Welcome to fall, or, Literary Awardapolooza

September 6, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

So, how was everyone’s summer?

After a refreshing (and virtually unbroken) three-month hiatus, TSR can feel the crispness returning to the air, sense the leaves beginning to turn, and smell the woodsmoke that can only mean one thing: literary awards season is upon us.

I planned to return with a carefully constructed, thoughtful post on some esoteric yet fascinating subject – the importance of shoelaces in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps. But, once again, life intrudes, this time in the form of three literary award lists dropping on the same fucking day. Haven’t these people learned anything from Hollywood? Marketing 101: you don’t open the new Transformers sequel opposite the new X-Men sequel. You stagger the openings to maximize exposure, and thus maximize box office returns, because when all is said and done, that’s what it all comes down to, right?

Right?

In any event, there are three literary awards to catch up with. Let’s start with the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which this morning unveiled a supersized longlist of seventeen books, the longest longlist in the history of Giller longlists (which, in case you’re keeping track, go back to 2006). And for the first time, the longlist contains a Readers’ Choice selection, voted on by the general public. The Readers’ Choice selection is Myrna Dey’s debut novel, Extensions. The other sixteen, jury-supported nominees are:

  • The Free World, David Bezmozgis
  • The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise
  • The Antagonist, Lynn Coady
  • The Beggar’s Garden, Michael Christie
  • The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
  • Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott
  • Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner
  • Solitaria, Genni Gunn
  • Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock
  • A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
  • The Return, Dany Laferrière, David Homel, trans.
  • Monoceros, Suzette Mayr
  • The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • A Good Man, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Touch, Alexi Zentner

Now, if you read the National Post book section, you’ll know that this is the point at which I’m supposed to sprout hair, grow claws and fangs, and bark at the moon. But in all honesty, I can’t find a lot to complain about with this list. It’s a solid mix of established names and newcomers, it is geographically representative, and includes a good sampling of books from multinationals and indie presses. True, the default CanLit setting – the naturalistic, historical novel – is well represented (Endicott, Holdstock, Vanderhaeghe), but there are also examples of other styles and genres, including comic neo-Western (DeWitt), linked stories (Blaise), autobiography manqué (Laferrière, Ondaatje), and even – will wonders never cease? – satire (Gartner). I can’t even really complain about the Readers’ Choice nominee. It’s a first novel from a small press out in the prairies; sure, it tilts toward the kind of naturalism that has dominated Giller lists since their inception, but it’s not what you might call an intuitive popular choice. I still have problems with the concept of a Readers’ Choice element to selecting the Giller nominees (and no, Beverly, I am not fucking kidding), but if it has to exist, this is probably the best possible outcome.

As per usual, the Giller jury, made up this year of Canadian novelist (and erstwhile Giller nominee) Annabel Lyon, American novelist Howard Norman, and U.K. novelist Andrew O’Hagan, have rooked me by placing on the longlist only a single book I’ve already read, which means, as per usual, I have some catch-up to do. (I am pleased that the single book I’ve actually read, Michael Christie’s debut collection, is one I thoroughly enjoyed.) And I offer no guarantees that my sunny disposition will persist through the shortlist and eventual winner. But for now, I can applaud what appears to be a strong longlist of books in the running for Canada’s most lucrative and influential literary award.

As for the U.K.’s most lucrative award … It cheers me (on a flagrantly patriotic level) to announce that two of the authors longlisted for the Giller Prize – Patrick DeWitt and Esi Edugyan – have also made it onto the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (The third Canadian to appear on the Booker longlist, Alison Pick, did not make the final cut.) The remaining nominees for the £50,000 prize are:

  • The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch
  • Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops, A.D. Miller

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Alan Hollinghurst, who won the prize in 2004 for his extraordinary novel The Line of Beauty, did not progress to the next stage with his new effort, The Stranger’s Child. (Hollinghurst can commiserate with David Gilmour and Miriam Toews, two notable Canadian authors whose most recent novels, The Perfect Order of Things and Irma Voth, failed to make the Giller longlist.)

Meanwhile, on the municipal front, the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards were also announced today. They include previous award winners James FitzGerald for his memoir What Disturbs the Blood (which won the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction) and Rabindranath Maharaj for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (which won the Trillium Book Award). The other nominees are:

  • Étienne’s Alphabet, James King
  • The Parabolist, Nicholas Ruddock
  • Fauna, Alissa York

Whew. I’m spent. When do the Governor General’s and Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees get announced?

Spring cleaning: UPDATED

April 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.

To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:

  • The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
  • In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
  • April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
  • There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.

Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.

So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.

UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.

Notable books of 2010

December 15, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future, or so the song has it. It is December, which is the time of year for list-making, for looking back on the previous 12 months and cobbling together roundups of the best books, movies, music, etc. Traditionally, December is the time I take stock of how much I haven’t read: how many interesting or well-received titles have slipped by in the crush of work obligations, paid reviews, reading for literary juries and panels. This is not to suggest that these endeavours don’t yield riches, but I’m constantly amazed at this time of year how much I have fallen short of the mark in terms of what I intended to read. At the beginning of October, I compiled a list of eight books I wanted to read if I could find the time. By the middle of December, how many of that octet have I managed to get to? Precisely zero.

Which is not to say that I haven’t been reading: my various professional obligations ensure that I’ve been doing little else. Anyone who reads for a living will inevitably find that much of what gets published is unremarkable: of the thousands of books that are produced each year, any number will be competently executed, even enjoyable, but very few leave a lasting impression. Glancing back over my reading in 2010, I’m struck by how much of it was adequate, but forgettable; how many books were perfectly serviceable, but have not lingered in my memory.

Still, there were some high points. What follows is not a list of the best books of the year, because there’s no way for me to know (have I mentioned how many books I haven’t read from the past year?). Rather, these are books that stayed with me. For whatever reason, these books made an impression.

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod: It’s rare to find a work of fiction that so carefully and lovingly details the specifics of people working. Rebecca Rosenblum’s 2008 collection, Once, did this, and so does Alexander MacLeod’s remarkable debut. The characters MacLeod focuses on are not the recondite aesthetes or romantics of so much CanLit: they are bricklayers and delivery boys, runners and auto mechanics. The details of their exertions are rendered so vividly, with such precision, that a reader comes away from these stories feeling almost physically wounded. MacLeod’s interest in characters at decisive moments in their lives is reminiscent of O’Connor; his ability to evoke entire worlds in the span of 30 pages rivals Munro. Truly one of the most impressive literary debuts in a long, long time.

Kaleidoscope: Selected Poems by P.K. Page: The year got off to a melancholy start; January saw the death of P.K. Page, one of Canada’s towering poets. Page’s longtime publisher, The Porcupine’s Quill, has inaugurated a ten-year scholarly project that will collect all of the poet’s work online, and will be accompanied by a series of print volumes. The first of these, edited by Zailig Pollock, offers a chronological overview of Page’s development as a poet, including work from 1941 right through 2009’s Coal and Roses. The poems in Kaleidoscope are a testament to Page’s wit, erudition, spiritualism, and complete poetic mastery.

Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s “climate change comedy” is a return to form following a group of lacklustre novels. The story of Michael Beard, a slovenly, overweight physicist whose wife has finally left him after a string of infidelities, Solar marries blistering comedy with McEwan’s penchant for cascading ironies, and bundles it all into a fast-paced, tightly constructed narrative.

The Death of Donna Whalen by Michael Winter: Channelling the Truman Capote of In Cold Blood and the Norman Mailer of The Executioner’s Song, novelist Winter crafts a corrosive work of “documentary fiction” from the story of a St. John’s woman who was stabbed to death in her apartment in 1993. Employing a fractured narrative that incorporates police wiretaps, court transcripts, and interviews with the participants, the author builds a collage-like tale of institutional corruption, betrayal, and a brazen miscarriage of justice. Though it’s by no means an easy book, The Death of Donna Whalen is nonetheless one of the most technically ambitious novels I encountered in 2010.

A Hunter’s Confession by David Carpenter: Not so much an apologia for the practice of hunting as an examination of its cultural, philosophical, and spiritual aspects, Carpenter’s book is a heartfelt attempt by an erstwhile hunter to grapple with the conflicting emotions and ambivalence the subject provokes for him. He examines hunting from a variety of perspectives: hunting in literature, women and hunting, the importance of hunting to Native societies. Ultimately, he concludes that there is an unavoidable morality attached to the hunt, and that it is not necessarily contradictory to claim that one is simultaneously a hunter and an environmentalist. Whatever a reader’s personal feelings about hunting, Carpenter’s book represents a serious, thoughtful, and eloquent paean to a way of life that “has fallen out of favor and out of fashion.”

Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips: The high-school novel for young adults is difficult to make fresh; Phillips pulls out all the stops by telling her story in verse and shuffling the perspective between four students and their officious English teacher. Phillips does a remarkable job characterizing the students using only their various voices: Natalie, the manipulative new kid at school; Kyle, the would-be musician; Tricia, the good girl who gets caught up in Natalie’s world of partying and danger; and Miguel, the Central American immigrant struggling to adapt to a world that seems utterly foreign. The teacher, who criticizes Miguel for the violence in his description of a massacre in his home country, is a vivid example of the ways in which adults become entirely disconnected from the concerns of the adolescents they are charged with helping. Phillips won a Governor General’s award for this innovative, provocative novel.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter: This book snuck up on me. By all rights I shouldn’t have liked it, because it includes a number of elements toward which I’m normally antipathetic: a family saga, lyrical writing, a narrative steeped in a sense of place. But Winter’s strong feeling for story, her refusal to reduce her characters to a simple set of binary opposites, and her achievement in creating one of the most memorable fictional fathers in ages set this one apart for me. This story of an intersex child struggling to carve out an identity for himself, and the community that alternately helps and hinders him, is one of the most pleasant reading surprises I had this year.

Fauna by Allisa York: Another novel with a strong sense of place: this time the hidden corners of Toronto’s Don Valley. York’s story of a group of misfits who populate an ad hoc animal shelter in the city’s core showcases the author’s skill with juggling multiple storylines and her facility for crafting beautiful sentences.

People Live Still in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess: If David Cronenberg ever adapted an Alice Munro story, it might turn out something like this.

Girl Crazy by Russell Smith: The story of Justin Harrison, a professor at a technical college who becomes obsessed with a younger woman he saves on the street, Smith’s novel shines an often uncomfortable light on the subject of male sexuality and its attendant desires and perils. As Justin spirals deeper into a miasma of lust and desperation, the story becomes increasingly dark, finally releasing the protagonist to pursue a course that can only end badly. Smith’s satiric eye is in fine form here, as is his careful hand in structuring a novel. Part dark comedy, part neo-noir, Girl Crazy is a brisk, bracing book that takes the reader for one hell of a ride. Love it or hate it, you’ll have a hard time forgetting it.

Hidden wildlife

August 10, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Fauna. Alissa York; $29.95 cloth 978-0-307-35789-2, 376 pp., Random House Canada.

Predation is a recurring theme in the fiction of Alissa York. Her debut novel, 2002’s Mercy, opens with a cow being slaughtered, and contains scenes involving an owl attack in a bog and a pack of feral dogs. Her follow-up, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted 2007 novel Effigy, has at its centre a woman named Dorrie, the fourth wife of the vicious Mormon horse breeder Erasmus Hammer, who dreams she is a crow, circling over scenes of violence and horror:

Being crow, I should make my way back to the killing field. I might have to haunt the margins for a time if the humans are still at work. On my last circuit I winged all the way back to the circled wagons. Between here and there, the dog man’s pack hunkered over the dead. They were stripping the bodies, revealing even the blue-white underskins of their feet. One yanked a glitter-string from a female’s wrist. One plucked shimmer-discs from an overskin he’d peeled away. The crow eye sparked and buzzed.

The impressionistic scene being described is that of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an 1857 slaughter of a wagon train by a group of Utah Mormons and Paiute natives. Witnessing the grisly tableau from her crow’s-eye view, Dorrie imagines the relationship between the natural predation of the wild and the more vicious human kind:

See how the humans cache their kill, how they bow and scrape, swinging their heavy tools. Soon shallow patches have been scratched, and the dragging of bodies begins. Like weasels hoarding mice, they pile dead upon dead, dusting them with not enough earth to dissuade a fox kit. Some do even less, dumping corpses in gullies and concealing them with clumps of grass.

In her waking hours, Dorrie is much prized by her husband for her skill as a taxidermist; she takes the animals that Erasmus kills for sport and returns them to a lifelike state. At the novel’s opening, Erasmus brings Dorrie the bodies of a family of wolves he has killed. As the book progresses, a recurring leitmotif is the presence of a lone wolf scouring the Hammer homestead, trying to locate his lost pack.

The uneasy relationship between wildlife and the humans who prey on it reasserts itself in York’s latest novel, Fauna. The setting has shifted from 19th-century Utah to present-day Toronto, and in place of Erasmus there is Darius, a troubled young man who, calling himself “Coyote Cop,” blogs about what he perceives to be the scourge of the city’s coyote population. His blog posts, which become ever more violent and provocative, attract the attention of Stephen, an ex-soldier who suffered a heart virus while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Stephen’s medical condition cut short his military service; he now spends his days working at Howell Auto Wreckers, a wrecking yard in the Don Valley ravine that does double duty as an ad hoc animal sanctuary.

The sanctuary serves as the gathering point for the book’s cast of human misfits: in addition to Stephen and Guy, who owns the property, there is Edal, a federal wildlife officer currently on stress leave; Lily, a homeless girl who prowls the city at night rescuing birds that have flown into the lighted buildings of the downtown core; and Kate, a worker at the Annex Canine Rehabilitation Centre.

Each of the characters bears a wound or an absence of some sort. Some wounds, like Stephen’s defective heart, are physical; others are emotional; still others, a combination of the two. Lily cuts herself to mark the days she’s been on the streets: “Tonight being her fifty-seventh night of freedom, she’s partway into a group of five. The fifth cuts are the tricky ones, slashing down across the previous four. They require a deeper breath, an extra-steady hand.” Kate is trying to recover from the death of her lover, Lou-Lou, from “a massive brain aneurysm.” Since Lou-Lou’s death, Kate, who had never been able to confess the true nature of her relationship to her conservative parents, “had entered an underwater world,” where she “was walking, sitting, lying on the ocean floor.” Kate and Lily find solace with each other, impelled by their mutual love of dogs.

The character with the most shattering home life is Darius, whose troubled mother Faye dies after a fall in the bathtub, leaving him in the custody of his grandmother and his religious zealot grandfather, who insists that an extra place be set at the dinner table for the Son of God: “Every time Grandmother stood up to clear, she took Jesus’s full plate first, carrying it in both hands and tipping the untouched portion into the garbage pail. It hardly seemed fair, given that Darius had to eat every scrap he was served.” Darius’s grandfather’s spine is defective and he needs his wife to tie a board to his back in order to stand straight, something Darius witnesses one night when he gets up to go to the bathroom.

The grandfather’s peculiar affliction and his obsession with Jesus recall the Southern grotesques of Flannery O’Connor, a writer York acknowledges as an influence on her own work. But the grandfather – who keeps a spare belt on hand for the specific purpose of beating his wife and grandson – is one of the few O’Connoresque characters in Fauna; unlike York’s previous two novels, the element of Southern Gothicism is downplayed here. This is not to suggest that Fauna is by any stretch ordinary: on the contrary, with its band of forgotten misfits, its setting in the literal hidden valleys of Toronto, and sections that are narrated from the perspective of various animals (foxes, skunks, coyotes), Fauna is passing strange, and all the more bracing because of it. Although it invokes classics of animal lore – among them The Jungle Book, Watership Down, and Wild Animals I Have Known – it is startlingly original in its approach and its execution.

York’s writing, as always, is pristine, and over the course of three novels she has developed an admirable ability to juggle multiple perspectives and plotlines. However, the novel’s resolution is too neat to be entirely satisfying. The various storylines come to conclusions that are too tidy, and when the reason for Darius’s antipathy toward coyotes finally becomes apparent, the psychology involved is too simple to be entirely credible. Moreover, a number of characters – a stripper Stephen chances upon in the park one day, the restaurateur who gives Lily a job as a “dish pig” – appear in the novel fleetingly, only to vanish again without any payoff.

Still, Fauna represents a simultaneous extension of recurring themes and an intriguing departure for York. It is structurally ambitious and the author displays a tight control over her language and patterns of metaphor. The novel falters in its final stages, but that in no way diminishes the general enjoyment the story offers. York has written a truly odd book; it is a testament to her skill as a writer that it works as well as it does.