Friday, March 27, 2015

My Journey by Olivia Chow

I received this book as a gift and because it is largely set in Toronto, I thought I would review it here even though it is not fiction (hey, my blog, my rules).

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 Perpetual Ending by Kristen den Hartog

I have started to feel that perhaps I shouldn't read books while commuting to work, because crying on public transit tends to attract attention. This is the book that really made me start to consider this.

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.