Monthly Archives: December, 2014

The Perfect Order of Things by David Gilmour

Perfect order of things

Shortlisted for the 2012 Trillium Book Award

A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2011

National Post Best Book ~ 2011

Toronto Star Favorite Book ~ 2011

David Gilmour has to be one of the most underrated novelists in contemporary Canadian literature. Other than his 2005 Governor General’s Award win for The Perfect Night to go to China, he generally doesn’t receive a lot of attention from award juries or even the general reading public. People who follow CanLit closely would be familiar with him and his frequent contributions to The Globe and Mail and his interviews on CBC’s The Next Chapter. His books tend to be short, punchy, direct, and, frankly, they’re usually quite depressing. His 2011 novel The Perfect Order of Things was his first work of fiction since his GG win and his first book since his well received 2007 memoir The Film Club. This was an interesting little book and an enjoyable choice for my last novel of 2014.

This short novel is an exposition on two general themes: living life through the arts – the unnamed narrator reflects on Tolstoy, film, The Beatles and their collective effect on his character; and coping with the end of romantic relationships. The second theme, in my reading, is by far the most prevalent in the book. The narrator is a really unlikeable guy; he’s arrogant – borderline narcissistic, he has a taste for prescription pills, and he collects ex-lovers like young boys collect comic books. In the end though, you find yourself hoping for him to pull through, and I can’t put my finger on why (thanks English degree). My one theory in reflection is the connection you build with Gilmour’s conversational first-person storytelling. The narrator, in the immediate current time of narration, is in his sixties and has had time to marinate in the sometimes baffling decisions he has made over the decades, but because of that, he approaches his sordid life with a wisdom that would be absent had the narration been in the present tense rather than in its reflective form. Looking back, he knows he’s a different person now than he was. That being said though, a lot of the chapters in this book are really goddamn depressing.

The big question that seems to surround this book in amateur reviews is the idea of form, i.e. novel versus memoir. I don’t doubt that, for the most part, this is a work of fiction; David Gilmour is after all know in general as an autobiographical writer. But, there are numerous plot points that are inarguably taken directly from David Gilmour’s life: he worked at the CBC, he was involved with the Toronto Film Festival (although his wife took this role in the novel), he is an extreme admirer of Tolstoy, he’s now an academic, he’s had three wives and has two kids (a boy and a girl), and wrote a book called The Film Club about exactly what was described in this novel. The Perfect Order of Things is a textbook example of autobiographical fiction. This is a novel.  Gilmour simply used his life as a template for a fictional story, with some elements being more transparent than others.

This was a very satisfying read. The chapters were very well delineated to the point that many could stand alone. The prose is punchy, efficient, and direct. And Gilmour continues to develop his highly intellectual style of writing; he manages to fuse very sophisticated and polished language with the conversational. The Perfect Order of Things further cements my hope that Gilmour’s writing will grow in popularity and that he will be recognized as one of the best writers of his generation.

Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson

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Based on the lyrics of Neil Peart and the Rush album of the same name

I am as die-hard of a Rush fan as one can be. I know their whole history, have all their albums, know a huge chunk of their songs note-by-note, and as a life-long drummer I worship at the altar of Neil Peart. Their 2012 album Clockwork Angels followed their excellent record Snakes and Arrows and continues Rush’s long tested style of fusing traditional hard rock with the funkier elements of old-school prog rock. My wife and I were lucky enough to see Rush live in Halifax in 2013 (it was my son’s first concert, as my wife was very pregnant at the time). This was a fantastic album, the musicality was aggressive and highly complex and the lyrics married Jules Verne-esque imagery and socio-political themes. The album was masterful, and I think their best since Signals (bold statement, but I stand by it).

I didn’t know that a “novelization” of this record existed until the publisher, ECW Press, held a twitter contest to win a signed copy of the hardcover book. I assumed Neil Peart authored it, but it was only based on his lyrics, Kevin J. Anderson was the actual author of the novel (all I know about him is that he’s written numerous Star Trek and Star Wars novels). Clockwork Angels may be unique; I cannot find any references to another album being adapted into a novel. My expectations were not high. And that was a good thing.

This novel was steampunk through-and-through. It’s the first such novel I’ve read and it is a genre that I’m not overly familiar with. Essentially, it’s reminiscent of what hard sci-fi from the Victorian Era would have looked like (H.G. Wells’ The Time-Machine could be considered a precursor). So what can I say…this is a genre novel, by someone who writes Star Trek and Star Wars fiction, based on a prog rock album… Clockwork Angels wasn’t a bad book, it was ok, but it’s better described as airport reading and it certainly isn’t a classic.

My biggest issue with this book is whether or not I’m supposed to take it seriously or not. Rush has a real self-deprecating sense of humour. If that is the case with this book, it makes the story a little better. Every few pages, Anderson managed to jam in some Rush lyrics or song titles, so this produced a lot of groan moments. The story also dragged a little bit. The novel portion of the book runs 290 pages (the volume also includes all of the album lyrics and an afterword by Peart – the best part of the book), but the story could have easily been told in a 100 page novella.

This book wasn’t all bad though. Anderson played with some interesting themes, like despotism and the classic coming-of-age story; he also did a great job of capturing the imagery of Peart’s lyrics. The author’s strength is how he writes action scenes; these were very vivid and really capture the moment (much the same way Michael Bay movies are really good at making things go boom). The highlight of the book has to be the actual physical book itself. The page design is beautiful, each chapter starts with a page that looks like parchment, and the novel is filled with incredibly eye-pleasing illustrations by Hugh Syme, the Juno-winning artist who designs all of Rush’s record covers.

If you’re into steampunk or just looking for a book that doesn’t require a whole lot of deep thought then this may be a book for you. If you’re a hardcore Rush fan, like myself, than I would recommend you read this simply for the novelty of experiencing the adaptation of an album into a book (I really think, despite what Peart says in his afterword, that Rush fans are really the sole target for this novel). If you fit neither of these categories, you’d be safe to skip this and move on.

1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal by Christopher Moore

1867

Christopher Moore is one of Canada’s best known current authors of histories. He’s a two-time Governor General’s Award winner (one for non-fiction and one for Children’s lit for a history book for kids) and has been shortlisted for a variety of literary non-fiction awards. He’s a well known columnist, a CBC and NFB documentary producer/host, and does extensive work with numerous historical societies. His work covers numerous topics and he writes in a manner that is both intelligent and accessible. Simply put, he is the guy in Canadian history right now. A few years ago I read and reviewed The Road to Confederation by Donald Creighton, which has long been considered one of the seminal histories of the making of Canada. Since I enjoyed his book so much, Moore’s 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal sat on my bookshelf, unread, literally for years. It has been a long while since I read Creighton’s book and I was itching to read a history, so this title caught my eye. Funny enough, this was the very first book I added to my “to-read” list on Goodreads when I first signed up.

I expected Moore’s book to simply be another retelling of the story of Confederation, just with his own conclusions that may or may not mesh with Creighton. 1867 was so much more. As the book begins, Moore essentially flat out states that Creighton was wrong. He says that Creighton’s conclusions came out of a very specific point in time and many perpetual myths about Confederation that aren’t 100% accurate (those typically taught in the school system) were drawn from his volume. From there, I knew this book would have a lot to offer. Moore’s story is told through two lenses: first, the constitution building approaches used by the Fathers of Confederation, spanning from the Charlottetown Conference to July 1, 1867; second, how does this historical time compare to the collapse of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords and the approach to these constitutional meetings from 1989 to 1992 (this would be relatively fresh in Moore’s mind, this book was finished in 1997).

1867 is as much a book of Canadian political theory as it is history. Moore uses frequent digressions into modern times for comparative purposes to seamlessly put the history into perspective. His central thesis is that the three Confederation conferences in Charlottetown, Quebec, and London were, at its most fundamental level, exercises in constitution making. He focuses on the different methods that were used to craft this new country: how the political leaders worked with the opposition, the relationship with the electorate, legislative philosophy and functioning, the role of the colonial governors and the British parliament, and the fascinating personalities of many of the participants that have been whitewashed by history over the decades. Moore does a masterful job of contrasting the Confederation meetings with both Trudeau’s 1981-2 meetings and Mulroney’s Meech Lake and Charlottetown meetings to craft the book’s central conclusion.

One of the most important early political accomplishments of colonial British North America was the achievement of what was called “responsible government,” this would now more properly be called parliamentary democracy. Essentially, what this means is that the executive, the cabinet including the Prime Minister, is responsible to parliament (and by extension the people), and not the crown, governor, or chief executive. This means that backbench and opposition members of parliament were tasked with keeping the government in line. Moore’s central conclusion in 1867 is that Canada is no longer a parliamentary democracy; we no longer have responsible government. We have become a pseudo-presidential state where backbench MPs, and opposition MPs, are nothing short of faceless drones responsible solely to the party leader. Moore’s exposition of this is absolutely brilliant – his writing, arguments, and style are formidable and hard to dispute. His arguments are nuanced and much more complex than I can articulate in a short blog post.

This book was revelatory. It was a lot different from The Road to Confederation in many ways. That book was more of a blow-by-blow history told through the lens of 1960s sensibilities. Creighton helped build the cult of Sir John A. and create the mythos of Confederation. Moore’s book, as I stated before, was as much political philosophy as it was history. 1867 uses a mix of history, biography, relevant digressions, political theory, and contemporary contexts to show how relevant the Confederation meetings could be to today’s political circumstances. This is required reading for Canadians who desire more from our elected representatives. This book is 17 years old and still in print, a rarity for a book of Canadian history. I really believe that this will go down as a classic in the genre in Canada.

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

educated imagination

Northrop Frye was, and still remains, one of Canada’s true national treasures. He was one the most prolific academics and thinkers this country has ever seen. He was a master in so many fields, literary criticism, philosophy, Biblical scholarship, cultural criticism, and was an able observer of the visual arts. On top of this, he was a skilled writer who could succinctly make a point and disseminate obscure concepts to the general reader. His contributions to literary studies were numerous: he literally changed the paradigm in English literary criticism with his signature book, Anatomy of Criticism; he defined the overarching thematic thread in early CanLit in his conclusion to W.H. New’s History of Canadian Literature; he wrote one of the great contemporary pieces of Shakespearian scholarship with his 1986 Governor General Award winning Northrop Frye on Shakespeare; and he wrote The Great Code, a masterful book examining the influence of the Bible over every aspect of Western artistic culture. It is really impossible to overstate the contribution of Frye to Canadian culture; he really was one of the greatest Canadians.

The Educated Imagination is Frye’s 1962 contribution to the CBC Massey Lectures – only the second set delivered. Still in print, this book is a regular title you’ll see stocked in the miniature section called “Literary Studies” at your local bookstore. This is a thin book; I read the Kobo edition which was only about 160 screens, so the paper version would be around 100 pages. Despite its small size, not since Margaret Atwood’s Survival have I been so affected by a single book. This little book should be required reading for every university English major in their first week and then be re-read every year. Additionally, everyone who teaches English, from elementary school through to PhD programs should be reading this book regularly.

This series of essays attempts to answer two questions: Why study literature? And How do we best teach literature?. Frye uses his strong and fluent prose to answer these questions. He contrasts the study of literature with that of physical sciences to demonstrate the power and importance of the human imagination. The Educated Imagination looks at so many topics: different levels of imaginative communication, use of metaphor and simile, censorship and free-speech, teaching methodologies, the importance of knowing Biblical and classical stories, and the interplay of the arts, social sciences, and physical sciences.

There was nothing revelatory about this book. By that, I mean there wasn’t any new Earth-shattering notions that hadn’t crossed my mind before in the abstract. This book affected me the way it did because of how it articulated concepts and ideas that have vaguely occurred to me over my many years of academic study and general reading. Frye lays out, in clear and eloquent language, the argument for the study of literature and the arts.

Massey Lecture titles are always very engaging reads. Northrop Frye’s books are always a highly pleasurable experience. The two combined is something almost too overwhelmingly great to put into words. Ironically, this book was only Frye’s third published volume of work and his first following his seminal Anatomy of Criticism. Even this early in his career, he shows off his intellectual muscle. Now, not to sound elitist or “snobby”, but this book is not for everyone because, honestly, a lot of people will not connect with the topics or even understand them. This book is a must read though for anyone who has formally studied literature (and wondered why as we all have), anyone who writes seriously, or anyone who reads to be enlightened or to expand the intellect, not just to pass the time.

The Educated Imagination is one of the best books in that large fuzzy “non-fiction” category, and the best literary studies book, I have ever read. Full stop. Go read it.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

OryxAndCrakeANovelMarg1949_f

Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Selected for Canada Reads 2005

Whenever I sit down to read a Margaret Atwood book, I know I’m in for a good time. One of my favorite authors, this literary icon’s skill has developed to the point of being one of the true living masters of English letters. I still remember when Oryx and Crake was released; it was 2003 and was the first year I really started following the Canadian Literature scene. Despite not having read it, it was my pick to win the Giller – it didn’t. This novel was essentially the runner up of the year – it was shortlisted for the Giller, the GG, the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin, and came in second when it was on Canada Reads in 2005. I really wanted to read this book when it hit the shelves, but I was a university student, was poor, and couldn’t afford to shell out $30 for a hardcover book. So two years later when the economical $10.95 mass market paperback was released, I picked it up. But, for some reason, it just sat on the shelf and I never actually read it. This past week, I felt it was finally time to knock this book off the to-read shelf. Oryx and Crake is in the same class as the best work by Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke and is, without a doubt, one of the best sci-fi/post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels I have ever read. This is a novel that could only be written by a master writer like Margaret Atwood; she creates an entirely unique world of the future that answers every detail, down to diet, a reader may be looking for. Additionally, the story is grounded in perfectly plausible scientific principles.

There are really two levels to a good reading of Oryx and Crake, one is the social/environmental level and the other is human level. These two thematic threads are very intertwined and complement each other – one doesn’t work without the other.

On the social/environmental level, which deals with the heavier scientific elements of the story, Atwood delivers a conceptual punch without an overtly didactic tone. As I was reading this novel, what impressed me was just how logical the story’s conclusions were. I’m not an anti-GMO flag waver, for the most part the idea of GMOs is grossly misunderstood, but genetic modifications is only a step away from genetic engineering – which is a much more controversial notion. Oryx and Crake traces genetic engineering to its ultimate conclusion if left unfettered – the creation of a being that will replace humanity.

On the human level, this novel has so much going on. On its most fundamental level, this is a coming-of-age story. We see Jimmy develop from a young overachiever, into a university-aged slacker, and eventually into Snowman, where he sheds his old identity to live up to his ultimate role – guardian of the Crakers and possibly the last remnant of his species. The allegory and metaphor is just staggering. Finally, this book explores other human notions such as personal and scientific ethics, class divisions and social cleavages, and the roots and origins of theological belief.

Genre-wise, Oryx and Crake crosses the boundaries of sci-fi, dystopias, and the post-apocalyptic. There are obvious elements of sci-fi (gene-splicing, genetic engineering, etc); the world of Jimmy’s youth is an unmistakable dystopia (lack of governments, hermetically sealed cities holding in the poor masses, large corporations controlling and manipulating the masses at will); and finally, the post-apocalyptic nature of the novel is self-evident. Atwood clearly demonstrates that a dystopia will almost always eventually lead to an apocalypse like event.

Literally hundreds and hundreds of academic articles have been written on this novel – in fields as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, political science, biomedical ethics, and linguistics. It is an absolute aberration for a novel this young to have this much critical attention. Oryx and Crake along with its two sequels (The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam – which I’ll be reading in short order) is being developed into an HBO mini-series by Darren Aronofsky. And, even though it didn’t win any, this novel turned up on the nomination list of pretty much every major award for which it was eligible. So, I think that my assertion that this book is a true masterpiece is not an understatement. Atwood has created a world from scratch and created characters that are unforgettable. Oryx and Crake is an important book and a must read for everyone.

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