Tag Archives: books set in Canada

Giddy for the Giller #3: 419 by Will Ferguson

Alright- here’s the first Giddy for the Giller confession:

I did NOT finish this one, and after 4 overdue days at my library, I was disheartened and GAVE UP. It is a bit discouraging because this one is “favoured” to win the grand prize.  Hmmmm… Well, you win some an you lose some (plots that is!)

Dear Mr. Ferguson, I’ve not previously heard of you before. You aren’t really in my genre. So, maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. In my defense, I consider myself a very well rounded reader who enjoys the odd thriller, particularly ones about international issues.  Something about your book made me put it down, unable to finish it.

419 is about global consequences and the thin way in which survival loops together exploitation. A retired school teacher in Calgary commits suicide. His family soon learns that he was suffering financial ruin at the hands of a Nigerian 419 internet scam. His daughter, Laura, wants retribution for his death. The Canadian police have no ability to enact justice in Nigeria. Laura travels to Nigeria herself, putting herself in great danger because the 419 scammers are linked to crime lords who are accountable to no one.

One narrative follows Laura, the teacher’s daughter. Another narrative follows Winston, the man in Nigeria who makes a living frauding people of money. There is also a narrative about a pregnant African woman that I don’t know much about, but she is starving and traveling through Africa and looking for someone. That’s as far as I got.

The premise of 419 was interesting and the characters were decent. Dialogue was on par with any decent author. But the 340 pages of 419 were not compelling enough to keep reading. There was this lengthy diatribe about the “Shell Man”  and the oil exploitation that “white man” has imposed on the Nigerians in recent history.

As legitimate as the story of the death of a culture, and the exploitation of a vulnerable people, these chapters did not seem credible. Or perhaps they seemed to simple. But I found it bulky and boring.

Not every book is for me, and someone else might like this. It may make an interesting gift idea for a person who reads lots of National Geographic (ie my Dad).  It almost reads like investigative journalism, or maybe like a Robert Ludlum novel, but with less suspense.

The long and short of this is, it’s been an interesting Giller shortlist. This one was surprising for me.
Cheers!

Giddy for the Giller #2:The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride is a decent read.

Ruth, the main character, is a Jewish woman growing up in Montreal in the 50s.  Ruth was abandoned by her mother as a newborn, leaving her husband and daughter and a mystery. Her mother immigrated from Russia right after the war, and leaves a past there that is hard for Ruth to reconcile. Identity seems irrelevant, and family ties loose.

Ruth is loved by her family and community, but spends her “growing up” years trying to let the people who loved and raised her, fill the void that was left by her mother.

The message of this book is compelling, especially about the immigrants after WWII who were missing people and their former lives. Immigrants coming into Canada were struggling to carry on and rebuild. I immediately pondered the relevance of a society built up on these issues. In the late 1940s, and during the 1950s, Canada received 1.5 million immigrants from Europe.  Among these numbers were all four of my grandparents.

The characters were a bit flat. I enjoyed the flashbacks in the story about Europe, but not the 1990s Montreal stuff because it felt forced and cliched. The interest for me in the story was the Jewish immigrants fleeing to Canada, or a place where they were meant to settle and rebuild halved lives.

There were a few circumstantial and non-relevant things that struck me as weird about this book: one, that it was set in Montreal (again, so was Inside by Alix Ohlin); also, Nancy Richler writes about Montreal, and so did Mordecai Richler, maybe they are related.

But the story wasn’t profound or new. It felt like a novel that could have been published thirty years ago. It detailed life in an older style of writing. One where the reader sees the character grow up and become someone. These are traditional Canadian novels, but I still finished it and felt enriched by it.

Cheers!

The Journey of Miranda Hill

*please note, this piece was originally published in November 2011’s urbanicity.

 


Writer Miranda Hill met with me in one of my favourite, unpretentious coffee shops. She leans into the dining room chair, comfortable amongst other regulars and baristas who know exactly how she likes her coffee.

