Monday, April 3, 2017

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - Shortlist

Hey folks,

Award season for the world of books never seems to really the US 2016 season comes to an end next week with the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, the Baileys Prize announced its shortlist and the Man Booker International Prize announced its longlist.

The Bailey's shortlist looks great, consisting of the following novels by women from around the world:

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I have already written glowing words about Thien's marvelous novel about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and I think winning the Giller and Governor General Prize (plus being shortlisted for the Booker last year) has confirmed its greatness. Not sure it needs to win this, but happy it continues to find praise.

I have a copy of The Sport of Kings on my Kobo and this book about racism and horse racing has gotten lots of love, so would not be surprised if it came out on top.

My pick at this point, though, is Naomi Alderman's dystopic Atwoodian novel, set in a world where teenage girls have the power to cause immense physical pain to others. It has gotten tons of good reviews and seems to be on point with the political and cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

I will be trying to finish at least these two (in addition to having already read DNSWHN) before the prize is handed out in June.

Hope others do to.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Go Read This Now: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

I received an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I had not heard of Hannah Tinti before. I hadn't gotten onto her bandwagon after the publication of her second novel, The Good Thief, in 2008. But then I heard Michael Kindness (of Books On The Nightstand fame) rave about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley on the Drunk Book Club podcast late last year as one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

I quickly signed onto my Netgalley account and got myself an advanced copy, which I proceeded to devour while vacationing in Taiwan in February. And all I can say is wow!

Part coming of age story, part gritty crime drama, Tinti's novel follows the story of Samuel Hawley and his teenage daughter Loo. Quickly we find out that Samuel's body is decorated by twelve bullet wounds that reveal a dark and violent past, one that Loo has no recollection of but desperately wants to find out about. Tinti takes us from past to present, slowly revealing the story behind each of Samuel's wounds and Loo's persistent search for the truth about her father, her deceased mother, and why her childhood was filled with constant running away only to return to her mother's home village. Slowly, the two worlds come to a head, as Samuel must confront his past choices and their consequences.

Almost cinematic in scope and pace, Tinti still keeps her literary sensibilities, using deeply moving prose to explore the regret that is permanently etched onto Samuel and the bewilderment and resentment he has passed on to a daughter. Yet, Tinti does not get bogged down in her words, able to move the plot forward, keeping the reader turning the page, and ending with a more than satisfying conclusion.

Tinti is a marvelous writer and she has given us a captivating story about violence, death, youth, renewal and reckoning. There are a few stellar books worth picking up this spring, make sure that the Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is one of them.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Always The Outsider: Exit West and the Refugee Experience

Mohsin Hamid is another well-established writer who I had not managed to read until now, having The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. But with the much-hyped and incredibly timely tale of Middle Eastern refugees, Exit West, I was quick to reserve my copy of the audiobook.
missed the boat of his best-selling

When I got it and set to play I initially groaned when Hamid announced himself as the narrator on the audio. For the most part, authors should not narrate their own work. They aren't voice actors and usually aren't able to convey the text as well as those trained to do so, despite their intimate knowledge of the work. Thankfully, Hamid was a wonderful conveyer of the text, offering a soft and gentle voice that perfectly captured the mood of Exit West.

The story follows two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, middle-class professionals in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, in the midst of internal turmoil as secular sentimentality and religious fundamentalism struggle for political domination. As militants make headway and society falls into chaotic discord, Saeed and Nadia must make the difficult choice of leaving their lives and family behind and head West.

Far from an escape from uncertainty, Saeed and Nadia find themselves in London, surrounded by nativist anger directed at outsiders, Saeed and Nadia find themselves othered and blamed for the populations' own economic uncertainty. Saeed and Nadia must turn to each other to emotionally withstand the constant onslaught of being undesired, testing their love and friendship.

In the context of the xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiments in Europe and North America, Hamid has offered a powerful and painful exploration of the refugee experience. Unlike the caricatures that populated Laurence Hill's disappointing The Illegal, Hamid's story of the refugees feels so much more real and tangible to the experiences we are seeing before our eyes.

And Hamid tells this story in lush and flowery prose, delving almost into magical realism, with Saeed and Nadia's experiences feeling dream-like as they struggle through a dystopic nightmare of constant fleeing and outsider status.

In terms of recent explorations of the refugee/immigrant experience, I was not as blown away by Exit West as others and would suggest Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways is a grander literary accomplishment. That may be my preference for realism, where Hamid's writing at times felt a bit too Coelho-like for my tastes.

That said, this is a powerful work and politically important, even more so in the age of Trumpian xenophobia. So pick it up, shout its praise and exclaim: Refugees are welcome here!

Why Can't White Authors Help Having A White Saviour?

Sebastian Barry's Days Without End  has been a critical darling in the UK, winning the prestigious Costa Book Award for Novel and the Costa Book of the Year prizes.  Recently released in Canada, Barry has been on the promotion circuit, recently appearing on CBC's Writers and Company.

With so much praise, I jumped in with little knowledge of the book's subject matter, other than it taking place around the time of the American Civil War and involving the tale of Irish immigrants seeking to make lives in the frontier.

Days Without End is told through the eyes and voice of Thomas McNulty, a young and diminutive young man who finds himself joining the US army as it pushes American dominion into lands long occupied by indigenous populations. Fighting side-by-side with his companion, John Cole, Thomas and Cole develop intimate feelings for one another and spend much of the novel trying to establish some normalcy to their relationship, where their love can be expressed outside the disapproving eyes of others.

While engaging in one of the many skirmishes with a Sioux tribe, Thomas and John's unit kills the mother of a young girl, who they quickly name Winona and adopt as their own. Thomas and John take on fatherly roles, trying to create a stable family life for her. When Winona's family members come looking for her many years later, Thomas and John must decide how to respond and how far to take their protective role, whether to make a choice of personal sacrifice or allow her to return to her people.

My feelings for this book are mixed. On the one hand, Barry is a beautiful writer, who brings a poetic lyricism to his prose, which would contrast sharply with those accustomed to the more edgy and gritty prose of Cormac McCarthy's account of American expansion into the west.

Barry also offers a thoughtful exploration of sexuality and gender among a group of men who have mostly been characterized as hyper-masculine and promiscuous. Barry, inspired by his son's coming out, offers a Thomas and John who are tender and familial, eager to maintain their loving bond in circumstances that appear to conspire against them.

But all that said, despite the writing and thematic ambition, Barry almost ruins the book by turning Thomas into the plot's white-saviour, an overused and historically insulting trope. Thomas is wracked by guilt (because he is part of a genocidal army), Thomas must save the innocent orphan girl (with no thought about whether that is appropriate, hell American's can claim whatever they want for themselves), Thomas is the father figure who follows Winona and sacrifices his own freedom for her safety (after killing off her remaining family).

There is a moment where Barry has Thomas contemplate the moral ambiguity of his actions in taking Winona as his and John's own daughter, but even this sentiment is quickly discarded and Thomas forges on as white-saviour and protector to his daughter.

Honestly, I thought we all learned after Dances With Wolves that this was a super problematic portrayal of whites in their dealings, used to soften the historical image of white genocide.

This very much left a bitter taste in my mouth, which is a shame because the book could have offered so much if it didn't fall into such a disconcerting literary tool.

A very luke warm recommendation from me.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Tournament of Books

Have been super busy lawyering recently, so this is my first post in a while. What better way to break the drought by talking about the Tournament of Books!

For those who have no idea what the TOB is, yes, it is as cool as it sounds.  Started 11 years ago by The Morning News, an online cultural magazine, it was initially intended to take a swipe at the absurdity of book awards by mimicking the NCAA Basketball Tournament (see this year's bracket here), placing books in brackets and have them face off against one another until a champion eventually emerged from the competition.

Whoever judges a particular head-to-head match up (literary celebrities usually) write long, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes nasty reasons explaining their decision and then followers of the TOB go to town agreeing, disagreeing, bemoaning the decisions.

To add to the craziness, when the short-list is announced in January, readers get to vote on their favourite book, with the vote tally used to determine which defeated books return as zombies for the semifinals.

The winner of the book death-match receives a rooster (hence the TOB's logo), although no winner has actually accepted the feathered fowl prize.

In past years, some pretty big heavyweights have emerged as the winner. Last year, the TOB was rather prescient in picking the eventual Man Booker Prize Winner, The Sellout. Other winners over the years included Station Eleven, The Orphan Master's Son, Wolf Hall, and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.

Although I have been following the TOB for a few years now, this was the first year that I made a concerted effort at reading all 18 books up for the prize, and sadly, I failed miserably, sunken after 13 books by the way too long, speculative fiction novel about time travel, titled Version Control, which was interesting conceptually but at over 500 pages way too long and tedious to keep my attention.

Unfortunately, I am not sure I'll ever make an attempt to read all the books again, since among the very good (The Underground Railroad, Homegoing and The Vegetarian) there were some real stinkers that made the list. The committee who decides on these things tries to mix things up, going beyond literary fiction (which I am fine with) but some of their reaches were really disappointing.

Nonetheless, if you haven't followed the TOB in the past, it's well worth one's time. The discussion is always engaging, sometimes quite emotional. Once you get drawn in it's pretty easy to become obsessed (check out the Goodreads group on the matter and you'll see the level of interest). I find myself refreshing the TOB page every morning eagerly waiting for the day's decision.

Anyways, my pick is Homegoing. Although I think the Vegetarian and The Underground Railroad are technically better books, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was a pretty wonderful first novel telling an epic tale of African diaspora. It will be a popular pick.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Refugees

In little over two years, Viet Thanh Nguyen has emerged as a leading figure in the literary world, winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his astounding crime / immigrant / Vietnam War thriller The Sympathizer and getting shortlisted for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Choice award in non-fiction for Nothing Ever Dies (which is an academic book intended to accompany The Sympathizer).

Nguyen has also been serving as the cultural critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, writing about literature and politics through a biting radical lens (which is refreshing when the literary world tends to be rather bland and liberal, even in these dark times of Trump).

For someone who has had his pulse on American cultural and political life, it is both fortuitous and fitting that Nguyen's new short story collection entitled The Refugees, dedicated to "all refugees,"is being released in the shadow of Trump's draconian ban on refugees from seven Muslim countries.

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories, offering insights into various refugee experiences, mostly focused on the Vietnamese diaspora that emigrated from South East Asia in the years after the end of the American war in the region. Nguyen touches on themes of regret and loss, of trying to outrun the experiences and memories that turned one into a refugee, of the political cultures that transposed themselves from home country to new home, and the struggles that refugees experience in their new countries, both of survival and dealing with expectations from those they left behind.

As with The Sympathizer, Nguyen's writing drives the forcefulness of his stories. He writes thoughtful sentences that layer on top of each other to create both atmosphere and mood but also complexity, making the reader dig deep into the text to understand the motivations and actions of his characters. The stories he gives us are painful and somber, yet also with a touch of outlandish humour he pulled off so well in his previous novel.

As the current US Administration seeks to vilify the refugee populations that were products of American imperial adventures, Nguyen's collection is both powerful and necessary. We need to hear the painful pasts that have driven people to leave their homes and families, to understand and empathize with their experiences and appreciate the stakes they (and humanity) face if we ignore them and further marginalize them.

For this reason alone, I urge you all to pick up the book. It's a quick and easy read, yet will give you the energy to keep on struggling for the rights of refugees now and in the future.
**I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Dark Side of Monkey Business: Kaitlyn Greenidge's We Love You, Charlie Freeman

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I saw that Greenidge's debut novel was a Kobo Daily Deal. I am trying to read as many of the Tournament of Book finalists this year, and Greenidge's work made the final 16 so I snatched it up. Although I had heard it pitched by Liberty Hardy on Book Riot's  All The Books Podcast, I had little idea of what the content actually was...and wow that is not what I expected.


