Thursday, 27 October 2016

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King


I feel like a number of the books I've read in the last month have been hard slogs in one way or another. Not bad books, necessarily, but heavy and difficult, and not the kind I've been eager to get back to. My reward for finishing them feels like it was this book, which was amusing, wonderful, difficult, and enjoyable from first to last.

Let's make a strong differentiation between fun and easy. This book was so much fun: amusing, rollicking, enjoyable for the historical and literary references, irreverent, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. But it was never easy, so let's not conflate the two. King may be using a light tone, but a lot of what he's talking about is serious and difficult, and sneaks up on you, perhaps because of the lightness.

And yet, they go together so seamlessly. It doesn't feel disjointed when it gets heavy - this is prose that can dance between pure amusement and wincing, pain and celebration, so seamlessly you barely notice the transition. Which, of course, can make those changes hit all the harder, because they sneak up on you, and refuse to linger, leaving you breathless as we move along.

It is so hard to capture the magic of a book like this. I'll try to tell you about the plot, but like always, it is not just what it is about, but how it is about it. (What would I do without that phrase, Roger Ebert?) So I will give it bare bones, but trust me, you want to read the flesh King puts on it.

We have four very old Indians committed to a mental institution. People can't seem to agree if they're male or female, but they can agree that they're very, very old, that the government wants them kept there, and that they wander away whenever they seem to take the fancy.Their names are references to literature or media, but often not the ones you might expect.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a Native woman and university professor, Alberta, is trying to choose between two men, neither of whom she really wants to settle down with, and having a child, which she does want. One man, Charlie, went away and became a slick lawyer - he has money, but not substance. The other, Lionel, stayed on the reserve and sells electronics at a local store - he's got substance, but is more than a little boring.

There are other characters - Lionel's bossy aunt Norma who seems to think that by saying something as a statement, she can influence what happens. Her brother Eli, who moved back to the reserve after most of a lifetime living in Toronto as a professor, taking up residence when he returned in a cabin that blocks the use of a newly-built dam. Lionel's sister, Latisha, who married a man who had his head immersed in what could be, and used to sometimes hit her when the world turned another way. Charlie's father, who had a good career as an Indian in Hollywood movies, until it was decided he needed to wear a fake nose to appear more Indian, and who couldn't walk away from the fame, but couldn't find the work.

It's a glorious combination of individuals, the present, the past, folklore, literature, with references galore, and lots of lines that made me laugh, leavened with references to historical figures who interacted with Native Americans that bring it back to sobering earth, only to fly again. The writing is fantastic, and I loved every minute of it.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie


In an uncharacteristic move, it only took me a month or so to go from the first book in this series to the second one. (I often have gaps of a year or more.) When I first picked it up, my mind was swimming with the last draft of my dissertation and looking for work, and I had to put it back down. Now, though, one of those issues is resolved, and the other is coming close to being so, and last week I opened it again and read it in a few hasty gulps.

Look, I liked Ancillary Justice. I liked it a lot. But I like Ancillary Sword even better - there were genuine edge-of-my seat worries combined with taking the ideas about the cultures she created in such interesting directions, I could barely bear putting it down. I came back to it with such eagerness every day until I was done. (It didn't take long.)

In this one, Breq has been promoted to fleet captain by the fractured leader of the Radch Empire, Anaander Miaanai, but is still not working for her, which Miaanai is only barely tolerating (or is she?) She's sent with a Sword-class ship, the Mercy of Kalr, to a far gate and planet to secure it. Once there, she is almost immediately immersed into the politics of the station and planet, finding far more corruption than you might expect.

Or should you expect it? Leckie is incisive and merciless about where corruption breeds, how power is used and masked, how illusions of equality and citizenship are not extended equally. To be specific, there are two things she does over the course of the book that I absolutely fell in love with.  One is to take this complicated hierarchy of Radch society, with its emphasis on patron/client relationships, and add in sex. Sex barely came into the first book, except perhaps for Seivarden's fairly obvious feelings for Breq, and I'm delighted when it's brought into consideration - particularly when it's done thoughtfully and with an eye to exploring how future cultures might approach it.

