Category Archives: Fiction

The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

“We had magic before the crows came…And we understood our magic.  We understood what the orenda implied.”

The orenda is a spiritual energy present in all natural things—humans, animals, plants, rocks, storms. If a hunter did well, his or her orenda was stronger than that of the game: a shaman had great personal orenda.

The Orenda is the story of three people: a Huron warrior; an Iroquois girl captured by the warrior; and a crow, a French missionary sent by his leaders to the Huron village. As the tale of early interaction between Huron and French is told, each of the three struggles wrestles to adapt and accommodate differences, with the two foreigners (Iroquois and French) each forcing the village to change in response to their presence.

Boyden carefully makes his characters complex: none of them are purely good or pure bad, but instead each has their blind spots and flaws. The Orenda takes events that many Canadians may be broadly familiar with and makes them visceral, giving us characters we can empathize with, even understand. The one odd note for me was the detailed descriptions of torture: though I appreciate he wanted to get historical facts right, I found I largely skipped through those sections, particularly after the first one.

The other note he strikes, one which has been controversial, is the issue of roles. He doesn’t paint the First Nations as solely victims: at one point, the narrator asks “what role did I play in the troubles that surround me?” There is a sequence of back-and-forth throughout the novel, as individuals wrong others and are wronged in turn—sometimes they forgive and grow past it, sometimes not.

I read this book in almost one sitting: I’d highly recommend it, though I might also recommend skipping the torture scenes. It won the 2014 Canada Reads Competition.

The Ramayana – Valmiki

“Whoe’er this noble poem reads
That tells the tale of Ráma’s deeds,
Good as the Scriptures, he shall be
From every sin and blemish free.”

From the Royal Palace of Thailand to the temples of Bagan in Malaysia and Ankor Wat in Cambodia, some of the most common scenes you will see traveling in Southeast Asia are those drawn from the Ramayana, a Hindu holy book and the story of the perfect man, Rama. In order to kill a demon (possibly the king of Sri Lanka) who can only be killed by a mortal, Vishnu takes human form, and is born as a prince, Rama. When his wife is abducted by the same demon (somewhat reminiscent of the Iliad), Rama goes on a quest to recover her, gathering allies along the way. In doing so, he models the virtues he represents: care for the people, respect for the caste system, love for family, self-discipline, duty, and filial loyalty.

It’s a good story, and interesting to modern eyes also for the traditional values it represents. The motivating theme, the theft of a wife, is similar to the Iliad, but the cultural values that are embedded in it are very different. Rama uses no cunning or trickery to defeat the demon, for example: unlike Odysseus, he simply confronts them directly at the head of a vast army, and fights until the enemy is defeated, which takes some time – the poem is 24,000 verses long, over seven books. Considerably more emphasis is placed on the importance of hermits and saints, too, instead of just heroes and kings.

Unfortunately, I ended up with a poor translation of the Ramayana, by the Indologist Ralph Griffith. To say he is opinionated is to understate the issue: he cuts sections based on prudishness about subject or language, because he thinks they were added later, or just because he decides they are repetitive. In some ways, the translation is best read as a separate work, rather than a true translation. In part, this is because he chose to maintain the verse structure of the poem, translating it into iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets. Though clearly imposing considerable sacrifices of language, this does retain the original rhythmic feeling of what is after all an epic poem, which I appreciate. One can’t have everything, I suppose, but it does make choosing a translation difficult.

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Regular readers will note I haven’t posted in a while – my apologies. It’s been busy! For my return, a classic tale…

“This vampire which is amongst us is of himself so strong in person as twenty men, he is of cunning more than mortal, for his cunning be the growth of ages…he is brute, and more than brute…”

Far from the meanderings of Twilight today, the original Dracula is tightly written in an epistolary format, as a series of letters, diary entries, and ships’ log entries. It fits into a wider invasion literature that includes the War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’ classic on aliens invading the earth. Here, Dracula invades England, seeking to expand his scope by leaving his castle in Eastern Europe. The novel opens, therefore, with a visit from his English lawyer to his castle, seeking to confirm some details of a real estate purchase he is making in the UK.

