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.


jenclair said...

Looking for Anne is going on my wish list!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Margaret Atwood's collection of short stories and will now get hold of a copy. I love her novels

John Mutford said...

I love how well-rounded your choices were: poetry, short-stories, novels and non-fiction. Nice mix.

Anonymous said...

I was actually at a signing during the Moral Disorder tour. She was actually a crack-up!

Anonymous said...

Great post... I've been considering reading more Atwood. I too have a blog, in fact it is a reading log. If you're ever bored check it out...

Anonymous said...

I didn't get to finish the first round of this challenge, but I'm trying a second time. Thanks for some good 'new to me' titles and authors, not just the typical ones I think of when it comes to Canadian lit. A few of these are going on my wishlist!

Anonymous said...

It's a very nice mix of books, I'll have to look into the ones I haven't picked up yet - Donate your used books and help kids

Halahblue said...

Moral Disorder sounds right up my alley. It's going to find a spot at the top of my wishlist for sure. I just found your blog today. I love it! RSS will hit my feedly right now.

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