November 23, 2008

Kiss of the Fur Queen - Tomson Highway

I can't believe that I missed this book when it was first published in 1998 - I know that by that point I was already very much in to CanLit and haunted bookstores on a regular basis.  Mind you, at that time I was still a student, so didn't have much spare cash to spend on books and had to purchase discriminatingly!

I ended up picking up this book recently, at an event put on locally by Tomson Highway to raise money for literacy - a cabaret show with Mr. Highway playing the piano (and singing a bit) and telling stories.  He is quite a performer, and had us all laughing until we cried!

A brief summary of the book.  It is the story of two Cree brothers from northern Manitoba who end up at a residential school in the late 1950's and 1960's where they are abused by the priest who runs the school.  After their experiences in the school, they no longer fit in with their family (who are struggling to adapt from their nomadic lifestyle to living on a reservation), and both end up living in Winnipeg then Toronto.  One brother becomes a musician and the other, a dancer.  The two brothers follow opposite trajectories.  The musician works hard at first, rises to a small amount of fame, then falls to alcohol abuse, and at the end experiences a form of redemption, assisted by his brother.  The dancer on the other hand struggles to understand his place in the world at first, as well as struggling with his homosexuality, before rising to fame as a dancer, and then succumbing to AIDS.

What makes this book even more poignant is that it is quite closely based on the real story of the Highway brothers - Tomson (the musician and writer) and Rene (a dancer who died of AIDS in 1990).

At the cabaret last month, Tomson Highway said that one theme that runs through all of his plays and books is the loss of the feminine side of the divine when traditional native spirituality is replaced by Christianity, and that is evident in this book.  The trickster ("Nanabush" in Ojibway, "Weesageechak" in Cree) takes on a distinctly female form (The Fur Queen) in the book; and strong female characters are influential on the lives of the protagonists, especially in the revival of their cultural awareness.

Also, living in this part of the world, the residential school experience is very relevant today.  I have many clients at work who attended these schools where many children were abused, and traditional culture was lost; and reading this book has given me a glimpse of some of what they have lived through.

I'm glad that I bought this book at the cabaret, and look forward to re-reading many times!

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

This is a book that I have been planning to read since I heard Mr. McEwan interviewed last year on CBC radio about this book.  I really must go back and re-listen to that interview now that I have finally read it!
Mixed thoughts on this book.  In my last post, I mentioned that I like good character development, and that a plot that grabs me doesn't help.  This book has very well drawn characters, but really no plot.  In fact, I could probably sum up the plot in a single sentence.  "In July 1962, a newly married couple, Edward and Florence, spend their wedding night in a hotel near Chesil Beach and are so bound by societal constraints that they are unable to consummate their marriage."
What makes the book interesting though is how it tells the story leading up to this devastating night, going back and forth between Edward's and Florence's perspectives, and the inevitability of the conclusion.
Just a short little novella, but a very interesting read.

The Cleft - Doris Lessing

A boring book - I had to flog myself to finish it before it is due back at the library tomorrow.  No plot, no characters of interest - basically nothing to hold my attention.
It seemed to be a conceptual novel - what would it have been like if the first people were all female, and males came along later? - and all of the blurbs on the back had to do with sexual politics etc.  This sort of novel may appeal to other readers, but not to me.
Which makes me ask myself, "What makes a book appeal to me?"  I think that the biggest thing is characters that are interesting; that grow or learn; and that I like, or can at least relate to.  A good plot that grips me also helps.
In this book, the characters are almost archetypal, and have no personality, and so I can't relate to them.  (The one exception being the Roman Historian who is narrating this tale that for him is ancient history, and occasionally interjects with comparisons with his life.)
Interesting that this book was published in 2007, and Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The last book by a Nobel Literature Laureate that I tried to read (a collection of short stories by Nadine Gordimer - Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black), I stopped reading half way through.  I guess my taste and the taste of the Nobel Prize committee don't overlap!  I do usually enjoy the Giller Prize winners though, and look forward to reading this year's winner, Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden.

November 2, 2008

Till We Have Faces - C. S. Lewis

I've just finished re-reading one of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers.  I don't own a copy of this book, but I've lost track of how many times I have checked it out of the local library.  (In fact, this was the book that I had gone to borrow when I picked up the horrible book on Josephine as well.)

So how to summarize this book in a paragraph?  It is a re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche, told through the eyes of Psyche's sister, Orual.  But underneath the surface story, it is the story of Orual's search for faith.

Orual has 2 mentors - a Greek tutor who advises her in the way of over-educated disbelief, and a soldier who has blind faith in the local deity, Ungit (aka Aphrodite or Venus).  Torn between these two opposite world-views, Orual doesn't know what to make of what her eyes see when her sister is taken as a bride of a god (Ungit's son, aka Cupid).

There are some heart-wrenching passages in this book - after Orual sees the palace of Cupid and chooses to deny it; when Orual uses emotional blackmail to convince Psyche to trick Cupid; when Orual decides to stop being herself and become The Queen.

Some of my favourite passages:

"When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words.  I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer.  Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?  How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?" 
(ie We can't meet God face to face until we strip away all of the masks and approach with total honesty)

"The air was growing brighter and brighter about us; as if something had set it on fire.  Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness.  I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it.  I was being unmade."
(What a beautiful description of what happens when you first encounter God!)

There are strong Christian themes running through this book, despite being set amongst the Greek gods.  But as Lewis says in Mere Christianity (another of my favourites!), "When I was an atheist I had to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong aobut the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.  But of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong.  As in arithmetic, there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others."

As in all of his books, Lewis' writing is straight-forward yet beautiful at the same time.  One of these days, I ought to acquire a copy of the book - I've been able to track the deterioration of the library copy in the 10 or so years since I first read it.  It's now taped together, and missing half of the front cover!

The Secret Life of Josephine - Carolly Erickson

This book was an impulse pick-up from the local library, and it was a waste of the time that it took to read it.
It is, in the author's words "a historical entertainment".  Historical fluff is more like it.  Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy fluff on occasion, but it has to be well-written fluff.  This is the story of Josephine Bonaparte, first wife of Napoleon, told from her point of view.  But the author tries to cover too much time over too short of a book, so you don't get to know the characters, and many events are skimmed over; and time tends to skip around erratically.

If anyone is interested in historical fiction about Josephine, I would highly, highly recommend the trilogy of books by Sandra Gulland - The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.; Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe; and The Last Great Dance on Earth.  Those books, the fictionalized diaries of Josephine Bonaparte, draw you into her story and are so well written that while you are reading them, the reality of the story is more real than the reality around you.

Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

This is a book that I have been meaning to read for several years, and had been sitting on my bookcase for about 6 months before I got around to reading it.  And I loved it.
It is the story of Greg Mortenson:  born in America; grew up in Tanzania; became a mountain climber; got lost on his way down K2; and went on to form the Central Asia Institute, a charity that builds schools in rural Pakistan.
I loved this book, and it's subject, for so many reasons.  It shows his compassion and commitment to his cause; how his best teachers were the people in Pakistan that he was helping.  The book is also realistic.  Mr. Mortenson provided his co-writer with a list of his enemies and insisted that they be contacted as well to provide their side of the story.  So that the picture that comes across isn't that of a saint, but rather that of a man driven to improve the lives of people in less fortunate circumstances than us.

Why a blog?

I've been thinking about this blog for a while, and I have created it for 2 reasongs.
1)  I love to read.
2)  I enjoy writing.
So I have created this blog to write about the books that I read - whether I liked them or not; fiction or non-fiction; my books, library books, borrowed books.
I welcome any feedback.  Please comment on any of my books that you have read, or suggest books for me to read.
I think that now, I will write up some of the books that I have read recently.