Archive for September, 2011

The Return, by Dany Laferrière

September 30, 2011

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated by David Homel

Dany Laferriere is one of those “mean-to” authors for me, in the sense that I’ve been “meaning to” get to one of his books for a number of years. Born in Haiti in 1953, Laferriere has been part of the Haitian writing community in Montreal since he emigrated there in 1976. He writes originally in French — as best I can tell ten of his 14 novels have been translated (David Homel seems to be a regular partner). How To Make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired (1987), Down Among The Dead Men (1997) and I Am A Japanese Writer (2010) are probably the best known in English. As the publication dates indicate, he has been at this for a while. The Giller jury having finally moved me to action, I’ll say that The Return was impressive enough that I will definitely be exploring his back catalogue.

This “novel” has already won a slew of recognition in its French-language version: the Prix Medicis, the Grand Prix de Livre de Montreal and short-listed for a number of other prizes including Canada’s Governor-General’s award for French-language fiction. I put “novel” in quotes because it seems to be a useful catch-all label to describe The Return, a book which is part memoir and part free verse, with conventional fictional elements in the form of short narrative sections added in, almost as a binder to bring the rest together.

The book opens in 2009 with a phone call from New York to Montreal. The Dany Laferriere of the book has been in the “never-ending winter” of Montreal since 1976; his father, Windsor, had fled Haiti to New York in the 1960s and the two have not talked since. Here’s the opening of the book, a representative sample of what I am calling the “free verse” of the book:

The news cuts the night in two.
The inevitable phone call
that every middle-aged man
one day will receive.
My father has died.

I got on the road early this morning.
No destination.
The way my life will be from now on.

The estrangement between father and son has not just been for the last 30+ years in North America — it started in Haiti when Dany was four, his rebel father headed into the countryside to evade Papa Doc and his killers and the young Laferriere sent to live with his grandmother. This opening section is entitled “Slow Preparations For Departure”, an aptly ambiguous label that captures the author’s confusion both as he gets ready to go to New York and his brief stay there.

That section also firmly establishes why Laferriere chose the mixed narrative forms of verse and conventional prose to tell his story. The free verse parts are not so much poetry as they are representative of those fleeting thoughts that come into our minds when we are faced with a new set of circumstances — part memory, part uncertainty, part the forming of resolutions about what the future might hold and they all get mixed up as we think them.

In an early chapter titled “Exile”, the grieving narrator pulls out “the photo my mother slipped/into my pocket just as I/closed the low green gate” to depart Haiti 33 years ago when he was 23. The photo brings a flood of memories:

If I didn’t know then that
I was going to leave
and never return,
my mother, so careworn
that day,
must have felt it
in the most secret part of her body.

We’re stuck in a bad novel
ruled by a tropical dictator
who keeps ordering
the beheading of his subjects.
We scarcely have time
to escape between the lines
toward the margin that borders the Caribbean Sea.

Here I am years later
in a snow-covered city
walking and thinking of nothing.
I am guided only
by the movements of frigid air
and that fragile neck ahead of me.

I hope those two quotes illustrate the nature of Laferriere’s “verse”: it comes not as poetry but disjointed, interrupted narrative, the pauses marked by each line representing the kind of mental pauses our brain takes when it is in a contemplative mode. The conventional narrative parts, by contrast, are straight-forward, outward-looking and tightly-phrased. When he gets to New York, Dany discovers that his father had left a suitcase in a safety deposit box:

We want to retrieve the suitcase my father deposited at the Chase Manhattan Bank. Since I have the same first name, the employee gives me the key to his safety deposit box and asks me to follow him into the bank’s vault. I step inside quietly with my uncles. That quality of silence exists nowhere but in a bank, a church or a library. Men fall silent only before Money, God and Knowledge — the great wheel that crushes them. All around us, small individual safety deposit boxes filled with personal belongings of New York, city of high finances and great misery. The employee leaves us alone. I open my father’s box and discover an attache case inside.

Dany does not have the code that would enable him to open the attache case. And he can’t risk being caught in an attempt to sign it out. So it goes back, unopened, into the safety deposit box. We already know that his father’s death has caused him to resolve to return to Haiti; the experience in the bank vault means that he will carry with him the baggage of unknown memories of a man with whom he had no contact for more than half a century.

The opening section takes up about one-quarter of the book; the remainder takes place in Haiti. While both father and son were forced into exile by the excesses of the Duvalier regime, this part is anything but polemical, rather it is a study in the tactics of survival. The present time is 2009 and Duvalier is long gone — but for those trying to live a life, not much has changed. Laferriere effectively captures a braided triple stream of memory and discovery: what kind of life did his father live before he went into exile? what are his own memories of his 23 years in Haiti? and a 23-year-old nephew, a present day version of the young Dany, supplies the platform to explore how the current generation is getting along.

The author so firmly establishes his own character and uncertainty in that opening section that this voyage of self-discovery is one which the reader has no trouble joining. As Dany embarks on his own set of explorations and experiences in a devastated country he left 33 years ago (and which this reader has never visited), it is an honor to be asked along. It is the kind of reward that every fiction lover (or poetry reader) welcomes as the sign of great writing.

