Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Conversations With a Dead Man

Conversations With A Dead Man

Mark Abley



All Canadians are aware of the misery exacted on little children in the Indian Residential Schools.  But many do not know the name of the man who oversaw these institutions: Deputy Superintendent-General Duncan Campbell Scott.  If they have heard the name, it is probably because he was one of Canada's most famous poets and received Honorary Doctorates from Queen's and McGill Universities.

This book resurrects Scott, accuses him and allows him to mount his own defense.  In an original and engaging literary conceit, he makes a dozen visits to the home of the author in a quest to understand his posthumous notoriety and clear his name.  In their conversations, we learn about his life, his passions and sorrows, and the job that he held for fifty years.

The themes are original and serious.  The major consideration is the sin of omission, of not taking leadership and turning a blind eye.  We are led to consider the weight of judgement passed by one generation on another.  The other major theme, of course, is racism, particularly the form inherent in a colonialist attitude.

The picture that Abley presents of racism in colonizing nations is not new to older readers, but the details he has assembled are impressive in their severity and scope.  A lot of research lies behind this book and the information is appalling to our modern sensibilities.  Further research is made easy by a very readable list of sources.

As I got into the book, I was engrossed by the dilemma:  Was Abley going to find Scott guilty as charged, or unfairly targeted in a society that mirrored his values?

There is a lot to be said in Scott's defense.  He was a man of his time, reflecting the mores of his generation.  Worse things were done to aboriginal people in Australia, the United States and Africa.  At least, Canada's Indian population did not die out.

The verdict is against Scott in the end.  He is guilty of sins of omission.  But his own defense is sympathetically presented.  Abley's own convictions have condemned Scott, but the door is left open for argument.

In the present political climate in Canada, it would have been difficult for Abley to have reached any other verdict without drawing fire upon himself. The residential school system is the current whipping post for all the problems which the aboriginal population is suffering  today.  The horrors described to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission make it hard to forgive any aspect of the programme.
We know that the problems facing Canada's Indians are complex and go beyond the abuses and assumptions of the residential schools.  Abley concentrates on the repressive programmes for which Scott was responsible during his time at Indian Affairs.  It is a complicated challenge that he has set for himself.
The writing is nicely balanced between dialogue in the present and factual accounts of the history of Canada's Indian policies.   Scott, the person behind the policies, is brought to life clearly, and we can picture his brooding figure treading the Ottawa streets that we know today.

I found the theme of judgement by one generation upon another a disquieting one.  We may smugly condemn the attitudes and actions of the past, but how will our descendants judge us?  In our time it is impossible not to know about suffering and injustice here in Canada and around the world.  What do we do about it?  We know that we are ruining earth's climate in our culture of consumption.  What will our grandchildren have to say about us, who are guilty of the same sins of omission and laissez-faire with which Scott is condemned?  In Abley's last meeting with Scott, there  is an expectation that the two will meet again in an afterlife, and the implication is made that we will all face a judgement by future generations.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford


This book has a very good title.  Henry, the protagonist, has had a life with happiness and disappointments, and much of the setting involves an old hotel in Seattle.  The title sums up many aspects of the story.


The setting is Chinatown and Japantown in Seattle during WWII, and there is some history to be learned here.  The problem with the book is explained in an interview with the author at the end, in which Ford explains his writing process.  He says that as he writes, he focusses on the ending, and that is the impression I got as I read.  Ford is trying so hard to move along his plot, that he has not allowed his characters to develop.  They are just implements to move the plot along.  They have been assigned certain traits and speak the lines assigned to them, but they are not complex or interesting.  Their interactions serve to move the plot in the direction Ford has determined, and they all turn out to be pretty dull puppets.  Even the plot is not well handled because there is a lot of action concerning the protagonist's proposed trip to China and that goes nowhere.  Similarly, there is supposed to be some friction between the main character, Henry, and his son, Marty, but there is nothing substantive to indicate the source of this problem.


 I think that Ford does not have an interest in his characters beyond their contribution to his plot.  He decided to write a book about star-crossed lovers set during WW II when the government was relocating Japanese Americans to internment camps.  He did some historical research, but research and a plot don't make a novel.  The book reads like a classroom project, and Ford needs more lessons in character development.  Or he needs more wisdom and insight about the human condition to move beyond stereotypes.


In brief, Henry is a Chinese American enrolled in an all-white school.  He has to work in the school cafeteria and there he meets Keiko, a Japanese American also at the school on a "scholarship."  Their friendship blossoms into romance, despite the opposition of Henry's father, for whom the Japanese atrocities in China are vivid memories. There is conflict between Henry and his father. Keiko and her family are relocated to an internment camp, the two school children lose touch, Henry marries Ethel, a Chinese American, they have a child, Marty, Ethel dies, and Henry's thoughts go back to his first girlfriend.  The setting recreates the international nature of Seattle before the war, and the jazz music popular at the time.  There are two characters of some interest: Sheldon, a black trombone player, and Mrs. Beatty who runs the school cafeteria.


