Dan's Bookshelf — Fiction
Updated: Nov 18
A (very) incomplete collection of books I've read and enjoyed. I am working on populating this list as I continue reading my way through the pandemic as well as going back and adding books retroactively, as I am able. You can check out my bookshelf for non-fiction here.
by Elizabeth Nunez
Read on 10 November 2020
The richness of this novel is the perfect illustration of why I consider The Tempest to be one of Shakespeare's least-compelling works. This isn't Shakespeare's fault, per se, and perhaps, if I had watched the original production in 1611, I would've enjoyed it more. However, with the benefit of a historical lens, Shakespeare is writing about a colony without any real understanding of how colonialism works. Where MacBeth shows Shakespeare's understanding of the lure that royal power has over a person, The Tempest lacks that context.
Fortunately, Nunez steps into the void left by Shakespeare. Prospero's Daughter is a captivating narrative that occurs at the intersection of class, sexism, and race against the backdrop of pre-independence Trinidad.
The island of Chachacare, off Trinidad, is her chosen colonial setting where "any Englishman can become a lord" by virtue of their skin colour. In true post-colonial fashion, Nunez hands the narrative to the Trinidadian characters of Ariana (Ariel) and Carlos (Caliban), as well as Virginia (Miranda). In The Tempest, Ariel (196 lines), Caliban (178 lines), and Miranda (153 lines) are minor characters in comparison to Prospero (656 lines). In Nunez's narrative, Prospero is relegated to the background, attempting to exert control over that which he cannot; ultimately, rendered powerless by the "lesser" characters who reclaim their narrative.
Also of note is how Nunez imbues the land of Chachacare with significance. The island on which The Tempest is set is insignificant; merely a platform for the story. For centuries, colonizers have viewed the land they take over in this way: it has no significance other than the value they can extract from it. Nunez uses Carlos' relationship to the land to expose the foolishness of this view and draw the reader into the lush paradise of Trinidad.
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl
by Joyce Carol Oates
Read on 14 December 2019
I read this book so I could teach it to my Grade 10 ELA class. It's definitely a young-adult novel but it is a great read and would recommend to an adult looking for an easy read.
Reasons to love this novel:
Ursula, the powerful and engaging female protagonist
Matt, the less engaging male protagonist who knows how to yield the stage to a superior character in Ursula.
The narrative shifts that allow the reader to inhabit the minds of both characters.
The manner in which the emotional struggles of the teenaged protagonists are laid bare in uncomplicated, yet evocative language.
Oates' clear, direct prose that is easy to follow without being simplistic.
Minor (minor!) criticisms:
In the year 2020, the characters' use of email feels dated. However, the function of email in the novel could easily be replaced by a more modern form of communication, so while outdated, it doesn't really take away from the story.
The third act twist felt like a bit much (not unbelievable, just unnecessary). However, it does provide the opportunity for Ursula to move fully develop as a character, so I am okay with that.
The storylines do tie up quite neatly at the end. However, given the intended audience (I teach it with Grade 10s), I understand the desire for an emotionally-satisfying ending. As an adult reader, it can feel a little bit simplistic.
In the Skin of a Lion
by Michael Ondaatje
Read on 22 October 2020
In her review of this novel for The Guardian, Anne Enright says that novels like this should come with a disclaimer to young writers: "Don't try this on your own". Her quip reminded me of another cliche that I think applies to this novel: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
I feel compelled to insert a disclaimer that I really enjoy Michael Ondaatje and his work. I teach both Running in the Family and the English Patient with my high school English Language Arts classes. Having said that, I didn't love this novel. I'm not entirely sure why this is the case: the meta-narrative of the story is certainly socialist in nature and it's a retelling of Canadian history, so it should check my boxes, and yet... it doesn't do it for me.
One of Ondaatje's particular strengths is constructing these hazy, dreamlike narratives that draw the reader into the story in the first half of the novel. I love that about his work. The question is always whether or not he can successfully tie the threads together in the second half. From a literal perspective, he certainly wraps everything up but I don't think it works.
So, why doesn't it work? This novel is both a fictional story but also a history of labour in Toronto; a gritty look at what had to be sacrificed by the working class in order to turn this city into a reality. The city of Toronto, one of the supposed jewels of modern Canada, is literally built on the backs of poor immigrant workers. This novel tries to do justice to their stories and therein lies the challenge. The meta-narrative of the novel is about how the machinery of capitalism will grind people up and spit them out. The system will sell them on the idea of something better (stability, wealth, or otherwise) until they have nothing left to give. The conflict is entirely between the characters and the system, which cannot be beaten. It doesn't matter if Clara goes back to Ambrose, it doesn't matter if Ambrose kills Patrick, or if Patrick dies in his attempt to swim into the waterworks. There is very little conflict between characters in the novel and what does exist is seemingly insignificant, which gives the reader little to invest in. The system cannot be beaten. We know this both historically and rhetorically; the novel makes that very clear.
At some point, I will try to read this novel again and see if I have a different perspective on it. I think it is a valuable piece of cultural history; a Canadian narrative, written about an immigrant, about immigrants. I just didn't enjoy it all that much.
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them
by Junauda Petrus
Read on 9 October 2020
In general, I prefer to avoid magical realism however, I picked this book up because of the Trini connection and I'm glad I did. This is ostensibly a young adult novel but it works for older audiences because there's so much going on in the story that requires context and maturity to understand.
POV: Petrus writes in a well-organized double-first-person narrative from two, very different but equally-likeable protagonists. Audre's parts are written in her Trini dialect, which I appreciated because dialect still does not get enough positive representation in literature. Of course, I am partial to the Trini dialect and unapologetically biased.
Culture: Petrus does well to situate the position of Black women in America as inherently political, without that overwhelming the narrative of the story and the plot development. The characters are allowed to drive the story but the politics never disappears (as is the case with Black women in America).
Magical realism: If you want a story to be nicely wrapped up by the end in a very literal fashion, this is not the novel for you. Magical realism begins to dominate the narrative in the last 1/3 of the book as the story reaches its climax. However, I think it is an apt choice for this story because as a child/teenager, this is how we view the world. We are more open to seeing magical or spiritual qualities in our every day life. Some of us lose that as we age and others carry it forever; however, for the two protagonists, the possibility of magic carries them through the narrative and I am happy to go on that journey with them.