CWILA 2012

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Interesting takes in various places on the CWILA count. Jonathan Ball counted up his own reviews last week. My 2012 count, on a far more modest scale, is as follows: five reviews published in the Globe and Mail in 2012, three by female authors and two by male. One was Canadian, one American, one Australian and two from the UK (including Ian McEwan, demonstrating that reviews of big-name male writers can sometimes get assigned to unknown female book reviewers). I wrote my first review for the National Post last autumn, of a book by a Canadian woman.
Looking back over the blog numbers for 2012 only, I find (counting single or joint reviews, not brief mentions):
Canadian men: 2
Canadian women: 8
Non-Canadian men: 6
Non-Canadian women: 14
And then there’s my interview series (not including translators):
Canadian men: 4
Canadian women: 11
Non-Canadian men: 4
Non-Canadian women: 9
For someone who’s not even Canadian, there are certainly a lot of Canuck writers on my shelves. I felt sure my overall reading was much more evenly split between the sexes, so I counted up 2012 as well as 2013 so far. In 2013, I was surprised to discover, 75% of the novels and single-author short-story collections I read were written by women. In 2013, at present, the numbers are, incredibly, exactly fifty-fifty.

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

July 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

In a piece published recently on the White Review website, Cesar Aira succinctly articulated something that most of us already understood:

Thousands of novelists have continued to write Balzacian novels during the twentieth century: an unending stream of commercial fiction, fleeting, frivolous novels written for the purposes of either entertainment or ideology. To take even a single step further, as Proust did, requires a colossal effort and the sacrifice of an entire life. The law of diminishing returns comes into play: the innovator covers almost all the ground in his initial attempt, leaving his successors a space that gets smaller every day and in which it’s more and more difficult to move forward.

So what is a contemporary novelist to do? The Oulipians have long cornered the market on lipograms and other textual restriction, BS Johnson did both a book in a box and cut-out sections, and anyway, didn’t Lawrence Sterne pretty much think of every possible innovation in Tristram Shandy?

One way to innovate is by emulating or appropriating the non-fiction genre of your time. Self-help books, as no doubt everyone knows by now, were ushered in by Samuel Smiles’ imaginatively titled Self-Help in 1859, but as a genre the books define our current moment—obsession with improving ourselves in both materialistic and anti-materialistic ways is the overt and hidden subject of a great deal of non-fiction (from Thich Nhat Hanh to Mark Bittman, and from Stephen R. Covey to Malcolm Gladwell) as well as of much literary fiction about middle class people. It gives a reader a warming glow of intellectual Schadenfreude, after all, to watch someone else trying and failing to be a better person.

Mohsin Hamid’s third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia borrows the structure and language of a self-help book to tell a story that is probably atypical on an individual basis, but more applicable as a trajectory of development to countries and economies. Hamid uses the second-person singular to address the reader, parodying business how-to books in its chapter titles (Get an Education, Don’t Fall in Love, Avoid Idealists, Be Prepared to Use Violence); it is far from the first novel to be inspired by self-help books, but Hamid makes something new of it.

Filthy Rich gives us the story of one particular character’s journey from child in a poor village to entrepreneur making first a living and later great wealth from selling water. Some of the necessary steps (Move to the City) take place without his participation; others (Befriend a Bureaucrat) require time, money and energy. Putting the onus on the disenfranchised or underprivileged to “succeed” by taking the right steps in the right order is a time-honoured way of maintaining the status quo, one Hamid nicely twists as his novel progresses. Although the character in Filthy Rich does happen to realise his dreams of money and status, this success falls far short of providing personal happiness or even security. From his very first job, the character has had his heart set on the ever-elusive “pretty girl,” who also finds herself tossed and buffeted by the success she sought; their trajectories and destinies remain intertwined to the end.

The tone is brisk–encouraging yet bracing, which serves as a great backdrop to the humour and occasional moment of pathos. The downside to the self-help conceit is that very occasionally it leads the writer to rely too much on telling. But these lapses are occasional. For the most part, the voice is wry and inventive, and Hamid’s unexpected verbs and adjectives are a delight. Will this one be on the Booker longlist next week?
Review copy.
(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

Open Pit by Marguérite Pigeon

July 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

NeWest Press sent me a review copy of this book a few months ago and I was immediately taken by the cover, designed by the fabulously talented Natalie Olsen. Open Pit is the story of a group of activists from Canada who have travelled to El Salvador. They are kidnapped and held hostage by a man who wants NorthOre, a company about to start excavating a gold mine, to halt all work. One of the hostages, Danielle, is something of a veteran of dramatic situations like this, having been a journalist there during the civil war twenty years before.

As this story takes its course, following the hostages and kidnappers as they try to keep moving and out of sight, several other threads run alongside. There’s Mitch Wall, NorthOre’s CEO (whom Pigeon is careful not to paint as a monster, revealing tender glimpses of his wife and children even as she shows his intractable, rigid profit-driven side) is doing everything he can to not give in to the hostages. There’s Aida, Danielle’s daughter back in Toronto, who opens the book reading the letters her mother wrote during the civil war and learning a great deal of information she did not know about both her mother and herself. There’s the hostage-takers’ own secrets and hidden stories, and finally there’s Carlos, an elusive, slippery character who could be playing more than one side at once.

Aida travels to El Salvador with the families of the other hostages, and much of the novel is about the tensions and the secrets between the various groups, even the ones that are supposed to be working together. Open Pit contains brutality, violence, destruction of trust and seeming collaboration, all painted in many more shades of grey than a typical political novel. When personal goals do not fully match political goals, things get murky, and motivation and dramatic irony muddy the waters further.

Open Pit is blurbed as a “gripping political thriller [and] genre-busting literary work,” but this isn’t quite accurate. It is more like a cross between a political thriller and an investigative essay—not boring, but not wholly compelling in a novelistic sense either. I don’t need characters to be likeable or even realistic, but they must be three-dimensional in some way, whether this means fully rounded in a literary realist sense, or plausible in their detailed absurdity, attached at all four corners (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf), however lightly, to life. In Open Pit the characters say and do the right things, but somehow do not have a firm attachment to life, which means that death, tragedy and the revelation of interpersonal secrets all lose their power. This is a shame, because the research, knowledge and plot are all sound. Pigeon did in fact spend some time in south America, and deeply understands, intellectually and emotionally, the subjects she is writing about, but Open Pit never quite becomes the absorbing page-turner of a thriller I was hoping for.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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