Saturday, February 28, 2015

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - February Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reader's Diary #1124- Carmen Aguirre: Something Fierce

Sometimes I'll read something by someone from the opposite side of the Earth, someone who grew up in the most foreign locale and in circumstances unimaginable to me, and yet still find some unforeseen common ground, some unexpectedly familiar viewpoint or value that will make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, happy that that underneath it all we're all the same. Something Fierce is not one of those books.

This is not to say I didn't enjoy Aguirre's memoirs of growing up in troubled political times in South America it was probably the unfamiliarity of her life that kept me interested— but even down to the familial level, down to the personal level, I found nothing, nothing, about Aguirre that I could relate to. Even the few scenes back in Canada were foreign, and fascinating, to me. Traveling from Vancouver to attend a Rebel Youth Brigade in Edmonton? That couldn't be more removed from my teenage years— skipping school to go off Ski-dooing with my buddy— than had she written about poaching gorillas in Rwanda. There were Rebel Youth Brigade meetings in Edmonton?!

Eventually, however, some of the unfamiliarity became overwhelming. She crisscrossed across South America so often, running into or away from so many various conflicts (or variations on the same conflict), that I lost track. Still, I enjoyed the book— a fact I had to remind myself of several times, mostly when considering all of the positive praise the book has gotten that I don't necessarily agree with. The blurb on the front of my copy, from the Globe and Mail for instance, refers to the book as "courageously honest and funny." Courageously honest, I'll give her. But funny? Every moment wasn't serious, and it had amusing moments here or there, but I really think "funny" sends the wrong message and most people picking up the book expecting to laugh out loud will be sorely disappointed. As for a Canada Reads win? That, to me, seems a bit much. It was good and all, but I'd be reluctant to say great.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Reader's Diary #1123- Edmundo Paz Soldán, translated by Kirk Nesset: The Legend of Wei Li and the Emperor's Palace


Edmundo Paz Soldán's wry flash fiction story, "The Legend of Wei Li and the Emperor's Palace," about an elderly man who gets summoned to the emperor's palace, reminded me initially of the fable by the old Native American in Natural Born Killers:
Once upon a time, a woman was picking up firewood. She came upon a poisonous snake frozen in the snow. She took the snake home and nursed it back to health. One day the snake bit her on the cheek. As she lay dying, she asked the snake, "Why have you done this to me?" And the snake answered, "Look, bitch, you knew I was a snake."

But rereading Soldán's story a couple of times (that's the beauty of flash fiction), I began to think that the lessons were somewhat different. I suspect the key to understanding Soldán's story is that the way the officer in the story describes the Emperor's palace is similar to the way some people talk about God (i.e., that He's everywhere). The message, I think, is not that the palace isn't everywhere (or that God isn't everywhere), but that we shouldn't necessarily trust the supposed experts.

If this is not what Soldán intended, it was what I took away in any case, and I enjoyed it. But if you take my word on it and your head is found fixed on a pole in the village square, don't blame me!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Reader's Diary #1122- Mara Feeney: Rankin Inlet

Mara Feeney's Rankin Inlet is epistolary novel made up of diary entries, letters, reports, and emails. The first entry is 1970 and the last is in 1999, two years before my wife and I moved to the very real Nunavut community from which the book draws its name. I could have really used this book back then. I'm not sure what we expecting. We bundled up a ridiculous amount of quilts and blankets, for example, because we figured it would be cold and... we'd be sleeping outside? In hindsight, our naivete was more amusing than anything else but we learned a lot in our four years there and look back on our time there and the friends we made quite fondly. Feeney's book could have provided a crash course that might have sped up the process a bit more.

Helpful perhaps, but far from perfect. It's barely got any narrative flow. To be sure, there's still a lot going on, mostly interesting stuff, so that didn't bother me greatly. More problematic were the excess of characters. While the central character is definitely Allison, a nurse from England who moves there and falls in love, she's still but one of many who have a say. Some, as a result, are underdeveloped and unnecessary, such as Ian, a Settlement Manager, who writes a few bleak reports and then leaves. A case could be made that in a transient community like Rankin there are plenty of those ephemeral voices, but that sounds like a post hoc justification. Rankin Inlet also tries too hard to educate. I was not surprised to read that Feeney was an anthropology student when she first went North because some characters (Nikmak, the Inuk elder in particular) seemed overly generalized; more researched and accurate than stereotypes, but still like composite characters.

Nonetheless, once I adjusted to the plethora of voices, the lack of a singular story arc, and the occasional "teaching" interruptions, I started to feel for the characters. That's a lot to ask, perhaps, and I attributed my overcoming it on being nostalgic for the place. However, I should point out that having a Rankin connection does not seem to be a prerequisite for enjoying the book.

