Monthly Archives: February 2014

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

I’m excited to introduce Bookgaga readers to another insightful guest book reviewer who comes at things from some intriguing angles. Paul Whelan, over to you: I am an architect whose worldview has been shaped by a belief that cities and buildings are active participants in our real and imagined lives. My reading is evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, but usually underpinned by my deep love of human history.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

A book titled Cockroach almost begs the reader to embark on an insect-metaphor hunt. And there are many here to find. If you are the type of reader who wants to make connections between for example Kafka and derogatory racial profiling, it’s all here for the counting. But for me there was so much more to this engaging novel. I read it twice as the combination of character, story and language aligned to keep me off-balance, but eagerly stumbling forward.

The nameless main character is simultaneously off-putting and endearing. His childlike attitude towards his shoplifting and break and enter crimes seems devoid of conventional morality. He oscillates from compelling observations of his adopted city through to being weirdly off-putting. Regardless I wanted him to succeed in his seductions and his crimes. I never lost interest in his interactions with Montreal and its inhabitants.

Cockroach inhabits a city that operates under rules that are invisible to him. His judgment of the naïveté of those around him is equal to his own unexamined naïveté. He coolly exposes the false posturing of both his fellow-immigrants and the soft lives of the Montreal well-to-do. Rawi Hage creates passages of power and beauty such as the hero’s musings on his state-appointed psychiatrist.

“She was quiet and I knew she wanted to ask me if I had killed Tony once I had the gun. I knew she was hooked, intrigued. Simple woman. I thought. Gentle, educated, but naïve, she is sheltered by glaciers and prairies, thick forests, oceans and dancing seals.”

Cockroach’s hero has experienced a far harsher world and has little patience for the morality of the well-fed.

Hage’s novel maintains a tight relationship to the viscera of Montreal. The reader is kept in constant contact with the ice and slush of winter, the hunger before the next welfare check and incessant sexual longing. The hero is desperately in touch with his physicality and is deeply grateful for every scrap of food or sexual encounter. Even his break-ins seem tempered by seeming simpler needs. He takes what he wants based on his assessment of the inhabitants, but mostly food and information.

What I have avoided writing about is the plot. For most of the novel I simply read along for the ride. I was equally intrigued by the hero’s direct pleasure from life and the inexorable unfolding of his story, which skirts around all the great issues – hunger, sex, love and revenge. But there is a great story here that slips through the entrails of Montreal and all its inhabitants.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Paul is the fifth and final – to review the contending books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

I’m very pleased to welcome another terrific guest book reviewer with some fresh perspectives to the Bookgaga blog. Over to Rebecca Hansford, who will introduce herself: I am an undergraduate student at Queen’s University, completing my final year in Biology and Psychology. I am currently conducting a thesis, examining how lakes change over time due to climate-related issues. Majoring in science instead of English was a tough choice for me as I have an electric passion for reading. I particularly enjoy fiction that integrates scientific facts, environmental issues and dystopian societies.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood tells the brilliant story of two contrasting women’s survival in a rapidly deconstructing society. The characters’ surroundings are devastating but familiar, a world focused on consumerism, flashy products and unnatural gene splicing. Humans have destroyed the environment and the government has a tyrannical hold over the population. However, the general population is so obsessed with consumption that little attention is given to the political chokehold.

From this corrupt and unnatural society, a small religion of naturalists emerges, the Gardeners. The Gardeners promote vegetarianism and minimalist life choices despite the current society’s focus on consumerism and unnatural product obsessions. At first glance, the Gardeners’ society seem to be a modern-day garden of Eden, however, by delving into two distinct narratives, Atwood exposes both the negative and positive aspects of this religion while telling the story of the Gardeners’ response to the impending doom of the Waterless flood.

Atwood jumps effortless between narratives and time describing the lives of the Gardener women, before and after the Waterless Flood. The juxtaposition of the two women’s characters is remarkable. Toby is a hardwired, strong woman, who learns to fend for herself at an early age. By using third person, Atwood distances the reader from the slightly closed off character. In contrast, Ren is an open, resilient but slightly dependent character. Ren’s narrative is first person and begins when she is a young child, giving the reader an easier connection to this character. The changing narrative is wonderfully done and keeps the reader engaged. Atwood also describes the Gardeners’ prayers, enabling the reader to see into this interesting religion.

By demonstrating Gardener prayers in addition to each woman’s view of the religion, the reader gains three perspectives into the Gardener religion. As a treat, the reader also gets a taste of Atwood’s renowned poetry as Atwood threads religious symbolism seamlessly into the novel. Using these prayers, Atwood comments on organized religion by emphasizing the positive, natural aspects while highlighting the problems and hypocrisy within its organization.

The Year of the Flood poses interesting questions regarding the current technology and economy focused society. In a world of gene-splicing, questionable medicine and secret-meat burgers, how far can society depart from the natural world before it becomes detrimental to human society? Atwood makes the reader question the society’s focus on playing God, while making us wonder if our society has also crossed this line. Atwood reinforces the inconvenient truth that current lifestyle choices are leading to a disaster of global scale and asks the reader if our society will also have to face the consequences of our consumerist actions one day.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Rebecca is the fourth – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

I’m really thrilled to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wise and diligent guest book reviewer. Sue Reynolds is a life-long reader and animal lover whose sudden, passionate love for Bette Davis movies threatens to consume all of her reading time.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues has won or been shortlisted for an impressive array of prestigious awards since its publication in 2011. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, to name a few. The great success of the book has generated countless descriptions and reviews, both in print and online. In the interest of taking a different approach, the Bookgaga kindly suggested that my review might take the Canada Reads theme into consideration.

Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, moves back and forth between Berlin and Paris in 1939-40, and Berlin and Poland in 1992. Its action revolves around a jazz band, the Hot-Times Swingers, which is composed of black and white musicians from the United States and Europe. With World War II looming on the horizon and harassment of “undesirables” (band members Chip and Hiero are both dark-skinned black men, Paul is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew) becoming increasingly violent, the Hot-Times Swingers flee Berlin for Paris, partly to escape the worsening situation in Berlin, partly to meet and record with Louis Armstrong.

Edugyan smoothly moves from the drama of the Swingers, their interpersonal tensions, artistic struggles and more serious challenges of avoiding the Nazi presence in Berlin and Paris, to future scenes with the surviving members, years later, who are now old men. The 1992 sections of the novel feel almost like a detective story, as Sid, our elderly narrator, and his best friend, Chip, travel to Berlin and Poland in search of Hiero, the genius trumpeter, assumed killed during the war but alive and living in obscurity.

Canada Reads asks: what is the one novel that could change Canada, that Canadians can look to for inspiration? That will compel Canadians to make a change in their lives, at home or at work, in their community, in their country or around the world? Although the bulk of Half-Blood Blues takes place on the world stage with the horrors of World War II as a backdrop, the novel has an intimate and personal feel to it. We are witness to the creative process that Sid and his bandmates live for and we watch Sid’s infatuation with jazz singer Delilah Brown play itself out.

Half-Blood Blues works its magic, not necessarily through its story, but in how it tells that story. Edugyan conveys the mysteries of jazz music through her use of the written word:

“Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, this barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.

…I might’ve been crying. It was the sound of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling. The very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart. Yeah, that was it. It was the sound of the kid’s coming of age. As if he taken on some of old Armstrong’s colossal sadness.” (p. 278)

Whether Edugyan is describing the freedom found in creating music or the chaos of thousands of panicked Parisians trying to flee their occupied city, her prose sings and reminds us that we are interacting with a living, breathing language. This, I think, is her gift to her readers: she calls attention to the musical, evocative beauty of the English language, how it can be bent and twisted to do the writer’s bidding.

Should all of Canada read Half-Blood Blues we may end up with a nation of book-lovers who have decided to read aloud, the better to hear the music embedded in every text they open.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Sue is the third – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Book traffic report #1

We here in this book-crammed household have launched a year-long look at how books make their way into (and out of) this place. We’re one month into the exercise and learning some interesting things about our book acquisition and sharing behaviours.

At the end of January, the two columns on my home office whiteboard tallied up as follows:

Incoming: 8

  • 6 paper books / 2 digital books
  • 4 purchased / 4 received or received as gifts
  • Of the 4 books purchased, all were purchased online. (Hmm …)
  • 3 of the 4 received books were complementary copies from publishers or authors.

In light of the recently announced closing of another beloved bookstore here in Toronto, I’d like to see more of our purchases taking place in physical bookstores, where possible. Just so happens that on the very last day of January, my husband came home and mentioned that he stopped in a bookstore on the way home from work, looked for but didn’t find a desired book … and took the bookstore up on their offer to order it for him, rather than coming home and plunking down in front of to purchase it.

Outgoing: 15

Getting an assist with the outgoing book traffic …

Making a delivery at a Little Free Library box

Twitter book friend Regina Marler commented on our outgoing book traffic:

The exercise so far has made us very conscious of the books we’re contributing and sharing as much as what we’re acquiring and consuming. It’ll be interesting to see how this changes as we continue monitoring our book traffic. I do find myself deliberately taking extra books when I go out to run errands or go somewhere on public transit, so I can drop books off in local Little Free Library boxes.

I am keeping track of the titles coming in and going out, but wasn’t sure if I should specifically list them in my reports here. (Do you think I should mention them?) With outgoing books in particular, I wonder if mentioning the titles might make it look like we’re rejecting or kicking perfectly fine books out of our house. I note that some of the books we’ve taken to Little Free Library boxes are reading and/or paperback copies of books we’ve since purchased in hardcover and/or in first editions. In some cases, the books were on specific subject matter and have grown out of date or usefulness. In some cases, admittedly, there are books we’ve relinquished that we don’t expect to revisit, to put it carefully. That doesn’t mean that someone else might not happily welcome them and add them to the “incoming” column in their households.

how the gods pour tea, by Lynn Davies

how the gods pour tea, by Lynn Davies

You know how with a really great, involving, engaging work of fiction, you can feel like you don’t want the book to end because you’ll miss the stories, the characters, that narrator’s voice in your head? I’m not sure that is often said of poetry collections … but I know I didn’t want this poetry collection to end. Davies’ voice throughout is warm, accessible, wise, observant and whimsical in a charmingly earnest way. Whether a poem’s subject matter is grounded in the real world or takes off in otherworldly flights (or just hops) of fancy, you trust completely where Davies is going to take you.

Her often economical expression by no means suggest she skimps on resonance, either.

“Might be grief in a puddle
and the puddle dries up.”
(from “On Mercy”)

“licks the shadows of trees off her paws.”
(from “Senility”)

“a river braiding light
as it rounds the bend.”
(from “Trout Lilies”)

“To be clear
as a crocus
among last
year’s shoe-
leather leaves.”
(from “Arrival”)

“I leave books open
in every room
of our house.”
(from “Alone”)

“I love you like crates of potatoes
and abandoned roads.”
(from “The Great Escape”)

These simple, elemental words and phrases … and many more … will vibrate in your mind, in your cells, long after you reluctantly turn over the last page.

Thank you to Goose Lane Editions for providing a review copy of how the gods pour tea, by Lynn Davies.

See also:

Lynn Davies – how the gods pour tea (an interview)
(The Toronto Quarterly)