This year the gimmick is a “turf war” between the various regions of Canada – what are the best books originating from each of 5 regions (BC & the Yukon, the Prairies & North, Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic), and which region’s book will be the ultimate winner?
Here are a few thing’s I’ve noticed about this year’s selection:
Although the Quebec longlist contains The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (a crime/detective novel), I don’t any other genre books in the running – just staid, “serious” books from the CanLit monolith. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments.
The Ontario longlist incudes books by Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Michael Ondaatje, 2 of which I had to read in high school. How adventurous!
The Quebec longlist contains only 3 novels originally published in French. Fittingly, one of the English novels on Quebec’s longlist is Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes.
So, what are your thoughts on this year’s crop of Canada Reads selections?
Title: Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter Author: Carmen Aguirre Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre Rating: 4 out of 5 Format: eBook
My last book review was for On a Cold Road by Dave Bidini. This time, I’ll talk about another Canada Reads book – the one that actually won the contest.
About the book: Carmen Aguirre was born in Chile, and lived there with her family until Pinochet’s coup in 1973. After the coup, they fled to Vancouver and supported Chile’s resistance movement from afar. A few years after entering Canada, however, Aguirre’s parents split and her mother started a relationship with a Canadian political activist.
Ultimately, Aguirre, her sister, and her stepfather left Vancouver (and Aguirre’s father) behind and returned to Latin America, travelling between Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina to support the movement against Pinochet. Something Fierce documents the reality of living a double life – bourgeois importers and teachers on one hand, and underground revolutionaries on the other – as Aguirre shuttles back and forth between Canada and Latin America and lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty.
What I liked: This book provides a rare and detailed glimpse into the life of being an underground revolutionary, and the stresses that such a life entails. Imagine being tailed by a government operative – how do you move around in a supermarket so as to avoid suspicion and evade capture? Suppose that your parents have been absent from your hotel room for over 24 hours, and you have to notify the other members in your underground cell by dialing a phone number you don’t know, speaking a strange code, burning all evidence of the paper the number was written down on, flushing the ashes down the toilet, and waiting for your rescuer to pick you up – could you remember what to do or say?
Aguirre doesn’t flinch from discussing the hazards of underground life, like wallpapering a safe house in newspaper so that any revolutionaries detained by the police wouldn’t be able to give a meaningful description of what it looked like inside. The riotous life and colour in La Paz, and Aguirre’s happiness to be there, are thoroughly evoked. Amazingly, Aguirre doesn’t play the my-childhood-was-miserable game that so many other memoirists do. I was constantly surprised by how little anger she directed towards her family for dragging her into a world so full of danger, violence, and fear.
What I disliked: Despite the vivid detail Aguirre includes about the demands of being a revolutionary and the excitement of living in Latin America, I still never got a sense of who the characters were as people. Aguirre mentions several times that Bob Everton, her stepfather, had a temper that could flare up at a moment’s notice, but this is described rather than experienced, and his outbursts are never explained – was he a naturally angry man, or was he reacting to the stress of living a double life?
In addition, I also wanted to know more about Aguille’s sister, Ale. It’s hinted throughout Something Fierce that Ale wasn’t nearly as accepting of the family’s political activities as Aguirre was. The author acknowledges at the end of the book that Ale wanted her story to remain private; Aguirre does her best to fulfill her sister’s wishes, but that comes at the expense of sidelining her. I think it would have been interesting to see more clearly how Ale’s opinions and desires dissented from those of the rest of her family.
Other pivotal events in the story were discussed, but felt underdeveloped and glossed over. These include Aguirre meeting and marrying her compañero Alejandro, the revelation that that her seemingly pro-Pinochet grandmother was also part of the resistance movement, and the family’s subsequent decision to alternate routinely between living in Vancouver and living in Latin America.
Finally, because this is a book about Latin American politics, it contains a lot of information needed to get the reader up to speed. If you know a lot about 20th-Century Latin American history already, you’ll breeze through the summaries Aguirre inserts, but otherwise, it gets a bit infodump-y.
The verdict: Although there were flaws, I enjoyed Something Fierce. Its strengths lie in evoking a time and a place and in describing the various subterfuges needed to participate in an underground resistance while living a “normal” life to avoid suspicion. I have a profound respect for Aguirre’s tenacity and her continued love for her family despite the danger that her mother and stepfather exposed her to.
Title: On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock Author: Dave Bidini Publisher: McLelland & Stewart Rating: 3 out of 5 Format: eBook
I was spurred to read this book because of its inclusion on this year’s “Canada Reads” shortlist. Of the 5 books on the list, I’ve read 2 so far – Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce is next. So, which memoir will come out on top? One that’s nostalgic for the pleasures and perils of being on the road, or one that’s about underground revolutionaries in Latin America? Read on to find out.
About the book: In the mid-90s, Bidini’s band, The Rheostatics, was the opening act for The Tragically Hip on their “Trouble at the Henhouse” tour. On a Cold Road is Bidini’s memoir of the tour, compiled from the journal entries he wrote during it. However, the book also aims to serve as a collective history of touring across Canada, and includes anecdotes and recollections from Canadian musicians from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
What I liked: In this book, Bidini captured the allure of travelling and performing on the road, and made it comprehensible to us non-musicians. He made me feel the urge to pack up, get in a van, and drive across the country to visit all of the little hole-in-the-wall places that I could – despite the fact that I still don’t have a driver’s license.
His emotions became my own. I felt the frustration he did when The Rheostatics kept on encountering the rising popularity of The Tragically Hip in unexpected places and comparing it to their own lower level of success. I felt the sadness and alienation he did when he thought he became friends with Joey Ramone, only to meet Ramone at an autograph signing and find out that the other musician looked worn out and didn’t remember him at all. His realization made a cold wave of sadness wash over my stomach: “He had no idea who I was. I left the store. Outside, the rain felt like spiders.” Is there anything else one can say after that?
What I disliked: The book’s structure was disjointed, and the anecdotes provided by other Canadian musicians about the growth of the Canadian music scene in the 50s, 60s, and 70s didn’t mesh with the framework provided by Bidini’s own writing. The stories that the other rockers provided were grouped together by theme, but I often found it hard to detect a throughline between what everyone else was talking about compared to Bidini’s narrative frame.
More egregious, though, was the huge gender imbalance between the number of male musicians that were quoted compared to female musicians. Given the context (Canadian rock in the mid-20th Century) I understand that there probably weren’t a lot of women in the industry. But the number of times that women musicians were quoted or mentioned absolutely pales in comparison to the number of men. I bet that Greg Godovitz had more space in the book devoted to him than all of the women in it combined.
On top of that, most of the men who did mention women in music in any sort of context talked about the wonderfulness of having groupies. I didn’t need to know about how some musician in the 60s got a tongue bath from a willing groupie, or how some lovely angel of a young woman rehabilitated some hapless rocker by taking him in and doing his laundry. Women as sex objects? Rock on! Women as maternal caregivers bringing hope and cleanliness? Great! Women as equals and musicians in their own right? Meh.
The verdict: Bidini is obviously skilled with words, and some stories he captures, like the experience of performing at Maple Leaf Gardens, are imbued with magic. It also helps that I’m a huge Tragically Hip fan, and that I have a copy of “Live Between Us,” their live album made from the same tour that Bidini was part of. However, On a Cold Road still didn’t “sparK” to me very much. While I was reading this book, I had some money in my iTunes account, and it never occurred to me to buy a Rheostatics album with it – instead, I spent the money on some Neko Case music. I think that’s pretty representative of my stance towards the book – interesting enough, but not so interesting as to encourage further investigation.
Up next:Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre