Thursday, December 22, 2016

My Year In Reading

By now we have seen dozens of Top 10 lists and even some awards for books released in 2016. It has been a good year in reading and hopefully you have all read a few novels that took your breath away. Instead of a Top 5 or 10, however, I am gonna do something a little it goes:

The Book That Blew Me Away

Those who have followed my blog or thoughts on Facebook know by now that Madeleine Thien's Giller winner, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was the book that shook me up. Thien delves deep into world shaking events in post-revolutionary China, told through the eyes and hearts of three musicians, whose voices are silenced during the Cultural Revolution and try to find vindication during the Tienanmen Square protests. Thien's writing is technically ambitious and filled with emotion, and the story she tells will sit with me for a long time.

The Book That Lived Up To The Hype

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad was getting hyped months before it's publish date and when Oprah bestowed upon it her sticker and announced its surprised release in August the buzz became deafening. Thankfully the book delivered. A unique rewriting of the slave narrative, Whitehead takes the story of an escaped slave and uses all his genre-bending tools to explore the devastation of white supremacy and black enslavement. The writing is tight yet hallucinatory, a piece of historical fiction that chooses to not be trapped by history. Already having won the National Book Award and making almost every year-end list, The Underground Railroad's legacy is well established already.

The Series I Wish Never Ends

The Red Rising trilogy was a non-stop gore-filled political adventure in the best tradition of space operatic science fiction. Pierce Brown's concluding chapter, Morning Star, lives up to its two preceding books and offers a very satisfying conclusion to the story of Darrow, a lowly miner from Mars who infiltrates the ruling ranks of Golds in hopes of bringing down the brutal authoritarian and rigid class order that has befallen humans hundreds of years into the future. I had some political issues with the book (that I explored in my review), but even so these books are great and I look forward to Brown writing about the post-civil war period.

Two Books That Were Highly Acclaimed But I Just Didn't Get

Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton and Nathan Hill's The Nix have gotten lots of love from
critics and bloggers. Strout's book is a quiet exploration of a deteriorated relationship between a mother and adult daughter. The writing is good and Strout explores a complicated relationship admirably, but I found myself bored at times. There was nothing particularly ambitious here and I found it passable at best. Hill's efforts are more ambitious, offering another complex parent-child relationship in the context of presidential politics. Timely to say the least, but I found the writing aggravating at times. There are annoying tropes (the writer who spent all his advance but failed to write the book) and a useless character whose only purpose is to advance the plot yet is given way too many pages.

Two Books For the Beach

Going to get some sun during the long winter and needing some good but not too heavy reading. Stephanie Danler's Sweetbitter is an edgy inside story of the service industry in high-end New York restaurants. It's funny, harsh, and endearing. Similarly, Emma Straub's Modern Lovers is a deep yet light look at middle age relationships, and how longstanding couples are forced to address their disappointments, regrets and hopes for newness.

Books I Plan To Read Next Year

I likely won't be getting to Annie Proulx's Barkskins and Zadie Smith's Swing Time until January, but they are certainly at the top of the list. I am also challenging myself to finally read Stephen King's It, a vintage classic soon to be released as a new miniseries. In terms of 2017 releases, we are still waiting to see what will be hyped in The Millions "Most Anticipated" list but Omar El Akkab's American War is set to be one of the big deals next year. It's a dark, depressing dystopian novel that has had an effusive
shout out from Ann Kingman (of Books On The Nightstand fame).

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Madeleine Thien's Masterpiece: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

I am still decompressing and unpacking my thoughts about Do Not Say We Have Nothing, having finished Thien's Booker and Giller shortlisted novel just yesterday. Part of me doesn't want to oversell this but I don't think that is possible. This is one of the most remarkable works of literature I have ever read and it will hopefully go down as a monumental example of great CanLit for years to come.

Do Not Say begins in Vancouver in 1989. Marie's father (Kai) has left the family and shortly afterwards commits suicide in Hong Kong for unknown reasons.  Shortly afterwards, Marie's mother receives a plea from the family of a close friend of Kai's whose daughter (Ai Ming) must flee after the Tienanmen Square protests.

Ai Ming's arrival open's a window into the past lives of Ai Ming and Marie's fathers, as we are taken back to the years after the 1949 revolution. Kai, Sparrow (Ai Ming's father) and Zhuli (Sparrow's cousin) are budding musicians whose lives are filled with passionate feelings for scores and symphonies of all the great composers.

The beginning of the Cultural Revolution at the end of the 1960s quickly tears their lives apart, however, as Mao's Red Guard tried to snuff out Western cultural influences, shutting down conservatories and universities and shaming those whose artistic talents had only recently been praised as remarkable. Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli must come to terms with losing such an elemental part of their identity and have to make choices about what their lives will look like without music.

The final quarter of Thien's novel takes us to the eve of the students and worker's protests in 1989. Sparrow has spent the last twenty years making radios, removed from the world of music, but the uprising sparks the long extinguished flame of composing. Sparrow not only feels motivated to write music, he also feels compelled to redeem his failure to stand up against the injustices of the Cultural Revolution, joining the uprising as the tanks role into Beijing, as students sing the Internationale (the title of the book is actually a line from the Chinese version of this revolutionary anthem).

Thien has produced a remarkable book. The writing is complex and poetic, as well as riveting and fast tempoed during the key moments in the plot. The depictions of the Cultural Revolution and the Tienanmen Square protests are emotionally exhilarating and devastating.

Most impressive, however, is how endearing the depiction of her many characters is. Thien depicts individuals who are filled with artistic gifts and passion but who become disoriented and weak when their carefully built worlds are disrupted. Thien beautifully conveys the internal struggle the characters go through when their strongest attributes lose their value.

A few more thoughts:

Since music plays such an important role in the story, Thien refers to dozens of different scores and symphonies. Whenever a piece was referenced, I would play it on Spotify, which really helped replicate the ambience of the scenes.

Book awards are a tricky business and although Thien has been shortlisted for the Giller and Booker (and longlisted for the Carnegie Literary Award) there is no guarantee she'll take the final prize. That will be a shame not only because this is truly a monumental novel but also because this is a book people need to get their hands on and winning awards helps a lot doing that.

In ways similar to Rohinton Mistry's epic A Fine Balance, Thien has captured the intimacy of human suffering within the context of grand world events, with the emotional and historical scope that will leave the reader gathering their breath and wondering how writing can be so beautiful and painful.

A must read.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Giller Shortlist: My guesses

The Scotiabank Giller Prize short list comes out on Monday.

I am in the middle of reading one of the long listed titles (Madeleine Thien's remarkable Do Not Say We Have Nothing--hint hint it's gonna be on the short list). My book clubs next book is Andrew Battershill's Pillow, which would be a surprise on the list of finalists.

That all said, this opinion is based less on the merit of the book and more of my gut feeling, but here it goes. The short list will be:

Mona Awad, for her novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, published by Penguin Canada

Andrew Battershill for his novel Pillow, published by Coach House Books

Emma Donoghue for her novel The Wonder, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Steven Price for his novel By Gaslight, published by McClelland & Stewart

Madeleine Thien for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada

Check back on Monday to see how I did.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Madeleine Thien Will Win The Booker: My Hot Take of Today's Shortlist

So the Man Booker Prize has released its shortlist and there are many surprises, particularly the exclusion of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Instead, the jury provided the following books as finalists:

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

The list is impressive. The Sellout was a huge critical hit in the United States last year, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Tournament of Books. Hot Milk's author is probably the best known in the UK, as Deborah Levy has been shortlisted in the past. Eileen had prominent attention last year, including being shortlisted for the NBCC award. I hadn't heard of All That Man Is but there are some suggesting it is one of the favourites, although the claim made that "the time might just be right for David Szalay’s thoughtful portrait of masculinity" is absurd, as if what art is really missing are "thoughtful portraits of masculinity."

My pick, however, is Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Thien is a Canadian author of several books who has a strong reputation in this country but this is her first large international exposure.  This shortlisting will certainly give her a bump in sales and expose her to new readers (including myself, who recently bought the book and it is next on my TBR).

So my reasons are as follows, that touch upon both the specific quality of the books and the politics of the award as a whole:

1. Thien's seems to be the most meaty and ambitious of the books on the list. It's a multi-generational story of the consequences of the Cultural Revolution and the Tienanmen Square Massacre and the lasting psychological impact of those events extends beyond the direct victims. Looking at recent winners such as The Luminaries, A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Narrow Road of the Deep North, Wolf Hall/Bringing Up The Bodies etc, the Booker likes to award big books that offer unique narratives of historical experiences. 

2. Two of the books shortlisted are thrillers of a type. Eileen is a psychological thriller about a young woman dealing with an emotionally abusive invalid father and His Bloody Project appears to be a bit of a historical murder mystery. I appreciate when awards offer openings for genre fiction, but I doubt that it will elevate one to winner. Although The Luminaries also had thriller elements to it, it was also really ambitious structurally and had a literary quality that made it more palatable to the selection committee.

3. Paul Beatty's book was amazing and I don't want to sell it short. It's an example of how stinging and hilarious satire can be and will continue to find readers laughing out loud for years to come. That said, the themes are really American, dealing with very particular issues and experiences that are unique to the historical problems of "post-racial" United States (fyi it's not post-racial, that's the whole point of the book). Although the Booker opened itself to American authors a few years ago, I don't think the first winner will be a book that feels so American. Eileen would be a more likely choice than The Sellout for this reason.

4. David Szalay's book is a collection of short stories, although interlinked. The Booker very rarely goes to short story and that will hinder it. Also, a book about takes on masculinity? The last two Booker winners have been men (although one gay man) so not sure it's in the cards for a third straight man let alone a book that deals with over explored issues of maleness. 

5. I think there is a good chance for a woman winner this year. I'd say Thien and Levy are the front runners. They each have their own things to overcome. Thien's book has kind of snuck up on the competition, not having been reviewed in many British newspapers or the NY Times. That said, it will now so maybe a buzz around it as something fresh and discovered will motivate the judges. Levy is a more known quantity, but Hot Milk has received good but not gushing reviews and its Goodreads rating is pretty low for a book expected to win this prize.

Last year I predicted correctly Marlon Jame's amazing A Brief History of Seven Killings would walk away with the award. It was so ambitious and fun and dark and the writing challenging but fun. I haven't read Thien's book yet (next couple of weeks, promise), so I can't comment on the writing, but it feels like a proper Booker book and I think it'll pull it off. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

National Book Awards

So book award season is fast upon us.

A few weeks ago we got the Man Booker Long List, which I found mostly disappointing, although I am hopeful that Canadian author Madeleine Thien's novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (which is waiting patiently on my Kobo) gets shortlisted, even though the odds makers seem to suggest it won't be. 

Last week, we got the Scotia Bank Giller Prize Long List, which also included Thien's book as well as several interesting titles by the likes of Emma Donoghue, Mona Awad,  and Steven Price. It's actually a stronger list than the Booker in my opinion. 

Next week, we get the Booker shortlist and most pertinent to this post is the release of the National Book Award fiction long list on September 15. Similar to the Pulitzer, this award is reserved for American authors. However, there is no "American character" requirement in the NBA's award criteria, so theoretically it is a broader award (although the Pulitzer hasn't rigidly followed this requirement in recent years). 

Frankly, it isn't my favourite award and I have not been particularly a fan of recent selections. Last year's winner was Adam Johnson's short story collection, Fortune Smiles, which was decent but not as emotionally powerful or important as finalist A Little Life. Johnson had won the Pulitzer only a couple of years prior for the excellent The Orphan Master's Son, so he really didn't need the award either.  

The year prior to that another short story collection, Phil Klay's Redeployment, won out. I haven't read the collection, partly because I had been disappointed with previous acclaimed books about Iraq and Afghanistan (TheYellow Birds was outright boring and Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk was/is overrated).

Prior to this, the NBA awarded some outstanding novels such as James McBride's The Good Lord Bird (which shamefully I have not read yet, although it sits in my ereader), Louise Erdrich's amazing The Round House, and and Jesmyn Ward's gut-wrenching tale of post-Katrina New Orlean's Salvage The Bones

So it's hit and miss for me, definitely not as dependable as the Pulitzer but maybe more open to acknowledging short stories, which is good in my opinion.

This year offers to be a great year, with the amount of high quality literature being released from American authors. I have a few books in mind that I am guessing will make the short list.

Firstly, the no brainer picks are Colson Whitehead's magically brilliant The Underground Railroad and Yaa Gyasi's powerful tale Homegoing, both having received deafening but well earned praise. They are both fantastic novels and I'd suggest they are the favourites to win this year's NBA.

Louise Erdich is back with the follow up novel to her previous award winning book. LaRose, about the accidental killing of a young boy and the consequences for the Native American families impacted has received a lot of attention. I haven't read it yet but I am confident it will make the long list. Her previous win probably makes it less likely that she'll capture the award this year but a short list is definitely in the cards.

Another strong contender will be Annie Proulx's Barkskins, a monumental tome about French Canadian logging family. It has also received very strong reviews and although the previous Pulitzer winner was surprisingly left off the Booker long list, I think she'll get in here.  

Other books I expect to see are Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton (which people seem to love but which I found tedious and uninspiring), Emma Kline's The Girls (again, I wasn't blown away but the edgy themes explored are the kind of think the NBA seems to like), and Brit Bennet's The Mothers (which should get in based on its beautiful cover alone). 

Possible dark horses that I would like to see included are Emma Straub's endearing Modern Lovers and Stephanie Danler's hilariously sharp book about server culture Sweetbitter. These may feel less profound and important than the othe novelss but they were tons of fun to read and the writing outstanding. 

Two books that I haven't read that may get a look on the long list are also C.E. Morgan's The Sport of Kings and Nathan Hill's debut and very timely political novel, The Nix.

I'll make a follow up post to see how my predictions did.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Scotiabank Giller Prize Long List

Here is the long list for Canada's most prestigious literary prize:

  • Mona Awad for her novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, published by Penguin Canada
  • Gary Barwin for his novel Yiddish for Pirates, published by Random House Canada
  • Andrew Battershill for his novel Pillow, published by Coach House Books
  • David Bergen for his novel Stranger, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
  • Emma Donoghue for her novel The Wonder, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
  • Catherine Leroux for her novel The Party Wall, published by Biblioasis International Translation Series, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
  • Kathy Page for her story collection The Two of Us, published by A John Metcalf Book, an imprint of Biblioasis
  • Susan Perly for her novel Death Valley, published by Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers
  • Kerry Lee Powell for her story collection Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush, published by HarperAvenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
  • Steven Price for his novel By Gaslight, published by McClelland & Stewart
  • Madeleine Thien for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada
  • Zoe Whittall for her novel The Best Kind of People, published by House of Anansi Press Inc.
It's a good mix of new and more established authors, the most well known here is Emma Donoghue who wrote the critically acclaimed and Man Booker short-listed title Room

Aside from that, the ones that stand out for me and my early prediction for who makes the short list are 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, The Wonder, Do Not Say We Have Nothing and By Gaslight.

Of these, I am most interested in Madeleine Thien's book that captures the tumultuous period of Chinese history between the Cultural Revolution and the Tienanmen Square Massacre. The book has been long-listed for the Booker and she was interviewed this weekend on The Next Chapter.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Autumn Reads: Catching Up With My TBR

The year so far has been outstanding for books and with fall releases from heavyweights like Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, and Jonathan Safran Foer, everyone's To Be Read list is set to keep on growing.

Personally, I am most stoked about Smith's Swing Time and Brit Bennett's The Mothers and will do my best to grab copies when they get released.

But this fall, I want to try diving into some books that I have let sit on my bookshelf and Kobo, books that had lots of buzz when they came out or are deemed modern classics but that I just didn't get a chance to dive into. This list could go on forever, but I'll throw out five I'll prioritize.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

I picked up a copy at a used bookstore about a year ago and it has been calling out to me ever since. Kingsolver appears to be one of the great modern authors who touches upon important political and social themes, but for whatever reason I haven't managed to read anything yet. The story is about an evangelical family's mission to the Belgium Congo in the late 1950s and how over three decades their entire worldview and perspective gets shattered and reconstructed in the midst of postcolonial transformation. Sounds amazing!

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

Here's another that I have wanted to read for ages and it has sat in my ereader patiently waiting for me to pick it up. Long-listed for the Man Booker in 2010, two all-boy school roommates deal with the travails of teenage existence, dealing with love, identity and petty competitions that (guessing from the title) ends in tragic fashion.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

Adichie's Americanah is one of my all time favourite reads and that I haven't had a chance to pick up her previous and maybe most acclaimed novel (won the Orange Prize for Women's Literature) is a true shame. Thankfully, my book club has chosen this one as our next read. Adichie delves deep into one of the bleakest and most tumultuous periods of Nigerian history, as southern separatists engage in a decade long struggle to establish an independent republic. Again, sounds amazing and of what I hear it is an emotionally packed book which should be great for book club discussion.

Teju Cole, Open City 

Another highly acclaimed book that takes place in Nigeria (and elsewhere) that I managed to miss. I really want to know what's in the water because the quality of literature that comes from Nigerian authors is amazing. Anyways, Cole's book won a bunch of awards, is seen as one of the best books of the last 10 years and seems to delve into my psychological character introspection, for those looking for these less plot driven books.

