Archive for October, 2009

Trevor reviews Fall

October 13, 2009

U.S. cover

U.S. cover

The Shadow Giller jury is now in full swing, with Trevor Berrett’s review of Colin McAdam’s Fall. Here is a teaser from Shadow juror Trevor’s review:

Most of the book is told either in the first person by Noel, who is looking back, or in a stream of consciousness by Julius, who is very much in the moment. Julius is well liked at school. Noel is bookish and insular and, we’ll find out soon enough, downright creepy. To make things worse for Noel, he has a twitch in one of his eyes, earning him the nickname Wink. The only reason Noel and Julius are roommates is because everyone thought Julius would already have a roommate, so they got someone else. Noel was who was left over when it turned out Julius didn’t have a roommate. For almost a year Julius has been dating the beautiful Fall, and they seem to be developing a genuine loving relationship for a couple as young as they are. In the meantime, Julius and Noel have come to confide in one another. A friendship might even be budding. Noel is thrilled when he and Julius together pull a prank on another student. Only Julius is caught, and he doesn’t implicate Noel. In the ensuing punishment, Julius asks Noel if he’ll relay notes to Fall for him.

Canadian cover

Canadian cover

You can find the full review at the Mookse and the Gripes here. And you can check out KfC’s earlier review of the book here. I must say the Americans got a better-looking cover than we Canadians did, but those of us who know the Ottawa River (which is quite relevant to the plot of the book) know that it looks nothing at all like the U.S. cover and certainly has no railway tracks running along it.

2009 Giller shortlist; Booker winner

October 6, 2009

Well, both halves of today’s book prize announcements confirm past practice — KevinfromCanada and prize juries don’t have much in common. I liked Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room for the Booker but Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall wins — not really a surprise when you consider the historical novels that were on the short list. As for the Giller, of the four books I listed as my favorites in a comment yesterday, not one made the 2009 Giller Prize shortlist (although the two I had tied for fifth both did). I’m still quite happy with the list, admittedly because it does not include Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, a book that I was very much not looking forward to reading. Four of the five have been reviewed here — the fifth has been read by Shadow juror Alison Gzowski and I’ll try to get a full review up here next week. The shortlist:

echlinThe Disappeared, Kim Echlin

A young Montreal woman falls in love with a Cambodian and follows him back to his home during the era of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. A very readable book, perhaps lacking in depth for me — I read it some months ago when it first appeared so I may need to revisit it before Nov. 10 prize day. Full review here.

lyonThe Golden Mean, Anabel Lyon

A story concerning Aristotle and his young pupil, Alexander (not yet The Great), it is the only finalist that I have not read. Shadow jury member Alison Gzowski has and here are thumbnail thoughts: “The golden mean is the perfect balance between extremes, and in this case Aristotle and Alexander are those extremes, a lonely man of ideas, an immoderate young man of action. There’s a “cast in order of appearance” at the front (a list of the characters and how they relate) as the beginning does introduce quite a number. The main ones though are Aristotle, his wife and of course Alexander. Lyon does a good job of putting the reader in that place and time and, as reviewers have noted, of getting inside Aristotle’s head. I liked the women in the book – Aristotle’s wife Pythias and their tart-tongued slave.” I’ll try to get my review up as quickly as possible.

macintyreThe Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre

A novel that has become very topical — the real-life Bishop of Antigonish (who is the fictional bishop of the title) resigned recently after being charged with two counts of possessing pornography. The bishop’s man of the title is an “exorcist” responsible for disciplining wayward priests. That chore and his return to a parish in his native Cape Breton Island have produced a crisis of confidence and identity, surfacing a number of past conflicts. I didn’t love it by any means but can certainly see its appeal . Full review here.

mcadamFall, Colin McAdam

A “school” novel set in Ottawa, the central character is 17-year old Noel, son of a Canadian diplomat, and his relationship with Julius, the son of the U.S. ambassador to Canada. The “Fall” of the title is Fallon, the beautiful female student whom most of the male students have crushes on. I like school novels (and McAdam’s first novel as well) and was quite looking forward to it — for me, however, the execution did not work and this was the most disappointing of the four shortlist books that I have read. Full review here..

michaelsThe Winter Vault, Anne Michaels

Avery Escher is an engineer, in charge of moving the temple of Abu Simbel from its original location on the Nile which will be flooded when the Aswan Dam is completed. Many communities also need to be resettled. His Canadian wife, Jean, is with him — the two had met on a somewhat similar project, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada, which also dislocated communities. The second part of the book moves to Toronto and, in its own way, explores the dislocation of Warsaw caused by the Nazis. I found the first part strong, the latter weak — it has been many months since I read it and I do plan a reread in the next few weeks. Full original review here.

Shadow Giller international judge Trevor Berrett has not read any of these books but is eager to meet the challenge in the next five weeks and will be posting reviews on his blog, The Mookse and the Gripes. I will be posting excerpts from his reviews here (along with some additional comments of my own) and our fellow Shadow juror Alison will offer occasional comments on both sites. Comments from visitors — on books already reviewed here and on Trevor’s reviews — are certainly welcome. The Shadow Giller jury will be announcing its winner in advance of the Real Giller decision on Nov. 10.

Hilary Mantel has won the 2009 Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. I did not like the book but cannot say that I am surprised at the decision — when three long historical novels are on the short list, you have to think that represents the jury’s taste. I can certainly understand why people like the book, but it is not one that suits my taste. On the other hand, that is a question of taste not judgment — if you like historical fiction, it is a fine book.

The Heart Specialist, by Claire Holden Rothman

October 5, 2009

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I owe a debt of gratitude to the 2009 jury for the Nobel Prize for Medicine for providing a timely lead to this review. Today they announced that the 2009 medicine Nobel goes to three Americans — Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak — for their work on chromosomes. Blackburn and Greider become only the ninth and tenth women (out of a total of 192 laureates) to win the prize since it was first awarded in 1901. Indeed, the first female winner in the category — Gerty Cori — was not named until 1947.

So, you may rightfully ask, what on earth does that have to do with a blog that reviews literary fiction?

The Heart Specialist, by Claire Holden Rothman, was inspired by the real life story of Dr. Maude Abbot, one of the first female physicians in Montreal (at almost the same time as the first Nobel was awarded). Holden Rothman makes it clear that her heroine, Agnes White, is an inspiration, not a representation, of Dr. Abbot — but one of the central themes in this thoroughly rewarding novel is the immense difficulty that Canadian women faced in taking their rightful place in the scientific world as the nineteenth century came to a close. As the Nobel numbers above indicate, that struggle continues more than a century later.

giller avatarRegular visitors to this blog probably have noted that KfC has some problems with historical novels as a genre. I struggled to finish both Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, two 600-plus page blockbusters on this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, either of which may claim the prize when it is announced tomorrow. How did Holden Rothman succeed for this reader in her first novel (she has published two short story collections) when those two renowned novelists failed?

First, and most important, she made the novel Agnes White’s story (and she manages to tell it in only 325 pages). While breaking new ground for women in medicine is the constant framework for the story, it is only a framework. Agnes is introduced in a prelude, a memory of a moment that occured just before she turned five. She awakes to find her scandal-ridden doctor father — recently accused, but cleared, of murdering his crippled sister — weeping over her as he prepares to depart forever. It is a moment that she will never forget:

For the longest time I felt that I had chased my father away. My tears had sent him running. His face had been there one moment and then, after I shut my eyes and wept, he was gone. A child’s logic, I suppose, but logic nonetheless. What if I had kept still, I later could not help thinking. What if I had reached out my childish arms to embrace him? From that day on I lived with one thought paramount in my mind. I would find my dark, sad father and win him back. Though I could not claim to have known him well, and my first memory of him was almost my last, it did not matter. His face stayed with me through the years, as clear as on that night in January when he went away.

That introduces the first of Agnes’ motivations but it is another memory that drives what will become the quest of her working life. Her father’s specialty (he was a professor at McGill University before being released as a result of the scandal) was “morbid anatomy” and he kept a “Death Room” at home where he did dissections. When her mother died a few years after her father’s disappearance, Agnes managed to hide away his microscope and a box of slides — when the proper novel opens, at the age of 11 she has established her own dissection room in her grandmother’s barn (although she is working on animals, not humans, at this point). Her grandmother guardian wants all elements of her father erased from her life; a sympathetic governess, on the other hand, encourages Agnes’ interest in science.

She is smart and wins a full scholarship to McGill. She is equally successful there and passes her bachelor’s with flying colors. Agnes, and four other women, want to become the first female students ever in McGill’s medical school. Told that $250,000 must be raised to cover the extra costs of educating the women (they can’t share classes with males, after all), she succeeds with the help of some well-connected Montreal matrons. The entrance committee still refuses her entry, in a unanimous vote.

Agnes eventually graduates from Bishop’s University (a distant second to McGill as Montreal’s other English language school) as a doctor, but her fledgling practice is minuscule — people don’t go to women doctors. One of the professors at Bishop’s who had taken her under his wing is now dean of medicine at McGil. He offers her a job as custodian of McGill’s medical museum.

I am foreshortening the story dreadfully, but Agnes soon discovers that many of the preserved body parts (particularly hearts) in the museum are, in fact, from her father’s old collection. They have been provided by a former student of her father, Dr. William Howlett, who is now a rising star at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, arguably that country’s best medical school at the time. Howlett also happened to be on the McGill entrance committee that rejected her. To the obsessions of finding her father and her role in science, Agnes adds a third — impressing and serving this new mentor to her cause. The irony of a feminist being driven by two male models is not lost on the reader. What other choice is there?

Howlett certainly helps, in his way, and Agnes begins to acquire an international reputation. A particularly good part of the book, which I don’t have the space to explore in detail in this review, comes with the arrival of the Great War. Most of the McGill medical school heads off to set up a Canadian field hospital on the war front. Agnes is conflicted — she would like to go and do her patriotic part, yet the very absence of all those people has suddenly made her an attractive visiting international expert in the U.S. (still not in the war). Holden Rothman does a particularly good job of exploring how the war-driven need to expand the role of women creates its own internal conflict for the women involved — a theme that is also present in another Giller longlist book, Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice (reviewed here).

Agnes White becomes a fully-developed character as all this unfolds — that for me is the major difference between my reaction to this novel as opposed to Mantel and Byatt. Instead of characters merely serving the historical story, this book is an exploration of how the story effects the character. (I’m fully aware that those who love Wolf Hall are going to dispute that assessment and argue it is all about a fascinating Thomas Cromwell. I found him more a narrative voice than a developed character, but I digress.)

The other thing that I very much appreciated in The Heart Specialist is that Holden Rothman never lets her prose style get in the way of her purpose. Again with Byatt and Mantel, I often found that soaring and inflated language served only to muddy an incomplete story. Straightforward prose may seem to be damning with faint praise, but in a complicated historical novel it is a definite asset. One more illustration, this time Agnes’ reaction after the McGill entrance committee has rejected her:

I stood, not trusting myself to speak. It was all I could do to get my body out of the chair and out of Laidlaw’s office, away from the intrusive eyes of these men whom I now understood had never intended to admit me, no matter what feats I performed. Dr. Howlett jumped up as soon as I rose and offered me his arm, but I did not take it. I could not stand any reminder of my gender. In the alcove the secretary looked up, but I looked right past her without speaking. One word and the floodgates would open.

The Heart Specialist explores some complex issues in an equally complex period of history, but the author makes sure that both are appropriately contained. It does this by focusing on how these circumstances effect its principal character, who comes to life in a fully-developed way. As today’s Nobel announcement shows, the issues remain timely. And the book does this in a reader-friendly prose style that never gets in the way of the story. While the theme and subject matter will not be to everyone’s taste, for this reader that made for a quite successful novel.

The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie

October 4, 2009

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Of the 19 longlisted 2009 Booker and Giller Prize titles that I have now read, Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report is without question the most innovative in concept and form. While the execution does have its problems, the bonus points I give the author for taking that chance — plus the fact that I found it an intriguing read — earn it a place on my personal Giller shortlist. I do suspect the Real jury may take a somewhat stricter view.

The Incident Report is in fact 144 Incident Reports (in a 196-page book) from the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library. Allan Gardens (and its well-known conservatory, which does have a role in the book) is located in a marginal part of downtown Toronto and is home to some pretty marginal people. Each time there is an incident at the library, the librarian in charge (Miriam Gordon, age 35, formerly a “Clerical” but recently upgraded to “Public Service Assistant”) is required to fill out and file a report — Baillie helpfully provides a copy of the actual form at the front of the book, although she wisely doesn’t adhere to it. Here are a couple of samples:

Incident Report 4

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her for the gift.

Incident Report 11

At 12:30 this afternoon, a female patron, grey-haired and well-dressed, entered the library, pushing a male patron, equally respectable, in his wheelchair. She took him right up to the shelves. He pointed to the books he wanted. She lifted down the volumes, filled the cloth sack that hung from the back of his chair, then wheeled both him and his selection over to the circulation desk.

There the man and the woman switched places, the man getting out of his wheelchair. She sat down. He unloaded the sack of books, checked them out, packed them in again and wheeled her through the exit, seemingly without effort. As he pushed, she hummed a little tune of contentment.

giller avatarNone of these perpetrators ever acquire a real name in the book, but many have “librarian” names — Sheep Woman, Suitcase Man, Wire Stripper Man, Morality Man, to name just a few. A number are library regulars and appear more than once, many show up only for one incident.

Martha Baillie knows whereof she writes — a Toronto native, she has worked part-time in that city’s public library system for more than 20 years. She has also published three previous novels (none of which I have read) and her poems have appeared in numerous Canadian literary publications. She not only has a way with words, she is a perceptive observer.

It is at this point that I should declare a personal conflict of interest regarding this novel. For the first 14 years of my journalism career, The Calgary Herald was located in the centre of downtown Calgary (only three blocks from the library, as it happens). Like the library, the newspaper was a magnet for the “lost souls” that wander around ever urban centre and they would often drop by the newsroom to try to generate interest in their story — some regularly, others occasionally, some only once. Many were obviously not well and others were more than annoying, but some were out-and-out interesting. Baillie includes examples of each kind.

The conceit of an actual incident report cannot be maintained for the whole book and the author does not attempt it. While these oddball characters continue to show up throughout the novel, Baillie uses other reports to develop and ruminate on a set of story lines that supply a structure for the book.

The most interesting is the mysterious person who thinks he is Rigoletto (from the opera) and that Miriam is his daughter, Gilda. For those who don’t know the opera, Rigoletto is tricked into kidnapping Gilda for the lascivious Duke, whom she does already know and loves. Rigoletto hires a murderer to kill the Duke, Gilda gets wind of the plot and inserts herself in the Duke’s place. As Rigoletto is unwrapping her body to celebrate his revenge, the Duke can be heard in the background singing “la donna e mobile”.

The library Rigoletto never reveals himself but does leave a number of notes and opera scores around the facility for discovery. While Miriam is initially fearful for herself and appropriate authorities are alerted, she eventually realizes that whoever Rigoletto is he views himself as her protector from unseen forces that apparently threaten her. It is no spoiler to say that she never does discover who the real person is.

Less successful is the story line of Miriam’s affair with Janko, a refugee Slovenian fresco painter now driving taxi while searching for better opportunities — again, every city has similar versions of taxi drivers. Despite having her heart broken at age 18 and swearing to never fall in love again, they become lovers. In a book where the absurd is normal, I’m afraid the affair did stretch the envelope perhaps just a bit too much.

There are a couple of other continuing story lines — staff relations at the branch, Miriam’s childhood history — that help to put substance to the book and Miriam’s personal story. More than anything else, however, it consists of 144 vignettes that through location and personality establish an intriguing and interesting picture of what happens at a community institution. Strange as some of the incidents are, there is a consistent air of realism to the whole project.

Miriam certainly becomes a real person:

Incdent Report 5

In the library workroom, a schedule hangs from two clips. As always, the day has been divided into compartments, as if it were a train about to set out on a well-planned voyage along shining rails. My initials have been pencilled into many of the little boxes that correspond to each hour between 9 AM and 8:30 PM. We, the staff, don’t always greet the public with enthusiasm. We don’t feel, every one of us without fail, that we are travelling out, embarked upon an adventure, and yet there we are, inscibed in our little boxes, as if the day were pulled by a solid locomotive.

Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear — small as a cherry stone, it cracks open behind my breastbone. I don’t want the fruit. With each quick breath the fear grows, a rustling of leaves in the cavity of my chest. But soon I’ve washed, dressed, drunk a cup of tea, eaten a piece of toast, and am on my way to work, riding my bicycle in the prescribed direction.

It is hard to say how much my recent Prize reading influenced my reaction to this book (both Booker and Giller have a lot of wordy traditional historical novels this year). I was delighted to see an author take risks and deliver on them — while she was not totally successful the result was more than good enough for me. And while I would be surprised to see this book winning the Giller, I would love to see it on the shortlist. I have a feeling the Martha Baillie would put her $5,000 shortlist prize to very good use.

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre

October 2, 2009

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Purchased from Chapters.ca

For all of its isolation and incredible beauty (the Cabot Trail is one of the most stunning drives anywhere), Canada’s Cape Breton Island — population just under 150,000 — has many other claims to fame. Alexander Graham Bell spent much of his working life there on his estate on Bras D’Or Lakes; Marconi sent the first transatlantic message from Cape Breton in 1902. And then there is the tradition of music. Internationally known fiddlers Ashley McIsaac and Natalie MacMaster are only the beginning of a long list of Cape Bretoners who play that instrument with distinction; Rita MacNeil and the Rankin family start off the vocal side.

And then there are the authors, starting with Hugh MacLennan (perhaps better known for his Montreal works). Alistair MacLeod, the chair of this year’s Real Giller Prize jury, has become the modern voice of Cape Breton, with his short stories (collected in Island) and his award-winning novel, No Great Mischief.

giller avatarNow Linden MacIntyre, best-known as one of Canada’s better television journalists as the co-host of the fifth estate, adds his name to that author list, following up his memoir, Causeway, with his second novel, The Bishop’s Man. MacLeod himself said of the memoir:

Causeway explores a world which depicts a certain region of Cape Breton as it was ‘before Canada joined it.’ The book aches with details that are both rational and emotional…MacIntyre is a fine writer.”

I include that blurb because the description applies equally to this novel. It is a book of much despair and misery and “aches with details that are both rational and emotional.”

Father Duncan MacAskill has been re-assigned from a Nova Scotia Catholic university to the rural parish of Creignish near where he was born and raised, just across the Canso Causeway to the island. (Aside: His fictional father is Angus MacAskill — in real life, Angus MacAskill was a legendary Cape Breton giant and circus performer and I can’t believe that repeating the name is not deliberate.) Father MacAskill did not so much consciously choose the priesthood as his vocation as enter it by default:

Isolation? I had, though perhaps imperfectly, mastered celibacy, the institutional denial of the most human of transactions. I was and am, to a degree, excluded from my peer group, my brothers in the priesthood, for complex reasons that will soon become apparent. But at the time I thought that I had discovered an important universal truth: that isolation, willingly embraced, becomes the gift of solitude; that discipline ennobles flesh.

In that evanescent moment of tranquility, I was feeling okay. I see it as another life, the man I was, a stranger now.

All priests are isolated, but as Father Duncan indicates, he is more isolated than most because of his long-time role as the Bishop’s man, called on to deal with the priests who are sexual abusers, drinkers or whatever (the central underlying story thread of the book):

I guess by then a part of me accepted that I’d become a specialist in discipline. Technically it’s part of the dean’s job, and I was officially a dean. In truth I had neither the academic not the occupational background for such a post. Just the temperment and, by default, the practical experience. I was a clergyman posted to a small, nominally Catholic university because my bishop didn’t really know where else to put me. At the peak of my usefulness I was attached to the diocesan chancery, but I soon became too controversial for that busy place. Toxic, I suppose, is not too strong a word. My colleagues know about my history, my experience rooting out perversions, disciplining other priests, and sometimes students, when the cases are particularly sensitive. The Exorcist they’ve called me. Behind my back, of course.

Now, even the university role has become too much. MacIntyre does not take long in letting the reader know (through Father Duncan’s words — the novel is told in the first person, almost as an extended confession) that it isn’t just the discipline that is causing his stress. He is also expected to be part of the cover-up that keeps the scandals hidden; the bishop refuses to even use the word “victims” to describe the abused.

The Bishop’s Man has acquired a somewhat eerie topicality in the last week. The Bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia resigned earlier this week after his laptop computer was seized at the Ottawa airport. Earlier this summer, he was responsible for negotiating a $15 million settlement with people who said they were abused by priests as children. He is now facing two charges for possessing and importing child pornography. I live on the other side of the country but I’m pretty sure Cape Breton Island is in the diocese of Antigonish.

Despite that topicality — or perhaps because of it — I found The Bishop’s Man a very difficult book with which to engage. Given that it is about a priest, there is remarkably little religion or spirituality to the book. And while the scandals never go away, they are not even the principal source of Father Duncan’s personal misery. While they set off his contemplation, he discovers in his return to Cape Breton far deeper causes for his uncertainty and discontent.

That includes an abusive father, teenage relationships that rise in the memory and, even more important, thoughts of a previous entanglement during another two-year “respite” stint in Honduras. That introspection leads to alcohol abuse, opening a whole new set of issues.

Part of my difficulty with the book is that Father Duncan’s misery is shared by virtually every secondary character in the book, and there are quite a few of them. Given MacIntyre’s prose style (the examples above are reasonably typical), the litany of depressing events and scenes wears thin, since there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to them. I ended up neither liking nor disliking Father Duncan — he is so completely isolated that even as a reader I could not make contact with his story. I do concede that exploring his misery is MacIntyre’s principal objective and that readers who are more familiar with the church than I am may find more substance and food for thought in this book than I did.


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