Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book Review: Chorus of Mushrooms

Each academic year, the university I work at chooses a "book of the year", a work of contemporary Canadian fiction. All (ok, some) students, faculty and staff read it for class assignments or funnies - and then the author visits and takes part in events, readings, contests and interviews etc. It's usually quite a good event and I've always enjoyed seeing and hearing the author talk about their book.

I've been around for the past 4 Books of the Year: Indian Horse, 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.

After the profound experience that was my read of Indian Horse, I decided to read a couple vintage books of the year. So far, that was a mediocre decision.

Book of the Year 2001

Chorus of Mushrooms
By Hiromi Goto
221 pages

Mostly I chose this novel because it was set in Alberta and it didn't sound boring or depressing or romancey. It actually sounded interesting. It allegedly "explores the collision of cultures within a family between three generations of Japanese Canadian women" (back cover). That's true. The three female characters are the grandmother (Obachan), the mother, and the daughter, although the story is only ever told from either the grandmother or daughter's point of view. It's told through many interwoven stories that flip back and forth, which sounds cool but it actually annoying because not only does the point of view change, but the time period changes as well. Sometimes I wasn't sure whose story it was or how old they were. I enjoyed the Obachan character and wanted to learn more about her story, but every time I got into that narrative, the story changed.
"You switch around in time a lot," you say, a bowl of coffee resting in your palms. "I get all mixed up. I don't know what order things really happened"
"There isn't a time line. It's not a linear equation. You start in the middle and unfold outward from there. It's not a flat surface that you walk back and forth on. It's like being inside a ball that isn't exactly a ball, but is really made up of thousands and thousands of small panels. And on each panel there is a mirror; but each mirror reflects something different around or down or sideways, you can see something new, something old, or something you've forgotten."
 "Wow," you say. "Wow, that sounds like some mind bend. Some people might call it madness."
"Yeah I guess. But some might call it magic." (p. 132)  
Good idea, but, um, well, I didn't think it was quite magic. You know what else was annoying? Sometimes Obachan would speak Japanese, which fit with the story quite well, but obviously I couldn't understand it. Consequently, I felt I was losing something every so often. I think this was done purposely and a glossary or footnotes would've defeated the purpose, but still, those translation additions would've been appreciated.

I enjoyed the daughter character too, and the local Alberta references. The mother character did fall flat, although in the end it is revealed why she is how she is. Also it was typeset in a font I had a hard time reading. And there was too much unnecessary sex. Necessary sex I'm ok with; unnecessary sex is just...uncomfortable.

I get the point though. It was interesting to read about the experiences of a Japanese Canadian family living in rural Alberta. That was the poignant part, and a bit of an eye opener. This is where the book excelled, and as a reader I enjoyed the cultural parts of the book.

A person with much deeper thinking ability would probably enjoy this book more than I did (clearly I need to take a university English class to brush up on my ability to spot symbolism). It was a mediocre surface read - it certainly was no Indian Horse. I'm not quite sure how it ended up being chosen as a book of the year, but I learned a bit about Japanese Canadian culture so in the end it was worth a read, but I wouldn't highly recommend it. It reminded me about why I generally stay away from general fiction.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

February's genre for book club became banned books, a nod to Freedom to Read Week at the end of the month. I actually don't remember how I picked my book. Was it a book clubber suggestion? From Facebook? Twitter? Goodreads? I think likely a randomly googled banned book list. It just felt right to follow up reading Indian Horse with another novel about life as a Native American. And really, when was the last time I read a YA novel?

February 2014: Banned Books

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie
288 pages

Junior is a young cartoonist from the Spokane Indian Reservation. A bright, awkward, yet talented basketball player, he makes the monumental decision to leave the reservation to go to a nearby "white" high school. Add to all the usual teenage angst subjects the hardships of growing up on a reservation, and you've got Alexie's heartbreaking yet humourous journey through high school. The novel is semi-autobiographical, and feels like an insider's view into reservation life. Since Junior copes with his struggles by drawing comics, the text is punctuated with various comics and illustrations by artist Ellen Forney, which really add to the experience of reading the story.

It's weird to say this was an enjoyable book, because nothing really good happens to our poor hero. He's got health issues, is poor, gets bullied and beat up, fights with his best friend, and loses members of his family to the horrors of alcohol. I think it's the combo of the cartoons and the wit of the author that makes you care about and root for Junior. And in the end, he provides hope for himself, his family, and his tribe.

This is an excellent read, and I'd recommend it to anyone who reads YA (heck, maybe I should read more YA) or who wants to get behind the stereotypes and learn about what growing up on a reservation might be like.

So why was it banned? Apparently, there was some controversy about the depiction of sex and violence. It was banned by a school board in Missouri and a school in Wyoming in 2010, and a school board in Washington in 2011. Really, as if the harsh realities of real life are worse than the dystopian crap of The Hunger Games (actually, that's also a banned book, oops). Yes they talk about masturbation (good grief, they're teenage boys), and lots and lots of drinking, and someone gets shot but really, isn't that an episode of the Simpsons? Kids ought to read this book. Maybe they'd learn something and then they'd stop being so damn mean to each other. And adults should read this too, maybe it would cure racism.

And yes, the film is coming. I hope they do a good job.