November 30, 2010
2011 Canada Reads Indies Picks!
When I was deciding to do Canada Reads Independently again, it was mostly because of the Fantasy Panel I had in mind. Imagine a group of smart people, of book experts, each with diverse and formidable talent that collectively is more than a little awe-inspiring. What incredible books might such readers recommend? And then my Fantasy Panel came true– they all said yes. And came at this project with so much thoughtfulness and enthusiasm that I’m overwhelmed, truly honoured, and really excited to tackle a fantastic stack of books. Read below and I have no doubt that you’ll be excited too.
Toes in my Nose ( Doubleday 1987) was written for my children when I was in my twenties, published when I was 30 and I’m still doing nonsense and learning how to be writer. I’m thrilled my children’s books like Mable Murple (re-release 2010 Nimbus) are now available for Harriet and a second generation of readers, including my own grandchildren, but I’m ever eager to explore other genres and voices. Kiss the Joy As It Flies, first adult novel, (Vagrant 2008) , was shortlisted for the Leacock Award, found and keeps finding a solid readership. Lately, I explored a male point of view and teenage angst in Pluto’s Ghost (Doubleday, fall 2010). I’ve been working on another collection of adult poetry since Gooselane published In This House Are Many Women in 1992, but confession: I’ ve been hoarding a collection of short stories on and off for twenty odd years. I’m a storyteller at heart and the “story” is still my favourite genre to read , quite possibly because it hearkens back to that oral tradition I came to love so early on. Before I’m 59, I’m hoping I”ll have a collection I’ll try to publish. For education, honorary doctorates and all that awards stuff people put in obituaries (but were hard won and deeply appreciated), folks can go to www.shereefitch.com.
I expect a lot from stories. I want them to knock me upside the head, crack my heart open and turn me inside out. I want a collection to make me laugh and cry and unravel me. To provoke. To haunt. To linger ever after in the inner circle of stories I keep tucked in the core of my being. I want stories with characters I’ve never met or characters I don’t necessarily like, but ones I can grow to understand, if not to love. Likewise, I like meeting characters I think I know until I scratch and sniff below the page and have to look again. Stories can be loud or quiet, they can be juicy or subtle, limn high brow, middle brow or low brow worlds, explore domestic drama or whiz me to exotic locales. Whether they are set in the past or in present, I also want them to be timeless.
Ultimately, however, I crave stories that leave me reeling– or maybe real-ing is a better. I want to have that aha feeling that, however briefly, makes me think I’ve seen deeper into the heart of things because the storyteller told a tale from that yearning place in the centre of themselves. They’ve dug into the minepit (mindpit?) from which a vibrant truth of theirs blasts forth and an authentic voice shines. Soul changing, shape shifting fiction. I want the book to vibrate in my hands. I want to feel the undistorted spirit of the writer present, while they are absent. Oh, yes, the creation should appear effortless not overwrought. No tell-tale scrubbing of the eraser.
Okay, so I would never have said it like that in grad school but my pick does almost all of the above.
Play the Monster Blind was published in 2000, ( Doubleday Canada) when Lynn Coady was thirty years old. (Proof again, like this year’s Giller winner, that chronological age does not discriminate when it comes to gifts of vision and a wisdom beyond years).
Coady’s prose has that edgy energy, a borderline cockiness I admire, and she’s wickedly funny. Her humour ranges from the wry to ribald, and her voice is versatile: upsetting and exhilarating. Forget gender-typical nice girls and cozy quilt-like feel good stories, strings of pearls, head nods to decorum or wombs of our own. Reader won’t find themselves cushioned by history, or strolling an art gallery or enjoying symphonies or even nestled in middle class suburban families with the kids at basketball games. Meet a world of big dog rage and oversized underpants, boozing, boxing, irreverence, complicated sex, cheap hotel rooms and searching men and women. Coady’s east coast of Canada , especially industrialized Cape Breton, is a landscape populated by the never get ways, the come from aways and the go aways. In Coady’s world there are razor -edged, truth-saying tellers; the smart and sassy, the off kilter and quirky and ordinary. From Paula Moron ( ball a more ‘n more ) to Nurse Ramona in the Devil’s Bo-Peep, to Jesus Christ, Murdeena, they are an unforgettable lot.
Beneath Coady’s laser eyed scrutiny and sure hand, we read of folks groping in the dark, trying and often failing to connect with each other and fully inhabit their lives. They are souls partially blind to their all too often own monstrous natures as they stumble about like Boris Karloff in the move Frankenstein. Coady’s narrative stance seems at times like a shrug of amused wonder but there is a steady pulse of fierce compassion, the kind that comes from an awakened mind and a beating heart, present in every story.
As a reader, and writer, and yes, an east coast woman with a different background and range of experiences, the real triumph of this collection is the fearlessness and delicious joy which lifts these stories into a hard won kind of grace. Laughter as medicine. A ride not just a read. I think Canada needs to read Play The Monster Blind, so we can see parts of ourselves and/or each other as clearly and wisely as Coady does.
Nathalie Foy would almost always rather be reading. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three sons and piles of books that multiply at an alarming rate. Thankfully books have no expiration date. Nathalie is an occasional instructor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, and after being given Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by a student, she began collecting books about books and blogs about them at Books About Books.
Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water is a delight. Each time I read it, I am newly charmed. It is brimful of offerings: part mystery and part coming of age, the story is peppered with red herrings and liberally seasoned with magic realism and social critique. There is tension throughout, and tragedy, but both are leavened by King’s inimitable comedic style. King has dialogue–and the non-sequitur in particular–down to a fine art, and one of the great joys of reading the book is how the characters come alive in their snappy exchanges.
Truth and Bright Water, an American town and a Canadian reservation, sit across from each other on the border between Canada and the U.S. The story takes place during Indian Days, as Bright Water prepares for the yearly deluge of tourists. There is also the homecoming of two former residents of Bright Water: the “famous Indian artist” Monroe Swimmer, whose art is one of the novel’s crowning glories, and the narrator’s black sheep of an aunt. Borders, revenants, the carnival atmosphere, family conflicts, ghosts and magic all make for exciting and dangerous territory, and we follow the teenaged protagonists, Tecumseh and his cousin Lum, as they negotiate it.
The narrator is Tecumseh, who often does not understand the significance of what he is telling us, and the deft handling of the ironic gap is another of the book’s delights. Thomas King’s novels are richly allusive, and it helps the reader to know, as Tecumseh does not, that the character Rebecca Neugin is real, a survivor of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, that there is more to a story than just the words, that things are not always what they appear.
In 2004, King’s Green Grass, Running Water was one of the final two books for the CBC’s Canada Reads, and one reason it got bumped was that several panelists called it a book for literature majors. To an extent, I agree. It is a book best read with the assistance of discussion, whether for a class, book group or CBC panel. Truth and Bright Water is a far more accessible novel, but it still makes us work and think. To my way of thinking, the very best books do.
Chad Pelley is a multi-award-winning writer from St. John’s. His debut novel, Away from Everywhere, was a Coles bestseller, won the NLAC’s CBC Emerging Artist of the Year award, and was shortlisted for the for 2010 ReLit award and the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer of the Year award. His short fiction has won awards, been anthologized, and accepted for publication by leading literary journals such as Prairie Fire. Chad facilitates a creative writing course at Memorial University, sits on the board of directors at the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland & Labrador, runs Salty Ink.com, and has written for a variety of publications, such as The Telegram and Atlantic Books Today.
Still Life with June won the 2004 ReLit Award, was a NOW Magazine top ten book of the year, and a finalist for the Pearson Canada Readers’ Choice Book Award. It’s also been optioned for film. I knew all that before I read it. What I didn’t know, but knew by page 9 or 10, was that this is one of the most innovative, original, memorable, and cleverly constructed novels I’d ever read.
It’s all there in Still Life with June: refined writing and a distinctive style paired with an engaging story. It also succeeds in pairing heavy subject matter with levity. Greer masks the sadder aspects of this story with a comedic tone, so that the dark side of the story feels all the more potent when he chooses to haul off that mask of humour. This is very effective. This novel is outright funny and downright grave: not something most writers could pull of so flawlessly.
In Cameron Dodds’ take on the world there are two kinds of people: “losers who know they are losers, and losers who don’t know they are losers.” Cameron, a small-time writer, considers himself a loser who knows he is a loser. He works at a Sally Ann drug and alcohol treatment centre, where he steals the file of Darryl Green, a recent suicide case, and gets so engrossed in the file that he translates Darryl’s life into fiction, going as far as befriending the deceased’s sister: a Down Syndrome patient named June, who he regularly visits.
It’s a book about a lot of things: the bonds and tensions unique to blood relations, a truthful and amusing exposé on the life of emerging writers, or even the ways cats have it knocked. But more than anything, it’s a novel about identity, replete with well-crafted and complicated characters, i.e very human characters. Every single character is in denial about who they are, and without giving too much away about the brilliant, page-turner of an ending, Cameron quite literally gets lost looking for himself.
Most novels leave a reader with a memorable story, or character, or ending. Maybe you’re even struck by a distinctive new style or narrative structure, or the thematic meat of a book. Greer leaves you with struck by all of that. I would recommend this book over 95% of Canadian novels published this decade, and it’s one I’d adapt if I was a screenwriter. As a novelist myself, this novel made me fondly jealous I didn’t write it, and remains one of only 3 novels I’ve read a second time. The style, structure, and story complement each other to perfection; there is nothing I would change about this book.
Carrie Snyder is the author of Hair Hat (Penguin Canada, 2004), a collection of stories chosen for last year’s Canada Reads Independently. Her second book, a collection of linked semi-autobiographical stories, is scheduled to be published in 2012, by House of Anansi. She blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama.
