November 18, 2016 · 6:54 pm
It was tempting to cheat on this one and wait until after bookclub tonight to post my reaction to André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, with the thought that my ideas would be much more refined after discussion with my smart and insightful bookclub friends. But you only have me, and so you’ll have to make do with my pre-discussion, pre-wine interpretation. Continue reading →
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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner
Tagged as André Alexis, apologue, book club, canadian literature, dogs, fiction, fifteen dogs, Giller prize, non-human protagonist, Non-human protagonists
June 16, 2016 · 12:58 pm
There are many things to fear. We are taught and reminded and encouraged to fear what we don’t know, who we don’t know and to never ask questions about the things about which we are told to be afraid. The things we should be afraid of – car accidents and sitting at desks – are trumped (or are Trump) by hyperbolic headlines of xenophobia and a capitalist impulse to make us buy our way out of anxiety. Michael Christie’s excellent, If I Fall, if I die (which until now I remembered as ‘If I Fall, I die’ – a telling slip of my memory) asks us to reconsider how we come to be afraid and the bravery of encountering those fears (and what motivates us to do so: loyalty, love, stubbornness).
Our story follows Will (a clever naming as so much of the character is about choice, what he will do and what he wills himself to do) and his mother, who experiences agoraphobia, along with many other and cascading fears, to a degree that she raises Will within her childhood home in Thunder Bay. The plot takes off when, in the first chapter, Will finds himself Outside and begins realizing the way his mother has constructed their world as one filled with fear bears little relationship to the reality of what is, or should be, threatening.
The novel’s exploration of the way fear is made (rather than natural or inherent) is fascinating. In one scene Will is attacked by a wolf (for real) and because his sense of what should be frightening has been so skewed he doesn’t seem to realize that a wolf. attack. is the sort of thing one really ought to get a raised heart rate about. The novel takes on questions of the social construction of fear in little ways (why are we expected to fear teenagers on skateboards?) to big fear (the circulating anxieties about race, poverty and mental illness that have material and ideological consequences for those we make objects of fear and those who fear them). It is a sophisticated at yet propulsive exploration of the emotion/state of fear.
It is also decidedly Canadian literature in its setting and theme (*cough* Survival!). Thunder Bay and the politics (of fear) around indigenous land claims and resource extraction are at once particular to the setting, but made wider points of consideration in the exploration of how such fear is created and perpetrated by state officials (the police and schools, in particular) and economic/social policies. The first few chapters had the feel of a somewhat over-workshopped first novel with abundant similes and hamfisted diction, but either Christie eased up, or I got used to the style and stopped be distracted by the writing (I might even go so far as to say I found some sentences well observed. Might).
All this to say you’d do well to pick this one up. I suspect Chapters will put it on Heather’s list, or someone will put it on your Books to Read This Summer because it’s hard to not enjoy the story (the characters are loveable and peculiar in ways that make them objects of fascination: how unusual! agoraphobia!). I’d urge you to look past what could be construed as a plot gimmick, to see that the book is about a whole lot more.
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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner
Tagged as agoraphobia, Bestseller, canadian literature, fear, fiction, gem, Globe and Mail, If I Fall If I Die, Michael Christie, thunder bay
May 30, 2016 · 9:12 pm
It’s my parents’ fault that I don’t know anything about Dracula. I thought I knew little bits about the story from pop culture, but then I remembered I don’t know anything about pop culture because my parents didn’t let me watch movies or TV. And that I didn’t, truthfully, know anything about the story. Okay, my argument falls apart because my parents certainly encouraged me to read. And widely. And I could have read Dracula before my 32nd year. But I didn’t. Like the undergrad student I was chatting with yesterday, I assumed I’d have my whole life to read the pile of ‘classics’ I always meant to read but had never bothered. You know, the kind of book you pick up at the used bookstore for $2 only to let it languish on your shelf for years because you think it probably won’t be that good because it was written so long ago and besides there’s the hip new Twilight thing to read.
No, it wasn’t a brush with mortality that made me decide it was finally time to read a classic work. It was S. and D. independently and within the same week citing it as a terrific read. And me feeling hugely embarrassed when reading the children’s version (not a paid advert btw) that I had no idea who the two women or five heroes referenced. I laboured under the view that Dracula was about a vampire and a castle and that was that.
I. was. wrong. This book is about so much! And it’s so enjoyable to read! Enjoyable but also scary. I had a couple of nights of bat-related nightmares (for real), so if you scare easily (or at all) I might suggest avoiding reading this one right before bed, or perhaps preparing yourself to jolt awake convinced you hear flapping (probably compounded in my case in that I *did* once wake up to a bat flapping about my head after it got in through a cracked window. I DIGRESS).
It’s about science: As our heroes attempt to work out just what in the fuck is going on with all the blood loss and mysterious nighttime shenanigans they challenge positivist assumptions and make space for other kinds of knowledge: “It is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Well, sort of. Maybe. They still seem to use all the methods and approaches of Good Science in their quest, but Dr. Van Helsing makes it clear that there are limits to accepted truth.
It’s about gender: Oh what oh what to do with women. And their pesky desire to contribute, be independent, make meaningful lives. They must. be. eaten.
It’s about sexuality: Man-bat comes in the night and slips up under the covers to eat ladies. Ladies love. Men love. But usually only by engaging in passionate discussion and hand kisses.
It’s about form: letters! journals! phonograph records! meeting minutes! Look at all the ways plot and character can be developed in the pieced together epistolary form. There were a few moments where it felt analogous to the 2016 plot wherein characters have to explain why no one has a cellphone or cellphone reception in order to make the plot believable: characters kept explaining why they were bothering to write down what had just happened in such detail so as to convince the reader that this was not, after all, literary convention but instead the raw goods of vampire attack.
So whether it’s genuine interest or deep social shame for not having done so already (or, better still, fear that you’ll die before you read it) that motivates you to read Stoker’s classic work, seize on the interest and get it! (I’d add that I ‘lost’ my library copy (aka it was in the car and I assumed it was lost forever because it was under the seat) and found a free version online in under two minutes – so degree of difficulty in obtaining a copy can’t be an excuse here). That way the next time some punky punk of a reader gets excited about Twilight or True Blood or Insert-One-of-Bazillions-of-Vampire-Cultural-Objects-Here you can roll your eyes and explain “well, X work may be great, but it’s derivative of Stoker’s original work in Y way.” I look forward to your comments explaining the intertextuality of Stoker and how he’s really referencing Y work. Or how Twilight is in its own right a classic work. Ha.
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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner
Tagged as 19th century, bats, book club, Books recommended, books to read before you die, Bram Stoker, Classics, doyoureadthesetags, Dracula, fiction, gender, gothic, gothic ficition, nightmares, science, sexuality, vampires
May 13, 2016 · 4:29 pm
I described Pierce Brown’s Red Rising to C. as a cross between Hunger Games, Divergent and Game of Thrones and then as she was reading the back, she pointed out the same description was on the cover. Probably because it’s an apt way of capturing the plot and theme points. And because I’m a book reviewer genius and the Kirkus Review has nothing on me.
Right… so like the Hunger Games in that we’re set in a dystopian society of stratified classes. Instead of Districts we have Colours (like the Divergent factions) each associated with a different professional role in the Society (capital S on purpose). Like HG the young must do battle with one another in an arena (or sorts) though instead of killing one another the quest is to establish dominance over the land (think Game of Thrones battles, strategy and endless betrayals). It’s a battle within a battle (sort of like Enders Game come to think of it) with our hero – Darrow – working to infiltrate the upper echelon of the Society so he can take it down from the inside and free his people.
There’s some pretty silly bits. In the early chapters Darrow’s realization of his captivity and subsequent awareness of the wider world reads as an obnoxiously similar description of Plato’s cave: like there’s an actual cave and actual fire. There’s a lot of searing pain (think Harry Potter and the interminable descriptions of How Much His Scar Hurts) and teenage hormone.
But these silly parts are endurable for the well-paced plot and the genuine interest and care cultivated for Darrow and his quest (cultivated in no small part in that Darrow is a very well developed character with complex and unpredictable reactions – except when it comes to women, more on that in a minute). I liked reading this one so much I couldn’t wait to order it from the other library and (actually) waited outside the bookstore for it to open this morning so I could get the second installment (it is, of course, a trilogy).
*light spoilers to follow*
I liked reading it even while I was troubled and annoyed with the representation of women. Darrow’s wife, Eo, is a singular martyr and Darrow’s romanticization of her throughout the rest of the book put me off as it made Eo’s entire purpose the inspiration and motivation of her husband-man: “They didn’t create me. She did” (115). His later love interest, Mustang, is more developed as a character, but similarly defined in relation to Darrow: she is a traitor, she is loyal, she is helpful, she is destructive all in terms of what she does to or for him.
A related sticking point is the representation of bodies. The women are – without exception – only loveable or worthy of character development if they also happen to be slight and wispy whiffs of a person: “Though she’s swaddled with wolfcloaks as thick as my own, she hardly comes up to my shoulder. And when we walk through deep snow, it’s almost a laugh to see her try to keep apace with me. But if I slow, I earn a scowl. Her braid bounces as she keeps up [for real. her braid bounces]. When we reach easier ground, she glances over at me. Her pert nose is red as a cheery in the cold, but her eyes look like hot honey” (309-310). Okay, this passage probably won’t make you want to run out and get the book (it really is a fun read and worth checking out). I highlight it because it’s an example of the fragility-made-tough that women are meant to have in the book. And the way our ponytails should bounce. Contrast with the male characters who are worthy of veneration for all kinds of body types and shapes.
All that said it really was a romp of a fun read with Allegory and Importance thrown in for some fun. You could easily enjoy on the beach, a plane or wait until – inevitably – the blockbuster movie comes out (unless you’re in book club, in which case you have to read it because we’re reading it).
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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction
Tagged as best book blog, Bestseller, book club, Divergent, Enders Game, fantasy, fiction, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, Pierce Brown, Red Rising, trilogy, women