Monthly Archives: November, 2010

Canada’s Essential Reads

Last week CBC released their contenders for the 2011 Canada Reads competition. I am very pleased with 4 of the 5 picks; the only one that is a disappointment is Essex County by Jeff Lemire. I am not going to lie, I have a biased against graphic novels being included in a literary competition. It is not because I think they are not a valid form of artistic expression, it is that I feel they are more representative of the visual arts as opposed to literary arts. Many Canadian readers’ only exposure to CanLit is events like Canada Reads and the Scotiabank Giller Prize; what I wanted to do is give you, my lovely readers, a list of what I think the essential books are that shed light on our culture. I have six lists of five books each: English fiction, short story collections, poetry, drama, non-fiction, and French literature in translation. Obviously this is not inclusive, but if I was stuck on a desert island, and could only bring 30 books along with me, these would be the titles. Feel free to comment and put in your own two cents. These lists are 100% subjective to my own personal tastes:


The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz – Mordecai Richler

The Diviners – Margaret Laurence

Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

Bear – Marian Engel

Last of the Curlews – Fred Bosworth


The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Island – Alistair MacLeod

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures – Vincent Lam

Home Truths – Mavis Gallant

Literary Lapses – Stephen Leacock


Whylah Falls – George Elliott Clarke

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid – Michael Ondaatje

Let Us Compare Mythologies – Leonard Cohen

Nobody owns th earth – bill bissett

The Journals of Susanna Moodie – Margaret Atwood


Blood Relations – Sharon Pollock

The Damnation of Vancouver – Earle Birney

The Rez Sisters – Tomson Highway

The Harps of God – Kent Stetson

Elizabeth Rex – Timothy Findley


Roughing It in the Bush – Susanna Moodie

Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country – Mordecai Richler

Survival – Margaret Atwood

The Bush Garden – Northrop Frye

The Prophet’s Camel Bell – Margaret Laurence


The Cashier – Gabrielle Roy

Next Episode – Hubert Aquin

La Guerre, Yes Sir! – Roch Carrier

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel – Marie-Claire Blais

Thirty Acres – Ringuet


Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray

Winner of the 1982 Governor-General’s Award for Drama

Winner of the 1982 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award

Winner of the 1981 Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award

One of the country’s best known and most produced plays, Billy Bishop Goes to War is something of an aberration in published Canadian drama; it is in fact a musical that is published with lyrics and descriptions of the music. After doing some research I have found that, unlike most musicals, the producers/director of the show are responsible for the music, none is provided when the rights to the play are purchased. With that being said, the lyrics and musical descriptions work very well; they are key plot elements and are often used as turning points in the plot of the play. This book tells the story of legendary Canadian World War I pilot Billy Bishop and his rise to glory from a failing R.M.C. student to the toast of an empire.

Winning a number of awards, most notably the 1983 Governor-General’s Award for Drama, this play rose to prominence because of it’s style and structure, not because of any ground breaking plot or writing. Billy Bishop Goes to War is fundamentally a one-man show with a piano player providing backing vocals. I would think this would be very daunting for an actor, you would basically be responsible for memorizing a 102 page book. The majority of the play is Bishop, or whichever role he assumes, addressing the audience. This is very effective; even while reading the play you get a real sense of intimacy with the characters. When another role is assumed, the actor simply changes his voice or stance somewhat to show that he is taking on another personae. The staging in this production is very creative too; there are no huge elaborate sets or props: there is simply Bishop, a piano, and for the scenes where he is speaking about his time in the air, a model airplane he holds in his hand. In terms of both acting and staging, this play is theatrical minimalism at its best.

A few weeks ago CBC broadcast a new TV production of the play with John Gray and his collaborator Eric Peterson reuniting for the show. Even on the small-screen this was something impressive to watch, simply because of the range that is needed by the lead actor. The music is central to this piece, as I mentioned, it is used to shift the mood and also used as a leitmotif. This play definitely has it’s place in the Canadian dramatic tradition. Billy Bishop Goes to War is among a great renaissance of our national drama that was taking place in the early 80s along with other playwrites like Sharon Pollack, Judith Thompson, and George F. Walker. This book is certainly worth the read.

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Nobody does short stories better than Canadians. When you think of the great CanLit short fiction creators usually a few choice names come to mind: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, but very often Margaret Atwood’s name does not get grouped in this particular list, which, in my humble opinion, is a great omission. Ms. Atwood is definitely a master of the story genre. Her story collections generally fall into two categories: traditional stories, collections such as Dancing Girls or Wilderness Tips, and her flash fiction/prose poetry, such as Good Bones or The Tent. Moral Disorder, Atwood’s 2006 book, is a hybrid between a novel and a short story collection. It is a story sequence in the same Canadian tradition as Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or more recently, Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Each of these stories could easily stand on their own but collected together they weave a beautifully crafted portrait of these rich living characters.

I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan; when I pick up one of her books I do so with very high expectations, and, thus far, have never been disappointed (although I still have trouble wrapping my head around Lady Oracle). Of the eleven stories, nine of them lay out a chronological tale of Nell, and eventually, her partner Tig. The first and last stories are the odd two out that do not follow this chain; although these are both well written they didn’t have the same affect on me as the other nine. What has always impressed me about Margaret Atwood’s short stories is how they are snapshots in the extraordinary lives of seemingly ordinary people. Every story has very intense imagery but one in particular really stuck with me: the title story “Moral Disorder.” Nell and Tig’s beheading of their first hen, the death of the peahen and mental decay of the peacock, the aggressive lamb that was eventually processed into dinner, and the scene where the defective chicks are born and euthanized with a shovel. Vivid writing as only someone of Margaret Atwood’s caliber can pull off.

As I read this book I felt a strong sense of family, more specifically the trials and tribulations that go along with the word “family.” So many everyday yet major occurances are tackled: the birth of a younger sibling, dealing with aging parents that are falling further away as each day goes by, the relationship between adult sisters, dating the divorced man and handling the inherited children, having children of your own, and death. The stories set on the farm examine these themes through heavy, yet accessible, use of metaphors, namely the animals that Nell and Tig are charged with. These animals become characters in their own right in stories like “Moral Disorder” and “White Horse.”

My favorite stories are the ones from when the central character, Nell, is young. “The Art of Cooking and Serving” and “My Last Duchess” are not only the two best stories in the book, but, I believe, two of the best stories Margaret Atwood has published. Moral Disorder slipped under the radar, for me anyway, when it was first released. It didn’t receive the same kind of fanfare here in Charlottetown that both The Door and Year of the Flood received. I hope this was simply an oversight of the local booksellers here and not a nationwide problem. This is the first book of fiction by Ms. Atwood that I have read in about two years (I have read a ton of her poetry and criticism in this time) and this book was a marvelous way to rekindle my love affair with the Queen of CanLit.

The 2010 Canadian Literary Award Wrap-Up

With the holiday season quickly approaching and the award season mostly wrapped up many people turn to winners of these prominent literary awards to make their book selections for loved ones; that being said I wanted to post a list of many of the “big ones”, with a few of my own thoughts on this years crop of winners of course.

2010 could be described, for the most part, as the year of the first time winner or underdog. Most notably in this list is this year’s Giller winner Johanna Skibsrud’s surprise win over fellow finalists. The Sentimentalists, with it’s small initial print run of only 800 copies, quickly became the hardest book in the country to find. Ian Brown, with his great memoir The Boy in the Moon, beat out a pantheon of literary heavyweights including Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Anne Michaels to take this year’s Trillium Prize. Robert Chafe took home the GG for Drama over well known dramatists like Michael Healey and the legendary Judith Thompson. And, possibly most shocking to me, Linda Gaboriau defeated the legendary translators Sheila Fischman, who had two nominations this year, and 2008 winner Lazer Lederhendler. The biggest heartbreaker of the year has to go to Kathleen Winter for her novel Annabel; this novel was up for the trifecta of the Giller, Writers’ Trust, and the GG, but eventually came out empty handed.

