Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Last Hiccup- by Christopher Meades

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Tiny-Syn: lasthiccup

Vladimir lives in a small town in Russia where it’s winter most of the time. It is the 1930s and he is a small boy who wakes up one day and has hiccups that won’t go away.

After many sleepless nights (because of the hiccups) his mother brings him to a hospital in Moscow to be cured by the best doctor in the city. Thus taken from his home and mother, Vladimir is the recipient of many life experiences where eventually he comes to terms with his curse.

Larger Synopsis:

This is a wild and strangely exciting book about a boy named Vladimir who develops a serious case of the hiccups. Vladimir’s hiccups are so extreme that they keep him up at night. After three straight days, his impoverished mother brings him into Moscow to be cured by the best doctors in the Soviet Union.

The next few years for Vladimir are ones of medical intervention and trauma. This included a nightly routine of morphine to help him fall asleep at night. Through a strange rivalry between two doctors in the hospital, Vladimir is eventually ousted from Moscow and spends the rest of his childhood in an Mongolian Buddhist temple.

His hiccups remain with him until he travels back home, first to Moscow and then to see his mother.  The story ends with the good Vladimir sacrificing himself for the betterment of someone he loves, and dies a gruesome death while coming to terms with his hiccups.

Meades creates a bizarre and satirical world for Vladimir. The back cover of this novel calls The Last Hiccup a HumCanLit (a genre in which I’d been ignorant of all these years!). It is a strange tale, but not so strange as to be fantastical. The character of Vladimir lacked a bit of depth, but the premise was compelling enough that Meades pulled it off.  I don’t enjoy a lot of satirical novels, but this one I finished right to the very end!

I’m still struggling to piece my thoughts together on this one. I think the point of the book (and of the hiccups) is that as humans we struggle with the need to be recognized and appreciated. Vlady developed hiccups just at a time when he was developing a sense of self-hood. When a person’s place in the world is tentative, such as during adolescence, the desire for significance becomes important. Vladimir, in order to survive must come to term with his curse and learn to rely on his hiccups as a touchstone of who he is and ultimately how he will be defined.

And so, I recommend The Last Hiccup wholeheartedly. Unless of course, you dislike allegory. Some of the facts were a bit under-developed and puzzling, but for the most part I found the book intriguing and humorous.

Cheers!lasthiccup

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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!

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!

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

Who?

  • Women
  • Fans of the Midwife of Venice (this is a MUCH better book)
  • Canadian History fans (are there any out there?)

The Book:book cover of bride of new france

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers  is about the “filles du roi” or King’s daughters. In the late 1600 the King of France paid for young women to move to New France to help populate the settlements.  These women were usually orphans from the poor houses of Paris.  The women married the ex-soldiers or officers already settled in New France. Prior to the King’s efforts these men seemed more interested in reproducing half-native half-french children.

Most of the women who came as a Filles du Roi had no experience in farming or sustenance living. It was a lonely life, one that would need a great deal of resolve and bravery to survive. Desrochers imagines this world through the eyes of the young woman Laure. Her spunk get’s her sent from Paris overseas on a six-week journey to the great wilderness of Canada.

Laure shows us the new world in its beauty and strangeness. She marries a man who seems decent enough, but she is left for most months of the year along while he traps animals and gallivants around with the native women.

Laure meets a young Iroquoian man. He is rough and crass, but eventually they fall in love and have a clandestine affair. She becomes pregnant as a result. I will not spoil anymore details, but she learns to comes to term with the life she must live in the new world. Laure is also able to see the opportunities available to her as a woman living in New France.

Read It?

I picked up this book for a few reasons.  I’ve always been a bit of a history buff and this book, set in the late 1600s, was a historical fiction fix.  It’s sometimes difficult to find Canadian historical fiction maybe because of an inferiority complex about our proud past.

I also have a soft spot for début books (which this is), as I enjoy new voices in Canadian Literature.  This fiction started out as a Master Thesis for Desrochers at York University. It is well researched and fully conceivable as Desrochers brings this time in history to life.

But I cannot wholly recommend this one.  I enjoyed the story enough. The plot held my attention because of its setting, but Desrochers’s introspection came through too strongly in the character Laure.  It really felt forced and I kept telling Desrochers (telepathically) the old writers motto “show don’t say.”

Laure is flat, unbelievable and too neutral or reserved to cling to.  However, if you enjoyed the Midwife of Venice, you may enjoy this one and it’s much more historically sound.

Cheers!

 

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Who?

  • Women
  • women who like a little depth to their chick-lit
  • people interesting in racial inequality in 1960s Mississippi

The Book:

Kathryn Stockett‘s debut novel called The Help is a rapid and easy read.  I spend a great deal of time delving in thick literature because it’s what I love,  but surely one enjoys a break for a soft and girly read every now and then.

The Help is about the lives of black maids in the 1960s Deep South. Stockett reveals the tension of love and hatred that the maids feel towards the families they work for.  Skeeter is a young white woman who grew up on a cotton plantation. After university gradation she returns to Jackson Mississippi, but has a hard time meeting traditional expectations for women of the time.  She  has a secret dream  to be a writer or a journalist in the editing business. Although she seems to have no real drive for her dream, she applies for random jobs in large cities. It’s a feeble attempt at escape.

A few events occur that highlight the huge injustices in her town between the “help” and the women they work for. In fact, Skeeter’s own  mother fired the family maid out of sheer racism. Skeeter feels convicted to act and enlists the help of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, to write a book from the point of view of the domestic help. Both  Minny and Aibileen have spent their entire adult life being maids for white families of Jackson Mississippi.

With great difficulty, and with the help of Aibileen and Minny, Skeeter is able to gather narratives and stories of the lives of The Help. They publish it anonymously to protect the women from losing their jobs or reputations among the white families in Jackson. The book is popular, and creates a stir in Jackson and all over the country.  The voice of the maids is heard.

I enjoyed this book. I felt like the plot was thoughtful. I was emotionally involved in the lives of the maids and their sufferings through the injustices.  What a hard existence.

However, I didn’t LOVE this book. The characters were slightly flat. Skeeter, in particular, was not believable.  I didn’t feel like she was compassionate towards the maids.  It was more of a decision of the mind, rather than the heart.

There was also something a touch “draggy” about it. I  finished it, but the last 2/3rds felt forced.

The Help was published in 2009, and they have already made it into a movie. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s good. Check out the trailer. It made me tear up a bit, because I’m a bit of a sap.

Cheers!