Saturday, July 30, 2016

Major's Standard Candles

Standard Candles / Alice Major
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2015.
164 p.

I started the month with a book of poetry, and I'm ending it with one as well. And they are both wonderfully seeded with science. 

Alice Major has written 10 books of poetry, though this is the first one that I've encountered. Her long apprenticeship in poetry shows clearly; this book is strong all the way through, with each poem and/or group of poems astonishing and stopping me in its turn.

The title comes from Henrietta Leavitt's discovery of how to use the brightness of stars as a standard of measurement - she of course got no credit for this, though it changed astronomy forever (more about Miss Leavitt in a review of a biography I read some time ago). The set of poems under this name includes one, "Clouds of Glory", which speaks of Henrietta Leavitt & her work directly. I felt, strangely, like I'd met an old friend when I turned that page (coincidentally, page 42?)

I like how this book is structured; it has collections of related poems under headings, like brief chapters. It begins with "The set of all gods" which I very much enjoyed - the idea that there are gods of many things, the god of prime numbers, of probabilities, infinities, quantum uncertainty, or teapots, cats, and memory. One I was particularly drawn to was the god of automata, which includes lines like:

the god of automata

links atom to atom
like a knitting pattern
with simple rules.....

the god of automata
crochets a chain
of mindless proteins
into a loop.....

Major follows this with more clever sets of poems, 8 in all, with a postscript tagged on that many Canadian writers, readers and librarians may find themselves laughing over, though perhaps ruefully....the poem is entitled "God submits a grant application to the Canada Council". 

I think my favourite set, for the idea but also for the technique, which was really on show in these poems, was "Let us compare cosmologies". So many references to other literary and scientific works are just thrown in, giving so much resonance to simple lines. And the way that Major puts together short lines that are "bigger on the inside", so to speak, is quite fascinating. 

The first poem in this set is the title one, and it sets the stage for the comparisons to follows. It begins & ends as follows:

There is a beginning and middle.
There is an arc of narrative...

And the questions every universe expects:
what came before? What happens next?

Lines from this poem are then contained and added to in each of the following poems in the set, all cosmologies from the viewpoints of a nihilist, magician, consumer, a baker, and optimist, to name a few. It's an accretion of detail that adds up to a marvellous book in total. 

And don't fear, there are notes for nearly all the poems at the back, explaining any of the references or scientific details that may be more obscure. Not only can you read and enjoy the wonderful play of words, you can learn things and close the book feeling just a bit more clever ;) 

I recommend this one to the beginning poetry reader, as the poems are complex but not intimidating or inaccessible. There's a warmth and conversational tone to the book despite all the hard science - as I love science-y bits this was the perfect read for me. 

I'll close with the final lines from the Optimist's take on the cosmos:

And in the circus of the infinite
     somewhere there's a system
where everything turns out all right.
     It could be this one.


For a preview of Standard Candles, listen in to Alice Major’s reading at Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series.
Four poems appear in The New Quarterly

Alice Major's earlier collection of essays about poetry and science, Intersecting Sets, (which I loved) goes with this latest collection very well indeed. You could have a full weekend of Major poetry ;)

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.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Street of Riches

It is very quotable. All those flags are passages
to be copied out...
Street of Riches / Gabrielle Roy; translated by Henry Binsse.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967, c1957.
158 p.
(New Canadian Library No. 56)

I've always loved Gabrielle Roy's elegaic, quiet writing style. Her Road Past Altamont or Children of My Heart have been favourites of mine for years. But I'd never read this one before. First published as Rue Deschambault in 1955, it won the Governor General's Award in 1957 with its English appearance.

This tells us the story of Christine, one sibling among many. Their family lives in St. Boniface, Manitoba, but her father is often away because of his work as a settlement agent. When he is home, he is quiet and withdrawn, having spent all his gregariousness on his settlers. Christine thinks that if only her parents acted when together as they did when apart, everyone would have been happier. However, Roy's melancholic storytelling holds sway and there is much reflection and contemplation of what life had been like and what it could have been like, through Christine's eyes.

