Book Review: The Unknowns

15790899The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth was our Critical Era online Book Club pick for December. It was a quick and quirky read which had some funny moments but it was definitely what we at Literary Hoarders like to call a “Boy Book”.

Boy Book Definition:

  1. Computer nerd protagonist obsessed with video games, comic books and/or getting together with a “real” girl.
  2. Unlimited funds usually obtained by computer nerdiness.
  3. Obsessive masturbation (uh ya– approx. every 5 pages there is a masturbation scene– awesome).
  4. Over analysis of masturbating computer nerd’s own faults told in a sarcastic and humorous way.
  5. The perfect dream girl who eventually falls for the sarcastic, masturbating computer nerd (and not just because of the unlimited funds).

Social outcast Eric Fuller spends his early high school days reading comics, obsessing about girls that he can’t get and masturbating. After becoming the butt of all jokes he turns to his computer for solace. He eventually hooks up with the nerdiest nerd at school to develop an early 90’s role-playing game. Fast forward 20 years later and Eric is still masturbating, has invented a web advertising tracking system and is a bazillionaire. He is still hopeless with the ladies but uses drugs and alcohol to loosen himself up. He meets up with the beautiful Maya at a party given by his newly lesbian BFF and instantly falls in love. Because he is an awkward computer nerd she ignores him completely and he leaves with her friend, Lauren, instead. Even though he is “madly in love” with Maya he offers Lauren Ecstasy and they screw all night. He makes a faux pas during this little encounter and reveals a very embarrassing Oedipal thought while high and his only fear is that Maya will find out. WHAT??

The story is presented in a way that makes you think that it was meant to be a funny, ironic look at a loser who knows he’s a loser and some of the thoughts and banter did have me chuckling out loud. But, the story takes a very serious turn once the beautiful and perfect Maya (miraculously) falls for Eric’s quirkiness (not his money) and it becomes harder to stay in a laughy frame of mind after that. There was also a lot of discussion of Eric’s own dysfunctional family which was presented in a very flippant tone which I actually found more sad than funny.Screen shot 2013-12-16 at 10.32.09 PM

The ending was atypical for this kind of story which I did find kind of refreshing and Mr. Roth definitely has mad writing and story telling skills. I don’t mind Boy Books on occasion but this wasn’t really the book for me–  I never really did warm up to Eric and I wanted to pound Maya square in her hipster glasses (she was just too cool for school in my opinion). I think that The Truth in Advertising by John Kenney did a way better job in tackling heavy subjects while maintaining a light and humorous tone.

2.5 stars, Meh– take it or leave it.

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Book Review: The Lion Seeker

13642507The Lion Seeker was a novel received from Random House Canada sometime during the early Summer, then this Fall, it became a finalist for the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award. It is also our Wink 3 Book Club choice for our November meeting. So, knowing all of this, I embarked on The Lion Seeker’s journey.

Rating: 3.5
The Lion Seeker
A Novel by Kenneth Bonert
2013 / 576 pages

In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II
Are you a stupid or a clever?

Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger’s mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mother’s question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburg’s poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?

A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, The Lion Seeker is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught — hearts open and wrecked — between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new. (adapted from Goodreads)

The description above is not the one that I should have used here, the one that should have appeared is from the inside book jacket.  Did Bonert write this description? It did summarize beautifully The Lion Seeker, and was written much in the same flavour as Bonert’s writing. (sorry, I have since handed the book off to Jackie here at the Literary Hoarders). As well, and at times while reading I had the distinct impression of reading other Canadian works such as (East Coast author’s) The Bishop’s Man or even Glass Boys as the feeling and pace or writing was not always laid out for the reader to see on the page, there seemed to be much hidden innuendo and secrecy. The Lion Seeker overall, is slow to build, but when it does it reaches to wonderful heights.

At points while reading, the altering use of stunning, descriptive writing changing to choppy dialect or slang is what I found jarring or difficult to follow. It broke up the flow of reading for me.  For instance:

“The wounds on his face, his head, are nothing – a bruised eye socket (it’s doubtful Oberholzer even made a fist, just an open-handed swat, probably the same way he smacks his wife), plus a scabbed scrape on the forehead where’s there’s a bump like a cue ball, and a thick rope of purple lower down that his collar can hide – but he is badly hurt inside, under the skin, in his heart and in his mind, his spirit. ”

“When he closes his eyes it does not stop the tears. These tears have a viscous quality, they’re not surface water, they come up from the broken thing deep in him, they seep like translucent gel to slowly wet the pillow where he lies on his side.”

And then, the dialogue parts:

-Jumped, four of the bastards. Your lovely shvartzer friends.

– Genuine? Where was this?

-I’d rather not chit-chat about it. I’m tryna forget it happened, like.

-Isaac?

_Hey?

_I said these crimes.

_Ja?

The Lion Seeker is a sweeping saga about Isaac, a Lithuanian Jew settling in South Africa with his younger sister and mother. The trio have fled their unstable life in Lithuania to join their father/husband. Unfortunately, Isaac’s mother is disconcerted to find him settled in a ghetto-like existence, not much unlike what they left behind. Isaac’s mother is extremely focused and desperate to bring over her sisters she has had to leave behind with numerous reunion promises of a better life in South Africa . 5 sisters she is desperate to get out. 5 names Isaac is sat down and told to repeat over and over again, showing and matching each name to the face in the picture her mother always has with her. The only way this can be achieved however, is to make far more money than her husband’s watch repair business brings in. She is constantly after Isaac to keep up the”quick rich money making schemes” and is devastated when he finally, after many attempts otherwise, listens to his father instead and learns a trade with the cars. Working with cars is something that Isaac truly loves. Yet this earns nothing but disgust and contempt from his mother.

There is also the very disfigured face on Isaac’s mother that is covered up, both literally and figuratively. The lower part of her face is horribly scarred and before she came to South Africa was forced to wear a veil that covers the lower half of her face. There is a great secrecy surrounding this disfigurement and it is shrouded in veils of secrecy, much like the veils his mother used to wear to cover the wound. Isaac is forever curious to understand why and how this happened to his mother, and also the reason why she is so very desperate to bring her sisters to her, away from Lithuania. Why is his mother always crying over her collection of papers and letters? Why is the date of April 17th so significant and why does she never discuss her past?

We journey with Isaac through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, through his experiences with his one great love, his jobs, his disappointments and slow realization of what it means to be a Jew prior to WWII.  Isaac seems only aware of class differences, certainly it is a glaring difference in his relationship with Yvonne. His great love is denied by Yvonne’s wealthy family, and she too ends up breaking his heart over it. All the while though, Isaac remains a bit oblivious to the fact that it is not only his class difference that stands in between him and Yvonne. He is a bit oblivious as well in his own racism against the black people of South Africa, unable to correlate it to the racism directed towards the Jews.

The Lion Seeker builds with prose that is at many times graceful, it compels you to keep turning the pages. Isaac slowly comes to realize his mother’s past, the growing fear of the oncoming war and the treatment of the Jewish people in South Africa. The story quickly glosses over Isaac’s time fighting in WWII but at the end, all of those graceful words explode on the page in a gut-wrenching end:

Jager killed over a hundred thirty-five thousand human beings in a few weeks, without mercy. His men and their helpers, they extinguished the Lithuanian Jews. A thousand years of history, more, gone. Vilna was the Jerusalem of the North. Our yeshivas famous for their genius. What this showed them is that it could be done. That people wanted to help them do it, that this was logistically possible. That nobody cared. It was the first time they started killing children in masses. And women, old people. All the rest of it – the camps, the gas – followed from this, like a fire from spark.” (page 560)

The Lion Seeker was a very good read and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it. It did not win the Governor General’s Literary Award, that honour went to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  3.5 stars.

Book Review: The Blind Man’s Garden

15798312The Blind Man’s Garden was our Wink 3 August Book Club choice. Prior to this, it was graciously provided by Random House Canada for our review. So, I offer my thanks to you RHC for sending this our way. I myself have not read any of Aslam’s earlier works so this was going to be my first foray in to his writing. I say this as The Blind Man’s Garden has received a very mixed bag of reviews, many comparing this novel to his previous novels either for or against them. These reviews were read were before opening the pages to determine for myself.  It has been given enthusiastic ratings for its beautiful, poetic and descriptive writing to railing against it for its overuse of this descriptive prose making so much pointless in the story. For me however, I confess I fall in to the branch that exclaims of its beauty and more so for its importance. Here’s why:

We read not just only for entertainment but as a way to expand our horizons and gain knowledge of other experiences, cultures, viewpoints, etc. There are many sayings and quotes discussing how reading takes you to far off places, allows you to travel to countries and cultures all within the pages of a book, etc. Also, recently, there was an article in Forbes magazine featuring LaVar Burton also discussing why reading/literacy is so important. He spoke on his 30-year involvement with The Reading Rainbow, what the movie Roots meant to him, and why literacy is so important to him. This one part of his interview so aptly explains why The Blind Man’s Garden had such an impact on me:

