TSR endorses Kenneth J. Harvey’s novel Inside for Canada Reads 2011

October 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

As you are likely aware, I have some problems with this year’s vote-in format for the CBC’s Canada Reads. However, they approached me to endorse a title as a Canadian litblogger, and I was so chuffed by the invitation that I couldn’t possibly refuse. Plus, it provided me with an opportunity to plump for a book I feel deserves a wider audience. That book is Kenneth J. Harvey’s 2006 novel Inside. Here’s what I wrote for the Ceeb:

Margaret Atwood famously identified survival as the abiding theme in Canadian literature, but this has usually been interpreted to mean survival against the elements, or disease, or war, or the depredations of time. Renegade novelist Kenneth J. Harvey reconstitutes this theme in his 2006 novel Inside, about a man who is released from prison after 14 years when his conviction for murder is overturned. Given his freedom and the promise of a government cheque to compensate him for his time inside, the novel’s hero, Myrdon, tries to return to civilian life, but has been institutionalized to such an extent that he finds the experience viciously daunting. Told in staccato sentences that mirror Myrdon’s psychological malaise, the novel is an uncomfortable, at times almost off-putting read. But for all its ferocity – this is a very cold, violent book – it also stands as a stark and precise dissection of one man’s alienation and loneliness. Part Albert Camus, part James Ellroy, Inside is an excoriating examination of modern anomie, of one man’s attempt to survive life outside the walls of a prison cell. Its shattering final scene carries all the force and effect of a Greek tragedy, and only solidifies this novel’s place as one of the most potent works of fiction to appear in this country over the past 10 years.

Eight other bloggers, including Kerry Clare, Chad Pelley, and Sean Cranbury provide their own recommendations, and there’s a poll at the bottom that allows the public to vote for which title they think deserves a spot on the longlist. Hop over to the CBC website to read what each blogger has to say and, if you’re of a mind, cast a vote for your favourite among them.

Kenneth J. Harvey wins Atlantic Canada Reads

July 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

A healthy 1,140 votes were cast in Chad Pelley’s Atlantic Canada Reads contest, and Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey has emerged as the popular choice, followed by runner-up February by Lisa Moore. The other books in competition were The Republic of Nothing by Lesley Choyce, George & Rue by George Elliott Clarke, The Push & the Pull by Darryl Whetter, and Annabel by Kathleen Winter.

From Salty Ink:

With more than ten books under his belt — books that showcase an astounding versatility in style and story, from creepy slipstream to innovative literary fiction — Kenneth J. Harvey has become an international icon, and “Canada’s heavyweight champion of brash and beautiful literature.” His signature style, and his graceful-but-gritty delivery has been emulated but unmatched.

Blackstrap Hawco was TSR’s favourite to take the prize, and remains in this writer’s mind one of the quintessential CanLit texts. The author has kindly granted permission to reprint a short excerpt from the book, which is in no way representative of the heterogeneous whole, but provides a small taste of Harvey’s Newfoundland. Congratulations to Kenneth J. Harvey, and to all the other nominated authors, and Happy Canada Day to y’all.

From Blackstrap Hawco:

There is not a worry in the kitchen. Not a speck of it, despite the fact that the fishery has failed that summer and the anti-seal-hunt movement has got its way, the know-nothing mainlanders managing to turn the seal hunt into the slaughter of big-eyed babies. They are a smart crew, though, for playing on people’s emotions and hauling in the dollars. As good a job as any, Blackstrap supposes. They’re on the television and radio all the time looking saintly, trying to sound like if only the baby seals could be saved from the ‘barbarian Newfoundlanders’ then the world would be a more decent place. At first, it was just a bunch of snotty mainlanders making all the ruckus, but now scientists are on the television and radio too, saying that the seal population has dropped by almost half over the last twenty years, and the only way to save the herd from extinction is to stop now.

Stop the slaughter, they say. Stop the slaughter now.

Quotas have been set up for the coming season.

By the looks of it, Blackstrap might be making his last trip to the ice this spring. He’s gone for the past two years, since he was sixteen, working right beside his father. The red fanning out on white. It will only be one of them going this year. Probably Blackstrap, leaving his father behind, back on land to putter around.

Blackstrap can’t help but think: That’s only the tip of the iceberg in the bad news department. It’s hard times right across the island. Paper mills shut down on the west coast. All of it being reported on the St. John’s news. The American army base in Argentia laying off seven hundred employees. And, worst of all, Newfoundland’s on the brink of bankruptcy, close to one billion dollars in debt.

It said on the TV news that just last year some newspaper in Toronto wrote that Newfoundland should be put under Federal Trusteeship because Premier Joey Smallwood, the last living Father of Confederation, the man who hauled Newfoundland – bawling and kicking – into Canada in 1949, is making a shambles of the economy.

He wonders why this is all happening, who is at fault. He feels like Newfoundland is doomed. He feels like someone is trying to kill the whole island, strangle it to death. Why is it in such hard shape? With all the fish and all the forests and all the mines.

Jacob doesn’t seem to have a worry in the world. Everything runs off him like water off a duck’s back, since Smallwood was defeated in the recent election. It was only by a narrow margin and Smallwood has since refused to step down, but Jacob still takes comfort in the fact that Smallwood lost, even if the premier won’t hand over power. Arrogant bastard, Jacob calls him. Nazi.

Dance, thinks Blackstrap. Kick up your heels. He takes a swig of his beer, then tips it all the way back, draining the bottle. Discouraged by the easy laughter, he scoffs quietly and lays the bottle on the sideboard, leaves the room.

© Kenneth J. Harvey. Reprinted by permission.

Brown wins the Trillium, Smith comes clean about publishing “hotties,” and Atlantic Canada Reads moves into the home stretch

June 24, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Remember way back in January, when yr. humble correspondent wrote about the apparent sexism in literary awards and best-of lists that tend to disproportionately reward male authors and ignore their female counterparts? Remember the Charles Taylor Prize shortlist that precipitated that post, the one that was the exclusive domain of four middle-aged white dudes? Remember more recently, when I pointed to the surprisingly robust (seven-title) shortlist for the 23rd annual Trillium Book Award, which featured six women and one lone man (the same middle-aged white dude who won the Charles Taylor Prize, in fact)? Well, the Trillium winner was announced at a luncheon in Toronto today, and the $20,000 prize was awarded to … Ian Brown, the lone nominee in possession of a Y chromosome. (Brown beat out heavyweights Alice Munro, Anne Michaels, and Margaret Atwood, as well as short-story writer Alexandra Leggat and novelists Emily Schultz and Cordelia Strube.)

Now, I don’t want to suggest that Brown won because he is a man. That would be ludicrous. His book, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son, has been a critical and commercial success, and had already won the B.C. National Book Award for Non-fiction in addition to the Charles Taylor Prize. The jury that awarded him the Trillium was composed of two women, editor Meg Tayor and author Ibi Kaslik, as well as poet Robert Winger. I have no doubt that they made their decision based on literary merit alone (and the usual horse trading that goes along with a three-person jury). Still, the fact that the lone man in a seven-person field emerged victorious will not do much to quell the rumblings of institutional sexism that have been heard in some literary circles recently.

And speaking of sexism, Russell Smith, charging in where angels (and weak-kneed devils) fear to tread, has a column in today’s Globe and Mail in which he posits that Canadian publishing is replete with – how does one put this delicately? – women of a certain pulchritudinous nature:

From our point of view, it’s hard not to have a constant crush on all these gorgeous 32-year-olds with graduate degrees from McGill. At the moment, since I’ve just published a novel, the most important professional contacts in my literary life are my editor, my agent and my publicist. By a fluke not unusual in publishing, each one of these happens to be shockingly beautiful. And of course bookish, fashionable, sophisticated, funny, all the rest. Totally unbelievable hotties. Honestly, I don’t know which one I am more in love with. And you have to spend time with them, not just talking about how long the sex scene should go on but also about how brilliant you are. And you have to go to all those fancy awards dinners with the free bar and all the backless gowns. How does a guy cope?

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Smith is engaging in a kind of Martin Amis-esque provocation here, and the fact of the matter is that if you cut through the deliberately exaggerated rhetoric, he makes a couple of good points. Men (at least, healthy heterosexual men) are attracted to members of the opposite sex. In a professional situation, the smart ones exercise the kind of self-control that human beings are known for (much of the time, anyway). Having said that, the fact that Smith frames his discussion in the context of the recent sexual harassment scandal at Penguin Canada leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the use of the term “unbelievable hotties” and the attendant declaration of lust represents, at the very least, an error in judgment. In a more troubling vein, it lends credence to the notion that men value the women in publishing more for their bodies than their brains, which is exactly the attitude that needs to be overcome if we are ever to move past the divisive events of the last few weeks.

On a more positive – and completely unrelated – note, Chad Pelley’s Atlantic Canada Reads competition has kicked into high gear. The books have been chosen and defended, and voting has begun. The six candidates in contention are:

Lisa Moore’s February, defended by Trish Osuch
Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco, defended by Perry Moore
Lesley Choyce’s The Republic of Nothing, defended by Stephen Patrick Clare
George Elliot Clarke’s George & Rue, defended by Matt Stranach
Darryl Whetter’s The Push & The Pull, defended by Nicole Dixon
Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, defended by Laura Repas

It shouldn’t be hard to guess which of these titles yr. humble correspondent is pulling for, but in case you’re wondering, you can mosey on over to Salty Ink, where a few literary types give brief pitches for their favourites from this dirty half-dozen.