Monday, June 30, 2008

Canadian Book Challenge Omnibus Review


I did a fine job of keeping up with my reading for John Mutford's Canadian Book Challenge over the course of the year, but not such a good job of keeping up with posting about my reading. So here I am on the final day of the challenge, doing an omnibus review to cover the nine out of thirteen books read that I haven't yet reported on.

1. Ellen Anderson, Judging Bertha Wilson: Law as Large as Life: This biography of the first woman judge to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada reads a bit like two distinct books. The first half is a conventional biography which tracks Bertha Wilson’s life prior to her appointment to the bench: her birth and upbringing in Scotland, her stint as a philosophy student at the University of Aberdeen, her years as a clergyman’s wife in a northern Scottish village, emigration to Canada, legal study as a mature student at Dalhousie Law School, and her unconventional career in legal practice. The second is a work of legal scholarship with a focus squarely on Bertha Wilson’s judgments rather than on her life. I was most interested in the first half as I already knew a lot about her judgments but knew only the barest outline of her early life story. But I can enthusiastically embrace the second half as well as I am sure that the very detailed description and assessment of Wilson’s judgments that Anderson provides in it will prove a very helpful resource to me in my academic work. My initial impression was that general readers who would enjoy the first half of the book might get bogged down in the legal detail of the second, but having thought more about it I’ve revised my opinion. The portion on the judgments is very accessibly written without ever glossing over the complexity of the subject matter, and surely anyone interested enough in Bertha Wilson to pick up a biography of her will want to glean from it a full sense of the impact that her tenure on the bench had on Canadian law.

2. Margaret Atwood, Moral Disorder: This book is, to my mind, a model of what a linked short story collection should be. 1. Each of the stories can stand on its own. None read like fragments of a larger story. 2. Yet, the collection as a whole has a sense of continuity and wholeness. The whole is something more than the sum of its parts. 3. Finally, there’s a reason why it’s a short story collection rather than a novel. It focuses on the life of a single character (Nell), but in tracing that life through short stories, Atwood is able to achieve something different, reveal different things, than would have emerged within the structure of a novel. I won’t try to sum up the book as a whole. I find this virtually impossible and frankly undesirable in a review of a short story collection. But I will highlight a few things about the content and the structure to support the statements I’ve made above. The collection begins at the end with a story set in the present. Then it skips back to the beginning with a story about eleven-year-old Nell, and proceeds more or less chronologically thereafter. I say more or less, because there’s considerable variation in the breadth of the time span covered by each story which creates some overlap. Arranging the collection with the most recent story first gives a sense of circling back around that creates a sense of wholeness, and knowing how it ends gives the reader a sense of forward motion as immediately you want to figure out how the characters arrived there. The overlapping of stories together with a shift in narrative voice is where the form of the linked story collection offers a different view of the subject than a novel would have done. In particular, there is a shift from first person (stories one through five) to third person (stories six through ten) and back again (story eleven) . The initial shift from first to third person occurs at precisely the moment when Nell enters into a common law relationship and begins to feel less an individual and more someone in relation to others--a wife, a stepmother-- so viewing her suddenly from the outside seems exactly right. And along with that, because of the nature of the relationship, this is when Nell begins to feel less in control, so it makes sense that at that point her voice ceases to determine the arc of the narrative. It all adds up to a rich, layered, nuanced look at a life.

3. Irene Gammel, Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic: Gammel has described this book as a double biography which simultaneously tracks the origins of Anne of Green Gables and fleshes out the life of Anne’s creator at the time that she was conceiving and writing the novel. It is also something of a detective story. For although Montgomery was a prolific diarist, she revealed very little in her journals about the inspiration for Anne and the writing process that brought her into being. Gammel had to do a good bit of digging to illuminate both here and we are the beneficiaries. Gammel has tracked down the magazines, poems, and novels that Montgomery was reading when she conceived of Anne, and identified various aspects of her early life that preoccupied Montgomery as she wrote. The result is a fascinating glimpse not just into Anne’s origins but, more broadly, into the creative process by which writers transform disparate influences and inspirations into independent works of fiction.

4. Harold Johnson, Charlie Muskrat: In his third novel, Johnson deftly weaves together traditional, modern and post-modern modes of storytelling to create a novel which is funny, moving, and profound, not so much by turns as all at once. What begins as a short hunting trip (Charlie Muskrat setting off from his northern Saskatchewan home in his truck Thunder with a thermos of coffee, a bag of cheezies, and a shotgun, in the hope of sighting a moose from the road) becomes, with the intervention of Wesakicak (the trickster figure of Cree legend), a cross-Canada road trip. While Charlie encounters police officers, border guards, officials from the department of Indian affairs, and a prison chaplain, among others, Wesakicak chats with Hermes, Socrates, the Muses, and Jesus in his quest to sort out what’s to become of Charlie. And occasionally, a writer named Harold Johnson drops in on the narrative, getting cagey when Charlie asks him what he’s working on these days. Perhaps my favourite scene in the book is one in which a university student sitting in a Winnipeg bus shelter reading a novel titled Charlie Muskrat by Harold Johnson looks up to see Charlie skidding though an icy intersection in his truck. She offers him a cheerful wave and turns back to her book leaving him to wonder how she knows him. I so enjoyed travelling cross-country with Charlie Muskrat that, when I finished the book, I flipped back to the beginning and read it again. (Disclosure: Harold is a friend of mine and we’re both published by the same small press.)

5. Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel: For my post on this book, click here.

6. Robert Lecker, Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit: For my review of this book, click here.

7. Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables: For the first of my series of posts on the book, click here.

8. Peter Robinson, All the Colours of Darkness: This is the latest instalment in Robinson’s police procedural series featuring Inspector Banks. It’s not due out until September, but I had the good fortune to pick up an advance copy at BookExpo earlier this month and I couldn’t resist diving in immediately. I’ll save my full review until after the novel’s publication date, but I can tell you now that it’s a riveting read that will be a treat for fans of the series. And if you’re not yet a fan of the series, you’ve got a few months to get up to speed! I recommend beginning at the beginning with Gallow’s View and working your way forward chronologically. It’s a fine series which started strong and has not once lapsed in quality through 19 books; indeed, it seems to me that it gets better and better with each new instalment.

9. Stuart Ross, Dead Cars in Managua: I was particularly keen to read the second section of Ross’s latest poetry collection, a sequence of poems titled “Hospitality Suite” about the absurd universe of hospitals, as I’d been very much taken with these poems when I heard him read aloud from them at various readings. They fully lived up to expectation, even more powerful on the page than read aloud, treading the knife-edge between humour and pathos in a way that no other writer I've encountered does better. The first section of the book was something of a surprise, a bleak travelogue of Managua illustrated with photos of the decaying cars which give the book its title. Again, very powerful, but in a wholly new way. The final section contains disparate poems most of which grew from exercises that Ross sets for the students in his periodic Poetry Boot Camps. These ones make me feel like writing poems; perhaps its time I signed up for one of those boot camps. Each of the three sections of the book has a distinct identity; together they showcase the depth and breadth of Ross’s poetic talents. I’m looking forward to spending more time with these poems. (Disclosure: Stuart is a good friend as well as being one of my favourite poets.)

10. Mariko Tamaki (author) & Jillian Tamaki (illustrator), Skim: This book was my first foray into the realm of graphic novels and it was a perfect place to begin to develop an appreciation of the form. Being very much a word person, I entered into it with the idea that the words would take primacy and the drawings would illustrate the text in a straightforward fashion. I soon realized that the reality is much more complex and interesting than that. It’s almost as if the words and the drawings are in dialogue with one another. Sometimes the drawings say things that the words can’t. Sometimes the drawings appear to contradict the words. It’s the perfect medium for representing the world view of high school outsider Kimberly Keiko Cameron aka “Skim”—a Wiccan goth grappling with a powerful crush on her English teacher Ms. Archer, and hanging on tightly to her cynicism in the face of a school-wide campaign to bolster school spirit and combat suicide (“Girls Celebrate Life!”). The particular genius of this book for me is the way that it plays with the stereotypes endemic to high school without ever reducing any of the characters to them.

11. Zachariah Wells, ed., Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets: I’ve been partial to the sonnet form since my teenage infatuation with Edna St. Vincent Millay, but until I cracked open this book I hadn’t realized how many Canadian poets had written and are writing sonnets. This is a marvellous collection which blends together sonnets by Canadian icons from past decades (Milton Acorn, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, E.J. Pratt) with sonnets by a range contemporary poets (including many of my favourites: Ken Babstock, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Evie Christie, Kevin Connolly, David McFadden, Stuart Ross). The poems themselves are pleasure enough, but the notes provided by editor Zachariah Wells about each poem at the back of the book add another layer of enjoyment to the reading experience. You can read the poems for yourself first, then read what Wells has to say to see if you agree with his interpretations and assessments of his choices. And finally, the book is a beautiful physical object as well. You can see the cover reproduced above, but you have to hold the book in your hands to appreciate the richness of the colour, the striking quality of the design, and the lovely texture of the paper.

12. Zoe Whittall, Bottle Rocket Hearts: In her first novel, Whittall brings alive in gritty detail the specificity of a particular experience in a particular time and place (coming of age amidst the feminist and queer communities of Montreal on the eve of the 1995 referendum on Quebec separation). Yet in doing so, she evokes a coming of age experience that a broad range of readers will connect with emotionally regardless of how far removed their lives may be from that of central character, eighteen-year-old Eve. An aspect of the novel that I particularly relished is its presentation of the forging of a political identity as a central aspect of coming of age. It’s not surprising, of course, that the personal and political would be intertwined in this context. Nevertheless, sorting out one’s own political stance seems to me an especially fraught exercise when engaged with political communities of a collectivist bent, and in this novel we can see that in all its messy, complicated glory.

13. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling: For my review of this book, click here.

The First Reviews

I don't know if things happened faster back then or if it was a testament to the quality of Anne of Green Gables, but a mere ten days on Lucy Maud Montgomery already had a solid indication that her first novel was a success. Here's an excerpt from her journal entry dated June 30, 1908:

These days are perennially interesting because of the reviews of my book. So far they have been favourable. Anne is already in her second edition. My publishers are hurrying me now for the sequel. I'm working at it but it will not be as good as Green Gables. It doesn't come as easily. I have to force it.

The discussion of Anne of Green Gables continues over at Blogging Anne of Green Gables. It's not too late to join in; let me know if you fancy doing so. And I suspect that once that discussion wraps up, we will continue on to Anne of Avonlea and have our say on whether we agree with LMM about the relative merits of her sequel.

Friday, June 20, 2008

One Hundred Years to the Day

(Cross-posted at Blogging Anne of Green Gables.)

Today, June 20th, is the actual day one hundred years ago that Lucy Maud Montgomery first held the newly published Anne of Green Gables in her hand. Despite being a prolific diarist, Montgomery wrote very little in her journal about either the process of writing Anne, or the aftermath of its publication. But she did express her pleasure and her joy on that momentous day. Here is her journal entry in its entirety:

Saturday, June 20, 1908
Cavendish, P.E.I.

     Today has been, as Anne herself would say "an epoch in my life". My book came to-day, fresh from the publishers. I candidly confess that it was for me a proud, wonderful, thrilling moment! There in my hand lay the material realization of all the dreams and hopes and ambitions and struggles of my whole conscious existence—my first book! Not a great book at all—but mine, mine, mine,—something to which I had given birth—something which, but for me, would never have existed. As far as appearance goes the book is all I could desire—lovely cover design, well bound, well printed. Anne will not fail for lack of suitable garbing at all events.
     On the dedication page was the inscription "To the memory of my father and mother". Oh, if they were but living to be glad and proud. When I think of how father's eyes would have shone!

From Mary Rubio & Elizabeth Waterston, eds., The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume I: 1889-1910 (1985).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rebecca Rosenblum on the Short Story

Rebecca Rosenblum on the short story:

Short stories are complete, and thus you know (nearly) right away what you are dealing with—whether you like it if not why, and whether you want more. They are self-contained, offering all you ever need know about the given situation. And yet they are by nature constrained and thus spare—non-essentials are left out, leaving space for the reader to slide inside, inserting imagination of whys and wherefores, physical descriptions and psychological profiles.

To read the rest of Rebecca's very eloquent post on why short stories will never die, click here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Summer Story Schedule at A Curious Singularity

All three of the stories contending to be our June selection garnered considerable enthusiasm and no clear winner emerged from the voting. Indeed, a number of people expressed an interest in reading all three. I've decided that that's a fine idea. Of course, we won't discuss them all in the same month, but if we take each one up in turn, these three stories will take us through to the end of the summer. (Given the difficulty I've had in other years keeping the group running through the summer months, this is a convenient solution to a difficult choice administratively-speaking as well!) So, arranging the stories in the order in which they were nominated, our summer schedule of story discussions at A Curious Singularity looks like this:

June 10: Raymond Carver's "Cathedral";

July 8: Laura Bork's "Mama Loved Patsy Cline"; and,

August 12: Jackie Kay's "Wish I Was Here".

Members of the group are invited to post their thoughts on Carver's "Cathedral" at the A Curious Singularity blog whenever they feel ready to do so. If you're not yet a member of the group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. New members are always welcome! Of course, anyone can contribute to the discussion through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

Happy reading! I'm looking forward to discussing all three of these stories with fellow short story aficionados over the course of the summer.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Vote for this month's Story Selection at A Curious Singularity

The three stories that have been nominated to serve as the focus of our next discussion at A Curious Singularity, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, June 10th, are:

Laura Bork's "Mama Loved Patsy Cline";

Raymond Carver's "Cathedral"; and,

Jackie Kay's "Wish I Was Here".

Please let me know, in the comments section below this post (or its duplicate at A Curious Singularity) or via email, which of these stories you would prefer to discuss this month. All are welcome to vote for the story selection and to join in the discussion regardless of whether or not you've participated in any of our previous short story discussions.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Anne of Green Gables: Questions I Never Thought to Ask Before

Cross-posted at Blogging Anne of Green Gables.


On the left is the the edition of Anne of Green Gables that I remember best from my childhood, illustrated by Hilton Hassell and published by The Ryerson Press. On the right is a picture of me the year that I first encountered Anne.

Like many of you, I have a long history with Anne of Green Gables. Although it's a Canadian classic and I grew up in Canada, I first encountered it in Scotland when I was ten-years-old and spending one of my dad's sabbatical years there. I don't know what initially prompted me to pluck it off the shelf of the Edinburgh Public Library. I do know that I was instantly smitten, that I read it quickly, and reread it countless times thereafter.

What was the source of its appeal for me then? First, much as I enjoyed the year in Edinburgh, I was homesick for Canada. And although the novel's Prince Edward Island setting actually has more in common with the Scottish landscape I then inhabited than with the prairie city in Saskatchewan that I'd left behind, Anne of Green Gables still somehow felt like a bit of home. Second, Anne was a skinny, freckled, red-haired outsider with a fondness for books and big words. All qualities to which I could relate all too well. Later, when I discovered the rest of Montgomery's oeuvre, I felt a much stronger kinship with Emily's writing ambitions than with Anne's. But Anne came first and holds a special place in my heart as a consequence.

What new insights could a reread of Anne of Green Gables yield up for me now? You would think that well would be exhausted after rereading the book so many times in childhood and a good few times as an adult as well. But no, in a testament to the richness of the novel, as well as to my long and ever shifting relationship with it, I'm finding myself noticing and questioning aspects of it this time through that I had never noticed or thought to question before. My modus operandi for this group read then will be to work my way through the book at a leisurely pace, offering up such observations and questions in a series of posts along the way.

We enter the novel by way of a meandering, paragraph-long sentence that follows the path of a brook from its source "away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place," alongside the Avonlea main road, and past the kitchen window of the ever-watchful Mrs. Rachel Lynde. I think that Mrs. Lynde is a marvellous character but it is by no means an obvious choice to begin the novel with her. Anne is, as trumpeted in the title, the main character, yet we don't meet her until the second chapter. Not only is Mrs. Lynde not the main character, I'm not sure that I would even count her among the most significant of the secondary characters so far as Anne is concerned (in that circle I would include Matthew, Marilla, Diana, and, later, Gilbert). Yet there she is, front and centre in the first paragraph and, indeed, throughout the whole of the first chapter. Why did Montgomery choose to begin the novel this way?

Ultimately, thanks to Mrs. Lynde's observant eye, and to her status as almost the voice of Avonlea, the first chapter provides the reader with a vivid picture of Green Gables, Matthew, Marilla, and the broader community. Thus armed with a sense of the people that Anne is about to encounter and of what is truly at stake for her, I think that we're primed to sympathize with her much more deeply than we otherwise could.

I suspect that a contemporary editor would suggest cutting much of that first chapter in order to get straight to Anne with the idea that that's the way to hook the attention of child readers as quickly as possible. What do you think? Is that opening chapter a perfect conduit into the book, or does it serve as a barrier to contemporary child readers of reputedly short attention spans? I'm putting myself in the former camp, partly because I don't regard Anne of Green Gables as a book exclusively for children, and partly because I don't think we give contemporary child readers enough credit when we make limiting assumptions about the breadth of their interests and attention spans.

The other aspect of the first chapter that jumped out at me from this reading was the sense of Canadian identity conveyed by Marilla in her exchange with Mrs. Lynde about the risks of taking in an orphan. She acknowledges some qualms but takes comfort from the fact that they're getting a "born Canadian." She notes: "And then Nova Scotia is right close to the Island. It isn't as if we were getting him from England or the States. He can't be much different from ourselves." I wouldn't have thought that either England or the States would have seemed particularly foreign to someone from PEI at that point in history, but Marilla's remarks belie my assumptions on both counts. They also lead me to wonder about if and how the Canadianness of the novel is conceived by non-Canadian readers. Does the embrace of Anne of Green Gables by readers from all over the world give Canada a place in their consciousness? Or does the Canadian content slip by non-Canadian readers unnoticed?

I'll stop there for now, saving my thoughts and questions about later chapters for subsequent posts.

To read the views of other bloggers on Anne of Green Gables on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its publication, stop by Blogging Anne of Green Gables. A discussion of the novel will be ongoing there throughout the month of June. If you'd like to participate, let me know via e-mail, and I'll send you an invitation to join the Anne blog.