We Love You, Charlie Freeman is the story of the Freeman family, a Bostonian African American family whose matriarch is a trained sign language instructor hired by a prestigious institute committed to studying human-chimpanzee communication. The entire family, each of whom is fluent in sign, moves into the institute and live with an emotionally broken and vulnerable chimp named Charlie, whom the family embraces as one of their own.

Told through the eyes of each family member, with an additional flash-back narrator (Nymphadora) who worked with a doctor from the institute in its early years, Greenidge offers a close inspection of how this odd family dynamic slowly tears apart the tight-knit group. Mostly told through the gaze of the oldest daughter (Charlotte), we slowly learn that the institute had engaged in Tuskegee-like experiments in the 1920s, where racist scientists sought to compare African American and Chimpanzee bodily forms and communication abilities. Charlotte, disgusted by this past and by her mother's growing inappropriate intimacy with Charlie, tries to destabilize the circumstances she is trapped in, which results in the climactic blow-up and exposure of the dark past and present practices of the institute.

As a debut novel, Greenidge has offered us a really meaty treatment of a very odd plot. Heavy questions of racial prejudice in scientific research and institutional defenses for their past behaviours is confronted head on. Add to that the complex issues of family breakdown that results from a spouse's career ambition, we are left with a complex social and family drama that demands further discussion. This will be a great book for the Tournament of Books and I hope it makes it forward at least a round or two so we can be exposed to more intelligent discussion on the matter.

That said, there are issues that made this a less than perfect book (I ended up only giving it three stars on Goodreads). Significant plot developments involving the mother's growing emotional and physical attachment to Charlie or the youngest daughter's obsession with obtaining Charlie's acceptance seem to come to fruition without preparing the reader for them. It felt like Greenidge was asked to cut portions of the novel that would have filled in these gaps and efforts to close the gaps left the reader wondering "what the hell just happened." I am being purely speculative here, but first-time authors are probably under enormous pressure to accept the recommendation of their editors and editors are too quick to cut down the length of their books, even if the final product suffers as a result.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, was an original and well told story and I those following the TOB should definitely pick it up as I believe it will lead to some of the best discussion. That said, I feel somewhat unsatisfied feeling that Greenidge did not quite achieve the potential this book could have offered.


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Indomitable Zadie Smith: Swing Time

Since publishing her debut novel, White Teeth, at 24 years of age, Zadie Smith has been a stalwart of
literature in the English Language. Delving into issues of race and multiculturalism (with all its tensions), Smith has continued to write engrossing and political literature that has built up legions of fans eager to read her next book.

With little surprise, when word got out that a new Zadie Smith novel was set to hit the bookstands in late 2016 it garnered a lot of buzz. Swing Time was published to much fanfare and has received significant critical acclaim, having been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (losing to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad), and making the finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award (set to be given out in early March).

In Swing Time, Smith breaks from her previous convention, narrating the story from a very intimate first person perspective, an unnamed protagonist who embraces her love of dancing at a young age only to be overshadowed by her more talented friend, Tracey, the only other girl of colour in her dance class. Jumping back and forth in time and space, Smith's narrator journey goes from abandoned dreams of dancing stardom to the inner circle of a pop diva, from the state-funded public housing in North London to the small villages of West Africa. Although both the narrator and her friend Tracey have a modicum of success at points in their life, the weight of unmet expectations and succumbing to mediocrity loom large, as both come to terms that the hopeful dreams of their youth have not been achieved.

The scope of time and themes Smith tackles is impressive. She manages to fill her pages with a nostalgic appreciation of 1980s pop and dance, while still rooting the reader in the present. Even with a protagonist that consciously rejects the radicalism of her mother, Smith still manages to pepper the plot with the politic of race and class that no one can run away from, even those desperate to escape and with the innate talents to attempt to do so.

Although Swing Time has much going for, it isn't quite at the bar set by Smith's Orange Prize winning and Booker shortlisted On Beauty. Zadie Smith is a pro and her writing is always good and provocative, but this book is a slow burn, not something the reader is going to get engrossed in and power through. That may be good, though, sometimes good writing needs to be consumed by grazing rather than devoured. However, in this case, I felt myself appreciating the reading experience rather than enjoying it, an important distinction and one that influences how highly I will recommend a book.

Nonetheless, it is worth picking up, although if you have not read Zadie Smith before I'd suggest starting with On Beauty before dipping into the world of Swing Time.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Ever Present Tension of Modern India: Aravind Adiga's Selection Day

Aravind Adiga skyrocketed to literary prominence with his debut novel, White Tiger, a hilarious and biting satire about modern India, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Departing from previous Indian fiction that gained popularity in the West, which focused on the aftermath of independence,  Adiga focused on the modern economic and cultural tensions of contemporary India.

In his newest novel, Selection Day, Adiga delves into new terrain, exploring the pressure of economically marginalized families as they try to gain uplift through the athletic prowess of their children. At the heart of the story is Manju, the younger of two brothers whose father has assiduously trained to become cricket stars. Although Manju's older brother, Radha, is seen as the true prodigy, it quickly becomes apparent that the younger/less attractive/sexually confused sibling is the talent, while Radha's star quickly burns out prior to Selection Day, where professional teams draft teenage players.

While gifted as a batsman, Manju's true dream is to pursue a college degree in sciences. His feelings about the game he excels at are ambiguous at best but he feels burdened to pursue an athletic career by a father who has thrown his entire self into assuring one of his children succeed. Manju is forced to confront these pressures, as well as his own sexual identity and attractions that would certainly marginalize him and undermine any chance of success.

Adiga is certainly ambitious in his writing. He challenges difficult issues facing Indian society, intertwining how children respond to familial pressures for social and economic uplift with the difficulties of young gay men trying to come to terms with their sexuality when doing so could undermine the dreams of aspirations of all around them.

That said, while Adiga is ambitious topically I didn't find his writing to be quite as biting as it was in White Tiger. The latter was hilariously tragic and satiric and while Adiga tries to match this tone in Selection Day the writing does not quite match what you get from White Tiger.

I still recommend this to those who enjoyed White Tiger, but don't expect it to match the award winning novel.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Haunting Dreams of The Vegetarian

Hang Kang's The Vegetarian has received significant attention from Western readers for a translated book. Kang won the Man Booker International Prize, was one of the New York Times Best Books of 2016, and made the long list for this year's Tournament of Books. I took a while to finally pick up this short book, and after a three day entrancement with Kang's beautiful prose I can say that the praise is all deserved.

Kang's novel follows Yeong-hye, a recently wed wife to a business man, who after a disturbing dream decides to abandon the eating of meat, emptying the fridge of all animal products, driven by disgust of the thought of eating another bite. All those around her, husband, sister, parents, are outraged by her rejection of meat, questioning her sanity, abusively scolding her and insisting that she abandon her vegetarianism. Violently rejecting her choice, a huge family fight results in her father force feeding a morsel of meat to her, with Yeong-hye responding by slitting her wrists.

Told in three parts, from the perspective of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, Kang beautifully shows us how Yeong-hye's choice of vegetarianism is met with violence that provokes her to spin into mental decline.

As a reader I was captivated by every word. Kang's prose is simple yet lyrical, allowing the reader's eyes to swiftly drift from page to page, caught up in Yeong-hye's tumultuous and tragic journey. So much is being said through Kang's quiet style, about the plight of women in South Korean society, about the reactions society has toward unconventional behaviour, about how we are quick the clinically diagnose the abnormal.

A wonderful and accessible book that will leave the reader feeling satisfied but distraught.