Thursday, May 17, 2012

Magnified World

Not that long ago there was an interesting discussion on Twitter about how (or if) knowledge and experience with the setting of a novel affected the way you connect with the story being told. (If you aren't on Twitter and this seems to go against everything you've heard about the medium, let me just say that it all depends on who you interact with and that, yes, there are a lot of interesting literary discussions being hashed out in 140-character bites.) Personally, I love finding a book that's set somewhere I'm familiar with. Reading Ami McKay's The Birth House, for example, was a thrill partially because it's set in my home town (albeit nearly 100 years before I lived there). Likewise, as I become more comfortable with the idea that I now live in Toronto, books set in neighbourhoods I'm familiar with pop out at me in way they perhaps would not have five years ago. Nonetheless, the geography of a novel is, in some ways, incidental to whether or not I'll enjoy it, because even if I'm reading about somewhere I'm familiar with, I'm still experiencing it through the eyes and emotions of a fictional character, which means, in a way, that my experience doesn't matter. I had to remind myself of this a few times while reading Grace O'Connell's gorgeous debut novel Magnified World, though, because not only do her descriptions mimic the way I remember certain places, but her character Maggie feels wonderfully familiar, as if I've bumped into her before.

Magnified World is set, since we're on the subject, mostly in Toronto's West Queen West/Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood. Queen Street, certainly, figures into the story a lot, as does College Street and Kensington Market. If you are familiar with these places, reading O'Connell's descriptions offers a warm buzz of recognition; if you aren't, though, be assured that this is not an insider's look at Toronto: the descriptions are vivid and accurate in the way that lets you unconsciously map out a character's movements, without feeling overwhelmed by comings and goings. It's my favourite way to read about cities, really – detailed without becoming clinical.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager

I don't think I ever realized it before, but reading a hardcover vs. a softcover really changes the way I read a book. In large part, I think this is because I do most of my reading during my commute, and therefore tend to take off the dust jacket so it doesn't get ruined. This strips a hardcover of most of its distinguishing characteristics, including its cover design, plot synopsis, blurbs and little author bio. If I take the dust jacket off before I've properly read all of this, and before I've started the book, then I end up starting to read blind, with no pointers as to what's coming in the story or biographical clues as to the narrative. Usually I have a pretty good idea of what a book is going to be about, and then in suspenseful moments I can return to the blurbs to reassure myself. When reading Vincent Lam's The Headmaster's Wager, though, all I had were bright red covers and a black spine to turn to when the intensity shot up, forcing me to catch my breath and return to the story without any idea whether things were going to be okay or not.

The Headmaster's Wager is set in Vietnam, beginning right around the beginning of the Vietnam War. I think it would be impossible to live in the West and not have had your notions of the war consist mainly of images from American movies (my formative ideas about it come, I'm sorry to say, from Forest Gump). Lam, however, positions you on the other side of the conflict; not with the Viet Cong, but with a Chinese immigrant living in Saigon. Headmaster Percival Chen runs an English academy, and although many of his students go on to work with the Americans, he is unconcerned about the war, and actively works to learn nothing about what's going on. He is Chinese, the war is about Vietnam, thus, it does not concern him. This nationalistic streak proves dangerous, however, when the government decrees that all schools must teach Vietnamese. Percival refuses, both on principle and because he is trying to demonstrate his Chinese pride to his son Dai Jai. This small act, coming right at the beginning of the novel, becomes the fulcrum for everything that follows – a small act of defiance that changes everything.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hark! A Vagrant

When we were kids, my sisters and I devoured Archie comics. We literally had bags of them. People gave them to us as gifts, my mum would buy old ones at flea markets – we had hundreds. We read enough of them that now we can refer to specific Archie adventures when playing games like Taboo and not have it seem obscure. Eventually, though, we started running into more and more reprints and began to grow out of Riverdale. Archie is kind of a gateway comic, I guess, and after years of reading about his friends I moved on to Gary Larson's Far Side comics. After I got through those (probably around Grade 6) I didn't really read any comics (besides the ones in the newspaper) until I discovered webcomics a few years ago. Of those, Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant was one of my most favourite, and when she put out a book last year I was thrilled.

I am making the distinction here between comics and graphic novels, because Beaton's pieces are comics in the sense that they're written in strips. She has some recurring characters, and often does several strips on a particular theme, but her book is much like Larson's in that you can open it at random. Even reading it cover to cover is a little like opening at random, since you can go from several comics about Lester B. Pearson, to a few pages about "sexy Batman," and on to a strip about Queen Elizabeth at Tillbury. Clearly, Hark! A Vagrant is a little different.

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