This summer has marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Reading Rainbow brand. Our  first episode aired June 30, 1983. So I’ve been doing this for thirty years – Reading Rainbow in one form or another. And I continue to be committed to it, and I’ve been committed to it for as long as I have because I get the power of the medium. The Roots experience was one that really showed me the power of the medium of television. I mean, in eight nights of television, I watched this nation become transformed around the issue of racism, which is the legacy of slavery. And in experiencing that power when the idea was presented to me to use the medium of television to steer children back in the direction of the written word  it just made so much sense. It was a no-brainer. I believe that this very powerful communications medium is an incredibly effective tool for spreading awareness, education, inspiration. (Full Forbes article can be found here.)

The Blind Man’s Garden is really just that type of book. It is definitely not for the close-minded set, no, not at all, as some may find controversy or upset in what he has written.  It does depict another perspective of the terror attacks of 9/11, that of the people living in Pakistan and Afghanistan following these attacks. Where Mr. Burton talks of the nation transformed around the issue of racism garnered from Roots, I feel that Aslam has accomplished the same here in The Blind Man’s Garden, concerning the issue of terrorism, Islam and how so many are victims outside of the US of the terror attacks that occurred on American soil on 9/11. The people in Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered greatly, if not more so, as a result of those spearheading these terrorist actions. Here is where some may take affront, but Aslam provides a story so filled with compassion and understanding about how the Pakistani people are fighting to live through Taliban rule.  The Blind Man’s Garden also offers many things: a love story, a story of faith and a story of great pain, fear and terror, and a story of survival and hope.

While I was reading, I felt that Aslam beautifully demonstrated the dichotomy and struggle they must fight between embracing the beauty of their faith against the horror of how the extremists have twisted it into something ugly and war-based. For the characters in this tale, the expectations of this twisted and altered faith has led to events so ugly they cannot stand to be a part of it. For many, it has turned Muslim against Muslim. If you are not fighting with the Taliban and training to be a warrior against the West, you are then labelled a “bad” Muslim. However, the West has arrived to “help” and have painted every Muslim a terrorist and Taliban supporter.

What strange times are these, says Tara as they wend their way through the dead to safety, when Muslims must fear other Muslims.

You will say that the hostages here in this school are Muslims. But we know what kind of Muslims they are. We know that they and their kind approved of the destruction of the Taliban regime. Anyone over the age of thirteen who takes up arms against Islam can be erased. Any Muslim who approves of the West’s actions in Afghanistan, and follows it into this Crusader war by providing material or verbal support, should be aware that he is an apostate who is outside the co9mmunity of Islam. It is therefore permitted to take his money and his blood, as worthy of death as any American general with his braided glory… (terrorists that took over the school where Jeo’s sister and brother-in-law work) 

Aslam has shown the confusion and sacrifice being made by the Pakistani people as they attempt to survive through terror and a war-based life. On the one hand they must fight against the despised Taliban rule and on the other, battle the double-edged sword the US offers.

The US President used the word ‘crusade’ in the first speech he gave after the terrorist attacks, he says. And they said if Pakistan did not help them in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they would bomb us back to the Stone Age. These were their exact words.

Afghanistan is liberated and American troops are being handed sweets and plastic flowers by the free citizens of Kabul, music shops are being reopened, but while men are shaving off their beards, the women are choosing to remain hidden in their burkas for the time being. And Tara knows they are wise. During her adult life there has not been a single day when she has not heard of a woman killed with bullet or razor or rope, drowned or strangled with her own veil, buried alive, poisoned or suffocated, having her nose cut off or entire face disfigured with acid or the whole body cut to pieces, run over by a car or battered with firewood. Every day there is news that woman has had these things done to her in the name of honour-and-shame or Allah-and-Muhammad, by her father, her brother, her uncle, her nephew, her cousin, her husband, her husband’s nephew, her husband’s cousin, her son, her son-in-law, her lover, her enemy, her lover’s enemy, her son’s enemy, her son-in-law’s enemy. So now Tara commends the women of Kabul for being wise enough to stay in their burkas, because more often than not there are no second chances or forgiveness if you are a woman and have made a mistake or have been misunderstood.

Toward the end, Aslam introduces the American perspective:

There are American military bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Croatia, Afghanistan, Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia – a base in each vicinity, ready to mobilise and put down possible threats. And it is no longer a case of American happiness, American freedom, American interests, the American way of life. Now it is about the survival of America itself.

To me, these two perspectives were very well drawn and demonstrated how propaganda is spread to all parties, all derived to spread hate and intolerance. The Blind Man’s Garden opens us to understanding, realization, compassion, and empathy for this particular family, and their role as so many play as victims to these hate-and-fear spreading warlords. Yes, The Blind Man’s Garden may seem to be too lengthy and there were times it was mired by unnecessary and overly descriptive prose, but I cannot deny I wasn’t completely drawn in and did find this to be a deeply affecting novel. 4 stars.

It is sure to provoke varied discussion at our book club meeting next week, as some have finished reading and have a very different rating and reaction than mine. As well, here is another review of the book, by Tanya at 52 Books or Bust. She falls in to the camp outside of mine and did not “feel” the book like myself. 52 Books or Bust’s review is here. 

And no, while this is not a news story about Pakistan or Afghanistan, I’ve included it here to show the serious unrest in the Middle East. This is not something we here in the West experience on a continued basis and again following the reading this novel I reflected on and gave thanks for the country I live in. This is an article about the continued unrest in Egypt, where today it has been reported that thousands have been injured and hundreds have been killed due to political unrest.

Book Review: The Shelter Cycle

15815603The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock was read for the May meeting of the Critical Era bookclub. We’ll also be speaking with Peter about this book at the end of the month. I’m certain, like what has happened for us so many times before, is that after discussing the book with the author, it will become something much more than initially realized after closing the final pages. For me, while the The Shelter Cycle  was very interesting, it still seemed quite unfinished and/or underdeveloped closing with a rather abrupt ending.

When this title was first circulated as the planned May selection and was accompanied by this book trailer, I think all of us at the Literary Hoarders were excited for it.

The Shelter Cycle is a fairly quick read, at only about 186 pages, and shares most of its story between Francine and Colville, two former members of the religious group/cult called the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Francine has completely distanced herself from the Church and we come by her pregnant with her first child and married to a man that has absolutely no idea of her former life and activities. Colville reappears in Francine’s life following the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of a young girl living a few doors down from Francine and her husband, Wells.

Colville is Francine’s former best friend from the Church and the person whom she was told shared each other’s fate. When Colville bursts back into Francine’s life, she begins a rediscovery process and drives back to the shelter and pays a quick visit to the Messenger. The Messenger is obviously suffering from Alzheimer’s and speaks in circles to Francine. She does all of this without explaining it to or even letting Wells know. At the same time, Colville is also visiting the shelter, but is it during the same time as Francine? Colville seems to be returning to the Church’s teachings and lifestyle and preparing for his life inside the shelter on a more permanent basis.  He’s seeing visions, he’s hearing things, and someone from the Church is guiding him along his future path – are they really happening?

Then, Francine returns home to have her baby. Colville kidnaps the child believing she’s the next Messenger. Alas, this kidnapping is short-lived. Colville returns the baby. The end. I’m serious. That’s the end.

Quotes taken from Peter Rock’s website do describe the quirkiness found in The Shelter Cycle:

“Pete Rock is not a normal novelist — he simply refuses to tell a story that is predictable or that permits us to put it aside … Certain writers are so unnervingly original their work secedes from our shared world and makes up a world of its own. With The Shelter Cycle it’s clear that Pete Rock’s world is the most singular and wondrous of them all.” -Susan Choi

“Peter Rock is marvelous at revealing both the insightful strangeness and the madness erring on the outskirts of civilization, and at showing with great sympathy how quickly we can slip from one to the other. A wonderfully humane book about the weirdnesses that make up people’s pasts, and the way they persist into the present.” -Brian Evenson

I am in agreement here, The Shelter Cycle is not a predictable story, and there is indeed strangeness between the pages. I did enjoy reading it however, it is always a great read when exploring these vastly strange and weird cults or organized groups lamenting and preparing for the world’s end. It’s always surprising to see the power and hold over so many that one person can have. It’s surprising to see how many hundreds of people prepared for years to live underground and the magnitude of the project and building of the shelter. However, it still read as though it were unfinished and Francine and Colville remained very underdeveloped in my opinion. Their entwined fates remained disturbed and broken. The abrupt ending does no favours to the reader in discerning how it really ends for Colville and Francine. A good read. But not much more than that.