Thursday, May 27, 2010

Into Thin Air

I'm never really sure what to expect when I pick up a non-fiction adventure book. Granted, I haven't read widely in the genre, but what I have read leads me to believe it's a little hit or miss. The ones that miss, as far as I'm concerned, are the ones that assume all the reader cares about is the writer's experience, full-stop. A hit, on the other hand, weaves a personal narrative throughout a larger story; it offers historical details, comprehensive but succinct technical explanations and it pulls in other perspectives and/or characters to back up the main narrative. In short, it gives you enough information to draw you into the action and feel like you could have been there too.

In his book Into Thin Air, John Krakauer does just that. In early May, 1996, ten climbers died on Mount Everest, either in pursuit of the summit or during their descent from it. Krakauer was on the mountain, climbing with a different team. He summited earlier than the other teams and, as he begun his descent the other teams were still on their way up. But, a storm was rolling in - either unnoticed or ignored by the other team leaders. Krakauer's account of his climb to the summit, and his subsequent descent and the fierce weather they faced at 29,028 feet above sea level, is not one you're likely to forget in a hurry.

Krakauer is a climber as well as a journalist, which gives him the background to both explain all the different aspects of the climb and the equipment climbers use, as well as sufficient experience to put himself in the position of the other climbers and imagine what they were thinking. It's a bit of a grey area journalistically, but Krakauer is up front about his suppositions and often offers up more than one scenario, which helps an uninitiated climber understand how protocol and procedure can become lost on the mountain.

But this isn't a book that points fingers (or, not overly, anyway), rather it takes you through the tragedy of such needless death. Krakauer's ability to write emotionally about the devastation of the climb and the pain and guilt he and the other surviving climbers felt is beautifully captured. My copy of Into Thin Air has quite a few pages pocked with dry tear stains, not because there's anything gratuitous about the sadness, but because Krakauer's own feelings rub off the page and onto the reader so that you too feel the burden of the loss of life.

At times, Into Thin Air is a regular adventure story, in that you get caught up in the immensity of Krakauer's trek up the tallest mountain in the world. But the consequences of the climb lie heavy in the descriptions of the early days on Everest. Really, it is a beautiful book, which is not a way I would normally describe a book about the deadliest period in Everest's (recent) history. But Krakauer writes with great care for his subjects - himself, the mountain, his colleagues - and the riveting scenes are all the more exciting and devastating for their firm hold on Krakauer's reality.

Into Thin Air
by John Krakauer
First published in 1997 (cover image shown from Doubleday edition)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What is Yann Martel Reading?

I always find it interesting to hear about what books authors enjoy reading. When I went to see Margaret Atwood be interviewed, she managed to mention four books (besides her own) over the course of the interview and Q&A: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

Last week, the Daily Beast did a slideshow of Yann Martel's favourite books. Now, I would say that Yann Martel has already been pretty upfront about the books he likes - or at least the ones he would like to see Stephen Harper read. The Daily Beast list is really more of a top-5 (although he slips in a sixth), but he still manages to get in some major classics and interesting international authors.

Generally, I'm curious about what other people are reading in general. The reason I like knowing what authors read is because you're so influenced by what you read that I feel like it's a way into their heads. How does their work compare to what they read in terms of style, structure, characters, etc.? Plus, knowing what they're reading sometimes feels like an indication of what I should be reading, and even though my to-read pile isn't getting any shorter, I sure don't mind adding to it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Clan of the Cave Bear

Maybe it’s the weather, I don’t know, but summer reading has been on my mind of late. Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear is great summer reading. It’s engaging without being consuming and, if you like it, there are four more books in the series that you can search out.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set pretty close to the beginning of human existence and is the story of Ayla, a tall, slender, blue-eyed girl, who is orphaned as a young girl after a natural disaster destroys her home and her parents. She is discovered, half-starved, on the riverbank by a clan of, well, Neanderthals. Although they are afraid of Ayla at first (she is an “other” and not really human, as far as they’re concerned), Iza the clan’s healer, and Creb, their spiritual leader convince their leader to bring Ayla with them.

And so she becomes of the clan (who live in a large cave and worship the cave bear)—kind of. Ayla is strange and cannot move like they do, or speak properly (their language is more gutteral than she is used to). She also looks wrong. But, she is loved—by Iza and Creb anyway. Slowly, Ayla integrates in to the clan and soon the details of her earlier life are too hazy for her to really connect with. And although most members of the clad come to except her and her unusual looks and behaviour, Broud, the chief’s son, is jealous of the attention she garners and as she becomes increasingly accepted, he grows to hate her more.

The clan people have shorter life spans than Ayla’s people, and as a result mature sexually a lot sooner. It doesn’t take Broud long to learn that sex can be used as a weapon, and some of the scenes involving his treatment of Ayla are extremely disturbing in the kind of violence they describe. Eventually, Ayla becomes pregnant. Having the baby nearly kills her, but she survives and so does her son. Durc is the first “hybrid” child and ultimately represents the future of the clan.

Ayla, however, does not fair as well. She stays with the clan, despite Broud’s abuse, because of Durc, Iza and Creb. But Iza and Creb are old and after Creb dies, Iza tells Ayla to run away—without them there to protect her, Broud will surely kill her, she says. So Ayla runs, leaving behind her the only life she has ever really known.

Writing about prehistoric people is pretty gutsy, and although I have nothing to really go on, I think Auel does a pretty good job. The way of life of the clan people (from religion, to medicine, to what they eat and how they cook it) is incredibly detailed and the landscape she evokes is rich and vivid. Clearly, quite a bit of research went into putting together this world.

The Clan of the Cave Bear isn’t like to be a book that changes your life, but neither is it fluff. Instead, it’s well-written, evocative literary entertainment. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not such a bad thing for a book to be. The plot is intricate and Auel takes some real narrative risks, both in terms of the general story arc and in how direct she is about what is happening to Ayla and the clan itself. It’s a summer read with guts (in the best sense) that you won’t be embarrassed to read in public at any time of year.

The Clan of the Cave Bear
by Jean M. Auel
First published in 1980 (cover image shown from Bantam Books edition)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rewritting literary history?

It's an on-going debate: whether or not to revisit literature and clean it up, expunging the racist or politically incorrect sections. The question comes up every few years in regard to books ranging from Huckleberry Finn to To Kill a Mockingbird to Peter Pan and now (and not for the first time) Tin Tin in the Congo is in the news. A Congolese man in Belgium has brought a civil suit against the comic, asking that it be removed from the shelves because of its racist portrayal of the Congolese.

Is he wrong? Well, that particular Tin Tin comic is certainly racist (the Congolese characters are portrayed as grown-up children - incredulous and primitive) but I'm not sure simply removing the book from shelves is the answer. I certainly don't want to excuse the racial portrayals because they're from another time, but I do think it matters that this wasn't produced yesterday.

As I have said before, I am against book-banning and censorship. Pretending that those attitudes didn't exist doesn't help us move one; if anything, ignoring them makes it easier to repeat those mistakes. Rather, I think these books need to be discussed: Why do they make us uncomfortable? What's wrong with they views they present? Why was society like that then but not now?

It isn't easy, but it does allow for damaging stereotypes to be explained and set right without setting a dangerous precedent for book banning whatever makes us uncomfortable. Maybe the potentially offensive books should be reserved for older children, who are better equipped to discuss and understand the complex issues. But we have to be willing to take part in those discussions and lead children through them; if we aren't, it almost doesn't matter whether we do or do not ban books - we're lost already.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why YA novels matter

I have a complicated relationship with Young Adult novels. When I was the right age to read them (they're usually aimed at kids from age 12 to age 15) I resented them; I wanted to be reading books that you could buy in the rest of the store. Like most of the characters portrayed in the stories I secretly enjoyed, I was angsty about being lumped in with the kids' section at the back of the bookstore.

Now, though, I look back at those books with a great deal of fondness. By and large, YA novels are well written and, rather than talking down to the reader, treat them like the grown-up (or at least older teenager) they so want to be. Among my favourite YA authors are Canadian Janet Lunn and the delightful Roald Dahl, although I certainly read widely. I also went through a period where I read a lot of stories about WWII for some reason. Generally, I was pretty into historical fiction, which is abundant in YA novels.

I could reminisce forever about the books I loved back then, but Lizzie Skurnick does that really well already. Also, over at Persnickety Snark (a blog dedicated to reviewing YA novels), they are putting together a list of the top-100 YA books and have started a poll that lets you vote for your top-10 YA titles. I am not a big book list person (unless you count this blog as a protracted exercise at listing), but I do like voting for things, especially when to vote I get to write in my own choices instead of working with what's already there.

