A Childhood Book, But Does It Work?: The Giver

giverAt the behest of my wife, I finally picked up Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a novel she has very clear memories of reading as a kid in school. I was not sure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised by the utopian/dystopian setting of the novel and the deceptively simple language of the book. However, I am not entirely sure what to do with the novel now that I am done.

Simply put, The Giver concerns a seemingly-utopian society where no one feels pain, difference, trouble, or anxiety of any form. Social life is carefully controlled and no one is faced with the problem of making a choice. Jonas, the protagonist, is assigned the role of Receiver of Memories when he turns Twelve (I am not sure if this is meant to be a grade or his actual age) while his friends Asher and Fiona receive their roles of Assistant Director of Recreation and Caretaker of the Old. Jonas’s role is surprising because it is very rarely given and, as he learns, the previous child chosen for the role failed. Jonas soon finds out that his new job is to be the bearer of the whole community’s memory as Lowry slowly reveals that all of the citizens of the quiet town have no real sense of memory, perception, or emotion. Long ago in the community’s history, the leaders chose Sameness over difference and it has been carefully enforced at every level since then.

This is the change from utopia to dystopia that I alluded to earlier. Predictably, Jonas soon dreams of escaping and the final quarter of the novel concerns his attempt to do so. I say predictably because this is a novel aimed at young readers, and without a hero, it would not really fly. I guess this is where The Giver started to lose some of its momentum for me. The ending seemed hurried and rushed. I won’t spoil it here, but it lost some of its plausibility. I also wanted more detail as Lowry gets surprisingly vague about geography and the mechanics of the dystopian society late in the book. I guess that children’s novels tend to shy away from heavy details or politics, but given the genre I felt that something went missing through this omission. In a way, The Giver reads like a less-realized version of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. The Giver did not have the depth of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time nor the action of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. These comparisons seem unfair on some level, but I am not sure that dumbing down content for younger readers is necessarily a wise choice. Part of the enjoyment of reading is being challenged and I, overlooking the fact that I am a late-20s PhD Candidate in English, found The Giver lacking in this regard.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read that might satisfy fans of young adult fiction but will leave lovers of dystopia wanting more.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print.

Essential Reading: Everything That Rises Must Converge

oconnor-cover-for-everything-that-rises-must-convergeIt seems strange to me that only a year or so ago, I had not really read Flannery O’Connor. Sure, I’d studied “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and ” Good Country People”, but I had not truly read her. You need to experience O’Connor’s work in its full depth. One story, even if it is a real gem like “A Good Man” or “Good Country People” , does not really do here justice. I read A God Man is Hard to Find last yearand thoroughly enjoyed it. Having just finished Everything That Rises Must Converge, I believe this is a stronger collection and left my jaw dropped consistently. This is O’Connor at her strongest, touching on Christianity, Southern politics, race, rural life, poverty, and, most especially, the bizarre nature of being human throughout.

For the uninitiated, O’Connor was an American writer who only published two collections of short stories and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away). She writes what has been called Southern gothic fiction, set mostly in rural areas of America’s south, and often featuring irruptions of the extraordinary or magical. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker, a former Navy-man covered in tattoos who married a woman he does not love, has a revelatory experience when he crashes the tractor he is driving into an old tree in the middle of the field. The sight of the burning tree and tractor scares Parker so much that he immediately goes to a tattoo artist to have a Byzantine Christ portrait painted on his back. He believes that the accident was divine revelation and hopes that putting a religious tattoo on his back will propitiate God. He also hopes that his wife will be pleased, but when she sees it, she throws him out calling him an idolater for putting a picture of God on his back. While it would be easy to join the wife in ridiculing Parker, there is an earnestness in Parker’s response that prevents it. The final sentence of the story (“There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby”) reveals a broken and defeated man. The central scene, the accident, is both realistic in the sense that it could have happened but also something else entirely because of the religious tones and epiphanic framing. O’Connor frequently uses these moments, leaving realism behind for a moment and then coming back to it.

The other thing that stood out for me in this collection was O’Connor’s ability to throw a twist in the endings. These are not cheap-tricks but key moments that force readers to re-examine everything that has come before. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury believes he is dying from a self-induced existential fever. Readers are invited to see through his self-delusion throughout, but in the final sentences, he has an epiphanic experience of the shape of a dove made in the cracks of the ceiling plaster morphing into the Holy Ghost descending on him. Asbury had invited a Jesuit priest over to spite his mother, but in this ending O’Connor suggests that something more spiritual has happened to him. While it might be easy to see these as imitation Edgar Allan Poe plot twists, they cannot be discounted.

