Archive for March, 2009

Another essay: From Page to Stage, Part One

March 29, 2009

eugeneMrs. KFC and I have always loved live theatre — there is a bin in the library where if you dig deep enough you will find a program from the original London production of Hair (and a few hundred other programs — Gielgud, Olivier and Dench are all well-represented, along with a host of Western Canadians that are probably unknown to most visitors to this blog).

One of the byproducts of that interest is that we both have been involved as board members of local theatre companies and it is that involvement which gives rise to this post.  Forewarned is forearmed — it will be a long one and it is only part one of two.

It was 11 years ago during my second year on the Alberta Theatre Projects board of directors that I told the artistic director that I wanted to observe the production of a new play, from start to finish.  ATP has a new play festival, PlayRites, which is one of Canada’s best and I wanted to see how a script moved from page to stage.  It turned out to be one of the most interesting — and educational — experiences of my life.  I am sure for those who live and work in that world, what I saw was only “normal” but for me it was life-changing.  The artistic director put me on to A Guide to Mourning, a new play by ATP’s playwright-in-residence, Eugene Stickland, directed by the company’s new play guru (and Eugene’s frequent collaborator) Bob White.  I’m pretty sure the artistic director said to these two “don’t worry, Kevin’s just a boring corporate director, he’ll go to a couple of rehearsals, decide this is a silly project and then he’ll disappear.”  Ha.  Ha.  Ha.  Kevin went to just about every rehearsal, did see every preview and was so entranced with the process that he also went to almost every performance.  His 50th birthday happened during the run and was celebrated with a “tombstone” cake at the local actor’s, post show bar.  Eugene and Bob are now two of my closest friends.  This post is an attempt to explain why that move from page to stage so impressed me.  (The cover picture for this post is a volume including both A Guide to Mourning and Sitting on Paradise, another Eugene Stickland play which features a sofa.  Copies are hard to come by but here is a link to the publisher, Red Deer Press.)

Euge says that by the time one of his new plays reaches the rehearsal hall it is usually about draft five.  He discusses his concepts before draft one;  Bob and some selected readers (yes, that is sometimes me) see it at that stage.  Draft two is usually done before the play is workshopped with professional actors and the real work starts.  They read through the draft around a table, with playwright, director and stage manager present — and then supply feedback.

In Eugene’s writing practice, the biggest changes probably occur in drafts three through five, with Bob’s active involvement.  Characters are eliminated, added or changed dramatically.  The play that will eventually be produced starts to acquire its final shape.  It must also be said of playwright Stickland that he likes his gags — a lot of the “editing” in that part of the process consists of Bob saying “let’s save that gag for another play” and out it goes.  Not at all unlike the process that Stella Duffy described in her recent interview on dovegreyreader’s site.

So that was where I met A Guide to Mourning in the ATP rehearsal hall.  The company has a tradition of asking all its staff (and board for that matter) to the first readthrough of the plays that it is producing — I love the experience.  The playwright and director each spend about two minutes discussing their concept; the set designer introduces his idea of the set and the costume designer outlines her concepts.

And then the actors read the script, to an “audience” of about 40 — fund-raisers, press people, dressers, you name it.  One of the reasons that I love first readthroughs is that actors are totally incapable of “reading” — not surprisingly, given their trade, they “act”.  Strung out along a table, scripts in hand, it takes only a few minutes until you can see characters begin to develop and relationships between characters (even from actors who only met each other that morning) start to germinate.  I have seen first readthroughs where a good part of the cast of professional actors was in tears by the time they finished.

My first “Aha” moment with A Guide to Mourning came at the first rehearsal the next day.  Let me back up a bit to give a quick outline of the play.  Like much of Euge’s work, it does feature a somewhat dysfunctional, but ultimately likeable, family.  The patriarch has died, mother has started the grieving process (which features a box of tissues for each family member), the eldest son (pretty much a street person) shows up looking for boots, another son and young daughter soon arrive.  The “mourning” has begun; the play is about how it unfolds.  There are a number of wonderful scenes:  Euge particularly likes the closet scene where the sons consider their father’s favorite shoes.

What stunned me at the first rehearsal is second nature to anyone in the theatre community and virtually unknown to anyone outside it.  It is a concept of  “beats” and has changed the way I have read every book ever since.  The cast and crew are again around a table, reading the work — and periodically (sometimes every sentence, sometimes after a page or so) one or more shout “beat”.  “Beat” is when the nature of a conversation changes — when someone wants to introduce a new topic, or new emotion, or just avoid what has gone on before.  Next time you read a novel, watch for the “beats” as it progresses — live actors have to convey this but good novelists are doing it all the time.  My trade was in writing but I must admit this obvious approach has changed the way I have listened to every conversation — or read every book — since.

The other thing that I learned on that first day was that the playwright no longer “owned” the play.  In one sense, he never had since he had been working with the director from the start.  But once the crew moves into the rehearsal hall, the director and stage manager (his Chief Operating Officer, for those who know the corporate world) start to “own” the production.  With a new play, like A Guide to Mourning, Euge would go home each night and show up the next morning with “revisions to the text” on anywhere from a couple to a dozen pages.  By the time the play was into the third week of rehearsals (which took place every other day — so after about 10 days in the rehearsal hall), his work was pretty much done and he disengaged from the process until previews and opening night.  And unlike film or television, where the director “owns” the production through to the final copy, in live theatre he leaves the process on opening night — and the stage manager, crew and cast “own”  the production.

My other mind-blowing experience in this process came at about the same point that the playwright stopped showing up (okay, he was out doing promotional interviews).  By now, I knew the text pretty much as well as the actors did; the play had been “blocked”  (actors located on the set) and I figured I understood it quite well.  Then I learned why great directors are great directors.

One morning, Bob got ready for a runthrough and his instructions to the cast were “I want you to experience how much love you feel for the other members of this family.”  The result was very interesting — it was quite a bit different from the runthroughs I had seen before.  Still scratching my head, I listened that afternoon as Bob began another runthrough with “I want you to go to the darkest side of your character that you can.”  It was exactly the same words, all of the same actions, as the morning runthrough — and it was a totally different play.  Turns out there is more to theatre than I had thought.

The next morning, the instructions were “today I want A Guide to Mourning avec fromage — be as cheesy as you can”.  Again, same words, same action, totally different play.  As an audience of one (there was no one else in the room) I had just witnessed three entirely different plays, all featuring the same script and action.

I only realized how important this was when the play went into preview.  The first preview night, the house was “papered” with freebies from the theatre community (hardly unusual); they knew most of the cast and crew and were out for a good time.  They laughed way too much — half way through Act One, I was worried that “my play” (I was identifying with it by that point) was going to be a disaster.  With no direction from anyone, the cast went to that “dark-side” rehearsal and, suddenly, things weren’t that funny anymore.  The audience was back in line by the end of Act One, ready for Act Two.

The experience the next night was the exact opposite — it was a corporate sponsor’s recognition night, Calgary is an oil town and oil men and their wives don’t laugh at death.  Even the best of Eugene’s jokes were not producing a giggle.  So the cast, again with no instruction, went to “fromage” — it took a while, but giggles started to come, followed by genuine laughter.  The audience was ready for Act Two.

I know the corporate world talks about Scenario Planning and periodically spends an hour or two looking at options.  I’d never seen a group of people — from playwright, to director, to stage manager, to cast (not to mention set designers, dressers and light people) invest so much time so wisely in getting ready for all options.

I remember A Guide to Mourning as though the experience happened yesterday.  And as the title to this post notes, this is only Part One of From Page to Stage — stay tuned for Part Two, a look at Eugene’s latest play, Queen Lear, in which Joyce Doolittle, an icon in Calgary theatre who is in her eighties, performed for the first time in the Joyce Doolittle Theatre (so in her own way, she ranks up there with Olivier and Gielgud).  It centres on her rehearsing for the role of King Lear in an all-female production of the Shakespeare play. Queen Lear is a truly amazing piece of work.

I know that not a lot of people actually read drama (it is hard to even buy it, once you get beyond the obvious names) and even I find it tough.  However, I can’t tell you how much the way that I read all books has changed as a result of this experience.  If you ever, ever get the chance to be in a rehearsal all (ideally for more than one session) don’t turn it down.


KevinfromCanada’s Second contest: Pick the Pulitzer fiction winner

March 21, 2009

pulitzer_front_logo2Welcome to the second KevinfromCanada contest — this time we are looking for who will be the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction when it is announced on April 20.

