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.

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Is This Really For Kids?: Ender’s Game

enders-game-novel-coverFor some strange reason, I was under the impression that Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was a work of children’s literature. Turns out that it is not, although I can see how it might be marketed as such. Ender’s Game is a fully realized work of science fiction, not that young adult/children’s literature is somehow inferior or more poorly written. What I mean is that Card’s novel has a complex plot, a number of motifs and recurrent themes, along with an ending that threw me for a loop. I suppose I had some inkling of a twist, but I think the ending is really the key part of the entire narrative. Without it, it would be very easy to misconstrue the novel as something other than what it is.

Ender’s Game is set in a distant future where an alien race, called the buggers in the version I read but apparently changed to Formics in the just released film adaptation, has devastated the human race twice. The humans fear a third and fatal final invasion, so they have started training children from a very young age to become an advanced and lethal fighting force. Ender is chosen at six to be taken up into space to join the Battle School, in the hopes that he might eventually develop into the grand commander of the human defence fleet. This causes tension in his family as Ender is already a socially marginalised figure for being a Third, born not because his parents wanted him but because the government felt the genetic inputs were good enough to warrant a socially shunned third child. However, Peter, his older brother with a deep streak for cruelty, resents Ender and it is only through the protection of Valentine, his sister, that he has anything resembling some form of tranquility in childhood. Of course, this is only the start and Card takes up into a fully-developed social world in the Battle School before pushing Ender into the Command School as he continues to thrive.

Trying to write this summary reminds me what a complex novel Ender`s Game is. It would be easy to take it at face value as a bildungsroman novel of sorts – a young boy is forced to come of age against the odds, or as a hero quest where the hero must leave his village to become a man and, in the process, perform heroic feats. But I do not think either label does the novel justice. There is a complex tension in Ender himself as he struggles with the cruel and violent things he must do to survive while still trying to maintain some form of innocence. There is also an interesting dialogue between Colonel Graff, the officer who chooses Ender and pushes him harder and harder, and the other military officers as Ender continues to grow even though he appears to be pushed beyond his limits. I do not want to give away the ending, so I am somewhat limited in my ability to talk about how the final chapter really throws a different light on everything that has come before. Needless to say, I highly recommend this novel. I know there has been a lot of controversy surrounding Card regarding his views on homosexuality, and there is some not-so-subtle strains of homophobia in this novel although they play a very small role in the book. It would be a shame to let the author, who needs his PR people to put a clamp on his public speaking, ruin what is otherwise a very good novel.

I highly recommend Ender`s Game for fans of science fiction. It is very accessible and really enjoyable (although I`m not sure what a female reader might think given that there is only one female character worth anything, and the whole novel is basically set up as a boy`s game).

Card, Orson Scott. Ender`s Game. 1977. New York: Tor, 1991. Print.

A Satisfying if Short Fable: Tuck Everlasting

9780312369811A friend recommended Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as a good children’s literature choice. Having blazed through it in two days, I can say that it was a satisfying if short read. The basic premise of the novel is this: there is a spring that grants immortality, discovered by the Tuck family and, a short way into the book, by Winnie Foster. Winnie, the novel`s young narrator, is lonely in her “touch-me-not” cottage with its high fence and over-protective parents. The one day she decides to run away, she happens to run into a young Jessie Tuck at the fountain and his parents then kidnap her in order to explain their dilemma. Talking, lots of rich description of a pastoral American landscape, and some nefarious action courtesy of a lean man in a yellow suit ensues.

Tuck Everlasting is a fable in the sense that it meditates on a moral situation: what are the implications of living forever. Of course, Babbitt’s book is too long to be a traditional fable and there are no talking animals here. The moral itself is even more complicated than a simple didactic one-liner like: cheating death is cheating life. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the book lacked something deeper than this interesting philosophical problem: what do you do if you live forever? Jessie, his brother MIles, and their parents all talk to Winnie about their century-long immortality. While Jessie, the youngest brother, clearly enjoys his ability to travel the world and have adventures, the parents provide a much more somber response. At a certain point, Winnie even notices the father looking enviously at a character who is dying. I felt that the complexities of immortality/mortality where well-handled in the book, hence why I call it a satisfying read. Don’t expect a profound meditation on mortality, but there is a strong element of deep thought at work.

I call Tuck Everlasting short because it is quite short (139 small pages). The plot moves quickly and Babbitt makes use of a surprising twist that manages to elevate the narrative out of a fable’s simplicity. However, I did feel like the novel comes close to being bare-bones. The landscape is set in a kind of pastoral America (at least I think it is the States given Babbitt’s own American identity – it could be anywhere I guess), Winnie’s family comes across as stuck-up, over-protective, and yet also naive. The Tucks are the only real characters possessing depth and individuality. I felt like Winnie herself was somewhat unappealing as a narrator. All of this to say that I found the novel only satisfying. Call it damning a book by lukewarm praise. I think this may have been a case of a children’s book being just that: a book for children that will leave more mature readers wanting more.

I recommend this book for young readers.

Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. New York: Square Fish, 1975. Print.

Way Better Than the Movie: The Golden Compass

the-golden-compassI stayed up late finishing Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I was tired most of today as a result, but Pullman’s book was well-worth the lost sleep. And I’m happy to be staying up late to finish books again. I used to do this quite frequently when I was younger, so it suggests that I’m finding pleasure in reading again (an issue that seems particular to grad students in English literature). I had seen the film adaptation of The Golden Compass and enjoyed it, but hands down the book is far better. By now I should know that the book is always better (as my partner reminds me constantly), but this is especially clear in Pullman’s series. Not only does the book go farther in terms of plot (the movie leaves off the entire last third of the book), but it also gives more depth and characterization to Lyra, the gyptians, Iorek, and the rest of the characters. The version that I read also included some bonus material in the form of Lord Asriel’s journals. They were a nice touch for the 10th anniversary edition (although probably not worth purchasing the book again if you already have it).

The Golden Compass is set in an alternative universe where all humans have a daemon that they share a special attachment to. The daemon (most often the opposite gender of the human) is a life-long companion and depends upon the human for life (and vice versa). This feature is the key of Pullman’s series and this novel’s plot. It adds an interesting twist to the steampunk world that he creates. I particularly like the way that the human/animal relationship is explored throughout (without being too philosophical or over-the-top). In a way, you could say that the daemon is like a human’s soul … although this might be an extrapolation proved correct or false by the later books.

I had heard that Pullman’s series was explicitly anti-Roman Catholic and I can’t say that this really comes out in the first book. Now, I am not a Roman Catholic, so maybe I missed some clues here but Pullman is clearly in the secular humanist camp. His critique of a too-tight and controlling religious authority (which also murders and tortures children in the far north of Lyra’s world) seems to be at a remove from the world we live in. However, the American Union of Catholics did not think so as they warned Catholics against reading any of the books or seeing the film adaptation. Perhaps what complicates the issue is that the book is children’s literature, aimed at young readers so the fear of a book brainwashing a reader might become a possibility. Personally, I think this is ridiculous because it underestimates a child’s ability to think critically and suggests a problematic reading position where all books which criticize the church or religion are banned (weirdly coming back to Pullman’s semi-buried critique of the church’s censhorship in The Golden Compass). I should stress that I have not read the latter two books, so perhaps these critiques come from the content of those books.

This has gotten a long way away from Pullman’s excellent narrative. The Golden Compass is fast-paced, taking readers into a well-drawn fantastical world.

I would recommend The Golden Compass to fans of children’s fantasy.

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. 1995. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.

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.

Greasers and Socs Duke It Out: The Outsiders

theoutsidersI’m not sure who recommended S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders too me, but a quick Google search reveals that this book is frequently taught in middle and high schools across North America. After reading it, it is quite easy to see why this is so. The novel features two rival youth gangs, the greasers (lower class and socially marginalized kids) and the Socs (the upper-class kids who jump greasers for fun) and the battle that ensues because of the brutal beating of Johnny, one of  Ponyboy Curtis’s gang members. The novel touches on a number of different themes from violence, gang membership, difficult family situations, and class politics. The Outsiders follows a modified hero’s quest formula with Ponyboy, the protagonist, coming through adversity to discover some new self-knowledge. While I stayed up quite late finishing this book, I am not sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, The Outsiders presents a shallow depiction of class and character with the distinctions between greasers and Socs not really fully developed beyond a case of one side is poor, the other is not. Hinton hints at deeper social issues but does not really explore them in any depth. Then again, she wrote most of this novel while she was 15 and had it published by the time she was 18. Expecting a deep social analysis might be asking too much of the book. However, given that the centre of narrative tension lies in the perceived unfairness of the greasers’ being forced to work for a living and the Socs getting everything on a plate, the failure to speak to class politics seems like a letdown. I guess I found the ending a little too contrived and unsatisfactory. *Spoiler alert* After reading Johnny’s note to him and reflecting on Johnny’s death, Ponyboy decides to write the novel that we have just read as part of an English assignment. While this ending creates a convenient Mobius strip effect, sending readers right back to the start of the narrative, I found it left something to be desired. After all of Ponyboy’s travails, he is content to just play the system and try to get ahead through hard-work and the eventual absorption into the middle class (which remains largely on the peripheries of this novel).

On the other hand, The Outsiders is a great book for young readers. In some ways, I reveled in the simplicity of the narrative, the lack of deep analysis and heavy sophistication. There is something refreshing about this book that stopped my pseudo-Marxist literary analysis from coming into play until I wrote this review. The Outsiders ticks many of the boxes for a high-school English course and I’m certain that I would have loved it had I read it back then. It is an anti-hero story of losers that works and has aged remarkably well unlike say Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower which suffers from too many cultural references and a faulty narrative structure.

So, if read as a young adult novel, The Outsiders is a good read. If you look for more depth, you might be surprised at the shallowness you find.

I would recommend this book to readers looking for a classic young adult read that sparked the YA genre into existence.

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. 1967.  Toronto: Viking Press, 2007. Print.

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.