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Friday, March 31, 2017

Review of THE MIDNIGHT SUN by Cecilia Ekbäck


4 Stars
I really liked Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, so I was really interested in reading this second one, again set near the fictional Blackåsen Mountain in Swedish Lapland. 

Events are set in 1856 in the summer when the sun barely sets in northern Sweden.  Three settlers have been killed by a Lapp in the settlement near Blackåsen.  Magnus Stille, a geologist, is sent by his father-in-law, the Minister of Justice, to investigate the murders while mapping the iron-rich mountain.  Magnus is also instructed to take Lovisa, his sister-in-law, with him since her father has banished her from his home for some unacceptable behaviour.  The two of them make the arduous trip to remote Blackåsen where they find a mountain and a community reluctant to divulge its secrets.

There are three narrators:  Magnus, Lovisa, and Biija/Ester, an elderly Lapp woman who guides Magnus around the mountain.  A fourth narrator, a voice from the spirit world, appears about a third of the way through the novel; this voice utters three unsettling words in its first narration:  There you are” (96).

There is a claustrophobic atmosphere.  The village is remote and isolated and its inhabitants “’keep to themselves  . . . [and] don’t like strangers’” (74).  It’s obvious that there are secrets which they do not want to share.  Nearby is a tribe of the mysterious Lapps who are perceived as a threat by some people.  And then there’s the desolate landscape and the mountain itself which overlooks everything and is a constant, brooding presence. 

A mystery needs to be solved.  Did the Lapp in custody actually kill the three settlers?  He refuses to speak to defend himself.  If he is guilty, what was his motivation?   There are, however, other conflicts as well.  As the book blurb states, this is a story “of the collision of worlds old and new.”  The possible mining of the mountain is opposed by those who want it left alone, as it has been in the past.  The Lapps believe that humans, animals, and nature are connected and so have a deep respect for nature.   This view, the bedrock of their traditional faith, clashes with the advances of industrialization and Christianity, both of which focus on man dominating nature.    

Besides showing the destruction of native culture and the land, the book also touches on the patriarchal domination of women.  Lovisa is a woman who is very much a victim of male oppression.  She is expected to conform to society’s expectations; since she does not, she is sent into exile by her father.  She is even told by a friend of her father’s, “’I don’t know anything about you.  Nothing at all.  But I can imagine your life has not been easy. . . . Your father thought any human a blank slate that could be tailored to whatever he wanted it to be. . . . I wanted to say that it is likely that whatever has happened between you and your father is not your fault’” (234).  Lovisa thinks about Magnus:  “He’s a man.  He can choose what to do, when, and with whom, without suffering ill will and small-mindedness.  I can’t” (92).  Magnus eventually realizes, “If Lovisa had been encouraged, given responsibilities as a young girl, if she hadn’t been asked to conform, what would she have been like today” (166)?

Several examples are inserted of what happens to women who do not meet expectations:  a woman is placed in a madhouse by her husband (57); a radical female writer who questions rules is “unspoken to by the men, avoided by the women” (94); Lovisa’s mother is thought of as “a lesser being” by her husband (208); and a woman marries and breeds to escape from a domineering father (282).

The paternalistic attitude also extends to the Lapps.  Various people speak of them in derogatory terms:  “’Ignorant, yes.  Some say apathetic, without any drive to better themselves or create proper lives’” (17) and “’The Lapps are like children.  Nomads, you know, less evolved.  We are trying to help them, but they are unsteady’” (51) and “’their spirits are weak’” (78).  Marriage to a Lapp, Lovisa sees only as a punishment (266) or an act of desperation (282).  For me, one of the saddest observations is made by Biija.  Her husband Nila, the tribe’s shaman, recently died:  “Nila was our mapmaker, the keeper of our memories, of our legends, and he was the last one.  Never again will our people have a noiade.  Without him, we have no past” (175).

Characterization is excellent.  The three major narrators are fully developed characters with strengths and weaknesses, good qualities and flaws.  At times I was angered by the behaviour of both Magnus and Lovisa, and yet at other times, I could not but feel sympathy for them.  Magnus and Lovisa also grow and change; Magus finds his identity and Lovisa discovers a cause. 

The revelations are not a total surprise; by page 189, I guessed a major secret because of the foreshadowing.  Neither is the ending a surprise; in fact, the ending seems inevitable.  However, the ending will also give you reason to think and think again.

I found this a compelling read.  Some of the supernatural elements sometimes bothered me but they are totally appropriate to the time and place.  Whether set in relentless winter or relentless summer, Ekbäck’s novels do not disappoint. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Canada Reads 2017: A Major Disappointment

Canada Reads 2017 was a major disappointment.

The books were poorly chosen.    
Including a memoir alongside four novels muddied the discussion.  The qualities and characteristics of fiction and non-fiction are different so I’m reminded of the old adage about comparing apples and oranges.  (Candy actually agreed with me on Day 3.)
The books also deal with different issues (e.g. climate change, lives of Indigenous women, immigration) so the panelists were put in a position where they had to rank one issue as more important than the rest. 
Overall, I found the quality of the books uneven.  I read all four novels and gave 4 stars to only one of them; the others were given 2.5, 3 and 3.5 stars.  In past years, most of the books in contention have earned 4 stars.

The way a tie was broken made no sense.  And Strategic Voting?
On the first day, The Break was eliminated.  A panelist whose book is one of the two tied for elimination gets to cast the deciding vote?!  Even Chantal Kreviazuk, the panelist in question, was skeptical of the fairness of this approach.
On Day Three, Jodi admitted to voting against The Break on the first day because he saw it as his strongest competitor?  Canada Reads is not Survivor!

The debaters didn’t seem to be prepared.
The debate was not of the quality I’ve come to expect from Canada Reads.  It seemed that the debaters kept repeating the same things over and over again about their books.  The panelists were not always able to elucidate the depths they claimed were in their books.
Measha  Brueggergosman, according to the CBC website “eloquently responded” to a criticism that  characters in Company Town aren't three-dimensional.  Her comment that “I think all of the distance that we feel to the characters in the book is created on purpose because we see them through the omniscient perspective of Hwa” explained that distance is created intentionally but doesn’t address the purpose of that distance.
Candy Palmater spoke well and was passionate about her book, but if a book didn’t deal with LGBTQ or Indigenous issues, she was dismissive.
How many times did listeners have to hear that Humble the Poet used to be a grade 3 teacher? 
Jody Mitic seemed not to know his book Nostalgia very well; ethnic and religious wars, famine, economic subjugation, class divides, science versus faith conflicts, immigration anxieties, and concerns about the dehumanizing effects of technological and scientific advances are all found in the novel and in our world, yet he kept repeating only that people can’t run from their pasts. 
Chantal Kreviazuk hijacked the entire event through her emotionalism, understandable though it might be in the circumstances.  She found every question difficult?

The winner is Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis.  In my opinion, it is NOT the book Canadians need to read right now.  See my review at http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2015/11/review-of-fifteen-dogs-by-andre-alexis.html.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

PEN America Literary Awards


Yesterday, the winners of the PEN America Literary Awards were announced.  The 2017 PEN America Literary Awards conferred 23 distinct awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes totaling nearly $315,000 across a broad range of categories including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting, translation, and more.

The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction ($25,000) is given to an author whose debut work—a first novel or collection of short stories published in 2016—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.  The winner is Rion Amilcar Scott for Insurrections, a collection of short stories.  

In Insurrections, Rion Amilcar Scott portrays individuals growing up and growing old in an African American community, residents of the fictional town of Cross River, Maryland, a largely black settlement founded in 1807 after the only successful slave revolt in the United States.  Scott presents characters who dare to make their own choices -- choices of kindness or cruelty -- in the depths of darkness and hopelessness:  a suicidal father looks to an older neighbour -- and the Cookie Monster -- for salvation and sanctuary as his life begins to unravel.  A man seeking to save his estranged, drug-addicted brother from the city's underbelly confronts his own mortality.  A chess match between a girl and her father turns into a master class about life, self-realization, and pride: "Now hold on little girl.... Chess is like real life. The white pieces go first so they got an advantage over the black pieces."

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

National Book Critics Circle Awards Winners


Recently, the National Book Critics Circle announced the recipients of its book awards for publishing year 2016. 

The winner for fiction was Louise Erdrich for LaRose, a novel about an accidental shooting and its aftermath for two Native American families.

Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing, a novel that spans continents and centuries to wrap its arms around the African-American experience of slavery, was the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, recognizing an outstanding first book in any genre.  (See my review at http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/02/review-of-homegoing-by-yaa-gyasi.html.)  

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was Margaret Atwood. 
Named after the first president of the NBCC, the award is given annually to a person or institution---a writer, publisher, critic, or editor, among others---who has, over time, made significant contributions to book culture.  In her acceptance speech, Atwood spoke about the important work literary critics do:    http://bookcritics.org/blog/archive/margaret-atwood.

“Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle Awards are given annually to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. The awards are open to any book published in the United States in English (including translations). The National Book Critics Circle comprises more than 700 critics and editors from leading newspapers, magazines and online publications.”  For a complete list of winners in all categories, go to http://bookcritics.org/awards/.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Canada Reads Debate Begins Today


The Canada Reads debate begins today.  I’ve read four of the five books; here are my reviews:





The nominee I didn’t read is the non-fiction book The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
“The former head of the international Inuit Circumpolar Council and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, author and activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier chronicles the impact climate change has had on northern communities and makes the case that this environmental crisis is indeed a human rights issue. Weaving together environmental, cultural and economic issues, Watt-Cloutier makes a passionate and personal plea for change” (http://www.cbc.ca/books/2015/01/the-right-to-be-cold.html).

I’m hoping for The Break; it is the best of the novels. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Trump Tries to Read a Book?!


I’ve posted in the past about how Donald Trump does not read books: http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2016/08/american-presidents-and-presidential.html.  Ironically, he has inspired novels (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/03/trump-inspired-novels.html) and lists of books to be read during his presidency (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/02/what-to-read-during-trumps-presidency.html). 

On March 15, in an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, Trump stated that he loved to read:  “Well, you know, I love to read. Actually, I’m looking at a book, I’m reading a book, I’m trying to get started. Every time I do about a half a page, I get a phone call that there’s some emergency, this or that. But we’re going to see the home of Andrew Jackson today in Tennessee and I’m reading a book on Andrew Jackson. I love to read. I don’t get to read very much, Tucker, because I’m working very hard on lots of different things, including getting costs down. The costs of our country are out of control. But we have a lot of great things happening, we have a lot of tremendous things happening.”

Using this statement as inspiration, Katy Waldman wrote this comic scenario in Slate magazine:  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/low_concept/2017/03/donald_trump_tries_to_read_a_book.html.   Check it out and have a chuckle. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Lost and/or Found Manuscripts by Famous Writers


In a couple of recent posts, I’ve mentioned rediscovered works by well-known writers.  There’s the novel by Walt Whitman (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/03/walt-whitman-novel-discovered.html) and a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (http://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/03/new-f-scott-fitzgerald-story.html).

The fall 2016 issue of The Strand magazine included a newly discovered short story entitled “The Haunted Ceiling” by H. G. Wells written in the mid-1890s.   The story is about a man driven mad by a woman’s ghost in his ceiling:  https://strandmag.com/product/unpublished-h-g-wells-story/.  (This plot sounds similar to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" published in 1843.)

Last fall, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, a new children’s story by Beatrix Potter, was published.  It’s about a serious, well-behaved young black cat, who leads a daring double life defeating villains.  For the story of its discovery, read http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2016/01/26/rediscovered-beatrix-potter-story-delight-new-generation-kids/79348750/.

2015 saw the publication of What Pet Should I Get?  That’s a Dr. Seuss children's book believed to have been written between 1958 and 1962.  The book chronicles the adventures of Jay and Kay from Seuss' One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish in their attempts to buy a pet.  The New York Times wrote about its discovery in a box:  https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/books/dr-seuss-book-a-discovery-in-a-box-and-then-a-reconstruction.html?_r=0.

Of course, not all works by writers find their way into print.   Here’s an article about books you will probably never be able to put on your shelves because they've either been stolen or destroyed:  http://mentalfloss.com/article/92922/unpublished-manuscripts-7-famous-authors. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review of THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

3.5 Stars
Middle-aged Evie Boyd looks back to the summer of 1969 when as a 14-year-old teenager she became involved in a Manson-like cult.  Drawn to a free-spirited rebellious woman named Suzanne, Evie is introduced to the commune of which Suzanne is a member.  Evie gradually becomes involved in the cult’s lifestyle of free love, drugs, and crime.    

The characterization of the teenaged Evie is a strong element in the book.  Evie’s parents are virtually absent from her life; nothing seems to be happening in her life; she feels alienated from her peers; and her crushes on boys are unreciprocated.  As a result, she is bored and drifting through life and is desperate for attention and love.  The older Suzanne sees her neediness and gives her the attention she desires.  Evie thrives on being noticed and focuses on trying to please Suzanne and the cult leader, Russell Hadrick, so their love and attention will not be withdrawn.  Of course, Evie is being manipulated:  she is forced into sexual service and encouraged to steal to supply food and money for the group. 

It becomes clear how certain people can be drawn into belonging to a cult.  Both Russell and Suzanne are adept at recognizing young women who lack confidence and self-esteem.  These insecure, lonely women are easily malleable.  Some attention makes them feel, like Evie, that they are “the center of a singular drama.”  As an adult, Evie can recognize the tactics Russell used on her during her first evening at the commune:  “Russell had put me through a series of ritual tests. . . . Attracting the thin, harried girls with partial college degrees and neglectful parents, girls with hellish bosses and dreams of nose jobs.  His bread and butter. . . . Already he’d become an expert in female sadness – a particular slump in the shoulders, a nervous rash.  A subservient lilt at the end of sentences, eyelashes gone soggy from crying.  Russell did the same thing to me that he did to those girls.  Little tests, first.  A touch on my back, a pulse of my hand.  Little ways of breaking down boundaries” (125). 

The novel examines the world of young women and does not present a pleasant picture.  Young girls are objectified and their self-esteem is directly connected to how they meet society’s ideals of feminine beauty and deportment.  Young girls are often targets of sexual exploitation; Evie lists several instances of how men saw her need and used it against her:  “a stranger at a fair who palmed my crotch through my shorts.  A man on the sidewalk who lunged at me, then laughed when I flinched.  The night an older man took me to a fancy restaurant . . . [and] later placed my hand on his dick while he drove me home.  None of this was rare.  Things like this happened hundreds of times.  Maybe more” (349 – 350).  I’d bet there are few women who can’t list such encounters from their personal experience. 

The message is that times have changed but what is expected of women has not.  Women are expected to accept the dehumanizing demands of men.  Evie sees her behaviour paralleled in the behaviour of a young woman named Sasha whose boyfriend Julian coerces her into exposing her breasts to a friend of his.  Then Sasha “barely said goodbye.  Burrowing into Julian’s side, her face set like a preventative against my pity.  She had already absented herself, I knew, gone to that other place in her mind where Julian was sweet and kind and life was fun, or if it wasn’t fun, it was interesting, and wasn’t that valuable, didn’t that mean something” (338)?  This is so similar to Evie’s 14-year-old self “trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love” (47). 

If you’ve ever wondered how women could have been attracted to Charles Manson and why they would have killed for him, you might want to read this book.  You may find yourself wanting to shake Evie out of her naivety but you may also come to an understanding of the appeal of cults for certain people whose vulnerability makes them targets for the unscrupulous.   

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Literary Colouring Books


Colouring books for adults have become very popular recently.  If you are a reader as well as a colourer, you might be interested in this article listing 11 colouring books based on literature:  http://mentalfloss.com/article/88176/11-literature-themed-coloring-books?platform=hootsuite.

Besides the ones listed above, there are a few others that caught my attention: 


Little Red Riding Hood: An Adult Coloring Book with Classic Fantasy Characters and Relaxing Country Scenes (Based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales)

 



 


Pride & Prejudice: An Adult Coloring Book with Romantic Country Scenes, Historical English Women, and Vintage Floral Dresses (Inspired by the Best-Selling Novel by Jane Austen)


 

The Official Outlander Coloring Book




 





                                          The Literary Romance Coloring Book





This last one I think might be the most fun.  Perhaps “literature” is not the appropriate word to use for romance comics, but these types of comics are often introductions to more serious reading.