Book Review: If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie

If I Fall, If I Die; McClelland & Stewart, 2015

If I Fall, If I Die; McClelland & Stewart, 2015

A few years ago I heard Michael Christie read from his then new short story collection, The Beggar’s Garden. I enjoyed the stories and so was curious to read more from him, now in novel form.

If I Fall, If I Die doesn’t disappoint and I found it even more readable and enjoyable than his short stories. The novel begins the day that eleven-year-old Will leaves his house for the first time. Will has lived Inside for as long as he can remember. He and his mother have a safe life, as long as they never leave their house. Will paints Masterpieces, wears his Helmet, and puts on a rubber wetsuit to change the light bulbs. The rooms of their house are named after various major cities of the world. This is all Will knows. Then, one day, he suddenly ventures Outside. He meets a boy named Marcus who tells him nothing can really hurt him and Will’s view of things begins to change. Soon he begins to spend more time Outside and he insists on going to school. When he discovers that Marcus has disappeared, Will makes it his mission to find out what happened to his first friend. He befriends Jonah, who teaches him how to skateboard and they work on solving the mystery behind Marcus’ disappearance together.

Part of growing up is discovering the things about your family that you think are normal but it turns out nobody else does. Will loves his mother and he works hard to keep what he refers to as The Black Lagoon at bay. His whole life he has believed her perception of the world but as he ventures further from home he realizes that not only are people surviving Outside but that injuries and danger are a part of life. A part of growing up.

This is really a story of growing up. It’s a story of growing up in Thunder Bay, where the traditional grain industry has died and been replaced with crime and alcoholism. Christie skillfully weaves in chapters from Will’s mother’s perspective where we are able to understand what traps her Inside. This also offers a thoughtful comparison between her childhood, shared with her twin brother, and Will’s. Her generation worked in the dangerous grain elevators where deaths were common. After the elevators shut down, Will’s generation still lives and dies among them but now those deaths are more complicated and, somehow, more tragic. This is a story about racial tensions – the divide between the white residents of Thunder Bay and the First Nations across the culvert. Although the book seems to be set in the early 90s (though the timeline is never stated), these racial differences and complications are entirely relevant across Canada today. Marcus’ disappearance goes largely unnoticed because he is a First Nations kid in foster care. When Will goes to the police he is met with ambivalence and a prevalent belief that kids like Marcus will always get in trouble. We see these beliefs again in the different ways those in authority treat Will and Jonah, who is also First Nations, even though Jonah is much smarter and more driven than Will.

Will’s investigation becomes more and more complicated and slightly less believable as the story progresses. I could buy that the maze of crime and lies that he wanders into is realistic but not quite that a twelve-year-old boy could come through so unscathed.

If I Fall, If I Die is a terrific first novel and I look forward to more from Christie.

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What I Read – November 2015

November has seen a vast improvement on Pearl’s night-time sleep. Which is awesome but has really cut into my reading time. So this month’s list is a little shorter but there have been some good reads.

1. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James (Modern Library

2. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, & Company, 2013)

3. The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld (HarperCollins, 2014)

4. AbroadKatie Crouch (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014)

5. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (Harper Perennial, 2005)

6. Immortality – Milan Kundera (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991)

(translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi)

7. Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler (Scribner, 1968)

(translated from the German by Daphne Hardy)

8. Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

9. The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

You could also look at November’s reading list like this:

  1. Young lady taken advantage of in Europe
  2. Death row prisoner in Iceland
  3. Death row prisoner in possibly magic prison
  4. Young lady murdered in Europe
  5. Escaped prisoner and extremist religious sect in Russia
  6. ???
  7. Political prisoner in Russia

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

(Yes, still. I am really enjoying it, as evidenced by how I keep telling Peter facts from what I’ve read. I’m just working away at it slowly. Very slowly.)

No Great Mischief Alistair MacLeod

 

Book Review: Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

HarperCollinsPublishers, 1983

HarperCollinsPublishers, 1983

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Harold is a child of undetermined age. However, he is bald and he is wearing clothes that are all one-piece and that tells me that he is too young to be going for a walk on his own. Conclusion: Harold’s parents need to be reported.

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Does Harold live in a black hole? There is neither light nor substance where he is. He doesn’t even have anything to walk on. This is a much sadder story about a deprived, neglected child than I realized.

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Maybe Harold lives in some sort of horrific, dystopian future. Why else would he feel the need to have something as extreme as a dragon to guard an apple tree. Obviously, food is scarce in Harold’s world and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to protect his apples.

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Harold needs an adult.

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It’s pretty charming how this is exactly the kind of meal a child would want. (Not me though. As a child, I disliked all kinds of pie except for meat pie.)

The abundance of pie though is making me question my dystopian-starvation-future theory.

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I’m glad Harold isn’t wasting food. The ribs on that moose seem to prove that some things are starving in this world. Poor moose.

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Again, Harold lives in a black hole.

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This might be the saddest page in all of literature.

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Even Harold’s own home and his bed are a fantasy. Harold’s reality is so bleak that he shelters in the fantasies of his own mind. Yet even there, he is lost and alone.

Harold and the Purple Crayon is bleak, you guys.

Book Review – Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

Jack Maggs, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998

Jack Maggs, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998

If I say “Dickensian London” the English reader generally knows what I mean. Industry, soot, fog, poverty. Children working dangerous jobs for little pay.

Jack Maggs has just arrived back in London after what was supposed to be a life sentence to Australia. When the man he desperately seeks, Henry Phipps, is nowhere to be found, Maggs ends up as a footman in the house next door. His new master is Percy Buckle, a former grocer who has become a gentleman after an unexpected inheritance.

Maggs is everything you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. He’s rough and powerful, overly sensitive and ready for violence at any moment. When he has a sort of fit while serving dinner to Percy Buckle and the author Tobias Oates, Oates sees it as the perfect opportunity to delve into one of his pet interests – the Criminal Mind. He and Maggs strike a deal and, under the guise of curing Maggs’ fits, Oates delves into Maggs’ past via hypnotism, searching for content for his next great novel.

It’s the characters that really make the novel. Maggs is rough and unlikeable but Carey creates a certain sympathy for him as we learn about his past, his tragically Dickensian childhood, and his current quest. Buckle is a fascinating character. Someone who has made the journey from poverty to riches. I found my opinion of him constantly changing as his actions began to reveal who he was. Carey paints a portrait of a weak ineffectual man and then slowly reveals what his impoverished past has created within him. The character of Buckle is heavily nuanced, particularly as we learn more about his relationship with his housemaid, Mercy Larkin. Mercy is headstrong, and either brave or foolish as she dares to get closer to Maggs than any one else.

When I compare this novel to Dickensian literature its because Carey’s inspirations here are clear. This is a clever re-telling of Dickens’ Great Expectations, from the perspective of Magwitch, the secret benefactor of young Pip. Carey borrows heavily on the imagery and flavour of London as Dickens saw it. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the more unsavoury aspects that Dickens only alluded to – adultery and abortion in particular. The writer, Tobias Oates, stands in for Dickens at the beginning of his career. One success behind him already but desperate to be able to find his next money-maker. It isn’t a flattering portrait of the author as Oates mines the lives of unwitting victims around him but it seems like more of a send-up of the entire profession than Dickens alone and so Carey points the finger back at himself as he takes from the literary landscape of another author.

Whether or not you have read or enjoy Great Expectations (and it’s my least favourite Dickens novel) Jack Maggs makes a good strong read. The book loses nothing if you don’t pick up on the allusions to Dickens and his work and if you have read Dickens then Carey still offers some unexpected turns.

Book Review: The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

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The Sorrow of War, Riverhead Books, 1993

After reading The Lotus Eaters (read my review here), it seemed fitting to read something about the Vietnam War from a North Vietnam perspective. The Sorrow of War was written by Bao Ninh, who served as a teenager for North Vietnam. While the book is fictional, it’s easy to imagine that it’s based on a lot of Bao Ninh’s personal experiences.

Blurbs for the novel compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front and I understand that impulse but it’s not quite accurate. Yes, it’s a novel offering a perspective from “the other side” but other than that it bears little resemblance to Remarque’s novel. Actually, it reminded me more of Remarque’s sequel, The Road Back, which I read earlier this year. The Sorrow of War details the experience of a young man named Kien during the war and in the years after it. Kien joins up as a teenager, fresh out of school and parted from his childhood sweetheart, Phuong.

The novel moves around a lot in time and place. It jumps from Kien’s earliest days in the army to his experience post-war, recovering bodies, to his tortured days following the end of the war. It’s a chaos that takes some getting used to and I never really felt grounded. This bothered me at first and I was left wondering whether or not to blame translation issues, but by the end of the novel I realized it was a deliberate technique. Kien’s life is chaos. War has thrown everything he experienced, everything he knows, everything about himself, into chaos. Even when the war is over, he is haunted by it; he can never forget it. Everyone he sees and everywhere he goes, he is reminded of it. This story is a tragic one.

As such, there’s really no plot here. Toward the end of the novel, a key scene between Kien and Phuong is slowly revealed that tells a lot about how Kien has been shaped and this section is where I would say there is the most character development. But it’s certainly not a traditional novel in any sense. It’s a beaten-down tale of a beaten-down life from a perspective that North American audiences have not heard enough.

FromĀ  critical point of view, I can’t say this book is particularly well-written. It’s hard to follow and it feels like the author is writing for a specific audience, of which I am not a part. However, it is truly compelling. It’s heart-breaking, and tragic, and important and the sections where that really comes across trump the confusing ones.

Those were the days when all of us were young, very pure, and very sincere.

*This edition of The Sorrow of War was translated from Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hao

Book Review: The Talent Thief by Alex Williams (Reading with Pearl)

The Talent Thief, MacMillan Children's Books, 2007

The Talent Thief, MacMillan Children’s Books, 2007

Reading books for children and youth as an adult means you start to see the same things over and over again. There are tropes common to many books intended for children. So when you read a kids’ book with some fresh ideas, you really notice.

Adam and Cressida Bloom are brother and sister and, like all good storybook heroes, are orphans. Cressida is a fantastically talented singer while Adam is just her ordinary younger brother. When Cressida is invited to a Festival of Youthful Genius, Adam finds a way to tag along to escape from their unkind uncle and guardian.

Adam is the odd man out at the festival, where every other child has some extraordinary talent. Cressida is annoyed by his presence and the man who has brought these children together, Fortescue, lets Adam know how unwelcome he is. However, it very quickly becomes apparent that something isn’t right and the talented children begin to lose their talents. There’s a strange creature lurking about and when Cressida loses her singing talent, Adam is determined to figure out what’s going on and to get her ability back. With the help of a racing car driver whose lost her talent and a shepherd whose lost his tracking abilities, Adam and Cressida chase Fortescue as he and the creature escape in a tin shed attached to a hot air balloon.

The idea of a mysterious creature who extracts talents as spheres from other living creatures is a unique one and the creature itself has some good nuance. The descriptions of it are definitely creepy and put this story in a range for older children. (I think ages 10-12 would be perfect.) The story is set in a vaguely European imaginary land that has a lot of charm and while most of the peripheral characters that our heroes meet are not much more than caricatures, they’re at least interesting caricatures. There’s some mystery as to the creature’s history and motivation which is good because Fortescue is a pretty one-dimensional villain of the evil simply for the sake of being evil type.

Adam is a likeable character and easy to identify with for those of us with modest talents. And since he turns out to be the true hero of this story, he could definitely be encouraging for young readers. On the other hand, I found Cressida to be profoundly unlikeable. She spends most of the book being annoyed at her brother who is actively risking his life to save her talent.

The story dragged on a little long for me and my major issue with it was that I found a lot of the sentence structure to be awkward and unnatural. This may have been more noticeable because I was reading it aloud to Pearl but there were many spots where the dialogue didn’t ring true and words were repeated. (I mean, how many times can different characters look bemused?) I wasn’t super engaged all the way through but I think a young reader certainly could be.

Book Review: Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien (Reading with Pearl)

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Roverandom, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002

Although not as widely known as some of other Tolkien’s books (have you heard of The Lord of the Rings?), Roverandom is one of my favourite reads on a sick day. So when Pearl recently had her first cold and wanted lots of cuddles, we snuggled up together and I read this to her.

It’s a fun, fantastical, nonsensical read. After Rover – who is a dog, if you couldn’t guess – reacts poorly to aggravation and unwittingly bites a wizard in the bottom, he is turned into a small toy. He’s bought as a gift for a little boy (a stand-in for Tolkien’s middle son, Michael) and taken to a house by the seaside. Eager to return home and to no longer be a toy, Rover escapes from the boy and swept into adventures that include meeting more wizards, travelling to the moon, and spending time at the mer-king’s palace under the sea. Along the way he meets some other Rovers and his name becomes Roverandom.

The book has some of Tolkien’s classic references to mythology and folktales but is completely separate from his tales of Middle Earth. It started as a bedtime story for his sons and though he seems to have fleshed it out, that’s still where it works best. There are some holes and large sections of Rover’s story that are simply alluded to and then passed right by (maybe bedtime was running long and J.R.R. was feeling tired). It’s not fine literature but it’s fun and magical and appealing to anyone who enjoys fairy tales and dogs.

Book Review: Remembrance by Alistair MacLeod

Remembrance, McClelland & Stewart, 2012

Remembrance, McClelland & Stewart, 2012

Remembrance is a short book, more of an essay, really than maybe even a story. I read it in one middle-of-the-night baby-feeding session. It’s the story of three David MacDonalds; father and son and grandfather. The focus is primarily the first David MacDonald, who left his pregnant wife and young daughter to serve with the Canadian forces in Italy and Holland during World War Two. Who returned three years later to find his wife and two daughters and a two-year-old boy named David MacDonald.

It’s the story of a man at war and the way that war ripples outward and into the rest of his life. Into his son’s life, into his grandson’s life. The way war lasts in the history of a town, a country. It’s a Canadian story. About the way a country forms and how people live. How people live through things like war and how they live afterward when things are never really the same.

It’s also a story about immigration and small towns and injuries and what makes a family and what love looks like.

That’s a lot to pack into less than fifty pages but somehow MacLeod does it. He accomplishes this by showing us a lot and telling us very little. There aren’t a lot of details about the war – he trusts that we’ve heard those stories and read those books before. Instead, there are details about a man getting older, about a woodpile and standing in a yard too early in the morning. Instead of telling us about love and family and choice, there is a ladder and a late night car ride. There are signs on a road in Holland and a few unanswered questions because this is what life is made up of. There’s a melancholy that lingers over this brief story but it’s lovely too and with a few words, MacLeod brings this part of our nation’s history to life. It isn’t inspiring, it doesn’t glorify the history of war or the plight of the immigrant. It simply is. Just as our country has simply been shaped by these facts of history. This story is a deceptively simple reminder of everything war is and costs and leaves behind.

Weekend Travels

My birthday present to Peter this year was tickets to Hey Rosetta! in Vancouver and so this past weekend, we headed over to the Big City.

There was a time when going to an event in the city was an easy occasion. Throw a change of clothes in a bag, pull up to the ferry terminal ten minutes before sailing to walk on, walk off on the other side to get on the bus and, boom, you’re in Vancouver. Wander around downtown, see a band play, eat food. Don’t worry about the time. You can sleep late Saturday morning.

Oh, how life changes.

I'm just going to put this picture here. No particular reason.

I’m just going to put this picture here. No particular reason.

Now, for such a weekend, a plan is necessary. Before I even bought the tickets, I had to check that we had family willing to hang out with our sleeping baby. If all went well, Pearl would be asleep when we left for the concert and asleep when we returned and asleep all the way through.

We had to pack carefully. Still just a simple change of clothes for me but multiple changes for Pearl (just in case). Plus blankets, sheets, her pack-and-play to sleep and nap in, toys, and diapers. Cannot forget diapers.

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“Diapers, jammies, and a bunny” – Peter, describing Pearl’s necessities.

We had timed it carefully to catch the earliest possible ferry after Peter finished work, with enough time to get to my family and get Pearl settled so that we could leave before the concert started. Predictably, the ferry was late.

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We let her drive for a while.

Despite the timing not being what we hoped for, Peter and I made it to the venue right before Yukon Blonde came on stage as the opening band and Pearl slept the entire time. Peter and I even stopped for street hot dogs on the way back.

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The next day we swapped with our babysitters. Saturday morning was French toast, cartoons, and hide-and-seek. (Pearl is not a great hide-and-seek partner.) Our girl got seriously loved on by her big cousins.

And then we packed up our copious amounts of things and came home. All in all, I call it a success.

Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice & Virgil, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010

Beatrice & Virgil, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010

Sometimes you reach the end of a book and you have to go into the other room and simply sit and stare at your sleeping baby for a few minutes.

Yann Martel is, of course, best known as the author of The Life of Pi. A book that powerful is a hard act to follow and while Beatrice & Virgil doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it nonetheless packs its own punches.

The title characters are two taxidermied animals – a donkey and a howler monkey. Our protagonist is Henry. Henry is a very successful author who has just spent five years writing his second book. It’s an unusual fiction/essay combo about the Holocaust and when he presents it to his publishers they tell him it’s unpublishable. Henry argues this but eventually gives in and instead he and his wife move to a new city where Henry works in a chocolate shop, acts in an amateur theatre group, and awaits the birth of his firstborn. Clearly, Henry is a prototype of the author himself, who also has a son named Theo and wrote a book about the Holocaust that was deemed unpublishable.

When Henry receives a letter and a portion of a play from a reader also named Henry, he ends up meeting this other Henry in person. The other Henry is in his eighties and runs a taxidermy shop. He is writing a play about Beatrice and Virgil, who are taxidermied animals in his shop. The play is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, involving the animals talking and not doing much. The taxidermist wants Henry’s help but is reluctant to answer questions, about either himself or the play. Henry begins to understand that the play is about the Holocaust. But it isn’t talking about the Holocaust in a way you might expect and his final realization of the truth of the situation has serious repercussions.

While Henry makes a number of choices that I wouldn’t make (like hanging around a taxidermy shop), Martel unfolds the plot carefully and steadily so that Henry’s actions are easy to understand. Henry is a normal, likeable enough guy, caught up in a strange situation. To some extent, the thing he is most guilty of is an inability to be rude. On the other hand, the taxidermist seems almost unreal. We learn very little about him though his actions and his personality are mostly off-putting. When Henry’s wife meets him, she deems the taxidermist creepy and I had to agree. But it’s a fascinating type of creepy and, like Henry, the reader wants to know more.

Where the novel falters is in long asides and descriptions. Particularly pages long details about taxidermy. There were several spots that I found myself skimming over and the book is really not that long. At the same time, though the play within the novel is fascinating and becomes more interesting as we understand more of its significance, some of its scenes drag on too long. The ending however, will get you in the gut. I found it hard to read with just how intense it got but that’s clearly Martel’s intention.

Having heard Beatrice & Virgil described as a disappointing follow-up, I was pleasantly surprised by it. If you’re expecting a book as powerful and well-articulated as Life of Pi this isn’t it but Martel is clearly an excellent writer.