It is with some trepidation that I put forward Mavis Gallant’s collection of selected Canadian stories, Home Truths, published nearly two decades ago, and which carries a faint whiff of the old-fashioned.But I simply must. Though Mavis Gallant is a master of the short story form, with a brilliant mind that shines on the page, I am willing to bet that her books will never be chosen for CBC’s parallel competition. I am also willing to bet that many readers and fans of Canadian literature, who would be moved and delighted by her work, are unfamiliar with it.
Skip the essay that opens the collection, and make your way directly to the stories. (Read it when you’ve gotten to the end, and are familiar with her work. In it, Mavis Gallant defends herself as a Canadian writer; she has lived as an expatriate in Paris, France for most of her writing life, and one has the sense of a writer who feels snubbed by her country; I hope we are less parochial readers two decades on).
The stories themselves … brilliant, precise, particular, detailed, mysterious, elegant. Each is set in a place and a time rendered in immaculate detail: Montreal in the 1920s and 1940s, Northern Ontario after the second world war, Geneva of the 1950s, Paris, 1952. As with any collection, some stories will grab a reader more than others, but all have something to offer: think of it as a smorgasbord for the mind.
So many of the characters in these stories are alone, or nearly alone: children abandoned by parents, as in “Orphans’ Progress”; unprotected children who find a cobbled-together comfort: “Jorinda and Jorindel”; an immigrant mother and her child riding a train into a landscape that might as well be the moon: “Up North.” And so many of the stories are heartbreaking. They peel away the masks of sophistication, and evoke the primitive emotions we begin hiding from ourselves at a very young age. Yet one has hope for the characters, who have hope for themselves, and are possessed of reserves no one would guess of them: resourcefulness, determination, spirit.
What sets Home Truths apart, and the reason I chose it from among Mavis Gallant’s many marvelous collections, is its final section: linked semi-autobiographical stories about a young woman, Linnet Muir, who returns to the city of her birth, Montreal, and makes her life up with daring and courage. The character, though still a teenager in the first story, “In Youth is Pleasure,” is completely alone in the world; and yet she is not afraid. Her invention of herself, in “Between Zero and One,” is bold, but she does not consider it so: “I was deeply happy. It was one of the periods of inexplicable grace when every day is a new parcel one unwraps, layer on layer of tissue paper covering bits of crystal, scraps of words in a foreign language, pure white stones.” The Linnet Muir stories do not progress in linear fashion, yet they hold together effortlessly, in the accretion of images that create a lost world, and a remarkable character.
As a writer, I read Mavis Gallant often; more often than anyone else. She is who I turn to when I want to remember how stories work. My editing brain turns off and I surrender to a mind that is quicker and wittier than my own. Her writing is complex, layered, intelligent; yet I read her for pleasure, easily, and with the delight of eternal discovery.
Robert J. Wiersema is a writer, reviewer and bookseller. His first novel, Before I Wake, was a national bestseller and a Globe and Mail Best Book in 2006, and has been published in more than a dozen countries. His novella, The World More Full of Weeping, was shortlisted for the Prix Aurora in 2010. His latest novel, Bedtime Story, was published in November. He lives in Victoria with his wife Cori Dusmann, and their son Xander.
Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of my favourite short story collections. It features some of Carver’s finest work, including “Why Don’t You Dance” and “Tell The Women We’re Going”, and every story is parsed and clean and brutal, exploding in their final lines with savage emotional force and resonance.
It’s that collection – including its title, which when repeated aloud takes on the quality of a mantra — that comes to mind when I think about Stacey May Fowles’ debut novel Be Good.
The 2007 novel from the Toronto writer and essayist orients around the question of what it means to “be good” for a loose constellation of twenty-somethings, with close focus on friends Hannah and Morgan. The novel doesn’t so much unfold as it does explode in a narrative-impressionist flurry, jumping from Montreal to Vancouver, from character to character, across time and meaning. The initial sense of flurry, however, only momentarily obscures a tightly organized, thematic- and character-driven work which builds through pain and doubt and fragile joy and sexual violence to moments of catharsis and heartbreak.
Fowles’ prose is reminiscent of Carver’s, almost clinical in its precision, not cold but incisive. Its starkness, and her frequently brutal insights, underscore a novel that is relentless in its pursuit of hard emotional truths. What does it mean to “be good”? What does it mean to be a friend? Where does one find meaning in a world seemingly devoid of significance? And what of love? In a way, Be Good revolves around love, about its levels, its possibility, its risk, and its impossibility. Fowles’ words are surgical, cutting through the defenses, laying bare the heart. Be Good is what we talk about when we talk about love, and about the brutal silence when the words just don’t come.
In one of the pre-pub blurbs, Michael Redhill wrote “Be Good announces the arrival of a wonderful new voice in Canadian fiction.” I couldn’t agree more.