Posts tagged ‘CanLit’

November 18, 2010

Small Book Wins Big Prize: Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists Snags the Giller

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists winning the Giller Prize, Canada’s highest literary achievement, does more for CanLit than for Skibsrud. That’s taken lightly though, because the young, thirty-year-old author of a highly esteemed novel will feel the Giller effect of worldly recognition and mass sales in the ball park of 75,000 copies. But even that sounds miniscule compared to the real story behind The Sentimentalists. When this novel was first published in 2009 by Kentville, Nova Scotia micro-press Gaspereau Books, it was in a wiry run of 800 copies.

That’s what makes this year’s Giller so unique in the world of CanLit, and so groundbreaking. The Sentamentalists is the smallest book ever to win the prize, which pays a pleasant $50,000, and beat out two big commercial novels, David Bergen’s The Matter With Morris and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. Winter’s novel was also nominated for the Writer’s Trust and Governor General’s awards. Last year’s Giller winner was long time CBC newscaster Lynden MacIntyre for his widely successful novel The Bishop’s Man. In its fifteen year existence, past Giller winners include Alice Munro, Joseph Boyden and Margaret Atwood. No one saw the major literary award centering in on something as obscure as Skibsrud‘s novel, an account of her father’s life as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

At the same time, The Sentamentalists contended with other underdogs, including Sarah Salecky’s This Cake Is For The Party and Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, two considerably smaller books, thought their quantities were at least in the thousands when recommended by the jury.

Once the 2010 Giller longlist was announced, Gaspereau owner Andrew Steeves turned down commercial offers to mass produce copies of The Sentamentalists. “If you are going to buy a copy of that book in Canada, it’s damn well coming out of my shop,” Steeves proclaimed in an interview with the Globe and Mail. He’s since changed his tune, telling the press on Monday that Vancouver publishers Douglas & McIntyre will be producing 30,000 paperback copies by the end of the week, with an additional 20,000 lined up when demand bubbles again.

Also currently hitting the news is a dash of Giller controversy. Ali Smith, British author and one of the three Giller jurors this year, reportedly tipped off a publishing friend during the middle of deliberations about her love of Skibsrud’s novel. The National Post reported that Smith’s friend, Tracy Bohan of The Wiley Agency, may have taken the advice a little too seriously, because she sold foreign printing rights of the book to a UK Random House imprint with a release date set for next March. Giller president Jack Rabinovitch acknowledges the information sharing was out of line, but was done innocently.

Meanwhile, Steeves at Gaspereau in Kentville, Nova Scotia is trying to keep his head above water while pumping out 1,000 hand-printed and hand-bound copies a week, with enough on backorder to keep them in business until e-books really do take over the world. Oddly enough, The Sentamentalists is available online as an e-Book from Kobo. Since the announcement of Skibsrud’s win last week, Amazon.ca has her novel topping the bestseller list ahead of Keith Richard’s Life and George W. Bush’s Decision Points. Beating out famous names like that is no little feat.

November 2, 2010

Book Review: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

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WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER
by Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
(October 2010, US$25.00, 256 pages)

At the beginning of Howard Norman’s What Is Left The Daughter, Wyatt Hillyer, a teenage boy recently orphaned by double parent suicides, embarks on an apprenticeship to his uncle Donald as a toboggan maker. Odd, but these two scenarios are more closely knit than you may think. They set up the depressing chain of events that this World War Two era novel follows.

Written as a letter to Wyatt’s long-lost daughter Marlais, this novel’s most striking trait is its focus on tragedy-touched characters. The fatal theme flourishes quickly, once Wyatt is moved from Halifax to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, a small town in the maritime province where his aunt and uncle live. Here, Wyatt reunites with Tilda, his adopted cousin whom he secretly loves. Also in her late teens, Tilda decides to become a professional mourner – yes, she weeps alongside deceased loners whom no one else will pity. In diverse representation, Wyatt isn’t the only one full-up on sadness. The man Tilda eventually marries is Hans Mohring, a German exchange student of philology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

And then there is Tilda’s father, Wyatt’s toboggan-making mentor Donald, overcome with paranoia caused by German U-boat attacks off Canada’s east coast. Donald withdraws from the family, gives up the sleigh racket, and starts bunking alone in his work shed like a soldier. On her last night in town before travelling to Newfoundland on a family visit, Wyatt’s aunt Constance, Donald’s wife, breaks the shield and sleeps with Donald between walls tacked up with war stories from the newspaper.

Things climax when a German torpedo takes out a ferry with Constance onboard. With this, Donald’s hate for Hitler peaks; his paranoia proves its worth. He even goes as far as smashing his beloved Beethoven and Bach gramophone records, the ones that always got caught in the last groove before the needle could lift: a broken record repeating its last note over and over again, like the newspaper and radio reports Donald couldn’t ignore.

In one last, foul move, Donald tricks Wyatt into inviting Tilda’s German husband, Hans, to their house, apparently to make peace. Instead, Donald’s rage overpowers wit when he kills Hans with a steel toboggan runner. Daughter takes on a small town, court drama feel for a couple chapters. Donald gets life in prison for the murder; Wyatt receives a couple years for his involvement.

Upon his release, Wyatt slowly becomes part of Tilda’s life again and one night they conceive a child: Marlais. However, Wyatt is once again abandoned when Tilda moves to Denmark with Marlais, and until the point that the book is written—March 27, 1967—Wyatt goes without seeing his daughter for nearly thirty years. The story ends with Wyatt encountering more death (from both important characters and not), old friends, and living his life as a dedicated gaffer at the Halifax Harbour.

Daughter is a bleak and empathetic story, dissolved slightly with pockets of classic, uppity, home front war era scenes. To Norman’s credit, there are many unforeseen right turns that follow constant tragic foreshadowing. From page one, death is on the mind, and the avenues in which the theme is experimented with are not obviously revealed. Like any wartime novel, Daughter does have flavours of stories told once before. Hitler’s encroach on Middle Economy, even though he and his troops are distant, is represented only by a foreign sit-in. When it’s revealed that there are Nazis posing as RMC soldiers roaming around Nova Scotia and that a friend of Wyatt’s was attacked by them, you start to sympathize with Donald, the unabashed defender of reasonable revenge. Although he sacrificed an innocent bystander, he had the right intention. I guess that’s the worth of any good war novel: breaking down misconceptions loaded with controversial politics.

John Coleman

October 25, 2010

CanLit Award Predictions

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

CanLit awards season is heading into its last few weeks (our big three prizes will all be handed out by mid-November). Thus, it’s time for predictions, and, if you are a real lit-junkie, some serious bets. First, a few quiet observations.

What everyone is perhaps not so quietly talking about is Kathleen Winter’s triple nominations for the Giller Prize, Governor General’s Award and Writers’ Trust prize for her novel Annabel. It is Winter’s debut novel after her 2008 Winterset Award winning short story collection boYs.

Feeling two-thirds the heat as Kathleen Winter is Emma Donoghue, up for the Writers’ Trust and GG for her novel Room. The novel was also short-listed for the Man Booker earlier this fall.

There are lesser hopefuls that may surprise Canada with a big win after all. David Bergen’s new novel The Matter With Morris has had its share of recognition this season. It is up for the Giller and may just take the cake out of Winter’s mouth.

That said, it would be doggishly ironic if Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For The Party won the Giller. This is her debut work and has created considerable buzz in critic’s circles. Perhaps if the GG and Writer’s Trust accepted story collections, it would also approach taking those awards.

On to my predictions: be warned, the following is purely unfounded speculation.

On November 2, Michael Winter’s The Death Of Donna Whalen will win the Writers’ Trust award for fiction. In non-fiction, Sarah Leavitt will win for her graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me.

A week later on November 9, Emma Donoghue will win the Giller Prize for Room.

And in mid-November the Governor General’s Award for fiction will be presented to Kathleen Winter for Annabel. In non-fiction, Allan Casey will win for Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada.

October 15, 2010

Video of the Week: Emma Donoghue

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In the video below, Emma Donoghue reacts to a creative book display at the Next Chapter Bookshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and discusses her book Room with an audience gathered for a reading.

Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

October 4, 2010

Giller Prize Longlist; Shortlist Announcement Tomorrow

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

The longlist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the leading literary award for Canadian authors, was announced Monday, September 20. This year’s judges – Canadian journalist and broadcaster Michael Enright, American author and professor Claire Messud, and renowned UK author Ali Smith – decided on thirteen titles from ninety-eight submissions from a wide variety of Canadian publishers.

This year’s selections are diverse and somewhat surprising compared to previous years, with a balanced list of big and small presses, male and female authors, and novels and short story collections.

The 2010 Giller Prize for Fiction longlist is:

The Matter With Morris by David Bergen (Phyllis Bruce Books/HarperCollins)

Player One by Douglas Coupland (House of Anansi Press)

Cities Of Refuge by Michael Helm (McClelland & Stewart)

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis)

The Debba by Avner Mandelman (Other Press/Random House)

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Dial/Random House)

This Cake Is For The Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Scabbard (Gaspereau Press)

Lemon by Cordelia Strube (Coach House Books)

Curiosity by Joan Thomas (McClelland & Stewart)

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart (McClelland & Stewart)

Cool Water by Dianne Warren (Phyllis Bruce Books/HarperCollins)

Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)

The shortlist will be announced at a Toronto news conference tomorrow October 5 and the 2010 Giller Prize winner will be announced November 9.

While I have you here, I’d like to mention that the five nominees for the City of Toronto Book Award were announced recently. They are:

Prince of Neither Here Nor There by Sean Cullen (Penguin)
Valentine’s Fall by Cary Fagan (Cormorant)
Where We Have To Go by Lauren Kirshner (McClelland)
The Carnivore Mark Sinnett (ECW)
Diary of Interrupted Days by Dragan Topologic (Random House Canada)

The Toronto book award has been running annually since 1974. This year’s finalists will read selections from their works at the Word On The Street book and magazine festival in Toronto on September 26. The winner will be announced October 14.

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.

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 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