Hill seems like she belongs here in this coffee shop. The community of Westdale feels like hers as well, a place where she and her family have lived for nearly three years. She has my attention; Hill is as riveting as her writing. She won the respected Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize on November 1st for her short story and first publication, Petitions to Saint Chronic. The award is given to a new author to distinguish an impressive short story, putting Hill in the same ranks as some very gifted and renowned Canadian authors, including Yann Martel, writer of Life of Pi.

We can claim this artist as our own. Hill feels supported in Hamilton, connected to a tight circle of local writers who attend each other’s book openings. The Hamilton writers are a small enough community that they can be friends. I was pleased to hear of authors living among us, chronicling our city into stories.

Petitions to Saint Chronic was written while Hill was completing her Optional Residency at UBC’s Master’s of Fine Arts program. It is about an unnamed woman and two companions; all three are drawn to the desperation of an attempted suicide. The nearly-dead man, Gibson, is broken and comatose after falling twenty-four stories. The three individuals wait, each with their own reasons for wanting Gibson to wake up. Micheline wants to help Gibson turn his life around and make him successful. Carlos wants to give Gibson the gift of God’s love. The unnamed woman is broken herself and likes Gibson just as hopeless as he is. The story explores both how much pain the woman can take before she changes her circumstances, and ultimately what inspires her to do so.

Hill is busy as a mother, wife, and writer, but she also runs a fascinating organization called Project Bookmark Canada. The organization has erected ten plaques (Bookmarks) in locations around Ontario quoting passages from Canadian literature. The text on the plaque must relate to the exact location mentioned in the book or poem.

Hamilton was recently graced with a Bookmark of John Terpstra’s poem “Giants” at Sam Lawrence Park. Terpstra’s poem playfully describes giants sitting on the edge of the escarpment. The Bookmark allows the reader to enjoy the poem while standing on the escarpment, connecting literature with our physical geography.

Project Bookmark Canada’s hope is that with funding and time, they will have Bookmarks all across the country, emphasizing how important reading is to our everyday lives.

The idea of the Bookmarks came to her while she was living in the Distillery District in Toronto, walking with her young children around the streets of her neighbourhood. At times, she found herself reading passages in books that would mention the intersections she passed every day. As Hill said in a recent article, she felt like she stepped into the stories she was reading. Her relationship with literary texts was changed as she realized how connected literature was with her physical reality.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Petitions to Saint Chronic. It can be found in The Journey Prize Stories 23, an anthology of the finalists for the prize. Read this story and feel proud that Miranda Hill lives and writes in our community. Her first collection of short stories is coming out next fall.

ELISHA STAM is a stay at home progeny wrangler, impulsive writer, and ravenous reader. She lives downtown Hamilton. You can read more of her reviews at elishastam.wordpress.com.

Touch, by Alexi Zentner (or WHY I READ)

Touch (and why I read)

I love to read. As an adolescent, I read the entire young adult section at my tiny municipal library. This fervor has not lessened with age. Why do I like to read so much?

There are easy answers to this question.  Maybe I’m bored (or boring!) Or, reading takes me to places I would never otherwise go.  What is it about holding a book? I could watch a movie and get the same entertainment and artistic introspection.

I read because I want connection.

A book tells me what someone is thinking. Another person’s spirit connects with me and expands my mind. If the book is gratifying, it can give words and comprehension to feelings I didn’t even know I was dealing with. Thoughts sit in the back of my mind waiting for words to pull them out. It’s a similar feeling to when you learn a new word for the first time; afterward, the word will pop up everywhere.

I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I have some small notions. When I read, these ideas seem bigger and clearer.  Books help me see more of the world; I can hear another person’s thoughts and then I understand life more acutely.

I’ve been hovering over the significance of religion in society, considering its necessities and implications. As luck would have it, last month I picked up a book called Touch by Alexi Zentner (Knopf Canada, 2011).  The book, set in the gold rush town Sawgamet, in interior BC, explores the connection between three generations of a family. Starting with the first settlers in the 19th Century, Zentner’s Touch explores the way belief and faith change the memories we use to weave our stories together.

Sawgamet is a world of ghosts and ancient monsters living in the woods and deep crevices of the rivers and lakes. Interior British Columbia in the 1800s was a world untouched and ancient. To make sense of this harsh world, legends and folklore abounded.  As more settlers came, they pushed the woods away with each cut tree. As the town grew, the forests become less dark and frightening. The wild became less wild, the cold less intense, starvation a rarer threat.  Thus, the stories people use to fight these fears, less important.

Touch, Alexi Zentner

As I age, certain fears I had are less encompassing. As a result, the beliefs I built my existence on are refining. I am left to wonder what holds me to this world I live in. What sort of person am I when the things I’ve built my life around settle down and become as see-through as the apparitions in the deep Sawgamet woods?

I don’t know the answer to this. But I’m glad that someone else is wondering these things too. Even if I don’t find answers to questions of my purpose, at the very least I’ve read some good literature.

In the spirit of connections between authors and their readers, I’m very excited for this year’s Hamilton GritLit Festival, a weekend event with readings and workshops starting on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012.

Alexi Zentner will be a guest reader on Friday evening (March 30th, 2012). The literary-minded in the city can find more information about GritLit Festival on their website at http://www.gritlit.ca.

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

Who?

  • Women
  • Fans of the Midwife of Venice (this is a MUCH better book)
  • Canadian History fans (are there any out there?)

The Book:book cover of bride of new france

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers  is about the “filles du roi” or King’s daughters. In the late 1600 the King of France paid for young women to move to New France to help populate the settlements.  These women were usually orphans from the poor houses of Paris.  The women married the ex-soldiers or officers already settled in New France. Prior to the King’s efforts these men seemed more interested in reproducing half-native half-french children.

Most of the women who came as a Filles du Roi had no experience in farming or sustenance living. It was a lonely life, one that would need a great deal of resolve and bravery to survive. Desrochers imagines this world through the eyes of the young woman Laure. Her spunk get’s her sent from Paris overseas on a six-week journey to the great wilderness of Canada.

Laure shows us the new world in its beauty and strangeness. She marries a man who seems decent enough, but she is left for most months of the year along while he traps animals and gallivants around with the native women.

Laure meets a young Iroquoian man. He is rough and crass, but eventually they fall in love and have a clandestine affair. She becomes pregnant as a result. I will not spoil anymore details, but she learns to comes to term with the life she must live in the new world. Laure is also able to see the opportunities available to her as a woman living in New France.

Read It?

I picked up this book for a few reasons.  I’ve always been a bit of a history buff and this book, set in the late 1600s, was a historical fiction fix.  It’s sometimes difficult to find Canadian historical fiction maybe because of an inferiority complex about our proud past.

I also have a soft spot for début books (which this is), as I enjoy new voices in Canadian Literature.  This fiction started out as a Master Thesis for Desrochers at York University. It is well researched and fully conceivable as Desrochers brings this time in history to life.

But I cannot wholly recommend this one.  I enjoyed the story enough. The plot held my attention because of its setting, but Desrochers’s introspection came through too strongly in the character Laure.  It really felt forced and I kept telling Desrochers (telepathically) the old writers motto “show don’t say.”

Laure is flat, unbelievable and too neutral or reserved to cling to.  However, if you enjoyed the Midwife of Venice, you may enjoy this one and it’s much more historically sound.

Cheers!

 

If you’ve enjoyed this post, check out these or leave a comment:

Practical Jean, by Trevor Cole

People who Enjoy:

  • ironic humour
  • thought-provoking theme-oriented literature

The Book:

The least I can say about Practical Jean by Trevor Cole, is that it is a memorable read.  Last month, I saw Trevor Cole speak at a writer’s workshop and his description of his work intrigued me.

Practical Jean is a novel about Jean, a middle-aged woman who has just lost her mother to a painful and traumatic death.  Her mother also expected Jean to nurse and care for her as she died (for three long months).  This experience pushed, an otherwise only slightly quirky woman into a psychopath.

After the funeral, Jean has an epiphany. It develops from the decay she saw in her mother, and a memory of when she was six. Her mother was a successful veterinarian, and one day she euthanized a litter of deformed puppies. Six year old Jean, secretly watches her drown the puppies, one by one, in a bucket, and then disposes of the bodies in a garbage can. Jean, feeling like the puppies would be lonely without their mother, systematically, and nobly, drowns her favourite stuffed animals in the same bucket. She promptly throws their dead, stuff animal bodies out in the same garbage can.

The epiphany further develops while having a few drinks with her closest friends.  Jean decides she wants to save them from dying of old age in great pain. Her unwell, but entirely justified mind, decides to kill them all, even though should would miss her friends terribly.

The rest of the book is her plan to execute this.

Why?

Cole’s book is darkly interesting. The book is bizarre and unique, with tongue in cheek narration, and memorable character development.  The themes of the book are foreboding, yet it is not dark or horrific. I was left contemplating the value our society has placed on life, and the way we respect and treat death.

Trevor Cole received a lot of acclaim for the book, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, this book seemed to slip by a bit more unnoticed, but I think it is still worth the read. Another notable fact about Cole is that he runs a website called Authors Aloud, which features various Canadian authors reading pieces of their own work. It’s worth a few clicks.

Cheers!
cover

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan

For Readers interested in:

  • historical depictions of early Canadian life, specifically Newfoundland.
  • women’s issues (control over their own bodies, midwifery,etc.)

Sheilagh's BrushThe Book:

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan was a rapid and memorable read, full of depth and perception.  Thankfully, I happened upon this book on the library shelf. It is set in coastal Newfoundland, where life in the 20s and 30s was grueling and unrewarding. Sheilagh is the main character, a young woman belonging to a tight community called Rennie’s Bay. At the very beginning of the novel, Sheilagh has nearly died in childbirth. Hanrahan pulls us into the harsh realities of life on the coast with the first sentence:

“The nurse is certain this baby will not live.”

Sheilagh has delivered her daughter named Leah and is attended by the district nurse, the local midwife, her mother, and her sister Claire. Leah is premature and she spends the first weeks of her life inside a “just-warm” oven, coming out only for feedings. Leah does live, despite the nurse’s concerns.

Life continues for Sheilagh, as she spends her time caring for the needs of her family, or putting up food for the long winters. The depictions are not a simplified, agrarian idealism. This is a book depicting the gritty realism of eating nothing but fish and cabbage day in and day out.  People die regularly of common diseases,  and one looks forward to small things like the Christmas dance all year, because it is the only time to have fun.   The community must rely on each other to survive, for good or ill.

What keeps Sheilagh’s spirit alive and joyful is the love she feels for her daughter Leah. Sheilagh loves her husband Peter, but they often disagree or are disconnected from each other’s realities. She does not wish to go through childbirth again although her husband tells her he would like a son. Sheilagh secretly rejects the authority of her husband over her own body by using birth control.

Claire, Sheilagh’s sister, feels called to greater things than the sustenance scraping of Rennie’s Bay. She tosses aside the love of a handsome young man of her community. Claire gathers her courage and leaves Rennie’s Bay, rejecting the hold of the community.

Through both of these narratives, the reader is also given glimpses of the local midwife and her role of healing in the community. With the same objectivity, we are privy to the thoughts of the district nurse and her sorrow in tending to the physically horrid lives of the people in these remote communities.  The nurse was often broken by people’s readiness to use superstition and prayers, rather then simple medical procedures. One woman dying at fifty,  felt that she had lived a long and good life.

The Point:

This was a powerful book. It is short and wonderful addition to Canadian Literature. I continuously thought of The Birth House, by Ami McKay (click here for my review), because it is a similar setting in time and place. But, all the complaints I had with The Birth House are redeemed in this book. Sheilagh’s Brush covers the same issues realistically, rather than idealistically. Hanrahan reveals the story with elegance, without pushing her own agenda.

The characters were vivid and historically faithful. The novel captured the complexity of a cast of characters that I appreciate so much in a novel.  We feel for Sheilagh’s desire to not have children, but we also feel sorry for Peter, who just wants a son to work with him someday.

The most compelling and intelligent part of the novel, was Hanrahan’s theme of traditional medicine vs modern medicine. In The Birth House, it was very clear readers were meant to feel that modern medicine was the enemy, and had taken away the respectful and traditional ways of women. That view is entirely too simplistic.

Sheilagh’s Brush shows both sides.  The reader sees the midwife’s lifesaving care through keeping premature Leah in a make-shift incubator. But we also see the bizarre superstitions that cause harm, such as putting an axe under the birthing bed to take away pain (rather than giving pain medication in a hard labour). The midwife  insisted on weaning all babies at nine months lest the mother should poison their babies through their milk.  The nurse knows these things are only superstious traditions, and still tries to work within them to bring relief to people.

If you liked The Birth House, and it’s themes, please read this one. It is not lighthearted, but it is stunning and realistic.

ALSO: Go ahead and read my review of The Birth House.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

For Readers interested in:

  • Gender issues
  • Relationships between parents and children
  • Unique coming of age books

The Book:

I finished this one up in a flash! Kathleen Winter has created such an easy and beautiful read, with a heartfelt plot and memorable characters. This book is about a little person born in the late 1960s to a mother and father in Labrador. The birth of this child is a happy occasion, but filled with secrets. This beautiful and perfect child was born ( as is 1-2% of the general population) with gender ambiguity. Treadwater and Jacinta decide to call the baby Wayne, and to bring the child up a male. His vagina is surgically closed, as is this side of his identity.

As Wayne grows, he find himself caught between his mother who is comfortable with his duo expression of sexuality and his father who is not. Wayne’s parents love him very much, but they are unable to help him with his gender confusion, especially as he grows older and has to take hormones to turn his body into a man. Wayne doesn’t fit in with the other boys while growing up.

Wayne learns the truth about his gender in high school. He has to have an emergency operation to clear out menstrual blood from his closed vagina. Wayne feels alone and confused. He leaves Labrador for the mainland and finds a job in St. John’s. Wayne tells his family that he wants to stop the hormone therapy, and let his nature take over, for better or for worse. This frightens him and his father, but it is something Wayne feels he must do.

Wayne starts to become more feminine. An acquaintance notices, and sexually assaults Wayne. He becomes frightened and alone. His father, hears the news of his rape and leaves Labrador for the first time to come and support his son. Treadwater realizes that although he is unhappy that Wayne has stopped his hormones, the love he feels for the person, Wayne, is strong. His father’s love remains constant despite Wayne’s own identity inconstancy.

This book was a good one. I read it quickly, and had a hard time putting it down. I thought Wayne was a beautiful and gentle person. Someone I would love to be friends with. The characters were well-developed and involving.

Kathleen Winter’s strength is in her soft and supple narrative. Winter is also clever, there was often quite a bit of ambiguity in the language used to describe the Labrador landscape. Using intersexuality as a metaphor for her homeland – a between place that can’t be defined clearly. The plot is not for everyone, but I was drawn to it. It is intriguing to contemplate issues of gender. I finished the novel deeply sympathetic for Wayne. I felt like the 2% or so of the population that are born intersex are not treated with respect in our culture.

A book for everyone? Not really. It deals with sensitive gender issues that might make some people feel uncomfortable. But I found it fascinating and reminds me of two other novels I’ve enjoyed with intersexuality themes. One: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides which uses the theme of intersexuality to explore the plight of American immigrants; and two: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaege. Thinking about Vanderhaege has made me excited. I think I am going to reread The Last Crossing and review it soon!

Also, I found a great blog for people interested in Atlantic Canadian fiction. Here is a review of Annabel from Salty Ink. It’s a blog that promotes literature set in Eastern Canada.

There are two other books I’ve reviewed set on the East Coast (Cape Breton and Newfoundland):

  1. The Birth House by Ami McKay
  2. February by Lisa Moore. (click on the titles to read them).

Unless by Carol Shields

Who?

  • Canadian Fiction fans
  • Women
  • Women interested in feminist literature

Canada Reads 2011, book 2.  This book was chosen as a contestant for CBC’s Canada Reads by Lorne Cardinal (the police officer from Corner Gas?!) I think I would enjoy listening to his defense.

I have never read a book by Carol Shields. There, I’ve confessed it. But I guess if Lorne Cardinal is recommending it, it must be good.  HA!

Reta Winters is the main character in Carol Shields’s Unless. She is a writer whose most auspicious achievement is translating the life story and works of a  francophone feminist philosopher. She has also written some work of her own. Her most successful endeavor is a feel-good novel that she was not too proud of: Thyme in Bloom. Reta is also a mother of three teenaged daughters. Her eldest daughter, Norah, attends U of T but disappeared for a few days, and showed up on the corner of a street in downtown Toronto. She had dropped out of university and had taken to begging with a sign around her neck that said GOODNESS.

Norah, refused to come home and would barely acknowledge her family when they come to visit her.  The loss of her daughter in this way, shakes Reta up. She becomes confused and depressed, and searches through many possibilities as to why Norah would choose this path. To muster through this worrisome time, she has begun a sequel to her not-so-profound book. Except, while she is writing it, she begins to change the characters so that they are deeply real, rather then just surface characters driven by plot.

Through this horrible ordeal, Reta evaluated the way she was living her life and she, along with her characters, becomes deeper and more real. [SPOILER WARNING, skip the next sentence] The story has a nice ending, things work out, Norah comes home, and Reta’s new novel is published.

Themes:

Unless is about the unknown, or the alternative that could happen. I’m pretty good at pulling themes from books, in fact, I would say figuring out themes and metaphors in novels is something I am VERY good at. This book stumps me. I have a hard time piecing Shield’s use of the word “Unless.” Any thoughts?

The main theme I could deduce was the subjugation of women. How we as a gender can only desire to be GOOD, but not GREAT.  Reta Winters’ daughter, Norah, leaves the promise of the future because she was overwhelmed with this inconsistency.  Perhaps this then, is the reason why I was never really infatuated with this book.  Sometimes, I just don’t see it.

I got caught up in this issue because I am in the time that I am, 2011, 27 years old. I know I am valued as a woman. If I sometimes feel bored and unstimulated at home with my kids, it is because I have made this decision. I chose to have kids and I enjoy being home with them.  I believe that if I wanted to, I could be anything and do anything.

The distinction may be that I get a choice.

Shields wants to impart on her readers that our society still holds a fundamental injustice towards women. That we as a sex, are destined to only GOODNESS, but never GREATNESS.  In the book, Reta Winters writes anonymous letters to various famous individuals and causes chastising them for” having must read cannons” that exclude women writers. I agree with Shields, that it is a shame that there aren’t more women writers that are celebrated from the 1900s, I feel we have to be objective.  There were just less women back then writing.

To say that this is still relevant in Canada is something of a foil. Shields’ cause may be for my mother’s generation.  But PLEASE someone shut me down. I may just be sheltered.

Shelagh Rogers interviewed Shields in 2002 (when Unless was first published). You can listen to it here.