Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Year of the Flood

Typically, novels don't really begin at the beginning. I mean, yes, the stories they tell do tend to be mostly complete, but there is always more that could be told: why did the peripheral characters act the way the did? What happened before this part of the character's life? How did the world get to this point? I doubt there's a single novel that this doesn't apply to, but perhaps it most applies to novels set in the future – near or far. Even futuristic or sci-fi novels that offer an explanatory chapter leave out tremendous details, simply because including them would weigh everything else down. When Margaret Atwood wrote Oryx and Crake, I suppose she faced the same problems. So, rather than simply ignoring the how and why and previous, she wrote another novel. The Year of the Flood takes place in almost the same timeframe as Oryx and Crake, but it is set in the world outside of the sanitary compounds.

In The Year of the Flood, Atwood alternates perspectives between two women: Toby and Ren. Toby is the older of the two and grew up in what is now the pleeblands – major cities and subburbs that have degenerated into filthy, dangerous, rotting places. Her parents are dead and, after believing that she would be implicated in their deaths, she ran away. Toby has a rough time of it on her own and, after getting a job a SecretBurger (a place that serves food so disgusting it's difficult to contemplate) she falls victim to her sexually and physically abusive boss. When she realizes her life is in danger, she is taken in God's Gardeners, a religious sect that is strictly vegetarian and lives on the rooftops and in the abandoned of the pleeb. 

Ren is quite young when we meet her. Her mother, formerly the wife of a compound man, fell in love with Zeb, a Gardener, and ran away, taking her daughter with her. Ren grows up with the Gardeners, learning foraging techniques and running fairly wild with her friends. She is a Gardener – hardly able to remember her previous life – when her mother decides they are going to return to the compound, uprooting her life. Eventually, Ren returns to the pleeblands and becomes a dancer at the strip and sex club Scales and Tails. 

The novel alternates between these two perspectives and also back and forth in time, from present day to memories of the past. At the beginning of the story, the Waterless Flood predicted by the Gardeners has arrived – a virus that is highly contagious and quickly deadly – and both Ren and Toby, alone in their respective exiles, wonder if they are the only ones who have survived. Ren is in a decontamination chamber at the club (her protective layer was damaged and, luckily, she was in quarantine when the virus hit) and Toby is in hiding at a spa, where she managed to also be in isolation when the virus was spreading.

The near-future world that Atwood described in Oryx and Crake comes even more shockingly to life in The Year of the Flood. The incredible sexual violence and general commerce of sex is brought very much to life through the experiences of the two female protagonists, as is the violent reality of life in the pleebs and punishment under the CorpSeCorps men. One such punishment that becomes, in some ways, central to the narrative is PainBall, a kind of battle royal in which prisoners are assigned teams and then let loose inside a caged forest with the goal of killing each other. Making it through PainBall means becoming even more savage than you were when you went in, which means brutal and dangerous men being released back onto the streets to inflict more violence.

But, for all the ugliness and pain that is the world in The Year of the Flood, the stories of the two women, and the characterization of the Gardeners, with its songs and practices, is enthralling. This is a world so fully and vividly realized that in some places it doesn't even feel like you're reading. You don't need to have read Oryx and Crake to read this novel, either, because, although the two stories are connected, neither assumes readers have any prior knowledge. 

The Year of the Flood is successful because it is shocking, but also tender, and its setting is near enough to be familiar, but far enough to not feel imminently threatening. It is a seriously absorbing read, and not one you are likely to forget any time soon.

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from McClelland & Stewart edition)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Sentimentalists

Family can be a tricky business. Even in the closest families, you can never really be sure that you actually know your parents and siblings. I mean, you know the main things, but inevitably you'll discover things about them that shock or surprise you. Sometimes these are actual character traits, but more often they involve events from their pasts that they either felt weren't worth mentioning or were so hard to move past the first time, they have no desire to revisit them. More often than not, these discoveries happen after the person they concern has died – when you're going through their belongings, old photos, letters, and the like. In Johanna Skibsrud's Giller Prize winning novel The Sentimentalists, though, the previously hidden story of Napoleon Haskell's Vietnam War experience comes out before his death, and as quite a surprise to his daughter.

Napoleon was a soldier, and thus he and his family moved around the U.S. every year or so for all the years that his kids were young, at least until his wife left him. After he left the service and got through alcoholism, he found himself in Fargo, North Dakota, where he bought himself a trailer and went about setting it up to his liking. Skibsrud's writing is not fast-paced, and she takes her time describing Napoleon's home – his castle. There are a lot of character details in her description, and although Napoleon doesn't actually spend much of the novel in Fargo, knowing about his library and his fax machine are the sorts of ordinary details that can speak volumes about a person's priorities and character.

For all that, though, the book's narrator, Napoleon's daughter, is unnamed. We only know a bit about her – she talks about her childhood only in reference to Napoleon, but does tell us that she leaves the big city after discovering her boyfriend is cheating – but I can picture her down to the colour of her hair and eyes. Strangely, by not being overly specific about her characters' looks, Skibsrud makes them easier to picture, because their personalities are so well crafted, coming together as they do from a collection of stories, memories and description; rather than from an explanatory paragraph or introductory chapter.

Although the novel dips into the lives of Napoleon and his daughter in the outside world, its focus is on their time spent together in Casablanca, Ontario, at the lakeside home of Henry, the disabled father of a man Napoleon served with in Vietnam. Throughout all the time family moved from base to base, Henry's home had been their one constant – a place to spend summers and have coherent family memories. When his daughters started to worry about him living alone, they moved Napoleon across the border to join Henry full-time. It didn't take his daughter long to follow him, moving semi-permanently to Henry's after discovering her lover's infidelity.

The time the three of them – Henry, Napoleon, and Napoleon's daughter – spend together at the lake is the crux of the novel, which is many ways is about the quiet routines that we get pulled into without realizing it. The characters' routines are quite independent and the narrator's especially so. These are insular people who are drawn out of themselves when they are left to themselves, allowing trust to build up through actions rather than emphatic declarations. 

As their time together wears on, Napoleon – who is dying in installments – learns to trust his daughter and slowly his story comes out. It is a story that is both expected and surprising: he witnessed a brutal and systematic massacre of a Vietnam village by American troops and then testified at a tribunal. He had, apparently, never shared this information with his family, or really even spoken about the war, and the transcript of his testimony that follows the story is in many ways more striking than any one scene in the novel itself.

Overall though, The Sentimentalists succeeds because it feels like a real relationship, filled with its own confusing and passive-aggressive history, is unfolding in front of you. In real life, very little happens in big, splashy moments, and Skibsrud's ability to make day-to-day routines and silent conversations interesting and beautiful is what makes this such a great read. In telling the story of Napoleon, Skibsrud examines not only the legacy of war, but also the importance of language and the way that we talk about and describe it. The Sentimentalists may seem languid as you read it, but despite the carefully paced writing, it sure packs an emotional wallop. 

The Sentimentalists
by Johanna Skibsrud
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Gaspereau Press edition)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Books Everyone Should Read?

Click to enlarge.
Lists like 'The Top-100 Books Everyone Should Read' come out every year, and often feature more-or-less the same sets of (mostly) novels. Sometimes they're in a different order, sometimes they spice it up a little (Sense and Sensibility instead of Pride and Prejudice, of 1984 instead of Animal Farm, etc.). I tease mostly because these lists make me feel a little inadequate – and I have an English degree, which feels like it should mean I've read most of these books.

Anyway, The Guardian has put together a word cloud (see above) featuring the titles of the must-read books from "over 15 notable book polls" and arranged them so that the titles that appear most frequently appear largest and boldest (essentially the same idea as my tag cloud, to the right of this post). Seeing the titles arranged like this makes me feel like maybe the lists are a bit less repetitive than I thought, and also that some stories are widely considered necessary reads. To Kill a Mockingbird is the clear winner, which is interesting because, compared to some of the other titles, it is relatively contemporary. I also find it rather amazing that Le Petit Prince (or The Little Prince) has made so few lists, as well as the fact that Twilight shows up at all. It is so interesting to examine what other people/organizations deem to be must-reads.

What makes this data extra-interesting is that The Guardian also provides a spreadsheet with all the lists on it, which means that if you wanted to read your way through one of them, you certainly could.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


It is practically a cliché to talk about how you love reading because it can take you into experiences you may never have. Whether it's a book about travel, adventure or just another person's life, books offer up a wealth of vicarious experiences. It's rare, however, to read a book about an experience that is totally unpredictable. Most stories follow something resembling a formula (which is not to say that most stories are formulaic, but you do typically know whether the story you're picking up will end happily or not), so it is rare to find a novel that does something new while remaining accessible. In her novel Annabel, Kathleen Winter challenges her reader to enter a world they may not find particularly comfortable, while at every turn, giving them a reason to stay for just a bit longer.

Annabel is the story of Wayne Blake, a baby born in Labrador in 1968; a baby born with both male and female genitalia; a baby born half as a female who is raised as a boy. In Labrador, in 1968, having a child who is intersex is not something to talk about, and consequently the only people in the know are Wayne's parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and their neighbour Thomasina, who was present at his birth. The doctor in Goose Bay decides that Wayne's baby penis is long enough for him to be raised as a boy, so, despite Jacinta's misgivings, Wayne undergoes surgery and leaves the hospital visibly male.

But life is never so cut and dried. Wayne isn't very old when he discovers synchronized swimming and becomes entranced by the bathing suits the women wear. He wants one, and the scene in which Jacinta tries to explain to her son why he can't have one is just heartbreaking – even more so when you learn that he is secretly saving his money so he can order one from Sears. As much as Wayne tries to be interested in the traditional trades of hunting and trapping, Treadway's passions, he is just more interested in drawing and dancing. From the very beginning, Wayne does not fit into the mold of a Labrador son.

But neither is Wayne so completely female that you can entirely blame the doctor for making the wrong choice. Rather, he is an equation for which there is not correct answer in our society. When people are set up as binaries, what can we do about someone who fits neither side completely? Wayne, of course, does not know or understand any of this. Rather, he is in the dark about the way he was born, and although he takes hormones every day, he does not understand what the pills are for. It is only after he hits puberty and starts to develop breasts and then has a shocking and rather horrifying medical emergency that he learns the truth. And it is Thomasina, who has known from the beginning and used to call him "Annabel" when they were along together and is now his teacher, who breaks the silence. 

Jacinta is, in many ways, relieved that Wayne knows the truth. Jacinta never wanted to change her baby, and has secretly nurtured Wayne's feminine side since he was a child. Treadway, on the other hand, has never been comfortable with what his son means. As a father, Treadway loves Wayne, but he does not know where or how he fits into the world, which makes him uncomfortable and uneasy. Treadway starts to spend more and more amount of time out in the bush, on his traplines, leaving an increasingly unstable Jacinta at home with Wayne.

Watching Wayne's coming of age is extremely awkward. But Winter is very precise in her language of gender and identity, which helps you keep up with Wayne as he moves through the world, first in and around his community in Labrador, and later, when he has moved to St. John's. Wayne's story is difficult to read because it is uncertain and emotionally raw. There is no distance from what happens and where his life goes, and because we follow him so closely, when something horrible happens (and it does) there is now safe place, either for you or for Wayne. Winter's writing is so clean that it doesn't feel like reading, and Wayne's pain becomes your pain, just as his risks and triumphs become yours.

Annabel offers no easy answers, filled as it is with characters that are so real in their complexity that you can practically feel their breath coming out of each page. And Winter expects her readers to be equally as complex, giving you space to fill in parts of the story with your own emotions and experiences. Giving yourself over to this novel is well worth it, though. The incredible descriptions of landscapes and cities, coupled with the quite intense emotional impact, will give you something quite real to think about between each chapter and for long afterward. Of all the characters you read about, Wayne Blake and those close to him are not ones you will soon forget.

by Kathleen Winter
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

It always seems that, when there's a discussion about escapist fiction, it is in the context of summer. In some ways this makes sense, because in the summer you feel free to do (and perhaps read) things you might not do (or read) in the more serious, colder months. But, more me, it's in those serious and cold months that I really need something escapist, especially by the time March rolls around. But escapist does not mean dumb. Rather, a good escapist novel takes you somewhere else – either in time or in place – and gives you a story that is totally absorbing, allowing you to escape from your day-to-day reality. And, what could be a better escape from March weather in the city than summertime in the English countryside, circa 1950? Not a sleepy countryside, though. In Alan Bradely's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, murder has come to the small town of Bishop's Lacey, and it has turned the life of eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce totally upside down – in a good way. 

Flavia is one of those child narrators that manages to walk the line between overly (and annoyingly) precocious and just too precious. She is young enough to be interested in all sort of things without being too self-conscious about it, and it seems that, although she may be on the edge of adolescence, the hormones haven't hit quite yet. Rather than being interested in boys, Flavia is interested in chemistry, and poisons in particular. The de Luce family – Flavia, her father, and her two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne – live at Buckshaw, a manor house that is filled with all the sorts of family history it ought to be. Part of that history is a chemistry laboratory, installed by Uncle Tar quite some time ago and now Flavia's private playroom. 

Novels with child protagonists have to get around the normal supervision a child is under. Bradley does this quickly at the beginning: Harriet, the girls' mother, died in a mountaineering accident not long after Flavia was born; their father is quiet and spends most of his time in his study with his stamp collection. Although he remains strict about mealtimes and spending certain evenings together as a family, he otherwise leaves the girls to themselves. Ophelia and Daphne are quite horrible to Flavia, so she has learned to entertain herself. When a dead body turns up in the cucumber patch (the body of a man she saw her father arguing with late the night before), she is more than entertained, she is excited.

Rather like Agatha Christie's character Miss Marple – an elderly woman who was able to solve crimes by being observant and a bit of a gossip – Flavia is a perfect amateur sleuth. She tears around the countryside on Gladys, her bicycle, investigating the identity of the dead man. As a non-threatening child, she is quite capable of talking her way into (and out of) situations, as well as peppering adults with questions carefully edged in flattery. That she manages to do all of this while still exacting revenge on here sisters for their little cruelties is a nice reminder that she is still a child, and therefore has many priorities. She is also refreshingly nonchalant about some bits of information, mostly because she isn't quite old enough to know what everything means. But, she is smart, and in the end she pulls it all together.

As it turns out (without spoiling all the fun of the story), the mystery of the dead man ties back to her father's school days, a previous death, and (of all things) stamp collecting. I would never have thought I'd get so caught up in a story filled with details about postage stamps, but there you go. Perhaps best of all, Flavia herself is quite surprised about it too, and the historical details that back up the reasons for the murder are quite interesting in and of themselves.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is not a book to pick up unless you have the whole weekend free, because once you get hooked, you won't want to do anything but keep reading. Bradley's attention to detail means that as the plot progresses all the loose ends get gathered up to reveal a well thought out dénouement. It is so satisfying to read a detective novel that isn't about gore, violence and sex – not that there isn't a place for those things, but it is a bit of a relief to read a mystery that hinges on great characters and good writing, rather than fancy surprise endings. And as far as escapism goes, Flavia is just the sort of eleven-year-old you don't mind following around for a while.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Anchor Canada edition)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mainstream Marginalia

For some reason, marginalia – that practice of annotating and noting and commenting along the margins of books – has been all over the place lately. Well, not the marginalia itself, but rather the discussion of it. Is the eBook killing it? Will the eBook in fact make it better and more shareable? What would our study of literature be without it? And so on. I'm not sure I've ever considered marginalia something to really get frantic about, but then, I've never been all that into it.

When I was doing my English degree and reading for class, I wrote in the margins. I underlined bits that I liked, used to brackets and shorthand to remind myself of sections I wanted to discuss in class, and used symbols to mark different places that various themes arose. At the time, this was very helpful when I was preparing for class or setting out to write an essay. Now, though, I drives me crazy. When I go back to read one of those stories, or look up a poem, all my notes and lines and stars distract me. It's as if I'm being interrupted by my old self, which prevents me from engaging in the work from a new perspective. Also, some of the marginal notes I made early on in my degree are incredibly embarrassing now because they point to such obvious things. Although, at the time I suppose it wasn't obvious and was instead exciting. Hmm.

Sam Anderson is a marginalia fiend (that's his commentary in the photo above) and in his New York Times article "What I Really Want is Someone Rolling Around in the Text," he takes the exact opposite stance to the one I've put forward above. He loves marginalia, and for him, it heightens the reading of a text rather than disturbing it. Anderson actually hopes the eBook makes marginalia more prevalent. Imagine the possibilities, he writes, if there was a function that allowed you to share your marginalia. Or, better yet, to read what famous people wrote in the margins of their books. 

I will concede that if I could read Ernest Hemingway's or Roald Dahl's or Margaret Atwood's marginalia, I would be kind of into that. In this sense, the marginal notes offer insight into what they were thinking while reading, and might be more interesting than the actual writing the notes are arranged around. Typically, I like to decide for myself what's important on a page. Specifically, if I see marginal notes and stars before I've read the work, it skews how I read it, because I find myself reading starred or underlined sections differently, wondering to myself "Why did they like this bit so much?" instead of taking it in for what it is.

Maybe the best way around this is an optional eBook button, or, for those of us who still read words printed on paper, a little warning note on the title page stating clearly "Spoilers ahead: Beware Marginalia."

Image from Sam Anderson's piece "A Year in Marginalia" from The Millions. The book he wrote in? Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Penelopiad

There's something a little bit seductively dangerous about the retelling of a well-known, classic story. I'm not sure why that is – and maybe it's just me – but it just seems brave in a rebellious sort of way. Perhaps it's the author's apparent belief that they know better than the original author that intrigues me, I don't know. But there is something about the genre of retold stories that hooks me; it's as if I am compelled to read them. When done poorly, the retelling is typically dull, adding a new detail here and there without really advancing the story. But when done well, the retelling gives you insight into levels of the original story you probably hadn't even considered before. Obviously, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is an example of the latter (I say obviously because why else would I bother to write about it?). 

In The Penelopiad Atwood retells The Odyssey – Homer's epic about Odysseus' long journey to return home after the Trojan war – from the perspective of those left behind, namely, Odysseus' wife Penelope. This alone isn't an entirely original way to retell a story that is traditionally dominated by a man, but what makes Atwood's revision much more interesting is her inclusion of the maids. In the myth, upon Odysseus' return to Ithaca, he slaughters all the suitors who are after his wife and then hangs 12 of her maids. The suitors die for obvious reasons, but the maids' deaths are never properly explained, which is an injustice Atwood sets out to right.

The centre of the story, however, is Penelope. It is the story of her life – beginning before she met Odysseus – and it is told by her. Penelope tells her story from memory, because she has long-since died and become a resident of Hades, which allows her to include lots of little retrospective details. She frequently reminds her audience that she did not know then when she knows now, a position that allows her to refute and explain rumours that circulated about her. Penelope is a tart character and her voice is both sharp and soft, depending on what's called for and what part of her story she is telling. Most of her sharpness, though, is reserved for the other female characters who she perhaps felt threatened by – most especially her cousin Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships and took Odysseus away from home in the first place.

In between the slices of Penelope's story enter the maids. Atwood has set them up as a kind of Greek chorus, and their interjections are some of the spiciest parts of the story. The maids sing dirty jump-rope songs, they sing about their roles in the household, they take Odysseus to an imaginary modern-day court to charge him with murder. The maids are, in many ways, more of a counterpoint to Penelope's story than the original myth because they tell an alternate tale of life in Ithaca, waiting for Odysseus to come home.

The Penelopiad is so enjoyable, I think, because it doesn't try to retell us a story we already know. Rather, Atwood picks up characters that were previously side notes and gives them voices and back stories and life, all of which the original narrative failed to do. Is it an accident that these characters are female? No. But the story that Atwood tells her is a nuanced feminist portrayal in which there are complex characters and rivalries represented by both genders, which is sort of the goal really. The Penelopiad is a bit gossipy and a bit scandalous, but it also respects the realities of the myth it is rooted in, making it a generous and entertaining read.

The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)
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