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! 
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