There are 14 books on the Giller Prize longlist this year, and so far I’ve read ten of them. I like to try to read as many from the longlist as I can, because, as we all know, they are usually just as good as the shortlisted books. There may even be some not on the list at all that are just as good (*clears throat*).
The only one I would really like to have read by now–and haven’t–is Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr, one the 5 shortlisted books. (Update: I am now halfway through and loving it!) You will have to wait for my thoughts on that one, but in the meantime, here are a few of the others in the order in which I read them. (All of these are from the library, except for In the City of Pigs which I received from Dundurn Press.)
All the Quiet Places by Brian Thomas Isaac (Brindle & Glass)
All the Quiet Places is a beautifully written debut novel about a boy growing up on a reserve in British Columbia. What made this such a pleasure to read for me was the love and compassion I could feel pouring out from each page: from the vivid descriptions of their small, shack-like home to Eddie’s thoughts about what’s going on around him at school and in the adult world.
The book ends in the same way it has been told throughout – with a mixture of tragedy and hope.
The sultry weather had been building for days until the air weighed on Eddie’s bed like a damp blanket. His feet constantly searched for cool spots on the mattress but never found any. Even the burping frogs down at Heart Lake, a quarter of a mile away, stopped now and then to catch their breath. It was only when cooler air rattled the leaves on the poplars down by the outhouse and swept over the bed that Eddie fell asleep.
All the Quiet Places is also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards.
What We Both Know by Fawn Parker (McClelland & Stewart)
Hillary has moved home to help with her ailing father–Baby Davidson–a Canadian Literature superstar. She has also taken on the project of his last book, his memoir, and has found herself fully in control of it. As she spends time with her father, and works on his memoir, she grieves her dead sister and remembers the circumstances that surely led to her death. (“Each moment in this house I betray my mother and sister.”) Dark secrets are hinted at throughout the book, and Hillary must make a decision as to what to include in the memoir and what to leave out.
The reader is very much inside the narrator’s head. Not only is she struggling with grief and indecision, but her own insecurities are at the forefront of all her thoughts and actions. Read it when you’re in the mood for something dark and unsettling.
I keep returning to her mouth, as if I might learn something about how to speak. Always I am searching for ways to conceal myself, to become more like anybody else.
Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah (Vehicule Press)
After experiencing–and losing her husband–in Lebanon’s civil war, Muna and her son Omar immigrate to Montreal. Muna hopes to get a job as a French teacher, but is turned down again and again. Out of desperation, she takes a job as a phone consultant for a weight-loss company, which means she has to leave her son at home alone for a couple of hours everyday after school. It can’t be helped. Muna’s kind and gentle ways help her to do well at her job, touching the lives of strangers over the phone. And she begins to see westerners in ways we can’t even see ourselves.
Everyone’s too busy pursuing lives to pay me any attention. They would rather I remain invisible. But now I’m seeing that no one pays any attention to anyone else, and so many people behind these desks and phones and offices are lonely. They don’t like themselves even though they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do. They work hard, get good jobs, get married, have families, but the years still weigh them down as they try to keep up with their own expectations.
The isolation and financial struggle, as well as Muna’s strength and perseverance, come through well. The kindnesses of individuals she comes into contact with are small but meaningful. Things improve for them both when Omar makes a friend that leads to Muna meeting other new immigrants she can identify with.
They’re learning a language, but I’m learning something too. I see how we all live together in the shadows of this city.
A beautifully written immigrant story inspired by the life of the author’s own mother. This book makes me want to go out and help make a difference in someone’s life.
Favourite scene: The one in which Muna and Omar are out in their first snow. Omar can’t resist laughing and playing in the snow, and Muna reflects on it being the happiest she’s seen Omar since moving to Montreal.
… as I look out at this city on a clear, windless day, the sun brightening up all its sharp edges in its fresh white coat of snow, I can’t help but think how beautiful it can all be too.
If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga (Graywolf Press)
An Egyptian-American woman travels to Cairo to teach English, a place she has never been. (“I’m caught between my desire to understand and my desire to appear as though I already understand.”) There, she meets an Egyptian man–known as “the boy from Shobrakheit”–who was a photographer during the revolution, but is now an addict who lives in a tiny shack on the roof of another building. Neither are given names. The story alternates between their two narratives rapidly, making it feel like the pages are flying. The two enter into an affair that highlights their differences.
In the third section of the book, many of the most challenging aspects of the story come to the surface when a fictional class discussion of the “manuscript” (this book) takes place.
This short book encompasses a lot (class, race, identity, addiction, language, misogyny, politics, trauma) without feeling like too much. It would be great for a book group discussion.
I’m learning slowly that having money and the option to leave frays any claim I have to this place.
I am outside of my context, confused about where the margins and the pressure points are. Who has the power? Where is the center?
