and it left me feeling faintly queasy.

The positives: the cover is extraordinary. So very chilling, in person even more so. The writing itself is very skillful; he has mastery of his subject. There is a comparison to the Brothers Grimm made on the back cover, and that's the comparison that I most sensed while reading. I'm talking the originals, the bloody, violent, incestuous, murderous originals. With a bit of that charming German tale Struwwelpeter thrown in as well. But I read it straight through, unable to look away.

The negatives: bad things happen. I mean really bad, twisted, frightening things. Perhaps I just don't have the stomach for horror, but I found parts of the tale truly revolting.There are four main characters, friends who grow up in the isolated German town of Hemmersmoor, which seems to be a place avoided by even near neighbours. It's characterized as an incestuous, troubled village. The era is just post-war, though it feels much more ancient in the village.

The story shifts from narrator to narrator, giving us a glimpse of the undercurrents in this village from many perspectives. It also introduces us to the interior world of some very messed up children. Does the evil and violence of this village come from supernatural elements, individual psychological perversion, or is it a reflection of something darker in German history as a whole? There are elements of each, but ultimately there is no conclusive finish. The book seems to drift to a close after a catalogue of grotesque events. In the copyright notices, it is revealed that parts of this book were previously published in shorter form, which sometimes shows.

For me personally, this was a disturbing read that I couldn't find much purpose in. There is no denouement, really, except for the return of the four characters, now adults, to the village, which seems to have become a  nice, touristy small town in Germany. Only they hold its dark secrets. Also, the characters don't seem to be changed by the violence they've experienced, either as victims or perpetrators, so there is no sense to be made of all the events in the story. This was not a book I enjoyed, but on the other hand, I was spellbound by the writing enough to keep reading, hoping for some ray of light somewhere. Alas, none were to be found.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Blood and Salt

Blood and Salt / Barbara Sapergia
Regina: Coteau Books, c2012.
448 p.

This is a book that I knew I'd be fascinated by: it tells the story of Ukrainian Canadians who were placed in internment camps during WWI, under the mistaken assumption that they belonged to the AustroHungarian empire and were therefore enemy aliens.

The fact that there were Ukrainian internment camps comes as a surprise to many people; but there were, both in Western and Eastern Canada. (another book that deals with this issue, though aimed at children, is Marsha Skrypuch's Prisoners in the Promised Land It looks at the eastern camp of Spirit Lake which was again different because it held whole families, not just men.)

This is a book written in a simple, conversational tone. It isn't fancy. It tells an important story in a way that feels as if you're sitting listening to someone talk. The main character is Taras Kalyna, who immigrated with his parents after they feared he was going to have to fight in an upcoming war for Austria. Taras' true love Halya immigrated ahead of him with her father and grandmother, and Taras swears he will find her.

The Kalynas get to Canada and take a long train ride west to their new land. As they settle in and begin to make a life for themselves, WWI begins, and Taras, as a young healthy man, is arrested and interned at the Castle Mountain Internment camp (although there is some question as to who turned him in and why...) He and the other men interned are required to hack through forests and dig rock to build a new highway, the Banff-Laggan (Lake Louise) road, summer or winter. Some of the guards are decent men, some are typical of those guarding others -- power hungry and abusive. There are many men in the camp, and Taras finally finds his own private circle, a varied group of men he befriends through proximity. The kinds of men -- a socialist, a teacher, an artist, for example -- in Taras' circle allow for the story to insert elements of the Ukrainian Canadian story in a natural way. And there is a lot of history in this book; I felt that Sapergia was able to weave the facts and the "lectures" into the story very naturally, and give it a meaningful context so that it didn't feel like a textbook or a clumsy history lesson. Each of the men has a past and a particular interest, and their relationships with each other and with the guards develop naturally to provide a complex picture of the situation.

But this book is something more than a history of internment camps. The back story and the incidental side characters are both developed fully, allowing for a lot of mystery and resonance in the telling. We learn about  life in Ukraine that led many to emigrate, we see, taste and smell Western Canada as it looked to immigrants in the early part of the century, we learn fascinating social realities and meet Ukrainians who are not all the same, who are not a faceless mass of "peasants in sheepskin coats" but are individuals with particular habits, mannerisms, fears and joys, likes and dislikes. Not only Taras' story is told, but also Halya's (she is a great character) Through her we get a glimpse at women's lives during this era. Taras' friends in the internment camps also have stories before and after their experience there. His parents make their own way through this new land, befriending Moses, the local "black Ukrainian", an orphan from an African American immigrant family who was adopted by a childless Ukrainian man and grows up to be both black and Ukrainian by language and culture.

It's a rich tale that is paced well and reveals injustice and horror, as well as loyalty, friendship and true love. You don't have to be Ukrainian to enjoy it, but you will certainly learn about the Ukrainian Canadian experience if you do read it! I'd be shocked if this book didn't end up on the shortlist for the Kobzar Award, as it raises awareness of Ukrainian Canadian culture in a beautifully readable way. Highly recommended for anyone looking for stories of Canadians that have remained untold for many years.

**there is a monument to the Ukrainians who built the road, right alongside the highway at the site of Castle Mountain Internment Camp. It reads "Why?" in English, French and Ukrainian.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Etienne's Alphabet

It's been a while since I have sat down long enough to blog about all the reading I'm doing! Or about anything else at all, really. I've been reading quite a bit, and yet not posting much about any of it. I'll have to catch up with some of the titles that were intriguing enough to share.

To begin: my Canadian Book Challenge goal for this year was to review every Canadian book I read, and I am woefully behind on that project. But, I will get back into it with this book -- I can't recall who first mentioned it to me but I thought it sounded intriguing.
(you can read an excerpt at the publisher's site)

Etienne's Alphabet / James King
Toronto: Cormorant Books, c2010.
217 p.

Etienne Morneau is an orphan. He was born in Quebec in 1932 and sent to Toronto when his orphanage was relocated. This has given him a double sense of isolation: a man without a family, without a culture. We meet him through the pages of his journal, describing his upbringing, his living circumstances an adult, and his view of his job as a bank teller, and of other people he comes across in his daily round. He always holds himself at a distance, so his writing is made up of observation more so than engagement with his environment.

We see that Etienne is a creature of habit, that he is gifted numerically and that he has set ways and times of doing things. His journals are presented by subject, in alphabetical order, as a way for him to organize and contain his stories. This choice gives the narrative a bit of a disjointed and at times repetitive nature -- dates and references to people and events are a bit jumbled, which can be just a little confusing. I found myself turning back and forth a few times to ascertain dates and figure out what happened when, what was the cause and what the effect, essentially. However, in general it seemed to work, and was certainly a reflection of Etienne's character, that of a precise, eccentric and quite reserved individual.

Near the end of the story, Etienne discovers art, and in his sudden passion for drawing he finds the joy and passion that had been lacking in his life. It's a passion that overcomes him, expands his vision, and that ends up being the reason for the interest in his life by his "biographer" who has putatively put together this edition of his journals. This framing device was necessary to really comprehend the conclusion of the book, and though I'm not always a fan of such devices, it fit into the narrative as a natural element in this case.

I found the read interesting -- but, as Etienne had no powerful emotional ties to the world he is describing, so neither did I to his story. It was sharp, evocative of his era, full of small detail that coloured his life story, and I did read it with appreciation. But this wasn't one that I loved. I didn't feel a sense of growth in the story or his character until it was too late, and that perhaps comes from the style, or the foregone conclusion that came as expected. I liked it but am not likely to reread.