Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's time to read in the sun: Summer reading recommendations

Tomorrow is July 1st, which is Canada Day and therefore kicks off the first long weekend of summer, and despite whatever your calendar says, it's the Canada Day long weekend that really kicks off the season. Also, a note on calendars: it seems I should buy one. I got myself all in a flutter yesterday and published by Thursday book recommendation a day early. I know. But, maybe it was fortuitous, because now I can write about summer reading right as people are about to get down to. The National Post, Globe and Mail, and NPR have all published their lists, so here is mine.

Five novels I recommend for the summer:
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt – revisit the Western and be amazed.
The Leopard by Jo Nesbo – a Nordic Noir crime thriller set during a Norwegian winter – it'll cool you off maybe?
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley – another mystery, but in an entirely different style. Also the first book in a series of three (so far), which is nice if you want to spend the summer getting to know some new characters.
Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington – be prepared to laugh until you cry.
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery – set in Muskoka, this is an entirely different side of Anne Shirley's creator.
Bonus non-fiction:
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean – if you thought flowers were boring, prepare to have your mind blown by the incredible history of orchid hunting.

I always feel like summer reading should be fun, quickly-paced, and not completely fluff. We only have so much time to read, so even though it's generally agreed that summer should be for lighter fare, light doesn't have to mean mindless. That's the balance I was trying to strike with this list, while also covering a variety of genres. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Waterman's Daughter

Some books just seems to defy all classification. In some cases, this is because they're so wildly original or unusual that it's hard to pin down the kind of category they best represent, in other cases it's because the author manages to pack in so many different elements that to try and slot the book into one category just doesn't do it justice. Take The Waterman's Daughter, for example. Emma Ruby-Sachs' debut novel tells a story about social justice, but includes elements of a police murder investigation, and handles issues of race and gender and queer identity. There is a lot going on.

The novel is set in South Africa, in and around Johannesburg and opens with folk story about water, which immediately sets up the tension: what do they do about water in the townships, and in South Africa in general? During apartheid everyone had free water and free electricity, but now it seems they are being asked to pay for it without being given the means to do so. Watermen are coming into poor communities and installing taps that get turned off when the allotted amount of water is used, but then people can't afford more and trouble ensues. Enter Nomsulwa, a local grassroots activist who is working with the women and families of the township to beat the watermen at their own game. After watching works lay down and bury new pipes in her neighbourhood, Nomsulwa rallies her group and they dig them up during the night and hide them away from the town. But during the dig, they're caught when Zembe, the female chief of police, drives by. She doesn't stop them, but she sees them, which has consequences for Nomsulwa.

One of the watermen who's in town is from Toronto. After the pipes are dug up, he's found murdered in the townships. First of all, he should never have been there – the novel makes no bones about where it is and is not safe to be white and alone, and the townships after dark are not safe. Secondly, he's murdered in such a way as to indicate gang ties, but it's unclear how he could have run afoul of a gang so quickly after arrival. As the investigation is getting underway – with much pressure from the water company – his daughter arrives in town. She's angry and upset and in the way. To get rid of her, Zembe assigns Nomsulwa to look after her; when Nomsulwa says no, Zembe holds the pipe theft over her head, forcing her into it. 

It's a plot device that works well, because as Nomsulwa takes Claire around and shows her how things work in South Africa, we get a good look at the justice system and the reality of the water problem. Ruby-Sachs did her thesis on water security in South Africa, so she knows what she's talking about and presents the issues in scenes and discussion between the characters. The novel moves between the perspectives of Nomsulwa and Zembe, so we get alternating views of the issues as well, which rounds out the story. It also helps that Nomsulwa and Zembe are two very different women, and so experience their country and its reality differently. Nomsulwa is gay, which is not an easy identity in many places, but especially developing countries. On the other hand, Zembe is the lone woman in the 10-person Phiri police force, and its chief, and in her dealings with the male higher-ups in the city suggest she faces more obstacles than a man in her position would. But these issues are largely secondary to the problem of water.

The Waterman's Daughter is, in a way, a call to action, but Ruby-Sachs resists easy answers or "if only they would listen to the people" solutions. Yes, she seems to say, the people should be a major part of the solution, but that doesn't mean there isn't still a need for help. Money, for example, is something that isn't lying around. The story of Nomsulwa and Claire's uneasy friendship is a pretty nice metaphor for this. Although they aren't setting out to achieve anything specific, they do manage to develop a kind of mutual respect and understanding, one that seems to be missing from the boardroom of the big multi-national companies. But for all its social justice sensibilities, this is a novel first and foremost, and its plot ticks along at a quick pace as you get pulled into the story of these women, and the everyday realities that shape their lives.

The Waterman's Daughter
by Emma Ruby Sachs
First published 2011 (cover image shown from McClelland & Stewart edition)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Other's Words: When iconic literary characters outlive their creators

I wrote a feature for the National Post's summer Books Extra about writers who write about another author's characters. Sometimes these are one-off deals, sometimes authors make a career out of it. I talked to Jeffrey Deaver about writing the new James Bond novel, Budge Wilson about write a prequel to Anne of Green Gables, and Max Allen Collins about his posthumous collaborations with Mickey Spillane. You can read the piece in this weekend's Post or online.

Here's a preview:
In art, tributes are pretty much de rigueur. As consumers we’re accustomed to cover songs, tribute bands and flawless copies of famous paintings. In literature, though, that expression of adulation is less common. Certainly, there is a wealth of fan fiction and series written under a common nom de plume, but perhaps for fear of accusations of plagiarism, writers tend to steer clear of writing too much like one another.

Nonetheless, some series and characters take on a will of their own — or rather, the fans do. This sometimes leads to the publication of unfinished novels, or, as the latest James Bond novel indicates, to continuations of an author’s work.

The latest Bond is Carte Blanche, which essentially describes the conditions under which American crime novelist Jeffrey Deaver worked when writing it. Deaver is the fifth author to write about Bond since Ian Fleming died in 1964, and the first to fully embrace a contemporary version of the famous spy.
Read the rest...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Étienne's Alphabet

I really like alphabet posters. I don't actually own any, but I love the idea of celebrating letters in their individual form and I'm also a fan of typography. Children's alphabet books take this idea one step further, and the letter-inspired illustrations are usually incredible. The very basic idea of letters driving a narrative is wonderfully obvious, and it becomes a great teaching tool for children and people learning languages. For adults, though, the world of alphabet-inspired literature is pretty thin, but James King's Étienne's Alphabet fills that void with its dictionary-style story.

Étienne's Alphabet is the story of Étienne Morneau, a man who was orphaned shortly after he was born and subsequently brought up by nuns. His early life was spent entirely in Montreal, but then the orphanage closed and he was moved to Toronto, which is where he is when the story begins. In the present day of the novel (1967) Étienne has been out of the orphanage for several years and is working as a bank teller at Royal Bank. He rents out an upstairs room from the Beaulieu family, other Montreal transplants. And that is essentially his life. Étienne moves between work and his home life – he becomes quite close with the family – and everything goes along as usual.

And then he's sent to Shanghai by his boss. Étienne has never traveled and all he knows about China is based on Tin Tin comics, so it is rather skewed. Nonetheless, he boldly buys a camera and sets off for foreign lands. He's there for several weeks (working on wheat imports or something) and he and his guide Chang spend off-work hours visiting different parts of the city, where Étienne takes photos. Sadly, but the end of the trip, his camera is smashed and his work is all destroyed, but he returns to Canada with a newly-discovered creativity and a friend in Chang, someone who Étienne worries about constantly.

At home, Étienne starts to draw. He keeps his hobby secret, but little by little, it becomes a passion that takes over his every spare moment. Étienne ties each painting to a letter of the alphabet, and after his death (which is announced at the very beginning of the story) Madame Beaulieu is so overwhelmed by the work that she calls the Art Gallery of Ontario. Étienne is declared an undiscovered genius, which gets the ball rolling for the publication of his autobiography (which makes up the bulk of the novel). It seems that not only was Étienne holed up in his room drawing and painting, but he was also writing his life story. And, because of his obsession with letters and the alphabet, his autobiography took the shape of a dictionary, with pieces of his life scattered through each of the different letters.

