Ru by Kim Thúy

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Translated by Sheila Fischman

Winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction

Shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2015

I’ve been moving through the Canada Reads 2015 novels at a good pace. I’ve gotten through three and have over two weeks to get through the final two, so I should have more than enough time to be ready for the show. After finishing Intolerable, I decided to tackle Ru next as it seemed like the logical next book to read. The author, Kim Thuy, is a Vietnamese –Canadian who lives in Quebec. I recognized this title from the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist and the 2010 GGs, but I wasn’t overly familiar with the content of the novel. This is the story of Vietnamese woman who was a young girl during the Vietnam War, subsequently lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually grew up in Quebec. The main character, An Tinh Nguyen, is mother to a child with autism and eventually works for several years in Vietnam as an adult. Ru, for me, fell somewhat flat. This book is an example of form over function.

The inherent issues that surround a translation aside (even though this is done by the master of Canadian translation, Sheila Fischman), the structure and form of this book make connecting with Nguyen in any meaningful way very difficult (for example, I had to flip through the book to even remember the name of the protagonist). Ru is told through a series of vignettes. They range from a half-page to 2 pages, with the majority being about a full page. So, at 141 pages, there are a lot of vignettes. Each individual snippet resembles a prose poem more than it does a work of fiction. It is high on metaphor, symbolism, and imagery, but low on forward-moving narration with very little linearity. This is, without a doubt, a post-modern novel; interestingly enough though, the individual vignettes have an air of modernist stream-of-consciousness. While none of these points are inherently negative, for me, Ru just didn’t connect. I had trouble buying-into the narrator, because I was too wrapped up in the poetic nature of the book. I found myself reading this as if it was poetry – focusing on those associational elements you look for in the genre and not keeping those mental notes on the progress of the story.

So, as I’ve explored with the last two books, how does this title hold up when examined through the lens of this year’s theme, “one book to break barriers?” In my reading, not well. This was a beautiful book, but it doesn’t hold up to the critical examination that this theme requires. Ru touches on different threads that could “break barriers” – the immigrant experience, returning to your homeland, raising a disabled child, but none of these threads are pulled to the point of adding anything new to the discussion. On a more positive note, there are interesting scenes and passages of a childhood in the midst of the Vietnam War and spending time in a refugee camp.

Ru was just ok. Not great, not terrible, just ok. It was a very fast read so it’s not a huge time commitment. As I said, the language and the “poetry” of the novel are quite beautiful – it loses points because of difficulties with plot. This may be right up someone else’s alley, just not mine (as evidenced by its list of accolades). Even though I have 2 books left to read, I think it is a safe bet that Ru will not be taking the title.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

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Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Winner of the 2013 Toronto Book Award

Shortlisted for the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

I don’t read a lot of memoirs. It’s not that I have something against the genre, I have at least 10 on my to-read list, I just never seem to pick many up. This year’s Canada Reads included a memoir by journalist and professor Kamal Al-Solaylee – Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes. This books charts his development as a gay man in the Middle-East and his eventual relocation to his adopted home of Toronto. This short memoir is so much more than an individual man’s coming-out narrative. Intolerable is a thought-provoking blend of personal memoir, family dynamics, history, economics, and political science. Ultimately, this is the story of Kamal Al-Solaylee, but the sentiments he espouses are no doubt almost universal amongst the millions of immigrants in Canada.

What I loved about this memoir was the holistic approach Solaylee took. There are three broad topics that he tackles: his own development and coming out as a gay man, his relationship with his family, and the increasing religiosity and intolerance in the Middle East. Each of these three threads is tied into the others and seamlessly flows into every chapter.

This book really grabbed me. The author’s background as a journalist really shows in his easy to read and highly informative prose. With the perspective of a Yemini who lived in Cairo and Beirut over the course of several decades that is now solidly Canadian, the author gives a stellar account of the rise of religious intolerance in the Arab world and succinctly gets down to the root causes as he experienced them. It would be surprising for a lot of readers to realize that this state of affairs in this part of the world is a relatively new thing. Solaylee discusses how when he was a kid his sisters would go bikini shopping for their summer vacation while now they must wear a niqab and be accompanied by a man. He gets into the root economic causes that spurned this social change and even throws out some ideas about what the cures may be – including some thoughts on the Arab Spring.

