January 31, 2018 · 1:35 pm
David Chariandry’s Brother follows two brothers – Michael and Francis – and their experiences growing up in Toronto as young, black men. The story weaves two time lines: the present in which Michael and his mother grieve the death of Francis, and the years and then weeks leading up to his death. The effect of the woven time is to have the reader at once certain of the outcome and effect, and unsure about the cause. That’s not true. The cause of Francis’s death is as much about context and systematic racism (through education, housing, transit and policing) as it is about the single act that kills him. The reader feels certain – well before knowing what exactly killed him – that if Francis was born white he wouldn’t have died.
It’s an exquisitely written novel. Quotidian scenes speak for whole years; individual examples gesture to shared experiences. With precise language and sharp detail, the writing evokes setting and atmosphere without straying into distracting description or belabored scene-setting.
While it is a novel principally interested in masculinity, in its characterization of their mother the story proves capacious in its exploration of the intersection of gender and class and race.
I’ve made it sound like a bleak read. And in some ways it is, and that’s a good reason to read it, too. But through the distress and grief and anger there are also scenes and moments of connection, community and great care. And other alliterative ‘c’ words. Not that a story needs to balance sadness with hope. Just that this novel does. And I hope you read it.
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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner
Tagged as brother, canadian literature, david chariandry, friendship, grief, grieving, guns, masculinity, Toronto, violence
January 15, 2018 · 2:08 pm
Gin Phillip’s “literary” thriller (the claim to ‘literary-ness’ is a dubious one. I’ll accept if the only criteria for being ‘literary’ is to describe child’s breath as ‘warm’ and ‘milky’ 15 000 times in the span of a 300 page novel) Fierce Kingdom follows Joan and Lincoln (mother and son) as they try to escape shooters in the zoo. This plot takes several things for granted that are worthy of pause:
1. Joan needs to have an exhaustive understanding of zoo layout. No flimsy paper maps for her. So in a stroke of good fortune we find she and Lincoln visit the zoo almost daily and so she knows all the ins and outs of zoo topography. Phew. Makes sense. Because what else is a woman to do with a four year old except not-work so she can take the kid to the zoo every. day.
2. Joan needs to not have a cellphone. Yes. Those pesky devices that keep us tethered to the world and make hostage plots so… lacking in suspense. So Joan *throw it away*. Because that’s exactly what you would do when held hostage and hiding. You would throw your phone away. Literally throw it away. Well thank goodness. I wouldn’t have wanted to be able to communicate with the outside world either.
3. Joan needs to have absolute moral clarity on the purpose of her life: Keep Lincoln Safe. And she needs to encounter a classic ethical dilemna (baby crying while Bad Men With Guns approach) in order to test and be sure about her Purpose. And to stand firm. And then she needs to abnegate that Purpose within 20 pages without any rationale, reflection or consideration. Because this book is full of ethical quandries that are not to be taken lightly. Noted.
4. This last one is perhaps the most disturbing for how little it ruffled this reader: we need to accept and expect that mass shootings occur with enough frequency as to not be particularly noteworthy. To instead be a plot premise from which other questions and issues might be considered.
So with those stipulations noted there are other… troubling aspects of the book.
The reader needs to care about Joan and Lincoln in order to make any of the suspenseful elements of the book work. We need to be worried about whether and how and when they will escape. Except this reader found Joan to be… irritating. The sort of put-together perfect-mom that you see in tampon commercials: making her own yogurt while sorting laundry and doing yoga stretches while she teachers her baby Mandarin and plays lullabies on her harp. Like she just happens to think every. little. thing. Lincoln does is precious and perfect and evidence of his sensitivity and genius. And not once during the three hours they are held hostage at gunpoint does she think ‘Gosh I wish I had someone here to help me,’ or ‘Why won’t this kid stop whinging about being hungry?’ She is, in other words, not entirely believable as a character. I only know some mums, but the mums I know are excellent people and often-to-most-of-the-time excellent mums. And part of what makes them excellent is that they are also their own person. They have ideas, and needs, and wants, and thoughts that are often about their kids, but often about other things, too. And it might just be me (hey, it really might just be me) but I’m more interested in reading about a mom character who is a character and also a mom, than a character who is only known or considered by way of being a mom. It’s just really, really hard to care about an archetype without a personality, history or future attached to it. And maybe the most troubling part, but Joan seems to think – and the reader seems to be expected to reflexively think, too – that being a mom is the highest calling and the most sacred duty. Which isn’t for me to say it is, or it isn’t. Just that the novel presents this as an Unassailable Truth. Like OF COURSE being a mom makes you a better and more worthy human and full of Purpose. Other non-parent-people are nice and good, too, and probably shouldn’t be shot by mass shooters, but… is it so bad? I mean… what are they really living for anyway? So… troubling.
And then there’s the quality of the writing which is at once polished and predictable. It reads smoothly, which is nice because it allows the reader to focus on plot! Some exceptions: the descriptions of the setting are muddy and confusing, I had a hard time picturing where they were or how they were navigating particular enclosures or forests. It feels like maybe Phillips was writing this to be optioned for a movie and so could ‘see’ her scene playing out this way and just trusted the reader would go see the adaptation? The other exception is in descriptions of Lincoln. This poor kid has no character development (except he likes to tell stories about super heroes. Oh wait. That didn’t conjur a complex character for you? Wait, I’ll add that he likes to be snuggled.) and endless descriptions of warm breath. Yawn. Oh and the tired and repeat analogy to ‘animal instincts’. I get it. I get it. You’re a mother protecting her cub and you’re in a zoo. Please. Spell it out for me.
So many complaints! But you’ll still read this one. I know you will. Because it’s the sort of book that can’t be resisted. The Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (that these women are called ‘girls’ in the title ought to be warning enough) except now… she has a baby to protect. So once you’re finished let me know if I’m just grumpy.
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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, Worst Books
Tagged as fierce kingdom, gender, gin phillips, guns, literary thriller, masculinity, mother, parenting, thriller
April 11, 2014 · 1:18 pm
There’s no question DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, is an excellent piece of fiction. The book takes a school shooting in Texas (is it Texas? Somewhere near Mexico, anyway) and explores the community reaction to the event – spectacle, denial, scapegoating – through the darkly comedic story of Vernon, falsely accused and prosecuted for the crime. The first person narrator of Vernon is masterfully represented in his fixation on shit and young women, as well as use of diction, phrasing, pace and image that moves past conjuring a character to allow the reader to fully accept and inhabit him (if not identify with – a problem to come to). The narration also does well to explore his complicated feelings around the massacre, the (failure) of adults to take responsibility or engage with grief, his expectations of justice and the justice system and his attempts to reform himself and his relationship with others.
Despite the brilliant narration and the timely thematic questions (what is the role of the press in perpetuating/perpetrating crimes? how does collective culture sublimate grief? how do we understand and make sense of the senseless? what are the effects of poverty on access to justice?) I read this book knowing it was great, but feeling at a remove. If literature is great because (and if) it can allow (or require) the reader to adopt different perspectives, to explore experiences unavailable in lived experience AND because it is masterfully constructed in literary technique, Vernon God Little shines in the latter and wavers in the former.
I should say this book sat on my shelf at work for eleven months before I finally read it. And not because I lacked time or opportunity. I tried reading it twice before. It wasn’t until I’d forgotten my book at home and it was a choice between no novel (a gasp of impossibility) or Vernon God Little that I gave it sufficient time (the 60 minutes of my lunch break) to get invested enough to read the whole thing. It wasn’t a novel that grabbed me. Is it that the first person narrator repulsed me a little? Maybe. (and maybe he’s meant to) It’s not that the experiences in the book are too far removed for me to care about – all kinds of my favourite books are those that I love precisely for their ability to take a seemingly distant experience and make it relevant and poignant for me and to let me see my world and relationship to it differently – it seems more the case that Pierre didn’t do enough to make these foreign experiences connected to this reader. There wasn’t opportunity for empathy, or even sympathy, no chance for identification or care.
So I read the book with a respect for the writing, an understanding that it was an important topic and explored with great literary skill. And yet I found myself unmoved and unchanged in its reading. Uninterested in what becomes of Vernon. Is that a problem of this reader or of the book? You read it and tell me what you think.
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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner
Tagged as adaptation, American literature, Bestseller, bildungsroman, Booker Prize, British literature, DBC Pierre, first novel, first person narrator, guns, Texas, Vernon God Little, violence, young adults