Monday, October 16, 2017

Man Booker Prize Prediction

Tomorrow is the big day. First time I have read all the books on the shortlist, so I can give an opinion with full knowledge of each book's quality (well at least my subjective taste I guess).



Who I Want To Win: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

I already wrote a very long review for this magnificent tome of a novel so those who read it know my love for this book. The four worlds of Archie Ferguson are not ones I will soon forget. I feel many haven't given the book its due though, seeing many Booktubers and pundits just choosing to not even read it, phased by the 880 pages. It's totally worth it though and hope that a win will push many more eyes onto the page.

Who Will Win: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I am going a bit on the limb because I don't know if the jury will want to give the award to another American the year after Paul Beatty won the award. I enjoyed short story maestro George Saunder's first novel, although I was not blown away compared to many of the books many ardent fans. That said, it was a very ambitious project, giving an emotionally charged tale of Lincoln grieving his dead son told through the eyes and voices of many dead souls accompanying Willie Lincoln as he journeys into the afterlife.

I wouldn't be shocked to see Mohsid Hamid's Exit West win, though, if the jury decides to not go American again. Again I liked it when I first read it, but frankly the book hasn't sat well with me with time and would be a bit disappointed if it were to take the prize. That the book seems to have sparked very divided opinions, though, suggests it will not easily find consensus on the jury.

Who May Pull Off The Upset: Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

I thought this novel was brilliant, a combination of beautiful descriptive prose and aggressive genre bending that slowly gathers steam as the plot barrels toward the blazing climax. That this is Mozley's first novel is incredible and if she were to win (and there are lots of lovers of Elmet who would be pleased with the outcome on Booktube and elsewhere) it would mark an explosive beginning to her literary career. Here is my more developed review.

Let's see how I do tomorrow around 5pm EST.








Thursday, October 12, 2017

BILL CLINTON IS NO FRIEND OF READERS

In the world of arts and entertainment, this has been a revealing week. As Harvey Weinstein has been rightfully crucified in the arena of public opinion for years of unchallenged predatory behavior toward young female actresses, Liberal America has rushed to both condemn and feign ignorance and shock that one of their loyal benefactors could have been committing such loathsome acts underneath their noses. While it was easy for us to scowl blame toward Donald Trump’s repulsive behaviour, Weinstein was reminder that the gross actions of rich powerful men know no political boundaries.

But with incredible tone deafness as this much-needed introspection among liberal art types occurs, the National Book Foundation announced that among its presenters at next month’s award gala was former President Bill Clinton. In its flowery description that went along with this announcement, we are reminded that Clinton was elected twice while leading the country through its longest period of economic expansion and that he was now doing good work through his foundation, “building more resilient communities” by improving people’s health, strengthening the economy and protecting the environment.

I don’t even know where to begin, but it is totally infuriating.

Of all weeks to announce Clinton as a presenter and then do what everyone has been doing for decades in regards to Weinstein (which is to pretend that there is no problem here), the decision to be so blasé about this is incredibly revealing about the ongoing political ineptness of the literary community in the United States, loving to rub shoulders with power even when their actions (both politically and personally) should disqualify these figures from any adulation.  

Clinton The President

In the midst of the despair that looms over the horrible proto-fascist presidency of Donald Trump, it is easy for memories of the Clinton presidency between 1992 and 2000 to become selective, recalling the prolonged economic growth while forgetting the problematic elements that came along with his time in office.

Bill Clinton rode to power in the midst of economic recession and brought with him the new Democratic Party orthodoxy of third way centrism that sought to distance the party from the New Deal policies and allegiances with minority voters (at least in terms of advocating policies that would benefit neglected communities, they were fine taking their votes).

Continuing the Reagan and Bush I administrations embrace of neoliberal economic orthodoxy of disdain toward the welfare state and adoration of the market, Clinton forged ahead with the dismantling of many welfare programs the Democratic Party had brought in decades earlier and attempted to further trade liberalization through the negotiation of massive multinational trade pacts.

NAFTA and the emergence of the WTO were seen as great accomplishments of the Clinton Administration, as was the massive deregulation of finance with the repeal of Glass-Steagall that the administration oversaw, actions that many now blame for the loose regulatory framework that allowed for the 2008 Great Recession to occur.

In terms of dismantling the welfare state, the Clinton supported Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which Clinton bragged would “end welfare as we know it.” As noted in a Jacobin piece last year:

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended traditional welfare by turning a federal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), into block grants, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF established tougher mandates on poor single mothers and gave states more flexibility in how they spent welfare dollars (opening the door for increased discrimination against minorities).
It prohibits anyone from receiving assistance for more than two consecutive years or for more than five years over the course of their life. The act also requires aid recipients to be employed, in most cases, at least thirty hours a week to get their welfare checks, amounting to an hourly wage well below the legal minimum.
Once recipients reach their program time limit, TANF forces them even further into the labor market with little consideration of how they could ensure their children are properly cared for or whether paid employment will earn them an adequate wage. Many more are not even able to find work. A 2012 report by the Urban Institute concluded that for recipients with barriers to employment, TANF did little to help them find jobs.
Sweeping in scope, TANF contains clauses to bolster marriage, mandate job training, and offer parenting classes. The “flexibility” that was a hallmark of the welfare reform bill enabled states to shift welfare funds away from direct cash assistance toward child care programs or subsidies for companies hiring welfare recipients, meaning that a greater portion of public welfare dollars went to the private sector.
In addition to the draconian economic policies that there is the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (that was passed and signed before the GOP retook Congress during that year’s midterm election), which became a huge bone of contention during the 2016 primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and that Bill Clinton has been forced to apologize for. This legislation allocated huge resources to the construction of private prisons, expanded the number of capital crimes that could result in the death penalty and began an era of targeted policing aimed largely at African American community. The most egregious elements of the legislation have been greatly discussed and were part of Ava DuVernay’s fantastic documentary 13th.  

