Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

“Beauty leaves its imprints on the mind. Throughout history there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed.”

–Quotation on the back of Sparrow’s composition for piano and violin, The Sun Shines on the People’s Square.

“It is one thing to suffer, it is another thing to be forgotten.”
“Love is a revolutionary act.”

–Comrade Glass Eye

dnswhnChina’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre form the backdrop for Madeleine Thien’s brilliant and moving novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, longlisted* for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the 2016 Giller Prize.

In Communist China, the government controls everything. They provide permission to marry and assign your vocation and housing. If you’re denounced as a demon capitalist for possessing counter-revolutionary propaganda (anything other than the writings of the great helmsman, Chairman Mao), you could be beaten or killed in front of your family and community as a human lesson to your comrades about the importance of Party loyalty above all else. If you’re lucky and you survive your denunciation (known as a struggle session) you get sent to the far reaches of the country to endure famine and forced labor as you reform your bourgeois ways in a re-education camp.

Deep, wonderfully human characters populate this incredible novel. There’s Sparrow, the brooding composer, Zhuli the violin prodigy, Jiang Kai the orphan piano virtuoso, brash and beautifully refreshing Big Mother Knife, ethereal Wen the Dreamer, and the endearing Ba Lute, just to name a few.

In addition to the beautiful humans, classical music acts as a character in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, often helping to communicate the range of emotions forbidden to good comrades as passion unbefitting a Party member. Dozens of pieces are mentioned in the book and they are so important to the narrative, I created a playlist of the music to listen to as I formed my interpretations of the novel. You’ll find it at the bottom of this post.

Tiananmen Square is the “zero point” of China. It’s the “location on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are determined.” The zero point concept resonates throughout the book. The massacre is the “zero point” for the government — an atrocity by which the citizenry are related and determined. Each character in the novel experiences their own zero point, that moment by which their future — and their humanity — is determined. It made me consider my own zero points — the moments in my life that have formed who I am. Do Not Say We Have Nothing provokes thought in a way only great fiction can.

Thien’s prose is subtle and poignant in direct contrast to the violent oppression served up by the government and the insidious and vicious acts citizens perpetrate on one another to deflect Party scrutiny. While this is a work of fiction, I’m ashamed to admit how many times Do Not Say We Have Nothing had me Googling dates and key figures in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Bearing witness and memory is a centrally important theme by which the book gets its name. In attempting to move on with his life, composer Sparrow says, “If I forget, what’s left? There’s nothing.” To have nothing is to forget. To forget is to dishonour those who’ve sacrificed their lives as victims of government oppression.

Read this book, educate yourself, and above all remember what happened in Tiananmen Square and to the victims of communist oppression so that you cannot say we have nothing.

–August and September, 2016

* 9/13/16 Update: Do Not Say We Have Nothing made the Man Booker Prize’s 2016 shortlist.

This Spotify playlist — at 25 hours long — is as complete as I can make it — the one notable exclusion is Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Chorale Preludes. I wasn’t able to find them on Spotify. Enjoy!

 

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

fionavartapestry The Summer Tree
The Wandering Fire
The Darkest Road

Imagine: at a wizard’s request, you leave your life in Toronto to visit Fionavar — the “first of all worlds.” Your mission: to help the populace defeat baddy extraordinaire Rakoth Maugrim, who by threatening Fionavar, plans to propagate his evil across every world. This is the opening premise of The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay’s rip-roaring, epic fantasy series.

A classic tale of good vs. evil, The Fionavar Tapestry is “brightly woven” (as they say in Fionavar). It’s well-paced and meaty, a page-turner that transported me from the wilderness of Canada to a magical place where I lost track of time, fully immersed in Kay’s prose, the complex and introspective characters, and a plot packed with poignancy and intrigue.

I noticed some similarities with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (small band of youthful do-gooder protagonists, a lady sect of priestesses similar to Jordan’s Aes Sedai). But where Jordan’s characters are flat, dull, and often clueless, populating a plot that meanders for hundreds of pages, Kay’s characters feel real — they think deeply and they’re self aware. They gain real insight and grow.

Weighty themes await you in Fionavar. The responsibility and consequences of personal choice and the myriad costs of power — two ideas woven throughout the novels — make for great tension and above all, a very satisfying read. The worst thing about The Fionavar Tapestry is that it ended.

I laughed, I teared up, I cheered, and now I wholeheartedly recommend this brightly woven series to you.

July and August, 2016

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

unspeakableIn addition to parenthood, dating seemingly incompatible men, and lesbianism, Meghan Daum’s fascinations include the Canadian painter and composer Joni Mitchell, who taught Meghan that, if you don’t “write from a place of excruciating candor, you’ve written nothing.”

