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January 10, 2011

Canada Reads Indies 1: Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

The basic narrative of Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water was more straightforward than I’d been expecting– Truth and Bright Water are, respectively, an American town and a Canadian Indian reservation, side-by-side at the bottom of Alberta. The story takes place in the summer days leading up to the “Indian Days” celebration in Bright Water (which attracts German and Japanese Indian-enthusiasts in particular), from the perspective of a young boy called Tecumseh. His closest companions are his cousin Lum, and his boxer-dog Soldier, the three of them roaming the area with its peculiar topography as familiar as the blue sky that surges from the mountains– mountain and prairie alike, the coulee, naturally occurring stone pillars rising from the river, the incomplete bridge between the two communities, the old church high on the hill about Truth.

One night out on the coulee, Lum and Tecumseh witness a strange woman throwing something in the river, and she appears to throw herself in after it. Closer investigation by the boys turns up a clean white human skull where they’d seen her jump in, but there is no sign of the woman, or the truck she arrived in either. The scene is troubling to both boys in different ways– a recent tragedy has claimed Lum’s mother, and he begins to conflate what happened to her and the woman they saw. Tecumseh is aware that something is not right with Lum, and disturbed by the skull also, but he is unable to articulate his concerns, and his parents are too consumed by their own affairs to notice that anything is wrong.

His parents’ affairs could possibly have something to do with the return of Monroe Swimmer (Famous Indian Artist) to Bright Water. Monroe, who has purchased the church on the hill but has shown himself to no one, has some kind of connection to Tecumseh’s mother. Tecumseh’s parents are separated, and his father continually embarks upon schemes to win back his wife which are about as sensible as his business ventures. Tecumseh’s looking for business ventures of his own, and ends up with a job with the elusive Monroe, who has begun painting the old church to blend in with the landscape.

Of course, the story is not entirely straightforward– there is a ghost, for example, though Tecumseh is not aware that she’s a ghost. In fact, Tecumseh is not aware of many things, which requires the reader to question on any straightforwardness the novel might suggest. But on a straightforward level, the novel still works, unlike, say, King’s Green Grass Running Water, which really requires a decoder ring to be properly understood. It’s only half the story, of course, but it’s still worth noting that this is a proper tale of a boy and his dog.

The novel is straightforward, however, the same way that Tecumseh’s mother’s quilt is straightforward. Woven into its fabric are hooks, feathers and other unusual objects. The shapes of the quilt tell its stories, but the stories aren’t quite what they seem. Tecumseh struggles to decipher the quilt as he does the whole world around him– none of his questions are ever answered; his parents keep disappearing; the bruises on Lum’s body are clearly inflicted by his father, but nobody does anything about them; and what about the woman having her hair cut in his mother’s salon who is convinced that Marilyn Monroe was an Indian?

The whole book could be explained away by allegory, and when I read it in graduate school, that is probably what I did. The symbiotic relationship of Truth and Bright Water showing that recent political borders are arbitrary, and that even Indian/non-Indian comes with a similar lack of distinctions– the Indians play up their stereotypical culture for the tourists, but their “Indianness” is far from King’s sole preoccupation with these characters. Or does glossing over such distinctions make matters worse? Famous Indian Artist Monroe Swimmer is painting out the church from the prairie landscape, obliterating the past (after years of working in museums and painting Indians back into the picture in the landscapes he “restored”): “Seeing that it has gone is one thing. Finding it now that it has disappeared is something else.” After all, that history can be so swept away is really just an illusion. Really, nothing is straightforward at all, and such subtle complexity is the novel’s great strength.

Truth and Bright Water is not without its weaknesses, however. Tecumseh’s limited point of view leaves too many gaps to make the novel as satisfying as I would have liked it to be, or perhaps the trouble is too many plots to be brought together effectively. Though the gaps have their purpose, and the too many plots is analogous to crazy shape of Tecumseh’s mother’s quilt, and that’s how life is. The subtlety of the novel also works against it– one could finish it and think they’d read a middling story about a boy and his dog. Though I enjoyed the story and found the ending particularly sad, its overall effect upon me was a bit underwhelming.

I’m glad I read it though, sort of a cheat of a reread, as I barely remember reading it in the first place. Truth and Bright Water requires attention and close reading that I didn’t apply to it before, so I’m grateful for the opportunity this time around. A very good book that gives the rest of the line-up quite a lot to live up to.

Canada Reads Independently Rankings:

1) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

January 3, 2011

Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Be Good by Stacey May Fowles

Stacey May Fowles, with her first novel Be Good, has a kind of become shorthand with Canadian critics for a new direction in Canadian Literature. No longer are we all languishing on the prairies, dying in childbirth as lightning strikes the barn and fries our last remaining cow, Fowles’ characters are unabashedly contemporary, her stories set in urban places, and usually have adjectives applied to them like “gritty”, “edgy” and “real”.

Though Robert J. Wiersema finds her work has precedent in his Canada Reads Independently pitch:

Fowles’ prose is reminiscent of [Raymond] 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.

Wiersema explains that the novel, which focuses on “a loose constellation of twenty-somethings…  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.”

A review in Prairie Fire called Be Good “vividly authentic”, and Quill & Quire reported that “the novel offers a thoughtful examination of sexuality, relationships, and what it means to tell the truth.” At the TINARS site, Fowles has compiled a Be Good playlist (along with an interview). Fowles has already had some Canada Readsish experience, as Zoe Whittall defended her second novel Fear of Fighting for Canada Also Reads last year (which led to me reading the book a few months later). Read more about Be Good at Fowles’ 12 or 20 questions interview (including, “In Be Good I really wanted to focus on place as a character so really investigating geography was imperative to that. After all the lonely city living I’ve experience I’ve become mildly obsessed with what the urban landscape can do to a person.”)

Be Good has a Joan Didion epigraph, which means either I’m going to love it or really hate it. I’ve already become quite fond of the novel’s design, however, and if its contents end up being anywhere as well-executed, it’s probably going to be the former.

December 30, 2010

Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

It’s hard to place Mavis Gallant exactly. She certainly holds a position alongside Canada’s best-known writers, the Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood fold, and yet she doesn’t seem to be read with the same exuberance. There are reasons for this: Gallant hasn’t lived in Canada for years, she’s less prolific than the others, she’s almost always a short story writer (and yet this doesn’t seem to have hindered Munro, but Gallant does seem more focussed on the stories themselves than the books they’re collected in). I wonder also if it’s because she’s a generation older than Munro and Atwood, and her works don’t always spark the same sense of self-recognition in her readers.

All this to say that for many of us, there is still much to be discovered in Mavis Gallant’s work. That it makes sense to include one of Canada’s best-known writers in Canada Reads Independently, and for a book that was awarded the Governor General’s Award no less, as Home Truths was in 1981. “Best-known” is very often quite distinct from “most-read”, in fact, very often “best-knowing” makes us think that the actual reading is optional. (It is worth noting that Gallant’s collection From the Fifteenth District was read as part of Canada Reads 2008, but was the first book voted out of the competition).

Of Home Truths as her Canada Reads Independently pick, Carrie Snyder writes:

…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.

Though the whole collection is compelling. According to Snyder:

“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.”

A 1985 review in Time Magazine calls these stories “unrelentingly bleak”, but notes that “[i]rony serves to sharpen, and humor leaven, the mishaps that befall the book’s eccentric families”. And to be honest, I couldn’t find much more about the collection online. I did see it used in a discussion on Michael Bryson’s blog about the short story, but this is less exciting when we see that it was by Carrie Snyder once again, Gallant’s tireless champion. See Gallant in a fascinating 2009 interview at The Guardian though (which cites her influence on Jhumpa Lahiri), and some not bad biographical detail here.  And of course, her Paris Review interview (“The Linnet Muir stories are fiction, but as close to autobiography as fiction can be”).

I read My Heart is Broken so long ago I can hardly remember, Paris Notebooks, and I read From the Fifteenth District seven years ago when I was living in Japan. I have not read Mavis Gallant since I became particularly adept at and in love with reading short stories, and so I have a feeling that my reading of Home Truths will be full of goodness and discovery.

December 22, 2010

Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Darren Greer's Still Life With June

Darren Greer’s novel Still Life With June is the little novel that did. It won the 2004 ReLit Award,was shortlisted for both the 2003 Pearson Canada Readers’ Choice Book Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, and was named one of the Top 10 books of 2003 by NOW Magazine. It has also inspired passionate responses from readers, including Canada Reads Indies champion Chad Pelley who previously featured the novel on his website Salty Ink. Pelley writes, “This novel is outright funny and downright grave: not something most writers could pull of so flawlessly.”

From Pelley’s plot summary:

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.

The writer of the blog LiveLiterary called Still Life With June “a gem of a book“, and found it not so much the plot that was compelling as Cameron Dodd’s voice and characterization. My fellow Vicious Circler B. read the book last year, and wrote that it, “thankfully, never becomes too enamored with its own wit; above all it champions the idea that even the most fragmented life can be healed if one has the courage to face one’s deceptions.”

