Monthly Archives: March 2015

Dai Sijie – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2000)

BalzacIts been said in other reviews, but I’ll say it again, this book is a charming read. It is so astute and so beautifully written; I was caught of guard by how enthralled I was in this seemingly short and simple tale.

The story takes place in the Chinese countryside and follows two city youths, the unnamed narrator and his best friend Luo, being “reeducated” in a mountain village. It is here that the two boys meet the Little Seamstress, daughter of the renowned and highly regarded Tailor. When visiting Four Eyes, another boy sent to the countryside to be reeducated, the two boys stumble upon a suitcase hiding forbidden Western literature. After stealing the suitcase Luo uses the forbidden literature to “culture” the little seamstress and wins her over with his storytelling ability.

The narrative flows so well and provides a unique snapshot of a really interesting time. While reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang introduced me to the process of reeducation and the Cultural Revolution, Sijie made it the propelling force of his story. I loved, what I saw at the underlying message in this tale, that no matter what the consequences the desire and love of a good book is something that cannot be sated. My only complaint is that it was too short.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Jennifer Egan – A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)

AVisitFromTheGoonSquadJennifer Egan has does something very unique, creating both a novel meant to be read sequentially, and a collection of short stories that can be read on their own. Regardless of how you choose to proceed with her work, A Visit From the Goon Squad, is masterful in its conception and even more well done in its execution.

The novel follows a group of characters that are all a part of the music scene in New York City ranging from the 1960s to the present day. The two central characters to the stories however are Bennie Salazar, a music producer, and his assistant Sasha. The story does not move chronologically but jumps around in years as well is places with some stories taking place in California and Italy. With the backdrop of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll,” Egan also explores what it means to be happy. While some characters do find their happy endings, many are left in constant pursuit of happiness.

While at the beginning of each story or chapter it is not always clear who is narrating or what relationship that character plays to the rest of the plot, the stories always unfurl beautifully. You often find out what happened to certain characters through the eyes of others in a dynamic and beautifully woven narrative. I loved this book and want to read it again now that I know how different character’s live intersect with each other.

Rating: 5/5

Rory Gilmore Update – Number Two

Doing the Rory Gilmore reading challenge means reading works that are almost impossible to read, or works that you may not have a great deal to write about. Some are classics that don’t require a full page review. So here I have three short reviews of my experiences with dystopian futures from the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

George Orwell – 1984 (1949)
1984I can understand the hype with this book. I get why Orwell wrote it and I get why it was so powerful and popular. Lately however there has been so much incredibly science fiction and dystopian futures published that 1984 feels like it’s lacking something. I know that it basically inspired the genre, but after reading things like Oryx and Crake I found I constantly had to remind myself that this book was published in 1949 and was a big deal at the time. Or maybe I’ve just grown desensitized to the thought of Big Brother. Don’t get me wrong, parts of this book are terrifying, namely the torture at the hands of the Thought Police, but I personally don’t find the idea of my T.V watching me to be frightening. With today’s technology, does privacy even exist anymore? Even though, I find it dated, it is likely that 1984 will remain a part of school curriculums for the foreseeable future. It is representative of a time and a place and maybe it’s time that we all concede that Big Brother has finally won and move on.

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Farenheit451Despite the similarities to 1984 I really enjoyed this book, probably because its main message is about the importance of books. Its funny how Orwell and Bradbury, writing around the same time (1948 and 1954 respectively) have the same kind of idea of what the future looks like, both socially, but also aesthetically. The descriptive elements of houses, streets, cars, and the idea of perpetual war are almost identical in both books. As is the idea of a Big Brother type of government which watches the people’s every move. In 1984 this control is exercised through the thought police, in Fahrenheit 451, they burn books. Through his novel Bradbury reminds us of the power that books hold and the importance of knowledge in our society. Writing at the height of the Cold War Bradbury’s novel could be seen as being a critique of the Communist Witch Hunts and banning of books during the McCarthy Era. Even in our digital age, censorship remains a real concern, and Bradbury’s book is an important reminder about the power of knowledge and information.

Kurt Vonnegut – Galapagos (1985)
galapagosA dystopian future shaped and twisted by Darwin’s ideas surrounding natural selection. The narrator of the novel is Leon Trout, the son of Vonnegut’s recurring character Kilgore Trout. I like that Vonnegut does this with his characters, but that was pretty much the only thing I liked about this book. While the references made to Darwin and natural selection were interesting, I just didn’t really find the story all that compelling. Out of these three dystopian futures, this held the least amount of appeal for me.

Roxane Gay – Bad Feminist (2014)

BadFeministI have very mixed feelings about this book. I really admire Roxanne Gay, her writing and her ability to speak so passionately about important issues. Gay provides commentary on a number of subjects ranging from reproductive right to her thought on The Hunger Games. Throughout her writing Gay also remains very aware of her own privilege; She is a woman of colour, but acknowledges that she grew up in a middle class household and was afforded her certain opportunities.

Privilege is something that I am also keenly aware of. Throughout my undergraduate work studying the effects of slavery and free Blacks in Antebellum America caused me to examine my own privilege; was there any way I could possibly understand the lingering effects of slavery? In grad school, studying the Black experience in Upper Canada, I was also constantly reminded of my own privilege, especially from my Grad supervisor. While I am aware of my own privilege I do not think that believing The Help and Twelve Years a Slave to be good movies makes me a terrible person.

The portrayal of Black suffering in film is something that really angers Gay. While I found myself totally agreeing with her in her beliefs about feminism, and was moved when Gay described her own experience with sexual abuse, this is where she lost me. I liked The Help. Is it totally self-congratulatory towards white people? Absolutely. But Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis both stood out to me with their Oscar worthy performances. Gay is also critical of 12 Years a Slave, and I share some of her gripes, most notably the use of Lupita Nyong’o’s character (and body) to move along the story of Soloman Northup, a male. Still the movie is the first representation of the Black experience, as written by a Black man, and the movie deserved the accolades it received from The Academy.

