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.