Recently Reviewed Books…

Fight NightFight Night by Miriam Toews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A multi-generation, women-only, family story told with sensitivity and wit by the member of the youngest generation in line, Swiv, a teenager, I presumed, and a much pleasanter female version of Holden Caulfield.

The hero of the piece is Grandma Elvira, suffering from a gamut of age-related illnesses and who could die at any moment. Yet Grandma laughs about the vicissitudes of life, and her advice to Swiv is “fight – against patriarchy, pain, and against all forms of injustice,” advice that gets Swiv suspended from school and forced to care for Grandma and her pregnant mother, Mooshie. Mom is another character , embodying “fight” to the hilt. Mom is a struggling stage actor, fighting for meaningful roles, fighting with directors, fighting discrimination by exploitative producers, fighting guilt for having affairs with men just to fill the hole in her own life, and always in a snit; “scorched earth” is her approach to anyone who opposes or frustrates her. This trio of women soldier on in the same household, fighting and loving each other, for the only men in their lives are either dead (Grandpa), run away (Dad), or, in the case of Swiv, still to make an appearance, although our teenage heroine thinks that the smell of “T”’s chest in California is pretty cool, and she has his phone number.

The book is divided into two halves – not quite the way Grandma saws her books into sections to digest them more easily – the first half dedicated to the three women’s quotidian lives in Toronto, and the second half to chronicle a trip that Grandma and Swiv take to Fresno, California to visit relatives for the last time. This is where I got the sense of a strong parallel between this novel and Toews’ The Flying Troutmans: another multi-generational story dominated by women, another road trip down south, another round of fantastical happenings and erratic behaviour that is hard to keep up with, without losing credibility. In fact, I wondered whether an American connection was required just to maintain book sales and international acceptance.

I will not go into recounting all the antics that Swiv and her grandmother get into, for that would amount to spoilers, suffice to say, that at some point we know this game is going to end. Grandma is going to wear herself out, despite her philosophy that “Pain – it is not those who can inflict it the most, but those who can suffer it the most who will conquer.” Yet, before the final whistle, Grandma gets to fly in an airplane, go boating and drinking, drive her own convertible, and literally kick up a storm in a nursing home in Fresno, all this while travelling to the USA with insufficient medical insurance coverage. The final scene in the hospital back in Toronto is sad and funny at the same time, where three members of the family go inside and three come out, but not without tragedy and joy in their wake.

I found the writing style to be even more unorthodox than The Flying Troutmans. In that previous book, although there were no quote marks to separate dialogue from narrative, each distinct line of dialogue spoken by a character had its own paragraph. In this book, dialogue (even by two or more characters) and narrative are dumped together into dense paragraphs, identified by a lot of unnecessary “I said”s and “she said”s. Perhaps Toews was trying to present the writing of an unformed teenager, Swiv, but I got the impression she was copying that other master of denseness, Jose Saramago.

Despite these quirks, this is a heart-rending story. Now I have to read the Giller prize winning novel to find out why Toews, who has put in her time over the years and perfected the multi-generational girl-power novel to a fine art, was denied the prize this year.

View all my reviews

An Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An aging hobbyist translator in Beirut, translating English and French translations of international literary classics into Arabic, is a cover for the author to explore and critique the works and creators of literature without sanction. From that perspective, this book is a treasure, as a novel it is weighted by that very literary burden it bears.

Aaliya, is the translator of translations, a retired bookseller, 72, living alone in a high-rise apartment, divorced at 22 and never remarried, and forever holding a grudge against her impotent former husband. She cries a lot because she has no occupation, no desire, no hope, no ambition, and no self-love. The only enterprise that keeps her from suicide is her translations.

She translates a new book every year, and upon concluding the project, files it in a pile of boxes in the maid’s room of her apartment, never to be published. By withdrawing into her cave and her work, she has withstood the Lebanese 15-year civil war, the threats of her own family to vacate, and the entreaties to join the Three Witches Club comprised of her landlady, Fadia, and two other tenants, Marie-Therese and Joumana, who live on floors above and below her. Translating a translation is also Aaliya’s way of avoiding critique that she may have mutilated or misrepresented the original.

The book is largely plotless, and we follow Aaliya in her daily peregrinations: to the museum where she takes regular refuge, on her walks about the city which is building back after much devastation, and in her reminiscences of times past, especially during the war when her space was invaded by Israeli soldiers and she defended it with her Kalashnikov. There are not a lot of nice people here, but they hide their ugliness with makeup, hairstyling, and pedicures. And there is a lot of overwriting: one particular scene, a visit to her mother to atone, took twenty pages, and the symbolic “washing of the feet” took eight pages.

Two people influenced Aaliya’s life: Ahmed the Palestinian freedom fighter, 15 years her junior and the only man who made love to her; and Hannah, 15 years her senior, who inveigled herself into Aaliya’s in-laws’ family through a comedy of matrimonial errors and stayed connected until her suicide. Aaliya sees herself intractably following Hanna’s tragic trajectory with sleep deprivation, loss of love, loss of family, and isolation being the contributors – hence the maniacal reliance on literature to provide answers to the difficult moments of her life.

And there is a lot of literature in this book – it’s most endearing feature to me. I lost count of the number of authors and their work that were discussed here. Some stuck out for me, for they were mentioned more than in passing: Fernando Pessoa, Danilo Kiš, and W.G. Sebald. There are even writers for suicide: Hemingway, Plath, Wolf et al. I also liked the descriptions of situations or people:
Israelis: “Jews who have misplaced their humor.”
Civil War Soldiers: “Young men in clean uniforms who were able to shoot people while gnawing at a kebab and drinking a Pepsi.”
On Translation: “It helps time flow more regularly.”

A pivotal event at the end (no spoiler, so I will not describe the event) forces Aaliyah to re-evaluate her choices and translation process, for the better, we hope. It also proves to her that the Three Witches are actually good people and may be able to help her re-engage with humanity. For me, the added lesson was: “Back-up all your work and don’t leave it to chance.”

View all my reviews

The OverstoryThe Overstory by Richard Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the life of our planet could be distilled down to a 24-hour day, then plants arrived at noon and humans at four seconds to midnight. Yet, in our flawed wisdom, man is endowed with consciousness while trees are not. This novel is an attempt to redress the balance.

This is a book about trees, and literary writing, sometimes excessive, always lyrical and beautiful. You will hear of many species, common and uncommon, about their origins, characteristics, and quirks. Many grow through an interconnected root system underground for centuries before daring to pop their heads into view only for us to cut them down for profit or aesthetics. The author and the characters are unequivocal in their plea, “What you make from a tree must be as miraculous as what you cut down.”

At first, one wonders whether this is a collection of short stories about nine unconnected characters with diverse backgrounds such as lawyer, artist, actuary, academic, war vet, computer programmer, engineer, and dendrologist. The first part of the book covers their life stories, and these were the most interesting to me. All of them have a sense of mission, derived from different stimuli and life experiences. The next three parts, aptly given tree references: Roots, Crown, and Seeds, show how the characters were brought together in a unified cause to save the three-percent of old-growth trees left on the planet. Some become activists, other’s anarchists, other’s become defenders, and other’s custodians; one even decides to use cyberspace to invade our minds with tree-consciousness.

Much of the anarchist scenes seem to be based on real-life events that happened in locales like Fall Creek, Oregon, and which are still taking place in flashpoints like Fairy Creek, Vancouver Island. These confrontations between logger and protestor provide the dramatic elements of this book. Despite temporary delays and legal injunctions arising from protestor antics such as tree sits, chaining humans to trees, or laying them across roads tied to concrete blocks, there is a sense that the activists will be slowly ground into submission in the name of progress, in our desire to “cover the globe with row crops for the care and feeding of our species before the doomsday clock strikes midnight.” When one such protest goes wrong, and an anarchist dies, that starts the question in the activists’ minds: “Were we right? Did we accomplish anything, really?” It also leads to betrayals and to the destruction of something beautiful that was built-up between them.

Which brings me to the writing. Watch it when the writer drifts off into describing trees in the middle of the story – he seems to love it and loves to get lost in them woods! He comes back to base however, with a zinger sentence that sums up his walkabout and makes its connection to the story. But those lyrical, staccato deviations say a lot about trees, if you care to listen. Maybe he is trying to test whether we are listening, for to date, no one is.

I picked up some profound wisdom from these ancient growth trees and the activists:
– You and the tree come from a common ancestor.
– Restoration must come on the trees’ timeline not the humans.’
– Exponential growth in a finite system leads to collapse.
– Beliefs must be considered delusional if they are in keeping with societal norms.
– Trees talk to each other and work in teams for self-preservation.

Just like Professor Patricia Westerford’s great speech and final act of theatre on behalf of the trees, that would be forgotten in days, this book stands as an attempt to change our conception of trees and their importance to our ecosystem. Books alone will not do that, despite them winning prestigious awards like the Pulitzer. Frankly, I prefer the crippled computer genius Neelay’s approach to warping our minds with tree-consciousness to make the shift happen. Perhaps, someone should be talking to Mark Zuckerberg as he develops the Metaverse and get him to inject some Tachigali versicolor into his formula.

View all my reviews

Humankind: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rutger Bregman’s Radical Idea, something we all like to hear as we wade through a daily deluge of bad news, is that deep down people are pretty decent.

He posits that the rot started 10,000 years ago when we moved from a nomadic existence to a stationary one and got preoccupied with farming and property. Enter sexually transmitted and other infectious diseases, kings and armies, wars and famines. He debunks the popular theory that we have good and evil within us. However, he agrees that while manifestations of Terrorism and Nazism do not reflect our decency, it is those ideologies that are evil, not the people caught up in them.

Most interesting are the stories, and there are many, from the genesis of the mysterious stone statues of Easter Island to the identical twin brothers who fought on either side of Apartheid in South Africa. Here are a few popular events and philosophies that he puts his own spin on:
a) 75% of killing in WWII was remotely activated (by bomb, grenade, mortar, aerial bombardment etc.)
b) Modern soldiers are drugged and brainwashed into killing
c) Democracy is no more people-power than its name implies. We elect people who will govern us and not fulfill our wishes.
d) The US Constitution, Capitalism, Rule of Law and other institutions of the supposed developed world are based on the assumption of our innate selfishness.
e) The market was created by the state to make farms and other enterprises more efficient by parceling them out to individuals with the means and money to afford them.
f) The “broken window” theory (i.e. “keep a window broken and the bad guys will come in”) practiced by law enforcement groups like the NYPD and LAPD were dismal failures.
g) The Colombian civil war was ended by an advertising company bombarding the FARC guerillas with messages to return home to their mothers.
h) A family unit is governed on the system of Communism – i.e. “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
i) God was invented as a Super Leviathan to keep tabs on us.

I could go on. But let’s talk about his remedies for our crazy world:
a) The Norway Model for our prisons, where the accent is on rehabilitation not punishment.
b) The remedy for prejudice, especially racial prejudice, is Contact.
c) Practise Compassion as opposed to Empathy. The former is rejuvenating, the latter exhausting.
d) Get rid of office cubicles, taxes, and political hierarchies.
e) Playfulness as a means of learning. Schools and curriculums should be determined by students, not teachers.
f) Assume positive intent, pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophesy – an example cited is Nelson Mandela.
However, Bregman stops short of asking us to turn the clock back 10,000 years and return to the nomadic life, to before the rot started. There is no turning back history, and our evolutionary path has led us to this pass. We have to play to the better nature within us and not to our evil twin, he says. The multiplicity of stories notwithstanding, Bregnan’s Radical Idea still does not convince me that the evil twin isn’t lurking within, looking for an opportunity to surface and make its presence known. That said, I still applaud Bregnan for producing this book with its myriad examples and stories to back up the fact that all is yet not lost and that Humankind could still be saved.

View all my reviews

Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Anarchic Movement

Postmodernism was born after the Second World War and became fashionable in the 1960’s when many of its proponents, Derrida, Foucault, Beckett et al, were at their height. However, its maxims have permeated society and still enter the conversation be it in literature, politics, gender, race, history, architecture, music or art.

Postmodernism seems to have emerged as an antidote to mainstream Anglo-American liberal philosophical thought that was deemed to be accessible to all in an “ordinary language” with maximum clarity. The postmodernist attitude was therefore one of suspicion which bordered on paranoia and, despite its Marxist affiliations and political aspirations, was never intended to fit into anything like this kind of consensual and cooperative framework. It is therefore anti-grand narrative, anti-history, anti-colonial, and anti-empirical science. A typical postmodernist conclusion: universal truth is impossible, and relativism is our fate.

I was particularly interested to note that some of the most difficult books of literature I have read, or attempted to read, were by postmodernist writers, notably Beckett (see my review of his Molloy Trilogy that took me years to finish), Pynchon (whom I abandoned halfway),Nabokov, Fowles and Auster, the latter three authors whose books I did finish reading, but concluded that they preferred to dwell in states of altered reality or madness. In fact, Butler posits that “The postmodernist novel doesn’t try to create a sustained realist illusion: it displays itself as open to all those illusory tricks of stereotype and narrative manipulation, and to multiple interpretation in all its contradiction and inconsistency, which are central to postmodernist thought.”

This short book, termed “a very short introduction” – thank God, for it got into various arguments and viewpoints that seemed to circle back to the key points that I am trying to extract in this review — covers other areas of human endeavour where postmodernism has left its footprint: painting, music, architecture and language. However, the dominant characteristic is postmodernism’s anarchic stance and desire to turn the established order on its head and leave us open to many interpretations of the truth. Postmodernism, being mainly on the side of the subordinated and marginalized, has been a boon for feminists, race and gender activists, prisoners, and the criminally insane. Many of the pro-marginalized movements born in the last 50 years could be seen as manifestations and extensions of postmodernist thought.

The author displays his bias when he says:  “Postmodernists are by and large pessimists, many of them haunted by lost Marxist revolutionary hopes and the belief that the art they inspire is often negative rather than constructive.”

However, Butler leaves the door open to freedom of choice when he concludes, “But it is important to remember that in the arts, too, alternative traditions persist – and for two main reasons – firstly, because modernist traditions continue, and there are many artists who have learned something from postmodernism without being devoted followers of it.” I myself conclude that I never succumbed to postmodernism although I came of age during this period; my work is more in the realist mode.

This is a good primer for those interested in the various artistic and philosophical movements that rise and fall over the ages. Over the last two centuries, they seem to be coming in 50-year intervals, more or less. If that is the case, then postmodernism must have run its course by now, leaving only stains of its ideology embedded in various segments of our society. What comes next? Post-postmodernism or Port-Truth, and are we already living it?

View all my reviews

Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.