Archive for November, 2010

Chopin’s Move, by Jean Echenoz

November 29, 2010

Purchased at Amazon.ca

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

One of my pleasant reading discoveries of the last two years has been the translated work of French author Jean Echenoz — it started in spring 2009 when his Ravel was shortlisted for the IMPAC Award. I loved that short novel and followed up with readings of Piano and Running; he never let me down. (Reviews of all three can be found here). I am most happy to report that I can now add Chopin’s Move to my list of Echenoz successes, even if it seems I have inadvertently fallen into reading his work in reverse chronological order.

For me, these novels are like a very good crossword puzzle. They are short — at 135 well-spaced pages, Chopin’s Move was just over a two-hour read. Yet, they demand concentration and involvement. The plot twists frequently, although always with some rationale, and for concise works there tend to be a lot of characters. The interior structure is complete and consistent, but it usually takes a second reading without the headscratching and backtracking to confirm that. Indeed, that is one of Echenoz’s strengths — the book can be read at one sitting today, and re-read again tomorrow or a few days down the road, to even greater effect. The prospect of a two or three day “adventure” of a read and reread is one that sometimes appeals to me and Echenoz has always delivered.

First published in French in 1989 and in English translation in 2004, Chopin’s Move was also the first winner of the European Literature Prize (I am not even going to try to describe that strange award). In plot terms, it is a “spy” story (not unlike John le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor, recently reviewed here). It is a much quicker read, but an equally enticing one, perhaps even more so.

Franck Chopin is a “bug man” — he raises and studies flies, works at a scientific museum and writes monographs about his work. That is not a particularly lucrative trade — indeed, it hardly provides enough for survival — so he has also accepted being recruited as an agent in a shadowy undercover intelligence agency. Rather than describing him and his work, let me offer instead Echenoz’s description of his contact, who introduces Chopin to the specific enterprise of this book. He is Vito Piranese, a one-legged veteran who has also backed into espionage as a path to economic survival, described here seated on a Paris park bench:

Before the one he was now practicing on the bench, Vito Piranese had held other professions: basketball coach up until his accident, then broker in nonferrous metals, travelling salesman before Martine’s departure, and finally photograph retoucher. None of these had ever worked out except for one, the retoucher, when he’d done a favor for some discreet important persons: they had taken an interest in him. He’d had two interviews. Now, thanks to these persons whom he hadn’t seen since, Vito regularly watched the people he was asked to watch, following the same protocol established once and for all: the interminable phone rings and the three numbers, the bus, the swapping of bags, never the same bus, always the same bags since the time of Mata Hari. Deriving from this employment just enough to live on, with an occasional movie, newspaper, or weekly television series into the bargain, Vito spent the rest of his life trying to forget Martine.

No James Bonds in this spy novel, eh? I quote that at length because it illustrates why I find Echenoz’s work so interesting (and why, I suspect, others might not). While the four books that I have read all have a strong plot stream, that is not what is so good about them — rather, it is the tangential observations that the author makes, supported by his story. Vito (who pretty much disappears from the book after that excerpt) has fallen into this world of subterfuge through circumstance — the world might be the over-arching story, the circumstance is the substance.

In Chopin’s Move, Vito is the agent who recruits the title character into a surveillance scheme that is the driver of the plot. Chopin’s skill is that he can implant mini-transmitters on flies so that those under observation can be recorded. Okay, a willingness to accept implausibilities is a necessary condition for appreciating Echenoz. Rest assured, as a reader, you do get rewarded. Those weird developments are merely support devices for what the author is best at.

The author also likes to have a femme fatale (often more than one, but only one is this work) who adds some erogenous spice to the work. In Chopin’s Move that femme is Suzy Clair, first sighted by Chopin in a Paris park but met only later at a reception (and this is representative of a typical Echenoz character introduction):

As she smiled, he told her about some of the flies he studied for a living: the brown ones, reddish brown ones, red ones, orange ones, and violet ones; about the vitreous ones and the ferruginous ones with yellow knees and green or bright blue eyes; and about the more comical aspects of their behavior. And as she deigned to smile some more at his tie, which bore a minuscule embroidered elephant, nothing was simpler for Chopin than to evoke the habits of elephants, those who crossed the Alps or tromped on foot down Rue Saint-Denis; those whose tusks they used to carve in Dieppe when he was a teenager.

Suzy Clair’s childhood, back when she was still Suzy Moreno, was spent in Blois. At present, Blois was no more than a small, overexposed, black-and-white memory, even thought at a very young age Suzy had become the princess of the high-rises: nothing was decided without her say-so in the parking garages and sub-basements of housing developments, standing near the river or leaning over the pinball.

