Archive | Literature

419 | Will Ferguson

The cover of Fergusson's 419In 419, Ferguson has created a juxtaposition of worlds that will grip you from the first page  to the last.

In Calgary, police investigate the car tracks which lead to a fatal plunge through the guardrails. In Lagos, Nigeria, young shysters pack internet shops to write emails to rich Westerners from Nigerian Diplomats (a crime known by its Nigerian criminal code number, 419). In northern Nigeria, a young marked woman walks south for survival. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, trees are bulldozed and old traditions come to an end as multinational oil companies move in.

My first exposure to Ferguson was his travel narrative of Japan, Hitching Rides With Buddha. Although he’s also known as a comic writer, humor takes a back seat in 419. He uses his skills as a travel writer to make the various locations come alive.

While 419 is a page-turner, there’s far more to it than an average mystery novel. Ferguson has so fully fleshed-out the various settings and character perspectives, you will turn the chapter only to find yourself sympathizing with the villain.

Another fine element of this book was the conclusion (which I won’t give away). While it’s incredibly satisfying, it’s also unexpected. From a Christian perspective, it was fittingly redemptive. That’s all I can say about that!

If you read fiction, buy and read 419. Just be sure to set aside enough time to finish it. You will not want to put it down.

—Will Ferguson, 419 (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2012).

Catch-22 | Joseph Heller

The cover of Heller's Catch-22Have you ever watched M*A*S*H? If so, you owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph Heller. In Catch-22, Heller is the first person to bundle wit with horror, slapstick with satire, and set it in a war-camp.

Catch-22 is a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters—almost caricatures. My favourite was Milo Minderbinder. Starting as Mess Officer, he quickly used the airplanes at his company’s disposal to set up a trading syndicate. He grew his business (of which everyone had a share, of course) to service both the allies as well as the Germans! After all, Milo would say, isn’t the future of capitalism what we’re fighting for? The height of satire was reached when Milo bombed his own squadron when he was paid to do so by the Germans.

Another jab at military incompetence (of which there are many) is the case of Major Major Major Major. His father named him Major M. Major, with pride. Of course, with a name like that, it wasn’t long before a paperwork problem led to Major’s promotion!

Chaplain Tappman was another character who’s life was laced with irony. He was an Anabaptist minster (a pacifist) in the middle of a war. He’s befuddled when his superior officer asks him to pray for tighter bomb patterns. His only real desire was to return to his family.

I don’t know anyone aside from Kurt Vonnegut who puts such poignant observations in such a zany container. This is the sort of book that will cause you to laugh (literally) out loud, only to realize what you’re laughing about and wince.

—Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955, 2011).

The Visible Man | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's The Visible ManImagine that you had an invisibility suit—how would you use it?

In The Visible Man, Klosterman tells the story of Y___ through the eyes of his therapist.

Y___ isn’t interested in adolescent fantasies, he’s passionate about seeing people for who they really are—when no one is watching. This literary construct allows Klosterman to explore human nature.

I just have to find a comfortable spot in a corner and sit down. I have to control my breathing. I have to keep it shallow. I need to prepare myself for the inevitability of utter boredom: Very often, single people … do nothing, all night long. They sit in a recliner and watch TV. … Terrible shows, Good shows. Golf tournaments in Cancun. C-SPAN. Hours of Oprah. Law and Order: Lonely people love Law and Order, for whatever reason. They prefer the straight narratives. 59-60

Klosterman’s narrative is anything but straight. He revels in the complexity and ambiguity in people’s hearts. Irony is his strong suit. The irony of the title, of course, is that the invisible man is able to make visible human nature—including his own.

Although the theme is rooted in science-fiction, this isn’t a science-fiction novel. The Visible Man will leave you considering who you truly are … when no one’s looking.

—Chuck Klosterman, The Visible Man (New York, NY: Scribner, 2011).

Born with a Tooth | Joseph Boyden

The cover of Boyden's Born with a ToothI love a good short story collection, and Boyden’s Born with a Tooth fits the bill perfectly. These 13 short stories were the fuel that launched Boyden’s award winning career.

Each of these stories (with one exception) is told from the perspective of a modern day First Nations person—man, woman, young, old. Boyden writes in a simple engaging way that gives you a sense of what it’s like to share in that person’s culture.

Of course, many of the themes are difficult. Land appropriation, residential schools, alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, and casinos are all part of Born with a Tooth. Boyden’s storytelling, even while relating a tragic story, uncovers unexpected glimpses of nobility and beauty, grace and life.

If you’ve read The Orenda, the last four stories in this collection will be especially interesting. In them, Boyden tells the same story through the eyes of four different participants. As in The Orenda, cultural misunderstanding is vividly illustrated. Each story will elicit empathy for its respective lead character.

Thanks to Brian Lachine for this great gift!

—Joseph Boyden, Born with a Tooth (Toronto, ON: Hamish Hamilton, 2008).

The Orenda | Joseph Boyden

The world must change, though. This is no secret. Things cannot stay the same for long. With each baby girl born into her longhouse and her clan, with each old man’s death feast and burial in the ossuary, new worlds are build as old ones fall apart. And sometimes, this change we speak of happens right under our noses, in tiny increments, without our noticing. By then, though, oh, by then it’s simply too late. (153)

The cover of Boyden's The Orenda
The Orenda is a novel about the change that occurs when worlds collide.

