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 @ alternavox.net

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

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: http://www.readings.org/?q=ifoa

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.