I think it was these more than anything that made Everything a more enjoyable read than A Good Man. The characters of Everything are both despicable and lovingly crafted. We despise them and yet cannot help but see through their eyes. Simply put, Everything That Rises Must Converge is essential reading for any fan of short fiction.

I highly recommend this collection.

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Print.

How Did This Win the Booker?: Amsterdam

amsterdam1Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam wants to pull a fast one on you. It looks like a fully-realized drama of two old friends, Clive Linley a British composer commissioned to write a symphony for the millenium, and Vernon Halliday, an editor of a struggling newspaper trying to save it from crashing and burning. However, in its final third it turns into  what other reviewers have called a morality fable. Frankly, I found it a waste of the good work of the first two-thirds and a cheap trick to pull on the reader. What seems even more problematic is the close connections between McEwan’s novel and Albert Camus’ The Fall. Where Camus’ novel is a properly philosophical investigation into morality, McEwan’s novel falls apart and fails to come together at the crucial moment.

This might be because McEwan actually hates the characters he is writing. The opening scene is quite brilliant as we are introduced to Linley and Halliday via the funeral of Molly Lane, a former lover of both. We are also introduced to her controlling husband, George Lane who also owns a share in the paper Halliday manages, and Julian Garmony, a rising star in British conservative politics and current Foreign Secretary. All of these characters, including the dead Molly, are important players in what turns into a farcical double murder at novel’s end. And it is a shame because McEwan writes quite brilliantly about Linley’s composing process, managing to get me to like him and even root for him. His writing also clearly expresses the rapid-fire, high-pace life that Halliday lives, although it was less effective in bringing me on to his side as I was not too upset by his fatal decision to publish controversial photos of Garmony in drag (taken by none other than Molly – only in writing this do I begin to realize how unbelievable parts of the plot are). I’d say about halfway into the novel, McEwan’s irony and hatred begins to come through with both characters: Linley in his belief that he might be a British composing genius and Halliday in his inability to see through Frank Dibbin’s politicking and savvy maneuvering.

This all brings me to the end of the novel when * SPOILER* Linley and Halliday independently orchestrate the euthanisation of the other person. The novel closes with George reflecting that he might now get to have a proper funeral for Molly without having to worry about ex-lovers giving each other meaningful glances. Garmony, is exiled to political obscurity by the photos, and George thinks about asking Halliday’s widow to dinner. I was incensed by this callous treatment of character. Perhaps I did not pick up the clues early enough or I was thoroughly gulled by McEwan’s writing. Either way, I hated the ending and found Amsterdam far less than it could have been. Camus’s The Fall works as an exploration of morality because it has a fair amount of depth and heft to it. Amsterdam is shallow and pretentious and I put down with a sour taste in my mouth. Morality was the last thing I had on my mind. I had been meaning to read some McEwan based on favourable reviews from readers I trust. However, I regret putting this on the list. And, let’s not even think about how this book managed to win a Booker prize. Seriously? I’m losing faith in the ability of prize committees to award based on merit …

I would not recommend this book to readers.

McEwan, Ian. Amsterdam. London: Random House, 1998. Print.

Read This!: Paradoxides

9780771055096This is a completely biased review and is probably not impartial. I love Don McKay’s work, so it is going to be hard to put on the critic’s/reviewer’s hat. C’est la vie. Paradoxides, McKay’s newest collection of poetry, is an amazing book. You should read it now. Seriously, stop reading and go get it. Or click here to see him read some of his work from Strike/Slip, his previous collection.

If you are not familiar with his work, he is Canada’s foremost nature poet. However, this does not mean that he simply wanders around in the woods rhapsodizing about trees and birds (although he does do this on occasion). McKay has a razor-sharp sense of humor that permeates all of his work along with a healthy dose of irony. Coupled to all of this is a near-complete mastery of words and poetic technique. Reading McKay gets me excited about poetry again, and I cannot say enough about his work.

Mckay is probably most known for his work with birds and bird-watching, but this book enters new territory by engaging with geology and paleontology. A paradoxide is, as the back cover explains, “the genus of trilobite whose fossil serves to identify the parts of the planet that once belonged to the Paleozoic micro-continent of Avalonia”. McKay also includes a three part poem on paradoxides that reflects on both the ability of fossils to signal “a secret alphabet”  and their ability to utterly disorient our sense of space and time (40).  The middle section resembles Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (click here to see it) in that it is a series of short phrases beginning with the preposition for. Here are a few lines:

“For they appear like a fully accoutred medieval knight stepping onto a nearly empty stage

For they are elegant and monstrous

For their pleural spines extend past the thorax like the kind of drooping moustaches sported by bad guys in        westerns

For they are local and exotic”    (41)

You can see here the mix of serious reflection and McKay’s humor which seems to undercut that reflection. I say seems because I do not read it as a biting sarcasm or the kind of humor which tears down the subject. Instead, it offers different ways into the material. I know this sounds very untechnical, but I have hard time expressing just how McKay’s humor works. It is probably best to just read him for yourself.

Paradoxides has a number of these rock poems, focusing on geological features (mostly found in Newfoundland). But it also has some bird poems including “Song for the Song of the Canada Geese” which, instead of denigrating the bird as most Canadians are wont to do, praises them for their “existential yammer” (5). For me, the most interesting poem is a long poem called “Thingamajig” where McKay reflects on his walking stick, his boots, a rock and a rocking chair. The long poem is made up of both prose pieces and poems and I like how they work together to re-orient readers in their approach to what seem like inconsequential objects. I found the final section, “Taking the Ferry” and “Descent” a little upsetting in the sense that the poems are direct meditations on death. It is almost as if McKay is seeing himself at the end of his career and is preparing readers for this by these poems. I truly hope this is not the case, hence my worry. However, these two poems work quite well and bring something unique to the collection.

So, this has been a very paean-esque review, apologies for that. You should just read Paradoxides for yourself and make your own decision. I, of course, highly recommend it for any lover of poetry.

McKay, Don. Paradoxides. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2012. Print.

Less Shocking Than the Film, But Still: A Clockwork Orange

orangeI admit that I approached Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange with a fair bit of trepidation. Watching Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel was a shocking revelation for me a number of years ago. However, I seemed to have missed the point in the film, but, thankfully, the book corrected this for me. It is easy to focus on the ultra-violence of Alex and his droogs, nadsat for henchmen or gang members, rather than on the overall moral questions that Burgess asks in the novel. For those who have not had the experience of either novel or film, Alex is the first person narrator of A Clockwork Orange and he leads a gang of four youth who terrorise the streets of England (at least that’s where I think it is set) at night. The novel can be quite difficult to get into at first because Burgess has completely adopted Alex’s nadsat, teen slang, that takes at least several pages to get used to reading. Alot of the controversy over Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s book focuses on the ultra-violence (Alex’s term) they commit, and, trust me, this is not family friendly material.

What this criticism misses are the second and third acts of the book. In the second act, Alex is put in prison for killing an elderly woman and, once there, he undergoes a radical new therapy to cut his sentence. The new therapy is a form of extreme aversion therapy whereby he is drugged to feel sick to his stomach while he is forced to watch films of violence, rape, and brutality. Eventually his body takes over and he becomes violently ill with the thought of or sight of any form of violence. His problem now “fixed,” being unable to commit any crimes simply because his body will not let him, he is free to go. The third act concerns his attempts to return and re-enter society. He is caught by some former victims and beat up several times before he tries to take his own life. In the hospital, doctors manage to reverse the psychological treatment and the Government is saved from a growing scandal that Alex had become an unwitting centre of. The film ends with Alex once again able to enjoy listening to Beethoven’s music, but the book does not end here. It gives a final chapter where, and I think this is important in terms of what the novel is doing, Alex grows out of his violent youthful ways.* Although he blames what he does on youth, he decides to leave that life behind and find a wife so he can have children.

At the heart of A Clockwork Orange, then, is the question of free will and choice. If a human, even a criminal, has no ability to choose, then are they really living a moral or full life? The epilogue of the novel suggests that Alex must choose to leave his violent ways behind and that any attempt to short-circuit violence by removing Alex’s ability to choose is short-sighted. I am convinced that Burgess is not interested in indulging in violence for its own sake (unlike say Fight Club), but instead uses Alex as an extreme case for a moral dilemma concerning the human condition. Yes, Alex is an evil man, but does this legitimize totalitarian measures including the removal of the human ability to choose? This question nicely sidesteps many issues including whether Alex should be allowed to continue brutalizing others so that his free will can remain intact and what forms of punishment are appropriate or necessary.

I should say that I think the novel does a much better job of addressing this question because Kubrick’s film can be construed as revelling in the violence and rape. In many ways, the visual impact of the film can prevent access to the deeper questions of free will and choice whereas Burgess’s novel often sidesteps direct depictions of what Alex and his gang do. Moreover, there are a number of parts, including the final chapter, that do not make Kubrick’s film and hence make it easier to construe in a manner it was not intended. This is not to say that Kubrick’s film is not good in its own right, but rather that the two works achieve very different things and that each should be judged on its own merit.

I would not recommend this book to sensitive readers, but for those interested in a controversial yet deeply thoughtful philosophical book, I would say jump in.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1962. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011. Print.

