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.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 6: “The Snow Fence” by David Carpenter

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Welcome to Canada

David Carpenter is a rigorously masculine writer, in the tradition of macho American storytellers like Ernest Hemingway or Thomas McGuane. His subjects – hard drinking, hunting, pugilism – are reminiscent of Hemingway and his linguistic facility recalls McGuane. But Carpenter’s fictional voice, and the territory it covers, is unique to him. As Warren Cariou writes, “He is preternaturally attuned to the poetry of the vernacular and the extraordinary variety of Canadian English, and he is able to place each of his characters in their own particular spots on that lavish linguistic spectrum, so that every phrase they speak contains a compendium of information about where they come from, what they want out of life, their successes and failures.”

Mark, for example, the way a stuffy Ottawa bureaucrat demands huffy retribution against a bear that has attacked his son in Jasper Park: “How about shooting that bear before I have the lot of you fired for endangering people’s lives?” Then compare that to the rhythms of speech from the town superintendent, who wishes nothing more than to smooth things over and keep his job: “We’ll get a posse, and you come in at the end of the week when the Injun’s done his work, and by garsh … you can have your pick of the hides.” The latter, it should be noted, is said “with a toothpicky smile,” which tells a reader more about the character of the superintendent in four words than many writers could manage in four hundred.

The bureaucrat’s son was not seriously injured in the incident, which might never have occurred but for human folly. The town superintendent (he of the toothpicky smile) erected the snow fence out of fear that one of the tourists arriving on the train from Edmonton would get too close to “the army of bears” that prowls Jasper Park looking for food. The bears themselves “were never pushy about their panhandling,” and the superintendent wants to maintain their presence as a tourist attraction:

This must have been before the time when fear of lawsuits governed all social behaviour, because (knowing bears were good for the tourist business) all Thurmon Butters, the superintendent, did was put up a snow fence on the grassy area with a ten-foot opening for the bears. No people were allowed inside the fenced area. The tourists would gather on one side of the fence; the bears, on their hind legs, would rest their front paws on the top of the fence and sort of sway back and forth with the give and take of it. These fences are insidious things. They have their own logic, like slinkies.

The folly here is in Butters’ attempt to artificially curtail the natural environment, something which nearly always has negative consequences in a Carpenter story. The Ottawa boy’s injury sets off a chain of events that leads to the death of Noel Muskwa, the patriarch of the Cree family that lives alongside Barney Hetherington, the story’s narrator.

Barney narrates the story as an adult looking back on a sequence of events from his childhood. From the outset, it is apparent that the action in the story will not be entirely quotidian: “I used to tell this story during my drinking days down at the Athabasca,” Barney says. “It was a good test of people’s sobriety. The moderate drinkers would give me that Oh-sure-Barney look, and the drunks would grow wide-eyed with belief and make me feel for a while like a shaman.” The credulity of the Athabasca drunks should not be taken as a signal that Barney is an unreliable narrator; to the contrary, there is nothing in his narration to indicate that he is being anything but truthful. However, the story is told retrospectively, and the passage of time would certainly have an effect on the accuracy of a man’s memory. Moreover, Barney admits that there are aspects of his story that remain mysterious to him, even down to the present.

The central part of Barney’s recollections involves his friendship with Delphine, Noel Muskwa’s youngest daughter. When Noel was alive, he kept the family homestead just outside the town lines, so that he was not beholden to send his daughter to the local residential school. When the town expanded its boundaries, Noel would move his family further out, always remaining just the other side of the town line. After his death, Delphine’s care falls to her aging grandmother, who is less savvy about the machinations of the white man; one day a man in a car comes to the Muskwa home and takes Delphine away. When she returns, she is not the same girl Barney remembers from before her disappearance:

“Jesus ever talk to you?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“He talked to me. Once when we was singin’ and once in my dorm.”

I’d had it up to here with religion, even then.

In a sense, the residential school is analogous to the snow fence: an attempt by the white community to curtail  a foreign element and make it conform to their own desires and beliefs. But the relationship between Barney and Delphine is not so simple that it becomes merely antagonistic once the young girl begins speaking about religion. Looking back on their childhood conversation, Barney realizes that he might have misunderstood Delphine’s motivation in talking about Jesus and the afterlife; she might have been trying to ensure that their friendship would endure come what may: “[I]f I did prepare myself, she and I would go to the same place, that we belonged together, like being back in Africa, or whatever she imagined Paradise to be.” This realization on the part of the adult Barney sets him apart from men like Thurmon Butters, in that it indicates an empathy that the superintendent clearly lacks. Barney is able to imaginatively inhabit other attitudes and ideas in a way that the majority of white men in the story cannot. (When he relates his story to his brother Darryl, the brother’s reaction is telling: “You were always the one with the imagination.”)

Shortly after the conversation about Jesus, Delphine is carried off by a grizzly bear and never seen again. The local newspaper refers to a “marauding” “killer bear,” but Barney takes umbrage with this description, because in his recollection the bear was not a marauder, and Delphine ceased her screaming protests once the animal picked her up by her belt buckle (an item that once belonged to her dead father). She was taken away by the bear, but her body was never found, nor was any of her flesh, bones, or blood.

If this has more sober readers rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh sure Barney,” consider that in Carpenter’s fictional world, it is often the drunks that get it right. There are elements in Carpenter’s story that resist understanding on a rational level – it would be wrong to call this story strictly naturalistic – and yet, the more outlandish elements all support a single authorial attitude: that those in communion with the natural world will live in harmony with it, while those who attempt to manipulate it for their own ends will be destroyed. When Barney thinks back on the events of his childhood, he feels “the whole wilderness [rearing] up to rebuke” him.

New reviews online

March 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In case you didn’t catch them in the print issue of Quill & Quire, my reviews of two books by the perennially underrated David Carpenter are online at the Quill site. The books are Welcome to Canada, a collection of new and selected stories, and A Hunter’s Confession, a meditation on the practice of hunting. Both are well worth seeking out. As are the reviews themselves, which begin thusly:

The title of Warren Cariou’s foreword to Welcome to Canada, a volume of David Carpenter’s new and selected stories, is “You Are Now Entering Carpenter Country.” Carpenter’s fictional landscape – located mainly in the outposts of rural Saskatchewan and B.C. – is less firmly entrenched in the Canadian literary psyche than the small-town southern Ontario setting commonly referred to as “Munro Country.” The reason for this is something of a mystery: Carpenter’s writing – stark naturalism honed with a scalpel’s precision – is pristine, and it deserves a wider audience.