16 June 2013

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

Thoughts and Reflections:
I was introduced to Isabel Allende through a random Ted Talk that I stumbled across. I immediately liked her wit and decided to look into her writing. When I got my hands on one of her books, I immediately recognised them cover art, though had never read one of her books before. I dove into the novel, ready for whatever its pages would bring.

I knew Allende was a known feminist, or at least a known commentator on things female. I wasn't sure what on the topic of women's rights the novel would bring or how overt her themes would be. Within pages I was completely drawn into the plot and the characters. The protagonist was female and the story talked of her life and revealed the many ways she displayed strength, even as a slave.

The story takes place in Haiti in its last years as a french colony, called Saint Domingue, and through its fight for independence. The story traces the life of a plantation owner, Valmoraine, but his story seemed to be written only for the purpose of providing context to the story of his slave, Zarite. The story follows Zarite from when she is bought at the age of nine by Valmoraine for the purpose of taking care of his new wife and follows Zarite into her own motherhood and eventual freedom from slavery.

A number of women characters feature in the novel, each one revealing a degree of independence and strength, both physically and mentally. The women, in whatever role they held from plantation slave to domestic slave to prostitute to mulatto kept wife all displayed strength and intelligence.

The issue of slavery is also discussed throughout the novel. Debates of the day are mentioned, both for and against slavery. I found it so interesting to hear the pro-slavery rhetoric and the degree to which people justified slavery. Reading it today, it seems incredible that people believed themselves. Allende, in her subtle ways, added insult to injury by juxtaposing the white population along side the blacks and mulattos and making them appear completely frivolous and ridiculous.

Racism, naturally, was another prevalent theme. Black, mulatto, and white each held a particular place in the day's society, largely unable to move in either directions socially purely based on the colour of their skin. The story of Rosette, Zarite's daughter, encapsulates this issue. Rosette is a mulatta born to Zarite by Valmorain. Being born to a slave, she was also a slave, but was raised alongside Valmorain's son, Maurice, and never understood her slavery and position in society. Her lack of awareness of the colour of her skin and what that meant for her results in a major dilemma, a dilemma which displays the balance of power in this society and how ridiculously the power is balanced. 

The power dynamic was continually displayed between men and women, as well as among classes and skin colours. Allende displays the powerlessness Zarite held in her world, despite being a strong and capable woman. There are only a few brief glimpses when circumstances change temporarily, allowing Zarite power over Valmorain.

Allende has a beautiful way of writing. Her style quickly draws the reader into the plot and the lives of the characters. She also has an incredible ability to talk about deep and interesting topics without smacking the reader over the head, leaving the reading questioning what the whole thing was all about, or leaving the reader depressed under the devastating realities of humanity and life.

I would absolutely recommend this novel and any of Allende's works.  I have added this book to my list of top recommendations, but would certainly recommend anything by her. Her writing is profound in a way that I have never encountered.

About the Author:
Isabel Allende was born in Chile in 1942. She has become a major force to be reckoned with in advocating for women's rights and empowerment. Here is a link to her website where she describes her own history in her own words.

01 May 2013

The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath

Thoughts and Reflections:
I had wanted to learn a bit more about some of the issues in Canadian history. This book is about the exile of Inuit people into the far north, mostly as a means to protect Canada's sovereignty in the area. In The Long Exile, the author focuses primarily on the relocation of Inuit from Inukjuak on the Ungava Peninsula on the eastern coast of Hudson's Bay to Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island in the far north. In part, she follows the lineage of Robert Flaherty, the creator of the 1920 documentary Nanook of the North, who fathered a son with an Inuit woman while filming, but left before his son was born.

Typically, I have not been a great non-fiction reader, and prefer a good novel to relax. Melanie McGrath, however, managed to write this history in a very accessible way. Perhaps she could be compared to Pierre Burton, by writing a bit of a narrative, somehow, to an historic time-line. This is not a work of historical fiction, though the author does include a bit of wondering about the thoughts of the various people involved. At points, she describes what a character was thinking at a particular time, which she couldn't possibly have known. There are no citations in the book, though it is evident that the author has done her research.

The book had good flow and I very much enjoyed the read. I'm sure historians certainly would take some issue with how she presents the information, but they get picky with Pierre Burton as well. The author did decide to leave out certain information until the end, perhaps not wanting to interrupt one issue with another.  The end was a bit of a race to get the remaining facts out and leaves the reader wondering a bit about what all went on. So, all in all, I did find that this book was a wonderful introduction to this issue, which has been listed as one of the worst abuses of human rights in Canada. I would also recommend doing some follow up reading on the issue. In no way is this a definitive text on the subject. It is, however, an accessible text on an issue all Canadians should be aware of.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Thoughts and Reflections
I had taken this book out of the library at least three times before finally having the time to read it once I had my hands on it. Being one who doesn't typically read the synopsis, I had no idea what this book was about. All I knew going into this books was that I loved The Poisonwood Bible from a few years back.

As I read this book, I wondered more than once what the point of it was. Mostly, it seemed more like a biography. In fact, it is written as a biography, complete with notes from the archivist. Anyway, with the hope of experiencing great things, I continued to read the novel. I enjoyed it, absolutely, despite not really knowing where it was going. And, in the end, I found it thought provoking.

The story of the protagonist was interesting and unique. I just didn't always know why I was reading about it. The book lacks a clear conflict, as seems to be the trend in modern novels. Only when I was about three quarters of the way through did I begin to see the conflict, the themes and purpose of the novel. The themes were subtle until they became obvious.

Personal history is a central element to this novel. The protagonist believes strongly in history and how history creates the present. He has a discussion at one point with his stenographer about how American's dismiss their history and look to the future. If they thought of their history, they would have to consider their actions more than they feel the need to do so now. The Mexicans are more connected with their history, thinking back on their ancestry in a way that the Americans don't. The author doesn't necessarily claim that one method is better or more moral than the other, but rather simply comments on the connection of history to an individual and to the culture and what value, if there is value, that connection may bring.

Newspapers, Mass media, and the spread of information was another key theme running throughout the novel. The media in the novel was more likely to spread untruth than truth. The protagonist repeatedly experiences the lies that the media declares as truth. He himself is subject to the made up truths, as are his employers. Even as a school boy he knows the truth of the situation and reads the falsehoods in the newspapers. As a result, the protagonist, though avidly reads the papers, is not bothered by the rumours spread by the paper and forever takes what they claim to be true with a grain of salt, well, a lot of salt. This results in the author not really noticing the gravity of the events going on around him. Believing everything he reads to be false and sensationalist, spun for entertainment more than the spreading of true information, he misses what is going on around him.

Themes of fear persist throughout the novel. The protagonist is employed by Trotsky while Trotsky is in exile in Mexico. Trotsky daily lives in the fear of being assassinated, an assassination that, as we know now, was inevitable. Nonetheless, Trotsky wrote prolifically and never seemed to lose his passion for his cause. He did not let his fear master him. He relentlessly fought to clear his name, to bring truth to the lies that were so vehemently spread about him, perhaps hoping the the fear of assassination would vanish with an emerging truth. The protagonist, following the death of Trotsky, also struggles with the fear of assassination, which manifests as social anxiety. Another character, Frida, is constantly worried for her health. Finally, the mania of the cold war and the fears of a communist take-over play a strong role in the novel. The author shows how fear limits the ability of individuals live.

I knew that fear ran rampant in during the cold war, perhaps stronger in the US than in Canada. However, I had forgotten that cold war fears also resulted in black lists, witch hunts, the defamation of so many people, and the deportation of so many more. The protagonist, a character that I found endearing in his shy and quiet way, experienced the worst of the black lists. The reader reads as the newspapers publish all kinds of false tales, adding insult to injury, and resulting in the demise of a kind and peaceful man. The protagonist, long having been aware of the lies news media can weave, is powerless to clear his name and even close friends leave him behind, either disgusted by him or afraid to get pulled into the mire. As I read the final pages of the novel, reading the spiral, how the media spun its stories, I felt nauseated. Much like modern voters mindlessly buying into the simple ad campaigns of politicians, I was appalled that people believed the drivel they were spoon fed. The author specifically mentions that no media agent called to confirm quotes or stories, but rather fed off one another impossible truths and fed them to the masses who believed the lies and treated people like the days rubbish.

All in all, the novel was enjoyable. It definitely became more interesting as I read and, perhaps, as I figured out what it was all about. I would recommend the novel. The discussion of the media is certainly an interesting one. Though it is set in the early 1900s and then in the cold war, the author's discussion of the media is certainly still relevant. 

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Thoughts and Reflections:
This novel knocked my socks off. I can't remember where I heard about it, but somewhere along the line I had requested it from the library and suddenly it had arrived. Not being someone who reads the synopsis, I had little knowledge about the book other than it was on the short-list for the Governor Generals Award and one of the Canada Reads books.

This was absolutely one of the most difficult books I have ever read. The protagonist, Baby, is the daughter of a heroine addict. The novel discusses her life Montreal as a child of poverty and neglect. It discusses how the entire world let her down time and time again, until she is prostituting and shooting heroine at the age of fourteen. It is a devastating story.

The novel begins on a much lighter note. The reader is quickly made aware of the habits of the eleven year old Baby, but also of the close relationship between father and daughter. Despite his addiction and neglect, he loves his daughter deeply. Baby is a remarkably endearing character throughout the novel. The reader first becomes acquainted with her when she is still completely a child, dazzled by her father, charmed by the quirks of life, and unperturbed by the poverty and cruelty around her.

Ironically, her life begins to flip upside down when her father, Jules, goes into rehab. This event changes their relationship and proceeds to isolate one from the other. This is also when Baby's life takes a definitive turn for the worst. Baby becomes the main decision maker in her life, but the decisions she is forced to make at this stage are terrible.

The reader is made to sit idly by as Baby is failed by the system, her peers, her father, her school, and essentially every adult in her world. She becomes stigmatised as a troubled kid and is subsequently ostracised by her friends and the adults around her. When she becomes involved in a community group for troubled youth, her father prevents her from participating in a group for "delinquents," thus perpetuating the stigmatisations.

The novel discusses the role of social workers and the social system as they affect Baby. This is not a pretty picture to paint. The social workers fail to listen or get to know Baby, stigmatising her and putting her in a school for troubled kids, despite her previous academic performances. Her social workers are mostly a revolving door and Baby fails to develop a consistent relationship with any worker, because they don't work with her for very long. Eventually, they confuse her situation and also her history and present.The novel clearly indicated how the system failed to even attempt to help a kid like Baby, a kid who, to the readers eyes, is good hearted but continually run down by her situation in life.

Baby's stigmatisation is one of the most prevalent themes and it runs throughout the book. She becomes increasingly aware of how she is stigmatised and subject to its consequences. She goes from appearing like a unique and creative child in a touch situation to a poor kid to a troubled kid to a prostituting drug addict. People leave her behind, not wanting to touch or be touched by her life. Parents prevent their children from associating with her, rather than becoming the welcoming and reliable adult. Their abandonment of her and her increasing stigmatisation drives her to increasingly terrible situations and decisions. Not wanted to be involved with her pimp/boyfriend any longer, she seeks out a friend from school, who is then prevented from seeing her by his parents because she is a troubled kid. Having no one else to turn to in a difficult situation, Baby returns to the toxic relationship with the pimp/boyfriend. 

The book discusses drug addiction, the reasons for starting on drugs, and, naturally, the consequences. It is completely stunning when Baby begins taking drugs, but somehow understandable. Baby was a child who became completely isolated in the world, with no one other than an abusive pimp/boyfriend to turn to. The reader watches as her childhood melts away, being replaced with a terrifying adulthood, all before she becomes a teenager.

This book was incredibly difficult to read. It was absolutely a book that I wanted to throw aside without reading any further and never think about it again. However, I knew if I did that, I would never be able to get the characters or situations out of my mind, so continued reading through the tough and tumble.

The ending is somehow pleasant, which was a huge relief. I could only imagine the future that lay ahead for Baby if she was allowed to continue on her path. The reader had watched the somehow remarkably preventable moments occur in her downfall and was again watching as these striking events, seemingly coincidences, lead her back to some kinds of normal life. The novel ends with her at the very beginning of a new chapter of her life. I wondered very much about how she would leave behind her world of before, one of perverted men and unreliable adults. Could a mere change of scenery alter the course of perception and drug addiction? Nonetheless, it is a hopeful ending.

In some ways, strangely, despite the very cruel reality of Baby's situation, the book is still sugar coated. Baby has a father is is mixed up, but he still loved her deeply. Baby is very endearing and the reader has the distinct impression that she is, throughout the novel, a good kid in a bad situation. She is distinguished from other kids in similar situations as somehow being of a gentler spirit and kinder heart, as though she were the only one of them with purer intentions an desires, that all she needed was a bit of love to straighten her out again. I certainly believe that a reliable, caring, and consistent adult in her life would be a major game changer in her life, but the novel somewhat ignores the issues that she will be facing due to the events of her life. The ending, as I mentioned, is hopeful, but does not really pursue the reality of the issues that Baby will have to sort out, even if she were in the most wonderful and loving situations. Heroine addiction is one thing, not to mention that everything she has learned about the world to date had to do with drug addiction, abuse, and prostitution. Moving to the ideal country setting with caring adults does not instantly change learned behaviours. Despite the ending's positivity, Baby has a major uphill battle ahead of her.

I'm not sure if I would recommend this novel. It is a very well written novel, but it is also an utterly devastating read. At the same time, perhaps everyone should read this novel, if only to have their eyes opened by the truth of how we stigmatise people when perhaps they just need a hand up. I was struck to learn when I read the brief biography of the author that the novel is somewhat biographic. It becomes impossible to declare that times have changed or that this is just a novel when hit by the understanding that such a life was someone's reality.

27 February 2013

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

Thoughts and Reflections
I would never have chosen this book for myself. However, as it happened, I read the novel, beginning to end, and all out loud. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this novel. It seems that this was the perfect novel for the time, for a good read in early January. 

This novel is an exploration into why we are who we are, why we are the way we are, and how our experiences shape us. This novel explores the lives of a handful of characters whose paths cross in one way or another throughout the duration of the novel. All characters are connected to a new hotel in Stoneybridge. 

This book could easily been seen as fluffy and indeed it is an easy read. However, the novel is strangely profound. Never claiming to proclaim great truths about life or lives lived, the reader still explores a number of situations, both superficial and difficult, some with resolutions and others without tidy conclusions. Through each situation the reader learns more about the characters. I found myself enjoying getting to know these characters, this random bunch who are connected through a random holiday week in Ireland. 

The ending is decidedly upbeat for the most part, leaving the reading feeling positive and content with the lives of the characters. The sap in this novel comes in the sense of resolution discovered by most of the character through their contact with the hotel and its owner. Normally such an ending would irritate me. Not long ago, someone said to me that depth in fiction can only be achieved through depressing story lines. I would venture that Maeve Binchy challenges that premise. This novel offers a number of themes and situations worth exploring. She doesn't dance around difficult subjects, such as estranged family relationships, teenage rebellion, unexpected pregnancies, or shattered dreams and false love. The beauty of this novel is the resilience of the characters. Despite the hiccoughs in their personal lives and bumps along the way, they bounce back. 

All in all, I enjoyed this novel. I would recommend it as an enjoyable read that isn't complete fluff. The characters were certainly enjoyable to get to know and I found myself reading just a little bit more... and then a bit more... and then just one more section before putting the book down for the evening. It was certainly an enjoyable read. 

About the Author
Maeve Binchy was born in 1940 in Dalkey, County Dublin, Ireland. Maeve attended a convent school in Killliney before going on to University College Dublin to study History. After graduating, she worked as a teacher. She went on to work as a journalist at the Irish Times after her father sent the letters Maeve sent to him about her time at a kibbutz in Isreal to the newspaper. Then she began writing novels and short stories. In 2002, Maeve Binchy suffered a heart-related crisis. These experiences inspired her to write the novel Heart and Soul. A Week in Winter was published in 2012. She passed away in July 2012 at the age of 72.

16 December 2012

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

Thoughts and Reflections
This novel had been on my reading list for sometime. The novel was in such high demand, that my hold on the book at the library expired before I could get my hands on the book (that's right, with more than 500 people waiting to read this thing, it took more than a year for me to get it). Oddly, I finally got my hands on it when I was wandering through the library trying to sate myself in those awkward days when you suddenly have time and have finished your current books, but your new requests haven't come in just yet. There it was, just sitting on the shelf and I snagged it at long last. I dove in the moment I got home (and had a cup of tea in my hand) and liked it immediately.

The novel is a strange tale of three characters with a entwined heritage of which none of the characters are aware. The novel is about life and adventure. It's about trying new things and challenging the status quo. I enjoyed how the lives of the characters intermingled and crossed, but never quite met. It added a mystical quality to their nomadic lives. I liked where things ended, which was by no means the end of a family history or the end of the adventures. I liked the quirks and uniqueness of these normal, yet extraordinary people.

I read the book in translation (because I am a bad Canadian and don't speak, read or understand French). The translation was fantastic, however, and (I can only imagine) managed to preserve to zest and tone of the original. Kudos to the translator Lazer Laderhendler!