Dracula, of course, refers to the descendants of Duke Vlad II of Wallachia, and means either the dragon or the devil. The best known is probably Vlad III, also known as ‘The Impaler,’ a charming man known for, um, impaling forests of victims. A far cry from the modern depictions of a suave and urbane upper class gentleman.

Perhaps the most interesting character not to make it to modern vampire stories (though he appears in many versions of Dracula) is Renfield. An inmate at a lunatic asylum, he attempts to consume life in order to gain power like Dracula, possibly at Dracula’s suggestion. To maximize the life force he ingests, he raises flies which he feeds to spiders, and the spiders to birds – when denied a cat, he eats the birds himself. He is diagnosed, therefore, as zoophagous: ‘life-eating.’

More generally, it’s interesting what details entered the modern public consciousness of vampires, and what didn’t. In the text, for example, beyond the standard aversion to sunlight, stakes, and garlic, Dracula can command anything with a weak mind, from small animals to the insane; he can control the elements, including fog and storms; he can grow and shrink at will, even vanishing; and if a branch of wild rose is placed on his coffin, he cannot leave it. A far cry from having sparkling skin, a la twilight. From invasion literature to attractive older gentleman that would fit in 50 Shades of Grey, Dracula has evolved to suit the times, reflecting what appeals to each society. Today, in a world uncomfortable with mental instability and no longer worried about invasion, Dracula has evolved from European invader, through an implacable Cold War foe, to sexually charged teenagers who are not what they seem.

The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

“I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got. Ambition—what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?”

Would you rather be invisible or fly? According to pop psychologists, the answer tells us something interesting about what we seek in life. Flight is noble, something to aspire to: invisibility is more primal, allowing us to avoid threat and remain mysterious. For myself, I’m not sure what I’d do with flight – sure, it would be cool to fly around town, but it seems insufficient to actually fight crime, for example. Invisibility seems much more practical, but also has some downsides, particularly if its permanent.

Neither answer is wrong, of course. For Wells, though, invisibility is not just a superpower, but also a burden. In The Invisible Man, Griffin, the title character, has rendered himself invisible through science, but is unable to turn it off. Reluctant to reveal his secret, he is forced to flee his fellow man.

At the beginning, Griffin is, if something of a jerk, also somewhat sympathetic: naked in winter and desperate to undo his curse, he travels to a small town with his equipment, where he tries to blend in as a burn victim with a fake nose. He rapidly uses up any forbearance the reader might have, however, culminating in his (somewhat stupid and flawed) plan to begin a reign of terror, killing anyone who stands up to him and dominating the region. Isolated from his fellow man, he grows cold and contemptuous towards them, no longer a part of society but an observer of it.

What he would do when he had a cold or someone bought a dog isn’t clear, but then it appears he wasn’t a man given to thinking ahead.

Invisible Man came out in serial form in 1897, part of a burgeoning body of popular science fiction that drew on seemingly miraculous technology such as electricity and the telegraph to dream about what the future would be like, from Jules Verne to H.G. Wells himself. Wells’ War of the Worlds is perhaps the best known of these, though all of them continue to influence modern science fiction, if not the same broad readership as they once did. Today, sci-fi is likely to examine themes of environmental decay, the internet, and biotechnology: then, authors were fascinated about the seemingly limitless possibilities of technology, and the dangers thereof. The technologies have changed, but in many ways the concerns have not.

The Wild Ass’s Skin – Honore de Balzac

“What we want burns us up and what we can do destroys us; but knowing leaves our feeble constitution in a perpetual state of calm…I have placed my life not in the heart which breaks, nor in the senses which grow dull, but in the brain which does not wear out and which conquers everything.”

Imagine you are given a piece of skin that can grant your every desire, but shrinks every time it does so, eventually draining your life energy and killing you. What do you do? Burn out, focusing on hedonism and making ever more outlandish wishes? Make a few enormous wishes, hoping that will satiate you?

In The Wild Ass’s Skin, the protagonist, Raphael, finds that no wish can satisfy him, and that either option will inevitably lead to his death. Instead, he attempts to lead a life of total calm, shutting out the outside world so that he feels no desire for anything. In order to extend his life, he cripples it.

Regular readers of Balzac, used to his focus on realism, may be initially taken back by the introduction of magic, but in truth the story remains largely about the human condition. As usual, it is also rich, almost overwhelmingly so, with ideas, jokes, principles, infamous lines, and allusions. Jokes and puns are made by characters both intentionally and accidentally, sometimes not even noted by the others in the work and so left to the reader to decipher. It makes for a challenging style, but a rewarding one, with rapid fire dialogue and ripostes.

In the end, it is also a study of the limits to human imagination. Unlike Faust, who makes his deal and achieves much, Raphael, who could have any wish granted, wishes only for wealth – it seems not to occur to him to wish for anything else, until he realizes his life is in danger, and he wishes only for life, the one wish the skin will not grant. The book is a criticism of materialism, not just directly, but also in how it impoverishes the imagination.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The narrator of Memories of My Melancholy Whores is a nameless 90 year old man, who meets a 14 year old girl in a brothel – the latest in a long series of women he has met in various locations (the titled melancholy whores, though the original Spanish is bit less formal). The narrator makes no attempt to charm the reader, telling us he is “the end of a line, without merit or brilliance”: indeed, he stands out almost exclusively for his lechery. The story, though, is one of rebirth – at ninety, he finds himself in the grip of a whole new emotion, a youthful passion about the girl he has met.

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It hurts me, therefore, to say I wasn’t wild about MMMY. It had neither the substance nor the stunning imagery typically associated with Marquez, and though it wasn’t a bad read, I didn’t find it up to the standard of his other works. The self-centeredness of the narrator means the rest of the characters exist almost exclusively in relation to himself, rather than having personalities of their own. Appropriate for a character study, as the book in some ways is, but it also makes the interactions less compelling, because it portrays one star dimming its way out of the sky, not a constellation.

“The adolescents of my generation, greedy for life, forgot in body and soul about their hopes for the future until reality taught them that tomorrow was not what they had dreamed, and they discovered nostalgia.”

“Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel.”

“I would not have traded the delights of my suffering for anything in the world.”

“I never had intimate friends, and the few who came close are in New York. By which I mean they’re dead, because that’s where I suppose condemned souls go in order not to endure the truth of their past lives.”

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

For much of history, religion was a dominating force in human history, and a central focus of human life. Today, at least in the West, that faith has faltered, and people no longer spend their Sundays in church. Many of us, however, still spend our Sunday in ritual, whether it is watching football, hiking with family, or surfing the internet. These, Gaiman suggests, are our new gods: having evolved with a need for faith, the modern world has simply changed where it places that faith, from Odin and Zeus to airplanes, the internet, and conspiracy theories.

American Gods blends Americana, fantasy, and mythology into a heady brew. It won a wide range of awards when it was released, including Hugo, Nebula, Locus, SFX Magazine, and others. It is also, rather conveniently, a great read: fun and engaging, with splashes of serious mixed in. Most of the book follows Shadow, an ex-con who hires on to help Mr. Wednesday, an old god that seeks to resist the growing power of the new gods.

American Gods also covers a great cast of minor characters, gods both old and new: Technical Boy, the incarnation of our belief in the internet, to Mr. Nancy, representing the trickster spider-man Anansi from African folklore. We also hear how these gods arrived in America, carried by their believers as they were exiled from the old world, captured as slaves, or simply emigrated.

I read the more recent extended edition, about 12,000 words longer than the book’s original form. Either, I suspect, is interesting, and can make for an excellent summer read: if you need to relax, the story itself is fun, and if you’re in the mood to think, there’s a lot of depth behind it.

“People gamble to lose money. They come to the casinos for the moment in which they feel alive, to ride the spinning wheel and tun with the cards and lose themselves in the coins, in the slots. They want to know they matter.”

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”

Armageddon in Retrospect – Kurt Vonnegut

I’m traveling for the next two weeks, so no posts from me for a bit. I’ll see what I can do to turn up some Bosnian wisdom, though!

“If anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal-injection facility…here is what your last words should be: ‘This will certainly teach me a lesson.’”

