Archive for December, 2012

KfC’s 2013 Project: Revisiting 12 Canadian authors who influenced me

December 31, 2012

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” — Robertson Davies

KfC's 2013 Project

KfC’s 2013 Project

That quote showed up in my inbox a few months back, re-discovered and sent to me by a longtime friend, Marilyn Potts. I certainly was aware of it, although I will admit it had been a few decades since I had last brought it to mind. The email was very timely however because the reminder served as a catalyst to bring together two "reading" thoughts that had been separately percolating in my mind:

— Every time I headed into the basement to search the shelves for an older book, I kept coming across Canadian novels that I had read in my youth (and again in maturity) and found mysef thinking "I really should read that again".

— 2013 is one of those marker years for me: I turn 65 in February. I was looking for some project that would celebrate both that personal landmark and year five in the "publication" of this blog.

So I quickly decided that my 2013 project would be to pay attention to Davies' perceptive thought and revisit 12 novels — one a month — that had served to develop my tastes in Canadian fiction. I've read all of them at least twice (in youth and maturity) and a third read of each did seem in order. Having said that, I am not quite prepared to admit that I have arrived at "old age", so I'd like to modify Roberston Davies quote just a bit: insert "again when you get control of your own time" in the first half of the phrase and, to preserve the symmetry, "at dusk" in the second half (since fine buildings do look different at dawn and at dusk).

I know that only a third of visitors to this blog are Canadian, so I need to make a few qualifications before revealing my schedule. The first is that, unlike the United Kingdom or even the United States, Canadian fiction publishing is a comparatively "young" animal. While there are certainly Canadian authors who were published prior to World War II (Sinclair Ross and Frederick Phillip Grove are two that come to mind), they were originally published in the UK or US, with volumes exported back to Canada. Hugh MacLennan is generally regarded as the first writer to attempt to portray Canada's national character and even his first novel (Barometer Rising, 1941) about the Halifax Explosion was first published in the US. So foreign readers here (except, of course, those from Australia and New Zealand which have similarly young publishing industries) are going to find a very “modern” tone to this list of “classics” — all were first published post-War.

That also means that my life and Canadian publishing occupy the same time frame — okay, I wasn’t reading these books as a child but even the oldest was published less than 25 years before I first encountered it. More important, however, is that in the mid-1970s I was a weekly book columnist for the Calgary Herald and most of these seminal authors were still alive and publishing. That is reflected in this list — I interviewed or met all of the first six authors whom I plan to reread (usually in connection with that particular novel), so much “classic” Canadian fiction took place in real time for me. And that also means my project schedule is roughly in reverse chronological order — I’ll get to older works in the July to December slots.

Finally, this is very much a personal list and not meant to be an attempt at “12 best Canadian novels ever”. Indeed, my favorite Canadian novel — Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance — isn’t part of the project, because I last reread it just before starting this blog and it is too soon for a revisit. (If that perks your interest, Will Rycroft has an excellent review of it here.) And, while Mordecai Richler is part of the project, the chosen novel would not be the conventional choice as his best: I’ve already reviewed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (and that review is by far the most often visited post on this blog). And I have excluded many authors because they are still publishing (Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaeghe). Only two on my list are still publishing — Margaret Atwood makes it because her career breaks into two parts (pre- and post-“speculative” fiction) and Alice Munro because, because,…well, because she is Alice Munro (the volume that is part of the project was her first collection, published 45 years ago). I would like to think we have not read the last of her new work yet (and I will be reviewing her latest in just a few weeks, which is why she gets pushed to December in the project).

What follows is the list, by month in case you would like to follow along or join in the project on some selected months. A quick scan shows that all but the Hugh Hood selection are available in Canada — non-Canadian readers might have a challenge finding a few of them but Abebooks has sources for all at reasonable prices. (If you are really keen, my essay on economically buying Canadian fiction — here — has some strategies on how to reduce shipping costs.) Except for this month where I have delayed the review to allow anyone who wants to take part time to read the book, I’ll try to post the review in the first week of each month.

January — Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies
February — The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields
March — Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler
April — Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood
May — White Figure, White Ground, by Hugh Hood
June — The Studhorse Man, by Robert Kroetsch
July — The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence
August — Cabbagetown, by Hugh Garner
September — Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan
October — Collected Stories, Alistair MacLeod
November — The Tin Flute, Gabrielle Roy
December — Dance of the Happy Shades, by Alice Munro

I am very much looking forward to this reading journey — I hope that some visitors here will find a reason to join at least part of it, be it re-reading an old favorite or taking up a Canadian classic for the first time. These 12 authors have been influential in defining Canadian literature — as a new generation of authors grows into prominence, it is important not to overlook the contribution that they have made.


2012 — KfC’s 10 best

December 26, 2012

As the year draws to a close and without any further ado, here are 10 books that both impressed and entertained me in 2012. Click on each title to go to the original, extended review.

judtThe Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but historian Tony Judt has been a favorite for many years — like many, I was heartbroken when it was revealed he was suffering from ALS and its inevitable result. The Memory Chalet consists of 26 essays (most published originally in the New York Review of Books) that he produced between the diagnosis and his death. The first three dispassionately discuss the progress of the disease (the body slowly stops to function; if anything, the mind becomes more active) and Judt’s response: building a “memory chalet” of what is going on in his mind (visions from a life lived) as his body shuts down. The essays are grouped in three parts: memories of growing up in London, his student days in both England and the continent and experiences from his later years when he was based in the United States. Judt was born in 1948 (as was I); this collection reads very much like a “novel” of what it was like to grow-up, mature and intellectually prosper in the post-World War II western world. I returned for a second read of the book as soon as I finished it the first time — I know I will be returning to it again in the future.

perlman2The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman. On one level, The Street Sweeper is the story of a black American who gets sent to prison following a teenage escapade and ends up sweeping the streets of New York after his release as he fights to recover a normal life. On another, it is the story of a struggling history professor, the son of a legendary figure from the civil rights era. And on yet another, it is an account of what happened in Holocaust concentration camps — told in horrific detail. Perlman is an Australian so he brings an observor’s eye to these three streams and succeeds in weaving them together in a wide-ranging novel that is as compelling to read as it is thought-provoking. Perlman is a new discovery for me (I read the very good Seven Types of Ambiguity earlier in 2012) — I very much look forward to exploring his back catalogue.

lanchesterCapital, by John Lanchester. The professional critics did not rate this book highly so take its inclusion on this list as an indication that I think they overlooked a very good book. Capital is a “London” novel, set in 2007 and focused on Pepys Street in South London, a block of nineteenth century dwellings originally built for trades people but now gentrified in the extreme. Lanchester covered the 2008 financial crisis for the London Review of Books (and produced a non-fiction volume from that experience) — this is his fictional version of what life was like leading to the crisis. I love London and its characters and this novel features versions of many of them — a City banker who can’t survive without a six-figure bonus, the last resident who was actually born on the street and an illegal immigrant working as a traffic warden whose beat includes Pepys Street are just a few of the extensive cast. The novel is not a masterpiece by any means, but it is an engaging portrait of what might still be the world’s most interesting city.

fraynSkios, by Michael Frayn. Frayn is not just an outstanding novelist, he is perhaps even better known as a playwright (“Noises Off”, “Copenhagen” and “Democracy” were all box-office hits). In both novels and plays, some are very serious, some pure fun — Skios is a perfect illustration of the latter (think a novel-version of “Noises Off” if you know his dramatic work). Skios is a Greek island that annually features a Literary Grand House Party for the rich, powerful and famous (who are expected to contribute handsomely to the Foundation that funds it). The slapstick plot is set in a motion when a cad who is arriving on the island for a dirty week with a woman he had met briefly just a few weeks before mistakenly picks up the luggage of this year’s distinguished lecturer and decides to have some fun by adopting his identity. Skios is a richly entertaining farce — as much as I enjoyed the book, I was as surprised as anyone when it made the Booker longlist since it is the antithesis of the “typical” Booker book.

margoshesA Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes. I read a number of excelllent short story collections in 2012, but this volume stood above the rest. It features 13 literary “pieces” — while the author calls them stories he acknowledges they are also an homage to the memories he holds of his father, a lefty journalist in 20th century New York City. Margoshes not only brings his father to life, he does the same to a memory of the America of the times, ranging from working as a farmhand in the Catskills to starting journalism on a Jewish Cleveland newspaper to covering the Hindenberg disaster. The author’s mother told him as a child to “listen to your father” — this collection is an excellent example of what happens when a talented writer heeds that advice.

warner2The Deadman’s Pedal, by Alan Warner. This would have been KfC’s personal choice for the 2012 Booker Prize — the real jury did not even include it on the longlist. The story focuses on an isolated, coastal Scottish community and the struggles faced by those who live there (an Irish version of this theme can be found in a John McGahern novel further down this list). The community is still tied to “metropolitan” Scotland by a railway spur line that supplies the novel’s title (the deadman’s pedal is a safety device in train engines that cuts power if the engineer releases it, e.g. by suddenly dying). The characters are both interesting and complete; Warner succeeds in placing the reader at the centre of both the community and their very ordinary daily lives — until a dramatic catastrophe brings the novel to a close.

amis3Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis. This is the second “London” novel to make this list in a year that featured a number of them (I have yet to read Zadie Smith’s NW and Keith Ridgwater’s Hawthorne and Child, both highly regarded). I am a fan of Amis’ early works but have felt in his more recent ones he was more interested in showing his “enfant terrible” side than in producing readable books — for me, Lionel Asbo was a stunning return to form. The title character changed his name to Asbo (UK shorthand for Anti-Social Behavior Order) and is determined to live up to his new name. While awaiting trial in prison, he wins £140 million in a lottery which adds significant challenge to that objective. Amis uses those unlikely circumstances to produce a laugh-out-loud satire of contemporary London at both its poorest and richest extremes — the result alternates between the bitter and sweet, but is always hugely entertaining.

richler4The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler. Anyone who read and remembers my review of The Imposter Bride is probably surprised to see it included here — I’d just finished a string of Giller longlisted novels that all seemed to feature abandoned children searching for their mothers and my initial response to Richler’s novel was rather grumpy since that is its central story line. A Jewish refugee arrives in Montreal for an arranged marriage that allows her to come to Canada. Not long after, some shady aspects of her history cause her to abandon her infant daughter — the novel is the story of that daughter and her curiosity about her mother. My opinion of the novel has grown steadily since reading it (the Shadow Giller Jury did award it this year’s 2013 prize) — Richler’s portrayal of post-WWII Montreal and the struggles and concerns of those who inhabit it matures like fine wine as time passes.

Gift from Kimbofo

Gift from Kimbofo

That They May Face The Rising Sun, by John McGahern. John McGahern is the second most-reviewed author on this blog with five titles (Jean Echenoz is first with six) and every one of them has been excellent (you can find reviews of all five here). Having said that, this novel (his last) would be my favorite of the bunch. A couple who have recently moved to rural Ireland from London are at the core of the book (for Joe Ruttledge it is a return to the area where he was born and raised) but it is the complete cast of well-developed, heart-warming characters that is responsible for making it excellent. Ireland has produced many novels which feature its “challenged” communities — of those that I have read, this is the most accomplished of the genre, a perfect gem of a book.

highsmith The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith. Including this one does seem a bit of a cop-out — volume two of Highsmith’s five-book Ripley series was on KfC’s 2011 top 10 list. It seemed even more unfair to leave it off, however. Tom Ripley is one of literature’s most interesting and charming rogues — a truly amoral scoundrel on the one hand, but a fascinating character study on the other. Actually, I read two Ripley volumes this year (Ripley’s Game as well as this one) and still have one to go in 2013. The link will take you to reviews of all four that I have read so far — to appreciate Tom, you need to read them in order.

A Place To Call Home, by Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Stirrett

December 18, 2012


(Full disclosure: For those who are not already aware of it, Sheila O’Brien is Mrs. KfC. I bet I am going to like this book.)

A Place To Call Home marks the final volume in a three-year, three-book project for authors Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Stirrett (nee Ritchie). Before getting to thoughts on this final volume, it is worth looking at the project as a whole and the previous two books.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has been very kind to Western Canada. For most of the last one, the region felt like the poor (and persecuted) stepchild of Canada. Restricted markets for its resources and products meant arbitrarily low prices. Political power and interests were firmly lodged in Central Canada — the concerns of the West were ignored, or even worse, deliberately thwarted. The frustration was best summed up in the rallying call that led to the formation in 1970 of the Canada West Foundation (the research think-tank that served as home for this project): “The West wants in.”

It took some decades, but by the dawn of this century that had changed — Canada’s future was now dependent on the West. British Columbia had always been Canada’s entry to the Pacific and already had experience with Asian business. Alberta’s energy resources were attracting investments from around the globe, including emerging powerhouses like Malaysia and China. After decades of population losses, Saskatchewan was experiencing both prosperity and population growth. And Manitoba? Well, Canada’s keystone province has always “gone with the flow” — and the flow was now going its way.

All of that presents both opportunities and challenges in terms of what the future might hold: O’Brien and Stirrett came up with a model that was designed to help begin the process of successfully realizing that future. Visitors here are familiar, I am sure, with the literary idea of “oral history” — this project uses the mirror image, “oral future”, as its central device. For each book, the authors sought out and interviewed 40 to 50 influencers from all four Western Canadian provinces, probing their thoughts on what the future might hold and what was needed to get there.

The first volume, An Extraordinary West, was an overview from the 30,000-foot level. Politicians (both present and past), business people, community leaders and artists were all asked to look into the future — the result was a broadly-based look at what opportunities might be in store for the West and, every bit as important, what issues needed to be addressed (global warming and equity for First Nations people were just two).

That first book showed that sensible and responsible energy development lay at the core of the economic future for the West — we are blessed with both fossil fuels and hydro resources and have lots of both sun and wind. Volume two of the project, Catching A Rising Tide, focused on what was required to capture — and leverage — the potential of energy development.

However, as resource-based communities since the dawn of the Industrial Age can testify, a gold rush can have two results: a vibrant community that makes the transition to the post-extraction future or a ghost town. A Place To Call Home (the book’s subtitle is “Building Community, Inspiration and Creativity in Western Canada”) considers what is required to achieve that first outcome. While interviews for the first two books concentrated on traditional leaders in government, community and commerce, those done for this book sought out voices that often are not heard: opera company directors, community activists, spiritual leaders, philanthropists, actors and artists were the sources the authors looked to for this book.

The question we must be asking ourselves is: What do we need to do to ensure that western Canada is not just an economic success but also a dynamic, interesting and inspiring place in which to live? How can we ensure that the people who live here now want to stay here and invest their energies in building a future for themselves and western Canada? What do we want our legacy to be?

The barriers to creating an inspiring society do not mean we should give up. In fact, they make focusing on this task that much more important. Because creating a great place to live is not easy and cannot be laid at the feet of any one group, it must be embraced with passion by many groups. Because it is so much easier to heed hard data, we must strive to keep the non-quantifiable aspects of life in our line of sight. And because our wealth enables us to do more, so much more, than merely survive, we must consciously ask ourselves what value we are purchasing for our community and ourselves with our gains.

I suspect a number of visitors here at this point are thinking: “This sounds a lot like a frontier version of Richard Florida”. While Florida is referenced in the book, if anything O’Brien and Stirrett are the “non-Richard Floridas”. As with both their previous volumes, this is not a book prescribing “what must be done”. Rather, it is intended to frame and open the dialogue — instead of direction from on high, it consists of a wealth of observations and ideas from those on the ground about how the dialogue can be nurtured.

A Place To Call Home groups those ideas under three broad headings. The first is “Sharing Opportunities”: if the West is to be “home”, then it must be an equal society. First Nations people and immigrants have always been important to the West and enabling their success is even more important for our future. A world-class education system, from pre-school through post-graduate, is essential. The second cornerstone is “Building Strong Communities” and the sub-headings for this chapter outline that story: “bring people together”, “enable a culture of contribution” and “embrace our place in the world”. The final grouping is “Telling Our Story” and focuses on what can be done through cultural infrastructure to ensure that artists and audiences are served in the community that we call home.

Those labels are general and directional but to the credit of O’Brien and Stirrett the material that comes under them is anything but and has a wealth of specific examples and ideas. After all, it comes from interviews with those on the front lines and, let’s face it, they know their stuff.

I’ll offer only one example as an illustration here, albeit one that I think visitors to this blog will both understand and welcome. During the interviews, the authors heard frequently about the importance of recreation and sports as part of “community”. That didn’t surprise them — but another oft-heard observation rather pleasantly did:

One of the most commonly cited places that served to strengthen the community by bringing people together was the library. Many of those we spoke to discussed at length the importance of a strong library system to an inspiring place to live. The power of libraries is that they are open to everyone; they are one of the last places where people from all walks of life can come together and not be expected to purchase something. Chic Scott [author, historian, mountaineer] explains why he thinks libraries are so important:

“Libraries, most importantly, are completely democratic. You go into the library and you have senior citizens there, you have little kids running around with their mothers, you have guys and gals with dreadlocks and earrings and they are all in there together. Traditional arts and culture, which I love and I go to a lot, appeals to a more select group but libraries appeal to everyone. When you are traveling around the world and you are in a strange city, cold and wet, you can always go to a library. It’s one of the last commercial free public spaces. We have shopping malls but you are actually supposed to buy something there, or at least they would like you to. But libraries are a commons, owned by everyone and anyone can go to them.

While A Place To Call Home is a story about Western Canada, I would suggest it has much to offer other audiences. Certainly, those elsewhere in Canada (especially the Golden Crescent in Ontario and Quebec) will find it useful in considering just what is happening out here. Readers in the American West will find both useful reminders of their situation and new ideas. I am sure my visitors from the other Old Dominions of Australia and New Zealand would frequently be saying “it’s just like that here”. And my United Kingdom friends might like to take that section about libraries and wave it under the noses of the foolish politicians who are closing libraries there.

Alas, you can’t find A Place To Call Home at a bookstore or even on Amazon. If your interested is sparked, this book and the preceding two volumes are available directly from the Canada West Foundation here.

(A final note: I would have liked the book even if it wasn’t written by Mrs. KfC and a good friend of us both. 🙂 )

The Purchase, by Linda Spalding

December 13, 2012

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Daniel Dickinson’s “journeys” are set in motion when his wife, Rebecca, dies three weeks after giving birth to their fifth child. The setting is a Quaker community in Brandywine, Pennsylvania, 1798. Only days after that death, the helpful relatives have returned to their own families and the young widower’s troubles get worse when his father offers some moral direction:

“Thee shall cause scandal by keeping the servant girl in thy house,” his father admonished. “Thee must find a proper mother for thy orphans.”

“Ruth Boyd is also an orphan,” Daniel had replied. It was a listless argument nonetheless. He had taken her from the almshouse on a bond of indenture and did not feel he could return her. He said simply, “I cannot take her back there.” He thought of the way she had run out to his wagon wearing a torn plaid dress and boots so old they were split at the sides. Her cape was unmended, her felt hat unclean.

Not only does Daniel not evict Ruth the servant, he marries her, which immediately provokes shunning from the community. Having made that choice, he has no alternative but to begin his physical journey, packing new wife, five children and whatever he can on a wagon and heading west for Virginia, where land is readily available.

Even before departing, however, his stonemason father foreshadows the second, “moral”, journey that Daniel will be undertaking. Virginia is “a land of slavery” and there is no paid labour to be had. Daniel will not only be entering a physical world that he knows not, he will be entering a moral one that is completely at odds with how he has been raised.

Those parallel journeys are the underlying threads of Linda Spalding’s The Purchase which won this year’s Governor-General’s award for English fiction. She is a talented writer and treats both with equal respect — the first 25 pages of the book at taken up with a detailed description of the terrain as the Dickinsons head west and also establish the underlying tension between the new “wife” Ruth (age 16) and the effective new “mother” of the family, daughter Mary (age 13). It is a respect for detail and description that will continue throughout the volume.

The moral journey becomes real shortly after the family’s arrival in Jonestown — not really a town, just a settlement named after the first arrival, the German Jonas Frederick, who preferred to be known as Frederick Jones. Daniel goes looking to hire help and discovers his new reality from a neighbor: “…the only choice in this here country is to buy yoursef a nigra, rare though they may be.”

Daniel is an abolitionist and wants no part of that; he will have to simply proceed on his own. And he has to start quickly: he not only needs assorted tools to begin work, a spill crossing a river on the way has meant the loss of all the family’s food and supplies. He heads to a nearby community where an auction is scheduled — but before those items come up for bid, there is the auction of the dead owner’s slaves.

After a few of those are sold off, to Daniel’s disgust, a mother and her son are brought to the stage.

Daniel sat through the auctioning of the boy’s mother, then, and he hated the men as they yelled up their bids but he told himself they would now get to the useful tools when a boy the size of Isaac [Daniel’s middle son] climbed up on the stage without prodding. He was surely older than nine but no more than thirteen and he got up on the stage as if daring the men below to challenge his right to stand above them. From that height he stood looking down at the pink and white faces below as if he hoped to lock eyes with the one person in the crowd who dared to take charge of his fate — although if this fate can be charged to anything, thought Daniel, it can only be to God as He speaks through each one of us. It occurred to him then to pray for the boy but he did not know where to begin. Instead, he went on trying to organize his understanding of God’s plan and he felt his right arm go up as if pulled by a string.

Daniel tries to retract his bid, but that is not allowed. Minutes later, the abolitionist Quaker is not only a slave owner, he has had to give up both his money and favorite horse in payment for the boy.

For those who are not aware from publicity for The Purchase, now would seem an appropriate time to reveal that Daniel Dickinson is an ancestor of author Linda Spalding, five generations back. While the book is most definitely a novel, it is also a venture into family history, centred around the question “what must it have been like?” She reveals in her acknowledgements that she has retraced the journey and spent much time on site — and scoured all available records from the era.

Raised in a self-isolated community of Quakers, Daniel is ill-prepared for both his physical and moral journeys. On both fronts, he frequently displays the kind of damaging shortcomings that inevitably produces, best illustrated by the spontaneous raising of his hand at that slave auction. Spalding’s book is a “small” one in the sense that it concentrates on the story of one family in a small community — yet everything that family does as the children grow up and mature can never escape the contradiction that they are abolitionist slave owners in a community where slavery is the norm. The “big” story keeps intruding on the “small” one.

I will confess that I am not a fan of either memoirs or ancestral histories and even a reluctant reader of historical fiction — which means that I found The Purchase to be a very frustrating novel. Spalding is true to the facts that she was able to unearth, which means that the novel contains many gaps just as Daniel would have experienced them — as much as I salute the authorial integrity that that involves, I frequently yearned for an omniscient narrator who would fill some of them in. And while I certainly appreciated her ability to provide detailed description of both frontier surroundings and moral dilemmas, by mid-novel I found it wearing rather than rewarding — I wasn’t engaged in the author’s own journey so the precise exploration of events along the way was a barrier, not a revelation.

I can understand why some readers and prize juries would take to this book. I’ll admit it simply did not fit what I look for in a novel.

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