Monthly Archives: August, 2012

Fall by Colin McAdam

Winner of the 2009 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction

Shortlisted for 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Colin McAdam’s second novel, Fall,  is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. The story focuses on a pair of roommates: Julius, a typical high-school jock who is light on intellect, and Noel, who at once is both protagonist and antagonist, is the dark and brooding young man whose true character becomes clearer as the novel progresses. McAdam effectively uses a combination of narrative techniques and multiple points-of-view to tell this story. Fall‘s strongest attribute, however, is its pacing. Coming in at a respectable 358 pages, McAdam makes the most of every sentence. Each and every detail is meticulously sketched out for the reader and, for the really attentive reader, subtle hints and foreshadowing abounds in this novel.

Set in St. Ebury, a fictional private boarding-school in Ottawa catering to children of diplomats and well-to-dos, Fall takes place at a pre-Internet and pre-cell phone time; St. Ebury could be described as a non-magical Hogwarts (with words like Headmaster and Head Boy being used). This setting creates a feeling of privilege and exclusivity that permeates the writing.

The narration alternates between the first-person perspectives of both Noel and Julius with the occasional chapter narrated by William, Julius’s father’s driver. McAdam does a fantastic job in creating unique voices for the two main characters. Chapters narrated by Noel are done so from the distance of around a decade. His chapters are made up of long and intricate sentences that are very reflective; Noel is always trying to answer rhetorical questions that he seems to be grappling with. Julius’s chapters are told from the present using sentences that are sharp, truncated, and impressionistic. This immediately furthers the contrast in intellects between the two characters. The few chapters that are narrated by William are more so a release-valve to provide foreshadowing and an external analysis of yet-to-unfold events. Fall is also filled with a fantastic cast of supporting characters: the title character, Fall, who is Julius’s girlfriend and Noel’s object of obsession; Ant and Chuck, friends of the main pair; and the parents of the main characters.

At this point, I have to give a spoiler alert. Late in the novel, Noel is described as a sociopath by William. Early events narrated by Noel begin to paint this picture: his first sexual encounter, in Australia with Meg, is quite dark; he has a habit of dressing in his roommates clothes and staring at himself in the mirror when he is alone; and, probably most disturbing, he recalls cutting the tail of his cat as a child because he wasn’t happy with his birthday present. Later of course, he kills Fall and maims Julius. What is most interesting about Noel is that he is an incredibly sympathetic character, likely because of McAdam’s use of the “unreliable narrator.” I am not sure if I think that Noel is a sociopath/psychopath. If he really is, his narration might be manipulated to make him remorseful; that is ultimately the question that you are left with when finished with Fall.

Local News by Glen Downie

One thing that Canadian writers certainly do well is prose poetry, that contradictory hybrid of the poem and the very short-story. Glen Downie’s 2011 collection Local News is a collection of prose poems that explores the everyday world all of us. I was attracted to this volume because of my interest in the genre, not necessarily the subject matter. The book is divided into four sections, each with its own focus. While I did find one particular section interesting, the one where the speaker is essentially pontificating on the decline of the small town, overall this book was a bit of a letdown.

Over the last number of years, I have read a lot of poetry that explores mystic properties of the old sofa in the living-room or the metaphysical character of a kitchen sink, etc; I think this trend of finding the magical in the meaningless has run its course and should be placed on the trash heap of English literature. The sequences “Home”, “Garage”, and “Mall” were filled with this kind of writing and it left a very forced and cold feeling. The poem “Pitch Fork” was a great example of this. Downie muses on the symbolic power that this simple garden tool radiates, invoking images of Satan and Poseidon. As the Freudian maxim goes, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Downie and other authors who are writing this kind of material need to realize that they are not Robert Browning and that picture hanging in the hallway is not their “last Duchess painted on the wall,/ Looking as if she were alive.”

The one redeeming section of the book was his look at the various small shops one would find in any generic dying small town in Canada. The characters that inhabit the shops and town, their ambiance, and how they are a throwback to a simpler time permeate this short sequence. This was the only part of the book that felt fresh, original, and passionate.

I get what Glen Downie was going for with Local News, his words simply fell on deaf and unsympathetic ears that were tired of hearing about how supernatural a mattress is. A for effort, C for execution.

Indexical Elegies by Jon Paul Fiorentino

When I originally bought this book, it was for one reason: its cover. I had not heard of Jon Paul Fiorentino, I didn’t know what the central premise of the book was, and in fact I didn’t even read the back of it. This is a testament to the quality cover design done by the publisher. Fast-forward 18 months, I was perusing my poetry shelf trying to decide what to read and this book popped out at me, again because of the cover design. Because of my complete unfamiliarity with the author, I went into this book blind, not knowing at all what to expect. Indexical Elegies is a mix of sad, esoteric, misanthropic, and refractory poems.

Fiorentino proves himself to be a master of wordplay and phonetic manipulation. This volume has interesting combination of alliteration and mid-line rhyming; the poems are not necessarily metrical but not necessarily completely free from structure. This collection, especially the last sequence “Transprarie”, has a strong sense of despondency and anxiousness; but of course this is to be expected with the word “elegies” in the title. The speaker seems at great unease with the world around him. Manitoba also seems to bear the brunt of his agoraphobic writing.

This collection is a very quick read, almost too quick. With about 65 pages of poems, most of which are no more than 50 words, I finished this book with about 70 minutes of reading. These are not “everyman” poems. I think the occasional or casual reader of poetry would struggle with Indexical Elegies. This book is more suited to someone who has studied poetry, reads it often, and is familiar with the elegiac tradition pioneered by 17th and 18th century poets like Donne and Thomas Gray.

The Last Act by Ron Graham

Shortlisted for the 2011 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

Globe and Mail Top 100 Book – 2011

The Last Act by Ron Graham is from Penguin’s new History of Canada series. When I first saw this series in the bookstore, with titles exploring the legendary 1891 federal election, the now mythic Plains of Abraham battle, Expo 67, and the German U-boat battles in the St. Lawrence, I almost had a stroke induced by excitement. A quality series of books, by very reputable writers, digging into events that are known at at least in a general way by the Canadian citizenry  is something to be celebrated. I immediately grabbed a pile of these titles and headed to the cash. Since I just finished Donald Creighton’s pair of histories on Canada, I figured this book would be a good follow-up.

Two great things happened to Canada in 1982: I was born and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed. Ron Graham’s The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada is an account of the November 1981 conference that resulted in severing one of the last lingering remnants of colonialism. (Eventually we will sever the last and get rid of that anachronistic monarchy that is still technically our Head-of-State). This meeting brought about constitutional patriation, the Charter, an amending formula, and set into motion the wheels of the Quebec sovereignty movement that culminated in the 1995 referendum. While the book focuses on the events of November 4 and 5, there is a great prologue giving historical context and a fantastic epilogue discussing Mulroney’s failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Ron Graham has written a masterpiece of Canadian political history; it is highly readable and accessible, but also very thoroughly researched and scrupulously cited with a huge bibliography. In years to come, The Last Act will be looked at as an authoritative text on the 1981 constitutional debate.

Something that is interesting about Graham’s writing style is, with the exception of his epilogue, the utter neutrality he takes towards the people involved, especially Rene Levesque whom he tries to portray in as sympathetic manner as possible. As a reader though, depending on your ideological tendencies, you will definitely end up taking sides and developing strong dislikes of certain players (for instance I would have liked to beat Peter Lougheed and Sterling Lyon with a rubber hose).

This book could have become bogged down in philosophical notions of federalism, the role of the courts, and constitutionalism. These ideas are present, but they come out in the words of the players themselves through interviews, quotes, and their general actions. After reading Creighton’s The Road to Canada and learning about how opposed the Fathers of Confederation were to the concept of “provincial rights” and their destructive nature, I was fascinated by the importance of it in the negotiations.

I have always been a huge admirer of Pierre Trudeau, and this book did nothing but deepen that admiration. Trudeau took the long view. By introducing the Charter, he ensured fundamental freedoms for all Canadians. The political scientist in me firmly believes that for a liberal-democracy to function in the interests of its citizens, checks-and-balances need to be in place. The Charter provides this; important changes in Canada’s social fabric were brought about because of the Charter, changes that politicians would be terrified to touch (reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, safe-injection sites, and soon hopefully, assisted suicide). Trudeau was a Canadian visionary, but above all, he was a shrewd political mind, and love him or hate him, in November 1981, he was definitely the smartest guy in the room.

Canada’s First Century by Donald Creighton

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It is a very rare occurance for me to read two books by the same author back-to-back, but I felt I would be doing a disservice to Donald Creighton and to the early study of Canadian history if I didn’t read this book. Canada’s First Century is essentially a sequel to the last book I reviewed, The Road to Confederation, and judging by the cover design, the folks running the Wynford Project wanted to link the two titles in this way. This book picks up at midnight, July 1st 1867 and ends with Expo ’67. Post-confederation Canada has a rich and multifarious history and capturing a century of our story in 356 pages is a difficult task. For the most part, Creighton recites the political history of Canada’s first hundred years with chapters roughly divided up by who the Prime Minister was at the time. He wrote this book in the late 60s with publication coming in 1970. The historical interpretation and view of the world/Canada is definitely of its time; the Cold War was raging, the Quiet Revolution in Quebec was in full force, we were becoming almost inseparably linked to the US, and the welfare state system which Canadian’s now proudly identify as part of our collective identity was becoming firmly entrenched into the social fabric of this relatively young nation. All this being said, it is understandable that Creighton had an uncertain and pessimistic view of what the future held for his country.

This author was not short on opinions and he liberally inserted them into his book; something that few credible historians have the guts to do today. He was not ideologically or party driven in his clear admiration for certain Prime Ministers. He had high praise for Laurier and Bennett, but harsh criticisms of Borden and St. Laurent. The level of anti-Americanism that oozes from Creighton is almost militant; he only barely stops short of calling the US blatantly evil hypocrits. A similar level of disdain is also reserved for the Quebec nationalism that was growing in the 60s. Of the last 50 pages, at least a third of it is analyzing the issue of “bilingualism and biculturism.” Like every historian I have ever had the pleasure of working with (they really are fascinating humans), Creighton offers no solutions or predictions; he simply points out the lessons that can learned from our collective experience.

Six months ago I read A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright which examined how everything that happens does so in a cyclical way and that essentially nothing is without precedent. In the context of Canadian political history, this book shows that everything important in Canadian politics in the last decade also has precedent; be it an American snub of Canada over foreign policy, using rules of parliament and prorogation for political gains, party leadership quarrels, or using debate closure to force controversial legislation through the House of Commons.

Canada’s First Century was a fascinating read because it highlighted both the well-known events in Canadian history, like the Manitoba Schools problem or the WWI conscription debate, and lesser-known episodes of our history and politics. This book didn’t read as smoothly as The Road to Confederation and some parts seemed a bit clunky. Despite this, Donald Creighton certainly captured the nuances of Canada as it stood in the 1960s and certainly provides food-for-thought for where we going and where we are at now, on the eve of our sesquicentennial.

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