Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Tiger

Given how long the process of writing, editing, and publishing a book is, it always surprises me when anything approaching a trend crops up. Certainly, trends like The Year of the Short Story are a little manufactured (not that that makes them bad), but what I'm talking about are books that come out with similar themes or central figures. Last year, for example, it seemed tigers (and other jungle animals) were the big thing. Strangely, at the time I didn't read any of the tiger books that came out, but in the space of three weeks recently read both the big ones pretty much back-to-back. I didn't plan it that way, but as it turned out I think I read them in the right order (if such a thing exists), and will therefore write about them in the same way. Up first, John Vaillant's non-fiction award-winner The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

I loved Vaillant's previous non-fiction book The Golden Spruce, so when The Tiger came out I was really excited to read it. The hardcover edition was, while beautiful, also enormous, so I ended up waiting for the softcover version, which offered the dual benefit of being much easier to carry around and also post-hype. The Tiger is set up as the story of a man-eating Siberian tiger and the men tasked with hunting and killing it. But, much like in The Golden Spruce, Vaillant uses that narrative arc to weave in a million smaller, farther-reaching details about Siberia, Russia, tigers, hunting and a number of things you didn't even realize you were interested in. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

I have mixed feelings about books in a series. When I was a kid, I loved them: Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and, later, Emily of New Moon – I read an reread those books because I loved getting to know the characters over the arc of their life and experiencing their different ages and phases as I grew up. For similar reasons, I loved Harry Potter. Mystery series, though, can be something quite different. Either you have a number of different cases written entirely independently of one another, so it doesn't matter what order you read them in because there's no over-arching character development, or you have ones that string you along – a detective haunted by a killer who got away, his or her paranoi growing with each book as glimpses of the bad guy come and go. For me, the former usually becomes unrewarding and I typically end up resenting the latter. What's a reader to do? Well, for now anyway, read Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce books – the third of which is A Red Herring Without Mustard – which combine just enough of the two basic kinds of mystery series with a dash of the series I loved as a kid.

A Red Herring Without Mustard opens with a scene at the church fair. Eleven-year-old Flavia is having her palm read by a Gypsy fortune teller when the woman gives her a fortune that sounds very much like the story of how Flavia's mother Harriet died. In shock, Flavia stumbles out, knocking over a candle and sending the entire tent up in flames. Naturally, Flavia feels awful; she invites the Gypsy, to camp on part of the Buckshaw grounds know as the Palings, in the bend of the river. Harriet, it seems, once invited them to stay there as well, because the Gypsy woman is familiar with the area and, when the red-headed and rough Mrs. Bull yells at them on the way by, accusing the Gypsy of stealing her baby, it's clear she's been that way before. But Flavia doesn't have much time to ask her questions, because the older woman is sick and needs to be left in peace. In the middle of the night, though, Flavia wakes up and can't get back to sleep, so she decides to go and check on the Gypsy – she finds her bludgeoned nearly to death inside her caravan.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Giller Prize + Q Debate

I know I said I was going to be more on the ball, but I'm still a week late on this. So, without any preamble, congratulations to Esi Edugyan, who won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers). She, like Patrick deWitt, was nominated for all the big awards this year and I am delighted to see she (also like deWitt) has won at least one of them. Too often we see authors nominated for at least the Canadian big-three and then not win any of them (last year it was Kathleen Winter, previously it was Annabel Lyon, etc.). 

But that isn't what I really want to talk about here. Last week, after the Giller was handed out, Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC radio show Q, host a "Q Debate" about whether Canadian literature was too international in scope, and if so, if that means we're missing out on some quintessentially Canadian stories. He held up both Edugyan (whose novel is set in the U.S. and Berlin) and deWitt (whose novel is set in on the American west coast during the California gold rush) as examples of Canadian writers being praised for novels set outside of Canada. Because it was Giller week, attention was also paid to David Bezmozgis, whose novel The Free World is set mostly in Rome, and Michael Ondaatje, whose novel The Cat's Table was mostly set on a ship steaming from Sri Lanka and England. Of the six books on the this year's Giller shortlist, only two were set in Canada: Lynn Coady's The Antagonist and Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.

So, what does that say about the state of Canadian writing? Are we ignoring "Canadian stories" in favour of exotic, cosmopolitan ones? Personally, I say no. Of course, I can't know what these authors are thinking when they come up with an idea and set out to write it, but when the results are as well crafted and interesting as these six books, I'm not worried about it (just for comparison, last year's shortlist was made up of almost exclusively Canada-specific books).  I would far rather have a Canadian author (or an author who identifies as such because of birth or immigration) write about something that they find compelling than feel boxed in by the notion that to win an award they must confine their writing to something Canadian. Of course, the other side of the argument is that there is nothing confining about Canadian stories because the country is vast and the population is diverse; certainly, there are an infinite number of stories to be told. However, if what you want to write about is related to the jazz scene in Berlin under Nazi Germany, being told to stick to Montreal would feel confining. 

It's tricky though, because I love reading stories set in the places I know. Seeing Toronto or Montreal or Nova Scotia or wherever pop up in a novel is exciting in strange way because I'm so used to reading about elsewhere. If I thought that books set in Canadian locales were truly becoming endangered, I'd be up in arms. But I don't think they are, so I'm not. Canadians have a lot of interesting stories to tell, and if they're set in diverse places, so much the better, I say.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Paper Garden

The whole reason I started this blog was to put all my book recommendations in one place. Some books are more specific in their recommendation than others, but generally speaking, they're all books I enjoyed and would eagerly pass along to a friend. That being said, every once in a while I find a book that is so good I can't stop talking about it, and spend time actively thinking about who in my life would also enjoy it, and how their reading of it might differ from mine. It's fair to say I don't have that level of engagement with every book, so when I start matchmaking before I'm halfway through I know I've got a good one. Most recently, that book was The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Moll Peacock.

When I really love a book, I tend to get a little effusive and then stumble all over myself, so I will try to keep this orderly. Anyway, the Mrs. Delany of the subtitle is Mrs. Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, born in 1700, and this book is, ostensibly, the story of her incredible artistic achievement. At 72, Mrs. Delany (Mrs. D, as Peacock calls her) looked at a fallen geranium petal and noticed that it matched a piece of coloured paper. From there, she decided to recreate the geranium out of pieces of cut paper (remember that she's 72 and there's no electricity), and the result was so exquisite that her friend initially thought Mrs. Delany had ripped apart the geranium and glued it, piece by piece, onto a sheet of paper. Mrs. Delany then went on to make 985 of these "flower mosaiks" using hand-cut paper, rudimentary glue, and paper she often coloured herself. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse

At the beginning of October, as part of the New Yorker Festival, a friend and I saw a panel about 'the writer's writer,' which involved authors Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss what they thought the term meant and offer up some examples of who they thought of as a writer's writer. They all had a lot to say, but for me the standout insight came from Lahiri, when she said talked about writing that first work. You don't realize what it is, she said (I'm paraphrasing, of course), so you're only writing it for yourself and that gives the work this kind of pure energy and purpose and delight that can get lost after success and pressure for your next book invade your writing space. For Lahiri, a writer's writer is someone who, book after book, can recapture the innocence of purpose of writing their first book. I thought about that idea of innocence and purity a lot as I read Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, a new collection of Diana Athill's earliest stories.

Athill, now in her nineties, is one of those legendary British editors – she's worked with Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others – and, an accomplished novelist and memoirist in her own right. But, as she writes in the preface to this new edition of her short stories, she never planned to be a writer. Then, one day while she was out for a walk with her dog, a man flirted with her shamelessly and it reminded her of another many she once knew, and she decided to write a story about him. From there, she says, the ideas started flowing; many of them were based on personal experiences until all of a sudden she'd think of something else and the story would become fiction. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

So many award-winners: Writers' Trust and a very belated Man Booker

It seems I'm much better at posting shortlists than I am at keeping up with who wins what (or at list posting the winners), but three big awards nights have already passed and with the Giller and the GGs coming up, it's high time I recapped. I could probably pretend that I was planning to do all the Writers' Trust winners in one list (despite the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize being handed out in a separate gala last week), but that wouldn't be fair. It did work out nicely though.

Anyway, here are the various Writers' Trust winners:
Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize: Charles Foran for Mordecai: The Life and Times (Incidentally, I did a whole series of posts on this award for the Toronto Review of Books, if you're interested in reading up on the other finalists as well)
Writers' Trust Fiction Prize: Patrick deWitt for The Sisters Brothers (He's 1-1 so far, but with two more awards yet to come we'll have to see how he does)
Writers' Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize: Mirand Hill for her short story "Petitions to Saint Chronic," published in the Dalhousie Review
Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award (for a writer in mid-career): Wayne Johnston, from Newfoundland, author Navigator of New York, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and World Elsewhere, among other titles
Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life: David Adams Richards, author of Giller co-winner Mercy Among the Children, among other titles
Vicky Metcalf Award for Children's Literature: Iain Lawrence, author of Gemini Summer, among other titles
Writers' Trust Award for Distinguished Contribution: Alma Lee, founding Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, the founding Executive Director of The Writers’ Trust, and founder of the Vancouver International Writers Festival

And, two weeks late, but nonetheless still noteworthy, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for his novel Sense of an Ending.

Phew. I will certainly try to keep these more up-to-date as the season roles on.
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