Greg Cooke: The Giller Gala is just days away, and unlike the Booker, there aren’t a slew of oddsmakers taking bets on the winners; is that a good thing or a bad thing? Perhaps a discussion for another day. Who do we think is going to win? Who do we think ought to win? That depends entirely on which bookseller you ask. This year the list is notable for its breadth and, to borrow a much maligned word from the Booker judges, readability. I would say that means there are no wrong answers, but in a few days we’ll know that there were in fact five wrong answers.
We’ve been reading a timely tale of a hockey thug (The Antagonist), and a melancholy story of the immigrant experience (The Free World). We have a very personal novel about childhood, memory, and loss by one of the giants of Canadian fiction – Ondaatje’s The Cat's Table. There’s a short story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, that is currently being lauded by Johanna Skibsrud, the winner of last year’s Giller for The Sentimentalist. Two books, both period pieces, that will forever be associated with each other now that they have both been shortlisted for the Giller, the Booker, and the Governor General’s Literary Award (Half Blood Blues and The Sisters Brothers). All the shortlisted titles can be found here.
Our team has been busy reading, and by now it’s clear that we have nothing if not an abundance of opinions. To begin, I’d like to call out Justin, because I’m pretty sure I know which title he’s rooting for. Justin?
Justin Sorbara-Hosker: I’m going to keep this brief, because any regular readers of the Blog are going to have an automatic response: “All right, enough with The Sisters Brothers already! You loved it, we get it!” I don’t want to brag (I will, though), but I was an early adopter. I was on this book’s bandwagon before there was one (for proof, see here for an excerpt, and here).
It was review comparisons to Cormac McCarthy that got my attention, but I have to call these out as both lazy and entirely inaccurate; not that I was disappointed with deWitt’s novel by any stretch. A more accurate comparison would be Charles Portis’ True Grit. McCarthy also tells extremely well-written cowboy stories, but he has virtually zero sense of humour, which is certainly not something you can say about Patrick deWitt – ‘laugh out loud funny’ is a blurb cliché, but in this novel’s case, I can verify it’s actually true. This book succeeds as literature as well as entertainment, finding a great middle ground that you don’t find very often.
Shortlisted for the Booker (as was Esi Edugyan), but losing to Julian Barnes, he is now the recipient of the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize – hopefully this doesn’t negatively affect his chances at the Giller, or the Governor General’s Award, for that matter.
Truth be told, I’m also pulling for Half Blood Blues (an excerpt can be found here). The irony is that I doubt that Edugyan needs me or anyone else pulling for her – after being nominated for four awards in one season (like deWitt), if she doesn’t walk away with at least one, I’ll be very surprised. As my colleague Greg has so well put it in an earlier piece, Edugyan has found a way to write the jazz novel in a way nobody has done before.
Sebastian Hanna: The Sisters Brothers was my favourite as well. It’s a spare, sure, unflagging read. I agree with Justin that the McCarthy comparisons are a stretch. With his light character driven humour, dark plotting, and strangely situated philosophy, Patrick de Witt reminds me more of Elmore Leonard. I most enjoyed de Witt’s resolve to not distract the narrative; he vividly recreates 1850s California, while avoiding what for other writers can be endless displays of recollected research antiquaria, taxidermic prose so over-appointed with period detail it stops the narrative pulse, as if written by Charlton Heston’s cold dead hand. Serial numbers of period firearms are Smithsonian verified, the exact dungaree stitch recounted, the bonnet faithfully restored; and movement is lost to ever wider wikipediaquarium. Those are books that are intended to awe, but mostly they’re a bore.
Thankfully, instead of dioramas, we have real mood here, as we read of a hard, hostile environment, its violence endemic, inevitable, seemingly necessary to survive. And it’s here that de Witt’s humour is a huge relief, with feelings between the brothers that are sensed but barely spoken, where real comfort and grace is taken in the smallest things, as mundane as a kind word, or a toothbrush, putting some good clean to your gums.
By contrast, I struggled with Half Blood Blues, despite being excited by the premise: innovative jazz in Paris and Berlin at the time of the last World War. Jazz is a real interest for me, and I should have loved this. But I never found any reading pleasure in its period hipster idiom; I felt the characterizations too abstracted to be enjoyable, the situations too familiar and melodramatic to be believed, the intent in upturning the chronology too obvious to be of much surprise. I lost interest.
