Archive for the ‘2010 Giller Prize’ Category

2010 Shadow Giller Prize winner

November 4, 2010

The Shadow Giller Jury is pleased to announce its selection for the 2010 Shadow Giller Prize:

Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

While the choice did take some deliberation, it was unanimous. MacLeod’s debut collection of seven stories is a significant achievement that deserves to be recognized — and all three jurors are looking forward to his next book, be it another story collection or (we hope) a novel.

(EDIT: Well, the Real Jury obviously did not agree with us and awarded the prize to Johanna Skibsrud for The Sentimentalists. All three Shadow Jurors liked that novel — but not as much as our top two choices. If you can find a copy, it is a very good book.)

Click cover for Publisher's details

My summary thoughts on Light Lifting: Each of MacLeod’s stories stands on its own (and some are better than others, but that is inevitable), but taken together they end up in a novel-like portrayal of an assortment of “ordinary” lives in an industrial, working class city — which is very much what Windsor (the Ontario city where all seven are set) is. The central characters are very different — a world-class sprinter who knows it is time to retire, an adult who remembers his first job as a drug store delivery boy, a water-fearing girl who is now an excellent swimmer (maybe too excellent), a widower who cannot overcome (and hence must annually commemorate) his grief — so each ends up presenting a unique view that reflects life in the community where they live. In both structure and writing, all seven stories are exquisitely crafted. (My original review is here.)

Trevor’s summary thoughts: I didn’t like each story in Light Lifting, though it feels like it, and I am very pleased that it is our winner. The stories I did like I loved. “Miracle Mile,” “Adult Beginning I,” “The Loop,” “Good Kids,” and “The Number Three”: each, to me, is stronger than anything else on the Giller shortlist, and each has stuck with me since I read them over a month ago. MacLeod uses spare and simple short sentences to construct fully textured scenes of desperation full of emotional nuance. And if I enjoyed how Kathleen Winter (Annabel) made me feel toward her characters, I loved the emotions MacLeod made me feel. My favorite story is probably (but this could shift) the opening story, “Miracle Mile.” I felt the various emotions of two runners throughout the story, from the tense tedium in the hotel to the break-down at the end. Another plus, in these short stories MacLeod focused on groups of people and types of professions that rarely take up space in fiction any more. His writing carried the loneliness and drawn-out desperation so well. (Trevor’s original review — much more extensive than mine — can be found here.)

Alison’s thoughts: This is a debut collection of stories that doesn’t read like one. MacLeod deftly manages to immerse the reader into each story’s world. I like the range here, so many debut collections feel autobiographical in that they cover the same concerns and themes. Light Lifting doesn’t do that. A couple of his stories are stunning. I had never read his work before and I look forward to more.

I mentioned that the Shadow Jury did have some debate and, unlike the Real Jury which is restricted to picking a single winner, we would like to recognize our unanimous second choice (and all three of us would have been happy to proclaim it the winner): Annabel, by Kathleen Winter.

Click cover for Publisher details

KfC’s summary thoughts: This novel, set in Labrador and Newfoundland, is a study in discovering identity. At its most obvious level, that challenge is faced by the title character, Annabel/Wayne, who was born with both female and male genitalia. That circumstance poses equally difficult identity challenges for his parents and Thomasina, their close friend who also remains close to Wayne/Annabel throughout the book. Underlying all of this, however, is another significant “identity” challenge — the struggle between wilderness Labrador, urban St. John’s and the global world beyond. The result is a very intriguing, highly successful novel. (My original review — and a guest post from author Winter describing some of her challenges in writing the book — is here).

Trevor’s summary thoughts: I think that in terms of scope Annabel was the most ambitious title this year. Set in the extreme north (makes this cold New York day just a bit colder to think about it), Annabel takes on a difficult theme and ties that theme into other observations about modern life. The characters — Wayne, Wally, Thomasina, Treadway, and Jacinta — even if I felt they were at times merely props for the story, were heartbreaking, and I cared for each one. (Trevor’s full review can be found here.)

Alison’s comment: For some reason I came to this with a bit of reluctance and was immediately drawn in by the way Winter evoked landscape and character (in fact, you could say the landscape here is a character). I found myself wondering and caring about the people she created and l really liked the way she brought Labrador, a place I have never been, to life.

All three of us had a wonderful time with our Shadow Jury tasks again this year — we hope that visitors here and at the Mookse and the Gripes have found our thoughts useful. If there was any grumpiness to us at all, it would probably be that the Real Jury overlooked some very good longlist titles when they picked their shortlist — so check out some of the longlist reviews from both Trevor and myself which can be found in the 2010 Giller Prize menu on the sidebar to the right. The Real Jury agreed with our selection of The Bishop’s Man last year — we won’t be complaining if either of these titles is chosen by this year’s jury.

And if you have your own choice, by all means let us know in the comments. The Real Jury will announce their decision on live television on Tuesday, Nov. 9 — if you don’t have access to Canadian television, broadcaster CTV is promising international webcast coverage at starting at 9 p.m. EST (although the site does not seem to be operational yet).


Player One, by Douglas Coupland

October 30, 2010

Review copy courtesy of House of Anansi

While Canada’s Massey Lectures have been published as a book for decades (House of Anansi Press is a sponsor and an appendix in this book lists 31 volumes of previous lectures), Douglas Coupland’s Player One is the first ever to be published as a novel — which by default means that it is the first ever Massey Lecture contribution to be longlisted for the Giller Prize. The former distinction is testimony to Coupland’s substantial reputation and following; the latter is one that I am at a loss to explain.

Some background on the Massey Lectures. This year’s series marks the half century of the lectures whose purpose is to “enable distinguished authorities to communicate the results of original study on important subjects of contemporary interest”, so Coupland is a reasonable choice. He joins an illustrious group — the early lecturers included Northrop Frye (1962), John Kenneth Galbraith (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967) and Jane Jacobs (1979); recent luminaries include Michael Ignatieff (2000), Alberto Manguel (2007) and Margaret Atwood (2008). The program involves five public lectures in cities across Canada; they are recorded and broadcast on CBC Radio’s Ideas program — for those with accesss to CBC, Coupland’s will air nightly from Nov. 8-14 (more details can be found here).

I confess that I would not have picked up Player One had it not made the longlist. I tried his seminal work, Generation X (1991), and it just wasn’t for me — I have glanced at a couple since and they confirmed that view. While I finished Player One, described as “a novel in five hours” since each lecture is an hour long, I have to admit the experience only reinforced my impression. That conclusion comes with a caveat, however — Coupland has legions of fans internationally and I am simply not one of them. Dystopian futurists are not my cup of tea at all (from George Orwell through Nevil Shute to Margaret Atwood’s recent work, I just avoid them) and this is very much a futuristic dystopian work, even if it is set in the present.

The action takes place in the cocktail lounge at a Toronto airport hotel and, as the subtitle suggests, chronicles what happens over five hours. Each hour features the view from four characters who have wandered into the lounge and become trapped there (the sense of “nowhere” that surrounds airports is one of the book’s better touches); the fifth point of view comes from an avatar (the Player One of the title) who at the end of each chapter sums up that hour and offers a guide to the next one.

The characters:

— Karen, a divorced Winnipeg housewife who works as a receptionist at a psychiatrists’ clinic, has flown in for an internet-arranged date with someone she first met on the Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room.
— Rick, a recovering alcoholic, is the bartender — he had a gardening business until all his equipment was stolen and is awaiting the arrival of a positive-thinking charlatan to present $8,500 in cash for his photo-op enrolment into the Power Dynamics Seminar System which will start him on his new life.
— Luke was a pastor in Nippissing until this morning when he stole $20,000 from the church renovation fund and headed off into his version of new life.
— Rachel is a beautiful young woman who suffers from a collection of neural disorders (she can’t recognize faces or music or metaphor, among other things), and who has decided to have a child to see if that would make her human. She is searching for a sperm source.

Let me offer an extended sample of Coupland’s oration/prose, part of his introduction of Rachel:

Rachel has never fit into the world. She remembers as a child being handed large wooden numbers covered in sandpaper to help her learn numbers and mathematics. Other children weren’t given tactile sandpaper number blocks, but she was, and she knows that she has always been a barely tolerated sore point among her neurotypical classmates. Rachel also remembers many times starving herself for days because the food that arrived at the table was the wrong temperature or colour, or was placed on the plate incorrectly: it just wasn’t right. And she remembers discovering single-player video games and for the first time seeing a two-dimensional, non-judgemental, crisply defined realm in which she could be free from off-temperature food and sick colour schemes and bullies. Entering her screen’s portal into that other realm is where her avatar, Player One, can fully come to life. Unlike Rachel, Player One has a complete overview both of the world and of time. Player One’s life is more like a painting than it is a story. Player One can see everything with a glance and can change tenses at will. Player One has ultimate freedom, the ultimate software on the ultimate hardware. That realm is also the one place where Player One feels, for lack of a better word, normal.

The disaster that drives the action involves a sudden global surge in the price of oil, accompanied by a series of apparently random explosions, trapping the four in the lounge. I am not going to try to describe the action — my fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor, has explored it at some length in his review here if you find Coupland’s premise of interest.

All of that left me cold, but as I said earlier none of those things are to my taste. Coupland uses this framework to explore concepts ranging from the notion of time and how humans experience it differently than other creatures; the powers of belief and the traps that they represent; what represents “reality” or at least what we think it is; and perhaps most importantly a notion of hope that the future will be better that we all carry.

He concludes all this with 31 pages of glossary called “Future Legend”, a catalogue of invented terms and descriptions, which offer depth to the ideas in the lectures/book. I’ll offer one as an example, since I think it does apply to me:

Anorthodoxical Isms

The isms that pose the greatest threat to inflexible religious orthodoxies:

Cultural Relativism
Moral Relativism

Perhaps part of my problem is that I put religious orthodoxy and dystopian futurism into the same bucket — both are a load of bollocks as far as I am concerned. While I can appreciate the thought that Coupland puts into his constructs (and others obviously respond to it positively), the result for me is a volume of annoying self-indulgence.

Then again, I didn’t think much of Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question either (ironically, the two novels actually have quite a few comparisons). So take my distaste with a grain of salt.

Lemon, by Cordelia Strube

October 28, 2010

Purchased at

So, let’s consider some aspects of Lemon, the teen-aged central character who narrates Cordelia Strube’s Giller Prize longlisted novel:

— She has three mothers, or none, depending on how you look at it. She’s never met her biological mother. Number two, Zippy, who did adopt her when married to Lemon’s father later had her own problems and wanted the two of them to jump off the apartment balcony holding hands — Lemon was on a persecuted-Jewish-girl-novel kick at the time and wanted no part of the phoney drama. Number three, the current one, is Drew, a school principal now in serious agoraphobia due to being stabbed in the back by a student. Lemon’s father Damian is only occasionally in the picture now as he has taken up with a new “tomato”.

— Lemon has always opted for isolation as a defence, symbolized by the way she has forsaken her christened name of Limone for Lemon. Like many children who opt for isolation, it has always involved some serious reading since libraries are friendly places for those who want to be lonely. The result is that while still in high school, she knows, appreciates and, yes, lives by Austen, Bronte, Dostoevsky, etc. — she has a pretty good knowledge of the canon. She is currently working on The Mayor of Casterbridge, bringing all of Hardy’s cheerfulness to her empty life.

— Even for the isolated, high school demands some sort of set of friends as a protective mechanism from persecution by the popular. Lemon is in a threesome — she is the rebel, Tora is the A-student who is rarely off her computer and Rossi is the one with big breasts who yearns to be on the other side. They aren’t really friends, rather they are kind of a pact of co-survivors.

— Lemon also volunteers in the children’s cancer ward at the local hospital and it is here where she is her most social. She doesn’t get along with the staff, but she bonds with the young patients in a way that they (sometimes) appreciate — actually the problem is that she bonds too well. By definition, these are short-term relationships since her hospital “friends” either die or recover and depart into the real world.

Strube tells her story in the first person from Lemon’s point of view — making her an advanced reader allows for advanced vocabulary and understanding, but she is still a 16-year-old. This exchange with the school guidance counsellor (not surprisingly, Lemon is one of those students who the system says is not realizing their “potential”) is reasonably typical of the narrative:

‘These days,’ I continue so she can get it all down, ‘unless you’re a super-brain or gorgeous, you’re going to end up in some bottom-feeder job at some corporation that’s going to restructure every time you take a crap. If you make it through the first cuts, you might as well chain yourself to your cubicle because they’re going to want your soul.’

That’s why boys get into guns. It’s easy and you can scare people who wouldn’t give you a job interview if you offered to blow them. Well, maybe if you offered to blow them.

‘There’s no room out there,’ I say. ‘It’s way to crowded. We need more war and pestilence.’

‘You cannot,’ Blecher says, ‘you simply cannot expect to function with such a bleak outlook.’

‘I don’t expect to function.’

‘You’ll break your mother’s heart.’

‘Which one?’

While Lemon is very fond of those bleak, sweeping generalizations, you can see that she leavens them with an appreciation for irony — author Strube is quite good at creating balance between those poles. One of my favorite parts of the book is an extended set piece. Two of Lemon’s teachers have decided that she can meet course requirements for both (and harness her creative rebel streak) by writing a play. Truly Loved is the story of a woman who is anything but that, but as Lemon gets into the process she uses the project as a vehicle to capture (and expand) some observations of what is happening around her.

Indeed, that aspect of the project soon takes over. Word that Lemon is writing a play which will be produced with fellow students in the cast (a rather foolish promise from the drama teacher) spreads in the school and, as unpopular as the playwright is in the student hierarchy, even the most popular want a part. Despite the fact that the play is only half-finished, Lemon holds “auditions” in her basement where she submits the popular to acting out demeaning parts, climaxing by having the two school clique leaders strip and dry hump, doggy-style.

Alas, that having accomplished her purpose, Lemon abandons the play — I was rather sorry when the narrative stream left the book.

Okay, this is a coming-of-age novel which invites comparison with others, so let me try a triangulation. The Catcher in the Rye is the necessary starting point. Holden and Lemon are both well-read, rebellious and negative observers of the world, offsetting that with a sense of sardonic irony. Both are also revolting against the “phoniness” that surrounds them, although Strube wisely never uses that word in the book. Alas, this novel has neither the strength nor familiarity of place and circumstance that Salinger’s has, so Lemon doesn’t rise up to the coming-of-age gold standard.

In many ways, a better comparison is E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, the story of a young woman who creates havoc in a co-ed private school in the U.S. northeast. Like Lemon, Frankie is a devoted reader, although her inspiration is P.G. Wodehouse, not the classics. And while Lemon uses her “play” as a vehicle to humiliate the popular, Frankie wreaks her havoc by effectively taking over a secret boys society that “runs” the school. Lemon is a darker novel than Frankie, but their heroines have a lot in common.

For me, perhaps the best recent comparison is Skippy Dies, Paul Murray’s 2010 Booker-longlisted portrayal of boys growing up in an Irish Catholic high school. Although Murray’s trilogy is much more ambitious in both scope and length (600+ pages against Lemon’s 274), I thought more than once while reading this novel that a title of And Lemon Lives would have been quite appropriate in describing a pair of coming-of-age bookends. The two novels have similar central characters, equally hapless parents and school authorities and, most important, explore the “society” that is part of the adolescent experience.

The coming-of-age novel may be a bit of an acquired taste; if it is, you can count me in as an aficianado. I am grateful to the 2010 Real Giller Jury for including it on the longlist because I would have missed it otherwise (it has been out for a year); I would not have been critical of them if they had included it on the shortlist. I am sure that some of the incidents in Lemon will be popping into mind for some time to come.

(For another review that is on the positive side of neutral, check out Trevor’s thoughts at the Mookse and the Gripes.)

Trevor reviews Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

October 26, 2010

Copy courtesy House of Anansi

Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes has posted a review of Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, completing his reading of the 2010 Giller Prize shortlist. That means that visitors here now have access to two sets of reviews of the five shortlist titles (see the links in the sidebar). Since the Real Jury will not be making their decision until Nov. 9, that gives the Shadow Jury lots of time for discussion — I will be posting our decision on this site on Friday, Nov. 5. In the meantime, here are Trevor’s opening paragraphs on Annabel — you can find my thoughts (and a guest post from author Winter) here.

Fifth and final stop on the 2010 Giller shortlist for me is Kathleen Winter’s Annabel (2010), an intriguing story I’ve been looking forward to reading since I saw KevinfromCanada’s review of it earlier this year. First, there is the cold wilderness setting of Labrador. I like dwelling in harsh weather conditions — in books, that is. But what interested me more was that this setting is used to emphasize themes in a book about an intersex child (intersex is, recently, the politically correct term for those historically called hermaphrodites, though ”intersex” too apparently has critics).

Annabel opens up with a mystical (or is it mythological) prologue. A blind hunter and his daughter Annabel are floating on a canoe for the hunting season. The hunter is asleep as the daughter drifts sleepily down the river. Then the daughter spies a white caribou on the shore. As she stands to reach out to the animal, Annabel upsets the boat. Neither she nor her father can swim, and they perish.

In the next scene, Thomasina (the wife and mother of the two who have just drowned) is helping Jacinta Blake give birth. As you may have guessed, when the child is born, neither Thomasina nor Jacinta knows whether it is a boy or a girl. It appears to be both. They will, they know, both love it, but Jacinta wonders, “Will other people love it?”

The baby’s father, Treadway, is a quiet hunter. For much of the year he is gone on his sled. Though Treadway is far from cruel, when he learns of the child’s sex, he ensures that what he feels is right is done. There is little discussion. They will, he determines, raise it as a boy — no one else will know the secret — so the baby is christened Wayne. Thomasina, who has just lost her Annabel, breathes the name Annabel at the christening.

All three Shadow jurors have had a worthwhile time with this year’s shortlist. Your comments on any of the books are certainly welcome — and by all means let us know if you have a choice.

Curiosity, by Joan Thomas

October 23, 2010

Review copy courtesy McClelland and Stewart

Joan Thomas is an author who has arrived on the Canadian scene with some panache. Last year, her debut novel — Reading by Lightning — was Giller longlisted (I’ll confess it was the only longlist title that I did not read, as the description convinced me it just was not my kind of book). Historical fiction is not my favorite genre, so I will also admit that this year’s selection of Curiosity to the longlist did not have me particularly enthused. Still, given that Thomas is now two-for-two (and in only two years) a read did seem to be worth the effort. And while Curiosity did not totally overcome my lack of enthusiasm, it is a significant achievement. I am sure that those with a keener taste for historical fiction will find more than I did in this novel.

Curiosity is based on the real-life story of Mary Anning, a Lyme Regis scavenger and “curiosity” seller who became a self-taught paleontologist in the 1820s, more than 40 years before publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. She discovered and catalogued fossils from the cliffs of Lyme Regis that suggested the Biblical view of creation, the science of the time, was faulty and that species had evolved or become extinct over long periods of time. Lower-class women — indeed, all women — were not eligible to be considered as scientists in that era, but she sold her finds to artistocratic gentlemen who in turn brought them to the attention of the scientific community. It was more than a century later that science scholars began to document her contribution (many of her finds are in the Natural History Museum in London) — while my knowledge of paleontology is almost non-existent, I am willing to accept Thomas’ premise that Mary made a significant contribution, despite her humble background.

