Monthly Archives: October, 2010

The Harps of God by Kent Stetson

Winner of the 2001 Governor-General’s Award for Drama

Winner of the 2001 Canadian Author’s Association’s Carol Bolt Award

I bought this book last year when I was working on collecting some of the plays that have won the Governor-General’s Award for Drama; I had no idea what it was about or anything about the author. I wanted to read another play this week and when I was going through my shelves the front cover caught my eye: a group of fisherman standing on an ice shelf. When I read the back of the cover and did some research this play really gained my interest; it is the true story of a group of sealers in 1914 who were stuck for 2 nights out on the open ice during a fierce snow storm. Kent Stetson, to my surprise, is a PEI-born dramatist who for a period of time ran the Charlottetown independent film company Points East Productions and did extensive work for the National Film Board. The Harps of God is, again, to my surprise, a verse drama. The is an incredible piece of dramatic art that really pushes the boundaries and experiments with both dialog and staging.

The play opens with a group of Newfoundland sealers on the ice in a hard blowing storm. We soon learn that the two ships that are in the area both think the other has picked up the men but they cannot confirm with each other as one ship has had its wireless transmitter removed to save money. As the story progresses their situation deteriorates more and more as the members of the crew start dropping like flies. These sealers circumstances force them to face a lot and naturally brings up and explores a variety of themes. Faith is the most important of these in my opinion; this idea of faith takes two different avenues: God and family. During the time on the ice when things seem to be at their worst the men start questioning their faith, the existence of something bigger, and why this could happen. Family is examined earlier in the play when there is some conflict amongst fathers and sons and the family tradition of sealing. The idea of breaking this tradition is seen almost as blasphemous as turning your back on God.

The dialog in this play is authentically Newfie. While it does take a few pages when you sit down to read this to fully assimilate the language, it really does make this piece what it is. It has all of the characteristics that you would expect of the Newfoundland fisherman: the letter H is often missing, the word ye instead of you, and just all around unorganized sentences. In addition to the speech the other element Stetson uses that makes this play unique is the actual staging of it. The set that would be used for this would consist of at least a two level, extremely wide, ice float. There would have to be a lot of work put into the sound department because of the unique wind noises that would be needed and fire would also be needed on the stage as well. Done right, on a large stage for instance, it would very impressive looking but I do not think this play would work well on a small stage community theatre. One of the earliest premiers of this play was actually done outdoors on a beach during a foggy and misty evening.

I have read a fair bit of Canadian drama but I haven’t ever really read a piece that blew me away. This play definitely did. The language and writing was poetic; molding a verse drama is a very big risk in contemporary theatre but the rhythm this creates combined with the dialog creates a play for the ages. The themes are eternal: faith, human survival, capitalism, and class divisions. The staging is experimental and incredibly vivid. I love literature of the north and The Harps of God will without a doubt take its place in that canon. Reading this play was an experience and I hope, at some point, that I will have the pleasure of seeing this produced.


The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown

Winner of the 2010 Trillium Award

Winner of the 2010 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction

Winner of the 2010 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction

Finalist for the 2010 Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction

A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2009

A Coast Best Book – 2009

An eye Weekly Favorite Book – 2009

As a journalist for The Globe and Mail, Ian Brown has built a reputation for bitingly honest and in-depth reporting. The Boy in the Moon is his memoir on raising his disabled son and the circumstances that surround it and come from it. This is not the usual type of book I read but my expectations were very high when I picked up this memoir; it had beaten out Anne Michaels, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood for the 2010 Trillium Prize, no small feat. My expectations were not only met but were greatly exceeded. Brown weaves an incredible roller coaster of a narrative about his son Walker with a great coherency that is so often absent from a memoir.  The Boy in the Moon would rival any thriller or action story as a fierce page-turner.

The central figure in the book, Walker Brown, suffers from Cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, often shortened to CFC; a very rare genetic disorder with roughly around 100 confirmed cases worldwide. CFC affects many aspects of a child’s life: the sufferers have physical deformities, it causes cardiac and intestinal problems, and it also causes developmental delays. One thing that is focused on very heavily in the book is just how little is known about this disorder. You will never find two CFC children who are alike and have the same disabilities. Throughout Brown’s journey we are exposed to the sometimes frightening routine of day-to-day life for a parent of a severely disabled child, how the system tends to shirk their responsibility of helping the families of those children, various support systems around the world, Walker’s eventual move into a group home, the lives of other CFC children around the continent, and the science behind the disorder.