In 1945, Dresden was fire-bombed. The catastrophic attack destroyed essentially the entire (historical) city center, and probably around 25,000 people. It has been controversial ever since, with critics arguing it had little to no military value and was purely attempt to strike terror into the Germans, while defenders suggest it was important to destroying a major rail and communication center. Enough to make anyone anti-war for life.

Vonnegut was there. He was a prisoner of war in the city, surviving because he was locked underground, and was later put to work exhuming corpses from the wreckage. It was an experience that permanently shaped him, including his best-known book, Slaughterhouse-Five. His description of his experience in Armageddon in Retrospect is a striking centerpiece to the book.

Armageddon in Retrospect is a posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s work, with a forward by his son. I’m a big Vonnegut fan, and the twelve pieces within cover a wide range: a letter home after WW2, short stories about trapping a unicorn or making cookbooks as a prisoner of war, even a commencement speech he was due to deliver. They are not, however, what one would call cheerful, and many of them strike a fairly consistent tone.

For that reason, I think I liked it a little less than Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five: the cutting ambiguity and subtlety that Vonnegut is so good at, where you read a light story that gradually evolves deeper layers, isn’t as present. Still good and still well written (his son, in the introduction, suggests Vonnegut somehow had an ‘extra gear’ when it came to language, recalling how his father used to help him with his Latin homework, without being able to speak Latin), but not his best.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

“The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening.”

“Where men cant [sic] live gods fare no better.”

How do you keep hope when there is little left to hope for? Worse yet, how do you convince others to hope when you are unsure if you have any hope left? Do you lie? Would that make it worse when they found out? Do you honestly confess your own doubts, risking making the other’s worse?

How encouraging to be when things are going badly is always tricky, whether to a friend who lost their job or a child trying a new sport. The extreme, though, is expertly painted by McCarthy in The Road. A post-apocalyptic father and son journey South in the hope of finding a warmer climate. The timid son is confronted by a reality that had his mother abandon them without hope years past, while his father does his best to keep the fire alive. They strike bargains: the son demands his father not give him a larger share of the food they find, for if he is dishonest in small things, how can he be trusted in large things? They face a world in which killing themselves might be merciful, rather than cruel: the father wonders this for himself, but cannot face the reality of doing the same to his son. Given his own doubts, however, how can he keep his son going?

The Road has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer, and has also been turned into a relatively successful movie. McCarthy himself has had a series of bestselling books, including All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men, which in its movie version won Best Picture. He is also often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Road is not an uplifting read, but it is an important read, and like all the best fiction, gives the reader a better understanding of his fellow humans and even himself.

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“His examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

I’ve been in something of a Marquez mood recently – perhaps it’s the season. In any case, this one follows on a review of Strange Pilgrims last week.

Choler, one of the Greco-Roman humours, was believed to cause irritation or temper: hence the English word choleric, or the French colerique. The principle of the humours underlay much of medieval medicine, and argued that imbalances between basic bodily fluids led to illness and odd behaviour. Choler was linked to fire, and the temperament of ruling. It also represented passion. Today, of course, the phrase is more commonly linked to the disease cholera, one of the leading causes of infant mortality until the introduction of Oral Rehydration Therapy, a simple mix of water, sugar, and salt that helps prevent dehydration.

Love in the Time of Cholera raises both the idea of passion and of disease in its study of love in an unnamed port city near the Caribbean. Many interpretations of the book are possible: Marquez, apparently, is known to have warned readers to be careful not to fall into his trap. For me, though, it is a reflection on love, particularly flawed love. Many types of love are suggested in the story, but all of them suffer from flaws, no matter how well written or sympathetic the character. One couple matches the societal ideal of love, while struggling to be happy themselves: another man is a philanderer and to some extent sociopath, but believes eternally in the idea of true love.

As usual, meditations on death and stunning visual imagery are par for the course: Marquez is always phenomenal in that respect. A particular strength of LitToC (I couldn’t resist!) is the scope for interpretation by the reader: to my eye, it gives more room for ambiguity of sentiment than some of Marquez’s other work, though not as much as some of the extremes in that area, such as Don Quixote. An excellent read.