Monthly Archives: March, 2011

A Year in Reading: My Top 10

It hasn’t been quite one full year since I started my blog but I have just finished my 52nd book, and I consider that one year’s worth of reading, so I am posting this now. I read a lot of Canadian literature, so much so that I started this blog to spread the good word. Since last June when I started this site my traffic has steadily gone up over 2000% which I am very happy about, and I thank you for visiting. Many of the books that are my most viewed reviews surprise me, and some books that I thought would get more traffic get very little.

Just for trivia’s sake, these are the 10 most visited reviews on my site:

La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler
Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray
Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway
Tide Road by Valerie Compton
Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou
Girlwood by Jennifer Still

Now, here are my Top 10 favorite reads of the last year. This list is not necessarily the best books published in the last year. There are books from the 1990s up to this year on my list.

Number 11 (I couldn’t fit every book I wanted to on the list so I added an 11th):

A Subtle Thing by Alicia Hendley

This is the novel of a young woman and her struggles with depression and how difficult it is to forge a life with this dark cloud floating over your head. This was a very difficult and personal read for me. I was concerned that this novel would be more of a dissertation on life with depression and weak as a novel, fortunately my fears were unfounded. This is not a novel “about” depression, this is a novel about a wonderful character named Beth who’s life is veiled with this incapacitating disorder. A Subtle Thing is a gritty and raw novel that hits the reader in such a powerful and sincere way that putting it down is simply not an option.

Number 10:

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack

Darcie Hossack writes with a maturity that is way beyond a first book. Her prose are sparse and punchy but have a poetic quality, the characters are developed quickly and deeply, and the stories vary from short episodes of only a couple pages to longer 40+ page stories that feel like miniature novels. I read a lot of short story collections. 2010 seemed to be the year of the story with a lot of collections receiving high praise. I’d say this is the best of that crowd.

 

 

Number 9:

The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou

I imagine that second novels are intimidating to a writer, especially when the first one was a success and well received. Angie Abdou has weaved a tale that is the perfect blend of comedy, drama, and tragedy; the author realizes that life is usually a mix of the humorous, the dramatic, and the tragic.

 

 

 

Number 8:

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

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.

 

 

 

Number 7:

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

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. 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?

 

 

Number 6:

The Harps of God by Kent Stetson

The lone play on the list. 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.

 

 

Number 5:

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

This collection, perhaps more than any of her others, showcases Alice Munro’s ability to write so subtly that without even realizing, you as a reader are drawn into the lives of these seemingly ordinary people experiencing extraordinary circumstances. One of Munro’s best collections ever.

 

 

 

Number 4:

Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor

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.

 

 

 

Number 3:

The Good News About Armageddon by Steve McOrmond

I read a lot of poetry but McOrmond’s book is the only collection to have made my list. The opening poem, the title poem, is perhaps one of the best poems I have read from any poet of this generation. This collection brings together thoughts that are both accessible and highly literary, examining the world around us with a painter’s eye and musician’s ear.

 

 

Number 2:

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Annabel is a great gift to the world of literature. I have no hesitation in saying that this novel is one of the best books of the 21st century in all of English literature, not just Canadian.

 

 

 

Number 1:

The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

The Bishop’s Man is a marvel of a book. I really do feel privileged to have had the pleasure of reading it. 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.

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Inland Waterways by Linda Cassidy

Inland Waterways: Poems from a Peaceable Kingdom is the debut of collection of poems from Ontario poet Linda Cassidy. The author has arranged her book into five different sections, each with named after a part of a river and each representing a different piece of the themes she is exploring. In my reading, I felt that in this collection the narrator is a woman who is struggling in a variety of ways with her place in society, as a mother, wife, housekeeper, and poet to name a few. Something else that is front-and-center in this collection is the notion of aging, how ultimately it is inevitable, and also how we are, hopefully, better people because of it.

Cassidy’s technique smoothly integrates the language and themes. Using, for the most part, traditional lyrical styling, she takes the small everyday, and sometimes mundane, actions that we do every day and extrapolates these into emotional meditations. A great example of this is in my favorite poem from the collection “Changing the Bed”:

I strip off the sheets
and lay bare on the mattress.
Its naked flesh bulges in spots
sags in others where the press
of warm bodies has worn it down.
Stripped clean of its clothing
no where to hide its imperfections
I’m embarrassed by its lack of dignity.

Here we have what is a typical household chore, making the bed. The author has transformed this. We see the bed exposed and the impressions of it occupants and as a metaphor of everything that has happened in it, on it, or because of it. These poems revolving around daily minutia are juxtaposed with poems that focus are larger and more important  occurrences, child birth being one of the most important ones. And as I mentioned earlier, throughout the collection the idea of aging is essential to this collection working as it runs through multiple poems in each sequence, tying together the themes of other pieces.

Linda Cassidy has done a wonderful job in her first collection. Her poems are intimate, conversational, accessible, and easily readable. Everyday objects and images become symbols and metaphors in her hands. The author shows a little bit of honestly and openness in each line on things that many of us take for granted.

For more info on the author and her work, visit her website by clicking here.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Winner of the 2010 Independent Literary Awards
Winner of the 2011 Thomas Head Raddall Award
Shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize
Shorlisted for the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shorlisted for the 2011 OLA Evergreen Award
Shorlisted for the 2010 Amazon.ca First Novel Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
Quill & Quire Books of the Year ~ 2010
Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2010
Amazon.ca Best Books of the Year ~ 2010
Vancouver Sun Top 10 Canadian Books of the Year ~ 2010
New York Times Editors’ Choice ~ 2011

As I am sure you can see from the above list, Annabel, the debut novel from Kathleen Winter, already has had its fair share of praise; after finishing the novel I have decided to heap some more praise upon the book. This novel is the story of Wayne Blake, a hermaphrodite born in the late 60s in rural Labrador to a family of modest means. Wayne’s story is heart-wrenching. As the novel progresses over the course of several decades, we are taken through Wayne’s struggles with the female identity inside of him known as Annabel. The poetic quality of the prose, the well developed characters, and the specific and intricate detail make this a very special novel. I can count on one hand the number of other books that would be in the same class as Annabel.

The characters are the heart of this book. In addition to the magical protagonist Wayne, Annabel has an incredible supporting cast that help turn this book into more than just a story but a glimpse in one incredible person’s world. We follow Wayne right from the moment of his birth to his 20s. As we go along there are so many beautiful and surreal episodes in his life. His parents, Treadway and Jacinta, are very interesting characters. At different points through the book I had a variety of opinions about both of them; at certain points I adored them and at certain points I had genuine disdain for them. All of the characters, even the minor ones outside of the immediate Blake family were also well done. Wally’s childhood friends, Wally and Gracie specifically, both had important roles in Wayne’s life. Thomasina, Jacinta’s friend who was one of the few who knew Wayne’s secret and planted the name Annabel in his head, was another interesting character; her role in Wayne’s life is very complicated.

One thing that is very evident when reading Annabel is just how complex this novel is thematically. This complexity could keep literary scholars writing for decades. Primarily we have themes of identity and isolation. Identity is obviously important with Wayne but it is also important with several other characters. Wally struggles with her identity as a singer, Jacinta as a mother and wife, Treadway as a father and husband, and Thomasina struggling and searching for her place in the world. Isolation affects most of the same characters in a variety of ways, including physical isolation (rural versus urban towards the end) and psychological isolation, specifically with Wayne. While the themes are important, prevalent, and numerous, they do not in anyway get in the way of the story or the rich lives that we are experiencing throughout the story. At no time does the story feel like a didactic or “moral” tale.

If you were to look at some of the cornerstones of Canadian literature, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners; Mordecai Richler’s Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Marian Engel’s Bear; or Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot for example, you have a character who is trying to find their place in the world despite external obstacles and circumstances beyond their control (neatly summed up in Northrop Frye’s “Garrison Mentality” thesis). Kathleen Winter has created a completely original story with unique and deep characters while also joining a great tradition of CanLit protagonists finding their way through life, whether by design or accident I am not sure. Annabel is a great gift to the world of literature. I have no hesitation in saying that this novel is one of the best books of the 21st century in all of English literature, not just Canadian.

Shades of Green by Brent MacLaine

Shades Of Green - Brent MacLai609_f

Winner of the 2009 Atlantic Poetry Prize

Winner of the 2010 PEI Book Award for Poetry

When I was an English lit student at UPEI one of my favorite professors was Brent MacLaine. He has a genuine passion for literature that is infectious. Shades of Green is his third collection of poetry and at this point in his writing career his most successful, winning both the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the PEI Book Award. MacLaine’s writing is very reminiscent of poetry from the early part of the 20th century and the Confederation poets; many of his poems are homages to the Earth and very heavy on exploring nature. This book is the most visual and vivid of all of his collections. The way he uses the descriptions of colours, sights, and sounds in all of these poems, with both rural or urban settings, is intoxicating.

The poems are fairly traditional in structure and for the most part follow the time tested style of classic lyrics and odes. As you progress through the book you are taken through the landscapes of Prince Edward Island, examining mostly rural life (farming, wild life, etc.), and also walked through urban jungles. The urban poems are interesting, the tone is very similar to the rural ones, as I read these pieces I felt as if the author was trying to apply rural sensibilities to the big city. This was very well done.

The book is punctuated with beautiful semi-abstract oil paintings, which I think were done by MacLaine himself but don’t quote on me that. My favorite piece is the title poem which opens the book, “Shades of Green”. The first stanza draws you right in, especially if you read it this time of year:

First seen is last year’s green,

unsheathed by melting snow –

a dead blade stabbing into memory,

a tarnished green. Museum green.

Brent MacLaine is definitely one of PEI’s best contemporary writers, along with his co-worker Richard Lemm. Shades of Green is a great representation of both landscape poetry and Prince Edward Island as a whole. He writes with a painter’s eye; I think anyone who loves the rolling green landscapes of PEI would enjoy Shades of Green, not just the usual readers of poetry.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland is one of Canada’s best selling writers both at home and internationally. That being said, I am a little surprised myself that I haven’t read any of his books before. I have a number of his works on my shelf, including his best known book, Generation X, but Microserfs really caught my eye and was just begging to be read, perhaps because of the LEGO on the cover (I was a huge LEGO geek as a child). This novel was written in 1993/94 and released the same week as Windows 95. As I was reading this, 16 years after it came out, I was amazed at how well Coupland captured the 90s and the beginning of the technological age. In certain parts it was almost as if Coupland had somehow peeked into the future before he wrote Microserfs. This novel has aged very well and I think it really is essential reading for someone looking to understand this part of the 90s.

Microserfs is written as the journal of Dan Underwood, which he keeps on his PowerBook. The narration reads like what today would be a blog; it switches smoothly between story telling and sidetracked vignettes that expand on the themes of the book. Being set in the early 90s in Silicon Valley, this novel takes place right on the precipice of monumental and world-altering change. The World Wide Web was a recent invention and not widely used yet, personal computers were only in a small percentage of households, and the number of new Information Technology start-ups that were emerging was mind-boggling. Coupland explores this world with such specific detail that you feel like you feel like you are a part of it.

The cast of the story are a group of computer geeks who are all incredibly talented at what they do and I think too smart for their own good. Their conversations range from mundane things like meals purchased late at night at the local Safeway to complex metaphysical topics like the nature of the human soul. The dialog is great and all of the characters are well developed. After the first chapter I thought that his might be a novel that is more character driven as opposed to story driven; after about 40 pages though the story really gets rolling and a lot starts to happen, creating the perfect balance of people and action.

Douglas Coupland makes a lot of predictions in his novel that eventually came to pass, including the proliferation of the personal computer and the web, the dot-com bubble and the collapse of much of the new wealth that was created in the early 90s, and the ad nauseum syndication of The Simpsons. The writing and prose of the book reads very smoothly; the author plays around a lot with the fact that novel is the journal of a super-intelligent computer geek, including a 2 page homage to the Apple computer Lisa completely in binary, use of emoticons, which were still very new in 1993, and creative use of fonts.  I think Microserfs is a more relevant book now than when it was originally written. In 1995 it was a humorous examination of current Silicon Valley culture; now, in 2011, this book is a detailed document of the beginning of this new historical epoch which we are living in.

Girlwood by Jennifer Still

The cover image of Jennifer Still’s second collection of poems, Girlwood, is very fitting; you have a mother embracing a young daughter with a bulldozer disturbing the Earth in front of them. Still’s poetry explores what it is to be a girl, and to a lesser extent, a mother, and the relationships between the two. The narrators of the poems are depicted as being very vulnerable. As the collection progresses the reader is taken through questions of identity, roles in society, domesticity, sexuality and sexual urges, and a variety of other bonds that tie together a mother and her daughter.

This isn’t the kind of collection that you could easily pull out one individual poem as an example of Still’s talents. These short poems are brought together to form longer sequences of poems. Each poem leads into the next and is connected to its predecessor. All of the verse poems have a strong lyrical quality to them. They flow flawlessly from start to finish with very sharp imagery that is vividly expressed in sometimes only two or three words. The author also does a great job with how the poems are presented on the page; the line breaks and margins are an integral part of the book, they force the reader to briefly pause and reflect on what was just said. My favorite part of the book is the series of prose poems titled “Track”, sequentially numbered from 1 to 5. I felt that these poems were great introductions to the sequences and really set the tone for the subsequent sections.

Girlwood is definitely a collection for anyone who likes reading about mother/daughter relationships and family dynamics. Jennifer Still does a masterful job at bringing out the deepest desires and feelings of her characters. The book flows very well, the images and narrators are memorable, and the structure of the poems, whether they are verse or prose, is excellent. 2011 has already been a great year for new collections of poetry and so far Girlwood is definitely one of the best. More info about the book, and the publisher Brick Books, can be found here.

Lessons in Falling by T.B. Perry

Lessons in Falling is the debut collection of poems from Calgary Junior High teacher T.B. Perry. Teaching is one of the most noble professions around and most people do not realize the amount of work that goes into the job. Most of this work is unpaid and under appreciated. These poems examine the life of a teacher and explore the nuances of this profession. There are so many aspects to job of a teacher; educating students, dealing with parents and keeping them informed, navigating the politics and bureaucracy of the job, and keeping yourself motivated and mentally healthy. Mr. Perry, as I feel obliged to call him sine he is a teacher, does a good job in capturing what a day, week, and academic year is like for someone tasked with educating our youth.

The poems in this volume are very introspective and reflective. One thing that really interested me about this collection is the way the author portrayed the emotional strain put on teachers. The narrator of some of the poems talks about seeing students who have obviously been crying, are bruised, have cut marks, and are in emotional distress. One poem in particular really stuck with me, “Hey Teacher”. This poem is about the suicide of a student and the effect on the teacher; I think this poem best demonstrates the psychological toll and ultimate lack of control a teacher really has. You can teach and help until you are blue in the face, but sometimes nothing is enough. T.B. Perry is quite effective in showing the reader this.

Mr. Perry unfolds a world that is cloaked in mystique. We get to know what the person sitting behind the desk at the front of the classroom is really like; the human behind the teacher. We see what the students mean to the teacher, for better or worse in certain cases. I have great respect for teachers and I think this collection can show anyone why they deserve this respect. More info can be found about Mr. Perry and his book at http://tbperry.com/ .

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack

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

Whenever I think about literature about Mennonites, I, like most people I’m sure, think of Miriam Toews and her book A Complicated Kindness. When I came across Mennonites Don’t Dance, the debut collection of stories by Darcie Friesen Hossack, I was interested in reading another book by a different author about this piece of the Canadian identity that is really foreign to me as a Maritimer. These stories revolve around the family dynamics of rural Saskatchewan Mennonites, focusing on the differences between generations. While only a few of the stories are actually connected, all of the stories have a real sense of community. As I read the stories, it felt like I was walking down the street from one family to another, sitting in their living room, and watching a brief episode of their lives. I loved this collection of stories. I didn’t really have any expectations either way as this is a debut collection and I hadn’t read any of the stories in journals. All I knew was the cover art was very nice. Darcie Hossack writes with a maturity that is way beyond a first book. Her prose are sparse and punchy but have a poetic quality, the characters are developed quickly and deeply, and the stories vary from short episodes of only a couple pages to longer 40+ page stories that feel like miniature novels.