Ultimately though, this is a story of family. Solaylee has a relationship with his family that is complicated beyond what any native born Canadian could really comprehend. The youngest of over 10 kids, and the son of an illiterate lower class mother and former business tycoon father, Solaylee could tell from an early age he was different from his siblings – and this feeling only got stronger as time went on. As more and more distance was between him and them, and the situation in the Middle East deteriorated, things became even more complicated. And as his cosmopolitanism grew, his unhappiness with their situation increased.

So looking through the lens of this year’s Canada Reads theme, “One Book to Break Barriers,” this book shatters a lot of them. Solaylee’s memoir explores homosexuality in the Third World, the nature of Islamic intolerance in the Arab world, post-colonialism and its lingering effects, multiculturalism and its downfalls, and the immigrant experience. This eye opening memoir is informative, but not dry. It takes points-of-view on issues but doesn’t sound preachy. And, near the end of the book, it is a deeply moving love-letter to Toronto.

Intolerable is one of the best memoirs I have ever experienced. The problem I sometimes run into with this type of writing is that it is so self-centered and devoid of context that as you read you continually ask “why should I care.” Kamal Al-Solaylee is now, without any disrespect intended, a relatively average urban Canadian. He was a journalist for numerous publications after paying his dues and working his way up, and he is now a journalism professor. But, the story of how he got there is fascinating, because it is not simply his story, it is the story of him, a family, and very volatile region. I still have 3 Canada Reads picks to read, but I’m thinking this book may be hard to top.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid

when everything feels like the movies

Winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature – Text

Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Time for my first thoughts on the Canada Reads 2015 picks – When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid. This book already has quite the history considering it was published just a year ago. There’s a huge, gigantic really, market of adult readers who are immersed in the world of young-adult fiction, many almost obsessively so. I am not one of those. Frankly, unless a book warrants special attention for whatever reason, I feel no compulsion to read “kids” books; that is simply my own bias. Prior to being the first young-adult novel chosen for Canada Reads, the first time author won the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature (Text) and subsequently caused a huge stir (for some reason the Children’s Lit text award seems to be a magnet for controversy, I can think of at least 3 others off the top of my head). The hoopla surrounding this particular book is the graphic nature of the main character Jude’s sexuality, the explicit language, and the violence. The faux-outrage by the literary busybodies culminated in a petition to revoke the award. I feel the need to pontificate on this prior to getting into my review. While the title of the GG category is “Children’s Literature (Text)”, the criteria are as broad as any of the other categories. Essentially, to qualify for this award, the book needs to be written for someone under the age of 18 and can be any genre – pre-school books, poetry, graphic novels, and young-adult novels aimed at teens. Yes, this book is graphic and at times shocking, but the subject matter is important, relevant and perfectly appropriate for readers in junior high and above. Thankfully, the GG jury and Canada Council dismissed this petition for what it was – pure nonsense. This is an attempt at censorship which is a fundamental affront to Canadian values that are best espoused in our culture and literature. As with any book that one may find offensive, the choice exists to simply not read it.

So now to the book. Reid has certainly weaved an interesting tale in When Everything Feels Like the Movies. This is the story of Jude, a junior high aged boy who is flamboyantly gay and very comfortable with his sexuality even though very few of his peers are. He is unapologetic for who he is. He comes from a messy family situation – a stripper mom, an abusive stand-in step-father, and an absent father whom he rarely sees. His best friend Angela is a proud self-proclaimed “slut” and Jude’s only real friend. His only other source of comfort is his little brother Keef, for whom Jude plays the role of surrogate parent. The whole motif that sets up this novel is the fantasy world in which Jude has built up; he sees himself as the star in a movie and his world is an elaborate Hollywood wonderland where drug overdoses and cat-fights are seen as part of the lifestyle.

This novel was inspired by a true story; a few years ago in the US, a 15-year-old boy asked another boy at school if he would be his valentine and was subsequently shot and killed for this show of affection. Reid has said that this was the spark for this story, but I feel this book is worth reading for reasons beyond the shocking act of violence that concludes it or the story of a gay teen finding his way in a hostile environment. In my reading, When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the story of how a child’s world collapses when there is absolutely zero support system. A useless mother, an abusive step-father figure, a biological father who is essentially non-existent, and, importantly, a seeming lack of support for gay youth in the community are all catalysts for Jude’s behavior – associating with people of less than stellar repute, drug abuse, poor academic performance, hyper-sexuality, and admiration of general vice. How does Jude cope? He builds this fantasy Hollywood world into which he can escape. It didn’t matter if he was gay, straight, a Martian, whatever – Jude did not have a chance from the moment he was conceived. This is the strength of the book and what I hope the Canada Reads panelists focus on. There is also an interesting thematic thread on the nature of victimization and what exactly constitutes the victim in a bullying situation, but in the interest of brevity, I will omit this and hope the panelists pick it up.

This book has some serious weaknesses though that knocked a few stars off. There was some of the awkward dialogue that is common in first novels, the plot dragged at points, the fantasy-world motif was sometimes beaten a little too hard, and, most bothersome, the characters often seemed older than they were at points creating inconsistencies in how you perceive them. Angela is very promiscuous and it is insinuated that she has had multiple abortions, every kid seems to be sleeping with every other kid, they skip school regularly, and they drink like fishes and take drugs like candy. These are junior high kids. My own experience in the education field with this age group make me wonder if Reid perhaps didn’t push the envelope a little bit for shock value – literary license perhaps. Or the author, who is about a decade younger than me, went to school with some of the most hardcore junior high kids in the history of rebellious teens.

I did enjoy this book. It does fit the theme of this year’s Canada Reads competition and there are lots of points, both pro and con, to discuss. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts of the show this year, I really hope the conversation looks deeper than the superficial. Raziel Reid is a talented young writer who has generated controversy but also raked in accolades, the mark of an important writer. I’m hoping he is not simply a flash in the pan and continues to develop as a noteworthy author.

Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

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After reading a couple non-Canadian titles, I’ve been getting geared up to roll through the choices for Canada Reads 2015 so I can pick a horse. Before that though, I wanted to knock off another title in the Extraordinary Canadians series. Canada Reads is a celebration of Canadian writing and the particularities that make it unique; in that vein, I decided to read Margaret MacMillan’s entry in the series, Stephen Leacock. Why is Leacock worthy of being named an extraordinary Canadian? Simple, he was one of the most important writers in Canadian cultural history and is one of the fathers of the CanLit movement. Additionally, he is the father of Canadian humour (Haliburton being the grandfather) and his sketches paved the way for comic and satirical writers like Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Stuart MacLean, Terry Fallis, and the list goes on. Without Leacock, 20th century Canadian literature would look a lot different.

In terms of the book, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Leacock and know of his importance to our literature, but I really knew very little of the man himself. Margaret MacMillan, the acclaimed Canadian historian/academic and author of the well-known volume Paris 1919. Stephen Leacock is a mix of the standard and the interpretive forms of biography. In the first few chapters, MacMillan lays out the overarching legacy of Leacock, an overview of his life and career, and of course his writing. The subsequent chapters follows a more chronological telling of his life with enough detail that you can really sense what made Leacock tick. And finally, a short chapter at the end details the legacy of the great humourist.

The strength of this biography is the way MacMillan weaves in quotes from Leacock’s writing and her unflinching honesty about much of his writing and his personality in general. Leacock has legendary books – Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches, Arcadian Adventures, My Remarkable Uncle – but he also wrote a lot of rather dull pieces and much of his humour, especially his later works, haven’t aged well, if they were ever funny to begin with. But, the great works produced an international celebrity on the lines of Stephen King today. The author also does a great job tracking his rise as a public intellectual, his mediocre career as an academic, and his rather unremarkable personal life.

The central thesis of this biography is this – Leacock was arrogant, he was greedy, and he carried many of the sexist and racist views of his time. Ultimately though, who cares? He was a paradigm changing writer who is an essential cornerstone of CanLit who’s still widely in print today.

Margaret MacMillan’s short book gets to the major points quickly, is highly readable, and really explores his writing in an accessible and non academic-ese language. Like Maurice Richard, the book also does a great job or outlining why Leacock is, in fact, an extraordinary Canadian. This is the second book in the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series that I have read, and so far I’m very pleased. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t read a huge multi-volume biography of most of the subjects in the series, including Leacock. But, because of this series and MacMillan’s pared-down book, I now know the essential story of an important Canadian.

North End Love Songs by Katherena Vermette

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Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry

Katherena Vermette pulled off an impressive accomplishment, winning a Governor General’s award with her first book. North End Love Songs is an incredible collection. I’ve been lucky lately; my last few reading picks have been fantastic. Vermette is Métis and this identity permeates every line of her writing. This is autobiographical poetry of the highest degree, but it takes on a variety of topics. The author blends humour, sadness, hope, hopelessness, and coming-of-age using a style that is a throwback to Modernist American poets like ee cummings.

The most moving part of the collection is the author’s recounting of the disappearance of her brother. I enjoyed these poems for several reasons, mainly though because it addresses so many themes. Vermette tackles the personal sadness that comes with a situation like this; the stereotyping that comes with being aboriginal, including from the police – such as assuming since he’s young and Native he must just be on a bender; and on being Native in general – the good, the bad, and, of course, the ugly.

The structure of poetry is magnificent and, as I mentioned before, is a throwback to Modernist poets. There is no punctuation and the author doesn’t stick to any stylistic constant – be it enjambment, stanza structure, etc. This is free verse in its most pure form. Lines contain as few as a single word and individual poems can range from a few lines to extended sequences over 10 pages. This use of free verse and colloquial north end Winnipeg language really takes you inside the poet’s thoughts. One could even argue that Vermette is using a poetic stream-of-consciousness style in her writing. Finally, my last thought on structure, the poet ties her sequences together with highly intertwined themes, images, and symbolism – be it birds, seasons, holidays, or music.

One more thing I have to throw out there is Vermette’s use of music as metaphor and “image.” I am a huge 80s music fan, specifically, hair metal (Poison, Skid Row, Guns N Roses… I’m actually listening to Great White as I write this). If you are a serious fan of this musical genre, I really think you will get much more out of this book. The sequence “November” is really the thematic climax of the collection, and so much of this section relies on these musical references to help illustrate the speaker’s state-of-mind. The poem “mixed tape” goes as far to use individual songs (I’ve actually created a playlist on Google Play of the songs in this poem if you’d care to listen).

Overall, a great read. This collection is funny in places and gut wrenchingly difficult in places. Vermette pulls no punches and uses her old-school writing style to connect you with the depths of her own soul. Childhood memories, personal pain, music, and North End Winnipeg all shaped this collection of poems in a highly coheasive collection even though the poems are more lyrical than they are narrative. I think that North End Love Songs is a triumphant announcement  proclaiming that Katherena Vermette is an important new voice in Native Canadian literature.

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

The December Man

Winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Award for Drama

The 1989 Montreal Massacre was one of those rare moments of violence on a grand scale rarely seen in Canada. As Canadians, we often assume that mass murders such as this are reserved for our neighbours to the south. Fortunately, they are infrequent in Canada but, for this reason, they often have longer lasting legacies and impacts. The December Man, the 2007 play by Anglo-Quebec playwright Colleen Murphy, uses this tragedy as its backdrop. I really really enjoyed this book; many scenes and conversations really hit me hard. With only three characters, you really get pulled into the family dynamic and feel for the young man, Jean, who is the centre of the story.

This Governor General’s award winner is a short play, only 61 pages, but it is very deliberate in its pacing. What this particular play has become known for in the decade since its premiere is its narrative technique – it is told backwards in time with each scene moving a few months in reverse, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, with scene one taking place in March 1992 and the final scene unfolding in December 1989. It may sound odd if you haven’t experienced a play or novel like this before, but it provides an interesting dynamic with the characters. The play opens with two parents grieving the death of their son while they gas themselves to death in their living room. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reverse time that Colleen Murphy uses is really the only way to tell this story and once you finish it, you realize that linear forward time simply wouldn’t work.

The December Man is ultimately a story about what happens at the periphery of these public tragic events; what goes on beyond and outside the view of TV news cameras. Jean is terribly affected by what he experienced and witnessed at Ecole Polytechnique; in 2015 he would be treated with PTSD, no questions asked, but 1989 was a different time. The driving catalyst of Jean’s breakdown is his mother (remember high school chemistry – a catalyst isn’t the cause of a reaction, merely an accelerant). Kate doesn’t understand what her son is experiencing and simply wants him to move on and get over it. She cares deeply but doesn’t know how to properly deal with what has happened. This is very difficult and painful to read because you can so empathize with Jean. At one point, on the one year anniversary of the massacre, Jean admits to his mother that he hasn’t been going to classes; she replies with “If you’d been really smart you’d have skipped classes this exact day last year and saved us all a lot of trouble.”

This is a hard book to review because of the reverse chronology. I can’t say too much without giving away huge spoilers. Not much happens in terms of plot in this play, but it is a masterful combination of psychological and domestic drama where often times silence or a single word speaks huge volumes. I would love to see it staged. This short book can easily be finished in one sitting, but it will haunt you long afterwards. A must read for a fan of Canadian drama, Quebec literature, or anyone who likes to read sad stories.

