Category: Canadian

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koulby Scaachi Koul

ISBN 978-1-250-12102-8

Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.”

The daughter of Kashmiri Indian immigrants, Scaachi Koul was born in Canada, and grew up in Calgary, Alberta before moving to Toronto for university. There she became a writer and editor for BuzzFeed Canada, and started dating a white man more than a decade her senior who she kept secret from her parents for many years. She sparked on a storm on Twitter in 2016 when she put out a call for more diverse submissions. Her debut collection of essays addressing growing up at the intersection of two cultures, fighting for a place in either one, while constantly defending choices her parents do not understand or approve of. Koul approaches this subject with a biting humour that belies the seriousness of the subject matter.

Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The intergenerational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. Her niece, nicknamed Raisin, also plays a prominent role, as Koul often reflects on her experiences through the lens of what she hopes or fears Raisin will face growing up as a young half-Indian woman.

Koul shares her complicated relationship with race in general, and skin colour in particular, a relationship that shifts depending whether she is in Canada or India. In Canada she is brown, yet just light enough to be ethnically vague, and constantly questioned about her identity. Racists casually toss the n-word at her, because “racism doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be acute.” In India, her family is pleased with, and occasionally jealous of, her pallor. There, her relatives casually touch her skin, as if hoping the colour will rub off. Koul worries over the value her family places on this lightness, and particularly what this emphasis on whiteness will mean for her half-white niece. This push-pull is constantly at play as Koul tries to parse out her place between the two worlds.

The pieces in this collection range in tone, but even the essays that are pure humour have an undertow of cultural commentary. As she recounts getting stuck in a skirt in the fitting room of a clothing store where she used to work—and having to be cut out of it—Koul manages to perfectly capture the tendency to pin our hopes on the perfect wardrobe. Even as she is getting stuck, she thinks this is “The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes the way I am as a person. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the entry fee for a better existence. I would exude a new confidence, it would smooth out the wrinkles in my body, it would hide all the ways I have disappointed and failed people in the past.” Body image is never far beneath the surface of these reflections, with race and gender only serving to further complicate matters. And this piece fits into the collection right alongside more serous pieces, such as the dissection surveillance as an aspect of rape culture, showcasing Koul’s diverse range and deft hand with a variety of subject matter.

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You might also like I‘m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

Waking Gods (Themis Files #2)

Cover image for Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvelby Sylvain Neuvel

ISBN 978-1-101-88672-4

“I’m grateful for Themis, to be in her company every day. I feel drawn to her. She isn’t of this world either. She doesn’t belong here any more than I do. We’re both out of place and out of time, and the more I learn about her, the closer I feel to understanding what really happened to me.”

Almost a decade has passed since the events of Sleeping Giants, when Rose Franklin and her team hunted down and assembled the pieces of the giant alien robot known as Themis. Rose has dedicated her time to studying Themis, and Kara and Vincent have continued to try to master operating her. Then another robot materializes in the middle of London, and the government’s response inevitably leads to a deadly confrontation. The appearance of Hyperion also drives home how little the Earth Defense Corps really knows about Themis’ combat capabilities. And that knowledge will be more necessary than ever when more robots begin to materialize around the globe, in the world’s most populous cities. The aliens know that humanity has found Themis, and they are not happy about it.

The structure of Waking Gods continues in the interview format Sylvain Neuvel used with great success in Sleeping Giants, with the unnamed character who I always think of as the Interrogator resuming his contact with the Earth Defense Corp after a long silence. Neuvel continues to work this technique, for example by having General Govender practice his speech to the UN General Assembly for the Interrogator before he delivers it. This in fact makes for a more interesting scene than simply witnessing the speech directly, as we gain insight into the Interrogator through the changes he suggests. However, as the situation on Earth descends into chaos, the narrative structure devolves in parallel, taking on more of a transcript style than an interview format. Everything is falling apart, and the style mimics that. We do, however, find out more about the mysterious Interrogator, and his even more mysterious friend Mr. Burns.

