Monthly Archives: January, 2015

Canada Reads 2015 – The Finalists

CanadaReads2015

My only explanation for the selections for both the longlist and the finalists of Canada Reads 2015 is that the producers read my last blog post on the subject and said, “well…we’ll show him.” I jest, but I was very happy with all of the selections for this year and am pleased there was a return to Canada Reads traditions of the past with a mix of well-known and not-so-well-known titles making the list. Also, I was quite happy that the list contained a number of titles from smaller independent publishing houses. In terms of panelists, judging from their opening remarks during the unveiling on Q, I am hopeful that this season’s discussions will return to same literary focus that was more prevalent during the Bill Richardson years.

When the longlist came out, I hadn’t read any of the choices and hadn’t even heard of many, in fact I had only one of the fifteen titles on my shelf, All My Puny Sorrows, so needless to say a few dollars were dropped shortly after the announcement when I bought the entire longlist. This year’s theme, One Book to Break Barriers, was specific enough to give some kind of point of reference but broad enough to allow lots of interpretation in nominations.

So, we have Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King, Ru by Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman), When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid, and And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier (translated by Rhonda Mullins). One of my first choices and four of my second choices were picked from the finalists. So just for some context, here are some interesting tidbits about Canada Reads 2015

  • This is Thomas King’s second title on the show; he joins Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, and Joseph Boyden as authors who have had more than one title appear.
  • This is the first year that two French-Canadian novels have been featured at the same time and the first year since 2010 to feature any French-Canadian books.
  • Ru is Sheila Fischman’s fourth translation to compete. This title is also only the second Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction to appear.
  • When Everything Feels like the Movies is the first winner of the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature to appear on the show and is the first Children’s/Young-Adult/Juvenile/Whatever-you-want-to-call-it book to compete.
  • All of the titles came out in the last five years.

I have not read any of the titles, so I’m devoting the four-weeks prior to the show to pounding through them. All are relatively short so it should be doable. My big worry about this year was the decision to allow both fiction and narrative non-fiction to be chosen; my concern was the comparability of the titles. But, I must say, these five finalists, on the surface anyway prior to reading, seem quite comparable despite the different genres – history, memoir, juvenile, fiction, etc. You can look at these books through the lens of “the other” – being gay, native, or an immigrant; through different life stages – young versus old; and in many of the titles, what does Canada represent.

I’m expecting a heated, yet elevated and respectful debate and I’m hopeful that Wab Kinew will respect his role as moderator and host and not be as loud and brash as he was as a panelist last year. For the first time in a number of years, I’m very excited for the show – especially since Jian Ghomeshi is gone (I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon…I never ever liked him).

The titles I’m most looking forward to reading are The Inconvenient Indian and When Everything Feels like the Movies. The former because of the near universal praise it has received and its interesting take on Native history; and the latter because it’s a genre and subject that is wholly foreign to me so I’m looking forward to something new. Reviews will be coming starting mid-February and once I’ve finished I will of course pick a horse.

Maurice Richard by Charles Foran

Maurice Richard

I read a lot but I realized recently that my bookshelf is surprisingly deficient in the biography genre. Three months ago, the only biography on my shelf was James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence. Subsequently, I collected a few more, Gray’s biography of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, Charles Foran’s seminal treatment of Mordecai Richler, and King’s bio of Jack McClelland. But then I remembered something I noticed a few years ago. Over the years 2008 to 2011, Penguin Canada published a series of short biographies under the editorship of John Ralston Saul. The Extraordinary Canadians series is a collection of 18 biographies that look at people who helped influence Canada into what it is today. The series includes writers and thinkers, prime ministers and political leaders, musicians and artists, and some that defy labeling – like Norman Bethune. Each of these volumes, written by someone with a particular interest or connection to the subject, is short in relation to the average biography; between 160 to 250 pages each, these books are miniscule compared to some of the behemoth multi-volume bios of important Canadians. A reading goal of mine for 2015 is to read the entire Extraordinary Canadians series, now that I’ve bought the whole collection and smuggled them into the house.

My first choice from this collection is Charles Foran’s Maurice Richard. I have to admit, I am not a hockey fan, nor a sports fan in general outside of golf (go ahead, laugh). It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve watched a hockey game. But, I do find sports history quite interesting. Maurice “Rocket” Richard is nothing short of a sports legend in Canada, and the title legend is barely adequate to describe the myth that surrounds The Rocket .The Richard Riot in March 1955 is also an equally mythical event that is commonly seen as a catalytic event leading to the Quiet Revolution. Foran charts Richard’s humble beginnings, his early hockey career, the 50-in-50 season, his maturation and decline, and his post-hockey life.

This book was a fantastic volume of interpretive biography; the writing was fluid and smooth, it wasn’t heartless and cold like a lot of academic biographies, and Foran didn’t get too deep into the minutiae that are ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Using the important moments in Richard’s life, Foran effectively shows the parallels between his career and the evolution of Quebecois culture. While I was rather ignorant of Richard’s biography, I don’t think there was much new or groundbreaking in this volume, but it was an excellent overview of The Rocket’s career, style, and his personality. He was uncomfortable with the adoration and I would even say somewhat ignorant of the cultural importance with which he represented. My favorite aspect of the book was the general descriptions of hockey in the 40s and 50s. This was a brutal gladiatorial blood sport; injuries that are relatively unheard of in the sport today were fairly regular in this time – shattered femurs or skull fractures for example (remember, no helmets). The event that led to Richard’s suspension and subsequent riot was a vicious on-ice assault that would lead to jail time today. Foran also lends an interesting personal touch; he includes a great postscript in which he talks about his own memories of the Habs and Richard in his own mixed English-French family.

I really enjoyed Maurice Richard. I would not be interested in a large, detailed biography of Maurice Richard, but thanks to this fantastic series from Penguin Canada, I have quite a bit about an important figure in Canadian sports and cultural history. Any culturally aware Canadian is aware that Richard was a transformational figure in Quebec and personified the linguistic/cultural tensions that arose from English-French cleavages in Quebec – and as Foran describes it, The Rocket helped the evolution from French Canadian to Quebecois.  I am looking forward to getting deeper into the Extraordinary Canadians and now especially excited to read Charles Foran’s GG-winning Mordecai: The Life & Times.

419 by Will Ferguson

419

Winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Globe and Mail Top 100 Book ~ 2012

I’ve been aware of Will Ferguson for many years but I’ve never read his work. He’s won several Leacock Medals and authored two well-received humorous novels, HappinessTM and Spanish Fly. But, when his novel 419 was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, I was surprised that he had written a dramatic novel, let alone a thriller. It didn’t seem to fit with what I knew of his style and subjects. Ferguson’s Giller-Prize winning novel tells the story of a daughter, Laura, dealing with the death of her father after he falls for a 419 scam. (A 419 scam is something along the line of one of those classic emails from the Prince of Nigeria saying you won the lottery, etc. Everyone has gotten dozens of these; some lucky souls, like me, get them at work every day). I bought this novel because I collect Giller winners, and I decided to read it because of an interesting extended interview Ferguson did with Shelagh Rogers about 419. The book sounded fascinating and exciting. An inside look at the Nigerian underbelly and those 419ers trying to bilk trusting/greedy Westerners out of their cash. I really wanted to like this book. For the most part though, it was a something of a letdown.

I’d like to start with the positives though, because no book is without some kind of enjoyment. There are two very strong points in this novel: Ferguson’s descriptions of Nigeria and his portrayal of the email exchanges between Laura’s father and the scammer. At his heart, Will Ferguson is a travel writer. These talents really shined when he was describing the countryside of Nigeria and the urban decay of Lagos Island. These chapters hit all five senses and capture both the beauty and danger of this part of the world. The landscape passages were punctuated with examples of how the Nigerian people survive in this environment. To my second point, the actual 419 scam itself was gripping. As you read the emails exchanged between Henry Curtis and Winston, in his many guises, your stomach just cringes. It’s that classic dramatic irony you learn in Intro to Lit…you know something bad is going down but the poor rube in the story has no clue. This was the most enjoyable part of the book for me. Unfortunately, past about page 75 the story has moved on from the actual scam that was the catalyst for the primary plot.

Now for the fairly large problems that cost 419 a couple stars on Goodreads. There are too many unnecessarily detailed plot lines, the vast majority of characters are very one-dimensional and undeveloped, and the dénouement is frustratingly bad. I’m only going to get into the plot line problem; undeveloped characters are a pretty straightforward problem and I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Ferguson has several independent story lines going throughout the novel: Laura’s discovery and investigation of her father’s misfortune, the scammer Winston’s rise in the Nigerian criminal underworld, Amina’s story – a pregnant Muslim woman roaming the Nigerian countryside for some unexplained reason, and Nnamdi’s – a village boy who finds success in the oil patch and then falls unwillingly into the grip of Nigerian organized crime. The four plots eventually come together. Amina’s story comes out of nowhere and is frustratingly slow. Had this storyline came earlier, I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel. Nnamdi’s story is more gripping and he is the most developed character in book. My big problem is that the interaction between Amina, Nnamdi and the central character Laura is, while very important, rather miniscule. I felt like their story could have been told in a 5 page digression rather than taking almost 60% of the book.

This is a relatively heavy book, 400 pages with medium sized print. After finishing it and mentally marinating in it for a few days, I think I have my issue with 419 figured out. Will Ferguson took a great concept for a short story and inflated it into a novel. The title, the description on the back, and all the promo around the time the book was released and at the Giller ceremony led me to believe this was a story about a man being duped by financial predators. 419ing only took up maybe a third of the book. This is part story of an internet scam, part story of life in Nigeria. I can understand Ferguson’s motivation in telling the story this way; I could see his desire to give an accurate description of life in Nigeria beyond the 419ers and how a life of crime seems somewhat inevitable for the country’s down trodden. But instead we got a bit of a mish mash and a frustrated reader saying “get on with it.” I’ve read a few other titles from the Giller shortlist that 419 beat and I’m surprised this took the title. 419 by Will Ferguson was one of the few novels I’ve read in the last year or two that has been a disappointment.

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