Whirl Away is currently short-listed for the Giller Prize. I gave it a great review because it absolutely deserves one. Superb short stories. I really look forward to reading The Glass Harmonica. Wangersky’s been nominated for or won a prize or two for every book he’s published. He’s in St. John’s, NFLD.
Esi Edugyan is a BC writer and is by now a household name in every CanLit aficionado’s house. I read her novel twice. Half-Blood Blues, as you know by now, has been widely recognized as one of the most significant novels in Canadian literature. Here’s some proof:
Winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Winner of the 2012 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
Winner of the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
Shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
Finalist for the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Finalist for the 2011 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Amazon.ca Best Books of 2011: Top 100 Editors’ Picks
A Quill & Quire Best Book of the Year 2011
A Globe and Mail Best Book of 2011
One of the Vancouver Sun’s top ten books of 2011
A San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book
A Historical Novels Society Editor’s Choice for February 2012
One of The Millions’ Most Anticipated Books of 2012
An Amazon “Best of the Month” Pick for March 2012
Globe & Mail Book Club Inaugural Selection
The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice
I should tell you that I read HBB before most if not all the above accolades happened, and I loved it more than any other book I read that year. Not surprised by the attention it received. Here is my review.
But maybe you don’t care about awards and media hype. Typically, that’s not how I choose what to read, either. So I’m telling you that regardless of what these books have each accomplished in the awards arena thus far, they are, in my opinion, great examples of excellent Canadian writing and storytelling. If you like CanLit, you should enter the contest I’m about to introduce.
Thomas Allen is letting me give away 1 copy of Whirl Away, 1 copy of Siege 13, AND 1 signed copy of Half-Blood Blues to 1 winner. To enter:
It’s not unheard of, but it’s not often you come across a marriage in which both partners are published novelists. Probably even less common is finding them published by the same house. Such is the case, however, with Esi Edugyan and Steven Price, who’s also a critically acclaimed poet. I’ve already reviewed Esi’s Half-Blood Blues, which I enjoyed immensely. And now, having also read Steven’s Into that Darkness, I can say that this family is jam-packed with talent. I can’t help but wonder what their baby daughter might produce in the future.
A mere couple of weeks after Japan’s devastating earthquake in March 2011, Into That Darkness was released. Eerily appropriate, considering this novel opens just before a similar cataclysmic event: a major earthquake that causes massive upheaval in BC’s Victoria. But what’s unique about this story is how it’s told, through several perspectives and through characters’ memories, which are presented almost as though the characters had been interviewed about the event many years later, as though we’re listening to old recordings. Memories, perhaps brought on by the earthquake, also serve to provide backstories for the characters, which does not detract or distract from the main plot but rather enriches it.
Arthur Lear is an elderly man when we meet him at the beginning of the novel, moments before disaster strikes. He goes about his normal business that morning, visiting his friend the tobacconist, ordering a coffee at the nearby café to drink in the square across. He notices the time, minute details around him. And when the café owner runs into the street to return his wallet, the first tremor occurs. And then it happens.
One gets the sense that time stands still. I don’t know if this is because of the quiet leadup to the sudden event or something to do with Price’s style, which is spare, poetic, artfully repetitive. Either way, I have goosebumps remembering the event as it happened in the novel.
Price’s writing is so powerful, his images so vivid, the story was almost too difficult to read, but it was also too compelling to put down. He spares us nothing: you will be trapped deep under rubble, you will see and smell a field of dead and decaying bodies, despair at the extent of wreckage, the weariness of emergency crews and volunteers, feel fear and anger when you meet looters and rogues taking the law into their own hands. You will be shocked (yes) by how quickly humanity can transform from civilized to depraved, stagger under the weight of darkness and chaos. You will marvel at Price’s ability to make words so true it’s a though you’re watching them as images rather than reading them.
In the coffee shop, Lear encounters a small boy, the son of the owner. After the earthquake, rescue crews, thinking Lear a doctor, enlist him to help in extracting bodies from under the wreckage. We already know that the boy and his mother are trapped under the café, that the mother is dying, that there is little hope. The rescue is fraught with desperation and danger, but they manage to pull out the boy. His mother is left for dead, and Lear takes the boy, Mason, home with him, where already there is a squatter in the house.
The rest of the story is the quest to find the boy’s sister and mother, since he believes they are alive—as it turns out, his mother is indeed also rescued after Lear has left, though no one can tell them where she is. What follows is an examination of despair versus hope, corruption versus charity, darkness versus light. Forms of the word “dark” are very often used throughout the novel. In fact, there were times when the prose style reminded me rather of a sestina, a poem in which the same six words occur throughout but at different points in the stanzas. And a bonus: poets focus on finding the best words possible to use because their space is limited but also for the sake of sound, rhythm, and aesthetics; thus, in this novel, the prose is sharp, flows exceedingly well, and I read several words I did not know.
Most of all Into that Darkness is a compassionate and piercing study of humanity’s instinct for survival and the desperate need to believe in good, redemption, freedom from the past, forgiveness, love, and the fact that it is possible to overcome what seems the very worst: disaster beyond reason and control.
It’s impossible, I think, to not think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Roadwhen reading Into that Darkness. The styles are different but similar in their simplicity and insistence on employing only what is necessary. That’s the poet in Price, the use of concrete imagery and short, unadorned sentences, combined with rhythmic repetition.
He felt it in the small of his back, a sort of shiver. As if the cold teeth of a zipper were swiftly undone down his spine.
His fingers began to ache.
It came on.
It came on and pulsed shuddering up through the woman’s feet and knees and up through her hips and ribs and the woman where she stood leaned pitching in it like a figure in a storm. The café countertop rippling in her grip like so much ribbon in a wind.
There were times I felt the language too deliberate, too controlled, but for the most part, the style worked very well with the story. There is also a story within that’s told almost in a biblical style, an exploration of darkness and light again, the inevitable quest for God in such devastating disaster and depravity, and this too felt somewhat forced to me. Nevertheless, it fits because it serves to at least imaginatively bring forth the unavoidable question, which is always asked—Where is God in all this?—even by unbelievers at such times.
And while I say this book reminded me of McCarthy’s The Road, which I loved but at times felt I was not going to finish because I couldn’t see any hope, the darkness in this book is blended with slightly more obvious light, as is reflected by life in general, if only we learn to see both coexisting side by side.
Something in his voice arrested her and she leaned across and took his big cold hand in hers. Somewhere far off the faint clashing of cathedral bells could be heard. He rubbed at his face as if only just waking. A wind blew scurls of dust through the deepening intersection and a dark cat passed without sound in the street. The old man sat and she sat with him and they waited like that as if guests in a house not of their choosing. Which in a way they were. As are all the living in this world.
As you can probably guess, there is much more in this novel than the earthquake and its aftermath. Both are prominent but also serve as a backdrop for character studies, particularly of Lear. Price delves deeply into human nature, what it means to love and lose, remember and forget, forgive and understand, find purpose in a world where one feels adrift or foreign.
What Into that Darkness ultimately succeeds at is not only a terrifyingly real account of the aftermath of catastrophe, the reconciliation or rather balance between darkness and light, but also a needlesharp insight into the forgery of life as each of us knows it. In this sense, it’s not unlike Price’s spouse’s novel, Half-Blood Blues. Both novels masterfully demonstrate a deep understanding of human struggle and also a wondrous skill in compellingly and powerfully portraying it.
Thank you to Heather at Thomas Allen for generously sending me this book for review. Into that Darkness, by Steven Price, Thomas Allen, March 2011, 240 pp., paper.
Recently, Finnish journalist Verna Kuutti contacted me to ask a few questions for a story she’s doing on “contemporary Canadian literature and the generational shift that seemed to take place this fall.” Her story will appear in Finland’s largest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. Verna wrote, “Canadian literature, and especially the more recent writers & works are still quite unknown in Scandinavia, so it would be great if you could help me spreading the word by answering a couple of questions.”
Because some of these questions have arisen here in Canada, too, I thought I’d post my answers for you here, and maybe they could open up discussion. While I touch on it in my answers to Verna’s questions, I’d also like to further address that ridiculous question going around, which especially came to light after the Giller Prize, about whether or not Canadian literature is Canadian enough.
1. This year most of the nominees for important literary prizes were relatively fresh names. Do you think a generation shift is happening in Canadian literature? Or is it something that the media invented?
This is a hard question to answer because I myself have made a shift to reading mostly younger contemporary writers. But I think too that yes, there is an influx of them making the spotlight lately, not only in Canada (think of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife win of the 2011 Orange Prize) and not just this year. Last year, for example, Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky both made the Giller shortlist, and Johanna Skibsrud took the prize. While the authors were certainly deserving, their placement could (but perhaps not) be due partly to the fact that our canon writers, our older writers, aren’t producing very often anymore. For example, Alice Munro’s last, Too Much Happiness, was two years ago, Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood was also two years ago. Michael Ondaatje’s last novel before The Cat’s Table was in 2007 and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man this year was his first novel in eight years. (Three of those books just now were published by McClelland & Stewart, incidentally, and I want to point out that not only are lesser-known, young authors getting the spotlight now, but often smaller presses, too, like Gaspereau Press and Biblioasis, etc.)
I think in general we’re seeing more young authors being published in Canada but also in the States, and while the media is certainly making waves in this respect (Random House’s treatment of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circusis a fine example), I’d say many of these young authors are great at promoting themselves, especially through social media, and are very deserving of the attention they’re getting. I also think the attention is important in revitalizing or even abolishing the perceived stigma or stereotype of what CanLit is—serious, gloomy, self-conscious, and limited.
2. Do you think the right book won the Giller prize?
Absolutely. They were all deserving, but I feel Esi Edugyan’s writing was undoubtedly strongest. Half-Blood Blues was my favourite of the five, and Esi’s ability to so convincingly create wartime Paris and Berlin as well as her way of writing music and her style in general deserves high praise. If you’d like, you can read my review.
3. Could you name five of the most interesting writers that have published their first book after 2000?
4. Is there a common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers? What are the strengths of contemporary Canadian literature compared to literature coming from other countries?
I think the common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers is that they write what they want. There’s a current argument going on right now that Canadian fiction isn’t Canadian enough. I disagree, and have many questions for that statement, but I’d say what seems to define the newest generation of Canadian authors right now is their ability to let go of convention, whether in form or subject or style, and simply write. What results are stories that are first and foremost honest, piercing glimpses into the intricacies of everyday life. And then, as with Esi Edugyan, Alison Pick, and David Bezmozgis, say, we get historical novels that approach common themes of WWII and immigration from completely fresh perspectives, and with impressive skill that seems beyond their years. Or, as with Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, recently winner of both the Writers’ Trust Award and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, we get cool spins on genre fiction. Canada is huge for genre fiction, and yet it doesn’t really receive any attention. Patrick is blurring those lines between genre and literary fiction and, like his counterparts, is helping change how we define CanLit.
I’m not certain of the strengths of CanLit over literature coming from other countries. A good writer is a good writer, regardless of where they’re from. In my view, what defines CanLit is not landscape or topic necessarily, since these things can feature internationally, but rather our sensibilities in our approach to storytelling. That is, we come from a place that’s a mixture of all countries, a small world in a large nation. Instead of focusing on national subjects or places, though those do feature in our books, what’s being treated is what it means to be human in this world, what our everyday experiences are, how we feel, remember, think. Esi’s Half-Blood Blues, for example, was not about WWII or Berlin or Paris, it was a confessional, about one man’s relationship with music, but mainly other people he was close to, particularly a friend he considered a brother.
CanLit has always examined these things, the minutiae, the ordinary—the extraordinary being not exemplified by plot as much as character. Carol Shields was a great example of this. I don’t believe CanLit needs to mention our cities or government or particular Canadian issues to be Canadian. It needs only to be written by Canadians who understand and experience Canada. That will all just automatically come out in their writing. And it’s this writing that is more genuine than the writing that has purposely been injected with Canadianisms or -ness in order to come across as “more Canadian.”
5. Canadian indie music is quite well-known around the world—do you think Canadian literature could become an international brand, a guarantee of quality and a certain freshness? Or is it artificial to try to group young writers by labeling them “Canadian literature”?
I think CanLit can become as popular as our indie music providing we look outside the canon, providing we’re willing to expand our definition of literature, and Canadian literature in particular, to include short stories with novels, small and indie presses among the Big 5, and younger authors among the tried and true. I think this is what the Giller is trying to do, what Canada Reads is trying to do, with their inviting the public to submit their favourite Canadian books. In this way we become more exposed to more writers, we begin to read outside the literary greats who’ve ruled the roost for so long. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but we do need to make so much more room for the incredible new talent we too often overlook.
6. Do you think there is a favorable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talents? Does the wider public read contemporary writers?
Good question. Yes, I think there is a favourable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talent. In fact, in typically labelling CanLit as depressing or overly serious, many Canadians have expressed a readiness for exciting new talent. The hard part is in getting that new talent known, and this is where bloggers and reviewers and enthusiastic readers and booksellers come in. The publishers help this greatly by sending out advance reading copies. The difficulty for small and indie presses is that their budgets are also small. It’s up to the authors, often, in that case, to spread the word about their book so that advocates will pick it up and spread it further. Again, Canada Reads in particular comes in handy here, since the voting process involves suggesting a title and explaining why you want it to be onsidered. The Top 40 is a great list for anyone who wants to expand their CanLit reading.
7. If somebody abroad wants to follow what happens in the Canadian literary world, what sources (blogs/websites) should they follow?
There are so many great Canadian blogs and sites out there! To know what’s going on around me in the lit scene I follow many Canadian publishers (their staff of publicits, too), big and small, as well as publications like the Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail Book section, the Literary Review of Canada, the National Post‘s Afterword section, CBC Books section, and a ton of authors. I also follow literary organizations, like the Giller and Canadian Bookshelf, for example, and bookstores on Twitter, and other book bloggers. You can also take a look at my blogroll.
So, a lot covered here. Any thoughts? These topics are really interesting to me, and your comments are always welcome! Thank you to all who read all the way through!
UPDATE: For more answers to these particular questions, visit John Mutford’s blog, The Book Mine Set, where he’s been blogging about Canadian literature since 2005.
The CBC invited me to participate in the Giller chat this evening from 7–10 and it was my pleasure, even more fun than I had anticipated. Discussion was mostly focused and everyone remained cool (I’ve seen some heated awards talks!).
While I have read only two and a half books on the shortlist so far, I still felt confident enough, after sampling the others in order to prepare for this chat, to predict that Esi’s soulful and rich Half-Blood Blues would win. In my heart that’s also what I wanted. I did think David Bezmozgis’s book The Free World could win, too—it seemed a little more Giller, if you know what I mean—though I didn’t prefer his writing to Esi’s. To be fair, I haven’t yet finished his book, and I am enjoying it very much, but it’s not giving me the same thrill Esi’s did. To know what I’m talking about, you can read my review of Half-Blood Blues.
