Thursday, December 31, 2009

Canada Reads- Marina Endicott

As soon as the Canada Reads picks were announced on CBC I ran to the TPL website and put all of them on hold. They have started streaming in (at an alarming rate actually), so I have started reading. The first to arrive was Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott.

The book tells the story of a middle aged, single, Christian woman (Clara) whose life is turned upside down when she gets into a car accident. The vehicle she hits contains a family much less well off than her. The family had been living in the car- mom, dad, three kids and grandma. When the mother is taken to the hospital following the accident, cancer is found. Advanced cancer. She is confined to the hospital, the family is homeless and motherless.

Clara takes them in, the whole lot of them and she takes care of the mother in the hospital. Her love life even develops, if rather awkwardly, with her priest.

Clara's late life introduction to motherhood is amusingly told. The story is warm and heartfelt. The characters are likeable and well developed. My only problem with the book was the pacing. The book begins with a series of fast paced events that tumble through the first hundred or so pages as Clara settles into her new role. But the writing during these pages is slow and measured. The story ran ahead of the writing. I found this frustrating, I felt like the novel wasn't moving at the pace I wanted. But, as the story settles down, the writing catches up. By the end I had completely changed my mind- I liked the book, I enjoyed reading it.

I am not quite ready to say whether it should win Canada Reads, but I am not discounting it either.

Next up: Ann-Marie MacDonald- Fall on your Knees

- Katy

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Man in the Closet by Roch Carrier

It seemed this fall the big thing to do was to hold used book sales. There were a few in the lobby of my building at work and one at church. I took advantage of these to gather some Can Lit at reasonable prices. Now, this has positives and negatives. Positive: most books cost me $1. Negative: Not always the best selection. This meant I had to broaden my selection criteria, so basically, anything Canadian I bought. So that is how I ended up with Roch Carrier on my shelf.

Then, post wedding, I was falling behind and wanted a book that I could blow through quick. So I decided on The Man in the Closet.

The only other Roch Carrier book I have read is The Hockey Sweater, which I love (of course). So this was my first non-kids, non-picture book from him. And it wasn’t bad.

The Man in the Closet is a mystery type story of a small town in Quebec that often has big town people visit on the weekend (country homes). Two young (beautiful) girls come to stay in a house owned by the Martins. One night, a man jumps out of the closet and scares one of the girls, who in turns punches through a window and runs away (all while naked- she was getting ready for bed). This leads to chaos in the small town as fingers are pointed and accusations thrown.
Though a mystery, it was not all that mysterious, but the ending did still shock me a bit (not entirely). It was a good portrait of small town life and the interesting dynamics that play out. While I would never nominate this book for any kind of prize, it wasn’t horrible.

Anyway, it is hard to write about mediocre books- not much to say besides it was ok. I still say Roch Carrier is one of the most important writers in Canada, just for the Hockey Sweater, not this one.

Next up: Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa, which I am now 25 pages into and really enjoying!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hemingway is Canadian, right?

So, I know that Ernest Hemingway is not actually Canadian, but I have to read a book for my book club once a month and they never pick Canadian writers (especially not after the disastrous Mavis Gallant meeting). It is taking away from my Canadian tally, so this month, as Hemingway spent a small chunk of his career writing for the Toronto Star, I am counting him as Can-Lit. We could spend all day arguing about what counts as Can-Lit, but Hemingway mentions Canada more times in A Moveable Feast than Mistry did in A Fine Balance, so I think I am ok.

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway's memoir of early 1920s Paris, particularly of his involvement with the 'Lost Generation.' Not technically fiction (alright, this post really doesn't belong on the blog, but it is too late now), Hemingway wrote the book in the late 1950s. This puzzled me for a couple reasons: 1) He recounts exact conversations and encounters, how did he remember these? 2) Boy does he ever love his first wife, although sweet, this must have been awkward for whichever wife he was on when this was published. 3) Why did he write this book? So much of it was name dropping (Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.). By the time he wrote it, Hemingway had won the Nobel Prize and was a very established writer- no need for name dropping.

It is an interesting read and I found myself liking Hemingway, especially his obvious affection for his family and his admiration for other writers. A small insight into the world of a foreign correspondent, struggling to become a writer. Next time I feel like an over-priced beer, I might just head to Hemingways in Yorkville and ruminate on one of our truly great writers.

Next up, I begin my Canada Reads novels, I got an email from the library today- one of them has arrived.

- Katy

The Wars

Unlike a large amount of Canadian teenagers, I somehow missed out on reading Timothy Findley in school. Yet, somehow I still closely associate him with the Canadian high school experience. In reading The Wars, Findley's novel of World War 1, I felt transported back to grade 11, unfortunately not in a particularly good way.

Robert Ross, a nineteen-year-old Ontario boy, shortly after the death of his beloved sister, signs up for war. This sends his family into a bit of a tail spin, adding a side plot to the story. The novel follows Robert through training as an officer, to France and his days in the trenches. Robert ultimately suffers from, what is now known to be, post-traumatic stress disorder and rebels against the institution of war in one desperate act to save the lives of horses.

The story is told from an interesting point of view. Someone is researching Robert's story and letting us in on what he discovers. As an archivist, I am always happy to see one pop up in a novel, so having the researching angle would normally entice me. But in this novel it feels too undeveloped, like the story of Robert's family, Findley does not spend time showing us their world, but only uses them as a convenient mechanism for the development of Robert's plot. It leaves their bits feeling forced and unimportant, taking away from rather than adding to the novel.

Overall, the book reads like something out of those old school readers. Some great examples of literary technique for a grey haired high school teacher to lecture for what-feels-like-hours about while his students pass notes and nap.


Non-Canadian Can Lit

For the first time in this challenge I have read a book which is difficult to fit into the Canadian canon. That isn't saying that Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance isn't good, it's great in fact, just that it doesn't take place in Canada, never mentions Canada and generally doesn't feel Canadian (whatever that means). That being said I am glad Rohinton Mistry, born in Bombay but a resident of Canada since 1975, is part of the Canadian literary scene. His novel provides depth to many of the themes that have already appeared in this blog, particularly to themes of family and history/memory.

A Fine Balance tells the story of four individuals whose lives are brought together under the roof of one apartment. Dina, a widowed woman who runs a small sewing company; Ishvar and his orphaned nephew Om, Dina's employees; and Maneck, the son of one of Dina's childhood friends who has come to the big city for university. The novel is epic, not just because of its 700 page length, but because of its abilities to tell the beautiful and tragic story of the four characters against the backdrop of a nation (India) going through enormous changes. The novel touches on numerous themes, but for me the most poignant was Mistry's ability to re-define definitions of family, even in unusual and often difficult surroundings.

In turned out that the length was not an obstacle at all (I have a phobia of long books). The story and writing style flowed and the next thing I knew I was hundreds of pages in. The biggest hurdle was that anytime I mentioned to someone that I was reading A Fine Balance, I heard about how sad the novel was. I grew a bit worried- how depressing would this be? And it was sad, tragic even. Just as long as you don't mind getting a little teary eyed on the TTC, this book is a must read.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Canada Reads List Announced

This past week the 2010 version of Canada Reads was announced by the CBC.

The books and their defenders are as follows:
  • Perdita Felicien is defending Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
  • Samantha Nutt is defending The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy
  • Cadence Weapon is defending Generation X by Douglas Coupland (side note: Cadence Weapon is curently Edmonton's poet laureate- how cool is that? Edmonton has a rapper as a poet laureate! Sometimes this city surprises me)
  • Simi Sara is defending Good to a Fault by Marinna Endicott
  • Michel Vezina is defending Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

I haven't read any of these books, though Fall on Your Knees is quite popular, so I imagine many people have. So was Generation X when it first came out.

I am looking forward to reading all theses books, and on Katy's suggestion I am going to have to reserve them at the library so I don't go broke reading Can Lit.

I am not going to lie, I have never spent the time following or reading Canada Reads books. Two years ago I did read the winner, King Leary by Paul Quarrington and it was amazing. But going back through the list of all the books nominated, that is only one of two that I have ever gotten around to. Not to say I haven't read other books by those authors, but the exact books? Just two. Quarrington and Thomas Wharton's Icefields (which happens to be a personal favorite of mine). SO this year will be a challenge for me (a challenge in a challenge, if you will). We will see how I do.

On the note of Canada Reads, I wanted to share this column by Douglas Hunter, who criticizes the novel choices in Canada Reads, noting that they are all fiction! What about Canadian non-fiction? He is right, while I am not a huge non-fiction fan, there are some great Can Lit non-fiction writers out there and I am going to try and read his recommendations as well. I need to break out of my fiction box. I may even read the Andrew Nikiforuk book.... just don't tell anyone I work with :)

So get reading readers! let me know what you think of the Canada Reads selections- any first thoughts?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I think I have read this somewhere before...

The epistolary novel is one that is written in the form of a series of documents. Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen (see last entry) had some element of this in the diaries of Jeanne Proust. Clara Callan by Richard Wright is entirely told in this form. Primarily the diaries of the title character; Clara is a school teacher living in rural Ontario, in the same house she grew up in. It is also told through letters, between her and her sister, her and her occasional lover and a few others thrown in. Clara's sister Nora lives in New York and is a radio soap opera store.