I feel estranged from myself the longer I am with her, made criminal solely because she is afraid, made pathetic because she pities me…
All these years, I never once complained about my little home on the roof. Only now, looking back, do I realize how terrible it is to subsist on just enough, without the joy of beautiful things.
There’s a danger between us, but I’m not always sure who it belongs to. Which of us needs protection and which of us should be afraid?
We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama
When I heard Hurricane Fiona was headed our way, I thought it might be the perfect time to read one of the longest books on the longlist – We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies – just in case the storm afforded me a little extra reading time. (It did.)
The morning I finished the book was the same morning they announced the shortlist, and I was so happy when I saw this one had made it. This is a generational story of a Tibetan family who were exiled from Tibet and have been living in a refugee camp in Nepal for decades. The family becomes fragmented; even their spiritual bond is tested through the years.
Fast forward to 2012… Dolma attends university in Toronto and lives there with her aunt. She craves knowledge about the history of her family and her country; a Tibetan refugee who has never been to her home country.
All along, I was standing here. On this edge of becoming. Where the needle trembles yet cannot move.
I loved this book and everything it taught me about Tibet and its refugees. It allows the reader to imagine the hurt and chaos of trying to hold onto your culture when your home has been taken away. A timely story for the world we’re living in, and beautifully told.
Even now, standing in this wind that can hide the sound of my weeping, my tears collect inside me, unable to fall out.
Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu (Coach House Books)
This collection of stories is packed full of originality and detailed prose. Each story is a surprise, most of them with some kind of supernatural or futuristic element involved to spark your imagination. I especially wanted to know more about the fantasy simulator and the anti-aging machine. One of the stories explores the idea of a 3-D printer that can print out human bodies. That story had the best first line: “After I killed my wife, I had twenty hours before her new body finished printing downstairs.”
Other stories include: a teen girl grows wings out of her ankles; a woman suffering from insomnia is visited by the sandman; a haunted doll; a secret revenge plot; neon yellow sea-monster sightings; a june bug infestation; and the terrifying idea that all food suddenly tastes bad – a true nightmare.
I lie on clean, crisp sheets in a comfortable set of pajamas, buttons and drawstring, as a reassuring weight bears down on both of my shoulders and forces them apart, spreads and flattens my body out like dough, thinner and thinner, into a dun-coloured sheet of pastry, into a single-layer matrix of atoms, and finally into the infinitely small that is indistinguishable from nothingness.
Martha dreamed of June bugs crawling into her ear canals, up her nose. She dreamed they swam in the fluid that suspended her brain in her skull. Awake, she jerked her head from the pillow as a June bug travelled the outer coil of her upper ear, tender as a lover. She dreamed they moved under her skin, in her bloodstream, riding the current of her heartbeat like river rapids.
Weddings were obscene in any era, but especially in this one, a narcissistic spectacle at the end of the world.
Stray Dogs by Rawi Hage (Knopf Canada)
I’ve heard a lot of readers are feeling luke-warm about these stories, and I can see where they’re coming from. These stories feel more intellectually stimulating than emotionally stimulating. However, they are masterfully written, offer insight and perspective into situations I know little about, and I have come away feeling better for having read the book.
Many of the characters in these stories are academics, many are photographers, some are both. Many are living in the Middle East, from the Middle East, or travelling to the Middle East. A man travels to Lebanon after getting news of his mother’s death. Another contemplates suicide as he remembers chasing falling bombs as a teen, hoping to catch a good photo. In 1970 Montreal, a broke photographer gets a mysterious visit from Sophia Loren that changes his life. A professor from Baghdad is kidnapped and forced to translate top secret information. A retired professor claims he can “predict coming disasters to the minute,” and is looking forward to the tsunami coming for Beirut with glee. A philosophy professor retires to the country and goes mad after seeing a young couple fall off the edge of a cliff to their death.
Lebanon’s renowned cuisine could well be considered one of the most diverse and healthy in the world. Well, without the wheat factor, of course. Wheat, or more precisely bread, is the country’s misdemeanour, perhaps even its unappreciated tragedy, alongside its unbearable rulers, noise, corruption, the constant threat of war and its mad traffic.
I left the house and faced the night. I climbed into the waiting military car. When I looked back, I saw Zahra standing at the door, covered in grief – long, empty, wretched nights slowly creeping up beside her.
He was paid relatively well but led a frugal, melancholic existence, weathering constant regret that he had appeared in the world only after all the great thinkers and prophets had long gone. In his youth, his contempt for modern life had led him to his current state: dwelling in the permanence of the obscure.
And now I felt the temptation to introduce another metaphor: my own identity as a person perpetually suspended between cultures, religions, and geographies. But a part of me also hated that narcissism and opportunism, so prevalent in academia.
In the City of Pigs by André Forget (Dundurn Press)
André Forget is too smart for me. I’m not sure I got everything out of his book that I should/could have with all his political and literary references. But it was an absorbing book, nonetheless.
Alexander (not Alex) has left Montreal–and his career as a pianist–with the intention of never going back. We don’t yet know why… we just know he has enough money saved to spend a couple of months getting settled into Toronto and decide what he’s going to do next. Because he’s drawn to new and unusual ways to present music, he’s interested in an underground group that has been performing anonymously in old, abandoned buildings around the city. He’s determined to find his way in so he can write about them. This experience leads to new acquaintances and opportunities, and he eventually finds himself working full-time as a music journalist.
Alexander quickly discovers that art has just become another way for the rich to get richer. And that to write anything that might suggest this will cost him his job. He also finds that, even with his steady job in the arts, making enough to get by in a city whose economic growth is its main priority is a struggle.
I could not believe in the city of pigs. I could not trust any fantasy that denied the endless sucking pull of power.
Isn’t that the modern condition, the ineluctable sense of forward motion coupled with the anxiety that progress may not necessarily be progressive?
The book is written in four parts, like the four movements of a symphony. In an interview at CNQ, Forget explains that “each part deals with an artistic conundrum, and touches on some aspect of Alexander’s personal life.”
Forget’s advice to writers can also be a nutshell description of Alexander’s experience in Forget’s novel: “…wrestle seriously with what it means to be a human being, living in conditions you did not choose, surrounded by people and social structures that place all kinds of impossible demands on you.”
A few good lines:
… sex, for me, was basically meteorological: it came into my life with the same unpredictable regularity as an ice storm, and left about the same amount of damage in its wake.
I wanted to stay in that shower forever, to join the patches of mould and learn their secret fungal languages and compose primitive mycelium tunes to play on my hyphae.
Not everything needs to mean something, you know? Some things can just be nice.
Pure Colour by Sheila Heti (Knopf Canada)
I was describing to a friend (by text) my experience reading this book while I was still only part way through. Here’s what I said: “At first I was quite enjoying Pure Colour. But then it got weird and confusing. Right now she’s in a leaf with her dad having long, philosophical conversations. I think.”
Pure Colour is a philosophical novel, full of ideas, that can sometimes be fun and interesting, and at other times confusing. The most interesting idea I took from it is that the life we’re living now is God’s first attempt at the world and it’s not working out the way God had hoped, so he’s planning to scrap it all and try again. Will we get to come back for that? Or will we be completely obliterated for all time? I wanted this “experiment” to continue so we could see it out. But, instead, the characters living within this experiment were working out their own issues and big ideas.
Happiness was not meant to be ours. The love we imagined would never be ours. Work that could occupy our minds and hearts forever–this also was not meant to be ours… Nothing would be as we hoped it would be, here in the first draft of existence. People were finally beginning to catch on. Our rage made perfect sense.
Isn’t it nice not to have hands? Yes, it’s a relief. With hands you feel you must do something with them, and be doing something with them all the time. That’s what it feels like to have two hands. The nice thing about not having hands is not to feel the requirement.
How crude and bizarre our world will seem to them! How small, tragic and imperfect, when they consider what we had to do to find love. / Yet we can see what’s beautiful in it. We can see the beauty in a way they will never understand. They will not understand it, in the next draft of the world, which will be so much more utterly whole. Could any of us even bear that wholeness, us creatures of the first draft? Wouldn’t we find something discomforting about such an excellent world?
Lucien & Olivia by Andre Narbonne (Black Moss Press)
This is a gem of a book I wasn’t aware of until it showed up on the Giller longlist. (One of the things I love about prize lists is the awareness they bring to lesser-known books and publishers.)
This is a love story between two people who, alone, are both awkward lonely people, which makes seeing them together all the more satisfying. But time spent together is fleeting. Lucien works as a marine engineer and is away for months at a time. “Being a sailor meant leading a double life and living half of one.” Because it’s set in the 1980s, we’re reminded of how hard it was to conduct a relationship from a distance, especially a very new one. And if you really want to hide from someone, it’s all too easy (and torturous for the seeker).
In Montreal, Port Cartier, and Sarnia, his failed phone calls afflicted him, the silence as thick as a biblical plague.
Lucien is not a typical sailor. He likes nothing better than to seek out a quiet spot and read. “You are so, so awkward.”
Olivia is a philosophy major at Dalhousie University and was “raised on disapproval.” “I have to remind myself not to dislike people.“
Reading about this odd couple is delightful – I highly recommend it.
For more depth, read Chris Benjamin’s excellent review at Atlantic Books Today: “Lucien & Olivia is the most realistic–and beautiful–of love stories. It is about what any great romantic love is about, finding one another beyond all the ways we hide ourselves, and finding how at the core of things, what we have in common far outweighs whatever keeps us apart.“
Have you been following the Giller Prize? Do you have any favourites? Are there any here that tempt you?