* Apparently the early American versions of the novel omitted this chapter, so be sure to look for a copy that includes a 21st chapter (part 7 of part 3) if you are going to read it.

War Story Meets Indigenous Story-Telling: Ceremony

imagesLeslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is a book that I have been meaning to read for a long time. I have come across the title many times doing research and it, along with Almanac of the Dead, represent Silko’s significant contribution to indigenous writing in North America. There’s only one problem: it is also a war novel. Let me be clear and state that this is my opinion alone and comes from having overdosed on World War II novels a few years back. I am still trying to recover from this overdose, so I had some trouble getting in Ceremony

The novel centres on Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo, who has returned from World War II haunted by the death of his cousin Rocky and the slaughter of the Japanese he witnessed. He has been sick for many years and Auntie, a self-righteous and cruel sister to Tayo’s long-dead mother, encourages him to get help. However, the help he receives is not white medicine but a visit from a Pueblo medicine man who starts Tayo on his path away from alcoholism and mental trauma towards healing. The novel deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse by natives, the use of nuclear weapons in World War II, and the tensions of a divided Pueblo community. The narrative is broken into small chunks interspersed with poetry and Pueblo oral tales that complement Tayo’s story.

In a way, this novel is primarily a war novel, concerning Tayo’s recovery from a traumatic experience in the Phillipines. Yet, it is also a novel about an indigenous man recovering his indigenous traditions in the face of years of white colonization. The tension between these two themes animates the narrative and provides an interesting framework for the novel (except if you are still suffering World War II novel fatigue). I felt like the novel really got going midway through when Tayo’s quest to complete his ceremony get underway. I want to say that this is because this is where Ceremony shines but I am a little nervous about that claim. In a way, it might be where Ceremony acts like I think it “should”: it becomes an indigenous novel with a native reclaiming their heritage successfully. In reading the indigenous category, I feel like more and more I am finding myself grappling with what kinds of stereotypes I bring to the category and how often I realize they are more constrictive than helpful. I hope that by the end of this reading challenge, I will be able to throw such views out the window entirely.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in indigenous writing.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.

Northern Writing With a Cold Streak: Godless but Loyal to Heaven

cover_image_1Richard van Camp’s Godless but Loyal to Heaven is a great read. I have no qualifications or hesitations about saying this. I have been a fan of his writing since I stumbled upon The Lesser Blessed a few years ago. I didn’t know that he had produced a new collection of short stories until I randomly searched his name in my university’s library. For some strange reason, seeing as they rarely purchase new books these days, they had Godless on the shelves.

For those of you that don’t know van Camp’s work, he is an indigenous writer from the Dogrib Nation (or Tlicho – double check this) from up in the northern territories of Canada. He is an extremely skilled storyteller who blends traditional humour with what some people have called northern Gothic. I am not totally content with this term even if it does seem the best one to capture his blend of hard-line realism and elements of magic and other bits of genre fiction. In Godless, van Camp tries his hand at zombie fiction in the opening story and I can’t say that this is the strongest of pieces. However, he really gains strength in the second half of the collection as he details the unfolding tensions and troubles experienced by Sfen and Torchy, two Dogrib brothers the Northwest Territories town of Fort Smith. These are incredibly moving stories about not just the hardships of indigenous life in the north but also about the small human triumphs possible.

I should note that there is a tangible streak of cold and caustic anger that runs throughout the stories. And there are plenty of things to be angry about if you are indigenous in the north whether it is in the long history of colonization and betrayals by white settler-invaders, rampant problems with alcohol and hard drugs, and the tangled knot of problems raised by residential schools. Sfen and Torchy are survivors of this complex and they have an ingrained habit of using violence and arson to burn their sins clean. The Lesser Blessed and The Moon of Letting Go also feature this streak of anger, although I think it is more toned down or controlled in those books. This is not to criticize van Camp for this as I felt that the Dogrib boys had every right to be angry and violent even if they, and myself, recognize the problems inherent in attempting to mete out justice by force. The title story of the collection nearly had me in tears despite some shocking revelations about Torchy’s past. And I think this is the real strength of van Camp as a story-teller: he refuses to let the anger or violence have the last word, instead choosing to push past it in some small way.

Van Camp is a very talented writer and I look forward to his next novel, Sword of Antlers (I believe this is a tentative title). His dark and unrelentingly truthful vision of northern indigenous life can be a dose of cold water but it can also kindle a blazing fire. I highly recommend Godless but Loyal to Heaven to any reader of Canadian literature.

van Camp, Richard. Godless but Loyal to Heaven. Winnipeg, MB: Enfield & Wizenty, 2012. Print.