The Polished Hoe, by Austin Clarke

Detail of The Polished Hoe cover

The Polished Hoe has been on my to-be-read this for about a decade, but I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that, for a number of reasons, it’s just not for me. This is not to say I thought the book was bad—far from it. Clarke’s account of the abuses of plantation life and the way it warps the people of the island and their relationships is deeply affecting. His characters have tremendous depth, especially Mary-Mathilda, and her narrative is truly heartbreaking. You’re expecting me to say but, and here it comes: there were a number of mechanical issues in The Polished Hoe that I just couldn’t get past. I’ve never been a fan of novels built almost entirely out of dialogue, and it didn’t work for me here either. In some ways The Polished Hoe reminds me of The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. Almost all of the thematic heavy lifting… Continue Reading

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale cover detail

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has known me for very long or who follows me on social media but, despite having read nine of her books, I actually don’t like Margaret Atwood’s work very much. I continue to read her books mostly out of a sense of professional obligation. I am therefore both pleased and surprised to report that I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be absolutely riveting. There are some books—and I usually try to avoid making statements like this, because most of the time they’re bullshit—that have an ineffable quality that separates them from other books; they are in some way the real deal, and The Handmaid’s Tale is one of them. I don’t know that I would have felt that way if I’d read it earlier. Certainly my point of view has changed as I’ve gotten older, but since November the world has… Continue Reading

The Wars, by Timothy Findley

The Wars cover detail

The Wars is my second Timothy Findley novel, the other being Famous Last Words. That they both wound up being war novels is a coincidence. I did try The Piano Man’s Daughter when I was younger, which was recommended to me by someone after I’d told them how much I loved The Stone Diaries, but I put it down before finishing the first chapter out of utter fucking boredom, and I never went back to it. Famous Last Words was better, and fortunately so was The Wars. The framing device of an unnamed historian or researcher with no clear identity of their own examining the life of Robert Ross is a bit strange; it doesn’t cohere in any meaningful way, but it does make the primary narrative extremely unreliable. Ross also feels under-developed. We know he’s sensitive, unsure of his sexuality, dislikes violence but is comforted by the authority his… Continue Reading

Bear, by Marian Engel

Photo of a bear resting on a log.

For those who aren’t familiar, there’s no delicate way to say it: Bear is that infamous Canadian novel about the woman who has sex with a bear. An actual bear. There is a rather famous, very lurid cover that makes the rounds on social media every so often, but unfortunately I was not lucky enough to find one of those. My copy (pictured here) is a first edition, and rather appropriately comes in a plain brown wrapper. Having not read any of Marian Engel’s other work I was completely in the dark. On the one hand, the premise almost cries out for something gonzo; on the other hand, it is not the done thing to give the Governor General’s Award to works of gonzo literature. Sadly, Bear was not gonzo, but happily, it turned out to be quite elegant. Of all the things it could have been, that was the… Continue Reading

The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence

Photo of Margaret Laurence

I imagine that the vast majority of Canadian readers of my generation know Margaret Laurence through her novel The Stone Angel, a wonderful but not very kid-friendly book that has been a staple of Canadian high school curricula for at least two generations. If that was your first encounter with Laurence you can be forgiven for not going any deeper into her oeuvre; I loved The Stone Angel, but that was more despite the way it was taught to me in high school rather than because of it, and I can see why many readers would be inclined to steer clear of her other work. Margaret Laurence’s books are, on the surface at least, less exciting than those of Canada’s other great Margaret, Margaret Atwood. Who would want to read about village life in pre-war Manitoba when there are fast-paced stories about dissatisfied urban intellectuals to devour, and who cares… Continue Reading

Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro

Detail from the cover of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women

Alice Munro has a way of deflating things usually thought majestic, and granting majesty to things normally thought small and plain. I tweeted that earlier this month, and the passage that got me thinking about it was the opening of a section called “Changes and Ceremonies” in which Del and her friend Naomi become wrapped up the mythology of both sex and art, entering puberty and acting in the school play. It is an amazing thing: Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on their wheels. And they would say anything. They would say… Continue Reading

Mad Shadows, by Marie-Claire Blais

Mad Shadows Cover Detail

I will confess to not really understanding why this novel was such a sensation. I imagine that it has something to do with the cultural context; aside from The Tin Flute I don’t really know much about Quebec literature from before 1959. I know that (European) French films of that period were moving away from a particular kind of pastoral romance and were either ignoring the genre entirely or subverting its tropes and ideals, and I wonder if Blais was trying something similar with Mad Shadows. With Louise’s vanity, Patrice’s beauty and utter stupidity, and Isabelle-Marie’s intense cruelty and anger, she’s certainly taken a sledgehammer to the pastoral novel, but then Gabrielle Roy did a complete end run around it almost fifteen years earlier. I won’t say that I thought it was bad, but I also can’t say that I liked it very much. There weren’t any issues with translatorese,… Continue Reading

Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan

Detail of Two Solitudes Cover

So far, every book I’ve read as part of my Canada 150 project has felt archetypal in some way. Two Solitudes, a novel whose title has become shorthand for the the complex relationship between French and English Canada, is no exception, although it’s the weakest of the bunch, and lacks the relentless narrative drive of Barometer Rising. It’s a multi-generational novel, and while it’s hardly the first of its kind, it mostly takes place between and around periods of great significance, beginning at the end of World War One, ending at the outbreak of World War Two, and mostly skipping the Great Depression. In that way it seems almost stereotypically Canadian; present for the big moments, but more comfortable in the spaces between. It’s interesting to me that this is the first book I’ve read for the project that deals with the middle class or the wealthy instead of the… Continue Reading

The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy

Various covers for The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy

The Tin Flute has been on my list for years, and I’ve collected various editions in that time, until now all of them sitting unread on shelves or in boxes, the victims of good intentions and bad moods. I had meant, well and truly meant, to read the book when I found myself laid off in 2011 and spent fifteen months unemployed, but the copy I had at the time was so fragile I didn’t believe it would survive the attempt. The copy I did manage to read, a New Canadian Library edition, fittingly perhaps, from 1967, was a gift from a former professor at the University of Waterloo. I was just as afraid for it, but it turned out to be hardier than it looked. Hugo McPherson’s introduction was not promising, and he goes out of his way to warn readers about the flaws in Hannah Josephson’s translation, but… Continue Reading

As For Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross

As For Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross

As For Me and My House is the only book on my Canada 150 list that I hadn’t heard of prior to making the list. Sinclair Ross, as a name, was familiar to me, but beyond the “Canadian author” tag, I had nothing to attach to it. Having now read the book, it’s unclear to me how I escaped high school without having read it. It is exactly the sort of archetypal repressive prairie novel you’d expect to see assigned in Canadian schools—I would say it’s the very model for such books, if Martha Ostenso’s excellent Wild Geese didn’t predate it by a good sixteen years. The story of the country parson and his wife being slowly ground down by the weight of the town’s hypocritical moral gaze is so common in Canadian letters it’s become one of handful of stereotypical plots that are used as shorthand for old-fashioned, unadventurous… Continue Reading