Monthly Archives: December, 2010

Loop by Anne Simpson

Winner of the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize

Shortlisted for the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry

Anne Simpson is likely one of Nova Scotia’s most prolific living poets and is also a very well known professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish; she is author of the award winning volume of poetry Light Falls Through You and the critically acclaimed novel Canterbury Beach. In her collection Loop, Simpson has penned a contemporary classic of Canadian poetry that really hasn’t been seen since the early works of Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

This book is all about form; that is what makes it great. Simpson experiments with literally dozens of different forms and styles to eloquently present her musings. Some of the things that she examines throughout the book are the September 11 attacks, the artwork of Brueghel, and a motion art class; the way this is done though is truly masterful. The author takes something seemingly simple and mundane, like biting into a pomegranate or sitting on the deck of a trailer, and works this seed into a thematically complex work.

My favorite piece of the collection is definitely “Mobius Strip.” For those who aren’t familiar with a mobius strip in scientific terminology, it is basically a circular band with a twist in it, there for if you were to simply move your finger straight on the band you will cover the entire surface. Simpson turns this idea into a literary technique. Through 10 pages containing two lines each this poem wraps into itself with the first line also being the last line. The final result is a poem that would be identical if read either forward or backward.

Loop was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize, the richest prize for a Canadian poet, and this win was very well deserved. This kind of experimentation is what makes Canadian poetry great. If you look at some of the great early/mid 20th century poets such as Irving Layton and Earle Birney, they all played around with format. The next generation, Ondaatje, bill bisset, bp Nichol, all very experimental in their style. Anne Simpson is very much in this same league.


Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor

Winner of the 2003 One Book, One Vancouver Prize

Shortlisted for the 2001 Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2001 Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize

Shortlisted for the 2001 City of Vancouver Book Award

Shortlisted for the 2002 BC Book Prize’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2007

Stanley Park is a novel that I was surprised I hadn’t been introduced to before. I didn’t come across it until I was collecting all of the previous Canada Reads contenders. I was immediately taken by the cover, being a former cook and amateur chef in a previous career, I was instantly intrigued by the idea of the main character being a chef and a novel looking at the world of professional cooking. This is a behemoth of a book, the page count comes in at a medium-long length of 436 pages but the print is minuscule and the chapters are very long, so it feels more like a 600 or so page novel. I read this book very slowly, savored it if you will, the language and images are beautiful, the research Timothy Taylor put into the preparation of this book are indescribably well done and practically mind blowing; this book will make you hungry one moment and with the turn of a page induce gut wrenching anxiety.

Being such a big book, the story takes on a lot of themes and wide issues; I really believe that this book will be loved by anyone who reads it and each of those people will likely take away something different from the experience. What I personally took away from the book was a story of artistic vision colliding with capitalist consumerist culture. In the character of Jeremy Papier, you have a brilliant chef, dedicated to using local, homegrown ingredients, running a small independent bistro, The Monkey’s Paw, that is somewhat successful but completely floundering in debt. There is a series of credit card and cheque kites that Jeremy floats in order to keep his dream alive but ultimately it all comes crashing to Earth when he is caught pulling a fast cash scam with his Canadian Tire credit card. Being forced to sell his bistro to Dante Beale, owner of the internationally successful chain Inferno, a Starbucks-esque coffee company. This is the epicenter of this collision. Beale relentlessly researches what he believes will be successful, down to the name and the colours the food should be. This climaxes into the opening night dinner service that will never be forgotten by anyone that reads this book.

The other sub-plot of the story is Jeremy’s father, known only as “The Professor,” doing research on the murder of two children in the 40s in Stanley Park and on homelessness. Living in the park himself, The Professor has dubbed his work “participatory anthropology.” These sections of the novel are just as well written as the workplace comedy aspects and in the end are pushing the reader towards the same conclusion. Our survival depends on the Earth, whether we are literally living off of it as a homeless man in the park or simply eating the vegetables it produces, our existence and survival is pulled from the fruits of the Earth.

The characters and their development in this book are just fabulous. The supporting cast, mainly the homeless characters and kitchen staff, really help the book’s forward momentum. All of the main characters are so well described and their dialog so believable that they grow and develop without the reader consciously knowing it. In this type of novel it would be very easy, in the hands of  a writer of lesser skill, for the characters to fall into the troupes of archetypal patterns and speech; Taylor is without a doubt a very talented man.

I absolutely loved this book. I find it very hard to believe that this one flew under my radar for so long. This is the type of book that everyone will enjoy, not just the literary readers. I have only scratched the surface of what could be talked about; Stanley Park has a little something for everyone. Its pacing is beautiful, there are no superfluous scenes or characters, everything is neatly arranged, much like a chef placing the pieces of asparagus into their exact position on the plate where they are destined to be.

Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke

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

I have had the pleasure of seeing George Elliott Clarke read his poetry on several occasions; the first time in 2002 at a presentation he did for a Canadian poetry class I was taking at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Clarke is definitely one of the most entertaining readers I have seen. He does more than just read, he performs, he puts his heart and soul into the presentation of his work. In his 2001 collection, Execution Poems, this passion leaps off the page. In this short book, only around 30 pages of writing, Clarke tells the story of brothers George and Rufus Hamilton, who were actually Clarke’s cousins, who killed a taxi driver in Fredericton in 1949 and were hanged for their crime only a few months later. This book has been on my “to buy/read” list for a long time so when I finally ordered it a few months ago I was very excited. The street I grew up on, Hamilton Street, is actually named after the Hamilton family of which George and Rufus were a part of. Clarke in this small collection looks at racism, desperation, and examines whether things really have changed almost a half-century since the hanging.

This book has a strong narrative arc with most of the poems told from the point-of-view of either George, Rufus (or Rue), or both. The writing is done in a conversational tone which greatly enhances the desperation of the characters circumstances. The central pair seems to be fairly well-education, or at least well read, in comparison to their socio-economic contemporaries. The author sets a scene of fear for the pair: beginning with a fear of starvation and eventually ending with fear of the consequences of their actions. The poem “The Killing” is my favorite in this collection, and I think this is actually one of Clarke’s best poems in his entire library. Clarke has the power to paint a vivid picture and expose a man’s deepest feelings with only a few words. Here is a power example from this poem:

Rue: Here’s how I justify my error:

The blow that slew Silver came from two centuries back.

It took that much time and agony to turn a white man’s whip

into a black man’s hammer.


Geo: No, we needed money,

so you hit the So-and-So,

only much too hard.

Now what?


Rue: So what?

In nine lines Clarke manages to embody generations of the African-Canadian experience.

The actual book is work of art as well. Published by Gaspereau Press, publishers of this year’s Giller winner The Sentimentalists, this paperback has thick paper with a pronounced grain, a dust jacket, and the paper blocks are sewn as well as glued, you can tell that a lot of love went into making these volumes. In 2005 George Elliott Clarke released a novelization of this story entitled George & Rue; this novel was released to much popular and critical acclaim, being nominated for several prestigious awards. For anyone interested in the African Canadian experience of Atlantic Canada, or as Clarke has dubbed them, Africadians (combination of African and Acadian), then this book, along with his best known collection, Whylah Falls, should be on top of your list.

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Finalist for the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

Finalist for the 1998 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award

Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrites, most notably the author of The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, both of which are Dora and Chalmer’s Award winning plays. Published in 1998, Kiss of the Fur Queen is Highway’s first and only novel; containing many autobiographical points, this book takes on a lot of issues. In North American Native literature there has been a trend of authors either being too hard on their own culture or glossing over the harsher realities of Native life. Highway, a Cree from northern Manitoba, walks a fine line between these two extremes with his writing. This novel takes place over the course of around 35 years; looking at how Natives were treated in Catholic residential schools, sexuality, art, and family.

The story focuses on a pair of brothers, Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis, and their journey from birth to young adulthood; in each of the six parts of the book, a different stage of the brothers lives are narrated. As you start to read this it takes a few chapters to really get into the book and get used to the language. Canadian Native lit is often written with the same style as the oral narrative, which is an important piece of their culture; if you were to read a few pages out loud this will be very apparent. The dialog is as beautiful as would be expected from a playwrite of this caliber.

The topics and themes of this story are very serious subjects and are, at several points in the novel, very difficult to get through, mainly because of Highway’s vivid writing. The Okimasis brothers are representative of the Native community as a whole in the early fifties; they are being pulled away from their Cree culture and thrust into the world of Catholicism and the indoctrination that would come with attending a residential school. There are horrifying scenes of abuse and molestation as well as heartbreaking scenes of torment directed towards the only two Natives at this school. As the story progresses the focus turns to Gabriel’s sexuality. As he confronts his homosexuality, in a time when this was not overly accepted, he descends into promiscuity and prostitution with constant flashbacks of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the priests. This part of the novel is so beautifully written but so hard to endure. There is so much pain in Gabriel’s life and past that he really doesn’t stand a chance to live a so-called “normal” existence.

My one criticism of this book, and it is not exactly a flaw of the writing, likely more so a flaw with this reader, the details used when Highway is writing about dancing and music are so detailed, with so much technical terminology, it is sometimes difficult to understand what exactly is being said. Jeremiah and Gabriel, eventually become a world-class musician/playwrite and dancer respectively. These details though certainly give the story a level of depth and believability when looking at the brothers passion for their arts.

This is a very sad book; at points there seems to be very little hope for the characters, and even at the end of the novel, it could be argued there is still none. In a short review it is impossible to touch on everything this book looks at. This is the type of novel academics could spend years and countless articles looking at. A beautiful novel, a moving novel, and an eye opening novel, I think Kiss of the Fur Queen will definitely be looked at as one of the great Native novels of its time along side Three Day Road and Green Grass, Running Water.

Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley

Shortlisted for the 1984 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction

Selected for Canada Reads 2008

Not Wanted on the Voyage, much like Timothy Findley’s writing in general, tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it thing. Before I started reading this book I read some reviews online, most of which were from 2008 when the book was on Canada Reads, and many were not overly positive. I really enjoy Findley, Pilgrim being one of my favorite books, so I was looking forward to reading this. I loved it. This novel has taken on the status of a modern classic, evidenced by the fact that the most recent publication is part of Penguin’s Modern Classics series. On a topical level Not Wanted on the Voyage is a retelling of the biblical flood tale with a feminist twist, but there is a lot more than this going on in this story. Amongst the themes that are examined are family roles and dynamics, the danger of being at the mercy of your faith, and the arbitrariness of nature. I thought this book was very funny in parts, but painfully gruesome in others.

I think only Timothy Findley could pull off a biblical revisionist novel from the narrative point-of-view of a blind 20 year old cat. This cat, Mottyl, makes the book. The first 20-30 pages were very difficult to get into but once the ancient and decrepit Yaweh finally arrives for his visit with the devoted Dr. Noah Noyes the forward motion of the story really picks up. There are so many memorable scenes on both sides of the scale. Some of the funniest moments include Mrs. Noyes conducting her chorus of singing sheep, the Noyes’s son Japeth being marinated by barbarians in preparation to be eaten before he escapes their capture, resulting in his skin having a permanent blue hue, and the countless incidents of Mottyl narrating the everyday life of an old house cat. But there are other scenes that are as disturbing as the previous mentions are funny: the surplus animals on the Noyes homestead being burned in a giant pyre, Lotte’s throat being slit and birds pecking out her eyes, and the famous scene which is always associated with this book where Noah rapes his 11 year old daughter-in-law with a unicorn’s horn, killing the unicorn in the process, in order to prepare her for her husband. Between the violence and blasphemy there is something to offend almost everyone; it is definitely not for the pious Sunday church going crowd.

The animals are very memorable in this book. There are dog-sized unicorns, one- and two-headed demons that emit fire, and talking critters of every variety. Findley does a masterful job of the imagery and painting a picture of times long past. He gets down to the most minute details using beautiful metaphors. My one criticism of the book is his use of one particular character: Lucy. I will issue a spoiler alert here. Lucy, we find out early in the book after Michael Archangelis (clever right?) does battle with a dragon, turns out to be Lucifer in a human guise. He has taken this form and married one of the Noyes children in order to gain passage on the ark and avoid certain death. Very little was done with this character, but yet, (s)he is still an intriguing and essential part of the story.

This book constantly challenges the reader’s sense of good and evil; forcing the reader to realize that not all is black and white and there is often times ambiguity in doing something that is ultimately good. Not Wanted on the Voyage is a very rewarding book. Now to be honest, it is a fairly slow read, it is dense, there are points where there is not a lot of forward motion, and if you are reading the Penguin Classics printing it suffers from the usual problems of this line: very small print, a lot of text on the page, and page breaks are at a minimum. To enjoy this book you need to allow the humour to reach you and realize that this really is a foolish idea for a novel; therein again lies the ambiguity. This story joins a long list of other Canadian novelists reworking biblical stories, such as A Time for Judas or Testament. If you are still having doubts, this novel is worth reading for the the simple reason that it will explain what is going on behind your cats creepy and shiny eyes.

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Co-Winner of the 2000 Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2000 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction

Shortlisted for the 2000 Trillium Book Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2009

Globe and Mail Best Book – 2000

An Ottawa Citizen Best Book – 2000

I have two things to say to start out: first, this was an incredible book; second, there will be spoilers in this review. I feel that I cannot express what I want to express without giving away key plot points and the ending of the book; I do not feel bad about this as this novel is ten years old, a multiple award winner, a former Canada Reads selection, and a national bestseller during its time. So that being said, let’s get down to it. I am a big fan of David Adams Richards. I like the gritty and detailed style he uses to really dig into the hearts and souls of his characters. Mercy Among the Children is Richards’ masterpiece. Epic in proportion but local in narrative, this story would crack even the stoniest reader. Set in the rural Miramichi area of New Brunswick, this novel explores the bondages that people are born into and suffer through: namely family circumstances and reputations, poverty, low standing in regards to societal class, faith, and general surroundings.

This novel looks at three generations of the Henderson family: grandfather and patriarch Roy Henderson, Sydney Henderson – central character through most of the novel, and his son, Lyle Henderson. Richards weaves a rich tapestry of characters that are truly representative of rural Maritime life: the mill workers, the rich businessman with little education, the self-educated outcast, and many many others. Having grown up and spent most of my life in the Maritimes, with much of this time being spent in rural areas of Nova Scotia and PEI, I believe this is a novel that only someone from this part of the country could write this well. I have met someone almost identical to all of these characters at some point; Mercy Among the Children is a novel that because of its locality, is universal in message and theme.

Ninety-five percent of the novel is told from the first person point-of-view of third generation Lyle Henderson; the narration is his relation of the events to a police officer in Saint John that he feels needs to hear his story. As the novel progresses the innocence that is so admiral about the members of the Henderson family erodes away. From almost the first chapter we see how the sins of the father transfer to the son. Roy Henderson, wrongfully accused of setting Leo McVicar’s mill ablaze, goes to prison and seals his family’s fate. His father, a self-educated amateur philosopher, is a pariah in the community because of both his family lineage and relentless pacifistic existence; as a result of this he is consistently taken advantage of by people in his community and used as a scapegoat for their own personal illicit gains, resulting in the untimely death of many innocent people, including Sydney himself.

One character I love in the book is the antagonist, Matthew Pit. A seemingly psychopathic monster, he will stop at nothing to influence and control those around him and free himself from his own bondage at the expense of anyone, especially Sydney. As the book progresses Matthew manipulates everyone around him, including Lyle after his father’s death. At the end of the novel, in a very symbolic moment, the Pit and Henderson families are eternally united through death and a life-giving gift.

Sydney Henderson has three children, Lyle, Autumn – an albino, and Percy. These three children represent the three options that people who are born into this type of situation usually have: First: death, as is the case of young Percy; second: you break free of these shackles and live your own life, as Autumn does with her successful novel and family; or third, you live your life exactly like the parents you so despised, as Lyle does. What really interests me is the fact that Lyle, as the novel comes to a close, ends up being a multimillionaire through an interesting turn of events with Leo McVicar’s family ties, yet he is still as miserable and angry as he was when he was an alcoholic young adult who committed physical acts of contrition to punish himself. Lyle never breaks free from the sins of his father or grandfather, even after everyone, including McVicar and Matthew Pit forgive them.

Mercy Among the Children is not a happy novel. It does not have a happy ending and everything isn’t tied up in a nice little package. In this way it is very realistic, when is life ever wrapped up neatly? This is a book that will haunt you. Despite being a very long book, 420 pages in my edition, I could read no more than 20 pages in a sitting simply because of the emotional toll the story has on you. A co-winner of the Giller Prize in 2000, the only year the prize was split, this novel will definitely endure past its authors time. The novel was perfectly paced, the climaxes were subtle and effective, and the characters believable. I strongly believe that David Adams Richards should be looked at in the same light as the other great writers of his generation like Michael Ondaatje, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Timothy Findley.

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