Jonathan Mendelsohn: When, as Greg mentioned, two of the books short-listed have been selected as both Governor General and Booker picks, you’re probably wise to go with those. In other words, the smart money goes with Justin’s picks. Still, if you asked me what I would like to win, I’d have to go with Ondaatje’s most intimate and – yes - readable book yet. The Cat's Table, as I laid out in my review, takes us on a sea voyage of an adventure with a trio of 11 year-old boys and the cast of characters they will meet, and is told with the master craftsmanship of a writer at the height of his powers. In fiction I prize balance and for me Ondaatje has really hit something here, paring down his poetic powers by limiting himself mostly to a child’s perspective. I’m not sure ‘fun’ is the first word that comes to mind with a Michael Ondaatje novel and yet The Cat's Table was full of fun and wonder and delight. Couple that with the note-perfect sentences that Ondaatje has spent a lifetime crafting and you get my vote.
Unfortunately, this is not the kind of tale that generally wins literary prizes. As I wrote in the blog elsewhere, too often the prize goes to the wrong writer. Fortunately, this isn’t Ladbrokes or Vegas, this is just the rambling of one book lover passing on his personal opinion. The Cat's Table would be my pick.
That said, we shouldn’t ignore David Bezmozgis’ The Free World. When the New Yorker anoints you as one its 20 Best Writers Under 40 you can be fairly sure this is a name worth paying attention to, and after the genius that was the short story collection Natasha and Other Stories, the expectations were high for Bezmozgis’ follow-up. The writing is there, no doubt. There is a polish of craft that puts the relatively young writer right at the top of the game, but while the Toronto-based Bezmozgis did indeed put an interesting twist on the usual immigrant story to the new world by focusing on his fictional Russian family’s time in Italy (where so many Russian-Jewish immigrants went on route to either North America or Israel), the story was somehow lacking for me, like not enough had transpired. To put it in creative writing workshop parlance, the stakes just didn’t seem high enough.
Greg Cooke: I know that we’re supposed to approach lists like this with an open mind, and if we do have a prejudice against a certain book we ought to keep it to ourselves, but here goes nothing: I was not looking forward to reading Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist. It wasn’t anything against her – Mean Boy and Saints of Big Harbour were widely praised. It was how the book was sold to me. It was described as the story of a hockey thug told in a series of emails. I wasn’t that interested in hockey thuggery, and I’ve always found epistolary novels to be either hits or incredibly boring misses. But while that description isn’t false, The Antagonist turned out to be so much more, and it’s execution – the narrator’s voice – is seamless, weaving back in forth over the course of twenty five years.
What struck me most was Coady’s ability to absolutely nail male friendship. It helps that the friends in The Antagonist were in university during the same years I was, but I was amazed at how she captures the group dynamics of young men. Again and again I would read a passage and think I know those guys. But I don’t know if that’s going to translate into a Giller win. The life of The Antagonist’s protagonist, Gordon “Rank” Rankin, has moments of drama and suspense worthy of fiction (I have even used the old publisher’s standby “unputdownable” in talking about it), but in Coady’s hand they never get melodramatic. After I read the last page I thought, “That was a life. A fully believable life.” And its realism, its – I mean this as a compliment – ordinariness, may work against it in the jury’s deliberations.
But realism and ordinariness are not words I’d use to talk about Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, the short story collection by Zsuzsi Gartner. In ten weird satirical stories from the west coast Gartner skewers contemporary bourgeois suburban life and the self-delusion needed to maintain it. In pursuit of her quarry Gartner uses such devices as house-swallowing plots of land, an AA-like support group for reformed terrorists, and a Camaro-driving satyr. Think of Jonathan Franzen writing as Stephen King. While the writing is great, short story collections are punished by award juries, rightly or wrongly, unless they are tied together, like Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was five years ago. Plastic Explosives is certainly tied together thematically, but reading it is like listening to a great composer playing variations on a theme – brilliantly composed, but when placed in a competition against full symphonies, the odds are not in its favour.
