"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Gentlemen of the Road: Another Buddy Book from Michael Chabon

Another Michael Chabon discussion coming up Thursday night: this time it is his Gentlemen of the Road, a swashbuckling adventure set in 10th century Central Asia.  Originally Chabon was going to call the novel--first published as a serial in The New York Times Magazine--Jews with Swords.   It takes place in the Kingdom of the Khazars, which was a Jewish state for a few hundred years when Islam was expanding and Russian Orthodoxy was too.

The two heroes are a melancholy medecine man from what would become Germany and  a giant African descendant of the Queen of Sheba.  They are bickering brothers in arms who usually champion good folk, albeit reluctantly.  When the novel opens they pretend to fight to the death, and plan on profitting from wagers made on who will killl whom.  They end up escorting the heir to the throne across  desolate, violent countryside.  Their adventures are told in Chabon's signature long, florid sentences which are only a few degrees removed from being parodies of 19th century lad lit.

This will  be the second  of my book discussion groups to consider the book.  Only one of the first group liked it: most of the  members thought it too bloody, too simplistic.  Tomorrow's discussion promises to be quite different since one of the members of the group argued to put in the reading list and thought it was terrific.

But one thing is certain: Chabon repeats himself.  I recently finished his Telegraph Avenue (also full of baroque writing) which also is a story of unlikely buddies.  In the more recent  book the pair consists of a depressive Jewish semi-intellectual and a big, direct, more-intelligent-than-you-might think guy of African descent. 

There's much more to Telegraph Avenue than to Gentlemen of the Road.  For anyone looking for a good read, I'd recommend it highly.  The other novel is a conceit, a joke, whose major value  is that it might make you go learn a little about the history and  ethnic divisions of Central Asia as Vladimir Putin's Russia tries to wrests back its influence in the region.  Here's the link to the Wikipedia entry.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sad Anniversary: Two Novels to Mark the 20 Years since the Rwandan Genocide

Some 800,000 people massacred in three months, most by machete-wielding neighbors: that was the horror which began 20 years ago today in Rwanda.  The conflict was ostensibly between ethnic groups, the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi.  But lines were blurred since many moderate Hutus were killed and anyone who has looked closely at the history of the African Great Lakes Region sees that the groups were often related and their differences were used by European powers to divide and conquer.

Gil Courtemanche's Sunday at the Pool in Kigali  tells the story of people caught up in the conflict in an extremely affecting way.  He first went to Rwanda at the beginning of the 1990s to work on a film about AIDS in the region, but decided he must write something about the genocide when it occured.  His first idea was a book of straight reporting, but he was persuaded that novel would convey the tragedy better, and probably reach more people.  The result--first published in French but a winner of several prizes in English translation--was made into a successful film, A Sunday in Kigali, but the novel is much better.  It is painful reading, but well worth the sorrow it might bring.

Like so many others, I was deeply troubled by what happened in Rwanda, and looked around for something I might do to help or understand.  What I discovered quickly was that Rwanda has a twin, Burundi, where the same sort of conflict had been going on for decades.  The year before the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide, a massacre which escaped the attention of the outside world also killed thousands.  After much reflection and quite a lot of library research, I ended up writing a novel about a Canadian politician who goes missing in 1997 in Burundi when on an international fact-finding mission to the  camps set up to shelter refugees.

The Violets of Usambara took eight years to write.  Published in 2008, I did a blog explaining the book's background and the trip I took to East Africa to research the novel.  The trip, funded by a generous grant from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Qu├ębec, was life-changing for me and, I think, was money well spent by the Quebec government's arts agency.  The novel, I'd like to think also, explores the motivations of people who want to make the world a better place.  They may fail but they are admirable in their attempts

The top photo is of the hotel in Bujumbura where I stayed: the pool was lovely and I couldn't help thinking of it when I read Courtemanche's book. The bottom is the view from my hotel room, with the hills to the East in the background. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Books to Solve the Climate Change Problem?

In this winter of our discontent, The New York Times reports that speculative fiction about climate change is making its way into university curricula. 

"University courses on global warming have become common, and Prof. Stephanie LeMenager’s new class... at the University of Oregon has all the expected, alarming elements: rising oceans, displaced populations, political conflict, endangered animals.

"The goal of this class, however, is not to marshal evidence for climate change as a human-caused crisis, or to measure its effects — the reality and severity of it are taken as given — but how to think about it, prepare for it and respond to it. Instead of scientific texts, the class, “The Cultures of Climate Change,” focuses on films, poetry, photography, essays and a heavy dose of the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, novels like “Odds Against Tomorrow,” by Nathaniel Rich, and “Solar,” by Ian McEwan.

“Speculative fiction allows a kind of scenario-imagining, not only about the unfolding crisis but also about adaptations and survival strategies,” Professor LeMenager said. “The time isn’t to reflect on the end of the world, but on how to meet it. We want to apply our humanities skills pragmatically to this problem.”

Very apropos.  In the last year I've led discussions in my library groups of both Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior and McEwan's Solar.  The reaction has been mixed--Kingsolvler's book was criticized for including too much extraneous detail, while McEwan's hero was detested by some for his self-centeredness.  But the conversation about the role of fiction in the wider world and he problems the novels raised was stimulating and perhaps useful.

One of my conclusions is that in order not to  preach to the choir, writers with conviction have to widen their appeal by writing funny/controversial/non literaray books.  Kingsolver and McEwan have both done this, to their credit. McEwan, particularly, writes a good story too.

Teaching these books in university classes is probably a good idea, although, according to the story, the courses which use them tend to be specialized ones, attracting people already convinced .  The message nust go out to a wider audience.