Alistair MacLeon, No Great Mischief

One of these great Canadian novels that came out when I was not as on top of my reading game. Comes highly recommended by my dad, so I guess it is time to finally pick it up. Another family history, dealing with how we deal with repeated tragedies and manage to continue pursuing life. It's also nice and compact so shouldn't take too long to get through what appears to be a bit of a weighty topic.

Anyways, if you are interested in reading along with any of these let me know.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My Genetic Adventure

Two years ago I was diagnosed with a genetic disorder. Although in terms of my general health the consequences are minimal, it has had a significant impact in terms of life choices and presented emotional challenges for me and my family. I'll keep it vague but the point is that for the first time in my 37 years on earth, my genetic make up announced itself in a very loud way that I could not ignore. 

Our genes are inherently personal and it is fitting that Siddhartha Mukherjee's second ambitious book The Gene: An Intimate History begins with his own  genetic story, sadly one of schizophrenia that has hit several family members. 

From there, Mukherjee takes us into the long winding road of discovery as modern science has slowly built its understanding of the building blocks of life. Starting with the lonely monk, Gregor Mendel, first theorizing the idea of genes to the recent attempts to manipulate the human genome, Mukherjee describes the history in minute detail.

But as much as this book is about the history of scientific discovery and complex concepts (which Mukherjee is able to do in a way that the lay reader is able to understand), the heart of the book is about the ethical questions that the gene has presented us. From the ugly history of  eugenics in the first  half of the twentieth century to the overly hasty rush to experiment with genetic therapies, Mukherjee forces us to address questions that go beyond science and delve into moral issues that our increased knowledge of our make up presents. 

Mukherjee had a tough act to follow after his really groundbreaking chronicle about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. I am not sure if The Gene is quite its equal but it still is a monumental accomplishment.  

For me personally, this was the book I needed to read, to contextualize my own genetic journey, and give me understanding of how freak randomness shapes our fates, for better or worse. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

So I've been telling everyone I can that this book was gonna be the special book this fall. I was waiting patiently for the release in early September, even getting my local indy store to put a hold on it for me.

And surprise!!!

Today, Oprah Winfrey, whose opinions about literature have influenced huge numbers of readers and given exposure to many authors, announced that the next book for her Book Club was Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.

So here is a challenge my bookish friends. Lets read it together. Get out to your local bookstore, library, or ebook store and get yourself a copy.

I look forward to hearing what folks think and having conversations with anyone who takes up my challenge.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dark Matters: A Familiar But Compelling Thriller

Blake Crouch's Dark Matters is set to hit the bookstores tomorrow and it seems to be the thriller the summer has been waiting for. I received a Netgalley of the book in exchange for a review and thankfully for the publisher I have lots of good to say about it.

In many ways, Dark Matters is not an original story. The plot centres around Jason Dessen, a relatively content college physics teacher who is happily married but holds some regrets about putting his family ahead of research and career goals.

One day he is kidnapped by a mysterious man who drugs hi
m and puts in a box, waking up in an alternative reality, where he has had an incredibly successful career and managed to invent a device that allowed people to travel across parallel worlds. Quickly Jason discovers that his kidnapper was an alternative version of himself who himself regretted giving up familial success.

Jason must now figure out how to get back to his world and regain the family.

So yeah, we've seen this before. That cheezy Nicolas Cage film, The Family Man, that 90s tv series that refused to die well after it's best before date, Sliders, and the hilarious Family Guy episode where Brian and Stewie travel from one alternative reality to another.  

Dark Matters gives us a bit more science, a la The Martian, to explain how travel between the universes is possible and that is nice. But what really carries the novel is the gangbusters style of writing, pushing the reader forward at a breakneck pace and still making a really compelling emotional connection with the characters.

We feel Jason's pain as he tries, at times hopelessly, to find his wife and son. That agony carries the novel and makes it distinct from previous multi universe stories.

This book is no grand piece of literature, but it is a perfect summer beach read that you'll power through.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

When JK Rowling Defends The Death Eaters

From L to R: Angela Eagle, Hilary Benn, Alan Campbel, Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson, Ed Balls

Like many of my fellow readers, the Harry Potter series has a special place in my heart. I came to it late in life, in my mid 20s, but I was still drawn into the lives of Harry, Hermione, Ron and all the different characters and plot lines that made up the 7 part epic adventure in wizardry and witchcraft.

And one of the greatest things about HP is the anti-racist current running all through the books. For the uninitiated, the two sides of the conflict in the HP wizarding world are those who want to have good relations with the non-magical (muggles) and those wizards and witches who see muggles and wizards born of muggles (derogatorily referred to as mudbloods) as inferior and deserving of a lower place in society.

That the former are the heroes and the latter the villains, it is a powerful message of inclusion that children and adults reading the books take away. It is one of the reasons I will eagerly give the HP books to my kids when the day comes.

Damn, I even named my dog Dobby, so to say the least I'm a big fan.

my dog

Rowling has also on several occasions spoken out against racism, chastising bigots upset that Hermione was being played by a black actress in a recent Harry Potter play, and vocalizing anger toward the racist vitriol of some of the Leave EU campaigners.

And although her anti-racist bravado is commendable, we are beginning to see the limits of Rowling's  liberal anti-racism.

Earlier this year Rowling published a four part story on her Pottermore website called "History of Magic in North America," which received blustering critique for culturally appropriating myths and legends of other peoples and twisting their meaning to fit her narrative.

Google "Rowling + Native Americans" and see the anger, with many calling the story insensitive if not outright racist, many Native Americans expressing their exhaustion of Western writers feeling the entitlement to take important elements of their pasts and their cultures and retelling them in ways that they were not meant to be conveyed.

But as far as I can tell, Rowling has ignored the criticism only trying to quell concerns that some of the spirits she depicts are evil, as if that is the only point people are concerned about.

A white liberal confronted with issues of cultural appropriation is a site to see, how obtuse they can become in the face of legit concerns from a group she felt so comfortable depicting without any regard for the consequences of doing so.

And as we saw in the last day or so, entitlement is something Rowling has plenty of.

So a bit of a background...

It has been barely a year that radical campaigning anti-war Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn won a landslide victory for the leadership of the UK Labour Party, shocking everyone (including himself) as the membership of the party, tired of the old Blairite hacks, decided it was time for a good old principled socialist to lead away.

Without surprise, the right wing Bitterites (as they have been referred to) have been bitter, upset that the rabble of the membership would reject their expert judgement that had overseen the loss of 5 million votes since the 1997 election and two straight defeats at the polls. As such, the Bitterites have been plotting since day one.

Actually, even before JC won, Lord Mandelson tried to quash the leadership race to keep Corbyn from winning.

This week, after the Leave side won the EU referendum, the cabal around Mandelson and Hilary Benn chose to to use this moment of political uncertainty to orchestrate a coup and force Corbyn to resign, culminating in today's vote of non-confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Problem for the coupsters is that Corbyn is massively popular among the members of the Party and even if he accepted the vote (which he hasn't) he'd likely win an even larger majority than last time.

Rowling has taken to twitter in full support of the coupsters sadly.

Her tweets have compared Corbyn's supporters to fascists (particularly irked that some people at a pro-Corbyn rally yesterday called the Blairites vermin), retweeted posts from coupsters, including effusive praise for Hilary Benn, all in the name of "save Labour."

There is a lot of rich irony here.

While there maybe some debate about the use saucy and angry language on demos  (although there is serious doubts cast about some of the accusations--see here) then shouldn't we have similar look at those who are supporting Corbyn's ouster.

With Rowling's outrage about the racism that has appeared post-EU referendum and her likening of the left to fascists, lets look at the people she is supporting behind the coup.

Firstly, there seems to be really tight connection between those trying to retake the leadership and the old Blairite rulers. As the Canary reported today, the leading voices all have tight connections to Blair's former spin doctor Alistair Campbell, whose PR company may be coordinating the communication strategy of the coup.

By now most of us know what Blair did. He lied to Britain and engineered the UK's participation in the war in Iraq, a conflict that has already killed millions, and destabilized an entire region, fermenting the growth of ISIS and producing the refugee crisis in Syria.

The war in Iraq was illegal.

Blair is a war criminal and we are about to finally get the Chilicot Report that will detail how Blair and others deceived the world to justify going to war.

But even if Blair is behind the coup in some way, can we lay all his crimes upon those leading the coup now?

Well maybe not, but the major players were around when the vote on Iraq happened. The likes of Hillary Benn, Alan Campbell, and Corbyn's likely challenger Angela Eagle all voted for the war.

But the Iraq war was a long time it the only litmus test we have?

How about immigration and responding to racism! Rowling seems sincerely worried about the increase of racism among the British populace. Maybe the coupsters offer a better response to this than their judgment on Iraq.

Sadly, no they don't. First we can look at the last UK election and the brain trust of the Labour Party choosing to produce material like this to appeal to concerns:

This would also be kind of racist, wouldn't it JK?

And it didn't end there. During the EU referendum one of the vocal opponents of Corbyn Ed Balls (and spouse of Yvette Cooper, one of the defeated leadership candidates who voted today against Corbyn) wrote this in The Daily Mirror:

"We need to press Europe to restore proper borders, and put new controls on economic migration."

This is part of the criticisms of Corbyn, namely that he isn't willing to accept or appeal to the xenophobia that drove many to vote Leave. Instead, Corbyn wants to challenge it head on and rightfully point out that the reason people have lost their jobs and seen their NHS suffer is not because of immigrants and refugees but because of policy decisions of successive Tory and Labour governments.

Instead the coupsters would rather go back to a party that plays to peoples prejudices and that supports aggressive imperial policies.

How one supports this and sees this course as somewhat more sensible and better for immigrants in the UK is baffling.

If anything, capitulating will feed into the Little England mentality that Rowling is crying out against.

Supporting more wars like Iraq will only further the marginalization of immigrants.

The path of the coupsters isn't to save's about further entrenching the othering of immigrants in England and offering no real political alternative that points to the failings of thirty years of neoliberalism as the root cause of the problems people are grieving about.

To bring this back to Harry Potter, Blair is Voldermort in this story and the leaders of the coup are his death eaters. That Rowling has thrown her support for them and their racist, neoliberal and imperialist approach to governing (let's call it what it is), is pretty shameful.

To Be Blunt: JK Rowling siding with the Labour Party coupsters against Jeremy Corbyn is a repudiation of everything the message in HP was about.

So I say this, in the real world we don't have Dumbledore to rally around but we do have Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, the most principled politician one can imagine, who has always spoken out for the downtrodden, who has offered policies that would benefit the worst off in society, and who hasn't rushed to embrace prejudice for political expediency.

Corbyn brings with him all the leadership qualities that Dumbledore does in the Harry Potter Series.

So lets take our lead from Rowlings books and not from her horrible tweets. Let's rally to JC's side and not let death eaters, or Ministry of Magic apparatchiks, undermine the cause of good.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What To Read This Summer

So this year has seen one juggernaut after another in terms of books and there are plenty of big summer books that I will be picking up. I know for many folks summer is when people have time to read and are looking for good summer reads. So I am providing options for those compiling their lists. Below find a variety of books, some chunky sagas and others light beach reads...and if you have other books you are picking up let me know.

1. Barkskins by Annie Proulx. I am late to the Annie Proulx game, most famous for writing the short story Brokeback Mountain and the Pulitzer winner The Shipping News. Her latest is a 700 plus page saga that traces a family French Canadian loggers from the late 1600s to the present, touching on important issues about our relationship to nature and the role we have played in the current ecological crisis. It's getting tons of praise. If you want one of a door stop of a book to keep you busy this summer this is it!

2. I have yet to read Joe Hill, Stephen King's son who has built a solid writing career that quickly came out of his father's shadow. This year saw the release of The Fireman, another 700 page epic about a world where people spontaneously combust and a hero seeks to save the species from the burn. I have my copy already and think this will be a good one to pound back while lying in the sun in my backyard.

3. Homegoing is the debut novel of 26 year old Yaa Gyasi and is another multi-generational tale starting in 18th century villages in Ghana that takes the readers to the slave holding South, the Civil War and 20th century Harlem. The buzz has been deafening for this one and Gyasi has managed to keep it succinct (305 pages). This is one of the 'IT' books this year so if you want to show off your bookishness walk around reading this one this summer.

4. For some lighter reading, pick up Manuel Gonzale's The Regional Office is Under Attack! I am currently listening to the audiobook and it is hilarious and something completely different. The story lays out as a history of a now gone organization (the Regional Office) that is some sort of spy/assassin/cult body that is being attacked by disaffected former members keen on stopping the Regional Office before it grows too powerful. It's clever, fast paced and something perfect for the beach.

5. Viet Thanh Nguyen recently won the Pulitzer for his debut novel The Sympathizer, which I recently finished and am still digesting. This is a heavier read, following the tale of an unnamed Communist spy infiltrating the Southern Vietnamese military as it flees to the United States after the victory of the Viet Cong in 1975. There are so many profound issues being dealt with: conflicting and shifting identity, torture and war and the resentfulness and anger those infuse among the participants. In Nguyen's writing you feel the work of Graham Greene, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrisson influences, it really comes off as an ode to some of the great writers of the 20th century. This was a pretty impressive effort and I hope more people pick it up.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Shifting Our Gaze of the Manson Family: Emma Cline's The Girls

There have been few 2016 debut novels that have generated as much noise as Emma Cline's The Girls, set to be released on June 14 to much fanfare. Cline had published a few short stories and personal essays that she parlayed into a $2 million dollar three-book deal with Random House, the first of which is loosely based on the Manson murders in the late 1960s.

I have serious misgivings for these kind of huge advances for young authors, since every huge pay day that goes to one hotshot up and coming author would be better spent, in my opinion, on a wider pool of writers. There is no guarantee that the big ticket item will live up to the enormous advance and I assume it also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the writer to produce something amazing. I'd suggest that last years version of this phenomena (Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire) turned into a somewhat unwieldy and overly long work because of some internal pressure to produce a big meaty book worthy of a seven-figure advance.

Being the bookish nerd I am, however, Cline's book was still on my radar and I was pretty stoked to receive an advance reader copy from Netgalley. 

And thankfully, Cline has managed to produce a powerful and unique book that not offers a provocative alternative depiction of the Manson murders in the late 1960s while exhibiting Cline's mastery of the writing craft. 

The Girls is told from the perspective of a fourteen year old Evie, whose sexuality is beginning to flourish with confusing abandon while the stable structures of her world crumble. Her father has left her mother for a younger woman and her mother's attempts to enter the dating scene result in a neglect of Evie, who is allowed to wander from the domicile home without impunity. 

Evie befriends Suzanne and several other girls who have come under the spell of Russell Hadrick, a Charles Manson type figure, whose megalomaniac personality has convinced himself and others of his transcendent talents. Evie easily follows the girls to Hadrick's ranch and quickly becomes initiated into their ritualist customs. Through high dosages of psychedelics and frantic and intoxicating introductions to sex and music, his female followers rush to do Russell's bidding, even to the point of committing the most heinous of crimes. 

There are weaknesses in this book (which I will get too) but the strength is both Cline's exploration of what motivated the girls to rush to Russell's cause and Cline's amazing use of language to convey her answer: 

Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like "sunset" and "Paris." Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the bottoms of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus. 

Evie's own personal journey and her latter day recounts of what moved her to embrace Russell also beautifully convey what drove her and others like her to Russell's cult:

The ranch proved that you could live at a rarer pitch. That you could push past these petty human frailties and into a greater love. I believed, int he way of adolescents, in the absolute correctness and superiority of my move. My own feelings forming the definition. Love of that kind was something my father and even Taner could never understand, and of course I had to leave.

As fantastic as Cline's writing is there was a sense of a missed opportunity she had to write an even more profound novel that did not just casually touch upon the motivations of these followers but situated them in the tumultuous period of the late 1960s. 

As Michael Bourne's review of The Girls in The Millions, the  entire backdrop of the book is missing. The war, the civil unrest, the tearing apart of the tight nit social fabric of family are afterthoughts. Cline has been compared to Jeffrey Eugenides, but unlike Middlesex, Cline does not delve into the meatier subject matters that would have made her more insightful thoughts even more profound. Instead, we are asked to be carried solely by Evie's voice, which although enticing lacked the kind of social awareness that would have made it even more interesting.

All that said, this book is worth picking up. Cline is going to be an important writer for the next thirty years and I feel she has given us something to wet our appetites. The Girls showcases an immense talent and Cline will certainly write her great book in the near future. So go ahead and take a bit of the appetizer.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Exhilarating, Even for a Canadian: Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat

Daniel James Brown's account of the US Olympic Rowing Team that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics has gotten tons of attention, including being one of the first featured books in Andrew Luck's Book Club

Yes. That Andrew Luck. 

The Quarter Back of the Indianapolis Colts started a book club and the webpage has little commentary from him along with discussion boards for readers joining in for the fun. 

There is also a Twitter handle for the club and an Instagram account. 

Pretty awesome stuff if you ask me.

Gets better though...I listened to audiobook which is narrated by Edward Herrman of Gilmore Girls fame who sadly passed away at the end of 2014. His deep baritone voice was perfect for the story of the Washington Eight.

