Archive for November, 2014

The 2014 Real Giller Prize winner is…

November 10, 2014

The Real Giller jury actually agreed with the Shadow Giller jury — what more can I say?

Then again, they read all the books and we read all the shortlist, so maybe the decision(s) shouldn’t be such a surprise — although I certainly was when I heard the announcement.

Keep scrolling to discovery how the Shadow Jury reached its decision. And you will find links to both Kimbofo and my reviews of Us Conductors.


The 2014 Shadow Giller Prize winner is…

November 9, 2014

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…Sean Michaels, for Us Conductors.

Before offering some thoughts on the (surprise) winner, allow me to digress briefly on this year’s deliberations. Alison Gzowski, a Shadow Jury veteran of more than 10 years, prefaced her original vote submission with the following: “I have to say this was the toughest Shadow Giller yet. There is no standout, I have not been impressed by the list and not sure of my opinion as reading one book hit close to home.” I think the other three of us would agree with that sentiment: this year’s list was characterized by good (perhaps even very good) but not great books, all of which had their flaws as well as strengths. And given that there was no obvious standout (as The Orenda was last year), the way that finalist books hit a particular personal chord (or prejudice) influenced every juror.

In fact, after two rounds of voting, we came down to a virtual tie between Us Conductors and Frances Itani’s Tell — Kimbofo’s enthusiastic support for Sean Michaels’ book and the fact that it is his debut were enough to lead me as chair to suggest we give it the nod.

Us Conductors is a fictionalized biography of the Russian engineer and physicist Lev Termen, inventor of (among many other things) the theremin, which is sort of a precursor of the Moog synthesizer. The first section of the book takes place in upscale New York — Termen is promoting his instrument from a suite at the Plaza, with concerts at Carnegie Hall. Things start to go downhill (more from hopeless financial mismanagement than anything else) and the naïve scientist slips into a role as a spy. That leads to section two of the novel: Termen’s spell in the gulag, since his spying career was hardly stellar and he is a convenient scapegoat. And finally, section three takes place in Moscow — he is still a prisoner, but now he is back to being an inventing scientist as well.

You can read Kimbofo’s recently posted review in full here — this is how she concludes it:

At times [Lev] seems alarmingly trusting — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

I’d say that is a fair summary of what the rest of us thought, perhaps a bit more enthusiastic. As Trevor said “it has its ups and downs” and I concluded my review of it last spring (you can find the full version here) with:

I’d like to quote Michaels’ “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” as an indication of the spirit of the novel. While it is based on known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. In the real life, the author saw the elements of a good story — and at least in the first half, he certainly delivered on it.

As usual, the Shadow Giller Jury wishes to be totally transparent in how it reached its conclusions. As chair, I followed the same approach that we had used in the past three years, giving each juror 100 points to spread among the six shortlist titles. Here is what that produced:

Kim: Michaels 38, Itani 26, Bezmozgis 11, O’Neill 10, Toews 9, Viswanathan 5
Alison: Bezmozgis 32, Toews 32, Michaels 15, Itani 11, O’Neill 5, Viswanathan 5
Trevor: Itani 24, Bezmozgis 20, O’Neill 18, Michaels 17, Toews 16, Viswanathan 5
Kevin: Itani 28, Michaels 26, Bezmozgis 19, O’Neill 13, Viswanathan 9, Toews 5

Total: Michaels 96, Itani 89, Bezmozgis 82, Toews 62, O’Neill 46, Viswanathan 24

As you can see, we were spread all over in our opinions of the best book — O’Neill and Viswanathan had no support, but all the other four did.

(A brief aside on Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows. I have confessed to not liking it at all — it is a book about suicide with the central story being one sister’s struggle with how to help her sibling successfully kill herself when she has failed many times before. As is well known in the Canadian publishing community, it is a fictionalized account of the author’s own recent experiences. Toews is an engaging, popular person in that community and I suspect that has influenced the critical response. The book obviously succeeds for some people (see Alison’s total). For the other three of us — who are primarily readers rather than members of the literary community — it was far less impressive).

We headed into a second ballot — this time I asked that 100 points be spread between Michaels, Itani and Bezmozgis. Alas, Alison was on a board retreat and out of touch (for an organization founded by her father, the Peter Gzowski Invitational golf tournaments which raise more than $1 million a year for literary organizations in Canada — so she was very much present in spirit), so this one only had three jurors voting. The results:

Trevor: Itani 36, Michaels 32, Bezmozgis 32
Kim: Michaels 50, Itani 40, Bezmozgis 10
Kevin: Itani 40, Michaels 34, Bezmozgis 26

All three of us agreed that we would be happy with any of the three as a winner — I explained above how it came to be Michaels.

Given that even in that second ballot Itani’s Tell was the favorite of two of us, it hardly seems fair to end this year’s Shadow Jury deliberations without some acknowledgement of it. In my review, I called it a Canadian version of the “Irish village” novel — the story involves two couples, each with there own set of difficulties, in a small Ontario town in the aftermath of the Great War. Here is what Trevor had to say about it when he submitted his vote:

I was not anxious to read this book when I read about its plot. War novels are dime a dozen, and this year I received dozens of World War I books in the mail. There are masterpieces out there, but I unfortunately tend to refuse the books the benefit of the doubt. I was shocked at how much this book suited my desire for an introspective look at community. I loved the writing itself — slow, detailed, delicate — as it grew increasingly complex. And I’m a freak for small-towns!

As he notes, it has been a big year for Great War novels and for many readers (you can include me) that has produced some “war fiction fatigue”. Rest assured, Tell is a very good novel that is worth the read: you can find Kim’s review here and KfC’s here.

Our congratulations to Sean Michaels — Us Conductors was a most rewarding read for all of us. And now, the Shadow Jury will sit back and await the Real Jury’s decision. For what it is worth, we are not expecting them to agree with us — our prediction is that Miriam Toews will be picking up the $100,000 cheque tomorrow night. (The Globe and Mail this Saturday reported on a poll of 30 “industry” people and their predictions of the winner: Toews 19, Bezmozgis 4, Itani 3, O’Neill 2, Viswanathan 2, Michaels 0. Obviously, the Shadow Giller readers are out of touch with the industry consensus.)

Finally, I realize that my reading has run ahead of my reviewing and three of the shortlist (All My Puny Sorrows, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao) have not yet been reviewed here. They should be up within the next two weeks.

Kimbofo reviews The Betrayers

November 4, 2014

1aaa bezmogis Kimbofo and I are both trying to get as many Giller shortlist reviews posted as possible before next Monday’s Gala and prize announcement — and she is doing a better job than KfC is. Here are the opening paragraphs to her review of David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers — you can find her full review here and KfC’s here.

David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion; and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

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Kimbofo reviews Tell

November 3, 2014

The Giller Gala is only one week away, so I should be posting a few reviews this week. Here is the opening to Kimbofo’s review of Frances Itani’s Tell — you can find her full review here. (She also makes reference to my review of Tell — you can find it here).

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The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer [KfC’s review of that one is here] and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community. Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on just a single story.

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

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