Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Seven

Garret Freymann-Weyr, Stay with Me

There is absolutely no reason this book should be one of my favourites. It's a YA novel about an exceptionally privileged daughter of an exceptional family, the kind of people I would not know in my real life. But this book is written sensitively and beautifully, and tackles issues not commonly discussed in this genre.

After Leila's sister kills herself, Leila tries to heal from the loss. Her healing is complicated by the unique way she perceives the world because of a learning disability. Leila eventually begins a relationship with someone significantly older than herself, a troubling decision for some people around her (and for many readers). Through this journey, she discovers more about who she is, why people leave us, why love matters, and how she can go on. I found it a poignant, touching story.

Garret Freymann-Weyr writes YA novels about subjects and from perspectives that most of us don't consider; I think this point is one of the reasons I like Stay with Me. Another reviewer describes the book as "challenging, strange, intelligent" and these words too explain why I was so deeply moved by it. This book may sneak up on you; trust it, let it reveal itself to you, and you may enjoy the experience as much as I did.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Six

Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words

One of my favourite Canadian writers. A character imagined by an important Modernist poet. Combine the two and you have a fascinating and beautiful literary thriller about World War Two, the British Crown, and fascism. This is how history might have been, and the idea is chilling.

I read this novel between my third and fourth years of university. At that point, I was just beginning my serious study of Modernist poetry and knew little of Ezra Pound. Earlier that year I had read Not Wanted on the Voyage, after another student gave a presentation on it in one of our seminars. (That subsequently became one of my mother's favourite books.) Suddenly I was on a Timothy Findley roll, reading everything of Findley's I could get my hands on. Famous Last Words stands out for me, though, for its powerful images and curious imagining.

Some of Findley's work is overblown. Some of his novels are profoundly bleak. I didn't really care for The Wars, and there is one novel of Findley's that I still haven't read. (And I should acknowledge really enjoying his short fiction and his memoirs.) But this novel (along with The Piano-Man's Daughter, which should also be on this list) worked perfectly for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Five

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction

It was with the reading of this book that I grew up intellectually.

Terry Eagleton is an astonishing critic. An inspired Marxist and breath-taking intellectual, he writes incisively and clearly about literature — text — as it affects our lived reality. You may think literature doesn't affect your lived reality. You are wrong, and Terry Eagleton will explain why — definitively, authoritatively.

The discipline of English — the realm that has held my conscious attention for nearly thirty years, and likely much longer than that at an unconscious level — is a construct. Prior to the late nineteenth century, the idea of seriously studying English — the poor man's classics — was laughable. Within a few decades — and here I paraphrase Eagleton — the idea of not studying English was laughable. What the construction of English as a discipline has meant, and what emerges from the way that discipline understands and talks about texts, affects our political economy in far-reaching, profound ways that I am still discovering. A lifetime of potential scholarship has sprung, in part, from this book.

As undergraduates in Honours English, we were required to take a fourth-year seminar in literary theory. For many of us, this course was a slog. Week after week after dreary week, we met to discuss yet another theorist, yet another theory; for many of my classmates — and for me at the time — this seminar was simply a requirement to fulfill. Looking back, though, I recognize how important literary theory has been to my academic work and even to my professional work. Today I am grateful I took that seminar, and even moreso that I discovered Literary Theory: An Introduction a few years later. Its twenty-fifth–anniversary edition was published a few years ago, so others too must feel it is a significant book.

With my doctorate finally completed, I can point to this book as one that truly changed my life.

Friday, June 08, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Four

Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry

Do most people remember the circumstances of their first time reading a book that changed their lives? I read this one on a houseboat vacation in northern Saskatchewan, and despite the spectacular scenery and astonishing late-summer weather, I was captivated by this book.

A Star Called Henry is a phenomenally engaging retelling of recent Irish history, narrated by one of the most outrageous and compelling characters in modern fiction. I adore Henry Smart! Absolutely larger than life, he is a prodigious liar, a smashing ladies' man, a dubious hero, and the owner of an unforgettable narrative style. Once you've met Henry, you will never forget him — and you may fall in love with him.

Some of my favourite literature endures for me because of the characters. As they do for many people, memorable characters — like Samuel Hamilton in East of Eden or Amanda Ziller in Another Roadside Attraction — feel real to me, like people I've known. Henry Smart is someone I'd likely be terrified to meet but would love to know. He is surrounded by other quirky and fierce personalities that make him shine all the brighter. And this book has even more: romance, adventure, tragedy, history... It is a rollicking novel that will make you laugh aloud and may move you to tears.

This book changed my life with its reach, its shimmer, and its point of view. It inspired me to remember my love of reading, writing, and learning. And perhaps to ride my bicycle more often.

If you enjoy A Star Called Henry, there are two more books featuring Henry Smart: Oh, Play That Thing! and The Dead Republic (another book I loved, although it didn't make my five-star list). I hope you'll read them all.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Three

Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes

It seems that most girls of my generation read at least one Judy Blume novel. Tiger Eyes wasn't the most popular choice, though; Forever... generally was, with its explicit language, discussion of sexuality, and sometimes-comical references to anatomy. (Of course, there was also Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. But that's a different story...) And while Forever... is, for its own many reasons, an important novel, Tiger Eyes really changed my adolescent life.

Tiger Eyes is the story of Davey, whose father is murdered during a corner-store robbery. Her mother moves the family to New Mexico, where Davey tries to reintegrate into school and "normal" life. She starts spending time in the nearby canyon, where she meets Wolf, a young Hispanic man; she also starts volunteering in a hospital, where she meets a variety of patients. With these relationships, Davey begins to work through the grief, anger, and guilt surrounding her father's killing.

This is absolutely a young-adult novel: it deals extensively with issues of identity, sexuality, and individuation. It also persists for me in ways that other Blume books did not. The setting in Los Alamos allows the author to contrast Davey's personal emotional realm with the larger issues associated with nuclear weapons and the military–industrial complex. However, it is Davey's outsider status that I responded to most, and in particular I drew hope from her fraught relationship with Wolf. The tiger's eye stone at the centre of that relationship became a poignant, personal symbol for me.

There is much about this book that is forgettable. Some of the family by-play is quite silly relative to the introspection of Davey's moments in the canyon, and some of the themes are too much of the moment (e.g., the slogan "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"). But for me, being able to identify with the general experience of alienation and grief (even through very different circumstances) was important to getting through some difficult moments of growing up. I hope everyone who needed books to help them through growing up found a book like this one.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Two

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

Those of you who know me well know that I normally read only hand-picked, highly recommended Speculative Fiction. For whatever reason, very little under the umbrella of this genre appeals to me. The Handmaid's Tale, however, is a speculative fiction that I would recommend to anyone. And, regrettably, as the years go by, elements of Atwood's imagined world are realized in our own world more and more frequently.

The brief plot summary is this: much of the United States, now called Gilead, has been taken over by extreme Christian fundamentalists. Women's rights (along with the rights of non-whites, gays and lesbians, and other people identified as undesirables by the leaders of Gilead) have been quashed, and a caste system has emerged among women, due to widespread infertility as a result of environmental toxins. The story of the regime change is told by a handmaid now named Offred; through her telling we learn about what led to the change, how life continues under the new regime, and what potential exists for resistance under fanatical rulers. The novel is exquisitely written, rich with word play and images that linger.

I read this book in my first year of university. I bought it one Saturday afternoon, started reading it as soon as I got home, and did not move from my seat until I finished it about ten hours later. It was completely transfixing, particularly for a reader who did know many of the conventions of the genre.

Then again, the genre is to some degree irrelevant in this text. There are feminist themes; there is political critique; there are questions about religion and ritual; there are questions about the construction of class, order, and power. But most importantly, Atwood was a poet before she turned to novel-writing, and language play — serious work in this dystopian world — forms the core of the text. This book opened my sixteen-year-old eyes to the potential of contemporary fiction; by the following year, I had changed my faculty and major, and started on the trajectory that has brought me to today.

I have re-read this book several times, and it always impresses and frightens me. An essential text in my personal canon.


Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Some fifteen years after first reading The Handmaid's Tale, I read The Blind Assassin. This is a densely layered story within a story within a story. Once again, I read this text very quickly, although not completely in one sitting, as the structure of my life no longer permits such luxuries. It is, however, transfixing to peel back the layers of this telling and observe how intricately structured and clever it is.

What does it mean to write? Whose truth is true? How do we go on when what we believe is revealed to be a lie? These are some of the questions raised by this novel, told in retrospective pieces by Iris, now an elderly woman. Her life has been marked by fame and loss, power and intrigue; at the end of her life, she has decided to set her story straight, thereby overturning decades of "knowing" and the comfort of conformity. Like many of Atwood's strong woman characters, Iris is complicated, contrary, sometimes cruel, sometimes disturbing. And then there is the book at the centre of the novel, the science fiction text "The Blind Assassin." From the question of what it means to write, we are also invited to ask what it means to read. The art of creation is never innocent, and it is particularly troubled in this intersection of texts, lives, and lives-as-texts.

I believe I respond to this book particularly because of the period it evokes — I still love the Modernists! But there is so much going on in this text: mystery, betrayal, love, violence, courage, and, as always, Atwood's sumptuous writing. The book rewards re-reading, and as I write this about I'm thinking of reading the book again. While it is a very different experience from that of reading The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin will captivate, frustrate, and unsettle you. The feeling of this book remains with me. I hope you will experience it, too!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part One

I am a devoted fan of LibraryThing (LT). Other people check their Facebooks daily; I check LT. I have more than three thousand books listed on LT at present, with more added every week. If you love books, LT is a great place to catalogue them, talk about them, learn about them, and share them with others.

On my LT profile, I've explained how I rate books, noting that a five-star book is one that "changed my life." So I've decided, as a writing exercise, to discuss the twenty-nine books (to date) that I've rated at five stars. Over the coming weeks, I will post a brief and personal book talk for each of the titles on my five-star list. I am posting them in alphabetical order by author last name, not in chronological order of reading.

As a disclaimer, I would note that my list is, not unexpectedly, idiosyncratic and strongly Canadian. I'm certainly interested to know what you think about these books, too, and if you haven't read some of them, I strongly encourage you to do so.

Happy reading!


Carmen Aguirre, Something Fierce
I am delighted to have read this book long before it was the Canada Reads 2012 winner. I learned about this book from hearing a tiny excerpt from Aguirre's play, The Refugee Hotel, on CBC. A short time later, I read a review of Something Fierce and ordered the book immediately (despite that the review was negative). I am so glad I read this book; reading it was a transformative experience.

Something Fierce is a memoir of resisting the Pinochet military dictatorship, told through the eyes of a child and young woman. Aguirre is the daughter of Chilean revolutionaries and eventually worked for the resistance herself. Her story is astonishing. She describes what her family went through to escape Chile, how her family members and friends were tortured for their beliefs, how her family lived in exile for years, how she attempted to live as a "typical" teen, her work in the resistance, and how she decided to continue the fight for social justice in South America and in Canada.

You may not agree with her politics (I do), but Aguirre writes with such passion, integrity, and courage that it is impossible not to be moved by her book. The people are real; some of their stories are heart breaking. The telling reveals how violence, treachery, and injustice work in ways both large and subtle. Yet moments of terror, paranoia, frustration, and anguish are relieved by moments of humour, beauty, and joy. The ending is not happy, but it is hopeful. This book may change the way you think about all we in Canada take for granted. I hope you will read it.

And by the way, the published script of The Refugee Hotel is also very good.