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2018 Travel: Books Set in Canada

I thought that I would prepare a week-long series of books which I would recommend in the countries which I have been to so far in 2018.  I have copied the official blurbs, and have also linked my review if I have written anything extensive.  I will be including seven books per destination, so as to showcase the best of the work which I have read, and not to make the posts too lengthy.  Our first stop is Canada.

331872311. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)
In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.  As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a black prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride and by the stern virtues she has inherited from her pioneer ancestors.  Vivid, evocative, moving, The Stone Angel celebrates the triumph of the spirit, and reveals Margaret Laurence at the height of her powers as a writer of extraordinary craft and profound insight into the workings of the human heart.

2. Shelter by Frances Greenslade (2011; review here)
A gorgeous, poetic literary debut from award-winning author Frances Greenslade, Shelter is a brilliant coming-of-age story of two strong, brave sisters searching for their mother.  For sisters Maggie and Jenny growing up in the Pacific mountains in the early 1970s, life felt nearly perfect. Seasons in their tiny rustic home were peppered with wilderness hikes, building shelters from pine boughs and telling stories by the fire with their doting father and beautiful, adventurous mother. But at night, Maggie—a born worrier—would count the freckles on her father’s weathered arms, listening for the peal of her mother’s laughter in the kitchen, and never stop praying to keep them all safe from harm. Then her worst fears come true: Not long after Maggie’s tenth birthday, their father is killed in a logging accident, and a few months later, their mother abruptly drops the girls at a neighbor’s house, promising to return. She never does.   With deep compassion and sparkling prose, Frances Greenslade’s mesmerizing debut takes us inside the extraordinary strength of these two girls as they are propelled from the quiet, natural freedom in which they were raised to a world they can’t begin to fathom. Even as the sisters struggle to understand how their mother could abandon them, they keep alive the hope that she is fighting her way back to the daughters who adore her and who need her so desperately.  Heartwarming and lushly imagined, Shelter celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family. It is an exquisitely written ode to sisters, mothers, daughters, and to a woman’s responsibility to herself and those she loves.

3. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) 10192871
It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.  An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?  Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

4. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (2004)
In this stunning coming-of-age novel, award-winner Miriam Toews balances grief and hope in the voice of a witty, beleaguered teenager whose family is shattered by fundamentalist Christianity.  “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing,” Nomi Nickel tells us at the beginning of A Complicated Kindness. Left alone with her sad, peculiar father, her days are spent piecing together why her mother and sister have disappeared and contemplating her inevitable career at Happy Family Farms, a chicken slaughterhouse on the outskirts of East Village. Not the East Village in New York City where Nomi would prefer to live, but an oppressive town founded by Mennonites on the cold, flat plains of Manitoba, Canada.  This darkly funny novel is the world according to the unforgettable Nomi, a bewildered and wry sixteen-year-old trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. In Nomi’s droll, refreshing voice, we’re told the story of an eccentric, loving family that falls apart as each member lands on a collision course with the only community any of them have ever known. A work of fierce humor and tragedy by a writer who has taken the American market by storm, this searing, tender, comic testament to family love will break your heart.

17735295. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1993)
The Stone Diaries is one ordinary woman’s story of her journey through life. Born in 1905, Daisy Stone Goodwill drifts through the roles of child, wife, widow, and mother, and finally into her old age. Bewildered by her inability to understand her place in her own life, Daisy attempts to find a way to tell her story within a novel that is itself about the limitations of autobiography. Her life is vivid with incident, and yet she feels a sense of powerlessness. She listens, she observes, and through sheer force of imagination she becomes a witness of her own life: her birth, her death, and the troubling missed connections she discovers between. Daisy’s struggle to find a place for herself in her own life is a paradigm of the unsettled decades of our era. A witty and compassionate anatomist of the human heart, Carol Shields has made distinctively her own that place where the domestic collides with the elemental. With irony and humor she weaves the strands of The Stone Diaries together in this, her richest and most poignant novel to date.

6. Selected Stories by Alice Munro (1985)
Spanning almost thirty years and settings that range from big cities to small towns and farmsteads of rural Canada, this magnificent collection brings together twenty-eight stories by a writer of unparalleled wit, generosity, and emotional power. In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro makes lives that seem small unfold until they are revealed to be as spacious as prairies and locates the moments of love and betrayal, desire and forgiveness, that change those lives forever. To read these stories–about a traveling salesman and his children on an impromptu journey; an abandoned woman choosing between seduction and solitude–is to succumb to the spell of a writer who enchants her readers utterly even as she restores them to their truest selves.

7. Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret 1356546Atwood (1995)
Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which ones appeal to you?

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Snapshots: Toronto [2] (January 2018)

The second part of my clip video from my fantastic trip to beautiful Toronto.