Suzy becomes a major character in the story — and there are some others. One of my objectives when I started writing this review was to give away as little of the plot as possible and (patting myself on the back) I think I have succeeded in that aim. In fact, I have told you nothing, but you can assume there is a complete, concrete, spyish story. Echenoz uses plot as the trunk of his Christmas tree; the beauty of his writing lies in the baubles that he hangs from the branches and the light strings that he hangs around that structure.

He has done that in each of the four books that I have read so far: Ravel is the interrupted biography of the final days of the composer, Running considers the conflicts faced by an Olympic athlete, Piano is about the demise of a concert performer. All of the story lines are interesting — but the worth of the short novels lies always in the digressions that the author explores for Echnenoz’s interest is primarily in what lies behind the obvious. The novels are a divertissement, yes, but an entirely worthwhile one; the author’s point being that, even in the absurd, there is more at stake than what appears on the surface.

Echenoz’s ability to draw the reader into “big” circumstances and then explore the minutiae that is essential to that larger pricture is a rare talent. After reading four of his books (and with a couple more on the shelf), he has become for me a very reliable author — when I want to get away from heavy work, but still want my mind to be engrossed in a challenging volume (but only for a few hours), Echenoz can be counted on to succeed. He certainly does that in Chopin Moves.

An Extraordinary West, by Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Ritchie

November 25, 2010

The KevinfromCanada blog is delighted to report that Mrs. KfC, known to the rest of the world as Sheila O’Brien, is now a published author. And while I don’t do a lot of non-fiction reviews on this site, I am very proud to do this one. Having an author contribute to the blog is one thing; being married to one is quite another.

An Extraordinary West, subtitlted A Narrative Exploration of Western Canada’s Future, is the result of more than a year’s worth of work by Mrs. KfC and her co-author, researcher Shawna Ritchie. We have the good fortune to live in a part of the world that is very much at the top of the economic pile at the moment and this volume explores what issues need to be addressed to make sure that we stay there. I am biased, I admit, but I think Ms O’Brien and Ms Ritchie have done an excellent job.

Some background first, for those who do not know Canada. From 1867, when Canada became an independent Old Dominion, to 1967, when it celebrated its Centennial, residents of the four western provinces (which is where the KfC’s live) had an entirely legitimate bundle of chips on their shoulders. Various national policies meant that we sent raw materials East at a discount and bought manufactured goods headed West at a premium. That discrepancy led to a bitter conference shortly after the Centennial, which in turn led to the founding of the Canada West Foundation — a non-partisan research group whose purpose is to develop information and lead the debate on how to enhance the future of Canada’s four western provinces. I am a sometime advisor to CWF as a Senior Fellow, Sheila signed up as a volunteer executive-in-residence some months ago to produce this work.

Things have gone very well indeed for the West of Canada in the four decades since that bitter conference. Hydro development in Manitoba has made that province an international player; potash mining in Saskatchewan has put that province on the global map for something beyond grain-growing (which remains important); oil sands development in Alberta has made us a rival to the Mid-East emirates in both production and expertise and British Columbia’s experience in mining and forestry has produced yet another global player. However, the prosperity that has followed that is still based on resource extraction and the new world is one of knowledge transfer. The purpose of this project was to find a way to chart paths that would allow that transition to begin to happen.

Mrs. KfC and her co-author interviewed 50 outstanding Western Canadians who have been part of this development and all of whom have ideas about what the future should look like. Their working title for the project was Extraordinary Conversations and, as someone who got to read the notes, those conversations were truly extraordinary. It was an amibitious project and I think the results, as outlined in the book, are significant. This is not the only part of the world where this challenge exists (Australian visitors take note) but I think the overwhelming optimism of the response is heartening, in a way that American protectionism and world-wide shrinking expectations are not.

Here is how the authors defined their approach (and a 30,000-foot summary of the results):

We began each conversation with the following question: “What do we need to do to ensure that the West remains a great place to live in the 21st century?”

While our question was forward looking, our conversations were often rooted in our history, and a consistent set of themes emerged.

– The West’s strength is based on the characteristics of the people who chose to come here to create a better life for themselves and their families. We are risk-takers at heart.

– Accomplishment trumps pedigree in the West. There is limitless opportunity for those who work hard and success is the province of the hard workers, innovators and dreamers. When things do not work out, westerners are there to lend a helping hand and assist those who fall on hard times.

– We are blessed with abundant natural resources, but we have an obligation to steward them responsibly and protect this place for future generations.

– Our geography imprints us. The prairies, the mountains, the ocean, and the big clean sky help define how we see the world and offer opportunties for us to welcome the world, both as visitors and as new Canadians.

– We are westerners and we are proud Canadians. We are all stronger if we work in concert, and with a generous spirit.

The co-authors found that the concerns that emerged in the conversations, optimistic as they were, could be group around five sets of issues and have organized the volume around these themes.