Among authors and readers, bloggers and professional book industry peeps, many interesting points were brought up in the chat leading up to the event, concerning whether or not other awards affect long- and shortlisted books of the Giller, the discussion of content and form, advantages and/or disadvantages of short stories in relation to novels, whether previous nominations would affect deWitt and Edugyan, and whether awards actually matter (going off on the ridiculous initial point made elsewhere that of all the awards only the Giller mattered). We also went off on tangents about dust jackets and The Price is Right, but that was part of the fun. If you’re interested, you can read the Giller chat on the CBC website. It’s rather exciting, too, because we start getting nervous as the time to announce the winner draws near!
Also interesting were the different moods in the introductions to the authors and their books. Ron MacLean‘s intro to Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist was particularly genuine and the most natural; he sounded like a bookseller, not an awards presenter, and I loved him for that. Those intros as well as the author profiles, during which all the authors were quite endearing, were very effective, and one could almost feel themselves being swayed and waffling back and forth in their choice of book to win. I had to remind myself, think of the books, the books! and then, too, I suddenly felt the prize could go to anyone: for how, really, can you pit books against each other? We keep doing it, in contests like Canada Reads and for awards, but when watching the proceedings, it becomes difficult to compare the books, which, this year especially, all offered something so different from their counterparts.
Esi Edugyan wins 2011 Giller Prize for her stellar Half-Blood Blues. Photo by Chris Young for the Canadian Press. Source, CTV News. Click image for further credit.
But then it came time to announce the winner and I remembered what I wanted to happen, and I hadn’t realized how nervous I was, how I was holding my breath, until I actually cheered out loud, sitting alone at my kitchen table, when they announced that had Esi won. Who says literature isn’t exciting?
My warmest, heartfelt congratulations to Thomas Allen, Patrick Crean (Esi’s editor), and to the very talented Esi Edugyan, who at only 33 has shown her quality as a writer. I also applaud the Giller jury for transcending stereotype and choosing a diverse mix of books this year, for recognizing greatness even in the presence of tried and true skill like that of Michael Ondaatje, and for thus freshening up the award image.
For more details, you can read the official Giller announcement. Edugyan will join CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi (who also hosted the Giller gala) on Q tomorrow (Wed.) morning, and CBC Books will make the livestream broadcast available online tomorrow, too.
They say that this winning can bump up a book’s sales by 500%, 100,000 copies in a month. Since Esi’s book is the bestselling of the six shortlisted books at the shop where I work, I’m curious to see what happens, particularly during the Christmas season. I did already have a customer call this afternoon to ask me to put aside whoever won for her to pick up in the morning. She didn’t care who it was, she just wanted the winner.
I have mixed feelings about the awards themselves, I think, and yet I do find them exciting, in spite of myself. In the end, it’s about rewarding hardworking artists who’ve honed their craft to such an extent that they deservedly stand out among the rest; it’s about celebrating great literature, by Canadians no less. And that, above all else, makes me pretty happy.
It’s amazing how fast I’m accumulating these literary tidbits these days. It’s probably an indication I’m spending way too much time not working or being productive but—hell. There are worse ways to procrastinate, I’m certain. Enjoy!
2. The Nobel Prize in Literature is not as celebrated in these parts, it seems, though of course it’s quite major. This year’s prize was (significantly) awarded a Swede, a poet named Tomas Tranströmer. The award was given to him “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” For those of you not familiar with Tomas and his work, check out Paul Vermeersch’s “Tomas Tranströmer internet roundup.”
3. Okay, it feels very weird to “promote” such a thing but I can’t help it. I’m quite excited to be writing fiction, to be actually doing it instead of just writing about it. You know how I feel about Sarah Selecky already, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned her daily writing prompts. This past weekend I finally committed to the idea of actually writing fiction exercises. Because as you know, doing facilitates more doing. Mooning about wanting to write and having nothing to write and being all fearful was getting me exactly nowhere. So I started Story, a site on which I do one of Sarah’s writing prompts (the icon is on the right side as a widget as well) each day. So far I’ve managed six exercises, and it’s actually been relatively easy! I made it public, as I explain on the About page, because if there’s any feedback, it will, I hope, help me improve and also provide motivation and perhaps even inspiration. It may seem silly to publicize my writing: many writers would simply try and publish for real, not stick their writing online for free. I’m still shy about calling myself a writer, though I wondered if putting this online was a bad idea. I’m not certain. These are supposed to be more like warmups for me, and I’m doubtful they belong in magazines or journals. The idea is to get myself into that state of mind, the writerly state, and from there be able to write stories that I can submit. That said, I’m clueless about this whole thing…
4. I have a page here on the site called Favourite Bookshops (if you’d like to submit your favourite, email me or use the contact form!), the idea behind which is to promote brick-and-mortar bookshops so that people will patronize them (and I don’t mean going in there and talking down to them, of course!). In London, England, Iona created her own sort of indie love project, called One Book on the Shelf. Iona visits all the bookshops she can find in London, takes beautiful photos, and interviews the staff as well as reports on what she experiences. Enjoy a virtual tour! And be sure to check out her visit to Ripping Yarns,” home” of Jen Campbell, author of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.
5. Speaking of Jen, she’s started a new project: The 100 Poem Challenge. Jen will explain all in a video if you follow that link, but the gist is here, in Jen’s own words:
My name’s Jen [hi!] and I’m a writer and bookseller living in London, UK. I also have EEC Syndrome, which is a rare form of Ectodermal Dysplasia. New research has shown that, due to a fault in the p63 gene, people with EEC Syndrome suffer progressive sight loss because of their corneas reproducing incorrectly. At the moment there is no cure for this. I wrote a blog post about me being told this recently over here. So, I’m doing a fundraising event to raise money for the research centres who are looking for a cure, and who are are also doing research into better understanding and helping out in other areas affected by EEC Syndrome.
What I’m Doing
I’m writing 100 poems in just one weekend: 5th & 6th November. I’ll be posting them online as I write them over at 100poemweekend.blogspot.com. On the run up to this weekend, I’m asking people to give me tag words. You can suggest one by dropping me an email [link over on my blog], or tweeting me @aeroplanegirl. Each of the poems will be inspired by a tag word, and the person who gave me that tag word will be credited within the blog post.
Here is her donation page. On this page you’ll also find a breakdown of who Jen is, why she’s doing this, what she’s doing, and where the money is going. Take note of how wonderfully supportive people have been; it’s awesome! Congrats, Jen, on your success—with everything!—so far!
6. In keeping with the English theme, here is author Neil Gaiman—who is actually a huge supporter of Jen and through whom I found her—in a quite funny video promoting All Hallow’s Read: basically, give someone a scary book this Halloween to read. My choice to give this year is The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury (in fact, I would give this every year. It’s my favourite Bradbury book). And also Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. Two deliciously shivery October reads.
7. Calling all Roald Dahl-loving Torontonians and those who can make it to Toronto! It’s Roald Dahl Day here on October 23, starting at 11am. September 13th is the big day in the UK but we can’t let them have all the fun, can we. Check out all the stuff going on: this promises to be quite a fun day! If you can’t make it, perhaps you can pick up one a copy of The Twits, say, or George’s Marvellous Medicine (one of my faves) to celebrate a brilliant man’s work.
9. Oh, I know all you booklovers and reviewers are going to love this: introducing CataList, put out by BookNet Canada, a fab one-stop wishlist-making place where you can browse publishers catalogues to your heart’s content.
10. Any Jodi Picoult fans reading here? Now’s your chance to win an entire library of her books! No kidding! The folks at Simon & Schuster asked if I was willing to include this and it is my pleasure to get you all excited…about books! Jodi does have a new book, Lone Wolf, coming out February 28th 2012, too.
click image for contest details
11. Books and art: never shall the two be separated. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have built a house made entirely from vintage books. My first reaction? Hey, no windows; I don’t like it. And then I read their artists’ statement addressing the fact that there are no windows, that this is done on purpose: “The work has no windows and in the absence of external stimulation, we must imagine the worlds of the books, and hear the voice in our head that talks to us when we read.” It rubbed me the wrong way, that sentence, even though of course I respect the artists’ right to express themselves however they want. But I didn’t like it, admittedly first because a house with no windows is simply ugly to me even if you justify it, and claustrophobic, and dark, but more importantly because it’s looking out the windows that gives us the perspective we bring to what we read. And literally, I never read not in front of a window. Never.
12. I’ve never had any opinion of Daniel Radcliffe, whether regarding Harry Potter or anything else. But then I read this list of books that have made a difference to him, and not just a list but his explanation of how they affected him, and I have a mini-crush. I have respect. Wow. Not that I expected less, but I’m impressed.
13. Award Season is upon us, whether we would have it or not. But you may not be so aware of the Independent Literary Awards. They are in no way affiliated with any of the major awards, nor any organizations, stores, or publishers. In a nutshell, they are strictly for the people, by the people. Wallace Yovetich tells us more at BookRiot.
14. Pick any environmental issue and likely Margaret Atwood is at the forefront. That may be hyperbole but, seriously, this woman is involved in so much it boggles my mind. Her latest book, In Other Worlds, has been printed both regularly and with 300 special editions—get this—made from straw. “The medium is the message” tells us why. Canopy’s 300 straw-based copies of In Other Worlds are available at canopyplanet.org. Proceeds will be used to finance the group’s Second Harvest program. You can also grab a bird-saving coffee while you’re at it.
As always, I hope you enjoyed these litbits and if you have any you’d like me to include here, just shoot me an email! Thank you to those who did email or tweet me, particularly Jen Campbell, Marie Clausén, Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen, and Anneliese at Simon & Schuster!
The weekday after a long weekend is always extra hard for me, and I imagine it is for others, too. So let’s start off with some amazing news!
1. The Governor General Literary Award nominees were just announced today, and the fiction nominees are: Patrick DeWitt, for The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan, for Half-Blood Blues, David Bezmozgis, for The Free World, Marina Endicott for Little Shadows, and Alexi Zentner, for Touch. This is only the second time ever that two authors have been nominated for all three major Canadian literary awards. All this overlap makes it pretty easy for those who want to read all the nominees of the various awards, eh? My hearty congratulations to all the publishers, authors, and staff who made these books the best they could be! UPDATE: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was up for consideration, but the author respectively requested that his publisher not submit the book, as he feels he’s won the award a fair number of times already (that is, five times). The Cat’s Table does remain on the Giller shortlist.
2. Some of you may be interested in the Guess the Giller contest going on now till Nov. 8. You may be pretty excited about potentially winning a copy of each of the shortlisted titles, for instance: that is, Esi Eduygan’s Half-Blood Blues, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, Lynn Cody’s The Antagonist, and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Doesn’t tempt you enough? How about a Kobo Touch e-reader and a $50 gift certificate from Chapters/Indigo? Still not enough incentive? Okay: how about the grand prize for guessing the winner:
• A visit from the 2011 Scotiabank Giller prize-winning author to contest winner’s home town, courtesy of Scotiabank. The hometown or residence of the contest winner must be in Canada
• A restaurant meal for the contest winner and four (4) guests with the 2011 prize-winning author (maximum value: $500 CDN ), courtesy of Scotiabank. The restaurant will be selected in the sole discretion of the sponsor and all decisions made by the sponsor are final.
•A set of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted books
•A Kobo eReader, courtesy of Kobo, with a $50 CDN gift certificate to Chapters Indigo, courtesy of Scotiabank
Approximate value of the prize is $5,000.00
Off to enter!
3. Since I was a teen, I’ve counted Raymond Carver among my favourite short story writers. Last week the hubby and I enjoyed a movie called Everything Must Go, based on Carver’s very short and quite different story titled, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Read the story (link will take you there) and watch the movie—the trailer is below.
4. I couldn’t help but spend quite a bit of time scrolling through this site: Awesome People Reading. What is it, exactly, about seeing someone read that makes other readers so happy? I’m always dying to ask people what they’re reading if I can’t already tell, and when I’m looking at magazines or pictures, I always try to discern what the title is in the subject’s hand. The other day there was a kid in the shop totally sprawled out in one of the leather chairs, reading a dinosaur book. My first thought was, I need a camera!
5. Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have begun Emily Books, an indie bookstore that, according to them, is more like a club, and they sell only ebooks. They’re just getting started, but here is their campaign. They can also be found on Twitter. Will we see more of these ebook stores in the future?
7. “This Cake is for the Party,” the prequel, “The Lightest One I Could Make”: a new story by Sarah Selecky in the Walrus, November 2011 issue. I’m sorry if I’m coming across as a major fan girl. It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it. It’s a good story!
8. Jessica Westhead‘s short story “Community,” from her collection called And Also Sharks, has been dramatized for radio! My computer is having problems right now, which is VERY ANNOYING (everything I do is delayed, whether it’s typing letters or clicking on another site, or whatever), so I’m not getting to listen to this without it constantly skipping. I hope it doesn’t do that for you. Maybe it just needs some time to download and buffer or whatever. I hope you can listen!
9. Watch how a book is made, from the Middle Ages (love those illuminated manuscripts!) to the present—actually, even now, the process is evolving. I personally find this history fascinating. Has anyone read Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book? That novel will increase your appreciation for the dear ones on your shelves, too! (Thank you to For the Love of Bookshops for “making books” links!)
11. I’m sure that by now you all have heard of The Night Circus? In the last LitBits I posted an article about the marketing aspect of it. This week, something interesting is happening: Thursday, October 13th marks the date that Erin Morgenstern’s “circus of dreams” was born. On October 13, 1886, at the stroke of midnight in London, the first circus doors opened to the public. This upcoming Thursday marks the 125th anniversary of this event. I have to admit, okay, that in general, I’m not cool with circuses, at least not animal or freak ones. Cirque du Soleil is different, and I’d love to see that some day. Anyway, I approach circus books with a degree of caution. This book, like Water for Elephants, has met with rave reviews for the most part, though one recent article in the New York Times had a different stance. Nevertheless, you can be sure that Random House has some neat stuff planned for this anniversary, like this free game, for instance. I haven’t yet read the book, but I plan to—because the story idea intrigues me. Erin is also coming to my area, for anyone interested. She’ll be reading as part of the International Festival of Authors in Picton, at Books and Company on October 28, 7pm. Tickets are $10.
12. Any Poe fans here? I love Poe, though studying him in university burst my bubble a little. By now, though, I’ve forgotten the underlying meanings and can just enjoy his stories as the wonderful gothic creations they also are. And now, one of my favourite male actors, John Cusack, is playing the author himself in a thriller of a movie called The Raven, to be released in 2012. I’m excited about it! Watch the trailer.
13. While you’re in Poe mode, there’s also this movie coming out called Twixt, about a hack horror writer visiting a small town in which he ends up investigating the murder of a young girl. Poe appears in the movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who said this: the story is “inspired by the eerie writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe” and came to him in a vivid dream he had while on a trip to Istanbul. The trailer for Twixtis spooky!
14. Switching gears here, the CBC is celebrating 75 years of featuring CanLit, from interviews to reviews to stimulating discussion. I have always loved browsing the CBC archives for old stuff with Atwood and for Halloween files (that I posted last year), and they’re taking a look back in the celebrating, too. They’ve started with Alice Munro, who’s got about 20 collections of stories to date but at the time of her interview had only three. Whoa. Have a listen to Alice Munro and Don Harrow on Morningside in 1978.
15. You’ve read writer’s blogs, but have you ever read a character‘s blog? Always Under Revision is the blog of Kate, a character in Leona Theis’s novel in progress. In her posts, Kate details what it’s like being written, as well as chats about her author’s progress and daily happenings. I thought it an interesting, creative spin on the typical author’s blog. I’d say it’s a good (but potentially dangerous when I think about it, if you’re in any way unstable!) method of getting inside a character’s head, let alone a writer’s!
16. I was reading the Saturday Toronto Star this weekend and to my surprise saw a few book covers I recognized on the front page of the Entertainment section. I always read that section but don’t see much on books. This time, there was an entire page and a bit, an interesting article called “Shortchanging the Short Story,” mainly but not solely about Zsuzsi Gartner’s recent collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives making the Giller shortlist, and what she has to say about that and short stories. What do you think after reading it? Are short story collections shortchanged? Should there be no distinction between novels and short stories—should we just have, as Gartner wishes, books? I’ve written about short stories here before, and I’d love to know what you guys think about this article.
17. Want to win a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table? Go to Random House’s BookClubs page! They have a biweekly contest to win books, so while you’re there, sign up for the newsletter. It really is possible to win: I’ve done so twice!
18. I’m looking at Margaret Atwood’s newest book, called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, published by McClelland & Stewart, and you know how books often list the author’s other publications? In this book, Ms Atwood’s previous books take up TWO pages. There are 21 books of fiction, 14 books of poetry, 9 non-fiction books, and 6 kids books. And that’s just books. Kind of makes my “I can’t write” whinging really pathetic!
19. Check this out, this is so cool! Trevor Cole’s award-winningPractical Jean…in photos:
20. I’ve waxed poetic about my artist sister, Thérèse Neelands before (by the way, she’s joined Twitter), and Oliver Jeffers as well, who also happens to be one of my sister’s sources of inspiration. So what do you get when you combine the two? A Christmas ornament that T made and forgot to give me last year and instead presented me this Thanksgiving weekend: I give you Boy, of Oliver Jeffers’s Lost and Found (the short film of which I posted for you in LitBits 19), Up and Down, How to Catch A Star, andThe Way Back Home:
Boy, from Oliver Jeffers's The Way Back Home (also featured in How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, and Up and Down. Ornament by Thérèse Neelands.
Believe me, you have to see this dude in real life (and we have to do something about that little bit between his legs, which is, of course, where the twine comes through. It’s too hilariously placed). Seriously, though, in real life, this little guy is amazing. My photos are shite. Also, she made Penguin, and my other sister got him. I demand him next Christmas. Also, I want the Martian from The Way Back Home. I hope you’re reading this, T. Oi, Oliver, if you’re reading this: thank you!! Also, you and my sis should get together and do something artsy.
Anything you want posted in LitBits? Contact me or send me a tweet!
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, Thomas Allen Publishers, Sept. 2011
I love jazz—classic jazz, that is, the old-school stuff of Louis, Ella, Billie, Sarah, Coltrane. One of the very first CDs I bought, when I’d finally got myself a CD player in university, was Miles Davis’s quintessential, cozy Kind of Blue. It’s been one of my favourite albums since; I’ve never tired of it. Back then, I studied to it, I fell asleep to it, I went for walks with it, I very cheesily made out to it. Sometimes I simply lie on the floor listening to it, or read with it, its cadences brilliantly playing underneath the lines I read. And now I’m writing this post with “Blue in Green” playing softly in the background. If you click on the link, you can enjoy this review to it, and then listen to this one, “In a Sentimental Mood,” by Coltrane.)
All that to say why when Thomas Allen asked me if I’d like to review some of their books and listed Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan as one of the choices, I asked for that one.
Truly, I’ve read nothing like it. It’s one of those books, the kind you curl up with, an atmospheric story, but it’s far from warm, really, given the setting of two major cites in panic during the threat of German occupation, and in utter despair, being stripped of their former glory. What once was as beautiful as the deep ochre of a strolling bass line is now lost, given way to the disturbing image of “teeth glowing like opals on the black cobblestones,” to dark alleys and dingy cafés in which people sit heads down, noses in drinks—places that reek of fear. Yet you will be lost in this world, I promise, in another time and place. You will not solely read. You will experience.
Alternating between 1992 and the end of the jazz age in the late 1930s in Berlin and Paris during WWII, Half-Blood Blues is less plot-driven and more a confessional, documenting the experiences of a few black jazz musicians playing a now unhallowed, dying art form. The story is told from the perspective of 83-year-old Sidney Griffiths, whose poetic voice and lazy slang tell us what really happened all those years ago, when his friend and fellow musician, 19-year-old jazz prodigy Hieronymous (Hiero) Falk, a German without papers, was arrested by the Nazis and taken to a camp, where presumably he died. Edugyan’s recreation of the mood of the times is most notable, and I found myself amazed by the maturity of the material as well as the insight coming from one only 33 years old. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending; it’s not meant to be. We’ve seen this before, only less convincingly—young authors imagining times before they were born and characters well beyond their own years, and Esi has a solid grasp on not only predominantly male characters but also elderly ones. Her people are believable, distinct and fully fleshed out, just like everything else in the book.
Whenever a book is up for an award, let alone three awards, and I happen to actually read it, I’m always looking for what it was that got it there. I don’t know what the criteria are for the Man Booker and the Giller and the Writers Trust Fiction Prize; I’ve never checked. But I have my own criteria: the writing must be excellent, the story must be interesting and original, and the book must make an emotional impact on me.
Half-Blood Blues meets all of these criteria, I’m happy to say. Edugyan’s prose is as rhythmic as Sid’s bass line, beautifully, creatively, unexpectedly, sometimes humorously, phrased and powerfully evocative. There are so many post-it stickies messing up my book that it feels impossible to share how much I enjoyed the writing style, the dialogue, the way Esi strung words together. A few of my favourite sentences: “Who the real father was, Caspars claimed to know. Almost seven feet tall and blacker than a power outage.” And “To hear Hammond tell it, our recording damn near made an amnesiac of him. We blown every last thought out of his mind.” One more: “I don’t know, I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.”
I love the way Sid and the boys spoke. And as a copyeditor, I think it was quite consistent. Whenever someone uses dialect, I’m always on the lookout for inconsistency. If there was any, it was so minor I either forgave it or missed it. I have to tell you, I really felt an overwhelming sense of admiration for Edugyan when reading this book. Read this bit, where she evokes the music. These passages gave me a thrill:
Chip’s kit was crisp, clean, and I could feel the lazy old tug of the bass line walk down into its basement and hang up its hat, and I begun to smile. Then the kid came in. He was brash, sharp, bright.
And then, real late, Armstrong came in.
I was shocked. Ain’t no bold brass at all. He just trilled in a breezy, casual way, like he giving some dame a second glance in the street without breaking stride. It was just so calm, so effortlessly itself. Give me a damn chill. … Hiero, Chip and me was so harmonious, so close in tone colour, it sounded like the same gate squawling on three different instruments. Man, it was smooth.
It was the sound of the gods, all that brass. It was the old Armstrong and the new, that mature distilled essence of a master and the boy he used to be, the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high Cs piercing. Heiro thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping.
There’s more, even better, where that came from (page 278 in my copy, for example). By contrast, Paris, on the brink of war:
But it seemed Paris was waiting too. Anxiety hung over the streets like clothes on a line. When we walked them cobblestones, we seen families huddled in their apartments, crouched over the wireless. Waiters was bent over counters, listening to static.
Then even the skies drained out. I wished to god I’d just go to sleep and wake up in another reality. Cause I seen what the Krauts was capable of, I ain’t no fool. They like to eat old France down to her crusts. … There was posters going up, shabby gents pasting them along the walls with huge sopping rollers: tots in gas masks, flames, blond mothers herding children into bomb shelters. I watched shop clerks hooking blackout curtains in the windows, and I ain’t felt nothing but nerves.
If there’s one thing done very well in the book it’s the nervy sense of waiting: waiting for the war to come, slow as molasses, tortuous; waiting to get their promised time to record with Louis Armstrong, too. There’s a lot of hanging about in this book, and yet it’s still constructive, still moving forward, because it’s important stuff to know for everything to make sense: you get to know the characters and their motives, and it’s just as much a love story (love between two people and also the love of making music)—if not more so and in which the end of the jazz era is couched—as a story about the repercussions of war. As I said, this book isn’t so much plot-driven as an account of what really happened before Hiero was arrested by the Germans. So much you don’t know all comes finally to a cathartic head near the end, beginning when things in Paris heat up: there are about four pages of a heaving, panicking Paris written so well I like to have a panic attack, as Sid might say, just while reading it.
But no book is perfect. While this is seemingly insignificant, it caught my attention several times: the font was sometimes too tightly kerned. That shouldn’t be so noticeable, and it would have been better to have used a different font, perhaps, or simply not typeset the text as tightly.
And at the same time as the writing is so fine I could make an example of the entire book in general, I did have a few issues. The words “hell” and sometimes “damn” were overused and thus slightly annoying, and the beginning of one chapter in particular seemed inconsistent with Sid’s voice enough to make me think I might be reading someone else’s perspective. Sometimes the brilliant descriptions of things that initially made me so excited seemed a bit too precious, a little self-conscious.
But these things were quite minor in comparison with Edugyan’s major achievement—that is, what everyone else is seeing, too: “an entrancing, electric story about jazz, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.” Half-Blood Blues is especially notable because Esi convincingly, very successfully, excitingly pulls off something significant: a refreshingly original, insightful, soulful, and ultimately beautiful take on that historical period which fiction has so often already adopted. I’ll eat my fedora if Thomas Allen hasn’t got their paws on a winner.
A special thank you to Anita and the publicity staff of Thomas Allen, who sent me a finished copy of Esi Edugyan’s book.