The book is fairly unconventional. I have trouble isolating themes for the novel, but, as any book with strong themes, I find myself thinking about the characters and story long after I've finished the book. I suppose potential themes could be something about taking control of ones own life or finding the adventure in life or appreciating each individual's unique history. But, in some ways, themes feel secondary. The book doesn't wrap up tidily with inspiring closing remarks or a sense of closure. Rather the book ends leaving the reader wondering about the lives. Perhaps the author was trying to say that our lives don't have to have a particular purpose, that we don't necessarily have a particular lesson to learn, that really our lives are just about living and living can come in a myriad of forms. Ultimately, this is a story about journeys not endings.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this novel. I loved the twists and turns. I loved how it ambled through daily lives. I loved that it was set in Montreal. And I loved all the little tidbits for the reader to muse over. I would certainly recommend the novel.

Here is a link to a review from the Quill and Quire if you are wanting a more comprehensive review. I feel as though my mind is still processing this book more than a week after I've finished reading it.

About the Author
Nicolas Dickner was born in Quebec in 1972 and is a Canadian author and songwriter. He currently lives is Montreal and works as a literary columnist for Voir. Nikolski was published in 2005 and translated into English in 2008. The novel has won a number of awards in Canada, including the Governor General's Award in 2008 and CBC's Canada Reads in 2010.

10 December 2012

Snowdrops by AD Miller

Thoughts and Reflections

I'm not sure what I expected from this novel. Perhaps something more to do with youth or at least some new spin on an old topic. I expected a degree of violence, knowing that snowdrop in Russian means a body that is discovered in the spring thaw having been hidden in the snow all winter. but I didn't expect the overwhelmingly narrow story that was told. The novel I found was a story of the same old stereotypical corrupt Russia.

Perhaps the story only felt predictable because I know a bit about the time period about which he was writing. But that couldn't be all. Throughout the length of the novel I felt the growing gloom and doom and knew the inevitable long before it happened. I raced through the last pages of the novel, not because they were thrilling, but because I couldn't wait for it to be over. I just needed to confirm my prediction of the ending and stop thinking about the novel. The story failed to portray any Russian in a positive light, but instead fed into the image of the corruption, deceit, slime and murder of an uncaring people. It was nauseating, but perhaps expected from a foreign correspondent for the Economist. The permeating negativism towards Russians grew tiring to say the least. I had wanted to learn something new about Russia and its people from this book, but instead found the same stories of murder, scandal, and corruption. 

Much of what the author described was true and I could certainly identify with his description of Russia's fashions, but I felt his perspective was so limited, so singularly focused that he failed to see anything good or lovely in the culture, people or country. All cultural references mocked Russia, forever painting interesting cultural elements and events as nefarious or backwards. The author simply seemed unable to see anything else, nothing but the corruption. I understand that the author approached Russia in a different context from me. He, as a journalist, is likely forever looking for secrets and scandal to uncover. Happy stories don't really make good news. I was a student, hungry to learn about and participate in the culture. I might swing too far the other way and too easily ignore problems in the culture. Nonetheless, the fact that every single character was out to murder and scam for the sake of money, with the exception of the victims, was as obnoxious as disheartening. It definitely reminds me of the bias with which the news is presented.

The protagonist was an interesting character. In the novel he is telling his fiance in a letter about these past events in Russia. The novel is a confession of his both willing and unwitting ignorance in the events and scams going on in his personal and professional life. He identifies key points where things could have gone differently in both scams, moments where he could have stopped things from going the way they did. On the one scam, he could have prevented a death, on the other, he could have saved large sums of investment money. He novel is a confession of these moments, while the protagonist still struggles under the burden of these mistakes. On the one hand, I found this an interesting element to the novel. Who hasn't felt this kind of responsibility in their lives. On the other hand, it adds to the grim tone of the novel and offers nothing of a brighter future or how the protagonist copes with this burden. 

Overall, I wouldn't recommend this novel and am annoyed at the image of Russia it is perpetuating. I didn't think it was particularly well written and found the plot predictable and despairing. I am continually surprised that this novel was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

About the Author 
AD Miller was born in London, UK in 1974. He studied literature at Cambridge and Princeton, where he began his journalistic career writing travel pieces about America. Returning to London, he worked as a television producer before joining The Economist to write about British politics and culture. In 2004, he became The Economist's correspondent in Moscow, travelling widely across Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is currently the magazine's Britain editor; he lived in London with his wife, son and daughter. Snowdrops was his first novel. (Biographical information taken from here.)