Friday, February 19, 2010

King Leary

I figured it would be a good idea to read last year's Canada Reads winner. Now that I have finished those from this year, it would give be a good bar to judge them by. It also seemed like an appropriate moment, as Paul Quarrington tragically passed away last month.

King Leary is the story of the retired hockey star Percival Leary. He is invited to Toronto to participate in a ginger ale ad. He leaves the retirement home, bringing with him Blue Hermann, the alcoholic sports journalist from Leary's heyday and Iain, an equally alcoholic young aide from the retirement home. The three are joined by Leary's son Clifford; the ad exec responsible for the ginger ale ad; and Duane the young hockey whiz that is the new 'king' of the game (not to mention the numerous ghosts from Leary's past, who make side appearances as Leary's grasp on reality loosens).

The story is a mix of Leary's present trip to Toronto and his memories of his hockey player days. The novel is hilarious and I often caught myself laughing out loud on the subway. The writing carries the novel, along with the strength of the characters. The plot is neither here nor there and is more a vehicle for characterization, than to move things along; but it works well enough. I can see why it was chosen for Canada Reads, it is very readable by anyone from the snobbiest reader (me) to the everyday hockey fan. It is not an epic Canadian novel, but it is very enjoyable.

If I had to compare it to another novel I have read, it would have to be Horn of the Lamb, which had a similar mix of hockey and humour and that equally drew on the strength of the main character. I will definitely be adding Quarrington to my list of author's to read more of.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

And finally- Douglas Coupland

My last Canada Reads book for this year. I am pretty impressed that I got through them at such a good pace. Once the radio show starts, I will post my vote for winner and see how it measures up.

Douglas Coupland's Generation X doesn't actually take place in Canada, but it does mention Canada often enough to remind us where the author is really from. I have never read any Coupland, so his first novel seems like a good introduction, I was glad this one was chosen for Canada Reads.

The novels is about three 'Generation-Xers' who have taken up residence in a sun soaked resort town in California. The three, all at various stages of discontent with their lives, offer a humorous exploration of the issues facing the generation that was not the baby boomers. First, I have to admit I am not a member of Generation X, I fall into Generation Y (sometimes called Echo) and this might be why I found the characters in Coupland's novel so darn whiney. I wasn't able to relate to them at all: they were self-centered, irresponsible, shallow and incredibly frustrating. It made it hard for me to get into the novel.

The plot didn't have much to offer either, but I did enjoy Coupland's writing. He has a strong style, which mixed in the humorous bits well. I am going to take away from this a (hesitant) desire to try one of his other novels, which I have heard such good things about. Unfortunately, this one gets a thumbs down, just not my cup of tea.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

And now to the other coast...

I was starting to feel like all I was reading were East Coast novels! I have been enjoying them very much (well some of them), but I am glad that the last two Canada Reads books are both B.C. authors. First up, Wayson Choy's Jade Peony.

Atlantic Canadian fiction definitely has some similar themes across the various novels I read: Allistair MacLeod, Michael Crummey and Anne-Marie MacDonald all wrote about family history, with plenty of mythology and folklore thrown in. Wayson Choy, in many ways, is the Vancouver version of these writers. Jade Peony tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian family during the 1930s and 1940s residing in Vancouver's Chinatown. The story is divided into three parts, each from the view point of one of the families children.

The first part, my favorite, tells the story of Jook-Liang. She is the only daughter and has to balance between her responsibilities as a girl in a traditional household and her love of Western culture (mostly, Shirley Temple). She befriends Wong Bak, a deformed elder and an unlikely and touching friendship blooms.

The second story is of the second brother Jung-Sum. He was adopted from another Chinese family when he was younger, although still has memories of his traumatic time with his biological family. Jung-Sum embraces the world of boxing, finding community at the gym.

The final story emerges as the Second World War approaches and the Chinese community begins to attempt to distance itself from the vilified Japanese. The world outside of the tight-knit Chinatown plays a much larger role in third brother Sekky's story. Sekky's world is divided between his attempts to overcome the illness he was plagued with early in life and his love of war games.

The folklore is brought into the novel through Poh-Poh, the children's elderly grandmother, who brings many Chinese traditions to their Canadian home. She firmly holds at least part of the household in the 'old' world, while the children try to find their way into the 'new.'

Wayson Choy is a lovely writer and I enjoyed reading Jade Peony. A very nice introduction to the West Coast. It is a tough race between Jade Peony and Nikolski for my Canada Reads vote.

- Katy

Monday, February 15, 2010


While I waited for the next Canada Reads book to arrive at my local TPL branch, I decided to pick up one of the books I was given for Christmas. Michael Crummey's Galore is my first repeat author of the challenge. I heard him read from the book at 2009's International Festival of Authors and was sufficiently intrigued to add it to my wish list.

Galore, set in the small Atlantic community of Paradise Deep, is a family saga spanning nearly two centuries. Crummey begins with a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("The invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love") and it is evident he draws much inspiration from the South American author. Galore, right from the very first scene when Judah emerges alive from the belly of the whale, is rife with magical realism. Even the inclusion of the family trees at the beginning of the novel reminds us that 100 Years of Solitude, Garcia Marquez's brilliant family epic, should remain in the back of our minds as we read.

The story continues as the fates of two families- the Devines and the Sellers- interact, move apart and ultimately shape the community in which they live. There are far too many characters to detail them all here, but some stood out as favorites (or at least the most compelling, if not likable): Devine's Widow, the witch-like matriarch of the Devine family she embodies the 'old' way of the East Coast through herbal medicines, folklore and one helluva free spirit; Judah Devine, the naked, mute who emerged from the whale becomes an integral part of the Devine mythology as he moves into the world of spiritual sacrifice in part 2 of the novel; and Bride, the spunky wife of Henley Sellers who makes her appearance in the novel asking the newly arrived doctor to pull out all her teeth.

Like River Thieves (my first Michael Crummey novel), Galore has a good plot carried by strong characters. It combines the everyday with a good dose of folklore to keep it interesting. I would argue that Galore is better written than River Thieves as it has a better pace. Does it live up to the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels that it invokes? No, but really what does? The two parts of the novel felt a bit disconnected, as though Crummey couldn't quite find a way to connect the entire story, so just broke it in two. That's about the only bad thing I have to say- I really enjoyed the novel and was glad I had decided to double-up on Michael Crummey.

- Katy

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wayson Choy Double-Header

Ok. I know. I suck at blogging. Whatever, I have been really busy. And it isn’t that I haven’t been reading, I just haven’t been blogging. So to kill two birds with one stone, I am going to sneak in 2 books in one post. This actually is ok, since they are by the same author.

So early January, I went to the EPL and put all the Canada Reads books on hold (I actually had to sign up for a library card to do this…) while I was there, I got in a discussion about Wayson Choy with the librarian and she convinced me to pick up Not Yet while I was waiting for a Canada Reads book to come in. Though this challenge means I usually stick to one book by one author, I was intrigued and I have never read Wayson Choy, so I thought I could handle two of his. As luck would have it, The Jade Peony ended up being in the first wave of books to come in so I read two Choy books back to back.

Not Yet is Choy’s autobiography on his two near-death experiences and then the recovery from his extended hospital stays. It is fascinating and beautifully written and I think I would have got even more out of it if I had been a Choy fan before reading it. Either way, I loved it. Choy is witty and humorous, but still emotional. Choy has no immediate family and is not married (or partnered to someone- he is gay). There are some very touching moments that occur when he realizes that his “family” is strong and loving. With a close group of friends, he is not going to die alone, instead will have his make-shift family close by. It is a great autobiography that also provided some insight into his other novels.

Half way through reading it, the Canada Reads books started pouring in and since I was loving Choy so much, I decided to pick the Jade Peony to start with. The Jade Peony is the story of a family in Chinatown in Vancouver. It is broken into three sections and follows three of the children of the family through parts of their lives. The story really captures what life was like in Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s. We get snippets of news stories to help us place the world in context- news from China on the war with Japan, the Pearl Harbour bombings, etc.

It is tough to compared non-fiction autobiography to a fictional story (especially since parts are written from the point of view of a young girl), but Choy’s writing ability shone through in both books. I missed the wit and humour of Not Yet, but the complexity of the characters and the notion of family and identity rang true throughout both books.

The Jade Peony is probably the first novel I have read about Vancouver’s Chinese population and it was really very fascinating. The notion of being trapped between two worlds- the old country and the new- even for second generation immigrants is so well captured. These themes are so prominent in many Canadian novels- as we are a country built on immigration and really, starting not that long ago (compared to some places). Even Native literature demonstrates a constant struggle between old customs and new lifestyles (see any book by Thomas King). It is why “Canadian” is such a hard identity to describe.

Anyway, to avoid having the longest blog post of all time, I will conclude by saying I am so glad I was introduced to Wayson Choy and both his books are wonderful- in different ways. Check him out- you won’t be disappointed.