Three of these books were inspired by the conjunction between my own shelves and this year’s Random House Bingo, which has a CanLit theme.
The Tiger Claw filled my Nominated-for-the-Giller square, Evan Munday’s second October Schwartz for the Mystery-or-Thriller square, and Elaine Lui’s book about her relationship with her mother perfectly suits the celebrity-memoir square.
Have you been wrapping up reading challenges or games or projects too?
Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw (2004)
After the Nazis invaded France in WWII, “Madeleine” went to work with the resistance, against the Occupation. You can read about Noor Inayat Khan’s life in the herstory books, but Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel brings another layer of her experience forward.
This is not a novel about espionage in the vein of Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton; it is not a page turner, but a lush and expansive novel which considers the life of a resistance worker. In such a position, a woman might have a series of long conversations with a mechanic, in hopes of learning one piece of information in the future: it takes time. Similarly, most of the pages in this novel are devoted to recreating the broader reality of this woman’s life, so that the scenes directly related to her espionage activities will be credible in that context.
Particularly striking is the backstory of Noor’s love for Armand (who had been declared an inappropriate match for Noor by her father) and the sense of place (especially in Paris, France but also in Pforzheim, Germany). Ultimately, the novel is about identity and courage, at the individual and national level. “She could lie to herself as well as anyone else; had she not hidden herself from herself these many years?”
Noor’s Indian heritage affords her a chameleon-like complexion, suitable for representing a variety of ethnicities, but this fluidity causes complications at the personal level. Questions of independence and occupation loom large, not only in wartime politics and colonialization, but also in private declarations of faith. “Nothing in my circumstances has altered since the Allies landed but my capacity for acceptance, my perception of my own adaptability. I am a Sleeping Beauty waiting for her prince; all of us are waiting.”
Noor, in The Tiger Claw, has many secrets; she is engaged not only in Resistance fighting, but in a personal struggle too, so betrayals cut across not only national boundaries but intimate relationships. “For both belonging and non-belonging, there’s no place like a war.”
Evan Munday’s M is for Morna (2013)
“So, welcome, dear readers, to the second adventure of the Dead Kid Detective Agency. Ta-da! You can expect the same kind of madcap exploits featured in book one — our plucky heroine with a penchant for black eyeliner and her five most deadest BFFs uncovering dark secrets that will rock the quiet town of Sticksville to its secretly rotten core and doing so in the zaniest possible manner. There may even be a few flashbacks in which we will peep in on Sticksville a hundred years in the past. Won’t that be thrilling?”
The adventures of October Schwartz continue, as do the pop culture references (skies as dark as a Marilyn Manson single, snow as fierce as Tyra Banks’ stare, etc.) and the sequential acts of loyalty and determination of our young crime solvers.
There are glimpses of serious issues lurking beneath the adventures (e.g. social injustice, bullying and mental illness), but the balance more often sways to entertainment, complete with some slapstick-y scenes, which will likely gain readers’ affections in its target audience (whereas the smartassedness of the narrative voice will have an even broader appeal).
Dear Writer: I will gladly read the third installment.
Elaine Lui’s Listen to the Squawking Chicken (2014)
It was an episode of “The Next Chapter” which convinced me to add this memoir to my bookshelves. (See this recent post for more chatter about my TNC addiction!)
Listening to Elaine Lui talk about her relationship with her mom was funny and heart-gripping too. The narrative is much the same.
This is not like Isabel Allende’s beautifully crafted Paula or Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles. Elaine Lui’s prose is unpolished and sometimes deliberately provocative. Well, she is a gossip queen, right? (Check out www.LaineyGossip.com or her TedTalk, “The Sociology of Gossip”)
Before you go dismissing her as an author, however, consider that gossip is story. And her appearance on 2015’s CBC Canada Reads (where she defended Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels like the Movies) underscores her belief in the power of stories to not only reflect but to transform our lives.
So Elaine Lui’s way of telling a story grabs hold and pulls you close, with intensity (not with finely crafted sentences). Sometimes it’s more about what she does not say: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Actually, this concluded the story she was telling perfectly, but you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree.)
Everything I know about Chinese Mothers, I learned from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, but now I have a two-book understanding. Because — wow: I feel like I really do know the Elaine Lui’s mother, the Squawking Chicken. “To me, she’s always been the main event, dominating the spotlight no matter the setting, the ultimate scene-stealer.”
Not only because her daughter did a brief impersonation of her mother’s manner of speaking during the interview with Shelagh Rogers, but because every single chapter in this memoir brings this woman off the page, vibrantly and lovingly. “I want her to be able to picture me. The world feels whole when we know where the other is.”
But because the Squawking Chicken is also the kind of person whose actions result in a passage filled entirely with exclamation marks, much of this book is not only interesting but gripping; at times one simply can’t believe that she will behave in a particular manner, and it’s mesmerizing to watch. “Everything the Squawking Chicken taught me—values, morality, discipline—was a result of her own personal brand of feng shui combined with Chinese astrology and fortune-telling.”
Nonetheless, even though the bulk of her opinions and mine might be filed in the dictionary under ‘o’ for ‘opposing’, I now find myself using some of her terms and ideas when moving through my own daily life after finishing reading this memoir. For instance, ‘low-classy’: “Low Classy is the term the Squawking Chicken uses to describe coarse behaviour. Leg jiggling is a coarse motion. There is no elegance in leg jiggling.” Whether or not I am in agreement, now whenever I see someone jiggling their leg, I think of the Squawking Chicken.
David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999)
My attachment developed based on assorted interviews which I’ve read and heard, and I was so convinced that I would enjoy his book that, as time passed, I began to worry that perhaps I would be disappointed after all — especially after hearing all the gripes about one particular chapter in The Bone Clocks. But, then again, I listened to several interviews with him about this novel and I could not resist.
So, finally, Ghostwritten. And it was everything that I was hoping for.
If you prefer a simple and uncomplicated linear plot, this is not the novel for you. In fact, it is not a conventional novel, but reads like a series of novellas, with different settings and styles and characters. (Not only is there a wide variety of settings in the novel, but they are complex too: “There are so many cities in every single city.”)
Nonetheless, the narratives are linked, and this is obvious within the first few sections, though only solidly so in the novel’s final sections (the second-last section is key – so you can see that patience is required).
It’s like that Muriel Rukeyser quote about the world being composed of stories, not atoms; that’s what makes up David Mitchell’s world for sure. “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up.”
And the lives of the characters in Ghostwritten too. “The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed. You are holding one of the pages where these stories tell themselves, Bat.”
The gradual intertwining of characters and narrative is incredibly satisfying if one views the world through connections to begin with (think E.M. Foster’s “Only connect.”).
But if one is not inclined in this direction, it might be less enjoyable; however, the author acknowledges this directly. “Anonymity doesn’t muffle coincidence: it makes the coincidences more outlandish.”
Were you reading anything outlandish in December?