The book is a collection of 18 episodes that make up Christine's nostalgic remembrances of things past. She is a bookish girl, and is eventually directed toward teaching as a career. Much of this book is apparently based on Roy's life, lightly fictionalized. There are stories of her father's work, of her own childhood illness, and most memorably, of a trip her mother arranged to take back to Quebec, which necessitated placing her children into various care situations and taking only Christine with her, all done while their father was away. His anger upon their return was overcome by all the stories of the old village and their relatives, and how things were changed or not changed -- nostalgia and the evanescent sense of the past once again wins over the melancholic Roy character.

It's a calm, elegaic piece of work; beautifully descriptive, as is most of Roy's work. The viewpoint of Christine, a sensitive girl, means that we see moments of delicate beauty -- even those that come as she lies motionless on the porch recovering from her long illness and beauty is all in her perceptions. We see a deep empathy toward the emotional lives of others, especially her mother, and an understanding of her choices in retrospect. The landscape is important as well, with Christine describing the soul of her Manitoba setting. 

The setting, 1920s Manitoba, also means that among the bittersweet stories of Christine's memories lie nuggets of historical content -- ideas of immigration, multiculturalism, women's roles and more.  They show up naturally, and might even be unnoticed at times -- but Roy makes the observations. 

This is a beautiful read that I recommend if you are in the mood for some slower paced realism, tinged with a haze of nostalgia (plus some fabulous descriptions of everyday lives including clothing & sewing). Readers who enjoy artistic writing and deeply developed characters should enjoy this book.


Further Reading:

Although I'd hesitate to compare Roy to LM Montgomery, much of Christine's attachment to place and memory reminds me of Pat Gardiner in Montgomery's Pat of Silver Bush & Mistress Pat. The writing styles can be equally flowery, but have a different tone. LMM is less dreamy, and usually includes some humour in her writing.

Another book which is an atmospheric rendering of a small Western town, though this time in British Columbia in the 1930s, is Ethel Wilson's Hetty Dorval. It also features narration from the point of view of a young girl, Frankie Burnaby, who is telling the story from her own older perspective. Other than this slant and the poetic writing, however, the books diverge in plot and Wilson's has a relatively more scandalous storyline.

Friday, July 08, 2016

I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Reid

I'm Thinking of Ending Things / Iain Reid
New York: Simon & Schuster, c2016.
210 p.

I've read a couple of disturbing books recently, and this is one of them. It is creepy, with its rural, snowy, dark setting, and its uncertain narration. Who do you believe? Who is telling the truth?

It's tense, all the way through. From its slightly off-kilter opening...

 I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always. its frankly nightmarish ending -- it is spooky. 

So, what is it about? Jake has a new girlfriend whom he's taking home to meet the parents. She's not all that certain this is a good idea, especially since she's pretty sure she'll be breaking up with him soon anyhow. But she goes along.

The trip is awkward, with Jake acting a bit tense. And when they get to his parents' farm, they are also a bit odd. After driving all the way out there in the snow, just for dinner, they get in the car and head home -- they aren't staying overnight. And that's when things get really scary. Jake decides to stop at his old high school...and every teen film terror trope comes back to haunt their imaginations. 

While this book ultimately was not to my tastes, I can appreciate how its brevity and quick pace will catch people more fond of psychological thrillers. It catches you with the first words and keeps getting more confusing and spooky (in a good way) with every following page. If you like to be unsure about what is actually happening, and to be required as a reader to trust that the author knows where he is going with the story, this is a good choice for you. Plus it is short enough that you can read it all in one go, not having to step out of the build-up at all.

I didn't like the ending at all; it relied on a concept that didn't work for me. But if you don't have this same reservation about it, you'll probably enjoy this heart-thumping read. Great for a hot summer day: it will give you chills.


Further Reading: 

Shari Lapeña's new novel The Couple Next Door is written in the same kind of choppy, non-flowery style, and has a similarly mismatched and distrustful couple. While they face different pressures than the couple in this book, the ending is also startling and unexpectedly violent.

