Tag Archives: Newfoundland

Last Snow, First Light: I read a book! I read a book!

It has been… weeks. And weeks. Months, maybe. But I did it. I cracked my reader’s block, which is a real thing, I’ve come to understand. Thanks to the many of you who wrote with suggestions and sympathy for my vexed state. Ideas on how to break reader’s block included: read non-fiction, read a graphic novel, re-read an old favourite, read something short, read articles. While I appreciated all the advice, I ended up just… taking it slow. I read a few pages at a time and stopped putting pressure on myself to be reading. And worrying about why I wasn’t (had I broken my empathy?).

The book I eventually finished, Wayne Johnston’s Last Snow, First Light isn’t one you’d think would break reader’s block. It’s what you might call a slow burn. A mix of character study, realist drama and story-of-place there is – over the 400 odd pages – something of a mystery to be unraveled: what happened to Ned Vatcher’s parents, who disappear during a snow storm never to be seen again. But it’s mostly about the characters: the increasing weirdness of Ned as he gets richer and lonelier, the journey of Fielding (who some readers will recall from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York – though tbh I’d forgotten almost all of both books. Barely a glimmer of The Colony except that Smallwood stamps around Newfoundland) to reconcile with her past by way of truth-telling and sharing, the re-defining of family from genetic bond to affiliative relations.

It’s a book that invites going slowly, and so suited my reader’s block recovery. With careful and scene-setting writing, the reader is on a leisurely pace to unravel the mystery, certainly not of the page-turning, heart-palpitating variety (and this reader could be contented whether or not it is ever solved (though Ned can’t be).

Well suited to a winter curl-up and a book club (I guess you could talk about the role of religion, the exploration of ‘family,’ and how much it is possible to drink without dying), I’m happy to recommend this one for a good read, if not a zippy one.




Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

February: Tiny Catastrophes (and a plug for Eden Mills Writers Festival)


“Is this what a life is? Someone, in the middle of cleaning the bathroom, remembers you tasting the ocean on your fingers long after you’re gone. Someone draws that out of the fog, draws out that memory, detached from circumstance, not locatable on a timeline” (115-116).

I can’t remember who told me this, but someone told me once that their hope when they die is not that their friends and family will remember them on birthdays or holidays, but that those they love might pick ‘ordinary’ days each year to remember and celebrate the dead. This idea resonated with me – with my own fears about creating meaning and being remembered. You might be able to tell that I’m in the position of not yet experiencing the death of someone so close to me (though loss is another matter – let’s come back to that). And then I read Lisa Moore’s incredible February. The book showed me that grief and memory doesn’t need to be requested or planned. No date scheduled. Moore’s book takes readers inside a grief that is perpetual, with shape and contour and bite.  It follows Helen and her family in the years before, during and after the Newfoundland Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster, during which Helen’s husband, Cal, dies.

At first I found the novel slow. I kept waiting for big chunky plot elements. Not realizing that in the incremental layering of small family moments that Moore was working literary magic: heaping these tiny details of family life and love to the point that this reader ached with the catastrophe of the loss. It wasn’t until three quarters in when I realized the sub-plot of John was just that –  a sub-plot – that I recognized the point of the book. I guess that’s my failing as a reader, or my suggestion to you that if you start out and find yourself wondering ‘what’s this all about’ that you keep reading. You keep reading to discover that it’s all about how the small is the epic.

Aside: It’s a little over a week until the Eden Mills Writers Festival.  If you live in the Greater Toronto Area you might consider visiting. Many of my favourite authors will be there reading (think Lawrence Hill, Sean Michaels, Camilla Gibb, Anne Marie MacDonald, John Valliant, Elizabeth Hay). And the ever fabulous Guelph Poetry Slam Team will be there performing. Better still: *I’ll* be there. And if you want to meetup, you should let me know: literaryvice@gmail.com

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

Reading in Newfoundland; or, How to Hit a Moose

Moose Standing in WaterFear not. We didn’t hit a moose. But I also didn’t get as much reading done as I intended because my time as a passenger was spent on moose patrol, rather than reading. What? Oh, yeah, I was on holiday in Newfoundland for eleven days. Saw some whales, dolphins, puffins, no big deal. No moose spotted (happily), though we learned that in Gros Morne (where we spent the latter half of the trip) there are five moose per square kilometer. Symbols of Canadiana don’t come much more dense (ha ha).

In retrospect, with such a quintessential ‘Canadian’ vacation planned (though many of the Newfoundlanders we talked with disputed the ‘Canadianness’ of Newfoundland) I probably should have selected Canadian or Newfoundland-based novels. As it was, I took along several of your summer recommendations (thanks):

Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

Post-apocalyptic fantasy finds a group of four ‘explorers’, defined by their roles (the psychologist, the anthropologist, the linguist…), sent into a [anthropomorphic][animated][alien] landscape/environment to gather data. They encounter a range of challenges that are at once metaphoric and practical. With a nightmarish, oppressive atmosphere, the book asks the reader to consider the environment/natural world as both hero and antagonist to our present and our future. 3/5

Euphoria, Lily King

Following the anthropologist theme, Euphoria is based on the life of Margaret Mead with Mead fictionalized as Nell, her husband as Fen and their collaborator as Bankson. In addition to being one of the best love stories I’ve read in recent memory, the book is a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of ideas of ethnocentrism, positivism and colonialism. Principally narrated by Bankson, the retrospective time frame infuses the novel not only with urgency and threat, but with an assurance of the importance of the narrated events: for it is only in retrospect, the novel argues, we recognize and signify small choices, taken-for-granted actions and chance encounters with power. 4.5/5

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

Gawd, N. Gawd. What a mess of terrible boredom. Maybe I’d have liked this one if I knew anything about the early years of the Internet. Or New York. Or business ventures. Who am I kidding, the point of fiction is that you ought not need to know anything about the subject to be captivated and moved by it (see Euphoria above!). The novel was altogether too interested in its own clever turns of narrative direction and layered sentences to present anything like compelling character or plot. I was marginally interested in the thematic concern of American greed and self-centered ambition, but only barely. 1/5 #worstbooks

The other books recommended still to come: I’m nearly done part one of My Struggle (Karl Ove Knausgaard) (It is So. Good.) and have the Pope and Mussolini and Snow Boy Bird from the library, and am on the waitlist for Station Eleven. All this to say: stay tuned.

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner, Reader Request, Worst Books

Emancipation Day: Race, Passing and Why Read Historical Fiction

TromboneJazzI grew up in a small town. Think 800 people. Think rural Ontario. Think white. For a couple of elections, we were the only riding to vote for a Reform Party (the precursor to the Conservative party) candidate in all of Ontario. So imagine the Stop Racism! campaign in my elementary school: when all of my class, including the two black kids in the school (siblings), staged an assembly to declare to the rest of the school that we were stopping! racism! And I really did feel like we were – united – putting an end to the scourge. Whatever it was. Wherever it might be. Around the same time (or perhaps only in my memory) I read Underground to Canadaa YA novel about the underground railroad and Canada’s role in ‘saving’ and ‘rescuing’ American slaves (imagine my dismay in reading The Book of Negroes to be reminded again that the sainted image of Canada as a safehaven might be a tiny bit (just a smidge) exaggerated). All this to say I grew up with an idea that not only was racism somewhere else (America), but race was somewhere else (I certainly didn’t have one).

As I’ve grown this taken-for-grantedness about my race – and race in general – has, of course, changed with the introduction of different experiences, people (and critical theory). And has changed (most perhaps) in the reading of fiction. For instance, in a fourth year seminar (with the great M O’C) I read Nella Larsen’s Passing which shares plot threads and thematic questions with Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day: what is the difference between race enacted and race inherited? race felt and race imposed? I hadn’t considered the set of questions in this way before reading Larsen, it hadn’t occurred to me that race might be something you could put on yourself, or have put on you by others. Or that being recognized as white – and being seamlessly comfortable being recognized this way – afforded all sorts of privileges, recognized and invisible.

All that said, I’m not sure I’d recommend Grady’s Emancipation Day. While there’s a central conflict – what will happen when Jack(son)’s new white wife discovers that his family is black? – and some interesting detours in discussions of race and music, I wasn’t, on the whole, all that invested in Jack and his journey (perhaps because Jack is an unlikeable character, or maybe because I’m an unsympathetic reader). Though maybe Emancipation Day is worth a read as historical fiction – set at the end of WWII in Newfoundland (not yet part of Canada), Windsor and Detroit – its imagining of post-war era gender politics and economies is rich, so too, its explicit engagement with the ways Canadian (Windsor) race relations differ and don’t from American (Detroit). Or maybe not. (Maybe instead you should read one of Lawrence Hill’s other amazing books, Any Known Blood, which asks – and tries to answer – many of these same questions in a (for me) more engaging or nuanced ways. Just saying.)

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