I was not at all surprised to find that "Lullabies for Little Criminals" by Heather O'Neill was the 2007 winner of Canada Reads. Though the cover is eI was not at all surprised to find that "Lullabies for Little Criminals" by Heather O'Neill was the 2007 winner of Canada Reads. Though the cover is extremely eye-catching, it's not the type of book I would normally pick up. I read the back and again, thought that it sounded interesting, but if it hadn't been for this Canada Reads Challenge, I might not have bought it. I didn't have to, in the end, as I got it from my boyfriend for my birthday (he's very sweet).
Just in case you, dear reader, aren't in a mood to read this whole post, I should say right now that Heather O'Neill is a truly master with words.
Her writing is unlike anything I have come across in the past. Her metaphors are strange and completely unique, allowing the reader to follow her every step of the way. The events that take place in this book are so horrible, unfair and uncomfortable that we as readers should be questioning how such things can happen. On the contrary, somehow O'Neill plants us so firmly in the mind of 12 year old, Baby, that we seem to understand why she makes the choices she does. It is truly an astounding feat. Not to mention that I had to crack open the book about 10 times while having dinner at my parents' last week to read my mum some stunning phrases.
I digress. How about a synopsis? Baby lives alone with her unstable, young, drug addict father, Jules, in the red light district of Montreal. The red light is magical to Baby, however, and she thrives as a wild child in the seedy 'hood having never known anything else. The story follows a year in Baby's life where, at 12 years old, she is abruptly thrust into puberty and before the year is over, adulthood. A touching, eye-opening story, it makes any reader question what they take for granted and what they really know about street kids.
If you're from Toronto, you'll know that ad on the TTC that says "Why can't street kids just get a life?", and then there's a huge paragraph of probably size 10 type all followed by a big "That's why." This book was like that ad for me. Baby most likely lives in squalor, but you wouldn't know as the reader because she doesn't know as the narrator. That's really the brilliance of this novel. Things happen to Baby that most of the population would be horrified of, yet for her, it's all familiar so none of it comes off as anything other than ordinary to the reader. It was the first time that I had read a book that was so far away from my own life (aside from the fact that I've lived in Montreal for 7 years) but that I still completely understood and didn't feel shut-out of. It didn't matter that I hadn't had her experiences, and that's what is so rare in a novel. To be so included in something that is so foreign to you.
At page 144, I read this line of Baby's narration. She had received a tape from a friend, but wasn't sure she wanted to listen to in case it wasn't very good. "I might listen to it, and it might be horrible, like the bad rock and roll that they played at the Jupiter Café on the corner. It would depress me all day if I had to hear that." This line was my first realization that Baby seems like the granddaughter of Holden Caufield. If you've read this book, I'm sure you agree with me. She refers multiple times in the book to seeing certain kids wearing weird items of clothing, or having something embarrassing happen to them while she's watching and she says it depresses her. That was very Holden Caufield to me and I really appreciated the reference, whether it was intentional or not. I know that this is supposed to be loosely based on O'Neill's childhood in Montreal so I'd be very curious to know whether "Catcher in the Rye" had a big impact on her growing up. Baby also has the same sense of abandon, adventure without it being adventure (if that makes any sense), and curiosity as Caufield. I think his character was more self-aware than Baby, but he's got 5 years on her. I sort of wanted him to appear in the book and I didn't realize I was thinking that until the end when he had never showed up. It's funny what you think about in the back of your mind when you're reading.
I strongly, strongly recommend this book to anyone, really. Especially Canadians. I can totally see why it was chosen to be on this Canada Reads Top 40 list, as well as why it won the prize in 2007. It's so important for Canadians to understand the people in their country, especially people that we have completely stereotyped most of the time. I have, at least. My view has completely changed after reading this book.
Now for my turn downs. As per usual, there are no spoilers here. Just incredibly well crafted sentences and ideas of the like that I have never encountered before. It looks here as if O'Neill writes with an abundance of metaphors, but it's really just me that found the best ones and, while literally blinking and shaking my head I was so impressed, turned down the bottom corner of the page in respectful jealousy. Why can't I write like this? 1) "I had always liked reading, but lately I had started reading in a different kind of way. When I opened a book now, I was seized with desperation. I felt as if I was madly in love. It was as if I were in a confession booth and the characters in the book were on the other side telling me their most intimate secrets. When I read, I was a philosopher and it was up to me to figure out the meaning of things. Reading made me feel as if I were the centre of the universe." - If you read, you just totally get this. That's all that needs to be said. 2) "It was late January and winter now. The sky was the colour of light-bulbs that weren't lit." - I never thought it would be possible to describe a colour so well but I'm sure that universally, everyone knows exactly what the sky looks like in this scene. So creative. 3) I was so confused by things that nothing quite seemed real at that moment. It wouldn't have surprised me if the spoons in the utensil drawer started crying and needed to be rocked to sleep." - That line is simply beautiful, heat-breaking and honest. I still can't get over how it makes my heart ache to read it. It is officially the best line I have ever read in a book.
I've only given you three turn downs. I want you to see what O'Neill is capable of, then rush out to the bookstore to buy a copy. I'd say library, but trust me. You'll want to take your time rereading sections and then after, having this beautiful book on your shelf for years to come to share with friends and read again and again. ...more
I feel like I'm at some close-knit meeting; sitting in a circle where people nervously avoid eye contact and speak in hushed tones. "This is my firstI feel like I'm at some close-knit meeting; sitting in a circle where people nervously avoid eye contact and speak in hushed tones. "This is my first Atwood", I say, and everyone turns sympathetically towards me, nodding. Knowing that I've only just started on my way to becoming the Canadian I claim to be.
This is my first Atwood.
It was my first Atwood, and what a story it was. The Year of the Flood is, as I found out mid-way through, book two in the "MaddAddam Trilogy". I hurriedly researched the first book, Oryx and Crake, and was relieved to see a series of assurances that these books don't have to be read in order.
The Year of the Flood follows two women, Ren and Toby. Ren is a dancer from a sex club and Toby is the manager of a luxurious spa. It's not clear what year this story takes place, but it seems to be not too far off in the future. It's understood from the beginning of the novel that both women are trapped where they are and taking life day by day, rationing their supplies, hoping there are others alive. They both casually refer to "the waterless flood" as the cause of the societal downfall that has somehow spared all the animals, insects and plants outside. The story is traded off from one narrative to the other as Toby and Ren both look back on their adolescence, coming of age and how they have found themselves to be in their current predicament. Though not close friends, we find out that they know each other as they were both members of the God's Gardeners, a vegan, quasi-religious group that believes their salvation lies in living off the land and honouring God's creatures.
Atwood has written verse, meant to be sung, that the God's Gardeners sing for each "Saint's Day". There is one every day of the year, honouring a different famous person or animal that has furthered humanity according to the beliefs of the Gardeners. Every few chapters one of these songs will be printed, followed by the transcription of a speech by the founder of the Gardeners, Adam One. This style of storytelling is just one of the many fascinating aspects that I loved in this novel.
There is so much I could tell you about this fantastical, spine tinglingly correct world that Atwood has created, but there is no way I could do it justice. It is believable, lucid and extremely creative. Atwood writes post-apocalyptic like no YA author can. She draws on our history and our literature to construct this world and makes the characters so believable, so complex that they help to define it seamlessly. This book really caught me off guard. The back paragraph does not do it justice, whatsoever. My brother gave me this book over a year ago for my birthday and I'm not sure whether I would have even read it if it hadn't been on the longlist. I have heard things about Atwood from those that are idiots don't read her work saying that she writes these über-futuristic novels that aren't accessible and preach feminism. Even if that were the case, I would say it doesn't matter, but that's not the case at all. This novel is very accessible and there is no lengthy feminist prose at all.
This is a great segue to discuss the relationships in the book. I realized part way through that there is no real romantic relationship in this book. No relationship between a man and a woman that the reader is waiting to develop, mature or come together. It is so utterly refreshing. Yes, there are romantic relationships alluded to in stories that Ren tells, but I love that this book wasn't defined by two characters ultimately ending up together or apart. The most powerful relationship in this book is the bond that Ren has with her friend Amanda. From the way the friendship is described, to the way that I felt about the two girls finding each other in Atwood's broken world, it was more interesting and believable than any romantic relationship between a man and a woman that I've read about as of late. I hoped throughout the book that they would find each other because in each person lay something that made the other whole, though not ever said that explicitly.
One of the things I found really interesting in this novel was the chronicling of the start of a new religion. It seemed totally logical, albeit it not exactly my cup of tea, for a group to get together and try to live in a new way when their world seemed threatened. Adam One, their leader, was a normal human, but to see him idolized as a symbol of salvation made total sense during the book. It made me think a lot about how storytelling has a heavy hand in the defining of our history and how strong men and women can be turned into religious icons that shape a cultural group. Really fascinating stuff.
Once the reminiscing starts to approach the recent days in both Toby and Ren's lives, things really start to happen and that's when this story really takes off. This novel turns into a full-on thriller as the food supplies dwindle and outside factors start to threaten the lives of our heroines who seemed to be oddly safe, trapped as they were. I don't want to spoil anything, so I shouldn't go into detail, but I will say that I was on the edge of my seat during the final pages. This novel has totally been my gateway drug into the futuristic underworld of Atwood and I'm so excited for what's in store. ...more