Archive for October, 2010

Trevor reviews The Debba, by Avner Mandelman

October 6, 2010

The 2010 Giller shortlist is out, but the Shadow Jury has not finished reviewing the longlist. We will do our best to complete longlist reviews so please stay tuned. Trevor Berrett has reviewed The Debba — here are some excerpts for a full review check here. Here are some of Trevor’s thoughts:

If it weren’t for its inclusion on the Giller Prize longlist, early in my reading I would have abandoned The Debba (2010). Somewhere on the internet, KevinfromCanada made an analogy between a falling tree and the development of one’s opinion of a book. At first, the tree may swivel in all directions, but once it starts to fall one way, it is very hard to right it and get it to fall in another. Early in this book, due to cumbersome prose (not the politics, which might have some readers throwing the book out the window), annoyance caused the tree to sway to the “dislike” side. After that, I kept picking out perceived flaws, the tree fell faster, and I think it’s fair to say that nothing came along with the muscle to maneuver the tree any other direction. The book has many strengths (and the last 100 pages are much better than any of the others), but on page after page the clumsy writing sucked out my will to explore the heart of the book.

The Debba begins in Toronto in 1977. After seven years of not speaking to his father, our narrator David Starkman gets a phone call informing him that his father, Isser, was murdered in his shop in Israel; the murderer — and many are positive that it was an Arab — is still at-large. The baseless assumption that his father was murdered by an Arab upsets David. In fact, when he left Israel he fled with a passionate distaste for it, and we get a sense that his efforts to alienate himself shattered the expectations of his parents, and maybe of his fellow countrymen:

Two months before, four years after arriving in Canada (sponsored by Uncle Yitzchak, against the violent objections of my father and my mother’s painful silence), I had become a Canadian citizen. A day after I falsely swore allegiance to the foreign monarch, I went to the Israeli Embassy on Bloor Street and asked to give up my Israeli citizenship.

The consul, a Mr. Iddo Ronen, was not amused. “David Starkman? The son of Isser?”

I didn’t answer. What was there to say?

“The Isser Starkman? From forty-eight?”

“Yes. So what?”

If that gets you interested, read all of Trevor’s review and then read on.


Official 2010 Giller Prize shortlist

October 5, 2010

The official list announced today:

The Matter with Morris, by David Bergen

Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

This Cake Is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter (link includes a guest post here from the author)

The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

All but The Sentimentalists have been reviewed here — clicking on the title will take you to the review. Alas, my fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor has not read any of the five since none are available yet in the United States — we have ordered the books for him and you can look forward to reviews from him as well in the next few weeks. Getting either of us to review The Sentimentalists may be a challenge — it is out of stock at both Indigo and Amazon, but we will try to chase it down somewhere (if you happen to be a bookseller with a couple of copies, please let me know at kevin(at)belvedere1(dot)com).

I don’t think I will be the only one surprised at the list. I thought Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line was a certainty and the positive reviews internationally (and my own enthusiasm) for Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists made it a contender in my mind. Regular visitors here will know that I found The Matter with Morris lacking — I should acknowledge that I was also not that keen on David Bergen’s Giller-winning The Time In Between so perhaps it is simply a matter that the author and I just don’t connect.

My speculation would be that this is very much an “author’s” shortlist, reflecting the presence of authors Ali Smith and Claire Messud on the three-person jury. In my experience, author judges often have a “tilt” towards debut writers or those who have been overlooked in the past. The two short story collections (Light Lifting and This Cake Is for the Party) fit that mold; Annabel is a first novel and The Sentimentalists may be Skibsrud’s third book but she has received little attention (including for this book which has been out since last October).

Yes, I think there was a better shortlist possible, but I think there are some very good books on this list. And if you disagree with my grumpy assessment of a couple of the contenders, please don’t hesitate to correct me in the comments.

(Needless to say my entry in the Official “Pick the Giller Shortlist” contest is not going to be a winner. Sigh.)

Jane Urquhart contest winners

October 4, 2010

Sorry for the delay — and for the ambiguous contest instructions. I ended up throwing all Canadian entries into contests one and two, all international entries into contest 3 and your choices were applied when I chose the prize. The results are:

Contest 1 — Three Jane Urquhart novels:
Away — BernardT
The Stone Carvers — Mike G
A Map of Glass — Margaret

Contest 2 — The New Face of Fiction
Deloume Road — Nena Athar

Contest 3 — International
Sanctuary Line — Janis Goodman

I will be in touch with all winners via email to obtain shipping addresses. My sincere thanks to Random House Canada who are providing the books (and shipping) for Contests 1 and 2 — I am delighted to be underwriting the costs for Contest 3 as part of my objective of promoting Canadian writers to readers outside the country.

Canadian entrants — move on to the next post for an excellent Giller Prize contest that gives you a chance to win autographed copies of all five shortlisted books.

International entrants — stay tuned. Mrs. KfC has agreed to underwrite a Giller contest that will include an international section. You will need to pay attention to Shadow Jury thoughts, I warn in advance.

Shadow Giller shortlist thoughts

October 3, 2010

Throughout its 16 year history, the Shadow Giller Jury has never attempted to predict a shortlist. Canadian novels tend to be published in the early fall and the short time between the longlist and shortlist announcements (15 days this year) means that none of us has the chance to read all 13 longlist books — indeed, this year we are proud that between the three of us we have read 11 (I think that will reach 12 today) of the 13.

But we are breaking with tradition (perhaps establishing a new one) this year. The Real Giller has an absolutely super contest that we cannot ignore getting involved in — you can win one of 60 sets of autographed copies of all five shortlisted books (alas, you have to have a Canadian address to enter the contest — maybe they will make it international in future years). You can access the entry screen by clicking on the image below:

The Guess the Giller entry screen

This is a very winnable contest for serious readers, especially those who visit this blog, with an excellent prize. At the time of writing this post the leading choice (and remember you have to pick five) has fewer than 900 votes — my calculation says there are only about 1,100 entries with only two days to go, and there are 60 prizes. So, to help out potential entrants who visit this site, here are some thoughts from the Shadow Jury on what books deserve to be on the shortlist.

From Kevin the chair:

I have read eight of the 13 and have four shortlist favorites and a three-way consideration for the final position (including two books that I have not read). Listed alphabetically by author (you can find links to the full reviews in the sidebar on the right), they are:

1. Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. A most impressive debut short story collection that I intend to re-read soon. It captures story, character and history in every story — a wonderful composite portrait of industrial life in the Windsor-Detroit automotive area.

2. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. The most enjoyable book that I have read this year, by a long shot. Maybe an outside contender for the short list since it is all set in Rome, but the magnificent writing would ensure a place for me.

3. Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart. The current favorite in the Giller contest and I can understand why. A contemplative, introspective portrait of change, as viewed from an orchard farm on the shores of Lake Erie. An excellent novel from an excellent writer.

4. Annabel by Kathleen Winter. This book may be “too Canadian” for the jury, but I certainly was impressed by it. A child of intersex gender is born to a Labrador family — father, mother and best friend try to come to terms with his/her future, as does the child him/herself.

5. My threeway dilemma. Of those I have read, Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm — I had problems with this story of illegal immigrants in Toronto, but could understand why the jury might choose it. Lemon by Cordelia Strube — I haven’t read it but Trevor’s review has made me interested. Player One by Douglas Coupland — can the Real Jury resist promoting a print version of the CBC Massey Lecture series, from an internationally-well-known author, onto the shortlist?

I have made an entry in the contest and should (shudder) I win, it will be put up as a prize here in the future. I hope other visitors find it in themselves to enter — and please share with us in comments both your entries and, I hope, your successful results.

2010 Giller short story collections: Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod and This Cake Is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky

October 1, 2010

Purchased from

The Giller Prize has always been kind to short story collections, often featuring them on the shortlist and three times in 16 years awarding a collection the prize (twice to Alice Munro for Runaway and The Love of a Good Woman and to Vincent Lam for Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures). That does lead to a bit of a chicken-and-egg literary question: Is the short story genre so strong in Canada that collections win an inordinate number of prizes or does the prize-winning history serve to strengthen the practice of the genre here? Obviously, the answer is a bit of both and 2010 is going to continue that tradition with two debut collections on the Giller Prize longlist: Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod and This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky.

The Shadow Jury assigned MacLeod’s book to Alison Gzowski and here is her summary report:

I finished Light Lifting last night. I was very impressed. This is a debut collection of short stories (some have been published earlier in literary journals) and it’s everything you don’t expect from debut collections: assured, traditional, consistently well-written and varied. The author is Alexander MacLeod, one of Alastair Macleod’s children (Alastair is an accomplished short story writer himself, has written one novel and was a Giller judge last year).

The pr bumpf is a little odd. It says that this is the long-awaited collection, but as it’s a debut, I had to wonder who was waiting. And somewhere I read that he writes like Alice Munro at her best. That sets the bar unfairly too high.

The book has seven stories. They are traditional or old-fashioned in that they are plot driven and many start off in a situation and then dip from time to time into the back story. The first one (“Miracle Mile”) is about a pair of middle distance runners and starts off by talking about the time Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear. Those two facts alone would leave me cold, yet the story was great. Macleod immerses the reader into that world and I found myself both enlightened and entertained. He’s really good at developing a world in each story. And while he seems interested in action and plot, he deftly gives a sense of character.

When I say that they are varied, I mean so many debut collections seem autobiographical in that they deal with a certain type of person or similar age range. These stories deal with everything from teens in a kind of swimming challenge (“Adult Beginner I”) to a family checking for lice and recalling their past (“Wonder About Parents”) to a man who lost his wife and son in a car accident (“The Number Three”). Most are set in and around Windsor (and so of course Detroit figures in). I like that they are about real working lives. There’s a lot of wisdom and compassion in the stories too. A couple of them had odd endings to me, maybe slightly abrupt or unclear, but at least three of them still haunt me. You can tell he revised and polished and made each sentence count. He’s definitely a talent.