Demographics: The total population of the four Western provinces is just over 10 million — tiny by global standards. Like most of the western world, it is an aging population; as positive as the economic outlook may be, “labour shortage” not unemployment is the long-term concern. On the other hand, the West has always welcomed immigrants. In recent years, we are fortunate to have avoided some of the immigration tensions that occur elsewhere in the developed world (the New York Times devoted an article to this last week); we are going to have to be even more welcoming to new arrivals in the future.

Aboriginal peoples: Western Canada is home to almost 60 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal people and the way that they have been treated since the first Europeans arrived has been dreadful. “Their numbers are growing at three times the rate of the non-Aboriginal population,” the book observes, “yet they fare far worse than the general population in regards to educational achievement, economic participation and social wellbeing.” It is an issue that must be resolved.

Environment: The West has traditionally been an economy based on resource extraction, so current environmental concerns loom large when considering future opportunities. Mining, agriculture and oil and gas extraction all are already under the microscope — water resources will likely be an even larger long-term issue. As the authors again observe, to succeed the West needs to become a global leader in learning how to balance resource development with environmental protection.

Economy: The West has already begun the process of moving from resource extraction to sending experienced talent around the world as part of the global economy: “Determining how to exercise our economic strength in an increasingly competitive, carbon-constrained world is one of the most exciting opportunities we face.”

Collaboration: Under Canada’s federal structure, the four western provinces are primarily responsible for government services and policy such as education and health, as well as regulation of natural resource development. With such a small overall population, if we don’t learn how to pool our efforts to develop world-class institutions we will be destined to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water, if I can be allowed to appropriate the traditional Canadian economic policy cliche.

In a global economy where the daily news is dominated by stories of increasing American isolation, European economic crises and fearful concern about the rise of the BRIC economies, An Extraordinary West is a rare beacon of optimism with a message that I think extends well beyond the interest of the 10 million of us who live here. The book was meant to frame the debate about how we turn that opportunity into reality and the process has already begun. A companion publication, An Extraordinary Future: A Strategic Vision for Western Canada, written by Roger Gibbins, CEO of the Canada West Foundation, is already available to open the dialogue.

Yes, I am biased, but I do think this is an exceptional project which has produced an equally exceptional book. While it is of vital importance to the West — and indeed all of Canada — I think is well worthy of attention from readers interested in public policy in the rest of the world. The entire project represents a proactive, positive approach to considering some crucial issues that exist well beyond Canada’s West. It is a “beta project” in public policy development that can certainly be adapted elsewhere.

Pdf versions of both An Extraordinary West and An Extraordinary Future are available free of charge from the Canada West Foundation here — drop by and have a look. The web page also has details on ordering the book itself — at Cdn$39.95 it is not an inexpensive volume, but I must say it is a very attractive book (and the authors are getting no royalties, so that conclusion is not a conflict of interest).

KfC is a very proud spouse, but visitors here probably have figured that out already. :-)

Nourishment, by Gerard Woodward

November 23, 2010

the Book Depository.com

Gerard Woodward is an author who has been sitting on the “must-read” table for a while. After recommendations from several readers whom I admire, his trilogy (August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth) has been on stand-by for some months. So when I discovered some months ago that his new book, Nourishment, would be part of the 2010 Booker season, I figured that I would read the single volume as a start and leave the trilogy on the shelf for future reading.

Alas, for Woodward, Nourishment missed the Booker longlist, which meant it went on to my waitlist. Having finally got to Woodward, I’ll now jump to the conclusion — it was not a travesty that this novel missed the longlist, but it would have been no shame if it had made it. And I am now looking forward to the trilogy even more than before.

Victoria “Tory” Pace is a war-challenged wife when the book opens — her husband Donald has been drafted and little has been heard from him since he headed to the Front. Her three children have been evacuated to Lower Slaughter (or is it Upper Slaughter?), but her mother has moved back to the London flat to help out through troubled times. Early on in the novel, a bomb falls in the area of Peter Street where Tory and her mother live and Woodward wastes little time in letting the reader in on the macabre aspects that will feature in the book. The local butcher shop, home to one Dando, is one of the shops that has been hit, its refuse blasted across the street so far that it includes the streetscape of Timothy’s, the bakers:

As she looked closely at the shopfront of Timothy’s now she could see, among the many scars and mini-craters of a building that had been exposed to a bomb blast, other matter. Yes, she was sure of it. There was actually a rasher of bacon stuck to the wall over the main window, perfectly flat against the brickwork, as though it had been cemented there. And then she saw another, and then another, fanned out across the facade, an array of streaky bacon. Then other materials that must have been flung with terrific force from the exploding butcher’s across the street — that thing up there, over the door, that was surely a sausage. It was flattened and burst, but it was definitely one of Mr Dando’s gristly bangers. (It was said that sawdust was the prime ingredient.)

There is a lot of butcher shop “debris” in the vicinity — “mince, pieces of liver, kidneys, other offal, all stuck fast.” As Tory’s mother, Mrs. Head, contemplates this all she finds something else:

She turned her attention to ground level and saw, for the first time, what seemed to her an almost perfect leg of pork, just sitting there on the pavement. Or, rather it was resting, tucked slightly behind a timber (probably part of a window frame), and was off the ground and quite hidden. Furthermore, it was covered with the same layer of dust as everything else in the area and so was well camoflaged.

Mrs. Head takes the meat home and proceeds to roast it. When Tory returns from her wartime job at the local gelatine factory, there is “a real roast dinner” of leg of pork awaiting her. Author Woodward extends the scene over a number of pages, but I’ll summarize it here: Butcher Dando was a casualty in the bombing and the roast leg of pork may, or may not, have been pork after all. Perhaps Tory and Mrs. Head have fallen into cannabalism in their search for meat in wartime Britain.

If that kind of absurdity puts you off, read no further — Woodward will not be your cup of tea (and, lord knows, what kind of tea it might be). If that bizarre twist has some appeal to you, read on because you have discovered an author who loves them.

Woodward ends this opening section with a telegram from the War Office. Private Donald Pace has been reported as missing which means that he might be a) missing, b) a prisoner of war, c) dead or d) “temporarily separated from his regiment” — the alternatives are all included in the telegram. In what for me is one of the most attractive aspects of this novel, it suddenly takes a right (or perhaps left) turn and heads off into a completely different direction.

Donald is, in fact, a prisoner of war and some time later a carefully-censored letter arrives directed to “My Dearest Darling Sweetheart Tory”. The sentiments in the letter are what you would expect until the concluding paragraph:

Nothing else troubles me apart from not being able to pull your knickers down and give you a good fuck. Instead, could you write me a dirty letter, by return of post? I mean really filthy, full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of.

I require this most urgently.

See what I mean about the absurd? Tory is a conventional, not terribly attractive but not bad-looking either, isolated war-mother being asked to do something that is unfathomable in her experience. Then again, so is war. Several letters are exchanged where she politely declines, but Donald is insistent. Eventually she starts to do research in the restricted stacks of the local library.

Tory’s research tends to be of the dictionary/encyclopedia variety, with minor excursions into soft-core, but the story takes another turn when she attracts the attention of George Farraway, owner of the gelatine factory, but also a former boxer, so good that he fought Jack Dempsey and has retained the gloves from the match including, one would like to believe, Dempsey’s blood from an uppercut that caught the champion’s eye — before he slammed Farraway to the canvas. He will not only supply Tory with material for her letters (and they become very important as the novel progresses) he will become a potential beacon in her future. Oh, and he also has some dubious ventures that will be relevant.

Okay, some parts of Woodward are conventional — and some are very contrived (but I am willing to accept them). Farraway and Tory strike up an affair, conducted mainly in a cottage in the Home Counties. Farraway is an exceptional lover whose idiosyncracy is to describe whatever he is doing as he does it and he apparently does quite a lot (details are left to the reader’s imagination). Tory remembers these things, takes them down and, suddenly, finds a way to meet Daniel’s need. Everything is going along just fine until, at the end of a typical Woodward chapter:

But in fact the affair continued for several weeks more, and didn’t end properly until Tory became pregnant, in the late summer of 1941.

That last quote is not meant as an illustration of author brilliance, but rather of his control of his work. One of the traits of this book is the left-right turns that it will take — and I have only given you an introduction. Woodward loves to end one aspect of his novel and then strike off in a different course on another. Some readers will find this annoying: I thought it was a wonderful way of keeping me engaged with the book.

I have hardly introduced you to Tory, Donald and Mrs. Head in this review, but I feel no need to expand any further. Gerard Woodward is an author who asks readers to join him in a dis-connected journey and in each stage he goes into some detail beyond the obvious plot. If that is not the kind of fiction that you like, avoid the book. If it interests you at all, do pick up this volume.

The Barracks, by John McGahern

November 16, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

There is always a risk in approaching an author by starting with his best-known work, which is exactly what I did with John McGahern when I read Amongst Women 16 months ago. What if you love it and decide to read all of his work, which is also what happened with me and the Irish author? Having read the fifth of his six novels first, I had worked my way back through two earlier ones (The Leavetaking, his third, and The Dark, number two in order). Eventually you are going to have to read book one and there is every reason to expect that it will have some weaknesses.

The Barracks was published in 1963, more than a quarter of a century before Amongst Women (1990) and I am delighted to report that it is a more than worthwhile work, even if not quite up to the standard of the more famous novel. Indeed, I am quite happy that I read the books in this order — McGahern is one of those authors who returns in almost every book, or least all that I have read so far, to the same themes and explores them from different angles. Yes, he may get more adept and detailed as he goes along, but it is equally rewarding to see the raw emotion, even if it is explored with many rough edges, that is part of the first book.

Consider the central female character, Elizabeth, who married the older widower Reegan and became stepmother to his three children as part of the bargain:

She was nothing to these children. She had hoped when she first came into the house that they would look up to her as a second mother, but they had not. Then in her late thirties, she had believed that she could yet have a child of her own, and that, too, had come to nothing. At least, she thought, these children were not afraid of her, they did not hate her. So she gripped herself together and spoke pleasantly to them: they were soon quiet, laughing together on the shiny leatherette of the sofa, struggling for the torn rug that lay there.

If you know Amongst Women (and it is no spoiler if you don’t), you will know that it too features a second wife, Rose, who also acquired a family when she married — in her case two sons and three daughters. The husbands in both books (Reegan and Moran, respectively) are bitter, abusive, defeated creatures. (Yes, McGahern’s mother died when he was young and he too had a difficult relationship with his father.) Both Elizabeth and Rose lead lives of indescribable loneliness, despite being surrounded by “family” with all its ritual, including the nightly rosary said by the entire family. In this book, Elizabeth’s loneliness is heightened by her discovery of cysts in her breast, adding the fear of cancer to an already perilous existence, again reflecting McGahern’s personal experience.

It is fair to say that the author’s development of Rose in the later book is better, but there is also a lot to say for the emotional bluntness that McGahern portrays in this earlier book. Isolation is often better illustrated with starkness, than it is with nuance and detail.

It is also worth noting that Reegan, the husband and father, contains many of the characteristics that will be more fully developed in the later character, Moran. The barracks of the title of this book are in a police station in the newly independent Ireland. Reegan was active as a leader and commander in the independence movement, but now finds himself sidelined as a minor police sergeant, beset upon by his superior. His life is one of constant frustration and anger at his current station which seems so diminished from what he once was — at age 50, his one hope is trying to accumulate enough money so that he can resign and begin a new life as a farmer. In that sense, he and Moran are different, as Moran has abandoned all hope. But the theme of the warrior whose life is all downhill after the battle has been won is one that is obviously central to the author’s world view. In both cases, McGahern manages to show that apparently random bitterness and anger may have a very valid cause.

Finally, let’s look at the role of the Roman Catholic Church in McGahern’s Ireland. In this novel, it is rarely shown directly (Elizabeth loathes the local priest so only has the most formal, required contact) but it is never, never not looming as part of the picture. Here is what Elizabeth is thinking when she finally does go to the doctor’s office to reveal her cysts and is waiting for her name to be called:

She might have been kneeling in the queue in front of the confessional and her turn to enter into the darkness behind the purple curtain coming closer and closer. You were sure you were ready and prepared and then you weren’t any more when you got close, less and less sure the closer you got. Doubts came, the hunger for time, the fear of anything final — you could never bring all your sins into one moment of confession and pardon, you had lost them, they had escaped, they were being replaced by the new. The nerves began to gnaw at the stomach, whispering that you were inadequate, simply always inadequate. The penny candles guttered in the spikes of their shrine; the silver sanctuary lamp cast down its light of blood, great arum lilies glowed in the white evocation of death on the altar; reverential feet on the flagstones tolled through the coughing and the stillness.

——————

She felt the strain of waiting the same as she moved closer to the moment when the receptionist would call her name. The images echoed no afterworld, there were no vistas of hell and heaven; but the mind and the heart and the stomach reacted as if they were all the one.

In devoting so much space to comparisons, I don’t intend to demean The Barracks in any way. McGahern’s rural Ireland is not a pleasant place; it is a brutally challenging one. I think as he grew older, he began to understand it more thoroughly — which is part of the reason why this first, youthful effort (he was only 29 when The Barracks was published) has so much power to it. The Irish have produced some truly exceptional writers, but like my friend Kimbofo at Reading Matters who introduced me to McGahern (and has reviews of six of his books on her blog) I can’t help but argue that he may be the best.

I’ve got two more novels (and I am saving his last, That They May Face The Rising Sun, for my last), the short stories and, perhaps, his memoir to go. I can promise you will see thoughts on them all here eventually, although McGahern does demand that you leave some space between reads. Whether you read this book before or after Amongst Women it is an exceptional debut novel.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre

November 12, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Okay, I have been so involved in Giller Prize intrigues (winner’s book not available, Ali Smith abusing the judging process) that I have been neglecting other issues. Regular visitors here will be aware that Prize reading has dominated the KfC blog for the past three months — first the Booker, then the Giller. I make no apologies for that; I like contemporary fiction and even if I don’t agree with all the juries’ choices, I am willing to explore them.