Gabriella Parro: Speaking of odds and what the bookmakers would say, I can’t help but wonder what odds Ondaatje has, being the only nominee who’s already won the Giller. There’s the usual sense that someone who has won ought to give others a chance But The Cat's Table is a very worthy addition to this shortlist. The skill with which Ondaatje crafts his work in general, and The Cat's Table in particular, is always remarkable and memorable. Of the shortlisters I’ve read, Ondaatje stands out to me as a worthy recipient for such flawless storytelling.
And yet, I can’t say The Cat's Table was my favorite read. I’ve joyfully consumed Ondaatje’s past works, sometimes repeatedly, but didn’t feel as passionately about this as, say, The English Patient. Perhaps it’s the “readability” factor that’s on everyone’s lips this year: for most readers, this made The Cat's Table more accessible but for me it just felt different. I wanted more of that inscrutable Ondaatje-ness.
I’ll be rooting for Half Blood Blues. The gradual way the past is revealed through flashbacks to wartime Berlin and Paris drew me in and kept me there. It’s doesn’t fit easily into the most obvious labels of jazz novel or WW2-era novel and it’s this shifting nature that’s so appealing to me. Sorry, Justin, I’m sticking with Half Blood Blues over The Sisters Brothers even though if anyone asks I’d say The Sisters Brothers was more fun. It’s sad, isn’t it, that we don’t see fit to reward laugh-out-loud humour with book awards? If we did, The Sisters Brothers would have the Giller all wrapped up.
Judith Chant: I can’t add a great deal to what my colleagues have said so eloquently, except to say that it’s been a splendid year for readers. The short listed books have been wonderful in their different ways, all great reads and I have three personal stand outs. The Cat's Table is a beautifully realized look back at childhood which has stayed with me for months and a book I’ll probably want to read again. The Sisters Brothers is the most fun read of the year, a marvelously executed western, by turns violent and laugh out loud funny which is an unusual combination which works very well here. My pick is a unique look at the world of the jazz musician, the wonderful Half Blood Blues.
This year the readers are the big winners. There’s a book for everyone so my advice is to buy them all and enjoy.
Gregory Cooke, Fiction
Justin Sorbara-Hosker, Adult Books online
Jonathan Mendelsohn, Blogger, Fiction
Gabriella Parro, Inventory Analyst, Fiction
Judith Chant, Director, Fiction
Sebastian Hanna, Director, Non Fiction
An Indigo Book Review
A BEAUTIFULLY TOLD ADVENTURE
Michael Ondaatje. The guy is no slouch, let’s be honest. Put aside the 13 books of poetry he has written and ignore his best known work, The English Patient, for a moment and just take a look at its follow-up, Anil's Ghost. It won the 2000 Giller Prize, the Prix Médicis, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, the 2001 Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Award. For a mere mortal of a writer to have one book win that many accolades would probably be enough. But then Ondaatje, of course, also won the Booker and another Governor General’s, amongst numerous other awards, and those just for The English Patient, an international bestseller that went on to be translated to the screen and win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And again, this from a guy who is as much a novelist as he is an award winning poet.
But a name this big, with credentials this long, and with previous works so lyrical as to even make Toronto’s Bloor viaduct a thing of poetry and beauty (see In The Skin of a Lion, it can be intimidating. While captivating and often stunning to some readers, works like The English Patient can come across somewhat abstract, with plots that aren’t Hollywood formula easy to follow, with stories not necessarily unfolding in simple chronological order, at times leading some readers to find it hard to ground themselves in time and space. It is to that point that his latest novel, his sixth, comes as such a refreshingly accessible surprise. The Cat's Table is easy to follow, you always know where the characters are and what’s going on. A big part of that clarity, of that almost childlike simplicity, perhaps, is thanks to the story being told from the perspective of an 11 year-old boy, or at least, of a man looking back at his adventures and experiences of a three week journey he took in the 1950s when he was 11.
The boy, whose name like his creator’s happens to be Michael, is traveling on a ship from Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) to England where his mother is waiting for him. The best moments in the book take place on that ship, named the Oronsay, and good thing too considering this is where the majority of Ondaatje’s tale unfolds. Mostly this is the story of the various characters Michael and his two young friends meet on the ship, particularly those that sit with them each meal in the ship’s dining hall at the “cat’s table,” a term Michael learns, or at least this fictional Michael learns, from one of the adults at the less than desirable table, number 76, they are to sit at for all three meal of all three weeks of their long journey across so many seas.
In reality, the cat’s table, which Ondaatje explained just recently to host Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s radio program, “Q,” is a German phrase, apparently, referring to the least desirable place to sit in a room, for example, the table nearest the kitchen or bathroom. In the novel, the cat’s table is the one furthest from the Captain’s table, where kids like Michael and his two friends sit, as well as grownup ne’er-do-wells, like Mr. Mazappa, a musician who goes by the stage name Sunny Meadows, and Miss Lasqueti, who spends most of her time sitting around the ship’s pool reading detective novels only to then, on finishing their last pages, toss them overboard in disgust. Mr. Mazappa and Miss Lasqueti like to sneak off together between dinner courses to smoke cigarettes outside the dining hall on the ship’s deck. Miss Lasqueti is also noted for telling “ribald” jokes and for supposedly elbowing Michael’s friend, Cassius, in the crotch, or so the young boy tells his friends.
To that end, the cat’s table is also, as one character puts it, the most interesting place to be. Ondaatje explained on “Q,” that a famous person once told him that the head table is the worst place to sit at a given event. That’s where all the dignitaries are put and being in their finery remain all buttoned up, extra careful of what they can and cannot say. In other words, there’s nothing interesting said at their table at all.
In rather stark contrast to the heavy and often quite challenging abstractions of his previous works of fiction, there is a remarkable lightness to The Cat's Table, the joy of adventure told with the master craftsmanship of a writer at the height of his powers. In returning to elements of his own childhood – while the author has made abundantly clear in interviews and in the book’s afterword that this is not a memoir, there are certainly plenty of autobiographical similarities, including the author’s having traveled by ship as a boy from then Ceylon to England – Ondaatje imbues his latest tale with a terrific energy, particularly through the first half of this slim novel when Michael and his two friends, the “exuberant” Cassius and the “quiet” Ramadhin, explore the ship and get into all kinds of mischief. You could say there is something of a cat’s nature in the three boys’ when it comes to their never ending curiosity. Like kittens unspooling yarn and getting into every cupboard in the kitchen these three boys race up and down the ship in search of adventure and story. And we the reader get swept up in the utter enthusiasm of their escapades.
Despite the potentially confining nature of a novel set almost exclusively on a ship, Ondaatje presents all sorts of intrigue along the way, both in the boys’ discovery of the ship’s various rooms, from the dog kennels below to the captain’s room above, to the parade of characters met, like Michael’s wealthy aunt, Flavia Prins, who is in first class and wants little to do with her nephew. The most interesting character of all, though, at least to the young boys, is the ship’s prisoner. A near mythic character, like something out of a Dickens novel, he is being sent to England to be tried for supposedly killing a judge. The boys stay up late each night to watch at that special moonlit hour when the prisoner is taken on deck for his nightly walk, a walk he is of course forced to do in shackles. Whether those shackles remain in place for the length of the novel is of course a different question.
Despite the aforementioned simplicity and clarity of the storytelling in the The Cat's Table, Ondaatje’s lyrical touch and poetic sensibilities are still certainly held within these pages – spread, in fact, all over them – be it in the assured storytelling or the wonderful choice of detail. When caught misbehaving in the ship’s pool one day, the boys are banned from swimming for three days. This “meant that all we could do was skulk the perimeter, pretending we were about to jump in.” Meanwhile, a bamboo cane wielding school master, Father Barnabus, is so succinctly summed up as a man who “never used words or reason. He just moved dangerously among us.” Perhaps the most elegant touch of all is the quiet confidence evident in the rhythm of Ondaatje’s language, that master class of writer who can pull you so gently from one sentence to the next, making the job of reading so easy (leaving, of course, the heavy lifting, editing, polishing and sweating to the writer).
One hundred and sixteen pages into The Cat's Table, not quite halfway through this wonderfully buoyant work of prose, Ondaatje, the poet, allows himself and his reader four lines of verse. They sit there on the page, at a chapter’s end so spare and strong – there to simply pierce through your heart while somehow embracing your soul.
Broken heart, you
What a small
place to be.
This is a beautiful book. Not perfect, perhaps. Not for everyone, to be sure. But beautiful no doubt.
