Monthly Archives: January, 2011

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Winner of the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour

Winner of Canada Reads 2011

The story behind The Best Laid Plans and its publication is a story in and of itself which I am sure most readers are familiar with by now. After countless rejections from publishers and agents, Terry Fallis recorded a podcast of his new novel and then self-published it through iUniverse. After winning the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, beating out serious heavyweights Douglas Coupland and Will Ferguson, the book was published by one of Canada’s most storied houses, McClelland and Stewart. This book combines two of my favorite things, literature and politics. I have read a number of winners of the Leacock Award in the past and have been disappointed more often than not; The Best Laid Plans is, without a doubt, one of the funniest books I have ever read. A political thriller in the truest sense of the term: this novel is eyes-deep in the political machinations of Ottawa with a twist and turn around every corner. With hilarious narration and page after page of memorable comedy, The Best Laid Plans is going to be a contender that I can see making it right to the final round of Canada Reads this year.

I think the magic in this book is that it both captures the country’s cynicism towards politics and delves into the reasons behind that cynicism in a very funny way. As the plot unfolds, we see the cantankerous Angus McLintock unexpected and unwanted election to the House of Commons and his direct march against the political grain. The character development is absolutely incredible and the subplots are tied in so seamlessly that we are instantly drawn into this mosaic. Something that has to be mentioned about this book is that behind the humour, the unforgettable cast, the epic chess battles, and the harrowing hovercraft trip rests a very serious message: the future of our nation and many of the cornerstones of our society are being run by people with short-sighted and self-serving agendas. Our public servants have lost the ability the put the nations long-term interests ahead of winning the next election, ahead of their polling numbers, and ahead of their own careers. Had this novel been written in a dramatic style, it would be a complete snore, despite the importance of the central themes. This is humour at its best.

An exposé on the ridiculous behemoth that our democracy has become,  The Best Laid Plans should be required reading for all MPs and MLAs/MPPs/MHAs at the beginning of each session. Looking beyond the contents of the novel, I think the publication story behind this book should serve as a lesson on the culture of elitism that has emerged amongst many Canadian publishers. It seems that unless you are either a university English professor or a recent graduate from an MFA program (and many people know how I feel about MFA programs and the damage they are doing to the North American literary scene) the deck is stacked against you in getting that first book published. What changed about The Best Laid Plans after it won the Leacock Medal? Nothing, except the publishing community realized what a grievous error it had made.

Canadians love their arts, their sports, and their politics. I think that the final two books standing in the battle for the Canada Reads crown will be this title and The Bone Cage. Ultimately I think The Bone Cage will win because I believe it will resonate with more people and humour generally has  a rough go on this show. In terms of “which is a better book”, they both get 5 stars in my mind. As he opened his endless parade of rejection letters, I wonder what Terry Fallis would have thought if someone told him he would win one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Canada and then be on Canada Reads a few short years later with the sequel, The High Road, coming out in 2010.

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Unless by Carol Shields

Winner of the 2003 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize

Shortlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize

Shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize

Shortlisted for the 2002 Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2002 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

I have had a few Carol Shields’ books on the shelves for a while now, but I am fairly unfamiliar with her work. Best known for her 1993 novel The Stone Diaries, winner of the Governor-General’s Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the only book to win both national prizes, Unless was Shields’ last novel, released less then a year before her death. Her style of writing is from the more old-style modernist CanLit style, a throwback to 60s and 70s literary traditions. This is a novel about feminism, not in a “hear-me-roar” sense, but an eye opening look at the trials and tribulations that go along with being a mother and wife. Unless is not a book for everyone. The first-person narration gets almost unbearable at parts and the overly used metaphors of the novel Reta is working on can grate on the nerves. The novel is well written but it just wasn’t my cup of tea; I struggled to get through it and had it not been chosen for Canada Reads this year I likely would not have finished it.

Perhaps because it was written at the tail-end of Carol Shields’ life, Unless has a very reflective, almost elegiac tone to it. I think this is what put me off. When you have this elegiac tone, which I generally do not like, combined with a narrator that I find to be self-righteous and have a chip on her shoulder, you get a very slow read and a very sluggish book. There is very little forward momentum. We are occasionally given bits of story, mostly centered on Reta’s writing or her panhandling daughter, but we are also given long indulgent diatribes about things like shopping for a scarf that goes on for what feels like 20 pages. The language is very poetic, and had the novel had a bit more forward movement I would say that it was a beautiful piece.  Unlike the other Canada Reads 2011 books I have read this year, the characters were very unmemorable; I finished this book less than 24 hours ago and I had trouble recalling the cast members’ names for this review.