The Giller jury deserves fulsome praise for including this book on its longlist, even if it did mean stretching the definition of “novel” just a little bit. This is exactly the kind of work that literary prizes are meant to draw to the attention of serious readers. If you click on the book cover at the top of the review, it will take you to Laferriere’s page at his English language publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and you can check out not just this book but three others that they have published in translation. He as an author that I am glad has finally moved from my “mean to” category to “started on” — I will be returning for more, I assure you.

Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr — a guest post from Alison Gzowski

September 28, 2011

Welcome to Alison Gzowski’s first-ever blog book review. While the blog may be a first for her, she is no book amateur. Alison worked for several years in The Globe and Mail’s book section (Canada’s best) and produced the CBC radio series, Talking Books — she is now an editor in the Globe’s Features department. And she has been a Shadow Giller juror for the last nine years. Over to you, Alison:

Published by Coach House Books

One of the many great pleasures of serving on the Shadow Giller jury (aside from writing my first book blog review, of course) is being delighted by a book that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed my path. Two years ago, the surprise was Martha Baillie’s clever book set inside a library, The Incident Report (KfC’s review is here).

From this fall’s long list, I was surprised by Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros.

I hadn’t heard of Mayr before I bought the novel, the fourth by this Calgary-based writer whose previous books have been shortlisted for significant prizes (including a Commonwealth), I learned. As I seem to have done with my introduction here, I backed into the book: I read her bio notes and, I have to say, winced a little at the plot’s description that starts with a teen suicide and ends with the promise of a drag queen named Crepe Suzette “changing everything.” I opened the book expecting a kitschy over-the-top romp of sorts. Was I ever wrong.

Here’s how it opens:

Because u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker. Because after school last Thursday, the girlfriend of the guy he loves hurled frozen dog shit at him, and her friends frisbeed his skateboard into the river. Even though he stomped and cracked through the ice shelving the banks, waded in to rescue it — after the shouting and shoving, they’re stronger than they look, all those girls with their cello-and violin-playing fingers, yanking him back by handfuls of coat, handfuls of hair, hooking with their elbows and digging with their fingernails as he scrambled after his skateboard — the banks too slippery and shattered with the ice, the current too swift, the water too cold and deep and brown…

This first chapter (called The End) builds tension by continually starting sections with “because…” until the final…

Because he can’t bear it.

He can’t bear any of it. It will never get better.

Because he wants to be in charge of his own ending.

With these haunting pages, the scene is set. Seventeen-year-old Patrick Furey has decided to kill himself. He had fallen in love with a boy nicknamed Ginger who, while having trysts with Patrick in the cemetery, has officially been seeing another student, Petra. After Petra figures out this deception, she starts threatening and publicly bullying Patrick and Ginger ceases all communication. Heartbroken and isolated, Patrick hangs himself.

While I’ve just given the flat plotline description, Mayr grabs the reader with a powerful opening chapter that takes a difficult topic, allows it to unfold dramatically but without sentimentality. Throughout the book I found her convincingly good at rendering vernacular with a writer’s eye and intelligent wordplay.

Monoceros, as the cover depicts, is a constellation (KfC note: Sorry, I can’t find a large enough image to show the cover depiction clearly — it does show up on the actual cover.) That seems appropriate to Mayr’s approach as she tackles the ripple effect of suicide beyond Patrick’s immediate family to include those who should have protected him, and even those who use his tragedy to emote.

Among those in Patrick’s constellation are Max, the school principal in a longterm yet secret relationship with the affable guidance counsellor Walter, Mrs. Mochinski, Patrick’s homeroom teacher, and assorted students — the aforementioned Ginger and Petra — and Faraday, a lost classmate who is obsessed with unicorns.

(There are others including Patrick’s parents, and Crepe Suzette, a drag queen by night, waiter by day. I can’t mention all characters and themes, so have stuck with those in the Catholic Calgary high school Patrick attended.)

Monoceros is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, the story unfolds as we are given snippets of the past (Ginger and Patrick’s romance) and current dilemmas (the tension for Max and Walter in hiding their live-in relationship from colleagues). Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view and Mayr wisely doesn’t give equal time to each voice, a technique I sometimes find frustrating in some books as I skim one voice to return to the characters I find more interesting. Instead, she brings in a character’s monologue to move the story along and add context.

What most impressed me with this novel was the direct, edgy, almost playful voices of the characters. Mayr is gifted at capturing the teenage voice with all its high drama and nakedly assured observations. There was an immediacy in all her characters that kept the book moving and a raging use of words that I often loved. Although the premise of the story is tragic, there was a comic element developed by these characters raging at the world and perceived injustices.

My criticisms came as I got well into the book. As much as I found the characters fresh, I started to feel that the word buildup and even sometimes a standout phrase was used in a way that the voices were becoming less distinct from each other and so at times I felt a sameness that dragged the book down.