But Prize season is now over and for the next six months I get to investigate other contemporary works, books of the last few decades that I have overlooked and revisit some classics — and I look forward to that. I was looking for a “transition” book between the Prize contenders and that other world and John le Carre’s new novel, Our Kind of Traitor, immediately rose to the top of the list.

First, a confession. I have long been an under-the-radar fan of le Carre’s, dating back to the Smiley novels from his early days (and I absolutely love the Smiley DVDs). I will admit that the end of the Cold War (and le Carre’s traditional spy plot) led to a lapse, but I have always retained a fondness. It has been a hidden one — what literary reader wants to admit to a fondness for a plot-driven, spy novelist? It was a discussion on a literary forum last year, where a number of other contributors confessed to a similar taste, that caused me to re-evaluate. le Carre always offers enough plot to keep you going, but you have to pay attention. And there is always a substantial cast of characters, even if some are caricatures. And usually some very good global wandering (Antigua, London and Switzerland are the starters in this novel).

And so, Our Kind of Traitor, as my escapist entry back into serious literature reading. The central character from the narrative point of view is Peregrine Makepiece, an Oxford English literature don who is thinking another career might be more attractive (hey, this is le Carre) and who is on holiday in Antigua with his live-in mate and maybe fiancee, Gail, when the oil and flour are dumped into the saucepan to begin creating the roue that will be developed into a very filling sauce.

Perry is a pretty good tennis player, as the resort pro has noticed, and a match is arranged with Dima, the elusive Russian emigre who has bought the Three Chimneys’ property “up the point” from the flashy resort where Perry and Gail are staying (we would say “up the road”, but we don’t live on an island). Dima may, or may not, also own the resort.

Perry’s played for Queens, so he is no slouch. Dima is heavy and awkward, so the match seems strange. Things get stranger when the match approaches — Perry and Gail are picked up in a black people-mover with heavily shaded windows, deprived of their mobiles and asked to open their athletic bags before being searched by a couple of thuggish security guards. (It is no spoiler to say that they will shortly be “invited to sign a declaration under the Official Secrets Act” back in London.) Gail, a lawyer, is outraged: Perry the don just goes along.

When the tennis match starting time arrives, things get more fascinating. The match is private, but there are people in the stands, as Gail discovers and later recounts to a pair of equally shady London minders a few weeks later.

But Dima, to Gail’s surprise, was not, at the moment of her entry, the main event, she said. Arranged on the spectators’ stand behind him was a mixed — and to her eye weird — assembly of children and adults.

“Like a bunch of gloomy waxworks,” she protested. “It wasn’t just their overdressed presence at the ungodly hour of seven in the morning. It was their total silence and their sullenness. I took a seat on the empty bottom row and thought, Christ, what is this? A people’s tribunal, or a church parade, or what?”

Even the children seem estranged from each other. They caught her eye at once. Children did. She counted four of them.

“Two mopy-looking little girls of around five and seven in dark frocks and sunhats squeezed together beside a buxom black woman who was apparently some sort of mind,” she said, determined not to let her feelings run ahead of her before time. “And two flaxen-haired teenaged boys in freckles and tennis gear. And all looking so down in the mouth you’d think they’d been kicked out of bed and dragged along as punishment.”

And I haven’t mentioned the bewitching 16-year-old Natasha. But then again, what would le Carre be without a version of her?

I’m cheating — the quote above comes from the second part of the novel, but it is essential to understanding the first, and the rest. We are moving into familiar le Carre territory here and all of those children (and a couple more) will be a factor. Perry wins the tennis match, but the action starts later in the dressing room and extends into a surreal dinner party at the Three Chimneys. Dima confesses that he is a banker/money launderer for the seven titans of Russian crime. While the West may view him is an entrepeneurial capitalist bringing investment money into Western economic society, his money bosses view him as a transferer of corruptly-generated funds into legitimate enterprises. They have decided he is no longer reliable; he has decided he wants to defect, since that is his only route to survival.

There is absolutely no reason to go on with any potential spoilers of the plot; veteran le Carre readers can probably fill in the remaining blanks for themselves (and that does not make them any less interesting when they happen). The beauty of his work is in the digressions when the plot unfolds (like that example of the children at the tennis match) and I am not going to share any more.

The result of all this, in the post-Soviet, Russian-oligarch world, is entirely predictable, but don’t in any way let that dissuade you from the novel. If you haven’t read, John le Carre, don’t start here — go back to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and get to know George Smiley. That will introduce you to a score of novels, of which this is the latest example.

And if you have been a le Carre reader, however guilty or reluctant, don’t hesitate to pick this one up. It is not his best — not even close — but it is still a damn good read. And, for me, a perfect transition into some of the more challenging works of the next few months.

