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message 1: by Allison (last edited Oct 05, 2017 06:06AM) (new)

Allison | 1908 comments Alan suggested a that we should consider reading The Water Beetles by Michael Kaan, who is a member of our group! The book has been nominated for this year's Governor General's Prize!

Is there interest in reading this together as a Buddy Read? Michael, would you like to be involved in our discussion?

To recap, Buddy Reads are set up for anyone to join into a conversation about any book, and there's no real timeline for it. Read as you can, when you can, and join into the conversation as much or little as you like. Sort of Monthly-Read-Light!

message 2: by Megan (new)

Megan  | 488 comments Perfect! I just put a hold on this book at the library. :)

message 3: by ❀ Susan (new)

❀ Susan G (susanayearofbooksblogcom) | 3665 comments Mod
I am in!! Great idea @Allison!

message 4: by Louise (new)

Louise | 1290 comments I put it on hold at the library too.

message 5: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments I ordered it today from my local bookstore. Library didn’t have it.

message 6: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye | 437 comments I've had this on hold for months...still on order I believe

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

I'd love to take part, just keep me in the loop. I sent Allison my email in case I don't pick up on messages here. Thanks.

message 8: by Alan (new)

Alan | 567 comments Have it on hold at the library,may have to purchase if we start soon.

message 9: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments I've got my book in hand!

I'm going to finish the book I'm on now, then begin. Probably another week or so...

message 10: by ✿✿✿May (last edited Oct 12, 2017 05:59AM) (new)

✿✿✿May  | 777 comments I have a hold on the book at the library. It should come through soon :)
**Update 10/12/17: My library book has come through!**

message 11: by Elinor (new)

Elinor | 261 comments I'll start searching for a copy.

message 12: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments Just cracked the spine of my new copy! Anyone else reading and planning to join?

message 13: by Megan (new)

Megan  | 488 comments I finished this morning on my bus ride into work. I loved this book! Can't wait to discuss it.

message 14: by ✿✿✿May (last edited Nov 03, 2017 07:57AM) (new)

✿✿✿May  | 777 comments I've had the book since October 12. Might have to renew it as I'm still on The Alice Network and still want to read Cop Town before it needs to go back.

**Update 11/3/17: About 2/3 through the book, really enjoying it. Waiting to discuss**

message 15: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments How's everyone doing on this book? We have a few who finished it up. I'm about 2/3 through.

While it's very well written, I'm finding it really harsh, and it's taking its toll on me. For instance, I'm finding that it can't be the last thing I read before bed. I've had two nights of dreams/nightmares if I close its covers and head right off to sleep.

The imagery is so visceral, so real, so incredibly detailed and horrible... And what's most miserable is how it's the same kind of scenarios we're hearing out of current day conflict -- I'm thinking of Syria, for instance. The torture, the slavery, the intensity of fear on civilians.

I'm going to do some further online research on the Japanese occupation of China, as the truth is, I'm not well versed in it. I also want to set it on the timeline of the Japanese invasion of Indonesia. I knew an old man in Indonesia in the late 90s who had stories from when he lived under Japanese occupation. His stories are basically identical from those inside the covers of The Water Beetles

message 16: by Megan (new)

Megan  | 488 comments @Allison, I completely agree. The ONLY way I got through this book was that the present day narrative let me know that they all survived, so there was hope.
I really knew nothing either of Japanese occupation of China. It sounds horrific, and the world today is still a scary place for many people.

message 17: by ✿✿✿May (last edited Nov 08, 2017 03:05PM) (new)

✿✿✿May  | 777 comments The 2nd Sino-Japanese invasion is typically over-shadowed by the Second World War, but the brutality of the Japanese to the Chinese was comparable to the holocaust, as evident during the Nanking Massacre (1937/38). I studied that while getting my O-level in Hong Kong.
Also, the Diocesan Boys' School is still in existence in present day, but I wiki its history and it is very interesting. Also knowing the streets in Hong Kong added the extra flavour for me.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

I appreciate all the comments. I'm glad that the book has drawn some attention to the reality of the Asian experience of the war, which as May said was every bit as bad as the European theatre. In terms of cultural works, most people's only knowledge of the Asian side is through The Bridge on the River Kwai and the adaptation of Empire of the Sun, films that are sixty and thirty years old.

message 19: by ✿✿✿May (last edited Nov 08, 2017 03:22PM) (new)

✿✿✿May  | 777 comments I watched a more recent movie called "The Flowers of War" starring Christian Bale set during the Massacre time. I also read Mo Hayder's The Devil of Nanking.

@Megan, I am also relieved that the book had a happy ending :)
@Michael, thank you for your book.

message 20: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments I've been trudging through the book today whenever I've had a spare moment. Hoping to finish tonight, once kids are in bed.

Michael -- I was going to write you once I'd finished to let you know that the conversation was starting. Glad you have joined us.

And so considering what you and May have said, please tell us what your inspiration was to write this book, to chronicle your father's experiences. Was it to get in writing the suffering he and other Chinese went through at the hands of the Japanese, in a more contemporary vehicle, something more current than the older films you mention?

And was it difficult to carry this story as you got it out on paper? It must have been... especially considering this was largely your father's story. Did he leave behind written memoirs (perhaps he is still alive?)? Can you tell us about the project itself, of writing, how you engaged in the process, how it occupied your mind during the time, how much research you may have done, and where you found success in researching the issues and experiences?

Interestingly, a quick Google search taught me that the Japanese occupation of Indonesia was during WWII, later than the occupation of China. While I am not yet done Water Beetles, I gather from this that the Japanese wasted little time moving onto another country -- as I mentioned before, the old man I knew in Indonesia told stories JUST LIKE those in Water Beetles, at the hands of the Japanese. What's the history there? Did they move from one nation south to another, with the same tactics at play? I wish I knew more of the history.

Books like yours, Michael, help Canadians like us to understand it all. As May said, thank you.

message 21: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments And so interesting to put all this in relation to the Japanese-Canadian experience during WWII. Those Japanese here on the west coast were detained in camps as "retaliation" for the very invasion that Michael writes about. (

And now we apologize for that treatment (as we should, I think??), but it just goes to show how incredibly complex WAR is. And ugly. And broad-reaching.

I'm curious to know, Michael, how your father got to Canada, if you care to share.

message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

The real motivation for writing the novel is that I wanted to write. I always had, but never got around to it, but I reached a point in life where I felt I should be accomplishing more. When I thought about what was unfulfilled, it was my long desire to write a book. So I wrote the book in order to write a book.

However when I came into possession of my dad’s memoirs (he died in 2006) it was obvious to me that it would be great material, and that was also coupled with my long curiosity in what had happened to him, since he almost never talked about it.

One thing I should say is that, aside from some fictionalization in the usual areas, the story is 90% true in terms of events and places. The little villages have all disappeared with urbanization, and the original family details were different. The only really fictionalized character is Ling, who appeared as an unnamed girl in a single sentence in my dad’s memoirs. Yet I felt she could have a compelling story and place in the book.

Yes, there were plenty of times when the material was difficult to write. Most people knew my dad as a fairly jovial, likeable man who enjoyed life, and in our standard narratives about historic trauma we don’t think people can move on like that. It was disturbing to read and write about these experiences knowing that he was only nine years old at the time. He did have nightmares about it into his late 30s or early 40s.

My dad left HK in 1951, just like Chung-Man, and he moved to Canada and became a physician with two kids. I still have the steamer trunk that he took with him on the boat.

message 23: by [deleted user] (last edited Nov 09, 2017 06:54PM) (new)

As I got further into the book, the importance of telling a story about this side of the war grew for me. I became much more aware of how little is known about the Asian history of that period, and how dominant the European history is.

I sensed also that, although people are used to the stories of how terrible the human impact of the European war was, revealing the same things about the Asian theatre might be kind of a new shock (even though it should be totally unsurprising).

Ultimately my interest, since I was writing a novel and not a history, was to tell an individual’s story about being immersed in these events, rather than explaining them. That meant creating a sense of confusion and loss, of not being able to understand the situation. So in fact, I put in almost no historical information (aside from a couple of paragraphs early on), and focused on the experience of living day by day amid chaos and trying to survive. The flash-forward parts, when CM is an old man, still contain some of this lingering disoriented feeling.

One thing I did try to tell, maybe obliquely, was how brutal life in feudal China could be, especially in the countryside. I think most readers have focused on the war content, but there is much in there as well about society as it already was before the war—the extreme patriarchy, the debt bondage, the weight of custom. Since the children have been reared in a somewhat cosmopolitan British colony, some of this is just as shocking to them as the actions of the invaders.

message 24: by Megan (new)

Megan  | 488 comments Hi Michael, Thank you so much for providing insight into your novel. It helped me understand it better and I learned a lot of history that I was quite unaware of. Your writing was wonderful and I look forward to reading your next novel. Best of luck with the Governor General's Award!

message 25: by Allison (last edited Nov 10, 2017 08:52AM) (new)

Allison | 1908 comments Yes, Michael, thank you for all of this.

I finished the book last night, and having read your comments first really changed the final few pages of reading for me. For instance, watching how you created an alternate ending for Ling, who was in fact your only truly fictional character, lent a depth to the story. I was attached to her as much as the other characters, and to lose a "firm closing" for her just added a feeling of helplessness in a way that seems inevitable to a war story. I definitely appreciated the "closing of loops" for the Leung family because their reality was so harsh to read about, but I think that adding Ling and her open-ended conclusion lent some real validity to the story.

I can't agree more that we in Canada grow up with such a narrow scope of history. Even still as adults, our exposure is so limited, I feel. I know very little about African or Asian geopolitical history, besides, really, the big chunk pieces -- Ghandi, Mandela, Vietnam, British colonization in India and Sri Lanka and a few other places, current Korean geopolitics to a very small degree -- but I recognize that there is so much missing. My first and only hands-on learning about the Japanese army over the past 100 years has come from the one old man I met in person, as I mentioned before, in Indonesia. What about back 500, 1000, 3000 years? So much is lost to the common person like me. Not to mention that we're only now being exposed to our own real Canadian history with the native people of this land -- so much buried from us plebs for so long.

I'm rambling. But your book has opened these questions and horizons for me as only a few others have (I think of a recent read for me Do Not Say We Have Nothing, for example), and I thank you for that.

And re: your father's jovial personality, it was the exact same thing as the gentleman in Indonesia. Happy, happy, happy, it seems. And when he told (and made actions to show) about his horrors and torture, he kept that giggling going. The human brain is a complicated machine. I can't begin to suggest I understand it, especially in the case of extreme trauma. I'm so sorry your dad went through it all.

message 26: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments On another note, a question I hope you don't mind me asking. As a Canadian, and with a father who immigrated to Canada, why did you choose to set the North American parts of your book in the US? Was it a practical decision -- perhaps Canada is still too "obscure" in the publishing world re: sales, etc?

message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

Megan and May, thank you for your comments.

Allison, I’m glad you felt invested in Ling’s story. She is probably the one character, aside from the main one, that I felt most attached to. While her story is completely invented, it’s also a totally plausible one given the society at the time. I felt that her departure—her journey home—was really a mirror to Chung-Man’s story, because she is just trying to get home whatever the risk. The fact that an attempt to go home also feels like a disappearance is part of the atmosphere of deep uncertainty and chaos.

The other characters I was really attached to, though they appear very briefly, is the man and woman who are executed in the town square. For me they had a kind of secret history and I often thought about what that might be, as I was writing the book.

Regarding the non-HK settings, they’re actually pretty perfunctory. I initially had a scene in Vancouver that got cut. And the other settings survived by I took out a lot of local detail (I regret I didn’t remove more) so that they’re really just place-names and nothing more. It is part of that dislocated feeling I was going for, of perpetually seeking a home.

I’m wondering if any readers have come across other books or movies about the war in Asia? A Town Like Alice comes to mind. There is some wartime echo in The Jade Peony as well.

message 28: by ✿✿✿May (new)

✿✿✿May  | 777 comments Vancouver ER doctor Daniel Kalla wrote a series of books starting with The Far Side of the Sky about the Jewish settlement in Shanghai during the Second World War comes to mind.

message 29: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments It may be a bit of a long-stretch by The Ash Garden may be worth looking at, Michael. May's suggestion is another good one for sure.

message 30: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments Michael, if you didn't see this list posted on another thread, here's a listing of more war books (including yours!) although none with an Asian lens, I don't think. Have a look:

message 31: by Natasha (new)

Natasha Penney | 562 comments I saw the inclusion of Water Beetles on that list Allison and I picked it up at the library. It's up next for me after the Giller shortlist reading. I haven't read any of Michael's comments because of that. But I'll be back. Thank you, Michael, for your willingness to discuss the book with us.

message 32: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments The beauty of these Buddy Reads, I think, is that they can keep on living. As people read the book, I hope they'll pipe in. Those of us that have finished it, or contributed to this thread to date, can be reminded of the reading experience again and again as more read the book.

I'm so grateful, Michael, for your input on this thread. It's the reason I moved the book to the front of my (long) line of books -- because I knew you'd be involved. It makes for a great "book club" discussion, and really enriches the reading experience. So thank you for that.

I hope to come back to this thread whenever anyone cares to share!

message 33: by [deleted user] (new)

Just a heads-up that I'll be reading in St John tonight at the Lorenzo reading series at UNB. If anyone is in the neck of that woods, I look forward to seeing you there.

The comments in this buddy read have been really useful in helping me understand what people see in the book, and they've shaped the comments I make at readings as well.

message 34: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments I'm so glad we gave you something back from this thread! I was worried it was all "take" on the part of the readers! :)

I hope tonight is fun for you. You could post a note about your event in the Author Event thread if you like: People may be more likely to see it there than in this thread.

message 36: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments Cool, @Susan! Thanks! I’ve read three of the finalists — the 3 discussed by this group — and I would easily put my vote behind Water Beetles. A hard read but extremely well written and researched. Of the 3, it’s the strongest for me.

Very exciting! Can’t wait to see the results.

message 37: by ❀ Susan (new)

❀ Susan G (susanayearofbooksblogcom) | 3665 comments Mod
Another article on CBC - this really needs to be one of my May TBR books!

message 38: by ❀ Susan (new)

❀ Susan G (susanayearofbooksblogcom) | 3665 comments Mod
Congratulations @Michael!!!

message 39: by Allison (new)

Allison | 1908 comments Oh wow! Wonderful news! And so, so deserving. What great company to be amongst that list of authors!

message 40: by Alice (new)

Alice Poon (alice_poon) I'm late to this discussion and I have The Water Beetles on my to-read list. I had previously read two non-fiction books about the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941 and would highly recommend these to anyone interested in factual accounts: Not The Slightest Chance: The Defense Of Hong Kong, 1941 and The Lasting Honour The Fall Of Hong Kong, 1941.

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