Monthly Archives: February 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

donotsayThis is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Told from the perspective of a Chinese-Canadian woman learning of her late father’s life in China during the cultural revolution, it is a riveting voyage to a place and time I didn’t know much about. 

As a young girl, Marie loses her father when he leaves their family to return to China, then takes his own life in Hong Kong. Soon after that trauma, Marie’s mother offers shelter to Ai-Ming, a girl about ten years older than Marie, whose father was close friends with Marie’s father. The student protests in Tienanmen Square have recently ended and Ai-Ming, who was involved in the protests, has fled China for Canada. During the months she stays with Marie’s family, she tells the younger girl stories of their fathers’ youth in China, the music that bound them both together at the Conservatory, and a mysterious, hand-copied book that has been copied and distributed down through three generations of Ai-Ming’s family.

The narrator then takes us into the heart of these stories, not filtered through Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s perspectives but through the points of view of the people who actually lived them — Big Mother Knife, Ba Lute, Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, who live through the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and are proud to be part of the new Communist China post-war, until Mao Zedong’s dream turns against them. Their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are forever changed when their musical careers bring them into contact with Kai (future father of the narrator Marie). These three young people, Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai, as young artists, are targets of the Cultural Revolution, and the brutality of that revolution tears all three lives apart. The horrors of living under a totalitarian regime are depicted here with chilling precision, and the writing is beautiful. This novel won both the Governor General’s award for fiction and the Giller Prize, and the awards were richly deserved.


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Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle



Two things I hate: when I look forward to a book for a long time and it doesn’t live up to my expectations, and when I enjoy the process of reading a book but the ending changes how I feel about it. Both of these happened, to some extent, with Universal Harvester.

I am a huge John Darnielle/Mountain Goats fan. I have the T-shirt that says “I only listen to The Mountain Goats.” I think Darnielle is one of the most brilliant lyricists writing today. He’s a poet. He’s a genius. And with his last book, Wolf in White Van, he wrote a complex, difficult, but also very rich novel. So I was really excited to see what he would do with his next foray into fiction.

Universal Harvester sets up a creepy premise worth of bestseller genre thrillers. In a video store (remember those?) in a small Iowa town, two people mention to Jeremy, the young man working behind the counter, a concern about two separate videos. In each case, a short section from the movie has been replaced with something different — another scene, from a blurry and disturbing home video, taped over or spliced into the movie. Once might just be a glitch, but twice? In the same video store? When scenes spliced into one of the movies seem to show someone held prisoner, perhaps being hurt — and when the location of one scene is recognizable as a local farm — Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, goes to investigate, and gets drawn into a weird web of circumstances.

So far it’s intriguing and beautifully creepy. And there are some things Darnielle does so very well, just as you’d expect from a writer of his stature. Setting — that Midwestern small-town late-90s feeling that is evoked so perfectly with tiny details. Characterization — Jeremy, Sarah Jane, Jeremy’s widowed father and his relationship with his son. In a later section of the book which travels back 30 years in time to another small town to reveal the backstory of a different character, Lisa Sample, we see the building and unravelling of a marriage in precise, heartrending detail. Everything is rendered with the care and precision you’d expect from a guy who can evoke a whole life in a three-minute song.

But here’s what you don’t have to do in a three-minute song lyric: plot. And this is where Universal Harvester fell down on the job, for me. Even given that this is not a genre thriller but a literary novel, and literary fiction allows for much more open-ended, less defined endings — even by that standard, I think the book fails to deliver on its promise. All throughout (and it’s quite a short book; I read it in a day) one piece of evidence adds to another to suggest a truly tantalizing puzzle with a breathtaking revelation that will tie it all together. Everything is building up to something big — but then it doesn’t.

Darnielle leads the reader along with the implicit promise that we will eventually understand who is making these tapes and splicing them into rental-store videos (we do learn that much) and why (we definitely do not; the explanation given is completely inadequate to what we’ve been shown this character doing). How and why does Sarah Jane get drawn in as deeply as she does? Why is another character driving down the road with a car trunk full of videotapes, and is a near-fatal accident really an accident? How does Lisa Sample’s childhood tie in here? Who is the “I” voice that sometimes slips through the omniscient third-person narration, who confesses to holding the videocamera? Why are there hints that all the evidence related to these events is now part of an investigation, and who is investigating? When, years later, a family from outside the community buys the old farmhouse and discovers the stash of videotapes, will the missing pieces finally fall into place?

The answers, in case you’re wondering, are: We don’t know; we don’t know; we don’t know; maybe Lisa but we’re not sure; we don’t know; and no, they won’t.

While I’m all for ambiguity and novels that don’t answer all the reader’s questions, I think Darnielle has taken trusting the reader a little too far here. The feeling I’m left with is not so much “I have to finish solving this puzzle myself, because the writer’s not going to do all the work for me,” and more, “The writer set up a puzzle far too clever to solve, and then just didn’t bother.” All the loose ends are left loose, and we never get the big payoff that seems to be coming. This novel was a delight to read because it is so beautifully written, and a lot of the delight — the wonderfully rendered, sparse dialogue that says so much, the insight into human nature and the life of small rural towns — is beautiful no matter where the plot goes. But when the plot goes nowhere at all, part of the pleasure of the journey is marred by the realization that all along, it was a journey nowhere.

Oh well. I’ve still got several dozen hours of Mountain Goats songs to listen to. In a song, nobody cares if you resolve your plot threads.


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Insane Clown President, by Matt Taibbi

insaneclownpresidentThis is American journalist Matt Taibbi’s collection of columns about covering the US Republican primary race and then the presidential election campaign of 2016. As Taibbi was writing for entertainment magazine Rolling Stone rather than for a more “serious” news outlet, there’s a breezy, informal quality to his writing that swings from dark humour to rage, without the pretense of dispassionate, objective reporting. Taibbi’s biases and emotional reactions are out there for all to see, and as the title makes it pretty clear, he’s no fan of Donald J. Trump.

No conservative is going to pick up this book, probably, because the title (and anything you know about Taibbi) so clearly screams “liberal bias,” or at least “anti-Trump bias.” But in fact, Taibbi is just as hard on the Democratic Party as on the Republicans (he appears to have been a Sanders supporter who was not impressed with the choice of Hilary Clinton as candidate), arguing that by 2016 both political parties were so completely out of touch with the concerns of most Americans that the time was ripe for a populist outsider to come along and tap into the anger and resentment of many voters. That the outsider who did so was someone as stupendously crass and ignorant as Trump is something Taibbi blames at least in part on his other target: his own peers in the media. He argues that by dumbing down news in favour of “infotainment,” mainstream media paved the way for the terrifying “post-truth” reality that America now faces. And he offers no encouraging way forward: the book ends bleakly in the aftermath of the election, with America left to reap what it has sown.

I agreed with just about everything in Insane Clown Presiden(except the wholesale excoriation of Hilary Clinton: Taibbi is right in some of his criticisms of her and the Clinton “machine,” but there are depths to her I don’t think he appreciates and he doesn’t seem like the kind of male writer to appreciate the toll that systemic sexism takes on a woman in public life). The same things that make him angry make me angry; the same things that scare him scare me. So I guess I was kind of the ideal reader for this book, and while I can’t say it was an enjoyable read (it ranges from horrifying to depressing), Taibbi is a sparkling writer and an insightful analyst. Even amid the rage and horror he made me laugh out loud a few times, and he definitely made me think.


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Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

hiddenfiguresAfter Emma and I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I wanted to read the book on which it was based to find out the rest of the story. And indeed there was a lot more to the story; the movie focuses on three women in the months leading up to the first US manned space flight, while the movie covers a period of over thirty years and several more characters. It’s an overview of the roles of both women and African-Americans — and most specifically, of course, African-American women — in the US space program, beginning right back with the those who were recruited to work for the military in WW2 (before space flight was even seriously considered).

The story is obviously far more sprawling and complex and it’s easy to see how the movie condensed and simplified into something theatre audiences could enjoy in two hours. But the true story is more, not less, inspiring than the movie. I loved reading about the personal lives of some of these women as well as the social forces that shaped their world. Despite some of the discrimination dramatized in the movie, in fact, the African-American women were treated much more fairly within NASA than they were in the community outside, where segregation was still reality. They could work side-by-side with white NASA employees (and even use the same washrooms, unlike how it’s depicted at the start of the movie) but their children would not be able to attend the same schools for many years. I may have skimmed a bit over the engineering and aeronautical details of the story, but I loved the human element.