2010 Shadow Giller Prize winner

November 4, 2010

The Shadow Giller Jury is pleased to announce its selection for the 2010 Shadow Giller Prize:

Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

While the choice did take some deliberation, it was unanimous. MacLeod’s debut collection of seven stories is a significant achievement that deserves to be recognized — and all three jurors are looking forward to his next book, be it another story collection or (we hope) a novel.

(EDIT: Well, the Real Jury obviously did not agree with us and awarded the prize to Johanna Skibsrud for The Sentimentalists. All three Shadow Jurors liked that novel — but not as much as our top two choices. If you can find a copy, it is a very good book.)

Click cover for Publisher's details

My summary thoughts on Light Lifting: Each of MacLeod’s stories stands on its own (and some are better than others, but that is inevitable), but taken together they end up in a novel-like portrayal of an assortment of “ordinary” lives in an industrial, working class city — which is very much what Windsor (the Ontario city where all seven are set) is. The central characters are very different — a world-class sprinter who knows it is time to retire, an adult who remembers his first job as a drug store delivery boy, a water-fearing girl who is now an excellent swimmer (maybe too excellent), a widower who cannot overcome (and hence must annually commemorate) his grief — so each ends up presenting a unique view that reflects life in the community where they live. In both structure and writing, all seven stories are exquisitely crafted. (My original review is here.)

Trevor’s summary thoughts: I didn’t like each story in Light Lifting, though it feels like it, and I am very pleased that it is our winner. The stories I did like I loved. “Miracle Mile,” “Adult Beginning I,” “The Loop,” “Good Kids,” and “The Number Three”: each, to me, is stronger than anything else on the Giller shortlist, and each has stuck with me since I read them over a month ago. MacLeod uses spare and simple short sentences to construct fully textured scenes of desperation full of emotional nuance. And if I enjoyed how Kathleen Winter (Annabel) made me feel toward her characters, I loved the emotions MacLeod made me feel. My favorite story is probably (but this could shift) the opening story, “Miracle Mile.” I felt the various emotions of two runners throughout the story, from the tense tedium in the hotel to the break-down at the end. Another plus, in these short stories MacLeod focused on groups of people and types of professions that rarely take up space in fiction any more. His writing carried the loneliness and drawn-out desperation so well. (Trevor’s original review — much more extensive than mine — can be found here.)

Alison’s thoughts: This is a debut collection of stories that doesn’t read like one. MacLeod deftly manages to immerse the reader into each story’s world. I like the range here, so many debut collections feel autobiographical in that they cover the same concerns and themes. Light Lifting doesn’t do that. A couple of his stories are stunning. I had never read his work before and I look forward to more.

I mentioned that the Shadow Jury did have some debate and, unlike the Real Jury which is restricted to picking a single winner, we would like to recognize our unanimous second choice (and all three of us would have been happy to proclaim it the winner): Annabel, by Kathleen Winter.

Click cover for Publisher details

KfC’s summary thoughts: This novel, set in Labrador and Newfoundland, is a study in discovering identity. At its most obvious level, that challenge is faced by the title character, Annabel/Wayne, who was born with both female and male genitalia. That circumstance poses equally difficult identity challenges for his parents and Thomasina, their close friend who also remains close to Wayne/Annabel throughout the book. Underlying all of this, however, is another significant “identity” challenge — the struggle between wilderness Labrador, urban St. John’s and the global world beyond. The result is a very intriguing, highly successful novel. (My original review — and a guest post from author Winter describing some of her challenges in writing the book — is here).

Trevor’s summary thoughts: I think that in terms of scope Annabel was the most ambitious title this year. Set in the extreme north (makes this cold New York day just a bit colder to think about it), Annabel takes on a difficult theme and ties that theme into other observations about modern life. The characters — Wayne, Wally, Thomasina, Treadway, and Jacinta — even if I felt they were at times merely props for the story, were heartbreaking, and I cared for each one. (Trevor’s full review can be found here.)

Alison’s comment: For some reason I came to this with a bit of reluctance and was immediately drawn in by the way Winter evoked landscape and character (in fact, you could say the landscape here is a character). I found myself wondering and caring about the people she created and l really liked the way she brought Labrador, a place I have never been, to life.

All three of us had a wonderful time with our Shadow Jury tasks again this year — we hope that visitors here and at the Mookse and the Gripes have found our thoughts useful. If there was any grumpiness to us at all, it would probably be that the Real Jury overlooked some very good longlist titles when they picked their shortlist — so check out some of the longlist reviews from both Trevor and myself which can be found in the 2010 Giller Prize menu on the sidebar to the right. The Real Jury agreed with our selection of The Bishop’s Man last year — we won’t be complaining if either of these titles is chosen by this year’s jury.

And if you have your own choice, by all means let us know in the comments. The Real Jury will announce their decision on live television on Tuesday, Nov. 9 — if you don’t have access to Canadian television, broadcaster CTV is promising international webcast coverage at http://www.Giller.CTV.ca starting at 9 p.m. EST (although the site does not seem to be operational yet).

