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 1990 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award
Winner of the 1989 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play
Shortlisted for the 1989 Governor General’s Award for Drama
Any first year English student knows that in the broadest of senses, there are four genres of literature: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama – and of course each of these has their own endless lists of sub-genres. Drama is one of the most difficult genres to read and, I would imagine, write. The story is essentially conveyed solely by dialogue and it is primarily written to be performed rather than necessarily read. When reading a play, you are thrown right into the middle of the action, often with very little context and it can sometimes be difficult to get an initial grasp on the story and characters, especially with contemporary drama which tends to push the envelope. The average literature student struggles with drama more than other genres and very very few literary blogs review books of drama. With all of that being said, reading a play can be just as rewarding as any novel or volume of poetry. Canada is very lucky to have more than its fair-share of world-class dramatists: Sharon Pollack, George F. Walker, Judith Thompson, George Ryga, Catherine Banks and Daniel McIvor just to name a few. I’ve been collecting more Canadian plays lately and I’m planning on adding more of the genre to my reading rotation, starting with this selection.
Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrights and Native writers in general and his works are frequently included in the curriculum of Canadian literature courses. I’ve previously reviewed his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen on my site. His signature work is, without a doubt, his play The Rez Sisters, the story of a group of women on the Wasaychigan Hill reserve going to the world’s biggest bingo. Today’s selection, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, is the companion and quasi-sequel to The Rez Sisters and takes place on the same reserve. This play uses hockey to bind several misanthropic characters together in a play that is equal parts comedy and almost unbearably dark tragedy.
Right off the bat, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Rez Sisters, which happens to be one of my favorite plays. But, after letting it marinate for a few days I have to admit my opinion of Dry Lips is more favorable than it was when I initially finished. It’s difficult to give this book a proper review without revealing spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
The play has a few arcs that eventually intersect and burst. We have Zachary who wants to open a bakery to bring some prosperity to the reserve and is worried about his wife finding out about his adultery; we have Big Joey who is trying to connect with his son, Dickie Bird – who suffers from severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; Pierre who is ecstatic to be the referee in the women’s hockey game; Spooky who uses pious Christianity as salvation from his wild youth; and Simon, a mysterious character that seems to float from situation to situation. The two acts are very well defined; the first act is very comedy heavy while the second is very tragedy filled and difficult to read in certain spots. Throughout the play, the action takes place under that watchful eye of Nanabush – the Trickster, the Christ-esque creature that is often omnipresent in Native literature.
The positives of Dry Lips were all related to Highway’s unflinching and unromanticised depiction of life on the reserve and the inherent problems that go along with it. Violence, alcoholism, poverty, fetal alcohol syndrome, and cultural decay are all taken on in a brutally unforgiving way. This is punctuated with a particularly disturbing scene between Dickie Bird and Patsy. At the end of the play, you are left with neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic feeling. Instead, Dry Lips leaves the reader with a sense of realism. Life on the reserve is ugly and there are no easy solutions.
The negatives are a little harder to put your finger on. The action of the play is very frantic and scattered at times. Obviously this can make the plot and forward momentum difficult to follow, especially since a few of the main characters are essentially reflectors and interchangeable. Also, the stage directions are very detailed and more than are typical in contemporary drama; I think this would likely leave little room for a director to leave their stamp on a production.
All in all, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a good, and ultimately, important play. It takes on difficult themes, it uses language creatively, it does interesting things with the Trickster character, and it completes a mythology started in The Rez Sisters. This may not be a play for the casual reader or even a good introduction to Canadian drama. But, for the advanced CanLit reader, for someone interested in Native lit, or for someone with a deep interest in Canadian drama, it is a worthwhile, if not essential, read.
Selected for Canada Reads 2011
Angie Abdou’s second book, her first novel, The Bone Cage, is an intimate look at two Olympians preparing for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. There have been countless books written about the “major” sports, but in this novel Abdou takes a chance and focuses on two relatively lesser known sports, wrestling and distance swimming. The two central characters, Digger and Sadie, were an absolute pleasure to spend this journey with. The characters develop so well, the supporting cast is just as memorable as the mains, the sports jargon is kept to a layman’s level, and the story takes you on lots of twists and turns while blending the humour of life and heart-wrenching dramatics that pull you back to reality. I am very happy that this book survived the Canada Reads cut from the top 40 to the top 5. The Bone Cage is a sports story that can be enjoyed by the least sporty among us.
The first half or so of the novel consists of chapters with alternating third person points-of-view, either from Sadie’s or Digger’s perspective. Eventually, through an innocent meeting at the University of Calgary weight room, their paths intersect and their lives forever altered. The chapters still alternate perspective but many of them contain both characters. The author times their meeting perfectly. I find a lot of times in novels with this narrative technique it takes too long for the central characters to meet. Abdou’s narrative is flawless; the pacing is absolutely brilliant and there is a perfect amount of detail.
As I mentioned before, the supporting cast is amazing. You have the coaches, the families, and the competitors; my favorite character in the book is Fly. A hyperactive wrestler who has appointed himself to the position of Digger’s assistant once his own Olympic dreams are shattered, Fly has the ability to bring levity and sanity to the most tense or out-of-control situation. The wrestling coach, Saul, also has a number of classic one-liners, my favorite being his trademark “eargasm” motion.
This novel examines a lot of complex themes. These athletes are like artists. They train and train, practice and practice, until they reach the pinnacle of their craft. Throughout the story the characters are faced with their identity: is it their sport that defines them or are they something more than this athlete? What happens to a person when all they know ends or is taken away from them? Is there life after sport?
I feel like my review might be selling this book a little bit short, but that is simply because I do not want to give away any details that could in any way spoil the read. Each and every page is filled with such mature and polished writing. Angie Abdou manages to avoid the typical tropes and pitfalls of genre fiction; I don’t look at The Bone Cage as a sports novel, this is a work of literature that just happens to have sports as its cornerstone.
I think The Bone Cage will be listed alongside other great CanLit pieces with sports at their core (Night Work, King Leary, Shoeless Joe) and will be looked at as one of the quintessential novels of last five years. The story is sharply original; it is told with passion; the dialog is extremely well written, quite a feat for a first time novelist; and the characters are memorable. The book’s panelist at Canada Reads 2011, Georges Laraque, will be a good defender. As a former NHLer and an active member of the political world he has everything that would be needed to passionately discuss this novel. This book is my pick to win Canada Reads 2011. Angie Abdou’s next novel, The Canterbury Trail, will be released in February and I can’t wait to read it.
Winner of the 2008 Winterset Award
Winner of the 2009 E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2010 Kobzar Literary Award
Shortlisted for the 2009 Heritage and History Book Award
Longlisted for the 2009 Relit Award for Poetry
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008
I need to start this review off by prefacing it with the confession that I am not a hockey fan; it is not that I dislike hockey, I am just not a follower and really know very little about it. So, that being said, I was surprised how interested and excited I was to read Night Work and I was even more amazed by how much I enjoyed it. Even being the hockey ignoramus that I am I still had somewhat of an idea of who Terry Sawchuk was and his stature in the sport. This collection joins a Canadian tradition of poetic historical revision; Randall Maggs has taken a historical figure and molded this person into one of the great literary characters of the last 20 years, much the same way Michael Ondaatje transformed Billy the Kid decades ago. This book is a masterpiece. Period.
The star hockey player in our contemporary setting has a bit of the rock star personae. Maggs closely examines what life was like day-in and day-out for these gritty workhorses; the title says it all, Night Work. Sawchuk’s life as portrayed in this book felt like an unrealistic marathon. The punishment both physically and psychologically that hockey professionals of this generation took is just mind boggling. One scene in particular that I loved was when Sawchuk’s coach was arguing with him about how detrimental goaltenders wearing masks would be. Most of the poems in this collection are told from “characters” with personal and intimate knowledge of Sawchuk, as opposed to being told from Sawchuk’s; I really like this technique, it helps maintain that sense of the goalie being an unknowable legend, it keeps that sense of detachment yet provides insight into the man in an almost intense fashion.
This collection of poetry read like a novel. There were very defined characters and they developed in much the same way they would be in a great piece of fiction. I also felt there was a very defined story arc as well. The poems were all highly narrative and detailed in the style of Al Purdy. Through Maggs’ examination of Terry Sawchuk we also get something else, Night Work is a chronicle of hockey in general during this period, its role in the public consciousness, and ultimately its importance in the culture of Canada and the northern US.
Supplemented by beautiful original photography of Sawchuk’s time and prefaced by an excerpt from his autopsy report, Randall Maggs has truly captured one great man’s short life in this fitting poetic tribute. Night Work is still one of the most recognizable books of poetry on the shelves of Canadian book stores two years after initial publication. This book is complex, detailed, beautiful, well researched, and a must read for all Canadians. Below is a short clip of a game from the 1964 Stanley Cup finals where Sawchuk played goal for Detroit so you can see a tiny bit of his on-ice genius.