If candor is a measure of success, then Daum has certainly written something.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion opens with Daum’s life-long irritation with her mother and her ambivalence toward her mother’s untimely death. Daum and her mother repeat a cycle: Daum’s mother detested her own mom and was too, physically repulsed by the woman that gave her life.

Daum examines her thoughts, reactions, beliefs, and inclinations around relationships, family, and stereotypical gender roles. Daum is neither martyr nor saint and her essays are interesting precisely because she’s willing examine herself and her own (sometimes ham-fisted) actions to uncover the truth about herself. The Unspeakable is both harrowing and hilarious.

Harrowing:

For my mother’s entire life, her mother was less a mother than splintered bits of shrapnel she carried around in her body, sharp, rusty debris that threatened to puncture an organ if she turned a certain way.

Hilarious:

To try to explain to a 13-year-old the importance of leaving a callback number is essentially to bathe yourself in sepia tint.

I found myself relating to Daum on more than one level. She connects more easily with dogs than humans, for one, (Hello, sister from another mister.) but I found myself nodding yes as she shared her struggle to be ok with not having children. She, like me, wanted to want to have kids, but eventually realized that not having them was the right choice for her. Our reasons differ, though it’s refreshing to read about how someone else came to a similar realization in a world so obsessed with child-rearing.

June and July, 2016

The Awakened Kingdom by N.K. Jemisin

theawakenedkingdomImagine that you loved N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy and then discover a new-to-you novella written in the same realm featuring a few of your favorite characters? Why, yes, please! Don’t mind if I do.

In a mere few pages, I was reminded of the joy of Jemisin. Imaginative plots that defy prediction and challenge gender stereotypes and privilege, fascinating gods and godlings (each with an individual affinity), and a realm where the women mortals bear arms while the men stay home and raise the children. Jemisin’s work exemplifies what fiction can be at its very best: a fascinating lens through which to examine your own thinking and beliefs and consider other perspectives and possibilities — and have fun doing it.

The Awakened Kingdom takes place after The Kingdom of Gods, book three of The Inheritance Trilogy. Baby godling Lady Shill visits the mortal realm to discover her true nature — her special godling affinity. Lady Yeine, Lord Itempas, and even Nahadoth (as a woman, no less!) make short appearances as young Lady Shill makes mistakes (and baby godlings) learning how to manage in the mortal realm through hilarious trial and error.

This is such a fun read and the only shame about The Awakened Kingdom is that it could have been an entire novel unto itself. As a novella, it’s meaty and delicious — Jemisin leaves you wanting more and the wonderful thing is, with a bunch of new baby godlings running around, there’s plenty of fodder for a new full-length novel set in the Inheritance realm. Yes, please.

June, 2016

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

beingmortalBeing Mortal, by surgeon and New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande, confronts aging and the life well-lived — two of my personal fascinations. I received this book as a gift from one of my coworkers at the start of my sabbatical. (Thank you, as-yet-unguessed friend!)

For all its technical advancements, Gawande posits that medical science struggles to achieve what should be its most important goal: focusing on well-being for the frail, the aging, and the terminally ill, as opposed to attempting to cure often incurable diseases and conditions. (You can’t cure old age, but you can do things to reduce pain, and improve comfort, mobility, and overall quality of life.)

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.

As you age and become unable to manage the tasks of daily existence (cooking food, shopping, using the toilet independently, cleaning, and personal grooming) there are few options for a well-lived life. Assisted living offers some autonomy — but not nearly enough when you’re forced to rise, dress, shower, and eat on a pre-determined schedule meant to create institutional efficiency, not happy, fulfilled, human beings. Gawande’s book challenges the institutional default setting by profiling small-scale, successful assisted living communities that allow elderly and frail people to do the things that bring them happiness on a schedule they choose.

For the terminally ill, the treatments are often much worse than the illness itself, although science’s default setting is try everything, to exhaust all options — even when death is an eventuality. Gawande suggests doctors should seek to understand what’s most important to patients, their fears, and the trade-offs they’re willing to make when considering treatments that can never cure, only extend life.

Well-being is about being able to live the life you want to live and do the activities you want to do, on your terms. It’s about ice-cream in front of the hockey game at home, as opposed to wasting away in a hospital as disease takes over. It’s about maximizing comfort and the quality of the time remaining, as opposed to focusing on mostly useless treatment.