This is really my favourite part of the book. At the beginning of each new section, Étienne describes the personality of the letter he's about to embark on, and each one becomes its own sort of character, colouring all the vignettes and anecdotes that follow. It's strange to read a novel with a structure that isn't primarily chronological, but it works because the dictionary format is so familiar. Not that this is a straightforward dictionary; rather, it's an alphabetical breakdown of Étienne's life, with key words used to introduce important moments and memories that he feels are defining. In that way, it isn't definitions of individual words, but definitions of him.

Étienne's Alphabet is a strange book to read because it is just so very different than most novels you come across. But King has a background in biography and knows just what sorts of snapshots will make a life compelling, which smoothes over the choppy form so that you don't even notice it after a few sections. Really though, it's the descriptions of the individual letters that tell Étienne's story because they offer so much insight into his character. I'm not sure I ever quite buy him as an artistic genius, but he is nonetheless someone worth spending time with because of his ideas about the emotional life of letters – those little characters we use so frequently we cease to think about them. Étienne forces us to pay attention, colouring our reading of his life and then giving us something to think about when we put pen to page (or finger to keys).

Étienne's Alphabet
by James King
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from Cormorant Books edition)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Forgotten Waltz

An affair is a tricky thing to handle because there is always more to it than meets the eye. This is true as much in life (I would imagine) as it is in literature. But, when an affair is written down in a book and all the details are laid out, the reader can go back and double-check things, analyze the quality of someone's lie or whether this hotel scene reads too much like a previous one – and, if so, what does that mean? When it comes down to it, we're just trying to understand how it happened. Why did they cheat? Were they destined to leave their respective marriages or would it never have happened without their meeting. Like I said, it's tricky, although that certainly hasn't stopped people from writing about it, including Anne Enright, whose novel The Forgotten Waltz tells the story of an affair and all its little, mundane details.

The novel begins now, in the present, after the affair has gone public and the participants have left (or been forced to leave) their respective spouses. Gina, the narrator, is basically going back over everything in an effort to parse out the details – whether for the pleasure of the memories of a deep desire to understand it isn't immediately clear, but the tone of her reminiscences is definitely split between the desire to honestly explain things and justify/reinterpret them. Such is the way retrospect works, though. It really is almost impossible to look back at moments and see them without the filter of everything you know follows. Did that moment, that look, that brush of skin really mean something at the time, or is it a catalyst you can see only when looking back? This is the kind of question Gina seems to be asking, but it's never clear that she really wants an answer.

Gina's partner in all this – because affairs are not singular acts – is Seán Vallely, a neighbour of her sister's who has a daughter the same age as her niece. This is how that meet, actually. Sean and his wife attend a summer barbecue at Fiona's house and Gina comes along to help out. This was six years ago, she says, and she returns to the moment when she first say Seán again and again. Did she know at that moment? Could she have known all that time ago? What does it mean that she remembers it all? Gina never overtly asks these questions, but her ability to recall (or at least claim to recall) the minutiae of these moments is indicative of her search for understanding – maybe the answer is in the turn of his cuffs or the rustle of wind through his hair.

But before you get the impression that this is nothing but soppy memories and a woman crying "why?" to herself, let me tell you, Enright is deeply funny. The amusement and strange observances that are part of everyday life – no one ate the chicken skin at dinner – are integral to the novel, and Gina has such a blunt and almost shocking way of saying things that she jars you back to the reality that she is, for all intents and purposes, a real woman who has stuff going on in the present day as much as she did in the past, and every once in a while she chastises herself for her own nonsense. Gina's life did not end with the affair, but neither did it begin there, it just became more complicated. Gina is a complicated character, just like most real people, and Enright does not pretend to unfold her for you. Instead, you get glimpses at her childhood and her home life and the way she sees herself just in the way you might with a long-time acquaintance or colleague or even friend. You can know only so much, because some things just don't fit well into words.

The beauty of The Forgotten Waltz is in its little details – the kinds of things you might notice but never mention, an awkward hand here, a scarf there, taking the bus – and although the emotional is a confusing jumble of love, confusion, distrust and joy, Enright does not allow you to leave feeling smug. The saying is typically that it takes two to tango, and it's telling that Enright eschews that spicy, high energy dance for the image of a waltz, which is classical, fluid, and done with a pair clasped tightly to one another. Gina, at the end of the novel, is starting to realize the tangle of steps that led her to where she is – she knows, as Enright says, what she's done, and she's prepared to keep going.

The Forgotten Waltz
by Anne Enright
First published in 2011 (cover image from McClelland & Stewart edition)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Daniel H. Wilson shows some circuit pity in Robopocalypse

If you went into a big bookstore or happened to take public transit last week, you probably couldn't miss the giant posters for Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse. Yes, it's about robots and a sort-of apocalypse, but it's also about how we view and understand robots, something Wilson is very concerned about. I talked to Wilson last week, and you can read my profile of the American author in today's National Post or on The Afterword. Here's a peak:
It isn’t that the robots are coming, it’s that they’ve already arrived. That’s the starting point for Daniel H. Wilson’s much-hyped new novel Robopocalypse, and all you have to do is look around an office, living room or public washroom to see that it’s true. 
Wilson has a PhD in robotics from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and his 2005 non-fiction guide How to Survive a Robot Uprising is used in introductory robotics classes in U.S. universities. Wilson’s background brings a strange realism to the book, and although he says he purposefully followed the conventions of the traditional robot uprising plot, the ethical nuance of the novel is much deeper than robots bad, humans good. 
But Robopocalypse, which was optioned by Dreamworks for director Steven Spielberg before it was even finished, does play on our fear of machines. The story is set no more than a decade in the future, and at the centre of it all is Archos, a powerful artificial intelligence that orchestrates the entire uprising from the depths of a radioactive cavern in Alaska. The novel begins after the war is over, when a leader of the human resistance discovers a black box on the war, filled with accounts of the various heroes. The transcripts of these stories take us back to the pre-war world, and then lay out the uprising as it unfolded.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Sisters Brothers

For some reason, I read a lot of serious books. Serious both in the sense that the subject matter seems heavy and in the sense that they are not funny. Sure, most books have glimmers of humour in them, and I have read a lot of funny books. But it is seldom that I read something so funny that I actually laugh about it, especially in public, where people give you looks that say "she's crazy," for daring to find humour while sitting alone. That's another story altogether, though. The thing, for me, about a really funny book is that it still needs to have a serious edge to it. I want to know that I'm laughing with the author and that they have taken their work seriously. The best example of this I have read in recent memory is Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers is the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, actual wild west assassins. The novel is set during the California gold rush and Charlie and Eli have been sent from Oregon City to find a man on a claim in California and then kill him. And for the most part, the novel follows their journey south. Narrated by Eli, the younger of the brothers, the story is filled with his observations, memories, private angers, resentment toward his brother, and of course details about the actual journey. One of the nicest things about this perspective is that Eli isn't overly descriptive. He tells us what we need to know, but the rest is left up to our imagination. It's as if DeWitt is saying that we all have some idea of the wild west and frontier towns, so he isn't going to compete with that if he doesn't have to. The result is an uncluttered novel and a narrator who feels like a real person.

Anyway, the brothers may be hired guns, but Eli is much more reluctant about this than Charlie, who gets to be "lead man" on this job, which causes some hurt and jealousy between the two right from the get-go. There's also another problem that starts early on, and that's with their horses. Their previous horses were killed during their previous job – which we get snippets from throughout the novel, but which has not been written about, as far as I know – and now they've been stuck with new ones. These horses, Eli explains disdainfully, came with names, and they don't typically name their horses. Worse, Eli's horse is named Tub, which more or less describes it's agility; Charlie, of course, got the horse named Nimble.

