Tag Archives: 2010s

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.

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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.

Fault Lines by Nicolas Billon

Fault Lines

Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Drama

Plays are often times collected together in a similar way to short stories and published as a multi-work volume. The works can sometimes be related – by setting, characters, themes, etc – but often times are not. Some of these collections have been mainstays in drama libraries and curriculum across the country (The East End Plays by George F Walker for example). Occasionally as well, these books have won the Governor General’s Award for Drama because they are better able to show off a writer’s skill and depth; in fact three of the last eight winners have been collections, including 2013 and 2014. Fault Lines: Three Plays is the first such volume that I have read. Nicolas Billon’s collection, his second published book, contains three plays, 2009’s Greenland, 2012’s Iceland and 2013’s Faroe Islands. This book absolutely blew me away; Fault Lines was one of the best books I have read all year. Full stop. End of statement.

Looking at the titles of the three individual plays, there is an obvious relation – all are northern island nations (and Scandinavian states as Greenland, for now, is still under Danish rule) with small populations and insular cultures. But, the relation of the three plays for the most part ends there. There is no character crossover, no related plot lines, and even thematically, other than some very broad ideas which I’ll get into later, there is only minimal crossover. Each of these plays has its own set of circumstances and fascinating characters. Greenland uses the discovery of a small new island by a glaciologist as a reflector of his disintegrating family situation. Iceland, set in Toronto, uses an Estonian prostitute, a bible thumper, and a greasy real estate agent as an allegory for capitalism and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. And Faroe Islands deals with the whale hunt in that country and looks at the hypocrisy often present in the most vocal of activists. Each of these plays has its own writing and staging style, themes, structure, and its own charm.

The delivery of these works is very different from any play I’ve ever read. All three unfold using monologues. Greenland and Iceland are told through intertwined monologues by three different characters, and Faroe Islands is told by a single character. In a way, Fault Lines closely resembles a series of short stories being relayed to you directly by the characters (not simply a first person POV). There is no back-and-forth dialogue and very few stage directions. Even set design would be very minimalistic; I get the impression that any of these three plays could be staged with nothing but a stool on a stage with maybe a small blank screen to project a few pictures for context. This method allowed Billon to have much more three-dimensional characters than I typically find while reading plays and, oddly enough, the author creates some of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever come across in CanLit.

Iceland was my favorite of the three. Billon uses this monologue structure to bring together three unrelated characters into a very sad and brutal story. These three characters are also the highlight of this collection. Kassandra, the Estonian prostitute, is a very heartrending and sympathetic character – pulled into the world of sex work to help her family in Europe; Halim, the real estate agent, is an absolutely horrible excuse of human and deserves the fate that ultimately befalls him; and Anna, the young lady who is the glue of the play, is a fascinating and tragically ludicrous character. Iceland takes on a lot in only 40 pages, but most interestingly is how it deals with dreams of freedom and the nature of capitalism and capitalists.

Throughout the whole collection, there is a desire to be part of something larger than what exists now. Jonathan in Greenland yearns to be a leader in field of climate change; Kassandra in Iceland wants to live up to her mother’s expectations and take advantage of the promise offered by the revolution at home; and Dara in Faroe Islands literally wants to save the whales. This theme is the glue that holds these plays together. Additionally, as a student of English Literature and a graduate student in Island Studies, I see a lot going in all of these plays that uses the tropes of small island life and literature. Greenland uses notions of isolation and environmental vulnerability as an important part of the story. In Iceland, while no action whatsoever takes place in that country, the island is used as a microcosm of the wider world. And in Faroe Islands the idea of insularity and traditional customs being misunderstood by the outsider is central. I can easily see Fault Lines being added to small island literature courses (I would add it).

This is essential reading accessible to everyone. Even if you don’t want to delve deeply into the highly complex themes, the characters and plot are engrossing to even the most casual reader. Also, since the three plays are done with monologues, it is much more accessible than a lot of drama in that there isn’t that initial shock of confusion with who’s who in the opening scenes. Fault Lines is without question the best book I’ve read from 2013.

Hellgoing by Lynn Coady

HellgoingLynnCoady2210_f

Winner of the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

An Amazon.ca Best Book ~ 2013

A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2013

A book of short fiction is an interesting experience. There are several universes and characters that you start to love and then you almost instantly have to abandon them. I had a severe aversion to short stories when I first began my post-secondary study of English literature well over a decade ago. I can’t put my finger on why, but I just wasn’t a fan. Even reading classic stories like “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”, “A Rose for Emily”, or “Bartleby, the Scrivener” didn’t thrill me. Over the years though, I’ve developed a fondness for the genre. Canada is incredibly fortunate to have such talented writers of short stories – Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Mavis Gallant, and of course Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. That being said though, I have real difficult reviewing collections of stories. I don’t like writing up a bit on each story and it’s sometimes hard to find thematic threads to pull on that run through the whole book. After I finish a book of short fiction I always ask myself if I even want to bother writing a blog post. But, with a book as good as this one was, I felt I had no choice.

Lynn Coady has been steadily rising as one of the most prominent literary writers in Canada. The Nova Scotia-born author has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, two Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize nominations, four Globe and Mail Best Book mentions, and two Giller Prize nominations with the win going her way in 2013. Coady is known for her sharp prose – beautiful yet not flowery or even poetic, her razor-sharp witty humour, and being merciless with her characters. The Giller winner Hellgoing is Coady’s second book of short stories and sixth book overall. I have to be honest, while I’ve owned this book since its Giller win, I read this book now because of Jian Ghomeshi’s mention of it in his now infamous Facebook post after CBC fired him.

This book was fantastic. Coady’s book was very reminiscent of collections by Munro and Atwood in that, while the stories are in no way linked by plot, character, or specific setting, they are bound together thematically. While character types, writing styles, and points-of-view all change, there are various common themes throughout the whole volume – most notably that linear personal influence of past to present self. But, what really made this book for me were the characters. Like a lot of literary short fiction, the stories of Hellgoing are very character driven as opposed to plot driven, so Coady made sure that her nine main characters were highly developed and very three-dimensional. The protagonists were a venerable motley crew of mostly women; a mix of the pathetic, misanthropic, pitiful, hopeful, and mysterious and were, quite often, ironically unlikable.

The quality of writing in the nine stories was absolutely above reproach. While not poetic, the prose was elevated and very literary. In a way, Coady’s writing was a throwback to older modernist authors with solid, punchy lines. In most of the stories, she integrated the dialogue into the general narration to increase the staccato effect. If I had to guess, the writing style was what tipped the Giller Jury over the top in awarding the prize to this book. Short Story volumes do not often win this award – only three previous collections have won, two of them were by Alice Munro and one was a highly connected cycle of stories that could be read as a novel.

“Dogs in Clothes”, “Clear Skies”, “The Natural Elements”, and “Body Condom” were my favorite stories while “Wireless” and “Mr. Hope” were my least favorite. This was a very emotional collection with very memorable characters and accessible themes. One of the best books of 2013, Hellgoing is a very literary volume best suited to the advanced and discerning reader.

Combat Camera by A.J. Somerset

Combat Camera

Winner of the 2009-2010 Metcalf-Rooke Award

Combat Camera by A.J. Somerset from indie press Biblioasis was one of the novels that lit up the CanLit social media scene a few years ago. I bought it shortly after it came out, but it seemed to perpetually sit on my “to-read” list until I spotted it again while rearranging my bookshelf. This is the story of Lucas Zane, a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer currently working for a low-end online porn company. But, this is only one of Zane’s many problems, he obviously has PTSD, he has a drinking problem, he’s impotent, and, due to an injury, he can’t eat anything greasy and is essentially restricted to dry salad. The novel centers on Zane’s relationship with Melissa, a young stripper/porn star. Combat Camera is the author’s first book, but you could never tell. This is an astonishingly well written novel and one of the best books I have read in years; it has everything to make it a classic and stand-up against the test of time.

The unfolding of Zane’s story is told in two separate and distinct parts. Part One is a gritty urban portrayal of Zane and how his relationship begins with Melissa. Zane’s internal torment is laid bare for the reader using prose that would rival even the best writers of psychological fiction. We get snippets of his past, his current job at the studio, his troubles, and what makes him tick. In an attempt to regain some credibility as a serious photography, Zane decides to do a story on Melissa. But, after she is assaulted on-set by her co-star Bill, the pair of them decides to take off to Vancouver so that she can make a fresh break with her family. At this point in the novel, Part Two, we have what I think is the best road story in contemporary Canadian fiction. The misanthropic duo makes their way from Toronto to the west coast with the variety of trouble you would expect from two people like Zane and Melissa.

I was not expecting a road story when I began Combat Camera, but I was very satisfied with the results. The book is structured in almost a perfect V: a gradual descent to rock bottom for both Zane and Melissa and a gradual build-up back to some level of normalcy – in their world at least – while they head west (this of course is up-ended in the final few pages which I won’t spoil). Throughout both parts, Somerset seamlessly weaves in Zane’s wild back-story of his rise and fall as a respected photojournalist.

Combat Camera is a character driven novel. Somerset kept the cast small, and I think that in doing so he was able to make each one very memorable and three dimensional: Zane goes from the Scrooge-like shell of a man to a man with a very slight glimmer of hope who was once again able to feel a connection, albeit buried, to another human-being – for better or worse. And Melissa is very complex but ultimately never changes her spots so-to-speak as we see at the story’s conclusion. These are characters that you feel hopeful for, but at the same time are not overly likeable – it’s an interesting paradox that Somerset develops with his two protagonists. For me, the minor characters, particularly in Part One, were perhaps my favorite element of the novel – particularly Rich Barker. Rich is a peddler of low-budget and low-quality porn, but he is truly a very low-brow renaissance man with a highly intellectual opinion of what he has to offer the world. His sister and business partner, Jade, the grounded one, has a more bleak and Machiavellian personality and is equally as entertaining.

This book is also very funny. Somerset’s humour is not topical knee-slapping comedy; it is more of a dark sardonic wit. And finally, Combat Camera is also a fascinating look at the art of photography from a variety of angles. Somerset delves into themes of the role and existence of art, particularly in chaotic places and situations; while doing so, he presents a technical illustration of this craft in much the same way as John Irving did in The World According to Garp with fiction writing. You are not bored or lost in technical jargon; instead you are pulled even further into the world of Lucas Zane because to understand Zane, you must understand photography.

Combat Camera is an immensely enjoyable debut novel that I think will stand out as one of the best Canadian books to come out of the 2010s and could easily stand up to the critical rigors of any advanced university English seminar. It’s psychological, it’s a road story, the characters are memorable and highly complex, the prose is brilliant and written with pinpoint precision, it’s funny, and ultimately it leaves you pondering what’s next for Zane and Melissa.

1996 by Sara Peters

1996

Quill and Quire Book of Year – 2013

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

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

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

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

From “Camden 14”

He’d been kept awake all night

by snowflakes, so Camden
set himself on fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room by Emma Donoghue

RoomEmmaDonoghue690_f

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice and Water by John English

Ice and water

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on Two Fronts by Sean Cadigan

death two fronts

It’s been over a year since my last book review and what a year it’s been. I completed a year of graduate studies in the fascinating, yet obscure, field of Island Studies. And, last but not least, my wife and I had a baby; our little bundle Gavin was born on November 4th, 2013. Now that he’s almost ten months old and actually sleeps through the night, and since I’ve completed all of the academic pursuits I’ll be pursuing for a while, I’m able to start pleasure reading again; so of course, that means new blog posts. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how to review books, but surely you’ll forgive me if this first one in 15 months seems a little rusty.

For my first book read in almost a year, I decided to start with another title in Penguin’s History of Canada Series that I seem to lust after (in the literary sense). Death on Two Fronts: National Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 1914-34 by Sean Cadigan is one the latest additions to the series. This book charts two decades of political culture in Newfoundland, spanning the years 1914 to 1934. The history is book-ended with the infamous Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 (which Kent Stetson dramatized in The Harps of God) and the end of responsible government culminating with the defacto return to crown colony status in 1934. The focus during the intervening years is obviously World War I and its effect on the Dominion of Newfoundland. Cadigan works his story around Newfoundland’s two fronts: the war front in Europe and the domestic political struggles at home.

Cadigan chronicles all of important events during this period with the vivid details and meticulously researched insight  – the Newfoundland disaster, WWI battles like Beaumont Hamel and Gallipoli, and the rise of progressive politics and its subsequent collapse. The major political players during the time are the primary figures and Cadigan often uses contemporaneous newspaper editorials to set the stage and situate the contrasting views prevailing in the Dominion at the time.

Newfoundland, during the period Cadigan explores, is a perfect example of “the island” acting as a microcosm of what was, and currently is, taking place in larger states. What I most enjoyed about Cadigan’s book was how relevant it is to today’s political and economic situations. Newfoundland was faced with an extremely polarized political culture and media (a la Fox News and MSNBC), a populace that increasingly demanded publicly funded services with no thoughts given to the cost, public debt that was completely unmanageable, and rising disillusionment with the political process and liberal democracy as a whole. While it is obvious to the reader with a century of hindsight how desperate the government was becoming (selling Labrador was considered a viable option to raise cash) and what the ultimate fate of Newfoundland would be, it was not clear to those involved until the very last moment.

This book worked for me on many levels: the writing was fabulous, the book was well researched, the selection of photographs were wonderful, the subject matter is as relevant today and it was in the early 20th century, the history was analyzed intelligently without being written in social-scienese (which is a challenging task) and the author masterfully balanced details with wide-lens scene-setting. Death on Two Fronts is a fantastic addition to The History of Canada series.

The Best Place to Be by John Lownsbrough

John Lownsbrough’s The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and Its Time is the ninth entry in the History of Canada series published by Penguin Canada. As the title implies, it is the story of Expo 67, Canada’s centennial celebration held on constructed islands in Montreal. I was born in 1982, so I obviously didn’t attend the festivities and prior to reading this book I knew almost nothing about Expo 67 (except of course for what those Heritage Moments taught me); that is why this book titillated my interest. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about the fair, but, unfortunately, this book did not live up to the expectations that its History of Canada brethren set up for it.

Among the positives in Lownsbrough’s book were the incredible detail he described and the way in which he tied the events of Expo into the wider context of Canadian culture and world events. I had no idea what Expo was all about and that it was such a large event. Dozens of countries setup pavilions, the various Canadian regions setup buildings, as did corporations, there was a giant amusement park, and, of course, Habitat – the one element of Expo I had certainly heard of and seen. Expo was a celebration of Canada, the world, and, as the Expo theme bluntly stated, “Man and His World.” The impression that I was left with after reading the book and looking up photos, was that this was a venerable artistic paradise. Avant-garde film, in both content and technology, was everywhere; the pavilions were bacchanalias of architectural prowess; and all manners of visual art were never more than 2 minutes away.

In addition to his lucid descriptions of the sights, Lownsbrough also made one point exceptionally clear: the men running Expo were unbelievably dedicated to the event and they knew that they were undertaking something special. The author did a fantastic job of setting the political scene for Expo; this event involved some very bombastic personalities, not the least of whom was Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau and eventual Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque.

Unfortunately though, The Best Place to Be could have been better. All of the other History of Canada books follow the convention of single author history books of telling the story in a linear, narrative fashion.  This book instead devoted each chapter to an individual element of the Expo, be it the people, the buildings, the context, VIP guests, etc. While I would not normally be that bother by this, there was no sequential logic to the chapters and the way they jumped around made the book feel disconnected and disorganized. The quality of writing wasn’t nearly as good as many of the high quality history books I have read in the last few years – it felt like the author was trying to be witty, but not very well. Finally, Expo was a very visual, tactile experience – the dearth of photographs in the volume was very disappointing. I read the Kobo ebook and I think there were in total maybe 20 screens worth of pictures (so about 10 pages in print) and there were no maps. This did not do it justice; going online I found thousands of beautiful and rich photos in the National Archives that were far superior to anything included in the volume.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, if you’re interested in Expo 67 or are a fan of the History of Canada series, I would recommend picking this up. It does provide some neat insight into the event and it is a good starting point if you were like me and knew nothing about this important milestone in our cultural history. As a closing note on Expo 67, there are rentals currently available apparently at Habitat 67 (although way out of my price range). Click here.

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