That science is only part of Thomas’ interest, however. Just as last year’s historical blockbuster, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, explored in depth the back story of Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII, this novel is equally consumed with contemplating what life — and perhaps love — was like for the Lyme Regis’ scavenger whose self-curiosity and discipline led to her becoming what we would now call a paleontologist. Like Mantel, Thomas has done an impressive amount of homework. Her conclusions and the resulting story are speculative, but the author’s conjectures are realistic enough that I was quite willing to go along for the ride.

Here are the book’s opening, framing paragraphs:

They were powerful charms, curiosities. The people who came to Lyme Regis to take the waters would pay sixpence for the meanest little snakestone, and carry it for luck. Mary’s mother had worked the curiosity table until lately, and if a customer had trouble parting with his coin, she would fix a soft look on him and offer a charm against wizening. She was not bold in her manner and the gentleman would startle and wonder at her meaning. But usually he bought, after that.

Now that her mother had the baby to look after, the curiosity table was Mary’s job. Mary had come out early to get set up for the coach from Bath. Her wares were all organized on the table, and the square was still empty. There was just the brown hen tethered beside her, and the pauper Dick Mutch lying in stocks a few feet away in front of Cockmoile Prison. Mary sat deep in thought, her eyes on the moon, floating in a blue sky.

Wizening — it was a complaint particular to men. She needed a more general charm. Blindness, she finally decided. She tried it out in a low voice: “They be a powerful charm against blindness.”

That introduction is a telling example of the effective economy of Thomas’ prose that will be a feature of the entire book. The conflict between old wives’ charms and science (the “science” of the day was equally based on a different kind of “belief”). The class conflict between the destitute commoners and the gentry. And the never-ending conflict for the poor of finding a way to get by, cadging sales at the curiosity table when the coach from Bath drops its rich passengers at the coast.

To develop those conflicts, the author needs to introduce other elements into her story and history has supplied her with a supporting cast of real-life characters. Most important is Henry De la Beche, a gentleman officer cadet from Great Marlow, who has been kicked out of the school because of a prank. He makes his way to London and his Uncle Clement. Henry is heir to a sugar plantation in Jamaica but even at this stage returns are not good and anti-slavery rumblings are being heard in England. He may be landed gentry overseas, but he is effectively destitute and, worse yet, ruined by scandal. After some aimless wandering and hanging about, he eventually arrives in Lyme Regis, dependent for survival on his mother (who does not like him much) and her new husband. Alas, during that period he stole a kiss from a lass of his class in a garden — in the mores of the time, that has been interpreted as a binding marriage proposal.

Henry does have skill as an artist. The real Henry De la Beche did as well — the dust jacket cover drawing of Curiosity is detail from one of the works he sketched while in Lyme Regis. Mary’s ability to find things and Henry’s ability to capture them in artistic versions inevitably bring the two together; Thomas’ speculation is that that led to more than just science, but that class distinctions and prejudice would end up proving more powerful than romance in the final analysis.

There are a number of other real life characters who play significant roles in the book — collectors and “scientists” like William Conybeare, Thomas Birch (whose generosity enables the Annings to survive) and William Buckland. They got the official credit for Mary’s discoveries at the time; their main scholarly interest was in developing theories that fit the discoveries into the Bible’s description of how the world was created. The rumblings of the inevitable arrival of the theory of evolution are a constant presence in the book.

It is a complicated story, but Thomas tells it all in crystal clear, straightforward prose, which would be my explanation for why the last two Giller juries recognized her work. She is certainly more interested in clarity than drama — there are no surprises in the book and major developments, even on the romantic front, are all presaged. Readers of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which also features Lyme Regis) will have heard some echoes in this review and, I am sure, will find even more in Thomas’ novel (I’ve read the Austen but confess I don’t remember it well enough to spot many beyond the obvious). There is an Austenesque quality to Thomas’ writing: both authors are more interested in making sure that they get all the details right than they are in producing drama. The ordinary stuff of life, and its problems, is more than enough drama for both.

While it doesn’t have the “epic” quality of Mantel’s Wolf Hall (nor its length — 400 versus 700 pages), Curiosity has an equal feality to detail that I am sure would have appeal to those who like historical fiction, particularly the variety that explores relatively obscure figures whom official history has overlooked. The science is kept simple enough that it is interesting, even to those of us whose going-in knowledge and interest is minimal. The characters may have existed in real life, but the author does an excellent job of making the fictional versions complete, whatever speculation she may have required. And while I don’t know the shores and cliffs of Lyme Regis well, the physcial geography is equally convincing. While I won’t be heading back for a reread in short order, Thomas did a very good job of maintaining the interest of a somewhat unenthusiastic reader — as I said at the start, I am sure that those who like this kind of work will find it even more rewarding than I did.

As a final bit of tease for visitors here interested in folk history and fiction, Thomas concludes a five-page Author’s Note at the end of the book with a statement that I found intriguing. It’s a minor spoiler so I’ve included it as a comment for those who want to avoid it until they, too, get to the end of the book. The curious (the book is called Curiosity, after all) might want to go there right now.

Trevor reviews This Cake is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky

October 21, 2010

Purchased at

Trevor from the Mookse and the Gripes has passed the halfway point of the Giller shortlist with his review of This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky. Here are his opening paragraphs:

For me, stop number three of the Giller shortlist is the second collection of short stories, This Cake Is for the Party (2010), Sarah Selecky’s debut. As I said when reviewing Alexander MacLeod’s debut, Light Lifting, debut short story collections are tricky things. The short story, as a form, is quite different from a novel, but many young authors seem to write short stories as primers for novels. They become apprentice pieces, a way to experiment without commitment, a way to rid oneself of some self-indulgent autobiographical drivel. Often they feel formulaic. Unfortunately, This Cake Is for the Party felt this way to me, though I know others out there feel differently

This collection contains ten short stories, and, though I’m not saying each is autobiographical, each has that generic MFA feel. Most of the characters are women in their late twenties or early thirties, they are involved in writing projects or the academy, they like to cook Italian food, they are involved in relationships that are leading to more serious commitments than they are used to, they are thinking about children. Now, all of these have made for great stories and novels in the past, and to be sure these stories are not poor; they are just familiar.

You can find my thoughts on both this book and Light Lifting here.

The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

October 18, 2010

Finally found at Chapters, Toronto

Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel, The Sentimentalists, is perhaps the most surprising selection on this year’s Giller Prize shortlist. It was released a year ago, published by a small independent (Gaspereau Press) and attracted little attention. Copies are almost impossible to find — Shadow Juror Alison scooped up three of the four she was able to locate in all of Toronto’s Chapaters stores so the Shadow Jury could read the book — although one would assume that a second printing will have it in stores soon.

While it is a relatively short book (218 pages of decent-sized type), its narrative style and structure make it a very challenging book to read. Skibsrud’s only previous published books were poetry and she has brought that poetic skill to the novel — but added to it both a complexity and uncertainty of story that requires (at least for me) frequent rereading at the sentence or paragraph level to gain some understanding of just what is going on, and even the result of that tends to be murky. This is a book that demands to be read in chunks of 40 pages or so and then put aside for some contemplation.

Let me illustrate with a couple of examples from the opening pages as the author puts some elements of her narrative in place. The narrator, a mature woman, is describing her father’s place in Fargo, North Dakota (“pieced together from two and a half aluminum trailers and deposited in a lot — No. 16 — at the edge of a West Fargo mobile-home park”):

At the end of the corridor was the room my father referred to as the “second library” — the “first” having reached its limit years before. My father was a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely, and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he’d ever read floating around in his mind. The second library was the most lived-in room of the house and stored (besides the shelves of the books that gave to it its name) the computer, the TV, the exercise bike, and the photographs in piles.

The photographs had been mostly those sent, over the years, by my mother and grandmother, and I knew them all well because they were the same ones kept in albums at my mother’s house. They were of my sister Helen and me: posed for yearly school protraits, or else with our feet up on soccer balls.

That attention to detail (much of it extraneous), coupled with the asides and digressions and the hidden parts that turn out to be essential to the story, is typical of the entire book. Father is fading and his daughters are coming to fetch him and relocate him to Casablanca, Ontario where he will live with Henry, the father of a now-deceased childhood friend. Casablanca is a “new-old town”, its houses constructed to replace those flooded by the St. Lawrence seaway:

It’s a tall upright building, Henry’s house. Constructed on government money to replace his old family home which was one of twelve original houses lost when the dam came through in 1959. Even now, Casablanca is a small town, but before the dam it was not even, properly, a town at all. It was only referred to by its intersecting county roads, and because of this was never officially recorded as being “lost”. It wasn’t until the dam came through that people started calling the place Casablanca. Because of the way that, like in the Bogart film, they had begun to “wait for their release” from a town that — never having fully existed — had already begun to disappear. But then, even after relocation was complete, the name stuck, and came to refer to the new community of government-built houses that got strung along the lake road.

That narrative set-up, in all its detail, will continue for scores of pages — and skip through various periods of past and present — before the reader is allowed to discover that this is a “war” book (I don’t think that is a spoiler since the cover features a uniformed soldier). Even with that expectation in mind, it requires a lot of patience from the reader (I have only included a couple of set-up pieces that are required) before the action of the story begins.