The initial collision is between the Huron and the Iroquois people. At war for years, the latest child-kidnapping has sparked a conflict that threatens to destroy one of them. The second and more subtle collision is between the Jesuit missionaries and the First Nations people. The diseases they bring to the new world along with their determined proselytizing change life forever.

I was grateful for the honestly with which Boyden portrayed the players in his drama. I half expected a story about how the “noble savage” fell to the corrupting influences of Imperialist forces in the form of greedy missionaries. No such simplistic tropes exist here. Boyden’s researched portrayal of Huron-Iroquois warfare is stomach-curdling in its violence. The Jesuits, while certainly confused by the culture, are portrayed with a steadfast (if misguided) devotion.

This clash of cultures is best explained by one of my favourite scenes in the book. Crow (the Huron name for a Jesuit missionary) has decided that if he can only bring his prospective convert to kiss the crucifix he will make major strides towards the conversion of the village. Snow Falls (the potential convert) awakens to see in Crow’s crucifix the fallen body of her murdered father. She assumes that Crow is trying to steal her soul next.

This story is what happens when worldviews crash. It’s honest, violent, and heroic.

—Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Toronto, ON: Hamish Hamilton, 2013).

MaddAddam | Margaret Atwood

The cover of Atwood's MaddAddamI closed my review of The Year of the Flood (the previous book in the series) with, “We can only hope this turns into a trilogy.” MaddAddam is the third book I hoped for.

Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is the story of a dystopian future where human greed and pride have clashed to unleash a plague that wipes out the vast majority of humanity. The first two books in the series tell of this”waterless flood” from two different perspectives. They loosely cover the same amount time. In MaddAddam, these two stories converge and the timeline moves forward, albeit with frequent flashbacks.

At its core, MaddAddam follows the relationship between Toby and Zeb, two people who try to come to grips with their past lives as they live in the apocalyptic remains of their world. These characters are complex and surprising. Their past lives allow Atwood to explore themes like religious cults, the authority of large corporations, the ethics of genetic manipulation, and the role of law in a radically subverted context.

Atwood’s exploration of this world is shocking and even cringe-worthy at times, but her analysis left me thinking about important themes long after the novel was put back on the shelf.

—Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2013).

Worst. Person. Ever. | Douglas Coupland

The cover of Coupland's Worst. Person. Ever.Coupland used to live and breathe culture. He used his observational skills to pen Generation X and Life without God. As he progressed as a novelist, he added plot his his cultural acumen. Girlfriend in a Coma, and All Families are Psychotic are great examples of this. Lately, though, Coupland’s been on a bit of a slide.

Generation A, despite recalling the name of his first novel, was more boring than witty. I still can’t understand how Player One made the CBC Massey Lecture series. Worst. Person. Ever. feels like more of the same.

The plot is little more than scaffolding to display Coupland’s cultural insight. That’s not necessarily bad—Vonnegut made a career out of that sort of novel! Unfortunately, Coupland doesn’t seem to have any insight left into human nature. He has managed to write a book with no characters I understand (or feel sympathetic towards).

The only redeeming quality of Worst. Person. Ever. is the humour. There are some laugh-out-loud moments here. Unfortunately that’s all the reader’s left with.

—Douglas Coupland, Worst. Person. Ever. (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada, 2013).

Gulliver’s Travels | Jonathan Swift

In the second half of the 17th century, Robert Hooke and Antony von Leeuwenhoek refined and used the microscope to view, for the first time, the microbiotic world around them. In a generation, people’s conception of large and small shifted. “It is no exaggeration,” says Henri Hitchins, “to say that without the development of microscopy Swift’s book would not have been written” (376).

Most of us know that Swift wrote a tale about a seafarer named Gulliver who washed up on a beach in Lilliput only to be pinned to the ground by little people. Some know that Gulliver’s next voyage was to Brobdingnag where he encountered people as large from his perspective as he was to the Lilliputans. This is only half the book.

In the second half he traveled to the floating island of Laputa where he met people who are so enraptured by philosophy and abstractions that they hire a “flappers” to attend to them on walks. The sole purpose of the flapper is to “gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself” (192). You could say the Laputans are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

The final journey puts Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms, a place where proto-humans have degenerated into disgusting “Yahoos” who are disdained by utterly rational (and virtually passionless) horses.

If the microscope inspired the shift in optical perspective in Gulliver’s first two journeys, it is a metaphor used to peer into the core of human nature during the second two trips. On the last journey, Gulliver’s conversation with the Houyhnhnms reveal the depth of humanity’s depravity—bordering on horror. He describes the reality of life in England in a richly ironic way that exposes dark truths about his society. Take his description of lawyers, for example:

I said there was a society of men among us bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose that white is black and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. (304)

While it’s easy to spot the sarcasm in Swift’s voice, I can’t help but think that a better understanding of the history of 18th century England would help me to catch more of the specific references. Still, Gulliver’s Travels, despite having been written three centuries ago, was quite a page-turner. This is no mere children’s book!

—Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (New York: NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004)

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