Coming of Age, with Comics: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

tumblr_me7y359pBy1rfppz2o1_400Sherman Alexie’s 2007 young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great read. Really, I should stop here and let you all go out and read it for yourselves because I’m not sure there’s much I can say beyond that. Although the book is marketed towards young adults, the content is quite heavy (as any good young-adult book should be). Alexie’s book also includes comics and illustrations throughout, adding an interesting flavour to the experience.

The Absolutely True Diary centres on Arnold Spirit, a young Spokane Indian growing up on the Wellpinit reserve in Washington state. He has just finished elementary school and is about to go to high school. However, he decides after receiving some advice from a well-meaning geography teacher to attend the off-reservation white high school in Reardan. Mr. P, the aforementioned geography teacher, tells Arnold that he needs to leave the reservation before he gives up hope. Arnold is a bright kid and the rez school simply won’t be able to help him escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism that exist on the reserve. Arnold hesitantly decides to do this but faces backlash from his best friend, Rowdy, alienation from the all-white students of Reardan, indifference from the teachers, and various moments of outright racism from students and staff.

One of the things that surprised me in Alexie’s novel is that he is quite clear that reservations can become prisons which destroy most of the indigenous population. I think I have a certain amount of political caution bred into me so that I am hesitant to say anything bad about reservations or indigenous people in general. Reading Alexie critique the problems of the reservation was a real eye-opener for me. Bad things happen to good people and these bad things have very really causes in the way that white North American governments have treated indigenous peoples. Alexie’s self-reflexive criticism (he does not exempt the characters of Wellpinit reserve from blame) was amazing to see. He’s also a great writer so that I felt moved throughout the novel and never felt like it sank to shrill political criticism.

Did I mention there are comics included in the book? Because there are. And they are great. I’m all for mashing up genres particularly because some of the most creative work is happening in these areas. See my review of Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music for more on that. And comics always make things better …

I highly recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to any fan of indigenous literature.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print.


Still Want to Eat a Big Mac?: Fast Food Nation

200px-Fast_food_nationApparently I missed the boat on this book by a good 12 years … Erich Schlosser released Fast Food Nation in 2001 and made waves throughout North America as he revealed the world behind the counter of America’s fast food restaurants. And it’s not a pretty world. There was a 2006 film of the movie directed by Richard Linklater (of Dazed and Confused fame), but judging from Rottentomatoes, I would stick to the book. Schlosser’s book is thick with facts but remains surprisingly readable throughout its 290 pages. In fact, I would say this book is essential reading for all North Americans right now. Want to know what’s wrong with the world today? Fast Food Nation will fill you in pretty quickly. Now, I’m not saying he provides all the answers or even addresses all the right questions, but this book has a pretty good handle on the problems of the 21st century corporate/consumer world.

One of the things that makes Fast Food Nation so readable is that Schlosser uses stories throughout the book to introduce, illustrate, and summarize the points he makes about the fast food industry. This does not mean he skimps on facts (consider that McDonalds has replaced Coca-Cola as the world’s most famous brand and Ronald McDonald is now only second to Santa Claus in widespread fictional character recognition 4), but rather that he uses narrative to enliven the facts. One of my own problems with reading non-fiction is that facts tend to be dead ends for me. I’m often left feeling like I cannot relate to numbers or that they lack a relatable context. In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser has done a great job with narrative to make his material come alive without sacrificing the integrity of his investigative research. This book should be a case study in how to write successful investigative non-fiction.

I am going to avoid getting into the details of Fast Food Nation because I think everyone should read it. However, the book’s primary message is that our current obsession (and it is a global one now) with fast food is not just making us less healthy and more obese, but it also has a ripple-on effect in the way food is produced. Corporations now control most of the agricultural industry and are driven by profit, not health, good will or any other sentiment. This means that the quality of food the average North American has access to has gone quickly downhill while the risk of food-borne pathogens like E. Coli or Salmonella has sky rocketed. The chapter “What’s in the Meat” is a particularly frightening read that will make you think twice about eating ground beef. Schlosser is quite clearly anti-corporate and with very good reason. Corporations know no loyalties to place or people and instead are driven by the need to increase the bottom line, a position that has produced huge inequalities and injustices across the world. If I were a social analyst, I would say the 21st century is going to be defined by the battle against corporations as the stakes of globalization have now prevented any nation, community, or place from escaping this battle. If there’s one problem with Fast Food Nation, it is that it is relentlessly American both in its focus (despite some work on the global fast food industry) and in its solutions. This is not Schlosser’s fault so much as it is the necessity of selling to an American audience. The Canadian context in which I live is different, so there has to be a translation act of looking into Canadian food policy and corporate culture (props to my father-in-law for pointing this out).

