Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Hobbit

I don't know what it is about fall that makes me want to read The Hobbit, but almost without fail the end of September rolls around and I start thinking about Tolkein's woods, and about how I'd rather go on some adventure than think ahead to the term papers I have coming up. Well, I say that. I think I'd be equally happy if I could spend a few afternoons just reading in a sunny chair next to a pot of tea. This, I suppose, makes me rather like Bilbo Baggins, hobbit extraordinaire and central character of the novel.

Tolkein's follow-up novels (and their movie adaptations), The Lord of the Rings trilogy, made the setting of Middle Earth and its reknwoned wizard, Gandalf, quite famous. But Gandalf's first appearance is in The Hobbit, as is the discovery of the ring that causes so much trouble later on. In The Hobbit, though, the ring is more of a parlour trick. Before I go into all that, here are the plot points.

Bilbo Baggins is a fairly typical hobbit, in that he isn't particularly adventurous. He's curious, but not curious enough to actually check anything out, if you see what I mean. He likes his little home and his little life and is rather attached to his undemanding routine. Of course, all of that is taken away from him when Gandalf pays him a visit. Shortly thereafter, Bilbo is roped into an adventure with a crew of dwarves hungry to recover their treasure and their home. 

And so it begins. Bilbo and the dwarves, all twelve of them, set out for the Lonely Mountain – where Smaug the dragon lies on top of their treasure. The journey takes them through all kinds of terrain and in contact with all manner of characters – some friends, mostly foes. They steal weapons from trolls, spend time with some friendly elves and later imprisoned by others, are captured by goblins (in the midst of which, Bilbo acquires the ring that allows him to disappear – making him a much more successful burglar).

The ring becomes a central part of the action in this story. Bilbo's disappearing tricks save the dwarves many times and add a lot of fun to the story of a nervous, but excited, little hobbit getting his first big taste of the outside world. There's lots of literary theory about this novel, and Tolkien's work in general, but when I read it, I'm reading it for fun. 

Usually, I'm not a huge fan of fantasy stories, with made-up worlds and languages and species. But Tolkien's Middle Earth is so nested in the look and feel of Europe (and mostly England) and the creatures (elves, hobbits, dwarves, goblins, men, etc.) so well described, both individually and as they compare to each other, that the story isn't weighed down by them. Instead, it's enjoyable to read, and the pace of the writing and the vivid descriptions catch you up in the action the way Bilbo gets caught up by the expedition. I read it for the first time when I was in elementary school, but I have to say that I enjoy it far more now than I did then. Now when I read it I catch the subtleties of Tolkien's allusions and language play, and understand the larger story he's building. The thought of yelling "attercop" at a spider still makes me laugh and I get just as much joy out of the image of Bilbo at the top of the Mirkwood Forest canopy as I once did, but I also see the danger that lies beneath the surface of that world, which makes the adventure the characters are on that much more exciting.

The Hobbit does what the best fall-weekend novels do: it whisks you away from where you are and gives you something to think about afterwards. It doesn't demand anything from you but a sense of fun and the ability to see how Tolkien's careful parallels to the real world are meant to unburden you, not call you to action. And really, although it may be appropriate for children, content-wise, it's an eminently satisfying adult reread.

The Hobbit
By J. R. R. Tolkien
First published in 1937 (cover image shown from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shortlists for the Writers' Trust of Canada Awards

The Writers' Trust of Canada gives out some major prize money each fall to Canadian fiction, non-fiction and short-fiction authors. These are the first all-Canadian shortlists of the major book awards season (the Toronto book awards shortlist was announced a few weeks ago, but it has a much more limited scope). Without further preamble, here are the nominated works and authors:

The Writers' Trust Fiction Prize ($25,000 to the winner; $2,500 to each finalist)
Practical Jean by Trevor Cole (McClelland & Stewart)
Room by Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins Publishers)
Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm (McClelland & Stewart)
Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)
The Death of Donna Whalen by Michael Winter (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
The Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize ($25,000 to the winner; $2,500 to each finalist)
What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son's Quest to Redeem The Past by James FitzGerald (Random House Canada)
Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King (Douglas & McIntyre/McMichael Canada Art Collection)
Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer's, My Mother And Me by Sarah Leavitt (Freehand Books)
The Ptarmigan's Dilemma: An Exploration into How Life Organizes and Supports Itself by John Theberge and Mary Theberge (McClelland & Stewart)
The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das by Merrily Weisbord (McGill-Queen's University Press)
Writers' Trust of Canada/McClelland & Steward Journey Prize ($10,000 to the winner; $2,000 to the literary journal that published the winning piece)
Devon Code for "Uncle Oscar" – The Malahat Review
Krista Foss for "The Longitude of Okay" – Grain Magazine
Lynn Kutsukake for "Mating" – The Dalhousie Review
There are also four additional awards being handed out this year:
Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life (worth $20,000) 
Vicky Metcalf Award for Childrens' Literature (worth $20,000) 
Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award (worth $25,000)
Writers' Trust Award for Distinguished Contribution will also be awarded
I always find it interesting at this point in the book awards season to see which titles keep popping up. Of course, Emma Donoghue's Room is nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and there was a collective gasp in the book world when it wasn't included on the Giller Prize longlist. Kathleen Winter's Annabel was on the Giller list, though, along with Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm.

A little overlap is expected when literary juries are lauding what they agree to be the best work published each year, but I always find it heartening when the lists are distinct. Different juries award different kinds of work and if we want Canadian literature to thrive, spreading the wealth (both in terms of prize money and sales-driving attention) is crucial.

The Writers' Trust Awards will be handed out on Nov. 2.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I really like letters. This might make me sounds old-fashioned, but writing and receiving letters is one of life's little joys, as far as I'm concerned. They require time and care and thought, and then a trip to a post office or mailbox, and then the anticipation of a response – really, there is no question that they are rather romantic and it doesn't seem that strange to think that many a love story has bloomed by post. So, with all of that bias out of the way, saying that I'm never quite sure about an epistolary novel might sound strange. My big complaint, usually, is that all the letters (back and forth) tend to sound the same since the same person is writing them (the novel's author). In a novel with two authors, though, it's a whole other story (pun, intended). 

In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows seem to have split up the characters, which means that the letters do often read as responses to one another, and that the voices in them sound distinct.

On the surface, the story sounds like a simple one. Juliet is a writer in England. She's just finished a book about her experiences as a reporter during the Second World War, and she's living in London, which is still largely ruined from all the bombings. She's hunting around for a topic for her next book when she gets a letter (all this previous information is also gleaned from letter between Juliet and her publisher, Sidney Scott, and her best friend Sophie). The new letter is from a man named Dawsey Adams, who lives on the island Guernsey in the English Channel. He writes to Juliet because he has a book, his favourite book, that used to belong to her (her name is written in the front) and he wants to know if the author happened to write anything else.

Naturally, a correspondence starts up between the two of them – how could it not between book lovers. In the course of a few letters, Dawsey tells Juliet of the titular literary society and she is intrigued. This lets loose the history of Guernsey's war days, during which time they were occupied by the Nazis and absolutely destitute (which is true). After writing back and forth, Juliet thinks that this literary society might make a great subject for her next book, so she asks Dawsey to get the other members to write to her and letters start to fly back and forth between Juliet and the readers on Guernsey. As someone who loves books and letters, the very premise of people writing back and forth about books was quite wonderful. 

But, they write about more than just books and eventually, Juliet comes to feel that she has good friends on Guernsey. So, naturally, she travels to visit them. Of course, she just falls in love with the island and her new friends are just as lovely in person as they are on paper. Naturally, she wants to stay there forever and never return to London, which is what she eventually does. 

It's not a long book (I read it in a weekend), so I won't ruin the end. But I will say there's a little mystery involved, a lot of WWII details, a romance and a bizarre tie-in to Oscar Wilde. Really, just when you think you have the story figured out, there's a mid-plot spice-up. That's another reason to love an epistolary novel: non-sequiters and plot changes work really well, and tone set by who's sending letter to whom adds subtle meaning to the action being described.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society also has a great pace, which makes it perfect for an Autumn weekend. Reading in lots of little snippets makes the story fly along as you glean new character details and plot points in every letter. Also, because of the WWII context, what could have been an overly light story feels more grounded. The characters have real concerns and objects in their way, and the historical detail adds another dimension to the plot, especially since it's about a place many people don't know anything about. And that is exactly the kind of thing I like to read in the fall, when I'm running around the weather is changing – something that reminds me of summer, but takes me somewhere different by the end.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Dial Press Trade Paperback edition)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Giller 2010 Countdown

Like any good awards countdown, the one for the Scotiabank Giller Prize begins with the longlist. Last year's Giller went to The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre, this year's winner will come from this list:
The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (Phyllis Bruce Books/Harper Collins)
Player One by Douglas Coupland (House of Anansi Press)
Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm (McClelland & Stewart)
Light Lifting by Alexander McLeod (Biblioasis)
The Debba by Avner Mandelman (Other Press/Random House of Canada)
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Dial/Random House of Canada)
This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)
The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press)
Lemon by Cordelia Strube (Coach House Books)
Curiosity by Joan Thomas (McLelland & Stewart)
Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart (McLelland & Stewart)
Cool Water by Diane Warren (Phyllis Bruce Books/Harper Collins)
Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)
Of this list, two are short story collections (Sarah Selecky's and Alexander McLeod's) and I have only managed to recommend one, The Imperfectionists. I hope that means my predicting skills have improved since last year.

The winner of the best Canadian novel or short-story collection receives $50,000 and each of the finalists (on the shortlist) receive $5,000. That amount of money – and the notoriety that comes with winning – makes the Giller a pretty bit deal in the world of Canadian book awards.

The shortlist will be posted on Oct. 5 and the winner will be announced on Nov. 9. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Toronto Book Awards

I wrote about literary cities some time ago now, but it seems appropriate to mention it again since the nominees for the Toronto Book Awards, given to a novel that evokes the city, were just announced this morning.

Congrats to:
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)
Mark Sinnett, for The Carnivore (ECW Press)
Dragan Todorovic, for Diary of Interrupted Days (Random House of Canada)
If you're in Toronto, there are lots of opportunities (three, anyway) to interact with these authors before the winner is announced on Oct. 14. The City of Toronto website has all the details.

The Writing Life

I write a lot about books, but seldom about authors. By and large, that's because authors seldom write about themselves, so I try not to extrapolate too much out of their novels (or poems, or short stories, or whatever). But, now I have the license to write about an author who wrote about herself, or at least her authorial self, because Annie Dillard wrote The Writing Life and gave me (and her other readers) a glimpse into her little world.

The Writing Life isn't long, but once you've read it you'll wonder how it ever got to its finished length. Dillard, it seems, toils over every word, every line, every paragraph, scrapping pages that don't work, rewriting scenes, and generally labouring over her writing the way an architect and an engineer might labour over plans for a new building. She will not rest until she gets it just right – settling, you see, could lead to disaster. And so she struggles; deliberately shutting out the world until she gets everything right. 

And somehow, amongst all her other pages and thoughts and anxieties, Dillard managed to write a book about how she writes books. In some ways, it seems like a rather indulgent undertaking, a bit "look at me and at how hard I work," except, in the case of Dillard, she seems to think most writers work the way she does. Although the memoir (for lack of a better word) is about her, Dillard manages to sidestep the question of the herself as subject and focus on the task at hand. And that's exactly how she works. 

In prose that – if it were something besides words on a page, would be ribbons fluttering around and folding back on themselves – rolls along at an almost giddy pace, Dillard talks about the sterile offices and freezing cold cabins that she elects to write in. She prefers a barren landscape (and she'll close the blinds, even if the only view she gets is of a concrete roof), devoid of comforts so that she can more fully immerse herself in what she's writing about. The Writing Life, as far as Dillard is concerned, is lived in the mind and the imagination. And when real-world forces, such as editors or publishers, act on that life, emotions roil. Dillard writes about the anguish of thinking your work is no good, and the high of feeling that you've gotten it right. 

The Writing Life is about courage, mostly. Dillard's courage to follow a path that is so painful and full of sacrifice is rendered as a kind of marching order for writers, or anyone who wants something they know they'll have to fight for. She is both inspiring and frightening in her stark but affectionate portrayal of life as an author. She is like a general, reluctant and unsure, but charging into battle anyway, pen raised high. 

The Writing Life
by Annie Dillard
First published in 1989 (cover image shown from Harper Perennial edition)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Imperfectionists

It's funny how some professions embrace certain stereotypes about themselves. That journalists, for example. Anyone who has worked in journalism for any length of time (especially in print journalism) knows someone, or someone who knows someone, who fits the mold of the out-there and reliably crazy foreign reporter who nonetheless always manages to get great copy; there's the uncertain and awkward young reporter or intern, still try to figure out how they fit into the mess; the editor who has given up their personal life for the paper – really, as someone who works in journalism, I know that this list can go on and on. In his novel The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman (also a journalists) writes about what he knows best: an international newspaper struggling to survive when the economy is in the tank.

The fictional newspaper – as far as I can tell – is modeled after the International Herald Tribune and has its head offices in Rome. Rachman tells the paper's story through its employees: each chapter is told from a different perspective and each closes with a blip from the paper's history, starting with when and why it was founded and moving forward through various editors and explaining how it reached its contemporary predicament. Clearly, the paper made a few missteps. For example, in the novel's present day (2005), the newspaper has no website and thus no web-presence through which to grow its readers.

But the novel is less about the woes of the newspaper industry – although those are certainly discussed – than it is about the lives of the people who devote themselves to the institution. Everyone from the long-time reader to the accounts person to the copy editor and the foreign correspondent are detailed. And the lives Rachman writes about, though funny, are in most cases also quite sad. There are few happy romantic relationships, few people who are truly satisfied with their jobs, and much discussion about food and drink. 

That isn't to say the novel is a downer, but it is a little sobering. But it is also very, very funny. The entire section on on Winston Cheung, the hapless wannabe journalist with no experience and a partially-completed graduate degree in primatology who goes to Cairo in an attempt to become a stringer, is hilarious. Really, it's comedy that should be performed in one long shot and no breaks if the book is ever adapted into a movie. Winston becomes totally overtaken by Rich Snyder, international journalist extraordinaire and total nut-job. Winston is overcome by the quick-talking, experienced Snyder and Rachman's scenes lead from one disaster to another with so much energy you can hardly flip the pages fast enough. It's a chapter that comes almost half-way through the novel, and it's a nice break from both Europe and the perspective of older, more experienced journalists (although they're nice to return to after the chaos in Cairo).

In general, newspapers are institutions people are curious about. They're also difficult to portray on TV or in movies because, although they're fast-paced environments, there aren't huge, Pulitzer-worthy, breaking stories every day – that makes them good fodder for books. Rachman, having worked at both the International Herald-Tribune and the AP wire service, knows that. His novel takes place mostly outside of the newsroom, but manages to give a pretty good indication of what that life entails. Especially in the cyclical nature of it; although news is always changing, day in and day out the job itself tends to remain the same. 

Rachman plays with the clichés of both newspapers and ex-patriots and, even in their extremes, all the characters ring true. The little details of their lives that Rachman slides into his descriptions and dialogue build real lives out of archetypes and make his characters seem familiar – rather the way we feel about columnists whose work we read regularly. It's that treatment – understanding that although newspapers are about news, they're also about people and the building they're put together in and the culture that surrounds them – that makes this a great novel for both the people who make newspapers and those who read them. The only thing it's missing is the inky smell and crinkly pages.

The Imperfectionists
by Tom Rachman
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from Random House edition)  

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2010

Well, the jury has spent the past two months whittling down their longlist and here's what they've decided is shortlist worthy this year:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber)
C by Tom McCarthy (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen (Bloomsbury)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)
Room by Emma Donoghue (Pan MacMillan - Picador)

Emma Donoghue is the only Canadian remaining on the list (February by Lisa Moore was on the longlist). The winner (to be announced Oct. 12) receives $50,000, which is pretty fantastic.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Memoirs of a Geisha

It may seem like an obvious way to open a recommendation post like this, but oh well: the movie did not do this book justice. Memoirs of a Geisha wasn't a terrible movie, but it made Arthur Golden's novel look like less than it is. Alright, now that I have that out of the way, I will explain why.

The novel tells the story of Sayuri (born Chiyo) who was, it seems, sold by her father into the Kyoto sex trade. In fact, the only thing that saves her from the fate of her older sister (who is forced into a truly horrific life as a prostitute) is that she has grey eyes, which makes her interesting to look at. So, Chiyo (who doesn't become Sayuri until she becomes an actual geisha) is sold to the Nitta okiya, a geisha house that is run by the Nitta sisters and home to geisha Hatsumomo.

Chiyo is miserable. Hatsumomo is horrible to her, she is worked very hard and, when she reaches of age, she is forced to go to geisha school to learn the arts of tea service, pageantry and music. Being a geisha is mostly not about sex (although it is very much about sexuality) so there are many things she must learn, even if she doesn't want to. Her one bright spot is that one day, after crying in the street, a man comes up to her and, offering her his handkerchief, comforts her. She doesn't know right away who the man is, but she becomes infatuated and he becomes her goal.

As Golden builds this plot around Chiyo – including her geisha training and her relationship with her beautiful geisha mentor Mameha – he subtly explains the world of pre-WWII Kyoto to the reader. Of course, many things are new to Chiyo, who is learning to be a geisha just as the reader is learning about geishas, but there is also a lot of information about social standing, honour, politics and women's rights running as undercurrents through the various scenes. The world he writes about is rich and gritty and very realistic, which adds a huge amount to the story of a girl who, in many ways, had the life of many girls.

My favourite part of the novel is not actually set in Kyoto at all. Although Chiyo's relationship with the chairman (the nice man who comforted her) and his friend Nobu becomes a central plot line and is very well teased out, the part I like most is set during the war. Sayuri (because she is now a well known and respected geisha) leaves the city to live in the countryside. The war is not going well and Kyoto has been firebombed multiple times. So she leaves and goes to live with a kimono maker, dying silks and learning a bit of his trade (a wonderful addition to the story, since the kimono geishas wore were incredibly important in their trade). 

The job ruins Sayuri's hands and changes her appearance. She returns to the city after the war as a geisha much changed by her experience. Eventually, she leaves Japan for New York City, where she lives with the chairman and, ostensibly, writes her memoirs. 

There aren't many contemporary novels that take a reader from the characters early childhood right to their death. To write like that and make a novel compelling, every step the character makes has to ring true, because the reader has known them for the character's entire life. Golden achieves this, but also allows Chiyo/Sayuri to grow as a woman, which involves occasionally awkward or out-of-character scenes. Golden winds you into her life, making her decisions as important to you as they are to her, and he does it all in prose that is both straightforward and vivid. 

Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel about love and war and culture and the accepted artifice of femininity, written as though it were non-fiction. It's a love story with more culturally serious undertones, which makes it a good book to transition into autumn with. 

Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
First published in 1997 (cover image shown from Vintage edition)
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