Archive for September, 2009

The Factory Voice, by Jeanette Lynes

September 30, 2009

“Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for ‘gutter’ is ‘eavestrough,’ which is picturesque. Everyone is wearing a ‘tuque,’ or ‘toque,’ which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)”

That is a quote from 2009 Giller Prize judge Victoria Glendinning in a Financial Times column (read the full column here) that is causing considerable angst in the Canadian literary community. Having honored Ms. Glendinning with a judgeship how dare she make fun of our fiction? (There are some even better comments on the unique character of “acknowledgements” in Canadian books if you go to the full column.) While Glendinning said she was referring to the “mid” ranking of those 100-plus books, not the best, (and was taking off from a comment that Booker Prize chair James Naughtie had made about “dreadful” books lower down on that list), this veteran Canadian reader has to admit that her observations were pretty much dead on.

Purchased at

Purchased at

So it is very, very surprising that a first novel — The Factory Voice, by Jeanette Lynes — set in Northern Ontario during World War II, in which a “toque” plays a key role, should find its way to the Giller Prize longlist. Okay, there is no eavestrough (much cold and snow, however) or Muskoka chairs (we know they are out there), but this novel seems to fall squarely into the hinterland Canadian fiction tradition that Glendinning gently mocks.

And, good Canadian that I am, I loved it. Perhaps that statement is a bit strong — I read it avidly, finishing it in two sessions, and enjoyed every page. It isn’t a great book by any means (and may not even make my personal Giller shortlist), but it was certainly fun to read and I have not been able to say that about many books lately.

giller avatarThe Factory Voice of the title is the internal house organ at Fort William Aviation, a manufacturing facility at the western head of Lake Superior (now part of Thunder Bay) where Mosquito aircraft are being built for the war effort by a staff of about 2,000 — mainly women — recruited from just about everywhere in Canada. There are also three internment camps in the area, one of which has just had an escape; the area is home to Red Finns of questionable commitment to the war effort; and recent mishaps on test flights indicate possible subversive activity inside the plant, so security is an issue.

Into this mix comes Audrey Leona Foley, age 16, who is running away from a ranch in Spruce Grove, Alberta, because her parents want her to marry the ranch hand:

Like I said, away from the ranch hand with the face like clabbered milk and huge, thunking hands that would wed me between yanking slick red calves out into the world. (I can breathe better; on I go again). He talked to my father. My father talked to my mother. She talked to me. I talked to the moon.

I’ll bet that sounds queer to you, but if you’ve ever been an only child like me it might sound less queerlike. A girl has to tell someone, and the red staggering calves aren’t my idea of a good sounding board. My parents said “oh, dandy, you two can marry, carry on the ranch.” That was more useful than finishing high school, they firmly believed. I told you they were cave-era parents.

Audrey gets hired, as the snack cart girl, immediately upon showing up at the plant. But Ruby Kovak, the stenographer who hires her, says she is to do more than just trundle the cart around — Ruby is an aspiring investigative journalist (and sole editor and writer of The Factory Voice) and wants Audrey to serve as her eyes and ears on questionable happenings on the plant floor. Ruby is hoping for a scoop that will enable her to leave manufacturing life — and typing letters — forever. Audrey finds that assignment much more interesting than being a ranch child or matron.

Audrey actually arrived in Fort William on the same train as Muriel McGregor, the plant’s new chief engineer, the first of her gender to achieve that status. Muriel brings her own baggage with her — she has just seen her mother, a retired judge, after an estrangement of many years (dating back to WWI, actually) when her mother sent 13-year-old Muriel’s best friend, a lefty, to prison for two years. As it happens, that very man is the most dangerous of the escapees from the nearby internment camp (okay, you have to grant Lynes a lot of licence to get along well with this book).

There is another equally implausible twist to the Muriel part of the story, but it would be a spoiler to reveal it here. Let’s just say there is some hanky-panky going on inside the plant. And Muriel needs to sort out why test planes keep crashing, before she moves on to her main personal objective, perfecting a design for landing skis so that planes can takeoff and land on snow, which we have quite a bit of for many months of the year in Canada.

Lynes develops this story through a series of rapid-fire chapters from the viewpoint of the various characters, each helpfully identified with a graphic at the start of the chapter indicating who is the focus of that instalment. That is not a conventional — nor recommended — approach for a literary novel, but this book is a story and it worked just fine for me.

Muskoka chair

Muskoka chair

As much fun as I had with this book, I couldn’t help but wondering when I finished it how Glendinning let it get to the longlist, given what she said in the FT column. It isn’t just the story itself. The acknowledgements do take up two full pages, thank just about everybody you can imagine (more than 40 names), including various government grant agencies — they are a perfect example of what Glendinning grumped about on that front.

Canadian toque

Canadian toque

I’m only sorry there were no eavestroughs or Muskoka chairs. Either — or both — would have added significantly to the Canadian character of the book.