I don’t want to over analyze this years winning list too much, instead I think we should take a moment to reflect on the great depth and talent of our homegrown and adopted literary talent, both new and seasoned. I have listed below many of the major awards, both national and international, that consider Canadian works, please note that not all of these winners are from within our borders (i.e. Booker, IMPAC, etc.). Enjoy and happy shopping.


The Winners

Scotiabank Giller Prize – Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists

Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize – Emma Donoghue, Room

Governor-General’s Award for Fiction – Dianne Warren, Cool Water

Governor-General’s Award for Poetry – Richard Greene, Boxing the Compass

Governor-General’s Award for Drama – Robert Chafe, Afterimage

Governor-General’s Award for Non-fiction – Allan Casey, Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada

Governor-General’s Award for French-to-English Translation – Linda Gaboriau, Forests (Wajdi Mouawad, Forêts)

Canada Reads –  Nicolas Dickner, Nikolski (trans. Lazer Lederhendler)

Atlantic Poetry Prize -Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen, Lean-To

Evelyn Richardson Memorial Literary Prize for Non-fiction – John DeMont, Coal Black Heart: The Story of Coal and the Lives it Ruled

Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize – Douglas Arthur Brown, Quintet in Canada First Novel Award – Jessica Grant, Come, Thou Tortoise

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region – Michael Crummey, Galore

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book, Canada and Caribbean Region – Shandi Mitchell, Under This Unbroken Sky

Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada – Karen Solie, Pigeon

International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin

Man Booker Prize – Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question

Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour – Will Ferguson, Beyond Belfast

Trillium Book Award – Ian Brown, The Boy in the Moon

Trillium Book Award for Poetry – Karen Solie, Pigeon

Dartmouth Book Award – Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man

Toronto Book Award – Mark Sinnett, The Carnivore

More to Keep Us Warm by Jacob Scheier

Winner of the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry

More to Keep Us Warm is Jacob Scheier’s first book length publication and for his efforts he was awarded the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry; being awarded this major literary prize for a first book is more common in the poetry category than others, but make no mistake, this is still a rare and impressive feat. Aside from being an impressive collection of poems, which it certainly is, the properties of the physical book itself are impressive. With the current controversy surrounding this year’s winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize I was truly taken aback by how a high quality book can enhance the reading experience; published by ECW, this volume uses a very thick and heavy bond paper with the grain running horizontally to reduce stress on the spine of the book. The writing in this book is breath of fresh air in the Canadian poetry scene. These are poems that blends humour, pain, love, and loss on almost every page.

Right from page 1 the author had me hooked. The major thing that really struck me was how funny many of these poems were, which, unfortunately, is rare in an award winning poetry collection; the humour used is very tongue in cheek and subtle in the context of the individual poem or in the sequence as a whole. Another stylistic tool that is interesting in Scheier’s writing is his use of elements taken from post-modern fiction, such as the self-aware piece of writing or interaction with the reader. Thematically these poems are tied together by an examination of love and loss through the lens of isolation and loneliness. Most of the poems in this volume straddle the fence between lyric and narrative. While many pieces have some kind of “story” to tell, it is often done with lyrical language and style. This is an emerging trend in North American poetry but More to Keep Us Warm is without a doubt the best example of it I have seen so far. And last but definitely not least, the writing is very effective and accessible to anyone who may pick this book up.

This book is 75 pages of pure craftsmanship. Jacob Scheier is one of many new voices on the CanLit poetry scene; along with contemporaries like Stephanie Bolster, George Elliot Clarke, Roo Borson, and Anne Simpson a new chapter is being etched into the CanLit canon. The unfortunate thing for poets, which is really no change from decades past, is that it is almost impossible to survive solely as a creator of poetry unless you live hand-to-mouth on Canada Council grants; most poets moonlight as journalists, professors, editors, publishers, or whatever else pays the bills. Poets write poetry because they love the genre, because they have something to say that can only be expressed in verse, and because it is the most pure form of literature and that, without a doubt, is why Canadian writers produce such fine collections. I look forward to following Mr. Scheier’s long and, what I foresee to be, successful career.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Winner of the 1998 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest

Winner of the 1999 Locus Award for Best First Novel

Shortlisted for the 1998 Philip K. Dick Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2008

Nalo Hopkinson is one of Canada’s most prominent science-fiction writers. She has been shortlisted for and won several prestigious international sci-fi awards. Brown Girl in the Ring is Hopkinson’s first novel, which was released through a contest where the winner received a publication agreement. The story revolves around a Toronto of the not-to-distant future that has been abandoned by government and police and overrun by gangs and drug addicts hooked on a substance called buff. This novel is a cross between a typical sci-fi and fantasy story; there are many scenes that lean heavily on Caribbean religious beliefs and spirits.

The book starts out very fast and is very intriguing. In the opening chapters the way the history of how Toronto fell into utter decay is very well done; it is given through newspaper headlines that another derelict is using for an artistic piece. Unfortunately the book slows to an almost unbearable pace after the opening 30 pages. The ensuing 120 pages or so are very richly described and detailed but the forward momentum of the novel simply grinds to a halt; once you get past this point the novel progresses at a speed which almost overwhelms the reader. The central characters, Ti-Jeanne, Mami, Rudy, Tony, and Mi-Jeanne, all weave a complex family and community steeped in the culture of their Caribbean roots. The pacing aside, Brown Girl in the Ring is an interesting book. It plays around quite a bit stereotypes, i.e. the good-for-nothing-boyfriend that the girl still loves, the wise old grandmother, and the evil crime boss out only for himself; but the characters themselves are not the memorable part of book. For me, what I will remember, is the idea of Toronto collapsed in on itself and the vivid descriptions of the city. Hopkinson uses real street names and places in the book very effectively, including the CN Tower for the final showdown.

All-in-all this was a decent read. I do not read a lot of sci-fi but it is a genre I enjoy. I have always had a lot of admiration for the writers of this type of work; it is one thing to create a story out of nothing that is of this world, but to create this universe without boundaries whether it is told through a scientific or spiritual lens is amazing to me. The imagination this would require is far beyond what I think I could muster for my own writings. One thing that should be mentioned as well in speaking about this book is the power of the CBC Canada Reads competition. Brown Girl in the Ring was a selection for the 2008 show and introduced Hopkinson, who herself was an advocate for Whylah Falls on the 2002 show, to a whole new set of readers, including myself. This being her first novel I am positive that her other works will continue to improve and I look forward to picking up one of her many other pieces.

La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier

Translated by Sheila Fischman

Without even realizing it, every Canadian has had a piece of Roch Carrier’s writing in their hands: an excerpt from his well known conte “The Hockey Sweater” is reprinted on the back of the five dollar bill. The former National Librarian of Canada has built a reputation as one of the great observers of French-English tensions in Quebec. One of Carrier’s early novels, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, released in its original French in 1968 and translated in 1970, looks at these tensions through the lens of a small Quebec village during World War II. Quebec fiction typically has a few common structural points that are worth mentioning for those who are not familiar with les livres Quebecois. These works are often filled to the saturation point with characters. This particular novel is just over 100 pages but there are at least 15 characters that the story is told through. Also, perhaps as a result of the large number of characters or vice versa, Quebec novels are often told through a number of vignettes from the point of view of several different characters. The result is often times a rich mosaic filled with memorable dialog and sharp wit. Carrier, Tremblay, Beauchemin, Godbout, and Aquin all fit this mold. This novel is funny, heartbreaking, violent, shocking, and an all around great read that has aged very well; 42 years after its first publication, this book is still as relevant as the day it was written.

