Monthly Archives: September, 2014

Rockbound by Frank Parker Day

Rockbound

Winner of Canada Reads – 2005

First published in 1928, Rockbound by Nova Scotian Frank Parker Day was long relegated to the depths of CanLit obscurity, even after it was reissued by the University of Toronto Press in 1973. But, this fantastic novel has been brought back into the canon of classic Canadian literature. Initially, this happened because of its frequent inclusion in Canadian Literature courses at universities – in both survey courses and as a mainstay in Atlantic Canadian Lit classes (and it is typically required reading in the few Island Studies literature courses taught around the world). For the general public, its inclusion and subsequent victory in the 2005 edition of Canada Reads was what brought Rockbound to prominence (Rockbound has the distinction of being the oldest book to win the competition and it currently stands as the only novel from the Maritimes to take the title).

Rockbound is one of the most magical novels I’ve read in many years. I grew up in Nova Scotia and spent a lot of time in the region where this book is set; I had family on the South Shore and my High School’s district included much of the upper half of the shore. Many of the family names in Day’s classic novel reminded me of home – Jung, Kraus, Slaughnwhite, Boutilier, and Born to name a few. Additionally, my father worked his way through school by fishing, and my uncle and father-in-law are both lifelong fishermen. So as I read through this book, I felt a very strong connection to its story and characters.

Rockbound is both a book of its time and a timeless story of the human condition. In the 1920s, fishing in Atlantic Canada was still a very lucrative career and had a certain unspoken romanticism to it. For men especially, hard work and manual labour were valued over all else, especially formal education. Every outport and village had its own unique dialect and set of rules – essentially existing as its own nation in a way. Being a fisherman wasn’t simply an occupation or even a way of life, it was a state of being as natural as breathing. The magic of Frank Parker Day’s novel is how he pulls the reader into this long-forgotten world. His use of dialect would rival Mark Twain and his landscape imagery is equally as good as any of the Confederation Poets from the previous generation.

While the imagery and landscape is essential to Rockbound, this is a character driven novel. Uriah Jung is one of the great not-so-subtle antagonists of early Canadian fiction. The undisputed king of the island of Rockbound, Uriah is the domineering and scheming patriarch of the Jung clan. He has three sons whom he rules with an iron fist and works to the bone, but his world is turned upside-down with the arrival of the novel’s protagonist, his nephew David Jung, claiming a sliver of land he is legally entitled to. Uriah and David are the primary drivers of the drama on Rockbound, but this is an ensemble piece. Uriah’s trio of sons – Martin, Joseph, and Casper, Gershom, the Kraus family, and Mary each lend important elements to life on Rockbound and help make this story what it is.

Rockbound is now part of the public domain in Canada so there are a number of discount ebook copies available, but I strongly recommend dropping the few extra dollars for the UTP publication which includes a fantastic afterword by Gwendolyn Davies of UNB. The afterword provides great historical and regional context and some fascinating biographical background on Frank Parker Day.

This book can be read in so many ways that it begs for deeper critical analysis – the struggle and plight of the working man, island notions of totality and intimacy, familial bonds and social customs, the role of women in a man’s world, and the list goes on. I think this is why Rockbound ultimately won Canada Reads and became a bestseller: it is a fun read that can be taken in by a general audience as a superficially good story and, for the more advanced readers, Day has crafted a thematically complex novel that can pull you in a variety of directions.

As a brief post-script, this novel is just begging to be made into a CBC mini-series.

1996 by Sara Peters

1996

Quill and Quire Book of Year – 2013

Sara Peters and I were both born in 1982 in Canada’s greatest province, Nova Scotia, but alas since we were born hundreds of kilometers apart, we never met. She went on to earn an MFA from Boston University and hold a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, whereas I did not. 1996 is the debut collection from this exciting new voice in Canadian poetry. The description on the back of the book describes this collection using words like desire, violence, sex, beauty, and cruelty; this, along with the endorsement of Robert Pinksy (impressive for a debut collection from a Maritime poet), immediately grabbed my attention and commanded me to buy this book. It was a good decision.

I read a lot of poetry – at least half of the reviews on this blog are of poetry collections, but it is undeniable that, for the most part, volumes of poetry as a whole are less memorable than say a novel or a memoir. For myself, and many people with whom I discuss poetry, it is usually individual poems or smaller sequences that stick with me after I’ve finished a book. There are exceptions to this rule, Let Us Compare Mythologies by Leonard Cohen,The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje and The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood are a few personal exceptions. 1996 is now also one of those exceptions.

I would use one word to describe this collection: dark. Sara Peters has a real knack for crafting short, punchy, macabre lines that just send shivers down your spine as a reader. From the Poem “Cruelty”:

When I was eleven, I watched my cousin cut open a gopher
with the serrated top of a tin can.

From “Camden 14”

He’d been kept awake all night

by snowflakes, so Camden
set himself on fire.

From “Bionic”, discussing the speaker’s mother and brother:

She’s senile and probably dying.
He’s cruel but his cruelty’s probably temporary.

He’s dressed her in a T-shirt that says
I kill everything I fuck // I fuck everything I kill.

And one more example, from “The Last Time I Slept in this Bed”:

I was involved in the serious business
of ripping apart my own body.

Most of these examples are from the opening few lines of their respective poems. Throughout the collection, the author uses these sharp and attention grabbing opening lines to set the mood, so to speak, and then further explore whatever theme or topic it is she’s writing about.

1996 is a very quick read. Most of the poems are in the 2 page range and Peters uses short, staccato-esque, rhythmic verses, with stanzas typically in the 2 to 3 line range. While it is a quick read, it is not an easy read. Peters’ poems are incredibly complex, hardly narrative, and so rife with metaphor, symbolism, and abstract associational imagery, that the very casual or non-reader of poetry may be slightly intimidated or even lost.

Harold Bloom once said something to the effect of “great poetry should make your head hurt.” 1996 certainly does that, and it is a wonderful thing. It pushes the reader’s boundaries of understanding and demands he or she dig deep to soak up every syllable. These poems demand slow reading and re-reading. But, even if you just read from start to finish without digging too deep, you’ll still be pulled into the absorbing dark language and the beautiful sound of the poetry.

1996 isn’t simply read, it’s remembered.

Room by Emma Donoghue

RoomEmmaDonoghue690_f

Winner of the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Winner of the 20111 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region
Winner of the 2010 Salon Book Award
Winner of the 2011 Alex Award
Winner of the 2010 Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award
Winner of the 2011 Indies Choice Book Award
Winner of the 2011 WH Smith Paperback of the Year, Galaxy National Book Awards
Shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Amazon.ca Best Book – 2010
New York Times Notable Book of the Year – 2010
ALA Notable Book – 2011

Room by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue was one of the hit novels to come out of the CanLit scene in 2010. As seen above, it was nominated for numerous awards and was on countless “Best Book” lists. For those hiding under a rock, Room tells the story of a five year old boy, Jack, and his mother, known only as Ma, who are held captive in an 11′ x 11′ garden shed and their subsequent escape and rehabilitation. The story is told in the first-person voice of Jack, who despite never knowing anything outside what he affectionately calls Room, is very sharp and observant.

I had high expectations when I started this book; reviews were mostly positive, its award pedigree was impressive, and its concept sounded interesting. The idea of a woman being held captive is hardly an original idea – it is a common story that can been seen at least once a month on Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU, but Donoghue takes a novel approach to the story. The story unfolds in what is basically a three act structure – from Jack’s 5th birthday in Room up to and including his escape, Jack’s and Ma’s time in the psychiatric hospital, and finally the time Jack spends alone with his grandparents after his mother tries to commit suicide. Each part has it’s own climax, so structurally the story flows quite quickly and seamlessly and is reminiscent of the style of late modernist CanLit writers like Margaret Laurence.

Room‘s most fascinating element was the narration by the precocious and literal thinking Jack. I often have trepidations about reading fiction narrated by a young child. It is very difficult to capture everything the author is going for without making the child seem like some kind of super genius. Donoghue managed to avoid this for the most part, particularly by making the novel dialogue heavy; while Jack relays the dialogue to us as readers, it is clear he doesn’t understand what is going on in many instances. This is very cleverly done and really adds to Jack’s character development and keeps that psychological forward momentum going.