As well, the ending invoked a magic realism which didn’t work for me after being engaged by inner turmoils and hard-hitting realism. It felt to me as if Mayr had painted herself into a corner and opted for a deus ex magica.

Despite those flaws, I am glad this novel was longlisted; there was much to enjoy in this book and its sadly topical tragicomedy.

The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

September 26, 2011

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Author Lynn Coady wastes little time in introducing the reader to the “antagonistic” nature of her central character, Gordon Rankin, universally known since childhood as “Rank” since he shares his name with his father. Here is her opening paragraph:

There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people. That is, afraid of being fat, and hating those who were, so fear and hating, like of a contagion, the same way homophobes — guys who are actually maybe gay or have the potential for gayness within them — are thought to be afraid of homos. So want to annihilate them, make them not exist. You said you were embarrassed by it, though, your hatred of fat people, your fear. You knew it was shallow. You knew it was wrong. You thought it was a prejudice that it was beneath the enlighted likes of you. And now, with all this time gone by, here you are in the picture. Looking chubby and pompous.

What has provoked this outburst? Rank’s old college running-mate, Adam, has just published a book. Rank thinks he recognizes his college self in the book and he doesn’t like the portrayal. So he’s decided to take the summer to write his own “book” in retaliation — in the form of a string of lengthy emails to Adam. The fact that Rank is now approaching 40 and the events of both “books” (we never get to see any of Adam’s beyond some of Rank’s impressions) took place a couple of decades ago would seem proof positive that our antagonist is capable of holding a grudge for a very, very long time.

Here’s another early expansion of Rank’s character, still in his first email to Adam, which also introduces most of the elements of his “story”:

I was born in a small town. That is not such a big feat in this country. You were born in a small town, John Cougar [Mellencamp] was, Springsteen the Jew, everybody was born in a small town. Whoop-de-shit. Let’s not name a specific territory. We both know they are all the fucking same.

There was a dad, there was a mom. You know this too, approximately. The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess. Gord and Sylvie.

Already this feels like a cliche, which is the fault of none other than Adam. It wouldn’t feel that way if you didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be part of someone else’s fairy tale, it would just be my own nameless stench, hanging over me. The biggest pisser? The fact that the cliche of me was all you really took, you boiled an entire life, an entire human being, Adam, down into his most basic, boneheaded elements. Good mom plus bad dad hinting at the predictable Oedipal (oh give me a fucking break) background of — voila — Danger Man! One seriously messed up dude. Not very creative of you is what I’m saying.

This review has featured a couple of long quotes already because it seems only fair to let the author establish her own story. If you find them off-putting, this is not the book for you. If they strike a responsive chord or even a neutral one, read on.

While Adam serves as the lightning rod for Rank’s current burst of outrage, there are obviously a number of large chips on his shoulder that extend back well before his college days. Most of them focus on his “father”, Gord — Rank, born out of wedlock, was adopted and Gord announced to the nuns when the quite large 10-pound infant was introduced to him and Sylvie “the little bastard’s old enough to drive.” Gord has delighted in telling that story, with the double entendre of “bastard” since it is a description he frequently uses, ever since.

As Rank sees it, Gord (who is only 5’5 1/2″) has small persons’ syndrome, among his many other failings. So when Rank has his first growth spurt at age 14 (there will be another) and turns into a very large hulk early on, Gord (at least in Rank’s opinion) engages in some serious projection on his adopted son. Rank’s first job in his early teens is to serve as a parking lot bouncer at Icy Dream, Gord’s Dairy Queen-like business, sending drug dealers and users on their way — a violent incident in the lot ends up with Rank heading to reform school. While imprisoned there, a sympathetic counsellor puts Rank into hockey where his size proves such an advantage that he ends up with a hockey scholarship at a New Brunswick university — hockey goons have to come from somewhere after all. His refusal to obey a coach’s instruction to beat up the opposition means an end to that scholarship and begins the series of incidents with Adam (a bookish nerd who is one of an unlikely quartet including Rank who hang around together) that provoke this book. I won’t reveal them.

There is no doubt that anger and resentment are the dominant themes in the novel, all serving Rank’s victim identity. And the death of three National Hockey League versions of Rank this summer (two by suicide, one an overdose) add a topicality to the story that Coady could not have foreseen.

On the less depressing side of the coin, however, it should be noted that Coady does find moments in her novel to introduce some perceptive observations. Consider, for example, how Icy Dream came to be the family business:

Another example of my father’s monomania: he always tells the story of how, once he got the loans together to buy some kind of franchise, he had “the choice” between an Icy Dream and a Java Joe’s. Like it could only possibly be one or the other — the wrong choice and the right. As if some kind of celestial fast-food overseer descended from the heavens with a ID cone in one hand and crumpled JJ’s cup in the other — obliterating all possibility of, say, a Pizza Hut, a Mickey Dee’s — displayed them both to Gord and thundered: Pick!

As Rank notes with some delight (since he loathes Gord even more than Adam), in the town of 7,500 his dad’s lone Icy Dream is currently surrounded by no less than six JJ’s coffee outlets: “‘I never claimed to be a prophet,’ shrugs Gord when the topic of the Great ID Wrong Decision of 1981 comes up.” Canadians, at least, will find a number of similar observations about how events and decisions made in the 1980s produced the country and communities of 2009, the present tense of the novel.

It was those elements that kept me interested in The Antagonist. A secondary theme, perhaps even stronger, is that I have known a few versions of Rank in my time: Canada does have enough young hockey thugs who grow into men, often resentful, that most mature males know more than one or two. The problem, however, is that Rank is not only an unsympathetic character, he is a pretty one-dimensional one, in both his youth and current middle age. Were it not for the memories that Coady raised of similar people that I knew, I would have had even more issues with the book.

I suspect that is true of most coming-of-age novels: if they don’t spark personal memories, or if the character is not made interesting, they just don’t work. Coady obviously succeeded in doing this with members of the Giller jury with her book being chosen for the longlist — I am not sure she will be that successful with many readers.

Trevor reviews The Beggar’s Garden; Kimbofo on The Sisters Brothers

September 26, 2011

The shortlist announcement is not far off; the Shadow Jury continues reading away. Our short story expert, Trevor, has positive thoughts about The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie (full review is here) — here are his opening thoughts:

The Giller Prize does it again: The Beggar’s Garden (2011) is another excellent short story collection, and another from a debut author. The author’s blurb says that Michael Christie “worked in a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and provided outreach to the severely mentally ill.” His experiences there have made there way into this collection with striking emotion and clarity.

The Beggar’s Garden is made up of nine short stories, each centering on someone dealing with some form of mental illness or homelessness or both. Each story stands entirely on its own, though throughout Christie has them slyly referencing each other. No story was a failure, though I have to admit that I liked the ones in the first half quite a bit more than the ones in the second half. That said, I’ve gone back to those early stories and found that they not only held up to my memory but have strengthened

Kimbofo, meanwhile, has reviewed The Sisters Brothers (full review here). Her opening thoughts:

Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

It is the kind of book that could best be described as an enjoyable romp. It’s billed as a Western, but I saw it more as a road story — with guns and horses.

Set during the California gold rush of the 1850s, it is narrated by Eli Sister, one half of the Sisters brothers of the title, who makes his living as an assassin. But Eli is not your average killer for hire — he has a sensitive side, troubled by his weight, worried he’ll never find a woman to settle down with and constantly dreaming of a different life, perhaps running a trading post “just as long as everything was restful and easy and completely different from my present position in the world”.

His elder brother Charlie is more what one would imagine as a typical killer — he is ruthless, is attracted to violence and doesn’t suffer fools. But he’s also an alcoholic and his love of brandy means he spends a lot of his time on the road nursing horrendous hangovers.

All three Shadow Giller bloggers have now reviewed The Sisters Brothers (which is shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in addition to its Giller longlisting). Trevor’s review is here, KfC’s here.

A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

September 23, 2011

Review copy courtest McClelland & Stewart

The time is July, 1876 — three weeks after Sitting Bull and the Sioux have defeated Custer at Little Big Horn. The opening setting is Fort Walsh in Canada’s Cypress Hills, in the deep southwest corner of what is now Saskatchewan. Wesley Case is the failed son of a wealthy Ottawa-based lumber baron (the law, journalism and a possible military scandal are all part of that list) whose father has just “bought” his son’s way out of the Northwest Mounted Police. Senior Case wants Wesley to take up a political career with a safe seat in Parliament; Wesley has plans to establish a cattle and horse ranch near Fort Benton, 150 miles south of Fort Walsh in Montana.

Forts Walsh and Benton may be on the opposite sides of an international border but they are inextricably linked at the time. No one knows where Sitting Bull and the Sioux are — the Americans are determined to annihilate him and his tribe. The Canadians have a different concern. The native people recognize no national border — will the Sioux chief head north and build a coalition of tribes that will continue (or respond to) the violence?

And, just to make things more complex, there is serious ongoing tension between the new Dominion of Canada (created in 1867) and an America that is still emerging from the Civil War. Throw in the Fenian raids on Canada and the War of 1812, still a living memory, and you have a triangle of forces — two European-founded countries that don’t really trust each other but both intent on moving into the western frontier and native peoples who are resisting.

Fans of Guy Vanderheaghe (and yes I am one) will recognize this as familiar territory, literally and figuratively, for the author. The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing — both highly regarded novels — were set in this same region at virtually the same time. A Good Man completes Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy. If you haven’t read either of the first two, don’t worry; these three novels complement each other and can be read in any order since they explore different aspects of what was happening at the time. And each has components which take the book off into a unique direction.

If you have read the first two, you will know that both climax with fictional versions of deplorable real-life massacres of native people. A Good Man is different — the battle (and the killing went the other way this time) has already taken place when the book opens. This novel explores what is happening in the European policing, trade and settler community in the wake of that battle. Uncertainty is at play everywhere and rugged people don’t respond well to that.

One of the things that I admire most about Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy is his ability to explore the complexity of the forces at play. On the grand scale, the tensions between the invading forces and the native bands. At a community level, the concerns in both Fort Walsh and Fort Benton about what the near-term future holds. And at the personal level, for Wesley Case and his friends, life continues to go on, ranches needed to be looked after and people fall in love. Author Vanderhaeghe delivers on all those fronts (and many more minor ones, I must say).

Here’s how Wesley’s decision about his ranching future is introduced, in an entry in his personal journal, responding to the letter from his father saying he has bought out his son’s commission and “smoothed your way back into civilian life”, saying that his intervention with Sir John A. Macdonald “left the impression your candidacy [for Parliament] is not out of the question”. It is a long quote, but I would like to give visitors here a flavor of the author’s narrative style:

Since I could not take him by the shoulders, shake him, shout, “Let me be!” I blew out the candle, consigning Father and his blather to the shadows. It is the place for him; he is a shady man. So why do I take the trouble to copy choice selections of his tirade into this journal? Because at some future date I shall surely wish to relive my triumph over the Baron. He may puff himself up for unlocking my cell door, assume that I will meekly do his bidding, fulfill his defeated ambitions by becoming his parliamentary proxy, but if he thinks that will happen, he has another think coming. In the two months since this letter arrived I have had plenty of time to make my own plans, to prepare to roll the dice and become a rancher. A chancy business, but I have enlisted Joe McMullen to help me bring it to fruition. So to hell with Father. The struggle between his higher organ which prompted him towards the world of politics, and his lower organ, which urged him towards Solange [the maid for whom Case's father deserted his mother], was settled long ago. His lower organ won. Let him live with the consequences of it.

That sets the ranching story line (and offers proof of Wesley’s damaging stubborness, although some of that is a necessary characteristic for survival in frontier country). To create the vehicle for the “community tension, where is Sitting Bull?” thread, Vanderhaeghe has Wesley sign up as a go-between to deliver information back and forth between Major Walsh at Fort Walsh in Canada and his counterpart in Fort Benton. The two not only have distrust sown by different national agendas, they have very different attitudes toward how to deal with native people — and personally they hate each other’s guts, which makes co-operation an even more difficult prospect. The narrative does get stretched at points, but readers do get a very good picture of military “commanders” in total confusion around whatever threats they face.

What perhaps impressed me most about the book, however, was the device that Vanderhaeghe uses to frame his “global” story (the Canada-U.S. conflict): a love story. The Fort Benton town lawyer has been threatened and he has hired one Michael Dunne to “protect” his wife, Ada Tarr. The laywer will die but before he does Dunne has become obsessed with her — and Wesley is destined to fall in love with the well-read Ada.

We discover in Dunne’s background story one of the most disagreeable characters in recent fiction. An informer in Toronto when Confederates were seeking both money and men from there to fight the Union, he moved on to become an enforcer for Fenian elements, on both their real and perceived enemies. He has brought this violent streak to the Cypress Hills-Fort Benton country, where the continual suspicion on all sides offers many chances to profitably exploit his talents. It is no stretch of imagination to see that he will eventually adapt them to serve his obsession for Ada Tarr.

There is a very real sense in this book that the conflict between the armed forces, traders and settlers and the native bands is now playing out its final acts — the massacres of the previous two books illustrated a continuing conflict, but that has now been decided. What is at play here is what the “winners” do with their victory (again at the national, community and personal levels) and they can’t unlearn the despicable behavior that got them here when it comes to dealing with this new world.

In the broad context, A Good Man is an epic (and I don’t use that word often) account of what was happening in Western North America in the late 1870s — a story that does deserve to be revisited. In its details, however, the book chooses to do that through a very different set of devices, delving into what individuals were feeling and doing as all this went on. As the novel moved from thread to thread, I never lost interest for a moment. For this reader (a champion of the first two novels, I admit) Vanderhaeghe has produced a true tour-de-force to complete his trilogy.

Trevor reviews The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise

September 19, 2011

I did a quick scan of this book (and certainly know Blaise by reputation) and am looking forward to it. Trevor’s enthusiastic review (the full version is here) convinces me that I can leave it until late in my Giller longlist reading. I think we have a serious shortlist contender with this one. And if the Real Jury overlooks it, I am still looking forward to it. Here are Trevor’s opening thoughts:

So here we have the interesting case of an author born in America (and who currently lives in California) finding his way onto a Canadian literary prize list for a book he wrote that appropriates the voice and experience of South Asian immigrants. And thank goodness, too, because The Meagre Tarmac (2011), one of the three short story collections on the Giller Prize longlist, is excellent.

Though this is a collection of short stories, there is a caption above the table of contents that says, “These stories are intended to be read in order.” I recommend that as well. The first three stories center around the same family, and I don’t think the third with no relation to the first two would be as strong. The fourth story takes us somewhere new, but throughout the stories refer to one another, and I believe that it is really when taken line-upon-line and then as a whole that this book succeeds.

The Meagre Tarmac is an immigrant book. It focuses on the successes and troubles of (usually) first generation Indo-Americans, as they attempt to make it in a foreign land while dealing with culture and family. They are dedicated to business and the sciences (never the arts!) and succeed beyond their wildest expectations only to find that something is missing. While this book is precisely about what I’ve just described, I want to say that I’ve purposefully begun this review with such a generalized description that sounds in many ways just like thousands of other books about the immigrant experience. Indeed, one of the characters in The Meagre Tarmac is a book editor who specializes in such novels: “They featured potent memories of ancestral homeland, twisted loyalties, religious and sexual and political schisms.” The Meagre Tarmac features all of these, but for me it is more and better, in part because of how well it delves in such a personal manner into the nature of that intangible, inexplicable something that is missing.

As I said, I haven’t read the book, but do have high expectations. I will offer some teasers however:

1. During his time in Montreal in the 1970s, Blaise joined a number of Canadian short story legends — Hugh Hood and John Metcalf (two of my favorites) and there were certainly others — in forming the Montreal Story Tellers Fiction Performance Group. For all the Mordecai Richler fans here (and they are legion as I can tell from my hits) you have to think he shared a whisky or two with Mordecai as well.

2. He is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a director of the International Writers’ Program there. Short story lovers will know that those credentials are as good as you can get.

3. And you would have to say, even from Trevor’s opening paragraphs, that there are reminders here of Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, two Pulitzer Prize winners who also explore this theme. But this author was born in North Dakota (Fargo, actually — Coen brothers’ territory), stopped off in Canada and then settled in San Francisco. The story line, as Trevor identifies, may have been explored before but he does bring a very North American background to it.

4. And I know it is not correct to invoke spouses, but sometimes the data is relevant. He is married to Bharati Mukherjee, which might supply some background context to the theme of this collection. She too has a new novel out this year, Miss New India, which has attracted favorable critical response.

Kimbofo reviews Touch, by Alexi Zentner

September 19, 2011

Canadian cover

Shadow Giller juror Kimbofo has posted her review of Touch, Alexi Zentner’s debut novel which she liked as much as I did (my review is here). Here are the opening paras from Kimbofo’s review:

Good old-fashioned storytelling lies at the heart of Touch by first-time author Alexi Zentner. Set in the icy wilderness of Canada in the early 20th century, the tale is ripe with adventure, hardship, tragedy, murder, romance — and dark fairy tales. Oh, and there’s a teensy bit of cannibalism, too.

Spanning several generations, cut and spliced into interwoven narratives that jump backwards and forwards in time, Touch is told in the first person by Stephen, a 40-year-old Anglican priest returning to the place of his birth, where he is to take over the local church from his step-father. Or, as Stephen puts it, “to live in the shadows of my father and my grandfather in a logging town that has been drained of young men headed off to fight in Europe for the second war of my lifetime”.

UK cover

As it happens, Stephen’s elderly mother is on her death bed, and he sets to work writing her eulogy for her up-coming funeral. As he sifts through his memories, trying to find the right words to write, he recalls events — and stories — from his own life and the lives of his relatives.

Chief among these is the death of his father and his younger sister, Marie, when he was 11 years old. This tragedy had a marked impact on Stephen’s life, but the return of his grandfather, Jeannot, left just as much of an impression.

I think it is fair to say that both Kimbofo and I would recommend this novel.

A World Elsewhere, by Wayne Johnston

September 14, 2011

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

I have a soft spot for novels that feature real buildings as a central “character”. The most obvious on this site would be Simon Mawer’s 2009 novel, The Glass Room, which places Mies Van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat front and centre in its story.

So when an Author’s Note at the beginning of A World Elsewhere alerted me to the fact that it was inspired by a visit to the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore estate in North Carolina, I was more than curious. I know Wayne Johnston’s work well (he is a Shadow Giller winner for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams in 1998, a year when the Real Jury preferred Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman). The thing about Johnston is, that while he now lives in Toronto, he was born and raised in Newfoundland. His previous writing is a textbook definition of “Newfoundland” fiction (Joey Smallwood features as a character): What is he doing setting a book on a massive estate in North Carolina?

The Biltmore Estate

Johnston also increased the risk factor, at least for this reader, in that same Author’s Note by revealing that his wealthy American family would be called “the Vanderluydens, after the Vanderbilt-like Van der Luydens of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence“. Those who are aware of my affection for Wharton can understand that “borrowing” her family, from one of the world’s best novels ever, might not be a good idea.

Despite the Biltmore introduction, however, A World Elsewhere starts on familiar Johnston turf (or rock, I guess) in St. John’s, Nfld.:

Landish Druken lived in the two-room attic of a house near the end of Dark Marsh Road that was in no way remindful of any other place he’d ever lived. A mile away, in a twelve-room house, his father lived alone.

Under the terms of what Landish called the Sartorial Charter, his father had let him keep his clothes but had otherwise disowned him. When he was too hungry and sober to sleep, he walked the edge of the marsh in the dark, smoking the last of his cigars, following the road to where it narrowed to a path that led into the woods.

He had gone to Princeton, where father-made men spent father-made fortunes. Now they were back home, learning the modern form of alchemy, the transmutation of sums of money into greater sums of money.

None of that for Landish, however. He’s a writer, although in five years he has yet to write a word — he carefully burns his output each night. And the implied bargain with his father when he was sent to Princeton was that upon his return to Newfoundland he would take over as captain of the Gilbert, the family’s sealing ship.

“You were born with sea legs,” his father said. “You can’t go against your nature. You can walk the Gilbert in rough weather day or night as well as any sailor. And make your way across the ice as well as any sealer. I didn’t teach you that. It can’t be taught. I’ve seen you in a storm of freezing spray, your hands bare so that you could better feel the wheel, your knuckles blood red from the cold. And look at you. The size of you. You stand eye to eye with any horse. Hands and fists as big as mine. As broad across the shoulders as the doorway of a church. A head so big it could be on a statue. You need a chair for each half of your arse. And you think you were bred for writing books?”

While his career determination is a problem, Landish has an even bigger one. His father had abandoned his first mate on the sealing ice when the Gilbert was in a blizzard. Francis Carson’s wife was pregnant, but she dies as well — Landish, in a fit of guilt, gives the nuns at the local orphanage $50 and takes over the wardship of Deacon (named after the orphanage, Cluding Deacon).

Things are not going well in St. John’s and that’s when Landish starts looking to the prospects of renewing acqaintances with his best buddy from Princeton, Padgett Vanderluyden, known as Van.

Landish couldn’t help but like Van who, minutes after they met, had confessed that he was widely regarded as a “dud”.

“My father thinks I am one,” he said.

Who better than the richest man in the world to spy out a dud amongst his children?

But Van said he was going to surprise everyone by doing something “big” with his life.

That “big” is building the Vanderluyden estate. Landish and Van did not part on good terms (Van wanted him to help with the planning and building) but a broke Landish, with a child to support, appeals for help — and gets a ticket to North Carolina.

Let’s deal with one of Wayne Johnston’s problems in this novel at this point, an annoying punning that simply does not stop. Here’s an example from Landish and Van’s time at Princeton where they hosted “Lotus Lands literary salons”:

There were three brothers who were known as Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Tiny. There were the Duke of Unwellington, Le Marquis de Malarkey, the Duke of Buxomberg and Sorethumberland.

Or Landish’s name for his mother, Genevieve — he prefers Gen of Eve. Or consider Landish and Deacon’s menu:

“The flatulent are petulant,” Landish said. He could get the boy to walk more often if he could stand to eat cabbage a deux more often.

They had veg-edibles and Dark Marsh Fish. France’s bacon, henglish eggs. Cod au cretin. Black Forest Cram. Dark Marsh Toad. The traditional Easter Rooster.

It was annoying enough that I was seriously contemplating abandoning this novel at the halfway point. And then Landish and Duncan arrive at Vanderluyden and things start to get interesting. The place itself is bizarre (I’d say even the real Biltmore is bizarre); the inhabitants are even stranger. Yet, somehow, Johnston makes it work. The puns keep coming, alas, but a cast of truly strange characters starts to come together.

I won’t say anymore — fantasy novels (with thriller overtones) need to be appreciated on their own. A World Elsewhere may be one of the stranger books that I have read this year, but I can’t say I was disappointed by the experience. It would be wrong to spoil it.

Kimbofo reviews The Cat’s Table; Trevor reviews Solitaria

September 14, 2011

My fellow Shadow Giller jurors are up and reading so I’ll offer the opening paragraphs of their reviews as a taste to encourage you to visit their sites.

Kimbofo has started out with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (her full review is here) and, I think, has captured the mid-book “shift” the author puts into his novel.

UK cover


Going by the cover image of the UK edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table — the Canadian version is slightly more understated — anyone would think this was a story set on a ship. In fact, if you read the first 100 or so pages of this novel you’d probably think this was a fair assumption to make.

But Ondaatje gives the book a twist mid-way through, which suggests this story is really about the transformative journey we all make from childhood to adulthood. The ship is merely a metaphor for a rite of passage.

Canadian cover

In some ways, The Cat’s Table is a novel of two halves. The first is set on an ocean-liner — the Oronsay — bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years.

You can find my review of The Cat’s Table here. And for another take, dovegreyreader’s is here. As usual, Ondaatje provokes some different responses.

Trevor, meanwhile, started with one of the small press titles, Genni Gunn’s Solitaria:

Genni Gunn


There weren’t many Giller Prize longlisted titles available in the United States when the list was announced, but one you can get for the Kindle is Genni Gunn’s trip into a family’s history, Solitaria (2011). Gunn has written two other novels and two collections of short stories (and some poetry, and even an opera). She was born in Trieste, Italy (and has also translated a couple of books of Italian poetry), and in Solitaria she takes a Canadian with Italian heritage back to Italy to learn about his past.

The book is set in the midsummer of 2002. As it opens, we wander through a dilapidated Italian villa that is finally being restored:

Once, this villa was the pride of its owners, nestled in a sprawling lot facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by palms and oleanders on manicured lawns where children played and cats sunned themselves. Over time, the children grew and moved to the cities. When the owners died, the villa was sold to foreigners who came only in summer. In the winter months, small boys climbed over the fence and played in the tall grass no one tended. Sometimes, they built fires on the beach, and tried to pry open the green shutters. The villa was sold and resold, neglected and abandoned by owner after owner, none of whom lived there.

As you can tell from the excerpts, we do face some challenges in getting copies to our international jurors (Alison Gzowski has been doing a fair bit of shopping and shipping to get the short story collections to our expert on that format in New Jersey) but we are sorting that out. I’m happy to report that all 17 have now arrived at my door — if I can borrow the title from the WordFest project that Mrs. KfC and I are supporting, it is time for me to Read, Write, Review!

Read, Write, Review! — A KfC-sponsored event

September 10, 2011

Like most communities that have a lot of readers, Calgary (and our Rocky Mountain neighbor, Banff) has a writers’ festival, WordFest. KevinfromCanada has been involved with the festival almost from its start sixteen years ago — I served on the board for a number of years, including a stint as chair, and have been a “reader” for the past few years (they loan me advance copies of a number of books I would not otherwise see). So when this blog celebrated its second anniversary some months back, Mrs. KfC decided an appropriate recognition of the anniversary would be ponying up the funds to sponsor a worthy WordFest project — and she chose Read, Write, Review!, five events aimed at serving the reading interests of high school students.

Here’s the challenge that Read, Write, Review! addresses. As with most writers’ festivals, WordFest offers a buffet of events for adult readers — eight Giller longlisted authors will be appearing at this October’s festival. (Clicking on the logo at the top of my sidebar will take you to their website — it is a great program.) And, from the start, the First Calgary Financial Book Rapport section (link is here if you want to see what an outstanding student program looks like) of WordFest has offered programs for younger students. If you ever want to see an amazing event, sign up to watch how children’s writers can keep a theatre full of eight and nine year olds enthralled with a dramatic version of their printed work. I hate to say it, but the performance is even better than the books.

But as those youngsters enter high school (and also become the highly-desirable Young Adult demographic), keeping them involved with reading becomes a challenge. Dale Wallace of Calgary’s Lord Beaverbrook High School has figured out how to meet that challenge and KfC is delighted to be a partner in his Read, Write, Review! project.

Lord Beaverbrook has an auditorium and this year five writers will be traveling to the school to showcase their work. Here are images of the covers of their books (and a link to Pages of Kensington, the official bookseller of WordFest, which has copies of all five available if you are interested):

Arnold Henry

John Marsden

Cathy Ostlere

Tanya Davis

Emma Ruby-Sachs

I would say that is a very impressive list — in addition to some “normal” YA novels, there is a volume of poetry (Davis) and an autobiography (Henry) from Saint Lucia’s first-ever NCAA Division one basketballer (WordFest is still working on the possibility of adding a b-ball clinic to his appearance at Beaverbrook).

That isn’t all however. As part of Dale’s program and KfC’s involvement, his students will be doing interviews with each of the five authors and I will be posting them here — one a week, starting in late October or early November. So please stay with us and check back in a few weeks for more information on these interesting books. (You might even find a hint or two for holiday gift purchases for those ever-so-difficult teenage friends.)

And, if I have sparked your interest, there is even more — this Dale Wallace is something else, let me assure you. Lord Beaverbrook has its own publishing house, Tiberious Publishing, named after the school mascot (yes, the name is misspelled — there is a UK house called Tiberius Publishing, so Dale threw the extra “o” in so he could register the name). If you follow the link, you’ll find the volumes, written by Beaverbrook students, that they have published — and are more than willing to sell you. For visitors here with teenage offspring (or interests) I would point in particular to Living In Reality, a young person’s view of teenage depression (which has also been turned into a play and a student-produced movie — Dale is a trained psychiatric nurse, in addition to being a teacher). And I would also flag for your attention Beauty and The Beast, which has the intriguing sub-title of “Ending the love/hate relationship between girls and their bodies”. Lots of authors write books aimed at young people — Tiberious is different in that the young people are the authors as well as the audience.

I am sure that many regular visitors here are as concerned as I am with the need to introduce young people to both reading and writing (J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer are just fine, but let’s hope those readers move beyond that as they mature). I am delighted that Mrs. KfC came up with this wonderful way of celebrating this blog — I hope you will join me in recognizing this initiative. Do stay tuned for the students’ interviews with these five interesting writers.

I have posted a link to the WordFest website on my sidebar so you can check out what is happening at this festival. And I will soon be including a link to this post if you have friends whom you would like to acquaint with this amazing initiative — if you know someone in your community who might want to start a version there, Dale is a very co-operative fellow who would be happy to offer advice.


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