The story is very familiar: younger more rebellious sister leaves rural Canada to pursue dreams in New York; older more sensible sister stays behind. The plot outline is copy and pasted from Student of the Weather by Elizabeth Hay. After this brief sketch is where the similarities end (thankfully). I feel like Richard Wright read my post on Student of the Weather and fixed everything I had complained about! The novel focuses on Clara and her struggle with small town life and finding her place in the world. Through the letters and diaries, Wright paints a picture of rural Ontario, big city New York and the family connections that surpass geography and time. The story is set in the 1930s, and the novel is also an exploration of the rising issues of the times (communism, fascism, loosening morals).

The only complaint that I have is the weak ending. I won't ruin it, but I didn't think it was necessary to go that far into the future. I appreciated the attempt to provide the reader with insight into why we were granted access to the private life of Clara, but I didn't need that. I was satisfied with peaking through the window, without Wright opening the door.

A lovely novel, definitely on my top list (so far anyway).


Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen

When Kate Taylor's Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen was released it got some harsh reviews for being less than historically accurate. The story, which partly takes the shape of the diaries of Marcel Proust's mother, is an historical fiction. But Taylor uses dates, names, places and events a bit more loosely than authors typically do and she does so unabashedly. Being a former history student, I was a bit concerned by this notion; yet, I quickly forgot all about it. The story is engaging, the plot she weaves does not make dates pivotal.

Beyond Mme Proust, the story involves two other females: Marie Prevost, who is in the process of translating the Proust diary (and providing us her access to the diaries) and Sarah Bensimon, a French Jewish refugee who was sent to live in Canada during the WWII. These three lives unfold over decades. They are most often stories of the everyday, un-life changing events. But they are compelling stories and the writing style of Taylor makes for an enjoyable read. Some exploration of numerous (maybe a bit too many) themes: family, self-satisfaction, bilingualism, belonging, food, Jewish identity, and a few others.

At times I felt as though there was enough in all three stories to make more than one novel, but probably not enough for three. I wanted more out of each one, they were all intriguing!

Not my favorite novel, and I was secretly hoping there would be more about food (kitchen IS in the title), but still well worth the read.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Company's Coming

So I just finished a non-Canadian book, Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, and while there really are no Canadian aspects to the book, I thought I would take the opportunity to look at an often overlooked type of book- the cookbook.

I am not going to say much about Julie and Julia, except that as a general rule- if you are writing a book about a blog, you should include the blog entries as part of the book. I felt like I was missing a lot of the story because she references her blog a lot and I have never read it. But besides that, it was decent, funny, and foody, just how I like it!

But it did remind me of the GREAT chefs, cooks, cookbook writers, and food authors we have here in Canada. Really, we are pretty lucky. I love cooking and baking but more than both of those I love reading about cooking and baking and that includes cookbooks. Out here in Edmonton we have a local heroine who has created a cookbook empire that dominates stores across the country- Jean Paré

While there are many cookbook authors I could talk about, Jean Paré holds a special place in my heart because her books, Company’s Coming, are so familiar to me (I think my mom owns everyone!).

Not only that, but right after I read Julia Child’s book, My Life in France, a few years ago, I picked up Jean Paré’s biography, Jean Paré: An Appetite for Life by Judy Schultz. Now, An Appetite for Life isn’t a bad book- it is an interesting story and fairly well written, I just wouldn’t run around calling it a must-read Can Lit book or a must-read food book either. But, for someone who knows and frequently uses Company’s Coming cookbooks it is worth the read.

Jean Paré wrote her first cookbook in 1981 (150 Delicious Squares, if anyone is curious) and has written countless books since then. The recipes aren’t particularly Canadian (especially new ones, which have a greater international flair- but with our great multiculturalism, maybe that is Canadian), but there is something so Canadian about Company’s Coming- perhaps purely because you can buy them everywhere and their bright food photographs draw much attention.

So maybe we need a food literary cannon! It can be decided the Canadian Culinary Book Award folks who just last week gave the newest Company’s Coming, Small Plates for Sharing, a gold award!


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to be a Canadian by Will and Ian Ferguson

And now for something completely different. I want to catch up on my blog posts, so usually you would never see two posts from me this close, but hey! I can surprise people sometimes!

Well, that is the completely different I was talking about, I am actually talking about How to be a Canadian. It is hardly the typical Canadian fiction that we are expecting to blog about, but I had it on my shelf and thought it deserved a read.

To start with, this book has hilarious parts- I did laugh loudly on more than one occasion. It is just that it wasn’t that clever. I mean we can all laugh at hating Toronto, but I have heard before, not that new. Some jokes were witty inside jokes (you had to be Canadian to get), which I appreciated, but most of those jokes were pretty dated. And when your book is only 8 years old, being dated isn’t a good thing. I know humour gets old quicker than other genres (don’t get me started on Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town) but I wanted a little more- and a little less stereotypes that have been overdone.

