Archive for September, 2010

The Matter with Morris, by David Bergen

September 30, 2010

Review copy courtesy Wordfest

For this reader, The Matter with Morris is the same “matter” that I have had with author David Bergen’s two previous novels — he does a great job of setting the novel up and then heads in a direction that completely befuddles me. I was not a fan of his 2005 Giller prize-winner The Time In Between and found The Retreat (2008) even more lacking. For me, this novel has the same flaw; I am rather surprised that it made the 2010 Giller longlist.

Morris Schutt is a Winnipeg-based newspaper columnist, syndicated around the world (okay, as a former journalist, that is a major stretch, but we will give the author leave) whose entire life is in a downward spiral — work, wife, family, history are all piling up on him.

Let’s start with the newspaper column, written in the first person and always ending with the signature “this is the truth”.

Morris longed for the true and the beautiful and the good in his column, and though he could not be certain, he anticipated that we are saved by hope. Readers responded with hopeful thoughts. They appreciated Morris’s wry take on the world, his sardonic skepticism, his “straight shooting,” his seeming annulment of the private, and his family’s apparent openness. As is the case with most columnists, readers believed that because Morris wrote in the first person, the life he described was his own. They identified with the domestic dramas, the small failures, the financial burdens, and the difficulties of family relationships. Men especially recognized themselves and wrote to Morris as if he were a friend.

If you are contemplating a career in journalism, don’t take this as a model — Mitch Alboim makes it work but no one else does. For this novel, it is rather irrelevant since Morris has been placed on indefinite leave while he sorts out the rest of his life and we don’t see many columns as the novel unfolds (“the madness trickled into his columns” and he has started to borrow thoughts from mystics).

Now 51, he has also just separated from his wife, an accomplished psychologist. Part of his response to this is that he has taken up with hookers — frankly it is not a very effective device. His teenage daughter has also taken up with an English professor so that tension also comes into play, equally uneffectively.

By far the biggest motivating factor in his decline, however, is the recent death of his son Martin, a Canadian soldier who died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan:

And then Morris’s son joined the army as an infantryman, passed through training in Wainwright, Alberta, and within a year and a half he was deployed to Afghanistan. And he died. And everything changed in Morris’s life. His wife let her hair go grey and she stopped having sex with Morris. She confessed that at night, when she knew that her two daughters and her grandson were safely sleeping, she imagined a dark place she might run to, but there was no place far enough, there was no corner dark enough. And Morris, who had always cunningly told the world about his life, began to lose his grasp on himself.

All of those elements offer some promise for a good novel; the problem is that Bergen fails to realize them. To succeed, he needs to establish Morris as a real character and the book does anything but deliver on that. He is having a platonic affair with a Minnesota cow farmer’s wife — that line falls flat. He comes across a hooker who used to be a friend of his son and “adopts” her — that thread also falls flat. His attempts to achieve a reconciliation with his wife are equally uninteresting. And the story angle of his deceased son seems more exploitative than sincere.

All of which meant that by the time I reached the halfway point of the novel, I was pretty much disengaged. It isn’t that Bergen wasn’t trying, just that he had blown his set up. Readers of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom might want to contemplate this excerpt:

Not long after Martin died, Morris, in a painful and irrational attempt to justify his son’s death, had begun to stop people on the street and ask them, “Are your free?” It was not a casual question; in fact, it was a hard-found query, full of irony. Using the convulted logic of politicians and generals, Morris reasoned thus: (1) Freedom is everything. (2) We are in danger of losing our freedom. (3) Our freedom must be defended. (4) We must seek young men to defend that freedom. (5) The young men will die doing so. (6) But they will preserve our liberty. (7) Therefore, we are free.

I have no problem with that concept, although lining it up like that illustrates one of the weaknesses of the novel. A far bigger problem is that to carry it off, you have to give your characters some depth and engender some interest in them — and Bergen does neither.

The potential for a good novel is present in this volume — Jane Urquhart in Sanctuary Line explores some similar themes — but the realization is simply not there. If you are looking at Giller books, this is one that I would give a miss.

If I may be permitted a digression, in all the debate about the impact of ebooks and the changing nature of publishing, one of my major concerns is that the “editor” seems to have disappeared from the process. There are excellent editors in the book business, but most of them have a stable of established authors. What seems to me to be missing is that “second” rank — still excellent editors — who would say to authors like Bergen “give this one more re-write” seem to have fallen victim to corporate down-sizing. I can’t help but think that one more go at this book, with the guidance of a good editor, would have produced a far more rewarding result.

Trevor reviews Player One, by Douglas Coupland

September 29, 2010

Published by House of Anansi


Player One is probably the most unconventional entry on the Giller longlist. Here are Trevor’s opening review paragraphs — you can access the full review at the Mookse and the Gripes. Coupland has an international following and it will be interesting to see if this book moves forward.

Probably the best known name (internationally) on this year’s Giller Prize, that Douglas Coupland’s novel made the Giller list was still, to me, a surprise. It is a novel, but actually it is Coupland’s contribution to the Massey Lectures, an annual event in Canada, directed at “enable distinguished authorities to communicate the results of original study on important subjects of contemporary interest.” Hopefully some Canadian visitors will help us learn more about this event, how prestigious it is, which lectures have been particularly memorable, and just how many of the lectures have taken the form of fiction. As far as I know, Player One(2010) is the first of the Massey Lectures to be nominated for the Giller.

I was both interested in and wary of the premise for the novel. Four individuals find themselves together in an airport cocktail lounge when disaster strikes the world outside. We first meet Karen, who has arrived at the lounge to meet a stranger she met on the internet. Rick is the bartender who was trying to start a landscaping business before someone stole his truck and tools; now he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a famous life coach. Luke was — until yesterday, in fact — the pastor of a small church; he lost his faith, emptied the church’s bank account, and is now on the run to who-knows-where. Rachel has shown up at the lounge to find someone with whom she can procreate in an effort to show her father that she is truly human. There is also a fifth individual named Player One, but the first we learn of Player One is that it is Rachel’s online avatar. At the end of each hour (the book’s five sections are each subtitled “Hour One,” “Hour Two,” and so on), Player One comes in to narrate a glimpse of what is coming next.

Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart

September 27, 2010

Review copy courtest McClelland and Stewart

I think that it is probably fair to say that Jane Urquhart is an author of acquired taste. If you like “introspective” fiction — her books are only 20 yards wide, but they are 300 feet deep — you love her novels. And if you don’t (“this is so, so boring”), you want no part of reading another volume.

Sanctuary Line is going to confirm both those opposing prejudices. You can put me in the former category as someone who loves Jane Urquhart’s work — and this novel confirms for me her place in the front rank of Canadian novelists. At the same time, if you hated her previous work, by all means give this one a miss — it will only confirm your dislike.

(Thanks to the author’s publishers, McClelland and Stewart, KfC is able to off not one, not two, but three contests for draws for Jane Urquhart books — check the post below this one and please enter. You can test out your prejudice, whichever way it tilts :-) .)

The Sanctuary Line of the title is a road that runs from the shore of Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario into the inland. By the shore is what used to be the Baxter orchards and fruit fields (strawberries, then cherries, then plums and pears — take a few weeks break — and then the apples — we Canadians know this order well), degenerating into untended ruin in the present tense of the novel, but a major force in generations past. The narrator, Liz, a descendant of the great-greats, greats and grands, now an entomologist who has returned to the family farm where she used to spend her summers, introduces its history:

Look out the window.

The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside of my own memories, my own imagination. Even by the time I was in my early twenties, the terrain had already been altered — almost beyond recognition — what with the bunkhouses deteriorating and the trees left unpruned and therefore bearing scant fruit. But that was during the period when my aunt was beginning to sever parts of the property so that it could be sold to developers; a step, I believed then, in the march toward some kind of future, or at least a financial future for her, and for my mother, who had just begun to live here as well. Now my aunt is dead and my mother lives at a place called The Golden Field, an ironic moniker if there ever was one, especially in relation to the one remaining field at this location, its greyness in the fading light.

Those are the opening words of Sanctuary Line and, if they don’t appeal to you, travel no further. On the other hand, if the way that Urquhart has started to outline her story sparks your curiosity, move on. You won’t be disappointed. I am of an age (and was born not that far from where this book is set) that the exploration of what produced me and my kind has more than marginal appeal. Urquhart does an excellent job of addressing it.

It is tempting to say that Sanctuary Line is a novel about “change”, but that would be wrong — rather it is a novel about “transition” and the importance of those events in our personal history that have a lasting effect. The author’s premise is that more often than not, we cannot influence those events when they take place — but they will influence us for ever and ever. This is a memory novel: Liz, the narrator, who is now back at the orchard farm, remembers how indelibly she was influenced by what happened there in decades past, even if it is only now that she can understand the impact of the incidents of the time. The reader is invited to join her in slowly but surely filling up the canvas of her background.

A vital context for this is implied by the monarch butterfly’s presence on the book cover. Liz is back at the farm because she has a job at the Sanctuary Reserach Centre where she pursues her “day” job of researching the monarch butterfly:

A monarch tree branch


As for the monarchs, in those early summers we didn’t even know where they went or where they came from, depending on your point of view. We simply accepted them as something summer always brought to us, like our own fruit, or like strawberries or corn at the roadside markets, or, for that matter, like the Mexicans. It would be years before the sanctuary on the Point began to tag the butterflies in order to follow the course of their migration, and several years more before the place where the specimens from our region “wintered over” would come to my attention.

Still, each summer we were stunned anew by what we came to call the butterfly tree. In the intervening months with winter upon us, preoccupied with school and other pursuits, we would have forgotten this spectacle, so its discovery was a surprising gift at the end of the season: an autumn tree that is a burning bush, an ordinary cedar alight with wings. Glancing down the lane, we would presume that while the surrounding foliage had retained its summer greeen, the leaves on that one tree had turned orange overnight. Then, before the phenomenon had fully registered in our minds, we would recall the previous occasions.

In contrast to the butterflies, there is also the story of Mandy, Liz’s cousin who grew up on the farm. Mandy joined Canada’s armed forces and was a rising star — until an IED in Afghanistan ended her life. Urquhart is quite effective in contrasting the past and present without over-sentimentalizing either.

It is tempting — indeed, almost inevitable — to say that Jane Urquhart lives in Alice Munro country, that section of southern Ontario that one of Canada’s best writers has effectively made her own in the world of books. Actually, Urquhart’s Ontario is both east and north of Munro’s but the comparison is fair: both are intensely interested in exploring how landscape — and generations of ancestral history — affect the present. I will admit that when I was reading this novel I frequently thought of Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, her own summary of her family history, told in a collection of short stories. Sanctuary Line is equally effective at evoking the idea that our history is always a part of us and that we will spend much of our life trying to figure out just how it is touching us right now.

As is usual with Urquhart, there is a darker side to the story — the foreshadowing occurs early in the novel and that story line becomes increasingly dominant as it progresses. I’ve avoided it here, not just to avoid spoilers, but because for me the “plot” was a vehicle that maintained interest but was actually incidental to what I think this novel is really about. We all have history and, as we age, we all remember incidents from childhood and adolescence that influence that history. For me, that is the real strength of Sanctuary Line — it did not just cause me to wonder about the stories of the people around me, it caused me to wonder about my own. There is no more that I could ask from a book.

Jane Urquhart contests

September 27, 2010

Thanks to our friends at McClelland and Stewart (and with some help from KfC), we are pleased to announce not one, not two, but three Jane Urquhart contests.

Contest Number One: For Canadian entrants only.

M&S has reissued three of Jane Urquhart’s earlier novels (I’ve read them all and recommend every one):

You can find out details about all three from M&S’s website here, but here is KfC’s thumbnail analysis of each:

Away is one of my favorite novels of all time — an exploration that extends from Ireland to Canada, a study in emigration and what it means to those who are involved.

The Stone Carvers is a very important novel in Canadian literary history — the reverse of Away if you want. A family that has always carved sends a descendant to France to help carve the incredible memorial at Vimy Ridge. “Reverse emigration” if you will.

The Map of Glass is Urquhart at her introspective best — set in the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River it is a study of disruption and dislocation.

We have a copy of each to give away — so name which one you want and I’ll be consulting random.org to pick three winners.

Contest Number Two — also for Canadians only

Already own every Jane Urquhart book? Random House is also willing to supply your choice from this year’s New Face of Fiction — Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted, Drew Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, Matthew Hooton’s Deloume Road or Carole Enaharo’s Doing Dangerously Well. You can find reviews by clicking on the author’s name on the right sidebar — just say in your entry which one you want. There will be one winner only in this category.

Contest Number Three — for international visitors here

While I am sure that Sanctuary Line will eventually be published internationally, I have seen no dates yet. So if you would like to get ahead of your friends, KevinfromCanada will order and send a copy internationally — and if you would prefer a previous Urquhart work instead, just say so in your entry.

To enter, simply leave your name and choice in the comments section of this post (yes, you can enter both contests 1 and 2 but you have to say what your choice is for both). Since we are planning a contest when the Giller shortlist is announced, entries for the Jane Urquhart contests will close on Oct. 3 at midnight, GMT. Enter soon.

Trevor reviews Lemon, by Cordelia Strube

September 24, 2010

Welcome to the “content” start of the Shadow Giller Prize, 2010. The jurors are the same as last year — Trevor Berrett from the Mookse and the Gripes, Alison Gzowski (who doesn’t blog but will offer comments on both our sites) and Kevin here at KfC. Also like last year, I will post a couple of paras from Trevor’s reviews here, with links to complete reviews at his site (you will also find links in the 2010 Giller Prize section in the sidebar on the right). I am delighted to report that he was able to locate a copy of Lemon by Cordelia Strube — it is back ordered at Canada’s online sites so I won’t be seeing a copy for a couple of weeks. Here are the opening paras of Trevor’s review — you can find his complete review at the Mookse and the Gripes.


I try to avoid comparisons to Holden Caulfield as much as possible. Such is the abundance of potential heirs to the great first person narrator of The Catcher in the Rye that it is practically a cliché to label them as such, and it usually leads to disappointment anyway. Comparisons seem to come every time a book arrives where an angsty youthful protagonist with a biting voice goes on and on about the troubled times and how pointless it is to do anything about it, to even care. I usually feel that the heir apparent is really nothing more than a wannabe, though; any similarities are illusions created by the author’s heavy investment in voice; the books tend to fail to create a thematically coherent, richly textured book. While my heart still lies with The Catcher in the Rye, I think in Lemon (2009) Cordelia Strube has written that thematically coherent, richly textured book with an angsty protagonist and a biting voice. Readers of Salinger will recognize the undercurrent of death while innocence suffers in an ugly world. I’m done bringing up Holden Caulfield now, because Lemon, regardless of the faults I perceived, stands on its own, and I don’t want to lead anyone to believe it is just another derivative work.

To be honest, I’m not that patient with angsty teenage misery novels. The reason I read this one first upon learning of the Giller Longlist is, in part, because I wanted to get it over with. The cover shouts at me, and I assumed that by reading it I was more or less submitting myself to a spitting, bitter teen vent. I think a lot of these types of books sound the same; I’m prejudiced because I think the voice of an angsty teen is easy to mimic, though rarely feels genuine. I was fully prepared to dislike this book. In fact, while reading it, I actually kept thinking that eventually it would fall apart in my hands, validating my preconceptions. But that never happened.

2010 Giller Prize longlist

September 20, 2010

Today’s announcement of the 2010 Giller Prize longlist was, perhaps, typical of longlist announcements: at this stage, more debate will be sparked by what isn’t on the list, rather than what is. Two obvious absences from the list of 13 — Emma Donoghue’s Booker short-listed Room and Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. I am quite happy to see neither make the list. Here is a quick look at the books that are on the list (comments are certainly welcome):

BOOKS ALREADY REVIEWED HERE

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. From a pure reading enjoyment point of view, this is probably my favorite novel of the year — but that may be colored by my own previous life as a journalist and editor. An intriguing series of character sketches of a bunch of misfits at an English-language newspaper in Rome. They are very human — and funny — characters, very well developed.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter. A baby, born in the wilds of frontier Labrador, has one little testicle, labia and a vagina, creating issues for mother and father, not to mention the maturing child. Clicking on the link will also take you to author Kathleen Winter’s guest post on this site, a very, very good review of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel — she indicates how it helped her resolve some challenges with her book. For me, a very non-traditional approach to a very traditional kind of Canadian novel — while gender identity is always an issue in the novel, the issue of conflict between the frontier, the city and the globe is an equally important theme.

Cities of Refuge, by Michael Helm. Helm has been in Giller territory before — his first novel, The Projectionist was shortlisted and I enjoyed it immensely. This book is an exploration of multi-cultural Toronto, with particular attention to the refugees who have less than acceptable legal status. I will admit that I preferred Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted for its study of Toronto, but that is no knock against Helm. A very topical urban novel.

REVIEWS TO COME SOON

Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart. Publisher descriptions suggest that Urquhart is returning to familiar territory with this book — while set in the present on a farm near Lake Erie, the book explores the past in nineteenth century Ireland and other parts of Canada, much as Urquhart’s excellent early novels did. She is a KfC favorite and I am looking forward to this book — not the least because Random House is providing copies of new issues of three of her earlier novels (Away, The Stone Carvers and A Map of Glass) for a KfC giveway. Stay tuned for details.

The Matter With Morris, by David Bergen. Bergen won the 2005 Giller with The Time In Between, a novel set mainly in post-war Viet Nam. The promo copy indicates that Morris Schutt is a prominent newspaper columnist facing a series of disasters — his son killed in Afghanistan, his wife threatening to depart and his newspaper has put him on leave. Bergen is an accomplished writer so this does have definite promise.

Cool Water, by Dianne Warren. Kevin the Western Canadian is looking forward to this one. Set in Juliet, Saskatchewan, a town of 1,011 in near-desert country, it promises a cast of characters that only small towns can produce. Okay, that does make it sound like the stereotypical rural Canada novel, but I am hoping the “urban” Real Giller jury’s selection of it for the longlist means that they found more.

Lemon, by Cordelia Strube. This novel has been out since last October and not attracted much attention (although it did get a “smart, eccentric prose” comment from the New York Times). The central character, a high school student who obviously doesn’t fit in, has three mothers — a biological one she has never met, her father’s suicidal ex and a school principal who hasn’t left the house since being attacked by a student. All that suggests the “eccentric” comment is well-placed. Shadow Giller judge Trevor has access to this one (it is one of the few that has been released in the U.S.) so if I don’t get to it, I am sure he will.

This Cake Is For The Party, by Sarah Selecky. I’ve read this book already but need to revisit it before posting a review. It is a debut collection of short stories, featuring young adults who are discovering new challenges (many involving relationships and sex). Memory says it was very readable, but not overly impressive — the first few stories were very good, but after that they tended to be too similar.

WE’LL TRY TO GET TO THESE

With only 15 days to the shortlist announcement on Oct. 5, getting to the whole longlist is a problem but between the three Shadow Jury judges we will try for at least one read of these final six:

Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. I know it is unfair to the author but the biggest attraction of this short story collection is that his father, Alistair, is one of the best short story writers in the world — so let’s hope the genes have been passed on. The description suggests urban stories (Mike Tyson biting a chunk from Evander Holyfield’s ear apparently features in one) so it is certainly an offset to that “rural” stereotype that I referred to earlier.

Curiosity, by Joan Thomas. A novel set in Lyme Regis, featuring a 12-year-old who discovered a prehistoric dolphin-like creature and goes on to become “perhaps the most important palentologist of her day”. Thomas was longlisted for Reading by Lightning last year — I’ll admit her blend of history and fiction doesn’t appeal to my tastes, but that says more about me than it does the quality of her work.

Player One, by Douglas Coupland. Coupland (Generation X) may be the best-known of these authors internationally and this “novel” confirms his reputation for off-the-wall writing — the “work” made its first appearance with the author delivering it as the Massey Lectures, one of Canada’s best-known literary events. It is a “five-hour story set in a cocktail lounge during a global disaster”. Coupland is one of those authors that I don’t seem able to appreciate — we’ll try to get one of the other Shadow jurors to give it a go.

The Debba, by Avner Mandelman. A novel set in Israel, the son of a deceased playwright discovers that his will asks that his controversial play on the Debba — performed only once — be performed again in his memory. The description suggests that that premise allows the author to explore some of the tensions in modern Israel.

The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud. Another novel (this one a debut) that has been out for almost a year, this one promises settings in a flooded Ontario town, Viet Nam, North Dakota and Maine. I’ll admit that I have not heard anything about it at all since it was released.

Two of my favorites — Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall and Far To Go by Alison Pick did not make the longlist, but I am not complaining. There seems to be a very worthy shortlist possible from the books selected by the Real Jury. Do keep visiting for further thoughts from the Shadow Jury.

A Man In Uniform, by Kate Taylor

September 18, 2010

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Maitre Dubon is a Parisian lawyer, leading a comfortable, ordered life as the nineteenth century is approaching its close. Well-married into a family with generational roots into the military establishment, his in-laws have helped to ensure his success in a boring practice based on wills, contracts — anything but the conflict that is so often involved with the seamier side of the law. Indeed, stability and predictability are all that he wants:

Maitre Dubon’s day was a well-ordered thing. Its final goal, which the lawyer achieved without fail, was a seven-thirty dinner hour during which he shared a light meal with his wife, Genevieve, and his son, Andre. He also breakfasted with them at seven, and most days joined them for lunch at eleven, for he thought of himself as a family man, and considered it his duty to eat three meals a day in the company of his wife and son, a duty he executed with affection.

Actually, there is another darker, but more pleasurable, element to Dubon’s stability: “Between five and seven, Maitre Dubon visited Mademoiselle Madeleine Marteau in her apartment off the boulevard des Italiens. He had been visiting her there five days a week for the past eleven years, ever since he had rented the apartment for her in the seventh year of his marriage, when Andre had just turned three.”

Well-connected wife, appropriate son, compliant mistress — what more could a professional want. Order and comfort proceed on a predictable basis every day. Until, that is, one late afternoon when he usually has concluded his appointments and is ready to head to his mistress, the “speaking tube” on his desk whistles and the temporary clerk ushers in a new client:

The woman, a widow, entered the room with a firm but quiet step. Dubon guessed her husband must be six months’ gone now: she was dressed head to toe in black, but not veiled. Instead, she wore a tidy little hat. Her hair was carefully pinned up out of sight, and the little that showed around her forehead was dark but not quite black, hinting that the unseen mane was a luxurious brown or perhaps a rich chestnut colour. She wore no ornament of any kind, not even a mourning brooch, except for a gold wedding ring on her left hand. She wasn’t old — perhaps thirty or thirty-five, certainly not yet forty, he estimated — and, if it were not for the sad contradiction between her youth and her bereavement, a man passing her in the street might not give her quiet figure a second glance.

Madam Duhamel wishes to engage Dubon on behalf of a friend, the wife of Captain Dreyfus, now imprisoned on Devil’s Island, a Jewish officer who has been found guilty of spying for the Germans. The family is pursuing its own attempts at generating an appeal, but Madame Duhamel believes they are taking far too cautious a course. Her brief to Maitre Dubon is concise:

I have concluded that the secret to his release is to find the reason for his conviction. The army had evidence that someone was selling secrets to the Germans; the generals’ mistake was to convict the wrong man. And you, Maitre, you can find the real spy so as to exonerate the Captain.

I don’t read or review a lot of crime or detective novels, so I’m at a bit of a loss from here on in. Certainly, the Dreyfus affair is well-known in literature, both non-fiction and fiction (Proust strings aspects of it out through several volumes — this is at least a shorter version). And, before his marriage, Dubon did have a radical background, helping out some of those involved in the Paris Commune, although he has let that experience lapse into an overlooked past, given his current comfortable, establishment practice. A seductive side to the widow — and memories of what he used to be and might have been — motivate him to take up the case.

As the title suggests, he will be in an unfamiliar uniform for a good part of the rest of the novel as he explores the machinations of the French authorities who have a vested interest in continuing to affirm Dreyfus’ guilt. And his comfortable routine will definitely be upset as the project unfolds.

I quoted at some length early in this review to supply a flavor of the novel. Before she turned to fiction, Kate Taylor was one of Canada’s better arts journalists — her theatre criticism for the Globe and Mail was as good as any in the country. She does bring her journalistic skills to the novel, with careful description and a deliberate unfolding of her story that is almost as ordered as Dubon’s previous life. There is not a lot of drama or surprise to the book, but there is a thoroughness that deserves appreciation.

The result for me was an entertaining diversion, but not much more. The historical story is not without interest and seems to be well done; the atmosphere is appropriate. Unfortunately, given that we know the outcome from the start, even the dramatic aspects of the book have a flatness — although, given Dubon’s desire for predictablity and order, that could be regarded by some as a strength. I can’t help but thinking, however, that Taylor’s considerable writing talent could be applied to a more intriguing subject.

The Frumkiss Family Business, by Michael Wex

September 15, 2010

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada -- click cover for excerpt

A good portion of the reading world, including the 2010 Booker Prize jury, finds Harold Jacobson’s now-shortlisted The Finkler Question (a study of three men, two of them Jews, one a major wannabe Jew) hilarious — I found it tedious. Before I read Jacobson, I had ordered Michael Wex’s The Frumkiss Family Business, a novel about three generations of a Jewish family in Toronto by an author whose best-known previous work was titled Born to Kvetch. I confess that when I began this novel I was rather worried that it would confirm my inability to appreciate this kind of humor. Fear not! However funny or unfunny Jacobson’s book may be (maybe it just didn’t hit my funny bone), this Canadian-authored entry into the world of Yiddish humour had me chuckling, laughing and sometimes roaring from start to finish.

Elyokim Faktor is 103 and about to pass on (“It was probably the all-kugel diet that killed him”) when he is introduced — “The Death of the Last Famous Yiddish Poet Still Young Enough to Know Who He Was” is the title of Part One. This is Toronto, 2008, but Faktor’s creative lives (he has had a number) extend back more than eight decades — his first book (he was already well known as a newspaper columnist) was a collection of sonnets, published in Paris in 1926 under the pseudonym Andre Zhid and dedicated to “a whore who appeared everywhere, in private and in public, in the brothel or in church, in full Carmelite habit.”

…back in Poland two years later, he published his first novel, anonymously and at his own expense. A contemporary critic described Memoirs of Jesus’ Moyel, the man who circumcised Christ, as “the first plea for a pogrom ever to have been issued in Yiddish.” It was condemned by the government, forget about the church, and not a single copy is known to have survived. Those who saw it — and there were plenty — said that it was a virtual encyclopedia of foreskin jokes and anti-Christian slurs, including a number invented by Faktor himself, all of it presented as the after-dinner speeches from the banquet portion of Jesus’ circumcision. The Nazarene’s foreskin was described as broad, leathery and marked with the sign of the cross; no matter how often the narrative sliced it off, it grew back again in a very few minutes, which is why he was able to make so many speeches.

Faktor becomes a major factor (sorry) in Yiddish culture, contemptuously dubbed later as “the Soupy Sales of Yiddish literature” by one jealous rival, and is well-known for a variety of works including his first and greatest musical hit “Dem Pogromtshiks Viglid”, The Pogromist’s Lullaby. It was inspired by a Yiddish actress (Temke in Yiddish, known as Tammy the Fishing Rod due to her a) large bust and b) slender everything else). He not only writes Yiddish plays, he marries Temke and fathers his first child; is heartbroken when Tammy dies suddenly. Having survived the Holocaust and the war in Europe, the disconsolate Faktor emigrates to Toronto in 1947 where his future is taken in hand by the woman who will become his second wife — Chana, known to Gentile Toronto as Mrs. Aubrey from the very fancy china shop she owns and runs (it was set up under her first husband’s name and benefited from his society connections — she sees no reason to abandon either after his death and her remarriage).

Manipulating her connections to perfection, Mrs. Aubrey finds Faktor work at the CBC on a children’s show: “The character that Faktor played on The New Curiosity Shop, an ill-tempered, verse-spouting puppet called Yankee Gallstone, was a dodo bird whose white hair and horn-rimmed glasses had been modelled on Glashteyn” (the critic who had come up with the Soupy Sales tag). From here on in, The Frumkiss Family Business is about the succeeding Faktor generations and how they relate to the great Yiddish poet, fondly known to generations of Canadian children as the dodo-bird puppet, Yankee Goldstone. If you grew up Canadian and are now thinking of The Friendly Giant, you are on the same page as I am.

Earl Frumkiss, who lends his name to the title, is not one of Faktor’s children. He marries the patriarch’s first daughter, named Tammy after her mother; is Canada’s best-known podiatrist (founder and owner of the Frumkiss Family Foot Care Clinic, famous for its television ads featuring the founder) and fathers the third generation of Faktors — Vanessa and the twins, Randall and Rachel — who will carry the bulk of the novel from here on.

Factor and Chana bought them a custom-built house in the fanciest part of the nearly all-Jewish enclave known as Bathurst Manor: the far east end of Blue Forest Drive right next to the entrance to the day camp in the valley. The valley is really a ravine, but ravine must have sounded too Jewish. With their indoor and outdoor pools and a billiard room, with pool tables, cues and pool-room lighting on the lower level, the Frumkisses didn’t need any stinking day camp.

The characters of generation three are established early by recounting a story from their years at a Yiddish junior high. Vanessa is beautiful and manipulative, a school star, but totally uninterested in school work. She is held back a year, the same year when her bookish sister Rachel, is accelerated so they both end up in the same grade seven class despite the two-year age difference: “Who cared if she was good in school or not? Vanessa was a star, and they all knew it. Anyone who doubted that she could have done just fine in school if she’d wanted to had only to look at the campaign that she mounted against Rachel: Vanessa had a powerful sense of logic and a deep understanding of human nature.”

The campaign starts out with adolescent tricks — tripping her, flinging bags of dog shit into her locker and so on. It climaxes with the kind of cruelty that only seventh-graders are capable of:

Rachel’s first period came in the middle of a school day and Vanessa made sure that the whole class found out. “She wasn’t even wearing a Kotex. She’s spreading her cooties all over the building.” Cooties, the Rachnik’s cooties, became a big thing in that tiny junior high. Kids wouldn’t sit at a desk or a bench that she’d just got up from; they developed elaborate purification rituals centred around punches and pinches to cleanse themselves of any inadvertent physical contact with her. Vanessa got six of her biggest fans to sing a song she wrote to the tune of “I Will Survive,” “Rach makes me retch”.

All of that is just set up, of course. By the time the novel gets to the present day, Vanessa has morphed through a number of roles (she’s stunningly beautiful to considerable advantage in them all) and is married to a rabbi in Israel, although as its prime fund-raiser in North America, she is responsible for the viability of the strict sect that he leads. Introverted Randall is a stand-up Yiddish comedian (geriatric stags are his most lucrative form of gig) with “nothing to lose”, with a partner who wants to get into writing children’s television shows (alas, she and Faktor don’t get along). Rachel has settled into Bathurst Manor as a proper repressed housewife, never fully recovered from grade seven; husband Howie is “the Man” when it comes to bankruptcy at the accounting firm where he is vice-president. Faktor, meanwhile, has acquired a potential biographer who is very, very interested in his notebooks (written in Yiddish) which offer the prospect of establishing the manipulative accolyte as a pre-eminent Yiddish scholar. Chana, at 90, is more than prepared for her turn at centre stage as the grieving widow.

And then Faktor finally dies, bringing all these characters and their peculiarities together for a vaudeville-like series of encounters, most centred around preparations for, performance of and follow-up to his funeral. Wex has been very funny all along the way but he does save the best for the last — and it is an extended “last”.

Okay, the novel does have many stereotypes and cliches, but the author’s tongue is tucked so firmly in his cheek that I accepted them willingly. Wex has a rare ability to plant an understandable aspect of sympathetic humanity in every one of his otherwise mutilated characters — and they alternate between the despairingly likable and incredibly grotesque as the action unfolds.

Honesty in reviewing requires that I acknowledge that I am not sure just how long I will remember all aspects of The Frumkiss Family Business. While it does have a central story, in many ways the book is a collection of incidents that flow continuously from one to the other — and I am certain that a number of those incidents will keep coming back to mind. If you are looking for some escapist reading that is totally irreverant and very, very funny, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of Wex’s book.

Finally, permit me an indulgence. The author was not very well served by the cover designer of this novel, but he was brilliantly served by the designer of Born to Kvetch. Have a look at that (this version is from the audio book, read by Wex himself), and you will see a visual representation of the kind of humor that Michael Wex brings to the printed page. My thanks to author Linda Grant, who drew my attention to this cover when I mentioned The Frumkiss Family Business on another blog. This also gives me the opportunity to recommend Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, shortlisted (and my favorite) for the 2008 Booker Prize. Her far more serious and literary novel also features an extended family of Jewish refugees, in London rather than Toronto — if you are looking for a serious counterpoint to Wex’s irreverance, it fits the bill.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb

September 12, 2010

Review copy courtesy Random House

Books by Canadian authors that are set in contemporary South Asia seem to have emerged as a semi-regular feature of Canadian fiction. David Bergen won the 2005 Giller Prize with The Time in Between, the account of a Vietnam War soldier who returns to trace his experience — and disappears. Last year, Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared made the Giller shortlist. It too is a “return” story, this time a Cambodian immigrant in Montreal returns to his homeland — his Canadian girlfriend follows in search of him years later.

Here’s my hypothesis about what has led to this mini-genre. From Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene, South Asia has been an exotic magnet for fiction writers. But for most of the latter part of the 20th century, it was effectively off limits — the defeat of the French, the fracture of Vietnam, the American War (as Gibb informs us it is now known in Vietnam) and the internal conflicts that followed kept the door closed. President Clinton opened the door and the area has been increasingly accessible ever since (Mrs. KfC has visited, I have not). For Canadian author travellers, it is particularly attractive (beginning, of course, with affordability). We didn’t take part in the war, but were certainly affected by it. Every major Canadian city has a significant South Asian community — you don’t have to travel far to find a bowl of pho, the Vietnamese rice noodle soup usually served with beef or chicken.

Pho and that notion of “return” are very much present in this year’s Canadian Vietnam book, The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb whose previous novel, Sweetness in the Belly, attracted a favorable critical response and a Giller shortlisting (I did read it but confess to only a vague memory of the book). Gibb has said that this novel was inspired by a tour guide whom she met on a visit to Hanoi. She was intrigued by the idea of the centuries of turbulent history that produced him — and how that played out in present-day Hanoi. (You can read her full version of the genesis of her novel at publisher Random House Canada’s website here — it is well worth the visit.)

Tu’ is that tour guide character in the book, but there are stories from several generations before him that supply the tender, tasty beef of the story (sorry about the pho metaphor). The focal point is Old Man Hung, whom Gibb introduces in the book’s opening paragraphs:

Old Man Hung makes the best pho in the city and has done so for decades. Where he once had a shop, though, he no longer does, because the rents are exorbitant, both the hard rents and the soft — the bribes a proprietor must pay to the police in the new era of freedom.

Still, Hung has a mission, if not a licence. He pushes the firewood, braziers and giant pots balanced on his wooden cart through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the middle of the night and sets up his stall in the sliver of alleyway, on an oily patch of factory ground, at the frayed edge of a park or in the hollow carcass of a building under construction. He’s a resourceful, roving man who, until very recently, could challenge those less than half his age to keep up.

(Note: The actual book includes the accents on the proper names which I am not attempting to reproduce in this review — the typography does introduce an exotic element in the book that does not get in the way of reading.)

Hung was a mere boy when his father sent him to work in his Uncle Chien’s pho shop in Hanoi in 1933. He was the ninth of 10 children, bad enough in itself but a dark birthmark on his face led his mother to agree with a fortune teller’s decree that he was “tattooed with the promise of future darkness” and she made the child’s life a misery. Indeed, in the seven-plus decades since, he has lived through — and survived — all of the versions of “darkness” that Hanoi has experienced, adapting to the peculiar politics and demands of each phase and finding a way to make pho all the while.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement of the title used to meet in Hung’s pho shop (he’d inherited it from Uncle Chien) in the 1950s, Gibb introduces the succeeding generations midway through the first chapter at Hung’s current location as they arrive with bowls in hand. Hung has to move his spot frequently, but their is a customer-based telegraph that lets regulars know where he is. This time the pho-maker “has set up shop in the empty kidney of a future swimming pool attached to a hotel under construction near the Ngu Ha Temple”:

Ah, and here is Binh, greeting him quietly as always, bowl in hands, never particularly animated until he’s had a few sips of broth. Although he is well into his fifties, Binh is a man still so like the boy who used to accompany his father, Dao, to Hung’s pho sop back in the revolutionary days of the early 1950s. The world has changed much since then, but Binh remains the same mindful, meditative soul who used to pad about after Hung, helping him carry the empty bowls out to the dishwasher in the alleyway behind the shop.

Binh is tour guide Tu’s father, so that effectively gives us five generations: Chien, Hung, Dao, Binh, Tu. As the book unfolds, Gibb uses each of these characters to illustrate the tensions in Hanoi in their particular generation. The Beauty of Humanity Movement back in the 1950s were indigenous intellectuals — writers, poets and artists. The pho shop was the Hanoi equivalent of their colonial French master’s Paris cafes and the artistes who met there — libertarians and nationalist opposed to the colonizers, they found themselves equally at odds with the Communists who kicked the French out in Vietnam’s first modern war with the Western world. Many of them were sent to rural “re-education” camps, the model that Mao would use to disastrous effect a few decades later in China.

The “returnee” in Gibb’s novel is Maggie, an art curator, born in Vietnam but raised in the U.S. midwest. She and her mother escaped just before the U.S. conceded defeat — her artist father never made it out and she has returned to the land of her birth to try to find his story:

She’s spent a frustrating and painful year combing through the archives that have yielded no evidence of her father. She’s found no reference to him in the archives of the Fine Arts Museum, not even a single catalogue for an exhibition where his work might have been shown. Even his presence at the city’s former Ecole des Beaux Arts is in question — there’s no record of his attendance at the school. The censors literally cut the names of dissident artists out of registries and publications. They’ve been systematic and thorough revisionists, leaving a history full of holes.

I apologize for that very lengthy set-up of the novel in this review, but it is reflective of the book itself. Indeed in a summer of reading where a lot of novels have produced 100 or 150 pages of promise and then tailed off badly, Gibb’s is the exact opposite. The first half, for me, was often frustrating as I tried to stay with the author as she established the historical elements of her story — the last half picks up in both story and tension as she brings together the experiences of the generations from Hung through Dao and Binh to Tu’ and Maggie picking up her ancestral search. In the final outcome, the persistent reader is rewarded with a very engrossing artistic detective story that eventually pulls the many historical threads together.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is not a great book but it is a highly readable one. For a society that has survived the struggles of more than seventy years in the way that Hanoi has (and that is only the modern part of the story) — and now seems to be emerging into some version of global prosperity — it is a useful picture of how some minor players, ordinary citizens, found a way to adapt and lived through the experience. I was reminded at times of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song — the many conflicts and atrocities in South Asia are one our generation’s version of the slavery that July describes in that book. Gibb’s portrayal is sympathetic and humane; I suspect that those with a deeper interest in modern South Asia than mine might find it even more powerful a book than I did.

Far to Go, by Alison Pick

September 9, 2010

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Kindertransport was a nine-month rescue mission, started a few days after Kristallnacht in 1938 and ended in September, 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland. During that period, close to 10,000 Jewish children were “rescued” from Germany and the occupied areas of Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia and sent to live with families in the United Kingdom. Most of the children survived, some (but not many) were united with their parents after the war, most emerged as orphans who knew little about the fate of their parents.

Kindertransport has already inspired some very impressive creative work. Diane Samuel’s play of the same name is the story of a daughter whose mother did survive — the adult daughter rejects her mother. If you ever get the chance to see a production, do not miss it. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (my favorite of his novels) is also Kindertransport-inspired — the main character, now an adult, has persistent memories about the journey that brought him to the United Kingdom.

I begin with that background because it indicates that Canadian author Alison Pick has set herself a major challenge in choosing to write a Kindertransport story. While not biographical, it is inspired by her personal history. Her Jewish grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia to Canada and raised their children without telling them they were Jewish. The death of Pick’s grandmother in 2000 caused the author’s father to begin looking into family history (which eventually led to interviewing some Kindertransport refugees, now senior citizens) and she acknowledges using his research. Her experience in researching and writing the novel led her to convert to Judaism last year.

Given that personal background, it is fitting that Pick has chosen an indirect method to structure her story. The narrator who introduces each chapter (and becomes a direct participant late in the novel) is an aging Canadian academic writing in the present whose specialty is the Holocaust:

I wish this were a happy story. A story to make you doubt, and despair, and then have your hopes redeemed so you could believe again, at the last minute, in the essential goodness of the world around us and the people in it. There are few things in life, though, that turn out for the best, with real happy endings.

Before the narrator’s introduction to each chapter, however, Pick includes a letter that reminds the reader of the past story. Here is the start of the one that opens the book:

07/12/1939

Dear Mrs. Inverness,

Although I could write a whole book, a short note will say what I need to say.

Things are happening here — unimaginable things. And yet, our only child, our Tomas, is safe in London with you.

Dear Mrs. Inverness, I cannot tell you my gratitude. And your detailed writing about our boy has moved us to tears.

As you are so extremely good as to be inclined to prepare his favourite dishes, I shall gladly tell you what Tomas likes to eat. He is very fond of fruit, especially of bananas. His favourite soups are: vermicelli, mushroom, potato soup, lentil soup, cumin soup with vermicelli. As to the farinaceous food he ate little as well, but mostly liked a chocolate tart minus cream. (First I should say to please excuse my English! It is a recent language for me.)

The greatest risk that Pick takes, however, is in the sections that form the bulk of each chapter — her central character, Marta, is a Gentile, not Jewish. She is the nanny to Pepik, the cousin of Tomas in the letter quoted above and the son of Pavel and Anneliese Bauer. Bauer is a significant industrialist, his wife a social factor in their town and as the book opens disaster is already looming:

Marta still couldn’t reconcile the rallying gunfire with their sleepy Bohemian town. It could claim the tallest church spire in the region — fifty-five feet precisely — but there was nothing else remarkable about it. A Gentile butcher, a Jewish tailor, two hundred families grouped together on the east bank of a river with nowhere particular to go. It was quiet and safe; she knew that’s why Pavel loved it. He loved a week in London, a month on the Adriatic coast in the summer, but beneath it he was a vlastenecky, a Czech nationalist. The thing he loved best was coming home.

Part of Pavel’s nationalism is his optimism: he refuses to believe that Czechoslovkia will be occupied. Even as things get steadily worse, he always searches for the optimistic outcome. Annaliese, on the other hand, is an eternal pragmatist. As each new problem and threat arrives, she takes a defensive step, usually without thinking about its consequences. Obviously, neither of those strategies will end up successful — their failure will effect not only the Bauers but their son and Marta.

That is how Pick has framed her story and it opens a number of threads for the author, all of which she delivers on very well. Two parents concerned about both their country and their son, but facing hopeless odds. A Gentile nanny, whose fate is inexorably entwined with that of the Bauer family. And the presence of a present-day narrator, an indication from the start that this story will extend a half century beyond the war itself.

I won’t go any further into any of those themes. If that opening outline sounds too depressing to you, you probably won’t like the book. If it has any appeal, let me just say that for me author Pick, in her own way, has produced a novel that deserves comparison with Sebald’s volume (although in no way similar, except for the historical background) and Samuel’s play. For me, perhaps an even better comparison would be Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (my favorite novel of 2009) in the way that it chronicles the inevitable fate of the young and hopeful Czechoslovakia as it is transformed into an occupied territory where horror reigns. And, like Mawer, an intense exploration of what that horror meant to some of the people who had to live through it.

Pick’s own ancestral history may fuel the story, but it never intrudes on it. The result, as promised in that opening passage from the narrator, is not “a happy story”. But, as also promised in that statement, there is “a wish” that it could be — in many ways it is that exploration of how people maintain hope (even if it is futile) that is the real strength of the book. The author’s ability to maintain the tension between the inevitable outcome and that hope, coupled with her extension of the story into the present, makes Far to Go one of the better books that I have read this year. I certainly hope to see it on the Giller Prize longlist — it is a very significant realization of an ambitious goal.


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