It has been nine years since Rose Franklin returned from the dead, mysteriously missing three years of her life and memories. For all that time she has struggled with what this rebirth means, whether she is really Rose Franklin, or merely a copy with some of her memories and knowledge. That doubt has been eating away at her stability for nearly a decade, but when the robots begin to appear, and Themis is called into action, it is the world that has become unstable, and Rose who must hold steady in the face of the unknown. Her development is one of the most interesting aspects of this series.

One of the more disturbing plotlines picks up a dangling thread from Sleeping Giants. Before being ousted from the Earth Defense Corps, geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou harvested ova from Captain Kara Resnick without her knowledge or consent. Kara has never been informed about this violation, because those who knew about it decided that the situation had been taken care of with Alyssa’s removal. When it turns out that Alyssa may have had time to act on her plans before her ouster, they continue to delay telling Kara what was done to her as they try to confirm whether or not Alyssa succeeded. If I can get a little bit spoilery here for the remainder of this paragraph… I absolutely loathe plotlines where women who are childless by choice are forced into motherhood. And I especially hate the implication that their choice was just due to some sort of damage, and really they would be great mothers. In short, I really did not enjoy how Kara’s character was developed in this volume.

In Waking Gods, the genre elements of Sleeping Giants are intensified, and the plot becomes more fast-paced. There is now no question that Themis has alien origins, or that aliens visited earth long ago, and that some of them stayed behind. Waking Gods explores the fallout of these conclusions, but also the more dramatic effects of the aliens becoming aware of how humanity has developed since their last contact. At the same time, the aliens are not significant characters, since this is really an exploration of what it means to be human. Although the duology stands well together, the epilogue hints at the possibility of further adventures.

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You might also like The God Wave by Patrick Hemstreet

Brown

Cover image for Brown by Kamal Al-Solayleeby Kamal Al-Solaylee

ISBN 978-1-44344-143-8

“We are lured to do the work in good times—until the economic bubble bursts. Then we turn into the job stealers, the welfare scammers, and the undocumented.”

North American thinking about race is often sharply divided along the black-white line. In Brown, Kamal Al-Solaylee examines what it means to be neither white nor black, but to occupy the vast cultural space in-between. From the exploitation of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States to the demonization of Muslims in Canadian political discourse, Al-Solaylee considers how the arrival of visibly different immigrants gives rise to hierarchies, and exposes nascent xenophobic tendencies. Expanding beyond just North America, Al-Solaylee visits France, the United Kingdom, Trinidad, and Qatar, among other countries, to explore the tensions and crises that have arisen as the result of migrant brown labour in a globalized economy.

Al-Solaylee centres much of his idea of brownness on movement, specifically migration and immigration for economic purposes. Al-Solaylee spent nearly two years visiting ten countries to gather the various stories and perspectives that appear in Brown. In doing so he sets particular limits on the scope of the book, and makes exclusions. He does not, for example, talk about aboriginal people who have, by definition, been here all along. Al-Solaylee is looking particularly at “who does the work locals spurn,” and seeking immigrant groups that have “reached a crisis point in the host country.” Al-Solaylee specifically excludes East Asians, even though there are certainly places where they meet the stated criteria, the affordable housing controversy in Vancouver being a prime example.

While the third section of the book deals with brown immigrants to predominantly white countries, the middle section visits places that involve examining prejudices within and between brown communities. Al-Solaylee cites colourism, where lighter brown people enjoy social and professional advantages significant enough that skin-lightening products and procedures are a booming industry. Al-Solaylee also pays a visit to Trinidad, where he looks at the tension that exists between Trindadians of African and Indian descent. Both groups arrived in the Caribbean under duress, either as slaves or as indentured labour, but continue to experience fairly rigid cultural separation based on stereotypes of their communities.