Now, I have to admit, some of these typical Canadian things- I do! I didn’t even know they were typical Canadian things until I read the book. So it has some merit and truth to it. I also think it is hilarious how much they hated York University. Now I lived in Toronto for only 2 years before returning West, but that was long enough to get a million York jokes thrown at me and it was funny to read about them. However, that is another worry of mine. There is definitely a “write what you know” feel to this book and while Ian and Will know a lot, they do tend to focus on what they know best. Like only talking about York University and missing most others.

Really, I would say my general observation is that the humour is pretty predictable. They make fun of hockey, politics and “eh”- nothing I didn’t see coming. So it makes you wonder, are Canadians just predictable people? Do we produce predictable humour, but also predictable literature? My last post about Thomas Wharton would say otherwise. But besides The Logogryph there is a fairly tame feeling to Can Lit. Though I hope if I keep reading I will prove this to be untrue. I bet Katy will disagree with me as well. I just need to find the gems!

So in conclusion, funny, but not the most hilarious book I have read. Not by far and mostly because it is so predictable.

Next (I will admit) I am taking a break from Can Lit to read Julie & Julia by Julie Powell- though not Canadian in any way, it is about cooking, so I think I will post about Canadian cook books, which are fabulous! Something different for you all to look forward to!


The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton

I just want to start this post by saying I have met Thomas Wharton (he is from Edmonton)- it was a long time ago, but he is a super cool guy who drives a minivan. Years ago, this minivan had a “Honk if you love Borges” sticker in it. How cool is that? Pretty freakin’ cool!

I have read other Thomas Wharton books that I love (Icefields being a favourite) and he is such a great writer. The thing with The Logogryph is you have to understand the format. At first, I was not enjoying it as much as I had hoped. I loved the story about the Canadian boy that ran through the book, but the other stuff was just short and disjointed. But then I reconsidered what I was reading and its purpose.

The Logogryph is like an annotated bibliography. It is a collection of bits that give a glimpse into stories about books. And it does a fabulous job of it. When you change your perspective from “I am reading a novel” to “I am not reading a novel, but a creative piece of fiction” then you can really understand what Wharton is trying to do.

I don’t have much to say about The Logogryph and that may be because I read it almost a month ago (I know- I suck at blogging) but it really is great and worth reading. So is every other Thomas Wharton book. There is nothing specifically Canadian about The Logogryph (unlike Icefields, which is super Canadian), but it demonstrates that even Canadians can produce cutting edge literature. It is just a great, creative, work of fiction. So go read it!

PS- When I was googling Thomas Wharton to make sure I spelt Logogryph correctly I cam across his blog, which is also on blogspot! Check it out here

-Tory (the bad twin who doesn't post much)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Student of the Weather

I might as well admit this right off the top- I didn't like this novel. Not that Elizabeth Hay isn't a good writer, she has crafted some nice pieces of prose, written some well-rounded, relatable characters; it just wasn't my cup of tea.

I like to meander my way through novels, discover connections on my own, feel proud of myself for getting a reference to another book or another point in this story. She makes it too easy, points out all those connections. For example, in one scene Norma Joyce, the novels heroine, discovers some lost art of her mother's and she affixes it to her wall, with a growing collection of things. This addition leads to the observation "it occurred to her that, again, she was reconstructing her childhood corner." I felt like the author was tapping me on the shoulder saying "hey, hey, don't you get it, she is reverting to her childhood home." But I had got it, I had already made the connection. And as often as I felt her doing this, spoiling my fun, I felt as though she was writing for the lowest common denominator.

The story itself is a good idea- a small family (2 daughters and a father) find their way from growing up in small town Saskatchewan to living in Ottawa, venturing to New York, through lovers, children, friends, jobs, etc. Naturally, one daughter is more favoured, the older, prettier, more responsible Lucinda. Norma Joyce, the younger, wilder sister, falls in love with Maurice who visits Saskatchewan from Ottawa. The trouble is, Maurice is in love with Lucinda (and Lucinda with Maurice). As the story unfolds, things fall apart between Maurice and Lucinda, largely because of some undelivered letters by a jealous Norma Joyce. The family moves from Saskatchewan to Ottawa and Norma Joyce continues her obsession. She actually continues this obsession throughout the novel. A plot point I got a bit weary of. She never seems to learn her lesson. Her and Maurice do have an affair, she has his child, but is still rejected by him time and time again. But she persists.

Truthfully, I was more intrigued by the character of Lucinda. After losing her love to her younger sister, she moves on (sort of), develops a business, remains responsible for her father. Her story is tragic and compelling. I could sympathize with her, whereas my sympathy with Norma Joyce waned fairly quickly.

So, all in all, unfortunately my first disappointing read. Not a bad novel, just not my thing.

I have also read Dracula, which I was trying to think of ways to make count as a Canadian novel. No such luck, although I did hear that one of his (great?) grandsons IS Canadian and has written some sort of sequel to Dracula- might be a bit of a stretch though.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Douglas Coupland- Hey Nostradamus!

I first have to apologize. I am SO behind on my blogging. To be fair, I have been pretty busy, with getting married and all. That seems like a fair excuse. I think so anyway.

I have never read anything by Douglas Coupland and honestly, he comes off a bit too po-mo for me, but I thought, hey I have his book on my shelf, I should give it a shot. And I liked it. It was pretty good.

Hey Nostradamus! (2004) follows four characters, which are related to each other in various ways. It begins with a horrific high school shooting where the first narrator, Cheryl is killed. Cheryl was secretly married to Jason (the second narrator) and in many ways, the novel is about Jason, just from different points of view (the third narrator is Heather, Jason’s girlfriend later in life, then Reg, Jason’s father).

Because Katy has been blogging a lot about Canadian heroes in the cannon, I thought I would mention this point as well. The cannon does not always extend to current authors (with the exception of Atwood, Munroe, and maybe a few others) but I never think of Coupland as a member of that club. And as a hero, Jason certainly is not a member. Yet, he is very Canadian. One thing Coupland does is use pop culture to make his stories and characters seem like a real part of Canadian life. Jason isn’t a hero in the book, not by a long shot: he faces problems and situations many of which he does not deal with well. But what Coupland does do is create a character that is a “normal”, everyday Canadian.

From the artwork, newspaper articles, etc. I have read on Coupland, this seems to be his place in Canadiana. He is a born and raised Canadian who takes everyday things and writes them (or paints them, or whatever else) into his novels.

So maybe the days of the hero are gone in Can Lit, but instead we have a more real picture of what Canadians are like (and we are not all fur trappers or oilmen)

Next Up: Logogryph by Thomas Warton (which I have read, I just need to blog about- so it won't be a long wait, I promise)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The best novels are the ones that you happen upon unexpectantly. Robert Sedlack's The Horn of a Lamb is not on many 'greatest' lists, but it was recommended to me by two colleagues, so I decided to give it a go. And I must admit, I was impressed (and a bit perplexed that I hadn't come across it before).

The Horn of the Lamb tells the story of a brain-injured hockey player turned hockey fan living the nightmare of losing his team to the US market (Think Winnipeg, without saying Winnipeg).

Fred Pickle lives on the sheep farm of his uncle Jack. His life revolves around hockey- once a rising hockey star, a terrible accident left him brain damaged, now he builds his yearly backyard rink and has season’s tickets to his local NHL team. When the American owner decides to move the team South, Fred must decide between what is right and seeking revenge.

Sedlack tells a touching, humorous story set in rural Canada. Although there were a few times where I thought the novel could have wrapped up, when it did come to an end it was worth the wait.

Sedlack was born and raised in Calgary before moving south of the border (with the hockey team?).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Two Books

I procrastinated enough writing my blog post on River Thieves that I finished a second novel, so this is a dual post. If only you could also write blog posts on the subway to work...

I gave a quick review of Michael Crummey's River Thieves in my monthly update for Alternavox, but I will try to go into a bit more depth here. The novel follows the story of one family, the Peytons, in the greater picture of the history of early Canada. John, John Sr. and Cassie, their tutor and companion, are trappers and fishermen in Newfoundland. Their lives are interrupted when David Buchan, a naval officer, arrives in the Bay of Exploits to make contact with the Beothuks.

The novel becomes a series of misunderstandings- the englishmen misunderstand the Beothuks; John misunderstands the relationship between John Sr. and Cassies, etc. Through these misunderstandings characters are developed and a history of the trappers and Beothuks emerges.

Crummey paints a beautiful picture of pre-confederation Newfoundland. You can feel the cold of the novel as the characters hike through the forest or across the ice. Definitely an author I would like to read more of.

Where River Thieves tells the story of the historical relationship with the Beothuks, through the eyes of the British/Canadians, Green Grass, Running Water, in part tells the story of modern Blackfoot relationships with Albertans/Canadians from the point of view of various Blackfoot.

This is my first Western Canadian novel and it is about time! The novel follows numerous story lines, varying from a sort of mythology of Native history, two Americans follow four escaped elderly, a love triangle, and one man's struggle against a dam.

Thomas King's story is wonderfully written and very funny. I found myself laughing on the subway (always a sure way to make sure no one sits next to you). I like all of the characters and wanted each chapter to move faster so I could read about whoever was up next.

I am not big on judging novels, but since they are within the same post, I am going to say I liked Thomas King's better. I really enjoyed Michael Crummey, but it was refreshing to read something a bit different.

Up next: The Horn of a Lamb by Robert Sedlack

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Giller long list announced...

The Scotiabank Giller Prize long list was announced yesterday. Here is a link to the list:

If someone would like to read them all and let me know which I should add to the list, it would be much appreciated!

One of the judges is already causing some trouble; Victoria Glendinning made some disparaging comments about Can-Lit. The Globe and Mail blog has summed them up:

As I am only at the beginning of this challenge, I can't particularly say if I agree or disagree. The only book I have read so far that meets her description is Alistair MacLeod's ("often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever") and he is a fellow judge! Not to mention how wonderful his novel was.

Her comments sound fairly petty, but I suppose everyone is entitled to their own opinion. It would seem to me there are probably plenty of mediocre British writers as well, she just didn't have to read them all.

I finished Michael Crummey yesterday and promise to post about it tomorrow!

- Katy

Friday, September 18, 2009

Monthly Summary @

As part of the Can-Lit project I am doing a summary of my reading for

Here is the link for the first one:

Check back around the middle of every month for my column.

- Katy

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

So, I actually finished Anne a week ago, but I am a slacker, so I am just posting now.

In short, I loved it! I mean, I read the novel when I was younger, but it was a LONG time ago. Growing up, I watched the movies and was a faithful follower of Road to Avonlea, so I shouldn't be surprised I loved it so much, but I really did!

Now, what it really got me thinking about was the idea of the "Great Canadian Novel". Honestly, this isn't something that gets much discussion. Not nearly as much as the Great American Novel. Yet, the comparison is easy.

Now, for arguments sake, I am going to say that many critics consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain to be the Great American Novel. And when you think about, Anne is pretty similar.

For one, they are both about children without any parents. While Anne is lucky enough to get parents, Huck we see run around wild for the entire novel. As I mentioned in my last post, Anne truly captures the setting of PEI, as Huck Finn does for the south. Both books are episodic in nature- driven by the adventures of their young protagonists. Not to say they are identical, but it is easy to see the comparisons.

I think the most striking resemblance, however, is the way each character is brought to life through their distinctive dialect. The way Anne speaks is so important to who she is and how L.M. Montgomery paints her character. There is something so quintessentially Canadian about her speech and it truly makes the novel a great Canadian masterpiece. What makes Anne such a great character is how real she feels through her speech. Her strange character can be described over and over, but until she speaks, it isn't Anne Shirley. But her dialogue (her endless dramatic rants) make her character timeless.

Now, Huck Finn's dialogue is the polar opposite of Anne Shirley. I mean, you can barely read it! It is so vulgar and slangy. But they represent the same thing- a distinct cultural note about the time they represent. Huck wouldn't be Huck and Anne wouldn't be Anne without their distinctive speech.

Anyway, there are a million things I could post about Anne of Green Gables but I just had to make a comparison to Twain- mostly to cast my vote for Anne Shirley as the Great Canadian Character, in what I think may be the Great Canadian Novel.

Next up, Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Copeland

IFOA tickets on sale!

For those of you in the Toronto area- tickets for the International Festival of Authors went on sale today at 1 pm. Lots of great Canadian authors coming.

The festival runs from October 21-31, 2009.

Check out their website:

Duddy Kravitz, the anti-hero and the Canadian canon

I wrote in my last post that I thought of Larry Weller (from Larry’s Party) was an anti-hero; boy, did I speak too soon. Larry, by comparison to Duddy Kravitz, might as well be Prince Charming. Duddy Kravitz, the title character and prime anti-hero, from Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, makes his way through the ups and downs of the Montreal business underworld.

The novel begins with Duddy indirectly causing the death of his teacher’s wife; from there he embarks on a series of business misadventures in an attempt to buy land, because as his grandfather says “a man without land is nothing.” Stepping on, and occasionally helping out, a variety of people including: his taxi driver father, his med-student brother, a sympathetic French girl, an epileptic poet, half of Jewish Montreal, and a smattering of other eccentric characters.

The book is decently funny, although I never laughed out loud, and Richler’s writing style is fine. The book is definitely not my favorite, but I don’t regret reading it. I won’t be running out to read another one of his.

In terms of how it fits into the overall Canadian canon, it brings up a good point that was raised below (in the comments, courtesy of backwoodscanlit)- are there any truly pan-Canada novels?

I tend to think that there aren’t. Books can represent a certain region or group of people, for example Alistair MacLeod and Cape Breton, or Mordecai Richler and Jewish Montreal, but they don’t often span all of Canada. I will keep my eye out for one!

Up next: River Thieves by Michael Crummey


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Larry's Party by Carol Shields

I think it is unavoidable that you want to compare the books you read back-to-back. What struck me between, the largely dissimilar, No Great Mischief and Larry’s Party was that in both novels the main characters move to the States! Why must our heroes leave?!?! Not sure if this theme will continue, but something to keep my eye out for- is it Canadian literature if our characters all run south of the border?

Other than the sojourn to the United States, Chicago to be precise, Lawrence Weller, or Larry as he is most often called, spends the large portion of his life in Winnipeg. It is there that we are first introduced to Larry, in 1977, just as he has met Dorrie who would become his first wife. We are re-introduced to Larry in each chapter, recounting where we have come so far and moving us forward in the story. Truthfully, re-introducing Larry in each chapter got a bit tiring by the middle of the novel, but by the end I had settled into the writing style.

Larry is a bit of an anti-hero; he stumbles through life, in his career as a florist and then as a maze maker, and he stumbles through his relationships.

He was raised in Winnipeg with his older sister, by his British-born parents. They had come to Canada after Larry’s mother accidentally poisoned her mother-in-law with pickled beans. Larry is a mediocre student growing up and when a local college accidentally sends him a brochure for floral design, rather than appliance repairs, Larry becomes a florist. When Larry and his girlfriend Dorrie (accidentally) get pregnant, they get married. It is on their honeymoon in Britain that Larry goes through his first maze. From there he becomes obsessed- building one in his yard and then going on to become a widely recognized maze expert.

The first maze proves to be the end of his first marriage, but his success brings him to Chicago and into his second marriage. Larry’s relationships are the focus of the novel- his family, his wives, his son, his lover. This culminates in a dinner party Larry holds (by this time living in Toronto), giving the book its title.

Carol Shields writes very well. The story reads at a nice pace and she left me with good image of Larry and his life. The language is not particularly flowery or poetic, but perfect in its simplicity and straight forward manner.

A worthwhile read- I am hitting two for two!

Up next: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

- Katy

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Anne of the Rocky Mountains

In the next few days, I will post a full entry on Anne of Green Gables, but for now, I will post a mid-way entry that I have been pondering over the long weekend.

I spent this last weekend in Jasper enjoying the fresh mountain air. It got me thinking: one of the most characteristic aspects of Can-Lit is the description of a quintessential Canadian place.

In Anne of Green Gables, it is Anne’s detailed and fantastic description of Prince Edward Island. Avonlea’s picturesque and now famous landscape has come to represent the island to all Canadians.

So how can I fantasize (one of Anne’s favorite activities) about PEI when I am reading at Maligne Lake or at the top of Sulphur Ridge? I almost feel like I am missing out on all L.M. Montgomery wanted me to experience. The plot, the characters are so wonderful- but did I get the full landscape?

So, the question is, internationally (or even just across the country), can Can-Lit paint a picture of Canada? As this is the beginning of our project, I am excited to see how different regions come to life through literature.

While maybe if I had been at home, I may have transported myself to Avonlea, but I did wish I was there- so that is saying something!

- Tory

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Atwood at the McMichael Gallery

For those of you in Ontario, the McMichael Gallery is hosting an exhibit of Margaret Atwood's Journals of Susanna Moodie, in collaboration with Charles Pratcher, who illustrated a 1980s edition of the poems.

I am not quite ready to delve into Margaret Atwood, but this exhibit was a nice introduction, plus the McMichael is always worth a visit.

- Katy

No Great Mischief

This summer, amongst much media attention, a re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was cancelled in Quebec City. It has been 250 years, since the Battle set us on a course to become Canada, a British and not French colony; yet, this event still divides us. And it doesn’t only divide French and English Canada; it divides English Canada within itself.

One of the many myths, anecdotes, stories and rumours, told in Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, is the story of the Scottish role in during the infamous battle. As the story goes, while British troops, supported by the 78th Fraser Highlanders, were attempting to secretly dock their boats along the St. Lawrence they were stopped by French sentries. Luckily, one of the Scottish Officers, being familiar with French as he had previously fought on the other side, was able to allay the sentries concerns by pretending to be a French supply ship. The British were able to land and win the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the Seven Years War, Canada and eternal bragging rights over the French. All thanks to the Scots!

Despite their contribution, General Wolfe, who would lose his life fighting this battle, had infamously said that it would be ‘no great mischief,’ if many Scots were to die on the Plains of Abraham. And there we have the title of Alistair MacLeod’s award winning novel, as well as just one of many stories that is told recurrently throughout the novel.

No Great Mischief is told from the point of view of Alexander MacDonald, or ‘ille bhig ruaidh’ as he is affectionately known by his family. MacDonald’s sprawling story traces his family’s heritage from their first arrival in Canada, “the land of trees,” in the late 18th century to his present day attempts to bring his eldest brother home to Cape Breton.

The story follows Alexander as he is visiting his eldest brother in Toronto and uses flashbacks and story telling to bring the reader through Alexander’s life. Born and raised in Cape Breton, largely by his grandparents after the untimely death of his parents, Alexander and his twin sister have a much easier existence than their older brothers. He goes to university, with the intention of becoming an orthodontist, but the plan is temporarily put on hold when one of his cousins dies in a mining accident and he has to step in to replace him. The summer working underground becomes a defining moment for the story, as it is used to fill in the details of his present relationship with his oldest, alcoholic brother.

The story is funny and touching and it is easy to see why MacLeod has garnered so much critical acclaim. The Canadian Encyclopedia refers to him as “a chronicler of the landscape and people of Cape Breton,” an apt description as the novel often relates to the interaction between people and the landscape. Often with negative results, the sea, the forest, the mines, are all intricately woven within the story of the MacDonald family.

A good beginning for the project!

Up next: Larry’s Party by Carol Shields

- Katy

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tory's Introduction

Katy used her first post to introduce herself and I suppose I should do the same thing. I, like Katy, am not a writer, but I do have a literary background. My undergraduate degree is in English Literature (with a History minor), though I departed from that stream for my Masters, which is in Information Studies (Library). Even after a library-based degree, I do not work in a library. I changed my mind (as I like to do) and decided to give the policy route I try. I am currently a policy analyst with the government. I recently lived in Toronto for a couple years, but am now safely back in Edmonton.

I would call my reading of Canadian Literature a survey, and not a complete one. This is mostly because a fairly high percentage of my Can-Lit experience comes from a survey course I took during my undergrad degree. This course, a full-year requirement for English Majors, had a Western focus and challenged a lot of the cannon pieces. We did not read anything from Quebec or the east coast; we did not even read Stephen Leacock or Farley Mowat or W.O. Mitchell. But we did read a wide variety of novels, poetry, and short stories from different segments of Canadian culture. It was here I was introduced to Thomas King (Truth and Brightwater), Earl Birney, and Canadian post modernism (it does exist).

I won’t list every author I have read, but I will say this: when I look at lists of “The Best Canadian Novels”, often the ones I have read are not on there. To me, this says something about my professor (he was pretty quirky). Not to say the books I read were any better, I read some terrible books (Alias Grace, some book about Emily Carr that I have blocked from my memory), but the selection provided a great opportunity to see Can-Lit from a different view.

Since my university career, I have read a few other Canadian authors on and off. I have read Thomas Wharton (though not all of his novels, as Katy has), I went through a Jane Urquhart phase. Most recently, I read King Leary by Paul Quarrington. But I still feel like there are a lot of holes in my Can-Lit library.

So now, I have to go back and get the cannon view- try and beef up on the major writers. When Katy suggested we take on this project together, I agreed, mostly because I need the motivation to start reading again. Now that I am finished school, it seems it is easy to fill up any spare time with other activities (watching T.V., browsing the internet), but I miss reading and this will give me the opportunity.

I have decided to start the project with Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I have a nice old copy I picked up used somewhere and it has been calling me from my shelf.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Katy's Introduction

I will be the first to admit that I have read a very limited number of Canadian authors. Including the obligatory high school books, and then in the subsequent years, I have accumulated around 20 authors. Of those there are only a couple of authors by whom I have read multiple works. For example I have read every novel Thomas Wharton has published and all of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, although none of his poetry.

The rest has come in dribs and drabs: David Bergen, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Barbara Gowdy, Gil Coutremanche, Wayne Johnston, Vincent Lam, David Bezmozgis, and Michael Redhill; all of which came up at some point on an awards list, in The Globe and Mail, or on the CBC. I have also read a few ‘classics’: Robertson Davies, Mavis Gallant, Stephen Leacock, Farley Mowat, and W.O. Mitchell.

Generally speaking, I am sorely lacking in the Can-Lit department, hence the need for a project.

My background is not in literature, nor in writing for that matter. I have a degree in history from the University of Toronto and another in information studies. I work as an archivist, so encounter Canadian history on a daily basis. I live in Toronto, although I grew up in Edmonton and have also lived in Ottawa.

I am an avid reader, polishing off about a book a week. Most of my reading occurs on the subway and bus ride to and from work, about 45 minutes each way. Hopefully I can read 50- 60 Canadian books over the next year.

My first novel: No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod.

- Katy

The Can-Lit Project

Goal: To read the entire canon of Canadian literature.

Timeline: 1 year

Participants: 2 sisters- one in Toronto and the other in Edmonton.

Details: We are looking to share our experiences and reviews as we make our way through the Canadian canon.

Reading every Canadian author is obviously not possible, but we are endeavoring to read a well-rounded variety of Canadian literature- novels, short stories, poems etc.

The focus will be on covering a variety of authors, rather than multiple works by one author. Our choices might overlap or they might not. We have developed a list of approximately 130 authors, which we will meander through in no particular order.

Unless we are feeling very keen, we will be reading only books in English (this includes translations from the French). Don’t fret, both of us are bilingual, we promise not to ignore the French, it is just simpler to stick with one language.

What qualifies as Canadian? Frankly, whatever we want. Do they have to be born here? No. Do they have to write about only Canadian subjects? No. Do they have to have some connection, no matter how vague, to Canada? Yes.

This is not a strict project, we are just looking to wander our way through Can-Lit. Recommendations are always welcome- if we forget someone obvious, let us know.