Genre: Biographical Fiction, Political Fiction, Historical Fiction, Bildungsroman
Publication Year: 1998
Edition Read: 1999 Vintage Canada paperback edition
Major Accolades: Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize, 1998; Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction, 1999; shortlisted for Giller Prize and Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, 1998; Canada Reads selection, 2003.
Newfoundland and Labrador is an interesting the province – the last to join Confederation, one of the most distinct cultures in English Canada, and one of the most remote provinces in Canada. I have family connections to the province; my grandfather was born in the early 1920s and as such was a member of that last generation of Newfoundlanders that experienced life in both an independent and confederated Newfoundland. I remember as a youngster him showing me his Newfoundland memorabilia: coins and bills from the Dominion, postage stamps, and the medals he received for serving in the Newfoundland company of the Empire forces during World War II. Even though he moved to Nova Scotia in the late ‘40s and married a New Brunswick francophone in the early ‘50s, many of the old traditions of rural pre-WWII Newfoundland survived in his home until his death in 2007. Even though it is one of the few provinces I have never visited, I have a great affinity for Newfoundland.
Joey Smallwood is a name that is synonymous with Newfoundland. He dubbed himself the “Last Father of Confederation” and once elected premier he ruled with an authoritarian streak that would make Donald Trump proud for over two decades. Whatever one may think of Smallwood, is it indisputable that you cannot understand that period of the province’s history without understanding him. With that in mind, you must give kudos to Wayne Johnston and the guts it must have taken to even contemplate the idea of writing a sweeping epic with Joey Smallwood as the main character (and narrated from his first-person point-of-view nonetheless).
Epic in its proportions, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is one of the most satisfying books I have read in a while. It combines politics, romance, elements of the bildungsroman, and as much Newfoundland culture as you can handle. The character of Smallwood and his true-love/archenemy Sheilagh Fielding are about as well developed as characters can be in a work of fiction, and that is the true power of this book. As a reader, you spend decades with Smallwood and Fielding – you mourn their failures and celebrate their triumphs. Equally as impressive as Johnston’s character development is his ability to shift narrative point-of-view and exposition style. At regular points throughout the book, Smallwood’s narration is injected with snippets of book chapters, journal entries, and newspaper columns written by Fielding. Johnston managed to create a very distinctive first-person viewpoint in these pieces and they serve a fantastic contrasting or context setting device.
This novel was featured on Canada Reads in 2003. It was defended by Justin Trudeau, long before he got into politics; Trudeau ended voting against Colony in the final round to crown Next Episode as the winner and to this day he remains the only panelist in the 15 years of the competition to vote against his or her own book. One of the primary criticisms of the novel on that show, as well as on some other amateur reviews I’ve read, is that from a biographical standpoint, Johnston takes some severe liberties with Smallwood’s story. It is true, he does – for instance, Smallwood was not on the SS Newfoundland during the infamous sealing disaster and, from a larger perspective, Fielding was not a real person. My response is… who cares? I would refer anyone who criticizes the book on this basis to the second paragraph above: “Joey Smallwood is a name that is synonymous with Newfoundland.” While the central character of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is Joey Smallwood, I read this book as the story of Newfoundland during the formative years of 1900-1949 first, and as a story of Joey Smallwood second.
This is a long and engrossing book that should be read slow. It needs to be savored and chewed on slowly or else you risk just pounding through the magic (although I feel this is the case with all books and am a subscriber to the school of slow reading). The Colony of Unrequited Dreams has aged very well in the twenty years since it was published.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Roman du Terroir
Publication Year: 1945
Edition Read: McClelland & Stewart New Canadian Library, Series Five. Afterword by Robert Kroetsch
Major Accolades: Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, 1945; Canada Reads selection 2013
A lot can be said about Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan, but no matter what one’s interpretation of the novel may be, the 1945 winner of the Governor-General’s Award is inarguably one of the most important novels in Canadian literary history and an undeniable classic. This novel was resurrected into the public consciousness with its inclusion in the 2013 Canada Reads debates, where it was the runner-up. As a dedicated student, collector, promotor, and all-around fan of Canadian literature, I am almost ashamed to admit that this is my first time reading this great book.
This is a big book, both in size and scope. It is a multigenerational coming-of-age story that spans from the end of World War I to the start of World War II against the backdrop of the identity struggles and politics of Quebec during the inter-war years. There is also a great deal of commentary on Canadian literature and many autobiographical elements weaved into the novel.
Of all the threads that could be tugged on with this novel, the one that fascinated me the most was the death of the rural parish – the urbanization of Quebec society. The first section of the book, with Athanase Tallard as the central character, is an excellent example of pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec; the clergy were almost supreme rulers of their parish, religion and language were everything, and political beliefs were absolute. As WWI wound down though, this rural way of life was changing; English people were moving in, some in the population were questioning the authority of the church, and industry is beginning to be established in the rural parishes. I would also argue that MacLennan’s novel marks the death of the traditional Quebec Roman du Terroir.
The final section of the book is also rife with autobiographical details and allusions to other modernist English and American literature. Paul Tallard’s decision to write about Canada almost directly mimics MacLennan’s own development as a writer. Paul’s development as a writer also has overtones of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The ideological missives throughout the last quarter of the novel are reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. MacLennan deftly shows that he is a writer’s writer.
What will stick with me most about Two Solitudes is that it is the story of generational change. It is cliché to say this, but this novel is just as relevant today as it ever was. Paul Tallard, born at the turn of the 20th century, came of age in the shadow World War I, entered adulthood during the Great Depression, and then finds himself by enlisting for World War II. I look at the story of people my age: I started university 3 weeks before the September 11 attacks, came into adulthood with the Afghanistan War in full swing and under the shadow the American war in Iraq, and I started my career in earnest at the height of the Great Recession. A person’s world views and ideology can’t help but be heavily influenced by such events. Past is prologue and history is cyclical; it would be hard for someone my age (mid-30s) to read this novel and not see the parallels between the treatment of Paul Tallard’s generation (the G.I. generation) by his elders and the flack my much-maligned Millennial cohort receives from the Baby Boomer generation.
Hugh MacLennan is such an important writer: five-time GG winner, author of other classics like Barometer Rising, Each Man’s Son, The Precipice, and The Watch that Ends the Night. Unfortunately, so many of his works are either out of print or in between editions (Barometer Rising for instance is transitioning from its NCL edition to a Penguin Modern Classics edition). Two Solitudes is one of those titles currently out of print, as bizarre as that is to believe. The title has been around in various editions over the years but was added to the New Canadian Library in 2003 (afterword by Robert Kroetsch), under series five, and was later re-issued under the fancier series six cover, which was the edition used in Canada Reads 2013. Fortunately, McGill-Queen’s University Press will be releasing a new quality re-issue in June 2018. Find a copy and add it to your bookshelf.
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.
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.
Winner of Canada Reads – 2005
First published in 1928, Rockbound by Nova Scotian Frank Parker Day was long relegated to the depths of CanLit obscurity, even after it was reissued by the University of Toronto Press in 1973. But, this fantastic novel has been brought back into the canon of classic Canadian literature. Initially, this happened because of its frequent inclusion in Canadian Literature courses at universities – in both survey courses and as a mainstay in Atlantic Canadian Lit classes (and it is typically required reading in the few Island Studies literature courses taught around the world). For the general public, its inclusion and subsequent victory in the 2005 edition of Canada Reads was what brought Rockbound to prominence (Rockbound has the distinction of being the oldest book to win the competition and it currently stands as the only novel from the Maritimes to take the title).
Rockbound is one of the most magical novels I’ve read in many years. I grew up in Nova Scotia and spent a lot of time in the region where this book is set; I had family on the South Shore and my High School’s district included much of the upper half of the shore. Many of the family names in Day’s classic novel reminded me of home – Jung, Kraus, Slaughnwhite, Boutilier, and Born to name a few. Additionally, my father worked his way through school by fishing, and my uncle and father-in-law are both lifelong fishermen. So as I read through this book, I felt a very strong connection to its story and characters.
Rockbound is both a book of its time and a timeless story of the human condition. In the 1920s, fishing in Atlantic Canada was still a very lucrative career and had a certain unspoken romanticism to it. For men especially, hard work and manual labour were valued over all else, especially formal education. Every outport and village had its own unique dialect and set of rules – essentially existing as its own nation in a way. Being a fisherman wasn’t simply an occupation or even a way of life, it was a state of being as natural as breathing. The magic of Frank Parker Day’s novel is how he pulls the reader into this long-forgotten world. His use of dialect would rival Mark Twain and his landscape imagery is equally as good as any of the Confederation Poets from the previous generation.
While the imagery and landscape is essential to Rockbound, this is a character driven novel. Uriah Jung is one of the great not-so-subtle antagonists of early Canadian fiction. The undisputed king of the island of Rockbound, Uriah is the domineering and scheming patriarch of the Jung clan. He has three sons whom he rules with an iron fist and works to the bone, but his world is turned upside-down with the arrival of the novel’s protagonist, his nephew David Jung, claiming a sliver of land he is legally entitled to. Uriah and David are the primary drivers of the drama on Rockbound, but this is an ensemble piece. Uriah’s trio of sons – Martin, Joseph, and Casper, Gershom, the Kraus family, and Mary each lend important elements to life on Rockbound and help make this story what it is.
Rockbound is now part of the public domain in Canada so there are a number of discount ebook copies available, but I strongly recommend dropping the few extra dollars for the UTP publication which includes a fantastic afterword by Gwendolyn Davies of UNB. The afterword provides great historical and regional context and some fascinating biographical background on Frank Parker Day.
This book can be read in so many ways that it begs for deeper critical analysis – the struggle and plight of the working man, island notions of totality and intimacy, familial bonds and social customs, the role of women in a man’s world, and the list goes on. I think this is why Rockbound ultimately won Canada Reads and became a bestseller: it is a fun read that can be taken in by a general audience as a superficially good story and, for the more advanced readers, Day has crafted a thematically complex novel that can pull you in a variety of directions.
As a brief post-script, this novel is just begging to be made into a CBC mini-series.
A 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.
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.
Deirdre Kessler is very well known as a children’s author. Her Brupp books and the picture book Lobster in my Pocket are quite well known. She has been a fixture at UPEI for many years, teaching creative writing, an unbelievably popular course on children’s literature (there are usually huge wait lists), and a course unique to our island – a course on Lucy Maud Montgomery. In my recent PEI literature seminar, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with Deirdre; she has many interesting insights into Maritime literature and, as a person, is a very fascinating character. After the class, she was kind enough to give all 10 of us in the class a personally inscribed copy of her poetry collection. Afternoon Horses is Kessler’s only poetry book. It is a very personal mix of the lyrical and narrative and is, above all, incredibly intimate and personal.
The collection is broken down into four sections, but the poems really fall into two categories: poems about family and poems about travelling. Deirdre’s poems about her family are some of my favorite of recent PEI literature. The second section, “Blueberries in a green bowl,” is the strongest part of the book – with the first poem, “The names of things,” being my favorite of the whole collection. I think this section was so strong because of the author’s experience as a children’s writer. Writing for children requires getting into the heads of those little people; understanding children is the essential to producing good writing for or about children. In the poems of “Blueberries in a green bowl,” the children, especially a nephew of the author, are the star.
The collection takes the reader through the landscapes of PEI, Tasmania, and various remote areas of the Western US and then you’re invited into the kitchen of the Kessler family. In recent years, PEI poets have mastered what I call “the local narrative.” Poets like Kessler, Brinklow, Ledwell, and Morrow have published books (all from Acorn Press) of personal and accessible, yet literary, narrative poetry. The poems are not simply stories “chopped” into verse; they have a distinct poetic rhythm and flow. All-in-all, Afternoon Horses is an attractive, fun, and satisfying volume of poetry. I hope that another volume of poems from Deirdre Kessler appears in the near future.
The Ledwell Family is an artistic juggernaut on Prince Edward Island. Jane Ledwell wrote an excellent collection of poems, Last Tomato, and is known as one of the Island’s finest poetry editors. Patrick Ledwell is a very talented comedian, a playwright (Come All Ye), and now a respected writer (I Am an Islander). Danny Ledwell is a painter whose work is gaining popularity (the cover of this book is one of his paintings). The patriarch of this brood is Frank Ledwell, PEI’s second Poet Laureate, beloved story teller, and legendary English and creative writing professor at UPEI. The bulk of Frank Ledwell’s collection of writing is very PEI centric; Crowbush, The North Shore of Home, and Island Sketchbook all explore life on the Island, especially rural PEI, while Dip & Veer is a lyrical collection that reflects on Alex Colville’s art. The Taste of Water is a diverse mix of poems that is completely steeped in “islandness.”
The poems in this collection are a mix of the narrative, pastoral, and lyrical. Reading Frank Ledwell properly requires an understanding of his style of writing. Many of his PEI contemporaries, like John Smith and Brent MacLaine are masters of technical subtlety and eclectic metaphors; Ledwell is not. His poetry is like Bon Jovi, whereas John Smith is like Rush. Rush’s music is esoteric, difficult, and almost distant in its complexity. Bon Jovi, while not the most “artistic,” is still fun to listen to and highly entertaining. If you are looking for a demonstration of technical prowess, Frank Ledwell is not going to deliver. If you want to read poems that are written in “down-home” language that are accessible, fun, and convey clear and unambiguous stories and feelings, then The Taste of Water is your book.
The poems in this book are largely selections from poems Ledwell publicly read during his time as Poet Laureate. Poems like “The Sweater,” “Jean Finding Things,” and “Lasagna, April ‘06” tell tales of what life is like on this little island. Family ties, communal dinners, and the comfort of Condon’s Woollen Mills’ sweaters are among the topics of Ledwell’s writing. These poems, as well as the rest of the 71 page collection, wrap themselves in the red soil of PEI. And, whether some think of this as a positive or a negative, the poems are written in a straight-forward way that anyone can enjoy.
This small, beautifully designed collection is a must have. It is the kind of book that every Islander should proudly display on their coffee table. This was Ledwell’s last book before his 2008 death. Acorn Press did a fantastic job designing this book – with the exception of a weird font that does something strange with lower-case t’s. The Taste of Water, combined with Jane Ledwell’s Last Tomato, and Patrick Ledwell’s I Am an Islander would make an excellent gift to anyone that wanted a taste of Island literature.
As promised, my first book review of 2013! Alistair MacLeod. Just his name evokes images of the Cape Breton landscape. I really think that there are no Canadian writers whose worldwide reputation is built on such little writing; that is a testament to just how good his books are. MacLeod has five books published, three of which are completely original works: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, and his only novel, No Great Mischief. He also has two books where existing writing was essentially repackaged: the story “To Every Thing There is a Season,” from his second collection, was reworked into an illustrated Christmas book and, the book I am reviewing here, Island, is all of the stories from his two previously published collections plus two unpublished stories. On the back cover of Island, Michael Ondaatje compares MacLeod to Faulkner and Chekhov in his use of regionalism to tell universal stories. This is the essence of Alistair MacLeod’s short stories. In his writing, Cape Breton Island acts as living laboratory to examine the larger changing world.
If you were to sit through an Island Studies class, you would learn the four primary characteristics of island life: totality, intimacy, monopoly, and exile. MacLeod’s stories embody all of these elements. They show the insularity of island life and some of the common challenges of isolation in the North Atlantic. But, more universally, they take on the ramifications of monumental social change on small traditional communities. MacLeod’s stories are set in a time when choosing to attend university instead of work the fishing boats is an insult to the family; where reading is considered a waste of time; where tourists are seen as threatening; and where living off the land is simply a way of life. The magic of MacLeod’s writing though is its exploration on what happens when these traditional beliefs get turned upside down.
Most of the stories in Island are framed. By that, for those of you who haven’t toiled away in English classes for years and years, I mean they are told through a series of flashbacks. This provides an interesting contrast and juxtaposition to the “then” and “now.” Typically, the “present” in the narrative centers on a middle-aged man looking back on important events that took place anywhere from childhood to young adulthood. The range of events is as diverse as the population of Cape Breton: abandoning the traditional family trade (fishing, mining, etc), leaving the island, or even finding out Santa is not real (sorry folks). While the immediate conflict is “local” to Cape Breton, the sense of place that emerges from the themes is universal. With a few modifications, these stories could take place anywhere.
The highlights of the collection are “The Boat” (a highly anthologized classic around the world), “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” “As Birds Bring forth the Sun,” “To Every Thing There is a Season,” “Clearances” and “Island.” If you just want to pick away at a few of the stories, these are definitely the ones to tackle.
Island and MacLeod’s only novel, No Great Mischief, are absolute masterpieces of not just Atlantic or Canadian fiction, but of English literature. The quality of writing is flawless. The characters are incredibly well developed. And MacLeod tells a story in only a few pages that would take lesser writers entire books. Thematically, Island feels like over 20 small novels and should be read by everyone.