Review | Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

30363791Dr. Eitan Green has the perfect life, a neurosurgeon with a wife and two children, until he accidentally runs over an Eritrean migrant in his car. The migrant’s wife, Sirkit, finds his driver’s license near the body, and goes to Eitan’s house to demand reparation. While Eitan is prepared to offer money, what Sirkit actually wants is for him to set up a clinic for the refugee community and provide free medical care. There is the added danger of the violence faced by the refugees, as well as Eitan’s wife Liat being the detective in charge of tracking down the driver in the hit and run.

Waking Lions is a powerful story about race and privilege and what it means to ‘do the right thing.’ I like the characterizations of Eitan and Sirkit, and the development of their relationship, from the wariness of the initial blackmail to the burgeoning respect as they begin to work together to provide medical care. Liat was an interesting character, and I wish her character had been developed more, as her naivete over her husband’s role in the hit and run stretched credulity after a while, especially given her purported ‘gift for reading people.’

The story starts off a bit slow, and it takes a while for the story to get going, but it’s worth plowing through. And Sirkit’s character in particular is slowly revealed as much more complex than simply a grieving widow who wants to help her community, and I especially liked how the truth of her relationship with her husband was revealed over time.

Waking Lions is a dense novel about some important issues, and provides a glimpse into a world I have rarely encountered in fiction.I like the insight the book provides into the lives of refugee communities in Israel, and the struggles they face even just to survive. It’s slow and introspective, an intimate story about broad political topics, and it challenges expectations.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Borrowed, Chan Ho-Kei

30119105I’m a huge fan of classic detective fiction, so it’s no surprise that I absolutely adored Chan Ho-Kei’s novel/collection of interconnected short stories The Borrowed. Told in reverse chronological order, The Borrowed follows the career of Kwan Chun-dok, a legendary Hong Kong detective, and his protege, Inspector Lok. The stories all take place at significant moments in Hong Kong history (e.g. the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the Handover in 1997), and I wish I knew more about Hong Kong history so I would have appreciated the links more.

The stories are all also told in classic detective fiction style, with Kwan Chun-dok displaying brain power similar to Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Similar to classic detective fiction, the puzzles are all brain teasers, with a satisfying big reveal at the end as the detective unmasks the culprit. The stories are all compelling and character-driven, and I love the satisfying resolution of each. The first story in particular ended with a reveal straight out of a Conan Doyle novel, mischievous and smart.

The stories are all also interconnected, with a character from one story reappearing in a later story, which would have taken place at an earlier time. I think I may have missed some of the reappearances (for example, a reappearance in the final story — or earliest, chronologically — seems to have major significance, but I had to flip back to find out what it could be), but I still enjoyed the stories overall.

I’m also a sucker for mentor/protege relationships, and I love how Kwan Chun-dok saw potential in Inspector Lok from early on, and developed him to take on his mantle. I also like how we saw Kwan Chun-dok as a young man, coming into his own abilities and making mistakes that would help shape the genius he’d become.

I admit I thought the reverse chronological approach to be nothing more than a clever gimmick at first, and I wasn’t much of a fan, but I found that I enjoyed getting to know Kwan Chun-dok in reverse order. We are so often used to the story of a brilliant young man who develops his own talents and becomes legendary that it’s an interesting effect to meet him first at the apex of his brilliance and then slowly get to know the man behind the legend, as he is revealed to be increasingly more vulnerable.

 

Hong Kong as well becomes a vivid character in its own right in these stories, as Chan Ho-Kei’s writing brings the city to life on the page. This book makes me want to read more Hong Kong police procedurals, or possibly even more of Inpector Lok’s adventures beyond his career with Kwan Chun-dok.

The Borrowed is such a fun book to read, and I highly recommend it for any fan of classic mysteries and police procedurals.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review | El Deafo, Cece Bell

20701984I love, love, love this book! El Deafo is about a deaf bunny named Cece who is self-conscious about wearing her Phonic Ear (a hearing aid strapped to the chest and connected to a microphone) at school, and creates a superhero persona, El Deafo, to gain confidence in making new friends. Cece’s story is inspired by the childhood of the author, Cece Bell, and while the events and characters may have changed somewhat, the author’s note maintains the Cece’s emotions are based on how Bell often felt as a child.

It’s a funny and entertaining story, with a light humour that belies the depth of emotion being conveyed. I was moved by Cece’s desire to fit in, and by her experience of always being different in a way that she can’t hide. Her self-consciousness about her hearing aid and worry that people were staring at her are emotions that many readers, whether deaf or hearing, can relate to, and my heart broke just a little every time she thought she found “a true friend”, only to lose the friendship because of one snag or another.

