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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Swan’

Twenty days into Novellas in November. The reading was a bit slower over the past ten days. I blame work. However, I did still manage to get 3 books finished. First, I picked up The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb, because it had been recommended on Twitter by Dan Rhodes (author of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, This is Life, and many more) whose books I adore. The Book of Proper Names is a darkly comic book about names, family, and destiny. The protagonist is a girl named Plectrude who has a tragic start to life, but is adopted by her aunt and uncle, and dreams of being a ballet dancer. I enjoyed the book, but I still prefer Dan Rhodes, who is a master at blending the odd, the funny, and the melancholy. You should all read Gold. 4 Stars to The Book of Proper Names.

Then my order of Mary Swan’s The Deep arrived, and I dove right in. This early novella of Swan’s uses the same polyvocal technique that she uses in her 2008 novel The Boys in the Trees. That book breaks my heart. It is an incredible meditation on community, family, and despair: a discourse on the things we can never know about each other. This novella is the story of twin sisters volunteering near the front lines in France in 1918. Swan uses the polyvocal narrative to create suspense, as the narratives of the sisters are basically contemporary to their war experience or recollections of their earlier lives, but the narratives of the others are memories told of the sisters. The story is interesting, but I found the sisters to be less compelling than they should have been. Swan has an incredible way with imagery, but (unsurprisingly, as this is an earlier work) the story doesn’t pack as much emotional punch as The Boys in the Trees. I would recommend that one as my favourite of her works. 4 stars to The Deep.

And finally, I decided to reread Shopgirl by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin). It’s been almost 15 years since I first read the book, but I am still surprised at the skill with which Martin manages to distill emotional meaning into the smallest details. The story is charming, but it also addresses complex questions in terms of the growth of its characters. I love the fact that each of the characters comes to (sometimes unpleasant) realizations about the way they treat themselves and other people. It was an absolute joy to return to this novella. Of course, before it’s time for the next reread, I will definitely be watching the film again.

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I always anticipate literary award season with a mixture of hope and dread. Each year, I hope to be surprised by what makes it to the short lists, but each year I am almost always disappointed. Canadian literature awards especially, like the Giller Prize (this year’s short list: http://www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca/finalists/2014-shortlist/) and the Governor General Awards (this year’s short list: http://www.cbc.ca/books/2014/10/governor-generals-literary-awards-2014-the-finalists.html), tend to stick to the “safe” titles: literary and “serious” and appealing to the broadest possible spectrum of readers. Rarely do the titles on literary award short lists strike me as challenging either literary conventions or challenging commonly held beliefs/perspectives. My usual response is a disappointed sigh, as the short lists seem to be more of the same old, same old. I don’t intend this as a disparagement of those who are lucky enough to make these short lists, as their talent is not what I am questioning. I am sure I would enjoy many of the books on these lists. I just tend to be less interested in reading them because they seem to fit conventional narrative patterns or subjects and I like to stretch my boundaries as a reader. I would like literary awards to take some risks in introducing readers to books beyond the conventional and familiar, in order that readers may expand their comfort zones. So, in response to this apathy I feel, I have decided to make a long list of books that I found interesting in terms of form or challenging in terms of subject matter, books that I feel made me a better reader. These books aren’t perfect. They have flaws, but their authors were brave enough to try something different (new or less familiar) in terms of form or genre and to look at subjects deemed uncomfortable or unworthy by others. Some have been recognized by larger prizes, but even in those cases, I feel they didn’t get the consideration they deserved by the reading public. Each book on this list gave me a thrill as I figured out what they were trying to do, and each one was emotionally affecting in its own way. Here is the inaugural long list for the Hamilton Award for Interesting Literature (HAIL – as in, all hail to me, queen of cool book recommendations):

The City of Bohane – Kevin Barry

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Love and the Mess We’re In – Stephen Marche

Faces in the Crowd – Valeria Luiselli

Observatory Mansions – Edward Carey

The Boys in the Trees – Mary Swan

So Many Ways to Begin – Jon McGregor

Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

The Logogryph – Thomas Wharton 

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre

Spilt Milk – Chico Buarque

The Manual of Detection – Jedediah Berry

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride (I’m still reading this one)

I am not able to offer a spectacular monetary prize in the tradition of those prizes I discuss here (I am a poor adjunct, after all), but I would like to offer my sincere appreciation to these authors for shaking up expectations and creating marvelous fictional worlds for readers to inhabit. I hope you will consider giving these writers your attention.

I must say that the Booker Prize short list (http://www.themanbookerprize.com/news/man-booker-prize-fiction-2014-shortlist-revealed) did come as something of a surprise to me this year, as it seems fresher and more interesting than many of their lists in the recent past. I often find at least one title of interest, but this year I am interested in reading most of the titles here. However, in the world of literary awards, I find that the most reliably interesting long and short lists are for the Dublin IMPAC Award (last year’s nominees http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/ won by Juan Gabriel Vasquez) and the Neustadt Prize (last year’s nominees http://neustadtprize.org/the-23rd-biennial-neustadt-international-prize-for-literature-nominees-announced/#.VDwOmfldVaQ won by Mia Couto). I want unfamiliar literary prize nominees, new writers whose bodies of work I can begin to explore. I want prize lists to challenge my comfort zone.

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