The Pulitzer doesn’t announce a shortlist, so we are all starting from scratch.  They do usually announce two “finalists” when they announce the winner so I am looking for entries that say:

1.  What book wins the Pulitzer.

2.  What books are the finalists (maximum two and you don’t actually have to name any if you don’t want to.)

The winner will be the entry that names the prize winner and, if more than one entry gets that correct, which of those entries has the most finalists named.  If no one gets the winner, we will move to “finalists” to determine a winner — in the event of any tie, the entry that comes in first will be the winner.  The judge’s decision (that is me) will be final in any case.

The prize:  A $75 gift certificate at the online bookseller of your choice that will accept my credit card.  All entries, questions and observations are welcome — please don’t just enter but also say why you have made your choice so others can have the benefit of your thoughts.

I certainly intend to be part of this contest.  My entry for the winner is   A Mercy  by Toni Morrison, the  finalists will  be Unaccustomed Earth  by Jhumpa Lahiri and Telex from Cuba  by Rachel Kushner.  I am actually cheering more for my finalists than I am for my winner selection.  Lahiri’s short story collection is excellent — but she has already won the prize for The Interpreter of Maladies  which even I have to admit was probably a better book. Kushner’s book was a finalist for the National Book Award and I read it last fall — it is one of those books that grows in memory, which is always a good thing.

Enter soon and enter often.  Well, don’t enter often but by all means send a second entry in the name of your spouse, favorite pet or whatever.  The whole purpose of the comorrisonkushnerntest is to introduce as many titles of interest as possible.




These are my entries.  Good luck to all.lahiri

Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie

March 18, 2009
North America

North America

Kamila Shamsie’s new book, Burnt Shadows, is one of those modern novels that invite the publisher to describe it as “a sweeping epic” — a temptation that Bloomsbury Press has not resisted.  It opens in Nagasaki in August, 1945; moves on to India in 1947 as The Raj is dissolving; stops off in Karachi amid Muslim-Hindu tensions in 1982-83; and concludes in post 9/11 New York and Afghanistan.  Whatever criticisms you might have of the author, a lack of ambition in purpose cannot  be one of them.

UK version

UK version

Burnt Shadows also invites comparison with some very good — and very popular — recent novels, which I’ll do by way of triangulation.  In one corner, you have The Kite Runner and A Thousand Suns, both gripping narratives that have produced international best sellers.  Another corner of the triangle is occupied by Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, published to good reviews but somewhat smaller sales, last fall — in this book, the exploration of modern politics tends to take precedence over the narrative story.  At the final corner of the triangle, I’d place David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (or his previous novel, Ghostwritten), where the sweeping narrative moves into a post-modern development of the author’s themes and complexity of structure starts to rival complexity of plot.

Burnt Shadows has elements in common with all three of those approaches; if you have read and enjoyed any of the books mentioned, you will probably want to explore this one.  I would locate it somewhere between The Kite Runner and The Wasted Vigil, but it also has Mitchell overtones.  I have posted both the U.K. and North American covers because they illustrate how different aspects of the novel landed with the cover designers.  While both feature the “burnt shadows” of the title, the U.K. version is stylized (reflecting the political aspects of the book); the North American version shows them on the heroine’s back, a reflection of the more personal aspects of the story.

First, a very quick and admittedly thumbnail summary of a very complex and ambitious plot:

The novel opens in Nagasaki on the day that the New Bomb drops.  Hiroko Tanaki is a young teacher living just outside Nagasaki, in love with a German outcast, Konrad Weiss, who is the caretaker of his English brother-in-law’s property (I warned you that the plot was complex — right from the start).  The bomb falls, Konrad dies.  Hiroko survives but the image of the three black cranes on her kimono is burnt into her back and will remain there (almost always hidden) for the rest of her life.

In part two, Hiroko, with no attachments in the world, makes her way in 1947 to the Delhi home of Konrad’s brother-in-law, James Burton and his German wife (Elizabeth, born Ilse), who understandably keeps those roots hidden.  Hiroko has an aptitude for languages and takes up with their servant, Sajjad, who teaches her Urdu.  The Raj is in the process of falling apart and the Burtons have sent their son to school  in England.  As Independence finally comes, Hiroko and Sajjad get married and head to Karachi to avoid the troubles, always believing they will eventually return.

Part three is set in Karachi in 1982-83 — return to India was obviously not part of the agenda.  They have a son, Raza, who is starting to fall into the world of Muslim politics.  Sajjad is a broken man who feels he has abandoned his roots.  Hiroko is doing her best to get along.  It is the longest section of the book and explores in some detail some of the global tensions that the events of part one and two have created.  Shamsie also uses this section for some very effective character development, as Hiroko and Raza become the focus of the rest of her story.

It is a spoiler to say what leads to part four, so let’s just say the next section finds Hiroko in New York.  Raza is now working in an American “security” firm run by the Burton’s son and spending a lot of time in Afghanistan as a contractor.  Hiroko and his daughter, Kim, (who is not too happy with the CIA connections of her father) spend a lot of time together.  Again it would be a spoiler to say how the book concludes — suffice to say there is quite a bit of drama.

I admit that I have always felt a reluctance to call books like this “epics”.  Yes, the story is sweeping and there are a lot of characters, but somehow it seems to denigrate the Homers and Virgils of history when novels like this get that description because, good as they are, they just don’t meet the standard.  JohnSelf at Asylum solved my dilemma for me recently when he introduced the concept of “widescreen” novel:  “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.”  He was describing another book (Solo, by Rana Dasgupta) but that summary certainly applies to this work.  And I also like the “widescreen” notion because it conveys the modern, cinematic scope that is so much a part of these kinds of novels — I plan on using the term frequently in the future.

Widescreen novels share a common problem and Burnt Shadows does not escape it.  At a point about two-thirds of the way through the book, the author has opened up so many story lines and introduced so many characters, that it is inevitable that the rest of the book becomes a tidying-up process where all the loose ends get tied together.  If you are really enrolled in the story (or the characters) this is easy to overlook, or at least accept.  If you aren’t, you start to feel that you are in the reading process of treading water — in bad versions of the widescreen novel, the metaphor would be a reading version of watching paint dry.

I am personally susceptible to that latter impression, because I prefer books that leave me thinking when I turn the last page instead of feeling comfortable that the story has been neatly brought to an end.  Despite that tendency, I was more than willing to let Shamsie get on with finishing her story — she introduces enough interesting people and circumstances that she deserves some critical slack.

I liked this book — those who are more inclined to strong narratives than I am will like it even more.  Part of me says that it was too ambitious, which means that each part of Shamsie’s story suffers so that she can address so many elements.  Another part of me admires her for making the effort and I suspect a large chunk of the reading public is going to fall into that camp.  I don’t think I could face a steady diet of  “widescreen” novels, but one or two a year are definitely worthwhile — for me, without a doubt, Burnt Shadows falls into that category.  Booker Prize juries frequently seem attracted to one or two widescreen novels (say last year’s Sea of Poppies) — it will be interesting to see if this book attracts that attention.  It is early in the prize year, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

A Trio of Coming of Age Novels

March 15, 2009





The Glister, by John Burnside

The Holy City, by Patrick McCabe

John The Revelator, by Peter Murphy


“Coming of age” has been a theme of novels for as long as novels have existed.  Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) features a young heroine and the choices she — or her family — wants to make about her future.  Jane Austen used the theme in all her major works.  Henry James and Edith Wharton found it a useful device as the 20th century dawned; J.D. Salinger (and a host of other authors) continued the tradition at mid-century.

So, having read three impressive “coming of age” novels released in the last year, I thought it worthwhile to explore how these authors — two of them well-established, one a first novelist — used this centuries-old device in service of their craft.  (And I can’t help but note, as you can see from the covers above, that the graphic artists also seem to have found a common theme in these books.  It is strange that the covers are so similiar and use such a common theme.)

John Burnside’s novel was released last spring in the U.K. as Glister and in North America in the last few weeks with the title changed to The Glister — a subtle change of which I don’t approve, but it is a spoiler to say why (we can discuss in comments, if anyone is interested).  I became aware of this novel through discussions on the Man Booker forum where a number of people argued that it belonged on the longlist.  Will of Just William’s Luck included it in his top three of the year — since I only have space for a short summary, I’ll point you to his review for an excellent extended opinion.

Leonard, the 15-year-old narrator of Glister, lives in the (apparently) Scottish coastal community of Innertown, next door to an abandoned chemical plant that produced fertilizers, insecticides and, maybe, chemical weapons.  The plant has left its own mark on the community (high cancer rates) — more important to the novel is that every year or so a teenage boy goes missing.  The community wants to think they have run away; readers know from the start (through the experience of the town cop, Morrison) that they are being murdered.

Most of the narrative of Glister is Leonard’s story and the trail that leads to him being a victim (again, not a spoiler — we know that from the prologue).  That is not, however, what the novel is really about.  Burnside uses Leonard’s story to explore the disintegration of the Innertown community that the chemical plant has caused; the compromises (centred on Morrison, but also with others) in human behavior that that has produced and the unreal world of the present (Will’s characterization of it as a “grim fairy tale” is entirely appropriate) that has resulted.  In its own way, Leonard’s story becomes the story of terror — a “coming of age” reflection of growing up in a community that is a wasteland, both physically and morally.  His life and demise are a metaphor for the community where he comes of age.

Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City was the very first book reviewed on this blog and again I only have room for a summary here.  McCabe’s narrator, Chris J. McCool, is 67 when the novel opens — the book is an over-the-shoulder look at his life.  But it is anchored in the coming of age process; at each stage, including the present, when C.J. considers his life, he finds his experience rooted in growing up in Cullymore.  The bastard son of a Protestant squire and a Catholic servant, C.J. always fancies himself as the centre of attention in his world, but never really does fit in — not as a youth, not in middle age and not now as a senior citizen.

Like Burnside, McCabe uses his central character as a metaphor for the world that his novel is really about.  In C.J.’s youth, that focuses on the absurd (but still continuing) conflict and prejudice of Protestant’s and Catholics; as he matures, it involves the strange culture of the 60s, especially music, as that changes Ireland; and now as he enters old age it is the world of the Irish Tiger, including his East European companion/wife Vesna.  At every stage, it is the lessons he learned while coming of age that serve as the lens from which he perceives current reality.  For the reader, the result is a rewarding and fascinating look at how Ireland has changed — and how one person has been effected by that.

In Peter Murphy’s John The Revelator, we meet John Devine (and his single mother, Lily) as a pre-teen in Kilcody, Ireland.  As the book opens, John is beginning to develop his observational skills, yet most of his life continues to be dominated by Lily’s religious obsession, part of which seems to be that having named her son after John the disciple, she needs to pretend that he is a reincarnation of him.

John inevitably starts to come of age.  As a young teenager, he hooks up with Jamey Corboy, the twisted real world opposition to John’s twisted saint of a mother.  Inevitably, John and Jamey get into trouble (that’s part of coming of age), climaxing in a filmed desecration of the local church, that falls into the hands of the local Guard (Jamey was being a film-maker then, but alas left his camcorder and tape behind).  Complications predictably ensue.

The latter part of John The Revelator explore the choices that John has to make between Jamey’s world and that of his mother, who is in the process of dying.  Where Burnside and McCabe use their narrators as foils to explore the world of which they are a part, Murphy looks inward to the critical choices that every person — even a degenerate Irish boy — needs to make as they begin a mature life.

Certainly, these three books have much in common — to be expected, given that all use a growing-up male as the central character.  More important, however, to me is the way in which three excellent authors used that platform in such different ways.  Burnside explores the decay and destruction of a community (both physically and morally) through the experience of Leonard.  McCabe examines how the world in which he himself has lived has changed through the life of C.J.  And Murphy dissects the choices we all face in growing up about which “community” we will decide to make our own.

I have no hesitation in recommending any of these three books.  If you ask me which one I like the best, my answer is The Holy City — the experiences of C.J. McCool raise so many memories of my own that I found myself enrolled in the book from the start.

On the other hand, if you ask me which one of the three that I think is the best novel, I think I would have to say Glister.  In many ways, I think Burnside has set a higher bar and, in the final analysis, is a better writer.

And if you asked me which book creates the best character (surely a relevant question in a “coming of age” novel), I’d say John The Revelator.  Murphy uses John Devine to look inward, the other two novelists use their characters to look outward — so it is no surprise that this book succeeds on that front.

I’d say that Samuel Richardson was on to a pretty good device when he wrote Clarissa.  Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, J.D. Salinger and a host of others (I make no claim that that list is exhaustive — one only has to consider Philip Roth’s Indignation from last fall to start another) have used it to good effect.  All three of these books continue a tradition of putting the device to good use.

And if you have a favorite coming-of-age novel of your own, please don’t hesitate to use the comments to express it — this review is meant to open that door not close it.

A March essay: Buying Canadian books

March 11, 2009

double-hook1two-solitudes2                                          A number of regular visitors to this blog are interested in Canadian fiction and don’t live in Canada or the United States.  While they have no trouble buying Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, they complain — with some justification — that a lot of Canadian writing voices are not easily available to them.  I don’t have an ideal solution, by any means, but thought I would at least attempt an explanation and offer a suggestion.  (The illustrations are a couple of famous titles from the New Canadian Library series — keep reading for a link.)

