Archive for November, 2009

Blog Tribute #1, Reading Matters: The Leavetaking, by John McGahern

November 25, 2009

Mid-November to mid-January tends to be my period for “catch up” reading. With various prize competitions finished and very few new releases on the horizon, it is a time to finally get to all those books that have hit the radar during the year and been put aside due to more pressing demands. When I looked at that pile this year, it came with another observation: Almost all the books at the top of the pile had come to my attention from the blogging world. KevinfromCanada did not exist as a blog at this time last year, but I was an active commentor on a number of blogs that I found informative — indeed, I eventually started this one because I was getting embarrassed by the increasingly lengthy posts I was putting up on other people’s blogs.

So as KfC approaches its first anniversary — and the 2009 “catch up” season begins — I’ve opted for a mini-project. It is a tribute to some of the bloggers whom I followed before I got into this most enjoyable hobby and will feature novels that came to my attention through their thoughts and comments. First up is Reading Matters, the literary blog of kimbofo, an ex-pat Australian, a journalist based in London (tweet, tweet — and that is not a reference to Twitter) and a frequent visitor to Ireland (it is amazing what love does when it comes to travel). She lives in a constricted flat in that wonderful city (space is a major issue for any devoted reader in London and kimbofo certainly shares her challenges — the picture above is her recently posted TBR pile), so that makes her my current expert on matters ranging from the West End to Kensington and even Bloomsbury, since she visits there often — they are important literary neighborhoods, so that is no mean recommendation. I appreciate that expertise very much (please, kimbofo, could you find the shop where Henry James purchased “the golden bowl”? — I know it is near Great Russell Street). If you don’t already know, kimbofo is also the blogging world’s leading expert — and advocate — of John McGahern, the outstanding Irish novelist who died just three years ago. I’d always been reluctant to try McGahern (he seemed just too Irish by description); it was kimbofo on her blog and in comments at John Self’s The Asylum who convinced me he deserved attention. I started with his best known work — Amongst Women — and loved it (you can find my review here and kimbofo’s here). I resolved to read more.

Purchased from the Book Depository

The Leavetaking is one of McGahern’s lesser-known works. While all of his novels have strong autobiographical components (his mother died of cancer when he was young, his father was a brute — those two elements are almost always present), this novel, first published in 1974, includes another element. Just as McGahern lost his job as a teacher in a mess of Irish Catholic politics, Moran, the central character of this book, is about to lose his. Moran’s “crime”? While taking a year sabatical in London, he fell in love with and married an American divorcee — that means he is living in sin in the eyes of the church and cannot teach school.

While that may be the framing event for the narrative, The Leavetaking comes in two very distinct parts. We know from page one that Moran is facing his last day as a teacher and it has sparked a train of memories, starting with the day the Master hired him:

“Should we have a drink to celebrate?” I asked and his face fell: fear that he had just hired a drunkard. His finger searched to his lapel, “I must have left my pin in the other suit,” he explained in confusion.

“I didn’t mean in a pub,” I quickly corrected. “An orange or a lemonade in a sweet shop.”

“That’s an idea,” he relaxed in relief.

We passed The Yacht as if it was a house of shame.

“Young teachers should stay clear of the pub. There can be too much free time in the profession. I’ve seen too many in my day come to grief on the high stool,” he advised as we reached a sweet shop and stood for a few minutes beside a pile of Sunday papers drinking lemonade from bottles through pale straws, but my appointment was now secure. It was all of nine years ago.

As Moran begins contemplating his “leavetaking” from the school, his mind goes back to another leavetaking — his relationship with his mother and her early death:

We chant the prayer before work. They take out their books. Mechanically I begin the lesson of the afternoon but I have no desire to bend to its arid discipline today of all days, if indeed I ever had. I’d never have been a teacher, I see clearly, but for my mother. Her dead world comes to life in my mind as I drift away from the classroom and out of this last day in it on a tide of memory.

“Who do you love most in the world?” my mother used often to ask me in the evenings.

“You, mother,” I answered in that dead June evening.

“That’s not right. You know who you love most.”

“You, my mother.”

I was not raised a Catholic but even I know the youthful Moran has got the answer wrong:

To get her love I’d have to trot out the catechism answers that I hated.

“God,” I said.

“And after God?”

“Mary, my mother in Heaven.”

“And after Mary?”

“You, mother.”

“No, you know that’s wrong.”

“I love my earthly mother and father and brother and sisters equally.” I resented then having to affirm what I did not feel.

The rest of the first half of the book is devoted to Moran’s memory of that relationship (his mother wanted him to be a priest but teaching was entirely acceptable as “the second priesthood”). Like McGahern’s own mother, Moran’s has a difficult relationship with her husband, again like McGahern’s father, a member of the Garda who comes home from the barracks only occasionally, usually to father another child. Moran’s leavetaking of his mother is one of the more poignant that can be found in fiction.

The second half of the book is much faster-paced, less introspective and quite a bit easier to read. It tells the story of Moran’s year in London, how he came to fall in love and how he returned to Ireland, in the full knowledge that his unChurched marriage would eventually lead to his dismissal. It shares with part one an inevitability that is reflected in the title of the novel: everything that we do will eventually result in a leavetaking. McGahern rewrote this section of the book a decade after it originally appeared: “The more I saw of it the more sure I was that it had to be changed. The crudity I was attempting to portray, the irredeemable imprisonment of the beloved in reportage, had itself become blatant.” I haven’t read the original version, but this rewritten one is anything but “crude” or “blatant” — there is not a lot of anger or even emotion to Moran’s reaction to his unfortunate circumstances, rather there is a certain weariness about what must be, however unfair that is.

For me, The Leavetaking is not as complete or accomplished a novel as Amongst Women — it lacks the depth of story and characterization that that book has. Yet when you know McGahern’s own story and how closely this book parallels it, this becomes an important book. It is an author’s clear-eyed and unforgiving look at a version of his own history and it is told with a muted passion that can only be admired.

Thanks, kimbofo. Without you, I would never have read McGahern — and I am glad that I have now moved two books into the project. Interested visitor’s can find reviews of all of his novels but one (kimbofo is reluctant to finish her reading of McGahern) at Reading Matters.


The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk

November 22, 2009

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada -- click cover for more info

Translated by Maureen Freely

I’ll confess to a high level of ambivalence when it comes to the Nobel Prize for Literature, particuarly in recent years. I don’t follow it closely, but do pay some attention — and usually find myself reacting with some puzzlement each year when the winner is announced. Despite that distancing, the winner’s name tends to stick with me and often, a few years later, that memory is enough to provide the incentive to read at least one of the author’s books.

The announcement of Orhan Pamuk as the 2006 Prize winner sparked more personal interest than usual. A citizen of Turkey who writes in Turkish, Pamuk has spent significant time in the United States and is a visiting professor at Columbia (He is now writer-in-residence at Bard College). Turkey — specifically Constantinople, Instabul where this book is set — has represented the crossroads between East and West in both trade and thought for centuries. That role today is perhaps more important than it has been in many recent decades, particularly as Turkish political leadership looks to joining the European Union. Pamuk describes that East-West tension in his two best known works (the IMPAC-award-winning My Name is Red and Snow) and even faced criminal charges for comments he made about how Turkey had treated both Kurds and Armenians. And finally my favorite Nobel winner of all time, Ivo Andric’s A Bridge on the Drina, explored those same East-West tensions from the Western side of the crossroads in what was then Yugoslavia.

So when I saw that Pamuk’s new book, The Museum of Innocence, was due for English-language release, I signed up for a copy. I did so with some trepidation — some blog and forum scanning indicated both a complexity and a modernist style that would produce a challenge, given my reading tastes and style. I admit up front that The Museum of Innocence is the most difficult book that I have read to the finish this year, although complexity and modernism did not prove to be the problem. Rather, the incredibly slow movement of the book and the relentless exploration of apparently trivial detail produced a frustrating ennui (that reads better than “boredom”) that frequently had me wanting to simply abandon it. And then, quite suddenly, Pamuk would arrive at an observation that demanded attention — and a commitment to finish. Eventually, I adopted a pattern of reading 40 or 50 pages and setting the book down. I’m glad I read it but I warn those who contemplate The Museum of Innocence that it is a very challenging read.

At it’s most obvious level, The Museum of Innocence is a story of love (and obsession) — a relationship that happens in the reverse of the more usual unrequited love story. The first person narrator, Kemal, tells the story from a perspective some decades in the future; indeed, we are aware early on that he is telling it as a guide to the physical museum he has established to commemorate the relationship.

The story starts in 1975 (almost exactly a half century after Ataturk ended the Ottoman Empire and started the Turkish Republic) when a 30-year-old Kemal spots a designer handbag from Paris in the window of a fashion shop and decides to buy it for his fiance — they both come from wealthy Instabul families who are eager to show their modernity by adopting European mores and purchasing European goods. Kemal immediately falls in love with the 18-year-old clerk, Fusun, who is a distant relative he knew in childhood but whose family has fallen out of favor because as a 16-year-old she took part in a beauty contest (there is a limit to just how European we can be).

The two almost immediately begin a passionate affair (that is deemed an appropriate, if questionable, European-like behavior) despite Kemal’s pending engagement party — that affair is the incident that will dominate the 532-page book. Kemal won’t give up his engagement, so the affair is doomed from the start:

I sometimes caught myself thinking that I would be able to continue seeing Fusun after the engagement. This heaven, in which everything would go on as before, slowly evolved from a fantasy (let’s call it a dream) into a reasonable hypothesis. If she and I could be this passionate, this generous, making love, then she could not possibly leave me, or so I reckoned. In fact, this was my heart talking, not my reason. I was hiding these thoughts even from myself.

That statement takes place on Page 101 and captures the synopsis of this story line; with more than 400 pages to go, it is not a very promising outlook. And then, only two pages, later Pamuk has one of his insights that demand more reader persistence. His engagement party is about to take place at the Istanbul Hilton:

When I was ten, my parents attended the opening of the hotel, a very exciting occasion for them, along with all of Istanbul society, as well as the long-forgotten American film star Terry Moore. We could see the new building from our house, and though at first it looked foreign against Istanbul’s tired old silhouette, during the years that followed my parents grew accustomed to it, going there whenever they could. Representatives of foreign firms to whom my father sold goods — they were to a man all interested in “Oriental” dancing — all stayed at the Hilton. On Sunday evenings, when we would go as a family to eat that amazing thing called a hamburger, a delicacy as yet offered by no other restaurant in Turkey, my brother and I would be mesmerized by the pomegranate-colored uniform with gold braids and flashy buttoned epaulettes of the doorman with the handlebar moustache. In those years so many Western innovations made their first appearance in this hotel that the leading newspapers even posted reporters there. If one of my mother’s favorite suits got stained, she would send it to the dry cleaner at the Hilton, and she liked to drink tea with her friends at the patisserie in the lobby.

The passionate, but brief, affair with Fusun ends; not long after so does the engagement. Kebal begins his long quest of Fusun and falls into the obsession that will dominate the rest of his existence. It takes more than a year for him to find her, by which time she is married to an aspiring filmmaker (he wants to direct a European-style “art” film) although they are so poor that they continue to reside with her parents. Kebal uses the pretext of being able to finance the film to begin an almost eight year relationship where he shows up regularly at the house for dinner and the evening — he will go there for supper 1,593 times in a period of 2,864 days (don’t say I didn’t warn you about detail in the book). Almost immediately he begins what will develop into a conscious project of pocketing whatever mementoes he can (salt shakers, lipstick tubes, plastic dogs that sit atop the television) that will eventually become the exhibits in his “museum of innocence”.

The novel acquires a different focus in this very lengthy period: Aristotle’s notion of “Time”:

In Physics Aristotle makes a distinction between Time and the single moments he describes as the “present”. Single moments are — like Aristotle’s atoms — indivisible, unbreakable things. But Time is the line that links these indivisible moments. … Clocks and calendars do not exist to remind us of the Time we’ve forgotten but to regulate our relations with others, and indeed all of society, and this is how we use them.

My life has taught me that remembering Time — that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present — is for most of us a rather painful business. When we try to conjure up the line connecting these moments, or, as in our museum, the line connecting all the objects that carry those moments inside them, we are forced to remember that the line comes to an end, and to contemplate death.

Those three story lines — pursuit of Fusun, obsession extended over time, East-West tensions — all continue but they are explored, rather than developed. It is that relentless exploration which makes The Museum of Innocence such a difficult book to read. While one can admire Pamuk’s persistence and devotion to detail, there is not a lot of readily accessible substance to it.

I can certainly understand that readers with different tastes and approaches to reading would find this an “easier” and probably more satisfying work than I did. I neither recommend nor discourage — I hope this attempt at a summary supplies enough information to help those who are contemplating reading it reach a decision. For my part, I’ll be interested in what I think a few weeks or months down the road — Aristotle has a pretty good point in the notion that one of Time’s purposes is to serve as a line that connects those moments that we remember. We shall see how reading this book lands on that line in the future.

The Squabble, by Nikolai Gogol

November 18, 2009

Purchased from

Translated by Hugh Aplin

So before someone asks in a comment: “Have you read Dead Souls?” — the answer is “no, I haven’t, but I intend to”. On the other hand, while perusing the Hesperus Press site recently, I came across a version of Nikolai Gogol’s The Squabble and swallowed the baited hook immediately — I’d heard about the novella before and a growing affection for Hesperus volumes supplied the rest of the motivation.

Even for those of us who like nineteenth century Russian writing, Gogol is a bit of an enigma. He died young at 43 and his work pretty much comes down to three sets: the aforementioned Dead Souls (intended to be volume one of a trilogy), the Petersburg tales (including his best known work, “The Greatcoat”) and the Mirgorod (four stories, three of which are included in this volume), which develop the theme of a Little Russian town, in the Ukraine. And before anyone points out that Gogol is Ukrainian, not Russian, I do know that.

The Squabble is a wonderful novella; for this reader, a prototype for the genre. For those readers who have been entranced by “The Greatcoat” (that would include KfC), this is a story that confirms Gogol’s ability to turn the particular into the universal, in both an engaging and significant fashion. Two aging, and increasingly reclusive, neighbors — Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich — have for years visited and conversed with each other. Indeed, their interaction with each other is pretty much their interaction with the rest of the world. Here is how Gogol introduces Ivan Ivanovich:

Ivan Ivanovich has a glorious coat! Quite excellent! And what lambskins! They’re grey-blue with a touch of frost! God knows how much I’d bet that nobody can be found with any like them! Just look at them, for God’s sake, especially if he starts talking to someone, look at them from the side; what a feast for the eye. Indescribable: velvet! silver! fire!

All those exclamation marks would seem to presage a story of action — not so. Rather, an introduction to the concept that in a world where not much happens, a minor dispute can turn into a lifelong pursuit. Ivan Ivanovich visits his good friend and neighbor, Ivan Nikiforovich, and, absent anything else to talk about, they fall into the exchange that will become the centrepiece of “the squabble”. Ivan N’s servant has been airing out his old military garments, including his old gun (even Gogol wonders about the propriety of “airing out” a gun, but he needs the conceit for the plot). Ivan I wants the gun and heads off for a visit, offering a pig and two sacks of oats as a barter in exchange for the weapon. Ivan N doesn’t take to the proposal:

“What’s that! Two sacks of oats and a pig for the gun?”
“Well, isn’t that enough?”
“For the gun?”
“Of course it’s for the gun.”
“Two sacks for the gun?”
“Not two empty sacks, but sacks of oats; and have you forgotten the pig?”
“You can go and kiss your pig, or if you prefer it, then the Devil!”
“Oh, you’re so touchy! You’ll see in the other world you’ll have your tongue studded with hot needles for such blasphemous words. After a conversation with you, people need to wash their hands and face, and fumigate themselves.”
“Allow me, Ivan Ivanovitch. A gun is a noble thing, the most curious amusement, and, what’s more, a nice decoration in the room…”
“You, Ivan Nikiforovich, are fussing over your gun like a bear with a sore head,” said Ivan Ivanovich in annoyance, because he was truly beginning to get angry now.
“And your, Ivan Ivanovich, are a real goose.”

That is about as quick a summary of pointless conflict escalation as you could ever ask for — and it is that last statement, with its reference to being “a goose”, that sets off the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce conflict that dominates the rest of the novella. Both Ivans swear complaints; while all of Mirgorod (which translates as “Worldtown”, according to translator Hugh Alpin) want the conflict to end and the friends to be reconciled, they foolishly decide instead to pursue the squabble in the courts, where it languishes without decision (“it will come tomorrow”) for more than a decade. You can start to imagine the consequences — Dickens would certainly have no problem on that count. If you don’t already know the outlines of the story, the pig does play a major part and real geese (well, at least a goose coop) play a major factor.

The Squabble has much to recommend it. A pointless dispute escalates, bureaucracy takes over (Patrick McCabe in his introduction to this volume makes reference to both Franz Kafka and Monty Python as comparisons and both are valid) and disaster, of a sort, ensues. For this reader, the work fits a definition of the “perfect” novella: You spend much more time thinking about it after reading it, than you spent in the reading. That for me is the ideal definition of the genre.

This Hesperus volume contains two other stories from the Mirgorod series: Olde-Worlde Landowners and The Carriage. The first is Gogol’s version of the Philemon and Baucis myth, an extremely old couple who when offered a reward by Zeus ask only to be allowed to die at the same time — it is a very charming story. The Carriage is slight but worthwhile — an examination of how ego and the desire to move above your station sometimes provide a disastrous result.

I think most avid readers would agree that there are days when you would like to pick up a volume, knowing that in only a few hours (this book is about a two hour venture the first time through, but you want to read it more than once) you will have finished it and be able to put it down, saying “that was more than worthwhile”. And many days later, you are still thinking about that experience.

The Squabble perfectly fits that description. I’m not sure when I’ll get to Dead Souls but this diversion ensures that I eventually will.

Governor-General’s award winner a surprise

November 17, 2009

Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing has won the 2009 Governor-General’s award for English language fiction — a major and stunning surprise. Told from the point of view of her servant, the book is the story of Lady Duff Cooper’s mid-nineteenth century retreat to Egypt to alleviate her consumption and how the household adapts there ( my full review is here). I said in my original review that I was surprised to see the novel shortlisted for the G-G and longlisted for the Giller — while it is very competently done, it is not the kind of book that wins literary competitions. As well, Pullinger, while Canadian-born and (I presume) still a citizen, has lived in London for almost a quarter century and the book has no Canadian content.

Juries for the G-G have a history of being contrarian. Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness (reviewed here) would seem to have been this year’s obvious choice (and would have been mine) — one can only assume the jury decided that the Man Booker International Prize was award enough for Munro this year. Given that the last two G-G winners were established Canadian “names” (Nino Ricci for The Origin of the Species in 2008 and Michael Ondaatje for Divisadero in 2007), one could understand a jury wanting to look for something less obvious.

Even then, one would have thought the jury would turn to Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean (reviewed here ) as its next choice. This first novel about Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great is the success story of this year’s Canadian season, making the shortlist for all three major prizes. Alas, like Rawi Hage’s Cockroach last year it is now on track to lose all three.

The other two finalists would also have been surprise winners. Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories (reviewed here is a wonderful first collection of stories, but not up to comparison with Munro. And Michael Crummey’s Galore (reviewed by Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett here) seems a bit too regional and offbeat — although that is often a strength in G-G competitions.

None of those comments is meant to discourage anyone from reading The Mistress of Nothing. While both the subject and style mean it is not for everyone’s taste, it is well done and an enjoyable read. It is, however, a surprising winner in a competiton where the “literary” usually takes precedence over the “readable”.

While I only follow the English fiction award, there are actually 14 Governor-General literary awards, seven each for English and French-language work, in categories including poetry, drama, children’s and translation. You can see the full list here.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin

November 13, 2009


Purchased at

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut book is one that slowly but surely fought its way to the top of my reading agenda. A positive NY Times review was my first tip; other positive reviews kept bringing it up and a place on the National Book Awards shortlist finally told me that I should read it. I am very glad that I did — this is truly one of the best books of the season.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection of eight linked stories — I am a novel reader and I would prefer to regard this as a novel, rather than a short story collection. While it is true that each of the eight stories stands on its own (and has been published elsewhere), the real strength of this very engaging book is to put them all together.

The ovearching character of In Oher Rooms, Other Wonders is K. K. Harouni, an aging Pakistani landowner who has shepherded his lucrative family assets reasonably well (but only reasonably) as the country moves into the modern age. He is not so much competent as “not a disaster” — the family is still well off, the serfs are treated well, the landlord is still respected — and Mueenuddin uses that conceit to frame his look at today’s Pakistan. We neither like nor dislike K.K.; we appreciate that people like him are necessary and could have made things a lot worse than they are.

The first four stories in this collection are best described as historical, looking at the traditional relationships between members of the underclass and their masters. Consider, for example, Nawabdin the electrician, the central character of the opening story:

He flourished on a signature capability, a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters, so cunningly done that his customers could specify to the hundred-rupee note the desired monthly savings. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, where the tube wells ran day and night, Nawab’s discovery eclipsed the philosopher’s stone.

Those are the opening words in this wonderful book and they offer the promise of all that is to come. If you do your job well, you find ways to skim — and it is in the skimming that you make your fortune (sounds like the Wall Street of today, doesn’t it?). Nawabdin is a valued employee in the Harouni conglomerate; he negotiates and achieves a motor scooter; it is the attempt to steal that scooter that ends this part of the story. In the opening four stories of this collection, the author explores a number of other cases of what it is like to be dependent on, but also succeed through, a “patron” — it is a theme not just of Pakistan but one that extends to the rest of the world.

Perhaps more important in the first section is the author’s exploration of what happens to women in this environment. If they are born into privilege (as Harouni’s daughters are) they become suppressors of the first order. And if they are born into poverty, they have but one asset — their body and the chance to offer it — and it must be used wisely. That tactic may work in the short term, but it never lasts.

In “Provide, Provide”, the declining K. K. Harouni is totally reliant on his land manager, Chaudrey Jaglani, to look after his interests. Given some bad investments, Harouni needs to sell land — Jaglani is in charge and delivers but he arranges, of course, to buy the best parcels himself at very discounted prices, thus becoming a significant person in his own right:

Though he had become crooked on a large scale, Jaglani did not believe himself to have broken his feudal allegiance to K.K. Harouni, but instead felt himself appropriately to be taking advantage of the master’s incapacity and lack of oversight, not seceding but simply expressing a more independent stance. He continued to run the farm extremely well and profitably, and continued sending money to Lahore, a larger share of the net in fact than he used to send, because he himself had developed other sources of income.

Into this mix comes Zainab, as an impoverished servant. She wants to move up and a “relationship” with Jaglani is the path — in fact, it is her only path. While her short-term tactics succeed, the path has a dead end. The problem with hitching your future to a rising star is that rising stars also fall; that is not only true in Pakistan, it is true in the rest of the world.

Mueenuddin accurately uses his first four stories to set up the history of the Harouni family story; it is in the fifth story — the title story — that he finally brings us face-to-face with K.K. himself. He is in his seventies at this point, and facing death. His wife has long been dispatched to another location, his children are distant at best, he is alone. Into this world comes Husna:

Husna needed a job. She stole up the long drive to the Lahore house of the retired civil servant and landlord K. K. Harouni, bearing in her little lacquered fingers a letter of introduction from, of all people, his estranged first wife. The butler, knowing that Husna serve the old Begum Harouni in an indefinite capacity, somewhere between maidservant and companion, did not seat her in the living room. Instead he put her in the office of the secretary, who every afternoon took down in shorthand a few pages of Mr. Harouni’s memoirs, cautiously titled Perhaps This Happened.

(Digression: Is that not the best memoir title ever?)

Husna is on a mission; K.K. may be 70 but he is the key to her need;

Given to her fits of crushing grey lassistude and then to sunny, almost hysterical moments, she had always believed she would escape the gloominess of her parents’ house in an unfashionable part of the city. She would escape the bare concrete steps, layered with dust, leading up into rooms without windows, the walls painted bright glossy colors, as if to make up for the gloom, the television covered with an embroidered cloth. She had spoiled herself with daydreams, until her parents were afraid of her moods.

Husna’s definition of success is to become K.K.’s mistress. She does achieve that, but it turns out that she had the wrong definition. Mueenuddin does a masterful job in this title story of bridging the traditional with the modern, of showing how we still pay homage to what used to be, even though we know it is no longer what is.

