Tag Archives: small town

Clara Callan: In which I start writing the review ambivalent, and end up not liking the book; or, the merit of writing reviews

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Oh I don’t know. It’s hard sometimes to summon a review. Sometimes you read something and think ‘yes. that was just fine.’ And in the case of Richard Wright’s (why does he insist on the middle initial?) Clara Callan, I have no solid argument against reading it, but I also can’t muster a persuasive case for picking it up. So sure, if you find yourself in a hostel with a free copy (or in my case, a used bookstore with a copy in the $1 bin and your only other reading material is the very boring A Brief History of Seven Killings) then by all means: go in. Continue reading

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Governor Generals

Bone Gap: Beach Reads

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A beach read (or if you’re like me, a book you read in the shade in the general proximity to the beach, but more probably far from the beach because of Freckles and Sun and Burns) ought to accomplish a few things: it should be the sort of book that you can read a few pages of and then doze off, wake up and keep reading without entirely losing the thread of the plot; at the same it should be the sort of book that you don’t want to doze off while reading because it should have a compelling plot; it should not pander to your blockbuster whims by delivering candy characters and thematic explosions; at the same time it should not require scrupulous close reading in order to unravel or form an opinion; it should probably involve some elements of the fantastical because you are, after all, on some kind of holiday from your own life when you’re reading a beach read; at the same time, it should include no fantasy at all because you don’t really care for wizards and prefer your drama to come from everyday life (being the sun-sensitive Muggle that you are).

As you may have gathered I’m drafting my 2016 cottage reads list now (which is your invitation to send me your suggestions – post to come before July 17). Had I been drafting the list before reading Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap I’d probably have put it on the list because it fits the bill (though I hardly knew that before I started reading it). So if you’re assembling your own little “what to read while on holiday” list I’d suggest adding Bone Gap to the contenders. Why?

It’s magic realist fiction (and young adult fiction) at its finest in that it marries the imaginative other world of magic and whimsy with the harsh and heartbreaking moments so that you come away rethinking your expectations of relationships. Told from a panoply of perspectives and weaving together greek myth and decollage pop theology, the novel follows two brothers as they sort out love, life without parents (*cough* another orphan young adult fiction novel?!) and the quest (make that Quest) to save a damsel in distress (which turns out to be about saving themselves because this damsel doesn’t need saving thankyouverymuch). It has some bizzare bits with animals, talking corn and small town gossip. It is a delight of Important Themes and bursts of exquisite writing. It’s the sort of book you’re very satisfied to be reading while you’re reading it, and also sure that it won’t trouble you much once you’re done: aka: a perfect beach read.

So there you go. Read Bone Gap or don’t and you probably won’t be better or worse for either. You’ll have a good time if you read it though. And if you have an eleven year old in your life you could safely give it to them and know that you would be the Coolest for doing so (actually there’s a fair bit of mature sexual theme so maybe you’d want to be prepared for your eleven year old to blush or to Not Talk About the Sexy Bits).

Your turn: what should I read this summer? First ten suggestions get serious consideration. Though after the debacle of last summer (and 2014, and 2013) I reserve the right to ignore your suggestions if I deem them ridiculous.

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Filed under Fiction, National Book Award, Prize Winner, Young Adult Fiction

Punishment: Retribution and Reconciliation

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This past week the Canadian press – and Canadian communities – have been asking a lot of questions about crime and punishment. With the very public revelation of Jian Ghomeshi’s criminal behaviour, the public conversation includes calls for criminal prosecution all the while enacting a sort of collective trial, sentencing and punishment in the press and social media. While listening and reading stories of his violent and repugnant behaviour, I was reading Linden MacIntyre’s new book, Punishment.

Punishment is not about sexual and physical violence. Nor is it about the CBC or the media (though MacIntyre long worked for the CBC). Instead it’s a book about a former prison officer, Tony Breau, who gets involved – is made to be involved – in a small town murder investigation. It’s also about the consequences of telling the truth: the violence, threats and shame that attach to those who speak out (you can see, then, why it might be a book that resonated with what I was reading and hearing in the cultural conversation around violence against women). So it’s a novel that takes on the ‘big’ crime of murder, but it’s also a novel that explores the slippery boundary between what is considered criminal, and the ‘crimes’ outside the criminal code: betrayal in friendship, adultery and the wilful withholding of truth from others.

Punishment offers readers as nuanced and complicated exploration of guilt, punishment, retribution and reconciliation. Early on in the novel it explodes the idea that all those in prison are criminals and that all those on the ‘outside’ are innocent; the novel does not belabour this point, it simply makes the observation that many crimes go unrecognized and unpunished and that many criminals are in prison for complicated reasons. Much of the novel is concerned with how and if Tony can reconcile his past with his present, his moral position with an unjust society, his care for others with the certainty that the truth can be painful. (In a quintessentially Canadian literature way) this struggle is worked out in the small and isolated community, where the big bad criminals come from the United States and the city, where outsiders are suspect and when guilt is both the prelude an apology and an unavoidable state of being.

What the novel does incredibly well (and with a sort of bravery, I think) is to ask readers to consider – just consider – separating the crime from the criminal; the behaviour from the person. It can be hard to empathize. It can be hard to consider empathy. When we are betrayed by lovers or friends, when a singular crime is perpetrated against us or when we are wronged by systemic and entrenched systems, the impulse is not to empathy. The push is to retribution, to punishment. As if in the punishment itself we might understand the crime or feel differently about the criminal. I am not making a novel argument in suggesting that there might be a difference between retributive and restorative justice.  Rather, I’m making an argument that this novel shows – with great care and nuance – how these forms of justice differ and what is at stake for us as individuals and as communities in taking one approach or the other.

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Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction