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Review of The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder

House of Anansi

Recently short-listed for this year’s Governor General’sAward for literature, The Juliet Stories is the most recent work by Carrie Snyder. This novel-in-stories spans the life of Juliet from the tender age of 10 to adulthood. The eldest of three children, Juliet is the daughter of naive left-wing parents who uproot their family from Indiana and go to Nicaragua to help the Sandinistas fight the Reagan-backed Contras in the early 1980s. The well-intentioned father, however, is much more interested in fighting alongside the Sandinistas in el campo than helping his wife and young family get acclimatized to the new language and culture. But Juliet’s father is not the only one with his focus elsewhere. Although her mother, Gloria, is busy with her family and chasing down a toddler, it appears that she would rather be strumming her guitar and showing off her beautiful singing voice at adult parties than being a mom. Gloria is quick to pass on some of her parenting responsibilities to the eldest Juliet, something that the daughter resents.

The three children slowly adjust to their new life in Nicaragua, but Juliet is always an outsider at school, or the girl who has the unladylike habit of sweating and throwing like a boy in gym class. There is a constant stream of Roots for Justice volunteers arriving from the United States to continue the struggle, and her father gets a little too involved with a few. The family endures some harrowing experiences which include being stopped by a group of armed men in the hills and having their car stolen. This is around the time that the family discovers that Juliet’s brother Keith has cancer. The father stays behind to fight for the cause, while the rest of the family goes to live with the paternal grandmother in southwestern Ontario, where the brother undergoes treatment. Juliet is again an outcast at her new school, as she comes to terms with her brother’s illness and the fact that he is the exclusive focus of her mother’s attention. In the years that follow, the family disintegrates, and the parents move on to new partners.

Carrie Snyder has beautifully captured what many North Americans feel while living abroad as ex-pats, negotiating the invisible cultural lines only to find that in spite of their best intentions, integration and acceptance are part of a long complicated process. The entire family is marked by their experience in the Central American country, and it is where Gloria chooses to remarry, an event that Juliet finds exceedingly awkward. Throughout the book, Snyder gives an accurate depiction of the complexity and often contradictory emotions of mother-daughter relationships, possibly the book’s strongest point. When Gloria says that she cannot sing at her own wedding ceremony, Juliet does not buy the statement. “Parse the words, are any of them truthful, or would each sentence make better sense read in a mirror? Gloria is not a nervous woman; she has an icy reserve, a chill that permits her freedom to pursue, to leave, to choose at will, with control. She thrives on performance.” Yet, later at the reception when Gloria actually does sing and play her guitar, Juliet “experiences a shot behind the eyes, a burst of pride at her mother’s unexpected accomplishments.”

Fortunately, Juliet does not heap all her anger and blame onto her mother. The daughter is able to forgive her mother’s lack of attention when she discovers that she is pregnant after a one-night stand. Juliet learns from her aunt that she, too, was initially an unwanted pregnancy. Her father is more the target of Juliet’s wrath. After his death, the adult daughter wants to torch the farmhouse, the last place the entire family lived together. 

Carry Snyder is someone we’re bound to hear more of in the future. She is a writer's writer. Her razor-sharp prose is insightful and rich throughout, but the stories set in Nicaragua are by far the best. This is the perfect book for anyone who has lived or traveled in Latin America or who is simply curious about what it was like to have revolutionary parents in the early 1980s. 

This review was cross-posted at Rover Arts.

Other reviews:
The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis
One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston (Long-listed for the $50,000 Giller Prize)
Ru by Kim Thuy (Short-listed for the $50,000 Giller Prize)
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien
Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre
The Return by Dany Laferrière
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell 
The Girl Without Anyone by Kelli Deeth


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The Day of the Crows directed by Jean-Christophe Dessaint

What better way to spend a rainy afternoon with the kids than seeing The Day of the Crows, an animated feature directed by Jean-Christophe Dessaint.  Presented as part of the 41st edition of the Festival du cinéma du nouveau monde at the Théâtre Outremont, the much anticipated film, a France-Canada-Belgium-Luxembourg co-production, is based on the internationally acclaimed book Le Jour des corneilles by Quebec writer Jean-Francois Beauchemin. In addition to using the voices of actor Jean Reno and late Nouvelle Vague legend Claude Chabrol, the film was drawn almost entirely by hand, instead of the usual computer-generated images. As 24 images are required for just one second of animation, making a feature-length film is no small feat.

In The Day of the Crows, the central character is a young boy called simply “Son.” After the mother dies in childbirth in the wild, the infuriated father discards his infant son, but then reluctantly takes him back, raising him alone in the woods. Son, however, still sees his mother as a half -human half-fawn spirit. She and other anthropomorphized forest creatures are his only companions, besides his decidedly strange father. When Son is old enough to venture to the forest’s edge, he discovers a new world. His father warns him of the dangers of civilization, but when the elder falls ill, Son seeks help in the village where his father is eventually given medical treatment. This is where we learn of the father’s tragic past, and the grudge that some of the villagers still harbour against him. While the father recovers, Son stays with the doctor’s family, discovers love and learns the ways of the civilized world from Manon, the doctor’s daughter. Son eventually returns with his father to the forest, but his stay in the village has prepared him for his future survival.

The Day of the Crows incorporates some beautiful painting and finely detailed characters, but Son, intended to be simple and devoid of any sophistication, is basic to the point of being bland, with few traits to make him endearing to young viewers. Artistically, the film was stunning with strong influences from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, but there were some technical problems that might be the result of a poor film transfer. The colours were oversaturated, and there were details out of focus throughout the film. But probably the biggest problem was its length. In spite of all of its artistic merits, the film could have easily been edited by at least 20 minutes.

Had Day of the Crows been released 10 years ago, it would have been wildly popular. But with stiff competition from Pixar, Studio Ghibli, Dreamworks and Disney, and the technical innovations of the last decade, young viewers (and their parents) now expect much more than just beautiful artwork and music. They want to be dazzled and entertained from beginning to end, which Day of the Crows fails to do. However, for the purists or those curious to see what hand-drawn animation looks like, this is an enjoyable film.

This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.

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Cross-Country Running for Kids

Départ: On Your Marks
I've been trying to get my children to play outside more. But it isn't easy when you live in a city. Like most children, my kids would rather watch TV or play on computers, and I can see why. Kids don't play in front of their houses (even in Villeray where there are wide sidewalks) or in the back allies the way they used to. My kids enjoy going to the park or swimming when I take them. They're just not in the habit of going outside on their own. I've made it a rule that they can watch TV on Saturday mornings until 10:00 am, but  then they have to go outside and play in our small backyard, our car-free back alley or in front of our house on the sidewalk. Let's just say I've encountered some resistance.

So when my daughter said that she wanted to run cross-country this year I was enthusiastic. I bought her some leggings and special shoes to try to encourage her, and she and I started going for 5-K walks on the weekends. I also decided to take a personal day off work to see her run in the 42nd RSEQ Championship at Jean-Drapeau Park.

October 11 was an exciting, crisp day, and the sun was shining amidst the many colourful leaves. Running next to the St. Lawrence River brought down the temperature a few degrees, but the dark blue waves made the backdrop all the more picturesque. I have never attended a cross-country meet this big before: some 11,223 kids from elementary schools all over the city took part, and each race had about 300 participants. It was even difficult for me to make my way through the crowd to take pictures.

Grade 5 Girls at Orange Starting Line
My daughter had been selected for the "elite" grade 5 group. I had some reservations about this. After all, this was her first cross-country race, but I kept my thoughts to myself. We stood at the crest of the last hill near the end of the course and watched races for most of the day. I sensed my daughter had high hopes about how she would finish and wanted to prepare her for some possible disappointment.

I pointed out runners throughout the day to her to show her their different qualities. The top third of the field were all good, experienced runners who still had plenty of speed at the end of the race, and then the second third of participants who were in fairly good shape, but had less energy at the end. Then I showed her the last third who looked very tired, were overweight or were walking. I also showed her some "girls" in the other grade 5 races who were at least a head taller than my daughter and who already looked like young women. I emphasized the importance of finishing the race and explained that every race was different and that something could be learned from each one.

The race is on.
I was at the starting line when the pistol was fired to start my daughter's race. It began a few minutes after the last group of grade 5 girls had gone. The runners in the elite group were so fast that they actually caught up to the other grade 5 girls and ran past them. Of the six girls running in the elite group from my daughter's school, my daughter came in third. Well, she was disappointed as I expected. But after I reminded her that she had had enough energy to pass five girls at the end of the race, and that she had passed some other grade 5 girls in the race that had started before hers, she felt better.

When I asked her if she had enjoyed the run, she said, "How could I? Everyone was running past me. It was terrible." I turned my face away to smile. "That's what cross-country is all about," I  said. "You didn't expect to stay ahead of 299 girls in the elite group did you?" Then she smiled and said, "I guess not."

This morning she looked tired, but she told me that she wanted to start training for next year. She said that it wasn't enough to train in gym class at school. She had to train at home too.

I hope this will translate into her prying herself away from the computer and going outside more often. I really enjoyed this day at Jean-Drapeau Park. There's something very inspiring about kids showing enthusiasm about physical activity.

Other related posts:
LACMA: Mom's Need Fun Too
Downtown Los Angeles With The Kids


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