While all of this is taking place on the surface, the author is using the sub-text to establish her over-arching theme — the fragility, unreliability, uncertainty and just plain error of memory as it fades or becomes altered with time (more than once she uses the metaphor of field glasses turned the wrong way round to illustrate time’s effect on memory). Go back to the first quote in this review and you will find the phrase that you should have paid attention to. Later on, here is father to daughter during the one conversation they will have on his war experience:

“I’m a poor — I’m a poor source,” he said. “I’ve a real poor memory for the place.” He paused again and then said quickly, as if with the next sentence he wished to get rid of the thing entirely, “Imagine absolute fucking chaos, then that’s it, you got it.” When I didn’t say anything, he continued. “Honestly, I think you’d be better off watching the movies. Brando. In Apocalypse Now, for instance.”

I thought he was joking and I gave a short laugh. “What?” I said.

“Yeah,” my father agreed, “just like that. Insanity. My stories are all and then, and then, and then, when it didn’t happen like that to me.”

I will admit that The Sentimentalists was a real struggle for me until that theme of the unreliability of memory — not just in small things, but in the much more important areas of family memories, or war memories, or memories of friendship — was established firmly in my mind and gave me something to hang onto. I find that poets who turn to novels tend to write in a prose that simply does not fit my reading style and have a love for detail and metaphor that leaves me equally baffled. It is to Skibsrud’s credit that she maintained enough of my interest that I didn’t simply abandon the book. And unlike so many novels that I seem to have read this year, where the final third lands with a disappointing thud, this one picked up both pace and importance as it moved towards its close.

Still, this is very much a “writer’s” novel where the reader needs to have an admiration for complicated prose and an equally complex narrative — my guess is that the presence of two authors on the Official Giller Jury and their respect of Skibsrud’s achievement in prose is the reason that it made the shortlist. My comparison would be to one of last year’s Giller finalists, Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault, and not just because both novels feature the destruction caused by the St. Lawrence Seaway. If you loved that book, I am sure you will find much to like in this one — if it passed you by, I suspect The Sentimentalists will as well.

Trevor reviews The Matter with Morris

October 16, 2010

Shadow Giller judge Trevor has reviewed David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris. Here are his opening paragraphs:

My second stop on this year’s Giller shortlist is David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris (2010). Bergen won the Giller in 2005 for The Time in Between, and he was shortlisted in 2008 for The Retreat. The other authors on this year’s shortlist are all first-time Giller finalists. None has ever been on the longlist, either. In fact, other than a short story collection here (Winter) or a book of poetry there (Skibsrud), the other finalists are new authors in the book publishing world. Bergen is the heavy-weight, the seasoned professional. Yet, without having read three of the five finalists, I suspect Bergen’s book to the be the weakest on the shortlist.

First things first: Bergen’s writing is not showy and it is fluid. Though a novel of abstract ideas, the writing remains clear. That’s a plus from my perspective. Bergen has honed his skill to the point where he is not in the way of his story. But the story is where the problem lies.

I’d say Trevor and I are in agreement on this one — my review is here.

Trevor reviews Light Lifting; 2010 Governor-General’s shortlist

October 13, 2010

Purchased at

Trevor has started his Giller shortlist reading with a review of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting.. Here are his opening paragraphs just to give you a taste:

After the four Giller Prize longlisters I read (The Imperfectionists, Lemon, Player One, and The Debba) each failed to make the cut to the next round, I had to start the shortlist from scratch. I decided to start with one that I have been looking forward to the most, Alexander MacLeod’s debut collection of short stories, Light Lifting (2010). Now, debut short story collections are tricky things – sometimes they are overedited and come off a bit dead, but other times they are simply brilliant – so I don’t always look forward to reading them. Also, I had never heard of Alexander MacLeod. So, why was I looking forward to this one? Because Alexander MacLeod is the son of Alistair MacLeod, surely one of the best short story writers there is; I’ve been making my way through his complete collection, Island. I hope to review it here soon. But first, the next generation — talent is not always passed on.

I’m happy to say that Light Lifting proved to be the pleasure I was hoping for. Each of its seven stories are quite different in content and style, though each ushers a character to some extreme situation (more often than not one that might not look extreme to the rest of us; maybe just some quiet moment) and each bears the marks of the author with spatters of details in sentence fragments that somehow do not interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Most of these stories take place in or around Windsor in Ontario, Canada, just across the river from Detroit. Refreshingly, these stories all focus on what I’d call the working class, though some of them focus on children of the working class. I agree with fellow Shadow Giller Jury member Alison Gzowski: this is a refreshing debut short story collection. It seems that so many short story writers today write deeply intellectual-seeming stories from some theoretical perspective gleaned in grad school and cultivated in an MA program. There are some great ones out there that follow just this mold, but there are many many terrible ones. At any rate, they grow tiresome. In Light Lifting we see an author who writes compassionately about people we all know, struggling in a region that has been decaying for half a century.

Here is a link to the review that includes both Alison and my thoughts on this site.


On another front, the 2010 shortlist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for fiction was released today. Four of the five have been reviewed here (click on the title) and I will get to the fifth soon:

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, by Drew Harden Taylor

Cool Water, by Dianne Warren

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Waiting for Joe, by Sandra Birdsell

I would say this list reflects the normal G-G/Giller split. All of the G-G finalists except for Room are what I would call “regional” novels that focus on different areas of the country (all pretty rural as well). Only one, Annabel, is on the Giller shortlist — again, G-G juries often seem to look at the Giller shortlist and then head in a different direction. I think history shows that they tend to want to give recognition to authors and books which they feel have been overlooked in the general course of things. I have always found their list interesting, despite some of its inherent limitations.

Cool Water, by Dianne Warren

October 9, 2010

Purchased at

The appearance of Cool Water on this year’s Giller Prize longlist was a surprise — a regional novel that had attracted little attention hardly seemed to rate. So its absence from the shortlist is not really a surprise; the judges have done their job in attracting some attention but it was simply not good enough to go further. I salute the Real Jury on both counts: While it wasn’t going to go further, it is a novel that does deserve attention and I am very glad that I have read it.

I will declare a conflict of interest here. During the first summer of my newspaper reporting life, I embarked on a project centred on writing about the challenges facing small-town Alberta, an eight-week “camping” trip in a VW van that produced a six-part series that I am proud of to this day. A good part of that research was spent in the near-desert of south-eastern Alberta — Cool Water is set just across the border in the near-desert country of Saskatchewan, between Swift Current and the Alberta border. And its central focus is the town of Juliet, a struggling settlement (much like so many of those that I visited more than 40 years ago), with its own problems, social hierarchy and cast of characters who could be found in equal measure at more than a dozen places along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

Consider, for example, Lee Torgeson, left as a foundling on a dryland farm doorstep, adopted as a “nephew” by Astrid and Lester, now dead, and, by default, heir to their land:

At the age of twenty-six, Lee knows he is capable, in theory at least, of managing the land he’s inherited. The knowledge of his legacy is one he grew up with, and Lester prepared him well. But as darkness falls each night and bedtime looms, uneasiness settles over him, grows stronger as he climbs the stairs to the second storey where the bedrooms are. Astrid and Lester’s room across the hall from his, their clothing removed from the dresser drawers with the help of neighbour women but their possessions still ordered with care on the closet shelves. The photographs still on the walls. The bed neatly made as though Astrid herself had tucked in the sheets. Their bedroom reminds him more than any other part of the house that he’s alone.

Or how about Willard Shoenfield, operator of the Juliet movie drive-in. He has lived with his brother all his life, then with his brother’s wife as well, and now he and Marian are what is left.

Willard’s most famous exploit was buying Antoinette the camel so he could sell camel rides to tourists passing through on the Number One Highway. He came up with the idea after he heard the provincial minister of tourism talk about the uniqueness of the Saskatchewan landscape and about how Americans were generally better than Canadians at recognizing potential gold mines in the tourist industry. Willard looked around. He saw sand. He bought a camel from a wild animal park in Alberta and painted a huge sign in the shape of a cactus, saying, SNAKE HILLS CAMEL RIDES: SEE THE DESERT THE WAY GOD MEANT YOU TO.

The Vegreville pysanka

Okay, that sounds weird but remember in real life not so far up the road we have a landing pad for extra-terrastrial visitors (St. Paul), the world’s largest Ukrainian easter egg (Vegreville) and countless other (equally non-successful) tourist attractions. Economic life in Juliet is tough: There isn’t just the climate (drought and drifting sand), there are the day-to-day disasters (an escaped horse, a wandering herd of cattle, desecration of the “big rock” by teenagers with paint cans) and the need to find something different (the Oasis cafe owner is trying out a version of key lime pie, with some success).

And contrasted to all this is history — not centuries, like in the United Kingdom, but rather decades. In Juliet’s case, a horse race — a 100-mile challenge between the young buck, Ivan Dodge, and the old veteran, Henry Merchant. That was back before Juliet was founded (it was cattle country then) but is a foundation of the area history to this day. A version of that ride is one of the threads of the book.

I have only provided background on two of the central characters. Warren tells her story through alternating updates on a half-dozen — the town bank manager (with pregnant unmarried daughter), a near bankrupt farmer (with six kids), the local hairdresser and a passing-through divorcee who loses her horse are among the others.

The result is an entirely convincing picture of what is involved in a rural Western North American community, even at this point in the 21st century. Nothing dramatic (except of course for the individuals involved) happens in this book — for the individuals involved, everything that happens is dramatic.

I suspect that you might have to know this part of the world for this novel to succeed (Americans who know Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado, among other western states, will find familiar themes here). I do know and love this part of the world and the novel does succeed — it will not be to everyone’s taste, but it is a valuable addition to my shelves. And if your curisoity is sparked at all, check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Who Has Seen The Wind for a similar novel written a half-century ago — not much has changed in the rural West, you will discover. And I am delighted that talented authors are still writing about it.

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