This novel must have it fans, otherwise it wouldn’t have made it on the top 40 and top 10 lists, then eventually being chosen for the Canada Reads competition. I am pleased though that Shields finally made it into this competition. Her inclusion is a posthumous addition to an almost perfect resume: winner of the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for the Best Novel, the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Mystery, the Governor-General’s Award, the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer, the Orange Prize, the Charles Taylor Prize, a pair of Giller nominations, and a pair of Booker nominations; this Canada Reads nod is a much deserved honour. I have a feeling that a Carol Shields novel could be an experience to be remembered and Unless simply wasn’t the one to provide it. I plan on reading Larry’s Party in the near future since I’ve heard this is one of her best. I think that this will be the first book voted off the show this year, not because it is a “bad” book, simply because it is not a book that I think everyone in Canada will enjoy.

Most Wanted: Canadian Book Review’s Highly Anticipated CanLit of 2011

I have never done this before but I wanted to look into the literary crystal ball and select the books I am most looking forward to collecting and reading in the coming year. They are split almost 50/50 between fiction (both novels and short stories) and poetry with one each of non-fiction and graphic novels (yes, that’s right, a graphic novel). Below the list is sorted by release month with details of the genre and publisher. I am not going to put a synopsis of each book as this post would be a mile long. Please rush out and buy these titles when they are released at your local independent bookstore and share your recommendations with the world. Happy New Year my fellow readers.

January

The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie – HarperCollins – Fiction

Guesswork by Jeffery Donaldson – Goose Lane Editions – Poetry

By Love Possessed by Lorna Goodison – McClelland & Stewart – Short Fiction

February

Underground by Antanas Sileika – Thomas Allen – Fiction

Song of the Taxidermist by Aurian Haller – Goose Lane Editions – Poetry

Girlwood by Jennifer Still – Brick Books – Poetry

The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou – Brindle & Glass – Fiction

A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe – Knopf Canada – Fiction

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich – Doubleday Canada – Fiction

March

The Blue Light Project by Timothy Taylor – Knopf Canada – Fiction

The Free World by David Bezmozgis – MacMillan – Fiction

Folk by Jacob Mcarthur Mooney – McClelland & Stewart – Poetry

Into That Darkness by Steven Price – Thomas Allen – Fiction

Tide Road by Valerie Compton – Goose Lane Editions – Fiction

Is by Anne Simpson – McClelland & Stewart – Poetry

April

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuszi Gartner – Hamish Hamilton – Short Fiction

Methodist Hatchet by Ken Babstock – House of Anansi – Poetry

Monoceros by Suzette Mayr – Coach House Books – Fiction

Woods Wolf Girl by Cornelia Hoogland – Wolsak and Wynn – Poetry

Local News by Glen Downie – Wolsak and Wynn – Poetry

What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler – Goose Lane Editions – Non-Fiction

Outskirts by Sue Goyette – Brick Books – Poetry

Oyama Pink Shale by Sharon Thesen – House of Anansi – Poetry

Up Up Up by Julie Booker – House of Anansi  – Short Fiction

May

Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul by David Adams Richards – Doubleday Canada – Fiction

Paying for It by Chester Brown – Drawn & Quarterly – Graphic Novel

Sharawadji by Brian Henderson – Brick Books – Poetry

July

The O’Briens by Peter Behrens – House of Anansi – Fiction

The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

Angie Abdou’s second book, her first novel, The Bone Cage, is an intimate look at two Olympians preparing for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. There have been countless books written about the “major” sports, but in this novel Abdou takes a chance and focuses on two relatively lesser known sports, wrestling and distance swimming. The two central characters, Digger and Sadie, were an absolute pleasure to spend this journey with. The characters develop so well, the supporting cast is just as memorable as the mains, the sports jargon is kept to a layman’s level, and the story takes you on lots of twists and turns while blending the humour of life and heart-wrenching dramatics that pull you back to reality. I am very happy that this book survived the Canada Reads cut from the top 40 to the top 5. The Bone Cage is a sports story that can be enjoyed by the least sporty among us.

The first half or so of the novel consists of chapters with alternating third person points-of-view, either from Sadie’s or Digger’s perspective. Eventually, through an innocent meeting at the University of Calgary weight room, their paths intersect and their lives forever altered. The chapters still alternate perspective but many of them contain both characters. The author times their meeting perfectly. I find a lot of times in novels with this narrative technique it takes too long for the central characters to meet. Abdou’s narrative is flawless; the pacing is absolutely brilliant and there is a perfect amount of detail.

As I mentioned before, the supporting cast is amazing. You have the coaches, the families, and the competitors; my favorite character in the book is Fly. A hyperactive wrestler who has appointed himself to the position of Digger’s assistant once his own Olympic dreams are shattered, Fly has the ability to bring levity and sanity to the most tense or out-of-control situation.  The wrestling coach, Saul, also has a number of classic one-liners, my favorite being his trademark “eargasm” motion.

This novel examines a lot of complex themes. These athletes are like artists. They train and train, practice and practice, until they reach the pinnacle of their craft. Throughout the story the characters are faced with their identity: is it their sport that defines them or are they something more than this athlete? What happens to a person when all they know ends or is taken away from them? Is there life after sport?

I feel like my review might be selling this book a little bit short, but that is simply because I do not want to give away any details that could in any way spoil the read. Each and every page is filled with such mature and polished writing. Angie Abdou manages to avoid the typical tropes and pitfalls of genre fiction; I don’t look at The Bone Cage as a sports novel, this is a work of literature that just happens to have sports as its cornerstone.

I think The Bone Cage will be listed alongside other great CanLit pieces with sports at their core (Night Work, King Leary, Shoeless Joe) and will be looked at as one of the quintessential novels of last five years. The story is sharply original; it is told with passion; the dialog is extremely well written, quite a feat for a first time novelist; and the characters are memorable. The book’s panelist at Canada Reads 2011, Georges Laraque, will be a good defender. As a former NHLer and an active member of the political world he has everything that would be needed to passionately discuss this novel. This book is my pick to win Canada Reads 2011. Angie Abdou’s next novel, The Canterbury Trail, will be released in February and I can’t wait to read it.

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

Winner of the 2008 American Library Association’s Alex Award

Winner of the 2008 Doug Wright Award

Winner of the 2008 Joe Shuster Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

I have strong feelings about Essex County being included in Canada Reads 2011. On Twitter and Facebook my strong conviction that a graphic novel shouldn’t be in this competition has been misconstrued as being “against” the genre; I will admit that this type of book is something that I never reach for, but I am not against this as an artistic form. My objections to its inclusion simply stems from the fact that I do not see the graphic novel as a literary genre; graphic novels are primarily a medium for the visual arts. The cartoons are the star. Now with that out of the way I can get down to business.

As a youngster I was a huge comic book fan but the idea of a “novel” told through comics was a little strange to me. No matter what your feelings on this medium it is hard to deny that graphic novels have exploded in popularity. Many bookstores, including larger independents, have sections dedicated to them. I am not going to attempt to know anything about the big players in this world but with the little bit of research I did before I started Essex County I learned that Jeff Lemire is a very well respected man in the industry, working with DC/Vertigo Comics. Essex County is not one cohesive novel, it is a collection of three smaller books and two short comics that make up the Essex County mythology. I have to admit, I really enjoyed this book. Lemire is an incredibly talented artist.

I loved the artistic style in this book; it has a roughness to it that could be described as gritty. Even on stretches of 5 or 6 pages that do not have a single word of text, Lemire was able to display a wide range of emotions, internal torment, and family strife with a simple subtle change to an illustration. The way the author ties together the three “books” of the collection is masterful; it really does create what feels like folklore. I was amazed at how clearly complex themes came through in this type of book.

After the three main books are finished there are 2 small comics included in the collection. While these were well done I don’t feel like they added much to the overall work. I think that the essence of what Lemire was going for is best represented in the longer works. The “Bonus Materials” section really bugged me. I am one of these people that do not like DVD extras, simply because I do not want to see the wizard behind the curtain. I found seeing these bits and pieces was just that, the magician revealing his secrets. It could be argued that I didn’t have to read it, but, it was in the volume, so I felt I owed it to Mr. Lemire.

Will I be rushing out to buy more graphic novels? No. Is my opinion changed about this book being included in Canada Reads? No. Did I enjoy this book? Yes, absolutely. I was surprised by how much I liked it. This is an entirely new form of storytelling that I was completely ignorant of. With Canada Reads right around the corner I wanted to start (re)reading the titles far enough ahead of time that I would be able to get through them all before the show; Essex County being the behemoth of a book that it is was my first choice as I figured it would take me a long time to get through, I was wrong. I managed to rip through this 500+ page book in only one Sunday. I think this book will be eliminated early from the competition (I am predicting it will be the second to go); I have a feeling that the debates will be centered around the arguments I made above. With all of my prejudices aside I would like to thank Canada Reads for putting a book in my hands that I would otherwise have never even heard of.

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs

Winner of the 2008 Winterset Award

Winner of the 2009 E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize

Winner of the 2010 Kobzar Literary Award

Shortlisted for the 2009 Heritage and History Book Award

Longlisted for the 2009 Relit Award for Poetry

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008

I need to start this review off by prefacing it with the confession that I am not a hockey fan; it is not that I dislike hockey, I am just not a follower and really know very little about it. So, that being said, I was surprised how interested and excited I was to read Night Work and I was even more amazed by how much I enjoyed it. Even being the hockey ignoramus that I am I still had somewhat of an idea of who Terry Sawchuk was and his stature in the sport. This collection joins a Canadian tradition of poetic historical revision; Randall Maggs has taken a historical figure and molded this person into one of the great literary characters of the last 20 years, much the same way Michael Ondaatje transformed Billy the Kid decades ago. This book is a masterpiece. Period.

The star hockey player in our contemporary setting has a bit of the rock star personae. Maggs closely examines what life was like day-in and day-out for these gritty workhorses; the title says it all, Night Work. Sawchuk’s life as portrayed in this book felt like an unrealistic marathon. The punishment both physically and psychologically that hockey professionals of this generation took is just mind boggling. One scene in particular that I loved was when Sawchuk’s coach was arguing with him about how detrimental goaltenders wearing masks would be. Most of the poems in this collection are told from “characters” with personal and intimate knowledge of Sawchuk, as opposed to being told from Sawchuk’s; I really like this technique, it helps maintain that sense of the goalie being an unknowable legend, it keeps that sense of detachment yet provides insight into the man in an almost intense fashion.

This collection of poetry read like a novel. There were very defined characters and they developed in much the same way they would be in a great piece of fiction. I also felt there was a very defined story arc as well. The poems were all highly narrative and detailed in the style of Al Purdy. Through Maggs’ examination of Terry Sawchuk we also get something else, Night Work is a chronicle of hockey in general during this period, its role in the public consciousness, and ultimately its importance in the culture of Canada and the northern US.

Supplemented by beautiful original photography of Sawchuk’s time and prefaced by an excerpt from his autopsy report, Randall Maggs has truly captured one great man’s short life in this fitting poetic tribute. Night Work is still one of the most recognizable books of poetry on the shelves of Canadian book stores two years after initial publication. This book is complex, detailed, beautiful, well researched, and a must read for all Canadians. Below is a short clip of a game from the 1964 Stanley Cup finals where Sawchuk played goal for Detroit so you can see a tiny bit of his on-ice genius.

 

This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky

Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Canada and Caribbean Region

Longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010

When this book was longlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize it immediately caught my attention; a debut collection of stories published by Thomas Allen, the same folks who brought us A Perfect Night to go to China and The Polished HoeThis Cake is for the Party was definitely a worthy contender. Many of the ten stories are very memorable; they can range from heartwarming to haunting. Is this a perfect book? no, absolutely not; there are some serious flaws with it, but, that being said, I did really enjoy most of the stories and I do believe that Sarah Selecky, along with her Giller co-nominee Alexander MacLeod, is going to be one of the major voices of the new wave of Canadian short fiction.

These stories took me back to the writing style of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant early in their careers. Each story is very episodic, representing a snapshot in a character’s life. A lot of the pieces have very little forward momentum; the conflicts and resolutions in these stories come from average people dealing with whatever fate has been dealt to them. What I really liked about this book is that each story contains some of the mundane and somewhat more dull details that many writers simply ignore; Selecky understands how important these small details are in life’s daily battles. This book looks at relationships, marriage, and family dynamics in great depth. Issues of infidelity, parenthood, the decision to have children, depression and mental illness and it’s effect on a relationship, and friendship, among others, are examined through a microscopic lens.

This book is not without it’s flaws. The first two stories in the book reeked of what I call “MFA disorder”. These stories, while technically perfect, lacked heart and passion. They had the overwritten pretension of someone taking a first year creative writing course. This has become a trend in American literature and has been celebrated by many critics south of the border. Writers like Annie Proulx and Michael Chabon are perfect examples. Had this not been the only book I brought along with me on my Christmas vacation travels I would have likely put it down after the second story. While the collection doesn’t completely shake the MFA feeling, as the book progressed the stories got better, with the final one, “One Thousand Wax Buddhas”, being my hands-down favorite.

Collections of short fiction are published less and less. I think this is more so a business issue rather than a talent issue. Publishing a book is very expensive and companies want to make sure they make money on their product; the fact is short stories do not sell well. This has always amazed me. I think that stories are one of the greatest literary genres in existence today. A 20 page story examines the human condition in such a unique way; it combines the brevity of poetry with the thematic complexities of a novel. This Cake is for the Party is a great debut collection and I will not be surprised if we hear the name Sarah Selecky attached to many other notable books.

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