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A Canadian Hat Trick: Obasan, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and Green Grass, Running Water

December 3, 2009

I find myself again wanting to review books in order to take my mind off other things. So today, I’ll talk about the Canadian books I’ve been reading! I finished three in November, which brings my total for the Canadian Challenge up to ten (I need to read and review thirteen in order to finish it; an accomplishment Kelly has already finished!). I’m reviewing them in the order that I read them, which also is the ascending order of how much I enjoyed them. :)

Obasan by Joy Kogawa
When I was making up my challenge list, Obasan immediately intrigued me, because it was about the WWII interment of Japanese Canadians. I didn’t realise the Canadian government had done the same thing as the American one, so I was curious to learn more. Having read this novel, I’m now in the market for some nonfiction about the topic, because if Kogawa’s narrator can be trusted the Canadian government was worse than the American one. But to the novel…from what I gather, this is autobiographical fiction. Obasan is now a grown woman teaching school, and the main story is told in flashbacks to her memories as a child and her life pre-WWII followed by internment and displacement. I liked how Kagawa mixes in Japanese words and concepts to the text; it felt both Japanese and Canadian in sensibility, and that’s a fine line to walk. That being said, I had a problem with Obasan herself; she’s incredibly timid and confused, and since the story is all told in her voice it was quite muddled. I understand that it’s a stylistic device, but it made me dread picking up the book to read another fifty pages. I loved the characters, especially Obasan’s female relatives-her aunts, her mother, her grandmother; they’re all drawn quite well, and I cared for them. And the story itself was compelling, though sad of course. I don’t know…it’s like everything in the book was wonderful except for Obasan and her voice, but since she’s the main aspect of the book that made a big difference. I kept willing myself to consider why Kagawa chose to make Obasan’s voice that way, and on an intellectual level I see how it shows that Obasan’s life was pulled out from under her as a child and she never recovered. I can admire that. But on a gut reading level, it made the book feel more like a chore, like something I’d read for high school and analyse. There was a spark missing.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
This one is all over the book blogosphere, but in case you missed it, Bradley is a septogenerian who just published this mystery book (the first in a projected series) set in 1950 England and narrated by a precocious eleven-year-old. I really enjoyed Flavia’s voice; it rather reminded me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Flavia’s family is hilarious; along with her two older sisters Ophelia (obsessed with the mirror) and Daphne (obsessed with books) she lives in a kind of run-down, intellectually eccentric aristocratic family that is so British and have some of the funniest one-liners. My favourite:

I knew that Feely and Daffy would never condescend to respond to a bell (“So utterly Pavlovian,” Feely said)…

Flavia herself is obsessed with chemistry (which reminds me of Oliver Sacks’ memoir Uncle Tungsten, and which I therefore loved), and with an aloof father and deceased mother, pretty much does whatever she pleases (it’s summer, so there’s no school). So the the book’s style and characters were sparkling and charming and all those other -ing adjectives, perfect to curl up with on a cold night with a mug of tea. That being said, the mystery itself was rather thin. There was only one real suspect, who was obvious from her/his first appearance, and many of Flavia’s ‘conclusions’ were unveiled with a bit more drama than they warranted. Still, that’s a small quibble (I know it doesn’t seem that way in a mystery novel, but really the plot’s just a vehicle to get to know the characters), and when the next Flavia book comes out I’ll definitely be reading it.

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
Hang on, I need to get something out of my system:

OMG, this book was SOOO good! And it just kept getting better! And I loved it so, so much! And it was so readable! But incredibly intelligent at the same time! Where has King been all my life?!

Whew-ok, now I might be able to talk about the book more coherently. Seriously: you should go read this. I promise you it won’t take that long; it’s both a quick read and a thought-provoking one. How often do you find those two characteristics in the same novel? Along with lots of fun characters and a plot that moves along quite nicely? That’s what I thought. I know that the actual page count for the book looks high, but so many pages are only half-filled with text, or even less, and the chapters are so short and snappy, you’ll be shocked at how fast you’re reading. It’s going to be difficult to summarise this book, though, because it deals with so much stuff. Basically: there’s a handful or so of Canadian Indians, all from the same reservation who grew up with each other and are in their late 30s, early 40s. And they’re all going about their lives, either in Toronto or still on the reservation; not completely satisfied but not horribly depressed either. Just normal. And you get more back story on each of them as the book progresses, but meanwhile they’re all being drawn back towards the reservation, where it’s almost time for the Sun Dance. Interwoven with all of their stories, there’s also one about a doctor who is looking for four old Indians who just escaped from his institution. And those four old Indians have a bit of a story too…it seems that they’ve been old and in that institutionfor at least one hundred years, and occasionally they escape which happens to coincide with various natural disasters…and they have the oddest names: Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye…and no one’s really positive about their gender. And then, there’s stories about the origins of the four old Indians, which are told by ‘I’ to Coyote, and which are wonderfully mythic and intersect with some classic Western stories, from the Garden of Eden to Moby Dick and beyond. And all of these characters come together in the end, and it all makes sense.

But why did I love this? Because I love myths, and King has done a wonderful job of weaving together Native American myths and Western European ones and making something fresh and new. Because I love trickster gods, and Coyote is just what I would expect. Because of writing like this:

“Oh, oh,” says Coyote. “Changing Woman is stuck on the island all by herself. Is that the end of the story?”
“Silly Coyote,” I says, “This story is just beginning.”

Because King weaves together mythic truths, and a profound look at the underpinnings of Western European thought, with characters whose individual fates I care about, from whether or not one will be able to have the child she craves to whether one will be able to keep the house his mother built by hand. I loved it, because it was perfect, because it echoed two of my very favourite authors ever, Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie, but at the same time the writing style was nothing like theirs. I highly recommend this book to everyone. Seriously.

68 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2009 8:18 am

    Eva, it’s interesting that you felt Obasan felt at times like a book you would read for an English class, because that’s exactly where most Canadians read it! This was one that was assigned in my Grade Nine (or “ninth grade” as you Americans like to call it), or possibly even Grade Eight English class, but I believe it was for the “weaker readers” in the class, so I have never actually read it (I wound up with “To Kill a Mockingbird”, instead, which was apparently the challenging read… which I suppose it was, since only myself and one other girl read it and our teacher gave us little to no information on it whatsoever and actually told us to just buy Coles Notes if we needed help interpreting it! Maybe that’s why to this day I’m one of those rare people who just doesn’t like the book very much!).

    All in all, I’m glad to hear that more or less your experience with Can Lit has been pretty rewarding!

    • December 4, 2009 9:23 am

      That is interesting! It totally felt like 8th or 9th grade to me. :) And I’m sorry you had a bad experience with To Kill a Mockingbird: you should give it another chance!

  2. December 3, 2009 8:50 am

    Okay, I’m off to get Green Grass, Running Water. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. December 3, 2009 9:03 am

    “Green Grass, Running Water” sounds great. This is definitely going on my TBR list. I read “Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” a couple of months ago, and I liked it a lot. I do agree that the mystery isn’t much of a mystery once the villain shows up, but the character sketches were more than worth it.

    • December 4, 2009 9:24 am

      Totally agree: the character were wonderful. :)

  4. December 3, 2009 9:24 am

    Three terrific books and a wonderful review Eva! I had never heard of the first and last, and the Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie I have been intrigued by for a while.

    I hope you are doing ok, I was very sorry to read about your sad news. I know how it feels. :(

    • December 4, 2009 9:25 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the reviews! :)

  5. December 3, 2009 9:36 am

    I am DEFINATELY going to get Sweetness and Green Grass Running water!

    What a great challenge!

    • December 4, 2009 9:25 am

      I’m glad! And the Canada Challenge has definitely been fun.

  6. December 3, 2009 10:27 am

    Ooh, yet another positive review on Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie! I’ve never heard of Green Grass, but now I’ll put it on the list.

    And, very excited to see you read & review Fingersmith!

    • December 4, 2009 9:26 am

      Next year for Fingersmith. :) Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a great comfort read, imo.

  7. December 3, 2009 10:51 am

    Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie has been on my radar since it started appearing on various blogs. Thanks to u I will finally order the book :) Looks like it is something I would enjoy reading. Thanks Eva. Also thanks for the recommendation of Embroideries..

  8. December 3, 2009 10:54 am

    I’ve had Green Grass, Running Water on my TBR list since you mentioned it on one of your Library Loot posts and have been looking forward to your review. This kind of thing is right up my alley with Native American mythology. I like the idea that it blends with Western European stories. I’ve mostly read Native American mythology as it relates to the Navajo, Hopi, and Ute so I’m interested to read this one as it relates to those in the Toronto area. Thanks for the great book reviews!

    • December 4, 2009 9:26 am

      Thomas King is Cherokee, so this is a new tribe. :)

  9. December 3, 2009 11:27 am

    I’ve been wanting to read Sweetness ever since I first heard about it. I must get my hands on this one!

  10. December 3, 2009 12:25 pm

    Someone recommended Sweetness to me the other day but I am not a big mystery person. I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.

    • December 4, 2009 9:28 am

      The mystery is almost incidental to the book-if you enjoy quirky characters or 50s England, stuff like that…I think you should give it a shot. :)

  11. historyofshe permalink
    December 3, 2009 12:44 pm

    I had no idea there were Canadian internment camps as well. This is not surprising though as my knowledge of Canada extends to Champlain, poutine, and loonies.

    Great reviews!

  12. December 3, 2009 1:16 pm

    I am so glad that you enjoyed Sweetness. It is one of my favorite reads of the year. I enjoyed Flavia and her family so much. I’m anxiously awaiting the next book in the series.

    And, I think you helped me find a Christmas present for a dear friend of mine with your review of Green Grass, Running Water. It sounds excellent and Native American stories and mythology are among her favorite things. Can’t wait to see if I can snag a copy for her.

    • December 4, 2009 9:29 am

      I think if your friend loves Native American stuff, she’d definitely enjoy the book. :D And I can’t wait to catch up with the de Luces either!

  13. December 3, 2009 2:07 pm

    So sorry Eva to hear about your Grandpa.

    I am looking forward to reading the Alan Bradley book – it sounds like fun.

  14. December 3, 2009 2:24 pm

    I wanted to say sorry about your Grandpa; it’s hard to lose a special person.

    I’ve heard of “the Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” but not of “Green Grass, Running Water”. They both sound good, but I think my reading priority would be Green Grass, based on your review!

    • December 4, 2009 9:29 am

      And you know that your library has it! ;) I’m returning it today, just in case you wanted to read it right away. hehe

  15. December 3, 2009 2:46 pm

    so now i’m going to have to read Sweetness sooner than i was planning. one person told me that flavia reminded me of the narrators in When You Reach Me and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and now it’s reminding you of WHALITC. i mean, it’s a good thing, but geez ;)

    • December 4, 2009 9:30 am

      I haven’t heard of those other two books, but Falvia is great fun! :)

  16. December 3, 2009 2:53 pm

    Oh, how I want to read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Everyone seems to love it.

  17. December 3, 2009 5:06 pm

    I LOVED Sweetness. Book two will be out in March and I’m looking forward to what Flavia has up her sleeve!

    • December 4, 2009 9:31 am

      Me too! I kind of hope it isn’t a mysery, but I know it will be.

  18. December 3, 2009 6:21 pm

    I loved “Green Grass, Running Water.” I read it in high school, but I really want to read it again now. I just loved how much fun Green seemed to have with the whole thing, and how it was absurd in this odd thought-provoking way.

  19. December 3, 2009 7:20 pm

    I’m going to have to add “Obasan” to my list; I didn’t know about the Canadian internment camps, either.

    • December 4, 2009 9:32 am

      In the book at least, they’re forbidden from returning to Vancouver for years, I think even after the war. Weird!

  20. December 3, 2009 9:52 pm

    Sweetness is such a great book.

    I’m so sorry to hear your sad news.

  21. December 4, 2009 7:27 am

    I have been trying to figure out a way to glance through Sweetness – it sounds like something my very-hard-to-buy-for mother would enjoy as a Christmas gift, but the library won’t let me place a hold, and the bookshop claims it has it in but then nobody can ever find it there. Grrrr. I may have to just order it and hope for the best.

    • December 4, 2009 9:33 am

      Doesn’t have the ‘look inside’ feature?

  22. December 4, 2009 8:11 am

    I am so pleased you read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie! I was lucky enough to be one of the reading review groups of the book back in 2008… its just made the wait for the sequel far too long for my liking!

    • December 4, 2009 9:33 am

      That’s neat you got a sneak preview! But yeah, waiting for the sequel must have been harder. :)

  23. December 4, 2009 2:27 pm

    These look great. Thank you for the detailed reviews. I’ve been meaning to order Sweetness from the library, but keep forgetting. I’ll pop over and do it NOW!. Thank you.

  24. December 4, 2009 9:06 pm

    One of my best IRL book buds told me to get Green Grass Running Water so I’m excited to say it is IN THE HOUSE. so glad to see you endorse it, too. and of course, I can’t wait to get to the Pie book.

    • December 13, 2009 3:47 pm

      Awesome! And you cracked me up with ‘in the house.’

  25. December 6, 2009 10:28 pm

    Thank you so much for blogging about Obasan. I’ve never heard of it but it’s going on my list right away. The subject sounds fascinating!

  26. December 7, 2009 10:48 pm

    Flavia would have to be my favourite character from my reading during 2009 – can’t wait to read more of her adventures!

  27. December 8, 2009 1:08 am

    I believe there’s a sequel to Obasan isn’t there?

    I was up in the air for Green Grass Running Water– on the one hand, lots of points for creativity. However, I was also confused quite a bit and sometimes I wondered if he didn’t do quirk for quirk’s sake.

    • December 13, 2009 3:47 pm

      Is there? I didn’t know! Green Grass, Running Water was definitely quirky-it was just my kind of quirky though. :)

  28. December 8, 2009 1:39 pm

    I don’t really like mysteries much but if it’s a light one I’m more likely to enjoy it! I like the title too — the reference to pie makes it sound very tastey.

    • December 13, 2009 3:48 pm

      lol-have you seen the cover? The dead bird might make it slightly less so. ;)

  29. December 9, 2009 7:28 pm

    I haven’t actually read Obasan (escaped that in school) but I do want to point out there there were internment camps for Ukrainians as well, in Canada during the war. There are a couple of books at about this same reading level on that subject, though they aren’t school texts.

    As for Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I agree with you on all your points! I loved the three sisters (esp. book obsessed Feely) and Flavia is such a fun creation. The mystery is minor compared to the hilarious chemistry and library mentions, and the family itself.

    And finally, so glad you loved Green Grass, Running Water. I love Thomas King! I went to hear him speak once and they had to delay it to find a bigger room for him to speak in — it was at university and so many people showed up for it. :) I enjoy his writing and am glad you did as well.

    • December 13, 2009 3:48 pm

      I didn’t know that (about Ukrainian internment camps), so thanks for telling me Melanie. And I’m jealous of you meeting Thomas King!

  30. December 15, 2009 7:02 am

    Eva, I’m writing my post on GGRW and had to come back here and re-read this. re: IN THE HOUSE; the joy I have when I read a glowing review and I own the book but yet to read, is just wonderful. And it is almost wierd how many books lately I’ve read that you also have recently read. I swear I’m not stalking your reading choices. I think it must be some kind of serendipity. :) I could never keep up with you and I think attempting to would stress me out! Merry Christmas

  31. March 11, 2010 10:12 am

    Ah, just looked in your directory. If this was your response to Green Grass, Running Water, you should really add Truth and Bright Water to your TBR list. He also writes mysteries under the name Hartley Goodweather, but I think he’s dropped the pseudonym.


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