I think this story will appeal to many ages; I found myself relating to Cece’s desire for belonging even as an adult. I cringed whenever she had an embarrassing misunderstanding, I felt bad when a friend she really liked stopped wanting to see her, and I got all giddy when a cute guy moves into her neighbourhood. The illustrations are adorable, and I especially love it when Cece literally goes heart-eyed around the cute guy, and conversations around her turn into gibberish because she stops paying attention.

People at school aren’t overtly mean to Cece, and I appreciated seeing how even well-meaning people can make mistakes when engaging with deaf people. For example, some of Cece’s classmates speak slowly and loudly to her when that doesn’t really make them easier to understand, and only serves to make Cece feel self-conscious that they’re talking differently to her than to everyone else. Or a friend realizes Cece isn’t quite following a TV show, and so turns up the volume, when really all it does is make the nonsensical sounds from the TV just sound louder, but still nonsensical. (Fun fact: soap operas are easy for Cece to follow because the actors often speak directly to the camera, and in close up.)

There are also things Cece’s friends do as hearing people without realizing that it would pose a challenge to her. For example, Cece finds sports challenging, because multiple people shout instructions at her, and she may not always see their lips clearly or know where to turn. Or at a sleepover, Cece’s friends continue chatting after lights out, without realizing that she can no longer see the conversation. There’s also a cringe-worthy, yet all-too-possible, example of a girl who befriends Cece and constantly introduces her to other girls as “my deaf friend.” This girl doesn’t intend to be mean, but we see how much it hurts Cece to be known as just “the deaf girl.” At one point, she decides to aim for really high grades so that she could become known as the smart girl rather than the deaf one.

I read this book as a hearing person and can’t say how a deaf or Deaf reader will respond to this book, but I hope that they may see some of their own experiences in Cece, and also be moved by the story. The story is based on lived experience, though Bell is careful to note that her experiences are unique to herself and in no way represent the experiences of other deaf peopleHer Author’s Note is also a great primer on deafness and on Deaf culture. She also notes that because she learned speech before she became deaf, her parents “were able to make decisions for me that kept me mostly in the hearing world,” and while fascinated by Deaf culture, she has “not, as yet, pursued a direct role in it.” As a hearing person, I found this very informative, particularly as it provides some context for how her experience as a deaf person who reads lips and uses a hearing aid is located within a much larger range of experiences of deafness.

This is such an entertaining, informative, and moving book. It won the Newbery Honor in 2015, and the Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12), and I can understand why. I highly recommend it for readers of all ages, and it’s a great book for parents and teachers to share with children.

 

 

Event Recap | Books on Film: Sarah Polley on Away from Her

 

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I love TIFF’s Books on Film series (seeing Mohsin Hamad speak about The Reluctant Fundamentalist is still a favourite film memory), and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see Sarah Polley at TIFF Bell Lightbox on March 27th being interviewed about her film Away from Her, based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” I’ve long known Sarah Polley’s name as a talented Canadian filmmaker, and Alice Munro is, of course, Alice Munro. As Eleanor Wachtel said at the TIFF event, Alice Munro has been called “the Canadian Chekhov,” but with all her accolades, perhaps it’s Chekhov who should be known as “the Russian Alice Munro.”

I haven’t read “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (read it here, in The New Yorker), so I couldn’t say how the movie compared to the story. It was also my first time seeing Away from Her, though I had known of it previously, and I was looking forward to seeing its portrayal of an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer’s in the family.

What an incredibly moving and beautiful film Away from Her is! The movie garnered 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s well-deserved. The title comes from something Grant (Gordon Pinsent) tells a nurse at his wife Fiona’s (Julie Christie) long-term care facility, about how he and his wife have never spent such a long period of time apart before in all their 40+ years of marriage.

There is just so much I love about this movie. I love the relationship between Grant and Fiona, how comfortable they are with each other, how much Fiona loves to tease Grant. I also love how their relationship isn’t perfect, how Grant has clearly done something in the past that Fiona has decided to live with, but hasn’t quite fully forgiven. On the car ride to the facility, Fiona muses that there are memories you’d rather forget, but can’t. The look of wistfulness on Julie Christie’s face, and the flash of guilt on Gordon Pinsent’s, is just a masterclass in acting.