I am leaving the U.S. out of this post — with the advance of online selling, most Canadian titles are available.  Shipping costs from Canadian sources are not prohibitive for those that aren’t.

A handful of Canadian authors, including some first novelists, do very well in the international market.  Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle scored advances over $2 million Cdn last year; reports are that Alan Bradley received more than $1 million for Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie along with a contract for five more books.  Obviously, those aren’t the books we are talking about (both were available in the U.K. before they were here in Canada).

As noted above, the Canadian A list also gets published in the U.K, usually simultaneously.  Home runs come from the U.S. market.   Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance both were Oprah selections — I’m told that meant sales of over 750,000 for both.  Britain’s 2008 bestseller was the thriller No Time for Goodbye by Canadian Linwood Barclay (no I haven’t read it) which has sold more than a million copies.  When you consider that 5,000 is a very large number for Canadian sales, you start to see what is up.

Literary novels that show up in Canadian competitions also tend to get picked up in the U.K., although it may take six or eight months (a good example is last year’s Giller winner, Through Black Spruce, released this month).   Again, this market has much more potential than the Canadian one — the success of books such as Life of Pi (which did all right in Canada and then hit the big time fully a year later with a Booker win) validates the strategy of waiting.

All of which suggests the business case is this:  The potential big bucks for Canadian authors come from the U.S. and U.K., not the home country.   In the best case scenario (for the author) that comes immediately.  Even with the smaller publishers, it makes business sense to try to sell well in Canada, then leverage that success into an overseas contract at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  The flip side of this business case?  The harder it is for Europeans to buy a book published in Canada at a reasonable price, the fewer potential problems you are creating in finding a U.K. publisher for an overseas contract.  There will never be a Canadian version of the Book Depository (or an Australian one — they publish great books too — for that matter, since the case is very similiar there.)

Certainly that means there are a lot of very good Canadian books that are not available — or for those who can’t wait the six to eight months, a frustrating interval.  (We Canadian readers do face that same frustration — and even the very welcome Book Depository option does have some costs.)

Here’s the suggestion and I admit it is probably only of use to very dedicated readers:  Buy five books at once and the overall shipping costs move into line.  Canada has two significant online sellers — and — and both offer international shipping.  Chapters is slightly less expensive — a flat $10.95 Cdn, plus $3.95 a book — so I’ll use them for my example.

I’ve used this method to send a couple of packages to friends in the U.K. and tried out a few other test orders to confirm the estimated costs.  With online discounts (usually of 24 per cent) for trade paperbacks, the average cost usually works out to about $15 a book before shipping.  A five-book order with shipping comes to $105 (roughly 57 pounds at current exchange rates) or just over 11 pounds per book.  That isn’t hugely out of line with U.K. cover prices, although I admit (at least in North America) cover prices don’t mean much anymore.  New hardovers are obviously more expensive but the online discounts tend to be significantly higher — again the total cost comes in at about the cover price. 

Chapters quotes a shipping estimate of 6 to 8 weeks which I have found usually is accurate, although my limited experience shows quite a bit of variance (I suspect some shipments sit in Customs warehouses for some weeks).  Be warned if you order a book that they say will ship in two weeks, or whatever, they usually hold the entire order.  The website says they also ship to Australia, New Zealand and many other countries (search International Shipping for a list) — I have no experience with their performance there.  I admit it isn’t a perfect solution; at least it is a suggestion.

As a final temptation….  There are two main sources of Canadian fiction “classics”, many of which are available only in Canada — the New Canadian Library (catalogue here) and Penguin Canada (here).  Note that a number of the more popular Penguin titles are available in the U.K.  and U.S. series — my guess is that copyright and potential sales are both involved in the choice.  Also, new releases from NCL often show up on the Book Depository and while shipping is “free”, they have just added the international costs into the price — a book that costs $13 in Canada (NCL titles are quite cheap) costs 13 pounds, hardly a bargain when the exchange rate is $1.85.   If any of the titles in either series happens to rouse an interest and you would like me to consider reviewing it, by all means leave a suggestion in a comment.  I do own a version of most of them and would probably be happy to have an excuse to reread.

The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels

March 6, 2009

the-winter-vault-amazon1Those who loved Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces have now been waiting 12 years for a second novel — I am beating the release date by three weeks with this review, but that would seem to be a minor problem.

Like Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault comes in two parts.  In part one, we are introduced in 1964 to Avery and Jean Escher on a houseboat on the Nile, just below the temple of Abu Simbel.  Avery is an engineer, charged with developing the plans to move the temple as the Aswan Dam is completed — Jean is his Canadian wife, interested in flora, fauna and dislocation.

the-winter-vault-2There is no doubt that the first part of this novel is based on that notion of “dislocation”.  Avery and Jean met during the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway — their memories from that experience will influence everything that is to come.  From the developers’ point of view, both the Aswan and St. Lawrence projects involve “relocation” — from Avery and Jean’s (and it must be said the author’s) it is “dislocation”.  A passage that I skipped over on my first read involving the widow Georgiana Foyle captures the difference:

–But they can move your husband’s body, said Avery.  The company will pay the expenses.

She looked at him with astonishment.  The thought seemed to silence her.  Then she said,

— If you move his body then you’ll have to move the hill.  You’ll have to move the fields around him.  You’ll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children.  You’ll have to move the sun because it sets among these trees.  And move his mother and his father and his younger sister — she was the most admired girl in the county, but all the men died in the first war, so she never married and was laid to rest next to her mother.  They’re all company for one another and those graves are old, so you’ll have to move the earth with them to make sure nothing of anyone is left behind.  Can you promise me that?  Do you know what it means to miss a man for twenty years?

Good luck, Avery, on meeting that promise.  And now he is moving the legendary tomb of an Egyptian ruler.  Turns out that building the St. Lawrence Seaway was just a minor league experience.

Michaels is very strong in exploring — and indeed exploiting — the notion the people have a history, rooted in their ground, which can be exploded by dislocation.  Her exploration and explanation of the Nubians being moved from the land that will become Lake Nasser is deeply felt and exceptionally well done.

And then, we move to Toronto.  A tragic event in Avery and Jean’s life brings them home and they agree to separate.  He heads off to architecture school (and pretty much disappears from the book) she continues her interest in botany and starts surreptitiously planting “public” gardens around Toronto.  One night she meets “the Caveman”:  just as she is planting gardens, he is a graffiti artist who is replicating the animals of Lascaux on various available sites around Toronto.

Jean and Lucjan take up with each other in what, for me, was an entirely dissatisfying development in the book.  Lucjan is a refugee from Poland and the thread of Part Two of this book is the work that he was involved with in rebuilding Warsaw after the war.  It does relate to Part One — the dead are in these buildings — and it does carry echoes from the first half.  Perhaps it is my own lack of knowledge of Warsaw (and I would certainly appreciate thoughts from Polish visitors to this site if they read this book — I may be missing it entirely) but the whole story line falls flat.  We move from a very big picture, well developed, to a very small one that doesn’t seem to have much point.

Fugitive Pieces was not without its critics.  For every reader who loved the “poetic language”, there was another who found it grossly over-written.  I’d say The Winter Vault is going to have a similar response.  Michaels is a poet and cannot resist that language:

The air was charged and solid; it shuddered, as if walls were rising out of the ground at an accelerated pace.  After a few minutes of terrified observation, Lucjan realized the sun was rising and the spectral walls were merely the effect of dawn making its progress up through the smoke.  Sunlight passed through walls of dust where real walls had stood only a few hours before; the city, an afterimage.  When the dust settled, this glowing flesh dissolved, leaving only the skeletons of the buildings, sharp piles of stone, ventilator shafts, mangled iron beams, shredded wooden beams, cobblestones, chimney pots, eaves, shingles, pantry cupboards with their round wooden knobs, glass and metal doorknobs, different kinds of twisted pipe, electrical wires, disintegrated plaster, cartilage, bone, brain matter.  Floating fibres of upholstery and singed hair floated in the January wind;  scraps of wool dresses, melted buttons, and the greasy smoke of still-burning, avalanched bodies.  The air glinted with infinitesimally small particles of glass.

The dead were invisible and pervasive; in another dimension where they would never be found.

If you like that excerpt, you will love this book.  I did not and I feel frustrated that I didn’t.  Part One opens and develops important issues that, at least on my second read, had me intrigued.  And then, just as Michael Ondaatje sent Divisadero off on a tangent, Michaels does the same thing with this book.  I look forward to comments from those who can accommodate themselves to her language and will find this to be a better book than I did — I must say I regard it as a noble failure.

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