Surprise! In a hierarchy-riddled world, it's combined with power and ripe for abuse! Since patron-client relationships are supposed to be entirely voluntary, it seems to be assumed it's something the client takes on willingly - but how voluntary is voluntary? What about if you mix in indentured servants who are technically citizens but for practical purposes, utterly trapped?

Excuse me while I do a happy dance. I don't necessarily want exploitative sexual relationships, but I am so thrilled when sex is taken seriously and thoughtfully in science fiction that it absolutely delighted me. (And of course, since all the Radch are gendered female, we have no idea at any point what the biological sex of the participants is. Actually, that's not quite true - there's one young person who has been forced into sex by the daughter of a prominent House, and since the planet the young person is from uses a language with binary pronouns, we do find out she's biologically male.)

So that's one thing that permeated the book, which is a lot about Breq pissing off some truly powerful people. The other theme that I enjoyed so very much was the recognition that not all oppressed groups see solidarity between themselves and other oppressed groups. Sometimes it happens, yes, but sometimes one oppressed group adopts the value judgements of the dominant group, basing their own worth on being better than the other group with even less power. I won't talk about how that plays in, but it's very nuanced and intense.

I realize I'm not talking much about the actual plot, but I'll keep it that way - I think people to whom these ideas are interesting will love it.

I liked and recommended the first book in the series, but now I'm recommending it even harder to encourage people to get to Ancillary Sword. This is one of the most thoughtful and gripping books in a while, folks. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick


I saw the rotoscoped movie of A Scanner Darkly, which I remember enjoying, but it hadn't stuck with me very well. So when I sat down with the book, I felt more or less like I was starting with a fresh slate. I have not delved very far into Dick's oeuvre, beyond Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but I enjoyed both of those earlier forays, so I was fairly excited about dropping my brain back into what promised to be trippy as possible. 

I was not disappointed. There's a good reason A Scanner Darkly is one of his best known titles, and if you want a ride through drug culture that is both somewhat askew and merciless in consideration of the impact, look no further. There's a healthy dose of anti-corporatism  here as well.

In the afterword, Dick talks about this being a story about his own experiences with drugs, devoid of any morals, particularly those he identifies as bourgeois. I agree that there aren't bourgeous morals in here, but I'd like to quibble with the idea that there isn't a moral warning in here at all. It's just not aimed at people who take drugs, their behaviours, or aftermaths. It's directed at those who make money off of the process, a warning that moneymaking operations, of whatever variety, are out to maximize profits. There are other codes of ethics than the bourgeois, as Dick terms it, and I think they're on display.

I was pleasantly surprised by how the plot of the book progressed - the back of the book makes it sound like Fred, the undercover policeman, had already experienced the split that left it impossible for him to understand he was also Bob, the drug addict and dealer. I enjoyed much more what was actually here - getting to watch that split happen over the course of the book. Fred starts off knowing full well his undercover identity is Bob, and slowly loses that recognition as the book goes on. 

That's brilliant in many ways because, instead of being a twist that these two guys are actually the same guy!, it's a much more subtle look at the process of dissociating from the self, and honestly, that's far, far more interesting to me. (*cough*ChuckPalahniuk*cough*) We get to walk with Fred as he goes from knowing what his undercover identity is to the point where he has no idea, and it's fascinating. 

Watching that descent, and the associated paranoia, and the ways thinking is distorted as life changes around you and you try to keep a centre that is being rapidly eroded...I really liked this book. There was a moment where I started to think that maybe every addict was also an undercover policeman, a la Man Who Was Thursday, but although there is more than one, it didn't go quite that far. 

