Monthly Archives: September, 2010

The Gunny Sack by M.G. Vassanji

Winner of the 1990 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region

M.G. Vassanji, like Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Mistry, is one of Canada’s most prolific immigrant writers. Being of Indian descent, born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, educated in the US, and eventually ending up in Canada, Vassanji has a vast array of cultural influences to draw from. Perhaps being best known as either the inaugural Giller winner or the first two-time Giller winner, he has produced success after success after success. Arguably his most well-known books are his Giller winners The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall but Vassanji has continuously received both critical and popular acclaim. His long list of hit titles began in 1989 with his debut novel The Gunny Sack. This novel deals with the same settings and themes as his later works, but in my opinion, with far less finesse.

The nuts and bolts of this story is that the protagonist, Salim Juma, inherits his great aunt’s gunny sack. In the first few pages while looking through the sack he begins to reminisce about growing up in eastern Africa. We are taken through many generations and many historical events in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, most notably the Mau Mau uprising and Idi Amin’s rise to power. On a fundamental level this book is about how your memory can play an important role in your interpretation of history.

If you have ever studied post-Civil War American literature than you should be very familiar with what the naturalist movement was. If not, basically this was a style used by writers like Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, and Edith Wharton where the story was told as if it the characters where part of a scientific experiment. The story is narrated with the utmost detail with no “editorializing.” This novel is narrated in that style; this makes for a very slow and very dull read. The Gunny Sack is at least 100 pages too long. The narration is given with such minute detail that you lose track of the action of the story frequently. 60 pages into the novel I honestly still had no idea what was going on. Perhaps this is because Vassanji is a physicist by trade.

This novel as well has more characters than a soap opera. Each section of the novel centers around one particular person in the Salim Juma’s life. Right off the bat you are inundated with almost a dozen characters in the immediate family. This is very difficult to keep track of. Part of the difficulty of this novel is the excessive use of the Swahili language. This is a technique that is used in his other novels but to nowhere near the extent of this. There is a glossary at the end of the book but this really gets in the way and the enjoyment of reading.

So,as  you can probably guess, I was not a big fan of this book. I was very disappointed as The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is one of my favorite books. This novel reads like an African history text. So in short, read one of Vassanji’s many other great works; if you have a great interest in East African history than The Gunny Sack is for your.


The 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist

The 2010 Scoitabank Giller Prize Longlist

David Bergen – The Matter With Morris

Douglas Coupland – Player One

Michael Helm – Cities of Refuge

Alexander MacLeod – Light Lifting

Avner Mandelman – The Debba

Tom Rachman – The Imperfectionists

Sarah Selecky – This Cake Is For The Party

Johanna Skibsrud – The Sentimentalists

Cordelia Strube – Lemon

Joan Thomas – Curiosity

Jane Urquhart – Sanctuary Line

Dianne Warren – Cool Water

Kathleen Winter – Annabel

The Scotiabank Giller Prize is one of the biggest literary events on the Canadian cultural scene. Much can be said about the Giller prize: it tends to be Toronto-centric, established writers are often long- or short-listed simply because it is “their turn”, the lists are often dominated by authors from the Bertelsmann group of publishers, and, as with almost any award, the best book doesn’t always win. But, perhaps more important than any of these common criticisms, the Giller Prize shines a spotlight on CanLit in the same way the big film festivals shine a spotlight on independent cinema.

In 1994 Jack Rabinovitch established the award as a tribute to his late wife Doris Giller, former literary editor of the powerhouse newspaper The Toronto Star. Almost from the outset The Giller Prize established itself as one of the premier literary awards in the country. Its winners have included icons such as Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, and David Adams Richards but has also rewarded great books by relatively unknown or obscure writers like Bonnie Burnard, Vincent Lam, and, relatively unknown in literary circles, Linden MacIntyre. Through the long-lists, short-lists, and winners, the reading public is exposed to amazing literature that they may otherwise might not see.

Part of what I like about the Scotiabank Giller Prize is the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it. The night of the actual award is something that rivals any other Canadian awards show. Other Canadian literary awards should take note of this. The Governor-General’s Literary Awards, arguably the most historically significant literary award, would benefit greatly from this format. I have always found the awarding of the GGs somewhat anti-climatic. The GGs consist of 14 different awards, 7 in each official language. This could easily translate into a black-tie awards show event. Only time will tell if they take my suggestion.

So, what can be said of this years long-list? I am not surprised by the inclusion of Jane Urquhart’s and David Bergen’s books but am surprised by the exclusion of Yann Martel; this is simply because of what I mentioned earlier with the “their turn” mentality that sometimes comes out when prominent authors release a new title. That being said, a prominent writer on this year’s list, Douglas Coupland, was a shocker to me. While he is a masterful writer, Coupland seems to rarely get any kind of recognition from the major Canadian accolades (this is his second title on a long-list). His novel, Player One, is a novelization of Coupland’s CBC Massey Lecture. Having read a few pages of this book once the list was released I am very confident in saying that this is a serious contender. Other novels that I am not surprised to see on this list include Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, Joan Thomas’ Curiosity, and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. All of these novels have had a lot of positive critical attention and will be strong contenders in the coming months.

Ultimately I am looking forward to collecting these novels and eventually reading them all. There are very few occasions that a Giller nominated book has disappointed; a Giller winner has never failed to be a great book. I foresee this years awards night being as unpredictable as any other. Remember 2008 when everyone was positive that Rawi Hage would be taking home the prize and Joseph Boyden’s name was pulled from the envelope or in 2007 when Elizabeth Hay took down the powerhouses Michael Ondaatje and the first two-time winner M.G. Vassanji? Anything can happen. Of course I have to put in my two-cents on who will be on the short-list. Here are my five picks:

Douglas Coupland – Player One

Avner Mandelman – The Debba

Sarah Selecky – This Cake Is For The Party

Joan Thomas – Curiosity

Kathleen Winter – Annabel

Every year Jack Rabinovitch reminds the crowd that for the price of a good dinner in Toronto you can buy all five books on the short-list. Take his advice. Eat at home on November 9th and buy these five books.

Disagree with my picks? Go to and make yours.

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Co-Winner of the 1976 Books in Canada First Novel Award

Michael Ondaatje is without a doubt one of Canada’s leading writers. He is tied for the record for the most Governor-General Awards with five, two for poetry and three for fiction, a Giller Prize, and countless others. Most notably Ondaatje’s The English Patient was the first Canadian book awarded the Man Booker Prize. This book was later adapted into the Oscar Winning film of the same name. Michael Ondaatje is, in my opinion, the leader of the powerful movement of immigrant Canadian literature. His first book, The Dainty Monsters, was released in 1967; 30 years later other New Canadian voices started to emerge, most notably M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry. Michael Ondaatje led this wave.

For about the first ten years of his career, Michael Ondaatje was known primarily as a poet. He won the 1970 GG for his ground breaking collection The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In 1976 he released his first novel, another ground breaking book, Coming Through Slaughter. This book falls into two general categories: it is both a jazz novel and piece of historiographic metafiction. Coming Through Slaughter is a fictionalized account of the last few years of the legendary jazz musician Buddy Bolden in New Orleans during the years between the turn of the century and shortly before World War II. Bolden was known as one of the best cornet players of his time but there is very little record of his life. Towards the end of his time he went mad, disappeared, and was eventually institutionalized. This narrative pieces together the story through a variety of vignettes from different characters and different times.

You cannot discuss this novel without discussing the style that it is written in. In 1976 post-modernism was in full swing, the bar being set in 1963 with Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, and many of Canada’s leading writers were putting their own stamp on this movement. The narration is done is a sharp and staccato style of prose. With every line you see Ondaatje’s prowess as a poet coming through; every word is deliberately chosen and every sentence is intricately weaved within each paragraph. Now that being said, this book is sometimes difficult to follow. The narrator and point-of-view changes frequently and sometimes does so mid-chapter. You often have to reread a page or paragraph once you realize who the narrator is. Dialog is often incorporated right into paragraphs without any indication that someone is speaking. Occasionally a poem or brief interview or song is thrown in to add to the story. Ultimately the style is very beautiful; you just need to be patient and read slowly.

The writer’s skill as a poet again is evident when you are looking at the character development and physical settings. You get a sense that you are right in downtown New Orleans, in the brothels, in the gambling houses, in a night club listening to this new sensation they call jazz. The web of characters that is weaved is as diverse as it is entertaining. For the bulk of the story, the central character is a police officer named Webb who is on the hunt for the missing Bolden. Through the natural course of the narration we meet Bolden’s wife, lover, children, a photographer who took a picture of him, and various prostitutes, gamblers, and musicians. The snippets of Buddy Bolden are just a preview of the true character that is revealed once Webb finally finds his man.

Michael Ondaatje has done a masterful job on his apprentice novel. He has blended fact and fiction using a style that is completely his own. Every one of his novels has won at least one major Canadian literary award; Coming Through Slaughter won the inaugural Books in Canada First Novel Award. Ondaatje has never released another novel written in this same style. I would group this with books of his like Running in the Family and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid instead of his better known novels like The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost, or In the Skin of a Lion. This novel breaks down the walls between the real and the story; this novel breaks down genres. This is a short novel well worth reading.

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Winner of the 1998 Giller Prize

Winner of the 1998 National Book Critics’ Circle Top Fiction Award

Winner of the 1998 Trillium Award

Winner of the 1999 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

New York Times Book Review Best Book – 1998

Shortlisted for the 1998 Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2004

Alice Munro is almost universally known as one of, if not the single, greatest living writer(s) in English and a true master of the short story. She has won countless awards, 3 Governor-Generals, 2 Gillers, numerous O. Henry awards, Commonwealth prizes, Trillium prizes, and the Man Booker International Prize. The only prize missing from her resume is the Nobel Prize which will hopefully one day be bestowed upon Ms. Munro if the Nobel committee ever gets past its Eurocentric mindset. I have read several Munro books and I can say without any hesitation that The Love of a Good Woman is the best of what I have seen. Like many of Munro’s later works, this book’s stories has a wide  array of characters ranging in age from young adolescence to old age. We are taken deep into Munro county (also known as Huron County) in her typical and magical Southern Ontario Gothic style. This collection, perhaps more than any of her others, showcases Alice Munro’s ability to write so subtly that without even realizing, you as a reader are drawn into the lives of these seemingly ordinary people experiencing extraordinary circumstances.

The Love of a Good Woman is a very fitting title for this collection. While it is the first story, or arguably, novella,  in the book, the title describes the overall themes of almost all of the stories. Whether it is a widow loving memories of her dead husband, a daughter loving her parents, a nurse caring for her patient, or a caretaker loving someone else’s child, the idea of a woman’s love permeates this collection down to its epicenter.

The stories themselves are filled with Munro’s classic reserved style. She never gives you all the details; like many great classic story tellers Munro does not lay all of her cards out on the table at once. Little pieces are given and all of the details unfold before your eyes in a natural course of events. Often times the narration is not completely linear and the characters lives are revealed in bits and pieces while the story’s endings quietly approach.

My favorite story in the collection is the second-to-last one, “Before the Change.” Like many of Munro’s stories following this collection, this piece looks at what happens when old world values meet new world sensibilities at at time when society is not ready to accept this change. “Before the Change” centres on a young woman who comes home from college and stays with her father. Through a series of letters to her professor boyfriend it is revealed that her doctor father is performing abortions which are illegal at the time this is set. This story best demonstrates my previous point about the subtle narration guiding you. At first we are led to believe that the father has a cold disregard for his daughter but as we learn more and more details and additional graphic details are revealed we see what is really going on; and, like all of the other pieces, when you finish this story you will see why the “love of a good woman” is the underlying theme. Other stories, notably, “Cortes Island”, “Rich as Stink”, “My Mother’s Dream”, and the title story, exemplify Munro’s ability to topically look at relationships but brutally dissect them with the understated tone of a master writer.

This book was an absolute pleasure to read. The amount of critical acclaim this book has received is without a doubt well deserved. The Love of a Good Woman exemplifies what makes Canadian Literature unique in the wider canon of English literature. This book looks at the family, relationships, and of course being the eternal Northrop Frye apologist that I am, this book exposes our insular need to play the victim and survive in the Canadian societal vacuum. I was always amazed at the lack of attention that Hollywood has paid to Alice Munro. This of course changed slightly when Sarah Polley adapted “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the Oscar nominated film Away From Her. From what I have read the story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” is being adapted into a film to be released next year starring Julianne Moore. There are at least 3 stories in this collection that could easily be made into great films. The Love of a Good Woman has earned a place in my Top 10 favorite list; not an easy feat.

On the Job by David Fennario

On the Job is a not one of Canada’s best known plays but it does occasionally creep its way into the odd Canadian Drama class here and there. I found a copy of this at a local used book store and after reading a few random pages I figured it was worth the $2. David Fennario is well known in the theatre community but not as well known in the general literary community. The Anglophone from Montreal’s most prominent moment likely came in 1990 with the production of his infamous The Death of René Lévesque at his home theatre, The Centaur. On the Job was his first play, produced in 1975, starring Hollywood mainstay Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, I, Robot, Dinner for Schmucks), opening to rave reviews and eventually being produced on CBC.

This play moves very fast as a written work; you could likely get through the 110 pages in 2 hours. One thing that I found very strange about the written text was the lack of stage directions. Contemporary playwrights are prone to give very detailed directions to aid in their original vision coming to life. On the Job seems to take more minimalistic approach primarily only using entrances and exits for directions. This requires you, as either a reader or director, to really use your imagination. The dialog is very punchy and has a heavy staccato rhythm. Lines are rarely longer than 10 or so words.

Now for the actual story; the play is set in the shipping room of a dress factory on Christmas Eve in 1970. Thanks to a new manger, the crew is upset because they are not going to have the afternoon off like they have every other year. This eventually escalates into a druken wildcat strike with lots of laughs along the way. On the Job is ultimately a play looking at Canadian class structures of the time. You have the lower level workers, middle management, upper management, and the ownership. Each of these characters are written as their archetypal class representations and done so rather effectively.

One comment I do have is that as a play to be produced for live theatre it has not aged well. If I were a producer I would need to do quite a bit of updating; a young audience member would likely have no idea what Eaton’s is for instance. As a piece of literature capturing the mood at the tail end of the Sixties it is very effective. By turns funny, rhapsodic, sad, and brutally honest; On the Job is definitely worth the read but I would never produce it or see it live.

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