Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book of the Year: Indian Horse

Every year, the university I work at chooses a book of the year, a work of contemporary Canadian fiction. Theoretically, all (ok, some) students, faculty and staff read it for class assignment purposes or for fun - and then the author visits in the winter. There are always events, readings, contests and interviews surrounding the author visit. It's usually pretty neat and I've always enjoyed seeing and hearing the author talk about the chosen book.

I've been around for the past 3 Books of the Year: The Golden Mean, The Bone Cage, and The Cat's Table. I've also read a number of past Books of the Year before I became employed at the university: The Cellist of Sarajevo, Life of Pi, and Icefields, though there are many more I haven't read as the Book of the Year has been running since 1998. All of these books I've enjoyed to some extent. That changed this year though.

This year's book was amazing, and possibly one of the best works of Canadian fiction I've ever read.

Indian Horse
By Richard Wagamese
2012
221 pages

Saul Indian Horse ends up in an alcohol treatment centre. In order to find some peace, it is suggested to him that he write his story. Saul traces his childhood from the time he spent living on the land with his Ojibway family in the 1950s, through to his horrific experience in a residential school in the 1960s. He narrates the hidden joy he finds as he learns to play hockey, as well as the racist realities he faces trying to work his way up to a major league hockey team. Eventually his past catches up to him, and the climax of the novel tells of his journey to find himself again.

Wow. Amazing. I read this book in one sitting on a Sunday. I couldn't put it down. Wagamese has a gifted way with words, and creates a vivid and moving depiction of the hardships faced by Aboriginal people in Canada. Plus, there's a healthy dose of hockey action.

I knew about residential schools before reading this book -  but now I understand. I understand so much: what it was like, and how it affected and still affects generations of people. For me, reading Indian Horse was a profound experience.

This was the best book I've read in a long time. I don't have the words to describe how amazing it was. Take my advice - read it - it'll change your opinion about Canada's past, present and future.

I can't wait till the author visit our university in March!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Book club decided we'd open the year by reading classics (as defined by being available in the public domain - i.e. no Hunger Games or other modern classics). I didn't want to read a stuffy English period drama about helpless, lovelorn, women, so set about finding something more exciting, less heavy, and not boring.

I decided I wanted to read a classic fantasy, although finding a public domain fantasy proved difficult. I thought maybe The Wizard of Oz, but decided I wanted to read the Marvel comic version instead. Then I came across Jules Verne. I've always wanted to read one of his books and decided to choose between the famous three: Around the World in 80 Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. After reading their wikipedia pages, 80 days sounded like it was full of misadventure (not my favourite) and I'm not big on water or boats or fish. Journey to the Centre of the Earth sounded fun - I pictured an exciting adventure full of beautiful descriptions of rocks and nature and maybe dinosaurs or something!

January 2014: Classic (available in the public domain)

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth
By Jules Verne
1871 (version read 1959)
226 pages

Harry is a science apprentice studying in Germany under his uncle, Professor von Hardwigg. One day they discover a cryptic note from an Icelandic explorer which leads them to Sneffels - a volcano in Iceland. On the way, they pick up a strong but silent guide called Hans, and descend into the volcano. The book then goes on to describe their journey to the centre of the earth (sort of). There's rock, more rock, and an under the world ocean. They encounter ancient sea monsters, other extinct creatures and even a primitive human. There are storms and explosions and fire. Plus Harry gets into a bunch accidents or faints or is rendered unconscious and/or gets lost practically every chapter.

But it was boring. Really, really boring. What I thought would be an exciting romp full of stunning descriptions of geology and nature, was just...boring. Lost in translation perhaps? Didn't age well? Made up 19th century science too over my head? Whatever. Not one to give up, I skimmed the book and moved on with my life. It was a good idea for a story that was probably quite enjoyed in 1871. The end.

The whole time I skimmed the book, I thought it would probably be much better as a movie, so I decided to watch one of the numerous adaptations. I couldn't bear watching the modern 2008 version with Brendan Fraser though. Fortunately the 1959 version with hunky Pat Boone was on netflix, so I spent the next two hours after I read the book watching it. The movie was of course different: initially being set in Edinburgh, the Professor and the student weren't related, there was a woman and a duck and annoying villains, plus other ridiculous changes which weren't necessary and completely changed the story. It did, however, put somewhat of a visual to what might be an interesting story. Anyways, the book and vintage movie version were not completely a waste of time, and even a good bit of fun if you could get past the boring.