The novel received a critical review in The Journal on Developmental Disabilities, which took issue with Greer’s portrayal of a disabled character, and also with the language about disability used throughout the novel. The reviewer found that this was a novel that got so much right, and moreover managed to cast all kinds of outsiders and misfits in a new kind of light, but casts the disabled character as simple and one-dimensional. Cameron Dodds’ world is a pretty complicated place but June, as all the other reviews I’ve read point out, is “just June”. The reviewer writes that this is “another story in which Down syndrome exists as a metaphor”. And I take note of this review because I think it comes from a different and interesting perspective, is thoughtfully written, and worth keeping in mind.

Still Life With June‘s book trailer is here, and worth a look (though I can’t get it to embed correctly). Cormorant has also posted an audio interview with Darren Greer.

I am heartened by B.’s assessment of this as not your usual book with a cynical main character, attracted to the book jacket, and excited by Chad Pelley’s enthusiasm for Still Life… I am really looking forward to reading it (and hopefully it will be more successful than my last Still Life… attempt).

December 15, 2010

Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water

Thomas King’s novel Truth and Bright Water received a lukewarm (and more luke than warm) review in The New York Times in 2000, but then again the review also called it “a coming-of-age novel set in Montana”, so what do they know?

The Times’ review faults Truth for being “so labored and multilayered that it ends up doing a disservice to his characters: in such a relatively brief book, all those criss-crossing threads and half-communicated secrets do more to obscure than to illuminate the very people we’re supposed to care about.” However, somewhat convolutedly, another reviewer writes, “For all the crosscurrents of humor, heroism, tragedy, and evil, [the book] flows with the ingenuity of the human heart applied to the complexities of everyday life. This is the most impressive story the author tells as well as exemplifies: the artistry of the ordinary” but we get the gist of what they mean– perhaps Truth and Bright Water is a book that polarizes.

It’s difficult to find much on the web about this book, unless you’re looking for an academic essay to plagiarize. Which actually makes this a most fitting pick for Canada Reads Independently– how will this book fare outside of an academic context? (Champion Nathalie has pointed out that the academic quality of King’s writing is the reason that his Green Grass, Running Water was knocked out of Canada Reads in 20o4). The book has a pretty impressive entry over at Wikipedia, with a substantial plot summary and list of characters. I’ve not examined it too closely because I seem to remember this book having some kind of twist at the end, and I want to re-encounter it by surprise.

But I will quote the plot introduction, to acquaint us with the text: “Truth, a small town in rural Montana, and Bright Water, a reserve across the Canadian-American border, are separated by a river. The first person narrator, a 15-year-old Native American (Blackfoot) youth, Tecumseh (named after the famous Shawnee leader), watches a strange woman jump off the cliff into the river that marks the border. His companions are Lum, his cousin, and Soldier, his boxer dog. The plot revolves around their interactions with each other, with their parents, and other people in Truth and Bright Water, which lead up to the great event, the Indian Days festival, and the (partial) resolution of the mystery around the strange woman.”

Nathalie Foy describes this book as “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.” She notes that it’s a more accessible work that Green Grass Running Water, but that “it still makes us work and think.  To my way of thinking, the very best books do.”

This is the one book of the bunch that I’ve read already, for a fantastic course I took in grad school on haunting in Canadian fiction. I remember not spending much time on the book, however, at the time having exhausted my Thomas King appetite after marking 80 undergrad papers on Green Grass Running Water.  And I think it was dealt with in class near the end of the semester, and we didn’t spend much time on it, so in a sense, I’ve hardly read the book at all. Though I’ll admit it’s the book of them all I’m most intimidated by, but I’m going back into it with my bookish mind wide open.

December 7, 2010

Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Lynn Coady's Play the Monster Blind

If I ever write a book, I would like Sheree Fitch to write a blurb for it. Though any “blurb” by Sheree Fitch would probably take the place of a whole back cover, but that would be all right. Because she would write something like, “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.” But only if I’d written Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind.

Play the Monster Blind was published ten years ago to much acclaim and bestsellerdom and, for some reason that stupefies anybody who has ever read the book, is no longer in print. Which is odd for a book so vital that the Giller-shortlisted writer Alexander MacLeod just six weeks ago cited it in an interview as one of his favourite collections. Chad Pelley’s affection for the collection was apparent in the interview he conducted with Coady just last summer, in which he remarked, “I loved every single story…”

In her review, Karen Solie called the book, “a sure-footed dance to the often painful music of the working class of the Canadian East Coast, a tough but graceful negotiation of the living rooms, bars, workplaces, and childhood haunts where violence and tenderness, hilarity and despair, belonging and alienation coincide.” Margaret Gunning writes in January Magazine that “Coady has a deeper-than-intellectual understanding of human ambiguity which resonates in her audience as a sense of recognition”. Jim Taylor noted in The Antigonish Review that readers “should rejoice in the humanity of the Cape Breton characters who come to life in her landscape.” Open Book Toronto called the book “a keenly observed, imaginative collection”. Play the Monster Blind received a starred review in Quill & Quire, which found Coady’s “emotional arm’s length narrative style” even stronger here than in her award-winning debut novel.

Margaret Gunning writes: “To label [Coady’s] fiction “comic” is to do it a great disservice, because there is always so much more going on: delicate underlayers, dangling nerve-endings and things noted and remarked upon that the rest of us are  trying to forget. Without the belly laughs to punctuate the unbearable truth-telling, her work might be too uncomfortable to enjoy.”

I’ve read Coady before in a few anthologies, and also in her novel Mean Boy which delighted me back in 2006 and was one of my favourite books of that year. My experience with that novel and my love of short stories in general leaves me with every expectation that Play the Monster Blind will be a book that I love.

December 6, 2010

On reading independently

For me, the most fascinating thing about Canada Reads is how it’s everything to everyone. For me, a  chance to pick up some obscure books I might just fall in love with; for others a chance to champion the books they’ve read already; for the more competitive among us, the fun of listening to panelists hash it out, employing nefarious strategies to ensure their own book’s dominance. And it’s interesting to me that the general vagueness with which Canada Reads Independently has been presented has brought forth much of the same variety of interpretations confusion.

There is one reason why Canada Reads Independently isn’t a chance to exclusively showcase books published by independent presses: I don’t think independent presses are in need of a special showcase. I thought a bit differently once upon a time, but I’ve evolved as a reader since then, plus I listened carefully when Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells once took me to task for segregation, and I realized that he was right. Independent presses in Canada are producing books every bit as good as, if not better than, in many cases, books being published by major publishing houses. This year’s Giller shortlist (and long list even) was a testament to that, and now everybody knows. Independent presses are amazing, and this is hardly news.

What I do want to do with Canada Reads Independently, however, is choose panelists who are well-read enough to know what’s going on in the CanLit scene beyond the Giller shortlist (whether that list happens to be indie-dominated or not), and I think I’ve done well with what we’ve come up with. Two books by indie presses, the CanLit stalwart is a book many of us haven’t read, an out of print book by a vital (and underrated) contemporary author, and a book usually only read in grad school (which is not necessarily to appreciate).

So officially indie or not, I still think we’re off the beaten track. Which is the very point of (my personal interpretation of) Canada Reads.

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.

The Champion: Sheree Fitch

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.

The Book: Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady

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.

The Champion: Nathalie Foy

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.

The Book: Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

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.

The Champion: Chad Pelley

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.

The Book: Still Life With June by Darren Greer

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.

The Champion: Carrie Snyder

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.

The Book: Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

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.

The Champion: Robert J. Wiersema

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.

The Book: Be Good by Stacey May Fowles

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.

November 28, 2010

Canada Reads Indies Sneak Peek

Canada Reads Independently is revealed on Wednesday, though I offer a (not particularly telling) sneak peek here. What a stack though, you’ll just have to trust me. I am very excited, and pleased that my Fantasy Panel stepped up with such aplomb. I can’t wait to read these books, and I do hope you’re inspired to read a couple of them too.

The deal with Canada Reads Indies is this: last year, the CBC Canada Reads list disappointed me, so I lined up some bookish folks to choose me a new one. For me, most of the fun of Canada Reads has been less the week of radio debates, but rather the recommendations from out of the blue, and the reading of the books and discussions with other readers, and so that’s what I focused on for the Indies. And though my list last year (and this year) did/do feature some independent presses, the “Independently” of my title is more about reading on my own terms (though I loved it very much when others joined me).

The rules are very lax– I keep asking for novels, and the panel keeps throwing up short stories, but that’s all right with me because I love short stories anyway. If you want to take part, you can read all of the books or some, but please do get in touch with your responses (or links to your reviews posted elsewhere). I am going to start reading my five books in the new year, but you can get started any time. I will be finishing reading by the week of the CBC Canada Reads Broadcasts, and inviting readers to vote for their favourite of the five. I will also be following along with CBC Canada Reads and reading some of the books from their list, because it looks interesting this year. It’s not so much that I have a problem with CBC Canada Reads as that I just love the whole idea and want to manipulate and monopolize it– surely you understand?

Anyway, I hope to be reading not so independently, and that the titles revealed on Wednesday pique your interest. Looking forward to plenty of bookish conversation and debate unfolding over the next few months.

November 16, 2010

We’ve got ourselves a logo!

Very excited. Plans are coming together for Canada Reads 2011 Indies, and I’m looking forward to revealing all come December 1st. Until then, may I whet your appetite with this fine logo, courtesy of our kind friends at CreateMeThis?

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