Friday, September 18, 2020

Clyde Fans by Seth


Clyde Fans by Seth
Drawn and Quarterly, May 2019

An ambitious, insightful "picture novel" about the inner lives of two brothers who own a family business.

Let's get format out of the way first. 2020 is the first year that graphic novels are eligible for the Scotiabank Giller prize, and the jurors have included Clyde Fans on the current longlist. To anyone who thinks graphic novels aren't serious literature, you are seriously behind the times. That viewpoint was proved invalid in 1992, when Art Spiegelman's Maus won a Pulitzer. Words and pictures together are a powerful way to communicate stories. Onward.

The story opens in 1997, but most of the action takes place in the 1950s. The atmosphere is steeped in melancholy. Neither of the brothers in this dysfunctional family is actually suited to salesmanship. Both men were resistant to change, and their Toronto business eventually failed when electric fans became obsolete. What gives this book such emotional resonance is its deep excavation into the lives of ordinary people. It also explores memory, the passage of time, and the power in the objects we collect.

Seth's meticulous art style evokes 1950s nostalgia, while telling a story about the dangers of dwelling on the past. The colours are somber blues, greys and black on brownish paper. 


Clyde Fans is a sophisticated, layered, existential masterpiece. I'm glad that some sort of special dispensation has allowed this book to be considered for the Giller, even though it was published outside of the eligibility timeframe. 

-----------

This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I have been reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Here the Dark by David Bergen


Here the Dark: A Novella and Stories by David Bergen
Biblioasis, March 2020
 

If this collection of stories hadn't been on the Giller longlist, I would have abandoned it unfinished. I would therefore have missed the best part, the novella at the end, which is the title story. I remain mystified as to its presence among the other Giller prize contenders.

The cover copy claims these are stories of faith and grace. I concur. The narratives taken to arrive at the message of grace grated on me, however. Five out of seven short stories follow a similar pattern: a white guy learns a life lesson from someone different from himself. These teachers are: an Indigenous man, a little black boy, an overweight white woman, a white woman with MS who uses a wheelchair, and a deeply religious white waitress. These characters seem idealized, fetishizing otherness, rather than celebrating diversity. The women are lusty and frank about their sexual desires, thereby helping the men to overcome their alcoholism/emotional unavailability/loneliness.

        Perhaps it was loneliness, perhaps need. He did not think, he just said, "Are you sure?"
        She said, "I'm thirty-five and you're forty-three and my mother doesn't babysit often and I'm not gonna wait till you divorce your wife and besides I've been thinking about this for the last week, so how about it?"
        "That's a great speech," Leo said and he took her into his room and made coffee while Girlie explored the bathroom and looked out the patio doors to the alley. She turned and said, "I love hotel rooms. Our family could never afford them."
        "This one's a motel and it's cheap," Leo said.
        Girlie made a little noise in her throat. She sat on the bed and took off her boots and socks and stood and slipped out of her jeans. She sat again and bounced on the edge of the bed. Her legs were thin and white. Leo watched. The coffee gurgled through the maker. She shrugged off her tank top. She wasn't wearing a bra and her breasts were small and she bounced again and her chest barely moved and she said, "Come on, Leo Fisher. We'll drink coffee after."
        Leo went to her. He said, "I've never done this before."
        "You want to stop?"
        "No."
        "Then, can I ask you something?"
        "You can." Her hands were locked at his spine. He could feel her ribs with his own hands.
    
    "Could we pray first?"
        "How's that?"
        A car passed in the alley. The headlights scraped the curtains and then passed on.
        "Come," she said and she kneeled by the bed and Leo kneeled beside her and she said, "Dear Jesus, here I am. This is Girlie. I want to thank you for Leo. I'm so happy that he came into my restaurant and sat at a table where I was serving. It's like you reached down your hand and guided Leo my way. Amazing. I want to say thanks for sex, too, for the joy of horniness, for how I feel right now. Wow. Thank you, Jesus. Amen." 
        ('Leo Fell')

The remaining two short stories are set outside of Canada. 'Saved' is from the viewpoint of a young man in Vietnam who is connected to the death of an American missionary. 'Man Lost' is from the viewpoint of a young fisherman in Honduras who is connected to the death of an American tourist. The stereotyped portrayals of Americans abroad bothered me. I kept hoping for better.

The novella at the end of the book is more nuanced. 'Here the Dark' is from the viewpoint of Lily, a girl coming of age in a strict Mennonite community in Manitoba. She asks too many questions, according to the people around her. "It was dangerous to question and it was dangerous to doubt, for questioning and doubt were forms of sin and sin could only lead to hell."

Lily longs to continue her education but high school is forbidden by her father. On one occasion, she and her father are in a vehicle together when classes let out.

        The students fell through the school's doorways. Animals released. Girls standing in groups like tall birds, boys tumbling in the grass like dogs, a few slow and singular turtles, young couples kissing like doves. A conflagration of desire and violence. In her heart.
        "I can be true," she said.
        It is impossible," her father said. "Ideas are strong and insidious."
        "Ours or theirs?"
        He looked at her then and his eyes were sad and she was sorry for her words. But only because he had heard them. She said that a tree, in order to thrive, needed a harsh wind.
        "That," he said, pointing at the school, "Is a hurricane. We'll hear no more such talk, Lily. Your longings are of the devil. You must forsake them. Ask for guidance. For clarity."

Novels are forbidden too, but Lily reads them anyway, in secret. She navigates her faith and her doubts as she gets older, following her own path. Lily is the most intriguing character portrayal in this collection, so I was dismayed when I realized, at the end, that this story is more about her husband Johan, and the grace bestowed upon him by Lily's devoted love.

The prose is fine, as you can see from the quoted passages. David Bergen won the Giller in 2006 for The Time In Between, which I haven't read. And don't plan to. I fear that the content of his earlier works is like that of his latest collection, and so I have no interest in reading anything more.   

-----------

This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I have been reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

All I Ask by Eva Crocker


All I Ask by Eva Crocker
House of Anansi, August 2020

A sexy, realistic portrayal of the complicated lives of contemporary women in their twenties.

The first-person narrator is Stacey, a shy and awkward aspiring actor. She has part-time jobs that barely pay enough to get by in her shared accommodations in St John's, Newfoundland. Her story opens with a memorable scene, that of police storming in through the front and back doors with a warrant.

        They took my computer and phone so they could copy the contents. They called it a mirror image. They said it was the fastest way to prove I wasn't the suspect and also I didn't have a choice.

Friends and family also have stuff going on in their lives, yet they are a source of support as Stacey copes with having no access to internet or her phone. Viv is Stacy's best friend since childhood.

        I've never been to mass in my entire life. Most of what I know about the Bible I learned from Jesus Christ Superstar, starring Ted Neeley. From the time we were seven until we were about ten, Viv and I rented that movie over and over again. That one and Titanic. We would rewind and fast-forward Jesus Christ Superstar to find our favourite songs. On the screen, Jesus and his disciples walked backwards through the desert, chopped up by two thick lines of static.
        We loved the high priests. We wrapped ourselves in navy sheets and stalked back and forth across the coffee table singing along, each of us taking a specific role. Viv hated Jesus, she hated his lank blond hair and she thought his voice was whiny. When he stormed through the temple and smashed a slowly rotating rack of mirrors she sighed. "What a drama queen."

Eva Crocker's genius in this novel is how real everything seems. The psychological acuity, the mood, the voice. In the next passage, Stacey meets a butch lesbian named Kris for the first time. The attraction is immediate and mutual.

        Viv introduced Kris before I could come up with anything: "This is Kris, she's a poet; this is Stacey, she's my best friend and an actor."
        "I don't know if I'd call myself a poet," Kris said.
        "Why not? You write poetry," Viv said.
        "I work at Ready to Ride. I repair bikes, pedal bikes," she said.
        I threw my coat on the post at the foot of the stairs and held up my wine. "I need a glass."
        Viv followed me to the kitchen and tried to ask how I was feeling. I stretched up on tiptoe, reaching for the only glass left in the cupboard. Her eyes were too wide. She was high.
        "I don't want to talk about that," I said. "And don't tell people I'm an actor."
        "Okay."
        "Is Holly here?" I asked. "Have you heard from her?"
        "I texted her, haven't heard back," Viv said.
        "Are you doing drugs tonight?"
        "Yeah."
        "Do you have more?" I filled the glass to the rim and hid my wine behind the bottles of olive oil and vinegar on the counter.
        "Ask Heather," Viv said.
        We all got too wasted to make it elsewhere. All night we were finding each other, gearing up to leave, someone was just finishing a cigarette and then someone really had to pee and then we'd be sucked back into the party. Hauled into a conversation or down to the basement where people were dancing to someone's favourite song, handed a fresh beer.

The police bureaucracy is an ongoing hurdle. At the station, when Stacey is finally allowed to regain her electronic possessions:

        "Who looked through my hard drive?"
        "Not me -- trained officers. Good people who have been doing this work for a long time."
         I tried to pull myself back into the room, to focus.
        "What makes them good?"
        "Pardon?" Constable Bradley asked.

The idiosyncrasies of people. The abuse of power by law enforcement. The politics surrounding the controversial Muskrat Falls dam project. Life is happening in this novel. There are missteps and betrayals. There are the lies we tell ourselves. There are ramifications to actions. There are sustaining friendships. There are uncertainties and surprises. It's all there. I understand why the Giller jury chose this for their longlist.

-----------

This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I have been reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson


The Baudelaire Fractal
by Lisa Robertson
Coach House Books, January 2020

A feminist, philosophical novel about gender and creativity.

Poet Lisa Robertson's first novel is a tour-de-force that's hard to describe. It's semi-autobiographical and reads like a memoir, looking back on the travels of her stand-in, Hazel Brown, as a young Canadian in France, right through into present-day middle age. It also takes the form of an academic essay in the fields of cultural and gender studies. Sometimes I understand exactly what is meant, other times I feel on the edge of understanding, rereading passages to grasp their meaning. Robertson's prose is arresting, both for her tantalizing ideas and her vivid descriptions.

        This morning I'm at the round table under the linden tree, in a sweet green helmet of buzzing. Each of its pendulous flowers seems to be inhabited by a bee. They don't mind me -- they're rapturously sucking nectar. I'm at the core of a breezy chandelier of honey.

The central premise is that Hazel Brown wakes up one morning with the realization that she has become the author of the writings of Charles Baudelaire, slipping into them "as one slips into a jacket."

        I simply discovered within myself late one morning in middle age the authorship of all of Baudelaire's work. I can scarcely communicate the shock of the realization. 

The male perspective of Baudelaire and other creatives is troubling to Hazel. Women as individuals are erased and objectified. Baudelaire did this with his longtime companion, a black woman named Jeanne Duval.

        Baudelaire scorned Jeanne Duval and every female he dallied with, or at least did so on paper, Ted Hughes scorned Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound scorned Djuna Barnes, George Baker scorned Elizabeth Smart, everybody scorned Jean Rhys. Proust did not scorn Albertine because Albertine was a man. The she-poets perished beneath the burden of beauty and scorn. This is what I observed.

Hazel's observations include the potentiality of fashion for its role in self-reinvention or the expression of personas.

        I found a tailored black mid-nineteenth-century gentleman's jacket at a flea market at Bastille. I suppose it would be called a frock coat, or perhaps a morning jacket. Its fitted sleeves were mounted quite high on the torso, its shoulders were softly rounded in an unfamiliar manner, and slipping it on I felt a freshened awareness of the articulations and expressions of my arms. I longed for a decorative walking stick. From a slightly accented waist its longish skirt flared a bit behind, encouraging a brisk, decorative enunciation of my step; this jacket added a grain of wit to its wearer's walk, like a mild sartorial drug.

Tangential musings develop subtle notions about the creative process and being a writer who is also a woman. Perhaps creation is more an aspect of becoming, rather than being. Meanwhile, I found it easy to identify with the concrete storyline, that of Hazel's travels and self-education through experience, through following her own desires, and learning to ignore the disregard of men.

I predicted The Baudelaire Fractal would be on the official Giller longlist, but it wasn't. It's not a book that will appeal to everyone, but for readers like me, it's intellectual dynamite.

-----------

This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I have been reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Giller 2020 Longlist Reaction


I'm pleased with the official Giller longlist. My predictions regarding six of the titles were correct, so that feels good. They are:

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good
Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough
Indians on Vacation by Thomas King
Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa
(My full list of predictions is online here.)

Surprises:

Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady
There are fourteen titles on the list instead of the usual twelve -- that's the surprise. One of the titles that I cut from my own list during the final throes is Watching You Without Me. If I had known that I could include fourteen, this would have been another one of my predictions.

Clyde Fans by Seth 
It's a masterful graphic novel, and I'm delighted to see it on the list, but it doesn't fit the Giller's own eligibility guidelines. It was published in May 2019 and the stated timeline is October 2019-September 2020. My best guess is that, because this is the first year that graphic novels are allowed, a special dispensation was created for publishers to submit this format. Is there another explanation? I'd love to know.

Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson and The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
After reading these, I considered them to be "maybes" because they are highly engaging. However, both have flaws that seem even more glaring upon reflection now. Our reactions have much to do with individual circumstances and preferences, so I will give these another look. If you are a fan of either, you are invited to persuade me in the comments.

All I Ask by Eva Crocker
I'm only halfway through reading this. I'm enjoying it, but had set it aside temporarily because it didn't seem to be a likely candidate for the Giller, and I had other books to sample before the longlist deadline. I will pick up where I left off to see what I was missing.

Here the Dark by David Bergen
I don't have an explanation for why this surprises me because Bergen did win the Giller in 2005 for his novel The Time in Between. I have a digital copy of the story collection Here the Dark, but I just haven't made the time to get to it yet.

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi and Consent by Annabel Lyon
These are a different kind of surprise, the surprise of the unknown, because neither have yet been published. It's a bit of an annoyance, actually, that some of the eligible titles aren't yet available when the longlist is announced. I'm excited about getting my hands on both.

Noopiming by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Of those that I predicted, I'm most surprised that this outstanding novel from House of Anansi isn't on the list. I wonder if it has to do with limitations on how many titles each publisher can submit. They are allowed either one or two, depending on their previous success at placing titles on the Giller longlists. New titles by previous Giller winners are exempt from the quota, which I assume is how it happens that House of Anansi has three authors on the 2020 longlist, Gil Adamson, Lynn Coady, and Eva Crocker. (Lynn Coady having won in 2013 for Hell Going.) As it happens, I had predicted an additional House of Anansi title would be on the longlist: Coming Up for Air. Hooray for them, for acquiring great books!

What's next? Guessing which books will make the shortlist. I will also continue posting reviews of Canadian literature here on my blog.

This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I have been reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible in order to come up with my own longlist prediction before the official one, which was announced today. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Monday, September 7, 2020

My 2020 Giller Longlist Predictions

The Scotiabank Giller prize is awarded for the best Canadian book. I couldn't find anything on their website that elaborates on the parameters for a "best book." Obviously, since it's a literary prize, literary quality is paramount. But what, exactly, is a literary piece of literature? There doesn't appear to be a definitive answer, so I will rely on my own sense of the beast, which is that it's writing that deeply engages with the human condition, and that the author's style is an important aspect of my reading pleasure. Another thing: I expect my pleasure to increase every time I reread the best books.


Here's my list of the best Canadian books for the October 2019 - September 2020 period, in alphabetical order, with links to my reviews:

Noopiming by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo (and here in my May reading round-up)

The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya (and here in my May reading round-up)

Vanishing Monuments by John Elizabeth Stintz

Misconduct of the Heart by Cordelia Strube

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (and, once again, in my May reading round-up. It was a good month for CanLit.)

I would be happy to see any of these declared the winner of the Giller. But which twelve books will actually be on the longlist? The official announcement will be made tomorrow morning (September 8) and you can join me in watching it streamed live online.


This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I'm reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible in order to come up with my own longlist prediction before the official one that will be announced on September 8, 2020. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog.



Sunday, September 6, 2020

Graphic Novels for the Giller Prize


2020 is the first year that graphic novels are eligible to win the Scotiabank Giller prize. I assume they must fit the guidelines for other eligible books, which is that they be novels or short story collections. YA novels and comic books are NOT eligible. 

There's a helpful Crazy for CanLit list on the Giller site, put together to celebrate Canadian titles published between October 2019 and September 2020, which is the eligibility period. Unfortunately, only three graphic novels are listed, and none of those appear to be eligible. Two were published too early: Clyde Fans by Seth and The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade by Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi both came out in the spring of 2019. The third is nonfiction: Dancing After TEN: A Graphic Memoir by Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber.

Not on the Crazy for CanLit list, but a possible contender, is Familiar Face by Michael DeForge. It's an exploration of what happens to individuals when there is too much change. Bodies and dwellings are constantly changing form overnight, and so is the urban infrastructure. DeForge's brightly coloured art is witty and strange. It's frenetic and surreal, a rewarding reading experience. If any graphic novel earns a spot on the longlist, this is the one most likely to be chosen. But not by me.

I own a couple of other Canadian graphic novels that are unlikely to be eligible: 

Constantly by GG is a tiny (24 pages) almost wordless story about living with anxiety. It's lovely, with strong graphic outlines drawn in pale, neutral colours. I'm not sure if it's fiction or nonfiction. It's a little gem that seems more a candidate for the Doug Wright awards than the Giller. 

I Will See You Again by Lisa Boivin is in the format of a picture book, with one image per page rather than panels. Like Constantly, it's about 24 pages long. It's a story about an Indigenous woman travelling overseas to bring home the remains of her deceased brother. Boivin is a member of Deninu Kue First Nation. Her art is vibrant with plant life and rich colours. Portage and Main is the publisher, and they call this an all-ages title, suitable for children, teens and adults. It certainly deserves award consideration, perhaps for the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award or the Governor General in the category of illustrated literature for young people.

I haven't laid eyes on the following, but Veronica Post's Langosh and Peppi or Walter Scott's Wendy, Master of Art might be worthy. We don't have long to find out if any graphic novels make the Giller longlist: it will be announced on the morning of September 8. 



This post is part of a series. I'm on the Shadow Giller jury this year, so I'm reading as many qualifying Canadian titles as possible in order to come up with my own longlist prediction before the official one that will be announced on September 8, 2020. To see my other reviews that are a part of this project, click on the Shadow Giller tag. Also, please visit our Shadowing the Best of CanLit website to see what the rest of the Shadow Giller jury are up to. Thanks for visiting my blog.