Michel Faber's Under the Skin also features a lot of driving, this time with hitchhikers. And with just as much adrenaline-raising confusion and misdirection in the narrative. Why and what is happening? Another book that you have to run with and just hope it all makes sense in the end...

Monday, July 04, 2016

Quantum Affinities?

The Affinities / Robert Charles Wilson
New York: Tor, c2015.
300 p.

Adam is a young man when easily accessible testing becomes available that can help you sort yourself into an "affinity", a group of like-minded others that work as a sort of guild, supporting one another. This algorithmically determined sorting promises a utopian future.

However, not everyone is delighted by this. There are those whose tests don't place them into any of the 22 Affinities, who feel overlooked and ignored by power. There are those who refuse to be tested, or who don't believe their test results (end up in Slytherin, anyone? Did you just leave it there?)

Adam is a bit of a dull character, an Adamic everyman for readers to follow and identify with. It makes it hard to maintain the excitement of the story when the main character is so passive, but it really does make sense to have it that way -- it's like he hasn't 100% committed to the idea of affinities even when he seems to have done so. Of course Utopia never lasts, and internecine fighting between Affinities begin. The Taus, Adam's Affinity, claim moral high ground and the right to be the top Affinity, especially compared to the authoritarian, violent Hets, the villians of the piece. Nevertheless, the Taus have done some pretty awful things too, a bit more sneakily though.

It's broken up into three sections and so we see Adam's involvement begin, peak, and wane. It's an interesting work of sociological speculative fiction; much is made of technology and the human tendency toward tribalism. I think it provides us with a lot to consider in our world of social media and constructed identities. While it did move a bit slowly at times, and the end was a bit of a letdown, I did enjoy it. There is a lot to talk over in this story, a lot that seems quite possible. Why or whether it should be would be interesting to debate.

Quantum Night / Robert J. Sawyer
Toronto: Viking, c2016.
351 p.

I picked this one up since I've often liked Sawyer's thought-provoking fiction. But this one...this one disturbed me and after I read it I wished I hadn't.

It's too bad, really. The premise sounded very appealing -- a Ukrainian-Canadian professor based in Winnipeg discovers that he has a hole in his memory, having lost 6 months out of a year when he was a student. To uncover why and what happened then, he reaches back into the past thanks to some pretty miraculous technology and recalls facts that lead him to his present quandry: he realizes he did some horrible things back then.

There's also a love interest, of course, the college girlfriend he treated badly who is now a physicist in Saskatoon, and inexplicably she reconnects with him. Together they realize that the world is made up of 3 kinds of people, Q1, Q2, and Q3 according to the position of quantum particles in the brain. While I was reading the explanations for all of this quantum physics/biology Sawyer sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher. I found his love of info dumps and sciencey talk tedious and jargony, and ultimately unnecessary in a book in which characters drive the vague science forward.

Unfortunately this was not one of these books. The love interest, Kayla Huron, is ridiculously shallow and uninteresting; the main character Jim Marchuk is unbearably smug and obnoxious. Sadly, I felt that he was a mansplaining, self-absorbed character, especially in the cold-hearted Utilitarian philosophy he spouts and adheres to in the non-nuanced way you expect your bachelor uncle to do after he's had a few too many at the family barbeque. I wouldn't mind so much if he was supposed to be a difficult character, but it's clear that he is being held up as the hero, and the characteristics that irritated me (including his annoying habit of tossing in pop culture references and 'puns' that aren't puns all the time and calling it clever) are thought of as pluses. Also: he admits he's middle-aged and flabby but yet his old girlfriend is immediately re-attracted to him and falls immediately into non-demanding sex with him. He is middle-aged and flabby and yet when attacked by random road ragers he kills the young, violent dude chasing him, easy peasy, nothing to it. Oh, and did I mention the American invasion of Canada at the end, a silly and overblown plot device that shows that Sawyer has been thinking about American tv perhaps a little too much recently?

But the main issue I had with this book was its oversimplification of human personality and self-awareness. According to Jim, the world breaks down into those three quantum states, which they call "p-zeds, psychos, and quicks" for easy reference. Jim -- OF COURSE -- is the most highly evolved, a quick, and the others around him are not nearly so brilliant. Psychos are psychopaths, those without caring or empathy. Sawyer states a few times that psychopaths are not all violent killers but many times those who live and work around you. And yet, when characters switch states they immediately start thinking and saying the kinds of things that you might associate with violent criminals. And the worst is his portrayal of p-zeds (philosopher's zombies). They are individuals without an inner voice, an inner monologue that we might otherwise think of as a conscience or a self -- and he refers to them like they are a lesser species, simply drones or zombies to be used by the clever (such as Jim of course). This panders to the worst kind of self-righteous, smug young sf reader who I am hoping will not now have found a new way to judge and feel superior to others.

All in all, despite the pleasure of seeing places I know depicted in fiction, I can't recommend this one.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes

22856182A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes / Madhur Anand
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
112 p.

Some months ago now, I was sent a copy of this book of poetry for review, after noting how much the combination of poetry and science would appeal to me. The cover is gorgeous, and the poet is a scientist with a literary flair.

It was a great book to dip into again over this long weekend. It focuses on science & technology in a way that appeals to the senses, for example, with a poem about hex codes -- but also takes the ideas further, into a prediction of catastrophes both broad and personal. 

The language plays with scientific constructs in a way that is not off-putting to the non-scientist, rather it's the use of a particular vocabulary that enchants. Anand takes concepts and ideas and expands them into themes with multiple shadings of meaning. Like with other more traditional nature poetry, the scientific content stands in for other things even while having its own presence. I love the combination of science and art so for me this was a perfect mix.

The poems are brief and vivid. Some of them pull more from an individual event - for example, one poem I loved was about her mother's sewing. Sewing is another fine example of the blend between technology and art, one that I value highly, and so I found this poem personally memorable. But the language is so engaging in itself that anyone who reads poetry just for its sound will enjoy this too.

Anand has created a scientific guide that just happens to be written in poetry; she describes the natural world beautifully, and writes that she uses a 13 syllable line in many poems, reflecting the atomic mass of carbon (which I didn't know, or notice - it is in the notes!) And she includes one of my favourite things, the found poem; in this case, she is using lines pulled from scientific articles, all sources footnoted of course.

I recommend this beautiful and down-to-earth book of poetry; it's stimulating, accessible, and provides a new perspective on many daily things. It's also lovely to browse through again and again, to discover new favourites each time.

Read two poems from this collection at The New Quarterly.

View a brief interview here:




Further Reading:

Another poet & writer who melds science and poetry well is Alice Major - her book of essays Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science is a wonderful read. And she has a new book of scientifically inspired poems, Standard Candles, which I'm currently reading.

Alissa York's The Naturalist is a new novel but it also appeals to the science-minded in its exploration of the ecosystem of the Amazon, through Victorian eyes. If want to experience another writer who can describe nature gorgeously, this is the one to pick up.

Friday, July 01, 2016

A Decade of the Canadian Book Challenge

John at the Book Mine Set has been running this relaxed challenge for the past 9 years, and now the 10th year of the Canadian Book Challenge is underway

Join in - it's easy and fun. Read 13 titles over a year (from July 1 - July 1) -- choose whatever you want that is Canadian in any way you want to argue it, and share your reviews with other readers. That's it. Add to the total of 7028 reviews over the last 9 years -- that's right, over 7000 reviews of fabulous Canadian books that you can still look through by clicking on the yearly roundup links on John's blog. And you join any time this year. Right here.

I'll be reading along once again, and trying to keep current with the reviews; that's the part I'm finding harder than reading so many great books. I have stacks of both the latest releases and books from the last century to read and enjoy, and of course I always add many new titles to explore as the challenge progresses and I find new reviews by other participants. 

This is a great challenge and a way to celebrate Canadian writing, and this year it's with prizes ;) So join us and have fun reading!