Category: Read My Own Damn Books

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

More Happy Than Not

Cover image for More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera by Adam Silvera

ISBN 978-1-61695-561-8

“My worlds collided and I can’t get up.”

Sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto has been struggling since his father’s suicide, a downward spiral that culminated in a suicide attempt of his own, as the smile-shaped scar on his wrist constantly reminds him. Neither his overworked mother, nor his video-game obsessed older brother are able to offer much in the way of support, but Aaron is trying to get back to normal, a little bit at a time. When his girlfriend Genevieve leaves to spend three weeks at a summer art camp in New Orleans, Aaron begins hanging out with Thomas, a kid from the next block who is a little less rough and tumble than the friends Aaron grew up with. Soon their fast friendship is stirring up tensions with Aaron’s old crowd, and even Genevieve seems a little jealous when she returns home. As Aaron’s feelings for Thomas spiral out of control, he becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing the Leteo procedure—a new medical technique that might be able to make him forget that he ever liked a boy.

Occasionally you run across a book that is best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf being my most recent example. While I had heard a lot of hype about how good this book was, I had somehow managed to absorb almost nothing about the plot, and I think that was for the better as far as my reading experience with More Happy Than Not. So if you are already planning to read it, just go do it! You can read reviews later. If you still need convincing, read on.

More Happy Than Not is a largely contemporary novel with a slight speculative fiction twist. Almost everything about Aaron’s world is recognizable as modern day New York. The exception is the Leteo procedure, a controversial new neurological technique that allows doctors to erase memories. When the novel opens, Aaron’s neighbourhood is abuzz with the rumour that Kyle and his family have moved away because Kyle had the Leteo procedure in order to forget about the murder of his twin brother, Kenneth. Despite this sci-fi twist, the focus is largely on identity and human relationships, and Aaron’s growing curiosity about the Leteo procedure is mostly a narrative device that allows Silvera to delve into the conflict surrounding his sexuality. When is it humane to allow someone to forget a terrible experience? What role does experience play in identity if it can simply be overwritten?

More Happy Than Not is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. Silvera does a good job of developing the connection between Aaron and Genevieve in the early chapters, so it is genuinely heartbreaking to see them beginning to come apart when Aaron starts to fall for Thomas. Aaron’s family relationships are less than stellar, and his childhood friends are deeply homophobic, leaving him isolated and depressed, grasping after the hope of a miracle cure that will make it all go away. Aaron struggles to even say the word gay—eventually opting for “dude-liker” instead—so it is perhaps not surprising that bisexuality is never considered, let alone discussed. The style develops in accordance with Aaron’s level of happiness and self-understanding, bumping along with an artful unevenness that neatly conveys his inner turmoil. While dark enough that I would not necessarily recommend this book for everyone—it deals heavily with both homophobia and suicide—it is nevertheless a powerful expression of what it means to come of age in an environment that is hostile to your very identity.

Evicted

Cover image for Evicted by Matthew Desmondby Matthew Desmond

ISBN 9780553447446

“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.

Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.

A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.

Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.

One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.

Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court.  I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.

Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.

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You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Forgotten

Cover image for Forgotten by Linda Hervieuxby Linda Hervieux

ISBN 978-0-06-231379-9

“For many African Americans, their parting view of Lady Liberty was a bittersweet reminder that they were off to fight, and perhaps die, to protect freedoms afar that they had never known at home.”

Watching movies about World War II, you might be forgiven for thinking that no African American soldiers served in that war. Yet more than two thousand African Americans were on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, a mere fraction of the 130 000 sent to England over the preceding months in anticipation of the invasion of the continent. Most of the African Americans at D-Day were service troops, working as stevedores and truck drivers, but one black combat unit participated, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Over six-hundred men strong, the battalion was spread out over more than 125 landing craft arriving on the beaches on June 6, and in the weeks that followed. Their job was to raise a defensive curtain into the skies, protecting the invading forces from low altitude bombing runs and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Yet there is nary a black face to be seen anywhere in the storming of Omaha Beach depicted in such films as Saving Private Ryan. But they were there, and Forgotten is Linda Hervieux’s effort to write those men back into their rightful place in history.

Hervieux became aware of the existence of the 320th after writing a story about veteran Bill Dabney, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Organizers believed that Dabney was likely the last living member of the battalion, but when Hervieux dug into that claim, she discovered that it was unfounded. Moreover, time was running out to capture the stories of these men; most of the remaining veterans would be in their nineties. Military historians warned Hervieux, a journalist, that there were not enough records to support a book about the unit, but Hervieux persisted, unearthing at least twelve 320th veterans who were still alive and able to talk about their experiences. She also uncovered the only proof that a member of the 320th was recommended for the Medal of Honor, medic Waverly Woodson, who passed away in 2005.

Forgotten opens on Atlantic City in 1941, where Wilson Caldwell Monk—future member of the 320th—was waiting tables on the Boardwalk. Though New Jersey was a northern state, Atlantic City practiced a form of de facto segregation; the restaurants where Monk worked during the Season would never serve a black man. In addition to Dabney and Woodson, Monk is one of the main figures in the book, along with Henry Parham, who hailed from sharecropping country, and was working as a porter in Richmond, Virginia when he received his draft notice. Dabney, Monk, and Parham were all alive for Hervieux to interview, while the accounts of Woodson are based on newspaper articles from the period, and interviews he gave before his death, as well as the cooperation of his widow.

After the players are introduced, the first third of the book is largely contextual, including sections on Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the history of black military units, and the use of various types of balloons in the military, beginning with the Napoleonic wars. Although she talks about Jim Crow generally, Hervieux also examines its specific effect on the military experience. The army itself was segregated, and most of the training camps were located in the South. Far from being welcomed into the military, blacks were discouraged because they were believed to be less brave and less intelligent than white people. Black soldiers were regularly insulted and even assaulted, as white Southerners struggled with the cognitive dissonance of their respect for the military colliding with their dehumanization of African Americans. A black man in uniform was perceived as a provocation, a demand for respect, and the situation was so fraught that trains carrying black soldiers through the South traveled with curtains drawn, because white Southerners were known to shoot at trains carrying African American troops.

Perhaps the most revelatory section comes in the middle of the book, which covers the 320th deploying overseas, landing in Scotland, and proceeding south. They were encamped in Oxfordshire and Wales, where they were part of the growing mass of American forces being squirreled away in anticipation of Operation Overlord, as the invasion of France was known among the planners. Britons, by and large, did not discriminate against the black soldiers, and in some cases even preferred them, finding that they were usually more polite than their white counterparts, and better accustomed to the hard living conditions imposed by war-time rationing. In England, a black man could drink in any pub, go to any church, and dance with any girl, unencumbered by the colour of his skin. But this treatment caused tension with white American troops, who had somehow expected that Britons would participate in American-style segregation and subjugation. In fact, Britons roundly refused, and even raised public outcry against the harsher treatment they saw African American soldiers receiving from the American military command.

Only the last few chapters of Forgotten deal with the event itself, the crossing of the channel, the landing at D-Day, and the long fight to control the beaches. Nothing went as planned that day, and the first 320th men on the ground, including Waverly Woodson, were more infantry troops than balloon men, given the amount of artillery fire that was still underway. Fortunately most of the Luftwaffe was elsewhere, and later waves of 320th men were able to raise their balloons. Hervieux also briefly deals with the aftermath of the war, recounting the difficulties African American veterans faced in accessing the benefits of the GI Bill. Black veterans were still unable to obtain loans from most banks, and while educational benefits were available, African Americans were shunted into vocational training programs of dubious quality, and often emerged to find no jobs available to them.

Anyone who is very knowledgeable about either African American history or military history will probably find that this book retreads a lot of ground in an effort to contextualize the experiences of the men of the 320th. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the military records, Hervieux relies on this background material to flesh out the narrative, as a military history cannot rest on personal accounts alone. Yet if anything she is simultaneously a little too wary of personalizing the narrative, and letting the personalities of the men shine through. It is hard to get a good sense of them individually, and that is a bit of shame. Nevertheless, Hervieux successfully sheds light on the contributions of a group that has almost been erased from history.

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You might also like Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

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