Review of Edem Awumey’s novel Dirty Feet

January 4, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

My review of Edem Awumey’s second novel, Dirty Feet, translated by Lazer Lederhendler, is now available online.

Awumey employs a spare, elliptical storytelling style that heightens the reader’s sense of Askia’s displacement: the villages through which he roams as a child are not described in any detail, and Olia’s portraits of the turbaned man who may be Askia’s father remain frustratingly elusive. The loft in which the man lived, and where he sat for Olia, is festooned with frescoes detailing the history of the Songhai Empire’s king Askia Mohammed. (The name is not a coincidence.) “No one knows who the artist was,” the turbaned man told Olia about the mural. “But the main thing is that it exists.”

The same could be said of Askia, a point that is reflected in the repeated question – “Who are you?” – he imagines reading in the photographer’s expression.

The rest of the review is up at the Quill & Quire website.

Canada Reads announces its 2010 contenders

December 1, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

The contenders for the 2010 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads – the annual literary elimination contest now entering its ninth year – were revealed in Toronto today. The list of panelists is fairly interesting (it includes an Olympian, a hip-hop artist, and the executive director of War Child Canada) and the books they’re defending are … well, let’s just say they’re largely known quantities, including one Giller nominee, one Oprah pick (!), and one book with a title so ubiquitous it has worked its way into the cultural lexicon (and even has an entry in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary).

The five books in contention are:

  • Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, defended by Perdita Felicien
  • Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, defended by Roland Pemberton aka Cadence Weapon
  • Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott, defended by Simi Sara
  • The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy, defended by Samantha Nutt
  • Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, trans. by Lazer Lederhendler, defended by Michel Vézina

Now, given that the annual CBC contest is meant to settle on one book that the panel would like the whole country to read, if you’re like me, the first question you’re prone to ask yourself is this: Are there any committed readers in Canada who haven’t already read Fall on Your Knees or Generation X? I’d wager even most casual readers in this country will have at least a passing familiarity with these two titles. And many readers have been exposed to Marina Endicott’s novel as a result of it being shortlisted for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. When The Book of Negroes won the contest last year, my feeling was they should have changed the name to Canada Rereads, given the number of people who had already consumed Lawrence Hill’s novel prior to its appearance on the CBC broadcast. This year, three fifths of the entire list could reasonably fall into that category.

It’s not that the titles are unworthy, but they are already on the nation’s radar, so to speak, which represents something of a missed opportunity for bringing attention to titles that might otherwise have gone overlooked. There is no Fruit on this year’s list, no Icefields – lesser-known books from smaller publishers that broke out of obscurity as a result of their appearance on the CBC broadcast.

Moreover – with one notable exception – they all fall within what Victoria Glendinning famously referred to as the “muddy middle range” of CanLit. The exception, of course, is Nikolski, a strange, idiosyncratic novel out of Quebec, which I thought was the best unheralded book of 2008. The fact that it’s about to gain a much larger English-language audience is heartening; the fact that it is the likeliest to be eliminated early in the competition is a foregone conclusion.

But the majority of the novels on this year’s list have an undeniable sameness about them. Indeed, three of them are family dramas: one a multigenerational saga with Gothic overtones (Fall on Your Knees), one a Carol Shields-like domestic narrative (Good to a Fault), and one a novel about the immigrant experience in Canada (The Jade Peony). That leaves only Generation X, which has now become so ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist it has lost whatever edge it might once have had, and Nikolski, the only authentic outsider on the list.

Add to this the fact that the oldest of the five titles – Generation X – was published in 1991; there is no Rockbound or Next Episode (both of which went on to win in their respective years) to be discovered by a new generation of readers. That may have something to do with this year’s panelists, who skew younger than in previous years, but it results in a certain narrowness of focus in the current roster of books.

At the announcement ceremony today, much was made of the so-called “Canada Reads effect,” the boost that being on the CBC program gives to a particular title. In the wake of last year’s victory, The Book of Negroes – which Avi Lewis, who was championing it, admitted had already been read by tens of thousands of people – went on to become an even bigger bestseller, scored a movie deal (a movie the CBC will be co-producing, not incidentally), and has just been released in a deluxe, illustrated edition. No doubt the Canada Reads effect exists. One can hope that this year, it will prompt readers to rediscover Endicott’s first novel, Open Arms, or to dip into some of Coupland’s lesser known (but better) mid-career novels such as Miss Wyoming or Hey, Nostradamus!

In the meantime, readers can get down to reading (or rereading, as the case may be) the five books that will feature in the debates on CBC Radio One during the week of March 8–12, 2010.