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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review of WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje

4 Stars
In the first part of the novel, Nathaniel, 14, and Rachel, 16, are left in post-war London “in the care of two men who may have been criminals” (5) when their parents announce they are going to Singapore for a year.  As a result, the teens grow up with a household lodger (whom they nickname The Moth) as their official guardian, though other adults appear in the house as well:  an ethnographer; a former boxer turned racing greyhound smuggler; a tall, skeletal man who tells Nathaniel, “’Your mother is away.  Doing something important. . . . Your mother’s all right.  Just be careful’” (104). 

Part II is set in 1959 when Nathaniel, 28, decides to solve the riddle that was his mother Rose.  Since it seems she did not go to Singapore, where did she go?  What about her other disappearances?  How did she get the scars on her arms?  As Nathaniel reviews what happened in his and his mother’s pasts, some of what happened in the first part begins to make more sense. 

The book examines how people are shaped by their pasts:  “What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here” (274).  Being abandoned by his parents, Nathaniel feels insecure and constantly yearns for safety.  He mentions, “If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on an hourly basis” (169).  He constantly draws maps to give his life order amidst chaos:  “as a boy in London I was obsessively drawing maps of our neighbourhood in order to feel secure” (137).  As an adult, he buys a house with a walled garden which gives him a “sense of safety” (126). 

Rachel argues that she and Nathaniel were harmed by their mother’s neglect of them:  “’We were damaged, Nathaniel.  Recognize that’” (151).  Scars are used to symbolize the marks left by the past:  Rose has scars on her arms; Arthur McCash has slash marks on his abdomen; an interrogator has smallpox marks; Mr. Nkoma has a scar on his cheek, etc.  As an adult, Nathaniel worries about the unknown damage he may have done to others:  “But who did I hurt to get here? . . . But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do?” (274)

The novel also examines the repercussions of war.  It is repeated that “’Wars don’t end.  They never remain in the past’” (212) and “’Wars are never over’” (248).  Though World War II has ended, Rose and her family continue to be affected by the “questionable decisions of war” (177).  Rose admits, “’My sins are various’” (177), so it is not surprising that she is comforted to live in a house with a nightingale floor.

Readers who do not relish ambiguity will feel frustrated because there are no tidy conclusions.  At the beginning, Nathaniel mentions having a photo of his mother as a teenager:  “This almost anonymous person, balanced awkwardly, holding on to her own safety.  Already incognito” (16).  In many ways, she remains that way.  Through his research, Nathaniel does learn things about his mother, but he also relies on conjecture; in the end, he admits, “All I had, in reality, was no more than a half-finished verse of an old ballad rather than evidence. . . . I could only step into fragments of the story” (229).  Memory is unreliable, some people remain silent, and other people deliberately deceive him, so the full truth is not known.

Several techniques are used to enhance the meaning of the novel.  There is the non-linear narrative which means the reader shares Nathaniel’s bewilderment as he searches for the “lost sequence” (129) of his life.  Of course, the title clearly suggests that much is not illuminated.  Warlight refers to the dimmed lights used during wartime blackouts so that much remained obscured.  Likewise, Nathaniel seems to be feeling his way through semi-darkness as he tries to unearth the truth.  Some mysteries come to light but others remain shrouded in darkness.  Even the constant use of nicknames (Wren, The Moth, The Darter, Viola, Agnes Street) suggest a cloak of secrecy, though Stitch, Nathaniel’s nickname, is particularly appropriate since he tries to stitch together his mother’s past. 

The lyrical prose, non-linear plotting, and memorable characters make this a trademark Ondaatje novel.  There is also the typical development of theme found in the works of this author in which even the tiniest of details is significant.  Just like the placement of a sprig of rosemary in a jacket pocket and the listening to a naturalist’s radio program are significant in the novel, every word and image are relevant in the book.  It is a book that deserves re-reading.

Sunday, May 27, 2018


3 Stars
I read this book because it was the winner of the 2018 Canada Reads competition.  I saw American War by Omar El Akkad as the book that best fit the theme of “One Book to Open Your Eyes” so when Forgiveness was chosen the winner, I thought it must be something very special.  It isn’t.

This is a family memoir focusing on the lives of the author’s paternal grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, and his maternal grandfather, Ralph MacLean, during World War II.  Mitsue and her family, because of the Canadian government’s decision to force all those of Japanese descent to move away from B.C.’s coast, worked as virtual slaves on farms in Alberta.  Ralph MacLean enlisted in the army but spent almost the entire war in a Japanese POW camp.  In the last part of the book, the author discusses growing up with his alcoholic mother. 

Mitsue and Ralph’s stories are certainly worth telling, though I didn’t really learn anything new.  People who have read Obasan by Joy Kogawa (about the internment of Japanese Canadians), and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (inspired by the experiences of his father in a Japanese POW camp) will be aware of much of what Mark Sakamoto’s grandparents endured.   It is the story of the coming together of the families of these two people who suffered so much that most interested me.

Unfortunately, this story is largely missing, though the title suggests that Mitsue and Ralph’s ability to forgive is going to be the focus.  All we are given is mention of the dinner where the two families first met; we are told “Mitsue and Ralph became instant friends.  There was an unspoken understanding between them. . . . Deep down, they knew each other.  They had both discarded the past, keeping only what they needed, leaving the rest behind.  They did not compare hardships or measure injustices.  They knew there was no merit to that.”  That’s it!  There is no discussion of how they achieved this discarding of the past and moving on.

We are told that Ralph, upon being freed from the POW camp, read the Bible:  “’And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him.’”    Ralph read this passage and immediately forgave the camp commandant:  “So, where could he go from there?  How on earth could he move on?  The truth was, he already had.”  Sakamoto implies that Ralph suffered with PTSD, yet forgiveness came  so easy for him?  As a reader, I would have liked details:  How did Ralph react when his daughter Diane first told him that she was dating a man with Japanese heritage?  Apparently he never raised the issue of Stanley’s race? The first meeting with Stanley was not strained?  Ralph was able to forgive those who held him captive for years, yet he never forgave his father?  With Mitsue, even less is known about how she was able to forgive.  Was she able to forgive the Canadian government for what it did to her and her family?  And why does Sakamoto focus on Mitsue but not her husband Hideo?  Was Hideo less able to forgive?

Sakamoto’s definition of forgiveness is part of the problem.  Forgiveness is generally defined as a deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward someone who has harmed them.  Forgiveness frees the forgiver from corrosive anger so he/she can heal and move on with his/her life.  Sakamoto’s definition of forgiveness is simplistic:  “Forgiveness is moving on.  It is a daily act that looks forward.  Forgiveness smiles.”  Sakamoto skips over the conscious, intentional letting go of negative feelings that is the real act of forgiveness.  And it is this act that he skips in his story.

The quality of the writing is uneven.  Some people are introduced as if they are going to be important and then are never mentioned again.  There is little attempt to portray people realistically; Mitsue’s family members, for example, were all kindhearted and talented.  Granted, it is human nature to gloss over failings of those we love.  The melodramatic tone also becomes annoying.  Chapters end with sentences like “He must have wondered why I looked like I had just seen the face of God” and “So, where could he go from there?  How on earth could he move on?  The truth was, he already had.”

This book is a memoir and so people feel badly if they criticize.  I think this was the problem with Canada Reads 2018.  The book does indeed give people an opportunity to reflect on racism in Canada, the horrors of war, and the need for forgiveness, but it hardly opens readers’ eyes to something they wouldn’t have known by reading other – better written – books. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review of SYLVANUS NOW by Donna Morrissey

4 Stars
I read this book in 2005 when it was first published.  I’ve subsequently read the two other books in the trilogy:  What They Wanted and The Fortunate Brother.  I recommended Donna Morrissey to my book club and suggested we start with Sylvanus Now since it’s the first in the series.  And it gave me an opportunity to re-read it.  I think a second reading of it only heightened my appreciation.

Sylvanus Now is a fisherman from the Newfoundland outport community of Cooney Arm.  He falls in love with Adelaide, a beautiful girl from nearby Ragged Rock.  Adelaide wants to escape her stultifying life working the flakes drying cod and helping care for her many siblings.  Sylvanus convinces her to marry him, promising her, “’You won’t ever have to touch a fish agin’” (103) and building her a house with no windows facing the flakes or the sea.  The two face personal tragedies and the outside world intrudes as they work at building a life together.

Set in the 1950s, this novel is also the story of changes in the Newfoundland fishery.  Sylvanus fishes the traditional way, by hand-jigging and drying his catch on flakes, but the traditional fishery is being supplanted by trawlers using gill nets and by giant factory ships.  Sylvanus’s method of fishing is very ethical as well; in the first fishing trip described in the novel, he releases a mother-fish full of roe which has not yet spawned:  “The ocean’s bounty, she was, and woe to he who desecrated the mother’s womb” (4).  His method is contrasted with that of the trawlers, “scraping the bottom, getting the mother-fish and all them not yet spawned” (200).  Sylvanus witnesses one of the colossal factory ships wasting thousands of fish when a net splits:  “Within minutes Sylvanus’s boat was encompassed by the fish now drifting on their backs, their eyes bulging out of their sockets . . . their stomachs bloating out through their mouths . . . Mother-fish.  Thousands of them” (255).   Because of foreign freezer ships, “offshore killers,” the fish Sylvanus catches become smaller and eventually he catches fewer and fewer.  Sylvanus foresees the collapse of the cod fishery because of what he views as a raping of the sea:   “What kind of fool  can’t figure we’re farmers, not hunters; that we don’t search out and destroy the spawning grounds, that we waits for the fish to be done with their seeding, and then they comes to us for harvesting” (219)?

This is very much a novel of character.  Adelaide and Sylvanus in particular are developed in depth.  A reader will feel as if s/he knows these people because they are so realistic.   They have flaws and inner conflicts which make them relatable and sympathetic.  In some ways, the two are foil characters.  For instance, Sylvanus “was poor at book learning” (4); what he loves is his life fishing which gives him “satisfaction” and “fulfilled him” (3).   For Adelaide, school is “salvation.  For it was there her work was tallied, and her excellence in Latin, calligraphy, and reading raised her to the front of the class” (27).  Because he loves the sea, Sylvanus imagines “The sea would be [Adelaide’s] garden” (21), but “She hated the water, hated its stink of brine and rot and jellyfish, and hated how all night long it shifted and moaned like some old crone hagged in sleep.  And worse, she hated the briny smell of salt fish” (26).  Yet they do share some similarities.  For instance, both enjoy being alone, Sylvanus on the sea and Adelaide in her house. 

For me, Adelaide is the most relatable.  She’s a dreamer with aspirations to be a missionary and not just a woman whose worth is “determined by the white of her sheets flapping on the line” (29).  She’s very intelligent and loves school, so being forced to stop her education and work on the flakes is heart-breaking for her; she becomes “a soul forced along another’s wake” (43).  Her desire to escape the wretched work on the flakes and at the cannery and the “bathing, diapering, and feeding the babies, and scrubbing, sweeping, and picking up after the toddlers trailing behind her” (24) is understandable.  Likewise, her desire to be alone is understandable.  She has virtually no time to be alone in peace and quiet.  Unfortunately, her wanting to be alone earns her a reputation as being standoffish.  When women come to comfort her, she interprets their visits as attempts to snoop and gossip:  “so far had she dwelled outside the lives of these neighbours, their goodwill had less effect upon her heart than a tepid kiss upon a wintery cheek” (156). 

Fortunately, Adelaide is a dynamic character.  Suze gives her a gift which acts as a catalyst for change.  Suze also tells her, “’We don’t know half the time what we’re giving others. . . . there’s a comfort knowing others are suffering worse than you right now.  Makes you think about them rather than yourself’” (164).  And Adelaide listens and acknowledges the wisdom of this warm-hearted, generous woman “whose soul she had shunned because it couldn’t read a prayer book” (162).  She realizes her selfishness:  “’Perhaps I don’t think of anybody long enough to talk about them. . . . I never done that in my life – go visiting somebody needing company’” (160).  The window Sylvanus puts in their house symbolizes Adelaide’s new outlook. 

The relationship between the Sylvanus and Adelaide is developed very clearly.  Sylvanus’s love for Adelaide is so obvious: everything he does, he does for her.  He builds her the type of house he thinks she would like, and he tells her not to worry:  “’Strong hands, I’ve got, and a strong mind when it comes to caring for you’” (169).  He’s always thinking of things to make her happy and make her life easier:  “And it was nice, those gifts he kept bringing her, of snow crab, and scallops bigger than tea plates, and handfuls of last summer mint tea buried beneath the snow, and the paths he kept well shovelled . . . “ (170).  Because we are given their perspectives in alternating sections, the reader sees what they think of each other and how misunderstandings arise.  During an argument, Adelaide twists away from her husband, “her mouth lined with self-loathing” (176) but Sylvanus interprets her actions differently:  “she had pushed him away, staring upon him with loathing” (199). Both leave much unspoken and that causes problems. 

The dialogue is perfect because Morrissey has truly captured the Newfoundland dialect.  The conversations between Sylvanus and his brothers really need to be read aloud. 

This book is highly recommended to readers who like complex characters.  It will take a reader on an emotional ride; s/he will feel anger and sadness but, most of all, admiration for the spirit and resiliency of a people faced with harsh realities.  And for those who have fallen in love with the Now family, there are two more books chronicling their lives; I think I will re-read both What They Wanted and The Fortunate Brother.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Review of DEATH AT LA FENICE by Donna Leon

3 Stars 
This is the first of the Commissario Guido Brunetti series.  Some friends have recommended it; others have dismissed it as mediocre.  I decided to give it a try because it is set in Venice, a city I love.

A world-famous opera conductor, Helmut Wellauer, dies at a Venetian opera house after drinking coffee laced with cyanide.  Brunetti is in charge of the investigation and begins interviewing everyone who might have means and motive.  Could Wellauer’s much-younger wife be guilty?  Could it be a singer or musician offended or threatened by Wellauer’s homophobia?  Very quickly, Brunetti decides that the answer will be found in the conductor’s past and delves deeper into his background.

Brunetti is a likeable detective.  He is a refreshing change from the many emotionally damaged detectives I’ve encountered in the mystery genre.  He is a family man with an independent but supportive wife and two children with normal teenage problems.  His approach to investigations is very laid back; like the canals in Venice, he meanders.   At the end, he has a moral dilemma and it is his handling of it that will raise him in most readers’ esteem. 

The mystery itself is not the most complex.  I guessed almost immediately who killed the conductor; only the motive remains unclear until later.  Some aspects seem dated (a character is blackmailed because of sexual orientation), but the book was written over a quarter of a century ago when attitudes were different. 

It is not a fast-paced narrative.  There were some scenes which could have been eliminated or at least shortened.  For instance, Brunetti spends an evening playing a board game with his family.  Yes, the episode shows Brunetti’s relationship with his wife and children, but it is not necessary to describe the moves the family members make while playing the game. 

Two aspects I enjoyed are the descriptions of Venice and the touches of humour.  Anyone who has visited Venice will end up feeling like they are re-visiting the city because of the depictions of the canals, streets and buildings.  Much of the humour comes from Brunetti’s interactions with his arrogant superior, Giuseppe Patta, though I also loved the restaurant scene featuring “Signora Antonia, the Junoesque waitress who reigned supreme” at an expensive restaurant and decides what Brunetti and his guest want to eat. 

This is a quick, light read perfect for the beach or when travelling.  I’m not going to rush to read the 26 other books in the series though I will probably pick up another one or two in the future.  I understand that there is a German television series based on the books and I will see if I can view episodes of it. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Review of THE BOAT PEOPLE by Sharon Bala

4 Stars 
This story is narrated from three perspectives.  Mahindan, a Tamil, arrives in Vancouver aboard a rusted cargo ship (along with 500 other refugees) seeking asylum for himself and his six-year-old son, Sellian.  Priya, a second-generation Sri-Lankan-Canadian, is an articling student who wants to specialize in corporate law but is reluctantly coerced into helping the firm’s immigration lawyer who has Mahindan as one of his clients.  Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, is a political appointee who is charged with adjudicating refugee cases and will determine Mahindan’s ultimate fate.

The theme of the book is that, except for Indigenous Peoples, all Canadians are the descendants of immigrants who came to the country seeking refuge and hoping for a better life. The epigraph is a Martin Luther King quotation:  “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”  All the major characters are refugees or the children of immigrants.  Grace, for example, tells her daughters, “If your great-grandfather hadn’t gotten on that ship a century ago, none of us would be here” (106).  The problem is that people forget that their ancestors were like Mahindan; Grace’s mother points out that Grace is in danger of repeating racist actions of the past:  “Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable.  They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us.  Entitlement closed their hearts” (275). 

Mahindan is a very nuanced character.  He, like all the refugees on the ship, is considered the enemy until he can prove that he is innocent and so worthy of protection.  The problem is that he did work for the Tamil Tigers whom the Canadian government has designated a terrorist group.  As a mechanic, he worked on vehicles for the Tigers because he had no choice:  “If I had refused, [the Tiger cadre] would have beaten me.  If I had refused again, he would have killed me. . . . My wife was pregnant at the time. . . . With my son.  The cadre would have set fire to our house, allowed my wife to burn inside” (198).  To get himself and his son to safety, he had to do things that went against his morals, but he was desperate. 

Mahindan may not be innocent, but Priya’s situation emphasizes that no one is.  She ends up learning about some hidden family history which shows that members of her own family had made choices like Mahindan’s.  Priya’s uncle says, “Priya, what do you think happens when you terrorize a people, force them to flee, take away their options, then put them in a cage all together?  Will they not try and break down the bars? . . . It is very convenient, no?  These labels.  Terrorist” (230).

Grace is the weakest character because she is used by the author, rather heavy-handedly, to make a political statement.  Grace is appointed by Blair, a cabinet minister, and is ill-equipped for her position.  An immigration lawyer describes people like Grace:  “Half those adjudicators are patronage appointments.  Do you think they’ve studied the Act?  Done their due diligence?  Or do you think they just let Blair drip his poison in their ears?  Illegals.  Snakeheads.  Terrorists.  You scare people stupid and then you pull their strings” (119).  At the beginning, Grace comes across as very unfeeling.  When Mahindan is separated from his son, Grace thinks, “of all the times she had spent working late or away at conferences when the girls were small.  These little absences were only short chapters in long parent-child histories” (90).  Blair, her boss, seems as clueless:  “We have to encourage people to go through the proper channels and not just jump on the first boat that sails into the harbour” (339).  Initially, Grace seems to have difficulty seeing connections between her actions and those of government officials who during World War II designated her family as enemy aliens.  Fortunately, later she questions her superior so there is hope that Mahindan’s admissibility hearing might have a positive outcome.

The book really does show the complex situation in which refugees find themselves.  They flee horrific situations and are often take desperate measures to find a safe haven.  Even if they do make it to supposedly safe shores, they face a long process of reviews and hearings.  Though the book was quickly eliminated from Canada Reads 2018, I do think that the book is one that can open people’s eyes.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Review of RAGGED LAKE by Ron Corbett (Frank Yakabuski Mystery #1)

3 Stars
I was checking out the 2018 Edgar Awards winners and nominees and came across this title.  What really caught my attention is the name of the protagonist, Detective Frank Yakabuski , since Yakabuski is my surname.   It is not a common name, especially with this anglicized spelling, except in the Madawaska Valley northwest of Ottawa. 

Detective Frank Yakabuski is sent to investigate the triple murder of a secretive family living on the Northern Divide where they built a ramshackle cabin near the almost-deserted community of Ragged Lake.  Yakabuski sequesters the locals at the local lodge while he conducts his investigation.  He quickly comes to suspect that a motorcycle gang with which he is familiar has moved into the area and may have been responsible for the murders. 

Readers should be forewarned that that this is a violent story.  The book begins with the gruesome murder of three people, including a child, and by the end, the body count is well into double digits.  Both the innocent and the guilty are killed. 
The pace is uneven.  Early in the investigation, Yakabuski finds the journal of Lucy Whiteduck, the murdered woman.  From the journal, we learn about Lucy’s childhood, her time in the big city of Springfield, and her return to the Northern Divide.  The journal is necessary for important background information which impacts the present but its inclusion slows down the pace.  Then there is a protracted face-off scene where things happen at a frenetic speed. 

Apparently, this is the first in a series of books featuring Det. Yakabuski.  Considerable background information, therefore, is given about the man.  He is an army veteran who served with distinction in several of the world’s trouble spots.  As a police officer, he has earned the respect of colleagues.  He is definitely a leader who can think logically even in very tense situations.  It also becomes obvious that he is willing to bend the rules if he thinks doing so will cause the least harm. 

Some of the secondary characters emerge as interesting people since some effort was made to portray them in some depth.  The villains, however, are stereotypes; they tend to be totally evil with no redeeming qualities.  Yakabuski thinks of the inhabitants of Ragged Lake as “living cheek-to-jowl with true evil” and one character even says, “’There is someone in Ragged Lake who is nothing but evil.’”   And then a villain tells Yakabuski there awaits a new sort of evil, “some new sort of whacked-out freak.  Something truly fuckin’evil” which Yakabuski has “never seen before.”  Is this the prelude to another blood-soaked investigation?

It is the geography of this book which is frustrating.  In an author’s note at the beginning, Corbett mentions that since this is a work of fiction, all places are imagined and “there are no literal depictions of any city or town on the Divide.”  Springfield, “a northern city of nearly a million people” is supposedly the creation of the author’s imagination, yet he refers to Britannia Heights, Sandy Hill (which has the main campus of the University of Springfield), and Buckham’s Bay, all neighbourhoods of Ottawa.  Lucy even applies for a job in “a kids’ store in the Springfield shopping mall called Tiggy Winkles.”  I’ve visited Mrs. Tiggy Winkles in the Rideau Centre in Ottawa!  I attended the University of Ottawa in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood of Ottawa; on the eastern edge of that neighbourhood likes Strathcona Park.  Why does Corbett make it Strathconna?  Why bother disguising Ottawa as Springfield?  Why mention real village names like Cobden and then make up fake ones like Grimsly?  And why change John Rudolphus Booth, lumber tycoon and railroad baron of the Ottawa Valley, to James Rundle Bath? 

The Northern Divide is indeed “about four hundred miles” from Ottawa.  (I know this because for five years I lived in northern Ontario, not far from the Quebec border; about 25 kms away was a watershed sign which indicates that all waters north of this point flow into the Arctic and all waters south of this point flow into the Atlantic.)  Yet Corbett chose to name his Northern Divide town after an actual lake in the southern part of Algonquin Park? 

Det. Yakabuski is from High River, “the oldest Polish settlement in Canada . . . in the Upper Springfield Valley.”  Why not have him come from Wilno, located in the Upper Ottawa Valley, which is the actual first and oldest Polish settlement in Canada?  The surname Yakabuski is very common in the village of Barry’s Bay (10 kms from Wilno), the village where I was born.  I’d be willing to bet that is where the author saw the name on his travels between his hometown of Ottawa and Algonquin Park.  In Barry’s Bay, he might even have met a Frank Yakabuski!

Perhaps I have an unusual perspective on this book because of my name and where I’ve lived, but I found Corbett’s imagination to be strangely unimaginative.  He is almost insulting to the reader; it is as if Corbett expects his readers to be stupid.  Two characters in the novel have a conversation about an Englishman who claimed to be an Apache chief.  The reader is not to have heard of Archibald Belaney who called himself Grey Owl?

I was hoping to really like this book, but I’m afraid I found it only mediocre.  I am not surprised that it did not win an Edgar Award.