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.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Year of the Refugees: Lawrence Hill and Sunjeev Sahota Tell the Story

The Syrian refugee crisis has overshadowed most political events in the last twelve months. In Europe and North America, the fate of fleeing Syrians has been a political football that leaders have both embraced and then just as quickly distanced themselves from when no longer political expedient.

After the iconic death of five year old Alan Kurdi had faded from our collective memories, the initial sympathies people felt toward the refugees have often been overwhelmed by xenophobic expressions of hate, with right wing extremist political entities using the growth of racism to mobilize against those fleeing a war torn nation and encouraging governments to shut their borders. Even traditional mainstream political parties have joined this lurch to catch the bigot constituency. During the 2015 election in Canada, the now (thankfully) former governing party faced significant criticism for poorly handling of the refugee crisis and then as its electoral fates seemed doomed pushed its campaign full racist in a desperate and pathetic effort to be re-elected. In recent days, we saw similar kind of "otherizing" by the British Conservative Party as it tried to vilify Labour's mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan for being Muslim.

So this is the context that Lawrence Hill and Sunjeev Sahota released their two books, right into the middle of a heated societal debates about refugees, immigrants and racism and it is one reason they have gotten so much attention.

Lawrence Hill became a major literary figure in Canada after the 2007 publication of The Book of Negroes, an engrossing recounting of a former slave's life from her childhood abduction from Africa to her eventual journey back to her birthplace in the waning years of her life. The Book of Negroes was a tremendous and emotionally powerful novel, so when I picked up The Illegal my expectations were high. This was only amplified when the book won this year's Canada Reads competition, expertly defended by Olympian and all-around super human Clara Hughes.

However, while Hill does say important things her, I quickly became crestfallen as I read through a book filled with lazy writing and none of the weight the subject of refugees deserved.

The Illegal takes place in a speculative near future, shifting between two made up nations (Zantoroland and Freedom State). Zantoroloand is an African nation ruled by a brutal strongman who goes out of his way to crush all oppositional voices and blackmail citizens to fill his own private coffers. Despite the heavy hand of dictatorship, the nation is also famous for its long distance runners, of which our hero, Keita is one. He's also the son of a rebel journalist keen on exposing his government's corruption to the foreign press. Sadly, Keita's father suffers the predictable fate of radical writers and Keita is forced to flee in hopes of escaping a similar life's end.

Keita goes to the primary destination for refugees from Zantoroland, Freedom State. Freedom State has recently elected a right wing anti-refugee party, keen on keeping out the boatloads of Zantorolanders escaping their dictatorship. With anti-refugee sentiment high among the population, Keita must lay low and seek sympathetic individuals in hopes of surviving while also trying to win long distances races in hopes of garnering enough prize money to pay a ransom the Zantoroland officials have asked for his sister being held in captivity.

Hill should be commended for what is an important political contribution, being released right as the Canadian election campaign began and the refugee crisis emerged. Elements of the story, the rampant xenophobia of Freedom State especially, serve as a cautionary tale for how quickly a society can be whipped up to embrace its worst instincts and although we can be heartened that the vile efforts of Harper in Canada and Cameron in the UK have failed, economic and political instability in the future could very quickly open the door to that brand of politics. Hill also used the press around this book and Canada Reads to do much good, raising significant funds for a refugee family in the City of Hamilton (Hill's and my home city). Hill is a fantastic person, who has put his name on some pretty amazing campaigns (co-writing The Deserter's Tale with Iraq War Resister Joshua Key for example), so it really pains me to have to say what I have to say about The Illegal.

Frankly, The Illegal is a poorly written book, whose predictable yet unbelievable plot is equaled only by its one dimensional characters, who are easily categorized as angelic heroes or cartoonishly evil villains.

I realize that Hill chose to write a rather conventional commercial work but I hope that even readers of popular fiction don't expect to be talked down to, because that is how the prose felt. Hill shows no shame in asking the readers to accept the implausible, whether it is Kieta's friend John's (super child and  eleven year old scholarship student) ability to manipulate the Minister of Immigration through the plucky yet illicit recording of  illegal transactions or Keita's own ability to avoid capture for months from government authorities (or the sports agent he fled from) despite being a high profile marathoner who jogs regularly in the open (he's not in hiding but his elusiveness would beg to differ).

And while the plot's ridiculousness gets tiresome, it pales in comparison to the irritation one feels when Hill drags out the various tropes disguised as characters. We have our hero (Keita), who has no fault and no ambition beyond the safety of his family. He's aided by the do-good white liberal Ivernia Beech, love interest/good cop/fellow marathoner Candace Freixa, a way too mature eleven year old wiz kid John Falconer, and the plucky wheelchair bound journalist Viola Hill. There is absolutely no substance to these characters. They are merely there to fill plot points and move the story along. The lack of complexity leaves the reader without much to like (or dislike) and it really made it tough to really care when things went badly or well for them.

But even the one-dimensionalness of the heroes is nothing compared to the cartoonishly evil bad guys. Whether it is Zantoroland president or Freedom State's Prime Minister, their motives are so ghastly and extreme and the lines they deliver could have been delivered by the villains of some bad 1980s action film that I found myself laughing at times by how bad their dialogue was when I am sure the point was to shock and evoke anger.

I feel bad having to write such a harsh review of a book but since The Illegal has mostly gotten pretty glowing praise I think a bit of cold water onto it is warranted. Hill is dealing with important issues and as a propaganda instrument the novel has a point and has played a positive role in the discussions about refugees, but a subject matter of such importance deserved better.

Thankfully, Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways is a book that gives the refugee experience the treatment it merits.

Sahota is a British author who came to writing later in life, influenced by the works of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, whose writing focuses on post-colonial themes among the South Asian diaspora in England. His first book received moderate attention, but The Year of the Runaways was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize even before its release date and with a blurb by Rushdie it was certain to receive significant attention. After being shortlisted for the Booker and seen as one of the stronger competitors, it quickly rose to the top of my TBR list but I had to wait for the North American release earlier this year.

And it did not disappoint.

Sahota tells the story of four South Asians in contemporary England. Three young men (Avtar, Randeep and Tarlochan) are the "freshies", coming to England to find work through nefarious means. Tarlochan sneaks into the country without documentation, eager to get away after his family of untouchables is massacred. Meanwhile, Avtar comes on a student visa after his family's business falls on hard times. He has no intention of studying, quickly leaving the campus to find work to support his family back home. Randeep leaves India after his university career is destroyed when he commits a sexual assault and is expelled from school. After his father, a highly ranked government bureaucrat, has a mental breakdown, the pressure is on Randeep to go overseas to support the family. So he finds an English citizen, Narindar (an English born Sikh woman) to be his visa bride and comes to England in hopes of securing permanent status after a year of the sham marriage. Motivated by her own religious devotion to do a good deed and make amens for a tragedy she feels responsible for, Narindar must keep her part in this affair from her very conservative family, which is keen on marrying her off. So she runs off to a near by town and tries to keep her whereabouts a secret from a father and brother angered by her disloyalty.

While Hill gives us depthless characters, Sahota takes his time exploring the four protagonists as they struggle with their life choices, eking out their existence as best the can. The "freshies" constantly worry about finding work and the consequences of failing to do so, often turning on one another and committing treacheries and betrayals to be able to get a better job, a better flat,  to pay off their creditors or buy enough tokens to recharge the gas metre. Narinder deals with pangs of guilt about the public shame she causes her father but also experiences feelings of lust and love for Tarlochan that make her question whether the arranged marriage is something she can really follow through on.

The four are not easily categorized within the kinds of archetypical roles Hill gave his characters. Instead, they make unsavoury choices that negatively affects the others, keep secrets from each other, try to out maneuver each other. They learn difficult lessons and end up with just desserts that leave them wondering whether their choices and sacrifices were in fact worth the price they paid.

Sahota's intense and dark realism turns out to be much more effective at producing the kind of empathy in the reader than Hill's work seeks to do.

Hill's Keita is able to survive relatively comfortably as a refugee, have enough money and food to train at a high level. When he falls ill, the small troop of loyal supporters he has managed to surround himself with in a matter of weeks pay his hospital bill and discourage the hospital from turning him into the authorities. The reader is pulled along with the plot and we dutifully know who to like and dislike but we aren't captured by any suffering Keita or others may experience.

In contrast, the four protagonists in The Year of the Runaway struggle to meet every bill, save money by eating roti and thin bland curry daily, and avoid (to Avtar's detriment) the hospital even when horribly ill for fear of deportation. They work dangerous jobs for sketchy contractors who keep the workers locked in cold sheds at night and take their travel documents to discourage escape. And the networks of support they find rarely offer the kind of generosity Keita so easily falls into. Sahota's four engross us in their moods, their despair, we feel their angst, we feel their pangs of hunger after the umpteenth bowl of thin curry and roti. Sahota gives us the emotional punch and forges a deep sense of empathy  that Hill sadly fails to deliver.

So if you have to choose one of these books to add to your To Be Read pile, I strongly encourage you to give The Illegal a pass and let yourself get drawn into the The Year of the Runaways.