I would highly recommend this book to any and everyone I know. Consider it essential reading for the 21st century.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Print.

My Favorite Atwood Novel: Cat’s Eye

cats-eyeCat’s Eye did not win a Booker prize even though it was short-listed in the 1989 competition. She would then win the 2000 Booker Prize with The Blind Assassin rounding out her plate with a second shortlist in 2003 with Oryx and Crake. So Atwood has some Booker Prize credit. And Cat`s Eye might just be my favorite novel of hers. And that`s saying a lot because I do not have a very high opinion of her work. She tends to evoke a typically Canadian reaction in me where I begrudge her her success and then savage her books as a result. I also think she is a better poet than a novelist, but these are solely my opinions. Atwood is a global author and a phenomenon unto herself. Without her trail-blazing, Canadian Literature would struggle to be on the map (this is a very speculative claim).

Cat’s Eye is a kunstlerroman with Elaine Risley at the centre of the novel. She is the child of a biologist parents and spends her early years in the forests of northern Ontario. She moves with her family to Toronto in the 1930s when her father takes a position in the Zoology department at the University of Toronto. Here she meets other girls for the first time and is initiated into their confusing and cruel ways. Cordelia, named after the King Lear character, comes from a wealthy family and takes great pleasure in leading Carol and Grace in several years’ worth of bullying and intimidation. The problem is Elaine craves their approval and so is caught in a vicious cycle of blaming herself and then feeling guilty for doing so. In the novel’s present, Elaine is now an accomplished painter returning to Toronto from Vancouver for her first retrospective exhibition. From this frame narrative, she travels back to her past and ruminates on her growth from a woodsy girl into an accomplished artist. Cordelia is also at the heart of the narrative as Elaine hopes to find her after many years of no contact while she is in Toronto. Elaine is haunted by her last meeting with Cordelia, who became a close friend in high school after Elaine walked away from her bullying. So the novel is also about time and memory. Atwood frames it this way with quotes from Stephen Hawking on time and opening with a reflection on time as space. This theme comes up again and again throughout to good effect as Elaine is haunted by her past, especially the years of bullying, and cannot come to grips with it. Okay, so that’s a lot of plot summary. Apologies, I think I’m still trying to sort through this complex plot.

What I think Atwood does really well here is evoke Toronto before World War II, back when it was Toronto the Good, and the more sleek and modern Toronto that replaces it. There is a fair bit of nostalgia for this old Toronto even if Elaine clearly sees the fault after many years away. I also think that Atwood has written a convincing and fulsome account of a central character’s life from childhood into adulthood. This is no mean feat and I enjoyed coming to know Elaine’s character even if she is somewhat prickly around the edges. What I think doesn’t work for me is the way that painting becomes a central trope in the novel. The problem with having a protagonist who is a painter, or any artist or poet for that matter, is that the author must describe their work in some way. I found myself uninterested in Elaine’s paintings and I sensed that Atwood herself struggled to describe a painting. This is partly because a painting is a painting, not a paragraph of prose. Something is lost in translation from visual to text, and I did not enjoy this aspect of Cat’s Eye.

So, Cat’s Eye is probably my favorite Atwood novel, even one that I would consider reading again in a few years time. A year or two ago I would not have thought this was possible, but Atwood is growing on me … just a little.

I would recommend this book to fans of Atwood, CanLit, or people who live in and love Toronto.

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1988. Print.

Space Opera at Its Best?: Consider Phlebas

imagesIain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas is a big book: literally and in its content. But that shouldn’t put readers of sci-fi off because it is well worth the effort to finish the book. In Consider Phlebas, Banks sets up a galaxy where two empires are locked into a vast war between the Culture, a hedonistic pan-humanoid empire relying heavily on technology and sentient AI, and the Idirans, a massive three-legged species that thrives on war and believes very firmly in a form of aggressive monotheism. Banks’ vast canvas might seem overwhelming, but he carefully weaves a much-more intimate narrative that pulls readers into this world. Consider Phlebas follows Horza and a crew of space mercenaries as they attempt to recover one of the Culture’s Minds for the Idirans. The narrative travels across several worlds, space ships and structures, providing Banks with ample opportunity to outline an intriguing and well-developed alternative world.

In my review of Frank Herbert’s Dune, I talked about how I felt disconnected from and indifferent to the world that he set up. For some reason, I did not have this problem with Consider Phlebas. In the interest of transparency, I should say that a friend of mine was strongly rooting for Banks after he recommended this book, so my expectations were quite high. With Dune, I think I was expecting less, so I may have been more skeptical/critical (however paradoxical that seems). Beyond their classification as space operas, both books follow similar narrative structures where the action of the book is set up in the context of artifacts from the imagined world. Dune is much more up front with framing the narrative as bits and pieces of histories from the Dune universe while it is only at the end that Banks gives encyclopedia entries about the conflict that Horza has been involved in. I think the difference lies in Banks`ability to draw readers into the Culture universe with a personal narrative. Where Dune tended towards the grandiose in its messianic plotline, Horza is much more mundane even though he is from a rare shape-shifting species. Put differently, Dune gets caught up in its own mythology whereas the mythology of Culture is secondary to Horza`s story in Banks`s novel.

What also might be relevant to my reactions to both space operas is the way that Banks eschews writing sequential books. Dune sets up a running narrative of events whereas Banks’ Culture series  (as far as I can tell from the Wikipedia page) does not. Most of his science fiction novels are set in this universe, but they are all independent pieces. I think I like this structure better even if the sequential approach of Herbert’s Dune offers a broader canvas and more room to work out theme and motif. I might be out on a limb here, but I get the feeling that the non-sequential approach means that Banks always needs to keep the Culture universe-mythology/elements to a knowable minimum. He can’t assume a reader’s previous knowledge of other books, so he must make his novels more accessible. Or at least his editors might make him do this. Anyways, I think I need to stop philosophizing on sci-fi before it becomes an “academic” interest.

I would highly recommend Consider Phlebas to fans of science fiction as it is very well-written and surprisingly accessible.

Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. London: Orbit Books, 1987. Print.

Mystery Down in the Don River Valley: Free Reign

freerAnother bit of work sneaking onto the list, this time in the form of Rosemary Aubert’s Free Reign. The novel features a disgraced lawyer now living in Toronto’s Don River valley who is called back up into the streets when he discovers a human hand with a special ring on it in his garden. Sounds like an interesting plot setup doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as a mystery/suspense novel, Free Reign does not quite live up to the promise it shows. For my own academic work, I am interested in how the Don River valley shows up in the novel so reading it was not a loss by any means. However, as a pleasure read, I’m not convinced that Aubert’s book works that well.

One of the primary rules of mystery/suspense novels is that they adhere to a high degree of verisimilitude. They must be believable even if the crimes/mysteries are often spectacularly sensational. By rigidly adhering to the rules of the actual world, a mystery novelist can then throw in some surprising events that become believable based on the previous work done by verisimilitude. In a way, fiction has to be truer to life than life itself. Read any tabloid and some of the crimes are so spectacular as to beg belief. The problem with Free Reign is not so much the fact that Ellis Portal, the disgraced judge, lives in the Don River valley (many of Toronto’s homeless live in this area – see this Globe and Mail story and this academic article for more), but more the manner in which everything gets conveniently tied up at the novel’s end. I won’t spoil the novel’s twist but the ending really does read like a Disney script. I couldn’t stand this and was left with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The other problem, at least for me, is that Aubert’s novel seems to be structurally flawed in a crucial way. Although the mystery of Ellis’s disgrace is alluded to early on and the mysterious hand appears in the first few pages, the actual source of mystery, a teen pregnancy hostel in a seedier area of Toronto, does not show up until later in the novel. When Aubert ties everything together, which is one of the more satisfying aspects of mystery novels, I felt like she had somehow cheated. For some reason, I feel that readers should be able to solve the crime/mystery as well but with this novel the timing of the appearance of the various parts of the mystery plot was off. Moreover, the novel itself sets up an interesting class critique but then goes on to completely nullify this by making the villains appear heroic or noble. The academic in me was not happy.

Overall, the novel does some very interesting things with the Don River valley and, for Toronto readers, Free Reign could be a fun read, matching a fictional narrative to actual places in city.

I would recommend this book for Toronto fans of mystery, but be warned that it leaves something to be desired.

Aubert, Rosemary. Free Reign. Bridgehampton, NY: Bridge Works Publishing Company, 1997. Print.