(Special thanks to Debbie Viel, the closest lifelong friend we made in Rankin, who gave me this book for Christmas!)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Reader's Diary #1121- Aimee Bender: The Rememberer


In Aimee Bender's"The Rememberer" a woman named Annie wakes up one morning to find that her boyfriend has turned into an ape. Actually, there's a bit more of a build up than that and it's probably relevant that the last thing he says to her in human form is that people think too much and there isn't enough heart in the world.

It's also relevant, I suppose, to note that he doesn't stop at ape, but continues to rapidly devolve into supposedly lesser animals. Needless to stay it's a fascinating story. I developed a few theories as I went through. It's a metaphor for being loving someone who descends into madness, it's a metaphor for hanging onto the idealized person you thought you fell in love with but eventually have to admit they weren't that person at all, it's... I'm not sure what it is. It's a Life of Pi scenario though: any realistic explanation I come up with isn't going to be as the beautifully magical original version.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Reader's Diary #1120- Thomas Hardy: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Finally, I can no longer list Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles as the book that got away. Years ago I had started it but for some reason, now long forgotten, I didn't finish it. I know it wasn't that I wasn't enjoying it, I've finished plenty of those; maybe it was a library copy and the due date had come up? I really don't recall. And what I did recall it would seem I recalled wrong. I seriously remembered nothing of the plot. It turned out that I'd been confusing it with Pygmalion all this time and it's nothing at all like Pygmalion.

That all aside, I have finally read it. I started it again quite a while back, before the Bill Cosby allegations started ramping up again in the wake of Hannibal Burress's comedy routine where he called Cosby out, which a quick Google search tells me was way back in October. I bring this up not just as a weird time line marker, but I actually found myself thinking of Cosby and his accusers a lot while reading Tess.

Tess, as many of you know is raped somewhat early in the book by a man named Alec d'Urberville. (As a bit of a side note, I quite enjoyed most of Hardy's subtlety, but that particular scene was too subtleprobably due to censorship at the time and I actually didn't realize she had even been raped until a few chapters later.) Later, when Tess falls in love with Angel Clare, she can't bring herself to tell him about her past and why she's so standoffish. It was frustrating how long this dragged out and it was hard not to direct the frustration at Tess herself. "You didn't do anything wrong! Just tell him already!" Of course, then I would feel like a heel, blaming a victim for her psychological state in the wake of a crime. That was when I realized that there were similar whispers about the Cosby accusers as some people wondered why, after all the time that had passed, they would be coming forward now. To be sure, Hardy doesn't provide much deep description of Tess's psychological state following her rape. But it is not such an easy scapegoat to suggest that Tess's reluctance to come forward had much to do the time and setting. To suggest that Victorian England blamed raped victims and this is what held Tess back, is to shine a wholly unflattering light on today's society, you know the one where we like to think we're better than that in 2015 and yet some victims are still too afraid to come forward because of what society would think.

Big, heavy thoughts for sure and from a purely selfish, and only because Tess of the d'Ubervilles is a work of fiction, I almost welcomed when Alec, who disappears for a large part of the story, returned. He's a hateful, despicable man and yet I wanted someone to direct my frustration at, someone who really deserved it. Though, if I'm being honest, Angel Clare, the supposedly moral man who deserts Tess when she finally "confesses," also fills that void. The men in this book are truly, truly awful.

Saying this, it might seem odd for me to add that I really loved this book. Even if the issues are difficult, it's amazing to me that a book written in 1892 England could still provide insight and reflection on North American society today.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reader's Diary #1119- Todd McFarlane: Spawn, Origins Collection Vol. 1

On my quest to becoming an expert in Canadian comics (trust me, I've got a LONG way to go), I'd better start knocking some of the heavy hitters off the list. Originally from Calgary, Todd McFarlane, is known for a lot of successful ventures, though he came to my attention first for his line of toys and then as the creator of Spawn. Though I'm not surprised to learn that he worked on Spider-Man and helped create Venom prior to that. Looking at the eye-splotches on Spawn's mask, it would seem that he didn't push the creative juices too far with his look. I'm more surprised that he didn't also have a hand in creating Deadpool.

That said, below the mask, Spawn's costume is more interesting. Interesting, as we all know, is often a code word for "it sucks" but I wouldn't go that far here. That said, I now understand the negative reviews I've read calling his costume ridiculous. It consists of a bizarrely large cape and collar (which look like they would get in the way more than anything else) and excess chains that seem to float around him like they have a mind of their own. But, there's an out-there, spectacle quality to his art that I don't altogether dislike. Sure it's a bit nuts (and you should also see the demon characters) but it's at least fun to look at.

Spawn is initially an intriguing character, as the character himself has only foggy details of his former life. We gather that he worked as a CIA operative, was intentionally taken out by a fellow soldier, went to hell, made a deal with a demon (maybe the devil himself) to go back to Earth, but gets sent back as a deformed, costumed, angry amnesiac. I didn't find his return promise to be made particularly clear, but I gathered (correct me if I'm wrong) that he was supposed to a soldier of the devil on Earth. At first, it would appear that he was keeping up his end of the bargain. He's punishing bad guys, but doing so in very gruesome, violent ways. Superman he ain't. But then when he starts to rebel against this sort of mayhem, demons are sent to put him back on the right (i.e., wrong) path, and of course, Spawn clashes with them as well.

It's not the greatest, nor clearest, plot in the world and there's a lot lifted from other comics (besides the aforementioned eye splotches, McFarlane also includes newscasters throughout just as Frank Miller did in the Dark Knight Returns, there's also a couple of pages where the panels alternate colours between purple and orange creating an X-pattern, just as John Higgins' employed on many pages throughout Watchmen), but for all that I was entertained. I'm not in a rush to read beyond this collection (which is comprised of the first six comics) but I wouldn't rule it out later down the road if I'm bored.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Reader's Diary #1118- Omar El-Kiddi, translated by Robin Moger: The Wonderful Short Life of the Dog Ramadan


I couldn't help but think of Laika, the graphic novel by Nick Abadzis, as I began to read Omar El-Kiddi's "The Short Life of the Dog Ramadan." Then I briefly thought of the Lady and the Tramp. Then Forrest Gump. This is not to say that El-Kiddi offers nothing in the way of originality, because I'm sure it makes for an original compilation and in the end, I'd conclude that it's certainly more than a sum of its parts.

Still, I enjoyed these comparisons as I read. Why do dog personalities seem so matter-of-fact in literature? Like furry Spocks. And what is it about a highly factual tone that makes a story feel like a parable? Was "The Wonderful Short Life of the Dog Ramadan" a parable?

I didn't (surprise, surprise) come up with hard and fast answers, but I quite enjoyed the surface level story in any case. The sub-surface story is where it gets intriguing because I think it may come down to whether or not one is a "dog person" (perhaps animal appreciator in general) or not if one finds El-Kiddi's story an optimistic or cynical piece. That both of these viewpoints could possibly be found in the same story and it still makes sense, depending entirely on the reader, is quite a feat.

For me, I'm somewhere in between, but I have to say that the briefness of the scene involving African and Arab refugees aboard a boat I find hard to reconcile with my optimistic side.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Reader's Diary #1117- George R. R. Martin, Daniel Abraham, Tommy Patterson: Game of Thrones Vol. 1

While I am sure that there are those authors who lack confidence or who are perfectionists and never fully satisfied by their own published works, I assume that most writers are proud of what they've accomplished. If they are not cocky and conceited about it, I certainly don't begrudge their pride. I have also, however, not really weighed their opinions into consideration when I've written a negative piece about their books.

At the end of Game of Thrones (the graphic novel), Volume One however, there are short commentaries from the editor and a couple of the creators, that are making me somewhat reluctant to say how I truly feel about this book. They come across as lovely people, not arrogant in the least, but talking about all of their hard work and difficult decisions and the final payoff, like they may have just created the next Watchmen or Akira. I feel almost guilty about saying that I didn't wind up appreciating their efforts. Like at all.

Perhaps had I read Martin's originals or watched the HBO series, I'd have had enough sense of the story and characters to fill in the blanks and clear up my confusion. However, I found it all very flat. There were so many characters and none were particularly interesting or presented with enough psychological depth to be believable. There was a lot of conflict and angst but it just came across as a tangled mess, leaving me completely uninspired to untangle it. The art felt generic, the characters suffered from open-mouth syndrome, the angles were mostly just straight ahead affairs, and the panel layouts were consistently boring throughout. From all of the near fanatical praise I've heard of the other incarnations of this series, I can't help but feel this adaptation completely missed the mark, at least as a standalone work.

Still, I am happy I suppose that at least those who worked on it enjoyed the end product. I clearly did not but mine is just one opinion. I hope there are no hard feelings.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Reader's Diary #1116- Antonya Nelson: Her Number


Antonya Nelson's "Her Number" is an epistolary flash fiction story, written as a letter to the past-owner of her newly acquired, secret cell number. The narrator is having an affair and got this new number (and phone) so that her lover can contact her without her husband knowing. However, she is also being contacted by the previous owner's mistress.

The narrator seems to take validation from these calls. There's something about another's misdeeds that lessens her own guilt. There is also a hint that she is becoming obsessed with the previous owner, who is she not only relates to, but is also starting to be unhealthily preoccupied with.

A very compelling psychological picture developed in such very short time.