Among the case studies presented in Brown are many South-Asian domestic and hospitality workers, most of whom are deployed to Hong Kong and the Middle East. Most female migrant workers are involved in domestic labour, from nursing to child care to cleaning. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at Filipina migrant workers, following them to Hong Kong, where foreign workers make up five percent of the population. The women work long hours for small pay, far away from their families, extremely vulnerable to physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse by their employers.  By contrast, many of the male migrant workers are involved in construction. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at the Middle East, where entire camps have been built to house the South-Asian workers who come to build sky-scrapers and stadiums in dangerous conditions that see an average of one worker per day die on the job. The flip-side, of course, is the lack of remunerative work back home in saturated or stagnant job markets.

After briefly discussing the concepts race and colourism and their history in the first two chapters, Al-Solaylee begins the series of case studies that examine the idea of brownness from various angles, creating more breadth than depth. Al-Solaylee is exposing the surface of many complicated issues and situations, succeeding in providing a sense of the scope, but not a deep understanding. Nevertheless, he provides an entry point to a variety of situations that shine a light on our thinking about race and colour, and how we use these concepts to define classes within our cultures. Each chapter could merit a book of its own, but Al-Solaylee is focused on the picture they provide when presented alongside one another.

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You might also like Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee

Canada Reads Along: Fifteen Dogs

Cover image for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexisby André Alexis

ISBN 978-1-55245-305-6

“Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.”

In a Toronto tavern, the gods Apollo and Hermes strike a bet. When Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence, his brother Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that the animals—any animals Hermes would like—would be unhappier than humans if given human intelligence. The wager is struck, and fifteen dogs in a nearby animal shelter suddenly gain human consciousness—all while still in possession of their canine urges and instincts. As they develop a new language to convey their transformed understanding of the world, the pack becomes divided between those who embrace the new way of thinking and communicating, and those who wish to resist change at all costs. The gods watch—and occasionally interfere—as the dogs try to navigate this abrupt transition. But will any of them die happy?

Fifteen Dogs is an apologue, which is a fancy term for a fable, of which the beast fable is the most common type. Here the twist is that the dogs aren’t just unquestioned allegories for humans, but literal dogs given human intelligence by outside intervention. The distance—or lack thereof—between the two is what drives home the point. We are reminded that humans, too, have baser instincts and urges. It is a sort of defamiliarization that gives us just enough distance from our own nature and behaviour that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. The events of Fifteen Dogs can be rather brutal, and yet this clever devoice only serves to amplify that fact of our nature, lending the story additional poignancy.

Although we begin with fifteen dogs, the story quickly narrows to focus on three: Majnoun, Benjy, and Prince. Majnoun and Prince both depart the pack when the leader, Atticus, decides that the dogs will no longer use their new language, and will instead try to live as if the change never took place. This makes for an interesting allegory about traditionalist thinking and anti-intellectualism. Prince in particular is ousted due to his invention of canine poetry, which several of the other dogs find disturbing. However, most of the story follows Majnoun as he joins a human family, and forges an unusual bond with Nira, who knows he possesses human intelligence, and her husband Miguel, who refuses to acknowledge that fact. All but one of the female dogs are killed by page 35, and Nira is the most significant female character in the story. The dogs continue to refer to the females as bitches, a fact that becomes increasingly uncomfortable after they gain human intelligence. The ousting of the female perspective is noteworthy, even if it could potentially be intended as a commentary on human nature.

Fifteen Dogs was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by YouTube star and spoken word artist Humble the Poet. The theme for this year’s program was “the one book Canada needs now.” The other candidates chose to highlight specific issues, from the plight of Indigenous women, to climate change, to the consequences of technology, and Humble differentiated Fifteen Dogs from the other books in his defence by arguing that it helps us understand all of these issues by giving readers a deeper understanding of our fundamental human nature, which is the root of all of our other problems. Humble described the book as both timeless and current in his opening remarks, and he returned to this point repeatedly throughout the week.

Over the course of the week, many of the panelists discussed whether or not they were dog people, and whether that affected their reading of the book. For some, it helped them relate to the story, while others found it alienating. However, the best point in this regard was not raised by a panelist, but by an audience member in the Q&A after the show. She pointed out how different the impact of this book would be if it was Fifteen Chickens or Fifteen Cows. Indeed, the close relationship humans enjoy with dogs is precisely what makes the allegory so effective, as the panelists readily acknowledged.

Candy Palmater repeatedly tried to raise questions about the fact that almost all of the female dogs die early in the book, with Chantal Kreviazuk seconding this perspective. When Palmater tried to bring it up again during another question on the final day of debate, host Ali Hassan redirected, promising that they would get to that later, but it was not substantially addressed, as Humble always avoided the issue by pointing to Nira. It was especially frustrating to see this line of questioning downplayed after The Break was ousted on the first day, largely based on Brueggergosman’s argument that it lacked redeemable male characters. Author André Alexis did speak about it later, on q with Tom Powers, but it did not inform the debate. Alexis also highlighted Nira as the most sympathetic character, the one who has to overcome her own prejudice to accept Majnoun as an intelligent being. However, he admits that he did miss out on the opportunity to explore Rosie’s perspective as the only surviving female dog. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge this, after Humble danced around it all week.

It was suggested a couple times over the course of the week that, because Fifteen Dogs had already won the Giller Prize as well as the Writers Trust Fiction Prize, that Canada Reads should take the opportunity to highlight a different voice. (Interestingly, this is the only book from the short-list that I already owned before the contenders were announced.) Both Brueggergosman and Kreviazuk brought this up, and Brueggergosman made it the core of her closing remarks as she defended Company Town in the finale. Though it received some criticism over the course of the week, prior to the finale, Jody Mitic was the only person who actually cast a vote against Fifteen Dogs, on day two. Candy Palmater had originally planned to vote against it on day one, but changed her mind to cast a strategic vote in an attempt to save The Break. When it came down to the final vote, however, all of the free agents chose to vote against Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs the winner of Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: Company Town

Cover image for Company Town by Madeline Ashbyby Madeline Ashby

ISBN 978-0-7653-8290

“Choice had little to do with it. Money was the thing. When you had no money, you had no choice. But there was no use explaining that to a man like Zachariah Lynch.”

On an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, Hwa is one of the few entirely biological humans, unaugmented by technology or genetic tailoring. Hwa works as a bodyguard for the sex workers’ union, but when the rig is bought out by the Lynch family, she is hired to protect the patriarch’s son and heir, fifteen-year-old Joel. Hwa’s lack of augmentation means that she is not vulnerable to hacking, but the medical condition that led her mother to write her off as not worth the cost of the augmentation procedures leaves her vulnerable to seizures. But the fact that she cannot be hacked is valuable to the Lynch family, because Joel has been receiving high-tech death threats suggesting he will be killed before his next birthday. However, as Hwa’s involvement with the Lynch Company grows, the women she used to work with begin turning up dead in a gruesome series of murders.

Company Town is a page-turning sci-fi adventure set in a future that is a cautionary tale about technologies from resource extraction to genetic editing. With such a detailed and fully realized futuristic setting, it is no surprise to learn that Ashby works as a professional futurist, helping companies with strategic foresight, imagining both optimistic outcomes and worst-case scenarios. The concepts and ideas she incorporates range from the already-viable to more theoretical concepts, such as the fact that the death threats against Joel appear to be coming from the future. Company Town is also a gritty noir mystery; after Hwa leaves her old job, someone begins targeting the women she used to protect, and Hwa is determined to figure out how these brutal killings relate to her new employers.

Though Hwa is an entirely biological human, it is important to note that this is a matter of circumstance rather than a principled stand against augmentation. Hwa’s mother is abusive, particularly about her daughter’s appearance. One of the symptoms Sturge-Weber syndrome—which causes Hwa’s seizures—is a prominent facial birthmark. Sunny never wanted to waste money on her ugly daughter, and even as an adult, Hwa is still very poor. Her job with the Lynches represents her first experience with financial security, and she remains cautious about spending any of that windfall as she tentatively steps into her new role. Hwa begins to come to terms with this for the first time over the course of the story, but unfortunately the choice is ultimately taken from her, and she once again has to live with the consequences of what others have decided for her. I had mixed feelings about this turn of events; on the one hand, Hwa deserved to receive medical treatment for her condition, rather than having to live in fear of seizures and other serious complications. But the miraculous erasure of disability in speculative fiction is a problematic trope, and the fact that she didn’t consent further muddied the waters.

Company Town was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, who stepped in after the original defender, Tamara Taylor, had to bow out. Brueggergosman is a two-time panelist who previously defended The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro in 2004. Brueggergosman highlighted the way the novel smoothly combined a fast-paced plot with conceptual elements that raise important issues such as resource depletion and rights for sex workers. She also had to defend against two main issues raised by the other panelists, who tended to agree that the book was entertaining, but perhaps lacking in substance. A number of questions were also raised about the ending, which involves a romance, and a loss of free choice on Hwa’s part.

[Spoilers! This paragraph discusses the ending of the book, and the panelists’ reactions to it in detail. You are forewarned.] Over the course of the week, the ending of Company Town was brought up several times. After initially being very invested in the book, Candy Palmater related how the ending lost her when Hwa’s condition was cured by having unprotected sex with Daniel, who is her supervisor at the Lynch Company. Daniel unknowingly infects her with nanobots, which go to work repairing her condition without her knowledge or consent. Brueggergosman related that Ashby’s intention was to challenge the notion of the “pure” heroine and reward Hwa for daring to be vulnerable and explore her feelings for Daniel, and then become intimate with him, but the issue continued to come up throughout the debates. For many of the panelists, this turn of events undermined Hwa’s otherwise strong character.

In her final plea, Brueggergosman asked her fellow panelists to considering elevating a new and exciting voice in Canadian fiction, rather than delivering another accolade to an already well-decorated text. This is a strategy panelists also tried, unsuccessfully, to use against Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal in Canada Reads 2016, arguing that he had already won Canada Reads in the past. With the exception of Brueggergosman, the panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis the winner of Canada Reads 2017. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: The Right to Be Cold

Cover image for The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutierby Sheila Watt-Cloutier

ISBN 978-0-14-318764-6

“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”

Born in Kuujuuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec in 1953, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has borne witness to tremendous change in the Inuit way of life over the past six decades. Her diverse career has included work in the fields of health and education before she turned to climate activism in the 1990s. However, all of these pursuits have a unifying purpose; the protection of Inuit culture and the well-being of Inuit people. Part memoir and part call to action, The Right to Be Cold combines scientific evidence and Inuit traditional knowledge, putting a human face on the impact of climate change, which has been acutely felt in the Arctic region Watt-Cloutier calls home. Focusing on the interconnectedness of all things, Watt-Cloutier positions Inuit as sentinels, sounding the alarm about issues that have already devastated the Arctic, but must eventually impact the entire world.

Watt-Cloutier does a wonderful job of putting a human face on climate change, both by giving accounts of traditional Inuit practices, and chronicling how they have changed as the Arctic warms. She also writes very understandable explanations of the scientific processes that are involved in climate change, including explaining why the poles are experiencing the phenomenon at a more rapid rate than other parts of the planet. By describing her Inuit childhood, Watt-Cloutier is able to illustrate how much has changed in such a short period. For the first the first ten years of her life she traveled only by dog sled, until the government executed most of the sled dogs in the 1960s. Today, travel by sled or snow machine is difficult because the texture of the snow has changed due to rising temperatures. Travel over once-solid sea ice has also been made dangerous by the changes wrought by temperature and pollutants. The traditional knowledge of the elders that once kept hunters safe is rapidly becoming obsolete in a swiftly-changing environment.

While humanizing the issues is certainly one of Watt-Cloutier’s strengths, the book does get bogged down in the middle, in the chapters “POPs and the Inuit Journey,” and “The Right to Be Cold.” These chapters chronicle her international political advocacy as the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where she served for eleven years beginning in 1995. Her first major issue was Persistent Organic Pollutants which, due to weather systems, tend to gather in the Arctic and poison traditional Inuit food sources as they accumulate at the top of the food chain. After the Stockholm Convention, the organization turned its attention to climate change. Watt-Cloutier then advanced the argument that climate change is a human rights issue, because it directly impacts all of the other recognized human rights. Unfortunately, these chapters can be a little bit inside baseball, consisting of long lists of the many international players, which will not be relevant to the average reader. These chapters do serve to illustrate the immense difficulty and cooperation needed to orchestrate an agreement on an international issue, but this could have been accomplished with only a few of the telling anecdotes. For example, at a conference where the ICC was only an observer, the organization tried to get the Canadian delegation to mention the impacts on the Arctic in relation to climate change. When they dismissed the request, the ICC instead turned to the Samoan delegation, which agreed to mention that the flooding they were experiencing from rising sea levels was a direct result of the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The Right to Be Cold was represented in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer Chantal Kreviazuk, who had a couple of disadvantages representing this title. While all of the other panelists appeared live in the studio in Toronto, Kreviazuk appeared by video link from Los Angeles due to the fact that her son was in the hospital there. Kreviazuk did her best to try to turn this to the book’s advantage by pointing out that her son’s acute asthma attack was caused by increased pollen levels that are a direct result of a warmer climate. However, due to the slight lag in the video link, it was difficult for Kreviazuk to jump into the back and forth of the debate, although host Ali Hassan did a good job of ensuring that questions were addressed to her, and offering her opportunities to respond. Kreviazuk was also defending the only non-fiction title among this year’s selections, which has historically been a disadvantage. Since Canada Reads began in 2002, Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre has been the only non-fiction winner in 2012, although the 2015 winner Ru was heavily based on autobiographical elements of Kim Thuy’s life.

Despite these disadvantages, Kreviazuk mounted a strong case for The Right to Be Cold based on this year’s Canada Reads theme, “the one book Canada needs now.” Climate change is a compelling and time-sensitive issue that fits well with this topic. Kreviazuk also gained a vocal ally when Candy Palmater became a free agent after The Break was eliminated on day one. Although Palmater cast a strategic vote against The Right to Be Cold in an effort to save her own book on the first day, she subsequently fought strongly for the book she initially voted to eliminate. In addition to bringing forth some Indigenous perspectives on aspects of the book, Palmater also pointed out the apples to oranges comparison of pitting one non-fiction title against the two remaining novels.

Throughout the week, the main argument against The Right to Be Cold centered on the amount of information provided and its readability as a result. Kreviazuk felt the wealth of information was necessary to ensure that the book was not dismissed as “just an opinion.” Jody Mitic felt that there was too much information not about Sheila herself. Measha Breuggergosman acknowledged that the topic was essential, but argued that The Right to Be Cold was simply not as engaging as the other books on the table. Humble the Poet also repeatedly raised the question of readability. The tension centered on the disconnect some panelists felt between the undisputed significance of the issue, and the accessibility of the manner in which it was presented. When it came time to vote, Palmater and Kreviazuk voted against Company Town, while Humble the Poet, Brueggergosman, and Mitic all cast their ballots against The Right to Be Cold, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to get caught up with Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: Nostalgia

Cover image for Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanjiby M. G. Vassanji

ISBN 978-0-385-6617-3

“But now I have this strange feeling that I myself don’t belong. The world is not mine anymore. I who implanted idyllic fictions am a fiction myself and that fiction is falling apart.”

In a future where the wealthy can afford to extend their youth, patients sometimes live multiple lives, having their memories erased and replaced in order to take on new identities. Dr. Frank Sina specializes in treating patients who are suffering from Leaked Memory Syndrome, more commonly known as Nostalgia. These patients are experiencing breakthrough memories from their past lives, a precursor to a potentially serious breakdown. When Presley Smith arrives in Dr. Sina’s office, he has been repeatedly hearing the phrase “it’s midnight, the lion is out” running through his mind. Dr. Sina becomes fascinated and then obsessed with this case, even after Presley declines treatment and then disappears. Dr. Sina continues to investigate, but soon the government comes knocking at his door. By law, most patients have all records of their past lives deleted, but it seems that Presley was an exception, either a criminal, a terrorist, or an immigrant from the other side of the Long Border who has been assimilated. But despite this warning, there is something about the case that Dr. Sina cannot let go, even when it threatens to unravel his own carefully constructed life.

Despite being at the heart of the mystery, Presley Smith is relatively uninteresting as a character. Dr. Sina is caught by the case, but for the reader, there is nothing about Presley to particularly pique curiosity. He seems unremarkable, and more like a plot device pushing the story forward than an individual character until relatively late in the book when his past life is eventually revealed. Before that, he is mostly the spur that causes Frank to begin questioning his place in this society he has helped to build. The more he investigates Presley’s case, the more Frank questions his job, his relationship, and his beliefs. Presley’s unraveling is the trigger, but it is Frank’s coming undone that is centered. Stylistically, Nostalgia is part literary, part sci-fi, part noirish mystery. Vassanji maintains his ponderous literary writing style, with a sci-fi premise, and a slowly unraveling mystery at the heart of the narrative

Like Presley, Dr. Sina’s girlfriend, Joanie, doesn’t feel like a real, fully fledged person. She is a G0, or a Baby, a real young person who has never been reborn into a new life. She lives with Frank, but he is fully aware that she is stepping out with another, probably younger, man on the side. She is a foil to Frank’s rejuvenated state, and an embodiment of the intergenerational divide. This is something that is already present in a way in our own world, but it is magnified in Vassanji’s imagination by the fact that the longer lives of the wealthy “rejuvies” mean that 30% of young people are unemployed, and resentful of the fact that older people refuse to step aside to provide opportunities for the next generation.

Nostalgia depicts a world that is divided between rich and poor, North and South. The Long Border is a literal construction in this world, a barrier that divides the developed North Atlantic region from poor, war-torn areas, except for the occasional carefully orchestrated tourism trip. The South is ravaged by hunger, disease, and radiation, and its residents frequently attempt the dangerous crossing. This fictional physical barrier embodies a figurative divide that already exists in our world and is worsening as the refugee crisis continues to grow. In that respect, Nostalgia feels very real and timely. Although Vassanji spent more than ten years writing the book, it looms large today as the new American administration proposes to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Nostalgia was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by Canadian military veteran and current Ottawa city council member Jody Mitic. All of the remaining books received at least one vote for elimination during the second day. The deciding factor against Nostalgia was not clear, but Candy Palmater noted that the book was very male dominated, and Chantal Kreviazuk observed that the narrative was too personal to Dr. Frank. When it was time to cast the ballots, Humble the Poet voted against Company Town, Measha Breuggergosman voted to eliminate The Right to be Cold, and Jody Mitic cast his vote against Fifteen Dogs. Chantal Kreviazuk voted against Nostalgia, and so the final vote went to Candy Palmater—the first free agent after her book, The Break, was eliminated yesterday. Her vote made Nostalgia the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Check out my review and recap of The Break by Katherena Vermette.

Canada Reads Along: The Break

Cover image for The Break by Katherena Vermetteby Katherena Vermette

ISBN 978-1-4870-011-7

“She nods but I don’t know if she knows yet, that men are good, strong, amazing and ordinary, but not everything. They can’t be. They are too busy doing other things, and she should be too.”

When a young indigenous woman is attacked on Winnipeg’s troubled North side, her family gathers around her hospital bed. Four generations of women close ranks, belatedly trying to protect their victimized relative. However, as they struggle to understand what has happened, the spectres of their own traumatic pasts begin to rise, demanding to be acknowledged at last. Officer Scott is the ambitious young Métis policeman dispatched with his partner to investigate the brutal assault. He sympathizes with the family, but his efforts to solve the case are hampered by the victim’s reluctance to speak up, and the roadblocks thrown up by his jaded, burnt-out partner. Many perspectives weave together as the truth about what really happened that night out on the Break unfolds.

The Break is the heart-wrenching story of a community that has been repeatedly torn apart by violence, as Winnipeg’s indigenous population struggles with the lingering effects of colonization. Through the skillful use of multiple narrative perspectives, Katherena Vermette illustrates how trauma accumulates and cascades down through the generations, becoming compounded as those who have been hurt try to raise the next generation of children, who cannot help but be affected by their parents’ pain, even when those parents do their best to shield their children from repeating their mistakes.

All of the women of the family this story centres on were such fully realized, sympathetic characters. They are daughters and sisters, aunts and cousins, friends and coworkers. Each woman has her own struggles, and difficult secrets or traumas in her past. Louisa’s partner of five years, and the father of her child, has just left her. After struggling for many years, Pauline has finally managed to overcome her instinctive distrust of men enough to allow her boyfriend to move in. Their mother Cheryl struggles with substance abuse, but she is proud of the fact that she has come so far and now runs an art gallery. Running underneath the most recent tragedy is a current of tension, a memory of the last time the family was hurt this way, when Cheryl’s sister Rain died. But they all shy away from thinking about it, and so Rain’s death is the shadow narrative that mirrors the latest tragedy.

The men in the story are more absences than presences, defined by leaving and separation. They too are all hurting in their own way, and in turn hurting others as they try to cope with their pain. They are not as clearly drawn as the women, but they are not monsters, either, but flawed human beings. Officer Scott is the only male point of view character, and is the most well-developed. He is Metis, but never actively identified himself as such until his girlfriend convinced him to check the box on the application form for the police academy. But now everyone in the department knows, and this case in particular forces him to begin coming to terms with the heritage he has avoided for so long.

The Break was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by comedian and broadcaster Candy Palmater. In her opening remarks, Palmater highlighted the way in which The Break illustrates the continuing effects of colonization on Canada’s indigenous people. This year’s Canada Reads theme is “the one book Canada needs now,” and Palmater argued that this is a book that can help heal the nation as the country’s 150th birthday approaches in July. She also highlighted the fact that The Break emerged as an early audience favourite in online polls and best seller lists.

Panelist Measha Brueggergosman tore into The Break with a reverse sexism line of argument that Candy Palmater admitted afterward she had never expected when she prepared to defend the book. Brueggergosman argued that The Break excluded men, and that there were no redeemable male characters. She found the instinctive distrust the women in the story had for men—a reaction born from their history of abuse—divisive. Jodi Mitic admitted that he did not relate to the book as a man. In her rebuttal, Palmater pointed to Officer Scott as an example of a positive male character, and tried to highlight the way in which The Break is intended to center and reflect the experiences of indigenous women, as well as the harm both men and women in that community have suffered in the fall out of colonization.

Unmoved my Palmater’s rebuttal and closing remarks, both Brueggergosman and Mitic voted against The Break when the time came to eliminate the first book of the competition. This created a tie with The Right to be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, which Palmater and Humble the Poet voted against. Chantal Kreviazuk—who initially voted against Company Town—was given the tie breaking vote. As the defender of The Right to be Cold, she of course did not vote against her own book. She reluctantly cast the vote that eliminated The Break, which she stated was her favourite book after her own. I was extremely disappointed to see this moving story about family, resilience, and healing eliminated so early in the competition, and on such a weak argument.

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You might also like these past Canada Reads contenders:

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg