Cockroach by Rawi Hage

3/5 stars.
ebook, 320 pages.
Read from April 01 to 19, 2014.

I am making my way through the Canada-Reads of 2014; Cockroach is the second book out of the five that were nominated that I’ve tackled so far.  Cockroach is a very interesting novel and as a reader you either like it or you don’t. That is, if you can tolerate the extremely depressing tone and existential theme. What I enjoyed most about this novel is that it provides the reader with insight into the life of a immigrant struggling in Canada, with a dash of mental illness and some descriptive philosophical ideas about our purpose in life. This review does contain some spoilers but I will mark them appropriately.

The plot is shaped by existential questions that are asked by an unnamed narrator who struggles with poverty, drugs, mental illness and suicide. This story opens with the main character, who is unnamed, sitting in a psychiatrists office somewhere in Montreal, Canada. What you learn as a reader is that the narrator is an unstable man, who enjoys beautiful women, steals and breaks into people’s homes to sit on their couches and eat their food and quite literally thinks of himself as a cockroach. He is obsessed with questions about his own existence and his own purpose. He has been mandated by the state to take therapy sessions as he recently failed at an attempt to hang himself. The psychiatrist is a beautiful blonde woman named Genevieve. It’s obvious from her interactions with the main protagonist that she does not understand him or the world that he lives in.

The protagonist has come to Canada from some unnamed country and the people he associates with are also immigrates to Canada. You meet Reza, who is a sketchy Persian sitar player who is obsessed with his self-worth and luring women into his bed by seducing them with his foreignness and lies. The protagonist isn’t particularly fond of Reza but he does hangout with him and do drugs after Reza finally pays him the forty dollars that he owed him. Through Reza, he meets: Faroud, a gay Persian man who speaks of the persecution and torture he suffered before he came to Canada. “The Professor”, which is what the protagonist calls the man because of his profession, one which, he is no longer doing in Canada. The Professor is a hypocritical man who doesn’t want to admit that he is poor. The protagonist hates this about him so he steals some love-letters from him that detail a weak long-term affair that The Professor has been having. Lastly, he meets Shohreh, a beautiful young woman who you learn **start spoiler** near the end has been raped by Islamists in Tehran **end spoiler**. With these character’s stories, the reader is shown each of their struggles in coming to terms what has happened to them as well as trying to live in a new country and the ultimate solitude that it creates. Violence and sex are a constant.

Through the protagonist’s therapy sessions, he is encouraged to get a job. He finds one in a Persian restaurant that Reza plays at occasionally. He works three days a week and becomes friendly with the owners daughter, Sehar. She is young and flirtatious and at one point, the protagonist catches her masturbating. Sehar represents a younger generation of immigrants trying to become the definition of what it is to be “Canadian” and step away from her heritage.

What brings the protagonist’s story into the stories of the people that he meets all together is, through his therapy sessions, you learn that he had a sister once. She married a despicable man who used to beat her ferociously. He admits to conspiring to kill her husband during that time but does not end up following through with it. **start spoiler** The result of him not being able to kill his sister’s husband unintentionally causes her death. Her husband kills her. After which, you can assume that his inability to deal with this scenario is what instigated him to hang himself in the first place. While developing a romantic relationship with Shohreh, the protagonist learns about her rape and abortion and finds that one of her perpetrators is a customer that comes into the restaurant that he works in. Determined to resolve the situation for Shohreh and the mistakes he made with his sister, the two of them conspire to kill Shohreh’s rapist when he comes to the restaurant one night **end spoiler**.

The ultimate comment the book is trying to achieve is to show the ineffectiveness of immigrant assimilation and how little the receiving country understands the struggles of a new immigrant. The protagonist thinks of himself as a cockroach because he is living in a world that doesn’t understand him or his needs as a human, so he lives like a cockroach, in filth.

Overall, I would recommend this book for anyone looking for something thought-provoking and well written and is alright with tolerating a bleak tone.

 

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

2/5 stars.
ebook, 288 pages.
Read from March 22 to April 13, 2014.

This book has been nominated and has won a variety of awards, to name a few: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2011)Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2012)Scotiabank Giller Prize (2011). It was also apart of CBC’s 2014 Canada Reads debate, which is what brought me to read this book.

I can see why this book won awards. The author is Canadian, the novel discusses the dangers of being black during the Nazi’s reign as well mingling in the ever popular topic of jazz. These are three areas/topics that many critics appear to check off their list as a part of a good novel. The dynamics of the characters and content sounds like they should make for a very interesting plot, and while at times it did, I felt very disappointed with this award winner.

Sidney “Sid” Griffiths is the main voice in this novel. He is the bassist in the German/African-American jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers. Other important members include Charles “Chip” Jones on drums and the ever young and talented Hiero (Hieronymus) Falk on horn. Paul, Fritz and Ernst are the other minor and additional characters in the band. The plot surrounds the bands survival amidst the Nazis. Sid was born in America and can often pass for being white, while Hiero is a “Mischling” a half-breed; he was born in Germany with a mix of German and African blood. His skin tone is quite dark as a result, making it substantially more difficult for him to get around during the Nazi invasion. One of the pinnacles of the story is that the famous Louis Armstrong has extreme interests in the talent of Hiero and he wants to record an album. The story the reader is involved in the most however, is the ever changing relationship  that Sid and Hiero have and the eventual regret and mistake that Sid makes with Hiero in which he will come to regret his entire life.

The chapters in the story are separated by different time-frames. For example, the story opens up in Paris in 1939 when the band is attempting to record the album. The next chapter is in Berlin in 1992 and here we see a very old and miserable Sid Griffiths. The book does this flip flop, unsuccessfully in my opinion, of time-frames to give the reader an idea of how much time has passed and how long Sid has been living with his one major regret. I found that the chapters were choppy and didn’t flow as nicely as they could have. I found myself at times going back to read an detail that was vaguely mentioned in the past but ends up becoming more important in the future.

I also felt that this book could have been more concisely written. The story and concept is good but it was carried out inefficiently. For example, there is a flashback scene with Sid and Chip as teenagers involving some prostitutes, which I believe is meant to show how long the two of them had been playing together. While it’s one of my favourite scenes, I feel it does little to build either of the characters or their relationship at this point in the story. We’re already aware of Sid and Chip’s past at this point, so while the scene was entertaining it had little to do with the main conflicts or developments.

While Sid and Chip are dynamic and interesting characters they’re not the most likable. Sid is negative and serious and Chip is a bit sleazy. Hiero is the most innocent and likable character but you actually learn very little about him throughout the book. I feel that this was probably intentional but I feel if we had known more about Hiero it would made the turning point in the book by far more poignant.

Overall, this book is very dynamic and it has reached out to a lot of readers with its content and awards. I’m glad I read the book as I like to support Canadian authors but I don’t foresee myself reading anything else by the author.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

3/5 stars.
ebook, 784 pages.
Read from February 04 to March 20, 2014.

After many recommendations and a book club read, I finally got around to finishing Outlander. Unfortunately to all the major fans out there, I can’t say I’m raving about this book. I wouldn’t say that I liked this book but I didn’t fully dislike it either, hence the neutral rating. There was so much about this book that didn’t make sense to me or that I could relate to. I remember as a teenager listening to my Mom talking so fondly about this book but when I asked to read it (at the ripe old age of sixteen) and she wouldn’t let me. She feared the content would be too graphic and that the I might be traumatized by the amount of sexual and abusive violence or something. Needless to say, I am glad that I didn’t read this book as a teenager or I may have been severely horrified. With that also being said, I may have also appreciated the romance a bit more with my naïve teenage brain.

The premise of the story focuses on Claire, a nurse living in the 20th century who is separated from her husband and everything she knows and is somehow (and this was never fully described or given reason for in the book) magically transported to 17th century Scotland. You would think that this plot, the transportation, why she was sent back in time and the emotional turmoil something like this would cause on Claire would be the focal point of the book right? Well, it isn’t. Along comes Jamie, an extremely handsome, strapping, young (younger than her), fiery and red-headed Scottish solider who crosses paths with Claire when he is injured and requires the use of her healing skills. He saves her from a cruel Englishman suspecting her to be a spy (who is also a direct descendant of her husband back in the 20th century) and brings her back to a castle where the two of them are cared for under another Scottish family.

Both Jamie and Claire hit it off right away and what ends up happening is that they are forced to marry in order to protect both of their skins from the English. Now you would think that would be a pretty tense scene, right? I mean Claire is already married but in a different time and she has told no one of how she came to be in Scotland, but the scene only vaguely touches on her tiny bit of turmoil before skipping to the consummation of their marriage. The rest of the book, well, it was pretty much just one sex scene after another with a loosely based plot to keep the characters moving. So the continuous sex scenes on top of sappy romance really got to me. Don’t get me wrong, sex is awesome! I just wanted more details about the plot and for the writing to really get to the raw difficult choices and struggles that Claire had to make. She makes cheating on her husband seem like the easiest thing in the world by justifying that he technically hadn’t been born yet. I also don’t feel that she tried all that hard to attempt to get back home. She seemed pretty dandy in the 17th century and really didn’t question her position as much as I would imagine someone in her shoes to be. To make matters even sillier, Jamie was a virgin before he married Claire. Seriously? Where is the realism in that? A good looking Scottish man in the 17th century a virgin?! That’s ridiculous. What made Jamie even more unrealistic was how soft and in-tune he was with his own feelings as well as Claire’s emotions and feelings. I can’t see that a warrior of his status, regardless of his temper, got to where he was by being in-tune with his feelings and those of women, and especially by being a virgin.

There was a lot of sexual violence in this book. Surprisingly, the worst of it happened to Jamie in the end and Claire pretty much remained untouched, despite some of the situations she was in. As a reader, this content didn’t bother me so much, but I could see how it could be pretty disturbing to some readers. To add to the violence, Jamie also took at least three-major beatings by the end of the book. Yup, three.

All of these silly details really show to me that this book was written by an older married woman, for older married women who would rather be swept up in romance they can’t have instead of reading a captivating plot full of psychological turmoil and realism. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. I read books to escape too, just not romantically (maybe erotically haha). Many writers make good money writing romances and the popularity of this book says enough in and of it’s self, it just didn’t work for me. It makes me a bit sad as I see so much potential for this book. The author has some good ideas, very likeable (even if unrealistic and shallow) characters and reasonably decent writing. It’s just too long, too vague on the emotion and details of the plot and too romantic. Sorry Diana, I won’t be reading any more of your work.