Giller jury serves up astonishing longlist

September 4, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

David Bergen. M.G. Vassanji. Donna Morrissey. Rawi Hage. Linden MacIntyre. Vincent Lam.

These are a half-dozen of the heavy hitters who did not make it onto the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Also absent are word-of-mouth favourites such as Anakana Schofield, Carrie Snyder, Emily Schultz, and Lynn Crosbie.

In their place, this year’s jury, made up of Irish author Roddy Doyle, American author Gary Shteyngart, and Canadian author Anna Porter, has chosen a baker’s dozen made up of first-timers, genre writers, and previously overlooked names. Only one of the longlisted titles – Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl – is by an author who has previously been nominated for the prize. Marjorie Celona and Kim Thúy are nominated for their first books, and Cary Fagan and Russell Wangersky appear with short-story collections. Other surprises include Lauren B. Davis’s thriller Our Daily Bread, which was actually released last year in the U.S., Katrina Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, and Will Ferguson’s thriller 419.

The longlist in full:

  • Y by Marjorie Celona
  • Our Daily Bread by Lauren B. Davis
  • My Life Among the Apes by Cary Fagan
  • 419 by Will Ferguson
  • Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough
  • One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
  • The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon
  • Inside by Alix Ohlin
  • Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad
  • The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson
  • The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
  • Ru by Kim Thúy
  • Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky

Random House of Canada has the largest number of nominations with four, and House of Anansi Press, Penguin, and HarperCollins Canada each clock in with two. The remaining publishers, Cormorant Books, McClelland & Stewart, and Thomas Allen Publishers, have one apiece. For those who count such things (you know who you are), eight of the authors are women, and five are men.

When the jury was first announced, I expressed optimism that the diverse sensibilities of the three members might produce a list that broke with tradition in some interesting ways. They have done this, and then some. Whatever you may think of today’s announcement, you’ll probably agree that this is the most surprising longlist in the nineteen-year history of the Giller Prize.

The shortlist will be revealed on October 1, with the winner announced on October 30.

Crazy for CanLit: which unread book is your favourite?

August 2, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Here’s a question for you: how many of these books have you read?

  • Gethsemane Hall by David Annandale
  • Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay
  • The Age of Hope by David Bergen
  • Swallow by Theanna Bischoff
  • Psychology and Other Stories by C.P. Boyko
  • by Marjorie Celona
  • What You Get at Home by Dora Dueck
  • The World by Bill Gaston
  • The Tale-Teller by Susan Glickman
  • Carnival by Rawi Hage
  • The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon
  • Anna from Away by D.R. MacDonald
  • Love and the Mess We’re In by Stephen Marche
  • Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney
  • Dark Diversions by John Ralston Saul
  • The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin
  • Baggage by Jill Sooley
  • The Purchase by Linda Spalding
  • Sussex Drive by Linda Svendsen
  • The Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji
  • The Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster

Unless you’re a reviewer, bookseller, publisher, or industry insider, I’d venture to guess the answer to that question is, “None of them.” Why? Because they are all books from the upcoming fall 2012 publishing season; none of them is available yet through the trade.

That fact, however, does not prevent CBC Books and the Scotiabank Giller Prize from encouraging you to throw your support behind one or the other of them, sight unseen. For the second year in a row, the Giller has added a public participation aspect to its annual award. In conjunction with the CBC, they are asking the public to “[n]ominate an eligible book … and tell us why you think this book deserves to be on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.” The list of eligible books is online at the Giller website, and includes the titles above, along with others from late fall 2011 and spring 2012 that are currently available to the public. Unlike last year, this year’s “Crazy for CanLit” contest appears only to solicit nominations from the public; there is no promise, as with last year’s contest, that the book with the most votes wins a spot on the official prize longlist.

The problem is with the language. It’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t read the above titles (which effectively means most people who will be submitting nominations to this contest) to say with any legitimacy why any of them “deserves to be on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.” The language implies merit, but it’s not possible to assess merit in these cases; all readers have to go on is prior affection for a given author’s work. When the Ceeb suggests that this contest is a way for readers “to share great Canadian literature [they’ve] discovered this past year,” it is being similarly disingenuous.

During the run-up to last year’s Giller, prize administrator Elana Rabinovitch was quoted in Quill & Quire as saying, “When it comes to inviting the public into the process to share their voice on their favourite book, I don’t believe that there’s any danger of tarnishing the reputation of the prize.” Maybe so, but that’s not exactly what is being asked of people here. Prognostication and judgments based on previous experience hardly qualify as literary assessment, even on a subjective level. People are not necessarily being asked to cast a vote for their “favourite book,” but for a favourite author. It bears repeating that an author’s previous track record has nothing to do with the relative merit of a new book. The only way to assess the latter is by reading the book, which is the one thing that participants in this contest can’t, in many cases, do. (The contest closes on August 14; all of the books listed above have later publication dates.)

It will be argued that this contest helps draw attention to the forthcoming books and drum up anticipation for them. Which is well and good, but is also entirely separate from asking people to choose their “favourite.” In any case, in a year in which the most popular fiction title is Fifty Shades of Grey, you might forgive me for feeling a bit jaundiced when it comes to the so-called “wisdom of crowds.”

Doyle, Porter, Shteyngart form 2012 Giller jury

March 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Yesterday, Jack Rabinovitch announced the members of the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury. This year’s award, which bills itself as “Canada’s most distinguished literary prize,” will once again be adjudicated by a panel of international judges, in what has become something of a formula for the prize in recent years.

Irish author Roddy Doyle won the 1993 Booker Prize for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, but he is arguably best known for his comic trilogy about the lives of a group of working class Dubliners – The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van – all of which have been made into acclaimed motion pictures.

Canadian Anna Porter is a publishing icon, having worked for McClelland & Stewart during its heyday before launching her own publishing house, Key Porter Books. Her 2008 non-fiction work, Kasztner’s Train was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction.

Russian-born, American-based novelist Gary Shteyngart is known for his tragicomic novels such as Absurdistan and 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story. Along with last year’s Giller nominee David Bezmozgis, Shteyngart was named one of The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” literary fiction writers in 2010.

The three-person jury will choose a longlist of books (hopefully without help from the general public this year), which will then be culled to a shortlist, to be announced on October 1. The gala award ceremony will take place in Toronto on October 30, where one author will take home the $50,000 prize.

Some people argue that having international jurors on the panel (each jury since 2009 has featured two members from outside Canada) denigrates Canadian literature, but I would suggest that precisely the opposite is true. If we truly believe our fiction is world class, surely it should be able to withstand world-class scrutiny. Moreover, by inviting jurors from outside our borders to sit on the prize jury, the chances for parochialism, narrowness of focus, or log-rolling (a very real concern in a closed literary ecosystem such as ours) are significantly reduced.

Moreover, the last three years have seen a range of literary sensibilities among jurors, beyond the usual naturalistic, historical romantic affinities that characterize the bulk of what has traditionally been praised as canon-worthy in this country. On that score, this year’s jury appears to be one to get a bit excited about. Doyle and Shteyngart are both comic novelists, and although Porter’s recent books have been heavy works of serious non-fiction, she is also the author of a whimsical murder mystery, The Bookfair Murders, set (not incidentally) in the publishing world. This year’s jury gives me hope that the ultimate victor might evince something fabulously rare in Giller’s nineteen-year history: a sense of humour.

Esi Edugyan wins 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The literary prize juries are spreading the wealth around this year. As is probably common knowledge by now, two sophomore novelists – Esi Edugyan and Patrick DeWitt – have been competing head to head for the three most important prizes for fiction in this country: the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award. (They were both nominated for the Man Booker Prize as well: that award went to British novelist Julian Barnes.) Last week, DeWitt took home the Rogers Writers’ Trust award for his neo-Western, The Sisters Brothers. Yesterday, it was Edugyan’s turn at the podium.

Half-Blood Blues, a novel about jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin during the early years of the Second World War, won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The jury, composed of novelists Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman, and Andrew O’Hagan, selected the book from an uncommonly strong field of six titles, the other four of which were David Bezmozgis’s debut novel, The Free World; Lynn Coady’s fourth novel, The Antagonist; Zsuzsi Gartner’s sophomore story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives; and Michael Ondaatje’s seventh novel, The Cat’s Table.

This year’s jury read a record 143 titles to come up with its shortlist of six, which was culled from a longlist of seventeen. The longlist included one title, Myrna Dey’s Extensions, selected by popular vote on the part of the general public. The jury ended up (correctly, in my opinion) ignoring the public choice and promoting a shortlist that ranks among the finest in Giller history. There wasn’t a dud title in the bunch: not a single book of which it could be said, “Yeah, that really doesn’t deserve to be there.”