Now to the actual story...

The Boys on the Boat is the story of the Washington University eight-oar crew that overcame repeated obstacles to win the Olympic Gold during the Hitler Games in 1936. The story begins as the bulk of the crew first join the crew as freshmen. The boys who make up the freshmen crew are more working class than their counterparts at more illustrious Ivy League schools on the East Coast, but their legendary coach Al Ulbrickson notes their special talent right away. 

While success beckons immediately, as the freshmen team ages they begin to struggle and lose confidence, unable to produce their best race when it matters most. In the lead up to the 1936 Olympics Ulbrickson and the crew are unsure about their talents and whether they can actually beat the best teams in the nation. 

Managing to win the Olympic Trial, the Washington team heads to Nazi Germany to participate in Hitler's showcase. Despite attempts to sabotage their efforts, the team manages to squeak to victory in a thrilling final race.

Although ostensibly following the eight rowers and the one coxswain, Brown focuses much of the story on Joe Rantz, a poor working class kid who was abandoned by his father at a young age and must come to terms with the need to trust his teammates in order to succeed. Intersperced alongside the Rantz narrative is the wax poetics from the mouth of George Yeomans Pocock, the legendary boat designer and philosopher of the sport who accompanied the team in its fateful journey. 

There are a few qualms with the book. There is the underlying jingoism that may have sold well in the United States but it grew tiresome. To assign such broad and nobel characteristics to American sportsmen is problematic. Although assigning traits such as selflessness and brotherhood to counter the German athlete served a literary function in this story I wasn't buying it. That American athleticism has been so easily coopted into the imperial project of the American state makes me question efforts to romanticize the idea of the American sportsman.

Also, Brown going out of his way to not mention socialists and communists as victims of the Nazi regime, while listing all the other groups persecuted, was a bit annoying and felt slightly cowardly or typically popular American writing. 

That said, the book was exhilarating to listen to. Brown builds up the tempo of the story at a perfect pace, mixing in the tantalizing excitement of the races with the personal struggles the oarsmen who deal not only with their athletic endevour but also the economic turmoil The Great Depression has caused. While Rantz is the central figure, the other subplots, be it Ulbreckson's bouts of self-doubt or the coxswain's (Bob Mock) discovery of his up until then hidden Jewish ancestry on the eve of heading to Nazi Germany, Brown fills the book with people we care about and cheer on as they race to gold.

Most impressive, however, are the actual races. The description of them is enthralling, having me seated at the edge of my seat as I wondered if the Husky team could overcome past defeat and take the crown.

So without surprise, I give this a whole hearted recommendation...especially for those willing and able to listen to the audiobook version.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Goodbye Books on the Nightstand

One of the first posts on this blog was a few book podcast recommendations, where I offered these kind words about Books on the Nightstand:

My favourite, and probably the one that has been around the longest and most influential, is Books on the Nightstand,  which is hosted by Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness, both of whom work for Random House but do this podcast as a personal project. This podcast is great for many reasons. One is the likability of the hosts, who come off not as bookish snobs but just people who love reading and managed to get the best jobs possible to satisfy this love. Another great thing about it is that they have very different tastes. Kingman is more into deep, emotional literary journeys, while Kindness has a greater interest in science fiction, graphic novels and quirky fiction. You get a nice range of book recommendations because of their distinct tastes. Anyways, each week they talk in depth about a particular reading issue, be it "why we read dark" or "fiction books within works of fiction", and while the structure is very loose and sometimes rambling, they manage to keep it quite engaging. 

Sadly yesterday's podcast announced that Ann and Michael are winding down the podcast. After 8 years of episodes they had grown a bit tired and decided it was the right time to move on.

Books on the Nightstand was one of the first book podcasts I found and I have been listening regularly for the last few years. Thanks to Ann and Michael I discovered and read some amazing books thanks to the many recommendations they have provided.

So here is wishing Ann and Michel the best of luck moving forward and thanking them for your hard work and passion for reading.

Dealing with Tragedy: Noah Haley's Before the Fall

I received an advance copy of Noah Hawley's Before The Fall from Net Galley in exchange for a review.

The novel begins with a plane crash of a private jet, killing all but two passengers. One (Scott) is a failed painter who was invited to hop on the flight by the wife of a Fox News-like executive. The other is the 4 year old son (JJ) of the wife and the exec. Scott manages to swim back from the crash scene in the Atlantic coast, carrying JJ to safety.

Initially hailed as a hero, a Bill O'Reilly type pundit begins a campaign to rain suspicion on Scott, asking question about why he was even on the doomed plane and the odd coincidence that the subject of Scott's work are landscapes of human and natural disasters. With revelations that another passenger was about to be arrested for laundering money from terrorist sponsoring states, several state agencies emerge eager to find out what really happen and whether Scott knows more than he suggest.

Hawley slowly reveals the lead up to the plane crash, jumping back and forth from past to present, exploring the crash victims' lives and last thoughts prior to getting on the plane while also delving into the devastated lives of those left behind trying to understand why things have happened and why they have survived. With several high profile plane crashes in recent years (including one the week before this book's release) Hawley's portraits seem timely but also poignant and insightful, exploring how we compute these disasters and try to assign meaning even when the true answer to all the questions are often technical or senseless.

This is a clever, intriguing and engrossing read that is good for folks looking for a light but smart summer read. While Hawley keeps one guessing about what caused the crash, the point of Before The Fall is not just about finding out the truth. Hawley is just as interested in exploring the trauma and pain of those faced with tragedy and tries to dig into the headspace of those who have died, hoping to discover meaning even where none is to be found. While the revelation at the end may leave some less than satisfied, I appreciated that Hawley chose to emphasize different themes and issues than most summer thrillers.

That said, the book is uneven. Hawley seems unsure about his writing style, at times using a straight forward page turning approac and other times delving into more literary passages. This was off putting, especially when the story is told from Scott's perspective, as he quickly goes from an every-man kind of voice to a much more introspective and profound one. I just didn't buy this change and found it unnatural, even if the shift in style is intended to emphasize the changes Scott experiences as a result of surviving.

I'll give a lukewarm recommendation to Before The Fall. Hawley manages to tell an engaging story that is positively distinct from many other summer reads. I just wish Hawley had straight out chosen what kind of voice he wanted to convey in the writing and the lack of consistency made the reading experience less enjoyable than it could have been.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mr. Splitfoot: A Weird Entrancing Tale by Samantha Hunt

To say Mr. Splitfoot is odd would be an understatement. The story is macabre and fantastical, filled with unexplainable supernatural events and a twist that leaves the reader a little bit frighted about what has happened but also unsure about what has actually occurred.

Samantha Hunt's hit novel tells the story of Ruth and Cora, two women separated by decades but whose destinies are mysteriously intertwined.

Ruth is an orphan living in the home of a religious fanatic, bearing a facial scar from her mother pouring acid onto her face.  She survives the stifling existence with the help of her soulmate Nat, who has served as Ruth's surrogate sister since her biological one had to leave the home. Nat and Ruth engage in normal youthful hi-jinx but quickly become skilled con artists, hosting séances claiming to communicate with the dead for those unsettled by the loss of loved ones and eager for closure.

Jumping forward, we meet Ruth's niece, Cora, who lives a mediocre and dull life but finds herself pregnant and eager to keep the baby, despite the horrible attempts of the father to end the pregnancy. Suddenly, a mute Ruth appears and asks Cora to follow her on a journey through upstate New York, a journey whose purpose and end goal Cora can only speculate about. Cora's narration delves into the meaning of her pregnancy, the reasons for Ruth's appearance, and doubts and fears about where they are going and what this will mean to her and her child.

Back in the past, Ruth attracts the attention a local man who successfully negotiates with the religious fanatic a marriage between him and Ruth. Trying to avoid this unappetizing future, Ruth and Nat befriend another local conman, Mr. Bell, who helps them earn significant amounts of money via their séances and who agrees to marry Ruth so as to avoid ending up with the other prospective suitor.

Quickly the story turns as the local man returns to expose the con but also to capture Ruth, forcing Nat, Ruth and Mr. Bell to escape and requiring Mr. Bell to reveal a dark past that reveals a connection to Ruth she could not have imagine. Meanwhile, Cora comes upon an old cabin and a much older Nat and the mystery that Cora has been trying to figure out begins to reveal itself.

Adore would not be a word I could use to describe my feelings about Mr. Splitfoot. The story felt uncomfortable to read. Hunt writes in an old classical and gothic style much less common in modern literature. The underlying darkness of the story meanders through the text, through the oddness of the dialogue and the strangeness of the plot. That said, I found myself intrigued, eager to find the connecting threads that would be exposed at the end.

Additionally to the stylistic thrust of the novel, Hunt also delves into a wide variety of relevant themes, touching on issues of religion and the occult, motherhood and abandonment, friendship and love. That so many weighty issues get dealt with through
the dark tinge of the writing may leave a reader weary but it definitely presents a unique take.

So if you want a break from the clever and light wit that has become the style de jour of many books, and want to explore a novel that relies on more classical techniques to tell a weird but engaging story, do pick up Mr. Splitfoot and get lost in its trance.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Cocaine, Corruption and The Cartel: Don Winslow's Epic Novel

The drug wars that have engulfed much of Mexico for the last two decades have been filled with stories of atrocities, with the conflict not only victimizing members of the waring cartels, but also thousands of innocent bystanders, journalists and law enforcement. While this "total war" on Mexican society was at its worst, the Mexican government stood idly by if not complicit or on the take of the powerful cartels.

Despite this general knowledge, however, I remained quite ignorant in terms of how extensive the pain caused by the drug wars was causing. It's one of the reasons I decided to pick up Don Winslow's The Cartel, an epic 600+ page tome about the more recent years of what could justly be called the Mexican civil war. The Cartel is the second book in a series, the first being The Power of the Dog, which was released in 2005. I was reticent to pick up The Cartel without having read first book but had been assured that it could be read on its own.

The Cartel follows the intertwining stories of Art Keller, a DEA agent, and Adán Barrera, the patron and head of the Sinaloa Cartel that is the largest player in the Mexican drug trade. The Cartel opens up with Barrera being arrested after Keller has tricked him to enter to United States. Barrera engineers a plea deal that allows him to serve his sentence in Mexico, where his money and influence make his time in prison as if it were a resort before finally managing to pay off the right officials to allow an escape.

So begins the next phase of the civil war as Barrera tries to reclaim his hegemony, slowly taking out competing drug lords and paying off government officials to secure control of various zones of trade, reaching his influence to the highest offices of the Mexican state. Yet he pushes too far and unleashes a horrid backlash of Los Zetas, a sadistic group of urban soldiers willing to kill off powerful police and army officials or any journalist or community activist eager to expose their actions.

Winslow has performed some really meticulous research to write this book, using fictionalized characters to tell an ostensibly true story of what has happened in Mexico for the last two decades. He engulfs us in the violent terror campaigns that have secured the drug routes for the various cartels and lays blame for it at everyone's doorstep, be it the government officials in Mexico who have financially benefited from the drug trade, the American government whose interventions often serve to benefit one cartel over another, or the Western consumer whose taste for cocaine fuels the war and supplies it with endless cash and weapons.

So to get to the point, this book was AMAZING! Go pick up this book and get lost in it. Winslow is a writer that spares no detail yet does not bog one down in it as he takes you through the intertwining story lines, lets you understand/fear/love/hate the number of protagonists who tell different parts of the story, and then crushes you when tragedy necessitates itself.

This is a must read and I look forward to going back and reading the "prequel" in the near future.