Sunday, July 19, 2015

Across Canada Reading Challenge Part 2: The Territories

If you weren't already aware, I finished my Across Canada Reading Challenge, which is a mini-challenge I gave myself as part of the Around the World Reading Challenge. I talked about the books I read set in each of the 10 Canadian provinces yesterday, and today I'm going to talk about the books I read that were set in each of the three territories. The three territories are the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. I didn't know this until now, but apparently the difference between provinces and territories is that provinces receive their power from the Constitution Act, and and the territorial governments get power from the federal government. 


For the Yukon I read The Slow Fix by Ivan E. Coyote, which is a collection of short stories about the life of the author. A lot of the stories were about what gender is or should be, and different people and society's interpretation of it. There were also a few stories that were focused on the author's upbringing in the Yukon. I loved this book, it was such a fun and entertaining read. I think I was smiling the entire time I was reading it. It was so nice to read something light and funny, but also intelligent, after reading many brain-stretching books. The author had such a perfect quirky voice that brought life to the everyday stories she told, but also had good things to say. I think even if you aren't into reading it'd be a good book to read, since the stories are short and entertaining.


For this territory I read Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay. This was a book set in the 1960s or 1970s, about the community at a radio station in Yellowknife. At the same time as it was about this northern radio station, there was also the issue of a pipeline and native land rights in the background. That was interesting to read about, especially since the same kind of thing is happening now. However, it was mostly a simple, very slow moving story about the lives of the staff at this radio station. Although it was slow, I found myself getting attached to the characters and their relationships with each other anyway. The best part, though, were the descriptions of the land in the north that make you feel as if you were a part of this epic landscape, just as much as the characters in the book.


I read Consumption by Kevin Patterson, which is set in a bunch of different places in Nunavut, and some characters also spend some time in Manitoba. (The author himself is from Winnipeg). This was a really interesting book. It followed the life of a handful characters, centering around the life one Inuit girl, Victoria, and her life after she contracts tuberculosis. She's then sent to Winnipeg for an operation, and when she comes back she feels removed from her original culture, and she goes on to marry a white man. The book goes on to follow the lives of various characters who live in the north, from Victoria's kids and parents, to a couple of teachers at one of the schools, to a few other characters who live in the same community. It covers quite a few years, from when Victoria is a young girl to when she has grandkids, I think. One of the major themes is definitely how the culture changes in this northern community over those years, and how each of the characters are affected by that. 

I loved reading about the North of Canada, just because it's so very different and removed from the rest of Canada. (I do regret that I didn't read any books set in the territories by Aboriginal authors, though). There are two similarities that are prominent in each of these Northern stories. One is the theme of land. It's amazing how much the place itself defines the people that live there. Life in the north, the characters and authors of these books tell me, is something beautiful and special and something that you don't understand if you haven't experienced it for yourself. In each of the three books, the descriptions of the land and the natural atmosphere completely take you in and transport you to that place and time. The other theme, in contrast with the theme of the natural, harsh landscape, is that of the loss of culture (indigenous culture in particular) to Western cultural values and consumerism. In one of the stories in The Slow Fix, Ivan E. Coyote talks about how one of the cities in the Yukon has been taken over by Walmarts and McDonalds. The entire story in Consumption is about how many of the indigenous characters have been taken away from or have no choice but to turn away from the only way of life they knew previously, that is living off the land. 

I think the last line of Consumption brings these two themes together beautifully: 

“The narwhals surface in the bay, waving their tusks in the air; only a few miles out of town, the last of North America’s great herding land mammals, the tuktu, caribou, paw the grass and the moss by the many thousands and shiver collectively when they smell predators approaching. Contained within this beauty, and perhaps its necessary consequence, are the people here—who huddle similarly close and watch for one another’s peril.”


