Winnipeg Free Press Newspaper Archives May 9 2015, Page 97

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Winnipeg Free Press (Newspaper) - May 9, 2015, Winnipeg, Manitoba C M Y K PAGE 1 BOOKS D22 Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, May 9, 2015 F ATIMA Bhutto’s first novel The Shadow of a Crescent Moon was originally published by Viking in 2013. In conjunction with the book’s re- publication through Penguin Random House Canada, Shadow ’s author is billed as “ an Afghan- born Pakistani poetess and writer” who has published a memoir, a volume of poetry and a collection of first- hand accounts from survivors of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. She is better known as the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto and niece of Benazir Bhutto, the 11th prime minister of Pakistan, who was assassinated in 2007. Shadow is necessarily political — in part because of Bhutto’s family history, in part because of its content. The novel is about Pakistan’s northern tribal town Mir Ali, a hotspot of conflict between the Taliban and Pakistani military. Its main characters are three brothers with varying political allegiances and motivations: the eldest, Aman Erum, is a western- educated businessman; middle brother Sikander is a doctor who resisted emigration to a safer city and settled in Mir Ali with wife Mina; Hayat is an idealist and insurgent who lives by his father’s byword: “ pain is of no consequence when fighting for the collective.” The novel follows the three as they move through one eventful morning during Eid, the holiday that breaks the fast of Ramadan. Jumpy is an apt descriptor for much of the novel. Shadow feels like a political action movie, with lurches between flashbacks, loaded conversations and breakneck drama that often require re- reading. Bhutto builds tension through an endless series of cliffhangers, but some of the significance of individual moments may be lost on western readers unfamiliar with Pakistan’s complex political realities. Bhutto’s journalism background is evident here, and descriptions of disasters read like real events. As one character says, “ Everyone in Pakistan is a journalist now. No one needs training to pick up a camera phone and report an edited version of the truth.” Shadow , as an effort to introduce western readers to Pakistani issues, is not unprecedented. The most wellknown English- language novel by a Pakistani author is Mohsin Hamid’s bestselling 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist . Hamid’s novel is focused and coherent, but Shadow seems more sincere — perhaps because of Bhutto’s unwavering commitment to her subject’s complexity. Occasionally the pace slows down enough for readers to breathe; these moments are some of the novel’s best. In one of these scenes, Mina has left the family residence on a mysterious errand. Her frustrated husband, Sikander, follows her to an unfamiliar home, where he finds her bathing a stranger’s dead son in preparation for burial. “ She sings to the boy, reciting Rahman Baba’s poetry to him in a soft voice as she washes his knees gently with the sponge, preparing him as if he were going to say his prayers. “ I thought I could wake up this sleeping country with my cries, but still they sleep as if in a dream.” In such passages Bhutto is beautifully restrained, never pushing pathos to its breaking point, but moving lightly through landscapes of suffering. Though The Shadow of the Crescent Moon would have benefited from more linearity and focus, readers will benefit from Bhutto’s compassionate approach to a difficult subject. Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer. A FTER two successful contemporary novels, Our Daily Bread and The Empty Room , Lauren B. Davis turns her storytelling talents to medieval times. The Montreal- born Davis, who now lives in Princeton, N. J., offers the compelling story of a young woman whose pagan healing powers clash with the burgeoning spread of Christianity. Against a Darkening Sky is told in the clear, uncluttered prose that characterizes Davis’s other work; the present- tense narrative and straight- ahead pace — virtually no flashbacks — take the reader into seventh- century England, specifically the Northumbrian village of Ad Gefrin. Never a false note is struck in Davis’s detailing of Anglo- Saxon life. At age 11 Wilona, the lone survivor of a plague, wandered across the moors and was taken in by Touilt, a seithkona ( or female seer and healer) in Ad Gefrin. As the novel begins, Wilona is now 16 and regarded as Touilt’s apprentice, becoming as effective as her mentor in assisting with childbirth and fixing potions that fight disease. It is the year 626, a time when there are many tiny kingdoms in this part of England, and most are becoming Christian. Edwin, king of the region that contains Ad Gefrin, has decided to adopt Christianity and expects his people to follow him. Lord Caelin, Edwin’s lieutenant in Ad Gefrin, is quick to obey, which is bound to create problems for Touilt and Wilona, who believe in pagan gods. Meanwhile Paulinus, Christian bishop of the region, sends a monk named Egan to Ad Gefrin. In direct contrast with the strongwilled Wilona, Egan is pathetically unsure of himself, convinced of Christ’s teachings but baffled by his own ineffectuality. It is tempting to see earnest Egan as a Costellolike fumbler and therefore a character to be laughed at, but Davis commands our sympathy for him, much as she did with the alcoholic Colleen Kerrigan in The Empty Room . As Lord Caelin promotes the new Christian faith — as much by intimidation as anything — the people begin to turn on Touilt and Wilona. But one of Caelin’s soldier- guards, the strong and handsome Margawn, resists. He is much attracted to Wilona. Eventually, soldiers — not including Margawn — wreck the seithkonas’ home, forcing them to seek refuge in a mountain cave. Margawn, who’s become Christian as part of his duty to Caelin, declares his love for Wilona. She’d like to reciprocate but will not give up her belief in the gods. Egan tries to convince Wilona that conversion to Christianity is the only way she can escape the wrath of Lord Caelin. “ Wilona concludes that if this half- starved, elfeyed monk thinks the teachings of Christ, or any other god, will turn men away from war and pride and vengeance, he must be mad indeed.” This thought suggests a theme that underlies the clash of this woman’s beliefs with those of the villagers — the beliefs that impede her love for Margawn. The story can be enjoyed for its conflicts and its engaging characters, but there is a reflection here of what has plagued the world for centuries and continues to: that religion never seems to give lasting comfort, that it brings only heartache and bloodshed. Even though the warring factions in seventhcentury England all turned Christian, they expected Christ to help them kill their rivals. Lauren B. Davis is too good a novelist to make her story simply a vehicle for a “ message.” This tale of medieval life and the struggles of a steadfast pagan woman and a fearful monk is captivating and entertaining. In fact, even Margawn’s dog, Bana, and Wilona’s pig, Elba, are memorable. Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel is called Dating. T HE big question at the heart of John Colapinto’s second novel Undone would appear to be an examination of what it takes to turn a good person bad. But as the story traces the troublingly cartoonish villainy of sexual predator Dez in his convoluted attempts to destroy an upstanding author, that big question is lost — buried under layers of dubious motivations, mechanisms and inner monologues — and the reader is left instead with a question: What is going on here at all? The plot revolves around Dez, a registered sex offender whose perversity has destroyed his two consecutive careers ( lawyer and teacher) and who is now living unhappily in a trailer park with his 17- yearold ex- student, Chloe. While watching an episode of Tovah ( an obvious Oprah standin), Dez discovers a connection between Chloe and featured memoirist Jasper Ulrickson, whose bestselling Lessons From My Daughter depicts his saintly care for his immobile wife and their young daughter. Dez seizes upon this connection to construct a Rube Goldberg- esque, multi- tiered, several- years- long plan to falsely convince Ulrickson that Chloe is his biological daughter, have her move into his mansion, integrate herself seamlessly into his family life and somehow “ coerce” him to sexually assault her. In the succeeding civil suit and publicity rounds, Dez would simultaneously prove the inherent fallibility of everyone, no matter their standing and generate income to live on indefinitely. Each single step of this plan appears ludicrously unachievable, and yet the narrative continues to accept and reward it at face value, nodding only tangentially at dark implications when they crash headlong into the story. Indeed, the novel is almost childlike in both tone and construction, and as the contrivances and coincidences that drive the plot multiply, it’s unclear what effect the author is trying to achieve. If the goal is to lull the reader into a sense of normalcy or malaise to make the awful acts contained within even more shocking, as in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho , it is consistently undermined by Dez’s tendency to speak, both in his head and out loud, in the manner of Dr. Doom or Magneto, crowing in full, formally constructed sentences about the ingeniousness of his plan or how insufferable the fools that surround him are. If it is to examine, as the press materials state, “ our era’s corrosive fascination with the cult of celebrity and money,” it is again insufficient — except for the basic requirements of the plot, no particular attention is paid to this thematically. Nor does this story, with its landline telephones and rabbit ears, seem to have much to do with our era at all. Nor does it deal at all responsibly with any of the issues it does happen to raise, forcing the reader to be complicit with Chloe’s degradation via constant lurid descriptions of her body and her youth and, without giving too much away, inappropriately tying a very neat bow on the conclusion of what is an entirely insoluble moral mess. What makes this all the more frustrating is that Colapinto has established himself as an excellent writer. As a journalist he has written for The New Yorker , Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair , and produced a bestselling book on the late Winnipeg- born David Reimer, born biologically male but raised female, following medical advice and intervention after his penis was accidentally destroyed during a botched circumcision in infancy. Colapinto’s first book of fiction, About the Author , was lauded by Stephen King as “ worthy of Hitchcock,” while treading similar duplicitous ground as Undone . But whether by accident or design, Undone is so tone deaf to the way that people speak and behave, so awash in cliché, that any big questions remain not only unanswered but completely obscured. Doug McLean is a Winnipeg musician and writer. Reviewed by Julienne Isaacs Bhutto’s fiction a window on Pakistan The Shadow of the Crescent Moon By Fatima Bhutto Random House Canada, 232 pages, $ 29 Reviewed by Doug McLean Would- be swindler’s story riddled with problems Undone By John Colapinto HarperCollins, 408 pages, $ 23 Reviewed by Dave Williamson Well- crafted CRUSADE Seventh- century England comes to life in author’s skilled hands Against a Darkening Sky By Lauren B. Davis Harper Avenue, 364 pages, $ 23 SUBMITTED PHOTO Based on sales for the week of May 3 rd at McNally Robinson Booksellers HARDCOVER FICTION 1. Gathering Prey, John Sandford. Fiction. ¡ Çd Çd . Ça Ça . 2. The Night Stages, Jane Urquhart. Fiction. ¡ Çd Çc . Çj Çf . 3. Death Wears a Beauty Mask, Mary Higgins Clark. Mystery. ¡ Çd Çe . Ça Ça . 4. .. The Opening Sky, Joan Thomas. Fiction. ¡ Çc Çj . Çj Çf . 5. Memory Man, David Baldacci. Fiction. ¡ Çd Çb . Ça Ça . HARDCOVER NON- FICTION 1. The Time of Your Life, Margaret Trudeau. Inspiration. ¡ Çd Çc . Çj Çj . 2. The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo. Interior Design. ¡ Çb Çj . Çj Çj . 3. The Road to Character, David Brooks. Cultural Issues. ¡ Çd Çe . Ça Ça . 4. .. The Hermetic Code, Carolin Vesely & Buzz Currie. Regional Interest. $ 29.95. 5. .. Henry Kalen’s Manitoba, Henry Kalen. Regional Interest. $ 24.95. PAPERBACK FICTION 1. Ru, Kim Thúy. Fiction. ¡ Çb Çi . Çj Çf . 2. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins. Fiction. ¡ Çc Çe . Çj Çf . 3. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Fiction. ¡ Çc Çc . Ça Ça . 4. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. Fiction. ¡ Çb Çj . Çj Çj . 5. .. A Reader’s Guide to the Unnameable, Ron Romanowski. Poetry. ¡ Çb Çe . Çj Çf . 1. .. In Search of Canada’s Ancient Heartland, Barbara Huck & Doug Whiteway. Regional Interest. ¡ Çc Çj . Çj Çf . 2. .. Rekindling the Sacred Fire, Chantal Fiola. Indigenous Peoples. ¡ Çc Çh . Çj Çf . 3. The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King. Indigenous Peoples. ¡ Çc Çb . Ça Ça . 4. .. Premonitions of War, Robert J. Young. Regional Interest. ¡ Çc Ça . Ça Ça . 5. .. Unearthing Conflict, Fabiana Li. Issues. ¡ Çd Çe . Çj Çf . PAPERBACK NON- FICTION .. Manitoba author Publishers’ list prices shown; retail prices may be lower. BOOKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE 1. Winnie, Sally M. Walker. Picture Book. ¡ Çc Ça . Çf Ça . 2. The Book With No Pictures, B. J. Novak. Picture Book. ¡ Çb Çj . Çj Çj . 3. Little Blue Truck, Alice Schertle. Board Book. ¡ Çj . Çj Çj . 4. Sisters, Raina Telgemeier. Graphic Novel. ¡ Çb Çb . Çj Çj . 5. .. Forever Julia, Jodi Carmichael. Canadian Teen Fiction. ¡ Çb Çe . Çj Çf . .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. D_ 22_ May- 09- 15_ FF_ 01. indd 1 5/ 7/ 15 7: 08: 32 PM

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