Archive for November, 2011

At First, Lonely, by Tanya Davis

November 29, 2011

The KevinfromCanada blog was delighted to sponsor the Read, Write, Review! program at Calgary’s Lord Beaverbrook High School as part of this year’s WordFest program. Five authors were involved in presentations to students there — as part of KfC’s involvement, I asked students to conduct an interview with each author for posting here. This is the third, conducted and written by Rebekah Twaddle. Thank you, Rebekah!

Tanya Davis, author of the poetry book At First, Lonely did Lord Beaverbrook High school the great pleasure of presenting for two hundred students on October 7th, 2011. At First, Lonely is Tanya’s first book to be published and came out just this past year. Plus, her artistic work has been frequently uploaded and viewed on web sites, including YouTube. Tanya is a cheerful woman of thirty-two years and actually aspires to one day accomplish a novel. After an entertaining presentation, which included vocal and musical performances of her work, I had the opportunity to interview Tanya.

Rebekah: What inspired you to start writing?

Tanya: I’d say pretty much just everyday life, connections, relations, love; philosophical questions.

Rebekah: When did this passion begin?

Tanya: Probably when I was really little — before school.

Rebekah: What’s the most difficult aspect of writing a poem?

Tanya: Definitely finding the words. Finding ways to say things and make them sound good at the same time.

Rebekah: What’s most rewarding part of writing?

Tanya: The solitude. It gives you the perfect excuse to observe and think.

Rebekah: What’s your advice to young writers?

Tanya: Be patient. Make it about writing rather than achieving a goal of — say — getting a book published before you’re twenty.

Rebekah: Can you make a living off of writing?

Tanya: You can make a good living. The pay isn’t all that high, but life becomes fulfilling when you’re following your dreams.

Rebekah: Are their certain pieces of writing that have inspired you?

Tanya: Shane Koyczan and Kinnie Starr, Margret Atwood. Classical Canadian authors.

Rebekah: I noticed you used music in your presentation, what does it mean to you? Did you write it all?

Tanya: It was all my own, and I see it as another way to communicate.

Rebekah: How were your high school years?

Tanya: Pretty good. I was really busy, tried parts of everything.

Rebekah: Are there certain messages you’d like your work to convey?

Tanya: Acceptance, tolerance, connection, love, honesty, vulnerability.

Rebekah: Can you describe your writing process?

Tanya: It could be described as slower, but I write every day.

I found Tanya Davis to be quite a unique and intriguing “character.” She was enjoyable to speak with and was rather outgoing and friendly making this interview a great deal of fun. During the course of her presentation she had every audience member captivated with her words and her willingness to speak openly. Students were initially shocked that any adult would be so free with their words but soon they soaked them up eagerly. As for At First, Lonely I feel that it is a wonderful read. Tanya’s poems are deep and insightful, giving the reader a whole new perspective on various aspects of life.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

November 25, 2011

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

The back cover of my ARC copy of The Marriage Plot says that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex not only won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, it has sold more than 3 million copies. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is also highly-regarded, so we can assume it had impressive sales as well. Given that, I think it is a safe assumption that millions of readers have been eagerly awaiting his third novel.

I have to confess that I am not one of them — while I own copies of both previous works, I haven’t got to them yet. When I noticed that The Marriage Plot was being released this fall, I figured I would start my Eugenides voyage with the new novel and then decide whether to explore the previous two.

I have confessed my fondness for “school” novels — you can find references to a number of my favorites in my review of Tobias Wolff’s Old School. The “college” novel with older but still young characters holds equal appeal — Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was a fun read and I may be the only person besides George W. Bush who actually liked Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (and that may be the only thing that the former President and I have in common).

So the description of The Marriage Plot had appeal. It is set in the early 1980s and the central characters are about to graduate from Rhode Island’s Brown University. The most important of these is Madeleine, the daughter of the president of a New Jersey liberal arts college and an apple who has fallen not far from the tree, as the novel’s opening makes clear:

To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic”, or “Passionate”, thinking you could live with “Sensitive”, secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic”, but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel differently depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic”.

That’s a long quote, but you can measure your potential response to Eugenides’ novel from that opening paragraph. If it strikes you as claptrap, you won’t like the book. As for me, I was hooked — I too read those authors as a student. In fact, as a high school student, the first argument that I ever had with my mother over my reading came when she stole my library copy of John Updike’s Couples for a parental assessment and angrily demanded to know why I was reading pornography.

Eugenides wastes little time in underlining that Incurable Romantic conclusion. We meet Madeleine as she is awakening on graduation day with a massive hangover — and facing breakfast with her parents before the grad ceremony.

One of the nice things about being twenty-two, or about being Madeleine Hanna, was that three weeks of romantic anguish, followed by a night of epic drinking, didn’t do much visible damage. Except for a puffiness around her eyes, Madeleine looked like the same pretty, dark-haired person as usual. The symmetries of her face — the straight nose, the Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline — were almost mathematical in their precision. Only the slight furrow in her brow gave evidence of the slightly anxious person that Madeleine felt herself, intrinsically, to be, the formerly gawky seventh-grader taller than the boys, always hunching in school photos, the awkward girl who was still there, deep inside, ready to leap out at any moment and ruin things.

The cause of that anguish is the second major character, Leonard Bankhead, who until three weeks ago was Madeleine’s boyfriend. He is brilliant and very successful with women so it was a bit a triumph for her that the two had planned to spend the summer co-habiting at the prestigious Cape Cod biology laboratory where Leonard has a research fellowship. Madeleine is expecting to be accepted into one of the Ivy League schools for graduate work (her advisor has submitted her thesis on the marriage plot for publication) and looked forward to the Cape Cod summer as a perfect break. Alas, Leonard is manic depressive and has been self-treating himself by reducing his medication, which produced a predictable breakdown that led to their break-up. Madeline is still hoping for a reconciliation, incurable romantic that she is.

And finally there is nerdish, bookish Mitchell Grammaticus, a student of Christian mysticism and a “friend” of Madeleine’s whom she dangerously flirts with when she is bored. When he once took that flirtation seriously and made a pass (the first he had attempted with anyone in his life) she got angry and the two haven’t spoken in months. Despite that, he is obsessed with her in his quiet way — and takes comfort in the fact that in Jane Austen novels (part of Madeleine’s speciality) the female heroines don’t recognize who is their perfect match until late in the novel. He is very hopeful that that fictional precedent will prove to be the case in this real-life instance. The early 1980s featured its own recession, making employment options for religious mysticism grads slim, and Mitchell plans to head for Europe and India for an American version of a “gap year”, hoping his absence will cause Madeleine to come to her senses and realize he is the one for her.

For the first half of this novel, Eugenides does a great job of developing these stories, not just in bringing to life the three characters, but also the parents, fellow students and professors and advisors around them — the very particular and strange world of the university and its inhabitants comes into focus.

Alas, for this reader at least, the author loses his way when graduation is over and the three head off. Leonard and Madeleine do reconcile, although not very successfully — their summer stay on Cape Cod is an emotional roller-coaster, resulting in a marriage that quickly shows why incurable romantics should not marry manic depressives. As for Mitchell, the high point of his story is a three-week stay as a volunteer at one of Mother Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. This action allows the author to develop some widely varied set pieces in places like Paris, Monte Carlo, Greece and Calcutta — unfortunately, none of those pieces adds much depth to the characters whom he has developed so well in the first half of the book. The second half wasn’t bad, it simply did not realize the potential that the first half showed.

In the final analysis, I would place The Marriage Plot in the same rank as Tartt’s and Wolfe’s college novels — highly entertaining reads with some very perceptive observations on aspects of the “college” life. That makes for very good escapism, but doesn’t deliver on the promise of the opening paragraph with its reference to all those great authors. It would be unfair to say that Eugenides is setting himself up as comparable to Wharton, James and Austen but having introduced the names (and borrowed the concept from them that produces the title of the novel) I would have liked to see at least more of an attempt to approach their brilliance. Despite that, I will go back to his first two books — based on this book, I’d say comparisons with Updike and Wolfe are entirely in order, even if ones with Wharton and James are not.

Hanging On To My Dreams, an interview with author Arnold Henry

November 22, 2011

KfC was pleased to sponsor the Read, Write, Review! program as part of Calgary’s writers festival, with five authors involved in presentations at Lord Beaverbrook High School. As part of that, the blog is featuring student-written interviews with each of the authors — this one was done by Teodora Jokic.

On October 14, 2011, Lord Beaverbrook High School students had the opportunity to attend a special presentation by Arnold Henry. This presentation was brought to our high school by an international writer’s festival called Calgary International Wordfest, which profiles some amazing and talented authors. Arnold Henry, the author of the autobiography Hanging On To My Dreams, was mesmorizing to watch on stage. Hanging On To My Dreams is an inspirational autobiography about a poor young boy from St. Lucia who makes it to the top level in the NCAA college basketball. If anyone is in need of inspiration or motivation I highly recommend reading Hanging On To My Dreams.

Arnold was a very inspirational presenter. His story spoke to a wide variety of audiences from the students at Beaverbrook to the teachers and other staff. I had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Henry and discuss his book.

Teodora: Is there any way your previous career helped you with writing?

Arnold: Yes, definitely, because I wanted to focus on basketball and my life in general. I think everyone has different dreams, mine just happened to be basketball. I’ve wanted to become a writer my whole life, too. I want my autobiography to be a life lesson for the youth growing up. Basketball as a career greatly helped influence my writing.

Teodora: Are you planning on writing anymore books?

Arnold: Yes, I’m working on my second book. The new book will be a sequel to my autobiography. The sequel starts around after my twenty-third birthday. I’m in the works of writing it right now.

Teodora: How has your life changed after publishing your autobiography?

Arnold: Writing the whole book made me very self aware of how I went about life. I don’t believe that I would change anything about my life, because I went throughout it all so I could help someone else.

Teodora: How has the public been responding to your book?

Arnold: I’ve been getting some great reviews from readers. They feel inspired; they feel like they can accomplish their dreams. Doesn’t matter what society throws at them, they could still hang onto their dreams.

Teodora: How was your high school experience in St. Lucia?

Arnold: I wouldn’t change being in high school at St. Lucia, because it’s my culture and the friendships you feel throughout those years become important. I’m still in touch with many of my high school classmates. Compared to the schools here: we had no air conditioner, we only had computers for my senior year.

Teodora: When you were my age did you think about becoming a writer?

Arnold: Writing was something I’ve done my whole life, but I never thought I could become an author. I kept journals and that was my way of expressing myself.

Teodora: What is the life of a writer like? Describe your typical day.

Arnold: When I started writing the book, I used to go for four hours a day, and then I would get writer’s block. Then I would take a break. Sometimes this break would last for an hour, sometimes a day, sometimes even a couple of weeks. I basically made sure to write as much as possible because I wanted to finish this book before my twenty-sixth birthday. My day starts off at the YMCA training in basketball, for my professional tryouts in December. I train for four hours a day. When I come home I work on my second book and then I play basketball for different leagues around the city. On weekends I go to the Talisman Centre and play with other basketball players in the city.

Teodora: Do any other art forms influence you while you’re writing.

Arnold: When I’m writing I like piece and quiet. I keep a picture of my championship team in St. Lucia close to me when I’m writing.

Teodora: Do you have a favorite author who influenced you? How did that happen?

Arnold: To tell the truth, I’m not a big reader. In college I read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Her writing was very good, and could be said to be influential towards me. I wouldn’t say any author really influenced my writing process. However, my mom constantly influences me. I look up to her, and she was the person that made me become a better person. I feed off of a hard worker.

Teodora: How have you experiences been at Wordfest so far?

Arnold: Wordfest has been great. They make sure to take care of their authors. I love the whole experience going to different schools to share my story. Overall it has been excellent.

While speaking to Arnold Henry about his book and his life, I was incredibly motivated to stick to my dreams and to follow through with my life plan no matter who tries to get in the way. While reading the book I found that it was almost impossible to put the book down once you started to get into it. The autobiography Hanging On To My Dreams is the definition of an inspirational book. It is a must read for anyone who wants to succeed and to everyone who has a dream. Audiences at any age are sure to enjoy and be motivated by the book.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

November 21, 2011

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The year is 1985 and Anatoly Sukhanov is headed to a retrospective exhibition in honor of the 80th birthday of his painter father-in-law, Pyotr Malinin. Sukhanov doesn’t get along with Malinin (the artist did not feel the marriage to his daughter was appropriate) but an appearance at THE FACE OF OUR MOTHERLAND is a necessary social duty. While his beautiful wife, Nina, is preoccupied with flattery from a young man, Sukhanov contemplates some works in the exhibition and the first piece of the puzzle that will become his dream life falls into place. Malinin made his choice to co-operate with the notion of “state art” many decades ago and the exhibition reflects it, albeit with some revisionist history involved in the selection:

It occurred to Sukhanov that the whole scene was oddly like a parody of Malinin’s early work — one of those easily recognizable “Great Leader” paintings, with Lenin (or someone else, heavily mustachioed and currently unnameable) thundering from a far-off podium, on the unreachable horizon, and tides of workers and peasants spreading outward from it, initially shrunk by perspective into mere symbols of class and righteous anger but presently growing larger, larger, until here they were, bigger than life, almost bursting out of the frame with their enraptured stares, half-opened mouths, clenched fists, ripped clothes. Understandably, such grim works had been tactfully omitted from the Soviet master’s retrospective. Other, milder creations hung under the spotlights, presenting to the audience so-called Socialism with a Human Face — a slogan that was perhaps more familiar to Sukhanov than to anyone else there.

One portrait — A Future Mother, 1965, on loan from a private collection — has particular meaning for Sukhanov. The private collection is his, the portrait is of his wife and it has hung in his study since it was painted. A difficult conversation with his father-in-law at about that time had led to Sukhanov’s own life decision and, as the Minister of Culture opens his salute to aging artist, Sukhanov becomes reflective:

Feigning rapt attention, Sukhanov let himself drift away, basking in a wonderfully warm, mindless feeling of overall well-being. Everything in his life was well-arranged, yes, everything was perfect, and most deservedly so — and thus he took it almost as his due when, after the important people had said all the necessary words and while the unimportant people were still holding forth, hopelessly trying to engage the attention of the merrily disintegrating room, the Minister emerged from the swiftly parting crowd and placed his hand on Sukhanov’s shoulder.

“So, Tolya, how are things? Going well, I trust,” he said jovially. “Lucky bastard, married to the most gorgeous woman in Moscow!”

As a youth, Sukhanov had shown promises of artistic talent — he was intrigued by the modernist efforts of Russian artists like Chagall and Kandinsky, even though work of that sort was discouraged by the state. After his marriage, he turned to painting full-time, experimenting with a number of styles, while his wife, an art curator, earned enough to feed them. Canvasses were stacked, unsold, around their apartment which led to that conversation with his father-in-law. A starving single artist was one thing, Malinin said, but a husband and putative father had to recognize that others were now dependent on him for their well-being and realistic, as opposed to selfish, choices had to be made.

So Sukhanov became a critic, a highly successful one. For the past twelve years he “had occupied the most influential, most enviable post of editor in chief at the country’s leading art magazine, Art of the World.” In that role, he has been the most influential supporter of realistic state art and chief denunciator of artists like Chagall and Kandinsky as traitors of the state. Indeed, it has been suggested that the magazine publish yet another critical attack on the surrealist Salvador Dali, whom Sukhanov once admired but whose school he has spent the last 25 years disparaging. He has decided to write the article himself, even though he is aware he will merely be recycling phrases and opinions that he has already used countless times.

Grushin never actually leans on it, but readers are fully aware that 1985 marked the year that Michael Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. While there had been glimmers of possible change before in the USSR when new leaders took control, we all know that this time it will be for real — the comfortable autocratic world that Sukhanov had chosen to enter would dissolve in 1991.

It is against that unstated, but completely understood, global background that Grushin constructs Sukhanov’s personal deconstruction. The retrospective for his father-in-law, his misplaced feelings of a “perfect life” and a series of apparently minor events will all collude to produce the “dream life” — entered into as an idyll but now a nightmare — of the novel.

The first of those events takes place as he departs the exhibition hall and runs into “an older, slovenly man wearing a burgundy velveteen blazer”. It is Lev Belkin, whom Sukhanov had known as an art student — the two had risked offical expulsion by showing works as young artists that Khrushchev himself had found subversive on a quick tour of the exhibition. While Sukhanov opted to abandon painting for the comfortable life, Belkin has continued to paint and, most definitely, not prosper as can readily be seen. Belkin won’t be able to enter the retrospective until it opens to the public, but running into Sukhanov has its own reward for him — he has his own exhibition (Moscow Through A Rainbow) opening next week, a concrete symbol of the changing Moscow art world, and he hands our hero an invitation to it.

That chance meeting sets the tension of Sukhanov’s personal contradiction between the life chosen and the life not lived. The perfect life is already crumbling just as the state is — his son seems determined to enter the world of the collapsing autocrats while his daughter is hanging out with new-age hippie musicians who would have been shipped to Siberia only a decade or so earlier. Things are not going well at the magazine either and it isn’t just his inability to complete the Dali essay — a new order seems to be moving into place. And his beautiful wife seems to have become increasingly distracted; could she be having an affair?

Those are the elements of the real world Grushin introduces and each of them brings on dreams/nightmares of the past, choices made and what might have been. Those dreams become ever more predominant as the novel progresses — Grushin starts her work with the high realism that is a trait of detail in Dali’s paintings but increasingly develops a broader surrealist literary canvas as the dreams blur with the reality.

As a reader with a minimal knowledge of Soviet artistic and political history, I was always aware of that broader context but it is to the author’s credit that she treats that as necessary background, not something to be routinely exploited. The Dream Life of Sukhanov is an exploration of an artist who had potential but chose not to explore it — and the price that he personally pays as a consequence. It is a story that could have been set in any number of cultures under threat but Grushin adroitly draws from her own background. Born in Moscow in 1971, her father was at odds with the Soviet regime and the family moved to Prague. She later studied art history in Moscow before moving to the United States (she was the first Russian citizen to complete a four-year American college degree). Her background, in all its aspects, serves her well in this first novel. Her second, The Line (published as The Concert Ticket in the UK), was equally well-received.

I am indebted to Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations for putting me on to this intriguing novel. My positive review of Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty provoked a discussion in comments about novels set in the art world — The Dream Life of Sukhanov, along with Michael Frayn’s Headlong (see Trevor Berrett’s review of that one here) and the Steve Martin book make for an interesting “art world” trilogy. All three involve central characters who want to be artists but instead find themselves on the periphery as academics, dealers or critics. Taken together the three explore the art world in the USSR, UK and US in a highly readable fashion — all are very good reads.

Ghost Light, by Joseph O’Connor

November 16, 2011

Purchased from the Book Depository

The Irish not only have a tradition of consistently, generation after generation, giving readers a crop of exceptional writers, there is a subset inside that tradition — fiction writers who explore their idea of what kind of life their predessors might have led or what influenced them. Academics spend entire careers exploring what James Joyce did with that in Ulysses, so I won’t go there at all. More recently, Colm Toibin’s critically-acclaimed The Master offered insight on his idea of Henry James (sorry, I read it before I started blogging so no review here — it is a very good novel).

While Ghost Light is the first Joseph O’Connor that I have read, his writing covers the available spectrum from journalism and other non-fiction, through film scripts, plays and novels (this is his seventh). So it is fitting that he has chosen to join that subset: Ghost Light is a novel about the great playwright (and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre), John Millington Synge, told through the memories almost 50 years on of his lover, Molly Allgood (stage name Maire O’Neill):

Johnny Synge’s bit of native. The proddy’s little squaw. That Kingstown playboy’s huer. Insults hurled long ago by the wags of witty Dublin, still audible after more than forty years.

Molly Allgood was every bit as real as Synge and was his frustrated lover, but O’Connor offers the caveat that “Ghost Light is a work of fiction, frequently taking immense liberties with fact. The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in uncountable ways.” In fact, he acknowledges “certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel”. It is a mark of O’Connor’s writing ability that even his Acknowledgements and Caveat make for entertaining reading.

Synge died in 1909 but this novel opens in 1952. Molly lives in London in a dilapidated, near-ruined terrace on the Bayswater Road. She’s destitute — tea, tobacco and cheap gin define her material world. Her memories of her affair are sparked by two “hopeful” events. She has been hired to read a part in a radio play on the BBC World Service and, even though the BBC always takes forever to pay, it offers the chance of some small income, not to mention a reminder that she was once a respected actress.

That only sets the stage, however, for it is the other event that opens the box of memories. Molly has received a letter from a California post-doctoral student, requesting an interview:

I could offer a small sum as remuneration for your time. Would an amount of, say, $50 be acceptable? Alternatively I should be happy to send you anything you require to that value, since I know certain goods and foodstuffs are still quite scarce in England. There is another financial question I would like to broach, Miss O’Neill, and I hope I shall do so without offense. I understand some years ago you sold to his surviving family all your letters of an intimate nature from Synge. My institution has authorized me to say, should other manuscripts having to do with JMS and his circle remain in your possession (scripts, revisions, juvenilia, notebooks, drafts, fragments, abandoned works, et cetera) we would be honored to acquire them for our archive.

Molly has only one physical reminder left, the original letter that Synge sent her, apologizing for a harsh assessment he made of her at an Abbey rehearsal: “It was bloody of me and I am sorry. I allowed myself to become upset.”

“You must permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from. You requested of me advice. That is it.”

Molly is reluctant to sell the letter to the American student but the offer opens another possiblity. Slowly but surely, she has sold all her valuable possessions to a generous second-hand dealer in Russell Square. Perhaps the time has come to part with her last.

Molly decides that she will walk to Broadcasting House (not that her circumstances offer much choice) and that offers O’Connor the structure to create a tension between the present of London still recovering from the war and the past of Dublin and the Abbey Theatre in the first decade of the century. We know from the start that Molly’s affair with Synge involved more pain than pleasure, but that brief interlude came to dominate her life — as she comes across people and places in the London streets, each experience opens a new chapter in bringing back those memories.

I am not going to try to list them here. O’Connor uses the second person to tell the story, not one that usually appeals to me but it is effective in this book. The overall effect is a literary version of peeling away various layers of an onion, examining each in detail and then moving on to the next. It is a very deliberate decision on his part and knowing in advance what is going to happen three or four layers further on in the process, spoiling the foreshadowing he uses so effectively, would destroy the impact of the novel.

That process allows the author to develop a number of themes around his main stories of Molly and Synge and their affair — turn-of-the-century Irish theatre and the repressive nature of bourgeois Irish family life then are just two examples — that makes this novel much richer than your usual “memory” novel. We come to know not just Molly and Synge, but develop a very good appreciation of the world around them — and the world that Molly was sentenced to live in when Synge died. Ghost Light deserves to be compared with The Master as an example of how competently the Irish can deal with this very particular sub-genre.

My own “guiding light” in Irish fiction is Kimbofo at Reading Matters (who is also a fellow Shadow Giller judge). On her blog, she offers a regular feature (Triple Choice Tuesday) where bloggers, readers and authors offer three book selections — their favorite book, a book that changed their world and a book that deserves a wider audience. It was Joseph O’Connor’s selections there that drew my attention to Ghost Light and I am glad that it did. For Kimbofo’s own thoughts on this novel and O’Connor’s well-known Star of the Sea, check out Kimbofo’s reviews here.

Catching a Rising Tide, by Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Ritchie

November 12, 2011

Available from Canada West Foundation -- click on title for details

Regular visitors here will recall that last year at about this time, Mrs. KfC, writing under her real name, Sheila O’Brien, made her debut as a published author. An Extraodinary West, co-authored with Shawna Ritchie from the Canada West Foundation, was based on interviews with 50 Western Canadians involved in all aspects of public policy from government to business development to culture. Those of us who have lived in Western Canada for some time (approaching 50 years, with occasional interruptions, on my part) are fully aware, as that first book identified, that our part of the world is on the cusp of an era of extraordinary opportunity — and challenge.

Both that opportunity and its challenges are centred on “energy” and the West has a lot of it — the world’s second largest petroleum reserves in the Athabasca Oil Sands, ample developed and potential sites for hydro power, wind and sun enough to make us global leaders in the green energy world and all that is just a start. But, as events this week with the U.S. decision to delay approval of the Keystone Pipeline confirmed, that opportunity comes with a challenge. It is one to thing to have the potential to fuel the world; in current times, it is quite another to do that in an acceptable fashion.

That is the scenario that Ms O’Brien and Ms Ritchie explore in their second book, which carries the subtitle “A Western energy vision for Canada”. They have taken the same approach as they did for An Extraordinary West, 50 interviews with individuals involved in all aspects of energy development, sustainability and responsible resource management. The subject is incredibly complex — they admit that the principal aim of their book is to explore in general terms various aspects of energy with the goal of informing and opening a broader debate. There are a lot of people who have very detailed knowledge (and opinions) about specific threads of the challenge — there are not very many who have experience with all its many streams.

I can’t hope to capture their findings in a review, but I will try to identify a highlight or two from their approach that perhaps might spark your interest. One observation up front is that while the book is about the challenges facing Canada, and particularly Western Canada, the observations are very relevant elsewhere — the U.S. is currently our only export market (see that pipeline delay) and has its own set of issues; our Australian friends are facing almost exactly the same circumstances we are (and in many ways responding more proactively, as the book notes).

The vision that the authors developed from their interviews serves as a 50,000-foot level description of the aspiration they believe Canada should hold:

Canada will be a supplier of choice of energy products, services and expertise to the world for the benefit of all Canadians. We will have an exceptional environmental and social record, which will continue to define our values as a nation and give us a stronger voice on the international stage.

The book organizes observations around aspects of the debate in three chapters that I’ll briefly explore here:

1. Mind the Gap: Supply, Demand and the Space in the Middle: Canada has been an energy exporter (petroleum products in the West, hydro in the east) to the U.S. for three-quarters of a century and on the supply side has enormous potential to profitably expand that business. The demand side of the equation is a challenge, however — with only one export customer, Canada is at the mercy of both U.S. economics and policy, as the Keystone decision illustrates. The expanding markets are Asia-Pacific and proposals for both oil and liquified natural gas are already on the table to reach those markets. For traditional resource extraction, more customers mean more options and higher prices (Canadian oil going to the U.S. does so at a substantial discount from world prices).

That’s where “the space in the middle” comes into play. Bitumen from the oil sands is characterized by many as “dirty oil”. Canada’s response to the challenges of climate change (and we are a major contributor to the problem) has been middling at best, disgraceful at worst. In their vision of “the best possible future”, the authors suggest that Canada has to be more than just a supplier, it has to emerge as a global leader on a number of fronts:

If we are going to fulfill our potential as an energy nation in the global marketplace, our interviewees identified three critical economic elements going forward: 1) we must improve our domestic environmental performance by investing in renewable energy alternatives and changing how we use our fuels as a country; 2) we must develop the infrastructure that is required to sell our oil and gas to the world; and 3) we must capitalize on our energy expertise and transition to an economic climate where that expertise is one of our primary exports.

2. Balancing the Scale: Sustainable and Responsible Energy in Canada: The concept in the first three words of that chapter title is vital to the central theme of the book: hydrocarbon production and use is not going to disappear for some time, regardless of the alternatives. But if Canada does not start working towards being a leading participant in “balancing the scale” both its prosperity and potential influence will wane. We don’t just need to clean up our own environmental record, we need to learn how to apply the expertise that we do have to developing viable alternatives.

While government regulation has been the traditional response to that challenge, this chapter uses suggestions from the 50 interviewees to sketch the potential of some non-traditional responses. “Energy literacy” is one: “If people don’t understand where their energy comes from, what it costs and what the environmental impact of their consumption choices are, then all the technology in the world will not result in widespread changes in patterns of energy consumption.”

The chapter explores a number of ways to do this and I’ll point to just one, albeit it one where Canada already has a model in operation: transforming our cities. The City of Vancouver has set itself the goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. Progress on the goal is already significant. While the North American average for greenhouse gas emissions is 22 tons per capita, Vancouver has reduced its total to 4.6 tons per capita. The chapter outlines some of the many public policy initiatives that have been put in place to do that.

One of the most impressive interviews the two conducted was with National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo who made the powerful case that the country absolutely must engage with its Aboriginal people if it is to succeed. The issue for Aboriginal people is not long-term, it is very much present day for Atleo’s people:

“The champions in the industry have been at the forefront of international human rights work around the world — they deploy clean drinking water to South America and they build schools in Africa — but we’ve got 40 communities that have no schools, 112 communities on water advisories and we by and large have a finger pointing exercise about who is to blame.”

The National Chief is more than willing to admit that there are examples of progress, often in the form of joint ventures between the industry and Aboriginal bands — the problem is that they are best viewed as pilot projects, not a consistent pattern of positive development.

3. Securing the Base: Transforming Energy Prosperity into Canadian Prosperity: Approaching (and expanding) the vision articulated in the book requires much more than simply producing and marketing more energy — if Canada is to achieve the aim of being a global leader the country needs to dramatically expand its research and development capacity and develop expertise in our future workers.

This chapter, understandably, is the most futuristic of the book so I will restrict my description of it to reproducing Ms O’Brien and Ms Ritchie’s summary of the challenge:

In order for the energy vision to become a reality, though, three things need to happen that are not directly related to electrons, carbon, transmission lines or dams. First, as a supplier of choice to the world, the benefits of this need to be seen as more than just making a few companies rich and a few regions able to keep taxes low. Canadians need to see the economic benefits of our energy resources and those with wealth need to be cognizant of how they can use it for the betterment of Canada. Second, we need to improve and develop our capacity for innovating and commercializing solutions for tomorrow’s energy reality. And third, we must have excellent education systems from kindergarten through to post-doctoral programs or we will not have the creative capacity and people power to solve our energy challenges.

Okay, I am hardly a neutral observer when it comes to evaluating this book — not only am I married to one of the authors, I had several conversations with the pair as the project unfolded. But I will say, with a passion, that expanded “energy literacy” is vital, not just in Canada but the rest of the world, if we are to find answers to the globe’s most complex problem. Catching a Rising Tide does not pretend to provide those answers — in 93 concise, well-articulated pages it captures the thoughts of 50 very talented people to help expand energy literacy and open a thoughtful, and one hopes productive, dialogue not just in my region of Canada but around the world.

(Catching a Rising Tide cannot be found in book stores or online sites, but can be purchased from the Canada West Foundation here.)

2011 Giller Prize Winner

November 8, 2011

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

The Shadow Giller Jury can hardly complain — this novel ranked high on all our lists. And if we had listened to Kimbofo, who ranked it first, we would have completely agreed with the real jury.

Kimbofo’s review is here, Trevor’s is here and KfC’s here.

I have been reading the Giller long and short lists since the Prize started 17 years ago and this was, for me, the strongest year in memory. You can find links to reviews of all the shortlist titles and almost all of the longlist in the sidebar on the right — I assure you it is worth the time to look into all of these books.

Kimbofo reviews Half Blood Blues

November 7, 2011

With the Real Jury selection just over a day away, it is fitting that Kimbofo has posted her review of Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan — her choice as a Shadow Juror to win the Giller Prize and one that ranked high on all our selections. Kimbofo’s full review is here; here are her opening paragraphs to give you a taste:

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

2011 Shadow Giller Prize winner

November 4, 2011

North American cover

The Shadow Jury choice for the 2011 Giller Prize is:

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

This insightful novel is centred on a family of Russian Jews, escaping (or being expelled) from Latvia in the Soviet Union circa 1978, just as Bezmozgis’s own family was. In the short term of the novel, however, the Krasnanskys are stuck in the virtual no-man’s land of unfriendly Rome and its outskirts while they await their final destination, be it Australia, the U.S. or Canada. And for at least a couple of them, that delay sparks some memories that bring the whole immigration strategy into question. It was the way that the author developed those conflicting stories and the characters in them that made this book our choice. We certainly had some debate and I want to recognize that here — Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues was high in all our rankings and first on Kimbofo’s chart. And we all observed in submitting our initial ranking of the shortlist that four or five of the titles would be quite acceptable to us.

Dreadful UK cover

In the final analysis, we opted for The Free World on the strength of the exceptional quality of Bezmozgis’ prose as he tells his story — “on every page I was aware of what a strong writer he was, he never slipped” was juror Alison Gzowski’s observation. Trevor (he blogs at the Mookse and the Gripes) and I both found the incisiveness of his prose impressive. He develops a full cast of characters in a most interesting situation and, while he does not succeed in bringing every one to a full life, he succeeds more often than he slips.

As for Half Blood Blues, it emerged as Kimbofo’s choice (she blogs at Reading Matters) and we would all have been happy to see it win — but we found what we thought was a better book. Here, in Kimbofo’s words, is what I think is a perfect summary of why some readers (perhaps the Real Giller Jury?) might find it better than The Free World: “I can’t help thinking that Half Blood Blues is a more risky endeavour, by which I mean the author has set herself some high aims: there’s the voice, the jazz thing and the Nazi thing. On top of this she’s fleshed out a cast of characters very well, thrown in an interesting plot and offered a complex structure. It’s by no means a perfect novel but its a brave attempt at one!”

Is the Shadow Jury chair covering his bets with this quote? Perhaps. Stay tuned for the Real Jury decision on Nov. 8.

If you check on the sidebar at right, you will find links to our reviews of all of the Giller shortlist (Kimbofo hasn’t posted her review of Half Blood Blues but it will be up soon and I will include a link).

Transparent Judging

We bloggers who follow prizes always whine about juries and their semi-secret — or totally secret — approaches. So, in the interests of transparency, here is how the Shadow Giller Jury evaluated the shortlist.

As Chair, I asked each juror (including myself) to rank the six books on the shortlist. As well, each juror was given 100 points to assign to the books to indicate how strongly she or he felt. That produced the following result:

Trevor – Bezmozgis 40, Ondaatje 30, Edugyan 15, Coady 15, deWitt 0, Gartner 0
Kimbofo – Edugyan 25, Gartner 20, Bezmozgis 18, Coady 15, deWitt 12, Ondaatje 10
Alison – Bezmozgis 22, Edugyan 19, deWitt 18, Coady 18, Ondaatje 16, Gartner 6
Kevin – Bezmozgis 28, Edugyan 22, Ondaatje 17, deWitt 15, Coady 13, Gartner 5

Totals – Bezmozgis 108, Edugyan 81, Ondaatje 73, Coady 61, deWitt 45, Gartner 31

We had an obvious favorite with The Free World and a fairly clear-cut second choice as well in Half Blood Blues. I would also note that the other four shortlisted books all drew significant votes — this is a strong, well-balanced shortlist with much to recommend every one of the six. (Trevor and I both would have ranked Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac ahead of Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection — if Blaise had been on the shortlist, I think our first round evaluation would have been even more tightly-packed.)

After that first evaluation, we asked Kim for a more detailed response regarding her favorite, had some online discussion and eventually came to the unanimous conclusion that Bezmozgis would be our choice — with a clear statement that all of these books have value.

Now, it is a matter of waiting until the Real Jury makes its decision. We know from experience that it will not be an easy choice.

Winter, by Adam Gopnik — the Massey Lectures, 2011

November 3, 2011

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

I don’t review a lot of non-fiction on this site, but the 50th anniversary of the Massey Lectures seems a good excuse to break from the usual fiction routine. Since 1961, the Lectures have been a Canadian literary fixture — Barbara Ward (The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations) delivered the inaugural series, followed by the icon of Canadian literary criticism, Northrop Frye (The Educated Imagination). Since then, the roster includes a Who’s Who of international thinkers — John Kenneth Galbraith (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967), Claude Levi-Strauss (1977), Jane Jacobs (1979) and Alberto Manguel (2007) are just a handful of the names who have delivered the five-lecture series. Last year, for the first time, they took a fictional form with Douglas Coupland’s five-part novel Player One.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that the choice of this year’s lecturer, Adam Gopnik, wasn’t an influence on my decision. I was a journalist and editor in my working life and, in my opinion, there is no better journalistic essayist writing today than Gopnik. This is not just the 50th anniversary of the Massey Lectures; it is also the 25th anniversary of Gopnik’s writing in the New Yorker. His first 1986 contribution to the magazine — “a consideration of connections between childhood, baseball and Renaissance art” — provided ample indication of both the range of his interests and his ability to pull them together in thoughtful essays, a trait that is put to very good use in these lectures. Gopnik is probably best known for the five years he spent in Paris as the New Yorker’s correspondent there, an experience that resulted in the best-selling Paris to the Moon (2000). His tremendous range of interests (and ability to capture them in prose) was illustrated again just this week — he rushed back to New York from Canada for the launch of another new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, a celebration of the haute cuisine that has fallen from favor in recent decades. (Here’s a link to the New York Times story on that launch if food, not cold, sparks your interest.)

And let’s also admit that his chosen subject (the full title of the book is Winter: Five Windows on the Season) has timely appeal. We have had a warm fall in Calgary, Alberta but four, five or six months of winter will begin any day now. The leaves have fallen, the first snow flurries fell (and melted) on Hallowe’en and there is a chunk of ice floating in the backyard pond (which will be drained for winter this afternoon). Sub-zero days and snow that stays around will be on hand at any time — like Gopnik, winter, rough as it may be, might be my favorite season.

The author summarizes his goals for the first four lectures in the series as he opens the fourth (don’t worry, I’ll get to the final one eventually) and it seems only right to quote his own words here:

When I was working on these chapters, knowing they would necessarily be stuffed tight with names and allusions, I made a little note for myself on each one, stating its central thematic premise, so that even if I went a bit off-centre I would never go too far off theme. The first note, about Romantic winter, reminded me that the subject is the growth of resonances that winter began to evoke in the nineteenth century, how something went from being seen as bleak and bitter to sweet and sublime. The second one, on radical winter, was about how words get woven around Arctic explorations. The third thematic note, about recuperative winter, was that its subject is the secularization of Christmas and how that act of seculatization invented a new kind of sacred. For this fourth chapter [recreational winter], my thematic note to myself read in full: Chance to talk at length about ice hockey.

I told you Gopnik had incredible range — those 50,000-foot level themes, all centred on winter, provide ample illustration of that and rest assured he delivers on each one. He is also quite right that every lecture/chapter is “stuffed tight with names and allusions”; I am not going to try to capture anything more than a brief sampling of them. Rather, I’ll give you from memory what impressed me about each one.

Romantic Winter — The Season in Sight: Gopnik opens the chapter with his memory of his first real snow storm in Montreal, where he was raised, on November 12, 1968 (I warned you winter could arrive here any day). He had seen snow in Philadelphia but:

that snow was an event, a once-a-year wonder. This introduced itself — by its soft persistence and blanketing intensity, its too-soon appearance in the calendar (mid-November!) and the complacency with which everyone seem to accept that too-soonness — as something that would go on for months and envelop a world.

Music, art and literature feature in all these chapters and Gopnik uses all three to illustrate how the intellectual struggle between the Enlightenment and northern Romanticism played out in developing a different view of “winter” — Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s poem “The Winter’s Walk” and paintings from Bruegel to Lawren Harris are all cited (as are many more) to support his thesis. The rationale for this change, however, is very prosaic: the arrival of central heating marked the point when we could sit inside and look out the window at winter as something beautiful, rather than experience it as a deadly threat.

Radical Winter — The Season in Space: The author/lecturer heads into an entirely different world of winter, literally, in this chapter which explores the story of the Polar explorers (both North and South) of the nineteenth century. Those expeditions were, as he establishes, pointless from almost any way you look at them. There was no “there” there, be it resources, people to subjigate or whatever, if they ever did get there — rather each was an “absurd existential quest, touched and humanized by the sheer endurance of the questers”.

Why, then, do we admire them? Why do they continue to haunt our imagination? Part of the answer, as I said, is that, even in their extremity, we recognize them as like ourselves. They are our civilization, or as it was: greedy, wordy, racist, sentimental. But a deeper answer, I think, is a simpler one, and we can sum it up in three blunt monosyllables: they were brave.

Recuperative Winter — The Season in Spirit: This is Gopnik’s take on Christmas, the history of the festival itself and the music, literature and art that are part of it. All cultures have “winter” celebrations (Saturnalia, Hanukkah, and others) which are both “reversal” and “renewal” festivals. “Reversal” in the sense that the established order is turned upside down, at least for a day — children get presents, Scrooge delivers a turkey to the Cratchits. “Renewal” in the sense that they “reassure everyone that the social basis of the community is secure” through family and community celebration. Christmas carols, art (the origin of our image of Santa Claus from New York cartoonist Thomas Nast) and literature (not just Dickens) are all considered — the season approaches and I assure you this chapter will provide you with enough thoughts to make it a different experience this year.

Recreational Winter — The Season at Speed: Hate hockey and can’t stand the thought of reading 44 pages about it? Fear not, because this just isn’t about hockey after all. Did you know that both Wordsworth and Goethe were accomplished skaters who reveled in showing off their expertise? Ice (and skates), in Gopnik’s view, provide the opportunity to “speed up” our experience, again literally as any child who has ever skated can tell you. The author loves the Montreal Canadiens (surprise, surpise) and does an excellent job of developing their historic story. And he hates modern hockey (the professional version) too — but still loves (as I do) the fact that every four years the Olympics shows us how good the sport can be.

Remembering Winter — The Season in Silence: Gopnik uses his final lecture to pull some of these diverse thoughts together, but he also addresses the elephant in the room that has been ignored in the series so far: Climate change and what it might mean for winter as we know it. He introduces this last chapter with some musings on northern artists living in the South and their expressions of their yearning for winter: Joni Mitchell’s song “River” and Francois Villon’s fifteenth-century poem “Ballad of Yesterday’s Beauties” with its refrain “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan” (“Where are the snows we knew” or “Well, where are yesterday’s snows” are his preferred translations). He spends some time describing the heated underground “cities” that are a feature of northern urban areas like Montreal and Toronto (in Calgary, ours is a plus-fifteen network, a storey above the street rather than below). And while he claims no expertise on climate change and the possible loss of winter as we have known it, his brother-in-law is Edward Struzik, author of The Big Thaw, one of the better volumes on the subject, so he is hardly ignorant on the subject. I’ll close this review with another excerpt that captures some of his thoughts on the issue:

The human response to this threat, to this sense of the loss of winter, is already taking place. In 2005 Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the Canadian Inuit activist, coined a startling phrase and presented it before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: what was being violated, she said, by the (American) polluters who were causing the world to warm, was “the right to be cold”. This phrase, strange-sounding or even comical to southerners, does point out an ethical imperative. It insists that one of the fundamental human rights for all people who live in northern climates is the right to be cold, exactly because their culture cannot go on in its absence. As we warm the world, entire peoples are being deprived of their weather, a right as fundamental as a seafaring nation’s right to access the ocean, or a Venetian’s right to be wet.

If you live in a climate where winter is a real season, you’ll find much to contemplate in this remarkable series of lectures. Even if you don’t, they are worth reading to help understand that what seems a hostile season really is a very special time for those of us who do live through it.

(The CBC has sponsored the Massey Lectures since the start and Gopnik’s five will be broadcast on the Ideas program Nov. 7-11 — here’s a link for more details and a schedule, including how to get iTunes podcasts if you don’t have access to CBC. Clicking on the cover will take you to the House of Anansi Press page about the book version.)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 454 other followers