It's interesting how much this is and isn't science fiction. Much of it is not - it's pretty much the suits that allow Fred/Bob to conceal his identity when he goes to report in, the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of the facial features of millions, shattered into small pieces, that are the only really over science fiction nods. Fragmented identity lurks in the technology.

I've been ranting a lot about twist endings recently, and how little I've liked them, and made reference above that I'm glad Fred's identity wasn't a twist. However, there is a bit of a twist ending, one I did remember vaguely  from the movie, about where the new drug on the streets comes from, and that's the kind of twist I do like. It's subtly laid down, and makes things make more sense rather than less. It might be shocking, but there's also a bit of an inevitability to the answer. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

*Warning: Spoilers Below*

This was another book I picked up because NoveList had it as a "read-alike" for one of my favourite books last year. This is the second time I've used this as a way to pick books, and I like it, and will continue to. However, I am firmly convinced that "read-alike" is a huge misnomer. It matches, very broadly, some features of plot, but the books that I've read because I typed in first The Magicians and then Written on the Body couldn't be more different in tone or impact.

Like Written on the Body, this book is about an obsessive affair. At least, it sort of is. That's part of it anyway, but it's also about war and war atrocities and the futility of life and living on after a war, etc., etc. As opposed to the single-minded focus on another human being that comes up in Written on the Body, this is quite diffuse, the prose is not as lyrical, and the punch not as intense.

That being said, I mostly enjoyed it, right up until the last twenty pages where Flanagan half-tries a twist so fucking hackneyed I exclaimed out loud in disgust. And it's like he knows it's hackneyed, because he then tries to ignore it as soon as possible, but it's still there, and not only does it not add anything, I would argue that it openly detracts from the book as a whole.

The book travels back and forth through the life of Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, part of the forced march and then construction of a railroad that killed thousands in brutal conditions. We see scenes of his life before the war, mostly marked by his affair with his uncle's wife, during the war, fighting to keep his men alive as best he can in the midst of brutality, starvation, and disease, and after the war, when nothing really seems to matter anymore.

Of course, before the war, Dorrigo is having an affair with one woman, passionately, and after the war, with lots of women, dispassionately, so I guess that's part of the bookending - sex goes from being part of a deep connection to being something you do because you're bored in your life with your wife and no longer have added frissons of danger, death, and responsibility in every waking hour.

There's much here, particularly about life after war - if the sections during his time as a POW are stark and arresting, they're also mostly there to set up the dissatisfaction and meaninglessness of his life after the war. It verges on nihilistic, but I'm not entirely convinced that he argues that life is meaningless - more accurately, it might be that it's hard to move past trauma, and you don't do it easily, or sometimes, at all.

Because this is all so stark, so difficult, it cheapens it immeasurably when the sort-of twist changes Darky Gardiner, a man Dorrigo had to watch being beaten to death after suffering for months at the hands of the Japanese, from an example of man's inhumanity to man, or powerlessness, or how even affection can't necessarily override horrific conditions to something entirely more trite. To be precise, it is revealed that Darky Gardiner, who Dorrigo had never met before the war, was DUN DUN DUN actually his nephew.

Does that make it mean something more or less or what the everloving fuck, Flanagan? It's almost entirely glossed over and never spoken of again, so the narrative is almost as ashamed of how trite it is as I was incensed. It adds nothing, and makes this book mean less if you try to shoehorn in a "real reason to care" or some other such crap.

I can take the "Amy's still alive and he never knew." I can almost even stomach "and then they run into each other on the street when they're old but neither admits to knowing each other," even though that's verging on maudlin as well. But I cannot fucking take that that death is supposed to mean more or be changed because there's a blood relationship that he never knew about. God! Fail.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien


This, uh, certainly was a book. A strange, confusing book, about people meshing with bicycles and one-legged men, and a house that seems to exist outside of time, but needs constant tending of the valves lest something drastic happen.