This is a book I’ve seen advertised though I’d bypassed it several times. I’m so glad that I read it. Reading it, I reflected on how difficult it was for Mike’s family when his mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although we really could have benefited from reading this book over 20 years ago, we did what we could to help Joan enjoy the time she had left. There were trips to the lake, lots of chocolate milkshakes, and most importantly, time with friends and loved ones.

Reading this book has also made me think of what I want for myself and my loved ones was we all age and eventually become frail. Being Mortal has equipped me with a set of questions to consider when time is running short, to help reveal fears and hopes and help choose which to live and make decisions by. Not only has it helped me to think about the (hopefully!) long-term future, it’s helped me to re-evaluate how I spend my time in the present.

Each day of my sabbatical is a gift. I get the exquisite luxury of being able to choose precisely how I want to spend my time each day. I’m fortunate to be in good health and the fact that I can run, bike, read, and sit on the deck and listen to bird radio has been a tremendous joy. I’ve been able to think about my life, what I’ve done so far, what’s most important to me, and how I want to spend my time going forward.

Being Mortal is an excellent read and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Highly recommended!

June, 2016

Galore by Michael Crummey

galoremichaelcrummeyThe word galore means “in abundance.” In Michael Crummey’s Galore, the only things in abundance are misery, desire, greed, and a compellingly tenacious will to survive.

Galore roams the lives of the families in Paradise Deep, Newfoundland, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The landscape offers little respite. It’s bitterly cold, windy, and wet. It’s a fickle mistress given to cycles of plenty and want, imperilling those who try to eke out an existence by fishing, logging, and sealing. Death by starvation and exposure is ever-present. In living each day, we’re all that much closer to our own deaths — especially the hardscrabble residents of Paradise Deep.

…death wasn’t sudden and complete but took a man out of the world piecemeal, a little at a time.

The characters and the beautiful prose carry Galore through what I feel is an uneven narrative. The book follows mostly several generations of the Devine family. You can’t help but love them for the sheer effort they put into survival and the sacrifices they make to help one another along though a harsh world.

Judah Devine (a variation on Jonah) is adopted into the fold after being rescued from the belly of a beached whale by a woman known only as Devine’s Widow. He’s known for his bright white hair, skin, and a pervasive foul odor that he passes on to his offspring. Judah’s origin and past is a mystery — he never utters a word. He becomes a Devine only after Devine’s Widow arranges a hasty marriage to her granddaughter Mary Tryphena Devine, to save “The Great White” from a mob. The Devines are resourceful and stubborn, two qualities that sustain them over the decades.

Galore and its characters are imaginative — Crummey does a great job chronicling everyone’s longings, desires, conflicts, and losses and you become invested as you follow the burgeoning families. This book has a deep and conflicted soul of its own and I loved it for that. The characters are resolute in their beautiful, pervasive, stoic catechism.

They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought.

My primary quibbles with Galore are narrative threads raised and dropped and seemingly random time hopping that accelerates the plot. You care about the characters and it’s irritating when they’re suddenly elderly and you’re not privy as a reader to those missing years. Critical characters like Bride Newman simply die offstage and the revelation feels rushed — an afterthought. I would have loved a longer book that followed fewer characters more closely.

Despite these irritations, Crummey is a writer I plan to explore further. In the words of Callum Devine, “what is it you wants?”

I wants me s’more Newfoundland, b’y.

June, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

uprootedNaomi Novrik’s Uprooted is a fantasy novel that, sadly, feels a bit more like a too-familiar fairy tale.

Agnieszka is the surprise pick of the wizard called “Dragon.” Every ten years, he whisks a village girl away to his tower to teach her to manage her magic skills. She’s bubbly and positive and easily outraged — everything you’d expect of a precocious witch. The Dragon (150-year-old Sarkan) is Oscar the Grouch in wizard form, quick with rebukes and ridicule, short on kind words and depth as a character. His pervasive negativity and sourpuss outlook is unwavering, which makes him thin and tedious.

I felt like Uprooted had great potential, but it was the lack of depth — in the characters, mostly but also in the plot — that put me off this battle-heavy epic. Uprooted’s scenes post-climactic battle left me confused. Agnieszka and Sarkan venture into the evil Wood to stop its omnipresent malevolence from devouring the surrounding small towns, yet these scenes feel muzzy, somehow like the dream the wood people seek to find peace. This part of the plot feels like it comes out of left field. I understand the idea and theme that wanton violence solves nothing and only creates more problems, though there is nothing to alert the reader earlier in the book that taking the path of nonviolence with the Wood is what will eventually bring peace.

Some of the most compelling scenes in the book take place when Agnieszka and Sarkan make magic together and I happily lost myself in the telling of that part of the story, only to find the battle scenes overdone and exceptionally longwinded in telling description. This, along with the puzzling dénouement, and I’d have to say that Uprooted was not for me.

May and June, 2016

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

agodinruins

A God in Ruins is about identity, dutiful love, and above all, self sacrifice. This book, a companion to Life After Life, follows mostly Edward Beresford “Teddy” Todd before and after his Second World War experiences.

At first I was irritated with what seemed like a propensity to live a life of quiet desperation, in an unfulfilling marriage with an exasperating child. I realized that I was looking at Teddy’s life through the lens of the present, where flaky is the norm and commitment is rare.

Teddy’s generation had no choice — his own identity is indelibly scorched in the crucible of the war. Defying death against nearly impossible odds at the controls of a Halifax bomber is the only time he feels truly alive, yet this imbues him with a duty-bound stoicism. His life is a series of sacrifices; first for the war effort, then for his wife, and finally his grandchildren. (Teddy is the only steadying force they have in their lives and they love him for it.)

I enjoyed this book. It’s layered, nuanced, and complex. There’s plenty to explore here — it’s meaty with references to poetry that I have to admit were somewhat lost on me. Duty, honor, and love are compelling themes and it got me thinking about what sort of life is a good life — what it is that etches your life with meaning? Is forsaking your own happiness and well being for country, spouse, children, and grandchildren the key to a life well lived? For Teddy, it seems so — if only for the reason that a whole life can be erased in the instant.

He had believed once that he would be framed by the architecture of the war, but now he realized, he had been erased by it.
–A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

April — May, 2016

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlifePractice makes perfect.

If you could go back in life and get a do-over, would you take that chance and change the course of history? Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel, Life After Life tackles this intriguing question.

Ursula Beresford Todd, human palimpsest, gets the chance to live life after life, each time altering the future based on the sometimes not so fun events of the past. Life After Life reminded me of how the superposition principle of quantum physics plays out in Ruth Ozeki’s marvelous book, A Tale for the Time Being. Ursula’s life path has a bevy of possibilities — the array that collapses as you, the observer, follow her story.

I don’t want to say much about the plot to avoid spoilers, though Life After Life is everything I feel a great book should be. It’s a period piece, set in 20th century Europe. The characters are exceptionally deep, fully-flawed, and interesting. I loved that you get to see and experience each vivid character from many different viewpoints — their best and worst sides included — which makes for terrific, rich reading.

You’re never quite sure where Atkinson is going to take you via Ursula and you’re on tenterhooks until the very last page wondering how this imaginative book will end.

Should you read this book? In the words of Ursula’s mom Sylvie, needs must (necessity compels).

Special thanks to my friend Michelle for putting this book, and its sequel, A God in Ruins on my reading radar.

–April, 2016

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

theturnerhouseIdentity figures heavily in The Turner House, Angela Flournoy’s novel about a family of fifteen set in Detroit, Michigan. The book follows the eldest Turner son, Charles, (a.k.a., “Cha-Cha”) and the youngest Turner daughter, Lelah, who in their own ways, are struggling to find a place for themselves in the present by conquering what haunts them from their past.

For Cha-Cha, it’s a ghost — a haint that visited him as a child in the big house on Yarrow Street. This spectre is a hereditary apparition who also visited Turner patriarch Francis as a young man until he left the country for life in the city of Detroit. For Lelah, it’s a gambling addiction that causes serial eviction, a tenuous relationship with her only daughter Brianne, and of course, financial collapse.

When you have 13 children in a single family, everyone is attention starved. Each Turner child jockeys for validation. They often talk over one another, interrupt, act out, and change the subject in an ongoing attempt to capture attention. Lelah gambles in search of silence and with 13 siblings, make no wonder.

This search for silence felt all too true to me. My dad grew up in a family of 11 and my mom grew up in a family of nine, but that truth as depicted in The Turner House, carried the weight and fatigue of familiarity. It reminded me too much of how some people (close family) routinely interrupt, talk over others, and change the subject to this day in that constant wearying bid for attention — even in much smaller gatherings, of say, two.

I’d hoped for something different — something deeper to come from the sheer possibilities inherent in the story of 13 siblings and their exponentially interwoven relationships. With 11 siblings orbiting around the stories of Cha-Cha and Lelah, they and their stories seemed flat. I can’t help but wonder if one or two or three of the other Turners examined more closely might have made for more intense reading.

I discovered this book in the final round of The Morning News’ 2016 Tournament of Books. It was voted second overall next to The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

— March – April, 2016