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Across Canada Reading Challenge Part 1: The Provinces

This year I decided to take part in the Around the World Reading Challenge (which you probably know since I've mentioned it in like every blog post this year.) As a part of that challenge, there are a bunch of mini-challenges that you can take part in, like read a book from a certain number of countries. One of the suggested mini-challenges was read a book set in every state, but I decided to switch it to read a book set in every Canadian province and territory, since I'm Canadian. (Also I'm sure I've already read a book set in almost every US state, which just shows you how much influence American media has).

It was really fun reading a whole bunch of Canadian books and learning more about my country and the varying cultures within it. If you're American, you have no idea how much American media often swamps other countries' local media. Most people I know watch a lot of American TV and movies, and probably 90% of the YA I read growing up was set in the US and written by American authors. It's probably the worst in Canada, since we share the same language, similar culture, and a border. 

The thing is I probably know more about what makes an American novel than a Canadian one. It's really fun to see how even though a lot of the time I think of Americans and Canadians as being essentially the same, Canadians really do think differently than Americans do. That difference comes across in the books that I read for this challenge. The stories that Canadians choose to tell are very different from the ones Americans tell. Of course, this is only the beginning of my adventures in CanLit, so I can't make too many sweeping generalizations.

For now, I'll just talk about the books I have read so far. I thought I'd split this post into two since otherwise it would be way too long, so in this post I'll talk about the books I read from each province, and then in Part 2 tomorrow I'll talk about the books I read from each territory.


We'll start on the West Coast with BC! I actually ended up reading three books set in BC. The first was Beauty Plus Pity by Kevin Chong, which I did a review of so you can see what I thought here. It's an easy to read but also very interesting family story about a second-gen immigrant from Hong Kong. Another book I read set in Vancouver was Everything Was Goodbye by Gurijinder Basran, about a girl who struggles with the culture and wishes of her Indian family by falling in love with a white man. The story follows how the MC experiences the culture clash her entire life. I also read The Beckoners by Carrie Mac which is set in Abbotsford. That was a very intense YA book about extremely violent bullying. I think I liked the other Carrie Mac book I read, The Opposite of Tidy, better.


Onto the land of black gold. The book I read for this province was Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King, about the life of a young Aboriginal boy and two towns on either side of the US/Canada border. While doing this challenge I also read a lot about and the stories of Aboriginal people. I always find it interesting reading Aboriginal stories, because the way Aboriginal people think is very different from the way I think. Truth and Bright Water was an easy read, and fairly humorous despite one of the characters constantly saying that what's wrong with Indians is they have no sense of humor.


I had so much trouble finding books set in SK. The province has such a tiny population, so there's only a small percentage of published books about it written by Canadian authors and whose books I actually have access to. I ended up reading Dust by Arthur Slade, which was a younger YA about a weird magician-like person who puts a spell on a town in Saskatchewan during the Dust Bowl. I think this book was just a bit too young for me to enjoy. It was weird thinking of Saskatchewan during the Dust Bowl as a place for magic to happen, though.


My home province! I read Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography by Chester Brown. If you don't know the name Louis Riel, well you should learn it. He's thought of as one of the founding fathers of Manitoba, although the actual history is a little bit less straightforward. That was the fun thing about reading this biography, is you realize just how not straightforward history is. Louis Riel was one weird dude, that's for sure. I also read A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, who is a prominent Manitoban and Canadian writer. A Complicated Kindness is a story about a young girl growing up as a Mennonite and her struggle with her culture. Mennonite stories are a huge part of Manitoba, so it was interesting learning more about that culture.


It is not hard at all to find books set in Ontario, considering that's where most of the population of Canada lives. I read The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten, which focuses on a young boy with OCD and his affection for a young girl in his group; Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, a short graphic novel about a Korean girl and her trials at school in Toronto, and Lies Beneath by Anne Greenwood Brown, a book about murderous mermaids who live in Lake Superior. It's an interesting concept, mermaids who live somewhere considerably less tropical and oceanic.