This review is going to give short shrift to the final three stories because it is already long enough, but in no way is that a critical judgment on those stories — they may be even better than the other five. Suffice to say that the author has created a highly successful triptych — four stories that explore how things were in the past, a title story that represents the present, three final stories that start to look at what the future might bring. The Pakistan that Mueenuddin portrays is not a traditional one — in fact, it is very modern. At a time when many in the West are looking at this country as a needed ally, he offers a very useful short course in identifying some of the issues that we might want to think about.

If you are contemplating approaching this book (and I certainly would recommend that — it is excellent on every front), keep that in mind. While styled and promoted as a collection of stories (and it is that), it is even more an impressionistic portrait of life in a country that has been under-represented in English-language fiction to date. I can’t wait for the author’s next volume.

The Real 2009 Giller Prize Winner is…

November 11, 2009

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre


The Shadow Jury is delighted to see its decision confirmed. The Bishop’s Man is a book that we heartily recommend — skip down two posts and you will find links to both Trevor and my reviews.

On a personal note, I thought the 2009 Giller was characterized by a very high quality longlist. While it is true that none of the books (including the winner) was without flaws, there was a consistent high quality from all 12 books. Eleven of those 12 have been reviewed on this site and you can find links in the sidebar to the right. If you are looking for a good book to read (or ask for or give, now that holiday time is coming up), do look beyond the shortlist into some of the titles that did not move on to the shortlist. There are some very good books in the other seven.

I am also pleased to announce that the 2009 Shadow Giller Jury will return intact for the 2010 competition. Trevor Berrett at The Mookse and The Gripes was an excellent international judge and if you visit his site you will find reviews of all the shortlisted books, as well as a few that did not make it. Alison Gzowski and I are pleased to be able to have him join us again next year.

The Last Woman, by John Bemrose

November 9, 2009


Review copy courtesy McClelland and Stewart -- click cover for more info

One of the intriguing omissions from the 2009 Giller Prize longlist was the absence of The Last Woman by John Bemrose from the list of 12. His first novel, The Island Walkers, was shortlisted for the 2003 prize and made the ManBooker longlist the following year, so his second effort certainly seemed to be a likely candidate. I had it on hand but set it aside in the pressures of reading the longlist and finally got to it only recently. While I can understand the jury’s decision, The Last Woman is a worthwhile read — the book has its problems, but it also has much to recommend it.

Ann and Richard live in a Northern Ontario city — he is a lawyer and she an artist who is going through a creative dry patch. They also have a cottage on Lake Nigushi, next door to an Ojibway reserve and most of the book is set in this area. Bemrose establishes the structural elements of his plot early on — the third major character is Billy, the former chief of the Ojibway nation, who has returned after a 10-year absence. That absence was caused by the loss of a native land claim case that he had led; Richard was the lawyer on the case (his first big one) and the two had a falling out when the judgment was delivered. Deeper in history, Ann as a nineteen-year old had a summer affair with Billy (some years before the land claims case) and has never totally got over it. In fact, she took up with Richard because he was “solid” — too solid, as it turns out. He has now gone conventional and is angling for the nomination in the local provincial Legislature riding.

If you have been paying attention to Giller Prize controversy, that summary tells you why The Last Woman missed the Giller list. Juror Victoria Glendinning in her Financial Post column on the experience complained about the common setting and approach of too many mediocre Canadian novels: ” 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.)” I didn’t mention in the summary that early in the book we meet Anne brooding in a Muskoka chair at the cottage:

His wife is sitting on the deck overlooking the channel, her arms laid along the boards of a Muskoka chair, her face lifted to the sun. Richard is certain she must hear them (note: Richard is accompanied by their young son) — their outboard racketing down the channel — yet it is several seconds before she turns her head, almost lazily, in their direction. He raises his hand, yet the woman in the deep chair simply goes on looking at them, as if the boat gliding toward her were invisible.

That presages the emotional tension between Ann and Richard, what of Billy? His decision as chief to pursue the land claim was not totally popular with his people; the older ones in particular were quite happy to continue living under the political radar and make do as best they could. In the 10 years that he has wandered, things have become much worse. Clear-cut logging is destroying the traditional environment; Ojibway youth have discovered gasoline sniffing, destroying their chances at any kind of life. Billy has come back with memories of and a desire to recapture a history that he soon realizes cannot be recovered:

After his sister moved out, Billy lived on in the blue house with Matt and Emma. In the winters, they ran a trapline from their cabin at Silver Lake; in the summers, he and Matt did building and repair work at cottages around Nigushi. Working with Matt calmed him. The way Matt took his time when he measured a board or the way he pondered where they should hunt — taking days if necessary, while he watched the weather and the plants, and waited for the right thought, the right dream, to guide him. It drove him wild at first, though in the end he had managed to take something from it — a deeper patience, an alertness that showed him more detail (that twig where a moose had nibbled) than he had known existed.

Devoted readers of Canadian fiction at this point are probably observing: “This sounds like it has a lot in common with Through Black Spruce,” Joseph Boyden’s 2008 Giller winning novel (reviewed here). It is a fair observation and I am afraid that Bemrose suffers in the comparison.

Much of The Last Woman is an exploration of the historical events that produced these circumstances; all competently done, but with few surprises. The links with the present are pretty direct. Just as Ann is becoming impatient with Richard’s “solidness”, the reader grows impatient with the “solidness” of the book. Bemrose is a good writer but the reader does feel like he/she is taking part in a patient canoe ride across the lake (there are quite a few of those in the book, too) rather than being part of a reading adventure.

The Last Woman does speak to some important Canadian and human themes. The situation the Ojibway face in both the past and present tense is a realistic portrayal. The tensions between the three characters are equally real. The problem is that all of those elements are rather predictable. I also suspect the novel does not travel very well beyond Canada, another reason why a three-person jury including both a Brit and an American would find it lacking.

I read The Last Woman in a single day. At 323 pages, that is a testimony to the author’s ability to put together a highly readable piece of work, although I certainly wouldn’t call it a page turner. I’m glad I read it, but for those who need or want to be more selective in their approach to Canadian fiction, I have to say there are better places to turn for the experience.

2009 Shadow Giller Jury names winner

November 5, 2009

The 2009 Shadow Giller Prize has been awarded to:

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre


The Shadow Jury decision was both quick and unanimous — all three jurors had this book at the top of their list. We certainly found the other shortlisted titles were worthwhile, but MacIntyre put it all together.

A summary from Trevor Berrett:

In The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre has a subtly controlled mixture of hope and despair all centralized in Father MacAskill, a lonely priest only slightly disillusioned but immensely disturbed by the sexual scandals occurring among his colleagues. What’s so wonderful is that this book can grapple with such a large event as the Catholic Church’s problems in the late twentieth century and still manage to keep the focus on one man and his struggles to reconcile the multiple tragedies of his own past — including, among other things, alcohol abuse and thoughts of suicide — in order to find some warmth in the cold and lonely setting of Creignish on Cape Breton Island.

And from KfC:

The characterization in this novel takes it beyond expectation. MacIntyre sets his book in a conventional context — priests who are sexual abusers — but his central character, Father Frank MacAskill, is not part of that crowd and that is the novel’s greatest strength. He is an aging, honest creature who got caught in a trap and can’t get out (not unlike Cape Breton lobsters) and this book underlines his dilemma.

You can find Trevor’s full review here. And mine is here — I must say that a second read of the book showed it was better than my first impression.

The Real Jury will announce their decision at the Giller gala on Nov. 10. The Shadow Jury has now spoken.

For those with access to Canadian television, there is a fair bit of Giller coverage on Bravo TV. On Saturday, Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. EST, a one-hour edition of Arts and Minds featuring a panel discussion with all five shortlisted authors will air — it includes a cameo appearance from Shadow Giller juror Alison Gzowski who talks about the Shadow Jury and its work. The Arts and Minds show will be repeated on Tues., Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. EST with live coverage of the Giller gala starting at 9 p.m. For those outside of Canada, CTV promises that a live web feed will be available — check either or the Giller site for details.

Trevor reviews The Bishop’s Man

November 2, 2009

macintyre Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett has posted his review of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man — you can find the full review here. Here’s an excerpt to get you interested:

And so this reader comes to the end of the Giller shortlist, a journey I much enjoyed, even if some of the stops were not as pleasing as others. After venturing to Egypt, Cambodia, and ancient Macedon for the previous three Giller shortlisted titles, The Bishop’s Man (2009) brings us back to Canada, which is a fitting way to end one of Canada’s great literary prizes.

Though this book brings me back to Canada, the locale is no more familiar to me than, say, Egypt. (I hope I don’t muddle it up by my lack of familiarity). It takes place in Creignish, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, by the descriptions and tone of the book, a stunning and sobering isolated area. Our narrator is a priest, Father Duncan MacAskill. He is the Bishop’s man. In other words, in the last twenty years, whenever there has been a problem with a fellow priest, the Bishop sends Father MacAskill to handle the problem with speed and discretion. Father MacAskill’s voice is a nice mixture of hope and melancholy, and I enjoyed that combination as MacAskill himself leaned one way or the other throughout the book. Here is the mixture shown in the first paragraph of the novel:

“The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals at home.”

And here's a link to my earlier review of the book — I should note that I am halfway through a second read and am more impressed this time around.

All three jurors have now completed their reading of the shortlist and deliberations have begun. Barring complications, I hope to post the announcement of the 2009 Shadow Giller Prize winner on Friday, Nov. 6. Please stop by and criticize our decision then (well, you can congratulate us on an excellent choice if you want as well).

Vanishing and other stories, by Deborah Willis

November 1, 2009


Copy courtesy WordFest -- click for link to Calgary's author festival

In one sense, the appearance of Vanishing and other stories on Canada’s Governor-General’s award shortlist for fiction was a surprise: A first collection from an almost-unheard-of author which has not received a lot of critical attention. On the other hand, it is a decision that is consistent with the tradition of the G-G award — not just for the reasons in the previous sentence, but also a deliberate attempt to recognize a new talent.

I had positive biases approaching Vanishing and other stories. Deborah Willis grew up in my hometown of Calgary (I don’t recall ever meeting her, so no bias there) and she sets a number of her stories in the city where I live. Having said that, not only does she acknowledge her heritage, she does it in a way that those of us who also grew up here cannot help but recognize — with all respect to my Irish friends, who can fill a couple of shelves with books set in the neighborhood, we don’t get a lot of work set in Calgary. And when we do, some of us (KfC first in line) might be inclined to adjust our critical judgment a tad. This excellent book did not require that at all. And even if you have never been to my town, it is a good book.

There are 14 stories in Vanishing and other stories and while they are in no way linked, there are a lot of common elements. Most of the stories centre on relationships and how they have disintegrated, or disappeared, or simply become part of the past. Willis often tells a story in three tenses — set in reminiscence from a point in the future, the principal focus is on a more recent past, with deeper references even further back. Overall, it is a very effective technique but when you read the stories one after the other it does become a bit of a template. Setting the book down for a day or two between stories is a very appropriate response.

Consider, for example, “Escape”, one of my favorite stories in the book. Thomas’ wife has died and one of his avenues of escape is to begin frequenting a casino that is a 60-minute drive out of town (avoiding anyone who would know him — Mrs. KfC and I know this ‘destination resort’ well, although we have never been through the front door):

These days, he goes every night. He knows the roads well, and can make it in less than an hour. He could go to the casino in town, but likes being far from home, from colleagues and well-meaning friends. And he likes the drive: the rain-darkened highway, the sudden light from passing cars.

Thomas becomes a compulsive gambler, but not for any of the usual reasons. Rather he is intrigued, even infatuated, with the whole process and, finally, focuses his obsession on a dealer at the casino:

He learns to recognize the ones who play for money and the ones who play to find God. The first play to win, and they stop once they do. They pick up their chips and they walk out. The other kind of gambler, the kind he is becoming, sinks into the game and disappears. This gambler plays because he loves the rhythm and routine. He loves the moment — a breath — between winning and losing. To be made or broken within seconds. To live or die — the choice made each minute, by luck or some other careless god. He loves the risk, and cares little for the reward. He plays to lose.

That is about as good a summary of compulsive gambling as I have ever read. It comes in the context of someone who has lost his spouse and is seeking some other kind of companionship. Thomas does get into a “rhythm and routine” and it has nothing to do with winning or losing the bet, it eventually has to do with his obsession about the dealer. The way this idea is developed speaks to a very real talent that Willis both has and expresses.

One of the intriguing aspects of this collection is that in a sense the themes move backward, rather than forward — while in the first few stories the author examines disintegrating, established adult relationships, the latter stories are much more about young people and relationships that are just beginning. It is a risky technique: the linking theme in the stories is the disruption of relationships, but the tactic is to start from the long-established and move back towards those that are still in the process of definition.

In that context, here is an example from “This Other Us”, a story that appears midway through the book:

The three of us lived together for six years, in a two-bedroom suite on the bottom floor of an old house. We had a deck, a compost bin, and a herb garden we neglected. Like most young people in that coastal town, we rode our bikes everywhere, ate tofu, and went to bed early.
We had two cats, many shared appliances, and we’d forgotten whose dishes were whose. We never kept track of who paid the biggest share of the hydro bill — it all evened out in the end, we decided — or who had cleaned the bathroom last. In fact, we hardly cleaned at all. We were used to each other’s unruliness.

Lise, who narrates those words, is the third person in the triangle — Karen and Lawrence are the couple who complete it. But one day a van with the words Revolution Now! on the side appears and Karen packs up, jumps in with the scruffy driver and heads off. Dumpy Lise eventually starts to experiment with tall, slim Karen’s clothes and Lawrence pays attention. Something develops between her and Lawrence. And then Karen comes back….

I grew up in the 1960s in Calgary, Alberta, Canada — as did Deborah Willis, some years (okay, decades) later. I’ll admit that when Deborah Willis does a take on Phil’s Pancake House (and she sets it close to my time, not hers) it sends me back through those decades — Phil’s is the all-night place where we went for food in the middle of the night when I went to the University of Calgary back in the 1960s (the pancakes are a speciality, but I was partial to the spaghetti with meat sauce at 2 a.m.). I can tell from the picture on the jacket that Deborah Willis is at least a generation younger than I am, but she has created a marvellous collection of stories, many set in my community, that explore what it is like to come to maturity.

If there is a criticism of Vanishing and other stories, it is that in exploring the way that relationships “decompose”, author Willis creates a pattern that tends to blend too much from one story into the next. For the reader, there is an easy way around that — restrict yourself to two or three stories at a reading. When you do, you will find yourself very much in the hands of a superb stylist who plays her plots carefully. I am not saying I hope this collection wins the Governor-General’s award for fiction, but I sure won’t be whining if it does. It is a wonderful first book and I eagerly await more from an obviously talented author (who also currently works in Munro’s bookshop in Victoria, so if you happen by there, buy as many books as your suitcase will hold).

Phil's Pancake House

Phil's Pancake House

Sorry, I can’t resist — above is a 1970 picture of Phil's Pancake House, which would have been taken only two years after I graduated. Depressing as it looks, it brings back memories.

%d bloggers like this: