Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Anne Marie Macdonald

Photo from Random House New Faces of Fiction

When Fall on Your Knees was published in 1996, Toronto actor and playwright Anne-Marie Macdonald became an instant sensation. Though the plot of this debut novel is horrifying at times, the tale is told with such evident truthfulness that the reader has no choice but to willingly suspend disbelief and follow the story from Syria to Cape Breton to New York and back.

Fall on Your Knees was selected for Canada Reads in 2010. In 1997, it was short-listed for the Giller, the Trillium Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Orange Prize (UK) and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The book won the CAA Harlequin Literary Award, the Dartmouth Book Award and the Commonwealth Prize for First Fiction.

Her second book, The Way the Crow Flies, also received high praise. In this story, a child protagonist is threatened by both local misdeeds and global politics. This was also nominated for the Giller Prize, and is reviewed here in the Guardian.

Macdonald appeared at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt a few years back to read. When asked where she got her ideas, this poised young woman said they simply came to her. The darkness of her stories, she assured the audience, had nothing to do with her childhood, which was normal and pleasant.

Anne Marie Macdonald's play, Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet (Vintage 1998) won the Governor General's Award for Drama and the Chalmers Award for Outstanding Play. The play Belle Moral, was produced in 2008 at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-theLake. Macdonald has also written opera librettos.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

David Suzuki

Photo from David Suzuki Foundation

My original idea for this series was to stick to fiction writers. But I feel it would be absolutely wrong to leave out one of Canada's most famous native sons.

Born in 1936 in Vancouver, David Suzuki is a third generation Canadian who was just six years old when Canada declared war on Japan during WWII. With many others of Japanese ethnic origin, his father was detained and dispossessed. The family later settled in London, Ontario.

Suzuki got his BA from Amherst College in 1958 and earned his PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1961. Later he went to Berkeley to further his education. In the late sixties, he was a geneticist teaching at UBC, where I studied The Philosophy of Science with him.

Scientist, activist and broadcaster, as well as a prolific author, Suzuki has been called by CBC "Canada's foremost environmental conscience." A couple of days ago, he weighed in on the D-word -- disposable, in his blog on the David Suzuki Foundation site. "Solutions are in our nature," says the sub-head.

His most recent book, The Legacy: An Elder's Vision for our Sustainable Future (D & M 2010) begins with a Foreword by Margaret Atwood, herself a conservationist.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Barry Broadfoot

Book cover photo from Armstrong Stamps

Instead of describing his characters, Barry Broadfoot used dialogue to reveal them directly. But his work was non-fiction and his characters were real people. His metier was like oral story telling, except that the stories he collected were written down.

Arguably his most famous work is Ten Lost Years: Stories of Canadians who Survived the Depression (1973). This collection of individual stories of struggle and hope showed the Hungry Thirties directly through the eyes of those who experienced that era directly.

By the time Broadfoot died at age 77 in Nanaimo in 2004, this book had sold 200,000 copies in multiple editions. The play based on it ran for months in Toronto and elsewhere, and then toured Europe and made a hit at the Edinburgh Festival. CBC adapted it for television.

Another well-known work is Six War Years, 1939-1945: Memories of Canadians at Home and Abroad (1976). Broadfoot produced other books in the same genre: The Pioneer Years, The Veterans' Years, Next Year Country, and The Immigrant Years. In 1977 he published Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame, a book about the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II. This was before Joy Kogawa's Obasan, which came out in 1981.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Barry Broadfoot attended the University of Manitoba and began his career as a journalist at the Winnipeg Tribune. He worked for nearly two decades at The Vancouver Sun.

One day he quit his job and went on the road, collecting stories. He produced seventeen books in all, and was published by Douglas Gibson, who published many famous authors and has recently published a book himself. For his opus, he was awarded The Order of Canada, as well as a B.C. Lifetime Achievement Award and an Honorary degree from the University of Manitoba.

He died February 1, 2004 and was remembered in The Star by Judy Stoffman on March 1.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stuart McLean's philosophy also involves patience and faith

Photo: My Reading Tree

Today I picked up a book my daughter gave me last year. I was still waiting for a suitable time to savour it when I realized that another Christmas was almost upon us. The Vinyl Cafe Diaries (Penguin 2010) was still sitting by my bed, and I picked it up with pleasant anticipation.

Unlike the others in The Vinyl Cafe series, this book is not filled with funny stories about Morley and Dave, their kids, Sam and Stephanie, and their pets, Arthur the dog (who eats ice cream) and Galway the cat (who knows how to flush the toilet). Say "Dave Cooks the Turkey" almost anywhere in Canada and you'll be greeted by hoots of laughter.

Instead, the reader gets a glimpse of a more serious, contemplative side of this much-loved broadcaster, storyteller and writer. Still, as soon as I opened it, I was in Stuart McLean land, that magically pleasant, funny, happy place his fans love so much.

Born in Montreal, Stuart McLean moved to Toronto to work on CBC radio, where he created the fictitious family of Vinyl Cafe fame. For many years, McLean has travelled across this wide country, knitting it together by telling his tales -- hilarious with an undertone of optimism that flirts with naivete. After many years of good intentions, last year we finally made it to his concert at the Centre for the Arts.

This year's concert tour brought him last night to Hamilton. Tomorrow he plays the McPherson in Victoria. The first week of December, he works his way across the prairies, hitting Calgary, Banff, Edmonton, Regina, and Saskatoon before going back to Toronto. Then back out west to Vancouver and Seattle, and east once more to Montreal and Ontario destinations before Christmas. His concerts also feature wonderful musicians.

In an essay called "Salt of the Earth," McLean meditates on salt. Now used by the ton on winter roads, he tells us, salt has been revered since ancient times as a ritual substance that can still remind us that "we are here for each each other for there is salt between us." (87)

In this book of essays, McLean writes about weather and seasonal chores, about neighbours and neighbourhoods, about what holds communities together, about pets and mementoes and clothes we hang onto long after we stop wearing them. In other words, the themes are the same ones he uses in his stories.

One essay that strikes a poignant note is his meditation on newspapers. If newspapers like the Montreal Gazette, founded in 1785, should go down, he says, the big loss would be the shared experience they have given us. "I love newspapers," says McLean and in this he is certain to touch a nerve with many readers who feel the same, for as McLean says, "our newspapers are more than the sum of their parts." (40)

I'll close on the essay about a tropical plant McLean bought on the advice of a real estate agent. After first resisting the idea, he saw a potted palm and succumbed to a whim. Lo and behold, the house sold.

I snuggled down more comfortably in my chair when I read that McLean kept his palm alive after he moved. His comment on this small victory so well expresses my own view of life: "the important lessons...[are] patience and faith." (14)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Chistoper Buckley's adverbs of memoir

Image: Christopher Buckley with his parents from New York Times

Today's post is not on CanLit. Though I'm currently working on a novel, I keep getting nudged by the memoir that has been quietly simmering away on the back burner. I've been reading some memoirs by other people, to see how they handle them.

Losing Mum and Pup is a  memoir by Christoper Buckley, who lost his mother and father the same year. Not your average parents, mind. They were conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. and his socialite wife Pat Turner Buckley. William F. chummed with famous American conservatives, hosted the TV show Firing Line and wrote gargantuan amounts of material: columns, articles, books of fiction and non-fiction.

His only son "Christo" definitely inherited the writing gene. The memoir is a frank, warm and at times hilarious portrayal of his parents. His mother was raised in Vancouver and attended Crofton House, a private girls' school in West Point Grey. She later applied to Vassar, her son reports, because she wasn't great at Math, and there it wasn't an entrance requirement. In Poughkeepsie, Pat roomed with William F. Buckley's sister, who introduced them.

Besides the frankness and humour of this book, I love Buckley's fearless use of adverbs. Recently there have been attempts to quell the use of these modifiers. Some say dropping adverbs is de rigeur in modern American writing, calling them too Victorian.

Sure, Anne Perry uses adverbs, but she's British and her novels are Victorian. Now that I have a contemporary American example, I feel vindicated. On page 134, Buckley's use of adverbs is liberatingly liberal; in fact, I discovered no fewer than six, all of them muscular. The rest of the book is far from devoid of them.

I respectfully take off my hat to Christoper Buckley, and as a fellow-orphan, I sympathize. I know the feeling of being at the front of the mortality line. It comes to us all, unless the order goes terribly wrong in that universal human queue.

Nicely done, Christo. Glad you supported Obama, too.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sky Lee

Photo D&M Publications

My introduction to the work of Sky Lee was the short story, "Broken Teeth," published in Vancouver Short Stories (UBC Press 1985). This brief tale opens with a Canadian-born adult daughter visiting her mother, who still lives according to the ways of the old country. Their apparently cold relationship revolves around duty and guilt.

When Ma tells her daughter about an accident that happened back in China when she was a small child, the atmosphere shifts subtly. Feeling a new compassion, the daughter does what she can to provide some belated consolation to the traumatized eight-year-old her mother still carries within.

Sky Lee went on to publish a novel, The Disappearing Moon Cafe (1990). This tale portrays the alienation suffered by generations of a family living in a society that often ignored and rejected them, as well as unveiling the feudal social structures they've brought with them from the old land. This novel won the City of Vancouver Book Award and was nominated for the Governor General's Award.

In 1994, Lee published a collection of short stories called Bellydancer. She has been labelled a feminist writer, and her stories deal with themes of identity and community in the face of racism and homophobia. In the late sixties, she was a founding member of the Asian Canadian Writers workshop. Fellow-members include Vancouver author Joy Kogawa and playwright Roy Miki.

Sky Lee is also a poet, and an illustrator who collaborated with Paul Yee on a children's book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jane Urquhart

Photo courtesy of One Book, One Community

In her novels, Jane Urquhart evokes the dynamic presence of certain unique historic moments, and enriches her narratives by weaving in a cameos of real people.

My favourite is the The Stone Carvers (McClelland and Stewart 2001), a novel that reveals the longstanding multicultural history of Canada. Urquhart brings the reader face to face with the little-known sculptor Walter-Allward, who designed and oversaw the carving of the vast marble monument at Vimy to Canadian casualties of the Great War.

The novel is full of subtle ironies. Allward imports marble from Italy and hires only Italians to work on his monument; when WWII comes, however, the monument will stand in a battlefield again and the Italians will be on the enemy side. Tilman repeatedly runs away, but must still come home to himself. Of German descent, Klara falls in love with the young Irishman Eamon, who love with airplanes and leaves her to join the air force and learn to fly.

The Stone Carvers was nominated for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Awards, and the Man Booker Prize.

In Away (McClelland and Stewart 1993), Urquhart creates a dramatic scene behind the Parliament Buildings, when a fictitious girl enthralled by love changes Canadian history by causing the assassination she is trying to prevent. The great statesman Thomas D'Arcy McGee, whose statue may be seen today on Parliament Hill really was assassinated. This novel was co-winner of the Trillium Award as well as being nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Other works by Urquhart have also received literary recognition. Her first novel, The Whirlpool (1990), which features the poet Robert Browning at Niagara Falls, was awarded Le prix du meilleur livre etranger (Best foreign book prize, France).

The Underpainter (1997) won the Governor General's Award for fiction, and A Map of Glass (2006) was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gwethalyn Graham

Photo courtesy of Anisfield Wolf Book Awards

Gwethalyn Graham was born in 1913 and won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction in 1938, at the age of 25, for Swiss Sonata. This book went through two British editions, was published in the US and was banned in Nazi Germany. I have not read this book, but according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, it contains "a passionate argument for international co-operation."

She is remembered best for her classic work Earth and High Heaven (1944). This lyrical novel portrays a love story complicated by ethnic intolerance on the part of the girl's parents. This is all the more shocking since they are loving, supportive, intelligent, and intellectually progressive--until she brings home a young man from outside their ethnic community. This novel won her a second Governor General's Award and became widely known. In 1945 it won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and has recently been re-issued by Cormorant Books.

A member of the intellectual community in Montreal during the thirties and forties, Graham tackled a theme that was not fashionable, holding a mirror to reflect the ethnic prejudice she witnessed around her. Her fiction was in this sense ahead of its time.

Graham also wrote for magazines, including Chatelaine and Saturday Night, where in 1938 she argued for admitting refugees into Canada. She also gave speeches and distributed petitions in support of this cause.

She did some television work as well, and in 1963, she collaborated in Dear Enemies with Solange Chaput Rolland, a Quebec editor, publisher and political writer who was also a radio and TV journalist. This book was written as an exchange of letters, and tackled the theme of French-English relations. It was published the same year in French as Chers enemies.

The courageous and talented writer Gwethalyn Graham died of brain cancer in 1965. She was just fifty-two years old.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Joy Kogawa

Kogawa wears her Order of Canada medal. Photo File, York's Daily Bulletin.

Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver in 1935--not a good time for a Canadian of Japanese descent. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, Canada took action against Japanese Canadians, breaking up their families by sending them away from the coast to live in camps in the BC interior.

As a person of Japanese descent, Kogawa's life was disrupted by the wartime policy, when internees were also deprived of their property, including the means of making a living. Few families returned to their hometown of Steveston.

In her well-known novel Obasan (1981), Kogawa tells the story of a ruptured family. The book portrays the wrenching heartbreak of a child who is too young to understand why her family is being torn apart, and the adult that little girl becomes. Obasan received the Canadian Authors' Association Book of the Year Award. It also won the Books in Canada First Novel Award as well as appearing on the American Library Association Notable Book List. In 2006, the Literary Review of Canada published a list of Canada's 100 most important books , and the novel appeared on this list as well.

Her other novels are Itsuka (1992) and The Rain Ascends (1995). In 2009 she published a memoir, Gently to Nagasaki. The same year, she delivered the Asian Heritage Lecture at York University, along with the launch of the Virtual Museum of Asian Canadian Cultural Heritage. She has worked to educate Canadians about the historic injustices done to Japanese Canadians, who finally received a formal apology from the Canadian government in 1988.

Joy Kogawa is also an accomplished poet with several volumes of work to her credit. She has also written books for children. Naomi's Road (1986) was made into an opera in 2005. This author has been showered with awards and has worked at many Canadian universities as a Writer-in-Residence.

In Vancouver, Joy Kogawa's childhood home in Marpole, now called Joy Kogawa House, is currently home to writer-in-residence Susan Crean.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Timothy Findley

Photo courtesy of English Language and Culture Teaching Database

Timothy Findley was born in Toronto in 1930 and died in 2002. Oddly enough, he too had a connection to Mazo de la Roche (See posts Nov 2 and 19.) In 1972, he and two others adapted her Jalna novels for television, producing a series called The Whiteoaks of Jalna. The films won an ACTRA award.

Findley began his career as an actor. He joined the Stratford Festival in 1953, met Alec Guinness and went to England to study drama. In London, he attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, where he met and worked with Thornton Wilder and Ruth Gordon.

After Findley won a short story contest, Gordon challenged him to write, and he did. He published his first novel in 1967. Rejected by Canadian publishers, this and his next novel came out in England. It was ten years later that The Wars (1977) placed Findley firmly on the literary map of Canada, winning him the Governor General's Award. One scene I find unforgettable portrays the mother of protagonist Robert Ross unable to step into the church, knowing her son is off to war. The power of the prose strikes the reader like a physical blow.

Findley also had a humorous side. One of his funny stories describes how as a child, he came downstairs and heard his mother tell his father, "The King is going to marry Mrs. Simpson." Young Timothy, thinking they were speaking of the unprepossessing family housekeeper, also called Mrs. Simpson, was astonished. "Why?" he asked.

Findley retained his affinity to the theatre. He wrote and produced a number of plays, the most famous of which is Elizabeth Rex. This gender-bending and Shakespeare-tweaking piece of theatre was first produced in Stratford, Ontario in 2000. Here in Vancouver I had a good seat at an early Arts Club Theatre production at the Stanley. More recently it was staged in New York in 2008, and Detroit in 2011. It is currently running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

That night at The Stanley, I was pleased to see Timothy Findley and his partner in attendance. Not long afterward, he died, in spite of having earlier quipped that he couldn't die, because there were so many books he had yet to write. Still, Timothy Irving Frederick Findley, or TIFF, the man The Guardian obituary called "popular and beloved," managed to write many, and they were enough.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Guest Post by Christoper Fowler -- Mazo again

Photo courtesy of Mystery Books

Christopher Fowler is a British author whose article I read before publishing my own recent post on on Mazo de la Roche. He has written eleven books, including the Bryant and May mystery series. The latest of these is Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood (Doubleday, 2011). Check out his blog here.
Below is a re-post of an article from Christopher Fowler's Forgotten Authors series. Originally published in The Independent in May 2009, it 's been reprinted here with the author' s permission.
35. Mazo de la Roche
A favourite game is to ask friends to name their own Forgotten Author, and here’s one that came up time and again. Mazo de la Roche was a prolific Victorian Canadian, born 1879 in Ontario, who became the author of a popular series of novels, and remains a Canadian icon, but her books are almost unknown in the UK. Roche was a lonely and often unwell child, the daughter of a struggling salesman, and like many children in similar situations she became the creator of a rich fantasy world. In Roche’s case, however, this world was populated and coloured in a detailed, complex vision that led her, belatedly, to write romantic fiction.
Her first two efforts fared poorly, but her talent was soon recognised. When her third novel, ‘Jalna’, won a valuable Atlantic Monthly literary prize, she realised her dream (at the age of 48) and began to expand upon her fantasy world of rural aristocracy. ‘Jalna’ became one of the greatest romantic bestsellers of its time, and was extended into a set of 16 novels also known as ‘The Whiteoak Chronicles’, which covered a century of family life. Roche took her characters’ names from gravestones, but their story was her own writ large, with the recurring theme of a frequently unemployed father, a sick mother and an orphaned cousin brought to safety and stability by the anchor of a family home. In reality Roche lived reclusively with her younger cousin and raised two children with her, finding happiness here and in her books after a difficult, crowded and impoverished start in life.
The Jalna books became a Hollywood movie, a play and a television series. They were so successful that Roche expanded her vision, delving further back into the history of the household to give her readers more background to the tribulations of the Whiteoak family. In Britain the Jalna books were issued by Pan with classic romance covers, usually depicting a headstrong, windswept girl collapsing into the muscular arms of a fit chap with an aristocratic jaw. The books were less popular in their native land than in Europe and America, mainly because Canadians found little of their country reflected in the stories, which followed a European tradition of romantic wish-fulfilment. A late lapse into sentiment and formula resulted in Roche’s loss of popularity, but now she is considered to be a national treasure in her homeland.
Christopher Fowler

Friday, November 18, 2011

Richard Wagamese

Photo courtesy of The Martlet, Canadian University Press

Richard Wagamese was born in Northern Ontario to the Ojibway Wabasseemoong First Nation. He has been a journalist, novelist, reviewer, columnist and broadcaster.

Fortunately for British Columbians who want to hear some of this spellbinding oral stories, he now lives near Kamloops.

Wagamese is a wonderful storyteller who plays this game. Of the audience he asks for five words and a sentence. Then he closes his eyes, and a minute or two later, opens them to tell story that incorporates all the words and ends with the sentence. At CanWrite! 2010 in Victoria, I was privileged to witness this creative feat.

The novels written by Wagamese are Keeper'n Me, A Quality of Light, Ragged Company, and Dream Wheels, winner of the 2007 CAA Award. For Joshua: an Ojibway Father Teaches his Son (2003), as its title reveals, is a book of another sort.

Wagamese has lectured in Creative Writing for the University of Saskatchewan's Indian Federated College, served as a faculty advisor in Journalism at Grant MacEwan College and SAIT, and won many Journalism awards. He has also written for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and done scriptwriting for North of Sixty and extensive work in radio and TV documentary.

His fine collection of essays, One Native Life, appeared in 2008 (Douglas & McIntyre) and was selected by the Globe and Mail as one of its Top 100 Books of the Year. In 2011, Richard Wagamese won the George Ryga Award, an honour reserved for writers who have achieved an outstanding degree of social awareness.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sharon Butala

Photo courtesy of the Writers' Union of Canada

Book editors are wonderful resources for authors. At a conference in Toronto in 2009, I heard Butala's editor, Phyllis Bruce, tell the amazing story of how Butala's most famous book began.

Sharon Butala leaped from one life to a completely different one. She left her academic career and city life to marry a rancher and take up a life of semi-isolation in the Palliser triangle of southwestern Saskatchewan.

One of the rewards for her courage was the completion of her book Perfection of the Morning: a Woman's Awakening in Nature (HarperCollins, 1995). A work of non-fiction, this is highly unusual book reads like a vision quest, and has brought her praise and fame.

Sharon Butala has published numerous other books, and has been nominated for the Commonwealth Prize and the Governor General's Medal. She has received magazine and non-fiction awards as well as conservation awards and is a Member of the Order of Canada.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rohinton Mistry

Photo by Alastair Grant, Assoc Press/CBC

Nominated for the Man Booker prize four times, this Toronto author plunges the reader into a whole new world. Then there's the added luxury of being able to stay awhile, since his novels tend to be long.

In October, Rohinton Mistry won the US Neustadt International Prize for Literature. This is awarded for outstanding achievement in poetry, fiction or drama. The selection was made by a jury representing nine countries, and the prize is worth $50,000.

When his novel Such a Long Journey came out in 1991, it won the Governor General's Award as well as the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and was later made into a movie. A Fine Balance (1995) won the Scotia Bank Giller and was later featured as an Oprah book club selection. Family Matters (2002) earned the Timothy Findley Award from the Writers' Trust of Canada.

Mistry's novels take place in India. He was born in 1952, grew up in Mumbai, and attended the University of Bombay. Later, at the University of Toronto, he completed a BA in English and philosophy.

His most recent book is The Scream (McClelland and Stewart 2008).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ethel Wilson

Photo courtesy of ABC Bookworld

The Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, won in 2011 by Gurjinder Basran for Everything was Goodbye, was created in 1985 to honour BC and Yukon authors.

It honours a BC writer born in 1888 in South Africa, then taken to England when her mother died. When she was orphaned by the death of her father at age ten, she was brought to Vancouver, where she grew up with relatives and became first a teacher, and later the wife of a doctor.

Between 1947 and 1987, Ethel Wilson produced novels, novellas and short stories, many of them set in Vancouver. Her writing is lyrical and poignant and her characters, utterly believable, are imbued what Wilson called "the genius of place." Reading her descriptions of mid-century Vancouver is like stepping through a portal in time.

In the novella "Lily's Story," the protagonist, ruthless with herself, protects her child from social and possibly physical harm at the cost of a heartbreaking loneliness and secrecy.

The Swamp Angel is also set in Vancouver. Unwilling to tread the path socially sanctioned for women of her time, the protagonist Maggie befriends a retired circus woman who keeps a little gun she used in her act, and escapes her insensitive husband with the help of a young Chinese taxi driver.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hugh Garner

Photo courtesy of Cabbage- town people

Hugh Garner was born in Yorkshire in 1913, came to Canada as a child, and grew up in poor parts of Toronto during the Dirty Thirties. Like others did then, he "rode the rails" around Canada, the US and Mexico, catching free rides.

He was a prolific journalist, novelist, reviewer and short story writer. In addition to a hundred short stories and seventeen books, he also wrote for radio and television. Marc Fortin of Queen's University describes Garner as "argumentative," but also "respected for his ability to produce controversial and timely pieces."

Garner led a life of gritty adventure. A socialist who called himself a "one-man union," Garner portrayed working-class Ontario in a realistic style. He acted on his convictions by volunteering to serve in the Spanish Civil war. Later, he also served in World War II.

In Garner's beautifully drawn short story "Hunky," a young Polish labourer with lofty dreams works on a tobacco farm in southern Ontario. Hunky is seen through the eyes of his co-worker George, a deeply flawed narrator--a middle-aged alcoholic too weak to fight directly against the injustice he sees practiced on Hunky, although he strongly disagrees with it. Workers being victimized is a typical Garner theme.

Novels include Storm Below (1949) and Cabbagetown (1950). Over The Silence on the Shore (1962), the author quarrelled with Jack McClelland of McClelland and Stewart before moving on to other publishers. His short story collection won the Governor General's Award in 1963. He died in 1979.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Martha Ostenso

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Author Biographies

In 1925, Martha Ostenso published her novel Wild Geese. It was reissued in 2008 as part of the New Canadian Libary. According to, the style of "prairie realism" was utterly revolutionary, and the passionate protagonist Judith Gare "crossed all bounds of propriety and convention." The novel won awards and over $13,000 in prize money, an astonishing sum for the time. It was also made into a film.

Ostenso was born in Norway in 1900, and migrated with her parents to the US first, and later to Canada. She met her husband, Douglas Durkin, at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and moved with him to New York, where she took the course he taught at Columbia, called "The Technique of the Novel."

She published a book of poetry published in 1924, and co-wrote a biography, And They Shall Walk, with Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Other novels include O River, Remember (1943), and A Man Had Tall Sons (1958). Ostenso's work has been widely translated and reprinted.

Later in life, Ostenso and Durkin lived and wrote in Hollywood, California, where they associated with actors including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Henry Fonda. Ostenso died in Seattle in 1963.

Faye Hammill of Cardiff University has written an analysis of the success of the two women authors of Wild Geese and Jalna, two years apart, calling these books the "sensations" of the twenties, and saying that they marked the "coming of age of Canadian literature," a verdict that was overturned in later decades by the "changing emphases of the Canadian literary establishment."

As the source of the picture above indicates, Ostenso was claimed by both Canada and the U.S.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Esi Edugyan

Photo courtesy of BBC News

At the age of thirty-four, quite young for a famous novelist, she's just won the Scotia Bank Giller Award. What a boost for the career of Victoria writer Esi Edugyan. The competition for the prize is very steep. Receiving it meant she beat out the likes of Lynn Coady (The Antagonist) and Michael Ondaatje (The Cat's Table).

Edugyan's winning novel, Half-blood Blues, was originally slated to be published by Key Porter, but the company collapsed a few months ago and she had to seek a new publisher, Thomas Allen. The book, already a bestseller before the prize was announced, was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

Edugyan's parents immigrated to Canada from Ghana and she was born in Calgary. Half-blood Blues, which portrays black musicians living in Nazi Germany, was inspired in part by time she spent as a writer in residence in Stuttgart. Not surprisingly, she's also a fan of the blues.

Edugyan's first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (Knopf Canada 2004) also did very well.

Though I haven't read her work yet, I'm confident that Esi Edugyan is definitely a writer we'll be hearing a lot more about.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Farley Mowat

Photo Courtesy of Saskatchewan's Environmental Champions

Farley Mowat, one of Canada's best-loved writers, was born in Ontario in 1921 and grew up in Windsor and Saskatoon. He first travelled to the Far North at fourteen with an uncle.

This early exposure to the Arctic may have inspired his most famous book, Never Cry Wolf (Atlantic-Little Brown 1963). This novel-like tale is a paean to a family of Arctic wolves, the charming "Angelina" and her mate, as well as "Uncle George," sometime babysitter to their pups. Hilarious yet tragic, this story inspired a new view of wolves, revealing aspects of them completely antithetical to the "Big Bad Wolf" stereotype. (Film 1983)

Mowat's openly critical description of governmental mismanagement of wildlife struck a nerve not only in Canada but around the world. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages. Today this environmental classic is used in schools; many online study guides like this one can be found on the internet.

While living in Newfoundland, Mowat again took issue with human cruelty in A Whale for the Killing (Key Porter 1972). This too was made into a movie, appealing for an end to the whale hunt. He has also written and spoken against the seal hunt as well as writing a book about American naturalist Dian Fossey, whose conservation efforts for Rwandan gorillas inspired the film Gorillas in the Mist.

Nineteen when World War II broke out, Mowat left university to serve in the army. In 1979, he published his memoir of his experience in the Italian campaign, sometimes called the Forgotten War because in spite of being such a difficult battle, it earned little fame or glory. The book was called And No Birds Sang.

Never afraid to speak his mind, Mowat has championed his causes fearlessly, speaking out against government treatment of the Inuit, as well as supporting various environmental causes. Due presumably to his outspoken remarks, in 1985, at the age of 63, he was refused entry into the US. In this questionable distinction, he was in good company: another who was once turned back at the US border was former Prime Minister Trudeau.

Unlike Trudeau, however, Mowat got his own back by writing a book about the experience. With a nod to fellow-humourist Stephen Leacock, he called this opus My Discovery of America (McClelland and Stewart 1986). In the brouhaha that followed, it turned out that the RCMP had supplied the US with a dossier. Eventually Mowat was allowed to see his file and the ban was lifted.

Farley Mowat wrote many books suitable for children, and I have fond childhood memories of reading early works including Owls in the Family, The Dog who Wouldn't Be, and People of the Deer. From the former two, I got a lot of laughs and from the latter, a dawning awareness of the tragedy of cultural clashes and racist attitudes.

In 1949, Farley Mowat received his BA from the University of Toronto. His numerous honours include the Governor General's Medal, the Leacock Medal for Humour, the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal, the Canadian Centennial Medal and the Order of Canada. The flagship of the Sea Shepard Conservation society was renamed the MV Farley Mowat in his honour.

In celebration of his 90th birthday, The Literary Review of Canada published an article on this author (May 2011).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Get ready to Fire the Grid at 11:11 GMT tomorrow

Shelly Yates started it, and it has spread. The idea is to get a whole lot of people worldwide meditating at the same time, in order to raise the planetary vibration.
Find out more here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wayson Choy

Photo: the Bukowski Agency

It began as a short story, and then it grew. In 2010, Wayson Choy's debut novel, The Jade Peony (Douglas & McIntyre 1995), was nominated for the CBC program Canada Reads. Set in Vancouver's Chinatown, the saga of the Chen family won the Vancouver City Book Award and was co-winner of Ontario's Trillium Award with a book by Margaret Atwood.

After spending 26 weeks on the bestseller list of the Globe and Mail, it was published in the U.S., Germany and also Australia, where is was a bestseller.

A sequel, All that Matters, (2004) won the Trillium, and was shortlisted for the Giller and longlisted in 2006 for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Wayson Choy can also write non-ficton. His memoir, called Paper Shadows: a Chinatown Childhood, came out in 1999, won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and was short-listed for the Governor General's Award and other prizes.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell

Photo courtesy of Oliver Pelling

Mordecai Richler lived in the UK, and Morley Callaghan and Mavis Gallant both lived in Paris. Like fellow Canadian author Adam Gopnik and no doubt many others, Malcolm Gladwell lives in New York. He works as a staff writer for that cherished magazine, The New Yorker.

Gladwell has also written a number of fascinating and unusual non-fiction books. In Time Magazine, Bill Wadman called Gladwell's book Outliers: the story of success (Little, Brown 2008) "genteel," and also "a frontal assault on the great American myth of the self-made man."

Gladwell himself describes his book Blink: the power of thinking without thinking (Little, Brown 2005) as a book about "the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye...those instant conclusions that we reach" that are "really powerful and really important."

The Tipping Point: how little things can make a big difference (Little, Brown 2000) also created a sensation. Gladwell raises a series of apparently unrelated questions and then connects the answers with a fascinating theory. Without reading the book, it would be a challenge to imagine what these questions have in common:

Why did New York have a dramatic drop in crime in the mid-1990s?
Why are more and more teens smoking even though it's known that cigarettes kill?
Why was there a rash of teenage suicides Micronesia in the 1970s and 80s (ten times the rate of the rest of the world)?

The commonality, says the author, involves the existence and the nature of what he calls "social epidemics." He characterizes this book "an intellectual adventure story," that "draws from psychology and sociology and epidemiology."

In 2005, his name appeared on Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people.