Laura Salverson – An Overlooked Pioneer of Canadian Literature

Throughout my almost two decades of collecting Canadian literature, I’ve created numerous spreadsheets to track my various goals: historically relevant series – like the New Canadian Library, certain authors, and important Canadian literary awards. The assemblage I am most proud of is my collection of English language Governor General’s Literary Award winners. Over the years, I have managed to round up all but one winner of the fiction prize, all the poetry and drama winners when the award was split in the early 80s, and many of the winners from the non-fiction, poetry or drama, translation, and both children’s categories. In total, my GG collection is 187 books. But I’ll have more on this collection in a later post. What I’m interested in today is the author of the one book I’ve sought after that has been the bane of my book collecting journey: Laura Goodman Salverson. Ms. Salverson is perhaps the most overlooked author in the early development, and perhaps the entire history, of Canadian literature.

Laura Goodman was born in Winnipeg on December 9, 1890. Her parents were Icelandic immigrants, Lárus Guðmundsson and Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir. It has been recorded that throughout her youth, her parents explored western North America with their young daughter in tow; Laura did not even learn English until the age of ten. These explorations with her parents helped steep Laura in her family’s Icelandic heritage and the history of this ancient and proud culture. In 1913, Laura married George Salverson, a railwayman.

Laura Salverson’s writings were meant to supplement the family’s income. In the writing she produced in the first part of her career, she focused on the trials, adversities and drama of the early 20th century immigrant experience, particularly in Western Canada. She lamented the loss of culture of immigrant communities in the Canadian melting pot of the time and she was highly critical of the “American Dream.” Additionally, Salverson was a staunch pacifist and very outspoken against World War I.

So why is Laura Salverson such an important figure in Canadian literature that should never have been forgotten? Three reasons:

  1. In 1937 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction for The Dark Weaver. Only the second year the award was given out, Salverson was the first woman to win the GG.
  2. In 1939 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction for Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter. The first woman to win in this category.
  3. Laura Salverson was the first person to win two Governor-General’s Awards and is still part of a very small group that has won GGs in multiple categories (a group that includes names like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, and Hugh MacLennan).
  4. Her first novel, The Viking Heart, was a longstanding title in the New Canadian Library (series number 116)

None of these books are still in print and they have not been in print for many years. The Viking Heart, the story of 1400 Icelandic immigrants to Manitoba and their experiences from 1876 to World War I, was taken out of print as of the third series of the New Canadian Library (late-1970s/early-1980s). The Dark Weaver, a pacifist novel about a group of Nordic immigrants to Canada who volunteer to fight for the British in WWI, seems to have only been published once in Canada, the original 1937 Ryerson Press edition, and once in Britain, the 1938 Sampson Low, Marston & Co. edition. Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter, Salverson’s autobiography which is a deeply personal record of the Nordic community’s conflict and assimilation within the English majority, was reprinted as recently as 1981 by University of Toronto Press as part of its Social History of Canada series.

Salverson’s early works can be read through a variety of lenses (her later works drifted towards traditional Nordic romances and adventures that got away from her earlier Canadian based books). She can be read to gather insight into the early 20th century immigrant experience, anti-war sentiments around the time of WWI, Western Canadian settlement, and more generally, Salverson is a woman’s voice at a time when there were few women writers making waves. That is, I should add, these works can be read that way if you are able to get your hands on the text to read.

The Viking Heart and Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter are still relatively easy to find on used book sites. Abebooks has 25 listings for Confessions ranging from $4.00 for an 80s reprint to $250.00 for a signed original copy and The Viking Heart has 15 listings ranging from $10 for a New Canadian Library edition to $80 for a signed first edition. The Dark Weaver though has gained a reputation of being the unicorn for CanLit collectors. This book is notoriously hard to find – there are no listings anywhere on the internet for a used copy and libraries will typically not lend it out due to its rarity and age of the volumes on hand. Even finding a photograph of the book is challenging. The Dark Weaver is the only GG Fiction winner I do not have on my bookshelf. Since Salverson died in 1970, her work is not in the public domain, so it is also not on any ebook sites like Project Gutenberg Canada. The only available version of the text anywhere is on the Peel’s Prairie Provinces project page of the University of Alberta’s library website; the text available is a scanned image of each page of the 1937 edition. If you are hardcore enough, like me, you can go through and download the individual TIFF image file of all 416 pages (I believe this took me about three hours). So, you can read this book, but you must put some work in for it.

Ultimately, I think Salverson is just one symptom of a greater problem in Canadian literature of important titles going out of print, but this is an article for another day. In three years, Salverson’s work will enter the public domain, so it is likely that availability will increase then. This, however, is a copout. I find the fact that some university press or academic publisher has not re-issued her most important works, in an edited ebook form at the very least, a great cultural shame. Salverson needs to take her place among the important Canadian writers of the 1930s and be held high with names like Stephen Leacock and Gwethalyn Graham.

References and Resources:

The Canadian Encyclopedia
Athabasca University Profile
Library and Archives Canada Profile
University of Alberta, Page scans of The Dark Weaver

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Back in Business – New Perspectives and New Styles

When I first started this blog in June 2010 I had modest intentions. My primary goal was to simply have a creative outlet to lay down some thoughts on the Canadian literature I was consuming as I had no one in my immediate social circle that had the same taste in books as I did. The site grew steadily and after just a few months I had a solid library of posts. In early 2011, I started getting emails from publishers, including well known Canadian publishers like Brick Books and Goose Lane; I was also having regular conversations with writers directly via Twitter. These editors and writers were actually asking me to review their novels, story collections and books of poetry. I was even getting unsolicited books in the mail from some of these publishers. I was once quoted on Canada Reads to start a discussion and I was interviewed by The Toronto Star about the death of a well known book reviewer. Once the novelty of all this wore off, I found the whole idea burdensome and took a break from posting. In the ensuing years, I would sporadically return with a few reviews or articles and then disappear again for months at a time. I could never put my finger on it but I would always quickly lose my passion for managing this blog. Then in 2015, shortly after my son’s second birthday and a career move, I unceremoniously gave up on the blog and left it in limbo.

In mid-2017 my family moved to a new house; after unpacking and getting comfortable in a new position I recently took, I got back into the habit of nightly reading and I started thinking about this site more and more. I started to wonder why I kept taking regular breaks from posting… why do I keep starting up again… should I give this site to someone new who is more engaged…. I came back to the question of “why did I start this blog up in the first place?” Looking back at my 27-year-old self in mid-2010, I would say my main goal was to talk about Canadian books. Full stop. In exploring my thoughts on a particular book I could take so many angles – characters, writing, plot, themes, humour, social relevance, historical relevance. I could go full on academic and put that English degree to work – apply a critical lens such as a Marxist reading, analyze the work using Foucault’s ideas of panopticism, venture down the road of new-historicism and explore the sociological context of the piece. The pattern I fell into, especially once publishers and writers took notice of my blog, was treating my posts more like critical reviews than anything else.

Throughout my formal education in literature (a BA with an English major and half of a Master’s degree), I approached literature in a starkly different way from a lot of my peers. My overarching view of literature (and all acts of cultural creation) is that every work is the intersection of history, geography and psychology. With the guidance of a few of my favorite professors in my younger days, I also came to understand that each time we read something, we re-evaluate each of those intersections on multiple levels because of our own contemporary contextual biases. This is how I approach everything I read and ultimately, I feel this is how I need to approach my writing about books.

One thing is clear, I am not a book critic. Most book bloggers aren’t critics yet they pretend to be (perhaps they are addicted to the free review copies). I pulled away from playing the critic a little bit once I stopped taking review copies from publishers and authors, but I still struggled to find my voice in my posts. After thinking about this lately, I feel ready to revive The Canadian Book Review with a fresh new perspective and approach. I am not interested in doing critical reviews of books. I am interested in talking about books – what spoke to me, what did I like to not like, how this relates to contemporary life, some historical tidbits of the book or author I find interesting – all within my particular window of how I see literature.

So with that, I am happy to say that The Canadian Book Review is back in business. I hope this new iteration of my blog does not disappoint.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

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Winner of the 2008 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel

Winner of the 2009 Doug Wright Award for Best Book

Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature

I’ve talked on this blog before about how young adult lit isn’t really my thing, unless it is a particularly important or well-known piece. Also on this blog, I’ve also talked about how the graphic novel isn’t a genre I’m especially familiar with. In 2011, when a graphic novel, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, was chosen for Canada Reads, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. As I said then, I see graphic novels as not a literary form per se, more of a blend of art and literature – a genre in its own right without parallel. The number of graphic novels in my CanLit collection has grown slightly – I’m up to a whole 5 titles now. That number may grow though, I’m going to be starting to collect the winners of the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in the near future now that I’ve gathered all of the fiction, poetry, and drama winners.

Skim fits my aforementioned criteria. It is a young adult graphic novel that is held in high regard in the literary community and was an interesting magnet for some controversy in 2008. No other GG category seems to stir up as much trouble as the Children’s Lit award does (although there was also a snafu in the poetry category this year). This book was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, but only one of the two “creators” were credited in the nomination – Mariko Tamaki; her cousin, Jillian Tamaki, the illustrator of the book, was omitted. There was an outcry in the comics community over the exclusion because of the collaborative approach taken with this genre (funny enough though, not a peep was made when Jillian herself won the illustration GG for This One Summer last year).

Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, set in 1993, tells the story of Kimberly Cameron (aka Skim). She is a student at an all-girls high school and is a rather unremarkable average “goth” kid. She goes through the typical crucible of being a teenaged girl – sexuality, shifting friendships, social status, and growing up.

Nothing remarkable happens in this book. If you’ve been to high school, you’ve experienced a lot of what these girls and Skim go through. What is remarkable about this book though, is the way the authors are able to use their particular combination of art and text to build a connection with the title character to the point that you experience her world through her eyes.

The art, from beginning-to-end, is constantly shifting, mirroring the emotional somersaults that take place in the mind of a typical teenager. Jillian Tamaki doesn’t stick to one particular type of illustration – she seamlessly moves from comic strip panels, to full page artwork, to two-page spreads, and to every combination in between. She switches aspects, uses zooming to great effect (I have no other word for it), uses shadows and reflections in interesting ways, and Tamaki is excellent at capturing extremely complex emotion in a single framed facial expression.

In terms of the text, I was interested in the first-person perspective. The text is presented in three different ways – as Skim’s diary entries, her internal stream-of-consciousness, and dialogue. Despite being fairly text heavy compared to the few other literary graphic novels I’ve read, Mariko Tamaki is very efficient with her writing. More importantly though, Tamaki manages to really capture the idioms of teenaged girl without sacrificing the depth and thematic impact of Skim’s story.

So all-in-all, Skim was a very enjoyable read. The primary characters are well developed, the artwork is visually appealing and continually changing, the writing is of a very high quality, and the book deals with themes that will be present as long as teenagers continue to exist. Skim is clear evidence of why Mariko and Jillian Tamaki are powerful forces in the world of the Canadian graphic novel.

The Fly in Autumn by David Zieroth

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Winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Poetry

David Zieroth is a pretty typical Canadian career poet. He regularly puts out collections, he taught English at the post secondary level, and he adheres to a fairly traditional lyrical style. As a side note, a former English professor and thesis advisor of mine, Richard Lemm ­ another typical Canadian career poet, is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book. In 2009, this career poet published his masterpiece and was awarded the top prize in Canadian Poetry, the Governor General’s Award. The Fly in Autumn is a good example of a satisfying poetry collection ­ accessible, tight in terms of metaphor and symbol, not afraid of humour, and the author doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the wheel in regards to style.