Of the winning title, the jury had this to say:

Imagine Mozart were a black German trumpet player and Salieri a bassist, and 18th century Vienna were WWII Paris; that’s Esi Edugyan’s joyful lament, Half-Blood Blues.  It’s conventional to liken the prose in novels about jazz to the music itself, as though there could be no higher praise. In this case, say rather that any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.  Her style is deceptively conversational and easy, but with the simultaneous exuberance and discipline of a true prodigy. Put this  book next to Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” – these two works of art belong together.

The win marks the second time Thomas Allen Publishers was responsible for bringing out the victorious book, the first being Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe in 2002. The win for Thomas Allen, and in particular its publisher, Patrick Crean, is particularly sweet, since they were responsible for rescuing Half-Blood Blues from oblivion when its original Canadian publisher, Key Porter Books, ceased operations at the beginning of the year. This year was also remarkable for being the second year in a row in which the country’s largest multinational, Random House of Canada, was completely shut out of the shortlist (Ondaatje is published by McClelland & Stewart, which is 25% owned by Random House). DeWitt and Coady are both published by House of Anansi Press; Bezmozgis is published by HarperCollins Canada.

Edugyan takes home the $50,000 grand prize, and each of the other shortlisted authors take home $5,000. One note: this does not, as some sources would have it, make the Giller the most lucrative literary prize in Canada. The Griffin Poetry Prize awards two separate purses (one Canadian, one international) of $65,000 apiece, and the newly minted Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction is worth $60,000 to the winner, as well as $5,000 apiece to the other shortlisted authors. Not that anyone’s counting.

Some thoughts on prestige, public opinion, and the Giller prize

August 4, 2011 by · 12 Comments 

Anyone who doubts the pernicious cultural impact of American Idol need look no farther than the CBC’s books coverage. Simon Fuller’s venture into prime-time karaoke was in effect nothing more than an update of the cheesy 1980s’ TV talent show Star Search, hosted by Ed McMahon, which pit pairs of wannabe performers against one another. Contestants faced off in a series of categories – male vocalist, female vocalist, dance, comedy, spokesmodel (!) – following which a panel of judges would score them using a rating system of one to four stars. The contestant with the highest average score won. Fuller’s big innovation with Pop Idol in Britain – and its more pervasive American counterpart – was to allow the general public to vote on the winner. (In the Star Search model, the studio audience was allowed to vote only in the event of a tie.) The audience participation aspect of American Idol, which permits audience members lounging on their sofas to directly influence the outcome, is as important as the narcissistic, “everybody is entitled to be a star” mentality the show promotes.

But what is significant about both Star Search and American Idol is that in neither case is the audience allowed to participate in the audition process. In other words, the contestants who land on the shows have already been vetted by professional judges, who can be assumed to hold them to a certain standard in their fields. (Whatever that standard may be based on: more about this in a moment.)

Flash forward to 2010, and the 10th anniversary of the literary elimination contest known as Canada Reads. To mark the anniversary, the CBC, which broadcasts the program each spring on Radio 1, decided to alter its usual format by allowing members of the general public to nominate one Canadian novel published after January 1, 2001. This novel would represent what the person nominating it considered to be an “essential” work of Canadian fiction published during the period of eligibility. The number of votes for each book were tallied, and the most popular 40 titles were fashioned into a longlist, from which the public was again invited to vote for their favourite book, this time for the purpose of culling the 40 titles to a shortlist of 10, from which the five Canada Reads celebrity panelists would chose one book to defend on air.

Leaving aside the rather nebulous definition of the word “essential” (the eventual winner, Terry Fallis’s comic novel The Best Laid Plans, was deemed more “essential” to CanLit than such novels as De Niro’s Game, Oryx & Crake, Three Day Road, Life of Pi, The Book of Negroes, JPod, Good to a Fault, and A Complicated Kindness), what Canada Reads asserted was the primacy of popular opinion, where anyone with access to a computer could feel that they were influencing the outcome of the contest. (Sometimes in a manner that was less than fair: although there was an official limit of one vote per person, I heard many accounts of people voting several times from different computers.)

Now, let’s consider the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country’s most lucrative prize for literary fiction, which for the first time in five years has switched broadcast partners from CTV to the CBC. Along with their duties as the official broadcaster for the award ceremony itself, the Ceeb has promised that it will “be celebrating some of the best Canadian fiction of 2010 and 2011 with some great contests with fantastic prizes.” The first of these “great contests” is the so-called “Reader’s Choice Contest,” which allows members of the public to vote for the book they think deserves to be nominated for this year’s Giller. The public can consult a list of eligible books, available on the Giller website, and choose one they think should be included on the longlist for this year’s prize. (The list of eligible books is more inclusive than what publishers officially submit for consideration; publishers are restricted to three titles apiece, unless an author has previously won a Giller or a Governor General’s Literary Award, in which case they are automatically considered for this year’s prize.)

Here’s the relevant rubric from the CBC Books website:

This year you can make a difference by nominating a book for the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Explore this year’s eligible books and let us know which one you believe deserves to be considered for the $50,000 award.

CBC Books will tally your nominations. The book that garners the most nominations will be added to the official longlist, which will be announced on September 6, 2011. Submit your selection by filling out the CBC Books nomination form by midnight ET on August 28.

Here we have the same American Idol–style participatory mentality that held sway over last year’s Canada Reads proceedings infecting what is putatively this country’s most prestigious award for fiction. The difference is, whereas Canada Reads is a game, a goof, a self-conscious entertainment, the Giller is a major cultural force in this country. According to the Giller website’s homepage, the prize “awards $50,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English and $5,000 to each of the finalists.” Since its inception in 1994, the Giller prize has positioned itself as the premiere arbiter of quality literary fiction in Canada. It is our Booker, our Pulitzer, our Goncourt. The website specifies that it bestows its honour on the “best” work of fiction published in this country, not the most popular.

Of course, the “best” work of fiction in any given year is a chimera: determinations of literary worth are so subjective that a final verdict is ultimately down to the sensibilities of the three people who make up the jury in each prize period. One such jury determined that Vincent Lam’s story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was superior to both the aforementioned Rawi Hage novel De Niro’s Game and Carol Windley’s story collection Home Schooling. Last year, the jury decided that Johanna Skibsrud’s flawed first novel, The Sentimentalists, was a better choice than Alexander MacLeod’s brilliant debut collection, Light Lifting. These are matters of taste that can be argued from here until doomsday.

What is inarguable is that in each case, the decision as to a title’s relative worth has been made by a dedicated cadre of three people who have been chosen for their expertise in exercising critical judgment. The jury members have been charged with a task: surveying a field of literary work and determining, to the best of their abilities, which book they consider to be the strongest. It’s a flawed system, to be sure, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Allowing the general public, out of a sense of misplaced populism, to vote a book onto the longlist devalues the work that the jury does in sifting through the submitted books and coming up with a number of choices for books they feel deserve to be elevated above the rest. Should the public choose a book that the jury has already determined will make the longlist, the process is redundant. Should the public choose a different book from those the jury has determined are worthy of longlisting, there is little likelihood that title will make it to the shortlist. (It will, however, be able to claim the status of “Giller nominated” novel or story collection.) The only event in which the public could have a tangible effect on the jury’s mindset would be if they chose a book that the jury had not yet considered (because it was eligible, but not officially submitted by a publisher) and that they subsequently felt to be worthy of distinction. But the likelihood of this happening is remote, to say the least.

In any event, the public’s nominations are tainted from the outset, because members of the general public will not have read the entire slate of eligible books, which means they are unable to make an informed determination – even on a subjective level – as to which is best among them. Indeed, the general public can’t have read many of the eligible books, since a good number of them aren’t available for sale until after the August 28 closing date for the CBC’s contest. What this means is that many people will be voting for books on the basis of an affection for their authors’ previous works, which does little to advance the perception that the Giller prize is a measure of the best fiction produced in a given year. Anyone who doubts the validity of this need only take a jog over to the CBC website, where there are already numerous people advocating for the inclusion of Lynn Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, on this year’s longlist. The only problem: the book is not available yet. As a result, readers such as Jen from Vancouver are reduced to saying, “I have not read The Antagonist yet but have no doubt it will be worth [sic] of nomination.”

Needless to say, an author’s previous track record has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of a new book. Although I, too, am a fan of Coady’s work, I can’t attest to the merit of The Angagonist, because, like Jen from Vancouver, I haven’t read it. This year’s Giller jury, on the other hand, has had access to the book, and is therefore in a better position to gauge its relative worth, not only on its own merits, but also in comparison to the other submitted books in this year’s field. This is precisely why a jury is charged with the responsibility of going through a group of books and choosing what it considers to be the worthiest among them. By elevating uninformed public opinion to the same level, the value of this work is diminished.

As, it would seem, is the legitimacy and prestige of the prize itself. To make such a claim is to immediately get branded an elitist, but this too misses the point. Choosing the nominees and eventual winner for the Giller prize has always been an elitist endeavour, to the extent that it has focused – rightly, in my opinion – on the strongest works of literary fiction being produced in this country. If the prize were meant as a popularity contest, why not just take the five top-ranking books on BookNet Canada’s sales rankings each year and make that the shortlist? It should go without saying that the reason for not doing this is that sales don’t equate to literary worth.

Should there be any doubt as to the elitist nature of the award, just read the comments by Elana Rabinovitch, one of the prize administrators, in the National Post. Asked about the changes to this year’s prize, Rabinovitch defended the decision to include a people’s choice aspect (which, interestingly, she claims originated entirely with the Giller administration, not with the CBC), as a way “of giving some attention to the longlist.” When asked about a tweet from the Giller Prize Twitter account, which suggested that genre fiction was not eligible for the prize, Rabinovitch responded, “it’s the literary fiction first and foremost, that’s why publishers don’t submit genre novels like detective, mysteries, novels that are in a series, and the like. They just don’t because I think it’s generally known that the award is for primarily literary fiction.”

It is also generally known that the people making the decisions about which books to honour are respected experts in the field of literature or, at minimum, well-read individuals from other walks of life who have acquired a level of discernment and taste. Unlike those who would instantly apply the kind of pejorative connotation to “elitist” that attaches to words such as “racist” or “homophobic,” I feel that there are circumstances in which expert opinion – elitist opinion, if you prefer – is not only desirable, but necessary. (Would we, for instance, trust members of the general public to perform open-heart surgery or assess the structural integrity of a high rise?) Adjudicating a literary prize of Giller’s stature – that is, a prize that has a measurable, demonstrable effect on the literary culture of this country – is one of those circumstances.

It is all well and good to say that Giller is only allowing the public to select one title for the longlist, and that the shortlist and the winner will be down to the official jury, but the legitimacy of the prize is nonetheless impacted. This is especially true given the nature of online voting contests, which, as was proved by last year’s experience with Canada Reads, has little to do with actual worth, and everything to do with who is most adept at marshalling the users of social media to vote for their book. The Giller prize has become significant in this country precisely because of the prestige that accrues to it. The choice it faces now is: does it continue to award literary merit, or does it become a popularity contest? It can’t be both.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 5

November 9, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

This Cake Is for the Party. Sarah Selecky; $22.95 paper 978-0-88762-525-1, 230 pp., Thomas Allen Publishers.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: None

From the publisher: “These ten smart, tautly written stories mark the debut of an exciting new voice in Canadian short fiction.”

From reviews: “Selecky catches each of her characters in the midst of acute crises and keenly extracts the stories behind the stories we tell ourselves.” – Lisa Foad, The Globe and Mail

“Although her stories can be chilling – particularly in the case of ‘One Thousand Wax Buddhas,’ about a candle maker who succumbs to mental illness, and ‘How Healthy Are You?,’ about a woman’s memory of her participation in the testing of a mysterious drug – Selecky is never what you’d call dark. This is a writer who is good at being open-ended without leaving us dangling. – Toronto Star

“The story that closes the collection, ‘One Thousand Wax Buddhas,’ … is almost a textbook example of what a short story should be. The prose is simple and unaffected, but Selecky, as if folding melted chocolate into cake batter, works in piles of psychological detail.” – Montreal Gazette

“This Cake Is for the Party may not offer a variety of styles or tones, and the subjects covered are anything but fun, but it possesses a satisfying blend of humour, angst, desperation, and warmth.” – Quill & Quire

My reaction: Death and dissolution hang like spectres over the ten stories in Sarah Selecky’s debut collection. A woman attends a garage sale held by the family of her elderly neighbour who has died of cancer. A mentally ill artist immolates herself in her studio. A 14-year-old girl makes out with a stranger in the back of a Greyhound bus while her father’s dead body lies waiting for her at home. Marriages hit the skids, couples break up and reform, and practically everybody is being unfaithful to one another.

Despite the heaviness of the material, Selecky’s stories are not ponderous; on the contrary, the prose is light and quick, tinged with moments of wry humour. “[L]et’s not talk about marketing before we eat,” says an author to a table of dinner guests at a charity benefit. “It can cause indigestion.” A bride-to-be rejects the notion of carrying lavender flowers down the aisle because “dried flowers are terrible feng shui.” A woman who believes she sees the Virgin Mary in an apple says of another neighbourhood woman that “while she was inarguably a kind-hearted person, [she] was delusional.”

Selecky’s deft touch helps to ameliorate the darker material in her book, and to enliven the somewhat trivial concerns of certain characters. Stories often turn on such fashionable afflictions as postmodern anxiety, a fetish for nutritional supplements, and a dependency on anti-depressants; there’s nothing wrong with these as subjects for short fiction, but when forced to abut the weightier, more existential concerns of sickness and death, they do come across seeming a tad pallid.

Moreover, while Selecky displays a facility for clever turns of phrase, the writing is occasionally careless. In “Watching Atlas,” for example, a screen door closes “with a hiss”; three pages later the same door “hushes itself shut.” In the same story, Selekcy overuses italics to indicate the narrator’s inflection, and in the opening story, “Throwing Cotton,” she appears innocent of the distinction between the verbs “to bring” and “to take.” These slips, along with the occasional misplaced modifier (“I drop my keys in the dish by the front door that says Florida’s Ripe for Picking“), are not fatal, but neither do they signal a writer who has achieved complete mastery over her materials.

In general, the stories get stronger as the collection progresses. Stand-outs include the Joyce Carol Oatseian “Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?” and the book’s bravura final story, “A Thousand Wax Buddhas.” Selecky is clearly a writer of talent and promise. But taken as a whole, this cake is less than completely satisfying.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 4

November 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Light Lifting. Alexander MacLeod; $19.95 paper 978-1-897231-94-1, 224 pp., Biblioasis.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Journey Prize (“Miracle Mile,” nominee 2009)

From the publisher: “These are elemental stories of work and its bonds, of tragedy and tragedy barely averted, but also of beauty, love, and fragile understanding.”

From reviews: “Almost all MacLeod’s stories revolve around people being bustlingly active at work or play. His characters swim and play hockey, they lay bricks and they build cars. All these exertions are described with such knife-sharp precision and finesse that your own muscles may start tensing up as you read them.” – Jeet Heer, National Post

“The narrators of Light Lifting are often working-class men and boys, and the Windsor-raised MacLeod, a holder of three university degrees and the son of noted author and professor Alistair MacLeod, struggles at times to inhabit their thoughts.” – The Walrus

“This collection blew me away, start to finish.” – Rebecca Rosenblum

“It really is a stone motherfucker of a book.” – Robert J. Wiersema

My reaction: There is a brute physicality to Alexander MacLeod’s prose in these seven stories. Whether he is describing the tension in a runner’s body or a swimmer’s early immersion in unforgiving water, MacLeod’s prose zeros in on the precise details of physical exertion and activity; he is a master at creating what Flannery O’Connor referred to as “a world with weight and extension.” Note the almost surgical exactitude with which he describes the incremental damage that bricklayers’ bodies undergo in the collection’s title story:

Anyone who’s ever done this kind of work can tell you that bending over is the worst part of it. Bending over and getting up, and then bending over and getting up again – it’s like you’re folding and unfolding your body all day. You get creaky. And just that little bit of weight – just the weight that’s in a couple of bricks – that’s enough to grind you down. Any kid can pick up a hundred pounds if they only have to do it one or two times. But it’s the light lifting that does the real damage. Maybe it’s just thirty pounds and it starts off slow, but it stays with you all day and then it hangs around in your arms and legs even after you leave. That kind of lifting hits you in the knees first and then in your shoulders and neck. It used to surprise our summer student kids. It would catch them off-guard, usually in the early afternoon, just after lunch. One minute they’d be loud and laughing and tossing the brick around like it was nothing and then, all of a sudden, that little grinding pain would wind up and get hold of them. You could almost see it tightening around them. It was like they got old all at once. They’d hunch over and get really quiet and start concentrating on the smallest things, trying to figure out what went wrong.

The language here is flayed to the marrow; the movement of the paragraph from the general to the specific, from the idea of “folding and unfolding your body all day” to the stark surprise in “that little grinding pain,” is tightly controlled and deliberately released. The image of the summer kids who “got old all at once” and ended up hunched over, “concentrating on the smallest things, trying to figure out what went wrong,” is perfectly appropriate and perfectly unobtrusive: like the best stylists, MacLeod never calls attention to his technique, but embeds it seamlessly into his narrative.

The stories in Light Lifting involve characters at decisive moments in their lives, moments that reverberate with implication. The young bicycle delivery boy in “The Loop” crosses the threshold of a house that may contain imminent danger; his action changes him irrevocably, such that he can never return to the innocence of his childhood, no matter how much he may want to do so. A woman who struggled mightily with her fear of the water takes a daredevil dive off the roof of a hotel into the Detroit River. And a competitive runner explodes in a moment of violence when the endeavour he has devoted his life to is unthinkingly called into question.

Tough, urban, and contemporary, these stories offer unflinching glimpses into individual lives; they are stylistically assured and emotionally resonant. And throughout, MacLeod accomplishes one of the most difficult tasks a fiction writer can undertake: he makes his work appear effortless.

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.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 2

November 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The Matter with Morris. David Bergen; $29.99 cloth 978-1-55468-774-9, 260 pp., HarperCollins Canada.

Previous Giller wins/noms: The Time in Between (winner, 2005)

Other awards: Margaret Laurence Book of the Year Award (The Retreat, 2008)

McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (The Retreat, 2008)

McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (The Time in Between, 2005)

Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award (The Case of Lena S., 2002)

Governor General’s Literary Award (The Case of Lena S., 2002, nominee)

McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (A Year of Lesser, 1996)

From the publisher: The Matter with Morris is a brilliant dissection of one man’s crisis and the family that refuses to let him go.”

From reviews: “The references to Bellow, like the Herzogian sensibility that pervades the novel, serve to underscore the extent to which Bergen has mastered this material and made it his own, transmuted and translated into the contemporary world, into a specifically Canadian context, and infused it with new life.” – The Globe and Mail

“At one point, Morris thinks about how life remains a narrative without a moral or a lesson. ‘There was no grand arc of a story,’ he muses, and that may just be the way things are, but when there’s no grand arc of a story in a story, then readers legitimately become restless. This is part of Bergen’s problem. His novels have always had a slice of life feel to them, but little sense of deepening conflict and inevitable resolution – they have lacked the ‘grand arc of a story.’ In The Matter of Morris, where the narrative, in Moses Herzog fashion, is so much bound by the narrator’s unaccountable thoughts and actions, this lack of a grand arc becomes especially troublesome.” – Philip Marchand, National Post

“Just when it seemed like the subject of the war’s impact on families had grown barren, The Matter with Morris approaches the subject anew with a depth of human understanding and compassion. If only the author could have done it alone.” – Toronto Star

My reaction: Morris Schutt, 51-year-old Winnipeg newspaper columnist, pacifist, and Jaguar driver, is devastated by the news that his 20-year-old son Martin has been killed in Afghanistan. Wracked with guilt (Morris thinks that it was an argument between father and son that convinced Martin to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces in the first place), Morris navigates the dissolution of his marriage, a vicious case of writer’s block, and a possible affair with an American woman who has lost her own son in Iraq.

This is weighty thematic material, but it is to Bergen’s credit that the novel never feels lugubrious; there is a sharp strain of humour running through the book, predicated in large part upon the ironic distance between Morris’s inflated opinion of himself and the reality of his intellectual limitations. A self-professed fan of Bellow’s Herzog (which forms a kind of simulacrum for Morris’s own narrative), Bergen’s protagonist writes angry letters to the prime minister and to the CEO of Colt Canada, steals a handgun from his would-be American lover, and tries to find solace in the work of Plato, Cicero, and Socrates. But Bellow’s eponymous hero was a highly intelligent man; Morris is not possessed of such a refined intellectual sensibility.

This disconnect is frequently played for comedic effect. Take, for example, an exchange between Morris and a high-class escort he’s ordered, who turns out to be one of his son’s school friends:

“But even with the fat wallet and everything it can buy, you for instance, I am still the young boy who peeks through a keyhole watching the world at work. In another time, another era, I would be the dirty old man at the peep show. The one eye of yearning, the narrow glimpse. And so I plod along, aware that others might wag their fingers at me. Outside opinion. It weighs me down. Are you enjoying this?”

“You’re funny, Mr. Schutt. I don’t have a clue what you’re saying, but I love the way you talk.”

“I was just thinking about you. How your voice slips down my ear canal.”

She chuckled. “See? Like that. You say strange things.”

If the novel at times relies too heavily on its literary antecedent, this does not ultimately distract from the essential poignancy of Morris’s situation. His attempts to grapple with the problem of meaning in a world in which his son’s life can be snuffed out instantly by a bullet accidentally fired from a comrade’s gun are paradoxically made all the more moving by being filtered through the comic aspect of his intellectual struggles. The novel succeeds precisely because it refuses to descend into a maudlin meditation on war or loss or memory. Bergen addresses all of these subjects, but does so with a deft touch and a clear understanding of the conflicting forces at work within his lead character.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2010, Book 1

October 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The Sentimentalists. Johanna Skibsrud; $27.95 paper 978-1-55447-078-5, 224 pp., Gaspereau Press.

Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Gerald Lampert Memorial Award (Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, nominee)

From the publisher: “Drawing on her own experience as a war veteran’s daughter, Skibsrud’s novel captures the rich complexities encountered by a woman who desires to comprehend and frankly express the truth – in all its fragility – of her life and of the lives of her family.”

From reviews: “Like a lot of debut novels, The Sentimentalists can sometimes feel like a stumbling colt, with moments of astounding raw beauty and original wordplay. Conversely, there are moments the prose forgets to balance on its new legs.” – Zoe Whittall, The Globe and Mail

My reaction: “To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and others.” So claimed the poet Keith Douglas, who was killed in Normandy in 1944. He was 24 years old when he died. Douglas’s poem, “Remember Me,” provides the fulcrum for Johanna Skibsrud’s novel, which deals with war in another context: the war in Vietnam, as remembered by the narrator’s father, who served overseas. Skibsrud’s recourse to Douglas highlights one of her novel’s abiding ironies: the distance between the veteran Napoleon Hill’s caustic, disillusioned worldview, and that of his more sheltered daughter. The daughter’s attempt to understand her father’s experience – his alcoholism, his haunted aspect, his gruffness, all of which have something to do with witnessing his best friend Owen’s death in combat – serves as the novel’s narrative arc, such as it is.

Douglas’s poem appears about two-thirds of the way in, during a conversation featuring Napoleon, his daughter, and Henry, Owen’s father:

“Remember me when I am dead,” my father said, “and simplify me when I am dead.”

He paused, then asked us, beaming: “Who said that? Where did it come from?” He’d opened his eyes again, and began looking back and forth between Henry and I, enthusiastically, as if we were contestants and he was the game-show host.

“Sounds like poetry,” Henry said.

I nodded agreement. “The words of a rank sentimentalist.”

The narrator’s assessment, one with which the poet himself would no doubt disagree, underscores the emotional gulf between her and Napoleon: sentimentalism is a movable feast depending upon one’s starting point.

But if it is possible to argue Douglas’s own sentimentalism, it is clear that Skisbrud herself gives in to a sentimentalizing tendency in her novel. This is apparent in passages that are frankly overwritten: purple prose standing in for a more direct examination of her characters. Witness, for example, the narrator’s small epiphany regarding the “unknown region” of experience that she claims to be chasing:

Is it only now, through aggravation at the continued frustration of my attempts, or is it an accidental wisdom that somehow I’ve acquired? Which leads me finally to believe that the small estuaries to which I have been blown are just as true as the rest, and that the deep and open and still untried waters have been left uncharted because they do not in fact exist at all; except, that is, in the magic lantern pictures of my mind where they are just a simple shadow-play of death, which someday, and far too soon, will have us all freely sailing there.

Or, elsewhere:

A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before. When, in that very room, I had harboured in me an expectation of a world so vast, and of such an incomparable beauty, that I could feel it loosening the muscles of my throat; a disturbance of which I could hardly endure.

Such passages are often forced to carry the narration, resulting in a distancing effect between the novel and its reader. The farther the narrator retreats into the labyrinth of her own mind, the less interesting the story becomes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second half of the novel, which dramatizes Napoleon’s experience in Vietnam, is less prone to this tendency. Nevertheless, Skibsrud never allows her reader to forget the essential writerliness inherent in the novel: this appears everywhere from Napoleon’s frankly militaristic name to the pervading pattern of water metaphors in the book (which will no doubt serve as the subject of a master’s thesis one day). The sunken town beneath the flooded lake alongside which Napoleon and Henry now reside reflects the narrator’s sublimated identity and her shifting idea of home, but it is also an overwrought metaphor that is not fully integrated into the text.

The Sentimentalists is a heavily ruminative novel, one that is easier to admire than to like. Its subjects – war, family, home – are most compelling when viewed head on; when filtered through the refined sensibility of the first-person narrator, they become gauzy, abstract, and, yes, sentimental.

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