Tag Archives: 1990s

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.

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Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke

EPSON MFP image

Winner of the 1991 Archibald Lampman Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2002

I’ve written on this site before about my love of George Elliott Clarke. He is a master writer, a brilliant public reader and speaker, a top notch literary scholar, a genuine nice guy, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate. His writing is a mix of down-home Nova Scotia charm and rich African-Canadian historicism – which he dubbed “Africadian”. Whylah Falls is Clarke’s second book and one of signature works. This volume is the narrative of the residents of the fictional Nova Scotia black village of Whylah Falls, focusing primarily a young lady named Shelley and her immediate family. This book has the notable distinction of being selected for the first edition of Canada Reads held back in 2002 (defended by sci-fi author Nalo Hopkinson, finishing second only to the winning title In the Skin of a Lion) and still remains one of only two books of poetry to be featured on the competition.

Whylah Falls is a book of poetry but it is a mixed-genre book; it uses traditional narrative poems, prose poems, sermons, dramatic monologues, theatrical scenes, newspaper-style articles, letters, and photography. This collection is often referred to as a novel told through poetry, but I think a better description is a cycle of stories told through poetic forms as each section focuses on different groups of characters in the village.

This has become an important and landmark book in Canadian literature and is now solidly in the canon of Black Canadian writing. I read a selection of these poems in a Canadian Lit course at Saint Mary’s University in 2003 but I had never read the whole volume from start to finish despite the fact I’ve had a first edition sitting on my shelf for years (oddly enough the first edition cover is really terrible and both the 10th and 20th anniversary editions are much nicer). I really really wanted to love this book. I recently re-listened to Canada Reads 2002 and Hopkinson’s impassioned defense ignited a desire to immerse myself into Clarke’s best known world. But. But, in the end, I wasn’t blown away like I was hoping I would be. To this reader, Whylah Falls was just ok. And here’s why.

Firstly, I absolutely adored the love poetry in the two sections titled “The Adoration of Shelley” and I loved the whole section “The Martyrdom of Othello Clemence.” The imagery in the love poems was beautiful, sensual, and tastefully erotic and the narrative in “The Martyrdom” was powerful and vivid. Overall though, I was a little underwhelmed by a lot of the book. I think the primary problem was the huge cast of characters; I was continually lost and had to keep referring back to the Dramatis Personae. Unlike a novel or a play where there is ample narrative introduction and development of primary characters, this format didn’t really allow for that, so you are simply thrown into the middle of this dynamic little town (almost the identical problem I had with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town).

I want to be clear that my rating of “just ok” doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the book. The quality of writing was very high and the innovative nature of the volume was superb. Ultimately though, Whylah Falls didn’t grab me the way Execution Poems did. Maybe I was just the wrong audience or I read the book at the wrong time. All that being said though, this is still one of the most important books in contemporary Canadian literature and maintains an important place in African Canadian culture.

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.

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Finalist for the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

Finalist for the 1998 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award

Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrites, most notably the author of The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, both of which are Dora and Chalmer’s Award winning plays. Published in 1998, Kiss of the Fur Queen is Highway’s first and only novel; containing many autobiographical points, this book takes on a lot of issues. In North American Native literature there has been a trend of authors either being too hard on their own culture or glossing over the harsher realities of Native life. Highway, a Cree from northern Manitoba, walks a fine line between these two extremes with his writing. This novel takes place over the course of around 35 years; looking at how Natives were treated in Catholic residential schools, sexuality, art, and family.

The story focuses on a pair of brothers, Jeremiah and Gabriel Okimasis, and their journey from birth to young adulthood; in each of the six parts of the book, a different stage of the brothers lives are narrated. As you start to read this it takes a few chapters to really get into the book and get used to the language. Canadian Native lit is often written with the same style as the oral narrative, which is an important piece of their culture; if you were to read a few pages out loud this will be very apparent. The dialog is as beautiful as would be expected from a playwrite of this caliber.

The topics and themes of this story are very serious subjects and are, at several points in the novel, very difficult to get through, mainly because of Highway’s vivid writing. The Okimasis brothers are representative of the Native community as a whole in the early fifties; they are being pulled away from their Cree culture and thrust into the world of Catholicism and the indoctrination that would come with attending a residential school. There are horrifying scenes of abuse and molestation as well as heartbreaking scenes of torment directed towards the only two Natives at this school. As the story progresses the focus turns to Gabriel’s sexuality. As he confronts his homosexuality, in a time when this was not overly accepted, he descends into promiscuity and prostitution with constant flashbacks of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the priests. This part of the novel is so beautifully written but so hard to endure. There is so much pain in Gabriel’s life and past that he really doesn’t stand a chance to live a so-called “normal” existence.

My one criticism of this book, and it is not exactly a flaw of the writing, likely more so a flaw with this reader, the details used when Highway is writing about dancing and music are so detailed, with so much technical terminology, it is sometimes difficult to understand what exactly is being said. Jeremiah and Gabriel, eventually become a world-class musician/playwrite and dancer respectively. These details though certainly give the story a level of depth and believability when looking at the brothers passion for their arts.

This is a very sad book; at points there seems to be very little hope for the characters, and even at the end of the novel, it could be argued there is still none. In a short review it is impossible to touch on everything this book looks at. This is the type of novel academics could spend years and countless articles looking at. A beautiful novel, a moving novel, and an eye opening novel, I think Kiss of the Fur Queen will definitely be looked at as one of the great Native novels of its time along side Three Day Road and Green Grass, Running Water.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Winner of the 1998 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest

Winner of the 1999 Locus Award for Best First Novel

Shortlisted for the 1998 Philip K. Dick Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2008

Nalo Hopkinson is one of Canada’s most prominent science-fiction writers. She has been shortlisted for and won several prestigious international sci-fi awards. Brown Girl in the Ring is Hopkinson’s first novel, which was released through a contest where the winner received a publication agreement. The story revolves around a Toronto of the not-to-distant future that has been abandoned by government and police and overrun by gangs and drug addicts hooked on a substance called buff. This novel is a cross between a typical sci-fi and fantasy story; there are many scenes that lean heavily on Caribbean religious beliefs and spirits.

The book starts out very fast and is very intriguing. In the opening chapters the way the history of how Toronto fell into utter decay is very well done; it is given through newspaper headlines that another derelict is using for an artistic piece. Unfortunately the book slows to an almost unbearable pace after the opening 30 pages. The ensuing 120 pages or so are very richly described and detailed but the forward momentum of the novel simply grinds to a halt; once you get past this point the novel progresses at a speed which almost overwhelms the reader. The central characters, Ti-Jeanne, Mami, Rudy, Tony, and Mi-Jeanne, all weave a complex family and community steeped in the culture of their Caribbean roots. The pacing aside, Brown Girl in the Ring is an interesting book. It plays around quite a bit stereotypes, i.e. the good-for-nothing-boyfriend that the girl still loves, the wise old grandmother, and the evil crime boss out only for himself; but the characters themselves are not the memorable part of book. For me, what I will remember, is the idea of Toronto collapsed in on itself and the vivid descriptions of the city. Hopkinson uses real street names and places in the book very effectively, including the CN Tower for the final showdown.

All-in-all this was a decent read. I do not read a lot of sci-fi but it is a genre I enjoy. I have always had a lot of admiration for the writers of this type of work; it is one thing to create a story out of nothing that is of this world, but to create this universe without boundaries whether it is told through a scientific or spiritual lens is amazing to me. The imagination this would require is far beyond what I think I could muster for my own writings. One thing that should be mentioned as well in speaking about this book is the power of the CBC Canada Reads competition. Brown Girl in the Ring was a selection for the 2008 show and introduced Hopkinson, who herself was an advocate for Whylah Falls on the 2002 show, to a whole new set of readers, including myself. This being her first novel I am positive that her other works will continue to improve and I look forward to picking up one of her many other pieces.

The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

Winner of the 1998 Giller Prize

Winner of the 1998 National Book Critics’ Circle Top Fiction Award

Winner of the 1998 Trillium Award

Winner of the 1999 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

New York Times Book Review Best Book – 1998

Shortlisted for the 1998 Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2004

Alice Munro is almost universally known as one of, if not the single, greatest living writer(s) in English and a true master of the short story. She has won countless awards, 3 Governor-Generals, 2 Gillers, numerous O. Henry awards, Commonwealth prizes, Trillium prizes, and the Man Booker International Prize. The only prize missing from her resume is the Nobel Prize which will hopefully one day be bestowed upon Ms. Munro if the Nobel committee ever gets past its Eurocentric mindset. I have read several Munro books and I can say without any hesitation that The Love of a Good Woman is the best of what I have seen. Like many of Munro’s later works, this book’s stories has a wide  array of characters ranging in age from young adolescence to old age. We are taken deep into Munro county (also known as Huron County) in her typical and magical Southern Ontario Gothic style. 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.

The Love of a Good Woman is a very fitting title for this collection. While it is the first story, or arguably, novella,  in the book, the title describes the overall themes of almost all of the stories. Whether it is a widow loving memories of her dead husband, a daughter loving her parents, a nurse caring for her patient, or a caretaker loving someone else’s child, the idea of a woman’s love permeates this collection down to its epicenter.

The stories themselves are filled with Munro’s classic reserved style. She never gives you all the details; like many great classic story tellers Munro does not lay all of her cards out on the table at once. Little pieces are given and all of the details unfold before your eyes in a natural course of events. Often times the narration is not completely linear and the characters lives are revealed in bits and pieces while the story’s endings quietly approach.

My favorite story in the collection is the second-to-last one, “Before the Change.” Like many of Munro’s stories following this collection, this piece looks at what happens when old world values meet new world sensibilities at at time when society is not ready to accept this change. “Before the Change” centres on a young woman who comes home from college and stays with her father. Through a series of letters to her professor boyfriend it is revealed that her doctor father is performing abortions which are illegal at the time this is set. This story best demonstrates my previous point about the subtle narration guiding you. At first we are led to believe that the father has a cold disregard for his daughter but as we learn more and more details and additional graphic details are revealed we see what is really going on; and, like all of the other pieces, when you finish this story you will see why the “love of a good woman” is the underlying theme. Other stories, notably, “Cortes Island”, “Rich as Stink”, “My Mother’s Dream”, and the title story, exemplify Munro’s ability to topically look at relationships but brutally dissect them with the understated tone of a master writer.

This book was an absolute pleasure to read. The amount of critical acclaim this book has received is without a doubt well deserved. The Love of a Good Woman exemplifies what makes Canadian Literature unique in the wider canon of English literature. This book looks at the family, relationships, and of course being the eternal Northrop Frye apologist that I am, this book exposes our insular need to play the victim and survive in the Canadian societal vacuum. I was always amazed at the lack of attention that Hollywood has paid to Alice Munro. This of course changed slightly when Sarah Polley adapted “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the Oscar nominated film Away From Her. From what I have read the story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” is being adapted into a film to be released next year starring Julianne Moore. There are at least 3 stories in this collection that could easily be made into great films. The Love of a Good Woman has earned a place in my Top 10 favorite list; not an easy feat.

That Night We Were Ravenous by John Steffler

Winner of the 1999 Atlantic Poetry Prize

That Night We Were Ravenous is the fourth book of poetry and follow-up to the immensely successful debut novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright by Canada’s third Parliamentary Poet Laureate John Steffler. Steffler is known for his incredible ability to capture a beautiful landscape down to its most minute detail and touch all five senses in just a few short lines. This collection is no different. We as readers are taken on a trip through both urban and rural Newfoundland, Southern Ontario, and Greece. John Steffler describes the outdoors with the same type of sharp eye A.Y. Jackson used to paint it.

Reviewing a collection of poems is an inherently difficult thing to do. Unlike looking at a novel or a play you have dozens of individual pieces to look at instead of one longer coherent piece. So in keeping with this thought I think the best thing to do is look at the overall themes of the book and the effect it would have on a reader. The title That Night We Were Ravenous instills a feeling of deep passion and excitement. That basically sums up the feeling you get from his collection whether it is something as simple as the edge of a forest in “Start of a Trail” or something as large as the Greek countryside in “On the Track of the Megalithic Burial Rings”. The first sequence in the book, “In a Makeshift Blind,” is hands down the most powerful and my favorite part of the book. This sequence takes us out on an outdoor tour of Newfoundland in all of its natural splendor much like in Steffler’s most famous work The Grey Islands. “Cedar Cove” and “Long Point” are great examples of the points I have made. Steffler’s verse simply can’t be matched by any other living Canadian poet when describing nature:

I walk that windy spit to its vanishing point

where opposing surfs merge

where Port au Port Bay and its sky and its weather

lose to the open gulf

and the slick whittled rock I stand on plunges

a titanic eel

The final poem of the book is the title poem “That Night We Were Ravenous”; this is one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read by a contemporary Canadian poet. A man is driving late at night from Stephenville on a fall evening; he looks up at the moon and starts to reflect on “her” beauty, her power, her innocence, and her effect on all who live below her. The poems final two lines are a fitting conclusion to the collection: “That night we slept deeper than ever/Our dreams bounded after her like excited hounds.”

Reading an extended collection of poetry is certainly not everyone’s first choice; but it can be extremely rewarding and very pleasurable. As a casual reader while you go through a 100 plus page collection you do not need to focus on deeply interpreting these pieces or in some cases even understanding their meaning. Often times just reading a poem and allowing the beautiful images to overtake your imagination is more than enough. John Steffler’s That Night We Were Ravenous is a great collection for even the most casual of poetry readers. It has the stunning imagery of an Al Purdy and the great narrative qualities of a Michael Ondaatje.

Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

Winner of the 1997 Giller Prize

Winner of the 1998 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour

Winner of the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean region)

Winner of the 1998 QSpell Award

Winner of the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award

Shortlisted for 1997 Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Selected for Canada Reads 2004

Well, here it is, my first review on the new Blog! It has been at least 8 months since I had sat down to read a “real” book. I stood looking at my book case and decided that it was time to rekindle my love of CanLit. I had read recently that a film adaptation of Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler staring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman was due to be released this summer; so remembering this, then after reading the inside flap, and seeing the original “1997 Winner: The Giller Prize” sticker on the cover of my first edition copy I decided to crack this volume open and get sucked into the lives of another one of Richler’s anti-epics.

Sitting my computer right now I feel I would not be doing this book justice unless I was sipping on a snifter of cognac while putting down my thoughts. One of this first things that struck me about this book was that it is written in the first person, Richler’s first novel to use this point-of-view. Barney Panofsky is a hot tempered, wickedly witted, alcoholic, caring, shrewdly intelligent, and complicated wretch of an old man. It is very hard to avoid seeing autobiographical elements in fiction, especially first-person fiction, and even more so in the writings of Mr. Richler, and of course this book is no different. Barney, like Richler himself, is nearing the end of his life (Richler died 4 years after the publication of this, his last, novel), his health is failing, he has a love of Montecristo cigars and Macallan Scotch, and internally struggles with what it means to be a post-Holocaust Jew, if anything.

Barney’s Version, in the way it is written and in the themes that emerge, is very similar to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (I actually re-watched the film adaptation just to reaffirm my opinion). The story is told through flashbacks and interconnected vignettes. The book is written as though it is Barney Panofsky’s memoirs with his son Mike adding footnotes and penning an afterword to wrap the story up. There are multiple climaxes in the story, 4 in my opinion, one at the end of each marriage and then one at the end of the book. Barney really is a pathetic man but he has his redeeming qualities. The 417 pages contained in this novel take you on a roller coaster of feelings towards him, one minute you will despise this drunk wife-beater but 20 pages later you adore his dry wicked charm as he woos his next wife. Barney’s Version is about memory; and what happens to a man when his memories outweigh his future and then what that man becomes when those memories fade.

In the final chapter with one sentence Mike Panofsky describes his father with pinpoint accuracy; “Before his brain began to shrink, Barney Panofsky clung to two cherished beliefs: Life was absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else” (417). I think that anyone would be very hard pressed to convince me that either of these two ideas are false. Through his incredible satire Richler has once again crafted a masterpiece on the human condition. When Barney is being tested by a psychiatrist for Alzheimer’s disease he gets agitated and lets him know that the great writers of world better understand what it means to be human than any doctor could. I agree. Richler’s final novel is a great and fitting end to a Canadian literary legend.

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