So, in a fit of nostalgia, here are my choices. They might not all technically be YA, but they were the books I read when I was that age*, so I'm counting them anyway (this list is presented in no particular order):

Shadow in Hawthorn Bay by Janet Lunn
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Hatchet by Gary Paulson
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

*I should just say that these were my favourite YA books when I was in the YA age group. That was before I read
The Golden Compass or any of the Harry Potter books, which would otherwise make the list.

Image shown is the cover of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (Harper Trophy edition).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Three Day Road

Usually, after I've finished a book, it only takes me a few hours to mentally move one so I can pick up another one. That's not to say I didn't enjoy whatever it was that I read, but generally speaking I don't get so emotionally involved with a book that I need to take a break. After I read Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road I couldn't read another book for a week. I didn't even try; I was too attached to the characters and involved in their story to admit that it was over and I needed to find another novel.

In some ways, my inability to move on mirrors the narrative of Boyden's characters. Three Day Road is, on the surface, a story about a Cree sniper coming home after the First World War. It is, of course, about much more than that, though. Xavier has come home wounded and addicted to morphine, a sly drug that helps him forget about the phantom pain that floats in his empty pant leg. He is met by Niska, his aunt, at the train station and together they head down the river on their journey home.

Xavier, though, is not at ease. Between the pain in what's left of his leg and the thick, soft release of the morphine he is unable to escape what he experienced on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he served as a sniper with his childhood friend Elijah. In the canoe, Xavier sleeps in fits, reliving the battles at the Somme and Ypres and Vimy Ridge, and remembering Elijah's slip into addiction and madness and his own decline into depression as the bodies of his friends start to pile up around him.

From the stern of the canoe, Niska can see that Xavier is dying - wants to die. The morphine has cut his appetite so that he doesn't eat, his body feeding on his despair instead. To nourish him with something better, Niska begins to tell Xavier stories of her childhood. She tells him of his grandparents, of how she escaped Residential School to live in the bush. And she tells him stories of his own childhood, after she rescued him from the same school and took him to the bush to learn the arts of hunting and trapping and survival. Elijah came to join them later, and she tells Xavier how proud she was to watch him teach his friend the skills he had acquired.

The trip down river is slated to take about three days; the journey from death to the afterlife, according to the story, is also a three day road. For Xavier, though, the three day journey brings him back to life, rather than death. As Xavier's story alternates with the ones Niska tells, Boyden offers up a picture not only of the horrors of war and the tolls of warfare, but also of how there is healing through memory and storytelling. Much of what Niska tells Xavier is horribly sad - her many winters alone, how she was seduced and used by a French trapper, the Residential School, her father's imprisonment and death - but there is a sort of power in reliving those moments through story. In telling Xavier these things, she gains a kind of power over them. Similarly, by agonizing over his and Elijah's actions in the war, Xavier is able to rise above that reality and experience his memories in a different way.

The amount of research Boyden must have done for this book is staggering. The World War I battle scenes and the trench life he describes are so vivid in their details that you can almost feel the suck of the mud on your feet, even as you read. Similarly, the language he uses and the cadence of his sentences flow off the page so easily that it's easy to forget you're reading and not simply being told a story. This works to make the meticulously crafted scenes seem effortless, allowing the history of the Residential School system, the war, and the general treatment of Native Canadians to come together into a narrative that isn't trying to be educational or political. Rather, those are plot points in the lives of the characters, fully integral to who they are and where they've been - deliberate without feeling forced.

When I reread Three Day Road I wasn't sure how I was going to experience it. The first read completely took my breath away, but some books only manage to do that once. Not so with Boyden. I was enthralled all over again, carried back into the stories of Xavier and Niska with an ease that felt like going home to hear the same family stories that are always told. They're comforting in their familiarity, but they always hook you in because knowing the outcome doesn't determine how much you enjoy the experience of the telling.

Three Day Road
by Joseph Boyden
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pen vs. Sword: Literary Action Figures

After marketers caught on to kids TV (thanks in large part to Disney's successful merchandising) it seemed like there were dolls or action figures for everything. And then that spawned the rest of the merchandise that followed successful brands: sheets, backpacks, pajamas, pencil cases, etc.

Until now, though, all the merchandising attention has been paid to the characters. But wouldn't it be amazing if the authors of classic literature received a similar level of hype? I don't mean I want to see Wordsworth's face all over my bed cover or anything, but there's a pretty good argument to be made for creating awareness through presence. Sure, Shakespeare isn't going to be forgotten any more than his plays and poetry will be, by Mary Shelley? I bet there are a lot of people out there who don't know she's the author behind Frankenstein and his monster.

So, with all of this already flitting through my mind, you can only imagine how thrilled I was to see this video (now making the Internet rounds):

I mean really, if that doesn't make you want to A) read something by the Bront√ęs and/or B) read their biographies, you may be a lost cause already.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


It took me a while to warm up to short fiction. Really, I never realized how powerful and well crafted good short story were until I read them in collections. In a great collection, each story stands out on its own and can be read alone, but when read as part of a whole becomes a piece in a larger narrative. In James Joyce's Dubliners the stories are of everyday people - children, men, women, families - but each illustrates another corner of the city until, by the end, you have a full and working illustration of Dublin. The streetscapes are crisp, the clothing and accents and hairstyles are meticulously detailed and you can walk around in your mind, enjoying the view.

My first encounter with Joyce was "Araby," the third story in the collection. The main character, a young boy, is unnamed, but desperately wants to go to Araby, a fair (like a world's fair, by the description, but Joyce isn't specific), which he told the girl down the street he was going to see. Of course, he has a complete and utter crush on this girl - the older sister of one of his friends - and he is desperate to impress her. Joyce doesn't have to say any of that though, because the emotions he evokes when describing the boy's excitement about the fair say it all.

Most of the story is about the boy's anticipation for the fair. Joyce builds up the grey little world the boy usually inhabits, subtly suggesting that Araby has the power to change this. The boy spends an afternoon anxiously awaiting his uncle (with whom he lives) who has promised to take him to Araby. Finally, finally, they head out. After a painstakingly detailed commute - details always stand out when a trip feels painfully slow - they arrive.

Joyce isn't the master of the epiphany for nothing. The boy's hopes are so high that they can't help but fall, which they do. Or, rather, they crash around him in brightly coloured shards that turn out to be backed with grey: The people working at this fair have an accent like his; their costumes aren't convincing; the backdrops are unconvincing. In short, the illusion is exposed as pure artifice, and just like that the boy grows up a little.

Many of Joyce's stories are like this. Their structure is pretty classic in its story arc, but it works again and again because Joyce's character are vividly distinct. And they move around. Joyce's stories don't take place in static locations; his characters walk around, spend time in the streets, visit cafes and bars and generally get out into the city. In many ways, Dubliners is a historical walking tour of the city, led by a well-known local who can not only show you the sights, but introduce you to the two men arguing on the street corner and the young boy playing in the gutter.

In that way, it's also a tour of life, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Joyce captures a lot of unnervingly familiar emotions and even events in his stories - private and personal conversations and moments of realization that you never told anyone about, yet everyone can relate to. As much as Dubliners proves that Joyce knows his city, it illustrates (through its very title) that he is also keenly familiar with its inhabitants. The people we writes about are both deeply rooted in where they're from (and products of that environment) and universal. Meeting Joyce's characters is unsettling in the best way and the tour of their lives and city may not always be a cheerful one, but it is one you won't forget in a hurry.

by James Joyce
First published in 1914 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

One book, one world?

The "one book, one city" movement as taken off in the UK over the last few years. The idea is that an entire city simultaneously reads one book, usually a classic written by one of their countrymen and/or set in their city. It's like Canada Reads, but with a bit more follow-through.

Now though, the idea has been taken a bit further. Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods has been chosen as the first installment of "one book, one Twitter." The idea is that everyone who uses Twitter will read the same book at the same time and Tweet about it, effectively creating the largest book club in the world. The idea came from Jeff Howe, a contributing editor to Wired magazine, whose website hosted the voting for which book the world should read.

It's an interesting idea. On the one hand, I am happy to support initiatives that encourage reading and literacy and exposure to important books (full disclosure: I have not read American Gods, so I am basing its relative importance against its competitors). On the other hand, like many readers I know, I am wary of book trends. As much as I want to encourage excitement about reading, I don't think books need to be dumbed down for them to have wide appeal. That doesn't seem to be happening here, though.

Whether I decide to read American Gods at all (with the Twitter book club or on my own, later), I certainly will follow the success of the one "one book, one Twitter" movement. If you want to get in on the Tweeting (no spoilers, please), it all gets started tomorrow; send your Tweets to @1B1T or tag them with #1b1t.

Image shown is a screen-grab of one of Jeff Howe's Tweets about "one book, one Twitter" (or #1b1t).
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