Gay complains that there needs to be a different presentation of the Black experience; one that does not focus on suffering. I understand this, and I whole-heartedly agree. Other ethnic groups face the same issue. Almost every single movie to deal with the Jewish experience nominated for an Oscar, has dealt with the Holocaust. (Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and even the Italian language film Life is Beautiful.) While there definitely needs to be more examples of the Black experience in popular culture that move away from one of suffering, these movies are historical (although The Help takes great liberties) and the fact that they portray Black suffering in a historical sense is accurate and should not diminish the quality of these films.

Gay made me feel a number of things with her collection of essays. I agreed, I disagreed, I was moved, and I was outraged. For me, the mark of a good book is that it makes to feel something, and so with that said, I think Roxanne Gay did a good job.

Rating: 3.5/5

Tara Conklin – The House Girl (2013)

TheHouseGirlI liked this book, although I do have significant qualms with it. It has a great premise and stated out strong. Shifting from the points of view of Lina, an ambitious lawyer hoping to make partner at her prestigious law firm, and Josephine, a Black house girl living on Virginia plantation in the 1840s, Conklin explores how these two women’s stories intersect through the ages. Lina is assigned to find a plaintiff for a slavery reparations case, which leads her to discover the artwork of Lu Ann Bell and her house girl Josephine. Through her connections in the art world and meticulous historical research, Lina soon discovers the truth behind the art of Lu Ann Bell and the fate of Josephine.

The story is compelling but not wholly realistic, especially in representing Lina’s journey to a Virginia archive. In the book Lina experiences something I like to call a “Rosetta Stone” moment, something that all historians would love to experience but rarely do; finding a singular letter that proves everything that Lina always believed to be true. How wonderful it would be if history worked this way but alas, moments like this are rare. Historians have to work hard to make their point, and as they should. Often times we find ourselves so frustrated, “If only this source existed,” “If only this census data was not destroyed,” “If only everything survived.” Unfortunately those sources rarely exist and contextual evidence must be used. Maybe I’m just bitter that Lina had it so easy, simply being handed a file by the archivist, “Here you go, everything you need is contained in this one letter that I so conveniently seem to have right here.” If only I had a magical archivist guiding me in my Masters research.

The ending of the book fell flat. I think ending a book is one of the hardest things to do, but after such a compelling start and build up, there was no real crescendo and the ending felt rushed with loose ends hastily tied together. It was an ok read, a good piece of historical fiction, but nothing to rave about.

Rating: 3/5

Special Post – Basquiat: Now’s The Time

11004954_10152835533129081_1924418450_nAfter finishing Widow Basquiat I decided to head down to the AGO to see the Basquiat exhibit on now until May 7. I was both pleased and disappointed: Disappointed that Suzanne was not mentioned at all but pleased because the exhibit does send a powerful message. Black Live Matter.

I quite enjoyed the book. It focuses on Basquiat’s relationship with his muse Suzanne and their sordid relationship. It’s told through a series of vignettes but written like a lyrical poem. Suzanne’s own words and memories are mentioned, in italics, alongside the author’s retelling of their story. It’s another tale of love and heartbreak between talented people set in New York, much like Just Kids. 

You can read all my thoughts on the exhibit here.

Caroline Moorehead – A Train in Winter (2011)

ATraininWinterHow does one begin to explain the unexplainable? Convince others to believe the unbelievable horrors that awaited the women of the French Resistance, Les Convoi des 31000, once they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the hundreds of women sent to Nazi death camps only a handful survived to tell the story. This is their story.

This book was so hard to read, I found myself stunned at times needing to put it down. I couldn’t read too much in a day or else I would end up too depressed. While the first part details the involvement of the women in the French Resistance, the second part deals with their lives in Nazi death camps. The horrors they witnessed and the helplessness they felt watching their friends die.

Reading about the Holocaust however, and other historical atrocities should be uncomfortable and hard to read. Even though the death camps have been common knowledge to me ever since middle school, I don’t think I have ever really truly grasped the full extent of the horror, nor do I think I ever will. Moorehead writes in so much detail about the conditions in the camps, the rampant disease and lice, the lack of food and emaciated bodies, the cold, the mud, the wet, and still I cannot begin to comprehend that anyone was able to survive this for 2 and a half years. Most did not, but some did.

Moorehead’s story is optimistic about the strength of women’s friendship and their lasting bond. She interviewed as many surviving women as she could and writes that no one would have been able to survive in the camps on their own. They all stuck together and helped one another, pooling rations, hiding sick or injured women, as much as they could. Moorhead also writes that “The French as a national group were more cohesive than other nationalities and more prone to look after their own.” She credits the survival of a number of women to this fact.

While Mooreheads story is one of women, friendship and survival it does not necessarily have a happy ending. The women who survived had returned to France but discovered that they had forgotten how to live. Many came home as widows, finding out that their husbands who were also involved in resistance activities were shot, or to children who did not even recognize them. Combined with the nightmares of the camps and the lack of a support network, many of these women withdrew into themselves finding it impossible to be happy again. While life went on, many women could not. Survivor Charlotte Delbo wrote, “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.”

Moorehead’s book shed important light on the important role that women played during the Second World War through their involvement with the French Resistance, and the sobering reality that many paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to their country. She deals briefly with the aftermath of the war, and the treatment of war crimes in France, but her main focus us on Les Convoi des 3100, the 42 women who managed to survive out of the 230 that did not.

Rating: 4.5/5