Friday, June 26, 2015
The story follows X, a university student working frantically on his thesis on antisemitism and persecution of the Jews. He is a member of the Anti-Racist Alliance, and with the other members of the ARA, cooks up a plan to infiltrate the "bunker" of known neo-Nazi/Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and get video footage of both the inside of the bunker, and of Zundel saying something incriminatingly racist. The group poses as a CBC film crew doing a feature on free speech issues (Zundel had a case before the courts on the issue at the time), and as a supplementary crew of documentary filmmakers filming the filming of the feature (why??).
They are allowed into the bunker, but X is frustrated with their lack of progress on bringing Zundel down, and ends up setting fire to the bunker in the middle of the night (something that did happen in 1995, and for which the Jewish Armed Resistance Movement claimed credit, but no charges were ever filed). This poking of the hornets' nest sets into motion a dangerous conflict between the neo-Nazis and the ARA, leading to a huge post-baseball brawl in Christie Pits Park, obviously and clumsily meant as an homage to the historic 1933 riot in that same park.
The story is interspersed with sometimes lengthy documents - court transcripts, excerpts from Zundel's published works, etc. - showing the arguments against the Holocaust having happened. One excerpt from The Turner Diaries describing the bombing of an FBI building is supposed to, I suppose, draw an equivalence in violence between the fascists and anti-fascists? Towards the end of the book the documents turn around and refute the findings of the Holocaust deniers. I have to say, I didn't fully understand the point of these interjections and found them a rather tedious addition.
I didn't like this book. The story was compelling enough but the writing style was awful; every sentence was punctuated with an abundance of colons, and thoughts and speech were indicated in quotation marks, so it was hard to tell if someone was thinking or if they had spoken the words aloud. X was a poorly drawn character who, besides his anti-racist views, I found it hard to sympathize with or connect to in any way.
The book does use Toronto well and name checks many places (the bunker on Carlton Street and Christie Pits Park, as well as Cafe Diplomatico on College Street spring to mind). But as realistic as the city is, the characters are ridiculous - they make poor choices, have seemingly no real goal behind their actions, and no actual characteristics besides "fascist" and "anti-fascist". I would not recommend this book.
One CN Tower out of five.
Friday, June 12, 2015
The story follows two sisters, Elf and Yoli, who grew up in a Mennonite community in rural Manitoba. Elf is a piano prodigy, who goes on to become a world-reknown pianist. She has, in her younger sister's eyes, everything - a wonderful career, a happy relationship with a man who loves her, more money than you could shake a stick at. But Elf suffers from crippling depression, a family trait that led her father to take his own life when the girls were young.
At the beginning of the book, Elf has just made an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself and is in the hospital in Winnipeg. Concerned loved ones surround her, including her sister Yoli, who I guess you would call the protagonist although it is Elf's actions that really drive the story. Yoli leaves her home and two teenaged children in Toronto to crash at her mother's house and visit Elf for hours every day. The novel is a mish-mash of Yoli's recollections of their shared childhood, her reflections on her own current messy life, and her attempts to argue Elf out of her depression.
Even though the story is really about these two sisters, the supporting characters are very good and well-drawn; their mother is amazing and hilarious, with her own fierce sister Tina; Elf's partner Nick is relentlessly patient and completely hapless; and Yoli's kids, seen through text messages, are typical teenagers - but the fact that they always ask after Elf is one of the more heart-rending details of the novel.
This is another one of those books that I can never do justice through describing, because the genius of it is in the poetry of the writing, and the heartbreaking accuracy of the themes - of music, sisterhood, sadness and carrying on, life and death and redemption (sticking with my current theory that all stories are about redemption in one way or another).
Toronto plays a very small role in the book - the last few chapters, probably the last quarter of the book, are set in Toronto. I really enjoyed the fact that Yoli seemed to live in my neighbourhood, and a couple of places were name-checked - including an intense argument about suicide at Saving Grace. But if anything this is a love sonnet to Winnipeg (if one can imagine such a thing) - although there isn't much setting outside the hospital walls, the description of the sound of the ice breaking on the river resonates through the story.
This is a beautiful, beautiful book. It is also an extremely emotional read. Proceed accordingly.
Five CN Towers out of five.
Friday, May 29, 2015
The story follows a young man, Bruno, who lives with his family in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood (College St. west of Bathurst and the surrounding residential streets). He works at a local (real!) restaurant, Trattoria Giancarlo, where he has been tasked with planning the party for the head chef's upcoming birthday. At the same time, he is planning a trip to Italy. His father's family has recently sold the land they owned, so Bruno must come up with a way to basically smuggle the cash from the sale back into Canada.
Throughout all this there is a romantic subplot, as Bruno breaks up with his girlfriend and begins seeing someone from his childhood who he ran into at a family wedding. There is simply no room in these pages to squeeze any character development, so we don't really know much about this girl except that she's super hot.
On the plus side, the author has a gift for description in a cultural sense, and really gets to the heart of Little Italy so the neighbourhood practically jumps off the page. The atmosphere is definitely perfect. There are also some very funny scenes, like the two funerals (one Italian, one Portuguese) at adjacent churches letting out at the same time, leading to a confused traffic snarl, and eventually to a dramatically bereaved Portuguese woman throwing herself on the wrong coffin.
Unfortunately, the book lacks in character development - there is not a well-drawn character in the book. Bruno is constantly in action, so it is hard to know what he's actually like, and the supporting cast are reduced to one character trait each. In a longer book this would probably be a serious flaw, but here the whole thing is over so fast, it almost doesn't matter.
What I found most frustrating about the story is the lack of conflict. Bruno has two issues to deal with: the party, and the money. But after stating each of these problems, the story is basically him deciding how to solve them, and then doing so. There is no tension, and with no full characters to attach to, it is difficult to get emotionally involved at all.
The book was a quick read, but most likely a forgettable one. I would love to read more from this author, who has a great style, but needs to trust himself to get involved with the characters and write something longer, with a bigger vision.
Three CN Towers out of five.
Friday, May 15, 2015
I was hesitant to start this book because I know absolutely nothing about visual art. Like really, nothing, academically or socially. But that's ok, because you really don't need to know anything to read (and enjoy) it. I was surprised to learn that this is a first novel, because it is very tight and thematically on point.
The story is set in 1967, in Toronto's Yorkville art scene. The eponymous painting is the stand out piece in a show by a young artist, Eddie O'Hara, widely heralded as the next Tom Dale - another character slowly, drunkenly, but somewhat happily entering middle age as a well respected and successful painter. The owner of the gallery and O'Hara's art dealer, Gonzaga, sees the value in the painting and impulsively retains it, secretly. This sets a number of plots in motion in a novel that is already quite full of secrets and strange misunderstandings.
Denoon writes well - pretty but succinct - and the pace is perfect. The novel sort of bobs along as a fluffy soap opera of mistaken intentions, unrequited love, and sly observations, but there is a dark undertone of cynicism about the art world and authenticity (in art and life). And it does become more of a tragedy near the end, or at least some storylines start to slide that way.
What sets the book apart and makes it memorable (for me anyway) is the reflection of the authenticity theme in the construction of the characters themselves. Many of the main characters are duplicates of each other - there are two aging male painters whose most successful days are behind them; two older ladies (one approaching middle age, the other in its throes) bored with being housewives and looking for extramarital stimulation; two gallery owners; and eventually, two versions of the painting - by the same artist. Which is the forgery? The same question can be asked of the characters - not one is a pale shadow of their duplicate, they are all well-rounded and clearly drawn characters in their own right.
I thought this was a very interesting and clever technique on the part of the author, challenging our notions of authenticity and what it means to be authentic, as a person or as a work of art. Any measure of which character is 'better' in a given duo comes from values we must ascribe as observers: Eleanor is classier than Win, Eleanor is younger and prettier and richer than Win. But these are subjective assessments, based on socially constructed standards - just as art dealers and collectors assess the quality of art based on what some might call arbitrary measurements (and the novel has a nice little wink at this near the end).
I'll save the rest of my thoughts on this for my book club, but I did really enjoy the book, and though it's a little long, it reads quickly and is compelling and fun. Most of the action takes place in Yorkville, which is neat in terms of comparing the 1967 version of the neighbourhood with today. There's a lot of great Toronto-ness here, and it's especially fun to see where everyone ends up in the epilogue, set in 2000. I love a 'where are they now' epilogue, you guys.
Four CN Towers out of five.
Friday, April 24, 2015
My Darling Dead Ones and Barnacle Love come immediately to mind, but there are many others I have read for this blog alone). I think it is a delicate thing to do, to find the right balance between the history and the present, and the personal and the political.
Love Marriage does this very well. It is also an exploration of the vast spectrum of marriage between Arranged Marriage and Love Marriage in the narrator's home country of Sri Lanka (although she herself was born in America). The book starts with the premise that marriage and family come from each other, and that every family story must start with a marriage. On that premise alone it is quite an interesting look at the different reasons people get married, and what a huge range of reasons there are even within this one family.
The narrator is Yalani, a young woman who moves from America (I can't remember where, or perhaps it is never said) to Toronto, to be with her terminally ill uncle in the last months of his life. Her uncle was a Tamil Tiger, who had disappeared to join the movement when his sister, Yalani's mother, was still young. With him is his daughter, raised in the Tiger movement. Their presence forces Yalani's otherwise politically neutral family to take at least an outward appearance of sympathy for the cause.
Yalani starts to collect stories from her uncle, taking down the family history. This is of course, irrevocably interwoven with the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the government. While understanding of her uncle's position, Yalani (and the story) find in difficult to cope with the violence of Tamil resistance, and her cousin's hardness toward her and her adopted home.
This book is very beautiful, and written quite poetically. The theme of marriage was deftly interwoven throughout, and helps keep the story on track. I also really enjoyed the recurring theme of fire, although sometimes it was less than subtle.
Toronto, unfortunately, makes very little impression in the story, except (as always!) a city of immigrants. The family lives in an area of Scarborough that is essentially a second Jaffna, where it is difficult to escape the conflict and racial tensions of Sri Lanka. The novel briefly touches on the idea of the family coming to grips with being, essentially, brown people - their Tamil identities erased by white Canadians.
It is an emotionally taxing but truly beautiful novel, and I highly recommend it - and look forward to reading more from this author.
Four CN Towers out of five.
Friday, April 10, 2015
The story follows Marc Edwards, a young soldier in what was then 'Upper Canada', in 1836. Marc is keen for action but things were pretty slow in Toronto back then. Fortunately, through family connections he is selected by the Lieutenant-Governor to solve the politically delicate death of an undercover government informant in a small community outside of Toronto.
The story is full of intrigue and smuggling, and illicit affairs and dodgy characters. Marc is not infused with a lot of personality, but there are some notable characters who flesh out the story a bit. The little town it's set in has lots of appropriately 1830s-ish folks with names like Erastus and Philander, who all have something to hide - some nefarious, most just sneaky. And there's sexy ladies who may have something to do with the murder but may not, you know how those sexy ladies can be.
All the ingredients were there for a story I would enjoy, even though historical fiction is not always my favourite. However, this book just never managed to grab my attention. The mystery wasn't mysterious enough - I didn't guess who did it, but I didn't care, either. The romantic subplot lacked chemistry, and was unceremoniously dropped at the end. And the constant name-checking of different factions of the political conflict, with no attempt to explain what they were and how they related to each other, was very confusing and alienating.
I think if you are a big Canadian history buff you might get a kick out of this novel, but even then the writing doesn't really hold up. I will read any genre if the writing is good enough. If you write a mystery that can't hold my interest, you need to write better. I wanted very much to like this book but I was glad when I finished it.
I think the writer has good ideas, a good premise and a feel for comedic timing. However, I think there is a trick to writing that elicits feeling from the reader, and this writer has not yet mastered it.
Two CN Towers out of five.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Olivia Chow is one of my political heroes, and a strong example of a quintessential Torontonian - an immigrant from a working-class background, very urban, very cosmopolitan, and very invested in community-based problem-solving and action. It was actually very frustrating to read her book now, after her anemic mayoral campaign, and see the kind of person we could have had in charge had she won.
I'm not generally into biographies or autobiographies, but this one was an easy enough read, with lots of intriguing anecdotes that are sure to be of interest to Toronto political junkies. Olivia basically knows everyone, so a lot of her accounts of parties and strategy sessions are a who's who of the Toronto left. I didn't find it to be irritating in a name-dropping way, however; Olivia seems genuinely interested in giving credit to the people around her for her successful campaigns.
The best parts of the book were when she talked about Jack Layton and their relationship. She manages to be emotional without being maudlin, and talks with startling honesty about her grief at his death and how it has affected her, and how she is dealing with it. She is unapologetically frank about their relationship, about both of their flaws and strengths; you can see how writing the book has been part of the healing process for her.
A lot of the issues that she has worked on through her career on city council and as an MP raised interesting discussions in my mind, but Olivia did not really get into them in the book; she talks about what happened but rarely touches on the why of it. This was my main objection to the book; I wanted to know more about why she is a progressive, why she takes the stances she does. I think that people of every political stripe decide to get into politics, so while that's an interesting thing about Olivia's development, what I really wanted was more analysis on her actual political views.
Anyway, it was a lovely book, and I would recommend it to folks as both an interesting insight into Olivia and Jack's lives, and a piece of Toronto's political history. Four CN Towers out of five.
Friday, March 13, 2015
The story follows Janie, a woman who has moved from the Ottawa Valley to Vancouver to escape from the trauma of her family's past. The book is addressed mostly to Janie's twin, Eugenie, who died in childhood - although we don't find out exactly how until near the end of the novel. Janie is living with a man named Simon whom she loves, and who illustrates the children's stories that she writes. At the start of the book Janie gets a call from her father to tell her that her mother is dying, and to ask her to come home - and as she travels back she unwinds the story of her childhood.
Janie has never told Simon that she had a twin, nor that her parents are alive, so obviously he feels betrayed by this revelation and by her sudden decision to leave. It's so shocking to think that someone you love could have this huge part of themselves that they have never revealed to you; throughout the novel the reader starts to see how the trauma of Janie's life was so overwhelming that she basically repressed it completely. It leaks out through the children's stories, which are delightfully interspersed throughout the book, bursting with allegorical connections and insights into Janie's psyche.
The book is partially set in Toronto, as Janie and Eugenie's mother moves there with them for a key part of their childhood, away from their emotionally abusive and alcoholic father. There isn't a lot of detail about Toronto - this isn't a Toronto book per se - but the sense of coming from a small place to the big city is very clear, and the girls' first experiences on the subway etc. set up the differences in their personalities well. Moving marks the transitions in Janie's life clearly; after Eugenie's death, the family returns to the small town, and her life changes again. Her world becomes smaller.
There is a lot here about wishing in vain, about the paths chosen and how things could have been different. There is a lot, too, about love and its strangeness and unpredictability; how we think it will look a certain way but then it comes as something different. I loved the contrast of the three main partnerships in the novel: Janie/Eugenie, Janie/Simon, and Janie's parents (Lucy/him).
It's a beautiful book, I must say. I enjoyed it very much (but wish I hadn't read it on transit), although my one complaint is I would have liked to know more about Simon and the Simon/Janie relationship, as the conclusion feels (in my opinion) a bit rushed. But overall it was lovely and I would definitely read this author again.
Four CN Towers out of five.
Friday, February 27, 2015
The main character is supposedly Clare, the undercover cop who enrolls in the political science class where the society is rumoured to have started. But in reality each chapter follows a different character, so we don't get to see a lot of Clare - which is for the best in my opinion, as I found her story arc to be somewhat anemic.
In fact, there are perhaps two too many POV characters in the story, leaving each arc overcrowded and rushed. It also eliminated too many likely suspects, I think, making the killer so obvious that when I guessed them about a third of the way through the book, I thought I must be wrong and had identified a red herring. But no, I guessed correctly, and even got the motive too. So I think if the author wants to continue writing mysteries, that's something to work on - a fair play whodunnit is tricky because you do want the reader to have all the clues they need to figure it out, but you don't want it to be boring.
This book was a bit boring. Not getting enough time to immerse myself in a character before it jumped to the next one made it hard to invest in them. The professor character was especially difficult for me: I knew I didn't sympathize with his politics or the way he treated women, but then I felt like there was a shift at some point and the reader was supposed to sympathize with him? And there was no exploration of anyone's relationship, any reason why anyone was attracted to anyone else.
The worst was the way the society was handled. I read the whole damn book and I'm still not clear on what the society's mandate was or what they even did. They are called "Society for Political Utopia" but as far as I could tell, the characters in it had widely varied political stances, and the society never actually did anything except meet (once, in the novel) and churn out killers, apparently. It definitely could have been developed a bit more. I also think that the police would probably immediately question the professor about it (since it was perfectly obvious to everyone that he had started it) and subpoena his records - but they never did that, because they are the most useless cops I've maybe ever read about. They also apparently never put the pieces together in terms of connecting the victims, something the newspaper editor and the mayor's ex-wife did in one night of looking through the archives.
I think maybe the worst, most contrived scene in the story though was without a doubt the scene where the killer is finally arrested, in the middle of class, and asks to stand in front of the class and explain why they did it. It was so awkwardly bad and unrealistic, and made doubly so because I had figured out both about 100 pages earlier.
The one good thing about the book was how much of Toronto they used - I really enjoyed that. It felt like it was actually happening here, in a very smooth and seamless way.
Unfortunately I cannot recommend the book on the strength of being set successfully in Toronto. I give this one two CN Towers out of five.
Friday, February 13, 2015
Another issue - and this is a #champagneproblem - is for someone who has been in a happy relationship for over a decade, it is sometimes a struggle to relate to characters who are absorbed by dating drama and the woes of single life.
This novel is good. It avoids these pitfalls nicely with well-drawn, flawed but likable characters and a realistic but not too dull plot. The author manages to artfully capture the challenge of modern adulthood without becoming maudlin or falling into romcom traps. It is, above all, believable and real.
The story follows two people in their early 30s who have just left long-term relationships: Kate, who asks her boyfriend to leave after coming to the slow realization that things aren't working; and Stuart, whose fiancee writes him a Dear John letter and then hides in the shadows to watch him read it. At the start, these two characters don't know each other, and the book is divided between them as they both struggle to cope with the consequences of the break ups - Kate tries to find something to occupy her time, and Stuart basically becomes a hot mess.
Eventually the two do meet, but that is not what the book is about. Honestly I'm not sure I could tell you what this book is about. I will say I was pleasantly surprised by how the author twice sidesteps our expectations based on the title and the trajectory of the narrative. It is clear that she has nothing but contempt for familiar romantic tropes, and I love it. The characters are buoyed by a ragtag support network of interesting but not too silly friends and relatives.
The city does not play a huge part in the story but there are some Toronto spots that are name-checked, most notably the Local. There is also an air of Canadian-ness to it; it's a Manhattan story but softer somehow.
I found a couple parts to be a bit on the nose: any long monologue where a character explains what happiness is or what life is about is hard to handle, and I believe there are three in this book. But otherwise it is a quick, pleasant, and surprisingly emotional read from a very promising author.
Four CN Towers out of five.
Friday, January 30, 2015
That said, the story is narrated by a cat, which is delightful. In fact it is the burst of life this otherwise sometimes plodding mystery needs. Amicus, the cat, is found with a bird in his mouth by Justice Mariner outside his office at Osgoode Hall (the stately institution at Queen and University where you will often observe folks having wedding pictures taken). A plea for mercy is made by the Hall librarians, and Amicus comes to live there full time in an old chip box.
The mystery is the murder of a "bencher," a governor of the law society. The victim was an anti-Establishment "do-gooder" trying to rein in the spending of the other benchers, so obviously he had lots of enemies. Perhaps also obviously, he wasn't as good as he seemed and had a couple little schemes on the go.
The first half of the book was enjoyable. After being initially turned off by Amicus's pretentious narration, I started to get used to it and especially enjoyed asides about the history of various legalities. The second half, however, is basically entirely set in the courtroom and may as well have been written in third person, or just by an ordinary person and not a cat - it's as if Amicus suddenly disappears from the story, leaving us with a somewhat uninspired courtroom mystery that for me - unlearned in the law - raised a lot of questions about conflict of interest.
I kind of thought the cat would be more involved in actually solving the mystery, sniffing out clues, or at least landing on relevant passages of law in aid of the defence (or the prosecution). There was one interlude that started out promising - Amicus ends up escaping into the water and nearly drowning - but it seems, perplexingly, to have had no bearing on anything else in the story. I had no particular attachment to any of the human characters so I really missed the cat's input in the second half.
It was a great take on Toronto, coming from behind the windows of such a central building that so few Torontonians ever have cause to visit. I really enjoyed reading a story set in Osgoode Hall. My general enjoyment of the book overall was uneven, so I will award it three CN Towers out of five.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
If you're into the Toronto Public Library the way I am (that is, super super into it) you might enjoy this project by Toronto artist Daniel Rotsztain called All the Libraries. He has visited and drawn every branch of the TPL in Toronto, and is posting them regularly (so far there are 39 posted).
The first branch I ever visited, the impressive Lillian H. Smith, is up and it's lovely and I might get a print. But I am holding my breath for my true love, Danforth/Coxwell.
Check it out!
Friday, January 16, 2015
You know it's a Toronto novel if there's queer people or Jewish families, and this novel has both. Set in the early to mid 1990s and revolving around the AIDS crisis, it covers a lot of the territory of The Toronto You Are Leaving, but with more lesbian viewpoints (always welcome!).
I kind of hated the book at first. The beginning chapters of the novel deal with our protagonist, Nomi, having her heart broken and moving out of her girlfriend's San Francisco apartment to crash on her best friend's couch and do pretty much nothing. It is angsty queer lit to the extreme. Luckily, the plot picks up when Nomi's mother's second wedding brings her (Nomi) back to her hometown of Toronto.
In Toronto, Nomi reconnects with her hilarious Jewish family, and runs into an old crush who wants to get something started. She also meets up with her cousin Henry - the family's other queer - who has just been gay bashed.
Halfway through the book we switch to Henry's perspective, which is much more interesting (although neither character is particularly developed). Henry has connected with an American queer scholar who has a radical theory about the origin of AIDS, and together they are trying to get the press to pick it up before they both get killed.
I am reluctant to take a side on this book. I liked the Henry chapters, and that storyline was pretty interesting and face-paced. On the other hand, a lot of Nomi's story was maudlin and irritating. The sex scenes were embarrassingly over the top (is it possible to write a good sex scene?). But then again, I liked the Toronto colour, and I liked Nomi and Henry's extended family and their shenanigans.
The larger theme of love's disruptive place in one's life is not fully explored, which is too bad. It kind of gets shunted aside by the government conspiracy angle - which also doesn't get its due. It's sort of like there's actually two different books here, or at least the two storylines needed to be more deftly woven together. Just when things started to turn around for Nomi, we lose track of her to follow Henry's story.
The ending felt rushed and not everything was resolved. But the story was interesting, and I think it could be a good first step for folks looking to get into queer fiction. I will give it an ambivalent three CN Towers out of five.