One thing I found interesting in this book (and here author Shetterly is writing from her own family background, which is similar to those of the women the book celebrates) is that most of what I’ve read about the lives of African-Americans during the pre-Civil Rights era focuses on lives of either urban or rural poverty, which was certainly the reality for many. However, I knew little about the lives of upwardly mobile, educated, middle-class black Americans during those years, and this is a world that is vividly revealed in this book. It’s a world of people who truly believed that education and hard work were the only way to climb out of poverty and that those things might eventually win them true equality with white America, who created a parallel universe of black churches, colleges, sororities, even holiday resorts, because they were denied access to those run by and for whites. It’s fascinating — and also sad to realize how much systemic racism still exists in American today despite the efforts of generations of people like these women.

The book depicts the challenges of both sexism and racism within the white male world of NASA, and highlights the efforts of women who challenged both those prejudices, and succeeded in carving out brilliant careers for themselves, while breaking down barriers for the generations that came after them.

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The Forbidden Queen, by Anne O’Brien

forbiddenqueenI always love it when I stumble across a historical novel about a character I know about from history but haven’t read about in fiction before. Such is The Forbidden Queen, a novel about Katherine of Valois, the French princess who was so briefly wed to war-hero-king Henry V of England before he inconviently died of dysentry. Katherine, still a young girl, was left dowager queen to a baby king in a country she barely knew, and then shocked everyone by marrying a Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. Henry’s untimely death almost certainly caused the Wars of the Roses due to factions and conflicts that grew up during the childhood and youth of his son, Henry VI; Katherine unwittingly provided the dynastic line that would end those wars when her grandson, Henry Tudor, ascended the throne was Henry VII. Katherine was long dead before any of that happened; she had a short life but it was certainly action-packed. If nothing else, the story of how a queen wound up in bed with her household steward would have to make for a good romantic plot.

And indeed it does. I didn’t realize before I picked up this book that it was published under Harlequin’s “Mira” historical line, and I might have been prejudiced against it if I had seen the imprint. I tend to avoid genre romance because they can be predictable and many (not all) are poorly written, though predictability is less of a concern with historical novels based on real people; the author does, after all, have to stick to the known facts of Katherine’s life. Fortunately, O’Brien, who I hadn’t read before, turns out to be a good writer. While they are some predictably romance-novel flourishes during Katherine and Owen’s scenes together, the main focus is on Katherine’s character development from a meek princess who is terrified to stand up for herself to a woman who defies the royal Council to marry the man she loves and win back his legal rights. It’s a great story and Anne O’Brien does a good job telling it. 

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Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks

ninepartsI wanted to read this book years ago, when I first heard of it, but I had a hold on it at the library for ages and then I think they lost their copy or something, and I forgot about it. Since writing this non-fiction book, journalist Geraldine Brooks has reinvented herself as a novelist,and I’m a huge fan of her fiction. But only when I noticed the other day that my library had Nine Parts of Desire available for loan as an e-book did I remember that I’d intended to read it. In the era of Trump’s “Muslim-ban-not-a-ban” and ISIS terrorism, understanding the role of women in Islam seems more important than ever.

I was really enjoying this book and felt I was learning a lot from it when a friend on Facebook — someone who, though not Muslim herself, has a great deal of academic knowledge and personal experience about Muslim culture in the Middle East — told me I should throw out the book, that it was considered very biased against Islam and not well-regarded by those who are knowledgeable in Middle Eastern studies. I didn’t, of course, throw out the book (how would you throw out a library e-book anyway?), and I did continue reading and enjoying it, but I proceeded with more caution.

It’s important, I think, to remember that this book is not a scholarly or exhaustive study of women’s roles in Islam. Rather, it’s a cross between memoir and journalism. The Australian-born Brooks, who was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism when she married a Jewish American, was working as a journalist in Egypt in the late 1980s when she was shocked to see her co-worker, a very Westernized, secular young Egyptian woman, show up to work one day fully veiled. Her co-worker’s conversion to a fundamentalist form of Islam that required her to cover up in public and seek an arranged marriage with an equally fundamentalist man (which does not seem to work out very well, but frustratingly, Brooks never tells us the end of this story), drove Brooks’s curiosity. She wanted to know what would make a modern woman step back into what appeared to be a regressive, ancient culture.

This curiosity fuels Brooks’s investigations, both into the history of Islam and into the lives of dozens of women she interviewed in Egypt, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, and Eritrea. She talks to women about wearing the veil, about marriage and sexuality, about sports, about politics, about belly dancing. She interviews Jordan’s Queen Noor and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s daughter as well as many ordinary women from all walks of life. The experiences of the women she interviews are extremely diverse, but she does mainly focus on women who, either by choice or by the edict of their government, wear the veil (often the full chador) and follow a fairly strict fundamentalist form of Islam. Some of the women she spoke to were very happy with a fundamentalist life; others actively rebelled against it. 

I didn’t find Brooks’s book to be anti-Muslim; she is often at pains to go back to the original texts — the Quran, hadith, and legends of the Prophet and his wives — to show how today’s Islamic fundamentalists interpret women’s roles in far harsher ways than the texts prescribe. She also makes it clear there are Islamic cultures and Muslim women who aren’t bound by such narrow literalism, and that many of the practices she condemns — female genital mutilation, forced marriages (including child marriage) and honour killings — are more cultural than religious in nature and are practiced by non-Muslims in similar cultures also. However, her disapproval and astonishment that women could choose, support, and defend lifestyles that restrict their freedom in so many ways definitely comes through, even when interviewing women she clearly likes and admires.

This book was published in 1995 – before 9/11; before the second Iraq war; before ISIS. Misconceptions about Islam and anti-Muslim prejudice are more extreme here than they were 22 years ago when the book came out, and I can see how my more knowledgeable friend’s frustration with Brooks’s work might partly stem from concerns that reading this book might make readers more likely to write off Islam as a backward, repressive religion. I didn’t come away feeling that, but I did feel, as Brooks clearly does, how incomprehensible it is for us Western feminists that some women choose a form of their religion that seems to repressive to us. Even more, I felt that we have to champion the rights of those women who did not choose this form of Islam but have had it forced upon them by religious authorities, family, or government — young girls who do not want to be married off to strangers or have their genitals mutilated; young women who want the freedom to pursue whatever careers they desire or choose their own life partners. Whether these abuses of women’s rights are carried out in the name of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or native/pagan religions in any part of the world, they are to be resisted and spoken out against.

This was the message I took away from Nine Parts of Desire, and it didn’t decrease my respect for Muslims or my desire to speak out for their rights to practice their religion freely, even while recognizing that some extreme expressions of that religion are not compatible with the values of our society (but the same could be said of many religions, including Christianity). I found Geraldine Brooks’s reflections, as an outsider in Middle Eastern culture, intriguing and insightful, but I will also take my friend’s recommendation and seek out books that might provide a more research-based and well-rounded view of Islamic women’s lives.

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Yiddish for Pirates, by Gary Barwin

yiddishI wanted to love this book a lot more than I did, especially since it was the only book anyone gave me for Christmas and I got not one but two copies of it. It’s crazy, inventive, witty and definitely a novel for anyone who loves playing with words — but in the end, I think all the wordplay and some of the narrative tricks kept me a little distanced from really getting involved with the characters.

It’s the story of Aaron, a talking (really talking, not just mimicking) parrot, who narrates the story of Moishe, the Jewish boy on whose shoulder he perches. Moishe embarks on a series of adventures and misadventures in fiftenth-century Spain, on the high seas, and in the New World, where he sails with Columbus. There’s a lot of humour to their adventures as narrated by the wisecracking Aaron who sprinkles his story liberally with Yiddish word and phrases, anachronisms, and puns in several languages. But there’s also a darkness that follows Moishe and all his travelling companions, Jews expelled from Spain under the shadow of the Inquisition.

The book is incredibly inventive and a delight for those who love wordplay, but after Moishe and Aaron left Spain and travelled to the New World I found the story less compelling than when they were back in Spain. Also, I found that using the parrot as narrator kept me distanced from the human characters, so that I never got quite as involved in Moishe’s story as I’d hoped to. The book certainly is brilliantly written and truly unique, but it wasn’t my most engrossing read of the year so far.

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