Featuring: The CN Tower | Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) | Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library | University of Toronto | Casa Loma | Niagara Falls (Canada and USA) | Toronto Music Garden | Harbourfront | Lacrosse (Toronto Rock vs. New England Black Wolves)

Music: ‘Float On’ by Modest Mouse | ‘Little Bribes’ by Death Cab for Cutie

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‘The Orange Grove’ by Larry Tremblay ***

Prolific French Canadian author Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove is number 23 upon the Peirene Press list, published as part of 2017’s series, East and West.  It has been translated from its original French by Sheila Fischman, and has sold over 25,000 copies in Tremblay’s native Canada.  Longlisted for the 2017 IMPAC award, and the winner of eight others, The Orange Grove looks at ‘personal costs of war in the Middle-East’, and engages with ‘themes of the family and grief in general’.  Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene, says of the novella: ‘This story made me cry…  [It] reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’.

9781908670366The Orange Grove focuses upon twin brothers, Ahmed and Aziz, who are living on their grandparents’ orange grove in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.  When their grandparents are killed on their homestead in a bombing attack, the boys ‘become pawns in their country’s civil war’, leaving their parents with the devastating choice of which son they should save. Soulayed, an acquaintance of Ahmed and Amir’s father, takes the boys away from his family with their father’s permission, after saying just how important the small boys are to the war effort.  He tells them: ‘”Do you see now what you’ve accomplished?  You found a road to lead you to that strange town.  You’re the only ones who’ve done it.  Others who’ve tried to do so were blown to smithereens by the mines.  In a few days, one of you qill go back there.  You, Aziz, or you, Ahmed.  Your father will decide.  And the one who is chosen will wear a belt of explosives.  He will go down to that strange town and make it disappear forever.”‘

The writing, particularly that which deals with violent scenes and aftermaths, is rather matter-of-fact; sometimes, it is even rendered coldly, and is almost entirely devoid of emotion.  This can be seen when the twins discover the mutilated bodies of their grandparents: ‘Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed by a beam.  Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared’.

Much of the prose, in fact, is simplistic, but sometimes deceptively so.  There are flickers of beauty at times with regard to descriptions.  Of the twins’ mother Tamara, for instance, Tremblay writes: ‘Some nights the moon made her think of a fingernail impression in the flesh of the sky.  She liked these moments when she was alone before infinity’.  The novella’s dialogue, on the other hand, is often rather profound.

I was reminded of another of Peirene’s publications, Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, whilst reading The Orange Grove.  Whilst the novella undoubtedly tells an important story, there is the same simplicity to it at times, and the same kind of detachment.  I never felt as though I truly learnt much about the characters who people Tremblay’s work, which comes across almost like a contemporary fable.  The boys are both naive and knowing; an interesting contrast, which I cannot help but think more could have been made of.   Regardless, The Orange Grove is a timely work, which raises questions about choice, family, religion, society, grief, loss, revenge, and deception.  A lot is packed into the pages of this very human novella, and the whole could easily be extended into a much longer novel.  Overall, I found The Orange Grove an important read, but ultimately a slightly underwhelming one.

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The Book Trail: Swinging to Nightbirds

We begin with a very thoughtful and compelling work of Miriam Toews’ for this particular Book Trail!

1. Swing Low by Miriam Toews 17846957
One morning Mel Toews put on his coat and hat and walked out of town, prepared to die. A loving husband and father, faithful member of the Mennonite church, and immensely popular schoolteacher, he was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggle, he could no longer face the darkness of manic depression.  With razor-sharp precision,Swing Low tells his story in his own voice, taking us deep inside the experience of despair. But it is also a funny, winsome evocation of country life: growing up on farm, courting a wife, becoming a teacher, and rearing a happy, strong family in the midst of private torment.  A humane, inspiring story of a remarkable man, father, and teacher.’

 

2. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada’s most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney’s. In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we’d live in if we all got what we wanted.

 

3. Open by Lisa Moore
498084Lisa Moore’s Open makes you believe three things unequivocally: that St. John’s is the centre of the universe, that these stories are about absolutely everything, that the only certainty in life comes from the accumulation of moments which refuse to be contained. Love, mistakes, loss — the fear of all of these, the joy of all of these. The interconnectedness of a bus ride in Nepal and a wedding on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake; of the tension between a husband and wife when their infant cries before dawn (who will go to him?) and the husband’s memory of an early, piercing love affair; of two friends, one who suffers early in life and the other midway through.  In Open Lisa Moore splices moments and images together so adroitly, so vividly, you’ll swear you’ve lived them yourself. That there is a writer like Lisa Moore threading a live wire through everything she sees, showing it to us, warming us with it. These stories are a gathering in. An offering. They ache and bristle. They are shared riches. Open.

 

4. Luck by Joan Barfoot
Philip Lawrence, a robust and pleasure-loving furniture-maker, dies suddenly at the age of forty-six. Though that’s terribly young by most standards, he’s lucky to have passed presumably peacefully in his sleep. Less fortunate, however, are the three women he leaves behind to make sense of his loss.  There’s Nora, his wife of seventeen years, who wakes up next to his dead body. A fiery visual artist, Nora’s feminist re-interpretation of biblical themes stoked fundamentalist outrage from her small-town neighbours. Now, as her emotions run the gamut, she must confront solo life in a place she despises.  Nora shares the house with Sophie, a buxom and bossy redhead, who works as the couple’s housekeeper and personal assistant. A recovering virtue addict, Sophie turns to menial tasks as a way to suppress painful memories of her two-year stint as an overseas aid worker. Philip’s death leaves her quietly reeling.  And then there’s the pliable and vacuous Beth, a former beauty queen, who serves as Nora’s live-in muse and model. She mourns not Philip so much as the loss of a haven from her own creepy past.  The novel follows the three days immediately after Philip’s death. Privately, each woman deals with memories and emotions, secrets and uncomfortable revelations, while at the same time preparing for the public rituals of mourning (including a funeral like no other). The narrative moves seamlessly from one perspective to another with delicious dark humour and wry insight into the nature of death, love, mourning, fundamentalism and luck.