My copy of Light Lifting arrived in the front door mailbox about 30 minutes after Alison’s message arrived in the electronic one. I thought I would try one or two of the stories to confirm her judgment — the highest praise that I can offer this book is that early the next morning I closed the book after finishing the last story. I did force myself to set it aside roughly half way through, so I could extend the reading experience over two days.

I agree with all of what Alison says and would like to expand on it by offering some quotes from another of the stories, “The Loop”, the recollections of a first-person narrator who was a drug store delivery boy (on bicycle) in Windsor in his sub-teen years. Here is MacLeod on his opening page, describing lessons learned about bicycle delivery in snowy and slushy conditions:

When you fall, you want to try and go down on the right hand side. As soon as you feel your tire slipping and the whole back end of the Supercycle moving away on its own, that’s when you grab the bars tight and swing everything way over to the right, towards the hard line of parked cars. It has to be to the right because if you go down on the left you end up splayed out in the middle of the road, right at the peak of drive-home traffic, and all you can do then is hope those nervous Southern Ontario drivers — the ones who never buy winter tires — still remember how to pump their brakes in just the right way and swerve around you, carving a smooth S curve in the snow just a couple of inches from your head.

After introducing us to Musgreave, the druggist who sends the boy out on bicycle onto busy streets deep in snow and slush, MacLeod digresses into describing his first type of customers, “the guys on disability…who had been wreaked by those steady, grinding jobs they used to have at the [auto] plants before everything got ergonomic and automated”:

Those kinds of injuries came from working on the line. They showed up in people who’d been holding the same pneumatic gun for too long, tightening the same eight nuts on a million half-built minivans as they floated by, one every 44 seconds, like a string of hollowed-out metal skeletons, maybe. If you’ve ever been in there you know what it looks like. Other guys got hurt in those nasty burn accidents down in the Ford Foundry where they used to stand on those little platforms while they poured the molten steel directly into the casings for the engine blocks. And there were some men and women who got permanently bent over from working at the trim plant, feeding those thick vinyl seat covers into a heavy-duty sewing machine.

Like all the rest of rust-belt, industrial North America now in its second half-century of decline, Windsor has its share of widows, the second set of clientele the narrator describes:

The old ladies on my route were completely different and you couldn’t say no them. I might be the only person they’d talk to or meet face-to-face for an entire week and when I came to drop off their stuff they always wanted to have a real conversation and invite me in for a little visit.

“I have the tea all set up,” they’d say as they came to the door.
The snacks were all the same. There’d be a cool cup of tea with too much sugar in it and usually some kind of baked thing, a heavy piece of homemade pound cake, maybe, or a cold, rock-solid square with raisins in it that had just been pulled from a Tupperware container in the freezer. Probably a piece of cheese, too. I always tried to drink at least half the tea and eat half the square before getting up. I thought that was my part of the deal, like Santa Claus.

I apologize for the number and length of the quotes but it is the only way to illlustrate one of MacLeod’s great strengths, which shows up in every story: there is a precision and compassion to his observations that places the mundane tellingly in a much larger picture. As Alison noted in her comments, the seven stories are about very different things but one trait that they have in common is the author’s ability to paint both the detail and the broader picture of his subject in each story. I agree completely with her assessment that he is a talent not just to be appreciated with this collection, but to be watched in the future.

Purchased at

This Cake Is for the Party, unfortunately, is a debut collection that illustrates another of my fellow juror’s observations: “autobiographical in that they deal with a certain type of person or similar age range.” I first read this collection in the spring, but didn’t review it then. While each of the 10 stories is fine in itself, as you progress through the book there is a sameness that starts to wear. The characters are all twenty-somethings making the transition into the real-world — youthful relationships are coming under stress, first jobs (if they can even be found) are boring, difficult decisions which inevitably will restrict freedom of action need to be made.

Here is the opening to the first story (“Throwing Cotton”):

This past New Year’s Eve, sitting on the loveseat in front of our little tabletop Christmas tree, I poured us both a glass of sparkling wine and told Sanderson: I think I’m ready to do it.

He kissed the top of my head and asked, Are your sure?

This is my last drink, I told him. I am officially preparing the womb.

Tensions develop at a cottage holiday a few months later, a location that the two have shared with another couple and a third woman for almost a decade, starting in their university years. All five are facing “first-pregnancy-type” decisions, all are questioning past allegiances. The execution is just fine but when you reach the end of the story, the urge is to move on to the next one rather than contemplate what you have just read (I find that to be a distinction that marks the difference between an excellent short story and simply an okay one). Too often, in this book, that next story (entertaining as it might be and most of the 10 are) produces the same response.

Please don’t take that as a rejection of Selecky’s book — remember that this reviewer went through that phase of life some 40 years ago. For those readers whose experience of those kinds of situations and decisions is more recent, I suspect the stories have more to offer. I’d still have to conclude that MacLeod takes his characters and incidents to an entirely different plane than Selecky does.

What the two volumes do show, however, is that the short story genre in Canada is producing a new generation of authors and there is every reason to believe that they will uphold its international reputation for excellence (in MacLeod’s case, that “generational” pass on of the writing baton is a literal one). This year’s Real Giller Jury has rightly drawn attention to two debut authors who deserve it.

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