#13 – Fear of Fighting, by Stacey May Fowles

I bought Fear of Fighting in early 2009 after reading Be Good, a pretty good debut novel that wasn’t perfect, but took some risks and showed that Fowles is an author with a lot of promise. I want to say that I put off reading it until now because I was really busy, or because it was lost on my ridiculous fucking coffee table (which is partly true), but what actually happened is that I got stuck living Marnie’s life. I never bothered to read the synopsis on the back cover when I bought it—I generally don’t when buying a book by an author whose other work I’ve enjoyed—but when Zoe Whittall described it for The Post as “a good non-cliché-ridden mental illness narrative,” I almost wanted to put it off forever. I do not enjoy mental illness narratives largely because I have yet to encounter one that isn’t chock-a-block… Continue Reading

#12 – Wild Geese, by Martha Ostenso

I chose Wild Geese as my final Canada Reads: Independently selection because it was the only one I’d already read, and therefore if I was late finishing it—and I was—I’d be able to vote on a winner knowing that I had read all the books. Summarizing Ostenso’s novel is difficult without making it sound like a CanLit stereotype. It is, after all, a family drama set against the backdrop of a poor, isolated farming community on the windswept Manitoba plains. To say that it’s about a young girl wanting to escape a domineering father, and a school teacher who falls in love with a young man with a shame hanging over his head so secret that even he doesn’t know of it… well, we’re into the realm of melodramatic stereotypes, into the realm of being force-fed books like Who Has Seen the Wind back in high school. Wild Geese has… Continue Reading

#11 – Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott

Morality and religion are not the same thing. This strikes me as one of those things that ought to be taken for granted, but Good to a Fault reminded me that it isn’t. Morality and ethics have caught my interest in the last couple of years beyond the every day attention I would give those issues just being a person in the world, so when I first heard the premise of Good to a Fault I thought it would be right up my alley. Serious moral inquiry from a Canadian author in a plausible real world situation. That’s not exactly what I got. Clara Purdy is a woman in her forties whose life stalled after her husband left her and then, later, she spent years caring for her mother when she died. Before that, she was at her father’s bedside as he passed away from cancer. She does something in… Continue Reading

#10 – Hair Hat, by Carrie Snyder

So it’s hair, but it’s shaped like a hat. I saw Carrie Snyder read at The Starlite in Waterloo a few years back, at the only UW alumni event I’ve ever attended. She shared the stage with George Elliott Clarke, Erik McCormack and a few other distinguished bookish folks from UW’s past (perhaps even Evan Munday, though I honestly don’t remember). She read “Tumbleweed,” and I’m pretty sure part of one other story, and I have to be honest and say that I didn’t think much of it. As I’ve written here before, I’m not very good at following fiction when it’s read aloud. And really, the hair hat seemed kind of gimmicky. Every time I saw her book in the store (and I’ve actually seen it quite a bit; for a not-very-well-known first-time author, Penguin sure as hell got that book into stores) I walked past it thinking, maybe… Continue Reading

#9 – The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy

Please excuse me for some vagueness, and if I make some minor factual errors. Immediately after finishing The Jade Peony, I loaned it to my mother to read, and since she lives in Waterloo and I’m now back at home in Toronto, I’m unable to have it in front of me while I write this (and I don’t take notes while I read). So: I once wrote on this blog that I’m not interested in literature as social work, and I’m certainly not interested in an author behaving like my case worker, and that’s what a lot of The Jade Peony felt like to me. I wasn’t just supposed to be reading a decent novel about Chinese people, I was supposed to be absorbing a culture, learning about history, becoming a better person. Like broccoli, it wasn’t actually bad, but knowing it was supposed to be good for me made… Continue Reading

#8 – Moody Food, by Ray Robertson

I didn’t like the music in this book. This may sound like a piddling thing, but it’s not, really. Ray Robertson writes ecstatically about music, with a gift that’s difficult to match outside of Rolling Stone‘s better moments, and like all such writing, it can make you hear the music in new ways. Or if you’re particularly musically literate (as I am—I couldn’t tell you how much music I have all totaled, but there’s about 54 days of continuous, no-repeat listening on my hard drive, and that doesn’t even begin to touch my CD collection, which hit 500 albums before I finished high school) it can make you want to shake the writer out of his blind stupidity. Or it can do both. I can’t say I care much for country music. A long, long time ago, there was no such thing. There was just American folk music, what people… Continue Reading

#7 – Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner

When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, one of my summer jobs was working Confined Space Safety Watch (known colloquially as Hole Watch) for the Weyerhaeuser pulp and paper mill in Dryden. The job was pretty simple. The mill would shut down for ten days of the annual top-to-bottom maintenance period, a lot of workers, both contract and union, would have to crawl into some very cramped spaces to work, and often those spaces were dangerous. My job was to put on a tonne of heavy gear, grab a first aid/emergency rescue pack and a walkie talkie, and sit outside a confined space for twelve hours a day making sure nobody died. I worked in the bleach plant, the recovery boiler, the chemical plant, flak dryers, precipitators, black and green liquor tanks, and a few places I can’t remember the names for. I did it two years in a row… Continue Reading

#6 – How Happy to Be, by Katrina Onstad

I’m not entirely clear on why, but this book reminded me a lot of Fits Like A Rubber Dress, by Roxane Ward, which I read back in 2008. But here’s the thing: How Happy to Be only had a handful of superficial things in common with Rubber Dress. The experimentation with sex and drugs that finally kept Ward’s book from being a total waste of time is just the jumping off point for Katrina Onstad, and it doesn’t take more than a paragraph or two to see that she’s drinking from a deeper well. Onstad’s characters have tried hedonism themselves, and while it was the solution to some problems, it wasn’t without problems of its own, an idea Ward barely dipped her toe in. But I don’t mean to make this into a ninth grade compare and contrast. Maxime isn’t shallow, stupid, or fame-obsessed, but like the smart kid in… Continue Reading

#5 – Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald

It’s not difficult to see why Fall On Your Knees was chosen for Oprah’s book club. It’s not a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one (I’m not sorry I’ve read it, but I wouldn’t ever actually say to someone “hey, you should read this book”), and it has all the features that a big, serious, meaty family drama/epic is supposed to have. There’s a family without a lot of money in a remote village a long time ago, a great romance with disastrous consequences, a great talent nurtured and then prematurely snuffed, any number of lives lived in quiet desperation, a miraculous child, an abusive husband/father, some heartbreaking death. Very little humour, and some modern characters dressed up in period clothes so they can chafe against their fate of being born in a time before they could be accepted for who they are. It’s a very… Continue Reading

#4 – Century, by Ray Smith

The wonderful Dr. Sarah Tolmie, whom I’ve mentioned at least once before on this blog, was a professor of mine at the University of Waterloo—my Honours Essay supervisor, in fact (what we at UW referred to as the “Undergraduate Thesis”). In addition to teaching me a great deal about my field, she directed me toward the work of Iris Murdoch, and later, an obscure little novel called Lord Nelson Tavern. She recommended it to me while I was spending a summer alone in Sudbury. My girlfriend was up North working, while I had just moved into a new apartment, and didn’t even have a telephone or Internet connection yet. I was, however, making effective use of the Sudbury Public Library. Lord Nelson Tavern, as it turns out, was by Canadian author Ray Smith, and though I promptly forgot both his name and the title of his book, I never forgot… Continue Reading