Wednesday, May 23, 2018

L'Avalée des avalés

So, obviously, I haven't continued to write reviews of Governor-General winners, but I have continued to read them. Some have been quite good, some have been less so, but I guess none have particularly struck me like Réjean Ducharme's L'Avalée des avalés, which won in 1966. I think this novel is one of the best and most challenging that I've ever read.

First, a note on language, I consider myself proficient, but notably not fluent in French. I can converse fairly comfortably. I can read generally fairly well, but I find it convenient to have a dictionary handy. That said, I am much more inclined to go with the flow rather than look up every word. So, everything I am writing should be taken within that context

This is an incredible novel and I still can't quite get my head around it. It tells the story via first person narrative of Bérénice Einberg, a young girl growing up in an abbey on an island. She hates both her parents (she believes that they hate her too, but that part is more open to interpretation) and feels alone. Her loneliness is one of the themes that underpin the novel. The narrative often veers from the philosophical to the fantastical to the mundane, which is part of what makes it so challenging. There is generally no segue either, so one has to read carefully, and it leads to questioning what has really happened within the context of the novel and what hasn't.

She reads classics and feels isolated from her peers. She is, to put it mildly, precocious, more accurately, a smart ass. When the police pick her and her brother up and ask for their address, she replies:

"Notre adresse, messieurs, c'est : Monsieur et Madame Homme, Planète Terre, Système solaire, Infini. Otez donc vos chapeaux, goujats !" (p. 159)

Likewise, when her father asks her accusingly what love is, she replies:

"Tu ne le sais donc pas, vieux comme tu es? C'est comme toi et ta maîtresse." (p. 177)

In between her witty retorts, she often expresses her loneliness and isolation from the world and society. Ducharme's prose expressed by Bérénice is magnificently rich and vivid. She often expresses how she's feeling or what she's thinking through deep, extended metaphors.

There are some fairly obvious parallels between L'avalée des avalés and Catcher in the Rye. Both Berénice Einberg and Holden Caulfield are rebellious, young protagonists who feel estranged from the world and are resentful towards adults. They are both written from a first person perspective with unreliable narrators. And to extend the similarities further, both Ducharme and Salinger were recluses. That said, although I have a soft spot in my heart for Cather in the Rye from my teenage years, I find L'avalée des avalés stands above through its rich literary style.

The novel was apparently originally refused publication in Québec (https://www.ledevoir.com/lire/329205/portrait-de-rejean-ducharme-a-70-ans) and has taken on something of a cult status (http://www.lapresse.ca/arts/livres/201608/25/01-5013921-livre-culte-lavalee-des-avales-de-rejean-ducharme.php). I can certainly see how it was controversial: the theme of rebelliousness, frank discussion of masturbation, criticism of religion, and some borderline incest: Bérénice is in love with her brother. While I wouldn't say that it ever takes on a serious, sexual dimension, there is certainly a lot of romantic language used (which Bérénice uses at least in part to make others uncomfortable and to get herself in trouble/isolate herself).

I've barely mentioned the plot, and that is intentional. First, I think this novel is more about feeling than events. Secondly, I think it's best experienced for yourself. Third, there is a degree of uncertainty in determining what actually happens and what Bérénice perceives to have happened. Most importantly, when I reflect back on what I enjoyed most about this novel, it's Bérénice as a character.

So, all of this is to say that I greatly enjoyed reading L'avalée des avalés and I highly recommend it.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Precipice by Hugh MacLennan

The Precipice, the fiction winner of the Governor-General's Award in 1948 is a tremendous novel. The Precipice is an extremely dense novel with well-developed characters that discusses: relationships, marriage, Canada and the U.S., small town Ontario, religion, and war. MacLennan manages to fit all of this in organically and without becoming preachy.

The Precipice tells the story of Lucy Cameron, a thoughtful woman well on the way to becoming an old maid in small town Ontario with her older sister, until she encounters an American, Stephen Lassiter, who sees her as a desirable woman (in stark contrast to the townspeople). Before long, Lucy falls in love with Stephen, who eventually whisks her away to New York. while this may seem stereotypical, the plot becomes more complicated and the characters often comment on and work against the clichés that they knowingly fall into.

As the story develops, the characters come to grips with the harshness of war as well as the consequences of modern capitalism.

A Brief Note on The Government of Canada by R. MacGregor Dawson

The Government of Canada by R. MacGregor Dawson, which won The Governor-General's Award in 1947 is exactly what one would expect: a solid explanation of the workings of the Canadian government with some historical context. There's not really much to elaborate on. The style is effective and the content is thorough. If you want to learn about the Canadian government in the 1940s, it's a good book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review of Bonheur d'Occasion (The Tin Flute)

Technically, as with Ringuet's Trente Arpents, the English translation of Bonheur d'Occasion won the 1947 Governor General's Award for fiction. However, as I am reasonably competent in French, I chose to read the original.

Bonheur d'Occasion tells the story of a working class family in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood of Montreal. In particular, the narrative focuses on the eldest daughter Florentine, and to a lesser extent her mother with other family members playing less significant, but sometimes important roles. The story centres on Florentine and her romantic interest in Jean Lévesque and her later relationship with Emmanuel Létourneau.

While the characters are certainly important, Gabrielle Roy's novel speaks to larger issues including urban poverty in Montreal, social class, language issues, and the Second World War. Roy has created a novel full of local colour and larger social, political, and cultural issues.

Beyond the strong narrative and social issues, Roy's use of language is tremendous. She describes scenes eloquently with precision, while not bogging the reader down in endless detail.

Overall, this is a very impressive novel. It works on every level and I am at a loss for any serious criticism. It succeeds as a period piece and as great literature.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Nintendo pulled me back in and then pushed me back away

First off, if you're not familiar with Project Rainfall, you may want to check out http://oprainfall.blogspot.com/ .

From the late 80s to the mid 90s, I was a big video game player, well as much as a kid in school can be. I had an NES and an SNES, and while I don't remember how many games I bought or played, I do remember spending many hours playing games from Super Mario Bros. 3 to Final Fantasy 6 (or 3 as it was known at the time). I actually had a poster of a Moogle in my bedroom.

However, in the late 90s, video games began to take up less of my time. There were probably a lot of reasons. Mostly, real life seemed to take up more of my time, but additionally, two trends contributed to my increasing indifference: the increasing popularity of first person shooters and increasingly complex controllers. For many video game players, Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 represents one of the great first person shooters. For me, it was totally uninteresting. This might not have mattered, except that I found it and games like it were becoming increasingly popular among my friends. I should point out that this is NOT a criticism of first person shooters. I don't find them appealing, but I have no issue with other people liking them. It just became slightly discouraging that the type of game that most people wanted to play had no interest for me.

Probably, the larger issue was the increasing complexity of controllers. The Nintendo 64 controller was daunting and the Gamecube controller only more so. Undoubtedly, for people who owned the system, these controllers became very familiar, but for someone who largely played over a friend's house, competency was challenging.

Years passed, and I found myself busy doing other things. Going out drinking was certainly an important leisure activity at the time.

In any case, I didn't think much about video games until I began doing a lot of traveling. In 2005, I got a Nintendo DS with Mario Kart DS. The DS appealed to me because its buttons were similar to those of the SNES and the touchscreen seemed very intuitive. Plus, Super Mario Kart was one my favourite games as a kid and I had continued to enjoy subsequent versions. The DS hit the proverbial sport. Mario Kart DS was more fun than the original and the DS controls were easy to master. Over the years I bought numerous DS games from popular titles like New Super Mario Bros. to more obscure ones like Avalon Code.

In short, the DS rekindled my enjoyment of gaming. When Nintendo began showing off the Wii, it seemed like the perfect console for me. The motion controller was exactly what I was looking for. Also, it was inexpensive and I didn't have an HDTV. The Wii seemed to be about having fun, which was exactly what I was looking for. I bought one shortly after it came out and I loved Wii Sports and Rayman Raving Rabbids. As with the DS, some of the games I bought were popular hits like Mario Kart Wii, while others were more niche such as Fragile and Zack & Wiki.

However, as time passed, I began to seek something more. There seemed to be fewer and fewer games that appealed released for Wii. I became more interested in HD games and some of the advanced features of the other consoles. I wanted to play Final Fantasy XIII. Eventually, I purchased a PS3 (the reasons why I chose a PS3 over an Xbox 360 aren't important at the moment). While I continued to play both the PS3 and the Wii. I found myself playing more of the PS3.

Nevertheless, I was still waiting for certain Wii games, which I knew for certain that I would want to play: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, The Last Story, and Xenoblade. Skyward Sword was discussed as early as 2008, but has yet to be released. Meanwhile, despite an announcement at E3 2009, release in Japan, and impending release in Europe, Xenoblade still remains in limbo in North America. While The Last Story was never announced for North America, it too has been released in Japan and will be released in Europe. Tonight, Nintendo of America announced via Twitter that there continued to be no plans to release these games in North America, in spite of a large fan campaign (http://oprainfall.blogspot.com/).

So, to summarize, despite the fact that these two games are completed and available in English (and French and Spanish), Nintendo has chosen not to release them in North America. Moreover, because European and North American video systems are incompatible and Wii games are tied to the regions in which they are released, there is no reasonable way to play these games.

It's probably needless to say at this point, but I am very disappointed. I don't expect a capitalist enterprise to demonstrate loyalty, but I at least hope that it is willing to act in its own self-interest. While I'm not an expert in such matters, I find it difficult to believe that investment in a minimal North American release could be a significant expenditure for a large multinational entertainment company. Moreover, Nintendo could always license the game to another company to be published in North America.

And so I find myself disinterested in Nintendo's current and future projects. Although I was planning to buy both the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, I have lost interest. Why invest in a company that is unwilling to make a minor and likely profitable investment in what a significant number of its customers desire?

Maybe my attitude will change. Skyward Sword should be coming this holiday season. It could reignite my interest in Nintendo, its platforms, and its products. But, most likely, I think it will be the final swan song of my time as a Nintendo customer.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review of Colony to Nation

Arthur Lower's Colony to Nation: A History of Canada stands out as an excellent history of Canada. Lower incorporates a variety of material and approaches. He describes Canadian history at length from initial European incursions to North America to the present day (for him). There's no overarching narrative, but Lower includes a large variety of subjects including political, social, and cultural history.

Most interesting, at least personally, Lower pays close attention to both francophone and anglophone perspectives. Significantly, he concludes with criticism of both, but with far more directed at anglophone Canadians.

Overall, while one could criticize Lower's top-down approach to history, Colony to Nation works well as a national history of Canada.

The long delayed review of In Search of Myself

I must apologize for taking so long to write this short review of In Search of Myself by Frederick Philip Grove. The overly simple reason is that this book is awful. If you want to read hundreds of pages of an author describing how brilliant and unappreciated he is, then this book is for you. If you feel that artistic ability should never be compromised by accessibility, then this book is for you.

If, on the other hand, like me, you find an arrogant artist complaining constantly to be insufferable, then I recommend that you read almost anything else.

Stylistically, Grove is quite talented, but the content of this book is nearly nauseating. The book is an autobiographical account of Grove's life and work. It mostly consists of evidence of his genius, followed by his complaints that it goes unrecognized. Interestingly, Grove is unwilling to write more accessible books for a mass audience; instead he seems to prefer his role as the unappreciated artist, which would be fine if he accepted it. Instead, he seems to feel that the fault lies with the public for not buying his work.

Overall, unless you too are an unappreciated genius, I recommend that you give this book a pass.