Archive for April, 2011

Alone in the Classroom, by Elizabeth Hay

April 30, 2011

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Anne, the narrator of Elizabeth Hay’s new novel Alone in the Classroom, introduces the reader to her story through a memory of her childhood home in the Ottawa River Valley:

Our house and garden used to belong to a botanist who was fascinated with orphan plants, waifs, like the Kaladar cactus first discovered a two-hour drive west of here in 1934, then lost from view and subsequently rediscovered in 1947, an isolated and vulnerable plant six hundred miles east of its Wisconsin home. The botanist used to sit on the front porch in a white chair and when he went inside he left a sign on the chair saying Open for business. You could bring him any flower or leaf and he would identify it. My study used to be full of plants that he watered in the nude. I am sorry not to have known him, though very probably he was best in small doses, because there are so many things I would like to identify and because the story I’m telling now is another story of discovery and rediscovery, not botanical but personal. Perhaps every family tale falls into this category: a child discovers something the parent has neglected to tell her and brings it into view again, naming it and locating it and establishing its importance.

That’s a long quote with which to introduce a review, but I am sure it will come as no surprise to readers familiar with the author’s previous novels — it is a good example of both the distinctive prose and story styles for those who don’t know Hay. She is always careful to supply extensive detail on the physical surroundings of her story. Her major characters usually have a somewhat disjointed past — while they have extensive, comprehensive memories of it, the past always seems to include “something the parent has neglected to tell”. Supporting characters tend to be like the botanist; very good at something obscure, but rather out of touch with the world that most experience as “normal”. Discovery and rediscovery (it is important to include both) are the drivers of the present tense of her books.

Hay is also very conscious of how changing mores and practices affect that process. Here’s another example from the chapter that introduces Anne and the Ottawa valley where she was born and raised:

This part of the world is where I live now. At least in a general way. It contains the stream in which my grandmother washed herself in dumb panic upon finding a large red stain in her underwear — a motherless child raised by a Scottish grandmother who told her nothing. She passed on the favour, telling my mother nothing, even though they shared the same bed, and my mother passed this abashed ignorance on to me, asking me after the fact if I knew what to expect. It’s hard to credit in this age of palaver that people used to say so little about sex. Until it exploded in their faces, that is, at which point newspapers told all.

This novel includes two such “explosions”, both involving Anne’s aunt Connie whose path the narrator is retracing in the present tense of the book. The first took place in Jewel, a town in south-west Saskatchewan, in 1929 where a teen-aged Connie has got a teaching job in a primary school after only three months of training at what were then called “normal” schools. It is here that she first runs into the disturbing presence of Ian “Parley” Burns, the principal of the school. That nickname comes from both his ability in the French language and his devotion to all things French.

The Saskatchewan event involves an incident with an attractive adolescent girl to whom Parley has paid much attention, a disastrous response from her father and, eventually, a fatal fire.

Connie has questions about Parley’s involvement in all of this, questions that return to her eight years later when she is a reporter for the Ottawa Journal (she was never cut out to be a teacher) and is in the Ottawa River Valley town for the funeral of a thirteen-year-old girl who had been murdered while out picking chokecherries. She recognizes Parley at the funeral — he is now principal of the high school there.

That supplies you with an outline of the narrative action that will motivate Connie’s voyage of discovery and rediscovery, a voyage that Anne will repeat decades later. It is important for the reader to realize, however, that this is simply a dramatic framework for the real meat of Hay’s story — the conflict between generations in families, the need to search for what parents have “neglected” to tell their children and the reasons why they made that choice.

Elizabeth Hay’s Giller-prize winning novel, Late Nights on Air, featured many similiar elements and it is only fair to note that novel was not to everyone’s taste. As those longish opening quotes of this review indicate, there is a sedateness and intricacy to the presentation of the story that can go beyond distraction to frustrating opaqueness. I liked Late Nights on Air but I am afraid I found those tendencies to be much more of a problem with this novel. The abuse and murder of an adolescent girl is a not-infrequent device for a novel, as is the generational search for missing pieces — for this reader, it takes more than extended passages of description to carry that kind of story.

My qualification would be that this is very much a novel of “mother and daughters” (and aunts) involving three generations. While fathers and sons play a role in the supporting cast, they are missing from the families of the central characters. That is meant as a backward way of saying female readers might find a lot more to identify with in this novel than this reader did. Hay is a fine writer and I am comfortable with her prose (I liked her story collection Small Change (1997) and debut novel A Student of Weather (2000) even better than her prize-winner) but it wasn’t enough to make this novel a favorite.

(Note for Calgary visitors here: Calgary’s authors festival, WordFest, is featuring an event with both Hay and Miriam Toews, author of the recently-released Irma Voth on Tuesday, May 3 — details are here. Both novels involve family stories about “discovery and rediscovery” provoked by disturbing events and the two authors should have some interesting insights.)


Spurious, by Lars Iyer

April 26, 2011

Purchased at

A novel that shares its title with the author’s blog — you have to appreciate the implicit sense of humor. Not just that, Lars Iyer’s playfulness promises an encore — the back cover of this recently-issued debut announces that a “sequel” is coming, with Spurious to be followed in 2012 by Dogma.

Lars Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. And while Spurious certainly reflects his day-job and abilities there, I would have to say that even more it reflects an ability to turn a pleasantly critical (maybe sardonic would be a better description) eye on the author himself.

I have a fondness for novels that are centred on “spaces” where the author defines the surrounding parameters but leaves the space itself undescribed — the joy for the reader lies in filling in those voids himself. Examples on this blog would included the novellas of Jean Echenoz (reviews of four can be found here, so maybe it is more than simply a fondness) and Cynthia Ozick’s most recent work, Foreign Bodies.

Spurious is the dialectic pole of those books — the narrative is about the neutral, transitional spaces with the reader left to figure out just what are the circumstances around them. Consider this example from early in the book:

‘Something inside you always knew, didn’t it?’ W. says. ‘Didn’t your teachers say as much on your report card: Lars has a stutter, but it doesn’t seem to both him’? Buy why was I unbothered?, W. wonders. Did I imagine that my shame should end with the sign of my shame? I wasn’t ashamed of my shame, that’s the point, W. says. My shame didn’t prompt me to thought and reflection. It didn’t make me change my ways.

It’s all down to my non-Catholicism and non-Judaism, W. says. Only for a Jew and Catholic like himself (W.’s family are converts), is it possible to feel shame about shame.

There is a before and after to shame and they are what exists in reality; “shame” is merely the vehicle. But Iyer offers only hints about the before and afters; his interest is in the point of transition. Here is another example, which follows directly in the novel from the previous quote:

W. dreams of serious conversation. Not that it would have serious topics, you understand, he says — that it would be concerned, for example, with the great topics of the day. — ‘Speech itself would be serious’, he says with great vehemence. That’s what he found with the real thinkers he’s known. Everything they say is serious; they’re incapable of being unserious.

The quotes introduce the characters of the book. Both W. and Iyer are philosophy lecturers and both want to develop a “thought” that would give theme credence in the world of philosophy. Alas, they are spinning mental wheels on the way to that goal, caught in the mire of their trade — real achievement for them amounts to being asked to present lectures at conferences that feature better gin. One more quote to illustrate their focus on that “space” between wanting to create a real “thought” and what they actually do produce:

W. says I didn’t even read the chapters he sent to me. He could tell: my remarks were too general. I did read them, I tell him, well, nearly all of them. — ‘You didn’t read chapter five,’ says W., ‘with the dog’. He was very proud of his pages on his dog, even though he doesn’t own a dog. ‘You should always include a dog in your books’, says W.

It’s a bit like his imaginery children in his previous book, W. says. — ‘Do you remember the passages on children?’ Even W. wept. He weeps now to think of them. He’s very moved by his own imaginery examples, he says.

He wants to work a nun into his next book, he says. An imaginery nun, the kindest and most gentle person in the world.

Not surprisingly, W. and Iyer are isolated in their concerns and have only each other on whom to bounce their unformed ideas — that too has a geographical dialectic to it, with W. isolated in Plymouth and Iyer up in the northeast. W. finds Iyer both lazy and, frankly, stupid, but he is still dependent on him as a listening post.

The two have looked for leaders in the real world whom they could adopt and follow. They have even discovered three, but the results have always been the same:

But then the disaster happened, W. remembers. We told him, didn’t we? We told him he was our leader. We told him what we hoped he’d make us become. We told him of our hopes and fears … That’s where it all went wrong, we agree. We scared him off. After that, we resolved never to tell our leaders that they were our leaders, but we couldn’t help it.

The two do have a historical example for their aspirations — Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, biographer and literary executor (again, it is no surprise that the two consider Kafka their “spiritual leader”). While Brod himself never achieved a “thought”, he was essential to Kafka’s thoughts receiving attention since he ignored the author’s instructions to destroy all his works, publishing them instead.

The real world also intrudes in another thread of the novel, in a literally pervasive sense. Iyer’s northeast cottage is subject to the intrusion of a “damp” that is confounding all the experts — despite constant efforts to halt it, they are only successful in the moment and the damp eventually creeps back. It is destroying the entire structure.

Leo Benedictus might think The Afterparty is “a new kind of novel” that inaugurates a world of post-post-modernism. It isn’t — as a commentor here observed, reading it is the literary equivalent of scanning the tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter. Lars Iyer, on the other hand, has actually produced one.

Despite that judgment, I have to confess that my response to Spurious was more one of intrigued curiosity than being taken on a voyage into serious contemplation — it reminded me of philosophy department parties in my university student days when I listened to complex conversations that pretty much befuddled me, not sure whether it was the drink (affecting both speakers and listener) or the thoughts that produced the befuddlement.

When Spurious first arrived, the exceptional cover (which is an excellent visual version of the dilemma developed in the written book) immediately reminded me of Lee Rourke’s The Canal. Lo and behold, who should be blurbing this book on the back cover but Rourke (“a beguiling, philosophical exploration of humour and ideas […] at once fresh, hilarious and touching”), a fair enough assessment and Rourke’s novel does have comparison points with this one. If the cover appeals to you as much as it did to me, you will find that Iyer does deliver on that promise. I may even give Spurious a reread before taking on Dogma.

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

April 21, 2011

Purchased at

Author David Bezmozgis introduces us to the eight members of the Krasnansky family on the platform of Vienna’s Western Terminal. It is the summer of 1978 and they are part of the diaspora of Russian Jews who are fleeing (or being evicted) from the Soviet Union. Samuil, the partriarch, has already had his WWII medals seized (“they are the property of the state”) as part of a humiliating experience (including body cavity searches) at the Soviet border. The family has spent their first few days in the Free World wandering in awe around Vienna and are now headed to Rome, another transit point where they will spend months, perhaps even years, before getting documentation to leave again for a final, not-yet-chosen destination — Chicago is their first choice because of a relative already living there, but Canada and Australia are also possibilites.

In the confusion on the platform, Samuil and his wife, Emma, tend to the two grandchildren while the sons, Karl and Alec, and their wives, Rosa and Polina, load luggage — a life’s remaining possessions and the meal ticket to the future, actually — into the train compartment. Alec is idly attracted to a couple of young American girls also waiting on the platform (an early indication of his overwhelming weakness) but his brother calls him to order:

Alec bent into the remaining pile of suitcases and duffel bags on the platform. Each seemed heavier than the last. For six adults they had twenty articles of luggage crammed with goods destined for the bazaars of Rome: linens, toys, samovars, ballet shoes, nesting dolls, leather Latvian handicrafts, nylon stockings, lacquer boxes, pocket-knives, camera equipment, picture books, and opera glasses. One particularly heavy suitcase held Alec’s big commercial investment, dozens of symphonic records.

It used to be called the New World, but in Cold War times it is the Free World. Life in Riga holds no possibilities so, at the urging of the sons, mainly Karl, a new life will be sought. Israel is one, easier option (flights leave from Vienna, no documentation or pre-approval required), but the family is not religious and yields to Karl’s urging of settling in surroundings more conducive to his (questionable) entrepreneurial nature.

Bezmozgis entwines three time threads in his narrative — memories (both bad and good) of a Latvian and Soviet past, getting by for the present for who knows how long in Rome, and looking forward (perhaps) to an uncertain future wherever they may end up (if you are going to Canada, don’t say you want to go to Toronto, they are helpfully advised by an emigrant support worker). He frames these stories principally from the very different views of past, present and future held by Samuil and Alec.

Samuil is a reluctant and very grumpy emigrant who still remembers with pride the early days of post-Tsarist Russia and fighting the Nazis. After the war, he had a good managerial career, including a chauffeur-driven limo, but recently has been denounced. His Party membership would likely be revoked, sending him jobless into Riga’s streets, so accompanying his sons seems the only choice. A few weeks after arriving in Rome, returning to the decrepit family cottage after talking with a friend about the Party Stories (denouncing the horrors of the Soviet state) that Western authorities expect from those in the diaspora, Samuil has his own conflicting set of memories:

It disturbed Samuil to think of the dozens, the hundreds if not thousands of Party Stories being written by traitors and prevaricators to please the Americans. Samuil envisioned the dossier the American diplomats were compiling, full of false testimonies. In the end, it would lead to a gross distortion of the historical record. Samuil recalled life before the Communists and life after the Communists. He remembered the excesses of the bourgeoisie and the abject existence of the proletariat. He remembered hunger, cold, filth, penury and, worst of all, the smothered hopes of gifted, honest proletarian youth. No one who had not experienced these things could legitimately judge the Communist state. Of course, he acknowledged that, at times, mistakes had been made, that opportunistic elements had wormed their way into positions of power, but the system could not be judged on the basis of rogues and impostors. Rogues and impostors could not be allowed to qualify the essential Communist picture. In order to see this picture, a person would need to take up residence inside Samuil’s head, where the real events of proletarian struggle and triumph were housed like a breathing archive.

If Samuil’s memories have qualifications, Alec’s represent a different kind of “smothered hope”. His introspection occurs as he is being shown around the HIAS offices that support the newly-arrived and waiting emigrants. His English has qualified him for a job and the manager is trying to figure out just what it should be. Alec’s thoughts are sparked by a conversation initiated by his boss after the two look in on the transportation department (they supervise the loading of furniture and goods once a family has a destination to go to — you don’t want furniture arriving in Melbourne when the family is landing in New York):

— You do not seem to be an imposing man, Matilda said.

— Imposing? Alec asked, not understanding.

— A man to give orders to other men, Matilda said. No, they would eat you alive on the docks.

As neither the docks nor the musty office held any appeal for him, Alec saw no reason to contest Matilda’s perception of him. Besides, she was essentially right. His father was imposing and enjoyed issuing decrees and orders. Karl had this capacity as well, although he didn’t derive the kind of pleasure from it that their father did. Whereas the only thing Alec detested more than being ordered around was having to order someone else around. Basically, he was of the opinion that the world would be a far more interesting and hospitable place if everyone — genius and idiot alike — was allowed to bumble along as he pleased. “More freedom to bumble” neatly described his motive for leaving the Soviet Union.

Alec has actually “bumbled” his way into his current circumstances, in the form of his marriage to Polina. They worked together at a Riga factory, had an affair and the married Polina got pregnant. The story of how these two happened to marry and emigrate is heart-breaking in its own right. Bezmozgis mades the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list last summer and if you happen to be a subscriber to the magazine, an excerpt from the novel (actually pulled from several parts of the novel) recounts much of this thread — link is here, but available only to subscribers, alas.

The supporting cast in this exceptional novel is fully as good as the central characters. Karl, the shady entrepreneur, falls in with a gang of even more amoral characters (all forced diasporas involve getting rid of as many criminal types as possible) who are studies in the universality of crime in both Communist and capitalist systems. Polina conducts a correspondence with her younger sister who will face her own dislocation decision. Alec and Polina’s landlord, Lyova, would be worth a book himself — he fled the Soviet Union for Israel and lived there for five years before leaving again (his wife, child and parents are still there) with the hope of getting a U.S. visa. He found there wasn’t much difference between pointing a tank gun at students in the streets of Prague (which he did) and another tank gun at Palestinians in Israel (which he also did).

Throughout all of this, Bezmozgis also paints a thorough portrait of Rome (including the coastal towns of Ostia and Ladispoli where most of the Jews are housed while they await their papers) as it is experienced by the displaced poor. It is only a transit point, but people still have to make money to survive and they still have a common culture and shared experience — anyone who has walked by the street bazaars and tawdry goods spread on blankets in any large Western metropolis will recognize his descriptions.

The emptiness of displacement, albeit with some hope for a future. The conflicting tensions inside a family, the different memories each one carries of what was and the different aspirations each has for the future. The formation of a temporary community of forlorn souls as they wait to move on, something that is present in every diaspora.

Bezmozgis captures all of that in The Free World, certainly the best new novel that I have read to date this year. He was born in Riga in 1973 and one of the novel’s dedications is in memory of Mendel Bezmozgis (1935-2006), so one can assume there is some personal experience present in this story. His first published book, Natasha and Other Stories (2004), was a collection of seven stories featuring a Russian immigrant family in Toronto — it’s hard not to think that the family (the Bermans in that book) doesn’t represent the Krasnansky’s, post-Rome.

I thought Natasha was excellent — this novel is even better. David Bezmozgis is a voice that we are going to hear much from in the future (some reviewers have even called him the new Philip Roth, which might be just a tad premature), but that is no reason not to read him now. I not only expect to see The Free World Giller-listed (as Natasha was), I fully expect it to be on the list when the Booker dozen is revealed in July.

A well-chosen epigraph often supplies an appropriate stage for a book, so I’ll end this review by quoting The Free World‘s:

Now the Lord said unto Abram: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.” — Genesis 12:1

(Note to Calgary visitors here: David Bezmozgis will be in Calgary May 14 for an event co-sponsored by the Writers’ Trust of Canada and Pages Books on Kensington — details are available by phoning Pages at 403-283-6655.)

New Face of Fiction winners

April 20, 2011

And the lucky winners selected with numbers from Random.Org are:

1. Touch, by Alexi Zentner — Pat
2. A Cold Night for Alligators, by Nick Crowe — Kayla
3. Every Time We Say Goodbye, by Jamie Zeppa — Mary Townson

And internationally, Guy Savage who chose A Cold Night for Alligators.

I have email addresses for all the winners and will send you a message to get postal details.

My thanks to everyone who entered and to Random House Canada for providing copies for the Canadian contests. We will try to do this again next year.

The Devil’s Garden, by Edward Docx

April 16, 2011

Review copy courtesy John Self, The Asylum

My personal history with Edward Docx’s two previous novels made The Devil’s Garden one of the books that I most looked forward to this spring. My first exposure to Docx was actually his Booker-listed second novel, Self-Help (titled Pravda in North America); it featured an extensive cast of damaged characters who went through their struggles in an ever-expanding plot that eventually involved London, Paris, New York and St. Petersburg. I liked it enough to search out his debut, The Calligrapher, and enjoyed it even more. That one features a smaller cast but an equally entrancing plot (the 29-year-old calligrapher of the title has a contract to produce versions of 30 of Donne’s songs and sonnets but his libido gets in the way) and is also a “wandering” novel — London, Rome and New York in this one.

One of the most impressive things in both books was the author’s ability to convey a sense of place. His evocation of the Paddington area of London in The Calligrapher was particularly memorable, but there are certainly other examples (his description of St. Petersburg gets high praise from those who know that city). Both novels also excelled in the way that Docx carefully developed his characters, put them through their paces and supplied a dramatic twist at the end — the plots stretch credibility but I was happy to grant him licence and was more than rewarded by the results.

The pre-publicaton description of The Devil’s Garden promised something very different. The central character, Dr J. Forle, is a scientist studying ant colonies, his research project based at the last inhabited station on the Amazon River. I’d say that is literally as far away from cosmopolitan London and New York as you can get — as Docx makes clear in a short preface from Forle:

I came here as a scientist to conduct experiments on other living things. I believed that the most fundamental questions of our existence could be answered in the lab. I believed in rigorous method and the unemotional reporting of results. But I have come to see life itself is the real experiment and that the answers to these questions are to be found only in what we do — as individuals, as a species. What results there are might better be called experience, and experience soon teaches us that they are not the results we would want. I will leave here under another name because of what I have done. All the same, I will leave here as a human being.

The entomology metaphor (actually it is a sub-set, myremecology, the study of ants) that flows from that introduction will continue as a framing device throughout the book, so let’s deal with it first. The altruistic, colony behavior of ants represented a threat to the very core of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the idea of survival of the fittest:

This extreme cooperative behavior runs counter to everything we have come to accept about natural selection and the prevalent idea that the genes that get passed on most often over time are the ones whose consequences serve their own interests. The societies of ants must therefore be reckoned with at the centre of all evolutionary questions. How can there be so many altruistic individuals and yet so many successful species?

And they are very successful. More than any other creature, the ants saturate and dominate the terrestrial environment. There are something like thirteen thousand species with roughly that number again yet to be discovered. Their total population is probably underestimated at ten thousand trillion individuals.

We call them ‘eusocial’ insects, meaning ‘truly social’. Some ants farm, some use tools, some fight terrible wars, others enslave and still others are inquilines — disguised interlopers who rely on their hosts for food and shelter.

The distinguishing characteristic of the species that Forle and his colleagues are studying is their ability to destory all vegetation, except for that that specifically serves their needs, in selected areas of the jungle, creating what the local Indians call the Devil’s garden.

On the other side of the metaphor, we have homo sapiens, represented by varied “species” as well. The staff of the research station represent one: Forle and two Caucasian assistants, supported by four indigenous people “who were all on the payroll of the state”. They represent the peaceful, scientific subset of homo sapiens.

There are of course others, the extremes of which are represented by two visitors who arrive at the station early in the book, Colonel Cordero and the Judge, ostensibly to register everyone living in the area, perhaps to vote, perhaps for other reasons. The Judge’s explanation is enigmatic:

‘Everyone. We are registering everyone.’ He was annoyed to have been distracted from looking at Sole’s legs. ‘Outlaws, smugglers, gun-runners, rat-eaters, monkey-fiddlers. If it shows up alive…we register it.’

‘Surely they need some kind of proof of identity?’ I [Forle] was not so naive as to believe this, but because of my continued irritation with Cordero, I was determined to be affable with the Judge. ‘Otherwise anyone could turn up and there would be no record for next time and the whole electoral register would become –‘

‘A farce.’ The Judge interrupted me. ‘A protracted farce.’

And the Colonel?

Cordero spoke only to ask questions. I could not gauge his intelligence, nor the nature of his relationship with the Judge, but I was forming an opinion that he was the sort of a man who took a steady satisfaction in rooting down for the worst of things — perhaps to prove to himself that nobody else was free from the fears and weaknesses he harboured in his own mind; perhaps because he found that he could not be sure of anything but the lowest motives.

If the Colonel and Judge represent two aligned species of homo sapiens on this side of the metaphor, the Judge’s list indicates some other non-native people who are also at play in this environment: drug dealers, loggers, oilmen — various types of invaders who have various levels of support from the state in exploiting the resources of the area, all in conflict with the scientific project.

And then, of course, there are the tribes indigenous to the area. Some merely move further into the jungle when the inevitable conflicts between different exploiters arise. Others oppose all invaders. And still others choose a side, conflict-by-conflict, motivated by what looks best at the moment rather than any choice measured against long-term benefits.

In this world of conflicting human “colonies”, the members of the research station are at the very bottom of the totem pole, since they don’t even have the option of melting further into the jungle. It is this aspect that Docx chooses to focus on as the novel moves forward — the metaphor remains, but the non-ant side of the story moves into thriller-like territory.

Despite the author’s considerable talents, none of this worked for me. The metaphor initially held appeal, but Docx doesn’t take it anywhere — the novel illustrates it, rather than develops it, which seems to me to be an abuse of the reason for metaphor (they are supposed to make things clearer, not require illustration). The characters, both the invaders (including Forle) and the indigenous people, are two-dimensional cutouts, moved around to serve the active parts of the plot rather than driving it or becoming fuller as a result. And, while it is possible that Docx’s description of the jungle may be every bit as good as the urban sense of place that I loved in his two previous novels, this time it simply didn’t land with me — although that conclusion may say more about my interests than it does about the author’s ability.

While The Devil’s Garden was a disappointment for me, I won’t be abandoning Edward Docx — and those who are attracted by that entomology metaphor may well find more in this novel than I did. Unlike many contemporary authors who tend to write different versions of the same book as their career progresses, Docx, with three books now to his credit, has already shown an interest in exploring dramatically different story threads in each of his novels. Any author willing to take those kind of risks is bound to fall short of the mark — for some readers, at least — on occasion; the innovative effort itself deserves to be recognized.

KfC New Face of Fiction contest

April 12, 2011

If you scroll down one post, you will find my review of Touch, by Alexi Zentner, the third and final of my reviews of the 2011 New Faces of Fiction.

And, thanks to my friends at Random House Canada, KfC is proud to feature not one, but two contests, for copies of the three novels.

For Canadian visitors: Leave a comment on this post saying you are entering the Canadian contest and which novel is your choice. I’ll make three random draws and Random House has promised to mail copies to the lucky winners.

For International visitors: Since I didn’t have to buy any of these books, KfC will spring for an international contest. Leave a comment on this post with your choice and I’ll buy and ship a copy to the lucky winner.

The novels: A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe, Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa and Touch, by Alexi Zentner. Just click on the cover below for a link to my review of each book. Deadline for entries is midnight GMT, April 20.

A Cold Night for Alligators


Every Time We Say Goodbye

New Face of Fiction, 2011 — Touch, by Alexi Zentner

April 12, 2011

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Alexi Zentner’s debut Touch is a three-generation novel. Jeannot, the grandfather, is the “founder” of gold-town Sawgamet, discovered while he was fleeing an abusive adolescent past — a disaster will cause him to flee again when his own son is a young child, but he will return three decades later. That son, the Papa of the novel, is a logger who lives his entire life in the frontier community — he will die young trying to rescue his daughter who has fallen through the ice while skating on the river early in the book. His son, the narrator, has just returned to the community as its new Anglican priest. He had left almost a quarter century ago at the age of 16 to attend the seminary in Edmonton, went overseas as a chaplain in the Great War and now has returned to attend his dying mother and take over from his stepfather, the incumbent priest who is ready to retire.

Touch is also a frontier novel. The fleeing teenaged Jeannot set up shop in the wilderness here only because his dog refused to go further. It turns out the reason the dog stopped was because he was sitting above a large, buried piece of gold, which Jeannot eventually finds. That not only provides him economic security, it provokes a gold rush — Jeannot wisely gives up prospecting himself to set up a lumber business, selling at very high prices to those searching for ore. Gold rushes come and go, but logging always remains. In the present tense of the book, that business is still booming — now producing the timbers that a nation which has just entered World War II requires.

Touch is also a spiritual book, not just with the Christian narrator and his pastor stepfather, but with the indigenous spirits that come with the territory. The idea of faith and just what to have faith in is ever present in the book. The way that Zentner handles these over-arching, intertwining themes is best illustrated from a quote early-on in the book, as the narrator recalls his father. In the woods, he was a logging foreman who had to be as tough as tough was required:

He pushed them hard, and when they pushed back, he came home with bruises, an eye swollen shut, scabs on his knuckles. He made them listen.

At home, he was gentle. At night, he told us stories about his father, how Jeannot found gold and settled Sawgamet, and then the long winter that followed the bust. He told us about the qallupilliut and Amaguq, the trickster wolf god, about the loup-garou and the blood-drinking adlet, about all of the monsters and witches of the woods. He told us about the other kinds of magic that he stumbled across in the cuts, how the sawdust grew wings and flew down men’s shirts like mosquitoes, how one tree picked itself up and walked away from the sharp teeth of the saw. He told us about splitting open a log to find a fairy kingdom, about clearing an entire forest with one swing of his ax, about the family of trees he had found twisted together, pushing toward the sky, braided in love.

Three generations, all of whom have to battle for survival. A punishing frontier, that while yielding both gold and timber, never yields completely. Native spirits, “the monsters and witches of the woods”. It should come as no surprise that omniscient Mother Nature is a fourth thread of the book: She is always present but the dramatic turning point of the novel comes with the winter that featured “thirty feet of snow”.

Any one of those four threads could serve as a defining theme for traditional Canadian fiction — I’m pretty sure if I went back to Margaret Atwood’s 1972 critical work, Survival, I would find examples (if not whole chapters) devoted to each of the four. And while Canadian fiction has moved beyond merely works about “survival”, it does not mean that they have disappeared completely — a couple of years back, Giller Prize judge and British author, Victoria Glendenning, got in some hot water here when she wrote a UK newspaper column that referenced the prevalance of these kinds of themes in contemporary Canadian fiction. You can read a short quote from that column introducing my review of Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice, another Canadian survival novel (albeit a more urban one) set in the same time frame as the present of this novel.

Zentner goes beyond the norm, however, by including all four themes, rather than just one or two. And he complicates matters further by moving backwards and forwards in time — the narrator frequently invokes lengthy memories to introduce stories of what happened two generations ago, but equally frequently returns from those memories to the present to draw implications and lessons from the incidents, both major and minor, that occured decades ago. The constants, of course, are the resources (both mineral and arboreal), the aboriginal spirits and the unrelenting climate that offers as many bad years as good ones.

While the result is not totally successful (let’s face it, a lot of juggling is required to keep four strains with that kind of impact going), for this reader the author succeeded much more often than he failed. The result, and it is to his credit as an author, is that the strength of the book lies not in the portrayal of any of those forces, but in the fully-developed portraits he produces of the characters that must face them. Jeannot, his wife and the pioneers around them all come to life — as do the narrator’s parents and the generation around them. And given that the narrator has just returned to his birthplace when he tells the story, all of this is wrapped up in the future of a character who, at the age of 40, is about to start the next phase of his life in the community called Sawgamet. (I am guilty of reviewer gender bias in concentrating on the male characters — rest assured their female partners are every bit as important to the story and every bit as well-developed.)

I am not sure how well this novel will travel outside of Canada, although Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, which has similarities in both frontier setting and some themes, is travelling very well with its recently-announced Orange Prize short-listing and talk of possible Booker acknowledgement (yes, I am cheering for her on both). Perhaps instead of lamenting yet more novels with themes that have always been common in Canadian fiction, it is time to celebrate the way that debut authors are returning to them with even more impressive results.

The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri

April 8, 2011

Purchased at

Translated by Stephen Sartarelli

According to Wikipedia, Andrea Camilleri wrote his first novel (The Way Things Go) in 1978 at the age of 53. A second followed two years later — neither attracted much attention so he took a 12 year break. A bestseller (The Hunting Season) was published in 1992 but Camilleri didn’t really find his “voice” — and most famous character — until two years later, when he introduced Inspector Montalbano to the world with this novel. The Wikipedia entry lists 16 Montalbano novels but there are 18 episodes of the television series, so I think it is a fair assumption that a couple more exist. Not bad for an author who didn’t find that signature character until he was approaching his 70th birthday.

This is a double review of both the Italian television show and the initial book in the series. Guy Savage put Mrs. KfC and I onto the video Montalbano some months back — Guy knows his noir (and detectives) and he recommended the Italian series in a comment. The show has been a hit for decades (Camilleri’s hometown of Porto Empedocle actually changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in honor of the fictional Sicilian town he created for the series) but the North American DVDs — in Italian, with English subtitles — only became available last year. It is fair to say that we became instant, enthusiastic fans; we not only have watched all 18 episodes, we are well into a second viewing.

While I am a fan of English and European detective shows, I don’t normally follow that up with a reading of the books they are based on, but curiosity about Camilleri did get the better of me. According to his Wikipedia entry, Camilleri describes Montalbano as “a serial killer of characters”, meaning that “he has developed a life of his own and demands great attention from his author, to the demise of other potential books and different personages”. The Montalbano stories may be dark, but the sense of humor reflected in that comment is ever present.

While The Shape of Water was the first Inspector Montalbano book, it is actually episode four in the television series — the story is complex enough that the producers wisely opted for some simpler episodes to establish the cast of continuing characters before tackling this one. The story opens with two “ecological agents” (that would be garbage collectors) cleaning up “the Pasture”:

Until recently the Pasture had represented, for those who still went under the undignified name of garbage collectors, a cakewalk of a job: amid the scraps of paper, plastic bags, cans of beer and Coca-Cola, and shit piles barely covered up or left out in the open air, now and then a used condom would appear, and it would set one thinking, provided one had the desire and imagination to do so, about the details of that encounter. For a good year now, however, the occasional condom had turned into an ocean, a carpet of condoms, ever since a certain minister with a dark, taciturn face worthy of a Lombroso diagram had fished deep into his mind, which was even darker and more mysterious than his face, and come up with an idea he thought would solve all the South’s law-and-order problems.

Gegè [an old schoolmate of Montalbano’s] , in short, succeeded in opening a specialized market of fresh meat and many and sundry drugs, all light, at the Pasture. Most of the meat came from the former Eastern Bloc countries, now free at last of the Communist yoke which, as everyone knows, had denied all personal, human dignity; now, between the Pasture’s bushes and sandy shore, come nightfall, that reconquered dignity shone again in all its magnificence. But there was also no lack of Third World women, transvestites, transsexuals, Neapolitan faggots, Brazilian viados — something for every taste, a feast, an embarrassment of riches. And business flourished, to the great satisfaction of the soldiers, Gegè, and those who, for a proper cut of the proceeds, had granted Gegè permission to operate.

On this day, however, the “ecological agents” discover something far different than the normal garbage: a luxury vehicle with the body of one Luparello, who only days earlier was named to the highest political office in the district. The garbagemen aren’t dumb — rather than calling the police, they call the lawyer Rizzo, known to all as the power behind the political throne. They can’t believe it when Rizzo summarily dismisses them.

With that, Camilleri (and Montalbano) are on their way. Luparello may have died of a heart attack but the Inspector has concerns about just why a person of such prominence (and integrity) would be visiting the Pasture for sex. As the novel unfolds, we will meet duelling Mafia gangs, a stunning Swedish rally car driver, a host of corrupt politicians (and judges) and some very decent, but very poor, people who are oppressed by all of that power.

That should be enough to whet your interest — the book is only 218 pages, proof positive that Camilleri moves complicated plot along at a breakneck pace.

I have to say, however, that the book does read like a screenplay and, alas, is not quite up to the television show. Before he started writing, Camilleri was in the television business and it shows. The novel supplies all the elements of the story but the Sicilian landscape and some wonderful acting not just by Luca Zingaretti who plays Montalbano but also by a very strong supporting cast have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

I did order four Montalbano books and will probably get to the other three at some point. I cannot be too enthusiastic about the television show, and the novel did bring back memories of it, but as entertaining as the novel was, it just isn’t up to the video version. Camilleri does deserve full marks for creating such an amazing “serial killer of a character”.

One final tease, however, in the form of an explanation for the title of the novel. It comes from Luparello’s widow:

“I’m not Sicilian; I was born in Grosseto and came to Montelusa when my father was made prefect here. We owned a small piece of land and a house on the slopes of the Amiata and used to spend our summers there. I had a little friend, a peasant boy, who was younger than me. I was about ten. One day I saw that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water, and was looking at them attentively.

“‘What are you doing?’ I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.

“‘What shape is water?’

“‘Water doesn’t have any shape!’ I said, laughing. ‘It takes the shape you give it.’

At that moment the door to the library opened, and an angel appeared.

Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews

April 5, 2011

Review copy courtesty Knopf Canada

A “next generation” of mature Canadian novelists is emerging and Miriam Toews’ name is usually present on any attempted list. Her last two novels (A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans) were both prize winners — the former won a Governor-General’s award and the latter the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — and also attracted international attention. Both those novels reflected Toews’ Manitoba Mennonite roots and the conflict faced by the children of that faith (no dancing, no drinking, no jewellery, etc.) as they look at the competing attractions of today’s world around them.

Irma Voth returns to that territory of generational conflict, but shifts the geography. The Voth family has fled its Manitoba roots following an incident and, literally, set up camp in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico — for readers not familiar with Mennonite history, its adherents have been fleeing modern regimes for distant “havens” for centuries. In this novel, the family conflict is well-advanced when the novel opens. Irma, at 18, has already left the fold and married Jorge:

The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure. But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo.

Irma’s marriage is not a case of fleeing “to” a better world, but a desperate teenage attempt to get “away” from what she has experienced as a worse one. Like most such attempts, it succeeds in neither goal as Toews makes clear early in the book when Irma tells her mother of her shotgun marriage:

I went into my mother’s bedrom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final.

Irma may have escaped the oppressive family home, but she is now located in a shack just next door. Jorge is rarely there (her father’s description of him is close to dead-on). While her father won’t talk to her and forbids 13-year-old sister Aggie from talking to her, she is expected to continue performing her farm chores in exchange for the residence. She is now doubly isolated and repressed in the near wilderness of northern Mexico.

Hope arrives in the form of a movie company that rents the third dwelling in the Campo owned by her father. Diego, the director of the film, has an established reputation in arty cinema which is reflected in his personality, creative approach and the people whom he attracts to work with him. Irma’s facility with languages (Low German from the family, English from being raised in Manitoba and Spanish from her time in Mexico) gets her a job as translator with the film crew — a significant task since the female lead is a German actress and the movie itself is a version of the “Mennonite” conflict. While her repressive father needs the rent money, that in no way changes his negative attitude towards the movie project and all those involved with it.

Having firmly established those themes of conflict and desperate attempts at escape in two venues, midway through the book Toews extends them even more dramatically into a third, which I’ll leave you to discover in the book itself since it would be a significant spoiler. For those who have read her last two novels, it will not come as a major surprise.

All of that creates the potential for a very interesting novel. I was born and raised in Kitchener, which would rival Manitoba as the centre of Canadian Mennonite country, so that story thread had some personal interest. And Toews (one assumes from personal experience) has an impressive record of fictionalizing the generational conflict that is present in religious families. And the even broader issue of the conflict between rural and urban cultures is one that has much relevance.

The problem with Irma Voth is in the execution. Each of the three storylines requires a cast of supporting characters and there simply is not enough room to adequately develop them. Worse yet, the requirement to supply at least sketches of these characters means that the picture of Irma herself suffers — the author has to spend so much time placing her in new worlds (not to mention locating her upbringing in historical ones) that Irma becomes a vehicle for the plot rather than the centrepiece of it.

The result for this reader was a novel that carried more an impression of “what could have been” rather than “what was actually achieved” — disappointment at what the book might have been took over from what it actually is. I would qualify that, however, by noting that I had a similar reaction to both her previous novels, which obviously wasn’t shared by some others. My suspicion is that Toews’ work lands with much more impact with female readers who can identify with the struggles of her central characters at a level that I simply can’t access. If you read and liked either of her previous novels, it is probably worth giving this one a try — for me, Toews shows all the potential to get to the new Canadian A-list, but has not arrived there just yet.

(Note: If you are not familiar with Toews’ previous books, you can find descriptions of them as well as this one at She is worth a look.)

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