Category Archives: Canadian Literature

Failed Attempts at Can Lit; or, Books I Started But Didn’t Finish in the Last Two Weeks

I started, and gave substantial effort (enough that I feel okay reviewing them), to two Can lit novels in the last couple of weeks. Both are books that I ought to have really liked but didn’t. I’ll take the blame. It’s summer. There are patios. And BBQs. (And work, family and responsibilities. Whatever.)

First up was Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square. I waited ages for it to arrive from the library because it’s a Heather’s Pick and so everyone wants to read it (note! If you bought a copy and similarly found you didn’t like it you can return it and demand a refund because Heather didn’t deliver. But of course you buy from your independent book shop or borrow from the library because you are saintly). And it was… not good? At least, the first 150 pages were not enough to make me want to finish it. Our protagonist is an unreliable narrator grappling with a break from reality. Convinced her doppleganger is haunting her neighbourhood, she sets up at Bellevue Square, a park near Kensington Market in Toronto, to stalk the doppleganger. Murder and chaos ensue as the reader tunnels around trying to sort out – along with our protagonist – what is real and what is not. And then some questions about how we – collective we, readers – conceptualize mental illness, mental health and our sane-ist expectations. Sounds like it would be pretty good, and I don’t know, the scenes of Toronto are kind of captivating, but I found the writing amateur, the connection with the protagonist tenuous and the forward moving conflict… absent. I guess we’re meant to keep reading to find out if our protagonist gets her shit together and gets sorted with her husband and kids? Anyway.

From there I decided to pick something I felt sure I’d like. I went with Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter, which had it been published circa 2006 I would have certainly included in my thesis on Canadian historical fiction that imagines the exploration of and nation building project of Canada (*yay/yawn*) (like it almost fits TOO perfectly in my thesis – it includes some of the same explorers! and same failed arctic expeditions! true true there are only so many failed arctic expeditions. but still! Like at one point I opened up my word doc version of my thesis to check that I wasn’t misremembering that one of my thesis novels narrated the. same. nautical. disaster.) Anyway. All this to say that Erin circa 2006 would have been very into this book. Erin circa 2018… not so much. Actually, my thesis buddy, P., would have probably included this one, too, as the premise is a missing chronometer from the last Franklin expedition shows up and over the course of the 500 odd page book its journey from the stranded Erebus and Terror to the present are recounted. (And to give myself credit I made it to page 300 before quitting). It makes its way through a bunch of other polar expeditions, allowing the reader to jump around in time to all these ‘critical’ historical moments. Scenes of the present are interspersed as our two present day protagonists grapple with how their personal histories are interwoven with one another and with these historical figures. It is all very capital Canadian. Very capital H historical fiction. And it just… didn’t resonate. I found the present day scenes disconnected and the characters underdeveloped. More problematic for me though was the disconnection among the historical scenes. Each lengthy historical ‘section’ (think 50 odd pages) accounts for a leg of the journey of the chronometer, but the slices of time are just long enough to become connected to the characters only to have them summarily dismissed as the section ends. I suppose there’s some connection there to our present day understanding of slices of the historical record. Whatever. I found the jumping about in time disorienting (probably purposefully so, but still) and the disconnection from the characters enough of a deal breaker to just quit.

Happy news is that I’m almost done reading my first poetry collection in the history of the blog (I’ve been taking my time with it) and I’m reading a fantastic Julian Barnes, so happy reviews to come.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Worst Books

Saints, Unexpected: Even Hamilton Couldn’t Make it Good

We read Brent van Staalduinen’s Saints, Unexpected for book club, and if it hadn’t been a book club read I likely wouldn’t have finished it. I’m loathe to write a negative review for a book that is so obviously earnest: written by a local author, published by a small press, in every way a book that wears its heart on its cover. So it gives me no pleasure to report that it is… not good. Continue reading

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction

Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall: A long digression about the horrors of graduate school

I have a PhD and I don’t have a faculty job. I do have a job in the academy with an academic leaning, so I’m considered an ‘#alt-ac’ (if you needed a label for me). There are a set of feelings I am meant to feel about this so-called slide in circumstances: shame, bitterness, regret, anger, sadness, overwhelming ennui, etc. I’m supposed to have horror stories of graduate school – nightmarish committee members, or a protracted and impossible thesis writing experience, or denied funding, or destroyed mental health.

Too bad I suck at the post-PhD dinner party game of reciting the escalating list of terrible things that happened during graduate school. I had a reasonably good time in graduate school: a fantastic supervisory committee who supported me in my work as well as in my recognition that I wasn’t going to go tenure-track, stable funding*, supportive family/friends/relationship,  and the self-awareness to know my thesis didn’t need to change the world (though it did change *my* world…) it just had to get… done. Plus I got to spend four years reading novels (and starting this blog!) and thinking about them in coffee shops whilst going to the gym whenever I wanted and staying out to all hours drinking pints and pretending to care about theory. I cannot overstate my privilege. Both as a graduate student (privileged to have the lucky set of circumstances I had during school) and as a person that could be a graduate student.

Even still, reading Suzette Mayer’s Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall gave me anxiety nightmares. Our protagonist, Dr. Edith Vane, is a tenured professor at the fictional Canadian Inivea University. Her life – like the building she works in – is crumbling. Her long-awaited book experiences a troubling release, she is being threatened with ‘refreshing’ (a euphemism for firing) and she suffers from debilitating anxiety that impacts her personal and professional lives (of course there isn’t much distinction for her). She reminded me a fair bit of Stoner, the 1965 gem about the failed academic just trying to get by. A resonance that affirmed that while the structural conditions of the university have certainly changed in the intervening years, the pressure to publish and to be (seen as) successful have continuity.

The structural conditions are where this book does well enough. It pays attention to the economic disparity within the university between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ disciplines. It lays bare the demand for professors to outwardly demonstrate their perpetual productivity at the expense of actually being (let alone being productive) and with the consequence of radical deterioration in mental health. It calls into question the inequality within their ranks from adjuncts to administrators to endowed chairs. That said, it largely ignores the experiences of students – there are scenes of teaching, to be sure, but students are largely impediments to Edith’s happiness in their constant demand for feedback and for higher grades. That is to say we aren’t invited to consider how the crumbling structural conditions impact on learning. Which is fine. This book doesn’t need to be about that. Just pointing it out for all my (potential) teaching & learning readers.

So right. The crumbling structural conditions. For a book about an English professor I have to admit I found the mapping of plot and theme in the book incredibly… obvious. The physical building of Crawley Hall is haunted and falling apart. Edith, proxy for academics everywhere, is falling apart. The pathetic fallacy is noted. Again and again. I get it. I got it. I get it again.

So if it does okay in showing us some of the issues in Canadian post-secondary, it doesn’t fair as well is in the plot, writing and character development. Which is to say, unless you are a former academic yourself, hell bent on some masochistic exercise in reliving the trauma of your own experience, I can’t offer much encouragement to seek this one out.

*I feel a bit defensive about this part. I was crushed each year to not receive the giant scholarship, but got by on the usual TA stipend and by working part time. But because I *didn’t* get external funding, I *had* to work part time. And this part time work turned into the full time job I got before graduating. And my career now. So… thanks for not funding me, I guess?

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The Marrow Thieves: How Should I End Blog Posts?

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is a YA (maybe?), dystopic, post-climate-apocalyptic, fantasy novel that follows an Indigenous family as they establish familial and romantic ties while also trying to escape the clutches of predatory, murderous, white ‘Recruiters’ bent on capturing them and taking them off to ‘Schools’ to drain them of their literal marrow (and kill them) because their marrow combats the dreamlessness that has turned all white people into dream-zombies. *Breath* That is to say… it is a lot.

It makes its thematic concerns abundantly clear and accessible (presumably this is why it is understood as young adult fiction?): colonialism, settler-indigenous relations (past, present and possible-future), ecocriticism and trauma. There’s scope to discuss how/when children become adults, the intersection of history and story and the purpose of spiritual life and dreams. It feels like if you were teaching a literature/politics course you could not have ordered up a better novel to open conversations (or I guess if you’re a producer of the 2018 Canada Reads competition…). It is also bursting with similies. Like a water barrell overflowing in a rainstorm with similies.

As a story I didn’t love it. It was a quest narrative that didn’t articulate it’s quest until reaching the climax, as a consequence the reader is left adrift wondering if there might be a point to all the wandering (though I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the reader’s feeling of waywardness is intentionally mirroring that of the characters, but I don’t buy it). The characters themselves read a bit jumbled: there are a lot of them in the family and not enough attention is paid to individualizing each, so there is little emotional investment for the reader on what happens to any one of them. That said, the few characters that do receive a backstory are compelling, if not entirely complicated. There’s also a question of setting. They are forever walking north (like months and months) but never seem to get anywhere (again with the wayward wandering). And I did find the writing strayed into the cliche and the Literary Devices.

As a novel to spurr conversation I think it has merit. There’s ample opportunity to talk about the legacy and continued experience of colonialism, the continued profit off Indigenous bodies, the history of residential schools and the present of incarceration and child welfare agencie, the experience of Metis people within and against the state, and the representation of indigenous people as eco-warriors.

I never know how to end these posts. I feel like I’m always tempted to be like “read it” or “don’t read it,” and in this case I don’t know what to tell you, and maybe you don’t want me to tell you anyway, and so… END.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction