Returning to a Master: Dance of the Happy Shades

dance-of-the-happy-shadesIt has been too long since I’ve read Alice Munro’s work. I corrected that with her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. It shows all the hallmarks of her long, illustrious, and now Nobel prize winning career: southern Ontario, rural life, women’s concerns, stories of children, and, of course, a fox farmer. Okay, the last one might not actually be a hallmark of her career, but I feel like she might be the only writer to ever write about fox farming (and she does a really good job of it in “Boys and Girls”). I was a little hesitant given that some writers’ first books are less than stellar, but Munro’s hardly skips a beat. I think there are a few less-accomplished stories here, but “Boys and Girls,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “The Peace of Utrecht,” and “Dance of the Happy Shades” are well worth the cost of admission.

I first read “Boys and Girls” while working as a teaching assistant four years ago. I guess at the time I did not think too much of it (it could also be I read too many poor essays on it), but coming back to it now, I kept wondering whether I was blind. Munro is such a careful writer, and her sentences are so finely tuned that they resonate like a finely plucked harp string. I feel like in this collection, Munro as a young writer, was obsessed with a carefully positioned moment, almost always at the end of the story, where she pulls the whole narrative together and ties it off with a poetic bow. I loved these moments and I’ll quote one below. I worry that this won’t make sense without everything that comes before it:

“So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine” (18).

That is one sentence folks, the second last paragraph of “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Even typing it, I cannot quite wrap my head around how well Munro paints the paradox of a parent to a child: you know them intimately and yet you also don’t know them at all because of the years they lived before and away from you. I am willing to bet that each story has a moment like this. As a young writer, this might be the one place where you could catch Munro following a script in her stories. And yet they work so well! This is a great collection and well worth digging up from your local book store.

I would highly recommend this book to all fans of short fiction.

Munro, Alice. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.

*Again, the cover image is not the one from the edition I used, but it was so good I couldn’t not use it.

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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.

It Grew On Me: To Kill a Mockingbird

rooftop-to-kill-a-mockingbirdThis is going to be a bit of a scattershot review as I had somewhat mixed feelings about this book that managed to resolve themselves by the time I finished.

Hesitations first: I have been reading Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners for a class that I am a part of, and these two novels began to blend into each other. They both deal with small communities – Maycomb County in Lee’s, Manawaka in Laurence’s, have young female narrators growing up (only for a part of Laurence’s though), have a wide range of characters from various social classes, and feature conflicts that pit the different classes against each other. I’m not sure this was a good conflation, so I stopped reading Laurence’s book to finish this one.

I found it hard to get into the novel for a good 100 pages or so. The folksy/Southern tone of the novel was somewhat off-putting. Maybe it is because I slogged through William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury last summer or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a year ago, but somehow this felt a little stale and trodden. This is a totally unfair critique though, and I admit that. Once I managed to get into it, it really took off and felt less like Tom Sawyer and more like Huck Finn (to make another American lit analogy).

Hesitations aside, what I liked: the issue of racism at the heart of the novel felt, at first and mistakenly so, out of touch. As a 21st century reader in Canada, I’d like to think that such issues have been long dead in this northern country, or, even better, that they never did happen here. This is utter nonsense. Canada, in its 200 + years of history (dating back to European settlement) , has been just as racist as the Americans have (and, in many ways, still is although we tend to view the indigenous peoples as problems instead of African-Canadians). In another light, our country has a worse history because it has tried to cover this past up with copious amounts of official apologies (many of them far too late in coming) and a general myth that, somehow, we were/are more civilized than our southern neighbours. Again, not true. This book was a good wake-up call to issues of race/ethnicity that still plague Canada today. Just look at some of the comment boards on CBC or the Globe and Mail’s stories on Idle No More.

Yesterday, in lecture for the above-mentioned class, the professor mentioned that novels, because of their length, are more invested in character and time than short fiction. I heartily agree after finishing this book. Scout, the narrator of the novel, really grew on me and Lee’s careful depictions of the changing relationships in the family between Atticus, the single father-lawyer, Jem, his son, Calpurnia, the black cook, Aunt Alexandra, and Scout are delightful to read. These are living breathing characters that felt more like companions that “imaginary” people in a book. I can see why this book was a big hit when it was released and continues to be taught at the elementary and high school levels. Lee has some amazing passages and sequences along with a stellar cast of characters.

Lastly, the novel’s structure is worth commenting on. Pay close attention to the first page or two as Lee comes full circle near the end. She caught me off-guard and I was genuinely pleased to see that kind of narrative cohesiveness. It won a Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. This is a rich novel that has a deceivingly complex narrative structure (not unlike The Diviners). 

I would heartily recommend this book to any reader and encourage them to get through the slower sections that are ultimately necessary for the novel’s conclusion.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 1960. Print.

Childhood in all its pain and glory: We the Animals

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It’s done! The first book of 2013 has now been read and I’ve included a short review below. I’m going to try and keep these under 500 words and I’ll highlight what I thought was interesting, what I didn’t like, what I liked, etc. I also include a recommendation for other readers about the book at the end of the review.

 

I chose Justin Torres’s We the Animals because of the first few lines that my friend J read to me. I quote them here because they are hauntingly beautiful:

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowl; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men … We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” (1)

I have four brothers and I won’t hide the fact that these lines called to mind my own childhood. Torres’ 2012 novella is a hauntingly beautiful piece of fiction. It is terse, divided into small chapters usually running no more than a few pages. It is episodic, chronicling the lives of three young mixed-blood youth of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. Their lives are raw and filled with the smoldering pain of poverty as their parents fight, work dead end jobs, and try to escape the hopelessness of chronic poverty and violence. The novella is set in upstate New York, somewhere north of Syracuse is my best guess, and it reminded me of my own childhood in a small town in Ontario. The three brothers roam their neighbourhood, kings or conquerors, all while trying to make sense of their home life. It is, in many ways, a bildungsroman as the three brothers come to maturity within the confine of a mere 125 pages.

What makes this novella particularly interesting from a technical standpoint is the narrative voice. For much of the book, it is narrated not so much in the first person as in a kind of shared first person. As the section above shows, it is narrated by we, the three brothers, with occasional individual comments. This technique begins to unravel near the end of the book as the brothers come into the final climax of the novel. The tie-in between the narrative structure and plotline is fitting and makes the novel a beautiful work from both an aesthetic and a technical standpoint. I would highly recommend Torres’ work for the narrative voice alone. While I worried that it would fail him at some point, it does not and you quickly become accustomed to seeing the brothers not so much as individual characters but instead as a kind of three-headed beast as they are called at one point.

I would highly recommend Torres’ novella to any looking for a good, short read. It is violent and blunt, but it is also achingly sweet in the way that it captures the intensity and wonder of childhood.

 

Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012. Print.