Review: River of Smoke Is Why The Year Wasn’t As Bad As It Looks

You would think in a year that the Giller short list was described as “unusually strong” the Globe and Mail could have sounded less apologetic about the books which made their Globe 100 (The Very Best Books of 2011).  1Q84: “This colossus is expansive, enthralling, but also an over-long and occasionally exasperating foray into the lure of fanatical beliefs.” A Dance With Dragons:  “The story has expanded far beyond the original characters to become a labyrinthine edifice”. Blue Nights: “This book … is somewhat jumbled.” By Love Possessed: “As a rule, this, broadly deployed, amusingly distances us.”  The word “but” appears 24 times. The book suffers from these faults BUT in the end it was okay.  I guess.  If you really must read something.

I’m not being entirely fair, of course. I’m probably projecting my own feelings about much of what I read of 2011. By some miracle I have actually read two of the books which made the list – The Sisters Brothers and A Dance With Dragons – and my reaction to both titles was pretty similar given how completely different they are. That was fun, I guess. So that happened. The much-lauded Sisters Brothers was definitely the better of the two, being more stylistically adventurous and, you know, succinct.  Unlike Dance it had an idea of where it was going and went there. Along the way I laughed. I appreciated deWitt’s human characters in circumstances which might have more easily fallen into melodrama. But (but) ultimately I found The Sisters Brothers too simple and too shallow. A clever edifice and some elegant language doesn’t make a great book for me. I might never have mentioned anything but for the bewildering heap of awards which continue to rain down on it. If anything I feel the need to mention that I find this bewildering. The book was good. It was not great.

I wonder if the Globe’s many reviewers felt similarly. A year of good books – maybe not great ones, but good. Of course, in a year, how many new releases do we actually manage to read? I’m a slow reader – I only managed 32-ish books this year. Of those a tiny fraction were newly published this year, a nice round five. I’ll name them for you: Pigeon English by Steven KelmanWise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin and River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. But even in so small a sampling I think I can do the Globe’s reviewers one better, because I thought River of Smoke was absolutely fabulous.

For those of you just tuning in, River of Smoke is Amitav Ghosh’s “sequel” to his 2008 Booker-nominated Sea of Poppies. Calcutta-born Ghosh has said that these books (which Wikipedia describes as “the Ibis trilogy”, though I have heard Ghosh say there may well be more than three of them by the time he’s done with these characters) represent his attempt to show that there existed – and exists – a globalized world exclusive of Western influence. The theme of both books thus far can probably be broadly described as being “trade”, though for Ghosh no ology or ism is outside his purview. We have Free Trade and slavery, colonialism and multiculturalism, racism and camaraderie, modernism and magical realism. Ghosh’s project is to show that we have always been modern, been globalized, and furthermore “we” needn’t necessarily include a single European.

Half way through Sea of Poppies I was skeptical. I felt Ghosh’s politics were simply too heavy-handed. Characters were having the most appallingly contemporary conversations about neo-liberal political ideologies thickened by the worst kind of in-your-face racism. It wasn’t even satire, it was just a blunt stick. An example, from a British trader’s casual conversation in Sea:

‘The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principal: for freedom – for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principals apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade. More so, perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.’

So I thought, until I heard Ghosh interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel during the 2008 International Festival of Authors. Then I learned that Ghosh wasn’t just piping his politics through villainous caricatures, but was actually using conversations cribbed entirely from historical archives. This spun my understanding of the novel entirely on its head: this was real. We really were modern. Nothing has changed. This isn’t a new fight. There are valuable lessons to be learned and Ghosh was serving up history in the best possible way.

River of Smoke does not pick up where Sea of Poppies left off. Ghosh smartly avoids the “and then…” soap opera styling that genre fiction almost always falls into (*ahem* A Dance With Dragons) by literally scattering his characters all over the colonized world with one Deus ex hurricane. River follows the storylines of two of Sea‘s main characters, Paulette, the French-Indian botanist and Neel, the Bengali rajah-cum-escaped convict. Both characters find themselves in early 19th century Canton amid the politics and events that lead up to the First Opium War. The effect of the “scattering” is to arrive at an entirely new novel which does not in any way require the reader to have read Sea of Poppies, but continues exploring the events, politics, and connections which informed the far East.

Ghosh can do it all, as far as I’m concerned. His writing is stylish, poetic and beautiful. His story is exciting, funny, and human. The history is layered with human stories on top of quirky facts (like the incidental history of chai and samosas) couched in the big geopolitical picture.  He uses a variety of pidgin dialects without providing (as he did in Sea) a glossary, but it takes no time at all for the reader to become fluent. Even at 500+ pages, the read never feels overwhelming or over-long. Every word has its place.

Maybe Ghosh doesn’t need my little recommendation, being as he already has had about every possible positive endorsement a writer can hope for in his career.  But I loved this book so much and it pains me to see it passed over on this year’s Best Of lists (so far) in favour of other books which don’t even seem to come 100% recommended by their recommenders.  I won’t qualify my praise at all: this book is excellent. Read it. And read Sea of Poppies while you’re at it. You are missing a real feast!

Canada Reads 2012: Literary Chop Round-Up

I managed, despite a sleepless night, a broken furnace, and two cranky small children, to make it out to CBC’s Canada Reads 2012 launch today! Ten minutes before I left my house, the Book Madam (Julie Wilson) tweeted the final five line-up and I was able to form all kinds of prejudices in the hour it took me to get downtown on the subway. Last year I had expressed my disappointment with the purely “entertainment” background of the panelists and this year’s list seemed to push even further in that direction, threatening even to make true yesterday’s sarcastic jibe about reality tv stars.  The books were solid, but the panelists? I was skeptical. I will cautiously, optimistically say now that my fears seem largely unfounded. What sounded bad on paper (“supermodel”, “star of reality show”) turned out to be gross simplification of much more interesting and, thankfully, well-read personalities.  I had the chance to ask a few quick questions about the reading habits of each panelist, summarized below. (Apologies to the CBC for cribbing their images – time is short this evening.)

Anne-France Goldwateris clearly a formidable woman. She earned some derision on Twitter for her comment (which I managed to miss – such is a hazard of tweeting something live) that she doesn’t read Canadian literature, but when I asked her what she reads instead she directed me to Danielle Trussart’s Le train pour Samarcande. This is not only a Canadian book (from Quebec, and as Goldwater claims to be a staunch Federalist, I assume Quebec still counts) but was a contender for this year’s Combat des livres. She also spoke highly of Dany Laferrière’s Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer (another Quebecois novel), describing Laferrière as “a french Anne Tyler”. Goldwater self-identifies as a heavy reader and, having heard her speak now, I believe her. I have no doubt she will be a very strong contender for the win.

Arlene Dickinson also claims to be a heavy reader. This I don’t doubt – not only was she eloquent, concise and poised at the launch, but she picked what is in my opinion one of the strongest books on the list. But I have to lament briefly the loss of the old Canada Reads format; you know, the one where panelists actually get to recommend for us a book of their own choosing, because Dickinson, when asked, spoke passionately about an entirely different work of Canadian non-fiction, Margaret Trudeau’s Changing My Mind. I overheard her later recommending this book again to someone else, so colour me intrigued! How many other panelists are fighting for their second (third, fifth, eighth…) choice? Regardless, Dickinson is standing behind a wonderful book, and she seems as able as anyone to give Anne-France Goldwater a run for our money.

I was totally skeptical about Shad, and now I feel like a total douche for doubting him just because he’s a rapper. His introduction to Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre sortof blew my mind; a perfect blend of eloquence, politics, rousing rhetoric and insight. Unsurprisingly, he is another self-described heavy reader, though admits he is “more of a non-fiction guy” (was this a pitch? I’ll never know). Still, when I asked him to recommend me something, he chose Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection, as well as Tolstoy – “his later non-fiction stuff”. *swoon* He is no intellectual lightweight. I’m secretly rooting for him & Aguirre to win – though I haven’t read the book and can only hope it lives up to my (now-heightened) expectations.

Okay, okay, the gushing ends here. Alan Thicke. When I asked him if he reads much, he almost laughed and said “no, not at all.” Just hockey books, I ventured? No, “mostly periodicals”. Okay, fine. Every panel needs a Nicholas Campbell, I guess. He’d sort of lost me during his introduction anyway, when he made some pretty bone-headed jokes about books for men versus books for women which fell pretty flat in a field where the lady-writers had produced heavy, serious books about war, human rights and revolution.  The room chilled noticeably (more so than Anne-France’s revelation that she is a Stephen Harper supporter – a pretty ballsy move in the middle of the CBC, let me just say).

My friend suggested that Ken Dryden should have defended his own book, and I really could’t agree more.  What a treasure HE turned out to be! Too bad that’s not how the game works.

Stacey McKenzie was another self-identified heavy reader of “non-fiction books”, “like memoirs”. Unfortunately I couldn’t wring any further evidence out of her because she insisted that her choice, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road, was the book she’d most recommend any day of the week, out of any field. Sounded a bit like a pitch to me. She admits she “has ADD” and needs a book to be snappy and grab her right away, or she can’t get into it – a quality which never struck me as being conducive to particularly extensive reading, but those could be my pesky prejudices again. What she lacks in eloquence she more than made up for in enthusiasm. I now fully expect On a Cold Road to completely blow my mind.

So learn from my mistake, O Reader. This might not look like much of a literary panel on its surface, but just below lurks the makings of some potentially great literary debate. Fingers crossed! Now for the reading – I’m cracking the spine on The Tiger tonight – and we’ll revisit the subject in February. I’m so excited to be… well, excited!

Back to Work!

Oonagh Elizabeth, her grandmother, and a carrot.

It has been five months since my last post. It has been an eventful five months for me. I am now mother to two beautiful girls, the younger of whom turned four months old yesterday. This might seem like a short “maternity leave” by Ontario standards, but Oonagh is a shockingly calm and self-satisfied baby and now, just over the newborn hump, I find I have no further excuse to avoid writing from time to time.

Not that I am looking for an excuse – I have been mentally composing blog posts for months now as exciting and interesting bookish things have cropped up, but have simply lacked the spare hands to type them up. I’ve re-read two epic speculative fiction series with mixed feelings, had heaps of much-anticipated new releases arrive for me at my bookstore, watched a really exciting awards season come and go, met new friends who also happen to be writers, discovered a true love of Canadian children’s storyteller Celia Barker Lottridge, had revelations about a three-year-old’s expectations of narrative, learned bizarre new things about digital textbooks… all of which I’m drooling to blog about, and will, over the next few months.

But probably most pressing, as my readers probably already know, is the imminent announcement of this year’s Canada Reads picks! I haven’t been following the bloggosphere at all these past months so I post this in innocence of everyone else’s three cents worth. But for my part, I am excited this year. While the CBC hasn’t abandoned their new crowd-sourcing mechanism for picking books (which I railed about last year) this year’s focus on non-fiction pretty much scuttles any potential that the final list will wind up as lackluster as last year’s. Canadian non-fiction is virgin territory for Canada Reads, and every one of the top 10 books (and, really, the top 40) is a big, relevant, important read. They can’t really go wrong, unless the five panelists are all 17-year-old reality television refugees without a literary credit among them. My reading this year – especially over the last six months – has been shamefully indulgent, so I’m thrilled to have an impending pile of books which will actually challenge my sleep-deprived and rusty intellect a little. My great hope is that the same will be true of the scores of people who read these books this year.

The big reveal is Wednesday, and I promise to do my homework between now and then. I’ll be back on twitter, the blogs, and, come Wednesday, the CBC building! Anyone else going to be there? I could use a little hand-holding through my return to the adult world. Not to mention that it will be the first time in months I’ll have two-or-more hours spent without a pre-schooler attached to me. I want to make the most of it!

No pressure, I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself either way! See you around…