Waiting for Joe, by Sandra Birdsell

November 3, 2010

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

While we meet Joe Beaudry and his wife Laurie ensconced in a mobile home on a Walmart parking lot in Regina, Saskatchewan, they are very much in transit. Born, raised and betrothed in Winnipeg, the two had evolved a comfortable, if financially over-extended, life. Joe owned the Happy Traveler, an RV dealership, and Laurie, a compulsive shopper, (over)spent the proceeds on home furnishings and her wardrobe. Then along came 9/11 and its security aftermath — the senior citizens who formerly wanted to travel (on the ground) and are the core RV market developed a taste for staying close to home.

Joe mortgaged his home and everything else to try to keep the business afloat. It didn’t work, so the Beaudry’s have experienced not just the loss of the business but also the family home that was given to him by his father. When we meet the couple, they’ve put father Alfred into a senior citizen’s residence. Joe has stolen (he would prefer to think borrowed without permission) an RV stored on his lot and the two are headed west and then north to Fort McMurray where a childhood friend has contacts and works in the oil sands business; perhaps they can start a new life. They don’t have quite enough money for gas to get there but Joe has found a job erecting the temporary garden centre at a nearby Canadian Tire store — spring is in the air.

Waiting for Joe is a Canadian road novel, a genre that comes in two varieties. One set involves the magnet pulling people to the cities (think Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce or Kathleen Winter’s Annabel). The other, including this novel, involves heading (perhaps fleeing would be a better word) west, or southwest, or northwest — Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, Miriam Toews’ The Flying Troutmans and even Elizabeth Hay’s Giller-winning Late Nights on Air would qualify as comparisons. While both sets involve a pursuit of opportunity, the first set usually involves chasing a dream, the latter escaping a disaster.

Joe is not really sure he is headed for Fort MacMurray — he might opt for Vancouver where Pastor Ken Lewis and his wife Maryanne (a couple who “saved” a teenage Joe from a life of crime in Winnipeg a few decades back) now reside. He calls Pastor Ken from the parking lot on his cellphone:

“I’ve lost my business.” Joe gets it out there before he can’t. I’ve lost the house, my father.

Lost, as though the Happy Traveler, his home, his dad, wandered off and he’s been unable to find them.

“Joe. Oh, no,” Maryanne says.

“How?” Pastor Ken jumps in to ask.

“It’s been coming for a while now. Last year business was really bad, but ever since 9/11, things haven’t been great.”

“People stopped travelling then,” Pastor Ken says.

“Yes.” Joe does not say that although he’d incorporated, when the business began to falter he’d taken out a mortgage on the house. The small property Laurie had inherited from her grandmother, along with a time-share in a townhouse in Tofino, had gone as collateral against his line of credit.

He does not say he’d driven past the entrance to the industrial park on some mornings to head out along the highway, his eyes following the zinging arc of the frost-silvered hydro wires as they dipped down and up from poles, driving out a bit farther each time. Sometimes he would pull over and sit for a moment before heading back, watch for the doe and her yearling to emerge from the scrub bush near the city dump.

So Joe has been prepping for his flight for some time. Indeed, as Birdsell fills in the back story, rehearsing all his life. That back story is a major part of the novel — Joe’s mother, we discover, died in an attempt to save Laurie’s mother when she jumped off a railway bridge into the river, with baby Laurie in her arms. Neither mother survived, the baby did.

I think it is fair to observe that “road” novels whose central characters are trying to flee a life of failure share the trait of having a lot of plot elements to keep them going, most of which are not explored in much depth. That is certainly true of Waiting for Joe — since those many elements are the strongest driver in the book, I will avoid spoiling it for potential readers by saying only that there are a number more which you can discover for yourself.

The result of all this, for this reader at least, was a novel that moved quickly and easily but which is unlikely to remain in memory for long. Joe’s life has been a series of searches for grounding, none of which were very successful — since he is the only real character in the book, that provides a scenario for exploring a lot of incidents, but they never really come together into a larger picture or character. He isn’t a dislikable or unsympathetic character; rather, he emerges as a pretty shallow one. The isolation that he maintains from all those around him is certainly portrayed by the author but that is not enough to carry the book.

Waiting for Joe is on the shortlist for the Governor-General’s award for fiction along with Emma Donohue’s controversial Room (which just won the Writers’ Trust Award), Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass and Dianne Warren’s Cool Water — all of which are reviewed elsewhere on this site. For this reader, it is the weakest of the five, but that may be a reflection that I simply have read too many better novels from the genre. G-G juries, drawn from the writing community, often tend to produce some surprising results. My choice of the five would be Annabel but I could see any one of them getting the nod when the winner is announced Nov. 16.


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