It all comes together at the end, kind of. In that the hallucinatory nature of the book is sort of explained, but even with that, I'm not sure why these were the thoughts that came into the narrator's mind, instead of others. If that's the explanation, the answer seems to be that dreams are just made up of random firings instead of any meaning.

Which is fine, but when you stretch that out to book-length, it does go bafflingly on.

The main character seems to come from a long British heritage of characters who somehow managed to grow up utterly clueless and inept about virtually anything or everything. He lives on his family farm, which seems to be getting winkled out from under him by his main help.

The man who is taking over his farm hatches a plot to kill and rob a rich old man in the district, and the two do, but then he seems to be alive again, and then...then the nameless narrator goes to the police with a false story to try to get their help in finding the lockbox he killed to steal. The policemen are more interested in bicycle thefts in the district, and turn out to be responsible for them, to prevent bicycles and humans from exchanging too many atoms.

No, I'm serious.

It's a strange surrealist romp, it's short, it's not hard to read. It's a bit baffling, but not in a bad way, I suppose. I didn't feel edified at the end, or even distinctly amused. It was amusing while I was reading it, but it seems like a studied attempt to reject meaning, or even to mock the search for any kind of meaning afterwards. Almost like it's the kind of book written to intentionally torment English majors.

At the start, I was frustrated by the gormlessness of the main character, who apparently went away to school without ever learning any of the rudiments of how to notice anything in the world. I tend to find that extraordinarily unlikely - there might be glaring gaps, but it's hard to grow to adulthood completely oblivious about every fucking thing. Even Neville in Harry Potter grew the fuck out of it. 

I've noticed it before in English literature. It makes me think of the narrator of The Wasp Factory, but that character was purposefully shielded from learning anything about the world in any substantial way. Or Adrian Mole, except Mole may be clueless, but he's not quite this this clueless. 

As it became more and more apparent that this was a comedy and not to be taken in any way literally, that irritation subsided. Still, I read the whole thing, and I can tell you what happened, but I'm fucked if I can tell you what it's about.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald


The first paragraph in Austerlitz goes on for about 17 pages. Or until page 17, I can't quite remember which. The point is, it's well over 10 pages long. I don't know that that's ever repeated (and perhaps it's a good sign that I never again felt the need to keep track of this), but it's...uh, quite something. I suppose it's a little bit of a hint that this book is going to be stream of consciousness and pretty much never made up of short, snappy lines. 

Also, it has a lot of pictures (photos). I'm doing a terrible job of selling it. I'm not really sure I want to sell it. I'm not sure I liked it that much. I didn't hate it either, and by the end, I was slightly more moved than I expected to be, but nowhere near as moved as I also expected to be, if that makes sense. I ended up in this strange kind of limbo, neither bored, nor angry, nor tearful, nor enthused. 

I picked up Austerlitz because it was on that list of the Best Books of the 21st Century So Far that I've been working my way through (it's twenty books total, and I'm almost 3/4 of the way through). By far and large, the books I've read off it live up to that daunting accolade, but somehow I just never connected with Austerlitz enough, either on an emotional or on an intellectual level.

I do feel like I've got a sneaking respect for it, though. There's an underlying theme that I can dimly grasp the edges of, and I think it's doing something very interesting. In certain ways, it builds on some of the things I was saying I liked the most about Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, although with important differences.

Before that will make sense, though, let's talk a little about what the book is about. It is narrated by an unnamed man who is occasional friends with a man named Austerlitz over many decades. They run into each other entirely by accident, sometimes decades apart. They always talk, mostly about architecture, at least to start. Austerlitz seems to lead a detached, lonely life, and eventually starts telling his story to the narrator. 

He was raised by a dour Welsh minister and his wife, both of whom died or were incapacitated before he came to adulthood. He discovered they'd meant to but never actually adopted him, and that his former last name was Austerlitz, which leads him on a search for his birth parents, who end up having been Polish Jews who were able to get him away to Britain during World War II before the noose had tightened fully around the Jewish community in Krakow. 

That is, as far as it goes, pretty much the plot. Of course, if you're going to be put on someone's Best Books of the 21st Century, even if I don't agree entirely, there's more to it than that. It's also a study of depression, of isolation, of growing up feeling lost amongst others, of having been abandoned utterly and thoroughly, through no fault of his parents. 

It is also, curiously, about objects (hence all the photos), and more specifically about buildings and the uses that their architecture tends towards. Unlike Ng's book, Austerlitz isn't looking at these to uncover personal things about individuals. He's looking at what was built by an amorphous "they" that ended up, behind all these words, sending people to architecture meant for death. 

It is about how Austerlitz finds it impossible to live what would, by most standards, a "normal" life for his time and place, how he cannot find a connection to the world he lives in, with so much loss, even though the vast majority was loss that he doesn't remember or did not experience. There's a despair here that is affecting. (And it's coming to mind because it seems to tie in thematically with another book I'm almost finished reading, Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North. I'm sure I'll be following up when I get around to writing that one next week some time.)

And yet. And yet. And yet...I appreciated what Sebald was trying to do here, without getting much closer than respect. Which I have in full, but there are other books that would spring to mind to recommend first. Perhaps it is the depression of the main character (and perhaps the narrator, but we don't get to know him) that keeps us all at bay, but there's a level past which the narrator and the reader cannot seem to breach.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Living With A Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich


This is definitely not for what I usually sit down to read Barbara Ehrenreich. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did take me a little while to adapt to what was not a story both personal and researched, relating her experiences to wider domains of thought and study. There's certainly work out there on mystical experiences and the like, but she is not drawing it in and weaving it with her story. This is as close to a straight-up memoir as I've ever seen from her.

I miss that, the strength that she so often has in relating the personal to the theoretical, to drawing on buttloads of research to make engaging and compelling arguments.

However, now that I've said what the book is not, perhaps I should take a look at what it is. It is Barbara Ehrenreich looking back at both her spiritual and ethical development, coming from a family that was staunchly, even fervently, atheist. She's an atheist too, or has been, or sort of.

The sort of enters the picture because, as a teenager, and less frequently since, she's been having experiences that most closely fall under the umbrella of mystical. Without recourse to any material on the topic, as a teenager, it felt close to losing her mind, although Ehrenreich firmly refuses to be medicalized in that manner.

That's the vaguely spiritual part - these were terrifying experiences, inexplicable by what she knew of the world, and persist as unexplained to this day. But that is paired with what might be better termed her philosophical struggles, complete with a remarkably intense bout of solipsism.

This was one of those moments where I stare at the page, amazed. I remember running into solipsism in my last year of high school, playing with the idea for few minutes, then more or less dismissing it. I never had any doubt that people around me were autonomous human beings with their own thoughts and desires. I would attribute a lot of that to my parents, who, early in my life, encouraged me to understand why people did what they did, by constantly asking me why I thought someone had acted in a way that upset me. It drove me crazy then, when I just wanted to be angry, but now it is one of the parenting techniques for which I am most grateful.

It was difficult and interesting to come into someone else's journey towards falling in love with humanity that was so dramatically different from my own. Ehrenreich's story has the solipsism persisting, in one way or another, until her graduate work, when she was suddenly struck by one of her labmates concerns about being sent to Vietnam, causing a breakthrough in seeing people as different, and also as worth fighting for.

In that way, it's about how she comes to identify herself as an activist, to embrace learning and writing about things less easily quantifiable, and in the end, to try to come to grips with those parts of her life that still defy easy explanation. Her conclusions draw on all of these strains in her life, her atheism, science background, social science research, and the experiences which shaped her. It's an interesting read, although at times I did want it to be leavened with research.

But that is not this book.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey by Sir Arthur C. Clarke


I sort of feel like I'm ragging on Arthur C. Clarke this weekend. That's a little weird, because I have liked the books of his I've read before. At very least, they've sparked ideas and connections, thoughts about trends in science fiction, and the ways in which he depicts his futures.

So, it's time for a bit of confession - I had never read 2001, nor had I seen the movie. My husband isn't a huge Kubrick fan, and particularly doesn't like that movie, so it's never been something we've popped in. As for why I haven't read it, your guess is as good as mine.

When I was two-thirds of the way through and starting to work through what I wanted to write in the review, I bounced my ideas off my husband, and his response to most of my thoughts was "yeah, that's what I felt about the movie too." Which raises the question - which of these is the chicken and which the egg?

Excuse me while I do some internet research.

Okay. Wikipedia says they were written concurrently, which makes a certain amount of sense. Mostly what I felt about the book was that there wasn't very damn much in it. It felt like a novelization of a movie where the author does not feel free to add in details and side bits that flesh out the world - a movie necessarily condenses, a book can spend more time and care. That fleshing out, however, was nowhere to be seen. This was bare bones as hell, and not only does that leave me wondering why so little happened, it also left me drifting distantly from what was there.

My husband's main complaint from the movie is that it's sterile and emotionless, with no character well-developed enough to actually get attached to. My call on the book is that it's much the same. The closest we get is Dave, out on the spaceship to Saturn, but even then we're given very little about him as a person. Even through the crisis on board the ship, there's no real character development. Because of that, when what happens at the end happens to him, it's not worry or disgust or wonder or happiness I felt at his fate. It was an emotion more akin to a shrug.

I'm being too hard on the book. It's not bad, and it's definitely nowhere near as bad as The Last Theorem. And I know Clarke tends towards unemotional characters tied to logic instead of feeling. But more so than any book of his I've read before, the subject matter is sparse, and it feels much of the time like I'm being repelled away from what's going on more than I'm being pulled to it. If I wanted to be cute, I could liken it to a gravitational repulsion. 

This feels like it may be what he wanted, for this book to be a story that is so strange it feels alien, and he gets that. But it just lacked any sense of wonder or awe I would want to see along with that. And if the human bits feel as distant as the drastically alien...what's the point, then?

Again, it's not terrible. There's just not a whole lot here.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Last Theorem by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

I like Frederik Pohl, or, at least, I like Gateway, the one book of his I've read, a whole lot. I have enjoyed most Arthur C. Clarke I have read. Reading a book by the two of them together sounded intriguing, at the very least. Unfortunately, it wasn't particularly gripping, and frankly, is a bit of a mess. The characters stay resolutely far away from the plot, and large sections of it are badly paced and just boring.

When it started, I was at least interested. A Sri Lankan man working on solving Fermat's last theorem while he's still a student in university, and having a relationship with another male student in his year, which offends his father not because of the gender of his partner, but because of the ethnicity.

(I have already forgotten the main character's name, although I'm pretty sure it starts with R. Given that I read this book over about two weeks, that lack of stickiness in my brain is not a good sign.)

Ranjit, Goodreads tells me. Now, later on, Ranjit will insist that this affair meant nothing, and indeed it seems to not. And I am certainly not saying that a homosexual experience in college necessarily indicates a lifelong identity, but it's given such short shrift, is at the beginning so important, then suddenly never mentioned again, that's it's another sign of this book getting close to interesting topics then running the hell away from them.

The other thing this book stays far away from is the plot. Ranjit is kidnapped by pirates and while captured by a foreign power after being freed from pirates, solves Fermat's Last Theorem. He then follows this up with...getting married, and teaching at a university.

Somewhere off in the universe, aliens are deciding whether or not to destroy us. Ranjit, who is the main character, won't really interact with their story. Nor will he really interact with the story of a pact between the U.S., Russia, and China to take out electronics capability of belligerent nations. He's asked to be a part of it, and he and his wife decide that this is the sort of power that inevitably comes to be used unethically, so they decline.

But here's the kicker. That's it. They just decline, and go back to their lives. They don't have a deep commitment to stopping it happening, they engage in no activism, nothing. They just go back to their lives.

Then their daughter grows up and becomes an Olympian on Mars. When the alien ships get near, they kidnap her from a ship and use a simulacra of her to communicate and return her to safety. Again...the main characters don't do more than be a bit annoyed by this. Experts in their own scientific fields, Ranjit and his wife Myra don't engage a damn bit more than any other layperson on earth.

Then, when the aliens land on Earth and the U.S. president wants to use the might of the pact to bomb the hell out of them, again, Ranjit and Myra are not involved. They are not involved in any damn thing in this entire damn book. They wring their hands from the outside, but do nothing. Mostly, they just go on happily with their lives.

We have main characters who are entirely inconsequential to any of the things that could be considered the plot, who do nothing to change any part of the story, and the kicker is that we never see anything actually being done from a closer angle than watching Ranjit watch it on TV.

Dear lord, Clarke and Pohl? What were you thinking? Why did you let so much drop? Why did you tell a story about someone who just doesn't really do much of anything that has a consequence on anything like the story? Ugh. Badly paced, plot-averse, just...not a good book. Skip it.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Part of why I got around to reading this book was part of a happy experiment to rejig how I read recent books. I have been falling deeper down the science fiction/fantasy rabbit hole of late (it is my favourite genre), but I try to leaven that with some classics I haven't read, and some recent books that may be good, just to keep my tastes broad. But I became very unhappy with how I was picking recent books.

For about four years, I was compiling a list of books on the Globe & Mail bestseller lists, and those that stayed on the longest, I would read. I was not having fun. Rare indeed was the book that came from that that I absolutely delighted in, and more often, I was just frustrated with how bland these books were.

So two years ago, I started a different way of finding new books. There's a British blogger who, starting in about November, creates a long page of links to people's top 10, favourite 10, etc., lists that tend to come out around the end of the year. (I make one myself, although it rarely if ever has books on it from the preceding year.) I started compiling those lists into one spreadsheet. I have not yet looked at all the best of lists...it takes a long time, and usually around April or May I get frustrated and decide that I've done enough to come up with the end product - a top 100 list.

I've been reading through these lists, but very slowly, as they get mixed in amongst my other lists. To my delight, the quality has shot way, way up. Then, a month ago, I was thinking about what I read on my lunch breaks at work, and realized that the campus library would likely have many of the books on these lists - the more literary ones, anyway. As a result, I've suddenly plowed through three or four in as many weeks, and they've been great - Life After Life was a book I was dying to get back to every day.

And then there was Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You. I devoured this in only a couple of lunch hours, and after I'd finished it, I felt like I walked around for the rest of the day in the kind of daze that only deeply affecting works of art can provoke. Everything in the world was just a little askew, and I had a hard time coming out of my head, and the book, to interact with things that were perfectly normal. The last time I remember having a reaction quite that strong was to Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men movie.

Look, I'm about to start my Dust Cover Dust-Up in about a month, but this is a late contender for getting close to the top honours. At least. I just...I don't even know how to wrap my head around what Ng has accomplished here. It's truly transcendent and heartbreaking.

It's set in the late 1970s, around the time I was born. A family in smallish-town America loses their eldest daughter when she is drowned on the lake in the middle of the night. The rest of the book is voyages forward and backward through the past of this family and their nightmarish present, as they try to piece together why she was out there, and what they didn't know about her.

It becomes apparent that it was not only Lydia, the eldest daughter, who was not telling things to the others, and this is making it sound like a thriller when it's really the farthest thing from that I can imagine. It's a quiet, elegiac novel, about the parts of ourselves we don't share, even with our families, and how our assumptions about what other people are and what they want can cause distance instead of intimacy.

It's impossible to leave race out of the discussion - the father, James, is the son of Chinese-born immigrants, and although he's a university professor, he still struggles with the reality that he doesn't quite fit in. Even though he studies cowboys, even though he married a white woman, and wants to believe his children are fitting in better in school than he ever did, he feels apart. His wife, Marilyn, on the other hand, has an opposite push away from normal, wanting to be different. She had wanted to be a doctor, before she accidentally became pregnant with their first child, and we see how that has eaten away at her since.

I don't want to give away the movements of the story through time and through events that are shown to be vastly different in the interpretations of each person who experienced them. But I do want to focus for a moment on the way Ng uses materiality to ground memories. So much of what is not said, and the corollary of what is assumed is that, in the absence of the ability or inclination to ask, the members of the Lee family go to material objects and try to decipher what they mean. Lydia has left no diaries, but she left a shelf full of empty ones her mother had given her. Marilyn has to interpret this. Over and over, people find objects and ascribe meaning to them, sometimes correctly, but more often performing a personal archaeological analysis that ends up in the wrong area altogether.

It is this grounding in objects that I think part gives this book its power - it is startlingly easy to put yourself in the shoes of the characters and imagine trying to figure out what has been going on in a family where avoiding difficult topics is the norm. Then, when Ng finally reveals the truth behind them, it is like a bolt of lightning, where both the interpretation and the reality are understandable, and often, heartbreaking.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most emotional and skillful and devastating books I've read in a long time. I highly, highly recommend it.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Image result for redeployment

There are certain books that I find hard to review. It's not about the quality of the book, it's a deep-seated conviction that no matter how hard I try to put the book and its themes into words, I'll be doing the author a disservice. Those books where it feels that there's something to them that defies efforts to parse it out, that makes those efforts feel flat and misrepresentative. Like I'd be trying to muscle the book into being something else by describing it, instead of being able to write about it as it is.

Redeployment is one of those books.

I finished this book over a week ago, and every time I think about sitting down and writing this review, my mind stutters, because it feels like if I sat here and listed all the things I think this book is about, it'll sound flat and forced, where the book is not at all. It feels like if I try to get at the politics that are here about the Iraq War, I won't be able to capture it.

This is a powerful book, and it's hard to put your finger exactly what it's saying about war because it's said so directly that analysis feels like distancing myself not to understand more fully, but to put layers of meaning between us so it's further away.

Phil Klay fought in the Iraq War, and so did all the main characters in the short stories that comprise this book. Many fought in non-combat roles. Many killed people outright. Many deal with their tour convinced that there is nothing wrong in anything they're doing, including killing people. Others are uneasy in ways they can't put their fingers on, some few are driven to oppose the war, many others don't understand that as anything but betrayal.

The messages that come through aren't direct, but that doesn't mean that these don't all hang together and create something of a whole. Many of the stories hinge on the distance between the battleground and the civilian world and the impossibility of actually telling someone what you went through without looking like you're looking for sympathy, a drink, or to get laid. (Or in one story, not to get expelled.) Is it possible to tell a story without having an agenda? Some of these characters are too smart not to realize that, and yet their stories want to be told, even as they're aware that they are being molded even in the telling.

The focus on support characters - chaplain, morgue attendants, paper pushers, psyops, rebuilding project leaders - is, I think, one of the most interesting things about these books. These stories examine those who aren't actively fighting and killing and their relationship to the war and to the civilian world, the stories they tell and how they tell them.

There are a lot of good stories here, but the one that struck me the most was the one about the chaplain, as much for what it didn't say as what it said. In particular, it got me thinking about the role of a minister and wondering what has been lost in our increasingly secular society. Speaking from the pulpit can be an opportunity to challenge power and encourage a group of people to connect in ways beyond what they're taught about ours and theirs, and spoken in a place and time that maybe, just maybe, allows people to listen to things they'd otherwise shut down. Where can that happen otherwise?

This is a strong collection of stories, and at the end of it, I'm still not entirely sure about the author's politics, but I get the feeling they're complex. And I sort of feel like I didn't entirely warp the story in writing this review.