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.