A Dance with Dragons, by George R.R. Martin. The long-awaited fifth instalment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, from the man dubbed the American Tolkien. Follow our blogger's progress through his books and watch this space for an exclusive interview.
The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan. Attention fans of True Blood and The Passage: we’ve found your next read. Just when you’re had enough of vampire books, here comes Glen Duncan with his bawdy, bloody tale of The Last Werewolf. Duncan’s novel is narrated by Jake Marlowe, the world’s last living lycanthrope. Two hundred years is a long time to be living under a curse, and make no mistake: a curse is just what being a werewolf is. Making matters worse, werewolves have been hunted practically to extinction. Besides the sex, cancer-free smoking and the scotch, not much to live for; so Jake has decided to end it all at the next full moon … but fate has other plans for him. Dark and funny, graphic (both in terms of sex and violence, sometimes simultaneously), and that rare thing—a literary horror novel that doubles as a page-turner.
The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. This new novel follows two boys on an ocean liner bound for England in the early 1950s. Early supposition is that this work is somewhat biographical; it has been compared to an earlier Ondaatje work, the mix of memoir and fiction that is Running in the Family.
Reamde, by Neal Stephenson. In the tradition of Stephenson’s works, this is a big one, at 960 pages. Perhaps the best description one can use about Stephenson is that there’s nobody out there writing like him right now (a customer once described him to me as Thomas Pynchon as written by William Gibson)—if you’re interested in technology, history, conspiracy and alternate history, this is the man for you. This novel is being described as a thriller concerning a tech entrepreneur getting caught up in his own online war game.
River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh. The second instalment in the Ibis Trilogy, following Sea of Poppies. A novel of the Opium Wars, this title has been highlighted in an earlier instalment of the Indigo Fiction Blog— in an interview with Amitav Ghosh, here.
The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay. The followup novel to the critically and commercially acclaimed Heather’s Pick The Birth House, this novel centers around an orphan—a daughter abandoned by her father and sold by her mother—negotiating the New York slums of 1871.
Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier. Cold Mountain was a critical (and a personal) favourite, and it’s follow-up was not as well received. Nightwoods has the potential to be another winner: the description makes it sound like Night of the Hunter, which puts it right in Southern Gothic territory. Taking place in 1960’s North Carolina, a woman who is a virtual hermit is forced to take care of her sister’s twin children after that sister is murdered by her husband. After a quick acquittal, the father comes looking for the children.
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s been a long time since the Oprah selected Middlesex, and Eugenides’ new novel looks to be a book about love, and books, and the love of books. An earlier instalment of the Indigo Fiction Blog provided a teaser, here.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. Being called Murakami’s Magnum Opus (which I thought I already read—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—but Murakami doesn’t do small very much anymore), an ode to Orwell’s 1984, but I’d bet my house this is more of a mind-bender. A massive seller in Japan, when released in three volumes, the American version weighs in at 928 pages, is being called an essential Japanese novel (and check out that Chip Kidd cover! Looks like a transparent plastic book jacket to me).
Zone One, by Colson Whitehead. If someone had to write the postmodern zombie novel, I’m glad it’s Whitehead, and I hope it gets him the recognition he deserves. An essential New York writer, this new book sounds like World War Z in that it’s a different spin on the zombie novel, with a little more focus on how the world has changed after a cataclysmic event, rather than the blood and guts. When he unveiled it on Twitter, he described it as being about the “rehabilitation of NYC after the apocalypse.”
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman. Five years in the making and being called Hoffman’s masterpiece, a historical novel about women in ancient Israel.
11-22-63—Under the Dome was called King’s best work in years, & his first novel since is certainly intriguing. I’ve been calling this ‘Back to the Future meets Don DeLillo’s Libra,’ and thematically, it seems to hearken back to his own work The Dead Zone. King’s novel centers around a protagonist who finds a time portal in his small-town Maine diner that takes him back to 1958. He goes through, works to discover the nature of the JFK assassination, finds a way to stop it, and waits. After successfully thwarting the assassination, he returns to our present, and in a Twilight Zone twist, he finds a nuclear wasteland. He’s left with one choice: to undo his own actions, before radiation poisoning kills him. King has been talking about writing a time-travel book for years, and now it's here—check out the back cover above, for a taste of alternate history from Stephen King.