The novel doesn't end with their arrival in California, though. Instead, they arrive to find their spotter – sent down ahead to watch the mark – has disappeared. They get ahold of his diary, though, and discover he and the mark, named Hermann Kermit Warm, have partnered up in a quest for gold. Warm, it seems, has developed a chemical solution that, when poured into a river, illuminates all the gold lying at the bottom. It's a limited-time illumination, but still, it allows you to simply wade around collecting gold instead of panning for it. It sounds too good to be true, but the brothers have a job to do, so off they go to find Warm and his gold. I'll leave you in suspense about the last quarter of the book, because that build-up is so good. 

The Sisters Brothers is so good I could hardly put it down. The plot manages to be both diverging and unpredictable while remaining tight and coherent, and Eli's running commentary on the state of their horses and the people they encounter – and especially the women, since Eli seems to fall in love in every town – and the mounting craze for gold are so rich (and so funny) that you can't help but be swept up by the brothers and their squabbling conversations. This is one of the most inventive and entertaining books I've read in a long time, and I just can't decide if the magic is a one-off or if I'm crossing my fingers that DeWitt will write another one. Either way, this is going on my reread pile for sure.

The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Orange Prize for Fiction goes to Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht, at 25, is the youngest ever winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, now in its 16th year. She won this year's prize for her novel The Tiger's Wife, which is also her debut novel. This is a bit of an upset, since Emma Donoghue's Room had been bandied about as the favourite.

The Serbian/American writer beat out Irish/Canadian Donoghue (Room), Canadian Kathleen Winter (Annabel), British/Sierra Leonean Aminatta Forna (The Memory of Love), American Nicole Krauss (Great House), and British Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says it Loud). (The Orange Prize is awarded exclusively to women writers.)

Really, though, this is one of those awards where just being nominated can give you a huge boost in sales. So congratulations to Téa and to everyone else who was shortlisted.

Image shown the cover of the Random House edition of The Tiger's Wife.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Second thoughts: Anne Enright on a first marriage interrupted by new love

Anne Enright is a so lovely. We sat and had coffee in a downtown Toronto hotel two weeks ago and she told me all about what it’s like to write a new novel after winning the Man Booker prize, how having kids changes you, and what’s wrong with Vivian Westwood’s clothes. We also talked about The Forgotten Waltz, which has just been released in Canada. Here’s a bit from the profile of her that was in Saturday's National Post:
In 2007, Irish author Anne Enright was handed a second job. She won the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Gathering and spent 2008 touring around as an award-winner, not writing.
It was a lot of work, she says, and when she was finally relinquished to her desk, she had a new novel already churning in her mind. Enright wrote The Forgotten Waltz in 2009, the year in which the novel takes place and the year Ireland’s economy imploded.
“There’s nothing I can say about Ireland that’s uplifting or fine or, you know, redeeming,” Enright says. “The situation is astonishingly bad.”
With that as a backdrop, Enright’s novel about an affair is worlds apart from gossipy tabloid culture. In the context of financial disaster, Gina and Seán’s betrayals seem both insignificant in scale and even more hurtful to their families — one more element of their lives that was not as stable as it looked — and The Forgotten Waltz is Gina’s attempt to understand and piece together everything that happened over the six years since she first met Seán Vallely.
Read the rest on The Afterword.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What is Left the Daughter

There is something so strange and wonderful about reading a novel (or seeing a movie) that is set somewhere you know well. Whether it's your home town, somewhere you spent your summers, or just a town or area you've been driving through for years, it's almost jarring to see it become the focal point of a work of fiction. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, and I rather like novels set in Nova Scotia, where I grew up. It makes me wonder about the author and want to drive the retrace the characters' steps, and in Howard Norman's What is Left the Daughter, set in the Parrsboro area and Halifax, I think I almost could.

The novel is essentially one long letter from a father to his estranged daughter. Wyatt Hillyer has not been in touch with his daughter Marlais, now grown-up, since she was a baby, although he has been putting away money for her and collecting snippets of news through old friends. Things have come to a head, though, and Wyatt now feels compelled to get in touch with her. So, he sits down at the kitchen table in his parents' old house on Robie Street in Halifax to write her his life story.

Wyatt's story begins in the 1941 when he is 17 and his parents both commit suicide in the same day by jumping off different Halifax bridges. The were both in love with the next door neighbour and after they both kill themselves, Wyatt is an orphan. He drops out of high school and moves to Middle Economy, on the north shore of the Minas Basin, to live with his aunt and uncle and become an apprentice in his uncle's sled and toboggan business. Once there, though, he falls in love with Tilda, his aunt and uncle's adopted daughter and Marlais' mother. 

The Second World War is an ever-present current running through the novel, and the presence of German U-boats just off the coast of Nova Scotia is a source of constant tension and pressure for Wyatt's uncle, who becomes increasingly obsessed. Soon the workshop walls are covered with newspaper clippings about the war and lurking U-boats and eventually he becomes so consumed he is unable to work and spends all his time listening to the radio reports about the war. With this going on at home, it was perhaps naive of Tilda to bring a German student to the community and then fall in love with him. They decide, very quickly, to get married – despite the increasing danger he is in simply for being German. But after a U-boat sinks the Caribou a passenger ferry that ran between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, all hell breaks loose.

Tilda's mother had been on the ferry and was lost in the attack, and that sends Wyatt's uncle over the edge. He lures Hans, now Tilda's husband, to his house and then kills him in cold blood. Wyatt, too stunned to really understand what has happened, helps his uncle dispose of Hans' body. They both get prison terms: Wyatt's is only a few years, just long enough to keep him out of the war, essentially, but his uncle gets life in Dorchester prison.

Hans' murder becomes the pivot-point in Wyatt's life. That and the birth of Marlais, which comes nine months after his reconciliation with Tilda. Essentially, the role he played in the murder of Hans has haunted Wyatt ever since, making him feel unworthy of his daughter and unable to contact Tilda. Wyatt, for all intents and purposes, seems like a nice man and although he is by no means wealthy, his job as detritus gaffer for the Halifax Harbour is steady and respectable. But he isolates himself out of grief and guilt, and as the novel progresses you realize just what an extraordinary thing it is for him to reach out to Marlais this way. His language is old-fashioned and distanced and a little awkward, but the intention of his letter is so compelling and honest that he wins you over, despite being sort of a regular guy in a lot of respects.

What is Left the Daughter hooked me in first because it was set in my home province, and I am a sucker for that. But, the novel held my interest because of how Norman layers personal details over established history. He never overdoes the war details, but they build on each other until an old U-boat bobs to the surface of Halifax Harbour years after the war has ended. As a detail, it's merely interesting, but in the context of the novel, the realization that the threat was that close is horrifying. Norman's version of Nova Scotia during the 1940s (and the 1960s, when the later part of the novel is set) is a new one for me, and it's one I want to get to know better.

What is Left the Daughter
by Howard Norman
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Griffin Poetry Prize 2011

Congratulations to Dionne Brand, Toronto's Poet Laureate, who won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize for her 2010 collection Ossuaries. With the award, Brand also takes home the award's $75,000 purse – the richest in Canadian literature. 

The two other finalists for the Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize were former Parliamentary Poet Laureate John Steffler for his collection Lookout and Montreal's Suzanne Buffman for her collection The Irrationalist.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, born in Tacoma, Washington, on the Griffin's international prize for her first collection of poetry, Heavenly Questions.

Other finalists in the international category were Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney for Human Chain, Khaled Matawa for his translation of Adonis' Selected Poems, and Philip Mosely for his translation of The Book of Snow by the late Belgian poet François Jacqmin.

All the finalists received $10,000 at the reading they gave last night and both winners then received an additional $65,000 in tonight's ceremony. 

Cover image shown from Dionne Brand's Ossuaries, published by McClelland and Steward
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