So while Clinton was pushing economic and social policies that largely hurt the poor and marginalized, he also became an aggressive advocate for a muscular humanitarian military strategy. Clinton continued the policy of aggressive sanctions against Iraq throughout the 1990s, and although the numbers of deaths as a result is an area of contention, it is undoubtedly the case that thousands died unnecessarily as a result of policy. Whatever the figure was, the callousness of the Clinton administration toward the human cost of the policy was famously articulated by his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who insisted that the human deaths was a price worth paying.

Other questionable actions under the Clinton presidency included the bombing of a medicine factory in Sudan and the bombing of Serbia over Kosovo, a move that foreshadowed the even more aggressive military adventurism of the Bush II years.

Clinton the Harasser

Clinton’s presidency is often remembered not for the policy choices he made but for the lurid sexual affair he engaged in with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky, which he then lied about prior to confessing. This resulted in a three year circus, where the obnoxiously hypocritical GOP impeached but failed to convict him before the US Senate. That the campaign against Clinton was partly led by “serial child molester” Dennis Hastert cannot be forgotten.

And as Clinton fought off the GOP attack, many Liberals got behind him, disgusted by the anti-sex Republican zealots. Yet in doing so the real problematic behaviour that Clinton got away with for decades was forgotten. Vanity Fair ran a long piece  in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, detailing the history of allegations of sexual harassment against Clinton. I don’t want to detail the multiple stories of women having negative encounters with Clinton or rehash that some resulted in out of court settlements, but as the Liberal establishment in the wake of Weinstein is finally realizing that this behaviour has been forgiven too long why is it that Clinton gets a free ride?

National Book Awards

I love books and book awards. The National Book Awards are one of the most prestigious prizes in
literary circles and I like the idea of words and novels getting this kind of love.

I also really like what Lisa Lucas, the current executive director for the National Book Foundation that gives the prize, has done with the foundation since taking over a couple of years ago. She is one of the loudest voices in the literary world asking us to take more time exploring authors long marginalized by the literati that was more comfortable reading rehashed tales by old white men and ignoring younger and more creative voices among communities of colour. To see so many writers of colour and women come to the forefront of the National Book Awards since Lucas’ tenure began is a good thing.

That is why it is so disappointing to see without a second thought the embrace of Bill Clinton. Clinton the politician advanced policies that disenfranchised the poorest Americans and undermined communities of colour. His foreign policy continued the imperial march of dehumanizing nations deemed our enemy while exerting muscular strength that resulted in so many of the poorest (against mostly people of colour) dying in exchange of US international dominance. Clinton the person engaged in repugnant behaviour that we still see rampant be it in the halls of political power or the offices of entertainment studios.

Despite all this, Clinton was largely given a free ride while he was President. The Liberal artist and literati community fell head over heals for him, embracing the lure of power and while forgetting the ills and crimes Clinton is responsible for him. Toni Morrison’s famous quote that Clinton was “our first Black president” comes off as incredibly irresponsible considering the harm his policies had on African American communities across the country.


That this uncritical and sycophantic adulation repeats itself today, in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, is quite sad. I can only hope that there are enough readers who are similarly repulsed by this decision and call on Lucas and National Book Foundation to rescind their invitation. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Booker Surprise: Fiona Mozley's Elmet

The eleventh book for my Man Booker Prize challenge (I think I will only get 12 of 13 done, sorry Arundhati) and the last book of the shortlist I have to read is the least likely and most surprising of the books on both the long and short list.



Fiona Mozley was an unknown bookstore clerk who wrote her first novel, Elmet, on her smartphone as she rode to and back from work. So unknown was she that when the Man Booker folks announced their longlist, Elmet had not been released yet. So obscure was Mozley that no one (including me) thought her book had any chance of making the final six, especially in a year with heavy weight authors like Colson Whitehead and Zadie Smith making the long list. 

We were all wrong and I am happy we were because this book is amazing and should be widely read. 

Elmet is the story of a family of Daddy, Daniel, and Cathy, presumably living in the current day but in a secluded pastoral landscape, where intrigues of squatting, tenant-landlord struggles and agricultural worker exploitation are interspersed with illegal bare knuckle boxing as the major plot points driving the story forward. 

