Friday, October 21, 2016

The Futility of Fighting for Freedom

I was only three months old the day Saigon fell to the People's Army of Vietnam. Much too young to comprehend the images on television of helicopters landing on the rooftop of the U.S. embassy carrying the champions of democracy and heroes of capitalism safely away from the evil communist victors. My newly minted brain couldn't handle context and complexity so I did what most people of my generation did; concocted a one-dimensional dark fairy tale version of this war. It wasn't hard, the Hollywood propaganda machine was more than happy to supply me with the American narrative. It went something like this:

Helicopters and damaged men. The rattle of M-60's and the creeping terror of an unseen enemy. The Viet Cong were demons spawned in the darkest jungles of Indochina where they perfected the arts of torture and interrogation. What chance did Willem Dafoe have, really?

It turns out he had a much greater chance of survival than the average Vietnamese civilian. Over 600,000 non-combatants lost their lives -many in extremely brutal fashion- as the war surged through Laos and Cambodia. Ten years before American audiences watched the death of Sgt. Elias, gnashing their collective teeth in impotent rage, Vietnamese refugees poured into the United States. For these "boat people" the war never really ended. Forcibly evicted from their own country they landed on the shores of the nation that promised to protect them only to be enslaved by a Capitalist system with baked-in inequality and prejudice.

The nameless narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel is our tour guide through these turbulent times. A tour guide with a very unique perspective. He is a communist sleeper agent, educated in America and embedded as a close advisor to a South Vietnamese General. He is a self described "man of two minds", with the gift and curse of seeing events from multiple perspectives. It is through his eyes that we see the true tragedy of this war and the hypocrisy of it's architects. The North Vietnamese saw themselves as freedom fighters liberating the downtrodden from the oppression of Capitalism and foreign corruption. That didn't stop them from throwing thousands of people into reeducation camps after the war and implementing destructive policies of mandatory agrarian labour. The allies charged with beating back this communist aggression weren't much better. They routinely used CIA sponsored torture techniques to route out communist agents and when they realized they couldn't compete with the Army of North Vietnam in the arena of jungle warfare they decided to kill the jungle. The chemical defoliant they used poisoned the landscape for generations.

The Sympathizer injects something badly needed into the Vietnam narrative: Sympathy. With a deft hand Nguyen guides the reader down the rain sodden roads of history and makes us feel something for everyone involved. It all culminates with a baptism through pain which reveals a universal truth to both the narrator and the reader: The concept of freedom is fluid, and fighting for it is ultimately futile.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Our Past, Our Future, Our Present.

Canadian History. I dare you to say those two words and not think about English guys in big powdered wigs trading beaver furs with Native guys and musket blasts with French guys. It's like the GI Joe battles that every little boy of a certain generation orchestrated in their back yard. Just replace all the cool vehicles and bad-ass soldiers with employees of the Hudson Bay Company and replace the word "battle" with the words "trade agreement".

Now I dare you to say the words Canadian History after reading The Orenda and not think about the richness and immensity of our history. How the clash of cultures Boyden illustrates with such a deft hand still resonates today. This is the stuff we are made of; winding rivers, thick forests and unforgiving winter. This is a heartbreaking love song to the native people of Canada. A look at the complex culture and society they had built when the first French settlers landed in "New France" and began sending Jesuits among them to convert what they saw as a savage. lawless people.

The shifting first-person perspective serves to deconstruct the commonly held notion of "good guys" and "bad guys". We see events unfold through the eyes of Bird, an elder of the Wendat (Huron) people, Christophe, a Jesuit missionary and Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl who becomes the adopted daughter of Bird after he kills her father. We can empathize with each of them, and understand their motivations, despite some of their undeniably brutal and misguided actions.

As luck would have it, one of the stops on Mr. Boyden's recent book tour happened to be my local library. During the question period my wife, who is a grade 7/8 teacher, asked him how he would complete the following statement: "Learning Canadian history is important because....". He smiled and said "it pays my bills." Everyone laughed. He went on to say that it is important because history has a habit of not staying in the past. We still have much to learn from the people who walked this land before us, and were possessed of a wisdom that all of the smartphones and social media platforms in the world could never come close to reproducing.

Joseph Boyden is funny, warm and an amazing author. One thing he is not, however, is terribly tall. He stood on a chair for this picture.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I'll Never be a Used Car Salesman, and That's OKAY

Once in awhile a work of non-fiction comes along that has the potential to challenge our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore was one such book. This is another. Not only has Susan Cain done her homework, she's presented it with an infectious exuberance that burns with her obvious love of this subject matter.

I've always been a quiet guy. I dislike distractions, prefer working with focused attention on a single task that I'm passionate about and hate multitasking. I'm uncomfortable at large gatherings where I am expected to contribute to small-talk, preferring instead one-on-one conversations about deep issues. My idea of the perfect vacation is unstructured alone-time that I can use for solitary pursuits like reading. I've always believed that there was something wrong with me. This is why I am extremely grateful to Susan Cain for writing a book that has empowered me to come out of the closet. As an introvert.

It can be hard for people like me, growing up in a culture that puts a premium on extroversion. I've been told all my life that I need to be "more outgoing", and a "team player" that exudes "confidence under pressure" if I hope to be successful. While I can make a herculean effort to fake all of those attributes, the truth is that unless I am engaged in an activity I am passionate about (like teaching martial arts or writing), they feel like a foreign language to me. I'm a very good listener and observer, but ask me to present something in front of a group and there is a good chance that I will have a nervous breakdown.

Susan Cain has made me feel a lot less alienated. After turning the last page of her treaty on introversion, I even began to look at my "personality orientation" as an advantage. There is plenty of room in our society for both the outgoing speech maker, and the quiet, introspective thinker who writes those speeches for him. It is a symbiotic relationship that both benefit from. So the next time I encounter an extremely self-confident, life-of-the-party-type extrovert, instead of my usual reaction of being intimidated, I'll bury my nose back into my book and remind myself that the world needs substance as well as style. Because a world filled with used-car salesmen might be fun for a while, but it's not the kind of world I'd want to live in.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Take this magical boat ride with your kids

Mr. Gumpy is a laid-back rural guy with a fondness for boat rides. What he is not fond of, however, is the tendency of his animal friends to argue and tip his boat over.

He makes the rules very clear at the outset; the dog is not to case the cat, the chickens are not to flap and so on. A veritable food-chain of critters joins him on his adventure. things start to go awry when the cat chases the rabbit, setting off a chain of events that leads to the sinking of Mr. Gumpy's trusty vessel.

Instead of getting angry, he simply invites them back to his house for tea. A great lesson for children about taking adversity in stride and forgiveness. The artwork is gorgeous, with many pages suitable for framing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

City of Thieves

Just when I thought the Second World War had been strip mined for every conceivable movie idea, video game concept and tear-stained memoir, along comes David Benioff and proves me wrong. As a husband and father, being proven wrong is not new territory for me, but never before has it given me so much joy.

As any armchair WWII enthusiast will tell you, the siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1944 was not synonymous with "joy ". The Russian army was woefully outnumbered and cut off from vital supply lines and the civilian population that did not evacuate was slowly starving and freezing to death. The German propaganda machine, dubbed it the city of thieves in its ongoing attempt to demonize Communism and paint themselves as liberators of the Russian common man.

Amid all of this grinding human tragedy we meet Lev Beniov, a seventeen-year-old scrappy Jewish survivor and Kolya, a  lover of literature, an experienced fighter and a deserter from the Russian army. Brought together by a series of unlikely events, they are forced  to perform a fools errand: Find one dozen eggs so the daughter of a powerful Russian colonel can have a wedding cake or face terrible punishment for their transgressions. The back and forth banter between these two unlikely allies is clever, funny and very genuine. It brought to mind the kind of macho juvenile conversation my friends and I shared when we were young men.

The pacing is perfect, with each short chapter describing a cold, famished step into a dark wonderland. Humor is here in equal measure, seemingly out of place until you realize that weak tea, stale bread and bad jokes are all these poor souls have left.

So skip a couple meals, turn down the heat, pour yourself a little vodka and dive into this funny, haunting tale. It stands as a fine example of good old fashioned yarn-spinning without all the pretentious accoutrements that are usually hung around the neck of modern war stories these days.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

It`s all Greek to me

Achilles would like his mortal nemesis, Hector, to know that there are no pacts between lions and men. In fact, he yells that very thing at him right before skewering him with a big, pointy spear. Madeline Miller would like her readers to know that there were, in fact, a lot of  "pacts" between Achilles and his best friend Patroclus with lots of skewering going on there too, nudge-nudge-wink-wink.

Now that I've talked about the homoerotic stuff in the most mature way that I am able, let's talk about the rest of this book. Well, it's the Iliad by Homer. I suppose that's all you need to know unless you think the Homer I'm referring to has the surname Simpson. Miller's twist on that old sod is telling the whole thing from the perspective of the aforementioned Patroclus and putting his relationship with the famous Demigod front and center.

Miller's prose is sparse and just a few extra words away from being an epic poem in it's own right. If her uber-impressive bio on the back page is to be believed, she also knows what she's talking about so rest assured that this is pretty damn faithful to the source material.

The problem is the story itself. We all know how it ends. Unless you are one of those wonderfully optimistic people who watch movies like Titanic and hope for a happy ending, you can see every spear, arrow and God-vengeance plague coming. It probably didn't help that I got all Iliad crazy while reading it and watched Troy for the third time. Reading the last half of the book picturing Brad Pitt slaughtering Trojans does not increase one's enjoyment, believe me.

Bottom line; read it if you just can't get enough big wooden horses and man-love. Skip it if your idea of a good Greek tragedy is too many black olives in your salad.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Puzzle Box Stuffed with Goodness

Nick Harkaway makes my brain hurt. The kind of pleasant I-don't-quite-get-it pain that usually stabs at me in advanced calculus classes or conversations about reality television programs. He likes to plunk his readers down in a story that feels already in progress, in a world that is just one little wrinkle in quantum space away from our own. It is puzzle box fiction that asks a lot of the reader and rewards you for your efforts. As the answers slowly unfold, and the train rockets towards an epic conclusion, we feel elated and self-satisfied. It's a little like reading and a little like solving a Rubik's Cube blindfolded. It's also a LOT like a great story.

It also provides the best justification for becoming an outlaw since Tom Robbin's thesis on the subject in Still Life With Woodpecker. I will forever after think of Three-card Monte as an analogy for the inherent injustices of a life lived "by the rules". Those of you who have solved this particular Rubik's cube will know what I'm talking about.