Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reader's Diary #592- Jocelyne Allen: You and the Pirates

Shortly after being picked as a panelist for Canada Also Reads, the good people at Workhorsery contacted me to see if I wanted to a free copy of You and the Pirates, since it was also nominated. I'd never heard of Jocelyne Allen, her book, or even the publishing company before, so I thought I'd look into it.

It turned out that You and the Pirates is set in Japan and as I was about to travel there, I was very excited. I was assured by the publishers that Allen's version of Japan was fictionalized, and I might not see many similarities, but I ended up seeing many. One of the characters is nicknamed Salaryman, and it turned out that salaryman is an actual term the Japanese use (basically a corporate business man in a suit). Allen's army of cats reminded me of all the maneki nekos I saw there (Japanese cat sculptures). Another character nicknamed Lolita shows off a very common fashion trend in Japan known as, what else, Lolita fashion.

But all the Japanese culture wasn't the best part of the book. I'll get into what was in a second. But before that I need to address a comment made by Lisa Pasold, who defended Allen's book in the Canada Also Reads contest. In You and the Pirates, Pasold argues, Allen challenges a notion that CanLit needs to be set in Canada. However, I'm not sure that such a notion really exists. The Cellist of Sarajevo? The Book of Secrets? The Song of Kahunsha? All popular Canadian titles, all set outside of the country. And, unless they were being facetious, some of the other Canada Also Reads panelists said that publishers actually prefer books set outside the country. Other than one unnecessary argument, I think Pasold did a great job defending Allen's book.

The best part of the book was the risks taken by Allen herself. The first part of the book is told in the second person (She smiles at you, gently, like you'd expect a lady in a kimono to.). I know Allen is not the first person to employ this perspective, but you have to admit, it's pretty rare, especially with Canadian novels. Allen pulled it off masterfully. My reservations that I could slip into the mind of a young female in Japan were gone by page 3. Like Pasold, I found myself thinking of the old Choose Your Adventure childrens' book series. But without the choices at the end of every other page, I then began to think of old Bugs Bunny cartoons when the artists' eraser threatens to wipe him out unless he cooperates. Then with the zany plot involving explosions, armies of cats, people obsessed with changing up to left, hypno-travel, and of course, pirates, I found myself thinking of The Master and Margrita, The Matrix, manga comics, and Alice in Wonderland. I don't imply that Allen ripped off the ideas of others, but it should give you some sense of the book's feel. If you said bizarre, you'd not be far off the mark.

One thing that struck me about the Canada Also Reads panelists' essays was that we almost all suggested our books were wildly creative and didn't fit the typical Canadian novel expectations. Yes, I also made the point about Steve Zipp's Yellowknife. Pasold, correctly, did as well. I wonder if this is a good sign that more creatively told novels are the future of CanLit. From what I hear about Nikolski, the winner of Canada Reads, it seems that the most unconventional of the lot was the winner. If you like straight forward narration and dull stories, you might want to horde up on Alice Munro books now.

I enjoyed You and the Pirates, but wasn't crazy about the last quarter of the book. The plot seemed to stall, even if the action didn't, and I began to confuse which character was which. However, it was a wildly interesting book and I look forward to more from Allen.

So, as I slowly read through the Canada Also Reads titles, my ranking, from favourite to least favourite, looks like this for now:

1. Steve Zipp- Yellowknife
2. Jocelyne Allen- You and the Pirates


Sandra said...

I enjoyed hearing your thoughts as always. Glad you enjoyed this novel. I love stories set in Japan but this sounds a little odd for me. I've been thinking about reading Alice Munroe, dull or just quiet stories? A negative opinions always incites me to read the work and compare notes. :)
I followed both Canada Reads and Canada Also Reads. I'm not happy that there wasn't time to read them all and I wasn't even a panelist. I haven't read Yellowknife yet so I haven't heard your defense of it yet but I will afterward.
I just finished Lisa Moore's February by the way. I loved it and recommend it highly.

Wanda said...

Wow, this definitely sounds like an interesting novel! I'm all over the board with what I read anyway but the mention of "an army of cats" has me wondering what the target audience is on this one?

John Mutford said...

Sandra: I'm definitely in the minority when it comes to Munro, so I'd not be surprised if you felt quite differently. The only Moore I've read is Alligator, and I had mixed feelings about it (mostly positive).

Wanda: I'd say the target audience was adults, but teens would probably enjoy it just as much.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to your review, I ended up reading The Master and Margarita out of curiosity. So glad I did! I really loved it, so thanks for leading me to new and amazing treats for my brain.

John Mutford said...

Josibear: Great, glad you enjoyed it! The next book you read will probably feel boring.