Vampires Before They Became the Hottest Thing: I Am Legend

480282670_bfefb7cb08I was a little skeptical about Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend. I’ve recently become tired of apocalypse narratives largely because of the over-saturation of the cultural market with them. I was also a little wary of vampire stories (of course, this novel predates the Twilight craze by a solid half-century). However, Matheson’s novella is a fun and interesting read. He does good work exploring the psychological tensions of Robert Neville, possibly the last man on Earth (or at least in his city) in the wake of a cataclysmic disease that transforms most of the population into blood-thirsty vampires. But I think the real strength of the book lies in the ending which puts forward a number of interesting questions and really throws the narrative in a totally unexpected direction.

The plot is as follows: Neville survives in a fortified house, operating in the day when the vampires are in some kind of coma, scrounging supplies and trying to figure out what caused the epidemic and whether there might be a cure for it. When night descends, Neville locks himself in and drinks himself to sleep most nights to stop the incessant yelling and taunting from his former neighbours. So far this is standard fare and some of Neville`s gripes about living feel a little worn. The narrative gets interesting when he first discovers a dog (a central character in the most recent film adaptation of the movie starring Will Smith) and then a woman. These beings awaken an intense desire to live and be with other beings, but given his circumstances this proves unobtainable.

I Am Legend`s ending is somewhat predictable given that most of the novel sets up how pointless Neville’s quest to survive is. At one point, he even thinks of himself as a vegetable, living out a pre-programmed life without desire or emotion. However, the final scene is incredible given how it shifts what has come before. *Spoiler* Neville looks out from his cell after having been captured by the vampires, who have been terrified of him because of his killing of them, and realizes that he himself has now become a monster to Earth`s new inhabitants. The book ends with the great line “I am legend,” capping Neville’s attempts to dispel the myths surrounding vampires to get at the truth of their existence. In this move, Matheson moves right back to the world of myth and legend but with humans as the core. I loved this twist. It gives Matheson’s narrative philosophical depth and unsettles conceptions of humanity in interesting ways. I think I Am Legend is required reading for any fan of post-apocalyptic narratives, partly because it does it so well but more importantly because it does it intelligently.

I highly recommend I Am Legend to any fan of zombie/vampire/post-apocalyptic narratives.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. 1954. Montreal: Bantam Books, 1964. Print.

Toronto Uncovered: The Martyrology Book V

0889102511This another bit of work slipping into pleasure reading, but in its defence, bpNichol’s The Martyrology Book V was very enjoyable. I have a special place in my heart for bpNichol, one of Canada’s most innovative and experimental poets. I ran across a portion of The Martyrology, his life-long long poem, in an anthology for a CanLit course I was taking in my second year. Nichol’s world of lost and forgotten saints enthralled me and I have a copy of the book now on my shelves. I had meant to re-read it this year, but instead took up Book V because it addresses Nichol’s Toronto neighbourhood of the Annex.

If you have not encountered Nichol’s work before, I would highly recommend it. He was a poet of many stripes, working in concrete poetry, sound poetry, conventional poetry, and everything in between. You can see some of his work here or see portions of the first five books of The Martryology here. There is a bit of a learning curve with Nichol’s work and I can’t say that I totally get everything he does. However, as my experience reading Book V has shown, if you give him time you will enter a wondrous world of punning, word play, and other such delights.

In Book V, Nichol sets out to explore an alternative cosmology of the Annex with streets becoming characters. Brunswick Avenue becomes Brun, a legendary figure linked back to St. Brendan, to the Greek god Chronus, and to Bran of Norse mythology. St. George becomes a troll under a bridge after St. Clair rebuffs his advances. This imaginative re-telling of city streets opens up a mythical space in Toronto’s landscape that Nichol explores and ruminates on. At the same time, Nichol also remembers friends now dead, previous experiences in different parts of the city, and his experiences travelling across Canada. If the first books of The Martyrology dealt with lofty and grand themes of death, religion, and mortality, Book V seems more rooted in a specific time and place.

I am struggling to review Nichol’s work both because it is so unique that it escapes summary but also because it can be willfully obscure. The book is organized into twelve chains that appear as footnotes. Chain 11 is concrete poetry (or at least I think it is) that was totally beyond me. I had no clue what Nichol was trying to do in this section. Then again, I did not take three days to try and unpack it either. So, Nichol’s work is both rewarding and frustrating. However, if you have not encountered it before, I would highly encourage an excursion. He was one of the primary writers of Fraggle Rock for a period as well as a long-time employee of the University of Toronto’s library. He is an enigmatic and entertaining figure in Canadian literature.

I highly recommend any of Nichol’s work for fans of Canadian poetry.

Nichol, bp. The Martyrology Book V. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1982. Print.