Posts tagged ‘Canadian literature’

September 28, 2010

THIS Reads: Digging Below the Mainstream

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

I must confess I’ve felt snobbish lately – my range of authors is a tad one sided in favour of the big press. It’s not that I need sales or reputation to respect an author, not at all – it’s just that I’ve been blindsided by a few bigger, highly anticipated novels in the past few months. But being the rebel I am (insert laughtrack here), I know that big press is a euphemism for the man, and I won’t have that being the log in my literary fire.

So, in an attempt to dig below the mainstream, this is what I am reading while the leaves change colour outside my window:

Best Canadian Stories: ’08, ed. John Metcalf (Oberon Press). While perusing my local library I found this gem, a compilation of short stories by ten lesser known CanLit authors like Clark Blaise, Kathleen Winter, and Amy Jones. Despite being edited by one of Canada’s top literary critics, this book really pushes some unheard names into reader’s faces. These are top notch intuitive stories, but their authors probably wouldn’t catch the attention of Penguin editors.

What Is Left The Daughter, by Howard Norman (HMH). I’m reviewing this book for this and so far, from the fifty pages I have read, it is amazing. Set during World War Two on the East Coast of Canada, it is a life tale of extreme hardship at a young age (double parent suicide) and the further aftermath of a growing young man.

The Matter With Morris,
by David Bergen (Harper Collins) In honour of making the Giller longlist, I must mention that Bergen’s story is highly intriguing. I’ve only read a condensed version of Morris in this month’s Walrus, but it definately makes me want to buy a copy. With themes like war, romance, writing, and pot – how can you say no?

Mordecai Richler Was Here, ed. Adam Gopnik (Madison). Ahh, I know, there’s nothing small time about Richler. But I don’t care, he’s my favourite author. His satirical wittiness, mastering the underdog story, putting CanLit on the map – he’s the best. This book brings together a wide array of Richler’s journalism coinciding with relevant snippets from his fiction. It’s Richler’s perspective on politics, writing, and success in his own words, a definite read for budding writers in need of guidance.

I have also been paying attention to Joey Comeau’s blog posts over at Open Book Toronto this month. Comeau is gaining a heap of recognition in Canada lately with his most recent novel One Bloody Thing After Another. He also provides captions alongside Emily Horne’s photography on A Softer World, an ongoing web comic.

And yes, I realize this is all Canadian writing.

September 9, 2010

CanLit Book Review: Chef by Jaspreet Singh

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CHEF
by Jaspreet Singh

Vintage Canada
(CA – April 2008; US – April 2010, CAN $19.95, 246 pages)

In 1984 India carried out the military operation Meghdoot, which saw the successful invasion and occupation of the Siachen Glacier in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayan mountains. Ensuing from this invasion, India and Pakistan have continually warred atop this highest battlefield on earth, raging over the rights to the 70 kilometre stretch of frozen land.

For retired Indian-Sikh military chef Kirpal Singh, the main character in Jaspreet Singh’s Georges Bugnet Award winning novel Chef, his experience of the Siachen Conflict burns deep inside him. Literally, Kip (Kirpal) suffers from cancer. Symbolically, his cancer is war’s destruction personified. Eating away at Kip are memories of serving a corrupt government concerned more with right to land ownership than the will of its people.

Chef opens with Kip embarking on a long train ride from Delhi to Srinagar, his former camp, to cook a feast for the Governor of Kashmir’s daughter’s wedding. The Governor was Kip’s commander, one General Kumar, fourteen years earlier when Kip joined the army and became protégé to expert military chef, Kishen. As Kip flashes back to his war days from behind the closed kitchen quarter doors where higher rank officials stayed away from, we learn how Kip witnessed the sour fundamentals of Indian bureaucracy and, most importantly, how important political dignitaries are in bed with the military.

