A Fitting Conclusion, But Is It Great?: MaddAddam

17262203I have a love/hate relationship with Margaret Atwood. I know that she is a very talented writer and has produced some very memorable books. In fact, I would even say she is one of Canada’s most important poets in the last 50 years. However, I don’t love her science-fiction, sorry her speculative fiction. It might just be that her insistence that she does not write science fiction is what irritated me into dislike. But I also think that she is just not a great sci-fi writer; she is a literary writer and this does not necessarily make her good at all genres.

MaddAddam is the final book in her post-apocalyptic series that includes Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Most of the characters in MaddAddam come from these two novels, but it is not necessary to have read them to understand the events of Atwood’s latest novel. In fact, she gives a good summary at the beginning of her novel to catch readers up. Toby, the novel’s main character and a former God’s Gardener, narrates most of the novel as the last survivors of a devastating plague attempt to keep themselves safe from two murderous ex-criminals. I mention God’s Gardeners because they form the core of The Year of the Flood and were the feature that set that novel apart for me when I read it. They are a cult-centred on a mixture of environmentalism, organic farming, and anti-capitalists. Atwood constructed a detailed mythology around them and even interspersed Year of the Flood with several of their hymns. In MaddAddam, she brings the two main groups at the core of each novel together by having former God’s Gardeners band together with MaddAddamites, an anti-corporate group who became involved with Crake in the first novel. Crake, by the way, was the genius renegade scientist who engineered the apocalypse and wiped away most of humanity. Not before creating a hybrid, gene-spliced humanoid race called the Crakers, whom also feature prominently in MaddAddam.

I guess part of my problem with Atwood’s science fiction is that it seems too mundane. Atwood insists that all of the technologies and events in her novels are rooted in reality. The first line of her acknowledgements read: “Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory” (392). While I applaud Atwood’s desire for realism, I found that the first half of this novel was hard to get through. Something about its mundaneness, its depressing attachment to reality, left my imagination wanting. Yes, there is an element of escapism in much science fiction, but this element is part of what draws me to science fiction.

There were two things that I did really like about MaddAddam though. One, Atwood is really funny in this book. There were a number of scenes where I laughed out loud and found myself impressed by Atwood’s writing. Atwood can sometimes be a downer to read (I really like her Cat’s Eye, but it doesn’t make me too excited for getting old), but here she is raucously funny. Second, Atwood works with reading and writing in a really interesting way. Toby ends up teaching Blackbeard, a young Craker, to read, and this allows her to raise important questions about human knowledge, culture, and beliefs. I think this is where her abilities as a literary writer really shine through, and it is only a matter of time before someone writes a Master’s thesis on this topic.

So, all in all, MaddAddam is not a terrible book. In fact, it is quite good and a fitting conclusion to her series. I just was not that in to it. If you like either of the earlier novels, you will find plenty to love in this offering. If you are more like me and did not feel especially compelled by the earlier books, then it’s best to pass this one over.

Atwood, Margaret. MaddAddam. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2013. Print.

Toronto’s Huck Finn with Laughs: Into the Ravine

9780887768224As you can see from my posts, I’m slowly making my way through Toronto reading that I didn’t manage to fit in last year for my work. However, I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by both Strange Fugitive and Richard Scrimger’s Into the Ravine. They have been refreshing, enjoyable reads. They may not be my typical fare (although come to think of it, what would be my typical fare now?), but they have been pleasurable jaunts into different genres.

Scrimger’s novel is aimed at young readers with a cast made up primarily of young boys and plenty of children’s humor. That’s not to say that I didn’t laugh, because I did find myself guffawing and laughing out loud at various points. Into the Ravine is a contemporary Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, set in Scarborough (not quite Toronto, but it pretty much is for those of us who live outside of the GTA). Three boys – Jules, the narrator, Chris, the athletic friend, and Cory, the zombie-loving, possibly autistic friend – set out on a homemade raft from their backyards in Scarborough in a quest to make it down Highland Creek to Lake Ontario. What follows is a raucous ride down a mostly-gentle river in which the boys encounter some of Toronto’s homeless population, a leopard-print bikini-clad young girl who is very much like an Amazon, a boa constrictor, a neighbourhood gang, and even a burning reptile museum. Scrimger packs the novel with action, some of it serious and other parts humorous, while also exploring the changing dynamics between the three friends.

What I liked most about Scrimger’s novel is how it also acts as a commentary on Scarborough and the GTA. The boys, clearly from a lower middle class background, are bamboozled by the very wealthy houses they encounter closer to Lake Ontario (including a funny scene with a talking toilet). They crash a pool party and find themselves ill-fitting with the young affluent children who attend a private school. Scrimger also has a great section on Community Service and the corrections system along with the painfully true critique of how racially slanted the entire system is (the Corrections officer does do roll-call but simply counts black and white offenders, with the majority being black). Into the Ravine also raises some serious questions about Toronto’s homeless population (many of whom live in the ravines), youth violence, and pollution. All this without becoming either preachy or straying too far away from offering an entertaining narrative.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for readers of young adult fiction or for people who live in Toronto. It’s lots of fun and not too fluffy as to be inconsequential.

Scrimger, Richard. Into the Ravine. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2007. Print.

Possible Futures and Precogs: The Minority Report

3674-11I have been a fan of Philip K. Dick’s work since reading his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? two years ago. It is one of my favorite books and I have finally gotten around to dipping into Dick’s large ouevre. He published 44 novels and at least 120 short stories. There have been 10 film adaptations of his work with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner being the most famous (even if it is a loose adaptation of Do Androids Dream). There is also a film adaptation of The Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg with Tom Cruise taking the lead role. It  is an excellent film and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I watched it a long time ago (I’m not sure but I think Spielberg stays fairly close to Dick’s novella).

What makes The Minority Report so good is that it is not just a taut thriller but it also is a deep meditation on the meaning of free-will. It is set in the near-future where, through a series of innovations and new technologies, Police Commissioner Anderton has been able to effectively end murders. By using mutant humans who show latent psychic abilities and special machinery, the “Pre-Cogs” as they are called, can predict the future. Their prophecies are carefully combed over and the Police then arrest those who are going to commit future crimes, effectively ending violence with the would-be murderers being sent off to a detention camp for a few years. Problems arise when Anderton finds his one name listed as the future murderer of a man he does not know. What follows is a tense journey as Anderton tries to figure out whether he is being framed in some larger plot by the unemployed Army or whether he is actually in danger of killing someone.

Dick does not beat you over the head with his ideas or thoughts. Instead, he very carefully layers them under the narrative so that by the time you finish The Minority Report, you find yourself asking what just happened. And as you begin to unravel the narrative, you head backwards through the narrative, realizing that Dick has been conducting a secondary conversation beneath the surface that you did not pick up on. In a way, this is how a good crime novel should work (but often does not for me). In this novella, Dick is concerned with whether knowledge of our future actions can change the way we act. The fact that Anderton finds out that he will kill someone in the future does change his course of action, but it also forces him to consider whether the system of using prediction to incarcerate future criminals is itself just. This doubt is, of course, left hanging even by the novella’s end. Dick has readers wanting to believe in the efficiency of the system, but we simply cannot help being nagged by the doubts that it has failed (and that Dick may want us to listen to this voice).

Overall, this is a great novella. It is high-quality science fiction that everyone should read.

Dick, Philip K. The Minority Report. 1956. Mexico: Pantheon Books, 2002.Print.

* The edition that I read was printed like a read out that the Pre-Cogs produced. I liked the look of it and the change-up to my usual reading habits as I read it more like reading something on a clipboard.

A Toronto Bootlegging Story: Strange Fugitive

downloadThe new year is now 9 days old and I just finished my first book. It feels a little bit strange, but at the same time I am enjoying not having had to finish two and a half books in that time.