I love how it’s Fiona who decides she needs to check herself into the facility, and how it’s Grant who struggles with the policy of no visits for the first 30 days. Often, when characters have dementia, it’s their family members making the tough decisions, and I love that this movie places the agency firmly in Fiona’s hands. The scene in Fiona’s room at the facility before Grant leaves her moved me to tears, and is just one of the most beautiful moments in film.

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Julie Christie and Gorden Pinsent Away from Her. Source: TIFF.net.

I also love that, despite the depth of Grant and Fiona’s love for each other, their relationship doesn’t remain perfect even after Fiona checks into the facility. When Grant finally visits after a month, he finds that she’s formed a close friendship with another resident, Aubrey. “He doesn’t confuse me,” Fiona says, and more than that, he needs her, which I think is what she needs. Despite this, Grant continues to visit every day, always with flowers or a book or some other treat, and even when his visits amount to nothing more than sitting on the common room sofa while Fiona and Aubrey play bridge, he continues to visit daily. We also meet Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), whom Grant visits because he wants a favour. Her prickly personality conceals an intense loneliness, and Dukakis plays the tension between those perfectly.

Even the minor characters are vivid. The nurse who helps Grant adjust to his wife’s new life has her own complex backstory that makes me curious to learn more about her life. There’s a grandmother/granddaughter pair who are often in the common room during Grant’s visits, and who caught my eye because they use sign language and I don’t often see Deaf characters in movies. There’s a scene where the grandmother doesn’t seem to recognize the granddaughter anymore — the granddaughter’s signing is becoming increasingly frantic, and the grandmother shrinks back and keeps looking away. The nurse tells Grant, “She’s the only one in her family who even bothered to learn to sign,” and I’m not sure if it’s the grandmother or the granddaughter who is Deaf, but it’s just a heartbreaking scene.

I can go on and on about all the things I love about the movie, but that will end up just being a play-by-play of each scene as it’s just amazing through and through. After the movie, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Sarah Polley, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, and it was fascinating to gain additional insight into the way the story was adapted for the screen.

Polley is a fan of Alice Munro’s writing, and her love for the source material shows.  Wachtel actually had notes about which lines of dialogue were from Alice Munro’s original and which were written by Polley, but I love that I couldn’t tell the difference while watching. Polley’s own experiences came into the making of the film, both the experiences in her own life and the experience of reading the story itself. “There’s a space between the story and my experience of it, and I wanted to make that tangible,” she said.

Polley drew from her experience of looking for retirement homes with her grandmother, and that the characterizations of the hard-nosed facility administrator and the sympathetic nurse were based on people she met. She also said she has more experience now with memory loss — the final scene in the movie actually happened to her in real life after the movie was made, and because of her experience, she now has a clearer idea of how the characters’ stories will continue past that moment.

When asked about the bright colour palette for the film, which seems in contrast to the darker themes, Polley said she wanted to capture some of the feeling of being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s: “I want it to be so bright you sometimes want to squint and close your eyes. I wanted it to feel somewhat alarming to see that light coming right at you.”

I was also fascinated by the discussion around what Polley chose to keep and to change from the original story. For example, the original story is told from Grant’s perspective, so Polley had to change some of his internal monologue into a dialogue between characters. Also in the story, Grant is able to delude himself into thinking that Fiona doesn’t know about his infidelity, whereas for film, because we see Fiona’s perspective as well, it becomes clear that she is aware of what happened. Aubrey being a visual artist adds an extra layer to his character and was an addition to the film; being non-verbal, he expresses his feelings for Fiona through his sketches of her. Interesting note is that Aubrey being an artist wasn’t Polley’s idea, but rather that of someone from Telefilm Canada, who provided part of the funding for the movie.

About her career in general, Polley remembers her second grade teacher, who let her write all week rather than do math or other subjects, on the condition that she read her stories out loud at the end of the week. She remembers overhearing the teacher tell an older student about her, “That one’s gonna be a writer.” I wonder if she’s still in touch with this teacher, and if not, I hope that the teacher somehow knows how much they’ve made an impact on this student’s life.

Finally, for anyone interested in music, Polley’s soundtrack while writing Away from Her was k.d. lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel.

Next on Books on Film

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Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in The End of the Tour. Source: TIFF.net.

On April 17, author and journalist David Lipsky reflects on the 1996 final interviews with eminent American writer David Foster Wallace, the evolutionary literary adaptation Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, and 2015 feature film The End of the Tour.