Ian Brown’s prose are truly superior to what I am used to seeing in this type of piece. This book is written with literary yet accessible language. You are immediately absorbed into the joys and nightmares of this family’s experience. Page after page is filled with revelations that someone like myself has never really had to contemplate; whether it is the difficulty in getting a small government grant to purchase necessary medical equipment, the huge struggles to find an adequate group home, or the story behind the legendary L’Arche communities around the globe you feel what I believe the author wants you to feel. In looking through the book for a few passages to make my point I couldn’t narrow it down to one or two; every single paragraph is filled with wisdom that can only be gained through the hardships and joys that the Browns endured.

At first glance different people may make different assumptions about this memoir. In the end I look at this book as two things: first it is a tale of hope, of how this broken child, disabled because of a slight spelling mistake in the massive human genetic code, brought so much happiness to everyone around him; second this is a book about how the Canadian social system can so easily, and frequently does, fail the families of special-needs children. Great literature in my opinion should leave a lasting impression on the reader. There are only a few pieces that have that incredible ability to change the reader, change their outlook or their perspective on certain issues: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro, The Diviners by Margaret Laurence, and Let Us Compare Mythologies by Leonard Cohen were really the only literary works that I could genuinely say had this affect on me; The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown is without a doubt now on this list.

Cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome

Midnight Found You Dancing by John Smith

As PEI’s first Poet Laureate, John Smith, while not a household name, is a relatively well known figure on PEI. A former English professor at UPEI who was held in high regard, Smith has developed a reputation as an animated performer; his skill as a reader has perhaps overshadowed his skill as a poet. When I first moved to PEI to attend the university I was taking a Modern British Literature class with another Island poet Brent MacLaine who, due to being away at a conference, brought in Mr. Smith to fill in. I was floored by his passion and presence as he belted out the classic verse of Yeats and Hardy. It was not until a year later in 2002 when he was appointed Poet Laureate of the province that I found out he himself was a poet. Since then I have hunted down a few of his volumes with this being the first I have read.

Midnight Found You Dancing is John Smith’s fourth collection of poetry. It is a very short volume, only 44 pages of poetry, and the majority of those poems are sonnets, none passing the 20 line mark. Published in 1986, I found the style in this collection to be a throwback to the classic poets of the 50s and 60s (Layton and Purdy for example). The language is very high and formal and the subject matter is very abstract. One of the principal themes that I picked out as a I read through this was the idea of change; many of the poems gave me the impression of standing on a precipice whether it be physical, psychological, societal, or cultural. The poems seem to typically look towards the past, but to answer the question of how it will affect the future.

I have to be honest, the structure of the poems in book got in the way of the enjoyment of them for me. The poems can best be described as short but wide; as stated before, the poems are never over 20 lines but each line is almost to the end of the page. I found this caused the poems to be somewhat dense and made it difficult to pick out key points while casually reading it. Early in his education, John Smith studied math and physics; many of the metaphors in this volume are scientific and again, that can get in the way of the readers absorption of these pieces. All-in-all this is a decent collection. Midnight Found You Dancing is incredibly hard to find; I chanced upon it at a local used book store but browsing online used book sites I only found three copies, two in Canada and one in France. From the research I have done this is not one of his most well know collections and as I read more of his books I am sure my enjoyment and understanding of John Smith will be elevated to the levels of other Island poets.

Hunting Tigers Under Glass by Mordecai Richler

Winner of the 1968 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction

In 2004 Mordecai Richler was ranked as number 98 on the list of the 100 Greatest Canadians. While his fiction, in my opinion at least, is among the best produced in our nation’s literature, it his essays and non-fiction pieces that have established Richler as an icon not only in Canadian culture, but in the Canadian public. His best known piece of non-fiction was his 1992 historical book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country; with this book, written at a time of great national disunity, was hailed as a heroic piece of writing almost unanimously by English Canada but denounced as subversive and racist by the Francophone community. Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports, Richler’s first book of non-fiction, contains pieces he had written for magazines and newspapers from approximately 1960 to 1968, the year of publication of this volume. These essays run the gamut from Canada’s centennial celebrations, Canadian culture, sports, literary matters, and, most passionately, about the Jewish “problem” of his generation.

Typically when I read an older book I do not review it or evaluate it in a historical sense, unless of course the book calls for it (Hard Times by Dickens for instance), but for a collection of essays I am going to need to put my typical methods aside. Because this collection is over 40 years old, there are a few of the essays that really have no relevance to me or my interests because of my age, most notably the sports essays. The pieces that were of real interest to me were the ones on the state of Canadian culture in the 60s. Right now Canadian literature, art, film, TV, and music are either going through, or have already gone through, a great proliferation both domestically and internationally.  I found Richler’s comments about the cultural vacuum that existed during his time very intriguing; he equated Expo ’67, Canada’s centennial celebration, to the possible seed of national patriotism needed for a cultural renaissance. On a somewhat related topic, in one essay the author discusses the state of film and the occupation of writing for the screen. Having written dozens of screenplays and receiving an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of his signature novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler has some very interesting insights into the business that still ring true today; one passage really struck me as it is something that is basically still being said:

In recent years, it is fair to say that films have become less juvenile, more intelligent. An increasing number of good satisfying films have come from Europe. There have been two or three that are arguably great. But, by and large, I am convinced that the new films are not nearly so good as they are cracked up to be, their seriousness is often spurious and half-educated, and they they are being critically oversold. A major trouble is we are so grateful for even a modicum of originality on the screen, we are so flattered to be addressed directly, we seldom realize that the so-called film is, for the most part, shamelessly derivative, taking up a position abandoned by novelists years ago. (“Writing for the Movies” p. 105)

The underlying theme or topic in all of the essays, and fundamentally in all of Mordecai Richler’s work, is trying to answer the “Jewish question” of his generation. The final essay in the book is called “This Year in Jerusalem”, which eventually was revisited and worked into a full length book in 1994; in this piece Richler takes his first trip to the homeland to explore the state of Judaism. I was surprised that the author’s tone was somewhat hostile towards the new nation of Israel and many of it’s inhabitants, this was the exact opposite of what I expected. Richler was appalled by the developing class distinctions between the European Jew and the North American Jew and how the residents who hailed from the new world were essentially second class citizens. Another thing I found very interesting about this essay was Richler’s seeming concern for the Arab inhabitants of this new nation. He continually asks residents what he thinks of this issue; he closes the essay with perhaps the most common thought amongst the Israelis:

“But Surely,” [Richler] said, “if the Jews are entitled to come ‘home’ after two thousand years then the son of an Arab refugee is a Palestinian too?”

“All right. Conditions in their camps are deplorable. However, the conditions I lived under in Dachau were worse.” (“This Year in Jerusalem” p. 176)

Hunting Tigers Under Glass is definitely worth reading for its historical significance and insight. But, that being said, this book is almost impossible to find. Published in 1968, this book  has been out of print since 1972. On, a used book site that you can find anything on, there are only 39 copies available in Canada. I ordered my copy, printed in 1971, from a bookseller in Ontario. I hope that an academic press like UofT Press, Penguin, or Oxford University Press eventually resurrects this book as it is an important piece in the career of an important writer and a milestone in our literary evolution.

Burning House by Richard Lemm

Richard Lemm is one of PEI’s best known poets and English professors. Burning House is his fifth volume of poetry and first release since his 2007 short story collection Shape of Things to Come, winner of the 2008 PEI Book Award for Fiction. PEI has a rich literary tradition; starting with the world-famous author of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and being kick started in the mid 20th century by Milton Acorn, and in the last 15 – 20 years we have seen an explosion of incredible writers (mostly poets) like John Smith, Hugh MacDonald, Brent MacLaine, Deidre Kessler, and of course, Richard Lemm. Lemm’s poetry has always been punctuated by a subtle narrative and strong colloquial voice. Burning House is a return to what this author does best: reflects, comments, and eulogizes on either past memories or the changing world.

This collection contains four sequences: “Heroes”, “Patriots”, “What I Wanted to Be”, and “Berlin Follies”. The first part looks at the people in life that as children you look up to as heroes set in the late 50s when the author was still a young boy. This is my favorite sequence. All of the poems have a strong yet calm narrative quality to them and the very serious themes of the poems are examined through the very believable innocence of childhood. Both “Patriots” and “Berlin Follies” fall a little flat for me although they are both still very well written. The second part of the collection are Dr. Lemm’s personal musings on the current global conflicts and their parallels to the Vietnam era when he was a young man. I think part of the reason this section didn’t connect with me was simply my lack of personal involvement with Afghanistan or Iraq and the fact that I am far too young to have any connection with Vietnam. “Berlin Follies” was, as I stated previously, well written but it didn’t seem to have a solid focus like the other three sequences did; it seemed to be more so the leftover musings stuck at the end of the book. The third section, “What I Wanted to Be” was very good; it provided a good antithesis to the the opening group of poems. Where “Heroes” looks back at those external characters “What I Wanted to Be” contains those inward looking reflections on the dreams of youth and the turning points in a young man’s life.

There are a number of poems in the collection that I can see being anthologized in the future as they are some of Richard Lemm’s best work; the ones that jump out at me immediately are “In the Fifties”, “Peril”, “Heroes: The Drill”, “I’ll Be Gone”, “What I Wanted to Be”, “Pilgrimage”, and “Alamo”. I had the pleasure of taking a class from Dr. Lemm about 7 years ago at the University of Prince Edward Island and I was amazed at his ability to take a complex idea, metaphor, or image and break it down into it’s most simplistic form so that even the most non-literary types would understand. This is the same thing he does in his poetry; because of his casual use of everyman idiom it is easy to not notice how well crafted his poems are. Using this type of language is in fact a testament to Lemm’s crafting ability; every word, line, and stanza are very deliberate. You are not lost in overwritten language searching for a meaning or point to the poem. His poetry is simplistic but yet is of very high literary quality. Burning House is a fine addition to the PEI and wider Canadian literary scene and would be a great addition to anyone’s poetry library.

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

Winner of the 2009 Giller Prize

Winner of the 2010 Dartmouth Book Award

Winner of the 2010 Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Choice Award

Winner of the 2010 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

Finalist for the 2010 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2009

Linden MacIntyre: one of Canada’s most respected journalists. Winner of nine Gemini awards for his broadcast journalism work. He has made quite the journey from his small town roots in Capre Breton; starting out as a reporter for The Chronicle Herald in Halifax and now acting as a co-host on CBC’s The Fifth Estate Mr. MacIntyre is definitely no stranger to the Canadian public. When the 2009 Giller Prize short-list, and later the winner, was announced I was very skeptical. I had this thought in my head wondering if this book was chosen because of his stature in the Canadian media or because of the subject matter. Eventually I picked up the book and read the inside flap for a bit of an idea on the book; I was starting to come around to the possibility of this being a good book. I picked up the paperback the day it was released (I didn’t like the size of the hardcover so I waited for the paperback). I will admit when I am wrong. Five pages into this book and I was hooked. The Bishop’s Man and Linden MacIntyre are, without a doubt, going to join the likes of Alistair MacLeod, Hugh MacLennan, Sheldon Currie, and D.R. MacDonald as the great Cape Breton storytellers.

The Bishop’s Man focuses on Father Duncan MacAskill; a priest often referred to by his brethren as The Exorcist or The Purificator because of his role in “dealing with” wayward priests to avoid scandal, all at the bishop’s request. In Fr. Duncan, MacIntyre has created the perfect Canadian anti-hero. Set in the mid-90s, the story takes place around the time of the eruption of abuse scandals in Newfoundland and New England; MacAskill travels around Atlantic Canada to confront the wayward priests and their victims with the ultimate goal of relocating the offenders to basically bury and cover-up potential scandal. When one of the more serious offenders decides to leave the priesthood and marry the bishop decides to appoint Fr. Duncan to a small parish in Creignish, NS to basically shield, or hide, him from the potential trouble that is sure to arise in the near future. The central character represents the human weakness that rests in everyone including those whom we believe should be without those weaknesses. Here we have a man who is partly responsible for essentially covering up the errant acts of his fellow priests all in the name of a higher power while still dealing with the pressures that face all priests. Through his steadily increasing drinking problem, his natural human desires, and his constant uncertainty about his place we see just another ordinary man.

This novel takes on a lot of themes. I remember seeing an interview with Linden MacIntyre (which is embedded below) where he says that The Bishop’s Man is ultimately a story about the corruption of power. I would go a step further and say the central them of this story is the perversion of power. The bishop represents this perversion. I truly believe that the bishop is not trying to cover up these occurrences for his own sake or for his own protection; I think these cover ups were put into action because the bishop really felt that these accusations will deeply damage the church and people’s faith in it. Calling on Fr. Duncan to stash these priests away was not an act of malice, but an act of desperation. Something else that really strikes me about Bishop Alex is the way he refuses to use the word “victim” and how upset he gets when Fr. Duncan uses that word when talking about the abused altar boys. Again, I really do think that the bishop really believes that all of these accusations are simply misunderstandings. The fact that Fr. Duncan cannot reconcile what the bishop sees as the truth and what he knows is the truth is the main contributor to his downward spiral.

On a more topical level this novel is about faith. What it takes to be a faithful person, what being faithful really means, and how questioning that faith is in the end an important part of being that faithful person. This surfaces in the story through many of the characters. I never believed any of the characters questioned the existence of God, but I do think that many, if not most, of the characters question their faith in the church, including Fr. Duncan.

The Bishop’s Man is a marvel of a book. I really do feel privileged to have had the pleasure of reading it. I look forward to reading his other two books and I have a good feeling that Linden MacIntyre will not only be known beyond his years as a great journalist but also as a great literary figure. I think his decades of experience as a reporter has conditioned him to be a great storyteller. One thing that especially impressed me about this book was that I believed it really was a priest speaking to me when I read the narration. Being a bad Catholic myself I have spoken to a number of priests; they tend to be very reflective, jumping from one point to the next with no real linear coherency to whatever they are talking about, MacIntyre nails this. I believe that 100 years from now, when university students are studying 21st century Canadian literature, this will be one of the first books that are studied. I also have no doubt that in the very near future when students/scholars are looking at the Catholic church abuse scandals, this will be a book they definitely pick up. Without a doubt one of the best books of the decade.

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