Stranger by David Bergen

28448542The only books by David Bergen that I have read up to this point have been The Age of Hope and The Case of Lena S.. Both were good, but neither one blew me away. So I was surprised when, upon reading the first few pages of Stranger, I was sucked right in. With its sensual, spare prose, I found the reading effortless and mesmerizing.

Rumour had it that the Doctor’s wife was coming to take the waters at Ixchel. The clinic was located in the highlands of Guatemala, at the edge of the lake that was eighty-four thousand years old. You came for the lake, and for the beauty of the three volcanoes, and for the quaintness of the twelve villages that surrounded the basin of the lake, and for the afternoon winds that were thought to carry away sin. But if you were a woman who was infertile, you came to take the waters.

Describing this book is difficult to do without giving the story away. (And if you want to avoid that I would also advise you not to read the book jacket.) So let’s just say it is about (in)fertility and motherhood, class, race, and gender disparity, power and entitlement. I felt instantly invested in the young female protagonist, rooting her on through the obstacles she comes up against. Although it felt very clear to me as I was reading who I wanted to “win” in this story, I am also aware that the situation is not black and white. There is a lot going on in this book – not just in the minds of the characters, but also legally, politically, and ethically.

There was something about living in a country where the language was not yours. You appeared to be stupid and you weren’t noticed. Or if you were noticed, it was for your body, or to clean someone’s toilet, or to look after someone’s child. You turned into someone to chase or to scorn or to look down on. It was neceassry, wherever you lived, to have the poor so that everyone else felt better.

Stranger had my attention from the very beginning, but at about two thirds of the way through this book, my heart leapt up into my throat, and at that point on I couldn’t put the book down. I had to see her through to the end, as though the end hadn’t already been determined. It felt like a thriller; one that made me think and moved me to tears.

Her chest ached and she felt the ache and she knew for the first time what pure hatred was. It was entire and it moved sideways and forwards and backwards within her, and it was as if she contained the deep waters of an ocean that had been shaken by an earthquake and what resulted were mammoth waves, waves that could not be held back… She tumbled into hopelessness, and then felt anger, and once again hatred, and of these three emotions, hatred gave her the most pleasure… The hatred had been exhilarating. And welcome. And crippling. And exhausting. And very dangerous. For passion, anguish, jealousy, and anger would produce nothing but mistakes, and false steps, and failure. A cold heart was necessary.

Stranger was longlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize. David Bergen is no stranger to literary awards – his books have been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, and The Time in Between won the Giller in 2005. For more on his accomplishments, his background, and what led him to start writing, visit his page at the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with a copy of this book for review!

For further reading and more in-depth reviews of the book:

Globe & Mail: “an inventive and electrifying new novel”

Quill & Quire: “arguably his best yet”

MacLean’s: “Bergen explores ongoing political tensions between Latin America and the United States.”

An interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter where I learned that this novel is set in the not-so-distant future.

Have you read any of David Bergen’s books? What did you think?

 

2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner

The Shadow Jury’s winner: (my review)

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The Real 2016 Giller Winner: (my review)

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My thoughts: Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a beautiful book and a deserving winner of the Giller Prize. To hear Madeleine Thien’s acceptance speech or to watch the entire program, visit CBC Books.

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They look nice together, don’t you think? Read them both!

Read them all!

In fact, they all look pretty nice together… Read them all!

Congratulations to the winner Madeleine Thein, and to all the finalists; Catherine Leroux, Zoe Whittall, Gary Barwin, Mona Awad and Emma Donoghue!

Thank you to my fellow jurors, Kim and Alison, as well as our adjudicator and cheer-leader, Mrs. KfC!  Lovely to work with all of you.

One last thing: I went to the Giller Light Bash (Halifax) last night with my sister. All proceeds from the event go to support Frontier College Canada’s Literacy Organization. But like a dummy, I didn’t take any pictures or bring home any souvenirs. Except for my memories. (I have Sarah to vouch for me, though – it was nice to see you there!) So, I will leave you with this:

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My sister and I after the Bash. 🙂

Did anyone else get out to one of the Giller bashes last night, or watch from home? Any thoughts on the winner – agree? disagree? Were you crossing your fingers for someone else? Do you think anything could/should be done differently?

2016 Shadow Giller Winner

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For the last few weeks, the Giller Shadow jury (Kim, Alison, and myself) have been reading and reviewing the shortlisted titles on the Giller Prize shortlist. (If you want to see my reviews, you can find them here.)

As Kim says on Kevin’s blog, “…it took a bit of deliberating, across time zones, provinces and continents, but we are delighted to reveal the winner of the Shadow Giller.”

Pop over to Kevin’s blog to find out which book we chose to be our winner, and how we arrived at our decision. Then be sure to check back after November 7th to find out if the real Giller jury agrees with us!

Which would you like to see win the prize?

 

Shadow Giller: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

27876415Do Not Say We Have Nothing is all over the internet right now, perhaps due to its spot as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, and more recently it has become the 2016 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Because of all the already-existing fabulous reviews that abound I’m going to try to keep mine short and sweet with a large list of further reading at the end for anyone who wants to know more.

Before embarking on my Shadow Giller reading, I already knew I would want to spend time with this book. Leaving it until the end ensured that I wouldn’t feel rushed while reading it, which ended up making my experience more rewarding. My advice to you: Don’t rush this book; savour it. It might take you a week to read it, but it’s worth it.

By now I’m sure most of you know what this book is about; one (extended) family’s experience during the cultural revolution in China. More deeply, it’s about what happens when people don’t have the freedom to live the way they want; to choose their work, where they live, and even who they live with.

The People should come first, above family and self, above petty concerns like attachment and music and love.

30037751What I liked:

  • The scope of this novel. I learned a lot about the history of China and how the Communist Party works to control the people. Things I thought I already knew, but really I didn’t. It also explores how events have a far-reaching ripple effect, and how the past doesn’t just go away.
  • The narrator in the present. Marie/La-Ling’s voice in the present grounded me, allowing me a better perspective of the big picture.

I set myself to remembering everything she had told me, the beautiful, cruel and courageous acts, committed by her father and mine, which bound our lives together.

  • The Book of Records, which gets passed down through generations and copied over many times, often to hide secret codes inside for family members to discover. I like that Marie continues this tradition, even at the end.
  • The passion brought to the subject by the author, and the book’s call for freedom and individualism.
  • There’s some humour scattered here and there throughout this book, which helps to lighten the mood.

Ma showed her around the apartment. I retreated to the sofa and pretended to watch the Weather Channel, which predicted rain for the rest of the week, the rest of 1990, the rest of the century, and even the remainder of all time. [Vancouver, Canada]

31549906What gutted me: (IN a ‘good’ way)

  • Kai’s part in the “struggle sessions”. I couldn’t shake my anger towards him the whole rest of the book. I tried reminding myself that he had been under immense pressure, he felt a strong duty to his family, and that he was still so young – only 17 at the time.  Still, it hurts.
  • Sparrow’s emptiness. What a terrible waste; for himself, the world and his family.

In truth, he wanted to believe. He would not feel so utterly alone if only he could give in and place his trust in a person or just an idea.

  • “Listening” to Sparrow’s “The Sun Shines on the People’s Square“. I was a wreck by then. And, yes, I felt like I was actually listening to the music. I wanted to google it.
  • 500 pianos were destroyed at the Shanghai Conservatory. And, obviously, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Best character: Big Mother Knife. She’s as tough as her name, and at times adds some comic relief.

The world is like a banana, easily bruised. Now is the time to watch and observe, not to judge. Ai-ming, believing everything in books is worse than having no books at all.

Is there anything I didn’t like about this book? Let me start by saying that it took me a full week to read this book, and I didn’t even mind; most of the tiime I was completely absorbed. But… there were a couple of parts that I felt were lagging, particularly in the develpment of the relationships between Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai and their many trips to the conservatory and their many practice sessions. This review at The Walrus suggests that the book is too wordy, however I think that might be a matter of taste; some people seem to have loved every word while others felt the book was too long. So don’t let this stop you from reading the book – it’s an experience that you won’t want to miss.

Thank you to Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review!

This is my last review of the shortlisted Giller books. (You can find the rest of my reviews here.) In the next while, the Shadow Jury will be making its choice, to be announced in advance of the real winner on November 7th. All of the books on the shortlist this year are amazing books – I’m glad I had the chance to read them, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of them. 

Further Reading: (If I’ve missed your review, leave a link in the comments!)

ebookclassics

Booker Talk

Bookish Beck

Brona’s Books

The Reader’s Room

A Little Blog of Books

Bibliobroads

Globe & Mail: The inspiration behind Canadian author Madeleine Thien’s latest works

The Guardian: History is deftly woven into a moving story of the musicians who suffered during and after the Cultural Revolution in China

The New York Times: a Portrait of souls snuffed out

The National Post: With unflinching clarity, Madeleine Thien examines the psychology of violence during the Cultural Revolution

Shadow Giller: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

There was always that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin, myself in silvery negative, with dark teeth and shining white pupils glowing in that black sunlight of another world.  –Margaret Atwood

25716567What Mona Awad does so well in this book is to put us inside the head of a woman with poor body image. Elizabeth is so preoccupied with the way she looks that there is no room in her head for anything or anyone else, leading to dire consequences in her daily life and relationships.

Easily read in a day or two, the book is made up of 13 vignettes taken from Elizabeth’s life as she experiences adolescence, college, internet relationships, shopping for clothes, marriage, the death of her mother, and more. In this time, she goes from fat to thin, from being worried about the way she looks to being completely obsessed with her weight and the food she consumes. (Her will power is actually quite impressive.)

The three parts I found most interesting:

1) Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother. In one of the stories, while Elizabeth is home visiting, her mother is so proud of Elizabeth’s new look (i.e. thin) that she shows her off to all her friends and colleagues. She even lays out the clothes she wants Elizabeth to wear.

2) Elizabeth’s relationship with other women. There are many occasions in the book where women are shown to criticize and belittle each other; the way they look and the food they’re eating. Elizabeth is also shown to hate other women simply because they seem to be effortlessly thin. She doesn’t like to have to eat out with one of her colleagues at lunch, because her tiny colleague eats a lot of food for lunch while she has only a salad. In another chapter, she becomes obsessed with getting her nails done with Cassie. She seems fascinated by Cassie’s large body and the fact that Cassie seems to be happy and at ease in her body. She can’t seem to understand how this might be possible.

3) Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband. The chapter where we see Elizabeth from her husband’s perspective is one of my favourites. Elizabeth’s obsession with food and weight causes a lot of tension in their home. You can feel the strain he’s under when he’s trying to answer her questions about meals or outfits; trying to choose words that won’t offend her or send her off on one of her bouts of depression. He misses the woman he fell in love with.

Every other Saturday night she permits herself two double margaritas and enchiladas verdes at the Blue Iguana, followed by a Brownie Bonanza at Ben & Jerry’s. Though it scares and saddens him a little to see her hunger let loose upon a small complimentary basket of tortilla chips, he too looks forward to these Saturday nights. It’s the only night when her smirk goes slack, the noose of restraint loosened enough for her features to soften, her beauty at last unbuckling its belt. She is never more expansive and easygoing in conversation than when she is snatching chips from the basket with quick fingers. He’s learned not to look at the fingers. If he does, she’ll stop…. What he does not relish is seeing the naked disappointment splayed across her face when the last chip has been eaten, the final spoon of ice cream swallowed, the knowledge that there is another two weeks of sprouts ahead dimming her features like a pre-storm sky. And then of course, on the way home, she’ll begin to feel sick. “I’m so full. I shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t even enjoy it. Do we have any Perrier at home?” She’ll spend the rest of the evening scowling and sucking back Perriers from the bottle, too full and sick for sex.

What I thought was lacking:

1) Perhaps because of the vignette-style of the book, I felt that there wasn’t enough depth to the story. Her relationships with her mother and husband were interesting, but we don’t get to know very much about them beyond the present. For example, it was hard for me to understand what her husband ever saw in her, because whatever it was, we don’t get to see it.

2) I wasn’t expecting anything miraculous, but I was hoping that by the end Elizabeth would have recognized that her weight is not what is making her unhappy; that she needs to explore other possibilities. Her negativity and self-loathing makes her hard to like, and yet I wanted to like her so badly; I wanted her to like herself. And I saw no hope there.

Despite these small issues I personally have with the book, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it because of all the important and insightful things it has to say about body image in our culture and how crippling it can be.

[As a mother of two daughters, I see the influence of the internet everyday; every time they watch a music video or those you-tube channels featuring beautiful young women who teach you how to pick out the perfect clothes, put on your makeup, or decorate your bedroom. My youngest especially finds them mesmerizing. Lately, she’s started saying things like “this makes me look fat” and “my hair looks so stupid”. Things I have always made a point of NEVER saying around my kids. (Although I do know that some of it is expected and unavoidable – even Anne of Green Gables worried about the colour of her hair and was a little too proud of her perfect nose.) And what about my son? Boys are exposed to all the same things; how do we prevent them from expecting the girls around them to look like the the ones on the internet? Or from suffering from negative body image themselves?]

At Between the Pages Halifax, Mona Awad said that what she wanted was to write a book showing the impact body image can have on someone’s life; how deep it can go, how penetrating it can be to every aspect of your life. In this, she has succeeded. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl almost crushed me with hopelessness for Elizabeth and for all those other women in the book who were slaves to food and to the gym. I believe in healthy living, but that is not what it should look like. This book is a plea to change the way we see and represent women; a plea to let women be themselves and to feel good about it.

Thank you to Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of the book for review!

Further Reading: There seems to be a wide variety of reactions elicited by this book from other bloggers. Here are the reviews I remember seeing around – if I missed your review, let me know and I’ll add you to the list!

Kim at Reading Matters (fellow shadow juror)

Rosemary and Reading Glasses

The Paperback Princess

Pickle Me This

I’ve Read This

Dolce Bellezza

Mona Awad on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers talking about body image, self-acceptance, and how her personal struggle informed her novel.

The Globe & Mail 

“…the cultural demands on women to conform to a certain size are not only largely unachievable, but destined to leave them distracted, weak and miserable. Further, the necessity of thinness inevitably pits women against each other, forces them into isolation and makes them deeply lonely. With admirable nuance and obvious skill, Awad critiques this damaging world we’ve created for ourselves simply by showing it to us.”

Shadow Giller: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

28513019I put off writing my review of The Wonder for a couple of weeks after reading Kim’s excellent review. I couldn’t see how I could add anything more. But I have taken some time to forget about what she wrote so that I can concentrate on my own notes.

Fans of Emma Donoghue will surely be picking this book up, but I hope that those of you who are new to Donoghue’s work will also consider reading it. Inspired by historical accounts of “Fasting Girls“, Donoghue has created a story about a young girl, her family, and her nurse.

In an Irish village very soon after the terrible Potato Famine, Anna has stopped taking food. For months she has supposedly been living off of nothing, which has caused a great stir. People want to come see her, they want to know if this is for real. So a committee is formed; one that includes the local doctor and priest. They hire two nurses to take turns watching over the girl to ensure that she isn’t secretly taking in sustenance.

Nurse Lib, who was trained by Florence Nightingale, travels to the village already with doubts as to the possibility of the situation. She imagines that she won’t be around long before the girl is discovered as a fraud. But, after a few days, it’s obvious to her that even if Anna had been receiving sustenance before the nurses began their watch, there certainly isn’t any way she could be now. Which means that the two-week watch could now be actually causing the girl to die. Lib tries to convince Anna to take food, but Anna refuses. Lib believes that if she can figure out the reason behind Anna’s decision to fast, she may be able to turn the tides. But what could it be?

One week exactly since Lib had arrived from London. So full of confidence she’d been – misplaced confidence in her own acuity, it had turned out. She’d thought to be back at the hospital by now, putting Matron in her place. Instead she was trapped here, in these same greasy-feeling sheets, no nearer to understanding Anna O’Donnell than she’d been a week ago. Only more muddled, and exhausted, and troubled by her own part in these events.

The beginning of the book, with the introduction to the story and the setting, immediately pulled me in; then there was a bit of a lag in the middle when I wondered if the rest of the book would just be Lib’s travels back and forth between the village and Anna’s cabin. But it picked up again as the race against time became obvious, and the frustrations Lib found herself coming up against in trying to deal with, and talk reason into, Anna’s family, her doctor, and the rest of the committee who were determined to see the two week observation period through to the end.

28449257This is a good book; the history, the religious politics, the setting, and the characters. In particular, I found the attitudes and beliefs of the characters the most interesting aspect of the story. The doctor was hoping to make a great discovery; the possibility of human existence without the need for food. Anna’s family seemed paralyzed by their religious beliefs. And Nurse Lib was an interesting character; she made mistakes and held a prejudice against the Irish – one that represented the feelings about them in other parts of the world at the time (“What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs.”). But she was also strong and passionate about her cause, and a good nurse. “Good nurses follow rules… but the nest know when to break them.”

The end was an exciting finish, but felt a little too ‘fairy tale-ish’ for my tastes. However, I’m sure there will be many readers out there who will find it satisfying.

This book will do well. But as good as it is, and as popular as it will be, is it what the Giller jury is looking for? Are they looking for a good story? Or are they looking for a book that will make you question what you thought you knew, a book that will give you the urge to read it again, or one that leaves you with a burning desire to talk it over with friends? On November 7th, we will find out.

*Thank you to HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review! 

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A review in The Star calls The Wonder a “powerful exploration of religion and the sway it holds“.

A review in The New Yorker explores some of the history behind Donoghue’s book.

Emma Donoghue’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell

25818227Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush was longlisted for the Giller Prize, is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. So, of course I had to read it.

As I have mentioned before, I prefer novels to short stories. However, short stories have their place in my life, and I love it when I discover a collection that has me turning the pages. There are collections that are good but start to feel same-y, and there are collections that have you looking forward to the next story before you’ve even finished the one you’re reading. That was this book. The writing and the variety of stories was fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

I made notes and jotted down passages from every story in this book, but I fear I would be typing forever if I talked about all 15 stories. So, some highlights…

In a Kingdom Beneath the Sea, the narrator observes the other characters around her. She is one of the older strippers in this seedy joint, and if she can’t keep the weight off, she’ll be on her way out soon, making way for the younger slimmer women. One of the new girls has an admirer; someone who wants to save her from herself. But her brothers have a stake in her ‘career’ and are guarding her every move. “Today’s the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him.

The title story, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, was inspired by de Kooning’s “Woman” series of paintings. A couple goes on vacation to L.A.. Boyd loves it but his girlfriend, the narrator, does not; specifically the mega roller coaster she felt obligated to go on. At the airport, on the way home, a man attacks Boyd out of the blue. He insists that he is okay, so they board the plane and fly home. But, as time goes on, it becomes apparent that he is not okay. His girlfriend feels guilty and responsible as though she was the one who conjured up the attacker to “punish Boyd for being so annoying“. Boyd begins acting very strangely, and his girlfriend feels powerless, like she is drowning in the “ugliness”.

Things happen and can’t unhappen.

The incandescent lights in her nightmares began to leach into her waking hours, filling them with slashes of violent colour. As if a screen had been pulled to one side, instead of suburban streets she now saw primal violence, in the snarling grilles of oncoming traffic, in the sharp angles of buildings and the sudden movements of strangers. Why would anyone pay to go on a roller coaster when this restless malevolence was everywhere to be had for free?

The narrator in There Are Two Pools You May Drink From has wandered far and wide over the years since high school. She hasn’t kept in touch with anyone. But she’s finally given up on the idea that there’s a “mythical place where I’ll find everlasting happiness“, and she’s gone on a journey to hunt down those “hazy figures from my past” in order to “make peace with my former self“. Most of the story takes place at Lindy’s house as the narrator remembers back to when they were girls. Lindy, who she was always so jealous of, but who, unlike her, has lived a quiet stationary life.

But looking at Lindy I see for a moment, as if through a chink in a stone wall, how it is possible to keep steady while the hands travel across the clock’s face, how the smallest variations in the yard might give comfort as the years pass, why children beg to be told the same story again and again.

How far will Christoff go in The Spirit of Things to get away from life with his father?

Sometimes Christoff stuffed cotton wool in his ears to shut him out, but his father’s voice was nearly always ringing in his head, long before the real shouting started, and long after it stopped.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Property of Fatty, Calvin’s life is goes from bad to worse when he hastily decides to go on “vacation” with some guy he met at the Boogaloo; a guy who thinks “You can tell a lot about people by the shape of their ass… It’s like a second face.”

All the characters in Scenes of Acapulco seem messed-up or unhappy. Bonnie and Troy are getting married; Bonnie’s friend tells her Troy is dumb, while Troy’s buddy tells him Bonnie’s a sneak. You can’t help but think the marriage will never make it, especially after you find out what really went on all those years ago when Bonnie disappeared.

In Social Studies, Ada gets a job in a dingy bar where the customers do their best to make her want to run for the hills like the many bartenders before her.

In Vulnerable Adults, Lauren realizes that, like her, her husband Jacko is feeling ‘stuck’ “… scared of descending into the underworld, but just as terrified of whatever might be wandering vicious and free on the surface.

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is one of the two short story collections on the Giller longlist this year, the other being The Two of Us by Kathy Page. (my review) Two strong collections coming from opposite sides of the country. If you love short stories (or even if you don’t), you will not want to miss these.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlurbs and further reading:

This is fiction’s ‘unflinching eye’ at its most powerful, the gaze that spies out the heartbreaking cycle of human cruelty and refuses to look away. A reader might buckle under the weight of the world portrayed if it weren’t for the beauty of the prose itself, the imagery that rings on in the subconscious long after the closing line.” Alissa York, author of Fauna and The Naturalist

What the reader will find in Powell’s stories is a deep and abiding care, for language, in the zinging comic exchange that never misses a beat; for imagery, in the clarity that emerges out of a grey background, tough and fragile but impossible to ignore; for all her lost, ragged characters, in their struggle to get back to some misplaced sense of home. These are beautiful stories, they will make you think and they will make you feel and they will always, always reward your attention.” Alexander MacLeod, author of Light Lifting

A review in the National Post says of Kerry Lee Powell’s stories that ” it is impossible to pick a crown jewel. Each one feels like the favourite until the next. I couldn’t agree more.

Kerry Lee Powell on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, on writing about trauma.

“I would say that my biggest preoccupation as a writer has been with trauma, and more importantly with surviving trauma.”

Kerry Lee Powell’s website, where you can read more about this book as well as her poetry collections.