Tag Archives: humour

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.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Some of my favorite things in life are eating chocolate, learning about new things, and uninterrupted sleep (preferably through the night). Swamplandia! helped with ONE of those. It was fascinating!

This ambitious novel, written by the twenty-nine year old Karen Russell, was buzzing around on some must read lists for 2012.  Swamplandia! is a theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. It’s an almost fantastical place with gator wrestling, sensational Everglades memorabilia, a quasi-historical museum and an endangered family called the Bigtrees.

Ava is a thirteen year old girl. She has an older brother, Kiwi, and an older sister, Osceola. Her family is normal in a sense that they love each other, they have history and they are alive. But they are also a little strange. They live isolated but fulfilling lives on one of the alleged Ten Thousand Islands (not our Ten Thousand Islands) of the Florida Everglades. The Bigtree family’s connections with the rest of the world are few. One is an old  houseboat that serves as an outdated library for the very scattered community of islanders. The other is the ferry that brings tourists back and forth from the mainland to adventure in Swamplandia!

Hilola Bigtree is the mother of this family and she is also the main gator wrestler!  (exclamation point was not really necessary in this sentence) She’s good; a good showman and a good mother. But she dies quickly of cervical cancer leaving her family fragmented,  and the struggling theme park without its headliner.

Simultaneous to Hilola’s death and Swamplandia!’s fizzle is a mainland theme park opening called The World of Darkness. Tourists stop coming and the family’s way of making a living and surviving in the proud Everglades impossible due disheartening big corporation market push over.

The mourning children deal with their deep loss. Kiwi leaves the island for the mainland with intentions to make money and save Swamplandia! He ends up getting a job at The World of Darkness as a janitor.

Osceola becomes a spiritualist  using an Ouija board to try and contact her dead mother. Unfortunately, her mother is not accessible and she starts dating ghosts of young men.

Ava trains with great diligence, dreaming to be the next Hilola Bigtree, the best gator wrestler in the world. She tends and trains the gators in their pit as hard as her thirteen-year-old self can. 

Their father leaves the island to save the bankrupt island. The children believe he is meeting with investors for a few weeks, but he is actually working on the mainland as well. Kiwi is gone, and Osceola and Ava are left on their own to tend to the gators and the island. Osceola starts to become more and more bizarre. She runs away, deeply in love with a dead dredgeman to elope in The Underworld, which is where dead people go.

Ava wakes up alone with a note explaining the run away, and a promise ringing in her ears to her brother about keeping their whimsical sister grounded. She sets off with a strange, transient man who is known by locals as the Bird Man, a transient middle-aged man who scares away troublesome birds. The Bird Man’s appearance is serendipitous because he tells Ava he knows the way to The Underworld and can help save her sister.

Evil and hardship await the siblings as they follow their own way to save their realities. In the end it seems that people must be adaptable to the way the world changes. Even if it is for the worse.  Because life can always be full of love.

Why?

Swamplandia! is eerie and haunting. Some parts reminded me of The Dead Marshes of Tolkien and even though the Everglades is a real place, the book feels like a fantasy. It’s fabulously alluring and Russell uses amazing imagery to pull it off.  In the scene where Ava and the Bird Man are setting out, one lovely sentence reads like this:

We poled around the scummy crystals of the oyster beds and made a beeline for the mirror-like slough. I watched a line of water creep up his pole as the channel deepened, like the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer, and then we broke into wild sun (page 160).

This movie is Tim Burtonesque, complete with a creepy and unreadable Johnny Depp character. I think people would enjoy the humour and stunning beauty that Ava sees. Russell draws her alive, and gritty, although slightly more mature than thirteen would allow; she is easy to root for and connect to.

Swamplandia! is thick with details. Russell knows the world of the Everglades well, and the history portrayed in the novel about the land and the people who survive there is rich and enthralling. Also, every time that Swamplandia! is printed in this lovely tome, Swamplandia! has an exclamation mark on it. It’s details like that which really won me over. 

This book made me do a lot of online research about the Everglades. I now want to go there someday and I love books that expose me to new and exciting places. Everglades is an amazing place! I read some cool stuff here: Everglades in Wikipedia, and the government website for the national park.

I also enjoyed the theme of old vs new, of history vs progress. Swamplandia! was old-fashioned and a bit out of touch with popular culture. The World of Darkness (Read: World of Disney) represents the large-scale corporations that have all but taken over the States (and Canada). Russell also talks about survival of the fittest.

The tension between these two ideas makes for a thought-provoking read. Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

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!

Practical Jean, by Trevor Cole

People who Enjoy:

  • ironic humour
  • thought-provoking theme-oriented literature

The Book:

The least I can say about Practical Jean by Trevor Cole, is that it is a memorable read.  Last month, I saw Trevor Cole speak at a writer’s workshop and his description of his work intrigued me.

Practical Jean is a novel about Jean, a middle-aged woman who has just lost her mother to a painful and traumatic death.  Her mother also expected Jean to nurse and care for her as she died (for three long months).  This experience pushed, an otherwise only slightly quirky woman into a psychopath.

After the funeral, Jean has an epiphany. It develops from the decay she saw in her mother, and a memory of when she was six. Her mother was a successful veterinarian, and one day she euthanized a litter of deformed puppies. Six year old Jean, secretly watches her drown the puppies, one by one, in a bucket, and then disposes of the bodies in a garbage can. Jean, feeling like the puppies would be lonely without their mother, systematically, and nobly, drowns her favourite stuffed animals in the same bucket. She promptly throws their dead, stuff animal bodies out in the same garbage can.

The epiphany further develops while having a few drinks with her closest friends.  Jean decides she wants to save them from dying of old age in great pain. Her unwell, but entirely justified mind, decides to kill them all, even though should would miss her friends terribly.

The rest of the book is her plan to execute this.

Why?

Cole’s book is darkly interesting. The book is bizarre and unique, with tongue in cheek narration, and memorable character development.  The themes of the book are foreboding, yet it is not dark or horrific. I was left contemplating the value our society has placed on life, and the way we respect and treat death.

Trevor Cole received a lot of acclaim for the book, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, this book seemed to slip by a bit more unnoticed, but I think it is still worth the read. Another notable fact about Cole is that he runs a website called Authors Aloud, which features various Canadian authors reading pieces of their own work. It’s worth a few clicks.

Cheers!
cover

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

People  interested?

Back Cover photo
  • Miriam Toews fans
  • Me – because I met her last week (details below)
  • women who like wry humour
  • those desiring honest and engaging prose

The Book:

Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews is a coming of age story of an eighteen-year -old, old-order Mennonite living in Mexico. Irma’s spirit is restless and she falls in love and marries the Mexican, Jorge.  Consequently she is shunned by her family and community.  Her husband soon tires of her and abandons her. Having lost her family, and now her husband, she is very alone.

In a random, but oh-so-true, twist of plot, a Mexican director shows up to shoot a movie about the Mennonite community. Irma, alone and unhindered by the conventions of her religion, volunteers as a translator for them. Irma is empowered by working with the director and his crew. Without spoiling the plot, I can say that she and her sisters (one of them newborn) end up running away and learning to survive in the big wide non-Mennonite world. As expected, it ends with personal growth from characters and hope for the future.

Why?

I love Miriam Toews. I think she’s my hero. I read about this new book in the Globe Reviews section last month.

There is a startling quality to Toews’ work, like hearing a dear friend recount a story that is breaking your heart and giving you hope at the same time. A narrative voice that is miraculous and rare.  

Toews is subtly hilarious (I don’t LOL often while reading, but she does it for me!).  The stories are also simple, realistic and the plot is never “neat.”  However,  I would be lying if I thought that Irma Voth was brimming with new themes and unique characters. I felt like I knew the story even before I started it. But honestly, in a way, I appreciate that too.

I’ve been hitting up some of the literary scene in Hamilton. Last Tuesday night I went to a Random House-sponsored reading with Toews.  Wine and cheese + one of my favourite authors = great evening. Toews has an endearing sincerity and soft shyness. During question time,  I asked her why her characters always leave. She confessed to an entire room of strangers that she felt that escaping and running away from a Mennonite community was formative to her artistry. She joked that she hasn’t stopped “leaving” yet.

Her stories are places where life can change, where someone can feel the connection of the author on the other side of the page.  Toews’ novels have a voice that feels caring and alive. Like a soul speaking to another.

The plot for the book was inspired by a Carlos Reygadas film called Silent Light. I watched this a few months ago and it is  beautifully haunting.  Miriam Toews played a major character in the film.  The film Silent Light, and the book Irma Voth are definitely entwined, sharing themes (and sharing Toews). If you enjoy “artsy” films about interesting places,the Hamilton Library‘s got it!.

Silent Light

The Book Thief by Markus Kuzak

My first reaction to this book was WOWZERS!

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief cover

What a gorgeous book.

I turned to the last pages and found a young adult study guide at the back. As it turns out, the book is actually considered a young adult book. WHAT?!? So, second reaction was, I was reading a teen book, and didn’t notice!

I am both flabbergasted about what defines youth fiction, and amazed at the care and time put into this book. What an amazing piece of fiction. Zusak in The Book Thief has given me a story I will remember for the rest of my life.

The Book Thief is set in the years of the Second World War, in Germany. The main character is a ten-year old girl named Liesel whose mother is bringing her to a foster home. Her mother must leave them because, for reasons unknown to the reader, she can no longer take care of Liesel or her brother. On the train ride there, Liesel’s brother dies.

Enter: the narrator. He makes his grand entrance by taking away the soul of her brother. This is the crux of the book and what makes it so brilliant. The narrator is death. It is a unique literary technique to personify something so tangible, yet universally feared. And it also gives something to the book that makes it very much alive (ironically). Zusak makes the book bearable, for such a sensitive soul as myself, with humour and reality. At this time, death is busy. He is busy taking souls away all over the world. But death, as portrayed in The Book Thief is tongue-in-cheek funny, poetic and sensitive. We know he has feelings for those left behind.

We follow beautiful and vivacious Liesel, through her adolescence. But the reality of her pubescent years is a harsh one, with bomb shelters, Hitler Youth meetings, and stealing from farmers because they have nothing but watery (pea) soup. The author impressed me with the absoluteness that life and love fill the cracks of human brokenness and suffering.

Hans, her foster father teaches Liesel to read, and she becomes the book thief, someone who steals books because she loves them so much (naturally I can relate to a love of books). The snatching of literature become the foundations of her life and soul. Giving flight to her thoughts and helping her to make sense of the grave world around her.

The most significant character in the book is Max Vandenberg, a hunted Jew who comes to Hans for hiding. In World War One Max’s father saved Hans’ life. To return the favour, they hide Max and feed him, but his spirit is broken, and he wishes to hide like a rat in the cold dark basement.

It is Liesel, and her vitality, that keeps him alive. She reads to him, and listens to his stories and they soon develop a depth of friendship that can allow their souls to survive Nazi Germany. In one moving chapter, Max rips out pages from his copy of Mein Kampf. He paints over the words with white paint and hangs them to dry. He than writes a story with black paint over top of the pages about surviving and about being alive.

The end of the novel is hard to get through. It is sad. But I also felt prepared for it, because in this world is death really a surprise? It is the hope that the life of those remaining continues even after the death of loved ones. For some reason, the reader is comforted as well, by the fact that life was so present before hand.

Why?

I think most people have a general interest in WWII. If you like to read about the social history of war-time in Germany, this book would interest you. It is also unique, because the perspective of a nonconformist German family during WWII is somewhat uncommon in literature. But even if that doesn’t really interest you, the characters are memorable and the writing is dazzling and full. Zusak is a talented author, with emotion spilling out of the words he writes.

In the beginning, it took me a bit to get a hold of the narrative. It was hard to place the narrator, and for good reason (but once you realise who the narrator is, you can jump right in).

The only other issue I have with the book, is that I had never heard of it.

It was published in 2006, but it was marketed as a young adult book. I think it could have been more broad than that. The book deals with love, loss, lust, survival, death and war. These are done in a mature and thought-provoking way. Please, do yourself a favour and read this one.

Cheers!

The author’s website is worth a perusal (if I piqued your interest).  An interview with him about The Book Thief can be found here.

Or read the first chapter of The Book Thief.