Monday, 23 January 2017

All That Matters



All That Matters Although All That Matters is the sequel to Wayson Choy’s first novel, The Jade Peony, it is actually a parallel story. Told this time from the point of view of the eldest son of the Chen family, rather than his younger siblings, the Chens have arrived in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression and prior to World War II. 

The Chen family is sponsored by Third Uncle, a distant relative who has no immediate kin to share his business with, so he arranges the passage for the Chens; father, grandmother (Poh Poh) and First Son, Kiam-Kim.

In this novel, we follow the family’s challenges through the eyes of Kiam-Kim, the First Son, who strives to uphold the honour of the family, a responsibility he takes very seriously. Kiam-Kim tries very hard to be a good example to his younger siblings as he himself comes of age in a new country, while trying to maintain the old traditions among the new ways.   

Poh Poh is representative of the old ways, intriguing the children with her stories and superstitions that she uses to keep the children in line. As Kiam-Kim grows up, he becomes less caught up in these stories, being pulled into the promise that life in Canada holds for him.

Choy gives us a historical inside look into Chinatown as we go with Kiam-Kim and his father on their collection work for Third Uncle. This work introduces us to many of the families and takes us inside the poverty and struggle of many of the residents of Chinatown and the difficulties many families faced. Choy’s descriptive writing and the first person narrative of Kiam-Kim lends itself to having the reader feel like they are in the middle of the events, right there back in the early days of Gold Mountain.  

I recommend this book for anyone interested in local history. I relished reading about the familiar places I often visit today and it was enjoyable to visit with the Chen family again.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation




All the Single Ladies
By Rebecca Trainster

From the title, you might mistakenly assume Rebecca Traister’s “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation” is a self-help tome or maybe a biography of BeyoncĂ©, but it’s actually a well-written and engaging history of the women’s liberation movement in the United States.

Traister’s shorter journalistic pieces have appeared in the New York Observer, New York Magazine and on Salon.com among others, and she is an award-winning non-fiction writer. “All the Single Ladies” is a well-researched analysis of the women’s movement and how it has shifted from the 19th century until now. She examines the history, detailing the stories of abolitionists, female authors, suffragettes and royalty. Single women, long an uncomfortable threat to the status quo, were portrayed as unhappy, promiscuous, and otherwise lacking- Traister aims to highlight how, culturally, these women are now beginning to be seen as powerful in their own right.

Traister writes both analytically and personally, interspersing history and personal anecdotes. She herself only married at 35 years old, and lived independently in New York until then. She interviews academics and bloggers, social scientists and teachers, married women and single women, and these women discuss their relationships, breakups, female friendships and financial situations. The result is a book that is analytical and informative, yet still maintains an accessible voice. Most importantly, she addresses that not every woman has the same experience; issues of race, location, class, and sexual orientation are all factors in how a person experiences their own singleness.

Chapter Four (brilliantly titled: Dangerous as Lucifer Matches: The Friendships of Women) was especially poignant for me. In popular culture, women can often be shown viciously pitted against each other. This chapter, celebrating female friendships, could have been an entire book on its own – tracing best friendship between women from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”’s Mary and Rhoda. Not all women require a romantic partner to be their closest friend, some maintain close relationships with other women, and this chapter does a great job of exploring why.

I ended up buying a copy of this book for my (married) best friend. It’s intelligent without being overly academic, relatable without being slipshod, and it reminds readers that single and coupled life can both offer a myriad of options.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Ragged Company



Ragged CompanyFour homeless people, each with a different story to tell, are brought to life by Richard Wagamese in Ragged Company. These people were drawn into my heart and remained there long after I put this book away. Amelia, Digger, Dick and Timber live on the streets of Toronto, and look out for each other, following the code of the street.

When the weather turns to sub-zero temperatures, the foursome seek out the warmth of a local movie theatre. Being drawn into the world of the movies, they return frequently to warm up and enjoy the entertainment. On many of these occasions, they meet Granite, a journalist who is in the theatre hiding from his own life and through these coincidental meetings they strike up an unlikely friendship.

When the group win the lottery and have trouble cashing in the ticket as they have no ID or a fixed address, they turn to Granite for help. While this relationship has the potential to be portrayed as the heroic white man coming to their rescue, this storyline is written honestly and humbly, showing Granite’s genuine caring for his friends, allowing them to take the lead on what they want and need from him.

The large lottery win sets the group up for life, but it also stirs up their pasts and causes each of them in turn to face some demons that they have been hiding from. Wagamese takes the time to let us get to know each character and brings us into their lives respectfully and genuinely telling their stories with an understanding of what it means to be on the street.

The big win allows them to buy a house for all of them to live in, which begins the exploration of what exactly is home. Is it necessary to have those four walls to have a home or is it something more than that- something that each of us have inside of us, that perhaps money cannot buy.

This thought provoking book is a must read – it is a beautifully written story that invokes many feelings and an understanding of humanity and what home means to each of us.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Barkskins

Barkskins
Barkskins
By Annie Proulx



At one time, forests, seemingly endless and eternal, covered much of North America.  These forests were occupied by aboriginal people who understood the symbiotic relationship between humans and the forest ecosystem.   As the Europeans arrived, wood became more than a source of shelter and heat: it became a commodity.  Annie Proulx’ Barkskins is the story of the rise of the lumber industry and the subsequent decline of the forest.

When Charles Duquet and Rene Sel arrive in the New World in 1693, they are indentured servants.  They are immediately confronted with “dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.”  They must work for the cruel Claude Trepagny for years before acquiring land to work as their own.

Rene Sel works diligently, chopping trees and clearing the forest, waiting for his promised land.  Eventually he marries Mari, a Micmac woman, producing several children.

Charles Duquet, however, will not be subject to Trepagny’s whims and disappears into the forest, eventually joining the fur trade.  Duquet shows himself to be a skilled businessman, driven by ambition.  Unlike those around him, he sees an opportunity in the infinite forest that surrounds him.

He starts his own logging business: Duquet and Sons.  Over the years it becomes Duke and Sons, taking the English name to reflect the changing times.  Duquet, like other Europeans, has no qualms about removing the forest; it is an endless and renewable resource.

Rene Sel’s descendants, part French and part Micmac, lose their Micmac heritage over time.  European ideology becomes the predominant way of thinking: land is there for the taking and humans must bend it to our will.  It is the white man’s duty to cut down the savage forests and subjugate its inhabitants.

Fast forward to today.  Sel and Duquet descendants, still working in the woods, become biologists and activists.  Even those in the lumber industry finally begin to understand that the vast ecosystems of old growth forests can never be replaced.

Of course, there is much more to this 700 page story.  At its heart, Barkskins is a family saga.  Generations of Sels and Duquets are born, grow, marry, have children (often with each other) and die.  It is also a history, not only of logging but ideology.  Proulx explores the idea of man versus nature, and asks whether the two are indeed in conflict.  Perhaps, as the first peoples of this continent believed, we are one.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Commonwealth




Commonwealth
by Ann Patchett



Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth, grabbed me from the first page. Some stories take a while to get into, but this one had me from the opening section of the novel, set at a family christening party. It flows — from character to character and room to room and even house to house — with such visual grace that it’s almost like a movie. Everything is vivid, from the sounds of the party to the scent of the drinks. Patchett is descriptive but not flowery, an author who always seems to know just what needs to be written.  

The novel focuses on two families, the Cousins and the Keatings, and their messy association. Stories about dysfunctional families can tend toward clichĂ©; it’s become a rather well-worn device. This isn’t that, a woe-is-me tale of divorce and hostile step-children. The novel surprises at every turn and I rarely knew what would happen next due to its layered characterizations. 
 
I’ll give you the bare minimum: the two families become interwoven by events that are set in motion at an orange-and-gin saturated suburban party. Fix Keating- a police officer in Torrance, California — watches as Bert Cousins, a co-worker who is barely an acquaintance, turns up at his daughter Franny’s christening.  This will have a disastrous effect on Fix’s marriage- before the night is through, Bert will kiss Beverly Keating. Bert eventually leaves his own wife and children, and he and Beverly will take the Keating daughters and move to Virginia. Franny is as close as this novel gets to a main character, though the novel regularly follows Bert, Fix, Beverly and others.  

The novel shifts very successfully between past and present, covering five decades in the lives of these characters. It’s both funny and poignant, and as I began to reach the last pages of the book I already knew I would miss them. You won’t find a huge overarching plot, it’s just life — just the lives of a number of semi-regular people- and that Patchett can bring such energy and interest to it is a sort of magic. Highly recommended.