Company Town

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To my regret, it’s been a long while since I last posted. I’ve been very busy, as I now have three jobs so I’m always on the go! (Two bookstores, and a paper store. Living the dream.) Still, things have settled a bit and I’m getting into a routine so I’m back now. I’m hoping to be able to get back to more regular posts once more, so stay tuned.

After being on hold at the library for more than a month, I’ve finally received more of this year’s Canada Reads finalists. It’s with great pleasure that I bring you today’s review.

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Company Town was the Canada Reads candidate I was most eager to read this year. I love sci-fi, and especially more speculative stuff. Throw in the fact that Madeline Ashby is also a ‘strategic foresight consultant’, and I was chomping at the bit to get to this title.

I raced through this novel at lightning speed, reading whenever I could squeeze in the time.

The narrative follows Go Jung-Hwa, a young woman living and working in New Arcadia – an oil rig city off the coast of Newfoundland. As an organic human in a society where most choose to augment themselves with machines and drugs, she is a rarity. She is also ‘stained’ by a birthmark that spans an entire side of her body, due to her rare seizure disorder.

Hwa works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada union members at the opening of the book. That right there made me fall in love with this story.

The legalization of sex work has been a hot button issue in Canada recently, especially in light of the Bedford case (2009-2013). Hwa’s friends, students, and mother are all sex workers. It was amazing to read about sex work in this context, as it was neither vilified nor exalted. The reader does get to see the different attitudes people hold towards the profession, which gives a lot of insight into those characters.

When New Arcadia is bought by the Lynch company, Hwa is thrust into a new corporate position. As she struggles to adjust to her new routine, her friends begin to die gruesomely. With a burning need to bring the killer to justice, Hwa uses all of the resources at her disposal and risks her own safety to see it done.

Reading about such a self-made and competent woman was brilliant. She can take down scary drugged up dudes twice her size, but still isn’t a paragon of perfection. At times she lacks confidence, which is revealed to be a rather serious flaw of hers. Her relationships with others are intricate and genuine. Even shunned by her loved ones, she works her hardest to do what she believes is the right thing. Even pushing others away, she recognizes that she could be pulling them closer. The romance that builds slowly in the novel didn’t feel out of place at all, despite the murder and mayhem sandwiching it.

Though set in the future, Company Town feels like it isn’t that far off from our current state of affairs. Clean energy solutions are still a thing of dreams and prototypes. Women are still treated in ways that should make you weep – illustrated by some disturbing conversations, and more graphic threats of rape, as well as physical violence. Corporations are entities whose machinations affect many lives, often for the worse. These things really helped ground this book for me – it seemed like a plausible situation, even when the technology came into play.

Cue cybernetic enhancement, self-replicating nanobots, artificial intelligence, and crossing timelines.

Boom.

These things were so perfectly entrenched in the world that Ashby created that I totally believed them. Though it got a bit confusing near the end, there was never that moment you sometimes get in sci-fi books when you’ve read some clearly bogus pseudoscience and it catapults you out of the story before you can roll your eyes. I stayed entrenched in the book the whole way through, and after re-reading a specific section things clicked for me and I knew exactly what was going on.

This was my favourite Canada Reads book so far, and I only have two left to go now. I certainly intend to pick up a copy of Company Town, and Madeline Ashby’s other books. And I can always hope that as a Toronto native, she visits my bookstore one day so that I can tell her in person how much I loved this. Hopers gotta hope.

Have you picked up Company Town yet? Did you love it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments below!

Canada Reads 2017: Day One

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So today I wanted to talk about what happened during this first day of Canada Reads.

I was fortunate to be in the studio audience for this first day, and I’ll be there for the next two days as well. There was a lot of waiting in line, but it was well worth it to experience this cool Canadian literary event first hand. Please note that I’m going to talk about the eliminated book in this post, so if you’re waiting for the TV spot that will be on later, please be aware of the large spoiler that lays ahead! I’m also going to be talking about some of the moments from the debate that I agreed or disagreed with, so other book and debate spoilers will also come up.

You can watch the Day One replay here.

I haven’t yet been able to read all of this year’s contenders as I’ve been on the library waiting list for ages, but I certainly intend to get to all of them. I’ve read Fifteen Dogs and Nostalgia so far, and though I probably shouldn’t judge before I finish the others, I don’t think that either of them answers this years’ question.

The question is, of course “What is the one book that Canadians need now?”

I enjoyed reading Fifteen Dogs, but I don’t think it should be the winner. All respect to Andre Alexis, and to Humble the Poet as well. Humble’s concise and well-spoken argument for this book saved it in this first round. He stated that the human condition is at the root of all of humanity’s issues, and that we must thus examine what it means to be human in order to solve those issues. It was a rather inspired argument, and I hope to see him expand upon it in the days to come. Still, as mentioned by Measha, this book has already won the Giller Prize. It’s being read and thought about already, and perhaps we should be giving another read the chance to come forth and shine..

In contrast, I didn’t enjoy Nostalgia, nor did I think that Jody Mitic’s argument for it was strong. He argued that in order to move forward we must examine our past – which, fair enough. I agree. However, that wasn’t the strongest point I would take away from the novel. Humble brought up the struggle for young people to find their place in society, and Measha the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the young woman who does what she has to in order to get by. I think that Jody moved closer to an urgent point when he brought up the refugee crisis in the novel, but he lost me by the end when he said that the main character had ‘run from his past’. Did we read the same novel, Jody? The main character was erased by a government he was at war with – that could have been an interesting point to bring up itself.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person taken aback at Chantal Kreviazuk’s vehement defense of The Right to Be Cold, at the expense of fellow defender Jody Mitic. Surely a concession that perhaps the book is not an easy read, but is still an important one, would have been kinder than saying “we don’t need you then”.  Yikes, Chantal. Still, it’s important to note that she wasn’t able to be there in person because her son is currently hospitalized in Los Angeles. So perhaps emotions were running high there. I do think that her arguments weren’t very strong either. Yes, climate change is an important issue that Canadians (and the world) need to be thinking of. What makes The Right to Be Cold the book that will unite us as a nation? That focus will be far more important moving forward in the competition.

I’m curious to read Companytown, especially after Measha Brueggergosman’s defense of it. A world in which everyone is enhanced, there is no exclusion of any race, and where sex work is decriminalized? Yes please. I also thought it was interesting she mentioned that it’s a book that shows that one person’s utopia can be another’s dystopia. Candy’s argument that she found issue with the main character being ‘strong’ by displaying masculine traits rather rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think it’s right to think as physical strength or muscular definition as being typically feminine or masculine traits. Don’t build a fence around your definition of femininity, Candy – I am surprised at you. Still, though Companytown sounds like a story I will be more than happy to get my hands on, I don’t know that it is the book that Canadians need now.

Now we come to the impassioned defense of The Break by Candy Palmater. Unfortunately, Candy was sitting with her back to my section, so I couldn’t see her facial expressions as she defended the novel – I could see the reactions of her fellow defenders though. I think that colonialism does still have effects that are deeply felt in our indigenous communities today, and I was really hoping this book would make it further in the competition. When Measha said she was uncomfortable that there was a lack of male representation in the book, I was very surprised. Jody’s concurrence that the fact that men seemed to be demonized, and that all of the male characters made him feel uncomfortable seemed to seal the fate of The Break. He mentions a part of the book in which something is said about ‘the way that white men say goodbye’ and that he didn’t realise that they said goodbye any differently. He felt uncomfortable, demonized – and othered. Measha wondered where the good example of men were in this book, because they aren’t all irredeemable people. (Not all men – sound familiar?)

What I have to say to you is this: I am shocked that The Break was eliminated for what seems to be essentially a lack of non-indigenous and male representation. As Candy said, she spoke to many people for whom this book was the experience of their lives. There are women in this country, and in this world, who don’t know any kind men. Not their fathers, brothers, husbands, or friends. Candy spoke of the relation between this book, our indigenous communities, and the fact that colonization has affected them so deeply in a manner that has yet to ever be addressed in any substantial way.

You feel uncomfortable reading this, Jody? Measha? Good. You were supposed to. If a book doesn’t make you uncomfortable, if it doesn’t make you think, or question your perception of the world, or your country, is it important enough to win this competition? Is it important or urgent enough to be read by all Canadians now?

Candy, my heart breaks for you, as I know how invested you were in your defense of The Break.

The avoidance of hard truths is a hard pill to swallow. The discomfort of Canadians with the thought of sexual violence, battery, and colonization is strong. Often, people dismiss it in favour of thinking there are systems in place to help already, and that indigenous people are simply too lazy to do anything about their situations. Wake up, people. Educate yourselves about the conditions so many in our own country are facing today, and the reasons behind them.

What did you think of this first day of Canada Reads? Do you agree or disagree with my points? Let’s have a debate in the comments below!

Canada Reads: Nostalgia

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The shortlist of this year’s Canada Reads contenders was announced on January 31st. This year, I’m trying to read all of them before the show airs. I managed to get tickets for two of the days and I am absolutely thrilled!

For those of you who aren’t Canadian, or who haven’t heard of Canada Reads, it’s a TV special that airs each year and takes the form of a debate. A different question is chosen every year, and each CanLit pick is defended by a Canadian to stay in the competition and become the yearly winner. Every episode whittles out one book.

This year’s question is: “What is the one book Canadians need now?”

Reading Nostalgia with that question as the lens I understand why it was chosen this year, even if I didn’t find it very enjoyable.

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The essence of the book is that humans have basically found a way to become immortal. Available mostly to the rich, you can be crafted with new parts to live your youth once again or extend your life. The catch is that the bulk of your memories must be wiped, as a way to retain the memories of more than one lifetime has yet to be discovered. New memories will be manufactured for you – of your childhood, family, and seminal experiences, and you’ll never know which ones are false. If you’re lucky, your past self will have left you a nest-egg to start your new life with.

Lucky refugees who manage to cross the Long Border are also ‘granted’ new lives by the government, with the assumption that their original memories and personalities will prevent them from assimilating into their new society.

Nostalgia centers around Doctor Frank Sina, a man who specializes in Nostalgia – patients whose old memories are beginning to leak into their new ones. He becomes intrigued and then obsessed with a new patient of his, Presley. The novel follows Dr. Sina as he deals with his dysfunctional relationship with a ‘BabyGen’, his budding friendship with a pro-death protester, and his (very slow) realization that he and his new patient may be more connected than he thought.

The concept of this book really appealed to me. Somehow though, it felt as if I was waiting the entire novel for things that never happened. It took more than half the book for the cause behind the extreme poverty and political situation surrounding Maskinia to be explained. The issue of refugees and poverty tourism were brought up, but never dived into with real depth.

The ‘long border’ and the state of affairs in Maskinia were talked about mostly through the context of Holly, a reporter who is missing and presumed dead. Everything said about Maskinia I took as speculation, until suddenly it wasn’t. That was pretty unsatisfying in my opinion.

While so many political and philosophical issues were touched on (this is also a post-racial society) they were never given any room or time to grow.

I would have enjoyed Nostalgia better had the author chosen to focus on one or two key topics rather than piled a whole bunch of stuff in there and stirred it together.

I think that this book does address topics that Canadians need to think about now. However, I also think that the quick overview it gives of many issues is not enough. It made me think, but my thoughts were focused more on how much Sina could be trusted as a narrator rather than any of the issues introduced in the narrative.

This book was okay, but I’m reserving judgement on it’s Canada Reads chances until I’ve finished the other contenders.

Have you read Nostalgia? Do you think this is the one book Canadians need now? Let me know in the comments below!