Tag Archives: canadian

Coming Up for Air: Yes! A Great Book!

Nothing fancy or personal here, folks, just a ringing endorsement for Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air, a fantastic book about… drowning? But really – the writing here is extraordinarily good, so good the interwoven plots don’t need much to hold together – though they do. Like chapter 24 that details Pieter in his fishing boat and a *spoiler spoiler* Event is some of the best writing I’ve encountered in years. Hair raising.

I may have been predisposed to like this one because it’s historical fiction and Canadian, but given my recent spate of not being able to read anything serious or well-written, I think this one had its fair share of odds to overcome. Threading three plot lines – that of the 19th century woman who kills herself by drowning in the opening chapter, a mid-century man who moulds plastics and a contemporary woman living with cystic fibrosis and writing – the reader sets out wondering if and how these plot lines come together. And while they do eventually, sort of, connect in terms of plot, it is their thematic and symbolic notes that connect them most meaningfully: water, breath, filial and affilial love.

As a creature of the water myself I was hypnotized by the descriptions of swimming and submersion. As the three characters navigate water-filled worlds they raise questions about the thinness of the line between life and death, and the hubris of humans in swimming this line.

So now that libraries are fully reopening you have no excuse. Get out Coming Up for Air and I promise you won’t be disappointed.*

*Promises are not valid if you have bad taste.


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Filed under Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction

A Measure of Light: The Audacity of Belief


Ask yourself if there is a cause or belief you would die to serve. Or what your death might accomplish for this cause. Hardly speculative questions in our contemporary moment. Where Beth Powning’s A Measure of Light departs from the present of this reader is, well, the setting and plot: 17th century Puritan New England and the emergence of the Quaker movement. Less obviously, it departs in the sense that those who die for their beliefs do so not as suicides where bodies are the available weapons, but rather those who die for their beliefs are killed by the state for holding beliefs that are deemed so threatening, so challenging as to be violently and publicly killed. It’s a grammar slip there, you’ll notice, between the belief being killed and the person. And one worth noticing.

Our protagonist, historical figure Mary Dyer, is killed by the Boston officials that see her views of God (as accessible to all with equal access and without the intercedence of the Church) as heretical and threatening to the socio-political (and importantly economic) well-being of the region. So while she and several of her Friends are publicly hanged, their deaths do not accomplish the aims of the state in that the belief cannot be killed by killing the person. Or at least not easily. Rather, as Powning’s narrative suggests, Mary Dyer the martyr does more to raise the profile of the belief in their death than she does in her actively proselytizing life.

A Measure of Light is a fascinating read for its unravelling of the development of the Quaker movement and its portrait of New England life. It’s a rich (and beautifully written) exploration of what it means to hold beliefs with such conviction and the consequences both for the individual life, but for the family and community of that individual. It’s perhaps even more interesting – at least for me – in its representation of women and women’s bodies in this period. Mary’s journey through faith is irrevocably marked by the death of her three-day old child and the subsequent still-birth of her premature child as she and her community view these tragedies as evidence of her damned soul. I admit, as an atheist and 2015 reader, that I struggled to empathize with her conviction that it was God that spoke through her (markedly female) body, but what I could understand and relate to – only to well – was the feeling of my body, and its interpretation, as outside my control and dominion. The sense that others read what women’s bodies do – and don’t do – in questions about when (not if) these bodies will have children, in how (not whether) these bodies will be held up against impossible standards of beauty and in the sexualization and objectification of these bodies at every turn. So while the patriarchal source might be different – God – the experience of a distorted and disturbed relationship between the self and the body is all too recognizable.

All this to say, that between the resonant and provocative questions about the power of religious conviction to drive (violent) action and the representation of women’s bodies as sites for public debate, A Measure of Light is an exemplary piece of historical fiction, doing what historical fiction does best in representing the past in a way that allows us to better understand our present experience. Given the preponderance of historical fiction in Canadian literature (and no, I’m not just saying that because it’s my thing) and the attention this genre tends to get in awards season, I’d flag A Measure of Light as one likely to come up in discussions of best’s of this year.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction

The Golden Spruce: Valliant Wins Again


So having now read two of John Valliant’s books – The Tiger and now, The Golden Spruce – I’m prepared to give him title of Most Best Genre Blender. It’s hard to tell you whatkindof book The Golden Spruce is because it’s a combination of straight up history (but of various subjects – colonization, the logging industry in BC), mythology, biography and narrative. The effect of the genre shifting – and it is shifting, between paragraphs and within chapters the “kind” of story subtly changes without announcement or fan fare, rather the recognition that some kinds of stories are better told/better read as myth, or personal narrative, or statistical history. 

The book uses the story of the golden spruce as a loose focus around which to depart with lessons in plant mutation, descriptions of colonial-indigenous encounters, retellings of oral stories, musings on the fate of the “criminal” Grant Hadwin (musings, too, on whether he be criminal or something else) and meditations on the future of logging/trees in BC. The story? A singularly exceptional tree on Haida Gwai that is golden, rather than green (the precise reasons for the golden colour – or the supposed reasons – are taken up in chapters in the book) that is revered by the Haida, the object of tourist attraction and the unlikely object of the errant environmentalist, Grant Hadwin’s, misdirected consciousness raising environmentalist campaign.

I loved the form of the book – the shifting genre approaches, the range and breadth of information covered – as it gestures to the complexity of any issue/story. Our understandings of historical or current political/environmental/social issues cannot be understood in a simplistic, or teleological, telling; rather, anything approaching understanding must come from building a wide contextual net, disallowing firm conclusions and arguing for the incompleteness of any telling – even the most wide-ranging and intentionally thorough.

I loved the book, too, for its examination of place as character. As The Tiger uses an animal as protagonist, The Golden Spruce allows the place of Haida Gwai and BC more broadly – to be a living, breathing, changing, demanding, character: complete with hypocritical actions, fraught decisions, failures and triumphs. The setting really does read as “alive” in a way that so beautifully aligns with the thematic intention of the novel: that of encouraging the reader to think carefully about their engagement with, and responsibilities to, the environment. Rather than positioning the environment as something to be acted upon, or dealt with, by making the environment a living character Valliant makes the case that we must engage in a relationship with the world around us.

So yeah. Read it, okay?

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Prize Winner

Two Generals: Poor


A poor showing by Scott Chantler, who is by all accounts (if awards are to be thought of as accounts) something of an accomplished graphic novelist. This graphic novel, Two Generals, reminds me of stereotypes of Can lit as suffering from such an inferiority complex that it feels the need to do everything in a painfully dull and sincere way so as to assure readers that it can in fact be taken quite seriously because it follows as the Rules and Decorum of Serious Fiction.  As a result there are panels like the one pictured above where we readers are informed by the (terribly subtle choice of red) colour scheme that something is amiss outside the building. The colour scheme throughout – green is “narrative,” black is “memory” and red is “blood and death” – is so simplistic as to be obnoxious. Similarly, the text of the novel reads as if it were borrowed wholesale from the recorded minutes of the local historical society when the very dullest and driest speaker was at work – e.g. “At 1:30Pm, with the men of the HLI back aboard, the first of the landing craft began to make their way out of the port of southhampton” (56 – and I swear to you, I turned to a page at random) and so lacks any (any) sense of character or a compelling plot. I mean the plot is the INVASION OF NORMANDY and I was bored. And I certainly didn’t care a whit about the death of one of the Generals. Perhaps because I had repeatedly been told that “this would be his last Christmas,” or “not all of them would be alive at the end of the day.” I’m not an uncaring person, but really, I feel an instinctive defense toward indifference and scorn when I’m prompted with such terribly written lines.

Maybe the silver lining here is that in identifying this work as terrible I’ll earn your trust as a reader of Can lit. So while you’d be pressed to find a bigger booster of Canadian history, or a more defensive champion of the triumphs of Can lit, you can know that when I’m praising national works I’m not doing so (just) because I’m a little nationalist, but because often times Canadian authors are busy writing truly remarkable, and often under-recognized, work. This is certainly not the case with Two Generals, which I would hope – despite it’s purported mission of helping us all remember – will quickly be forgotten and not integrated like so many other poorly crafted historical fiction (*cough* Paul Gross’s Psschendaele) into the school curriculum just because the Historica-Dominion Society thinks its a good idea. Oh wow, so turns out I have a lot of hostility toward this particular book. And so as a good Canadian, let me just say: Sorry?

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature