Matt’s Weekly Reads, April 1, 2023

Spotlight

The Wars, Timothy Findley (1977)

In this classic of Canadian literature, a sensitive but disillusioned young man enlists in the army during the First World War, following the death of his sister. Faced with unspeakable horrors on the front and the callousness of his commanding officer, he makes a fateful choice for the sake of life. (In an insane situation, sometimes the most sane act is an insane one.)

The best word I can think of to describe this book is IMPRESSIVE. Findley’s prose is some of the best I’ve encountered; he can tell a whole life story in a sentence, or break your heart with a perfectly placed comment. He puts all these skills to work here with great effect. Maybe I’ve been reading too many books about magicians lately, but Findley strikes me as something of an illusionist in The Wars: This is all the wretchedness of war laid bare without any attempts to lessen it, valorize it, or wrap it neatly into grander narrative of history; there is no arc of personal redemption, heroism, or personal growth. It’s simply, in less than 200 pages, the annihilation of both Belgium and one young man’s psyche. And yet. Somehow, Findley manages this to feel meaningful and even uplifting. And so, this is an IMPRESSIVE book by a magnificent illusionist.

That said, Findley can make some strange choices about how he tells his stories (which is why I’ve had hit-or-miss luck with him in the past). And I definitely found that here. The Wars uses a ‘historical metafiction’ framework but does so inconsistently, flipping between traditional narrative and ‘interviews’ without any apparent reason. To my mind, if you’re going to tell a story using different ‘sources’, there should be a reason why you’re telling that story in that way, and you need to see it through. Another difficulty I had is that, despite this being a very personal story, we don’t see much of the protagonist’s personality. (His name is Robert — the fact that I’ve gone this far without saying his name should indicate just how roughly sketched he is.) Now, Findley is a brilliant writer, and so I have to assume he did this for a reason — perhaps an Edwardian teenager simply wouldn’t have much interiority or personality — but it made me uncomfortable as a reader. (Maybe this was Findley’s point? I wish I knew.)

So in the end this is a brilliant, moving, and yes, strangely uplifting, but also flawed book.

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • First World War
  • 20th Century History
  • Canadian History
  • War Stories
  • Canadian Literature

My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 8, Plot 10, Intrigue 10, Relationships 10, Success 9, Writing 10, Enjoyment 8, Lasting Impact 10: TOTAL 95

Weekly Roundup

Leaven of Malice (Salterton Trilogy 2), Robertson Davies (1954), 96: Chaos erupts in the small Ontario city of Salterton when a fake notice appears in the local newspaper announcing the engagement of the children of two feuding families. There are few things I love more about literature than when a book about subject matter in which I either have no interest or an active dislike draws me in by the sheer force of its brilliance. And this was absolutely the case with Leaven of Malice. It’s about self-serious people, small-town gossip, and petty litigiousness, themes I really dislike; yet this is a brilliant and hilarious farce, a wonderful satire of mid-century Canada, with some of the best writing the English language has to offer. (CanLit, Humour, Small Towns, Satire)

Frindle, Andrew Clements (1996), 94: A creative fifth-grader takes matters into his own hands when he finds out how words are formed. Soon, much to his teacher’s dismay, the word on every student’s lips is “frindle.” I’m not sure if it’s because I have a linguistics background and so am particularly susceptible to this book’s message and charms, but I honestly could not have loved this more. It’s short and hilarious and at the heart of it all it’s a great story about the relationships between students and teachers. Do yourself a favour and spend an hour reading this book!  (Middle Grade, Language, Education, Creativity, Teachers)

Honey and Spice, Bolu Babalola (2022), 85: Kiki is the host of a popular radio show for the Black community at her prestigious British university and she knows what’s what and uses her platform to buttress the ladies against the schemes and lies of players. But has she met her match in the new-to-campus Nigerian scion Malakai? This was a very solid new adult contemporary romance. Babalola has a great narrative voice and I laughed out loud more than once while reading this. It didn’t entirely work for me, but I am also very much not the intended audience, and that explained much of what didn’t ‘hit’. (Romance, College Life, Media, Race and Racism, Gender Politics, African Diaspora)

VenCo, Cherie Dimaline (2023), 80: A Metis woman in Toronto finds out she’s a member of a coven of witches called to restore the balance of power in the world and sets off on an adventure with her elderly grandmother. Cherie Dimaline is a wonderful writer and so this is a good book — better than my rating would indicate. Unfortunately this didn’t work for me, mostly because there are so many other books out there in this ‘witches as female resistance to the patriarchy’ space. It’s clearly a powerful trope, but it’s lost its impact for me without something ‘more’ to contribute to the space. (Feminism, Witchcraft, Patriarchy)

The Royal Ranger (Ranger’s Apprentice 12, The Royal Ranger 1), John Flanagan (2013), 92: Ranger Will Treaty, now a respected elder in the corps, is asked to take on an apprentice of his own: Princess Cassandra and Sir Horace’s high-spirited daughter, Princess Madeleine. As regular readers know, I loved John Flanagan’s classic middle grade adventure Ranger’s Apprentice series. So I was curious but a bit reluctant to see if he could recreate the magic with this ‘next generation’ series. And he most certainly did. The same great plotting, attention to detail, and respect for one’s adversaries that made the first series so wonderful is on display here, and the new apprentice Maddie adds a wonderful spark. (Note: While I think this probably still qualifies as Middle Grade rather than YA, it does skew a bit older than the earlier series.)  (Middle Grade/YA, Adventure, Girl Power, Coming of Age)

The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (ca. 1308-1321), 68: A poet who has lost his way finds himself on a tour of the afterlife in all its varying permutations, and meets some old friends and enemies along the way. First things first: this is one of the most important pieces of Western literature ever written and so it must be respected and admired on those grounds alone. But, for a twenty-first century reader, there isn’t much to dig into. Its theology, sociology, politics, and worldview are in equal measure unrelatable and unpalatable to our sensibilities. (And I say that as someone who has read pretty extensively in late Medieval and Renaissance periods; this was by far the least accessible or relatable of the bunch.) And, it suffers from the same fate as any work that makes overt references to contemporary pop culture and politics: the references are meaningless to anyone not of its native culture or time. This is an important piece of literature, but is probably best left for students of Renaissance Italy, its politics and religion. (Classics, 14th Century, Renaissance Literature, Christian Allegory)

Icebreaker, A.L. Graziadei (2022), 82 (NOTE: Not to be confused with the 2023 release of the same title by Hannah Grace). The top two NHL draft prospects end up as teammates in their first year of college. But their best laid plans to be enemies fall apart when they catch feelings for each other as they navigate their shared pressures of campus life and the weight of the expectations on their shoulders. This book does a lot really well, especially around mental health, family legacy, and difficult ‘new adult’ relationships with parents. The problem for me is that it tried to do too much. There are issues of privilege, class, gender, parenting, race, sexualities and relationship configurations of many different kinds, and mental health all vying for attention, and so there was no way Graziadei could handle them all well in a single book. I really liked the characters and appreciated the conversations happening here; I only wish it had had a bit more focus. (YA, Hockey, Romance, LGBTQ2S+, Mental Health, Parenting)

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