Thematically, Room is very complex. The element of this novel that seems to get the most attention is the resilience of Jack and this notion of the toughness of children. But there is so much more going on. During the first half of the novel before they escape, I was fascinated by the dichotomy of the pure innocence of Jack juxtaposed with the pure evil of Old Nick and how Ma manages to act as a buffer between the two and avoid any contamination of Jack’s purity. Later in the novel, I was quite taken by the parasitic nature of the news media and the pressure on Ma to tell her story – this reminded me of the interviews of the women held captive by Ariel Castro in Cleveland. An argument is often made that Room is itself a larger metaphor for parenthood itself – the sense of isolation, captivity, dependence, etc – but I don’t like this; I find it too simplistic of an analysis of a very complex novel.

Overall, I liked this book. There were a few points that I had difficulty accepting, most notably Ma’s attempted suicide, but overall I was satisfied by Room. The characters are well developed and realistic, the dialogue is effective and well-written, the portrayal of Jack is incredibly effective, there is no over-writing or extraneous detail, and Donoghue focuses on the parts of this family’s story that should be the focus instead of simply novelizing an episode of Law & Order.

As a post-script, apparently a film adaptation of Room is in the works with the screenplay written by Emma Donoghue herself. I am pessimistic about how well a piece of highly psychological fiction that relies so heavily on a 5 year old’s stream-of-conscious  narration will translate to a visual medium. We’ll just have to wait until it’s released to know I suppose.

Ice and Water by John English

Ice and water

After finishing Death on Two Fronts, I decided to read one more title from the History of Canada Series; I bought Ice and Water at the same time as the last book and it was next in the queue on my Kobo app, so I dove right in. I was looking forward to this title mainly because the actual subject matter interested me; I minored in Political Science and my graduate studies were in Island Studies so I was already fairly familiar with Arctic politics and some of the history around it. This is the fifth title in the History of Canada Series that I’ve read, and unfortunately, it was my least favorite so far. It wasn’t necessarily bad, it just didn’t live up to the expectations I went in with based on my experience with the previous four entries.

Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples, and the Arctic Council by John English is a look at the political history of the Arctic. English provides a bit of pre-World War II context, subsequently looks at Cold War era Arctic politics, and then zooms in on the formation and development of the Arctic Council that took place from the mid-1980s through to today. The book explores the relations between the “Arctic Eight” (Canada, US, Russia/Soviet Union, and the five Nordic countries), indigenous peoples (Inuit, Eskimos, and Saami), and NGOs (such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation) and how we ended up with the current international Arctic political dynamic. Topics such as sovereignty, defence, the environment, indigenous rights, and economic development are all examined through the lens of Northern politics.

Writing about contemporary history is very difficult – John English admits as much in his acknowledgements. Very little is archived, items may be classified in some way, many of the players are still politically active and therefore reluctant to speak candidly, media accounts that usually make up the primary sources may be unreliable, and most importantly it is hard to draw conclusions from events that have yet to be “concluded.” With that being said, John English must be one exceptionally well connected historian; his book is well researched, meticulously detailed, and leaves no stone unturned. I think it may be this meticulousness that made this title less enjoyable than previous History of Canada titles.

Ice and Water read more like a Master’s thesis than it did a general audience history. It wasn’t written in social science-ese but was very steeped in the conventions of political science and historical academic writing. This caused the book to be very heavy and dense; I usually read in bed at the end of the day and found myself exhausted after about the equivalent of 20 pages – making this is a very slow-read. I read this on my Kobo but the hardcover is almost 400 pages (which I’d argue is a lot for such a topic as Arctic politics).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t enjoy the book. I liked it, I just didn’t love it. If you have an interest in political history, international relations or Cold War politics, then you may enjoy this, even though it is a bit of a slow slog to finish. If, on the other hand, you like Canadian history but are not interested in any of the aforementioned topics, I would skip this one.

I’ve read only histories and academic titles for over a year now and it was fun while it lasted. But now, my brain needs a shift in my reading list. May 2013 was the last time I read a novel or book of poetry. The time has come to delve back into the exciting world of hardcore CanLit. Here we go…

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