 

5. Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa 2454933
At the heart of this collection of intimately linked stories is the relationship between a father and his son. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese village and the crushing weight of his mother’s expectations to build a future for himself in a terra nova. Manuel struggles to shed the traditions of a village frozen in time and to silence the brutal voice of Maria Theresa da Conceicao Rebelo, but embracing the promise of his adopted land is not as simple as he had hoped.  Manuel’s son, Antonio, is born into Toronto’s little Portugal, a world of colourful houses and labyrinthine back alleys. In the Rebelo home the Church looms large, men and women inhabit sharply divided space, pigs are slaughtered in the garage, and a family lives in the shadow cast by a father’s failures. Most days Antonio and his friends take to their bikes, pushing the boundaries of their neighbourhood street by street, but when they finally break through to the city beyond they confront dangers of a new sort.  With fantastic detail, larger-than-life characters and passionate empathy, Anthony De Sa invites readers into the lives of the Rebelos and finds there both the promise and the disappointment inherent in the choices made by the father and the expectations placed on the son.

 

6. The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
At the turn of the twentieth century, newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who cared for the young Lillian searches for clues that might penetrate the mystery of the father’s motivation. Meanwhile Rachel’s teacher grapples with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams.  In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the intricate and unexpected connections between the people in this close-knit community that continue to echo in the future. In her nuanced, evocative descriptions, a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel barrel of a revolver. A supreme literary achievement, The Boys in the Trees offers a chilling story that swells with acutely observed emotion and humanity.

 

7. The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji
1664732In the aftermath of the brutal violence that gripped western India in 2002, Karsan Dargawalla, heir to Pirbaag – the shrine of a mysterious, medieval sufi – begins to tell the story of his family. His tale opens in the 1960s: young Karsan is next in line after his father to assume lordship of the shrine, but he longs to be “just ordinary.” Despite his father’s pleas, Karsan leaves home behind for Harvard, and, eventually, marriage and a career. Not until tragedy strikes, both in Karsan’s adopted home in Canada and in Pirbaag, is he drawn back across thirty years of separation and silence to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India.

 

8. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a fragmenting Punjab and moving between Canada and India, Can you Hear the Nightbird Call? charts the interweaving stories of three Indian women – Bibi-ji, Leela and Nimmo – each in search of a resting place amid rapidly changing personal and political landscapes.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: Elizabeth McCracken and Margaret Atwood

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken *****

‘”This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” writes Elizabeth McCracken in her powerful, inspiring memoir. A prize-winning, successful novelist in her 30s, McCracken was happy to be an itinerant writer and self-proclaimed spinster. But suddenly she fell in love, got married, and two years ago was living in a remote part of France, working on her novel, and waiting for the birth of her first child.This book is about what happened next. In her ninth month of pregnancy, she learned that her baby boy had died. How do you deal with and recover from this kind of loss? Of course you don’t–but you go on. And if you have ever experienced loss or love someone who has, the company of this remarkable book will help you go on.With humor and warmth and unfailing generosity, McCracken considers the nature of love and grief. She opens her heart and leaves all of ours the richer for it.’

9780316027663I reread An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for my Reading France project this year.  McCracken, whom I first discovered back in 2007 when a kind human in Waterstone’s recommended the fantastic The Giant’s House to me, is one of my favourite contemporary authors.  She is consistent, thoughtful, and striking in her prose.  This is the only piece of non-fiction which she has released to date, and it is a heartbreakingly honest work which details the stillbirth of her first son, Pudding.  The fragmented prose style, with its many short chapters made up of different memories, hopes, and dreams, is incredibly fitting, whilst giving the whole such depth.  An Exact Replica… is a beautiful and brave memorial to a lost son.

 

Strange Things by Margaret Atwood ****

‘Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.’ 9781844080823

I found out about Margaret Atwood’s Strange Things whilst reading through Kirsty Logan’s blog, and noting down all of those books which she has loved.  I have read – and largely enjoyed – several Atwood books to date, but this marked my first taste of her non-fiction.  I am rather obsessed at present with accounts of northerly snow-covered spaces, in which barely anyone lives.

Strange Things, which is subtitled ‘The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature’ therefore seemed a perfect tome for me.  It is comprised of four essays, which were originally given at the University of Oxford.  Her rendering of these essays is incredibly readable, and each, as anyone who is at all familiar with Atwood’s work, is so intelligently written.  The essays, which focus upon four core stereotypical representations of Canadian life and literature, are varied and memorable, and this is a volume which I would recommend to any world traveller.

 

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