Kip’s first lesson in the army is understanding his role as chef which, with fierce allusion to the Indian caste system, means answering to those above him. Young and naïve, Kip adapts to his place in military society, and through his chef-minded perspective, Singh’s allegorical binding of food to cultural tradition becomes clear. When Kip visits the home of a Muslim girl, he is propositioned by her brother to marry her, and the girl serves a metaphorical dowry of tea. Kip simply wants to observe her cooking, and wonders why she does not join them for tea. Her place, like Kip’s, is in the kitchen, and he learns something about both Muslim culture and elitism along lines he understands. A similar scene unfolds later when Kip becomes flirtatious with a nurse who is Kishen’s lover. She bats him away, saying “I have no tea to offer you.” Hence, enjoying tea, a mainstay in everyday life, symbolises age-old interaction between the sexes.

As Kip grows into adulthood, Singh’s food metaphors sink deeper. Cultural faux pas extending from food preparation relate to social class when Kishen feeds a non-vegetarian dish to a group of Muslim clerics visiting Srinagar. The clerics are there on official, sketchy business, and for the offensive act marring the General’s reputation, Kishen is sent on permanent leave to a camp on the peak of the Siachen Glacier. Here, food leads to a perfect depiction of the power an elite has over a peasant.

Early in part three of Chef, an assumed insurgent, a Pakistani woman named Irem, is captured. Kip is the only one able to interpret her Kashmiri language, and is ordered to learn everything about her. Still a hormonal twenty-something virgin, Kip becomes obsessed with helping Irem, who turns out to be ‘clean’, or not a terrorist. In fact, she warns the General is being targeted for assassination by real Pakistani insurgents and, with Irem’s tip-off, Kip prevents the incident. Irem also provides Kip with information that Kishen is planning to commit suicide. This curdles Chef Kip’s stomach, and he travels to the freezing camp to help his mentor.

Atop the second coldest place on Earth, Kishen lures Kip into kidnapping a group of Indian army officials for a publicity stunt that bluntly lays out Chef’ s discourse: “More dead Indians at the front means more profits for officers and their friends in Delhi. The question I ask today is: Are we dying for nothing?” Kishen proclaims. “We feed the army, we work hard, and those at the very top have failed us. [. . .] And I say the same thing to the bastards on the other side. What are they dying for, the Pakistanis?” If that isn’t enough for Singh to get his message across, Kip echoes more accusations toward corrupt India and Pakistan. He says “Kashmir was a beautiful place and we have made a bloody mess of it.”

At the end of his journey, Kip’s cancer is near fatal, linking his suffering to a nation strung up like a punching bag for corrupt war mongers to bruise and bloody. Arriving at Srinagar, he reveals the true reason for his painful escapade, having less to do with preparing the wedding feast than one might assume. His recurring phrase of “India passing by” resonates profoundly as he reunites with Rubiya, the bride, and she reveals shared feelings of a sad, lost Kashmir instilled within her by Irem’s haunting life as a political prisoner. Now, back in Srinagar, Kip is satisfied. Poetic and romantic, Chef unravels the underbelly tale of modern India being dragged through meaningless, catastrophic destruction.

~John Coleman

August 31, 2010

Faber Academy Hits Toronto

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

The world renowned Faber Academy has announced that its first North American campus will open this fall in Toronto.

Miriam Toews

The inaugural course, commencing September 29, is ‘Writing A Novel’ and will be led by Miriam Toews. She is the author of four novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck; A Boy of Good Breeding; the 2004 Governor General’s Award winning, 2006 Canada Reads winning novel A Complicated Kindness; and 2010 novel The Flying Troutmans. Also lined up for guest lectures are big CanLit names such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Redhill and Anne Michaels.

Ken Babstock

Beginning October 1 at the Toronto campus is the ‘Becoming a Poet’ course led by Ken Babstock and Karen Solie. Babstock is an acclaimed Toronto writer and poet. His first collection Mean won the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the Milton Acorn People’s Poet Award; his latest work Airstream Land Yacht won the 2006 Trillium Book Award for Poetry in English; and he is the winner of a K.M. Hunter Award. Currently Babstock is the poetry editor for House of Anansi Press.


Karen Solie
‘s latest book, Pigeon, won the 2010 Trillium for English Language Poetry. She has released two other poetry collections: Short Haul Engine, which won the BC Book Prize Dorothy Livesay Award, and Modern and Normal, which made the 2005 Globe and Mail Best Books List. Her writing has also been included in various literary journals including Geist and Other Voices.

If you’re quick, you can make the September 1 deadline for applications, which applies to both programs. However, the Faber & Faber site stresses that “the course will be selective.” The Faber Academy is widely respected and most of its graduates go on to lead successful careers as professional writers. What more do you expect from the publishing firm where T.S. Eliot got his start?

August 20, 2010

Booker Prize Canadian Nominees

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

The longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced July 27, narrowing down an initial 138 nominations to thirteen runners. Being this‘s CanLit correspondent, I am pleased to report that two Canadian authors have made it through to this year’s Booker Baker’s Dozen. The Northern hopefuls are Emma Donoghue for her novel Room, and Lisa Moore for February.

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-born writer who settled in London, Ontario in 1998. Writing professionally since the age of twenty-three, Donoghue writes fiction, drama, young adult, historical and literary fiction, and short stories. Hitting the literary scene in the early nineties, her first novels focused on contemporary life in Dublin. Most recently she has published a historical fiction trilogy made up of Slammerkin (2000), Life Mask (2004), and The Sealed Letter (2008), which investigate the British class system from the fourteenth century until the eighteenth century. Room (September 2010) is the tale of young boy Jack and mother, Ma, who reside in a room. Jack has never seen the outside world, until he escapes amidst dire circumstances. Donoghue has won several literary awards, including the 2009 Lambda Award for best Lesbian Fiction for The Sealed Letter (also longlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize), and the 2002 Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian Fiction for Slammerkin.

Emma Donoghue

Lisa Moore


Lisa Moore is a St. John’s native and studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She has released two short story collections, Degrees of Nakedness (1995) and Open (2002) which was nominated for the Giller Prize. Her first novel Alligator (2005) won the 2006 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award for the Caribbean and Canada region. Her 2010 Booker longlisted novel February tells the story of one Helen O’Mara who is haunted by the loss of her husband Cal who died in an oil rig accident in 1982.

Food for thought, the entire 2010 Booker longlist is as follows:

–Peter Carey for Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)
–Emma Donoghue for Room (Pan MacMillan – Picador)
–Helen Dunmore for The Betrayal (Penguin – Fig Tree)
–Damon Galgut for In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic – Atlantic Books)
–Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
–Andrea Levy for The Long Song (Headline Publishing Group – Headline Review)
–Tom McCarthy for C (Random House – Jonathan Cape)
–David Mitchell for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton – Sceptre)
–Lisa Moore for February (Random House – Chatto & Windus)
–Paul Murray for Skippy Dies (Penguin – Hamish Hamilton)
–Rose Tremain for Trespass (Random House – Chatto & Windus)
–Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap (Grove Atlantic – Tuskar Rock)
–Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky (Random House – Jonathan Cape)

The 2010 shortlist of six authors will be announced September 7, 2010 and the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction winner will be announced October 12, 2010.

August 10, 2010

CanLit Book Review: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

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NIKOLSKI
by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler

Alfred A. Knopf
(Published in Canada, February 2005; U.S., January 2010 CAN $29.95, 287 pages)

Nicolas Dickner’s 2010 Canada Reads Winner, Nikolski, originally written in French and translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler, follows three unknowingly connected characters. As the book opens in 1989, we meet a Montreal bookstore owner, who remains nameless, dealing with the death of his mother. An odd character, he points out trivial things like how he has never left the city of Montreal, and while sorting out his mother’s belongings he comes across a compass, a forgotten gift from the father he never met. The compass does not point to true North, but thirty-four degrees West, aligning with the Aleutian Islands town of Nikolski.

We are introduced to Noah Riel next, a modern day nomad who grows up travelling Western Canada with his mother in their old camper. Noah never met his father, Jonas Doucet, and in hopes of a connection sends letters addressed for General Delivery to various Canadian cities decided on by keen cartographic estimations of Jonas’ nomadic routes. His father’s absence holds strong, a depressing reality that remains with Noah forever, one way or another. Nikolski’s third main character is Joyce Doucet, Jonas’ niece. Joyce is from Tête-à-la-Baleine, a small Quebec town, and is under the assumption that her mother is dead. Raised by her grandfather, Joyce grows up hearing his romantic tales about their ancestors who were world travelling pirates.

In their late teens, Noah and Joyce both move to Montreal. By the mid-nineties Noah is working on a graduate degree in anthropology researching the significance of waste left behind by ancient civilisations, desperate to know why people leave things behind. While in university Noah tries to contact his ever-moving mother by way of more General Delivery letters, only to relive his depressing childhood as they returned unread. Meanwhile, Joyce ends up in Montreal by way of inspiration. Upon reading a news article about a woman running from authorities for piracy, whom Joyce assumes is her mother, she steers her future course: “… the ambition of carrying on the family tradition seeped into her mind,” Dickner writes. “[Joyce] was destined for a pirate’s life, shiver me timbers!” She takes a job at the Poissonnerie Shanahan, and by night sifts through back alley dumpsters in Montreal’s business sector for abandoned computers.

Eventually, Noah and Joyce find their callings. After reuniting with past lover Arizna, a prominent media publisher in Venezuela, Noah meets his son Simôn. Noah then moves to Venezuela to provide the toddler with the fatherly role model he never experienced. Joyce fulfills her burning ancestral calling by hacking bank accounts and stealing identities, an e-pirate of the twentieth century. Eventually, Joyce, Noah and the unnamed bookstore owner’s paths ironically intertwine, and their final destinations become wherever true north lies for each of them.

Nicolas Dickner

There is a strong set of symbols in Nikolski that lead to Dickner’s overall comment on modern society and identity. His main allegorical tool is the sea: from Joyce’s likening to a plaice fish swimming around the streets, deep-dumpster diving, and living off the bounty of larger beings to Noah’s convoluted illusions of inland ships and swimming through prairie fields, Nikolski is filled with images “straight out of Salvador Dali’s surrealist menagerie” as Dickner puts it. These fish-like nomads never stop moving, searching, evolving, and waiting for reality to finally unfold some truth.

Among the seascape imagery there is a lot of Canadiana in this book, often looking like a Richler-esque romanticised portrait of Canada. Noah and Joyce Duddyly romp around Saint Urbain Street, Saint Laurent Boulevard, and other popular CanLit landmarks, becoming contemporary images spray-painted over Montreal’s traditional ambience. But in Nikolski, Dickner brings Canada into today’s generation. Subtle sly comments on the Oka crisis, the Bosnian War, and other political topics of the nineties represent a bigger landscape than inner-border mainstream Canada, which really only turns out to be where the characters in this story are born, nothing else. Searching for something personified by their distant parents, Noah and Joyce are Canada’s minorities, cover-ups forgotten and lost. This survey of contemporary life deeply rooted in the past provides a frank realist interpretation of how one little, yet life changing event, can boggle the compass for generations to come.

~John Coleman

August 7, 2010

Head’s Up: CBC Literary Award Submissions

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

Submissions for the 2010 CBC Literary Awards are now being accepted until November 1. Go here to enter and get all the information on how to format your submission. A twenty-five dollar (CAD) fee applies for each entry, and you can enter as many works as you want. The CBC Literary Awards competition is the only literary competition that celebrates original, unpublished works, in Canada’s two official languages.

There are three categories, one of which your submission must fall under: Short Story for short fiction narratives 2,000 to 2,500 words; Creative Nonfiction between 2,000 and 2,500 words, including humour, memoir, and research articles written for general audiences; and Poetry for long narrative poems or groups of poems totalling between 1,000 and 2,000 words. You must be a citizen or permanent resident of Canada to enter. All works must be unpublished and original.

Between November and January a shortlist of about twenty or thirty submissions will be decided on by a judging panel of top Canadian literary editors and writers. The winners will be announced in March 2011. There are twelve prizes awarded: For both English and French language works, first place in each category wins $6,000 and second place wins $4,000. Winning pieces will be published in Air Canada’s enRoute magazine, and will also be spotlighted on the CBC website.

There are many different ways to stay informed and get involved with the awards. Join over 1,300 followers by “liking” the Facebook Group and receive ongoing updates about the competition. Get writing tips from 2009 Short Story Juror Michael Helm, who propagates the importance of original writing. Read the 2009 winning entries and gain some indie author inspiration. Most of all, get writing! Only three months left!

July 27, 2010

CanLit: Trillium Book Award

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

Ian Brown

The 2010 Trillium Book Award winners are Ian Brown’s The Boy In The Moon for best English language book, Ryad Assani-Razaki’s Deux Cercles for best French language book, Karen Solie’s Pigeon for best English language book of poetry, and Michèle Matteau’s Paraselles for best French language book of poetry.

CanLit heavyweights Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro were beat out by Brown in the most anticipated Trillium category, best English language book. Perhaps not to much surprise, The Boy In The Moon: A Father’s Search For His Disabled Son (Random House) already won the B.C. National Award, Canada’s highest paying non-fiction prize at $40,000, in January and the 2010 Charles Taylor Prize. The Boy In The Moon is a compilation of articles Brown wrote for the Globe and Mail on living with his eleven year old son Walker, who has Cardiofaciocutaneous Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder.

Ryad Assani-Razaki

Karen Solie

The French language prize for best book was also in hot contention with writers like Nicole Champeau and Daniel Soha in the running. Ultimately, the judges fancied Ryad Assani-Razaki’s debut work, Deux Cercles (VLB Éditeur), published in April 2009. The book is a compilation of short stories about dealing with the difficulties of immigration in everyday life.

Karen Solie’s English language poetry winner Pigeon (Anansi) is becoming her catalyst for success in 2010. Pigeon is Solie’s third poetry compilation and, among the Trillium, has also won the Griffin Poetry Prize and Pat Lowther Award this year. Her two earlier works, Short Haul Engine (2001) and Modern and Normal (2005) earned many award nominations (Engine won the 2002 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize). But this year, Pigeon is topping best-seller lists while rooting Solie in the CanLit scene.

French language poetry winner, Passerelles (Les Éditions L’Interligne), just means more success for acclaimed Francophone writer Michèle Matteau. Poet, playwright, novelist, Matteau has published nine French language books. She won the 2001 Trillium Award for her novel Cognac et Porto, and the 2005 Prix Christine Dimitriu-Van-Saanen Award for her novel Un Doigt de Brandy dans un Verre de Lait Chaud (A Finger of Brandy in a Glass of Warm Milk).

Michele Matteau

The Trillium Literary Award is the highest award for authors in Ontario. Funded by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, the Trillium Award for best English and French language book was established in 1987. Categories for best English and French language books of poetry were added in 2003. Popular previous winning authors include Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas King, and Alistair MacLeod. Best book winners receive $20,000, best book of poetry winners receive $10,000.

July 19, 2010

CanLit: Joey Comeau’s Supernatural Serial

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

The National Post’s literary arts section, The Afterword, is featuring daily excerpts from Joey Comeau’s new novel, One Bloody Thing After Another, until July 23. The novel was released in May on ECW Press. The serial began Tuesday, July 12, with the horror novel’s prologue, continuing with another two chapters each day. Check out a running compilation of all chapters posted to date here.

One Bloody Thing After Another blends aspects of horror and the supernatural with a storyline following several young people met with troubling life encounters. Jackie, a vandal with a heartfelt cause, is met with legal obstacles; sisters Ann and Margaret are busy dealing with their mother, who spends her days chained up in the basement; ghosts, violence, and lesbianic lust fill in the rest of the horror novel. One Bloody Thing stays along the same lines as previous Comeau work. The comedic and sensational grapple with the abysmal for a blunt, empathetic depiction of human experience. For an in depth look at the novel, read this formidable review at Fangoria.

Comeau, aged 29, is one of Canada’s leading transgressive fiction authors. He is best known for his collaboration with visual artist Emily Horne on the superlatively acclaimed webcomic A Softer World. He has published four novels, including Lockpick Pornography, a self-attributed “genderqueer adventure story”, and the experimental Overqualified which is told through a series of darkly worded job application letters. Comeau is an openly queer author, often satirically and absurdly picking apart societal sexual constructs in his fiction.