Everybody’s Son: Half Novel, Half Explainer

I’m undecided about Thirty Umbrigar’s Everybody’s Son. On the one hand it tells the compelling story of the theft/adoption of an African-American boy by a uber-privileged white family; and in telling the story explores – pretty directly (okay, sometimes too directly) privilege. So yeah, that’s the other hand: the novel seems entirely unsure whether the reader will ‘get it’ and so spends altogether too much time telling the reader exactly what it’s about. There’s a scene where our protagonist, Anton (the adopted boy) is pulled over by a white police offiicer and he has a moment of ‘revelation’ in understanding the way power and privilege works in the moment. He even has a handy girlfriend who explains to Anton/the reader the ways in which he has internalized a white gaze and has silenced and suppressed any interest in his birth mother and history. It’s also pretty clear from early in the novel what the climax will be, which is sort of… anticlimactic.

That said it takes a few interesting questions: how do wealth and race (pre)determine the outcome of our lives/those of our children? Do the ends justify the means in raising children? How are individuals implicated in state systems (e.g. judicial systems, education systems) that work to disadvantage and discriminate? And while the treatment of these questions might be a bit direct for this reader, the exploration is nevertheless worthwhile and engaging.


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Yiddish for Pirates: Not for me. Or for my book club people. (Or for anyone?)

I recently had a middle of the night worry that an author of a book I didn’t like might stumble across one of my I-didn’t-like-it reviews. Don’t worry. I fell quickly back to sleep. But the thought lingered. I like writing a good scathing review as much as the next blogger, but was I being fair to the novelist? Was I just having fun being a little too mean?

So in the spirit of writing a negative review that isn’t just mean, let me put forward my case for why I didn’t enjoy – or even finish – Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates. And let’s all congratulate me for becoming a better person. #haha

I found the novel too much. And not in the way we diminish women/people for being ‘too much’ when they express emotion, of put forward alternate points of view, of are so bold as to have an opinion. Too much in the sense that everything felt jumbled by excess: from setting, to character, to plot, to tone, to point. A generous reading might call it ‘exuberant,’ but this reader found it frustrating and sloppy. That is to say, the vertible outpouring of description or rapidly changing scenes seemed at once purposeful (making some point about the possibilities of language, maybe?) and entirely unrestrained and impulsive. As though the author wasn’t thinking about the reader at all, or how the reader might experience the text, but instead just. had. to. write. it. all. Perhaps indulgent is the right word for it?

Added to the excess is the inclusion of yiddish throughout the text. I’m okay with including non-English languages and expecting the reader to do a little homework, but in this instance the peppering is more of a dousing and this reader found it impossible to keep looking up words in order to make sense of what was happening. Coupled with a penchant for sentence fragments, the bilingual text made of an act of reading that was awkward and difficult, and without a payoff that might explain the work.

I became so frustrated with the lack of focus, the disorienting plot, the jumble of characters and the narrative point of view (narrated by a parrot…) that I stopped reading it. It’s important to know that this was a book club selection, so I felt compelled (by a force as strong as an undergraduate course outline) to finish it. WHAT IF IT WAS ON THE EXAM (I am a person almost entirely motivated by assessment. I have no intrinsic motivation to speak of. Perhaps someone could grade this blog entry and send me a gold star?). But I disliked it so much I was willing to face the wrath and disappointment of my Very Serious Book Club friends. And then I got to book club and learned that of the seven of us, only one person had read the whole thing. Most gave up after less than ten pages. A few of us soldiered on to the 200 page mark. But the overwhelming view was that this was… not a book for us.

So if you’re out there and you read the whole thing AND you liked it… let me know why. Certainly the Giller committee liked it when they put it on the shortlist. Ditto the Governor General’s Award for Literature. But then they like ridiculous things like novels narrated by dogs. Hmm. Maybe that’s the trick to a Giller – write a novel from a non-human perspective. Parrot. Dog. What next? (Stay tuned. I’ll write my next entry from the perspective of my cat…)

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Funny, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Prize Winner, Worst Books

Exit West: This futuristic fairy tale will make you sad. And then you’ll forget it. Because feelings are for suckers.

Mohsin Hamid had an idea: a future where people could travel by walking through a door. And then he tried to write a novel – Exit West – around this idea with varying degrees of success.

Most successful is the grafting to this idea the ideas of home, belonging, citizenship and immigration. Our two protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, open the novel in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Desperate to escape the country they pay to exit through a ‘door’ (which shouldn’t be in quotes because it is a literal door, but (of course), also a metaphorical door). Along with many of their countrymen they escape and find themselves unwelcome refugees in the lands on the other side of the door(s). Think about it. If you had the idea or prompt – “Doors that open to another place” – you could use that idea in all sorts of fanciful ways. I would most certainly have a door taking me to a pizza factory, for instance. Hamid goes the other way and takes the tired metaphor and scene of border crossing and offers a fresh take. The door allows the exploration of the desirability of destinations (which doors get guarded), of state security (how and whether and when doors are policed by the state) and agency and access (who can make it to a door, who can pay to open one).

Less successful is the romance narrative. Narrated in third person omniscient, the novel has a distinctly fairy tale tone and feel that would/could lend itself to a sweeping romance. Alas in this case I never connected with either Saeed or Naidia. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find their romance believable, or the ultimate conclusion of their relationship relatable. More I didn’t care enough about either of them to be overly concerned by their individual or collective fates. I was much more interested in the doors and the world they opened into. As I suspect Hamid was, too.

I have trouble locating where things don’t quite work – as the writing is top notch, the characters are given all sorts of opportunity to develop, the conflict is real and pressing, the settings unnervingly universal and realistic (and dystopic, I should add). I think it comes down to narrative point of view for me. I wonder if this one might really be the example of where rewriting from a different point of view makes it a much better novel. I can see it narrated from either Saaed or Nadia’s perspective and finding a much stronger sense of connection and empathy. Of course you can argue that this connection isn’t the point. That I’m meant to be focused on the conceit. But, for me, I wanted a stronger connection to character and a more complete sense of the impact of leaving on them as individuals and their relationship.

So this isn’t a settled one for me. More that the idea itself offers a solid exploration of a refugee experience, if not a terribly good romance.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

His Bloody Project: Blerg.

I couldn’t remember the title of this book when I sat down to write, so I popped into google the things I could remember: novel, nineteenth century, crofter, bloody, murder, Scotland. And pop! Google knew exactly the title because there aren’t many novels set in the 1880s Scotland about a murderous crofter. (Probably there’s just this one.) Google also wanted me to know that Graeme Macrae Burnet is the author. You probably wanted to know, too.  Continue reading

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Booker Prize, Fiction, Prize Winner