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.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 3

November 7, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Annabel. Kathleen Winter; $32.95 cloth 978-0-88784-236-8, 472 pp., House of Anansi Press.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Winterset Award (BoYs)

Metcalf-Rooke Award (BoYs)

From the publisher: “Haunting and sweeping in scope, Annabel is a compelling tale about one person’s struggle to discover the truth in a culture that shuns contradiction.”

From reviews: Annabel’s strength lies in probing the dilemma of sexuality and self-knowledge. I have never read such an intimate portrait of a person struggling to live inside a self that the world sees as a dreadful mistake. Born with the capacity to be both male and female, Wayne must become one and lose the other. His parents, too, must embrace a son and lose a daughter.” – Katherine Govier, National Post

“Annabel is less about chromosomal anomaly than it is about human potential, for cruelty and neglect and ignorance as much as for tolerance and generosity and strength. What Winter has achieved here is no less a miracle than the fact of Wayne’s birth.” – The Globe and Mail

“Winter exerts superb control over material that could easily turn exploitative. At the same time, she does not retreat from describing medical interventions that strike the reader as absolutely gothic.” – Donna Bailey Nurse, Montreal Gazette

My reaction: According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex births, those “in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male,” account for one in 1,500 to 2,000 of all births: not a hugely uncommon number by any stretch. Nevertheless, human prejudice continues to insist on viewing sexuality as a dichotomy rather than a continuum, a subject that is given sensitive and nuanced treatment in Winter’s novel.

Winter employs the more outdated term “hermaphroditism,” which is wholly appropriate given that the story takes place between 1968 and the late 1980s. But Winter also mines the term for its poetic and mythical connotations:

Some of her students could read marks on a trail winding through eighty miles of wilderness but they were not good readers of English textbooks. Each student would be responsible for researching one persona: Artemis, Hera, Dionysus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Hermes, Demeter, Ceres. There was a deity to represent every human characteristic, and Thomasina had found them all in her class, though the students did not know it, from the control and manipulation of Artemis reflected in Donna Palliser to the musical Euterpe in Wally Michelin and the presence of a descendant of the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus, in Wayne Blake.

Thomasina is the only person in the small Labrador town of Croydon Harbour other than Wayne’s parents, Treadway and Jacinta, to know the truth: the child who is being raised as a boy was born possessing the sex organs of both genders.

The juxtaposition of an intersex child with a community that adheres to rigidly conventional notions of masculine and feminine identities provides Annabel with much of its narrative tension; even when Wayne grows old enough to escape to the big city of St. John’s, he can’t evade the prejudices and bigotries of a society that is unable to accept difference. This is manifested most directly during a harrowing attack in a van, a scene made all the more potent for being rendered almost entirely in dialogue.

Winter’s great strength is her refusal to reduce her characters to individual traits or tics; every major character in the novel is imbued with contradictions and complexities. This tendency is most evident in Treadway, who is persistent in his attempts to encourage his son’s masculine side, but is in no way a caricature of a macho working man. A thoughtful soul who reads Pascal’s Pensées and the poetry of Robert Frost during his months alone on the traplines, Treadway is driven by love for his offspring; his desire to raise his child as a male is a sincere attempt to save him from the scourges of a community that would be unable to accept the essential ambiguity of his character.

Winter occasionally pushes this too far, as in a patently absurd scene involving a synchronized ballet performed by a pair of backhoes, but for the most part, she manages to effectively portray her characters in all their complicated humanity. Late in the novel, Treadway, who is able to navigate the barren wilderness using only the stars and animal tracks as guides, is forced to call his son for help when he finds himself hopelessly lost in the city; the sequence is understated and quietly heartbreaking.

Annabel is a rarity in CanLit: a long novel that never feels long, a lyrical novel that rarely feels overwrought, a novel steeped in a sense of place that never loses sight of the humanity that is its lifeblood. By subordinating her central thematic concerns to novelistic elements – story, character, incident – that often seem quaint or out-of-fashion these days, Winter has created a fictional world that exudes life. By embracing ambiguity and contradiction, she has paradoxically provided one of the most honest portraits of a fictional family in recent memory.

A Giller shortlist that could make a curmudgeon squee

October 6, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Apologies for being tardy to the party, but yr. humble correspondent has been out celebrating. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was announced at a press conference in Toronto yesterday. Two thirds of this year’s jury, Claire Messud and Michael Enright, were on hand (the third juror, Ali Smith, was unable to attend), and announced their choices for the final five with dignity and poise. The same could not be said of one frequently bitter and acerbic member of the audience, who, tucked away in the back corner of the room, was almost turning cartwheels as each successive name was read.

Basically, this year’s jury delivered my dream shortlist, a group of books that favour small presses over large, new names over old, and a startling array of genres and approaches. The shortlist in full:

  • The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis)
  • This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press)
  • Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)

In case you’re keeping track, that makes two collections of short stories (both from debut authors), and two first novels. Four of the five books are published by small or medium-sized presses, all of which are Canadian owned.

Even the one heavy hitter, David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris, is something of an anomaly. The novel, which has been compared favourably to Saul Bellow’s Herzog, sees the author eschewing the ponderous heaviness of his most recent books, The Time In Between and The Retreat in favour of a more comic mode and a more personal story. The book is a return for Bergen, in more ways than one. On the publishing side, it marks a return to HarperCollins, Bergen’s early publisher, after a handful of books with McClelland & Stewart. One of those, The Time in Between, nabbed him the Giller in 2005, meaning he’s not only the lone member of this year’s finalists to be making a return appearance at the gala dinner, he’s also in the running to join Alice Munro and M.G. Vassanji as one of the only authors ever to win the prize twice.

I wouldn’t lay any money on that outcome, however. If this year’s jury has proven anything at all, it’s that they are beholden to no orthodoxy, and willing to toss all accepted verities to the wind. We could still see a repeat of 2006, when the lone book from a multinational house walked away with the prize, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. At the very least, there is no clear frontrunner this year, which means that the November 9 broadcast of the awards ceremony should be an exciting affair (for a change).

There have been rumblings of concern from booksellers who fear that the smaller houses such as Biblioasis and Gaspereau Press won’t be able to supply sufficient stock to satisfy customer demand for the shortlist. Skibsrud’s book, which was published in 2009, is already out of stock at many locations across the country, and although publisher Gary Dunfield told Quill & Quire that the company planned to reprint, they were busy printing their fall books, which makes scheduling an issue:

According to Dunfield, the press is going to do everything it can to capitalize on the nomination, but it can’t afford to postpone forthcoming titles. “That would be a very bad idea,” he says.

This is a problem for small houses nominated for big prizes: in some cases, the nomination actually costs them money. For all the talk of a “Giller effect,” it isn’t clear that people will buy the entire shortlist (despite Jack Rabinovitch’s annual claim that the shortlist can be purchased for the price of a meal in a Toronto restaurant). Most people seem to wait for the winner to be announced, then buy that book alone. Not surprisingly, publishers of this year’s nominated titles are being cautious in the size of their reprints.

The other problem this year will be in marketing the prize itself. There are no household names on the list; instead of trumpeting the iconic status of the authors, the people promoting this year’s prize will need to introduce these authors to the book-buying public. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that they have their work cut out for them.

But one thing a prize of Giller’s stature should accomplish is broadening the focus of Canadians’ ideas about their national literature, and encouraging the literary heterogeneity that frequently goes unnoticed amidst the clamour of blockbuster books and celebrity authors. On this score, the 2010 Giller jury has done a remarkable job. It isn’t an overstatement to say that this is the most exciting shortlist in the prize’s 17-year history.

Once again, I will read (or in MacLeod’s case, reread) the five shortlisted books. The difference this year is that instead of staring down this task with a sense of encroaching dread, I approach it with anticipation and delight. All thanks to this year’s runaway jury for giving an inveterate curmudgeon something to smile about.