With conscription as the backdrop for the story, La Guerre, Yes Sir! centers on a family who’s son has just been killed in the war; a troupe of English soldiers, or the maudits Anglais as they are referred to, bring the body to the parents’ kitchen for the wake, making this young man the first war casualty of the village to be repatriated. What ensues is a mix of a tears, laughs. fists, tourtiere, and cider. As I mentioned previously, dialog is the driver of this novel, but there is one scene in particular that I believe demonstrates the linguistic and cultural divide better than any other: Arsène, the local gravedigger and butcher is enjoying the wake as much as everyone else but has been making very strong comments against the men in uniform. Bérubé, a soldier who recently returned home with the body of the casualty, takes great issue and brutally assaults Arsène to show him what being a soldier is truly like. The other guests of the Corriveau home make no comment and many barely even take notice, but the Anglais who delivered the casket take great offence with this, decide the party is over, and evict the well-wishers. This is a great insult to the French villagers, and without giving too much detail that will spoil the book, does not go unpunished. The idea that English soldiers dare interfere with the grieving village’s customs is an insult of the highest order. With all of this in mind, it will come as no surprise that the overall tone of the novel is decidedly anti-war. We have characters who are deserters, characters dodging conscription, and characters who will do whatever it takes to be disqualified from conscription; take this example from page 1:

Joseph spread the five fingers of his left hand on the log.


His other fingers, his other hand, seized the axe. It crashed down between the wrist and the hand, which leapt into the snow and was slowly drowned in his blood.

Renowned translator Sheila Fischman did a superb job on this book. Fischman has a keen eye to translate sentences or phrases that could be considered untranslatable. One technique that is used in this novel is leaving some of the French writing as is. One obvious example is the title. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was the original title; it is meant to highlight the linguistic divide, and to change this would be to take away part of the fundamental raison d’etre of the novel. Much of the profanity, and there is a lot of it, is also preserved in the original French. For those who are not familiar with how to swear in French, it is mostly taken from words that are religious in nature, i.e. hostie, tabernacle, or vierge; whereas English profanity is taken from words that were originally sexual in nature. This is very effective because if Fischman were to simply transliterate this it would be senseless. The book reads like it could have been written by an Englishman from Quebec;  the language is rich and the translated  idioms and speech patterns fit the class of character that Carrier is portraying.

This book is a fine read. It is definitely a must for anyone interested in any facet of Quebec culture. This is also a must for anyone who is interested in the effects of World War II on small town Quebec, or really any small town. Or, if you would simply like a funny book, this is pretty good choice.


Changing on the Fly by George Bowering

Shortlisted for the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize

A two-time winner of the Governor-General’s Award, and one of the few people to win in both the fiction and poetry categories, George Bowering was appointed Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate in 2002. One of Western Canada’s most recognized and praised poets since the early 60s, Bowering has produced an impressive library of books in a variety of genres. Changing on the Fly is a 2004 collection of his best lyric poems; there are selections taken from all of his volumes from 1964 to 2001. A selected poems collection is an important piece in the career of a high-profile poet. Often times individual volumes, even the award winning ones, go out of print fairly quickly, usually within five to ten years; selected poem collections, like a musician’s greatest hits album, are often what is looked to as an introduction to a poet’s work and stay in print much longer. This particular book examines one particular important piece of Bowering’s diverse work.

This book, for me anyway, can be divided into two halves: pre-1992 and post-1992. Poems in the “pre” category, especially those from the 60s and 70s were incredible. Lyric poetry is not usually my cup of tea, typically I prefer narrative poems. But Bowering’s early poems had a sharp wit and staccato style. As the book passes into the more the recent poems, they go from being a single page to upwards of 14 pages. I find when this author’s flavour of lyric gets to this length my attention wains and the message gets lost. In the earlier poems Bowering experiments with word usage, punctuation, rhythm, and the actual concrete form of the poem. One of his previous volumes from which a few poems are included is Curious; the selections from this 1973 book are poems addressed to other prominent Canadian poets, including bp Nicol, Daphne Marlatt, and James Reaney. This was one of the most interesting sections of the collection.

This was my first introduction to George Bowering’s writing and it certainly was an interesting one. This volume contains over 100 poems, many of which are very memorable. I’ve stated previously that reviewing a collection of poetry is very difficult; it becomes even more difficult when it is a selected poems book. Poetry, especially lyric poetry, can be difficult for someone who does not regularly read this genre, but I firmly believe that poetry can be just as accessible as any novel. You do not to get wrapped up in the metaphors, symbols, and overall message of a poem. Sometimes simply being swept away by the beautiful language and form is simply enough. Changing on the Fly was a nominee for the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the richest poetry prizes in the world. Below is the jury’s citation of the book and Bowering reading a selection from the book.

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

Winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region

Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2010

A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2008

When the shortlist came out for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize I had only heard of one title, Cockroach by Rawi Hage; I set out to discover a little bit about each of the other shortlisted books and was instantly interested in Marina Endicott’s first novel, Good to a Fault. The accolades continued to pile up including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, a spot on the Globe and Mail Best Book list, and recently a spot on Canada Reads. The story is simple enough: a single, fairly well-off insurance salesperson, runs into a car carrying a homeless family. The mother ends up being diagnosed with lymphoma and lives in the hospital; the father, who is one of the most interesting characters of the book, runs out on the bunch of them; and Clara, the driver at fault, takes in the children and the cantankerous old grandmother, Mrs. Pell, into her large empty home, eventually taking it over. This book certainly met my expectations; I found it read very slow, even for me, a self-admitted slow reader, and was very densely written. This is not a criticism, more so a surprise. This book is not driven by constant action; being a dramatist by trade, Endicott instead drives the novel with a theatrical blend of quiet honesty and subtle human interactions.

One topic that came up in the debate for Canada Reads 2010 was the “Canadian-ness” of the novels; many of the panelists said that they view this book as one of the “least Canadian.” While I was reading it I saw the exact opposite. In the opening few chapters the idea of fault is examined: Clara is an insurance agent, who’s job it is to asses fault. This opening irony is one of the key themes of the books. As the novel progresses you see Clara thrown into motherhood head first; she is in charge of 2 active children and a young baby with Mrs. Pell constantly over her shoulder. This is where the previously mentioned “Canadian-ness” comes into play. What is more Canadian that helping those in need, strangers, with no obligation, simply because you feel it is your job as a fellow human, albeit guilt may have played a significant role in this decision. Without giving too much away of the plot and ending, this theme constantly roars its head at each turn in the novel.

The writing style  is interesting. It is written in the third-person with constantly changing perspectives. This shifting is one of the reasons I found this book a somewhat slow and dense read, but this is also part of the book’s charm. The first few chapters were told almost solely from Clara’s point-of-view; for the first 50 to 75 pages one thought that was persistent in me was that this novel should have been written from a first person perspective. As the narration started switching to more and more characters I came around to Ms. Endicott’s reasoning. The interior monologues and musings make this story what it is. This is ultimately a story about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation with lots of time to contemplate their circumstances. If it wasn’t for the internal dialog this would be a pretty dull story: it would be about 35 pages long and would often talk about people “thinking intently.”

Moral of this review: pick up this book and read it. This novel could be seen, at first glance, as an overly didactic tale written to make you a better person, this could not be farther from the truth. This is the very pragmatic story of two women, 3 kids, and a universe of supporting characters just trying to make it through life one day at a time, just like most people. 2008 was a great year for Canadian novels; had this been released a couple years earlier or later, I really believe it would have cleaned up the major awards. Good to a Fault has the qualities that are typical of a piece that will last way beyond its writer’s time; it is universal; it is not specifically of any particular time, by that I mean there is nothing in here that would seem alien to people 50 years from now; and it has characters that could be anyone of us. Great novel; I am looking forward to reading Marina Endicott’s other book of fiction and her great works that will, no doubt, appear in the future.

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