For Qu├ębec, I read Cockroach by Rawi Hage which is about an immigrant making his way in the diverse community of Montreal. It was very much about the difficulties of being a Canadian immigrant. It's interesting because a lot of the time in the news and stuff you read about all these happy ending Canadian immigrant stories, that Canada has rescued these people and Canada's so great and welcoming and multicultural and all that. But this book, as well as Drive-by Saviours, shows a very, very different experience of Canadian immigration, one that people don't hear about as often, but is nonetheless still true to the experience.


I read a short book called Summer Point by Linda Mcnutt, which was about the longstanding effect of staying at a cottage for one summer in New Brunswick on one woman's life. The writing was very subtle, which I liked, but I felt like it could have gone into a lot more depth with the characters. It was just too short of a book to really flesh out the character's and their stories. I did enjoy the short story that I did get to read, though, it was well-written and the story flowed quite well.


One thing I noticed when trying to find books set in the Maritimes is how many books set there are historical fiction. The Birth House by Ami Mckay was a historical fiction novel about a midwife set in the early twentieth century. It was mainly a novel about women's rights, especially in regards to giving birth. It also touched on the theme of white men coming in and taking over and ignoring the voices who know better in order to give something that they think is better but really isn't, which is a common theme in a lot of the books I've read. But I felt like it was too obvious what the author was trying to say, and it came off kind of preachy. I think truths in fiction need to be more subtle.


I read an adult romance book called The Catch by Louisa Mccormack, about a middle-aged business
woman finding herself by spending a summer in a small town on PEI. It wasn't a bad read, but I didn't feel like the main character really learned anything by the end which was disappointing. My favourite part was definitely the small town PEI atmosphere of it. I loved how the story of family and friends and neighbours who all know each other was at the heart of the book.


I read February by Lisa Moore for this province, about a woman dealing with her husband's death. It was also tied in with the story of her son getting some girl he met in Iceland pregnant and trying to avoid doing what his mother thinks he should do. It was okay, but it was just too slow for me. There were too many details that felt unnecessary to me, and that didn't really give any greater insight into the characters or story.

Well, that's it for the provinces, stay tuned for tomorrow, when I'll go over the books I read set in the North: Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut!


Monday, July 6, 2015

5 TBR List Tips

A few weeks ago I was talking to one of my friends, trying to convince her to add a bunch of books to her TBR list, as well as follow a whole bunch of bookish Twitter accounts. She made a comment on how if she did that, her TBR list would be way too long because she would just add everything.

I follow hundreds of websites and bookish people, so my Twitter and Tumblr are always brimming with book recommendations. It could be overwhelming if I just added every book rec I saw to my TBR (to be read) list. (Just for clarification, my TBR list is not a stack of books next to my bed, but a Word document where I write any books that I might be interested in reading. I know some people have a literal, physical TBR.)

Over the years I've learned it's better not to just add every book I see anywhere to my list, because it would be super long and I wouldn't even end up reading most of the books on it. I've come up with a few rules for myself, and I thought I'd share them with you and hopefully it'll help if you ever feel overwhelmed by the amount of book recs you come across. I know it doesn't really matter since a TBR list is basically just a way to record recommendations you've seen, but I feel like the pickier you are about the books on your TBR list, the more likely it is that you'll end up enjoying the books that you do end up buying, or borrowing from the library.


1. Read summaries, and only add books if they sound interesting to YOU. It does not matter how many places you have seen the book, or if it's been on X or Y or Z bestseller list, if it doesn't sound like something you'd read, just skip over it. I get way more excited about borrowing the books on my TBR list if they already sound interesting to me. I know sometimes it's really hard not to get drawn in by hype, but everyone's reading tastes are different, and if a book isn't catching your attention, just let it go.

2. Add diverse books! Make sure your TBR list is not just full of books about white, able-bodied, etc characters that live in the same country as you. It's important to read about characters who live different experiences than you. If you have trouble finding diverse books, there are a TON of resources out there. You can start with We Need Diverse Books, Disability in Kidlit, Rich in Color, and DiversifYA. I'd also suggest following them Twitter or Tumblr, because it's an easy way to be constantly seeing diverse recs in your feed. If you're looking for books about specific people, Goodreads listopia is a great way to find diverse recs. Also check out the #weneeddiversebooks and #diversereads hashtags.