Books on Film 2017 Full Schedule

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Thanks to TIFF for a ticket to this event in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Education of Margot Sanchez, Lilliam Rivera

26594801The Education of Margot Sanchez is about a teenage girl from the Bronx who needs to work at her father’s grocery store for a summer after being caught stealing his credit card for clothes. This sucks for Margot since all she wants is to fit in with the rich and popular girls at the private school she attends, and to hang out with them at their cottage for the summer. She would also much rather be flirting with a handsome and popular jock from her school, but instead finds herself strangely attracted to Moises, an activist boy from her neighbourhood who is advocating against the development of nearby apartment buildings.

The book didn’t quite grab me like I’d hoped it would, but I like how realistic the story felt. Racism isn’t explicitly discussed, but it’s hinted at in the various aspects of her appearance and her life that Margot feels she has to tone down or outright reject in order to fit in with the popular crowd. I thought that was very well done, and I can imagine this aspect of the book striking a chord with teen readers. Margot’s fretting over her image was annoying at times, and to be honest, I often thought she was a spoiled brat, but I also have to admit that her character also felt real. I can certainly imagine a teenage girl, surrounded by much wealthier classmates, wanting to pretend to be as wealthy as they are, and that a family grocery store, despite the hard work put into it, just doesn’t quite fit that image.

I also like the bits of drama around Margot’s family. I love the character of the mother, and wish we got to know more of her story. I especially love the scene where she told Margot of her decision to get married; it isn’t the most romantic story, but it’s probably the reality for some women. Junior was mostly a nuisance at first, but I like how his story developed and especially like the part where he gives Margot a gift and boasts that he’s a better adult than their parents. That bravado and desire to prove oneself, regardless of the cost, may end up being destructive, but it’s an understandable impulse, and true to this character.

The romance subplot fell flat for me, and though the book is clearly not about romance, Moises’ character still played a pretty big role and I had expected more. Similar to Margot’s childhood best friend and even the popular kids at Margot’s private school, Moises felt more like a symbol than an actual character. Margot’s choice between Moises and the kids at school is clearly a choice between her true self and the image she’s cultivated, and most of the secondary characters felt fairly one-dimensional.

The Education of Margot Sanchez is a realistic depiction of a Puerto Rican teen coming to terms with her family and her neighbourhood. I think it’ll strike a chord for many teen readers.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

The FOLD #DiverseBooks Reading Challenge 2017, Part II

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If you follow the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) on Twitter, you’ll see that things are beginning to ramp up for the festival in May. They’ve been posting daily reveals of festival authors, and so far, it’s a pretty exciting lineup. I’m personally really excited to see Jen Sookfong Lee, because I’ve been meaning to read her book The Conjoined for months.

And while we wait for the festival, there’s always The FOLD Reading Challenge to keep us busy. I’ve previously written about category #s 2 and 17, and have a few more books to add to the list.

#16. The One Book One Brampton Title

Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor

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This is a well-deserved honour, and anyone joining in the One Book One Brampton fun will have an absolute treat on their hands. I’ve long been a fan of Farzana Doctor’s work, and Six Metres of Pavement was the reason I fell in love with her writing in the first place. The title refers to the distance between Ismail and his neighbour Celia with whom he is falling in love. Both are middle aged and dealing with personal tragedies (Ismail guilty over his daughter’s death years ago, Celia learning to live alone after the loss of her husband), and their romance is slow to simmer. A third character, Fatima, a queer activist the same age as Ismail’s daughter would have been had she lived, is a fantastic foil to the more cautious Ismail and provides the beautiful possibility for a family.

It’s been almost four years since I’ve read this novel and I still remember how much I loved reading it. Check out my original blog post about this book, and take 2013 me’s advice to listen to the author read from the book in person.

If you’ve read Six Metres and are looking for more Farzana Doctor — All Inclusive is a powerful story of family, love and finding oneself, from the experiences of a young woman working at an all-inclusive resort; and Stealing Nasreen is about a husband and wife who both develop a fascination for the same woman.

#11. Book featuring a character of any faith

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi, with graphics by Craig Phillips

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What an amazing sucker punch of a book! In this intense, gripping, metaphorical immersion into the nature of grief, a teenage girl’s desire to save her twin brother from crossing completely over into the afterlife weaves comic book characters and Hindu myth into a fevered dream state that spills over into her real life, with only the twins’ best friend to stem the flow.

When a man with a gun kills her twin brother Corey and puts her in a coma, Holly dreams she is in the Shadow Lands trying to save Corey from a half-man half-snake named Kortha. When she awakes, she imagines herself as her favourite superhero the Leopardess, out to bring Corey’s killer to justice. She also can’t stop thinking of Corey in the Shadow Lands and begins to convince herself that her and Corey’s best friend Savitri has powers similar to her mythological namesake, and can become the key to saving Corey. I love how real it feels that in her absolute grief, Holly takes elements of a superhero she admires and Hindu myths she’s learned from Savitri, and comes up with her own version of reality to help her deal when actual reality becomes too much to handle.

In the meantime, Savitri sees how her best friend is losing her grip on reality, and is torn between the desire to be a good friend and the need to protect herself and the future she’s worked for. I also love how real this dilemma feels. We know how much Savitri was looking forward to studying at an Ivy League school, so we know how big a sacrifice it is for her to even consider giving that up so she can stay with Holly, who needs her. We also see how Holly’s psychological state has the potential to lead both girls into a dangerous situation, and realize how high the stakes can become.

The story is told with a combination of text and graphic novel panels, and it’s a stunning work of art. It’s such a powerful, moving glimpse into a depth of grief I don’t even want to imagine, and so masterfully told.

Review | Crosstalk, Connie Willis

25430248In our hyper-connected world, where our deepest, darkest feelings are a tweet away, what’s the next step in deepening our connection to people we love? In CrosstalkConnie Willis imagines something called an EED (“Empathy Enhancing Device”?), a surgical procedure that enhances your empathic link to your partner. When Briddey Flannigan’s partner Trent suggests they undergo the procedure so that she may feel the depth of his love when he proposes, she sees it mostly as a minor hurdle that she’ll need to hide from her nosy and intrusive family. Unfortunately, the side effect is much worse than even her family imagines. Rather than connecting emotionally to Trent, Briddey seems to have developed a telepathic link to C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy and reclusive co-worker who stays mostly in his basement office and away from other people. Not only can they sense each other’s emotions, they can also hear each other’s thoughts, and Briddey worries about what this may do to her and Trent’s relationship.

Willis does a great job of setting up a world that’s basically like a jacked up version of ours. I’m on social media often and have a bad habit of checking and answering emails on my mobile during my lunch break, but even I was overwhelmed by the hyper-connectivity of Briddey’s world. She seems to get thousands of text messages, calls, emails and social media alerts every minute, and her family members panic if she doesn’t respond to their (non-emergency) crises immediately. Briddey, Trent and C.B. all work for a technology company racing against the clock to develop something that will rival the next generation iPhone. Tech giants trying to find a way to increase communication, while all too easy to imagine in the real world, seemed a nightmare scenario in Crosstalk. The first few chapters of this book felt almost claustrophobic with the incessant barrage of electronic chatter, and I almost wanted to run to C.B.’s basement office myself, since it apparently is impossible to get a signal there.

Given this kind of world, the EED does seem like a logical next step for romantic partners, and I laughed at Willis’ recounting of how various celebrity couples responded to the procedure. It’s not necessarily something I’d do myself, but it seems almost tame compared to the telepathy that Briddey ends up having. Telepathy can seem like an awesome superpower, but only if you can choose when to tune in. Willis does a great job in showing how nightmarish it can be to hear someone’s unfiltered thoughts, and I loved the part where Briddey trains herself to control her telepathy by imagining a radio where she can switch between stations.

The story flags in its pacing, particularly in the first half of the book. Despite conversations flying at the speed of thought, the book felt repetitive at times, and I was really frustrated by Briddey’s unwillingness to act. For example, she hesitates from telling her doctor or Trent about what went wrong, instead pretending that the surgery had no effect on her. C.B. is even more annoying; every time Briddey considered telling the truth, he’d intrude on her thoughts and scare her out of it. There was a point where if C.B. had turned out to be an evil mastermind stalker who sabotaged Briddey’s surgery, I wouldn’t have been surprised; he was that intrusive and controlling. Worse, at least from a storytelling standpoint, he was also a one-note messenger, which just really boring after a while, and I wanted Briddey to just blurt out the secret despite him. Trent was no better. He was so distressed about the EED not working, and refusing to propose marriage until it did, that I began to wonder if he even loved her, and I also wondered why Briddey hasn’t just dumped him already. All of this annoying behaviour does make more sense as the story goes on, but you have to get to the 30% or so mark before something finally happens to move things along.

The final 70% of the book is a lot more fast-paced and entertaining. It veers away somewhat from the satirical edge of the first third of the book, and its science seems a bit more tenuous, but it makes up for this in sheer entertainment value. Relationships slowly but surely show some development, and some minor characters turn out to have much larger significance. Despite some slow and annoying parts, Crosstalk is a fun read overall, and a rather dire look at where too much connectivity can get us.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.