The highest compliment that I can pay this book is that it reminded me of the best work of Mavis Gallant. Both writers share many qualities in terms of style of writing and treatment of characters. The cast of the stories are developed on a deep level within a couple paragraphs, as they should be in short stories; there are many characters that are very likable and sympathetic but there are also many characters that are very brash and hard to handle, typically the older generation characters in the stories. Hossack is merciless with her characters. Their experiences and hardships are not sugar-coated. There is death. There is suffering. Through it all though the beauty of the prose reveals a mysterious world unknown to many people.

I read a lot of short story collections. 2010 seemed to be the year of the story with a lot of collections receiving high praise. I’d say this is the best of that crowd. The great thing about a collection of stories is that there are multiple sets of characters, multiple plots, multiple opportunities to leave an impression on the reader. My favorite stories in the book are the title story, “Mennonites Don’t Dance”, and the second story, “Ashes”. A lot of these stories will leave you feeling sad, but many will also leave you feeling hopeful. The Praries have produced so many great writers: Laurence, Vanderhaeghe, Toews, and Kroetsch just to name a few; I think with a few more books under her belt, Darcie Friesen Hossack will join this group. Hopefully we don’t have to wait to long for book number 2.

The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou



I imagine that second novels are intimidating to a writer, especially when the first one was a success and well received. It is also an iffy thing for readers too; your expectations are often higher with a second novel than with the first. The Canterbury Trail, Angie Abdou’s third book and second novel, comes out on the heels of Canada Reads, where The Bone Cage was a contender. When I first flipped through the book I was really struck with the visual appear of it; each chapter starts with a little anecdote (recipes for pot cookies for example) and a little illustration representing the chapter’s central character. Angie Abdou has weaved a tale that is the perfect blend of comedy, drama, and tragedy; the author realizes that life is usually a mix of the humorous, the dramatic, and the tragic.

The Canterbury Trail is the story of three groups of “pilgrims”. The characters include, among others, ski-bum stoners, a big-city cougar (the sex crazed older woman, not the animal), redneck snowmobilers, lesbians, a pregnant woman, a Swede, a variety of dogs, and an old senile man living in the woods hanging signs that are the glue of the story. This novel is wonderful because of the characters and their interactions as opposed to the “story” per se. There is great forward movement and a plot, including characters’ back stories, but it is the personalities and camaraderie amongst the pilgrims that grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go.

The author has done a great job of making a coherent novel with a so many unique and well-developed characters. Sometimes when a writer tries to build a book around a large amount of characters they are flat or stock and/or there is so little forward momentum you stop reading; this is certainly not the case here. Some of the characters are more likable than others but all are memorable. SOR and F-Bomb are by far my favorite in the book while Cosmos and Kevin really annoyed me.

This book is definitely not for children. There are a lot of drugs, drinking, sexual innuendo, and foul language, but that is part of it’s charm. All of these things are simply part of the characters’ lifestyles, stage in life, and their general personality. Drugs, booze, and swearing is a part of life for many whether you like it or not; I think the author is not necessarily glamorizing making pot cookies and mushroom tea (although the recipes are included if you do want to try it), I think she is simply saying “this is what these characters do, this is how they do it.” I found the scenes where the characters were intoxicated or in the process of becoming intoxicated very funny. But like everything fun and joyous, eventually it comes to an end, and, without giving anything away, Angie Abdou certainly does that with style.

Like The Bone Cage, this book has something for everyone (drugs, booze, lesbians, swearing… what else could you want?). The Canterbury Trail examines almost every type of person you would likely run in to and looks at how they interact with each other. There is a lot more than can be looked at in this book than what can fit into a short review, like nature as a character, the allusions to The Canterbury Tales and other Medieval literature,  and small town mountain life to name a few.

As I mentioned in my review of her last novel, I have had the pleasure to chat with Angie Abdou via Twitter and Facebook in recent months; I think speaking with authors on social media creates a whole new dimension to their work and I think it helps a reader appreciate the work that goes into a book. I am very impressed with Angie Abdou’s writing (she is actually the only person to have 2 novels reviewed on my site). Each period in Canadian Literature has its bright lights, pre-confederation Canada has Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail; Ondaatje, Atwood, Laurence, and Munro all came to prominence in the 60s; and if I were to make a list of the great 21st century Canadian novelists to date, Angie Abdou would definitely  be on the list with writers like Kathleen Winter, Miriam Toews, and Nino Ricci.

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