Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Cat's Table

The farthest I've ever traveled by boat was when I took a ferry from Italy to Greece. It was and overnight trip, and we left Italy in the mid-afternoon and arrived in Greece mid-morning the next day. I tend to be nervous on boats (I get seasick), but it was a remarkably smooth ride, and mostly I just couldn't believe how big the ferry was. I'm not sure how many passengers it carried, but it was big. It was actually pretty shocking to realize that it was nowhere near the size of the cruise ships we used to see towering over the buildings in Saint Lucia. How either of these boats compare to the size of the steamers that traveled between Sri Lanka and England in the 1950s, I'm not sure, but it's easy to believe that they would have been big enough to entertain an 11-year-old boy. On the surface, that's what Michael Ondaatje's new novel The Cat's Table is about: a boy on a ship, and everything he gets up to.

It's amazing the way a three-week period can completely alter the course of someone's life. In this case, the journey from Colombo, Sri Lanka, the only home our narrator has ever known, to England, where he will reunite with his mother, takes 21 days. Although he has a "guardian" in first class and discovers his cousin Emily is also on board, Mynah (whose real name is Michael) is mostly on his own. He is seated at the Cat's Table, which is described as the least desirable table in the dining room because it is the furthest from the captain, but it is populated by an assortment of interesting people who add just enough intrigue and adventure to the journey to keep Mynah from becoming too bored. Two of his table-mates are boys his age, and although they're initially shy, soon he and Ramidhin and Cassius are fast friends.

The novel is told in retrospect, so although the story is mostly chronological, it moves around a little because memories don't always connect in a linear way. For example, we meet all the important players in the story fairly quickly, even though in real time it seems that Mynah wouldn't have met certain people, or known details of others' lives until later in the journey. Memory works in a weird way, and The Cat's Table unfolds in a natural way, as though the adult Michael is only now properly considering how his life was affected by those three weeks at sea.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Writers' Trust Fiction Prize finalists

The finalists for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize were announced in Toronto this morning and, since the Writers' Trust doesn't do longlists, this is the first fiction shortlist of the Can Lit awards season (the Man Booker shortlist came out earlier this month and the Giller shortlist doesn't come out until next week). Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt are on this list – they've been on all of them so far – but strangely, Edugyan is the only female author up for the Writers' Trust's $25,000 fiction prize.

Here's the full list of nominees:
  • Clark Blaise, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis)
  • Michael Christie, The Beggar's Garden (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press)
  • Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Quiet Twin (HarperCollins Publishers)

Blaise and Christie are both also on the Giller longlist with DeWitt and Edugyan, but Vyleta has yet to come up on any of the lists so far. That's one thing I love about the Fall books season. Not only do a ton of great titles come out, but all the awards spring up to remind you of books you might have missed previously, or that might have been launched more quietly than some of the buzzier books of the season.

The winner of the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, as well as the winner of the Journey Prize and four other awards for a writer's body of work, will be announced on Nov. 1.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Easy to Like

When I was doing my undergrad there were very few required courses – I didn't have to take statistics, or any math or science course, for example. I did, however, have to select English classes from various literary periods and as a result ended up taking an in-depth class on Restoration literature. That was the high-point of English satire, when authors like Swift and Pope wrote their political critiques and bawdy essays. Although I'm sure people reading the work at the time got all the jokes and allusions, everything was heavily footnoted to ensure modern readers understood why a certain line or turn of phrase was as caustic as it was. But having joke explained to you takes the edge off, which is why modern satire is fun: you don't need footnotes or explanations because the jokes are current and, if you don't get them, you don't notice. Edward Riche's Easy to Like is a great example of this.

The novel starts of with Elliot Jonson (he changed the spelling to be unique in L.A.), a washed-up script writer and wine enthusiast conducting a wine tasting for some trophy wives in California. One of the wines he has chose for them to taste is one of his least favourites. Tasting enjoyable ones, he explains to the confused and drunk women, is a waste of time because it's too easy. Elliot, as it turns out, has his own vineyard but the wine is just not turning out the way he hoped and financially he's sunk. Not that that is enough to keep him from chasing his wine dreams, so he books a flight to France in search of the illusive Matou de Gethsmane grape, which he believes is the missing ingredient.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

I went to a very nice press conference this morning where the finalists for the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction were announced. (To clarify, the Writers' Trust has had a nonfiction prize for years, but this is the first prize under the new name, which came about in May when the Writers' Trust announced Weston was the prize's new sponsor.)

Anyway, there were many President's Choice snacks (Weston's son is Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaws Companies Limited, who is frequently featured in ads for PC products) and, to add to the drama, before each finalist was named, a CBC Radio personality read an excerpt from their book. It was quite nice, I thought, to get a taste of how different each book's style and content are. And they are perhaps the most dynamic group of finalists for a literary award I've seen.
  • Charles Foran for Mordecai: The Life and Times (Knopf Canada), which also won the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In his Skype session with Eleanor Wachtel, Foran said he didn’t encounter Mordecai Richler’s work until Grade 10, when he read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a novel that seemed purposefully rough-edged compared to the others on the reading list. 
  • Charlotte Gill for Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation). Gill is a veteran tree-planter who planted over a million trees in 17 seasons. Her short story collection Ladykiller was nominated for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and won the Danuta Gleed Award in 2006. 
  • Richard Gwyn for Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times (Random House Canada), which is the second volume of Gwyn’s biography of Canada’s first prime minister. The first volume, John A: The Many Who Made Us was published in 2007 and won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. 
  • Grant Lawrence for Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nude Potluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound (Harbour Publishing), which was also a finalist for the 2011 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. Lawrence is the lead singer in the Vancouver band The Smugglers and hosts several shows on CBC Radio 3. 
  • Ray Robertson for Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live (Biblioasis), is the product of Robertson’s struggle with serious depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is the author of six other books including, What Happened Later, which was nominated for the Trillium Award in 2008. 
Each finalist receives $5,000 and the eventual winner (who will be announced on Oct. 25) will receive an additional $55,000, which makes this the richest prize in Canadian literature.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Reinvention of Love

I feel like the weather has gotten crisp a lot faster this year than it has in the last few years, so I'm already fully out of my summer reading blitz and firmly entrenched in fall reading. For me, that means books that I can spend time with. I'm stubborn, so even though it's chilly out my windows are still open, and since I get cold quickly I wrap myself up in a blanket to read. Once I'm cocooned, I like to stay that way, so the book I'm sitting with needs to suit the mood created by a cool breeze and a mug of tea. There are lots of books that do the trick, and although I admittedly read Helen Humphreys The Reinvention of Love in August, I think it would be one of them because there's nothing like tragedy to pick up on the nip in fall air.

The Reinvention of Love tells a fictionalized version of the true story of the affair between Adèle Hugo (Victor Hugo's wife) and the author and critic Charles Sainte-Beuve. As many literary affairs are – and this one was certainly literary, even in life – Charles and Adèle's is doomed. Charles is a family friend. Years before the affair began, when Victor Hugo was still new on Paris's literary scene, Charles wrote a favourable review of his poetry and the two became friends. From then on, as Victor became richer and more famous and Charles remained relatively poor, Victor would send Charles his work to review. Charles became a regular guest in the Hugo household and Victor named his second son after him. Then Charles and Adèle began their affair, which was short-lived because in a fit of guilt, Charles, assuming Victor already suspected, confessed the whole thing. Of course, Victor had no idea, and despite his stated desire to remain friends with Charles, that relationship fizzled quickly.

At least, that's how Humphreys tells it. I am not a scholar of either Charles Sainte-Beuve or Victor Hugo, so I'm not entirely sure what is true and what is fiction filling in gaps, but it certainly reads with a kind of straight realism that gives the historical setting a familiar and vivid feel. The novel is written mostly from Charles' perspective, although there are sections written from Adèle's point of view, as well as later ones that come from Adèle's youngest daughter, Dédé, as well.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Helen Humphreys on why she chose to reconstruct a historical footnote

I had a piece in the National Post's Saturday Books section about Helen Humphreys and her hew novel The Reinvention of Love. I plan to write about the book here sometime in the next few weeks, but until then, here's a bit of my feature.
When Helen Humphreys stumbled across Charles Sainte-Beuve, it was a complete accident. She was reading something else, and then there he was, mentioned in a passing reference to his affair with Adèle Hugo, wife of Victor Hugo. It wasn’t much, but Humphreys’ interest was piqued and she started to research Sainte-Beuve’s life and his love for Adèle.  
After nearly five years of writing and researching and rewriting, Humphreys’s novel The Reinvention of Love tells the story of Sainte-Beuve and Adèle.  
Unlike Humphreys’ previous novels, which stay in a specific moment, The Reinvention of Love is set over several decades in 19th-century Paris, and recreates not only the affair, but also what came after, allowing it to billow out from France to the Channel Islands and then to Nova Scotia.  
This is not the first book to be written about the affair: In 1834, Sainte-Beuve himself published his autobiographical novel Volupté, and although his novel was written shortly after the affair ended, and all the memories and emotions were still fresh, Humphreys describes Sainte-Beuve as feeling that his time with Adèle was less real after having written about it.  
“When you write about something it becomes a story,” Humphreys says. “When you’re in the midst of your life, in the chaos and the swirl of all of the things that are happening simultaneously, there’s a reality to that experience that is not present when you write about something, because the moment you put something in order, you’ve essentially made it a narrative, fiction. That takes it away from you; that removes it a little bit from yourself.”
Read the rest on The Afterword...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center

When I found out about that the Twin Towers had been hit I was in form 4 (grade 10) English A class at St. Joseph's Convent in Saint Lucia. I was thousands of miles away, and I didn't really understand what my teacher was talking about. Admittedly, I couldn't even picture the World Trade Center. When I got home that day, I watched the planes hit and the smoke unfurl and the towers collapse over and over again. It was so beyond what I thought was possible that I couldn't process it. At that moment, on the little Caribbean island we were living on, I had no real idea of what it meant. Fast forward a decade and all of that sounds naive – 9/11 changed everything, and when we moved back to Canada a year after it happened, I started to realize it. The commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11 is coming up, and the media coverage started weeks ago. It seems like an impossible task to quantify what 9/11 meant (and continues to mean), but with New York about to open Ground Zero to the public, understanding how the Twin Towers were taken down seems like an important place to start when looking for renewal.

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center is comprised of the three long articles William Langewiesche wrote for The Atlantic Monthly about his time on "the pile." Langewiesche went to the site of the World Trade Center and within days of the attack managed to get himself unprecedented access to the site and everyone on it. He spent the next several months with the rescue workers, city planners, and unbuilders to document what happened at Ground Zero after the buildings the fell. For the life of me, I cannot begin to imagine how he wrangled all his notes into a book barely more than 200 pages, but if you read one book about 9/11, I would recommend it be this one.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Toronto Book Awards finalists

It seems impossible that three book prize lists were released yesterday, but they were. I posted the Man Booker shortlist and the Giller Prize longlist when they became available, but I just didn't have the energy to wrangle through the Toronto Book Awards too. I'm going to have to get used to this pace, though, since we're barreling head first into book awards season and that means many lists to come.

Anyway, the Toronto Book Awards. These city-specific awards “honour authors of books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto.” It's one of the few inter-genre awards (non-fiction doesn't competes with fiction very often), and it's got a nice twist, and both of those attributes help to keep it fresh. So, here the finalists are:
  • James FitzGerald, What Disturbs Our Blood (Random House Canada) – non-fiction
  • James King, Étienne’s Alphabet (Cormorant Books)
  • Rabindranath Maharaj, The Amazing Absorbing Boy (Knopf Canada)
  • Nicholas Ruddock, The Parabolist (Doubleday Canada)
  • Alissa York, Fauna (Random House Canada)
It's a short list, and each of the authors on it will receive $1,000. The winner – to be announced on Oct. 13 – receives an additional $9,000.

here has been a lot of discussion about the value of libraries and reading in Toronto over the last few months, so I'm glad to see the book awards haven't been cancelled.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Giller Prize longlist

Well, Tuesday morning are usually much less eventful. But, this is Sept. 6 and that means not only the Man Booker Prize shortlist, but also the Giller Prize longlist. It's a good day to be a reader, is what I'm saying. So, without further ado, here are the longlisted titles for Canada's largest fiction prize:
  • David Bezmozgis, The Free World (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Clark Blaise, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis)
  • Michael Christie, The Beggar's Garden (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Lynn Coady, The Antagonist (House of Anansi Press)
  • Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press)
  • Myrna Dey, Extensions (NeWest Press) – Readers' Choice Winner
  • Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Marina Endicott, The Little Shadows (Doubleday Canada)
  • Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Genni Gunn, Solitaria (Signature Editions)
  • Pauline Holdstock, Into the Heart of the Country (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Wayne Johnston, A World Elsewhere (Knopf Canada)
  • Dany Laferrière, The Return (Douglas & McIntyre)
  • Suzette Mayr, Monoceros (Coach House Books)
  • Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Alexi Zentner, Touch (Knopf Canada)
Having just looked at the Man Booker shortlist, there are two repeating titles: congrats on the double nominations for both Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan, both of whom are from British Columbia. Congratulations are also due to the small publishers on the list: House of Anansi Press has two nominated titles (deWitt's being one of them), Coach House Books, and NeWest Press. Many of these books have been on my to-read list for a while, so now it's time to move them up to the top, I suppose.

The shortlist of five books will be announced on Oct. 4 and the winner will be named on Nov. 8. Besides getting a whole lot of prestige, the winner of the Giller receives $50,000 and each of the other four finalists receive $5,000.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The Man Booker shortlist came out today and features two novels by Canadians – Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, which I loved, and Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, which I have not yet read – which is always exciting. The Booker winner will be announced on Oct. 18, but until then, we'll have six books to be in suspense about.
Each of these authors has won £2,500 by virtue of making the shortlist, and the winner receives and additional £50,000.

Friday, September 2, 2011

In overdrive: Randy Bachman on Vinyl Tap Stories

I moved this week, and in the chaos of boxes and moving trucks and no Internet, I didn't have a chance to post. I will be back next week, but in the meantime, here's a piece I wrote for the National Post about Randy Bachman and his new book Vinyl Tap Stories. It's in today's paper, or you can read it online. 
The first time Randy Bachman heard himself on the radio, he cried. He thought he’d made the big time.  
Of course, that was back in 1962 and Bachman was only a kid, and his band, Chad Allan and the Reflections, was still years away from becoming The Guess Who. Nevertheless, when the local after-school radio program played the band’s first single, Tribute to Buddy Holly, it felt like the real deal. 
“You actually sit and listen to it and you’re in awe and disbelief and you actually cry,” Bachman says, his voice slowing down as he remembers. “We actually had tears. This is your Elvis moment or your Beatles moment or your Madonna moment.”   
Bachman has come a long way since then, both musically with The Guess Who and BTO, and with his radio presence. In 2005, Bachman started hosting Vinyl Tap on CBC Radio. Although it started as a summer replacement show, thanks to the CBC strike that year it got replayed and became a hit. Small wonder: Bachman pours his years of experience and anecdotes into weekly themed shows, playing music and telling backstage stories on topics from everything to girls’ names to transportation.   
The show, which also has a podcast on the way, is the basis for Bachman’s new book,Vinyl Tap Stories. The project collects the anecdotes and insight Bachman offers up on his two-hour show and distills them into themed chapters, each of which ends with a suggested playlist. 
Read the rest...
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