Anyways, Morley Callaghan’s 1928 novel Strange Fugitive is an entertaining read. It was the first book he published in a long career that spanned 60 years and included 13 novels, 6 novellas, and several collections of short fiction. While working at the Toronto Star as a cub reporter, he met Ernest Hemingway whose advice and reader’s eye helped him get started. He would become a leading light in Canadian literature after spending time with other Modernist figures like William Carlos Williams (who provides a pseudo-afterword in the edition I read), Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce. and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Following World War II, he became Canada’s leading writer, won plenty of awards, and even had an academic Symposium in his honor at the University of Ottawa. However, this fame has not kept him in the spotlight as he has faded in importance in Canadian literary discourses despite the occasional work on him being published now and then. All this to say that I am a little embarrassed to admit my own lack of familiarity with his work. This novel was initially on my reading list for my Toronto chapter, but I never got around to reading it largely because I suspected it would not fit with what I was looking for (which proved true).

Strange Fugitive reads like a cross between an existentialist novel (think Camus’ The Stranger), an Ernest Hemingway short story with its earnest male narrator seeking to validate his masculinity, and a crime novel. Set during the high days of bootlegging in Ontario, Harry Trotter gets caught up in the trade while trying to make something of himself. In case you didn’t know, Ontario – particularly the cities of Toronto, Hamilton and Windsor -was a hotbed for illegal liquor and various gangs and criminals made fortunes shipping the booze around town and across the border. The novel’s narrative arc proceeds in a downward trajectory as Trotter starts with a good job as a foremen at a lumber yard before ending up embroiled in a deadly battle for control of the bootlegging business. His inability to control his temper leads him to lose his job (this seems to be the most obvious tip of the hat to Hemingway as his virile masculinity lands him in trouble) and his dissatisfaction with his wife Vera leads him to a series of other women.

Initially, readers may have been on board with Trotter, even sympathizing with him, but Callaghan performs a peculiarly well-wrought feat in getting us to become disenchanted with him before re-enchanting us near the end of the novel. I am not quite sure how he pulled this off as Trotter is not a particularly nice character (often mean, petty, shallow, and definitely a hypocrite) but I was back to cheering for him by the novel`s end. Maybe it`s because I knew he was a bad guy but that it was not completely his fault and that his fall from grace was in some ways inevitable (and thus Callaghan invokes a sense of reader`s pity).

Overall, I`m not sure whether fellow readers would be interested in this book or not. I read it for historical and cultural reasons (and let`s be honest, these are not the most enticing reasons to pick up a book), but found myself enjoying the novel`s style and quirks. Even though Toronto is not named (it is clearly Toronto though and there is an academic article by Justin D. Edwards showing how), you can make out it’s 1920’s contours. If you like crime novels or gang narratives, this novel might be of interest while fans of Hemingway or Camus might also find things to like.

Callaghan, Morley. Strange Fugitive. 1928. Toronto: Exile Editions, 2004. Print.

*The image above is not the cover for the version I read, but I thought it was more interesting.

Scattered Thoughts on Finishing 100 Books in a Year

reading in a hammockOkay, so I’ve now had three days away from 10-10-12, and I thought I would wrap things up with some thoughts about the reading challenge and some 2013 reading highlights. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this blog moving forward as I have little desire to post 100 reviews this year. However, I do think that I will keep posting reviews of books that I like/love/hate to keep myself in the habit of writing. Let me just say that 10-10-12 is a fantastic experience. It really is mind-boggling to think that I read 100 books last year. I’m still not quite sure how that all happened. But it did. However, I would not recommend undertaking this challenge if you don’t have the time for it. You will need to finish 2 novels a week (give or take), so you’ll need probably between 6 – 15 hours of spare time to finish those books depending on your reading speed and the length of the books you choose.

The Joy of Reading
I think the most important thing I’ve realized/re-discovered doing this thing is that reading can be fun. A lot of fun. So much so that I’ll stay up til the early hours of morning while finishing a great book. Despite doing a dissertation in literature, I found myself in a place where reading was no longer fun. It had become work, and not work in the invigorating and exhilarating sense that it can be. But work in the sense that I no longer took any pleasure in reading. It became a mechanical thing I did, often finding myself finishing a book with no emotional reaction beyond “Yeah, I’m done.” Anyways, a good book that you don’t have to analyze for work is a great thing to read. So cheers to finding the joy of reading again.

The Chore of Reading
Okay, I now I just effused about how great reading can be, but I still had moments of feeling overloaded/overfull. Reading 100 books is a lot of reading, and, let’s be honest, not all of those books are going to be great. Inevitably, I came across books I didn’t love – I’m looking at you Amsterdam – and it wasn’t easy to finish them. I also had a number of books that I had to rush though because of time constraints, and in those cases reading became a chore – I’m looking at you Moby Dick and you Last of the Mohicans. Which makes me wonder what it must be like for a professional book reviewer. Seriously, how do you keep yourself motivated? No wonder so many reviews cut books to shreds.

Mystery/Crime Fiction Isn’t For Me
I’m still not sure why I put this genre on my list. And this is a hugely popular genre of books that encapsulates a huge range of subgenres and styles. People read these books with passionate fervor. All I could muster was a bemused and detached mindset. Oh well, I guess I can’t love everything.

Prize Winners Smell Fishy
I “knew” this going in, but still was surprised for most of the 10 books in this category. Literary merit seems to have little do with prize winning. Now, this is not always the case, but it sure seemed like it. Amsterdam, The Conservationist, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and The Bone People all failed to really get me excited. And I have a sinking suspicion that these are far from the first prize-winners that leave something to be desired. Sure, Beloved, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, and The Life and Times of Michael K were amazing, but I also feel like these were exceptions to the rule

I Still Have a Place for Poetry 
Some people saw my inclusion of poetry in this challenge as a cop-out, a way to fit in smaller books so I had less reading to do. And sure, that was part of my reasoning. But I think the bigger reason for me to include it was to see if we still had a relationship. We were near the point of breaking up, but Mary Oliver and Don McKay reminded me why I keep coming back to poetry. I love the enchanting ability of language to startle us and cause us to see things anew.

Finding an Old Friend in Science Fiction
I used to read science fiction in elementary and high school. I devoured the entire Star Wars section of our local library. Seriously, I think I read every one of those books and they were 400 page beasts filled with the wild imaginings of nerdy fan-boys like me. For some reason, I stopped reading science fiction when I entered university. 9 years later I’ve come back to it and I’m delighted to find an old friend again. Science fiction is a lot of fun and I love the big ideas and earnest grappling with the human condition. Even though I did not love Dune, I have no regrets about any of the books in that genre. In fact, they were often the reward for getting through a more literary work …

YA Literature Largely a Bust
So this is probably an unfair assessment given that some of my choices were children’s lit and you can hardly say that my selections were comprehensive or even representative. But YA lit was a bust for me. I found it full of bad writing and uninteresting plots (with the exception of The True Meaning of Smekday). Now, this may be a function of YA lit itself as it is aimed at a younger audience and I no longer fit into that category. Also, I am nearly done a PhD in Canadian literature, so I  have a pretty clear sense of what I like and think is valuable in a book. But all in all, I was disappointed with this genre.

The Importance of Always Carrying a Book
My wife will/does make fun of me for this, but carrying a book at all times was really enjoyable. Seriously, reading a book at an airport, at the bus stop, on a random bench, in a food court, wherever I could find space was a good experience. It helped to get me out of the house but it also changed my experience of reading a book. I did a bunch of reading in the green spaces of Hamilton, sitting on public benches or beneath a tree, and these are some of my favorite memories of the year. I’m looking forward to the day when I can put a hammock in the backyard and kick my feet up. Now you maybe shouldn’t carry a book at all times, but some of my favorite moments came about because I happened to have a book handy.

Favorite Reads for the Year
These were my favorite and most memorable reads of 2013 in no particular order:

Gun, with Occasional Music – Jonathan Lethem
Drown – Junot Diaz
Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson
The Inconvenient Indian – Thomas King
The Round House – Louise Erdrich
Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
The Golden Spruce – John Valiant
Eating Dirt – Charlotte Gill
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
Fast Food Nation – Eric Schlosser