An irritant to me are the "Reading Group Questions" at the back.   The writer and publisher are assuming too much about the quality of their book and too little about the intelligence of their readership.  On what basis was it decided that this book would be good material for a reading group?


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sanctuary Line

Sanctuary Line

By Jane Urquhart


This book is full of symbolism and pensive reflections.  It is well structured, with all the subplots neatly interwoven.  It has beautiful descriptions of the north coast of Lake Erie and interesting historical background.  It has tragic themes of innocence lost and star-crossed love.  There are thoughtful questions on many subjects: memory, religion, family, allegiance.  It draws interesting parallels between the children's poetry of R.L. Stevenson and Emily Dickenson.


But the whole plot is centred on the behaviour of one man who evidently has a mental problem and is weak, erratic, ineffective and tiresome.  The narrator professes to hate him and this creates a problem for the reader who is unable to warm to him also.  I don't think it is possible to engage a reader with a character whom the narrator dislikes.


Another problem for me is the character of the narrator, a pale studious woman, unable to refocus her life after a tragic love affair when she was 16.  Her job is tagging butterflies day after day and she lives alone on a run-down ancestral farm with the ghosts of her past. She is sympathetic but passion-less.


I read and loved Urquhart's The Stone Carvers and Map of Glass, but I found this book slow and unemotional.  I loved the prose, the descriptions, the allusions, the structure, the insights and reflections.  Urquhart is a beautiful, intelligent writer, but I didn't feel any urgency in this book.  I hate to be negative when the writing is so beautiful, but in the end, I didn't really care about any of the characters.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Ru by Kim Thuy


by Kim Thuy  

This is a short, poignant, beautifully sculpted account of a girl's transition from a palatial home in Saigon to a new home in Quebec.  In 1979 and 1980, our newspapers were full of the tragedy of the Vietnamese "boat people," and Canada admitted 50,000 of these refugees.  They were sponsored by individuals, church and community groups across Canada.  Because they spoke French, many were welcomed into Quebec communities.  This is the story told by a participant, a young girl whose family settled in Granby, Quebec. Thuy's story is largely autobiographical.
There are multiple settings, maybe too many: Saigon during the Vietnam War, the escape by boat to Malaysia and the refugee camps, life in Granby, a return trip to Saigon long after the war, and life as an adult in Montreal with an autistic son.

A picture of Thuy's life is revealed through trenchant allusions and episodes.  There is no attempt to be chronological; the connections are interior but the cumulative effect is a picture of the range of emotions and experiences of a family snatched up in events that were larger than they were.

The narration is completely non-chronological.  One chapter starts with mentally handicapped Aunt Seven in Saigon before the war, progresses through a reminiscence of street vendors, then flashes to a visit to Hanoi with a friend after the war, moves forward to Granby and the adaptation to Canadian food (breakfast is never soup) and ends in the present with the statement that she rarely eats breakfast now that she is a Canadian.  This stylistic device allows the author to write a personal account with connections that follow themes and memory triggers.  She tells her own story and creates an amalgam of the events which shaped her life. 
Although the events are harrowing, there is no melodrama. Thuy's prose is disengaged and rather than a plea for pity, this is a celebration of the human ability to endure.

The style is spare and allusive.  One description or episode, recounted in detail, is illustrative of many others. The difference between North and South Vietnam is shown through a comparison of language differences.  North Vietnam had no words for coca cola, spies, rebels, Communist sympathizers and illegitimate babies whose fathers were American GIs.  The extent of adaptation required of these transplanted Asians is epitomized in the discovery of the necessity for winter and summer clothes.  The gap between rich and poor in Vietnam is illustrated by the Communist inspectors who thought that ladies' brassieres were coffee filters.  The Europeanization of Vietnam's rich families is embodied by Thuy's grandfather who ate only butter imported from France. 

For all the skillfully selected episodes which illustrate a time or place, I found the characters elusive.  There are allusions to Thuy's difficult relationship to her mother, the practical family organizer who neglected her daughter's emotional needs, and who cast off her past like a skin and rediscovered herself through dance at age 55.  But I was never sure whether Thuy understood her mother or resented her.   As an adult in Canada, Thuy became the mother of an autistic child.  This challenge is also incorporated into her tale, a struggle that I think is part of another book. 