The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

September 30, 2009

atwoodShadow Giller international judge Trevor Berrett has posted his review of The Year of the Flood. Here is his opening paragraph, which fairly summarizes his conclusions:

Here is my first review as a member of this year’s Giller Prize Shadow Jury: The Year of the Flood (2009) (long listed for 2009 Giller Prize). I’m excited to discuss this book! However, because I don’t want that sentiment to mislead any Atwood lovers into reading a highly irreverent review you’d rather avoid, I must forego witholding my opinion of this book and forewarn you: my basic response to The Year of the Flood was (1) giddiness because the first half, to me, was ”So Bad It’s Great!”; (2) indifference as the book became nothing more than a faux-literary thriller, with all of the conventions and lack of depth so that it read more like Stephen King than Margaret Atwood; and (3) indignation at the author’s pretensions, particularly in the self-promoting build-up to this novel’s release and as showcased on the “Acknowledgements” page. In brief, this is not a glowing review. In fact this might be my most negative review yet, and I usually avoid such negativity. However, it’s worth discussing this book, negativity and all (well, negativity is about all that’s here), and not just because of the Shadow Jury. There are a lot of books out there that don’t pretend to be literature; they have their place and meet their expectations. Then there is an ugly class of books that pretend to be more than they are. I don’t like it when an author who knows better presents that faux literature as something profound. And it’s almost offensive when that author’s methods for promoting that faux literature are beyond pretentious.

While Trevor obviously did not like the book, his review goes to some lengths to explain why — and he does that very well. You can see the entire review at his blog here . It is definitely worth the visit. Thanks, Trevor, for adding to the 2009 Shadow Giller archive.

Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo

September 27, 2009

Review copy courtesy WordFest

Review copy courtesy WordFest

One of the great strengths of the Giller Prize, since year one, has been the attention that it has drawn to works by authors who now live in Canada but were born and raised elsewhere — and have chosen to return to those roots in their fiction. Indeed, of 15 winners to date, four meet that description — M. G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe. So it is a delight to report that 2009’s longlist features another title from that tradition — Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo — a book that at this early stage in my longlist reading I very much look forward to seeing on the shortlist.

Born in Ireland and raised in Trinidad, Mootoo has lived in Canada (Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto) for more than 20 years. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, made the Giller short list; her second, He Drown She In The Sea, was IMPAC longlisted — so she is no stranger to international prize competitions.

giller avatarValmiki’s Daughter is set in Trinidad and, as the title suggests, focuses on that island’s Indian community that V.S. Naipul has made familiar to readers internationally. Valmiki Krishnu is a well-off doctor, with two maturing daughters Viveka and Vashti. He also has a private life shrouded in intrigue:

Just before moving onward, you will be hit with a strong, sweet whiff of garlic, scallions and ginger as they are sauteed, a street away, in peanut and sesame oil. You will smell, but you won’t see, The Victory Hotel, which houses The Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant, the best hotel and the best restaurant this side of the oil refinery. The hotel is mostly used by visitors to the island, but it is known to be available on occasion to certain businessmen and professionals who are willing to pay the daily double-room rate for the privacy of their illicit pleasures. The Golden Dragon is where the aldermen, the mayor, and lawyers take their lunch, and where some of the doctors take theirs too. On occasion you will find Dr. Krishnu there. He usually requests one of several private dining suites at the back of the restaurant. He will, of course, not be alone, but the staff is discreet.

Those companions tend to be married, white women but that is not Dr. Krishnu’s biggest secret. He has taken up hunting (at which he is hopeless) because it gives him the chance to retreat to the woods for the weekend with Saul: “These days, Saul was the object of Valmiki’s most powerful and basest desires.” Saul has re-awakened in Dr. Vishnu the passions and memories of his student days and the compromise that he made in abandoning them to pursue a “normal” life.

While Mootoo is careful to indicate that the doctor’s wife, Devika, actively avoids approaching this issue, the author leaves little doubt that the wife is fully aware of it. Indeed, as the early parts of the novel unfold, it is becoming even more threatening. Eldest daughter Viveka is not only mannish in appearance and attitude, she displays no interest in any possible suitor: Has she inherited her father’s “tendencies”? Viveka wants to join a local all-women’s sports club that meets twice a week to play volleyball, immediately arousing her mother’s suspicion:

Devika asked her if she was crazy, wanting to go and play a game in a club that was open to anybody and, of all places, in that part of the city. Whereupon Viveka reminded them that Helen, daughter of their financial adviser, was on a team that played there. Devika had responded, “I don’t care if the Queen’s children play on that court, my children are not playing there. You should know better than asking.”

Those quotes pretty much sum up the tensions around which Mootoo builds her story. There is the tension of class and its requirement for appropriate behavior. There are the tensions of family history and the fear that the failings of the previous generation will be revisited in this one. And, as the novel unfolds, there is the tension of a young woman facing the conflict between what she knows she wants (however “wrong” it might be) and what is expected of her.

That last tension is brought to a head with the arrival back home from Canada of Nayan, son of the local cocoa farming magnate, and his French wife, Anick. Anick brings both North American and European modernism to the stilted culture of upper-class Trinidad; it is not long until her friendship with Viveka brings the hidden issues that all of the Krishnu family want to avoid to the forefront.

While that is a rather slim story line, Mootoo carries it off with aplomb. She has a very perceptive eye for detail, not just in personal relationships but for the surrounding environment as well. And she is adroit at slowly but surely building the stretching of the tensions that are central to the book. Valmiki, Devika and Viveka all become fully-developed characters — as does the story of how each is imprisoned by the social mores that surround them.

The result, for this reader, is a highly successful, thoughtful novel. It is neither earth-shattering, nor post-colonial (the politics of Trinidad and race play almost no part). Rather it is an intriguing study of the internal conflict faced by a young woman and the price that conflict extracts from her family.

(EDIT) A final note about this book — it was originally published in November 2008, too late for last year’s Giller but eligible for this year. The paperback edition will be available in early November. I read an advance copy, thoughtfully provided by WordFest, the Banff-Calgary authors’ festival, where Shani Mootoo will be appearing. It was a finished book, so I’m going to assume that Mootoo’s publishers, Canada’s well-regarded House of Anansi, will be pushing forward the release date now that it has been Giller longlisted. For the sake of eager readers, I certainly hope so — it is a very good book.

Fall, by Colin McAdam

September 25, 2009

Purchased at (click on cover for more info)

Purchased at (click on cover for more info)

Noel is a slow developing, isolated eighteen-year old. A diplomat’s son (his father is Canadian consul in Sydney), he has been at tony St. Ebury private school in Ottawa for some years after biting a chunk out of a fellow student’s arm at his previous school. Noel has a “lazy eye” which led to his nickname (“Wink”), more or less constant teasing and bullying in the long-time practice of teenage persecution of physical disability and, most importantly, his isolation and repressed anger.

St. Ebury serves not just the elite of Ottawa but also the offspring of many of the diplomats assigned to Canada’s capital. One of those students is Julius, son of the U.S. ambassador (a former Vermont governor), whom Noel is lucky enough to have as a roommate in his final high school year. If Noel is angry, Julius is abstactly distant — certainly not engaged with his studies, good at sports but not really caring about them. Even acquiring Noel as a roommate (when as the “star” of the school he would have had his choice) came more by default than anything else.

giller avatarAnd then there is Fallon (the “Fall” of the title). While she is a boarder at the school, she is an Ottawa child, daughter of a divorced mother who lives in luxury in an Ottawa “high tech” suburb (for those who don’t know the city, the tech explosion has created a whole new set of up-scale neighborhoods, described by McAdam as the High Tech Hills). Males outnumber females by about a five-to-one ratio at St. Ebury’s and most of the males are entranced with Fall — it is no surprise therefore that she is Julius’ girlfriend. Noel — surprise, surprise — is obsessed with her. The closest he can come to developing a relationship of any kind is to serve as a go-between when Julius is confined to the dorm as the result of a prank.

That’s pretty much the story of Fall. Colin McAdam’s first novel, Some Great Thing (2004), attracted a lot of attention and won a number of prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. The story of a developer and his struggles, both legal and not-so-legal, to create an Ottawa suburb, that novel looked into the business world in a way that few novelists have dared attempt. I quite liked it and was looking forward to this book — McAdam is a diplomat’s son, raised in cities around the world, so he promised to know whereof he speaks. Alas, for this reader, he has taken a long step backward with Fall, despite its selection to the 2009 Giller longlist.

Here’s a sample of “dialogue” that is a frequent style the author uses in the book — this is actually the first appearance, but the technique keeps popping up to the very end of the book:

When I arrived at St. Ebury everyone said:
“Her father’s an Italian count.”
“Fuck off.”
“They wear gloves when they eat dinner.”
“Her real name is Fallon.”
“Fallon Fitzgerald DeStaad.”
“She’s cold.”
“She’s funny.”
“She’s a bitch.”
“She’s not a real blonde.”
“She’s smart.”
“She’s the smartest in the school.”
“Her father’s high tech.”
“Started IncoTel.”
“Is IncoTel.”
“Was IncoTel, he ditched and made a stinkload.”
“King’s ransom.”
“Mother took it all.”
“They’re divorced.”

That’s only half of the exchange in question, but there is a limit to how much I can ask visitors here to tolerate. McAdam shows no such compassion — while the device actually half works the first few times it shows up, by about page 50 I was dreading the prospect of turning the page and seeing him head off into the tactic yet again. The book alternates between Noel and Julius as the narrator (with occasional sections also from William, the U.S. ambassador’s chauffeur, used to fill in background gaps that the author can’t figure out how else to introduce) — all of Julius’ sections are in this “style”. It may be the first time I ever found myself hoping for a run-on sentence.

Next to the prose problems, the biggest weakness of the book is probably the near-total vapidness of the three central characters. While they have friends, none of those get developed — unusually for a “school” novel no teacher or master features in the book. Noel is confused and angry and comes closest to being fully realized, but even that isn’t much. Julius is just chilling along, not much concerned about what he might become. As for Fall, when Noel reads her notes to Julius in his role as go-between, even the enthralled would-be lover finds her amazingly shallow, although he assumes she will be a far fuller person when she falls in love with him.

So the book has to be about plot (or perhaps teenage sex). There is an event that occurs about halfway through the book that does make the latter half somewhat better than the first. To say anymore at all in the review is a true spoiler. I’ll be happy to discuss it in comments if anyone is interested.

I’ve said on this blog before that I am a sucker for “school” novels. Richard Yates’ The Good School and John Knowles’ A Separate Peace are two outstanding examples of the genre. A few months ago, I reviewed Christine Schutt’s All Souls and E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (usually categorized as a Young Adult book) with much enthusiasm. I admit now that I read the first few chapters of Fall then, thinking about a triple review — and put it down because it was simply not up to snuff compared to the other two. Having now read the entire book, that judgment is confirmed. If you like “school” novels, any of those four (and numerous others) is a better choice than Fall.

I don’t know what this year’s Giller jury saw in this book to include it in the longlist — it is not that it is a bad book, it is just that it certainly is not a good one. As I indicated above, McAdam showed significant promise with his first novel. I do hope this one is just a temporary retreat from that.

Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler

September 23, 2009

KfC's 1997 copy

KfC's 1997 copy

Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) enjoys a well-deserved international reputation. The author of 10 adult novels and numerous other works (including three children’s books), he has come to be regarded as a voice who captured the Jewish — and indeed, non-Francophone — experience in Quebec (most particularly with Duddy Kravitz, but also Solomon Gursky) in a way that no other author even approached.

For those of who lived in Canada during his “mature” period, it is also true that Mordecai the person slowly, but surely, overtook Mordecai the author. He was a boulevardier whose exploits in the bars and streets of Montreal could not be ignored. He became a curmudgeon of the first order — unfailingly charming with some, insufferably rude with others. And his distaste for the separatists of Quebec was legendary, even though he could hardly be called an advocate of federalism. Nothing was too sacred for Mordecai to piss upon.

giller avatarBarney’s Version won the fourth Giller Prize in 1997. It was to be Richler’s last novel, published only four years before his death. Any reading of it now would seem to indicate that Richler was fully aware that this was his last work of fiction and that he would waste no opportunity in exploiting this last chance. He did not, in spades.

There is a plot to Barney’s Version. Barney Panofsky, at the age of 67, is putting pen to paper for the first time to write his autobiography, motivated by the looming publication of another autobiography from his long time nemesis, Terry McIver, whom he first met way back in 1950 in Paris. Barney is a wealthy producer of television commercials, industrial films and general schlock. He is also in the early, well perhaps advanced, stages of senile dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s. While he admits, grudgingly, that he is by definition only an occasionally-reliable narrator, he has a lot of axes to grind, dating back almost a half century, which he has every intention of doing in this manuscript. And grind them he does.

The novel is structured in three parts, devoted to each of Barney’s three wives. The first, Clara, he married while in Paris in the early 1950s. A hopeless artist and poet at the time, Clara committed suicide — she has gone on to become a feminist icon in the 1990s when Barney is writing this book. The second, known throughout the book only as the Second Mrs. Panofsky, was a result of Barney’s attempt to go straight. That did not last long as Barney fell in love with the third, Miriam, at his wedding reception. Miriam, the mother of his three children (one of whom edited this autobiography, complete with correcting footnotes) left him a few years ago but Barney is still convinced that he can win her back.

Oh, and there may be a murder involved, for which Barney was charged, found not guilty in the eyes of the law, but not society. It is a sign of his memory loss that even he is not sure whether or not he actually did it. You will have to read the book to find out.

And if you think that is what Barney’s Version is about, then there is some wonderful land in a swamp in Florida that I would love to sell you. This rather long excerpt is a much better illustration of the book:

Yes, carbon paper, if any of you out there are old enough to remember what that was. Why, in those days we not only used carbon paper, but when you phoned somebody you actually got an answer from a human being on the other end, not an answering machine with a ho, ho, ho message. In those olden times you didn’t have to be a space scientist to manage the gadget that flicked your TV on and off, that ridiculous thingamabob that now comes with twenty push buttons, God knows what for. Doctors made house calls. Rabbis were guys. Kids were raised by their moms instead of in child-care pens like piglets. Software meant haberdashery. There wasn’t a different dentist for gums, molars, fillings, and extractions — one nerd managed the lot. If a waiter spilled hot soup on your date, the manager offered to pay her cleaning bill and sent over drinks, and she didn’t sue for a kazillion dollars, claiming “loss of enjoyment of life”. If the restaurant was Italian it still served something called spaghetti, often with meatballs. It was not yet pasta with smoked salmon, or linguini in all the colours of the rainbow, or penne topped with a vegeterian steaming pile that looked like dog sick. I’m ranting again. Digressing. Sorry about that.

You can open this book almost anywhere in the first 350 pages and find that curmudgeon at play. Boulevardier? Note the Romeo y Julietta cigar on the book cover — Montecristo’s, Cabana’s and others are featured throughout the book. Barney drinks a lot of Macallan single malt (Richler’s favorite), but many other malts (and cognac and champagne) also get consumed. Food? Lots of pate, escargot and oysters in the opening Paris section, but a continuing thread of medium fat brisket, latkes and knishes in the Montreal section. Part of figuring out this book is to know how to rank your cigars, whisky and food — the place on the scale of the indulgence being consumed (be it cigar, whisky or food) is a reliable indicator of how seriously you should treat that particular subject.

All of which is to say that, despite the existence of the plot, this novel is Richler unloading on the world. It is not a double-barrelled shotgun, it is one with at least eight barrels, and very wide-ranging shot. Nothing escapes it: Hemmingway, Pierre Trudeau, the separatistes, Israel, feminists, the Montreal Canadiens, many movies, Toronto (oh my god, Toronto), British semi-aristocrats — the list is endless. Another example:

I understand why our most perspicacious men of letters object to the current trend in biography, its mean practitioners revelling in the carve-up of genius. But the truth is, nothing delights me more than a biography of one of the truly great that proves he or she was an absolute shit. I’m a sucker for studies of those who, in the words of that friend of Auden’s (not MacNeice, not Isherwood, the other guy) “…travelled a short while toward the sun/And left vivid air signed with honour.” But took no prisoners en route, now the facts are known. Say, the story of T.S. Eliot having his first wife locked up in the bin, possibly because she had written some of his best lines. Or a book that delivers the dirt on Thomas Jefferson, who kept slaves and provided the prettiest one with an unacknowledged child. (“How is it,” asked Dr. Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty amongst the drivers of the negroes?”) Or reveals that Martin Luther King was a plagiarist and a compulsive fucker of white women. Or that Admiral Byrd, one of my boyhood heroes, was actually a smooth-talking liar, a terrible navigator, an air traveller so frightened of flying that he was frequently drunk while others did the piloting, and a man who never hesitated to take unearned credit. Or tells how F.D.R. cheated on Eleanor. Or that J.F.K. didn’t really write Profiles in Courage. Or how Bobby Clarke slashed Kharlamov across the ankles, taking out the better player in that first thriller of a hockey series against the incredible Russians. Or that Dylan Thomas was a shnorrer born. Or that Sigmund Freud faked some of his case notes. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

How many icons can you insult in one paragraph (and I haven’t even quoted the whole paragraph)? I’d say this book sets the record. Nothing escapes Richler’s ire. And then, in the final 75 pages, he remembers that he has a plot — and he delivers on that plot.

I liked this book when I first read it 13 years ago — I’ll admit, I was mesmerized by it this time around. I suspect that is because I am edging closer to Barney’s age (and I’ve drunk my share of single malts, etc., and am starting to forget names). If you have read Richler and enjoyed him, Barney’s Version is a book not to be missed. If you haven’t read Richler, don’t start here — there are simply too many inside jokes (and I’m not sure how well it travels outside of Canada). Go instead to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or Solomon Gursky Was Here. And when they talk about Philip Roth and Saul Bellow as great authors, once you have read those two novels, you will join me in saying “And what about Mordecai Richler?”

A final warning. Canadian “movie mogul” Robert Lantos (would Richler ever love that!) optioned rights for this book a few years ago and it would appear the movie may actually get made next year. Do not, on any account, wait for the movie. It might be quite good in its way, but it will be a pale reflection of the book.

Giller Prize 2009 longlist and the Shadow Jury

September 21, 2009

scotiabank_giller_logoThe Giller Prize longlist is out, with some entirely predictable choices (Margaret Atwood, Anne Michaels); a number of surprises (small publishing houses did well this year) and some even more surprising omissions (previous winner Bonnie Burnard’s Suddenly, Michael Crummey’s Galore and Lisa Moore’s February all come to mind). You can find the list at the newly-revamped Scotiabank Giller Prize site here — an even better list where you can click through to publisher blurbs is at here.

(EDIT: Shadow Giller judge Trevor Berrett has posted a review of Michael Crummey's Galore. It does a very good job of showing why Galore missed the longlist.)

I have only read and reviewed two of the books that made the longlist — Anne Michaels The Winter Vault and Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared. While I found the first half of the Michaels to be strong, I certainly thought the book lost its way in the second half. I think the Echlin book was a very interesting and worthwhile concept — I’m not sure the execution was completely successful.

The Shadow Giller jury does not attempt to have every member read all of the longlist; this year offers a good example of why. The Canadian publishing season is “back-end loaded” with fall releases and, even more important, Giller longlists in good years pay attention to small publishers (I’d say four on this year’s list). So here is what our approach will be:

— I have Colin McAdam’s Fall and Paulette Jiles The Colour of Lightning on hand and Shani Mootoo’s Valmiki’s Daughter was ordered already but isn’t scheduled for publication until Nov. 1 (I’ll try to find an ARC somewhere), so watch out for those three here.
— Neither Alison Gzowski nor I have a taste for Margaret Atwood’s “speculative” fiction so we have asked fellow judge Trevor Berrett to be our first round reader of The Year of the Flood. He will post on his blog (The Mookse and the Gripes) and I will link from here when he does. I’ve agreed that if Trevor thinks the book is good and is a legitimate contender I will overcome my distaste and give it a try.
— Alison will read Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing and Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report. Alison doesn’t blog, but we will find a way of posting her thoughts here.
— I’ll be ordering the remaining three — Claire Holden Rothman’s The Heart Specialist, Jeannette Lynes’ The Factory Voice and Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man — so we will try to offer at least one reader’s opinion on each longlist title at some point, although I’m not sure we can meet that Oct. 6 shortlist deadline.

We will do our best to give you a full rundown and reviews once the shortlist is announced. Given that the two “names” — Atwood and Michaels — seem to have produced rather weak books, it looks to be a wide open Giller this year. If you have read any of the titles, your thoughts are certainly welcome. Happy Giller reading.

The Book of Secrets, by M. G. Vassanji

September 17, 2009

KfC's 1994 edition

KfC's 1994 edition

Sixteen years ago, the Giller Prize was just an interesting idea. Canadian book review readers were certainly familiar with the name of the late Doris Giller, from her work in both Montreal and Toronto; her husband, Jack Rabinovitch, had established Canada’s richest fiction prize ($25,000) in her memory. It is probably fair to say that in the days leading up to the first prize announcement more attention was paid to Jack’s other “prize” gesture — it would be announced at an invitation-only dinner in Toronto’s ritzy Four Seasons Hotel ballroom. The Giller is now firmly established, not just in Canada, but globally. And an invite to that dinner from which the prize ceremony is now nationally televised is one of the most sought after honors in Canada’s literary and reading community.

giller avatarOne reason for all of the attention to the dinner rather than the books was that the original shortlist did not feature a book from a Canadian “name” author. The first shortlist:

— Bonnie Burnard, Casino and Other Stories, her second book. She would win the 1999 Giller with A Good House and her fourth book, Suddenly, is eligible this year.
— Eliza Clark, What You Need, another second book. Clark has published three novels since, none of which have attracted much attention.
— Shyam Selvadurai, Funny Boy, a first novel. The Sri Lankan-born followed it with the well-received Cinnamon Gardens and later won a children’s and young readers’ Lambda Literary award for Swimming in the Monsoon Sea.
— Steve Weiner, The Museum of Love, another debut novel. As far as I can tell, he has written only one since (The Yellow Sailor) — I have not read either.
— M. G. Vassanji, The Book of Secrets, his third novel and the eventual winner. He would win again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, joining Alice Munro as the only two-time Giller winners.