Canada Reads 2015 – The Finalists

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My only explanation for the selections for both the longlist and the finalists of Canada Reads 2015 is that the producers read my last blog post on the subject and said, “well…we’ll show him.” I jest, but I was very happy with all of the selections for this year and am pleased there was a return to Canada Reads traditions of the past with a mix of well-known and not-so-well-known titles making the list. Also, I was quite happy that the list contained a number of titles from smaller independent publishing houses. In terms of panelists, judging from their opening remarks during the unveiling on Q, I am hopeful that this season’s discussions will return to same literary focus that was more prevalent during the Bill Richardson years.

When the longlist came out, I hadn’t read any of the choices and hadn’t even heard of many, in fact I had only one of the fifteen titles on my shelf, All My Puny Sorrows, so needless to say a few dollars were dropped shortly after the announcement when I bought the entire longlist. This year’s theme, One Book to Break Barriers, was specific enough to give some kind of point of reference but broad enough to allow lots of interpretation in nominations.

So, we have Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King, Ru by Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman), When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid, and And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier (translated by Rhonda Mullins). One of my first choices and four of my second choices were picked from the finalists. So just for some context, here are some interesting tidbits about Canada Reads 2015

  • This is Thomas King’s second title on the show; he joins Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, and Joseph Boyden as authors who have had more than one title appear.
  • This is the first year that two French-Canadian novels have been featured at the same time and the first year since 2010 to feature any French-Canadian books.
  • Ru is Sheila Fischman’s fourth translation to compete. This title is also only the second Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction to appear.
  • When Everything Feels like the Movies is the first winner of the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature to appear on the show and is the first Children’s/Young-Adult/Juvenile/Whatever-you-want-to-call-it book to compete.
  • All of the titles came out in the last five years.

I have not read any of the titles, so I’m devoting the four-weeks prior to the show to pounding through them. All are relatively short so it should be doable. My big worry about this year was the decision to allow both fiction and narrative non-fiction to be chosen; my concern was the comparability of the titles. But, I must say, these five finalists, on the surface anyway prior to reading, seem quite comparable despite the different genres – history, memoir, juvenile, fiction, etc. You can look at these books through the lens of “the other” – being gay, native, or an immigrant; through different life stages – young versus old; and in many of the titles, what does Canada represent.

I’m expecting a heated, yet elevated and respectful debate and I’m hopeful that Wab Kinew will respect his role as moderator and host and not be as loud and brash as he was as a panelist last year. For the first time in a number of years, I’m very excited for the show – especially since Jian Ghomeshi is gone (I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon…I never ever liked him).

The titles I’m most looking forward to reading are The Inconvenient Indian and When Everything Feels like the Movies. The former because of the near universal praise it has received and its interesting take on Native history; and the latter because it’s a genre and subject that is wholly foreign to me so I’m looking forward to something new. Reviews will be coming starting mid-February and once I’ve finished I will of course pick a horse.

Maurice Richard by Charles Foran

Maurice Richard

I read a lot but I realized recently that my bookshelf is surprisingly deficient in the biography genre. Three months ago, the only biography on my shelf was James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence. Subsequently, I collected a few more, Gray’s biography of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, Charles Foran’s seminal treatment of Mordecai Richler, and King’s bio of Jack McClelland. But then I remembered something I noticed a few years ago. Over the years 2008 to 2011, Penguin Canada published a series of short biographies under the editorship of John Ralston Saul. The Extraordinary Canadians series is a collection of 18 biographies that look at people who helped influence Canada into what it is today. The series includes writers and thinkers, prime ministers and political leaders, musicians and artists, and some that defy labeling – like Norman Bethune. Each of these volumes, written by someone with a particular interest or connection to the subject, is short in relation to the average biography; between 160 to 250 pages each, these books are miniscule compared to some of the behemoth multi-volume bios of important Canadians. A reading goal of mine for 2015 is to read the entire Extraordinary Canadians series, now that I’ve bought the whole collection and smuggled them into the house.

My first choice from this collection is Charles Foran’s Maurice Richard. I have to admit, I am not a hockey fan, nor a sports fan in general outside of golf (go ahead, laugh). It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve watched a hockey game. But, I do find sports history quite interesting. Maurice “Rocket” Richard is nothing short of a sports legend in Canada, and the title legend is barely adequate to describe the myth that surrounds The Rocket .The Richard Riot in March 1955 is also an equally mythical event that is commonly seen as a catalytic event leading to the Quiet Revolution. Foran charts Richard’s humble beginnings, his early hockey career, the 50-in-50 season, his maturation and decline, and his post-hockey life.

This book was a fantastic volume of interpretive biography; the writing was fluid and smooth, it wasn’t heartless and cold like a lot of academic biographies, and Foran didn’t get too deep into the minutiae that are ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Using the important moments in Richard’s life, Foran effectively shows the parallels between his career and the evolution of Quebecois culture. While I was rather ignorant of Richard’s biography, I don’t think there was much new or groundbreaking in this volume, but it was an excellent overview of The Rocket’s career, style, and his personality. He was uncomfortable with the adoration and I would even say somewhat ignorant of the cultural importance with which he represented. My favorite aspect of the book was the general descriptions of hockey in the 40s and 50s. This was a brutal gladiatorial blood sport; injuries that are relatively unheard of in the sport today were fairly regular in this time – shattered femurs or skull fractures for example (remember, no helmets). The event that led to Richard’s suspension and subsequent riot was a vicious on-ice assault that would lead to jail time today. Foran also lends an interesting personal touch; he includes a great postscript in which he talks about his own memories of the Habs and Richard in his own mixed English-French family.

I really enjoyed Maurice Richard. I would not be interested in a large, detailed biography of Maurice Richard, but thanks to this fantastic series from Penguin Canada, I have quite a bit about an important figure in Canadian sports and cultural history. Any culturally aware Canadian is aware that Richard was a transformational figure in Quebec and personified the linguistic/cultural tensions that arose from English-French cleavages in Quebec – and as Foran describes it, The Rocket helped the evolution from French Canadian to Quebecois.  I am looking forward to getting deeper into the Extraordinary Canadians and now especially excited to read Charles Foran’s GG-winning Mordecai: The Life & Times.

419 by Will Ferguson

419

Winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2012

I’ve been aware of Will Ferguson for many years but I’ve never read his work. He’s won several Leacock Medals and authored two well-received humorous novels, HappinessTM and Spanish Fly. But, when his novel 419 was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, I was surprised that he had written a dramatic novel, let alone a thriller. It didn’t seem to fit with what I knew of his style and subjects. Ferguson’s Giller-Prize winning novel tells the story of a daughter, Laura, dealing with the death of her father after he falls for a 419 scam. (A 419 scam is something along the line of one of those classic emails from the Prince of Nigeria saying you won the lottery, etc. Everyone has gotten dozens of these; some lucky souls, like me, get them at work every day). I bought this novel because I collect Giller winners, and I decided to read it because of an interesting extended interview Ferguson did with Shelagh Rogers about 419. The book sounded fascinating and exciting. An inside look at the Nigerian underbelly and those 419ers trying to bilk trusting/greedy Westerners out of their cash. I really wanted to like this book. For the most part though, it was a something of a letdown.

I’d like to start with the positives though, because no book is without some kind of enjoyment. There are two very strong points in this novel: Ferguson’s descriptions of Nigeria and his portrayal of the email exchanges between Laura’s father and the scammer. At his heart, Will Ferguson is a travel writer. These talents really shined when he was describing the countryside of Nigeria and the urban decay of Lagos Island. These chapters hit all five senses and capture both the beauty and danger of this part of the world. The landscape passages were punctuated with examples of how the Nigerian people survive in this environment. To my second point, the actual 419 scam itself was gripping. As you read the emails exchanged between Henry Curtis and Winston, in his many guises, your stomach just cringes. It’s that classic dramatic irony you learn in Intro to Lit…you know something bad is going down but the poor rube in the story has no clue. This was the most enjoyable part of the book for me. Unfortunately, past about page 75 the story has moved on from the actual scam that was the catalyst for the primary plot.

Now for the fairly large problems that cost 419 a couple stars on Goodreads. There are too many unnecessarily detailed plot lines, the vast majority of characters are very one-dimensional and undeveloped, and the dénouement is frustratingly bad. I’m only going to get into the plot line problem; undeveloped characters are a pretty straightforward problem and I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Ferguson has several independent story lines going throughout the novel: Laura’s discovery and investigation of her father’s misfortune, the scammer Winston’s rise in the Nigerian criminal underworld, Amina’s story – a pregnant Muslim woman roaming the Nigerian countryside for some unexplained reason, and Nnamdi’s – a village boy who finds success in the oil patch and then falls unwillingly into the grip of Nigerian organized crime. The four plots eventually come together. Amina’s story comes out of nowhere and is frustratingly slow. Had this storyline came earlier, I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel. Nnamdi’s story is more gripping and he is the most developed character in book. My big problem is that the interaction between Amina, Nnamdi and the central character Laura is, while very important, rather miniscule. I felt like their story could have been told in a 5 page digression rather than taking almost 60% of the book.

This is a relatively heavy book, 400 pages with medium sized print. After finishing it and mentally marinating in it for a few days, I think I have my issue with 419 figured out. Will Ferguson took a great concept for a short story and inflated it into a novel. The title, the description on the back, and all the promo around the time the book was released and at the Giller ceremony led me to believe this was a story about a man being duped by financial predators. 419ing only took up maybe a third of the book. This is part story of an internet scam, part story of life in Nigeria. I can understand Ferguson’s motivation in telling the story this way; I could see his desire to give an accurate description of life in Nigeria beyond the 419ers and how a life of crime seems somewhat inevitable for the country’s down trodden. But instead we got a bit of a mish mash and a frustrated reader saying “get on with it.” I’ve read a few other titles from the Giller shortlist that 419 beat and I’m surprised this took the title. 419 by Will Ferguson was one of the few novels I’ve read in the last year or two that has been a disappointment.

The Perfect Order of Things by David Gilmour

Perfect order of things

Shortlisted for the 2012 Trillium Book Award

A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2011

National Post Best Book ~ 2011

Toronto Star Favorite Book ~ 2011

David Gilmour has to be one of the most underrated novelists in contemporary Canadian literature. Other than his 2005 Governor General’s Award win for The Perfect Night to go to China, he generally doesn’t receive a lot of attention from award juries or even the general reading public. People who follow CanLit closely would be familiar with him and his frequent contributions to The Globe and Mail and his interviews on CBC’s The Next Chapter. His books tend to be short, punchy, direct, and, frankly, they’re usually quite depressing. His 2011 novel The Perfect Order of Things was his first work of fiction since his GG win and his first book since his well received 2007 memoir The Film Club. This was an interesting little book and an enjoyable choice for my last novel of 2014.

This short novel is an exposition on two general themes: living life through the arts – the unnamed narrator reflects on Tolstoy, film, The Beatles and their collective effect on his character; and coping with the end of romantic relationships. The second theme, in my reading, is by far the most prevalent in the book. The narrator is a really unlikeable guy; he’s arrogant – borderline narcissistic, he has a taste for prescription pills, and he collects ex-lovers like young boys collect comic books. In the end though, you find yourself hoping for him to pull through, and I can’t put my finger on why (thanks English degree). My one theory in reflection is the connection you build with Gilmour’s conversational first-person storytelling. The narrator, in the immediate current time of narration, is in his sixties and has had time to marinate in the sometimes baffling decisions he has made over the decades, but because of that, he approaches his sordid life with a wisdom that would be absent had the narration been in the present tense rather than in its reflective form. Looking back, he knows he’s a different person now than he was. That being said though, a lot of the chapters in this book are really goddamn depressing.

The big question that seems to surround this book in amateur reviews is the idea of form, i.e. novel versus memoir. I don’t doubt that, for the most part, this is a work of fiction; David Gilmour is after all know in general as an autobiographical writer. But, there are numerous plot points that are inarguably taken directly from David Gilmour’s life: he worked at the CBC, he was involved with the Toronto Film Festival (although his wife took this role in the novel), he is an extreme admirer of Tolstoy, he’s now an academic, he’s had three wives and has two kids (a boy and a girl), and wrote a book called The Film Club about exactly what was described in this novel. The Perfect Order of Things is a textbook example of autobiographical fiction. This is a novel.  Gilmour simply used his life as a template for a fictional story, with some elements being more transparent than others.

This was a very satisfying read. The chapters were very well delineated to the point that many could stand alone. The prose is punchy, efficient, and direct. And Gilmour continues to develop his highly intellectual style of writing; he manages to fuse very sophisticated and polished language with the conversational. The Perfect Order of Things further cements my hope that Gilmour’s writing will grow in popularity and that he will be recognized as one of the best writers of his generation.

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