Category Archives: fiction

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

If you liked Children of Men, by PD James, (book or movie) or Never Let Me Go (2010) you will enjoy this sci-fi apocalyptic-y novel. Jessie Lamb is an idealistic sixteen year old who is living in a grim world.

It is the near future. Women are unable to have children. A virus, called MDS has infected all women in the world leaving them unable to have children. Women are able to conceive, but shortly into the pregnancy, the virus kicks in and the woman dies.

Jessie’s father works in a reproductive tech lab, where they have found a way to vaccinate stored, frozen embryos against the virus MDS, offering the only hope for  the future of humanity. These vaccinated babies will be able to reproduce and populate the earth. However, they need young women to incubate the babies. These women are impregnated and then put into comas before MDS can kill them. After the baby is born, they die.

In order for there to ever be new babies, young women need to sacrifice their own lives.

Jessie volunteers as an incubator.  Her parents refuse to support her, arguing that scientists will find a cure for MDS in the future. Jessie wants to use her life for the betterment of the future, but her friends and family see her self-sacrifice as a type of suicide and a cry for help.

The ethics around reproductive technologies interest me a great deal. I also really enjoyed thinking about the dichotomy of self-sacrifice and selfishness. Jane Rogers created an extreme foil where a life must be given for humanity to continue. Especially in light of our depleting resources and the increasing ozone hole. We are still not willing to sacrifice our lifestyles. If you need some more proof that this is true of humanity, read my interview with a friend of mine about climate justiceJessieLamb

I also enjoyed the idealism (or stupidity) of Jessie. Our culture does not have examples of this type of sacrifice. We are not used to any form of sacrifice. Jessie’s gift to humanity seems unnatural.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I was not entirely sold on the main character. Jessie was a bit flat, and too resolved in her decision. I found her unconvincing. But otherwise the story was interesting enough that I’d recommend this novel.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.  Cheers!

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Philida- Andre Brink

What a fresh book!

I read a lot of Canadian fiction.

book cover
book cover

That is not a complaint, but I do miss other-worldly perspectives. Philida by Andre Brink was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.  The book is set in the 1820s and 1830s in South Africa.  I quickly learned that this was a pivotal time in South Africa’s history, because of the colonial power shift from the Dutch to the British.

Philida is a slave who works as a knitting girl on a Dutch plantation. She is also the lover of her boss’ son Frans and the mother of four of his children.

Philida is special. Even before the British took over the colony, she held an intrinsic sense of self-worth and dignity. She had feelings for Frans, but only because she was treated as an equal by him.

Frans turns into a big fat jerk and decides to sell Philida and his children.

There is more to the story, too. The British set a date, in advance, when slavery will be outlawed in the cape colony (by 1834). This has intense social implications for the Dutch settlers and the African slaves that have been working for them for generations.

I loved this book because it explores the link between freedom and individuality. With the promise of freedom, Philida turns from a person who lets things happen to her, into someone with agency.

I also loved this book because of the strength of Brink’s writing. The prose is humourous, his characters full of tongue in cheek one liners. And his characters have fun little names like Willempie.

Brink is also insightful, he lays out the complexity of slave and plantation just as it is breaking down.

The most impressive though, is that the novel is based on historical records that Brink has pieced together from his own family tree.

The book has strength, it has a soul. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary, historical fiction.

Giddy for the Giller #2:The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride is a decent read.

Ruth, the main character, is a Jewish woman growing up in Montreal in the 50s.  Ruth was abandoned by her mother as a newborn, leaving her husband and daughter and a mystery. Her mother immigrated from Russia right after the war, and leaves a past there that is hard for Ruth to reconcile. Identity seems irrelevant, and family ties loose.

Ruth is loved by her family and community, but spends her “growing up” years trying to let the people who loved and raised her, fill the void that was left by her mother.

The message of this book is compelling, especially about the immigrants after WWII who were missing people and their former lives. Immigrants coming into Canada were struggling to carry on and rebuild. I immediately pondered the relevance of a society built up on these issues. In the late 1940s, and during the 1950s, Canada received 1.5 million immigrants from Europe.  Among these numbers were all four of my grandparents.

The characters were a bit flat. I enjoyed the flashbacks in the story about Europe, but not the 1990s Montreal stuff because it felt forced and cliched. The interest for me in the story was the Jewish immigrants fleeing to Canada, or a place where they were meant to settle and rebuild halved lives.

There were a few circumstantial and non-relevant things that struck me as weird about this book: one, that it was set in Montreal (again, so was Inside by Alix Ohlin); also, Nancy Richler writes about Montreal, and so did Mordecai Richler, maybe they are related.

But the story wasn’t profound or new. It felt like a novel that could have been published thirty years ago. It detailed life in an older style of writing. One where the reader sees the character grow up and become someone. These are traditional Canadian novels, but I still finished it and felt enriched by it.

Cheers!

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

What this book is about:

I was excited when I finally received this book from the library! Hurray for holds!

This is a coming of age novel about three young people in a lover’s triangle. Here’s the triangle: Madeleine has fallen in love with a man named Leonard.  Mitchell, who met Madeleine in the first year of university, has loved and pined after Madeleine for years. The unfortunate thing about Leonard is that he is manic-depressive. The unfortunate thing about Mitchell is that Madeleine doesn’t think he is “man”enough for her.

The relationship between Madeleine and Leonard is strained because of Leonard’s worsening condition. Mitchell, unable to woo Madeleine, leaves the country to find spiritual peace and personal significance.  The three have just graduated and have their futures looming over their heads.

Madeleine vows to nurse Leonard to complete mental health. After a break down, Leonard, in his vulnerability, realizes that he loves Madeleine  and fears she may leave him. He starts taking his medication again, which means that he loses his virility, energy, and intelligence. With his meds he’s not the person Madeleine fell in love with.

Mitchell travels around Europe and India for  the better part of a year, feeling hopeless because the love of his life, Madeleine, is in love with Leonard. His travels are soul-searching, and he finds himself eventually in Calcutta working at Mother Teresa’s Calcutta Centre. He comes home and finds Madeleine in the middle of her own crisis with Leonard. I won’t spoil the ending.

Read It?

This book had a bizarre and unique quality to it.  I felt content to place this one down in the evenings before bed, and yet I still picked it up every chance I could. I am trying to pinpoint why.

I wholeheartedly enjoyed Eugenides’ Middlesex. It was a big story with big heart and big characters! I think Eugenides is a brilliant story writer, his characters are unforgettable, and his plots are unpredictable. He also has an endearing quality of using interesting rants that fit in with the plot perfectly.  It’s sort of like listening to a like-minded uncle ramble on.

This book is funny. There were several moments of LOLing and smirking. There are lots of intelligent moments too; at times it felt like I was reading a nonfiction article. Madeleine sees the world most clearly through story lines and books she’s read.  When she falls in love with Leonard, she thinks along the framework of the literary theory. The novel’s several diatribes explore the love plots of works of literature. 

Eugenides uses these rants to see if we still think of love and marriage in the same terms. Do the lingering Jane Austen dreams of women my age (sigh…I’m so in love with Mr. Darcy) change the way we think about love? Is this what we aspire to in our relationships? This theme was subtle, though, and I’m not certain that he really revealed anything new to me.

The Marriage Plot is long. It might be intimidating, but I still think some people might really enjoy it. The characters are subtle, but the development of each is thorough and fresh. They are prototypical characters but endearing because they are honest and heartening.

The ending is fresh and unsatisfying, in a way that life often is.

Cheers!

—–

If you like this story, why not read some of my other posts:

Touch, by Alexi Zentner (or WHY I READ)

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Touch, by Alexi Zentner (or WHY I READ)

Touch (and why I read)

I love to read. As an adolescent, I read the entire young adult section at my tiny municipal library. This fervor has not lessened with age. Why do I like to read so much?

There are easy answers to this question.  Maybe I’m bored (or boring!) Or, reading takes me to places I would never otherwise go.  What is it about holding a book? I could watch a movie and get the same entertainment and artistic introspection.

I read because I want connection.

A book tells me what someone is thinking. Another person’s spirit connects with me and expands my mind. If the book is gratifying, it can give words and comprehension to feelings I didn’t even know I was dealing with. Thoughts sit in the back of my mind waiting for words to pull them out. It’s a similar feeling to when you learn a new word for the first time; afterward, the word will pop up everywhere.

I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I have some small notions. When I read, these ideas seem bigger and clearer.  Books help me see more of the world; I can hear another person’s thoughts and then I understand life more acutely.

I’ve been hovering over the significance of religion in society, considering its necessities and implications. As luck would have it, last month I picked up a book called Touch by Alexi Zentner (Knopf Canada, 2011).  The book, set in the gold rush town Sawgamet, in interior BC, explores the connection between three generations of a family. Starting with the first settlers in the 19th Century, Zentner’s Touch explores the way belief and faith change the memories we use to weave our stories together.

Sawgamet is a world of ghosts and ancient monsters living in the woods and deep crevices of the rivers and lakes. Interior British Columbia in the 1800s was a world untouched and ancient. To make sense of this harsh world, legends and folklore abounded.  As more settlers came, they pushed the woods away with each cut tree. As the town grew, the forests become less dark and frightening. The wild became less wild, the cold less intense, starvation a rarer threat.  Thus, the stories people use to fight these fears, less important.

Touch, Alexi Zentner

As I age, certain fears I had are less encompassing. As a result, the beliefs I built my existence on are refining. I am left to wonder what holds me to this world I live in. What sort of person am I when the things I’ve built my life around settle down and become as see-through as the apparitions in the deep Sawgamet woods?

I don’t know the answer to this. But I’m glad that someone else is wondering these things too. Even if I don’t find answers to questions of my purpose, at the very least I’ve read some good literature.

In the spirit of connections between authors and their readers, I’m very excited for this year’s Hamilton GritLit Festival, a weekend event with readings and workshops starting on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012.

Alexi Zentner will be a guest reader on Friday evening (March 30th, 2012). The literary-minded in the city can find more information about GritLit Festival on their website at http://www.gritlit.ca.

The Quiet Twin, by Dan Vyleta

Who?

      • Everyone!!
      • WWII history buffs
      • those who love an intriguing yet realistic murder mystery

The Book:

The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta is about the reasons we speak and the reasons we stay quiet.

The book set in Vienna at the wake of WWII centres around the lives of people living in an apartment block.  The narrative pivots around a string of murders that have occurred in the apartment’s vicinity. The solving of the crimes leaves the community nervous as the Nazis infiltrate the city’s police force. The pro-party detectives intend to solve the crimes to prove their control over all matters of Vienna.

The  characters that make up this fast read are connected to each other because they live in close proximity to each other. As fellow apartment dwellers with windows that face a central courtyard,  they can see into neighbours windows and draw inferences and theories about the people they live beside.

Vyleta reveals the world of  has dangerous consequences when much of our day-to-day interactions with people are bases on inferences and theories. As the story progresses, Vyleta does a striking job of carrying the people through the plot and each are a metaphor for the reasons humans stay quiet and hidden from the truth.

Some people are privy to real information about the murders, but they choose to remain quiet. One of the characters is afraid of being discovered as different in a society that praises conformity. Another character is paralyzed because she was abused as a child and it traumatized her. Another person is angry. A different character is afraid of being insignificant.

This book explores why individuals keep quiet, even if there are injustices. Often the reasons are selfish, but in many ways instinctive.  People are worried to be found out or have our own secret’s exposed. The most memorable character for me, was Dr. Anton Beer. A man who quit his psychiatry practise in order to pursue quieter and less noticeable (under the Nazi regime) means of medicine. He is an enigma,and his quietness and secretiveness  is an insightful theory as to why sensitive and intelligent people could let crimes against humanity occur.

Vyleta’s writing is smooth and easy like a nice cold beer.  Someone who appreciates literary novels would enjoy this book, but it would also be enjoyed by fans of fast paced mystery novels.  The characters were complex and engrossing.

Dan Vyleta is a historian and a writer.  My favourite description of himself is that he is an inveterate migrant. I believe he lives in Toronto. The Quiet Twin is his second novel, and was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It gets a giant: READ IT from me!