muccamukk: Spiral staircase decending multiple levels inside a tower.. (DW: Bookworm)
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Hiero and me threaded through Montmartre’s grey streets not talking. Once the home of jazz so fresh it wouldn't take no for a answer, the clubs had all gone Boot now. Nearly overnight the cafés filled with well-fed broads in torn stockings crooning awful songs to Gestapo.

The book takes place in Berlin in Paris in the 1930s and '40s then fifty years later in America and Europe, in alternating chapters. It follows the possibly slightly unreliable narration of Sid, an mixed race bass player from Baltimore who's on the European jazz circuit right before World War II. It follows the mystery of what happened to Hieronymus, a brilliant young trumpet player; how and why they were recording in Nazi-occupied Paris, and what Louis Armstrong has to do with any of this. It's very much a love poem to jazz, but also a comment on how love poems to jazz can land you in a lot of trouble.

I think I loved this book mostly for it's language. It's written in close first person, in varying levels of vernacular, and the flow and sway of the prose is beautiful, laden with humour and surprising. Also the difference in tone between the sections set in the '30s and '40s and the stuff in the '90s is subtle and well done. It's clearly the same narrator, but also clearly one who's deeply altered by the intervening time.

The structure of the mystery plays out very elegantly as well. The sooner something is made clear to the reader, the more questions it opens, and one moment will turn everything on its head then around again until the whole book has a completely different perspective. Given that, it doesn't feel artificially constructed or too clever for it's own good. The order the narrator tells the story in makes sense for the story. I should make time to read it again, because I think it would play out rather differently the second time through. My only real complaint was that the ending felt abrupt and a little unresolved, but I suspect that was intentional on Edugyan's part.

I found the characters vividly drawn, and not especially likeable, but not to the point where I hated them. Edugyan managed a balance of sympathetic yet deeply, deeply screwed up people, while exploring how they got that way. There was a love triangle element that irritated me, and felt a little unneeded, but it didn't take up as much of the plot as I thought it was going to.

I was also worried that the book was going to focus on Nazis Are Bad to the point of fetishisation, but it really doesn't. The Nazis certainly do horrible things, and that drives the plot. It's not a story that could take place anywhere or when else, but the Evils of World War II don't overwhelm the story. That said, I'd certainly warn for dehumanisation, racism, anti-Semitism and sexism, and not entirely just on the part of the Nazis. If that's not the kind of thing you're comfortable reading about, perhaps best avoid this book.
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I've been meaning to read this book since I first heard of it back in 2006, when it won the Giller beating out odds-on favourite De Niro's Game (which would go on to win the Booker). The reason it took so long for me to eventually get around to reading it was because it had two things against it: Bloodletting is a collection of short stories and everyone knows short story collections are a chore to plow through* and the stories were written by a doctor, who had set his stories in the medical community. The book sounded dreary and so I kept passing up chances to read it until finally, prompted by a desire to finish this challenge, and a second personal challenge to try and read all the Giller winners, I picked up the book.

Bloodletting is a bit unusual in that it is a short story cycle: the short stories are all loosely linked by four doctors, introduced in the first two stories: Fitz, Ming, Sri and Cheng. 

There is something here for everyone though the opening story How to Get into Medical School Part I was easily my favourite. How to opens with two University of Ottawa students struggling through finals. Ming and Fitz have been study partners, but they both feel their relationship deepening into something more. Ming is quick to put a stop to this, sighting a dedication to getting into medical school as a cause, though she is also put off by the fact that Fitz is white, something her Chinese family would never approve of.  Lam does a brilliant job of unfolding the delicate dance between Ming, who is all sensibility, and Fitz who is all sense as they try to deny their attraction at the same time as they give in to it. The story works completely on its own, but there is a great follow up How to Get into Medical School Part II, which is equally worth reading. 

However Lam has greater ambitions than to simply follow the personal dramas of his collection of doctors. As the book branches out the doctors become secondary characters and the patients begin to take over although this is brilliantly reversed as the book draws to a close as in later stories the doctors contract diseases themselves, slipping into the position of patient as they weaken and eventually die.

A gritty, interesting work, and a peak at the vulnerability of doctors who snap at patients, who go through the motions, who sometimes barely understand it is that they are doing.

*Sarcasm for all the times I have been told this. Once I started actually reading short story collections I realized I loved them, and the people who denounce them are usually people who have never read one in their life.
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Through Black Spruce was the 2008 winner of the Giller award (Canada's top literary prize for those not in the know). I've only read a handful of the winners and nominees over the years, but Through Black Spruce easily tops my list as my favourite of those I've read.

In Moosonee, Ontario a middle aged man lies in a coma. His name is Will Bird and over the course of the novel he narrates the events of the past year of his life, slowly building up to the event that led to his coma. While he is in a coma his niece Annie Bird talks to him, telling him about the past year of her life, when she left the town she had lived in all her life in order to travel to Toronto, Montreal and New York in an attempt to track down her missing model sister Suzanne who ran off two years ago with her drug-dealing boyfriend Gus.

The novel alternates between Will and Annie's voices and it's a testament to Boyden's strength as a writer that each story is equally compelling. There was no sense of disappointment when a new chapter began and Will's story ended and Annie's story continued or vice versa. The missing Suzanne is also a compelling character, her abscence spurring on Annie's quest and having devastating consequences for Will. Suzanne is what weaves these two stories together despite the fact that we never "see" her within the novel.

There is also a lot of detail about Cree life and what it means to keep the traditions alive in an increasingly modern world. Will and especially Annie represent a bridge between traditional Cree culture and Western culture. Boyden is able to eloquently capture the negotiation between modern and traditional and the compromises that his characters must make in order to feel comfortable within themselves are woven elegantly into the story. 

FYI: Boyden wrote this as a loose sequel to his first novel Three Day Road (Will is the son of the main character of Three Day Road) and has announced that he intends to write a third book to form a trilogy.
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6. On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows by Neil Bissoondath (New York: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1991)

I like my chocolate with caramel or nuts or maybe a nice crispy wafer. Bear with me, I have a point. On a similar note, I have a distinct preference for genre fiction. I love the slices of life and beautiful language and insights into human nature that make up good literary fic, but I enjoy those things even more with the added chew or crunch of speculative fiction or historicals or mysteries.

Neil Bissoondath's On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows is a strong collection of short stories that focus largely on the aftermath of political violence and the complications of Canadian multiculturalism. I enjoyed Bissoondath's style and his characters (although his female characters felt rather less genuine than his male ones), but ultimately I felt like I was biting into a piece of plain chocolate, thinking: "And...?"

If you're a regular fiction fan interested in tough, true-to-life tales that make the most of the short story medium, you'll probably enjoy this book. For me, it was a good way to pass a few evenings, but I'm not likely to seek out more of Bissoondath's work for casual reading.
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5. A Feast for All Seasons: Traditional Native People's Cuisine by Andrew George, Jr. and Robert Gairns (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010)

This is a reissue of the 1997 Feast!, brought back to the public eye after Andrew George, Jr.—a Wet'suwet'en Nation chef—received some well-deserved recognition at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as head chef at the Four Host First Nations pavillion.

A Feast for All Seasons features modern Native cuisine, aimed at the home cook and hunter. While a few recipes require a smoker or meat grinder, the bulk can be attempted by anyone with a source of fish and game. Background information on the chef and Native North American food cultures is provided, and the book is set up in four sections: From the Waters (seafood), From the Earth (vegetables and grains), From the Land (game), and From the Air (fowl). Seasonal menus are also offered.

So far I've tried the Smoked Salmon on Bannock Fingers (although, like anyone who grew up with bannock, I used my own recipe, because everyone else's recipe is wrong), the Wild Rice and Mushrooms, and the Baked Sweet Potato with Roasted Hazelnuts, and they've all been delicious.

The book is full of interesting information, written in an engaging voice, and the recipes are a great combination of traditional and innovative without being too out there for home cuisine. As someone living on the west coast of Canada, it was nice to find a cookbook that consisted entirely of ingredients I could easily find; most cookbooks on the market here are by U.S. writers, and there are often international differences as to what ingredients can be found cheaply and easily and in what season.

My one complaint is that the book really could have used more photographs. I don't know how this compares with the original edition, but in the age of digital photography, it seems like a few extra snapshots could have been included.
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4. The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996)

In three related novellas, The Jade Peony relates the experiences of a trio of siblings growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown in the 1930s and 40s. The result is simply one of the best books I have ever read.

Choy's writing is beautiful, and his characterization is at once perceptive and unflinching but also endlessly sympathetic. Usually in pieced work stories like this, at least one narrative falls flat, but I enjoyed and was impressed by all three sections equally: the story of Jook-Liang, who wants to be like Shirley Temple and who forms an unlikely friendship with an elderly family friend; Jung-Sum, who grapples with the past regarding his first family, and with the future regarding his sexuality; Sekky, who more than anyone deals with the blurring lines between Chinese and Canadian, home and away, and friend and foe; and, in the corners of the children's narratives, the story of their parents and grandmother.

I can't recommend this book enough to anyone who likes coming of age stories, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Choy's work.
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3. The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2008)

Sammy Chan, the protagonist of The End of East, is newly returned to Vancouver, having left behind a boyfriend and thesis in Montreal in order to look after her widowed mother. Soon after, she discovers some papers belonging to her late grandfather, and the story begins to weave in and out of the past, looking at the lives of Sammy's parents and grandparents, the family's relationship with Chinatown, and the way familial bonds are both borne as burdens and desperately sought.

I have a general rule about stories featuring dysfunctional families: I already have one of those, so if I'm going to read about an imaginary one, there had better be something more going on than "Tsk, isn't that awful?" Jen Sookfong Lee does some interesting things with distance in this book (Sammy's point of view is so immediate that it may be difficult to have any idea what's really going on with her, but her family is presented from afar, so objectively that emotion may be blunted), and there are individual scenes that are written beautifully and subtly, but on the whole, this story felt underdeveloped and needlessly episodic to me, and too familiarly bleak and brittle for me to enjoy on an aesthetic level.

This is the author's debut novel, and based on the things I did like about her writing here, I would pick up one of her subsequent works, but I wouldn't be interested in re-reading The End of East.

Additional note: For those who look to avoid such content, The End of East contains a fairly graphic and sudden rape scene.
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2. Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011)

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass sees Nanabush himself riding onto the Otter Lake reserve on a vintage motorcycle to fulfill a promise to an old friend and shake up the lives of the chief and her son.

While reading this book, I couldn't help but think what a great television mini-series it would make. I know the area where the story is set, and I could picture the land and the people so easily. The story is full of memorable characters and snappy dialogue, and it would be a perfect addition to my favourite genre of the Quirky Small Town. I even started mentally casting the roles.

However, the reason I spent so much time thinking about this story in terms of another medium is because it didn't work for me as a novel. I'm not overly familiar with the author's other work, but I wasn't surprised to learn that this was his first adult novel and that he's primarily a non-fiction writer and playwright.

The storytelling fell flat for me. It's frustrating because the story is bookended by sections with a very engaging narrator's voice, but for the bulk of it, that voice disappears and we're left with an overly omniscient but ultimately charmless point of view. Backstory, motivation, and feelings are clunkily and redundantly described at every turn, and it often seems as though characterization is broken solely for the purpose of getting a good zinger in. In addition (a publishing issue rather than the author's), my copy of the book contained several typos and flubs that further kept me from closing my editorial eyes and just enjoying the thing.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass is full of some great ideas, and if philosophy, plot, setting, or characters are more your gateway into a book than narrative is, you may well enjoy it. I'm glad to have read it and to have had the opportunity to take away its ruminations on modernity and tradition, but it was a struggle for me to finish, and I can't see myself reading it again.


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