There are many, many themes, a lifetime of experiences and observations in this one small book: class structure in Vietnam, transitioning in society, the validity of the American Dream, differences and qualities of parenting styles, life in a vanquished country, life in refugee camps.  It is a rich book, with many ideas and viewpoints to consider, maybe too many.  But all the ideas are complex and thoughtful and connect us with one of the many cultures that are changing our Canadian society.  

When first released in French in 2010, Ru won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction.  Its translation by Sheila Fischman, Canada's leading English-French translator, is a testament to its quality.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Hunger Games Book One

The Hunger Games: Part One

Suzanne Collins


When The Hunger Games was first published in 2008, by Scholastic, no less, I was full of disapprobation.  A book for children about children killing children in our world of violent video games and schoolyard shootings?  I didn't think so.

But here I am on a beach holiday where I met a nice priest trying to get through Book Three before his plane left the next day, and he told me that the series is well written for its genre.  Well, if he is trying to keep in touch with his young parishioners, and as my own children have all read the series, and my friend assures me that it's a quick read… well, I borrowed Book One.

He's right; it is well written for its genre.  I read it in a day and didn't put it down until I finished it!  That's partly because I am on holiday, but mostly because Collins is good at creating suspense and she moves her plot right along.  Her characters are sympathetic, the setting is interesting and the plot details fold nicely into the narrative.  The action is fast, except for the denouement which is the way it's supposed to be, and the ending leaves us anticipating the sequel.

There's not a lot to ponder and reflect upon after the cover is closed, but the setting is intriguing: a totalitarian state, which has emerged in North America after climate collapse, with technological superiority over 12 vassal states.  There are historical antecedents:   the citizens of the dominant state all have Roman names, and the tribute system of young people being sent to the capitol is like the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.

The main plot prototype is the TV reality show Survivors.  Once the tributes from the provinces reach the arena, all their actions and conversations are recorded, edited and assembled into a film production which is aired nation-wide each day.  But in this grim reality show, the protagonists must all kill each other, and the winner is a hero for life.

And the story is surprisingly moral.   

The writer has been careful that neither the hero nor heroine kill anybody in cold blood, and the conflict at the end is against a man who has shown himself to be treacherous and savage.  The winning qualities are resourcefulness, physical skill, loyalty, team spirit and quick thinking.

Surprisingly, I think this would be a fine read for young people, especially reluctant readers.  The concept is gripping, the pace is fast, it's not badly written and good values are modeled.

No, I won't read Books Two and Three because they are really written for young people, but, hey, Book One was fun!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng


This is a complex and interesting story, provoking questions on some interesting themes.  It is set in Malaya during the Japanese Occupation of World War II and the later communist rebel uprisings, and in Malaysia 34 years later.  The two main characters are Aritomo, an esteemed Japanese gardener previously employed by the Emperor, who had moved to Malaya before the war, and Yun Ling, an Anglophile "Straits Chinese" woman, the sole survivor of a Japanese POW camp.  A third major character is Magnus, the owner of a tea estate, Majuba, in the Cameron Highlands, and a survivor of the British concentration camps of the Boer War. 


The main theme is how survivors of the brutality and treachery of war can live out the rest of their lives in a multi-cultural world.  I found it an interesting and original problem.


The characters of both Yun Ling and Aritomo provoke questions and their mysterious pasts propel the narrative.  How did Yun Ling manage to survive the notorious internment camp system, and why did Aritomo stay aloof from the Japanese rape of Malaya?  (Another question is raised about Yun Ling's father and brother, businessmen who prospered during the war at a time when those who were not against the Japanese were abetting them.  Yun Ling's mother seems to know the answer and has collapsed into mental illness.)


Aritomo is clearly a man of influence; during the war, he intervened with the Japanese invaders on behalf of Magnus and the workers on his estate.  After the war, he paid off the Communist rebels to ensure the safety of Majuba and his own garden, Yugiri.  Is he protecting his friends or subsidizing the rebels?  Is he an accommodator or a pragmatist or a Japanese agent?  What are his motives?


Yun Ling's life is brought together with Aritomo's when she apprentices herself to him in order to learn the art of Japanese gardening so she can make a garden to commemorate her sister who perished in the camp.


The two develop a complicated relationship and eventually become lovers.  She learns gardening and archery from him and the serenity of the garden helps in her healing.  He learns about the atrocities committed by the Japanese and in a sado-masochist exchange creates a personalized "horimono" or tattoo over her entire back.  Then he mysteriously disappears forever into the jungle whose many trails he knows by heart.


There are many tangled threads in this plot and the switching of time frames does not make it easy to unravel them.  This is part of the mood - the misty garden edging the jungle, and the clouded, complicated past of Aritomo and Yun Ling. 


The character of Aritomo is particularly enigmatic.  I could not even establish his sexual preference.  He is passionless and controlled; his Japanese men friends have been gay.  His wartime relationship with Tominaga, the leader of Yun Ling's internment camp is suspicious.  My conclusion is that he had been embedded in Malaya by the Emperor of Japan and that the story of his falling-out with his employer was false.  He has to face his past when he hears Yun Ling's accounts of the suffering in the camp.  His suicide says that some actions are unforgiveable.


Unfortunately, in his effort to create a mood of mystery and secrecy around his main characters, the author fails to create empathy for them.  The complexity and culpability of both Aritomo and Yun Ling make their dilemmas intellectual rather than emotional.  The story of the wartime love affair between Tatsuji, the kamikaze pilot, and Teruzen who flew in his place, is more moving than the love affair between the two main characters.


Tan Twan Eng has set himself a difficult task:  how to sustain sympathy for unlikeable main characters.  Aritomo is a man who would show his love and contrition by creating a work of art and also lie to his lover that he had never done one before.  Likewise we learn that Yun Ling survived the prison camp because she was an informer on her fellow captives and countrymen.  After the war she became a judge who was merciless with Japanese militants and their collaborators, partly to appease her own conscience.  She is not an easy person to like; she does not like herself and her medical diagnosis leaves us unmoved.


Both characters are trying to become, "straight-shooters" with their archery practice and their search for the centre of the target, but these are not Cupid's arrows, and the characters remain passionless in their romance and appeal to readers.


This novel interested me especially because of the accounts of the Japanese labour camps during the war.  Having had an uncle who barely survived working on the Burma Railroad, I was appalled to learn recently that although the horrors of the Holocaust are well publicized, the Japanese atrocities and the Rape of Nanking have been subsumed by the horror of Hiroshima, and are not taught to today's students.  Jewish people have rightly taken steps to ensure that their loss will never be forgotten, but there is no lasting support group for the victims of the Japanese, and their suffering seems in vain.  A novel such as this keeps the historical record of Japanese atrocities in World War II on the public conscience.


However, I was disappointed to have these historical events lumped together with the activities of The Golden Lily, an organization that exists in the realm of conspiracy theorists.  The Golden Lily is supposed to have been a cadre trusted by the Emperor of Japan to loot the treasures of conquered countries and hide them until after the war when they could be put into the Emperor's coffers.  The remarkable resurgence of the Japanese economy after the war is said to have been financed by this plunder.  The answer to the riddle of Aritomo is that he was part of The Golden Lily.  Although this plot resolution is clever, I resent that it is coupled with the facts of the Japanese labour camps, putting the historical camps in the same category as the conjectured Golden Lily organization.  The strong message about the horrors of the camps is diluted by association.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ship of Brides


Jojo Moyes


This is an interesting historical novel about the aircraft carrier Victorious which brought 655   war brides from Sydney to Portsmouth in 1946.  These very young women of all backgrounds were forced to live together in cramped makeshift quarters on the high seas for almost six weeks.  Their only commonality was their uncertain future in a strange land, the newness of their marriages to men they hardly knew, and their homesickness for the land of their birth which most would never see again.  It was a social experiment for all involved, passengers and crew.

The narrative follows the occupants of one cabin: a society girl from Sydney, a pregnant farm girl from the outback, a war nurse who had married a patient, and a 16-year old whose husband held the ticket to a better chance for her.  Two other major characters are the captain who is struggling with psychological and physical wounds sustained in the sinking of the sister ship of Victorious near the end of the war, and one of the marines who stood guard duty over the women after curfew every evening. 

It is an interesting mix of characters and the setting is fraught with suspense for the future and raw memories of the recent past.  There are interesting passages about the survivors of the Japanese POW camps, the war in the Pacific, hospital camps and life in Australia during the war.

The story opens at a ship dismemberment yard in India where one of the brides, now a grandmother, sees the old carrier being finally scrapped.  Throughout the book, we wonder which of the four brides she will turn out to be.   The shipyard setting is surreal in itself, as anyone who has seen pictures of those workplaces will know. 
The book is interesting historically and also philosophically with its  loose theme of putting old traumas and sins behind one when the opportunity to make a new life arises.  Forgiveness and moral strength are valued qualities. 

The mood is suspenseful  as the plot develops and new details about the characters' pasts are revealed, but the characters themselves are not very complex.  The writer is a romance writer who has done some interesting research and found a story that is full of possibilities.  On the whole she has done well with it, although some of the scenes are melodramatic and much too drawn out.  The framework which focusses the story on a small representative group is engaging and clever.
The book is an easy, good, and worthwhile read. The shared experience of the voyage makes its mark on all the characters and leaves the reader more reflective and appreciative of the sacrifices and hopes that marked the end of World War II.