Friday, March 28, 2014

Cabbagetown by Hugh Garner

When I picked up this unwieldy doorstop of a book about Toronto during the Great Depression, I almost didn't go through with that - there was nothing about that time that interested me, let alone compelled me to read several hundred pages about it. But I decided to at least give it a chance; I was mostly drawn in by the focus on a specific neighbourhood of Toronto, which isn't something I come across a lot in this project and which I had hoped would give the book a specific and definable flavour.

I am so glad I gave this book a chance. It is the story of three teenagers growing up in Cabbagetown during the Depression, and the three different directions they take in response to their poverty-stricken family lives and undesirable neighbourhood. One young man joins a group of fascists less because of a belief in the ideals and more to escape the stigma of his poor (financially that is) upbringing; one goes completely the opposite way and begins to fight for workers; and the young woman in the story gradually turns to survival sex work as her only marketable skill.

Where the story ends up is not half as compelling as how it gets there. This is a masterful work, a modern Canadian Les Miserables - buried within the story are big, insightful ideas about poverty, class war, social movements, capitalism, and love. This is an important work, and it is really enthralling. Honestly my first thought upon finishing the book was surprise that I had never heard of this author before.

I can't really describe specifically what the book is "about", but I really strongly recommend you read it. The parallels between Cabbagetown in that time and many neighbourhoods in this economic climate are striking, and at one point there is a paragraph about the difference between being "poor" and being "poverty-stricken" that was so breathtakingly accurate I almost highlighted it in the library book.

I don't know what else to say except that you need to read this book. One of the best I've read so far.

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Wars by Timothy Findley

I often complain about reading too many World War II stories, even though some are really profound and well done. I don't really like war stories in general, although there are a few exceptions (the movie Three Kings comes to mind). The Wars is set in WWI, a theme of which I do not feel so completely overwhelmed, but it did fill me with dread nonetheless. Perhaps because I spent some of my formative years growing up in Australia, which means being shown the movie Gallipoli in every class at least once a year.

This is one of the good ones though. Although it was written in the 1970s, it touches on many issues of war and the life of soldiers that we struggle with today: rape and abuse among soldiers; PTSD; the pressure of masculinity; balancing empathy with pragmatism; and the choices we make between following orders and following our hearts.

The novel follows Robert Ross, a Canadian boy growing up in Toronto in the early 1900s. His sister Rowena, whom he loves dearly, is ill, and her death is the impetus for Robert to join the army. The story follows Robert through the experience of the war, and the steps that eventually lead him to crack and make one last attempt at saving his humanity.

This book is very appropriately titled; there are a lot of wars being fought within it. Robert's life is one of struggle, an effective microcosm of the world at that time. The author does not shy away from some very disturbing shit that goes down in the army, and I especially appreciated how realistic the depiction of Robert's reaction was. I think this story is partly about how men are socialized to deal with fear, shame, and trauma by channeling it all into masculine rage and violence. Part of Robert's problem is that he doesn't understand how to deal with the feelings of empathy he has for his fellow humans and for animals; he doesn't know how to safely express his sexual desires; he doesn't know how to speak to people about his feelings, nor does he have that resource available. The book would be a tragedy even if no lives were lost; as it is, the author explicitly tells the reader at one point how many deaths they have witnessed in the narrative.

Another interesting narrative trick is that the story is being told, partially, as a chronicle of a historian figuring out what happened to Robert Ross and why he made the choices he did. The narrative actually switches between viewpoints and includes, if I'm not mistaken, first, second, and third person perspectives. This is done surprisingly well and doesn't make it more confusing.

My only disappointment with the novel is the lack of scenes in Toronto. This isn't really a Toronto book. But other that that it is very good - well-written, well-crafted, completely tragic and depressing, and as perfectly relevant today as ever.

Four CN Towers out of five.