Now, I have to be honest, this isn’t going to be the most insightful review ever written. I read this book one night in bed when I was very tired, not feeling well and half tripping out on cold and sinus medication.

The strength of this book is the absurdest twist Zieroth takes with a lot of his poems, particularly the closing, and title, sequence, “The Fly in Autumn.” Like in “Insurance”:

Insurance offices are full of fat men
(cramped behind small desks stacked
with forms and notes) willing to act
as agents while chewing on a time when
they were blessed with a full head of hair.
This one’s thinking of lunch, the eclair

As you can see from this stanza as well, Zieroth isn’t afraid to throw a rhyme into the mix here and there. The pattern above, ABBACC, or close enough, is the one which the author continually returns. Zieroth uses this scheme in about a third of the poems but manages to avoid the sing-song feeling that sometimes roars its head with rhyming in contemporary poetry.

I’ve ranted on this blog about how much I am annoyed by collections of poetry that try to find something sublime or transcendent in the minutiae of everyday existence. This book had the potential to go in that direction, but fortunately for all involved, Zieroth took simple subjects and treated them to a quirky re-imagining.

Glenn Gould by Mark Kingwell

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The name Glenn Gould conjures images of greatness, madness, and everything in between. Gould was, without a doubt, one of the greatest classical musicians of his time, if not ever. But, he was also the poster boy of eccentricity. His Goldberg Variations, which bookended his career, are works of legend in the world of classical music, and, at the same time, he was a hopeless hypochondriac, mentally ill, and addicted to a cocktail of prescription and over-the-counter medication. If there was ever a textbook case of contradictions, Gould was it. I first became aware of Gould’s existence 13 years ago in a Canadian Literature class at St. Mary’s University, during a unit on Northern lit in which we listened to his esoteric radio “documentary” The Idea of North. I am a relative newcomer to his music though; I’ve only been regularly listening to him for about a year (the Google Play streaming service has a fairly comprehensive Gould catalogue). He is, not surprisingly, one of the subjects in the Extraordinary Canadians series from Penguin. Philosopher and professor Mark Kingwell takes up the challenge of examining this colourful character. In doing so, Kingwell pushes the boundaries of the biography genre, even interpretive biography, to the extreme.

Kingwell abandons the traditional narrative form that biographies, of any type, typically take. This book could be better described as philosophical biography that attempts to get at the core of what made Glenn Gould tick, rather that simply tell his story. Not all biographical details are left out though: Kingwell does examine some important moments and elements of his subject – including the beginning of his professional career, his love of the microphone and abandoning of live performances, his important recordings including the Variations, and his more unusual personal attributes.

Many of the philosophical digressions and their relation to Gould were quite interesting – even though philosophy is not a discipline I was particularly fond of as a student. Kingwell looks at different aspects related to the philosophy of music and art – such as the line between composer and performer, the idea of “genius” in relation to music, and notions of performance whether live or recorded among others. Importantly, and ultimately necessary in a general audience book, the author is able to delve into this concepts using non-academic language free from much of the jargon inherent in any discipline.

I always hope to learn something whenever I read a biography of someone with whom I’m already somewhat familiar. Kingwell delivered. In the author’s examination of Gould, he looked beyond just the music and undertook a detailed study of his expansive written works. I didn’t know that Gould was a somewhat prolific, if not idiosyncratic, essayist. Over the course of his career, he published numerous articles in piano magazines (and also recorded a handful of spoken word records). In reading this book, it is clear that these somewhat rambling and occasionally incomprehensible articles – which include interviewing himself and regularly referring to himself in the third person, offer the clearest glimpse into the mind of this mad genius.

Overall, I was satisfied once I finished this book. If you are looking for a lot of information and straight biographical facts about Glenn Gould, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. But, as I’ve said before, this is an excellent philosophical biography of Gould. Mark Kingwell does a great job of getting to the heart of the enigma that was Glenn Gould. And from a different angle, Glenn Gould offers interesting explorations of the nature of music and art in today’s society that would be of interest to anyone who takes music seriously. Another great entry in the Extraordinary Canadians series.

The Tiger by John Vaillant

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Winner of the 2010 B.C. National Book Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2010 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Award
Winner of the 2010 CBA Libris Award for Non-Fiction
A Globe & Mail Best Book ~ 2010
A Quill & Quire Best Book ~ 2010
Selected for Canada Reads 2012

The 2012 edition of Canada Reads switched gears a bit and focused on non-fiction titles for the first time. I remember thinking then that The Tiger by John Vaillant stuck out a bit from the others. It was the only book that didn’t have a Canadian connection, other than the author’s nationality, and it was the only history narrative, while the other four were all memoirs. As such, this title got a rough ride on the show. But, more than most of the other titles that year, this one caught my interest. I planned on reading the book while listening to shows, and it only took me over 3 years to actually get to it. Who wouldn’t be interested in a classic man-versus-nature story of a man-eating tiger? There is a certain primitiveness to this idea. A challenge to Man’s rank in the natural pecking order. What Vaillant has delivered in The Tiger, is an interesting mix of history, nature writing, political science, and psychology.

I’m going to give The Tiger a solid “ok.” Certain aspects of the book were very interesting. Vaillant’s digressions into the biology, ecology, evolution and biogeography of tigers were the highlight of the book; additionally, he went into great depth in exploring the current conservation status and the sharp decline in tiger numbers. During these chapters, I felt strong overtones of one of my favorite nature titles, Song of the Dodo. Another strong point of this book was the correlations Vaillant drew between perestroika – the opening of the Soviet economy in the late 80s – and the desperate poverty in this remote region of Russia forcing people to resort to things like poaching. It was through this particular lens that the central players in the story were most interesting and developed.

This book was a bit of a slog though. The actual forward motion of the narrative component was a little slow and at some points came to grinding halt. The Tiger could have easily shed 50 to 75 pages. But, oddly enough, during the third and final section, “Trush”, the narrative took off with the pace that I was hoping for and, ultimately, you as the reader do feel satisfied with the conclusion.

With all of that being said, one thing that definitely stands out is the amount of primary research that the author must have done to complete this book. Other than one documentary film and the contemporaneous news stories, there would be very little available in terms of first-hand accounts of these incidents. For the author, I imagine striking out into the backwoods of isolated eastern Russia must have been like entering a different planet.

That’s all I’ve got. This is a rather short review, but I just don’t have much to say. I find I always have lots to say on books that I either really liked or really didn’t like, but books like The Tiger where I am just kinda “meh, it’s alright,” just don’t elicit enough excitement in me either way to write a lengthy response.

Dance on the Earth by Margaret Laurence

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I’ve said before on this blog that Margaret Laurence is my number 1 favorite author. It is because of her I fell in love with Canadian Literature and reading in general. Laurence died relatively young and had very little output after her magnum-opus, The Diviners, was published. Over the years, I kept a few of Laurence’s works on reserve for future reading because I don’t like the finality of reading everything she has published. He last book, and only major work after The Diviners, is her posthumously published 1989 memoir Dance on the Earth. Laurence died in 1987, shortly after completing a semi-final draft and before publication. In the foreword, her daughter Jocelyn does an excellent job of describing the last few months of Laurence’s life and the rush and struggle to finish this book. Her cause of death wasn’t actually revealed until James King’s biography was published many years later. There is no particular reason why I decided to read this now, I just felt that it was time. Dance on the Earth was an excellent coda on the writing career of a masterful author. In fact, this strong woman being ripped from this world while writing her memoirs could even be described as Laurence-esque.

Laurence crafts an autobiography that is all her own. She doesn’t follow a standard A-to-B-to-C structure. Instead, she frames each of the four primary chapters in terms of the important mothers in her life: her biological mother, her step-mother, her mother-in-law, and finally herself. Within each of these frames, Laurence discusses the major events, important people, and central places that made her who she was and helped shape her pacifist and feminist views. Interestingly, she doesn’t really get into discussing her own writing until the chapter where she focuses on herself. Laurence gets into her state-of-mind with her works, her reactions of reviewers, her dislike of the publicity/business end of it, and why The Diviners was her last major work. This section more than the rest is really a fascinating glimpse into a brilliant creative mind. Additionally, the memoir is peppered with wonderful letters between Laurence and others, with the letters to Adele Wiseman being a definite highlight.

The main bulk of the book is written with the same understated powerful prose that punctuated her Manawaka cycle, except Laurence herself takes the place of Hagar, Rachael, Stacey, Vanessa, and Morag. She is very open, vulnerable, and pulls no punches. My one negative critique of the book is some of the items included in the “Afterwords” section. The previously published essays, including articles on nuclear disarmament, feminism, and a convocation address were fantastic, they were wonderfully written, articulate, and quite persuasive in their arguments. But, the poems that were included were not that great. It upsets me a little bit that the final work of Laurence’s career is concluded with a bit of mediocre poetry that seems to have been written for personal occasions, not publication. I’m sure this was an editorial decision made after Laurence had left us.

It’s clear that Margaret Laurence knew her life was coming to an end (as we now know she made the decision herself on when it would end). This was also clear in the way the memoir ended. She seemed to wrap things up quickly and almost suddenly because she knew that’s how it had to be. This is not a criticism of the book or even something that takes away from it. Instead it further punctuates that the fact that this great author had a lot more to give to our country, even if her prime writing days were behind her.

The Door is Open by Bart Campbell

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Finalist for the 2002 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize

Finalist for the 2002 City of Vancouver Book Prize

Golf season is winding down so I guess it’s time to start reviewing some books again. I recently moved my bookshelves around and I wanted to read a book from the top shelf of the first case, which happens to be my paperback non-fiction shelf. The book that caught my eye was Bart Campbell’s The Door is Open: Memoir of a Soup Kitchen Volunteer.

This memoir tells the story of a hospital lab technician who volunteers at a drop in centre in Vancouver’s East Hastings area after he and his wife separate. Across Canada, East Hastings has the reputation of being a very poor, hard, and drug and crime infested area. Images are conjured up of prostitutes, heroin, and destitution. This memoir was published in 2001 so it was before the opening of the safe-injection site InSite, and other focused government efforts, started to make a very small dent in the visible poverty.

This book is very short, with the epilogue it clocks in at only 144 pages, but it is 144 very well used pages. Each of the 10 short chapters pack a very strong punch. The Door is Open is more than simply a memoir filled with anecdotes about the characters he came across while volunteering, of which there are lots; Campbell looks at the nature of poverty and all of the complications that go along with it. In methodical fashion, he explores concepts of poverty and homelessness, crime, addiction, prostitution, mental health and suicide, and survival. Campbell beautifully pieces together cold-hard facts, personal observations, anecdotes, and expert opinions to paint a brutally honest portrait of East Hastings, which is, as he points out, the “poorest forward sortation area of all 7,000 postal prefixes” in Canada.

At the end of each chapter, Campbell has a coda of sorts with excepts from diaries he kept while volunteering. These excerpts act as real human examples of the themes he explored in the preceding pages. Also peppered throughout the book are beautiful black and white photographs of the East Hastings landscape.

I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve never had to stare down the prospect of real poverty. When I was younger I was the stereotypical “poor student,” but this was far from being “poor.” It just meant I had to call my parents to borrow a few bucks. I always had a job, a roof over my head, cable TV and internet, food, a car, and a few books to read. Poverty and desperation on this level is something middle-class Canadians like myself just don’t have to think about, even though, as Campbell mentions, Statistics Canada points out that most Canadians are only a few months away from homelessness. The Door is Open is a hard read because it forces you to face this world. The author pulls no punches and maybe, just maybe, he might change a few minds on the homeless.

Canada is in the midst of a federal election and we recently had a provincial election here in PEI. As I finished this book last night, it actually got me thinking (which was likely a goal Bart Campbell had), about the political approaches that are the typical go-to’s in this country. Over the last few years, it’s been all “affordable housing.” Just last week Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised tax credits to developers to build low income housing. If Trudeau came to my door step right now, I would hand him a copy of this book, and ask him how this would help the people Campbell writes about (answer is, it wouldn’t).

The Door is Open was on the longlist for Canada Reads this year; I hadn’t actually heard of the book prior to this. Even though it is almost 15 years old at this point, it is still, quite sadly, very relevant. In a country with an economy worth over $2,000,000,000,000, there is no need for people to have such a meager existence. This is a fantastic book and a must read

Canada Reads 2015 – Picks and Predictions

This is the second time that I’ve read all of the Canada Reads finalists before the show starts, the last being 2011. Even when I haven’t read all the books, I’ll still usually make a pick on who I’d like to see win. In the weeks leading up to the 2015 edition of the program, I re-listened to every year from the beginning for a second time in the last few months to get some insight (and because I just generally enjoy the old broadcasts). The difficulty I’m having this year in picking who I think will win is that I don’t know anything about any of the panelists, in fact I haven’t even heard of any of them…the only thing I knew about them is that Martha Wainwright is Rufus’s little sister.

Before I make my picks and predictions, here are some very brief thoughts on each of the books and their pros and cons that will likely come up during the debates:

When Everything Feels Like the Movies – A very strong book with a strong pedigree even though it’s only a year old: the first Young-Adult novel on the show, the GG winner for Children’s lit and a magnet for controversy. Raziel Reid’s novel is an unflinching look at a fascinating character. The “message” of the book is one that can easily stand up to debate but the somewhat graphic nature of the language and sexuality may be its Achilles heel. I’m hoping the discussion delves deep into the complexities of Jude.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes – An excellent look at the immigrant experience and the contemporary Middle East. Kamal Al-Solaylee’s memoir successfully takes on a lot of topics – being an Arab, being gay in an intolerant society, making Canada your adoptive home, assimilation, and the complexities of immigrant family relationships. The one con in my opinion is that the book would be very interesting to those interested in politics and the Middle East, but this may not appeal to everyone. I’m also wondering about the classic argument that’s sometimes dragged out on the show that this book is “too Toronto.”

Ru – Kim Thuy’s novel was a GG winner for French fiction and shortlisted for the Giller after it was translated. It is the story of a Vietnamese immigrant in Quebec coming to peace with the life she has led and what faces her in the future. This book was told through vignettes that more so resembled prose poems than fiction. While the prose was beautiful, this book is, as I said in my review, an example of form over function. I think that the underdeveloped characters and scattered narrative will make it hard for Ru to make it far in the debates.

And the Birds Rained Down – Jocelyne Saucier’s look at living and dying on your own terms. This was the most “traditional” novel of the three on the list. While the themes were fascinating and some of the characters really interesting, the novel started much stronger than it ended. This was a very heavy book that dealt with huge themes but seemed almost incapable of interjecting some humour in something that really is a clearly humerous – I mean, a bunch of old people are living in the woods running a pot farm!

The Inconvenient Indian – The best known of the five books, and Thomas King being the best known author of the five, is clearly seen by the peanut gallery as the front runner. This was a fascinating book with accessible language and logical arguments. For me, this book really did break barriers, which is the goal of this season. But, the real weakness is that this book is not a narrative like the three novels and memoir, so it will be difficult to compare with the other titles in the same way. Of course, this could also be an advantage because it will force it to stand out.

So here are my thoughts:

Ru and And the Birds Rained Down were my least favorite and I think will be the first two to be voted off.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the dark-horse. This is a powerful book that I could easily see winning or in the final two.

The Inconvenient Indian is the frontrunner for the title. But, as we’ve seen many times in previous editions, the frontrunner rarely wins.

My horse in the race, the book I would like to see win this year is… Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee. This was a fantastic book, takes on many stereotypes and issues, and is very timely considering what is going on in the Middle East today. On a more personal level though, this is a very emotional memoir filled with honesty and vulnerability. With Intolerable, you’ll learn something, you’ll feel something, you’ll laugh and cry, and your perceptions will be influenced.

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

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Winner of the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Shortlisted for the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature
Shortlisted for the 2013 Trillium Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Two weeks ago I thought, great, I have 14 days to read the last Canada Reads title, lots of time to finish before the show. Then my wife came down with influenza, then my son did, then I did. So, with all of these flu related distractions, I finished the last Canada Reads 2015 pick with only a day or so to spare. Anyway…

Thomas King is one of Canada’s most respected writers and one of the top Aboriginal cultural figures in the country. It seems in the last few years he has really been at the top of his craft. His 2012 The Inconvenient Indian, prior to being selected for Canada Reads, won the RBC Taylor Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction prizes in the country, and his 2014 novel The Back of the Turtle won last year’s GG for fiction. Both titles received nearly universal praise. Thomas King has already had quite the literary career before this current run of greatness – he wrote the contemporary classic Green Grass, Running Water, a GG nominee and Canada Reads contestant in 2004; he was chosen to deliver and write the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories; and he’s been shortlisted for numerous awards, was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004, and ran for parliament in Guelph for the NDP in 2008 coming in a solid fourth. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Thomas King is only the fourth author to have multiple books appear on Canada Reads. He is by far the most recognized name on the show this year, and judging from the chatter on Twitter, blogs, and the various polls on the CBC website, I’d say that The Inconvenient Indian is coming into the show as the frontrunner to win.

This is an interesting book and the one I was most looking forward to reading of the five. A lot has been said about it, the reviews have been stellar, the Goodreads average is very high, and the comments about it for Canada Reads have been warm. But, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what kind of book this would be. Prior to starting page one, I assumed this would be a straightforward history of Natives in North America. But, The Inconvenient Indian is best described sociological examination of the Native condition through the lens of history. Basically, King tries to answer the question, “How did we (Natives) get here?” He looks at issues including land claims, poverty, prejudices, and politics with a particular focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.

The breadth of what King tackles is impressive. Armed with detailed research on treaties, legislation, history, and his own intellect, the author lays out the story of a people with a critical eye and unrestrained zeal. The strength of this book is King’s conversational tone. At no point does the reader feel like he’s being lectured to by Professor King, PhD; instead, it feels more like you’re sitting down for lunch at the local diner having a chat about current events. The writing is peppered with the author’s trademark wit, personal digressions, and tongue-in-cheek commentary.

This book obviously fits with this year’s Canada Reads theme. For me, it was something of an education. I follow politics in Canada very closely, but the mind only has a finite amount of attention that can be paid to issues, and some are invariably left out. Some people are rather ignorant of foreign policy, some of military issues, education, etc. For me, Native issues are one of those. It’s not that I don’t view it as an extremely important issue; it’s just not one I’ve followed closely. So this book broke a lot of conceptions and I think would be a good addition to academic and school reading lists.

My one problem is with how this book will compete in Canada Reads. It doesn’t have a narrative or characters in the same way as the other fiction and non-fiction books this year. Plus, this title, while it is technically a history, doesn’t follow a linear form of writing; chapters tend to be divided on thematic lines rather than chronologically. This is the inherent problem with comparing fiction to non-fiction. I doubt the discussion on the show will be limited to thematic topics – what happens when discussion turns to character development, dialogue, etc?

Thomas King is a national treasure. He represents so many different facets of Canadian identity. He is Canadian, he’s Native, he’s an immigrant, and he’s very conscious of all of those things. He has become one of the foremost literary commentators on Native issues in North America and one of Canada’s greatest writers period. The Inconvenient Indian will likely become his signature non-fiction work and I think this timely book will definitely be a strong contender on Canada Reads 2015.

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