Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Railway Children

Something about the holidays makes me want to read old children's books. It probably has to do with being at home in my old room, surrounded by my old books, many of which I received as Christmas gifts. Christmas is a pretty nostalgic season anyway, and if you throw old books into the mix, I'm toast. One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children, which was given to me by my mum's sister the Christmas I was 6 (I know this because, like a good book-giver, my aunt wrote the date and who it was from on the first page).

The Railway Children tells the story of a well-to-do London family who are forced to move to a small country cottage after the father is arrested on charges of espionage. This is all set pre-WWI, so the transition from the city to the country is quite a shock, not simply because the children have lost their father, but because they are living in very different circumstances. They no longer have the money for fancy food or large closets, which is hard on the mother but kind of an adventure for the three children, Roberta (Bobbie),  Peter and Phyllis. 

At the bottom of the garden of the new house ran the railway, and the children became fascinated by the trains and all the regular passengers, especially a man they called The Old Gentleman, who always waved back to the children, who would stand on the fence and wave at the trains. It didn't take long for the Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis to become a regular fixture along the railway line, and soon the conductors and the local station master came to know them quite well. The novel is filled with adventures the children had along the railway line, including one that involved the girls tearing up their red petticoats so they could flag down a train after they saw that a rockslide had buried part of the tracks. 

Of course, this is a story about family as much as childhood adventures, and a lot of it takes place in and around the little cottage. Details such as how the mother is concerned about money around birthdays and how Peter injured himself with a garden rake are as central to the children's lives as the railway that they love, and Nesbit manages to wind the adventure around the mundane in such a way that the story seems as if it could really be true. 

Nesbit's descriptions of Three Chimneys (the family's country cottage) and the nearby town and the countryside are just so vivid that I have to believe it's all based on somewhere real that I would very much like to visit. When I was a kid I dreamed of having the sorts of afternoon adventures Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis had, and now when I read this book I rather taken by how nice their cottage sounds. There's a bit of romance around the penny-pinching the family is forced to do, and Nesbit plays on the idea of a simpler life in the country without losing sight of how financial matters and worry over the father would have made life less than idyllic. That day-to-day awareness, and the fact that the children's adventures aren't too outrageous, pull the story into the realm of the plausible, which makes for a much more compelling read.

Behind the scenes of all the happy and sunlit adventures the children have, though, is a kind of political story that I totally missed as a kid. The father is arrested at the beginning because he has been charged with spying for the Russians, and later in the story the family takes in a Russian man who they find half-dead. He tells them that he is a writer and was thrown out of his country for the stories he told. The Railway Children was published in 1906, and Nesbit seems to have been working out some political backlash in the edges of her children's novel. The political in no way overtakes the more light and cheerful story of the Waterbury family, but it does add just a hint of something weightier that sets this novel apart from many of the other children's books of the time. That being said, you just know that Nesbit worked out how to give the family a happy ending.

The Railway Children
by Edith Nesbit
First published in 1906 (cover image shown from Scholastic Canada edition)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

There are all sorts of reasons that it's great to be a kid (or around kids) around the holidays. They get so excited about everything and even when it's clear that you're gearing up for a green and rainy Christmas day, kids don't lose one ounce of spirit. But besides just having the big day to look forward to, kids of a certain age also have their school Christmas Concert to prepare for, although these are usually called Holiday Concerts or Winter Concerts now so as to be more inclusive. I didn't grow up going to church, so I never had to be involved with a Christmas nativity play, but if they were anything like the one described in Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, then I think I'm alright with it.

I must have been in Grade 2 or 3 when I first came across this book. I think it was read to my class a few times by various Elementary teachers who had a good sense of humour, and I'd pretty much forgotten about it until I saw it on my sister's shelf after coming home for the holidays this year. It's a short read (maybe two hours) and man, what a different book it is now.

The story is kind of a classic one. In an unnamed (presumably American) town at Christmas, the church's Christmas Pageant is pretty much the biggest deal in the kids' lives. Even though the roles go to the same people every year, and the pageant plays out exactly the same way, the predictability of it doesn't diminish its importance. This year though, things are different. Mrs. Armstrong, who usually runs the pageant, breaks her leg and the narrator's mom has to take over (the narrator being an unnamed girl of about 9 or 10). Already, some of the predictable structure has changed. Enter the Herdmans.

The Herdmans are six children from the bad end of town. They steal, they bully the other children at school, they don't go to church, they all smoke cigars (even the girls!), they talk back – well, you get the idea. Basically, they are bad kids. The story goes that their dad hopped a train years ago and hasn't been heard from since and their mum is too busy working two shifts a day to really keep an eye on them, so they run wild. Basically, all the kids are kind of afraid of them.

The Herdmans have never shown any interest in church or the Christmas pageant before, but this year they've heard refreshments are provided, so they turn up and then bully the rest of the Sunday school class out of their usual roles. Suddenly, the six Herdmans have the six most important roles in the pageant. Then, of course, it turns out that they've never even heard the Biblical Christmas story and have no idea what's supposed to happen in the pageant. Of course, they have lots of questions about all sorts of things (what are swaddling clothes? why doesn't anyone kill Harrod? why didn't Joseph beat up the innkeeper?) and by questioning the story, new meaning is brought to it for the young narrator.

Not that the whole book is about the Christmas story – it isn't. Most of the story revolves around the antics of the Herdmans and their reign of terror over the children in the community. And it is hilarious. So is the description of the final pageant (which, as the title suggest, goes very well). The Herdmans, as Wise Men, bring a ham (from their charity food basket, no less) instead of the traditional gold, frankincense and myrrh; Mary (the oldest Herdman) burps Baby Jesus before laying him in the manger; and youngest Herdman (as the angel who visits the shepherds) yells the only spoken line in the whole play in untraditional language. It could have been a disaster, but instead it was perfect.

Not being religious doesn't mean I can't appreciate the importance of religious stories and traditions. Linus' speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas is wonderfully moving, and so too is the pageant in this little story. It isn't about the religion behind it so much as it is about being overcome by the spirit and warmth of the day. And, in a whole side of the story I missed as a kid, it's about the community accepting a poor and wild bunch of kids into their annual tradition. The Herdmans are pretty marginalized and, although their antics are really funny, their lives are pretty sad; being in the Christmas pageant may have been the first time they were really expected to achieve anything, and they rose to the occasion.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is not a religious story, really. Anybody who has ever participated in (or watched) a children's Christmas/holiday/winter concert will relate to the total chaos and stress that goes on behind the scenes as well as how happy and surprised the performers are when it all goes off without a hitch. These concerts are about bringing communities together and, in Robinson's story, that the Herdmans get to take part in such a central way is what really makes this such a great Christmas read.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
by Barbara Robinson
First published in 1972 (cover image shown from Avon Books edition)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Oryx and Crake

Raccoons make me nervous. Sure, they're cute from a distance, with their little black masks and that weird rattly sound they make when they shake their heads, but they also have fingers and I a kind of predatory fearlessness. I'm not saying my nervousness about raccoons affects my day-to-day life or anything, but it's there. There are all kinds of other animals that people have problems with, so many that you wouldn't think it was necessary to create new ones to make people uneasy. Margaret Atwood thought differently. In her novel Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a vision of the future in which technology isn't used to build fancy flying cars and hovering buildings, but strange hybrid animals and an entirely new race of "people." 

Often, with futuristic or science fiction novels, when the story begins the author orients the reader in the new world. Strange things are explained (at least somewhat) in concise, one- or two-sentence blips and by the end of the first chapter, you know most of the rules of this new place and time and can settle in and enjoy the story. Atwood does not do this. 

Oryx and Crake opens after some kind of natural disaster has ravaged the world. The only human left alive (that we, or he, know of) is Snowman, and he is not exactly the adventure hero type. He lives in a tree on a beach, teaches things to a group of "people" he calls the Crakers (human-like, but not human) and spends a lot of his time trying to keep his skin protected from the sun and drinking. We don't know what happened, it's not clear that he knows what happened, the world is a mess but still surprisingly recognizable.

Rather than offering up all the explanations at once, Atwood builds the story by alternating between Snowman's present and his memories of the past – when he was still called Jimmy. The picture is not a pretty one. Advances in science have spurred a kind of heyday for genetic engineers, but instead of splicing together different kinds of apple trees (like they do today) the geneticists of the future splice together animals. Hence rakunks (raccoon-skunks suitable as pets) and wolvogs (animals that look like friendly dogs, but are bred to be vicious and feral as wolves). But the genetic fun doesn't end there, Atwood also dreamed up ChickieNobs (chickens engineered to only grow one body part, such as a chicken growing twelve drumsticks, for the food industry) and Pigoons (pigs shaped like balloons that grow specific organs for hum transplant). 

In the safe world of Snowman's memories, all the bioengineered animals are confined to the various pharmaceutical or bioengineering compounds (highly prestigious gated communities with a specific corporate interest) but in his precarious present they are running wild. 

Snowman is a bit of a pathetic character, but he is generally good natured and as he takes you through his childhood memories, his friendship with Glen (who eventually becomes Crake) and what happens to them, the world unfolds. Not that it's a particularly nice world, with its bioengineering and incredibly vulgar and violent commodification of sex and poverty, but Snowman is so genuine that you can't help but understand his longing for it.

Atwood's story, though, is more than a simple apocalyptic cautionary tale. It is also a love story in a strange way, with Oryx at the centre of both Jimmy and Crake's lives. Oryx, the former child sex slave who Jimmy and Crake discover in an Internet video and become obsessed with – Jimmy openly and Crake secretly. For the "people" living near Snowman on the beach (who, of course, have been bioengineered), Oryx and Crake are like their gods – Crake because he created them and Oryx because she taught them. In this strange reality, Snowman is suddenly a prophet because he was a friend to these gods.

As novels go, Oryx and Crake is incredibly dense, in that it's packed with various storylines, events, political and biological suggestions and characters. I'm not sure that it's a novel you enjoy, exactly (because there are some quite disturbing scenes and suggestions), but it's an incredible piece of fiction and I can certainly say that I liked it very much. Perhaps what I liked most about Oryx and Crake is that it doesn't have that blinding sense of inevitability to it that so many science fiction stories do. Rather, Atwood offers her characters many chance to turn back, and even though they don't, we still can.

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood
First published in 2003 (cover image shown from Seal Books edition)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Golden Mean

For pretty much every level of education, December is a busy month: there are final exams, major projects, term papers – lots of things come due at the end of the year. In the haste to calculate marks and study for exams, the whole goal of education (learning) can get pushed aside in favour of cramming. Aristotle would, I think, be appalled. His philosophy of education, as laid out in Annabel Lyon's novel The Golden Mean, was that it should never end, and if anything represents a full-stop in the classroom, it's a final exam.

In philosophical terms, the Golden Mean was Aristotle's attempt to create and define a balance between extremes. The mean is golden because it represnts the middle point best suited to the situation, not the mathematical centre of a problem; basically, it recognizes that not all situations require a meet-in-the-middle solution. This philosophy encompassed much of what Aristotle did, as a man, a teacher and a philosopher and Lyon's novel gathers that and, rather than stating what the golden mean is, infuses it into all the layers of her novel. And you might think a story that avoids the extremes wouldn't be all that interesting, but Lyon takes care of that too.

Lyon's Aristotle is based on what must have been years of research, but by making him the narrator, she gets around the trap some writers fall into of trying to display their research on the page. Aristotle sees things and thinks about things and remembers things, and as he tells the reader about them, Lyon is able to couch her material in character-building details that teach the reader about some relevant Aristotelian details, all the while expanding on her fiction.

Like all good historical fiction, The Golden Mean centers around real events, namely the time Aristotle spent as the tutor for a boy who would grow up to be Alexander the Great. Aristotle also spends time with Alexander's older, severely disabled brother, drawing him out of his filthy conditions and teaching him to ride a horse, which gives him great and sudden joy. Education and the the process and importance of learning are through lines in this novel, which is one part present day in Macedon and one part Aristotle's memories of his own childhood education. Life is about learning, Lyon's Aristotle seems to be saying at every turn, you can never really know it all.

There are also a lot of really compelling details about Aristotle's home life and his marriage, which bring out some fascinating bedroom scenes. Sexuality and marriage are facets of Aristotle's life that I had never really thought about (not that I think about Aristotle all that often), but Lyon's rendering of his whole life – both inside and out of the classroom and the home – make him feel like a proper character and not just a historical name. 

And really, Aristotle is a full character, and The Golden Mean is an incredibly seamless novel, which makes you wonder where research ends and fiction begins. The city of Pella is so fully realized that you can almost feel the grime from the dusty roads. The Golden Mean is as escapist as it is educational, a combination it seems Aristotle might approve of.

The Golden Mean
by Annabel Lyon
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Random House edition)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Golden Spruce

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the woods. We lived in the country and both my parents are pretty outdoorsy so it's no real shock that we spent a good portion of our summers camping and that family holidays generally meant a pattern of hiking one day, sightseeing the next. One of our holidays took us to the West Coast, and the size of the trees on Vancouver Island totally blew my mind. How could you ever destroy such a tree, I wondered. Well, John Vaillant did some research. In The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed Vaillant uses one tree – and one man – to explore what happened when forestry took off as an industry.

The Golden Spruce is one of those non-fiction endeavours that leaves you a little breathless in its ability to tie extensive and detailed research with a compelling storyline. But Vaillant didn't just do that once, he did it three times – exploring the Haida people and colonialism, the tree and its forest, and Grant Hadwin and the mining industry – and then braided all his pieces together. Like the best layered narratives, removing one of these elements would mean taking out a vital part of the story Vaillant is telling, which is found as much in the little details as it is in the bigger picture.

The golden spruce is exactly that: a spruce tree that grew with golden needles instead of green ones. For a tree to sprout with that kind of genetic anomaly is rare, Vaillant finds out, but not as rare as you'd think; for a golden spruce tree to not just survive, but flourish, is practically unheard of. If high school teachers could describe photosynthesis the way Vaillant does, they would have all their students hanging onto their every word. But Vaillant's description of the spruce range beyond the biological into the mythical and the social, because it seems everyone in the Haida Gwaii (BC's Queen Charlotte Islands) has a theory about the spruce, including the loggers.

Forestry took off on the West Coast hundreds of years ago. The trees were enormous and old and very straight, all attributes colonizers look for when assessing trees. And the English needed a lot of trees, for ships, house, forts, fires, you name it (and Vaillant does). From this need for trees comes the forestry industry, which has devastated BC's rainforest, but it fascinating to read about. I'll admit that I was never all that interested in logging, but Vaillant's explanation of procedure and character is truly absorbing. He develops logging all the way to present day, which is where we find Grant Hadwin, the logger turned environmental crusader who eventually hacks the golden spruce to death.

But killing the tree has affects he perhaps couldn't envision. The Haida – the islands' Native inhabitants – are devastated by the loss of this spiritual centre. Vaillant gives a similar historical and social analysis to the Haida as he does to the tree and logging (and Hadwin), but he resists tokenizing them. The Haida are not stand-ins for "the old ways," nor do they represent a pure relationship with the earth (so often in stories about nature and its destruction, this is the role Aboriginals are given). Rather, the Haida are complicated, both in their relationship to logging and the land. For Vaillant, nothing is one dimensional. 

It's hard to believe that a book, ostensibly about a tree, could be dramatic. But The Golden Spruce is a real page-turner, and as the narrative moves around in time and place, a sense of dangerous inevitability starts to build. Vaillant doesn't use this book to preach lessons, but he does give a conscientious reader enough information and history to understand the possibilities and their likely outcomes. The Golden Spruce is a book about a forgotten (or ignored) history, but Vaillant gives such vitality to it I find it hard to believe it could remain tucked away for much longer.

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed
by John Vaillant
First published in 2005 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Canada Keeps Reading

Last week, CBC's Canada Reads announced the finalists for this year's literary showdown, to take place in the February. In previous years, CBC has announced the panelists and they in turn have announced the Canadian novel they wish to champion.

But, for the 10th anniversary, CBC decided to spice things up. They had booksellers and writers and critics assemble a longlist that was then voted on by the public. This led to a shortlist of 10 books, from which this year's panelists would choose they novel they wanted to defend. Problems with this method have been pointed out, but nonetheless, this year's top-5 (supposedly the top-5 novels of the decade, although I'm not so sure about that) are a more interesting assortment than last year's.

So, here are the five novels that will be debated on this year's Canada Reads, along with their defenders:
The Birth House by Ami McKay - defended by Debbie Travis 
The Best Laid Plans by Terri Fallis - defended by Ali Velshi
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou - defended by Georges Laraque
Essex County by Jeff Lemire - defended by Sara Quin 
Unless by Carol Shields - defended by Lorne Cardinal 
But, if you're looking for something a little more off the beaten track, Pickle Me This has posted her panelists (and their picks) for the 2011 Canada Reads Indies:
Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady - championed by Sheree Fitch
Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King - championed by Nathalie Foy
Still Life With June by Darren Greer - championed by Chad Pelley
Home Truths by Mavis Gallant - championed by Carrie Snyder
Be Good by Stacey May Fowles - championed by Robert J. Wiersema
Now, if The Afterword would just announce its picks for Canada Also Reads (and I'm hoping and assuming there will be another round this year) the season of the literary cage match would be all set to get going.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Boy: Tales of Childhood

I said last week that I'd grown up hearing stories from my parents about their respective childhoods. Their stories were usually funny and, because they took place in a different time (the '60s and '70s) than I knew and, in my dad's case, in England instead of Canada, listening to them was like having a whole world opened up. Roald Dahl does that (although with perhaps less of a familial pull) in his first memoir, Boy: Tales of Childhood.

Boy is the story of Dahl's childhood in England and summers in Norway. I've written about his later memoir, Going Solo, but I wanted to do Boy separately because the tone is quite different. Dahl's childhood memories are quite similar to the stories he wrote for children. Although he says all the tales in Boy are true (and I have no reason to doubt that, exaggeration notwithstanding), Dahl likes to cast his stories in certain ways. There is almost always a villain - especially if the story is about school - and the villain is always ugly. This works well for children, and suggests that for Dahl, people's appearances match their personalities.

That's one of the reasons Dahl made for such a great children's author: he left the moralizing and the explaining out of it. In Boy, Dahl tells the tales of his punishments with indignation and anger, which is just the way a child would feel. That he resists looking at the other side, or trying to justify the actions of his teachers, puts Dahl squarely in the camp of authors who really remember what it was like to be a kid.  He doesn't look back at childhood and idealize it so much as look back and relive it (although his stories have almost certainly benefitted from a looser grip).

Of course, Dahl leaves out the more awkward moments of growing up and hitting puberty - although maybe those are more a staple of the female coming-of-age memoir, I don't know. The stories Dahl tells are the exciting ones: how he and his friends snuck a dead mouse into a candy jar, how he replaced his half-sister's finance's pipe tobacco with goat poo, how he broke his nose. That's not to say that he doesn't include some more general details – the summers he spent in Norway, writing weekly letters home from boarding school – but he wrote this as a memoir for his audience of child readers, and the focus reflects that. As an adult reader, it makes for a generally hilarious, always interesting, collection of stories.

Dahl always knew how to play his audience, and Boy is no different. Dahl was a grown man when he wrote this novel, and his reminiscing offers adult readers the opportunity to think back to their own childhood and pull out only the good stuff. Boy isn't a long book, which suggests a lot was left out, but since it's about Dahl's childhood, why shouldn't he pick and choose what bits were truly memorable? For that matter, why shouldn't his readers?

Boy: Tales of Childhood
by Roald Dahl
First published in 1984 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Writing by Derek Winkler

Hi there. My name's Derek and I've just published a novel called Pitouie. You can read all about it over at The Workhorsery. I'm getting the plug out of the way first because the rest of this post will have absolutely nothing to do with Pitouie. The rest of this post will be about motorcycles.

"It's a picture of my grandfather on his bike," Derek Winkler wrote when he e-mailed
the photo. "These machines, they get in the blood."

I got my motorcycle license when I was 17. When I was 19 I became an English major. It seemed obvious that I should write a book about about motorcycles. The resulting work was a magic realist road trip novel so irredeemably awful that innocent persons might be driven to madness by just by reading it. I keep the single extant copy on an Amiga floppy disk under lock and key.

Pitouie is landing

Two months ago, The Workhorsery's Todd Ferguson inexplicably recognized me at Word on the Street and asked me to be part of the blog tour for the press's forthcoming novel Pitouie, by Derek Winkler. Of course, I said yes. So far, Winkler has been to The Afterword and The Book Mine Set, and today he's coming to Books Under Skin.

In the author notes at the end of the novel – which has such a twist in the middle I'm reluctant to describe it to you, suffice to say, I look for these things when I read and did not see it coming; also, the narrative is layered, and I love that – Derek Winkler is described thusly:
Derek Winkler is the editor of an obscure trade publication that you have almost certainly never heard of. He also performs any number of dark and arcane tasks for Broken Pencil magazine. He has done just enough freelance journalism to be able to make that claim with a straight face.
His two most prized possessions are a broken motorcycle and his grandfather's 1926 edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Well, the first paragraph ties back to the novel, which features a sort-of journalist (that is, he works at a trade magazine, Waste Insight, essentially rewriting press releases for publication). I'm in no way saying that Winkler himself is a "sort-of journalist," but that section of his bio is relevant to the novel. The second half, however, is related to his contribution to Books Under Skin: all about motorcycle memoirs. It's funny, it's interesting, and it might just make you want to read some more of Winkler's writing.

Here's Winkler's full blog-touring schedule:
Nov. 15-19: The Afterword
Nov. 20: The Book Mine Set
Nov. 21: Books Under Skin
Nov. 22: Hoodie Ripper
Nov. 23: rob mclennan’s blog
Nov. 24: Books on the Radio
Nov. 25: Maisonneuve Magazine
Nov. 26: Open Book Toronto

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Through Black Spruce

When my sisters and I were kids, our parents told us stories about their childhood. We loved the little girl and little boy stories, both because they were almost always hilarious and because having your parent tell you a story is generally enjoyable. We were read to a lot, but there's something about being told a story without any props that really draws you in and makes the occasion memorable. It's that kind of storytelling - the kind that happens only between close family members - that Joseph Boyden draws on in Through Black Spruce, his sort-of sequel to Three Day Road.

Through Black Spruce is all about narrative, and the kind of catharsis that comes from telling your story to someone you love - even if you're not even sure they can hear you. Layering narratives is one of my favourite literary devices, and Boyden uses it to great affect. The novel tells the story of Annie Bird and her search for her missing sister, who left Moose Factory to be a model in Toronto and then New York. Annie's story takes place both in the present, after she has returned to Moose Factory, and in the past, as memories she relates to her uncle Will.

The third narrative stream is Will Bird's. In the present of the novel, he is in a coma, and his story is written as though he is telling it to Annie, although he's unconscious. Will's story is by far the most wide-ranging in terms of the time it covers. He looks back at his childhood, at Annie's childhood with her missing sister, his legendary career as a Cree bush pilot, and at the events that led up to his hospitalization. 

Both Annie and Will have amazing stories to tell. In many ways, they are the stories of everyday: wrong place wrong time, chance meetings, changing neighbourhood, aging, family, loneliness - the list goes on and on really. What makes Through Black Spruce a great novel is that it doesn't stray from what's believable, even the events that seem improbable are always within the realm of possibility; I may never have seen someone eat a Canada goose on the shore of Lake Ontario, but I'm sure there are people who do, or have.

Annie's story takes her south, away from Moose Factory and the life and world she knows. She leaves to find her sister Suzanne, who went missing after starting a career as a model. Annie follows Suzanne's train, from Toronto to Montreal to New York, with her "protector" Painted Tongue, a young Native man she met in Toronto. Annie meets Suzanne's friends and gets pulled into the life her sister had been living. Although she eventually returns home empty-handed, her new understanding of her sister's life disturbs her, as does her brief foray in the same circles.

Both Will and Annie are solitary people by nature, and their respective stories are largely about their attempts to interact with others. Although the interactions aren't always pleasant or chosen, both Annie and Will are learning how to navigate a world they don't want to be a part of but have been thrust into. 

Through Black Spruce is a novel that ranges all over the place, in both space and time, but that's held together by the familial bond between Annie and Will. Although they can't be sure the other can hear them, Annie and Will tell their stories as a way to explain themselves and how they got into the situation they find themselves in. Sitting in Will's hospital room, Annie tells him about her time in the south as a kind of confessional, as if telling the story will free her from the burden of it, not by burdening her uncle, but by implicitly receiving his forgiveness. Will's comatose state allows him to placidly receive whatever he is told, and allow the confessor to feel his non-judgment.

Story telling is a large part of what cements families together, and as much as Through Black Spruce is about problems of violence, Native issues and family, it's strongest message is about the importance of communication. Annie's family first started to worry about Suzanne when they stopped hearing from her, and Annie are both healed, in a way, by the stories they tell. If stories can heal, or teach, or entertain, as Boyden seems to suggest, Through Black Spruce strikes me as a candidate for all three. It's beautifully told and compelling to read, and the voices of Annie and Will will sound in your head for quite some time after you've finished.

Through Black Spruce
by Joseph Boyden
First published in 2008 (cover image shown from Viking Canada edition)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Here are your GG winners

I gave a truncated version of the shortlists (for space) but here is the full list of winners for this year's Governor General's Literary Awards - English and French winners in each category. For 11 of the 14 winners this is their first literary award, which says great things about the Can Lit scene at the moment.

Cool Water by Dianne Warren
Ru by Kim Thuy
Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada by Allan Casey
C'est ma seigneurie que je réclame: la lutte des Hurons de Lorette pour la seigneurie de Sillery, 1650-1900 by Michel Lavoie
Boxing the Compass by Richard Greene
Effleurés de lumière by Danielle Fournier
Afterimage by Robert Chafe
Porc-épic by Daniel Paquet
Children's literature, text:
Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips
Rose: derrière le rideau de la folie by Élise Turcotte
Children's literature, illustration:
Cats' Night Out illustrated by John Klassen
Rose: derrière le rideau de la folie illustrated by Daniel Sylvestre
Translation - French to English:
Forests (Forêts by Wajdi Mouawad) translated by Linda Gaboriau
Translation - English to French:
Le cafard (Cockroach by Rawi Hage) translated by Sophie Voillot
All 14 winners receive a $25,000 award and a specially created, leather-bound copy of their winning title. Additionally the publisher of each winning title receives $3,000 to help in promotion of the book, and each non-winning finalist also receives $1,000.

All in all, that's a pretty good day for Canadian literature.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance Day Reads

It occurred to me this morning that I have recommended quite a few books about war - either ones set during a war or reflecting on its aftermath. Today being Remembrance Day, it seemed appropriate to do a round-up of those titles.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows: Set in post-WWII London and the isle of Guernsey.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Set in New York after the First World War.
Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute: Set in post-WWII Australia, with flash-backs to the war in Europe.
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden: Set partly in Ontario just after the First World War, with the majority of the narrative taking place during the battles of the war's battles in Belgium and France.
The Birth House by Ami McKay: Set in rural Nova Scotia during the First World War.
Going Solo by Roald Dahl: Tells the story of Dahl's experience as an RAF pilot in North Africa and Mediterranean Europe during the Second World War.
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute: Set in Malaysia during the Second World War and in Australia and England several years later.

I had never realized how many of these books were set post-war and then looked back at it. I suppose that for authors writing about it now, that's their experience of the war. So even when flash-backs and memory sequences are set in the present, it's always through the lens that the soldier in question knows the outcome of their own story. I'm not sure if this says anything concrete about our ability to understand war through literature, but it is interesting.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About

Sometimes I am guilty of judging books by their covers. Or, if not by their covers, then by their titles. It's lucky that I have friends who know this and will push me to read novels I might otherwise pass by. Mil Millington's novel Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About is just one example – but it is, perhaps, the best. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard when reading a book (and I am someone who truly laughs out loud), and I might have missed all that hilarity if I'd just passed by the purple book with the lengthy title.

Pel Dalton works in the tech department of a university library – or, rather, Learning Commons. He's not terrible at his job, but he isn't stellar, either. After his boss, TSR, stops coming in to work one day, Pel is promoted, even though he isn't all that qualified or sure what the new job entails. What he discovers is that the Learning Commons, despite being a library, is anything but quiet. 

Pel lives with his girlfriend Ursula – who is German – and their two kids. Ursula is the kind of character who you imagine judging your reading posture. She is eminently practical and able to compartmentalize, two qualities which Pel does not embody. In some ways, Pel seems like yet another child for her to take care of, but in others, Millington portrays their relationship as a mutual one: they may come at situations from different angles, but their ability to meet in the middle to sort something out is what makes their partnership work.

The nice thing about Millington's comedy is that it doesn't fall into clichés about the bumbling boyfriend/dad and his commanding and capable girlfriend. Pel is perhaps less obviously capable, but his character is fully formed and his misadventures are entertaining because you genuinely like him. In many ways, reading about Pel trying to escape from meetings through bathroom windows is like hearing a story told by a good friend – you know that it's going to work out, but you can hardly believe what happened. Millington lets you laugh with Pel as much as you laugh at him. 

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About is not a serious novel about a broken relationship, or a thinly-veiled how-to relationship guide. Neither is it a series of short stories (which the title almost hints at). Rather, it's a novel about a full-formed relationship. Pel ad Ursula argue about all sorts of piddly little things – defrosting the fridge, PTA meetings, how to deal with the builders working on their new house, etc. – but none of their arguments are make-or-break. Their relationship isn't perfect, but neither is it about to collapse: they love each other, they love their children, and they balance each other out. 

In a lot of ways, Pel and Ursula's relationship is refreshing in its ordinariness. Granted, Pel manages to get himself into some truly ridiculous situations, but Millington makes them all believable because he doesn't leave any holes behind in the plot line. Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About is a really satisfying read because it doesn't sacrifice sense for hilarity, or a well-crafted plot for bizarre scenarios. By the end, although you might not want to date Pel, he certainly becomes someone you'd like to hang out with, if for no other reason than the crazy stories he could tell.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About
by Mil Millington
First published in 2002 (cover image shown from Hodder and Stoughton edition)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Canadian Children's Literature Award

The Scotiabank Giller Prize wasn't the only major book award handed out in Canada last night.The TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, worth $25,000, was given to Arthur Slade, for his book The Hunchback Assignments.

The other finalists for the award were:
Janet McNaughton for Dragon Seer
Sharon Jennings for Home Free
William Gilkerson for A Thousand Years of Pirates
Nancy Hartry for Watching Jimmy
Congratulations to Arthur Slade and all the finalists.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Giller Prize 2010: The Sentimentalists

A huge congratulations to Johanna Skibsrud for winning the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists. The book is published by Gaspereau Press (based maybe 10 minutes from where I grew up in Nova Scotia). This is especially noteworthy because not only is Gaspereau Press a very small publisher, but they also set their type by hand, which is practically a lost art in today's highly-mechanized world.

Congratulations to all the finalists (and all the nominees).

Naming rights

Joseph Boyden is going to auction off a name in his new novel to the highest bidder. The auction will take place next week (on Nov. 18) at the Writers' Trust 25th Anniversary Gala, and the money raised will go toward supporting other authors through the Writers' Trust's various programs.

Of course, this isn't the first time a character has been named by the highest bidder. Margaret Atwood has auctioned off the right to name characters on numerous occasions, always to benefit charity. In most cases these characters are fairly minor, but the name Amanda Payne, which first appeared in her novel Oryx and Crake and then again in The Year of the Flood was definitely more than minor.

If this is a trend that gets people excited about reading and buoys good causes, I'm all for it. Goodness knows novels contain a lot of characters, all of whom need names. If an author feels comfortable letting people bid on the right to name a character, that seems alright to me. Not that I'd necessarily give my name to a novel, though – I have some more creative ones to offer up first.

Joseph Boyden's first novel, Three Day Road, won the Writers' Trust Fiction Award in 2005; its sort-of sequel, Through Black Spruce, won the Giller Prize in 2008.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Late Nights on Air

In Canada, CBC is one of those inescapable cultural touch-points. Whether you grew up listening to CBC radio and watching CBC television or not (and I'm not sure how you could have avoided it consistently), the logo and the broadcast style are distinctive. CBC radio is practically omnipresent, and even in small rural towns without radio stations of their own, CBC pipes in to give the news of the day. For the characters in Elizabeth Hay's Giller-winning novel Late Nights on Air, radio is what draws them together. Or rather, a radio station - not explicitly CBC - in Yellowknife, in the 1970s.

Radio is a relatively solitary endeavour for Harry Boyd, who left the "south" and the world of TV to return to the poetry of that is nighttime radio. Sitting at home one evening, Harry hears a voice on the radio and falls in love with it. When he meets Dido Paris, he falls in love all over again. Harry and Dido, along with Gwen Symon, Eleanor Dew make up to the core of a small cast of characters that also includes Ralph and Eddy.

Late Nights on Air is a novel about relationships and the way friendships shift and take on new forms when people spend long dark winters indoors, and days working together at a cramped radio station. Yellowknife, as portrayed by Hay, is a community of out-of-towners. None of the main characters are from there, but they all flourish in their own ways before moving on or moving up.

Although I love the scenes set in the radio booths and cozy living rooms, by far the best section of the novel is when Harry, Gwen, Eleanor and Ralph set out on a canoe trip north, following the path of long-lost English explorer John Hornby. Hay's descriptions of the changing Northern landscape are mesmerizing, and dispell any stereotype of the North as a cold or dead place. The canoe trip is filled with beautiful moments - glimpses of dawn and wildlife sightings - but Hay knows how to keep a story from becoming a fairy tale, and in one swoop turns an idyllic setting into a place of grief.

Late Nights on Air is a novel about solitude and how people move through relationships. It isn't a sad book, but it is a reflective one. Hay forces her characters into spaces they may not have otherwise occupied, and asks them to deal with emotions that most real people would run from. Each character is distinct, but marked by their interactions with others; the friendships in Late Nights on Air are real and deep because they don't twist the participants. Rather, like the pairs who canoed up Hornby's route, the friendships Hay describes are about working in tandem while remaining individual - one radio show moves into another, but the lines don't become blurred.

Late Nights on Air
by Elizabeth Hay
First published in 2007 (cover image shown from McClelland & Steward edition)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Room wins Writers' Trust Award

Congratulations to Emma Donoghue! Her novel Room – which was also nominated for the Man Booker Prize – won the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, worth $25,000.

James Fitzgerald won the Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize for his book What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son's Request to Redeem the Past, also worth $25,000.

The Vicky Metcalf Award for Children's Literature was given to Polly Horvath, whose latest book, Northward to the Moon was published in Februrary 2010. The award is worth $20,000.

The Marian Engel Award, given to a writer in mid-career for an entire body of work, was awarded to Miriam Towes, author of A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans and Swing Low: A Life, among others. The Marian Engel Award is worth $25,000.

The Matt Cohen Award, given for a body of work to an author for whom writing is their primary pursuit, was awarded to Myra Kostash, from Edmonton. The prize is worth $20,000.

Congratulations to all the nominees and the winners! 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Author memoirs are ify territory for me. On the one hand, I'm fascinated by their lives and their writing habits; on the other hand, if I know too much about them it distracts me when I'm reading their work. Maya Angelou said good writing reads as effortless, and I want to enjoy it that way without being bogged down by the backstory. But, there are always exceptions, and Haruki Murakami is one.

Murakami's memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running came out two years ago. In it, Murakami details his life not only as a writer, but as a marathon runner, and by extension, about his musical taste. As anyone who as read any of his novels knows, Murakami references a lot of jazz and classical music, as well as a litany of North American pop-culture references. Those details tend to stand out in stories set in various parts of Japan, but fit perfectly into Murakami's personality (as far as he's described himself here, anyway).

The through-line of the memoir is the relationship between Murakami's writing and running. Before he became a novelist, he ran a jazz bar in Tokyo. After deciding he'd rather be a writer, he sold the bar to forge ahead as a novelist. But, after spending days sitting down, Murakami realized he was getting fat, so he started running. A year later, he ran the original marathon: covering the distance between Athens and Marathon.

Murakami has run marathons all over the world and completed several triathlons. For most people, training for those events would be quite enough to keep them busy. But no, Murakami has also written over a dozen widely-acclaimed books, worked as a visiting professor at several universities and maintained a marriage. How does he do it? Well, he does it the boring way: he comes up with a routine that works, and he sticks to it.

In a lot of ways, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is centred around Murakami's four months pr preparation for the Boston Marathon. It is, at its core, a memoir about a routine that balances his marathon training with his writing. But Murakami is a writer who knows how to make ordinary things - like looking for a lost cat - into endlessly interesting and bizarrely intricate endeavours. He writes about running in way that draws in runners and non-runners alike, and balances the details of his training schedule with stories about his past and details about his writing processes.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running isn't a long, drawn-out memoir; rather it's a snapshot of a man who refuses to only have one focus in his life. Murakami's life, as described here, explains a lot of the cultural references and themes of his novels without going into exhaustive detail. But Murakami doesn't give too much away; rather, like in his novels, he offers enough details to pique your interest, but leaves other aspects vague. Murakami draws you in, but doesn't let you get close enough to think you know it all. He's a great writer, and he knows exactly what turn of phrase will put you where he wants you, all the while keeping you engaged.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami
First published in 2008 (cover image shown from Bond Street Books edition)

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I've mentioned my interest in weird books before, but Kurt Vonnegut's books go well beyond just being weird. Vonnegut seems to delight into taking a strange premise, and then taking it several notches beyond. In Timequake that premise is going back in time, which has been enough of a starting point for many an author. But Vonnegut is his own man, so moving back in time isn't enough for him.

The titular timequake goes like this: everyone in the world is catapulted back in time 10 years, from February 13, 2001 to February 17, 1991. For an added twist, Vonnegut wrote this book in 1996, but inserted himself as a character so he could be part of the discussion in 2001. So, everyone goes back in time. But, instead of being able to make changes (because they retain their memories) they just have to go through everything again. Basically, their brains remain unchanged from 2001 – they have all their memories and education, etc. – but their bodies have changed and, oddly, have their own minds. 

This is what I mean by Vonnegut not being satisfied with regular weird. Going back in time: fairly routine science fiction trope. Going back in time with all your present memories but no ability to change the past: Vonnegut's slice of the scifi pie. Because, as it seems, Vonnegut isn't interested in allowing his characters to race against time to change their futures; he's interested in what happens when you lose free will and just get carried through life with a complete disconnect between your brain and your body.

Vonnegut also takes delight in the moment when, after the 10-year rerun, people's free will returns and they don't know what to do. A lot of them fall over, because they aren't used to having to walk on their own anymore. There are a lot of car accidents, airplanes falling from the sky, and general disaster. But don't worry about it too much, because both Vonnegut the character and the failed science fiction writer Kilgour Trout (Vonnegut the author's semi-autobiographical projection) do alright. They manage to not be in moving vehicles, or crossing the street, or swimming, when their free will returns.

Vonnegut is hilarious, and his outbursts and insertions (by which persona, it's hard to say) are enough to make this novel worth reading. But there's much more to it than that. Just think about having to experience a rerun of every moment from February 1991 to February 2001. As Vonnegut points out, it means that although you get to experience all the joys again, you also head right into disaster and despair with absolutely no recourse. Sure, you can think to yourself "I get through this," but that doesn't necessarily make it easier. The lack of free will, coupled with a kind of omniscient knowledge is hell. So in some ways, Timequake is an exercise in reminding us how lucky we are to have the past in the past.

For the writing style – and the laughs – alone Timequake is worth reading (you can pretty much open it to any page at random and have a good chuckle). But it's also a pretty sophisticated piece of science fiction, completely grounded in our reality but about something that could never actually happen. And to be honest, having it happen in a novel is quite real enough.

by Kurt Vonnegut
First published in 1997 (cover image from Berkley International edition)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Conrats to The Carnivore

At last night's Toronto Book Awards presentation, those present in the Toronto Reference Library's Appel Salon were treated to some great hosting (both by CBC Metro Morning's Matt Galloway and outgoing Mayor Miller). Of course, politics is running through everything at the moment, as Toronto is heading into a pretty big mayoral election, and the importance of funding the arts and libraries tinged a lot of what was said last night.

Each of the nominated authors received cheques for $1,000, as well as the opportunity to present their nominated book – and its relevant Toronto locations – in short individual films. It was really nice to see authors talk about the city as though it was a literary character. It seemed that all the nominated novels were really embedded in the city, and the that the same story could not have been told elsewhere.

That was especially true of the winning novel, Mark Sinnett's The Carnivore (ECW Press), which tells the story of a marriage disrupted by Hurricane Hazel. Sinnett, who brought his wife and very cute son to the event, took home the grand prize of $11,000 (his $1,000 for being a finalist and the winner's $10,000), which is no small prize in the world of literary awards.

The other nominees were:
Seán Cullen, for Prince of Neither Here nor There (Puffin Canada)
Carey Fagan, for Valentine's Fall (Cormorant Books)
Lauren Kirshner, for Where We Have to Go (McClelland and Stewart)
Dragan Todorovic, for Diary of Interrupted Days (Random House of Canada)
Congratulations to them all. Setting, and especially place, is an incredibly important part of a well crafted story, and it's always nice to see that recognized.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Paper Moon

Every once in a while, I get really lucky when buying used books. Often, this happens when I'm travelling and, in need of something to read, I wander into a used book store with no specific purchase in mind. When I was a kid, my family and I were away somewhere, and I happened upon Joe David Brown's Paper Moon – I think it was being sold for a dollar or something. The reason I can't remember where I bought it, though, is because all my memories of reading the book are of me being in a car, driving through a Depression-era landscape. Clearly, this never happened, but the story took such hold of me while I was reading it that it invaded my memories, totally blocking out everything else.

Paper Moon was originally titled Addie Pray, but after the movie came out they rereleased the novel under the new title, which I like better. Addie Pray is a good title insofar as it introduces you to the narrator and main character of the story, but it seems too absolute about the relationship of the characters, and seems less ephemeral. Paper Moon, on the other hand, introduces you to a more interesting story – one of big dreams that may or may not be attainable, an era of necessary imitation (the real thing just cost too much) and the idea of illusions, which are the foundation of every good scam.

And Paper Moon starts with Addie, who is just a little girl despite her assured voice, telling the story of how her mother was killed in a car accident with another man. It isn't really a sad story, though, at least not the way Addie tells it. Really, she's quite matter of fact about the whole thing. It's implied that her mother was a prostitute, and that Moses "Long Boy" Pray may be her father, since he was once a customer of her mother's. He denies this, but is still charged with driving her across Alabama to her aunt's house. Before setting out, Long Boy talks the brother of the man who was driving the car in which Addie's mom was killed (still following?) to give him $200 for Addie's care on the road. That is a lot of money, but Long Boy gets it because he is rather persuasive.

Addie, though, overhears the conversation and later demands the money. Well, Long Boy has spent most of it, so he promises to raise the money along the way to her aunt's. First stop, Bible scam. The novel is full of descriptions of Long Boy's scams, but this is really the first one Addie witnesses. This is his genius: He looks up women who have been recently widowed and goes to their homes, pretending to be a specialty Bible salesmen from whom their late husband has ordered a personalized Bible. Naturally, they're caught of guard and, in their grief, he is able to get quite a bit out of them for the Bible. Addie gets in on the scam by pretending to be his daughter and they become quite a lucrative pair.

But, then they meet Miss Trixie Delight, a stripper who quickly winds Long Boy around her finger. Addie is furious when she finds out that, not only is Long Boy directing his attention at Miss Trixie instead of at her, but has also spent all their money on a new car to impress her with. Addie, who is beyond precocious, devises a scheme to get rid of Miss Trixie, thereby getting Long Boy all to herself again.

Honestly, this book is hilarious. I've heard of Addie being compared to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think her voice is much closer to Baby's in Lullabies for Little Criminals. Scout was a pretty good little girl, all things considered, and Addie is so mischievous and, in a strange way, totally suited to the small-scale crime that Long Boy has introduced her to that she kind of crackles with life on the page. Brown's dialogue is so good in this story because he lets Addie talk like a child, but in a way that shows she's a child who has spent most of her life with rather disreputable adults.

In a lot of ways, this is a strange sort of love story. Not, I should say, in a Lolita sort of way, but in a familial way. Addie loves Long Boy because she wants to believe he's her father, and because he's fun, and because he kind of encourages her to get into trouble. On the flip side, Long Boy loves Addie in a way because, despite his denials, he seems to want to be her father. I get the sense that he likes the weight of that responsibility – even if it's only so he can justify his scams to himself. He and Addie also make a great crime duo, which is just fun to read about.

Paper Moon is a story about life on the road, and the strangely symbiotic that can develop between people who come to rely on one another. Addie and Long Boy are each other's family, even if they can't prove there's a biological link, and in the late 1920s, when the Depression is beating people down, their relationship gives them a kind of buoyancy. 

Paper Moon 
by Joe David Brown
First published (as Addie Pray) in 1971 (cover image from Four Walls Eight Windows edition)
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