While nobody knew it at the time, that initial list would establish some patterns that have recurred in the following years. Virtually every shortlist has featured a short story collection, unlike the Booker Prize which does not consider them. There is almost always a debut novel or collection. Small publishers tend to be well represented. Writers born and raised elsewhere with books set outside Canada often do well (think Rohinton Mistry for A Fine Balance, the second winner). And, for those who want to be grumpy, despite all this, the winner is usually an established author — Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Mordecai Richler, for example. Vincent Lam is the only winner with a debut book (Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, 2006).

As part of the 2009 Shadow Giller project, I was intrigued at the prospect of revisiting this first winner. A post-colonial novel, set in British East Africa, pre World War I, but extending into the 1980s — how would it hold up 16 years later? The answer is a guarded very well — it is not a great book but was certainly worth the reread.

The framework for A Book of Secrets is an investigation by Pius Fernandes, a Goanese teacher who has spent his working life in Africa and remained in Tanganyika after independence and his retirement. A former student who now supports him has given him a diary that he has found (the book of secrets of the title) from a British administrator based in British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1913. While the novel is set in Africa and the politics are both imperial and post-colonial, it does not have a lot of black Africans in it. Rather, it centres on the relationships between the colonial masters and the first diaspora from the Raj, with exploration of the consequences that these non-native servants of the imperial masters faced when the British withdrew. It is a subject the author knows well — Vassanji was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania and came to Canada in 1978, part of the second diaspora for those Indian immigrants who are at the centre of the story.

Part one of the book centres on the administrator, Arthur Corbin, and what he has recorded in that diary. Vassanji uses this section to explore how the colonial masters ruled (confusedly, a mix of attempted understanding and a very iron fist) and to establish the uncertain position of those Indian immigrants. They are essential to the functioning of the empire and control most of the commerce, but this is not their “home”, as they are frequently reminded. That sense of dislocation, isolation and powerlessness will become a dominant theme of the novel.

We are also introduced to Mariamu, an intriguing mixed-blood female, who will also become a thread for the rest of the book. Corbin actually spots her on his arrival at his first post; she eventually becomes a servant in his household and perhaps more. The section closes with Mariamu’s botched wedding night to Pipa, who will become the focus on part two of the story.

That first section also closes with the arrival of the war — while Britain controlled what is now Kenya, Germany controlled Tanganyika, so like it or not these people are part of the war. For both the Africans and the Indian economic class, this is a source of much confusion since the boundary between the two territories is totally arbitrary to their customs and life. The author uses this section to tell Pipa’s story, both how he wandered through much of this part of Africa in his early life, but also to illustrate the customs, rules and controls the immigrant class placed on its members. In this world, the masters might have the ultimate power but, particularly during the war, that is not the only power. Indeed, in this period it is more of distraction than anything else for the people who have to live there.

Pipa and Mariamu have a son before she is brutally attacked and murdered, a curiously light-colored son. From this point on, that son (he styles himself as Prince Aly Khan) and the teacher Fernandes pick up the story. The framework of the diary is always there but Vassanji is now in post-imperial territory — having outlined what produced these people, he explores how they deal with the post-colonial world. In typical form for this author, he has loaded a Pandora’s box with a wealth of plot lines and slowly, but very surely, brings them all to a conclusion.

Vassnji’s two best novels (this one and Vikram Lall) are a study in how an author can create numerous layers of both plot and meaning in a book. The cast of characters is not only large, the relationships between them and the forces that act upon them are equally complex. He is not easy to read (that’s one reason you aren’t seeing any quotes in the review — he is a story builder and teller, not a “writer”) but at his best he is a master at both maintaining and resolving that complexity. While this book does stumble at times in the middle section (building all that complexity becomes a bit tedious reading at times), if you can get past that, the concluding pages of this book are as well-written and moving as any I have read in a long time.

The Giller was off to a fine start, with a winning book that remains relevant to this day — the revisit exceeded my expectations and they were pretty high going in. The longlist for year 16 will be announced on Monday and I’ll offer a commentary here along with an explanation of how this year’s Shadow Giller jury (Trevor Berrett from themookseandthegripes and Alison Gzowski join KfC on this year’s shadow jury) intends to go about its work. Do come back.

The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick

September 14, 2009

ozick4Regular visitors to this blog will know that American author Cynthia Ozick is a favorite. Her four story collection, Dictation, a quartet, was one of the first books reviewed here. An enthusiastic review of Heir to the Glimmering World followed a few months later. Knowledgable readers were probably wondering why I was overlooking her masterpiece, The Shawl, and in fact I wasn’t — a review was simply waiting the appropriate moment and that moment has now arrived.

First published in 1980, The Shawl, is a powerful story of only eight pages. Three years later, Ozick returned to the same characters and subject — only in a setting more than 30 years later and an ocean and a continent away — with the novella, Rosa, an admittedly risky tactic. The author succeeded magnificently. Cost conscious readers may question buying a 70-page volume; you can rest assured that you will get full value from this incredible piece of writing.

