Sunday, 15 April 2012

Never Let Me Go

***Spoiler alert***

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How far would we go to cure humanity of cancer, heart disease and the need for organ donation?

One of the reasons for reading Never Let Me Go is that it allows the reader to imagine a world where cloning is possible and examine the ethics of such an achievement.

Another reason for reading Never Let Me Go is that it is a beautifully written story and creation of character. The voice of the narrator, Kathy H, is pitch perfect; the plot skillfully weaves her thoughts, past and present. The novel proves what The Gallery (in the story) tried to do: The clones have souls.

Ishiguro seems to write novels of regret and there is a sober sense to this story since there is an inability or reluctance to change one’s fate.

This novel was selected by the Brampton Library’s Teen Council as its choice for The Battle of the Books.

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InfraredInfrared by Nancy Huston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I initially finished Infrared I thought it was simply OK. But then I spent some time thinking about the book. Infrared is a novel that needs to sit with you and stir in your gut.

The story involves a 45-year-old woman, Rena Greenblatt, as she takes her father and stepmother on a trip to Florence, Italy. Rena, a photographer specializing in infrared photography of damaged subjects, takes along her camera not so much to take pictures, but to stave off her anxiety about the trip.

Soon the reader realizes that Rena also carries a lot of emotional baggage, and has brought her alter ego/imaginary friend, Subra along for the trip. The invention of Subra allows Rena to have internal conversations about concerns, memories and events. It is a bit of an unsettling technique: It does underline Rena’s mental stability, or lack thereof. “Subra” is an anagram for “Arbus”, Diana Arbus, a Jewish-American photographer of the unusual. By the end of the novel, Rena comments: “What had she endured as a little girl, growing up in New York in that wealthy Jewish family whose privileges she detested? What evil had she been forced to construe as good, as irrevocably that she would spend the rest of her life blurring the nuances between the two?” (257). Change “New York” to “Montreal” and the same comment could be said about Rena.

Also mentioned is Lee Miller, who, at seven, was raped by a family friend and contracted gonorrhoea. Her vagina and uterus were subjected to acid baths for treatment. Miller went on to be a model for Man Ray and later a noted photographer of the Holocaust.

The stories of two female photographers are complemented by the fact that Rena’s paternal side of the family were almost entirely annihilated by the Holocaust. Her Grandmother Rena “sank into a permanent stupor” (45) after she saw the photographs of the camps. The damage becomes inherited.

Of course, Rena is a photographer of difficult subjects. It seems the inspiration for the novel comes from a wondering about what drives seemingly privileged female photographers to choose horrors and freaks as their subjects.

And there’s the sex. Oh yes, the sex. What happened to Lee Miller is a hint of what happened to Rena. There’s enough titillation in the book to get you started and keep you going.

One of the difficulties I had with the book is liking Rena. Her proud promiscuity is a turn off, and it’s also distancing to have a narrator who admits to making things up. Ultimately, I felt sorry for Rena; it’s painful to watch her self-destruct. The graphic aspects of this book will be difficult for some readers. For myself, I think I had wanted and expected a sunny story because it was set in Tuscany. This book is not that. It is gritty, disturbing, and unstable.

What I liked about the book wasn’t so much the characters and the story (why is Rena on this trip, anyway?) but where the novelist directed me to look: at artists and their art. It’s helpful to look at the art work or research the artists that Huston mentions in Infrared. However, that said, the references could take the reader away from the novel and to look at what perhaps inspired it.

Infrared is about layers, illusions, and emotional resonance, both for the characters and the reader. It needs to be re-read with an infrared “lens”. Rena uses this technique when photographing her subjects to strip away the surface and see the pain underneath. Rena wants to see other’s pain because it’s what she feels so much. Rena is stripped of everything by the end of the book: job, boyfriend, and father. She is left as vulnerable as she was as a child.

I encourage you after reading this book to let it settle. Then take the time to peel back the layers, examine the novel’s references on the internet, and cross-fertilize the information that has been presented to you.

Huston, Nancy, Infrared. Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2011. Print.

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SkimSkim by Mariko Tamaki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was wowed by this book. It subtly and sensitively deals with a girl’s coming of age and the struggle of closeted teens. We share the insights of growing up via the main character, nicknamed “Skim”. She wryly comments on her friend’s behaviour: “You can tell when Lisa’s nervous because she acts like I’m an idiot.” The book shows Skim negotiating her own sexuality and confusion, as well as dealing with fitting in. Her relationship with her English teacher, Ms. Archer, remains wonderfully ambiguous and provides lots of fodder for discussion.

After I finished reading Skim, I started to compare it to Bigfoot, a boy’s coming of age graphic novel. Both books take place in an insular and claustrophobic atmosphere: Skim in an all-girl’s Catholic school; Bigfoot in a small Quebec town. Both settings are a great metaphor for the dilemma of teenage-hood: Feeling chocked by the rules and expectations of the adult world, but still not quite prepared for the responsibilities of full adulthood. Skim is more subtle, dark and complex; Bigfoot is humourous and straightforward. I thought these two books would make interesting examples when examining books, reading and gender.

Both books contain mature content and coarse language. But both contain realistic dialogue and are compelling reads. I have less an issue with having Skim in my school library because of its subtleness.

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BigfootBigfoot by Pascal Girard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bigfoot contains a teenager’s world of sexual urges, falling in love, YouTube embarrassment, having a best friend who could be your worst enemy, and a crazy uncle who is obsessed with proving the existence of Bigfoot.

Jimmy is the likeable, sensitive hero of this graphic novella who never seems to be quite in control of his fate. Jimmy’s attempts at forming complex relationships is what grabbed me and the realistic dialogue kept me reading.

There is a marvellous sense of setting: Everyone knows Jimmy in the small town isolated by a ring of woods. No matter where he goes--to the local depanneur, the cinema, or a video store--all recognize hiim as the boy in the YouTube video.

I guess I would have liked to see Jimmy “win” by the end of the book, but perhaps there’ll be room for that in a sequel.

Since we are entering a teenager’s world, there is some explicit language and images.

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Goliath (graphic novel)

GoliathGoliath by Tom Gauld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goliath is the gentle giant, an administrator in the Philistine army, and a very reluctant soldier. He’d rather push papers than lift a sword. Tricked to take on the Israelites, rumours begin to circulate about his prowess just because of his size.

Minimal text, deep thoughts, a flipped version of history. Lots to talk about after the story is over. Visual poetry.

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Plain Kate

Plain KatePlain Kate by Erin Bow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sweet new fairy tale complete with witches, Eastern-European flavour and a talking cat. Recommended for tween girls.

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