Seen from the perspective of the youngest son, Daniel, we are told the story of the gargantuan sized Daddy who has a notorious reputation as an undefeated fighter but who has little property or wealth to leave his children. He must squat on a plot of land that had once belonged to his departed wife, but must contend with the current owner, an under-worldly figure, Mr. Price. Presented an opportunity to gain ownership of the land, Daddy agrees to fight one more time for Mr. Price, but the fight-day's consequences result in a spiralling descent into chaos likely to leave everyone worse off. 

There are several stand out qualities that made me marvel that Mozley is a first time novelist. Firstly, her writing is absolutely gorgeous, giving us these elaborate and detailed descriptions of the pastoral landscape that feel light and pointed, not overwrought or sentimental (traits that depictions of the country often fall into). 

I also loved how Mozley played with time, presumably placing us in the contemporary world with references to the 1980s miners strike as a thing of the past and with modern vehicles convoying around the town, yet having these things alongside anachronistic happenings of rural landlord-tenant struggles and illegal pugilist spectacles deep in seedy woods. 

And in a year where we already had Colson Whitehead offering his mastery of genre-melding, I found Mozley following suit, writing a story that is part romantic longing for a pastoral past, part brooding Gothic tale, part crime thriller, and even a touch of supernatural thrown in. Each of these styles are subtle enough to avoid being gimmicky, yet interesting enough takes to surprise us when they appear. 

Of the six shortlisted titles, Paul Auster's tome 4 3 2 1 remains my favourite, but Elmet is a close second. While I think George Saunders or Ali Smith remain favourites, I may be rooting for this little book that could to win it all.



Sunday, September 17, 2017

Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Buried, Sing

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Here it is:

Jesmyn Ward has established herself as one of the more important American authors of her generation. Having won the National Book Award for her debut novel, Salvage The Bones (a book I loved), she followed it up with a memoir, Men We Reap, and edited a collection of essays and poems, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, re-examining the questions James Baldwin had asked fifty years prior about race in America. There is no doubt that Ward has positioned herself as a profound commentator on issues of race in twenty-first century America.

With this track record, her second novel, Sing, Buried, Sing, comes with very high expectations and for the most part Ward meets them. A master of intertwining very intimate and personal experiences with broader questions, Ward gives another gut wrenching story that tackles issues of race, addiction, economic depravity and familial conflict and loss.

The story follows members of a black Mississippi family coming to terms both with the approaching death of the family matriarch (Mam), a drug addicted daughter (Leonie) and long dead son (Given), as well as the struggles of adolescent grandchildren (Jojo and Kayla) forced to come to terms with a painful family history and the consequences everyone still lives with.

Delving into issues of interracial relationships, racial tensions and violence, told through vivid and atmospheric prose (almost poetic), Ward delves deep into the pain that burdens the entire family as the passing of an elder forces them to address the injustice of their past losses.

Ward is the kind of writer who will always write a solid novel, so skillful and thoughtful when dealing with profound themes, giving us characters exuding with empathy, even when they are morally conflicted and damaged individuals. She is a master of the intimate revelation, allowing readers to feel compassion for her subjects but also deal with the broader thematic issues that cautiously lie just below the surface of the story-telling.

While Sing, Buried, Sing does all that, I did not find it quite as compelling as Salvage the Bones. While her first book takes place in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, her newest book does not interact as obviously with such an historic event. This doesn’t take away from the high-quality writing, just maybe makes it a bit less powerful since the broadly known horrors of Katrina are not there to add emotional depth to the book.

At times, the writing also gets bogged down in its own attempts to sound beautiful, and I found this could be distracting. I get annoyed sometimes when writers show off their craft too obviously, and although Ward is certainly a master of hers it came off as too much at times.  

Ward’s choice to tell the story from multiple also means that we lose some of the emotional connection for the characters we would have had it been told from just a single person. That said, Ward wants to reveal the complexity of a family unit coming undone, and to limit perspective would likely undermine this. However, in a book of such compact size (barely 300 pages) that comes with some drawbacks.

Nonetheless, Sing, Buried, Sing will still rightfully find much praise. It is longlisted for this year’s National Book Award and I have an inclination that it will be one of the novels looked closely at by the Pulitzer folks.




Sunday, September 10, 2017

Man Booker Shortlist Prediction

So me and a few friends have decided to tackle the Man Booker long list. The end goal is to read all 13 of the long listed titles, meet up the weekend before the award is handed out and maybe choose our own winner!

Thankfully this year I had already read five of the long listed titles. I have now added 5 more under my belt and have three to go. I am pretty confident of finishing the list, although Arundhati Roy's book will be a challenge, as I have heard it is difficult (and it is also a bit long). I somehow managed to plow through Paul Auster's epic 4 3 2 1 though so if that was possible anything is!

Ok here is a reminder of the long list (with my review linked in the bracket if applicable)


4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (https://myfriendthereader.blogspot.ca/2017/08/an-epic-coming-of-age-storyin-four.html)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1771184256?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2069930802?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1903402038?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2073096635?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (haven't read yet)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (havent' read yet)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (haven't read yet)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (read but no review)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2073098468?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2092738617?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1627168874?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (read but no review)

First things first, I actually think it is a good list. Last year, I read most of the short list and afterward felt that only 2 of the books really deserved to be there. Even of the books above that maybe I didn't connect with as well I found to be ambitious and novel and engaging, thematically and in form. There isn't a book I felt was a bomb.

That said, I also haven't been as moved this year by any of the books. Last year, I adored Do Not Say 
We Have Nothing and was bowled over by The Sellout. This year I was impacted by Auster's 4 3 2 1 and Whitehead is a technical master, but with the former I don't think it will make the short list and with the latter I felt a missing emotional edge, which I think may have been intentional on the author's part.

So taking into consideration that I still have three books to read, here is my shortlist prediction:

Solar Bones
Lincoln in the Bardo
The Ministry of Untold Happiness
Home Fire
Autumn
The Underground Railroad

Would love to see Auster there but I think the jury will not embrace this doorstop of a novel.

Shortlist comes out on Wednesday. We will see how well I do.




Thursday, August 24, 2017

An Epic Coming of Age Story...In Four Parts: Auster's 4321

Many a year ago, I lost my passport at LAX after I foolishly put it into my copy of Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy. I spent the next few days feverishly running around Los Angeles, getting proper identifying documents and obtaining an emergency passport, which allowed me to continue my journey to Taiwan to teach English. Although I got to spend some lovely extra days with my now departed grandmother, I swore off Paul Auster, angered at the sneaky way his novel enveloped and stole my travel papers.

However, I felt an urge to break from my pledge when Auster's 4321 was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. Nonetheless, the 866 pages was a big red flag to avoid it, as were the mixed reviews, many of them suggesting this door-stop of a tome was long winded and meandering. But then I got the notice from the library that the audiobook version was available and I decided to give it a try. After the 36 hours of audio files uploaded to my phone, one can imagine my consternation to hear Auster announce himself as the reader. Another red flag, authors are traditionally horrible readers and this just felt like another indication that no one wanted to perform it. But I persisted and dove in, and ...

WOW! What a book!

First lets deal with the bad stuff. It is way too long! Auster goes on and on, telling the story four different times (I'll get to that in a moment), and the sentences are rambling and his little tangential vignettes of stories within stories at times feel ostentatious and bragging, Auster showing off how interesting a writer he is. Another qualm I have is that the story feels dated. We have heard the Jewish kid growing up in post-war New York many times before, told by masterful writers like Michael Chabon and Philip Roth. Auster is certainly part of Roth's cohort of writers and in many ways the themes explored feel redundant, having been explored before. 4321 is also way too male, told exclusively from the perspective of a young boy/man, dealing with boyish/manish issues, with women prominently featured, but only as appendages to the main character (his mother, his girlfriend, his teacher). Auster is certainly respectful, but when the lack of diverse voices is an issue in modern literature, Auster certainly does nothing to rectify this problem.

That said, WOW! I literally got goosebumps after the book ended.

4321 is the story of Archie Ferguson, the son of an electronic goods store owning father and a photo shop owning mother, growing up in and around New York City from just after the end of World War II and culminating with the resignation of Richard Nixon. The major world events assert themselves into the plot, with Archie having to confront the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War during his formative years, we are taken on Archie's journey of personal growth and struggle, love and hate, sex and death, accomplishment and devastation. As personal as the story is, it is also unabashedly political, reflecting the radical mood of the times.

Sounds conventional, right...but here is the hook...Auster does not give us one Archie Ferguson, he gives us four. Four alternative timelines, each diverging at key moments, forks in the road (be it death, or divorce, or financial ruin, or a deforming car accident) that sets Archie onto radically different paths. Jumping back and forth between the timelines, Auster reveals how often small but momentous events alter not only what we end up experiencing, but also our personalities, our chosen passions, our romantic pursuits. I found myself rushing to listen whenever I had a moment, eager to see what would happen next to Archie Ferguson 1, 2, 3 or 4.

And after listening to Auster's voice for 36 hours (and his voice is marvellous, deep and impassioned, without raising his volume once) he does not let us down, tying things so beautifully, leaving us with a tinge of breathlessness and melancholy but also energized (goose bumps people!). As others have noted, Auster sticks the landing, making the very long journey worthwhile in the end.

So this book is definitely not for everyone. I don't believe it will be shortlisted for the Man Booker. I also won't hard sell it (maybe I already have though) unless one feels compelled, but if you feel needing to dive into a 866 page doorstop of a book give 4321 a shot. If you make it to the end, I don't think you will be disappointed.




Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Poor Man's John Irving: The Heart's Invisible Furies

I received an Advanced Reading Copy of John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Cyril Avery is the adopted son of two middle class Irish parents, growing up in conservative Ireland. Gay, in love with his best friend, but clandestinely finding sexual adventure in the dark alleys and parks of Dublin, Cyril keeps his secrets from his closest friends, embarrassed and afraid of legal repercussions. Eventually, however, he must come to terms with who he is and in doing so devastate all those around him.

John Boyne has given us a powerful story of love and loss, sweeping us across historical eras, from the dark and puritanical 1950s to the gay marriage referendum that legalized same-sex unions in Ireland. At once poignant and devastating, Boyne gives us an emotionally powerful book that delves deep into the pain and suffering that came along with being gay in post-war Ireland. The writing is beautiful and the characters are complex and sympathetic, maybe to a fault.

So while I strongly recommend this book and others have as well (Michael Kindness from Books on the Nightstand gave it a glowing review and Liberty Hardy certainly gushed over it this week in her podcast All The Books), I felt that it fell short in replicating the power of the author Boyne is trying to emulate, John Irving. Boyne goes as far as dedicating the book to Irving but it does not quite rise to the level of a Prayer for Owen Meany or The Cider House Rule, either in emotional power or in quality of prose. The absurdist elements are a little too absurd, the connecting dots that tie the story together fit a little too perfectly, the reader is able to see what is coming a mile away. This does not take away from Boyne putting out an incredibly important and powerful novel, just that it doesn't necessarily accomplish as much as the likes of Hardy suggest.

Either way, this book has tons of buzz and will get heaps of readers from those who already love Boyne's previous works and those convinced by Kindness's and Hardy's very powerful voice in the world of book recommendation. It's a worthy read and hopefully will find a readership as bowled over as they were.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - Shortlist

Hey folks,

Award season for the world of books never seems to really end...as the US 2016 season comes to an end next week with the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, the Baileys Prize announced its shortlist and the Man Booker International Prize announced its longlist.

The Bailey's shortlist looks great, consisting of the following novels by women from around the world:

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I have already written glowing words about Thien's marvelous novel about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and I think winning the Giller and Governor General Prize (plus being shortlisted for the Booker last year) has confirmed its greatness. Not sure it needs to win this, but happy it continues to find praise.

I have a copy of The Sport of Kings on my Kobo and this book about racism and horse racing has gotten lots of love, so would not be surprised if it came out on top.

My pick at this point, though, is Naomi Alderman's dystopic Atwoodian novel, set in a world where teenage girls have the power to cause immense physical pain to others. It has gotten tons of good reviews and seems to be on point with the political and cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

I will be trying to finish at least these two (in addition to having already read DNSWHN) before the prize is handed out in June.

Hope others do to.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Go Read This Now: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

I received an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I had not heard of Hannah Tinti before. I hadn't gotten onto her bandwagon after the publication of her second novel, The Good Thief, in 2008. But then I heard Michael Kindness (of Books On The Nightstand fame) rave about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley on the Drunk Book Club podcast late last year as one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

I quickly signed onto my Netgalley account and got myself an advanced copy, which I proceeded to devour while vacationing in Taiwan in February. And all I can say is wow!

Part coming of age story, part gritty crime drama, Tinti's novel follows the story of Samuel Hawley and his teenage daughter Loo. Quickly we find out that Samuel's body is decorated by twelve bullet wounds that reveal a dark and violent past, one that Loo has no recollection of but desperately wants to find out about. Tinti takes us from past to present, slowly revealing the story behind each of Samuel's wounds and Loo's persistent search for the truth about her father, her deceased mother, and why her childhood was filled with constant running away only to return to her mother's home village. Slowly, the two worlds come to a head, as Samuel must confront his past choices and their consequences.

Almost cinematic in scope and pace, Tinti still keeps her literary sensibilities, using deeply moving prose to explore the regret that is permanently etched onto Samuel and the bewilderment and resentment he has passed on to a daughter. Yet, Tinti does not get bogged down in her words, able to move the plot forward, keeping the reader turning the page, and ending with a more than satisfying conclusion.

Tinti is a marvelous writer and she has given us a captivating story about violence, death, youth, renewal and reckoning. There are a few stellar books worth picking up this spring, make sure that the Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is one of them.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Always The Outsider: Exit West and the Refugee Experience

Mohsin Hamid is another well-established writer who I had not managed to read until now, having The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. But with the much-hyped and incredibly timely tale of Middle Eastern refugees, Exit West, I was quick to reserve my copy of the audiobook.
missed the boat of his best-selling

When I got it and set to play I initially groaned when Hamid announced himself as the narrator on the audio. For the most part, authors should not narrate their own work. They aren't voice actors and usually aren't able to convey the text as well as those trained to do so, despite their intimate knowledge of the work. Thankfully, Hamid was a wonderful conveyer of the text, offering a soft and gentle voice that perfectly captured the mood of Exit West.

The story follows two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, middle-class professionals in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, in the midst of internal turmoil as secular sentimentality and religious fundamentalism struggle for political domination. As militants make headway and society falls into chaotic discord, Saeed and Nadia must make the difficult choice of leaving their lives and family behind and head West.

Far from an escape from uncertainty, Saeed and Nadia find themselves in London, surrounded by nativist anger directed at outsiders, Saeed and Nadia find themselves othered and blamed for the populations' own economic uncertainty. Saeed and Nadia must turn to each other to emotionally withstand the constant onslaught of being undesired, testing their love and friendship.

In the context of the xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiments in Europe and North America, Hamid has offered a powerful and painful exploration of the refugee experience. Unlike the caricatures that populated Laurence Hill's disappointing The Illegal, Hamid's story of the refugees feels so much more real and tangible to the experiences we are seeing before our eyes.

And Hamid tells this story in lush and flowery prose, delving almost into magical realism, with Saeed and Nadia's experiences feeling dream-like as they struggle through a dystopic nightmare of constant fleeing and outsider status.

In terms of recent explorations of the refugee/immigrant experience, I was not as blown away by Exit West as others and would suggest Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways is a grander literary accomplishment. That may be my preference for realism, where Hamid's writing at times felt a bit too Coelho-like for my tastes.

That said, this is a powerful work and politically important, even more so in the age of Trumpian xenophobia. So pick it up, shout its praise and exclaim: Refugees are welcome here!

Why Can't White Authors Help Having A White Saviour?

Sebastian Barry's Days Without End  has been a critical darling in the UK, winning the prestigious Costa Book Award for Novel and the Costa Book of the Year prizes.  Recently released in Canada, Barry has been on the promotion circuit, recently appearing on CBC's Writers and Company.

With so much praise, I jumped in with little knowledge of the book's subject matter, other than it taking place around the time of the American Civil War and involving the tale of Irish immigrants seeking to make lives in the frontier.

Days Without End is told through the eyes and voice of Thomas McNulty, a young and diminutive young man who finds himself joining the US army as it pushes American dominion into lands long occupied by indigenous populations. Fighting side-by-side with his companion, John Cole, Thomas and Cole develop intimate feelings for one another and spend much of the novel trying to establish some normalcy to their relationship, where their love can be expressed outside the disapproving eyes of others.

While engaging in one of the many skirmishes with a Sioux tribe, Thomas and John's unit kills the mother of a young girl, who they quickly name Winona and adopt as their own. Thomas and John take on fatherly roles, trying to create a stable family life for her. When Winona's family members come looking for her many years later, Thomas and John must decide how to respond and how far to take their protective role, whether to make a choice of personal sacrifice or allow her to return to her people.

My feelings for this book are mixed. On the one hand, Barry is a beautiful writer, who brings a poetic lyricism to his prose, which would contrast sharply with those accustomed to the more edgy and gritty prose of Cormac McCarthy's account of American expansion into the west.

Barry also offers a thoughtful exploration of sexuality and gender among a group of men who have mostly been characterized as hyper-masculine and promiscuous. Barry, inspired by his son's coming out, offers a Thomas and John who are tender and familial, eager to maintain their loving bond in circumstances that appear to conspire against them.

But all that said, despite the writing and thematic ambition, Barry almost ruins the book by turning Thomas into the plot's white-saviour, an overused and historically insulting trope. Thomas is wracked by guilt (because he is part of a genocidal army), Thomas must save the innocent orphan girl (with no thought about whether that is appropriate, hell American's can claim whatever they want for themselves), Thomas is the father figure who follows Winona and sacrifices his own freedom for her safety (after killing off her remaining family).

There is a moment where Barry has Thomas contemplate the moral ambiguity of his actions in taking Winona as his and John's own daughter, but even this sentiment is quickly discarded and Thomas forges on as white-saviour and protector to his daughter.

Honestly, I thought we all learned after Dances With Wolves that this was a super problematic portrayal of whites in their dealings, used to soften the historical image of white genocide.

This very much left a bitter taste in my mouth, which is a shame because the book could have offered so much if it didn't fall into such a disconcerting literary tool.

A very luke warm recommendation from me.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Tournament of Books

Have been super busy lawyering recently, so this is my first post in a while. What better way to break the drought by talking about the Tournament of Books!

For those who have no idea what the TOB is, yes, it is as cool as it sounds.  Started 11 years ago by The Morning News, an online cultural magazine, it was initially intended to take a swipe at the absurdity of book awards by mimicking the NCAA Basketball Tournament (see this year's bracket here), placing books in brackets and have them face off against one another until a champion eventually emerged from the competition.

Whoever judges a particular head-to-head match up (literary celebrities usually) write long, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes nasty reasons explaining their decision and then followers of the TOB go to town agreeing, disagreeing, bemoaning the decisions.

To add to the craziness, when the short-list is announced in January, readers get to vote on their favourite book, with the vote tally used to determine which defeated books return as zombies for the semifinals.

The winner of the book death-match receives a rooster (hence the TOB's logo), although no winner has actually accepted the feathered fowl prize.

In past years, some pretty big heavyweights have emerged as the winner. Last year, the TOB was rather prescient in picking the eventual Man Booker Prize Winner, The Sellout. Other winners over the years included Station Eleven, The Orphan Master's Son, Wolf Hall, and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.

Although I have been following the TOB for a few years now, this was the first year that I made a concerted effort at reading all 18 books up for the prize, and sadly, I failed miserably, sunken after 13 books by the way too long, speculative fiction novel about time travel, titled Version Control, which was interesting conceptually but at over 500 pages way too long and tedious to keep my attention.

Unfortunately, I am not sure I'll ever make an attempt to read all the books again, since among the very good (The Underground Railroad, Homegoing and The Vegetarian) there were some real stinkers that made the list. The committee who decides on these things tries to mix things up, going beyond literary fiction (which I am fine with) but some of their reaches were really disappointing.

Nonetheless, if you haven't followed the TOB in the past, it's well worth one's time. The discussion is always engaging, sometimes quite emotional. Once you get drawn in it's pretty easy to become obsessed (check out the Goodreads group on the matter and you'll see the level of interest). I find myself refreshing the TOB page every morning eagerly waiting for the day's decision.

Anyways, my pick is Homegoing. Although I think the Vegetarian and The Underground Railroad are technically better books, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was a pretty wonderful first novel telling an epic tale of African diaspora. It will be a popular pick.

Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Refugees

In little over two years, Viet Thanh Nguyen has emerged as a leading figure in the literary world, winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his astounding crime / immigrant / Vietnam War thriller The Sympathizer and getting shortlisted for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Choice award in non-fiction for Nothing Ever Dies (which is an academic book intended to accompany The Sympathizer).

Nguyen has also been serving as the cultural critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, writing about literature and politics through a biting radical lens (which is refreshing when the literary world tends to be rather bland and liberal, even in these dark times of Trump).

For someone who has had his pulse on American cultural and political life, it is both fortuitous and fitting that Nguyen's new short story collection entitled The Refugees, dedicated to "all refugees,"is being released in the shadow of Trump's draconian ban on refugees from seven Muslim countries.

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories, offering insights into various refugee experiences, mostly focused on the Vietnamese diaspora that emigrated from South East Asia in the years after the end of the American war in the region. Nguyen touches on themes of regret and loss, of trying to outrun the experiences and memories that turned one into a refugee, of the political cultures that transposed themselves from home country to new home, and the struggles that refugees experience in their new countries, both of survival and dealing with expectations from those they left behind.

As with The Sympathizer, Nguyen's writing drives the forcefulness of his stories. He writes thoughtful sentences that layer on top of each other to create both atmosphere and mood but also complexity, making the reader dig deep into the text to understand the motivations and actions of his characters. The stories he gives us are painful and somber, yet also with a touch of outlandish humour he pulled off so well in his previous novel.

As the current US Administration seeks to vilify the refugee populations that were products of American imperial adventures, Nguyen's collection is both powerful and necessary. We need to hear the painful pasts that have driven people to leave their homes and families, to understand and empathize with their experiences and appreciate the stakes they (and humanity) face if we ignore them and further marginalize them.

For this reason alone, I urge you all to pick up the book. It's a quick and easy read, yet will give you the energy to keep on struggling for the rights of refugees now and in the future.
**I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Dark Side of Monkey Business: Kaitlyn Greenidge's We Love You, Charlie Freeman

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I saw that Greenidge's debut novel was a Kobo Daily Deal. I am trying to read as many of the Tournament of Book finalists this year, and Greenidge's work made the final 16 so I snatched it up. Although I had heard it pitched by Liberty Hardy on Book Riot's  All The Books Podcast, I had little idea of what the content actually was...and wow that is not what I expected.

SOME SPOILERS - WARNING - SOME SPOILERS

We Love You, Charlie Freeman is the story of the Freeman family, a Bostonian African American family whose matriarch is a trained sign language instructor hired by a prestigious institute committed to studying human-chimpanzee communication. The entire family, each of whom is fluent in sign, moves into the institute and live with an emotionally broken and vulnerable chimp named Charlie, whom the family embraces as one of their own.

Told through the eyes of each family member, with an additional flash-back narrator (Nymphadora) who worked with a doctor from the institute in its early years, Greenidge offers a close inspection of how this odd family dynamic slowly tears apart the tight-knit group. Mostly told through the gaze of the oldest daughter (Charlotte), we slowly learn that the institute had engaged in Tuskegee-like experiments in the 1920s, where racist scientists sought to compare African American and Chimpanzee bodily forms and communication abilities. Charlotte, disgusted by this past and by her mother's growing inappropriate intimacy with Charlie, tries to destabilize the circumstances she is trapped in, which results in the climactic blow-up and exposure of the dark past and present practices of the institute.

As a debut novel, Greenidge has offered us a really meaty treatment of a very odd plot. Heavy questions of racial prejudice in scientific research and institutional defenses for their past behaviours is confronted head on. Add to that the complex issues of family breakdown that results from a spouse's career ambition, we are left with a complex social and family drama that demands further discussion. This will be a great book for the Tournament of Books and I hope it makes it forward at least a round or two so we can be exposed to more intelligent discussion on the matter.

That said, there are issues that made this a less than perfect book (I ended up only giving it three stars on Goodreads). Significant plot developments involving the mother's growing emotional and physical attachment to Charlie or the youngest daughter's obsession with obtaining Charlie's acceptance seem to come to fruition without preparing the reader for them. It felt like Greenidge was asked to cut portions of the novel that would have filled in these gaps and efforts to close the gaps left the reader wondering "what the hell just happened." I am being purely speculative here, but first-time authors are probably under enormous pressure to accept the recommendation of their editors and editors are too quick to cut down the length of their books, even if the final product suffers as a result.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, was an original and well told story and I those following the TOB should definitely pick it up as I believe it will lead to some of the best discussion. That said, I feel somewhat unsatisfied feeling that Greenidge did not quite achieve the potential this book could have offered.

#ReadDiverse2017


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Indomitable Zadie Smith: Swing Time

Since publishing her debut novel, White Teeth, at 24 years of age, Zadie Smith has been a stalwart of
literature in the English Language. Delving into issues of race and multiculturalism (with all its tensions), Smith has continued to write engrossing and political literature that has built up legions of fans eager to read her next book.

With little surprise, when word got out that a new Zadie Smith novel was set to hit the bookstands in late 2016 it garnered a lot of buzz. Swing Time was published to much fanfare and has received significant critical acclaim, having been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (losing to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad), and making the finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award (set to be given out in early March).

In Swing Time, Smith breaks from her previous convention, narrating the story from a very intimate first person perspective, an unnamed protagonist who embraces her love of dancing at a young age only to be overshadowed by her more talented friend, Tracey, the only other girl of colour in her dance class. Jumping back and forth in time and space, Smith's narrator journey goes from abandoned dreams of dancing stardom to the inner circle of a pop diva, from the state-funded public housing in North London to the small villages of West Africa. Although both the narrator and her friend Tracey have a modicum of success at points in their life, the weight of unmet expectations and succumbing to mediocrity loom large, as both come to terms that the hopeful dreams of their youth have not been achieved.

The scope of time and themes Smith tackles is impressive. She manages to fill her pages with a nostalgic appreciation of 1980s pop and dance, while still rooting the reader in the present. Even with a protagonist that consciously rejects the radicalism of her mother, Smith still manages to pepper the plot with the politic of race and class that no one can run away from, even those desperate to escape and with the innate talents to attempt to do so.

Although Swing Time has much going for, it isn't quite at the bar set by Smith's Orange Prize winning and Booker shortlisted On Beauty. Zadie Smith is a pro and her writing is always good and provocative, but this book is a slow burn, not something the reader is going to get engrossed in and power through. That may be good, though, sometimes good writing needs to be consumed by grazing rather than devoured. However, in this case, I felt myself appreciating the reading experience rather than enjoying it, an important distinction and one that influences how highly I will recommend a book.

Nonetheless, it is worth picking up, although if you have not read Zadie Smith before I'd suggest starting with On Beauty before dipping into the world of Swing Time.

#ReadDiverse2017





Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Ever Present Tension of Modern India: Aravind Adiga's Selection Day

Aravind Adiga skyrocketed to literary prominence with his debut novel, White Tiger, a hilarious and biting satire about modern India, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Departing from previous Indian fiction that gained popularity in the West, which focused on the aftermath of independence,  Adiga focused on the modern economic and cultural tensions of contemporary India.

In his newest novel, Selection Day, Adiga delves into new terrain, exploring the pressure of economically marginalized families as they try to gain uplift through the athletic prowess of their children. At the heart of the story is Manju, the younger of two brothers whose father has assiduously trained to become cricket stars. Although Manju's older brother, Radha, is seen as the true prodigy, it quickly becomes apparent that the younger/less attractive/sexually confused sibling is the talent, while Radha's star quickly burns out prior to Selection Day, where professional teams draft teenage players.

While gifted as a batsman, Manju's true dream is to pursue a college degree in sciences. His feelings about the game he excels at are ambiguous at best but he feels burdened to pursue an athletic career by a father who has thrown his entire self into assuring one of his children succeed. Manju is forced to confront these pressures, as well as his own sexual identity and attractions that would certainly marginalize him and undermine any chance of success.

Adiga is certainly ambitious in his writing. He challenges difficult issues facing Indian society, intertwining how children respond to familial pressures for social and economic uplift with the difficulties of young gay men trying to come to terms with their sexuality when doing so could undermine the dreams of aspirations of all around them.

That said, while Adiga is ambitious topically I didn't find his writing to be quite as biting as it was in White Tiger. The latter was hilariously tragic and satiric and while Adiga tries to match this tone in Selection Day the writing does not quite match what you get from White Tiger.

I still recommend this to those who enjoyed White Tiger, but don't expect it to match the award winning novel.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Haunting Dreams of The Vegetarian

Hang Kang's The Vegetarian has received significant attention from Western readers for a translated book. Kang won the Man Booker International Prize, was one of the New York Times Best Books of 2016, and made the long list for this year's Tournament of Books. I took a while to finally pick up this short book, and after a three day entrancement with Kang's beautiful prose I can say that the praise is all deserved.

Kang's novel follows Yeong-hye, a recently wed wife to a business man, who after a disturbing dream decides to abandon the eating of meat, emptying the fridge of all animal products, driven by disgust of the thought of eating another bite. All those around her, husband, sister, parents, are outraged by her rejection of meat, questioning her sanity, abusively scolding her and insisting that she abandon her vegetarianism. Violently rejecting her choice, a huge family fight results in her father force feeding a morsel of meat to her, with Yeong-hye responding by slitting her wrists.

Told in three parts, from the perspective of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, Kang beautifully shows us how Yeong-hye's choice of vegetarianism is met with violence that provokes her to spin into mental decline.

As a reader I was captivated by every word. Kang's prose is simple yet lyrical, allowing the reader's eyes to swiftly drift from page to page, caught up in Yeong-hye's tumultuous and tragic journey. So much is being said through Kang's quiet style, about the plight of women in South Korean society, about the reactions society has toward unconventional behaviour, about how we are quick the clinically diagnose the abnormal.

A wonderful and accessible book that will leave the reader feeling satisfied but distraught.