Recently Reviewed Books…

Where the Crawdads SingWhere the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Where the Crawdads sing is deep in the marsh where critturs are wild, still behaving like critturs,” goes the line that explains this peculiar title, and yet I found this to be a story lacking in the feral quality of humans living in such a primitive environment.

Kya is the heroine who everyone leaves: parents, siblings, lovers, leaving her alone to survive from the age of six, fed on a diet of grits and seafood fished from the oceans and swamps of her marsh in the wilds of a racist North Carolina of the late ’50s through to the ’70s. She talks to the gulls, studies the marsh, drops out of school after one day, and gains any sort of parenting from the black trader Jumpin’ and his wife, Mabel. Her lovers: the chaste and caring Tate who builds her up and the two-timing Chase who destroys her. When Chase is found murdered in the opening chapter in 1970, the scene is set to find out whether Kya is guilty of the murder.

Two story lines converge: the story of Kya from age 6 in 1959 until 1970, and the post-murder 1970 storyline of the trial and Kya’s subsequent life, with chapters alternating between the two.

Flashes of Nicholas Sparks came to mind – then I realized why: “New York Times Bestseller,” a book sanitized of it’s incendiary potential to appeal to the masses. However, despite contrivances to keep it clean and above board, the novel and its offshoot film were not devoid of controversy. Reading old newsclips show that the author had incidents in her own life that mirrored Kya’s misadventures, and I wondered whether this book was written for catharsis or for getting even with the criticism Owens had faced. The controversy has mainly been about the portrayal of racist stereotypes (Jumpin’ and Mabel), but that can also be attributed to current morality being applied to incidents (albeit fictitious) being portrayed from 65 years ago when we were not so hypersensitive to race.

All that said, Crawdads is a tender love story, but it was too syrupy for me. For a marsh dweller with no education and highly tuned survival skills, Kya comes across as a bit too noble. So does Tate. I would have been more convinced if Kya had gutted and eaten a fish raw and thumped her chest like Tarzan. And when she became a best-selling author, I had to ask someone to hold my beer. The one who played closer to type was Chase, when he moved from wooing suitor to philandering rapist. The writing also broke many of the rules of novel craft (jumping POVs, author intrusion, shifting tenses et al). But one wonders about craft these days; if books that break craft can go onto become bestsellers, who gives a damn about craft? Was it something cooked up to keep a bunch of literature professors gainfully employed?

The ending redeemed the novel and explained (no spoiler) some of Kya’s behaviour, like her ability to spew out poems on the run, or why the details of that night of the murder were so sketchy, or why the case for the prosecution was so full of holes.

An easy read. Read it for the story. Do not attempt to discover high art in it.

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Down and Out in Paris and LondonDown and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every time I read a non-fiction book of Orwell’s, especially one connected with his life, I wonder why he embraced poverty so willingly, despite his Etonian background and other trappings of middle-class heritage.

In this, his first published full-length work, he traipses across Paris and London as a dishwasher and a tramp, living on 6 francs a day, or less, sometimes going hungry for days, working (when work is available) for 17 hours a day in horrible conditions, sleeping in a variety of doss houses, mingling with a vast cast of eccentric characters, and always observing and absorbing the utter hopelessness of the underprivileged. If this was his entry ticket to being able to write as a Socialist, then he paid his dues in spades, finally imperiling his health to pass away in his forties.

When his money is stolen in Paris, Orwell goes job hunting with his anti-Semitic, ex-Russian soldier friend, Boris. Their job hunt is hilarious. They always seem to lose out on some technicality. Managing on 6 francs a day is perilous: a bug in the milk, an overcut of meat leading to a higher bill, a damaged coin, and their budget will be blown. They finally find work at the Hotel X and afterwards at a newly opened restaurant, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard (the latter is a bit of a fraud, for the stranded staff end up propping up the elusive proprietor). Orwell sums up Parisienne restaurant life as follows:
– Waiters and lower-level staff did not have mustaches. Cooks had mustaches to show their contempt for the rest of their colleagues.
– There was only a double door that separated the filthy scullery where the staff ate in haste and anger from the dining room where the guests ate in all their splendor.
– Cursing and swearing are the dominant forms of staff management.
– The more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle is in it, for it has been handled by more hands.
– Life as a plongeur (dishwasher) is work (17 hours x 365 days a year), commute, eat, and sleep. There is no growth. There is only a wearing down and an early death.
– Eating in hotels and restaurants (especially those in Paris) is an unnecessary extravagance. People could eat healthier at home.
He gets a friend in England to bail him out of France—by finding him a softer job looking after a rich invalid—and bring him back home (so, he had connections, and one wonders whether the sojourn in France was more for experience than circumstance). However, his job in England is delayed for a month and he is left to manage on 19 shillings and sixpence. Back he slides into poverty, living the life of a tramp this time, and as usual, he makes his observations of that lifestyle:

– The bed bugs are more plentiful in the north than in the south of London
– Tramps are abject and envious people, and often bite the hand that feeds them.
– A tramp is always on the move, for the law prohibits staying in the same shelter for more than 24 hours. So, tramps work the circuit of shelters ringing Greater London.
– While in Paris you died of overwork, in England you died of boredom and hunger.
– The overwhelming majority of tramps are men, too broken to be mean, devoid of women, and thrown into homosexuality and the occasional trinket from prostitutes.
– Tramps are beggars, and beggars are despised because they do not perform profitable work.

He also provides us a street slang dictionary and a hierarchy of the best places to get a free or extremely low-cost rest for the night, including places where you sleep leaning against a rope (the rope is pulled in the morning providing an instant wake-up call).

Of course, being Orwell, and destined for a higher calling than that of a plongeur or tramp, this period too ends, and he moves on to write his memoirs of being down and out in Paris and London and to document the evils of classism, colonialism, Fascism, Communism and a myriad of other “isms” that he dedicated his life to fighting after tasting their bitter fruit. One of his observations of the rich and poor stuck with me: “Poverty frees people from ordinary standards of behavior, just as money frees people from work.”

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The Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaThe Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Original review published in The Sri Lankan Anchorman newspaper in Feb 2023)

A magic-realism tragi-comedy covering one of the darkest periods of modern Sri Lankan history when the country was embroiled in two civil wars in the late 1980s, both leeching the blood and talent of the nation. Considering where the country is today—bankrupt, facing food insecurity, and with another revolution bubbling amidst the hungry masses—nothing much seems to have changed, or will change, as the author implies in the story of Maali Almeida.

Maali is a 35-year-old homosexual photographer, specializing in taking exposé pictures in war zones and some risqué ones of his sex life. He works for everyone: the army, NGOs, the foreign press, and the LTTE. He has secreted away some incriminating photographs that might make governments fall. He is also a compulsive gambler and blows all his earnings between assignments in shady casinos. When the story opens, we meet his ghost, for he has been murdered and his body decapitated. We know where he was killed, and even some of his murderers, but we do not know why, or who ordered the hit.

Maali is now in the In-Between world where he is given seven moons to get his act together and go onto the Light (re-incarnation, where everything earlier is forgotten and you start again – kind of counter-productive, one would think, given the loss of all the valuable experience gained from previous lives). In this demonic world, he sees the spirits of those killed in the long-raging civil wars – some real-world names are also mentioned for verisimilitude – interacting with the folks Down There (mortal plane), except that the mortals cannot see or hear the spirits, and only certain channels like the Crow Man and the devil goddess Mahakali allow for communication between the two.

Our hero is caught in the conflict between going to the Light (urged by his spirit advisor Dr. Rani Sritharan, herself killed by the LTTE for being a moderate) and taking revenge on his murderers Down There (urged by the spirit of Sena Pathirana, a former JVP organizer who is doomed to spend his life in the In Between). We also meet the stereotypical gang of murderers: the corrupt politician, the army commander, the stooges who do the dirty work, the policemen who turn a blind eye and cover up the sins. Maali throws in his lot with Sena, partly for revenge, and partly out of love for his roommates: DD, his lover, and lesbian Jaki, who wanted to be his lover.

The story weaves and bobs at a slowly ramping-up pace as Maali tries to uncover the mystery of his death and expose the culprits before his seven moons run out. The key is in finding those photographs and their negatives. Like peeling an onion, revelations come out, allegiances are exposed and the whydunit is revealed. Everyone is busy in this tragic country it appears: international arms dealers have carved out political factions they will supply to; contract killers and garbage cleaners are disposing of hundreds of youths captured, tortured, interrogated and killed industrial-style by the military; the army and the rebels are colluding to dispose of dissidents within their ranks; and politicians are raking it in despite the poor man’s misery. The city’s population has doubled from dead Maali’s vantage point because he sees the living and the ghosts running around, and this constant, bizarre backdrop provides originality to the tale.

Some acute observations on the Sri Lankan reality are tossed out in passing:
– “Creatures with power acting in their own interest, that’s what we must fear.”
– “Your generation fucked up the country” – DD, speaking to his politician father.
– “It’s not Good vs. Evil in this country; it’s varying degrees of bad squabbling with conglomerates of the wicked.”
– “Why not the Pangolin on the flag? They have big tongues, thick hides and small brains.”
– Burma, Israel, North Korea, Apartheid South Africa, and Sri Lanka were all born in 1948 – not an auspicious year.
– “Being an English-speaking Colombian (resident of Colombo) exempts us from the rest of the country’s suffering” – Maali

I found the style of writing daunting. Narrated in Second Person, with tenses alternating, sparse attributions, and with two worlds to navigate simultaneously, the stagecraft gets confusing at times. Non-Sri Lankan readers may find local expressions and direct translations of Sinhala into English (such as “Sperm Dog” and “Your Amma Screw”) to be confusing, although I laughed my head off being fluent in both languages. I wondered whether a glossary would have helped, given that this book has now emerged an international bestseller after winning the Booker.

I had a touch of nostalgia because much of the action centred around locations that I was familiar with: The Lionel Wendt theatre and art gallery, the Art Centre Club, Hotel Leo (I presume it was once known as the Rio), Slave Island, the Beira Lake – all regular stomping grounds and watering holes during my youth, when this country had been gentler and kinder.

Maali’s ongoing conversations with the Dead Leopard provides philosophical heft: the leopard is keen to ascend the food chain and be next incarnated as a human, despite the foibles he has seen in the human world. The human ability to create is what fascinates the animal. Whereas Maali wants to get the heck out this place after settling his scores, for all he has seen of humanity is its incredible power to corrupt and destroy.

The damning conclusion the author posits is that even when the truth is revealed, Sri Lankan’s don’t give a fig – Maali’s “big reveal” photo exhibition at the art gallery is an apt metaphor. I am glad this book got the international airing it did, for Sri Lanka has descended into a state of censorship yet again, and those who fight for freedom are being suppressed once more – Maali’s world of the late ’80s has returned. Hopefully, this book will shine the torch into those dark corners, shaming the perpetrators, like Maali’s photographs attempted to do.

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Imagining Canadian Literature: The Selected LettersImagining Canadian Literature: The Selected Letters by Jack McClelland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A primer on the glory-days of the Canadian publishing industry, revealed in the letters of Jack McClelland, the man who came to epitomize Nationalism in Canadian Literature.

Jack inherited his father’s 40-year-old publishing company when he was demobilized after WWII. Therefore, being presented the keys to the kingdom, he proceeded to expand the empire. Jack’s world was a world of hardcovers (McClelland & Stewart went into mass paperbacks only in 1977), huge print runs on old technology, manuscripts that had to be trucked by postal mail, pre-internet and pre-social media. And yet his pressures were similar to the ones we as publishers face today: US publishers had cornered the majority of the Canadian market, local printers were more expensive than foreign alternatives, and the spirit of customer service and efficiency in the publishing industry was unheard of. Jack agonized over the look and feel of book covers, he argued over title names, and he would be slighted if a writer queried their royalty statement.

Publishers and authors did not appear to do much business by phone in those days, for Jack wrote voluminous letters, sometimes on the most trivial matters – he had the aid of a secretary and a Dictaphone. I suppose, as he alludes to Mordecai Richler in 1968 and then re-affirms to Margaret Laurence in 1982, he was expecting his letters to be published post-retirement and read thereafter as essential Canadian publishing history – which they seem to have been done by the publication of this book in 1998. Other than for his letters, Jack never wrote a book himself.

As a publisher, he was the “big picture guy” – a super salesman, staging grand promo events, arranging conferences to select the 100 greatest Canadian books (to which event, strangely, only M&S authors had access while others had to fight to get in), and championing cash-cows like the New Canadian Library. He was not shy to lobby parliament for preferential treatment for Canadian writers and publishers, and wield his “influence” with the Canada Council for the Arts. And he took bets on obscure books if they struck a chord in him, like Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen and Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. And, given his cavalier approach, M&S struggled financially from the late ‘60s until Jack sold the firm in 1985.

Not into the more technical aspects of publishing, i.e., editing, production etc.,—he had a staff of nearly a 100 for that—Jack focussed on relationship management, public and government relations, and marketing. His kept his favourite authors close, and his correspondence with them is the best parts of this collection: frank, honest, witty, sometimes brutal, and sometimes vulnerable and apologetic. I counted Pierre Berton, Al Purdy, Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood, in addition to Cohen and Laurence among his “inner circle.”

Being a small publisher in Canada myself (certainly not in Jack’s league), I found this book refreshingly comforting – the big guys didn’t have it easy, is what I came away with. And yet, Jack’s zeal and commitment to this strange industry is reassuring to us who plod in the dark wondering what the heck we’ve got into that we can’t seem to extricate ourselves from. And yet I salivate when Jack says 250,000 copies was a good print run, when we count a Canadian best-seller today as 5000 copies sold.

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Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An experimental novel or a collection of linked short stories (with weak links)? I found the six stories were wound together like the layers of an onion – you enter like a needle piercing through from one side and exit from the other, getting closure to each story only after you pass the core.

The six stories:
– Circa 1850 – a diary: A lawyer is travelling through Polynesia and encounters the evils of colonialism where both colonizer and colonized are deeply unhappy, where “the weak are meat, that the strong do eat,” and where trust is betrayed for slim pickings. He returns to America to become an Abolitionist.
– 1931 – an epistolary: an impoverished composer apprentices to a former maestro who is dying of syphilis. Soon, both are cheating on each other: the apprentice is sleeping with the older man’s wife and pawning his art treasures, while the aging genius is stealing his amanuensis’ compositions for his magnum opus.
– 1975 – 3rd person omniscient: A journalist is on the tail of a report exposing possible public anger over a nuclear powerplant. The scientist who prepared the report is coincidentally the recipient of the letters of our impoverished composer back in the 1931 story. The intrepid journalist must endure several near-deaths before she can zero in on her prize scoop.
– 2000s – 1st person: an aging, financially precarious, British small press publisher hits the jackpot with a book by a dead author, but is pursued by the author’s thieving relatives for a share of the royalties. The only hideout is to go incognito in a nursing home on the Scottish border. But the refuge is worse than the outside, and he attempts to flee the coocoos nest. This is by far the most rib-tickling tale of the lot.
– Sometime in the distant future – an interview: the world has once again embraced slavery. Neo Sea Corpros (modern-day Korea) is ruled by the Corpocracy and is peopled by humans called purebloods who live a life of consumerism, and genetically manufactured sub-humans called fabricants who are created with lower intellectual capacity and who do all the grunt work for their masters. However, a revolution of the fabricants is underway, for some are starting to develop sentience. A fabricant, who shows remarkable promise, is taken to a pureblood university for study. A crucial decision needs to be made – should she be destroyed or allowed to ascend to pureblood status? Or will she survive to write the Declaration that will expose the evils of the Corpocracy?
– Way Out in the Future, after the Fall of Man – 1st person, Pidgeon English – Life is back to the age of the barbarian in the Hawaiian Islands after the fall of man. The survivors are the peaceful Valleypeople, their rivals the blood-thirsty Kona, and the Prescients who arrive by boat, and who appear to know what went before. When a fifty-year old Prescient, Meronym, comes to study the ways of the Valleypeople, 16 year-old narrator Zachry views her with suspicion, until she reveals what led to the fall. Zachry quickly realizers that their existing world is facing annihilation again, from impending conquest and plague, and he must escape if the human species is to continue to exist. This is also the hardest story to read, for the language is a bastardized English with its own syntax and lexicon.

In the film version, the pieces are more tightly linked by having the principal characters be reborn in each story with new identities. However, in the novel, apart from a few clues and a mysterious birthmark that appears on one character in each of the stories, the links are subtle, or weak. What is most impressive is the six different narrative styles (I have called them out above against each story) and the distinctive voices. For a moment, I wondered whether Mitchell had written six novellas, and, finding them difficult to sell individually, had threaded them into a novel by providing superfluous links. The onion structure, while innovative, led to me forgetting the outer layer stories by the time I revisited them on the way out (or back) of this huge book – so much had happened in between. However, the action is strong in each of them.

The lesson is clear: “The Old ‘Uns tripped themselves, leading to the Fall, due to their hunger for more,” says Meronym. Greed, in all the stories, leads to their unravelling.

A robust bout of imagination and virtuoso story telling.

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