The name Glenn Gould conjures images of greatness, madness, and everything in between. Gould was, without a doubt, one of the greatest classical musicians of his time, if not ever. But, he was also the poster boy of eccentricity. His Goldberg Variations, which bookended his career, are works of legend in the world of classical music, and, at the same time, he was a hopeless hypochondriac, mentally ill, and addicted to a cocktail of prescription and over-the-counter medication. If there was ever a textbook case of contradictions, Gould was it. I first became aware of Gould’s existence 13 years ago in a Canadian Literature class at St. Mary’s University, during a unit on Northern lit in which we listened to his esoteric radio “documentary” The Idea of North. I am a relative newcomer to his music though; I’ve only been regularly listening to him for about a year (the Google Play streaming service has a fairly comprehensive Gould catalogue). He is, not surprisingly, one of the subjects in the Extraordinary Canadians series from Penguin. Philosopher and professor Mark Kingwell takes up the challenge of examining this colourful character. In doing so, Kingwell pushes the boundaries of the biography genre, even interpretive biography, to the extreme.
Kingwell abandons the traditional narrative form that biographies, of any type, typically take. This book could be better described as philosophical biography that attempts to get at the core of what made Glenn Gould tick, rather that simply tell his story. Not all biographical details are left out though: Kingwell does examine some important moments and elements of his subject – including the beginning of his professional career, his love of the microphone and abandoning of live performances, his important recordings including the Variations, and his more unusual personal attributes.
Many of the philosophical digressions and their relation to Gould were quite interesting – even though philosophy is not a discipline I was particularly fond of as a student. Kingwell looks at different aspects related to the philosophy of music and art – such as the line between composer and performer, the idea of “genius” in relation to music, and notions of performance whether live or recorded among others. Importantly, and ultimately necessary in a general audience book, the author is able to delve into this concepts using non-academic language free from much of the jargon inherent in any discipline.
I always hope to learn something whenever I read a biography of someone with whom I’m already somewhat familiar. Kingwell delivered. In the author’s examination of Gould, he looked beyond just the music and undertook a detailed study of his expansive written works. I didn’t know that Gould was a somewhat prolific, if not idiosyncratic, essayist. Over the course of his career, he published numerous articles in piano magazines (and also recorded a handful of spoken word records). In reading this book, it is clear that these somewhat rambling and occasionally incomprehensible articles – which include interviewing himself and regularly referring to himself in the third person, offer the clearest glimpse into the mind of this mad genius.
Overall, I was satisfied once I finished this book. If you are looking for a lot of information and straight biographical facts about Glenn Gould, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. But, as I’ve said before, this is an excellent philosophical biography of Gould. Mark Kingwell does a great job of getting to the heart of the enigma that was Glenn Gould. And from a different angle, Glenn Gould offers interesting explorations of the nature of music and art in today’s society that would be of interest to anyone who takes music seriously. Another great entry in the Extraordinary Canadians series.
Winner of the 2010 B.C. National Book Award for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2010 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Award
Winner of the 2010 CBA Libris Award for Non-Fiction
A Globe & Mail Best Book ~ 2010
A Quill & Quire Best Book ~ 2010
Selected for Canada Reads 2012
The 2012 edition of Canada Reads switched gears a bit and focused on non-fiction titles for the first time. I remember thinking then that The Tiger by John Vaillant stuck out a bit from the others. It was the only book that didn’t have a Canadian connection, other than the author’s nationality, and it was the only history narrative, while the other four were all memoirs. As such, this title got a rough ride on the show. But, more than most of the other titles that year, this one caught my interest. I planned on reading the book while listening to shows, and it only took me over 3 years to actually get to it. Who wouldn’t be interested in a classic man-versus-nature story of a man-eating tiger? There is a certain primitiveness to this idea. A challenge to Man’s rank in the natural pecking order. What Vaillant has delivered in The Tiger, is an interesting mix of history, nature writing, political science, and psychology.
I’m going to give The Tiger a solid “ok.” Certain aspects of the book were very interesting. Vaillant’s digressions into the biology, ecology, evolution and biogeography of tigers were the highlight of the book; additionally, he went into great depth in exploring the current conservation status and the sharp decline in tiger numbers. During these chapters, I felt strong overtones of one of my favorite nature titles, Song of the Dodo. Another strong point of this book was the correlations Vaillant drew between perestroika – the opening of the Soviet economy in the late 80s – and the desperate poverty in this remote region of Russia forcing people to resort to things like poaching. It was through this particular lens that the central players in the story were most interesting and developed.
This book was a bit of a slog though. The actual forward motion of the narrative component was a little slow and at some points came to grinding halt. The Tiger could have easily shed 50 to 75 pages. But, oddly enough, during the third and final section, “Trush”, the narrative took off with the pace that I was hoping for and, ultimately, you as the reader do feel satisfied with the conclusion.
With all of that being said, one thing that definitely stands out is the amount of primary research that the author must have done to complete this book. Other than one documentary film and the contemporaneous news stories, there would be very little available in terms of first-hand accounts of these incidents. For the author, I imagine striking out into the backwoods of isolated eastern Russia must have been like entering a different planet.
That’s all I’ve got. This is a rather short review, but I just don’t have much to say. I find I always have lots to say on books that I either really liked or really didn’t like, but books like The Tiger where I am just kinda “meh, it’s alright,” just don’t elicit enough excitement in me either way to write a lengthy response.
Winner of the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Shortlisted for the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature
Shortlisted for the 2013 Trillium Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2015
Two weeks ago I thought, great, I have 14 days to read the last Canada Reads title, lots of time to finish before the show. Then my wife came down with influenza, then my son did, then I did. So, with all of these flu related distractions, I finished the last Canada Reads 2015 pick with only a day or so to spare. Anyway…
Thomas King is one of Canada’s most respected writers and one of the top Aboriginal cultural figures in the country. It seems in the last few years he has really been at the top of his craft. His 2012 The Inconvenient Indian, prior to being selected for Canada Reads, won the RBC Taylor Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction prizes in the country, and his 2014 novel The Back of the Turtle won last year’s GG for fiction. Both titles received nearly universal praise. Thomas King has already had quite the literary career before this current run of greatness – he wrote the contemporary classic Green Grass, Running Water, a GG nominee and Canada Reads contestant in 2004; he was chosen to deliver and write the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories; and he’s been shortlisted for numerous awards, was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004, and ran for parliament in Guelph for the NDP in 2008 coming in a solid fourth. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Thomas King is only the fourth author to have multiple books appear on Canada Reads. He is by far the most recognized name on the show this year, and judging from the chatter on Twitter, blogs, and the various polls on the CBC website, I’d say that The Inconvenient Indian is coming into the show as the frontrunner to win.
This is an interesting book and the one I was most looking forward to reading of the five. A lot has been said about it, the reviews have been stellar, the Goodreads average is very high, and the comments about it for Canada Reads have been warm. But, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what kind of book this would be. Prior to starting page one, I assumed this would be a straightforward history of Natives in North America. But, The Inconvenient Indian is best described sociological examination of the Native condition through the lens of history. Basically, King tries to answer the question, “How did we (Natives) get here?” He looks at issues including land claims, poverty, prejudices, and politics with a particular focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.
The breadth of what King tackles is impressive. Armed with detailed research on treaties, legislation, history, and his own intellect, the author lays out the story of a people with a critical eye and unrestrained zeal. The strength of this book is King’s conversational tone. At no point does the reader feel like he’s being lectured to by Professor King, PhD; instead, it feels more like you’re sitting down for lunch at the local diner having a chat about current events. The writing is peppered with the author’s trademark wit, personal digressions, and tongue-in-cheek commentary.
This book obviously fits with this year’s Canada Reads theme. For me, it was something of an education. I follow politics in Canada very closely, but the mind only has a finite amount of attention that can be paid to issues, and some are invariably left out. Some people are rather ignorant of foreign policy, some of military issues, education, etc. For me, Native issues are one of those. It’s not that I don’t view it as an extremely important issue; it’s just not one I’ve followed closely. So this book broke a lot of conceptions and I think would be a good addition to academic and school reading lists.
My one problem is with how this book will compete in Canada Reads. It doesn’t have a narrative or characters in the same way as the other fiction and non-fiction books this year. Plus, this title, while it is technically a history, doesn’t follow a linear form of writing; chapters tend to be divided on thematic lines rather than chronologically. This is the inherent problem with comparing fiction to non-fiction. I doubt the discussion on the show will be limited to thematic topics – what happens when discussion turns to character development, dialogue, etc?
Thomas King is a national treasure. He represents so many different facets of Canadian identity. He is Canadian, he’s Native, he’s an immigrant, and he’s very conscious of all of those things. He has become one of the foremost literary commentators on Native issues in North America and one of Canada’s greatest writers period. The Inconvenient Indian will likely become his signature non-fiction work and I think this timely book will definitely be a strong contender on Canada Reads 2015.
Translated by Rhonda Mullins
Winner of the 2011 Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie
Shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English Translation
Selected for Canada Reads 2015
Just over a week to go until Canada Reads 2015. The next shortlisted title I decided to pick-up was the other French Canadian title on the list, And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins. This is the first time in the history of the show that two French Canadian books have been featured at the same time. Of the five titles, this was the one that I was least looking forward to reading. It wasn’t that I was averse or hostile towards the subject or anything, it just didn’t excite me like the others did. Saucier’s novel is the story of two very senior citizens, living the life of hermits in the hopes of dying on their own terms. This was an interesting book with a lot of complex themes, but even a week after finishing it, I can’t definitively say if I enjoyed it or not.
The strength of this novel is how Saucier weaved such a thematically complex story with such a simple plot and a very small cast of characters. Many of the six living characters are really well rounded and probably the best developed of the three novels on the show this year. Tom and Charlie, the two octogenarians at the centre of the book, are instantly memorable. They are at the heart of what this novel is about: the right to live and die on your own terms.
Saucier’s writing is very heavy on theme, and big themes at that – life and death, falling in love, personal reflection, and man’s primitive connection with nature. My biggest problem with the novel, and the reason why I’m undecided if I like this book, is that at certain points, theme seems to come at the expense of everything else. Plot is often times slow, dialog is sometimes clunky, and narration is often direct and literal (although perhaps this could be a problem with the translation). The biggest problem I had though, at least in my reading, was the complete and utter lack of humour. The whole concept of this novel, two old guys living in the woods, surviving off the avails of a pot farm run by their quirky friends, and eventually the old guys are joined by a 65 year old escaped psychiatric patient. The comedic possibilities are endless, but almost never materialize. The result is a fairly dense and heavy book.
Of the four books for Canada Reads 2015 I’ve finished so far, this book least fits the theme of “One Book to Break Barriers.” There have been a lot of novels in recent years that take on this topic of dying on your own terms – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and Extraordinary by David Gilmour are a couple of examples. But, I don’t feel that And the Birds Rained Down hits as hard as those novels. As I’m writing this review, I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly what exactly it was with this novel that I didn’t connect with. But, if you read a lot, chances are you’ll come across the odd book where you’re only reaction is “meh, it’s alright.”
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction
Winner of Canada Reads 2015
Shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award
I’ve been moving through the Canada Reads 2015 novels at a good pace. I’ve gotten through three and have over two weeks to get through the final two, so I should have more than enough time to be ready for the show. After finishing Intolerable, I decided to tackle Ru next as it seemed like the logical next book to read. The author, Kim Thuy, is a Vietnamese –Canadian who lives in Quebec. I recognized this title from the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist and the 2010 GGs, but I wasn’t overly familiar with the content of the novel. This is the story of Vietnamese woman who was a young girl during the Vietnam War, subsequently lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually grew up in Quebec. The main character, An Tinh Nguyen, is mother to a child with autism and eventually works for several years in Vietnam as an adult. Ru, for me, fell somewhat flat. This book is an example of form over function.
The inherent issues that surround a translation aside (even though this is done by the master of Canadian translation, Sheila Fischman), the structure and form of this book make connecting with Nguyen in any meaningful way very difficult (for example, I had to flip through the book to even remember the name of the protagonist). Ru is told through a series of vignettes. They range from a half-page to 2 pages, with the majority being about a full page. So, at 141 pages, there are a lot of vignettes. Each individual snippet resembles a prose poem more than it does a work of fiction. It is high on metaphor, symbolism, and imagery, but low on forward-moving narration with very little linearity. This is, without a doubt, a post-modern novel; interestingly enough though, the individual vignettes have an air of modernist stream-of-consciousness. While none of these points are inherently negative, for me, Ru just didn’t connect. I had trouble buying-into the narrator, because I was too wrapped up in the poetic nature of the book. I found myself reading this as if it was poetry – focusing on those associational elements you look for in the genre and not keeping those mental notes on the progress of the story.
So, as I’ve explored with the last two books, how does this title hold up when examined through the lens of this year’s theme, “one book to break barriers?” In my reading, not well. This was a beautiful book, but it doesn’t hold up to the critical examination that this theme requires. Ru touches on different threads that could “break barriers” – the immigrant experience, returning to your homeland, raising a disabled child, but none of these threads are pulled to the point of adding anything new to the discussion. On a more positive note, there are interesting scenes and passages of a childhood in the midst of the Vietnam War and spending time in a refugee camp.
Ru was just ok. Not great, not terrible, just ok. It was a very fast read so it’s not a huge time commitment. As I said, the language and the “poetry” of the novel are quite beautiful – it loses points because of difficulties with plot. This may be right up someone else’s alley, just not mine (as evidenced by its list of accolades). Even though I have 2 books left to read, I think it is a safe bet that Ru will not be taking the title.
Selected for Canada Reads 2015
Winner of the 2013 Toronto Book Award
Shortlisted for the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
I don’t read a lot of memoirs. It’s not that I have something against the genre, I have at least 10 on my to-read list, I just never seem to pick many up. This year’s Canada Reads included a memoir by journalist and professor Kamal Al-Solaylee – Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes. This books charts his development as a gay man in the Middle-East and his eventual relocation to his adopted home of Toronto. This short memoir is so much more than an individual man’s coming-out narrative. Intolerable is a thought-provoking blend of personal memoir, family dynamics, history, economics, and political science. Ultimately, this is the story of Kamal Al-Solaylee, but the sentiments he espouses are no doubt almost universal amongst the millions of immigrants in Canada.
What I loved about this memoir was the holistic approach Solaylee took. There are three broad topics that he tackles: his own development and coming out as a gay man, his relationship with his family, and the increasing religiosity and intolerance in the Middle East. Each of these three threads is tied into the others and seamlessly flows into every chapter.
This book really grabbed me. The author’s background as a journalist really shows in his easy to read and highly informative prose. With the perspective of a Yemini who lived in Cairo and Beirut over the course of several decades that is now solidly Canadian, the author gives a stellar account of the rise of religious intolerance in the Arab world and succinctly gets down to the root causes as he experienced them. It would be surprising for a lot of readers to realize that this state of affairs in this part of the world is a relatively new thing. Solaylee discusses how when he was a kid his sisters would go bikini shopping for their summer vacation while now they must wear a niqab and be accompanied by a man. He gets into the root economic causes that spurned this social change and even throws out some ideas about what the cures may be – including some thoughts on the Arab Spring.
Ultimately though, this is a story of family. Solaylee has a relationship with his family that is complicated beyond what any native born Canadian could really comprehend. The youngest of over 10 kids, and the son of an illiterate lower class mother and former business tycoon father, Solaylee could tell from an early age he was different from his siblings – and this feeling only got stronger as time went on. As more and more distance was between him and them, and the situation in the Middle East deteriorated, things became even more complicated. And as his cosmopolitanism grew, his unhappiness with their situation increased.
So looking through the lens of this year’s Canada Reads theme, “One Book to Break Barriers,” this book shatters a lot of them. Solaylee’s memoir explores homosexuality in the Third World, the nature of Islamic intolerance in the Arab world, post-colonialism and its lingering effects, multiculturalism and its downfalls, and the immigrant experience. This eye opening memoir is informative, but not dry. It takes points-of-view on issues but doesn’t sound preachy. And, near the end of the book, it is a deeply moving love-letter to Toronto.
Intolerable is one of the best memoirs I have ever experienced. The problem I sometimes run into with this type of writing is that it is so self-centered and devoid of context that as you read you continually ask “why should I care.” Kamal Al-Solaylee is now, without any disrespect intended, a relatively average urban Canadian. He was a journalist for numerous publications after paying his dues and working his way up, and he is now a journalism professor. But, the story of how he got there is fascinating, because it is not simply his story, it is the story of him, a family, and very volatile region. I still have 3 Canada Reads picks to read, but I’m thinking this book may be hard to top.
Winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature – Text
Selected for Canada Reads 2015
Time for my first thoughts on the Canada Reads 2015 picks – When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid. This book already has quite the history considering it was published just a year ago. There’s a huge, gigantic really, market of adult readers who are immersed in the world of young-adult fiction, many almost obsessively so. I am not one of those. Frankly, unless a book warrants special attention for whatever reason, I feel no compulsion to read “kids” books; that is simply my own bias. Prior to being the first young-adult novel chosen for Canada Reads, the first time author won the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature (Text) and subsequently caused a huge stir (for some reason the Children’s Lit text award seems to be a magnet for controversy, I can think of at least 3 others off the top of my head). The hoopla surrounding this particular book is the graphic nature of the main character Jude’s sexuality, the explicit language, and the violence. The faux-outrage by the literary busybodies culminated in a petition to revoke the award. I feel the need to pontificate on this prior to getting into my review. While the title of the GG category is “Children’s Literature (Text)”, the criteria are as broad as any of the other categories. Essentially, to qualify for this award, the book needs to be written for someone under the age of 18 and can be any genre – pre-school books, poetry, graphic novels, and young-adult novels aimed at teens. Yes, this book is graphic and at times shocking, but the subject matter is important, relevant and perfectly appropriate for readers in junior high and above. Thankfully, the GG jury and Canada Council dismissed this petition for what it was – pure nonsense. This is an attempt at censorship which is a fundamental affront to Canadian values that are best espoused in our culture and literature. As with any book that one may find offensive, the choice exists to simply not read it.
So now to the book. Reid has certainly weaved an interesting tale in When Everything Feels Like the Movies. This is the story of Jude, a junior high aged boy who is flamboyantly gay and very comfortable with his sexuality even though very few of his peers are. He is unapologetic for who he is. He comes from a messy family situation – a stripper mom, an abusive stand-in step-father, and an absent father whom he rarely sees. His best friend Angela is a proud self-proclaimed “slut” and Jude’s only real friend. His only other source of comfort is his little brother Keef, for whom Jude plays the role of surrogate parent. The whole motif that sets up this novel is the fantasy world in which Jude has built up; he sees himself as the star in a movie and his world is an elaborate Hollywood wonderland where drug overdoses and cat-fights are seen as part of the lifestyle.
This novel was inspired by a true story; a few years ago in the US, a 15-year-old boy asked another boy at school if he would be his valentine and was subsequently shot and killed for this show of affection. Reid has said that this was the spark for this story, but I feel this book is worth reading for reasons beyond the shocking act of violence that concludes it or the story of a gay teen finding his way in a hostile environment. In my reading, When Everything Feels Like the Movies is the story of how a child’s world collapses when there is absolutely zero support system. A useless mother, an abusive step-father figure, a biological father who is essentially non-existent, and, importantly, a seeming lack of support for gay youth in the community are all catalysts for Jude’s behavior – associating with people of less than stellar repute, drug abuse, poor academic performance, hyper-sexuality, and admiration of general vice. How does Jude cope? He builds this fantasy Hollywood world into which he can escape. It didn’t matter if he was gay, straight, a Martian, whatever – Jude did not have a chance from the moment he was conceived. This is the strength of the book and what I hope the Canada Reads panelists focus on. There is also an interesting thematic thread on the nature of victimization and what exactly constitutes the victim in a bullying situation, but in the interest of brevity, I will omit this and hope the panelists pick it up.
This book has some serious weaknesses though that knocked a few stars off. There was some of the awkward dialogue that is common in first novels, the plot dragged at points, the fantasy-world motif was sometimes beaten a little too hard, and, most bothersome, the characters often seemed older than they were at points creating inconsistencies in how you perceive them. Angela is very promiscuous and it is insinuated that she has had multiple abortions, every kid seems to be sleeping with every other kid, they skip school regularly, and they drink like fishes and take drugs like candy. These are junior high kids. My own experience in the education field with this age group make me wonder if Reid perhaps didn’t push the envelope a little bit for shock value – literary license perhaps. Or the author, who is about a decade younger than me, went to school with some of the most hardcore junior high kids in the history of rebellious teens.
I did enjoy this book. It does fit the theme of this year’s Canada Reads competition and there are lots of points, both pro and con, to discuss. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts of the show this year, I really hope the conversation looks deeper than the superficial. Raziel Reid is a talented young writer who has generated controversy but also raked in accolades, the mark of an important writer. I’m hoping he is not simply a flash in the pan and continues to develop as a noteworthy author.
Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Poetry
Katherena Vermette pulled off an impressive accomplishment, winning a Governor General’s award with her first book. North End Love Songs is an incredible collection. I’ve been lucky lately; my last few reading picks have been fantastic. Vermette is Métis and this identity permeates every line of her writing. This is autobiographical poetry of the highest degree, but it takes on a variety of topics. The author blends humour, sadness, hope, hopelessness, and coming-of-age using a style that is a throwback to Modernist American poets like ee cummings.
The most moving part of the collection is the author’s recounting of the disappearance of her brother. I enjoyed these poems for several reasons, mainly though because it addresses so many themes. Vermette tackles the personal sadness that comes with a situation like this; the stereotyping that comes with being aboriginal, including from the police – such as assuming since he’s young and Native he must just be on a bender; and on being Native in general – the good, the bad, and, of course, the ugly.
The structure of poetry is magnificent and, as I mentioned before, is a throwback to Modernist poets. There is no punctuation and the author doesn’t stick to any stylistic constant – be it enjambment, stanza structure, etc. This is free verse in its most pure form. Lines contain as few as a single word and individual poems can range from a few lines to extended sequences over 10 pages. This use of free verse and colloquial north end Winnipeg language really takes you inside the poet’s thoughts. One could even argue that Vermette is using a poetic stream-of-consciousness style in her writing. Finally, my last thought on structure, the poet ties her sequences together with highly intertwined themes, images, and symbolism – be it birds, seasons, holidays, or music.
One more thing I have to throw out there is Vermette’s use of music as metaphor and “image.” I am a huge 80s music fan, specifically, hair metal (Poison, Skid Row, Guns N Roses… I’m actually listening to Great White as I write this). If you are a serious fan of this musical genre, I really think you will get much more out of this book. The sequence “November” is really the thematic climax of the collection, and so much of this section relies on these musical references to help illustrate the speaker’s state-of-mind. The poem “mixed tape” goes as far to use individual songs (I’ve actually created a playlist on Google Play of the songs in this poem if you’d care to listen).
Overall, a great read. This collection is funny in places and gut wrenchingly difficult in places. Vermette pulls no punches and uses her old-school writing style to connect you with the depths of her own soul. Childhood memories, personal pain, music, and North End Winnipeg all shaped this collection of poems in a highly coheasive collection even though the poems are more lyrical than they are narrative. I think that North End Love Songs is a triumphant announcement proclaiming that Katherena Vermette is an important new voice in Native Canadian literature.
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.
Winner of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A 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.