Returning to Cambodia in Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the GhostsFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fiction/historical
Rating: ★★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.

In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, immerses herself in long-buried memories and prepares to learn her father’s fate.

Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit with great trepidation. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.

Vaddey Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime of 1970s Cambodia, has penned an extraordinary tale in Music of the Ghosts. She writes with grace about “questions of responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and justice in the more everyday settings in which survivors find themselves(from the afterword). In exploring such questions, Teera, the Old Musician, and young doctor Narunn reflect on personal identity in the face of immeasurable loss. They have been shaped by survival, when so many of those whom they loved did not survive. Music of the Ghosts is a moving tale of resilience and reconciliation.

I have not read Ratner’s first book, In the Shade of the Banyan Tree, but I am certain this book must be a worthy successor. The first aspect of this book that struck me was the vivid prose. Ratner writes with a particular cadence that soothed me from the beginning, despite the subject matter. She does an excellent job at setting a scene. One small scene in particular stood out to me. She described two young monks practicing English at a temple, with a storm approaching. I could hear the sounds she described – rarely do I find prose that successfully reaches beyond the visual to the auditory for me.

The characters are what really gives life to the prose. I found Music of the Ghosts to be a deeply powerful and moving tale. Teera in particular tugged at my heartstrings and brought a few tears to my eyes. She felt like a real woman to me, not a stone cold caricature of a ‘strong’ one. I adored Narunn, a sincere man trying to do the best with what he has. These characters will draw out your compassion. Teera’s dealing with the complexities of survivor’s guilt moved me. In one scene, she wants to stop her car and give money to numerous beggars on the street, in a location so far from anything she can’t imagine how they’re surviving out there. I felt as Teera did in this moment – how can I have so much when others have so little?

The character’s past connections to the Khmer Rouge (as either perpetrators or victims) demonstrate how good and evil cannot be simplified to black and white. The lines between victim and perpetrator can blur. A person can easily shift from being one to the other. Partway through chapter three, I already found the story to be very intense in this manner. Later on in the book, I had a moment of, “Imagine if everyone listened.” What if we listened to voices other than our own? If everyone heard the voices that are too often silenced or ignored? Reading a good story, like this one, can so easily teach empathy to an open mind. Through reading, we can learn about what we didn’t know we didn’t know. This concept, I think, is part of the reason why reading own voices is so important.

I have one mild criticism of the book. The story feels a bit dry at times. I wondered when Teera’s story would pick up again. I set the book aside for a few days, not feeling any rush to finish. But the haunting tale pulled me back as I wondered what the Old Musician would reveal to Teera.

The Bottom Line:

On her website, Ratner notes that Music of the Ghosts address universally significant questions such as, “How do we account for the crimes we have committed knowingly, and for the suffering we contribute to perhaps without knowing? What does it take to atone? What is possible to forgive?” Music of the Ghosts clear and emotional take on these questions make it a read worth your time.

Further Reading:

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TBR – On the Side Table

I have a little table in my reading nook where I pile up my high priority TBRs. This pile is usually two or three books high. Mostly it consists of new releases I’m excited about or library books due back soon. Lately, the pile has grown faster than I can keep up with it so I thought I’d do a run down of what’s waiting for me. The stack in the photo below is sorted by source: borrowed (from a friend), borrowed (from the library), and owned.

April on the side table

  • When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (friend) – I’ve been interested in this book since it was released. I think it will add another unique perspective to the books I’ve read on mortality and death.
  • Birdie by Tracey Lindberg (friend) – Added to be my TBR because it’s Indigenous Canadian literature and was a choice for 2016 Canada Reads.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (library) – A book I really need to get around to reading.
  • The Midnight Sun by Cecilia Ekbäck
    (library) – New release from the author of Wolf Winter! My library has labelled this Canadian…not sure how accurate that is? I know the author lives in Alberta now.
  • The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwaller (library) – This has been on my TBR for awhile because I heard it has a similar atmosphere to Burial Rites. Recently I’ve been in the mood for a story like that.
  • If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (own) – One of two books I bought the day my sister had 40% off at work. An own voices narrative about a transgender teenager.
  • A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (own) – The final book in the Shades of Magic trilogy. I received this for my birthday at the end of February ^^; My bff has finished it and wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it, so I’m not feeling very motivated…
  • When the Moon Was Ours by Anne-Marie Mclemore (own) – This book received a lot of praise in the book blogging community and I am excited to check it out (magical realism + Pakistani trans MC + gorgeous purple cover). I won a copy from Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf.
  • Drift & Dagger by Kendall Kulper (own) – Companion novel to Salt & StormI won an annotated copy from Kendall back in October. Then Cybils happened and I kept having other reading priorities these past few months. I think I can promise to finish before the end of June….
  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan Mcguire (own) – The other book I purchased on my sister’s discount. Another book I’m excited to read because of blogger buzz, a gorgeous cover and an ace MC.

Which books would you prioritize out of this list? How are you managing your physical TBR at the moment?

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Will I See? A Graphic Novel about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Will I SeeAuthor: David A. Alexander Robertson
Illustrator: GMB Chomichuk
Title: Will I See?
Format/Source: Paperback/Purchased
Published: March 2017
Publisher: Highwater Press
Genre: Graphic novel
Rating: ★★★★
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May, a young teenage girl, traverses the city streets, finding keepsakes in different places along her journey. When May and her kookum make these keepsakes into a necklace, it opens a world of danger and fantasy. While May fights against a terrible reality, she learns that there is strength in the spirit of those that have passed. But will that strength be able to save her?

How many graphic novels have been written about missing and murdered Indigenous woman (MMIW)? I am aware of two, both written by local Cree author David A. Robertson. Highwater Press published Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story in 2015. Helen was 19 years old when she was violently abducted and murdered in the 1970s. Robertson has commented, “Her story is one of the first times that, as a country and as a province of Manitoba, we became aware of things that were happening with our Indigenous women” (HuffPost). Now Robertson has collaborated with one of my favourite local comic illustrators, GMB Chomichuk, to create a graphic novel based on a story by IsKwé (a singer with Cree, Dené and Irish roots).

I attended the book’s Winnipeg launch last month, where I learnt a lot about the book’s collaborative creation. IsKwé contacted Robertson because she was interested in an illustrated video for one of her songs, and the collaboration eventually grew to a graphic novel. Two songs by IsKwé inspired Will I See?. She wrote the songs in response to the 2015 murder of Tina Fontaine, a young Indigenous girl. I had the privilege of hearing IsKwé perform “Nobody Knows” at the launch. You know when a friend goes on and on about how some song is so great, they loved it, it’s the best, and you say “Sure, I’m sure it’s nice”, but you think to yourself it’s probably just the same as any other good song? That’s how I felt listening to Robertson and Chomichuk discuss “Nobody Knows”. But then I heard IsKwé perform it and whoa. I was blown away. The power and emotion that came out of her was incredible. I don’t think I’d ever heard another song like it.

 

Chomichuk’s gritty black and white images suit the story’s mood. He is known for more fantastical illustrations, often featuring monsters you’re glad don’t exist in real life. There are still monsters to illustrate in Will I See?, ones that are more terrifying because they do exist. Chomichuk touched on this in discussion at the launch. How do you illustrate real life monsters? Those monsters, the men, are never depicted too clearly. Red is used sparingly to great impact throughout the gray scale pages. Will I See‘s images pack a punch and though they can be disturbing, I think/hope most readers will not find them too graphic.

I don’t have much to say about the story itself that the description above doesn’t cover. This is a short story, and I don’t want to spoil it with too many words. The story is naturally dark because of its subject matter. The narration style and panel layouts meant it took me a few reads to feel like I really understood what the story was about. It doesn’t offer false hope (the tragedy of MMIW will not be resolved over night), but there is positivity in the relationship between May and her kookum (grandmother).  Notes in the back provide details on spirit animals, the seven teachings, and medicine bags. For readers who may just be beginning to learn about MMIW, a more detailed afterword may have been helpful.

The Bottom Line:

A graphic novel about missing and murdered Indigenous women is not going to be your easiest read. But Will I See? offers a vivid story and a strong way to open up discussion of a topic that should not be ignored.

Further Reading:

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This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint – “Papers, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books”

Gutenberg's Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Format/Source: Hardcover/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, and evolving future of the book in search of an answer. Part memoir and part philosophical and historical exploration, the book finds its muse in Hugh Barclay, who produces gorgeous books on a hand-operated antique letterpress. As Simonds works alongside this born-again Gutenberg, and with her son to develop a digital edition of the same book, her assumptions about reading, writing, the nature of creativity, and the value of imperfection are toppled.

In 2011, author Merilyn Simonds partnered with Hugh Barclay, the one-man wonder behind Thee Hellbox Press, to produce a limited run of The Paradise Project. Simonds agreed to the printing at Barclay’s urging. He wanted to print a collection of her short stories. Barclay introduces Simonds to the finer details of book printing, which she explores in Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. In following the development and creation of The Paradise Project, Simonds describes the history of book making. She also reflects on what has (and hasn’t) changed with the shift to digital books, as she and her son work on creating an ebook of the Paradise Project.

Four sections of the book focus on stages of a book’s creation – paper, type, ink, and press. Barclay is the star of these pages. His enthusiastic and creative personality bring the task to life. He is a tinkerer full of ideas, with the intelligence and ambition to bring those ideas to fruition. In Barclay’s small printing workshop, each stage is given careful consideration. What colour should the ink of be? What impression will the endpapers give? How will the type be set? How can images be incorporated?

Simonds explains the complexities that inventors throughout history had to be overcome to make each element work together and produce a legible book. Most of her exploration focuses on the print run of The Paradise Project. Simonds also includes comments to contrast the development of the ebook, a format which has both pros and cons over a printed book.  The Paradise Project sounds like a lovely work of art. I would to get my hands on a copy, to see and feel all the care that went into making it. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint includes a few black and white photographs, but they don’t do the work justice. You can view full colour images of the completed work at Thee Hellbox Press website.

Simonds delves further into reflection in the final two sections, “Book” and “Lasting Impressions”. I found her balanced view of ebooks refreshing. Simonds loves her physical books, as many of us book lovers do, but she does not deny the advantages of ebooks. She goes beyond acknowledging the practicalities of digital reading (such as being able to carry numerous books or customize the formatting for reading comfort). For example, she notes that more voices in publishing (via digital self-publishing) cannot be a negative thing. She discusses the potential of ebooks to make a wider variety of stories available to a wider variety of people. Simonds quotes Kamila Shamsie:

Are we hearing all the complex, nuanced human voices we need to help us understand our own times, our fellow citizens, the world in which we live? No. But we could. And we must. And that should be publishing’s bottom line. (341)

Yet physical books (for Simonds, at least) easily win in the debate about superiority. I have never heard someone put it so clearly or simply than when she writes, “We are more than brains: we have ears, noses, fingertips, all of which engage with a physical book” (351). What sparks that particular feeling of joy we may find when we gaze happily at our bookshelves?

My books are my brain and my heart made visible. (366)

The Bottom Line:

Simonds chronicles the exquisite print run and ebook development of her short story collection The Paradise ProjectGutenberg’s Fingerprints gives book lovers food for thought as to what it is we love about physical books and what digital books have to offer us. Simonds leaves no doubt that print books will likely endure, but does leave room to ponder – what may come next?

Further Reading:

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Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro

Sputnik's Children by Terri Favro
I think this is an improvement over my last book snap? Look at those pretty iridescent stars…

Author: Terri Favro
Title: Sputnik’s Children
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Science fiction in literary clothes
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.

Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.

Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best.

Alternate timelines + cult comic books = say no more. (Though I am generally not a fan of unreliable narrators, that turned out to be less of a transgression against my personal preferences than I braced myself for.) Sputnik’s Children combines alternate history and literary character building to tell a creative and entertaining story.

I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the above summary, particularly this statement: “Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time”. Is Debbie imagining this alternate timeline or did she actually believe she lived it? The latter turns out to be true. To clarify, Debbie currently lives in ‘the real world’ of 2011. She’s considering writing the origin story of her cult comic book hero, Sputnik Chick. Debbie believes she (herself, Debbie) grew up in Atomic Mean Time (AMT), an alternate universe similar to ours, but that’s stuck in Cold War time with a constant threat of nuclear bombings and World War III. Debbie’s youth in this other timeline inspires her Sputnik Chick stories. The bulk of the book is Debbie’s first person narration of her time in AMT, with occasional chapters of third person narration in the ‘real world’ leading up to the present. The question is, did Debbie actually live through AMT or is this just a concocted story?

At its core, Sputnik’s Children may be described as a coming of age novel. The majority of the story takes place during Debbie’s teen years, beginning when she’s 12 and continuing to mid-twenties. Debbie has to deal with a maturing body, unwanted sexual attention, and her first romantic relationship. This relationship is a significant component of Debbie’s life in AMT. Debbie is White and her boyfriend John Kendall is Black. This relationship creates tension from societal expectations in their small town of the 1970s.

What sets Sputnik’s Children aside from other small town stories is the science fiction setting of AMT. Debbie has to contend with the fact that her community expects to be destroyed at any moment by an atomic bomb. Favro establishes the AMT world in the first few pages, laying out the core differences between Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time (the ‘real world’). This gives the reader a chance to focus on character and plot right away, without having to spend too much effort on becoming oriented with the setting. AMT differs in slight ways from the real world, resulting in an alternate universe where the Cold War only intensified in the seventies and corporations manufacturing weapons rule the day. (I do love a shadowy overseer organization.)

The plot of the story comes in the form of a time-travelling man from the future, who wants to prevent World III. He believes Debbie is the key to doing that. Debbie herself only time travels once, with seemingly little impact on the plot (aside from the personal changes she notices, having skipped a few years into puberty).

The Bottom Line:

Sputnik’s Children is a character-based take on science fiction that blends comics, the Atomic Age, the seventies, and interracial romance into one compelling tale. The question of whether Debbie has made everything up or actually lived it is almost irrelevant – you’ll enjoy the story either way.

Further Reading:

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