The Shawl is set on the trek to and inside a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Rosa, her infant daughter Magda and Rosa’s niece Stella are the three human characters but the dominant image is that of the shawl in which Magda is not only wrapped but from which she draws all her sustenance:

Without complaining, Magda relinquished Rosa’s teats, first the left, then right; both were cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead. She sucked and sucked, flooding the threads with wetness. The shawl’s good flavor, milk of linen.

Magda actually survives to become a toddler in the camp, but again it is the shawl that is the source of life and protection. Children would be taken away and disposed of, so each morning when roll-call is announced Rosa wraps her in the shawl and tucks her against the wall. Until one day Stella is cold and wraps herself in the shawl, Magda wanders and the inevitable murder takes place. When you read the closing sentences of the story, it is not hard to understand why the later novella demanded to be written.

Rosa is set in Florida in 1977. By now, Rosa is “a madwoman and a scavenger” who lives in a Miami “hotel” (better described as the permanent last residence of lost souls and the demented). She had lived in New York, running a second-hand shop until the pressure of her memories caused her to destroy the place — the newspapers said it was with an ax, but she said it was simply with whatever was at hand (“Part with a big hammer,….part with a piece of construction metal I picked up from the gutter”). She avoided incarceration only when Stella agreed to ship her out of state. While Stella is now supporting her, the two are not getting along any better. And Rosa hates Florida:

It seemed to Rosa Lublin that the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing. They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty rib cages.

There is a glimmer of hope in this existence as Stella is supposed to be sending, finally, Magda’s shawl. It is while she is experiencing the expectant anxiety of this that Rosa comes to the attention of Simon Persky, another Polish refugee but from the pre-war years (“My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,” she tells him several times). He wants to pick her up and his efforts bring forward Rosa’s tensions to provoke a flood of painful memories and, because of his persistance, some needed explanations:

“My niece Stella,” Rosa slowly gave out, “says that in America cats have nine lives, but we — we’re less than cats, so we get three. The life before, the life during, the life after.” She saw that Persky did not follow. She said, “The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born.”

“And during?”

“This was Hitler.”

“Poor Lublin,” Persky said.

“You wasn’t there. From the movies you know it.”

I certainly wasn’t there either and it is true that it is from the movies (and the books) that I know it. And I will admit that there are times when the sheer volume of Holocaust film and literature makes it seem too daunting to pick up another volume.

That does not apply with these two pieces — The Shawl and Rosa tell a story with tenderness to underline the pathos, with understanding to offset the tragedy. They do it in prose that is as accomplished as any that you will read anywhere. They deserve their reputation as masterpieces.

A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark

September 10, 2009

Purchased from (click cover for more info)

Purchased from (click cover for more info)

Just as there are horses for courses, there are books that are particularly suited for certain reading moods. Having finished the last of the Booker longlist, I was eager for a book that could be described as enjoyable and entertaining, while still being challenging. I was hoping for a grumpy, but likeable, central character; a story line that kept my attention focused and, in a perfect world, a setting that brought back personal memories.

A Far Cry From Kensington had been ordered a few months back in anticipation of just such a reading mood. Muriel Spark wrote 22 novels in her lifetime and many years ago I had read a few (but only remember The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and that probably because of the movie). I do remember that as a young man who eagerly awaited the arrival of the New Yorker each week, a story from Spark or Mavis Gallant or J.D. Salinger automatically meant it was a good week.

This slim, tightly-written novel (it clocks in at 194 pages in a wonderful Virago Modern Classics edition published in 2008) met all my objectives. First published in 1988, it is a memory novel told in the first person — the central character, Mrs Hawkins (now Nancy), is looking back more than 30 years to post-war London, when she lived in a rooming house in South Kensington and worked in “publishing”.

Ali Smith in her introduction picks out a segment that captures the author’s intent so well that I make no apology for repeating it:

Can you decide to think? — Yes, you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time. You can sit peacefully in front of a black television set, just watching nothing; and sooner or later you can make your own programme much better than the mass product. It’s fun, you should try it. You can put anyone you like on the screen, alone or in company, saying and doing what you want them to do, with yourself in the middle if you prefer it that way.

More than 20 years on, that remains very good advice. Even better, however, is when an author does that work for you and delivers a volume that lets you come along for the ride. Casting her mind back, Spark describes her character from the ‘fifties:

Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs Hawkins. This seemed so natural to me and was obviously so natural to those around me that I never, at the time, thought of insisting otherwise. I was a war-widow, Mrs Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

This memory conveniently overlooks an even more important aspect of Mrs Hawkins’ character: a commitment to the truth and a refusal to abandon it. She is employed at a struggling London publishing house and is being watched and beset by an aspiring author, Hector Bartlett, whose cause has been taken up by a “name” author, Emma Loy, who may be the most valuable asset that the firm has.

Bartlett stops Mrs. Hawkins in Green Park one day as she makes her way to work. Her resistance cracks and she informs him that he is a ‘pisseur de copie’, translated as “a urinator of frightful prose”, an indictment that results in the loss of her job hours later. Loy and Bartlett will continue to haunt her for the rest of the novel; her refusual to abandon that judgment of him (he never does get published until he self-publishes many years later) will continue to cause its own problems.

That is not the only plot line in the book — most of the rest centre around the other inhabitants of the three-story South Kensington house where Mrs Hawkins lives. While I am sure it is a very tony residence now (and even was when Spark wrote the book), part of the beauty of the novel is the way that it captures the hopes and challenges of a generation that had just emerged from war and now were struggling to build a new Britain.

Wanda the dressmaker is one of them, a Polish refugee who rarely leaves the house but does do what seems to be a reasonable trade from her room — her sewing machine, now paid for, is her prized possession. It is no spoiler to say that the evil Bartlett (he is a pisseur in more ways than one) will find a way to use her in his campaign to ruin Mrs Hawkins.

Sparks takes time along the way for a number of rewarding set pieces. Drinks at Grosvenor House on Park Lane. A couple of American homosexuals who have fled the McCarthy era to set up a literary magazine in London. And many more.

Enjoyable, entertaining and challenging enough that after completing a first read in one session, I went back to page one and started the reread immediately. Highly recommended. And I think I will be exploring more of Muriel Sparks’ backlist as a result.

KfC’s Booker shortlist predictions

September 3, 2009

Tuesday is Booker shortlist day, so here are two lists of predictions to contemplate and comment on over the weekend — my personal top six and a look at what I think will be the judges’ shortlist. My list is in order of preference (click on the title for an expanded review); the predicted list is in order of what I think is the likelihood of the book making the official list.

mawerThe Glass Room, Simon Mawer

It has been some months since I read this book, but it remains my favorite. An interesting premise — a house is the central character in the novel — with equally interesting human characters who pass through the house in a 50-year period. Mawer does have to push coincidence to make the plot work, but I am willing to grant him that licence. I will be rereading it whether or not it makes the real shortlist. Also, it has the best cover on the longlist.

toibinBrooklyn, Colm Toibin

Another selection from early in my Booker reading that I look forward to rereading. This one has got better with memory, as well as some perceptive reviews that I have read since. Toibin’s central character, Eilie, is interesting because she is so passive and let’s others make her choices for her — the result of these choices was impressive the first time around and has grown in memory.

coetzeeSummertime, J.M. Coetzee

In contrast to the first two, this was the last of the 13 longlist books that I read and it was worth the wait. It will not be to everyone’s taste since it is an exploration of the author’s history and what influenced him — and the impact that he had on others. A book that can be read on many different levels and certainly a contender to produce the first three-time winning Booker author. The least imaginative, but perhaps most significant cover, on the longlist — the echoes of the pick-up truck here with the dog on the road in Disgrace are haunting.

trevorLove and Summer, William Trevor

Trevor’s economy of writing (a contrast to both Hilary Mantel and A. S. Byatt) and his subtlety make him a master of the short story but translate well to this challenging novel, a study in tragedy in an isolated Irsh community. It took two readings to appreciate what he accomplished and the book has its contradictions, but it definitely rates shortlist consideration.

watersThe Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

Waters’ book moved up my list as I read more of the longlist. The publisher has marketed it as a ghost story, which is fair on one level but was misleading to this reader. A structure, the declining Hundreds Hall, is also at the centre of this book but the novel focuses on the decline of everyone involved with that estate — most particularly, the narrator, Dr. Faraday, who doesn’t even live there. Waters keeps her story moving and leaves the reader pondering just what exactly happened — and the reader has a number of choices.

hallHow to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall

This one is well behind the first five and in a near tie with James Scudamore’s Helioplis. I like art and two of Hall’s four narrative streams in particular explore the stories of fictional artists with international reputations. Like Summmertime it explores the link between the creative person and the price they extract from those who are close to them. I certainly recommend it but it won’t be my top choice.
Also, given the potential of the subject matter, this is the worst cover in the longlist.

That was the easy part. Now for some thoughts on the Real Booker shortlist. I thought this year’s jury did a very good job of producing a list of readable titles that covered a number of genres, writing styles and approaches — had they included Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows instead of Not Untrue & Not Unkind and Me Cheeta I would have had nothing to criticize on the list. I am going to assume they will take the same ranging approach to the shortlist.

Since there are six “name” authors on the longlist, that means a couple will have to drop off to put some lesser-known authors on it, if my theory is correct. I’ve built that into my predictions.

mantel1. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s Tudor doorstopper did not appeal to me, but even I can recognize that I am out of step on this one, particularly since the jury’s longlist does display a certain UK tilt. I would be very surprised if this book is not on the shortlist and not very surprised if it wins. I would not even complain that much because I know that sometimes my tastes are not really representative.

2. Summertime, J.M. Coetzee. Simply too good a book to keep off the shortlist, but I suspect its limited appeal will keep it from winning.

3. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin. In some ways, this book is already in competition with Love and Summer because they have some similar themes and only one can win so the jury may take that decision at this stage. I think the broader scope of this one moves it ahead — on the other hand, Booker juries don’t seem to like books set in America unless they mock it (see Vernon God Little) so the judges may well opt for the Trevor.

4. The Glass Room, Simon Mawer. Too good a book to be overlooked.

5. The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt. Another doorstopper that I did not like (but can see how it appeals to others). If my jury shortlist theory is correct, it is competing with The Little Stranger for a shortlist spot. I’d love to see Waters move forward, I don’t think she will.

6. How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall. Even if my theory is correct, this spot is a roll of the dice — either The Wilderness , The Quickening Maze or Heliopolis could take this spot. Which suggests that the two contests I thought about earlier (Toibin/Trevor, Byatt/Waters) could fill this final spot. I certainly hope the judges promote one of these four lesser known novelists to the shortlist.

Comments on where I am grossly wrong are certainly welcome. I am sure on Tuesday I will be making a post explaining the errors in the above, but do hope you enjoyed the read.

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