Tag Archives: prize winner

Kindred: The Time Travelling Slave Narrative You Hoped Wouldn’t Be So… 2016.

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You read a book like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and you get to thinking some bleak thoughts. Published in the 1970s, the ‘fantasy’ novel follows Dana through a time travelling slave narrative. Opening in the 1970s the reader is immediately hooked as Dana travels back in time to the pre-civil war South and finds herself – a black woman – among slavery. The mechanics of time travel in the novel are explained by virtue of the ‘kindred’ connection between Dana and her 1800something ancestor, Rufus: Dana is called back to the past each time Rufus is in danger of dying so that she can save his life; Dana is called back to the present each time her own life is in danger. Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

Infinite Jest: Why Reading this Book Makes You a Hero

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I started reading David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest  at the cottage. I set myself an (overly) ambitious target of 100 pages a day. Ambitious because it took me an hour to read 15 pages. And I could only reasonably avoid my family and read on the dock for seven hours of the day. Because reading Infinite Jest is an exercise in focus, absorption and dedication. Like the ‘entertainment’ that so bewitches characters that they cannot look away (choosing death by starvation or dehydration rather than stopping the consumption of the entertainment) the novel asks for (demands?) complete attention if the reader is to make sense of the overlapping plot lines, constantly shifting points of view, temporal and geographic locations, narrative styles and relationships among characters. Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner, Reader Request

Far to Go: Literary blindspots

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I joined a book club for the friends, but the real value of the club has been the introduction of new authors and titles that I’d not have found myself (Okay, bit of a stretch, the friendship (and wine) has been pretty valuable, too….). Don’t despair if you’re not the book club kind of person, you can get the same direction to new kinds of reads from your librarian, your independent bookseller, or *cough* your favourite book review blogger.

That said you probably don’t need me to introduce you to Alison Pick. Because (unlike me) you probably know about her: Far to Go was nominated for the Man Booker, she’s won a bazillion important prizes, been on all of the lists of best books, identified as “the” up-and-coming Canadian author. Oh and she’s an alumnus of the University of Guelph. So… I had a little literary blindspot. Tiny.  So thanks book club friends for getting me sorted. Now that I’ve found her writing I’ll not be forgetting it (or stopping at this novel). All this to say Far to Go is excellent and you should read it, too. If you’ve not met Pick’s writing yet either, let this be the moment of unexpected pleasure. If you’re already familiar then I have to know: Why didn’t you tell me sooner? (An aside – why aren’t all of you sending me recommendations all the time? I could stand to have more variety pointed my way… Anyway.)

So the book. Set in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it follows the story of Marta, a governess for a rich, secular Jewish Bauer family as the Nazis seize control of the country. Woven throughout are short passages of the narrative of a contemporary researcher in Canada who researches the lives of the Kindertransport: Jewish children ferried out of occupied countries at the outbreak of war.

These short contemporary flashes make explicit the constructedness of the imagined life of the past, the sort of hiccuping self-awareness of historical fiction’s reminder to readers that we know history through fragments, and we create a pieced together narrative from these fragments, filling in gaps with fictions so that we can have the assurance of plot. Serving more than the usual ritual of historiographic metafiction, the attention to the holes of history work here as a thematic expression of the loss of life and attendant story that the Holocaust represents: the absence in the present that can only ever be filled by imagination.

The bulk of the narrative is given over to Marta and her commitment to the Bauer family (a parallel to the way the contemporary narrator is similarly invested in the families she chronicles in her research), with questions of how Marta defines her worth independent of this family. Marta’s actions and motivations are rich, complex and entirely fascinating. The Bauer parents – Pavel and Annelise – are somewhat less fully developed, but are nevertheless compelling. Marta’s young charge, Pepik, is a brilliantly captured five year old. The novel rarely leaves the household – either literally or figuratively – yet it doesn’t feel claustrophobic; rather it reveals the way the grand historical moment is experienced in the small, domestic.  Taken together the family and their impossible choices that they must nevertheless make what could feel sweeping feel heartbreakingly particular.

The writing is extraordinary. I often complain about writing that is trying to be literary and so comes across as overly workshopped (I’m still trying to figure out how to best describe this writing – all I have right now is ‘knowing it when I see it.’) Far to Go is a beautiful example of not this effort-ful beauty. It is just. beautiful.

 

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Filed under Bestseller, Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

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

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“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