what i'm reading: brendan's way by matthew bin

Brendan's Way by Matthew Bin is a genre-blending journey story combining adventure, mystery, and conspiracy in a futuristic setting. It's technically science fiction, as it takes place in the future and features some technology that doesn't yet exist. But if, like me, you don't usually read science fiction, don't let that stop you. It's an engrossing story and a satisfying read.

Brendan is immigrating to a new world. As generation upon generation before him have done, he is filled with hope and dreams of a better life. In this case, the travel is intergalactic, but the conditions on Brendan's home planet are familiar to us, as are the difficult conditions onboard the ship.

To win his passage, Brendan is posing as the husband of a political activist who is traveling undercover on some kind of mission. Brendan doesn't know the details, and doesn't want to know. Being granted the unexpected opportunity to begin life anew on a colonial planet is reason enough to spend three months living beside a beautiful woman.

Once onboard, Brendan begins to sense that things are not that simple. His fake wife mistreats him and refuses to give him any explanation or information. As his attempts to investigate are thwarted, he realizes that the ship's destination and its mission may not be what the hopeful immigrants have been told. But how to learn more, and who can be trusted, are not easily sorted.

Most of the action of Brendan's Way takes place on the Imran, the giant ship that is a future version of the great ocean liners of the past. Through vivid descriptions -- the tiny cubicles of the living quarters for the "colonials", a marketplace that is a vast bazaar of delights and dangers, the common area where the colonials scramble for food rations -- the Imran becomes a character in the novel. The sense of place is very strong.

With so many people living in close quarters, and a conspiracy of agents who may be getting closer to the truth, the authoritarian control of the ship becomes harsher and more desperate. The suspense grows, as does the claustrophobia. When Brendan finally discovers the truth, everything is on the line.


what i'm reading: short reviews of fiction by margaret atwood, madeleine thien, frances itani, elizabeth kostova

I've gathered some thoughts about several novels I read but neglected to write about. I enjoyed them all to varying degrees; all are worth reading if you enjoy the type. This is the first of three posts.

* * * *

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is a subgenre we don't see enough of: the dystopian comedy. We're in the future, one in which the entire economy of the United States has collapsed. Formerly middle-class families are living in their cars. Gangs of menacing scavengers roam the landscape. No one knows what happened -- some complicated financial dirty dealings went awry. It all looks very familiar.

Now some clever entrepreneur offers a solution to hunger, want, and anxiety -- a controlled community where there are jobs for all and every need is met. Well, yes, it partly a penal colony, and no one leaves -- ever. What could possibly go wrong?

As the plot thickens -- and reels, and loops, and spins -- we're treated to a wacky world involving blackmail, espionage, identity theft, human-organ trafficking, sex robots, Elvis impersonators, and some extremely strange extramarital affairs. The book is funnier than it is creepy, but it's plenty creepy, too. There's social commentary to spare woven into the humour, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. The Heart Goes Last is bit crazy, maybe a little out of control, but very enjoyable.

* * * *

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a dense blend of history and myth, suspense and adventure, gothic love story and murder-mystery. It's richly descriptive, like a Victorian novel, with a complex plot that keeps you wanting more, even at 650 tightly-packed pages.

The Historian is said to be a re-telling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but to capture the feel, you have to throw in gothic classics like Rebecca, time-traveling magic-book mysteries like Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n's The Shadow of the Wind, and a dash of international intrigue worthy of old-school 007. Kostova brings off an amazing literary sleight-of-hand, seamlessly blending real-world history with the Dracula myth.

There's also a meta theme, exploring how history is written. Even in this world of semi-fantasy, the intellectual detectives insist on primary sources, search for corroboration, and form no assumptions or conclusions without adequate evidence. And if this isn't enough, the immortal Vlad Drakulya has a thing for librarians.

The story is told in several concentric threads of narration. You'll need to suspend disbelief that anyone could have recorded such brilliant detail in a series of letters. But this letter-writing device alleviates the need for an entire novel that is told rather than shown -- something that has ruined more than one book for me. Don't let the vampires stop you; this is a very impressive and enjoyable novel.

* * * *

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is another dense, multi-generational saga. The narrator, living in present-day Vancouver, relates the story of her father, a brilliant Chinese classical musician who was pushed to suicide by the cruelties of Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution. (File that sanitized expression along with ethnic cleansing, both more properly called genocide.)

The narrator's father, and others like him who have devoted their lives to music, suddenly find themselves branded as enemies of the state. They are arrested, humiliated, sometimes tortured. Thien uses their family saga to tell the stories of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Both are seen through the lens of musicians and their love for now-forbidden beauty.

There are many plot lines, spanning two continents and several decades, and many reflections about the effect of history -- both global and family -- on our lives.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing was the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize, considered the most prestigious Canadian literary award. It's not an easy novel to read, but it is well worth the effort.

* * * *

Requiem by Frances Itani is also a historical novel. It is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and deeply satisfying read.

The narrator of Requiem, Bin Okuma, is a Japanese-Canadian visual artist recovering from the sudden loss of his beloved wife. As he drives across Canada to reunite with his aging father, he recalls childhood memories when his family was forced out of their fishing village on Vancouver Island -- given two hours to take what they could carry before they were herded into detention camps. While their white neighbours looted their homes, the men and older boys were separated from their families. No one knew where they were being taken or what would happen to them.

From filthy, reeking farm-animal pens to the brutal cold of the northern interior, with no electricity, no running water, and no outside help, tens of thousands of Canadian citizens were forced to live in brutal dislocation. The legacy of unspoken anger and shame forms the powerful emotional undercurrent of this novel. I thought I knew how bad the internment was. I didn't. Itani brings to life the full weight of the injustice, physically and psychologically.

The story cuts back and forth between Bin's present road trip, his childhood memories of the internment, and his more recent memories of his wife. It's highly readable: I found myself wanting to get back to all three timelines.

I haven't yet read the other well-known novels about the Japanese-American or Japanese-Canadian internment -- Obasan by Joy Kogawa and The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford -- so I don't know how this compares. (There is also Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.) But Requiem is very immediate and moving, a memorable read.

Locally, Requiem was chosen as the first One Book One Mississauga. It was an enormously successful program, drawing thousands of readers in print, audio, and ebook. I found the huge interest in this novel very encouraging -- a positive force for our understanding of history, for the world we want to build, and for the stubborn persistence of reading as a shared personal and social value.


rip barry crimmins: call me lucky to have known him

In late 2015, I blogged about a remarkable documentary: "Call Me Lucky," about the life and times of Barry Crimmins. Barry died last week at the age of 64.

Describing Barry as a comedian somehow seems wrong. He was a social critic who used biting humour and righteous anger to enlighten and to skewer. He was a fierce opponent of any system that furthers war, poverty, and repression, and a stalwart advocate for equality, justice, and peace. He was also a master of wicked one-liners, as his thousands of Twitter followers knew.

Barry was in many ways a cynic and a curmudgeon, but that didn't stop him from being an idealist. He constantly called attention to the mistreatment of children, the kind that happens every day in our own communities. Barry went public with his own horrific story of child sexual abuse. In the 1990s, he became an activist against child pornography, after discovering that AOL chat rooms were harboring pedophiles. As Barry often said, "Child pornography is not protected speech. It's evidence of a crime scene."

In my review of "Call Me Lucky," I noted:
Allan and I met Barry through a baseball discussion list in the 90s, quickly bonding over our politics and, for me, a shared identity as survivors of sexual abuse or assault. We stayed at Barry's place on the Cleveland stop of our 1999 rust-belt baseball tour, and went to a few games together in New York. We lost touch until re-connecting on Facebook. Barry is the master of the political one-liner, and his feed keeps me laughing about the things that anger me the most.
I have mixed feelings about Facebook, but re-connecting with Barry Crimmins is one of the best things I've gotten from social media. We caught his act in Toronto last year, and said hi and exchanged hugs after the show. The world is a poorer place without Barry, but call me lucky to have known him.

Barry Crimmins' obit from Rolling Stone, along with a few video clips, here.

beyond #iwd: fight for women by opposing privatization

Visit We Own It for all the facts on privatization.
When public services are privatized, everyone loses -- except, of course, shareholders of a private company, who increase their wealth with our money.

But did you know the pain of privatization hits women disproportionately harder? As this excellent article by Jane Stinson in Canadian Dimension says:
Privatization is not gender-neutral. It threatens advances toward women’s equality in the labour market and in the home.

In the labour market, privatization usually means lower wages for women workers, fewer workplace rights, reduced health and welfare benefits, no pension coverage, less predictable work hours, more precarious employment, a heavier workload and generally more exploitative working conditions.
In addition, in a society where women are still the primary caregivers for both children and the elderly, when services become both scarcer and more expensive, women's burdens grow -- often while their wages are shrinking. This is also a direct impact of privatization.

Here's a terrible, typical example. When the province of British Columbia privatized support services in health care, thousands of women lost their jobs, and those who were still employed saw their wages cut by almost 50%. Naturally, services were greatly reduced, which by definition increases poverty and isolation among seniors and people with disabilities.

The UN found that privatized education "exacerbates gender discrimination."

The International Journal of Political Economy found that privatized social security impacts women twice as hard as it does men.

Canada's National Network on Environments and Women's Health found that water privatization leaves "women – especially Aboriginal women – disproportionately making difficult choices about where money is spent, having to choose among food, shelter, and safe water." Fifty years ago, the very concept of privatized water would have seemed unthinkable. Today, it is a struggle between life and death -- a struggle that hits women much harder than it does men.

Let's make International Women's Day more than a hashtag. The fight for quality public services is the fight for women's rights and gender equity. Many thanks to the good folks at We Own It for making this connection visible!


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #27

This is a scene played out every day in public libraries all across North America.

I'm at the information desk, and I see a boy, by himself, a chubby little toddler, toddle fast in one direction, then back in the other direction. He can't be much over 12 months old. When I see him cross the floor for the third time, I get up and go to chat with him. "Who are you here with, sweetie? Is your mom here? Where's your mom?"

As I talk, his face starts to pucker, his eyes well up with tears.

"Come with me, let's look for Mommy. I know she's here, let's go find her."

He won't hold my hand, but he walks unsteadily beside me. We go around to different moms, dads, and kids. I'm hoping he'll soon recognize his family and run straight to them. By this time he is full-on crying.

A woman reading with school-age kids asks them to wait and joins me.  He wouldn't take my hand, but she lifts him confidently onto her hip. Maybe she looks more like his mom than I do -- younger, brown, hijab -- or maybe it's a motion he's familiar with. She says, "Come on kiddo, let's go find your mum."

We walk together into a busy activity area, and I announce, "Is everyone's child accounted for? Do you have all your children?" Twice. A woman waves and points to someone else -- a woman sitting by herself, texting. I am standing six inches away from her. I say loudly, "Excuse me." She looks up, uncomprehendingly, then sees her sobbing child, and jumps up, takes him from the other woman.

She says, "They were playing on the computer. His sister and brother were supposed to watch him."

I give her The Talk. You must stay close to your children. Your other children are too young to have that responsibility. You are responsible for all your children while you're here. He was very frightened. You must pay attention. I'm saying these things because I have to, but it feels useless. Maybe the sight of her son's face will make a difference.

We see it every day. We all have stories. The child who crawled out of the library into the mall. The child who was found on the public square outside City Hall. The children who are dropped off in the morning and instructed to say their mom is in the washroom. Not just moms, of course. Dads, too, and all manner of caregivers. Neglect, sometimes to the point of abandonment.

For me, it's the worst part of the job.