3. Cull your TBR list. If you've had a book on your list for years and years, maybe it's time to take it off and admit you will probably never read that book. I have books on my TBR list from years and years ago, and since then my tastes have changed quite a bit. There's no point in keeping books on there I know I'm never going to read. This goes for people who have physical book stacks for their TBR too. If you know you're not going to read a certain book, give it away or trade it with someone.

4. I've also just recently started putting a one word explanation for why I added the book to my list. Often I go back to my list months later before I'm going to the library and I completely forget what the books are about, since I only write down the title and the author. It's kind of annoying to have to go look them all up on Goodreads again, so now I just give myself a reminder of why I added certain books to my list.

5. Be open to new things. While it's important to create a TBR list geared to your interests (it is YOUR list, after all), it is also important to keep an open mind about the kinds of books you read. Read outside your genre, maybe try a book that's been hyped up that you don't think you'd like, read a book that a close friend recommended you that is WAY out of your reading comfort zone. Sometimes when you read out of your comfort zone, you end up being pleasantly surprised!

How do you create your TBR list? 

Friday, July 3, 2015

CanLit Reviews: Drive-by Saviours by Chris Benjamin

If you've followed my blog for any amount of time, you'll know that I love reading books that make me think. I love books that stretch my brain and make me step outside of my own world to consider someone else's. Drive-by Saviours accomplished that excellently. In fact that was kind of what I felt the book was about, people learning to consider other people's stories. 

The book centres around two characters. One is Mark, a white Canadian living in Toronto who finds everything in his life mundane from his social work job to his partner, and who used to want to save the world but is now stuck in a rut. The other part of the story is the life of Bumi, whose story begins when he's a young boy on a small island in Indonesia and follows him through all his struggles into adulthood. As you could probably guess, the paths of the two men meet when Bumi immigrates to Canada.

The stories of both characters are told eloquently and incredibly carefully. There are a lot of scenes or chapters that seem to be out of place in the moment, but come to fit smoothly into the story later on. The writing is incredibly concise and captivating, and the clever twists of words enraptured me with each character's story. The places as well as the characters come alive through the author's writing.

Just listen to this description of Ottawa in one of Mark's chapters:

"The city that never wakes up, which has no culture, houses the highest bureaucrat-per-capita rate outside Geneva, has the seventh coldest winter temperatures of any nation's capital, bans alcohol after midnight and litter before, smells like carbon monoxide and feels like ether, celebrates smog and humidity with the bland cultural products of Canadian content law and draws more people for its tulip festival than any other event, is the city that produced the woman I loved."

Of course the main thing I thought about throughout this entire book is, how do these stories even connect? Even after Bumi and Mark met I kept trying to figure out what the two characters were learning from each other. A lot of the time it seemed like nothing, although of course that may have been the point. 

The commentary on social issues relating to immigration, development and modernization was great. You can see through Bumi's story how he is affected by the do-good attitude of outsiders his entire life, and how that destroys him. Then on the other side is Mark, the example of the wannabe social justice warrior and almost accidental white saviour figure. Not only do the themes of the book focus on the various trials and realities of immigration to Canada, but also the ups and downs and missteps of development work. Mark feels unfulfilled his entire life because he feels he's not helping people enough, and then when he meets this downtrodden immigrant he wants to help him for all the wrong reasons.

I find all of this stuff fascinating, probably because of my interest in international and cross-cultural development. But I'd really encourage you to check out this book. Not only is it a fascinating cross-continental story, but it touches on important and current issues. Even if it is fictional, I'm sure the stories reflect the situations of many real Canadians. (Also you should read it because I really want to discuss it with someone).

Find it on Goodreads here.
Chris Benjamin's website 
Chris Benjamin's Twitter 


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