Friday, December 08, 2006

Black Swan Green

There was a time, not too long ago, when things were named after people we wanted to honour. Schools were named after explorers: Paul Kane High School here in St. Albert, Simon Fraser University in BC. But now you simply must have a corporate name for your public institution. And Mr. Schulich is the king of this, attaching his name to: Schulich School of Business (York U), Schulich School of Medicine (UWO), Schulich School of Music (McGill) and the Schulich School of Engineering (U of Calgary). No doubt if the University of Calgary was founded today it would be Encana University. Syncrude U?

I was reminded of this when I read that the Costa Book Award nominations were out. “The what” you ask? Apparently the Costa Awards are the Awards Formerly Known as the Whitbread Awards. Costa is a UK coffee company and they have taken on sponsorship of these literary awards, which Whitbread began sponsoring in 1971. When the Man Group took over sponsorship of the Booker awards, they had the good idea to keep the “Booker” name, making the award the “Man Booker” formally, or just good old Booker to the rest of us. As in the “Scotiabank Giller Prize”. Just Giller thanks.

But anyway, the Costa nominations are interesting as this jury seemed to buck the trend of going for lesser-known, even obscure, books and chose four good reads. The award page actually doesn’t say they are “the best books”, rather “The Costa Book Awards recognise the most enjoyable books of the last year by writers based in the UK and Ireland.”

The nominees:

· Restless by William Boyd
· Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths
· A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
· Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

All of them are great books but I can imagine some critical sniffing here and there: “Restless is a thriller for heaven’s sake!” “Not Mitchell’s best” etc etc. An interesting idea all in all. I suggest calling them the Good Reads Awards. Sorry – the Costa Coffee Good Reads Awards.

Black Swan Green is one of favourite books of 2006. Scenes from it have come to mind from time to time, and I’ve urged the book on many people (“No, there’s no green swans. It’s the name of a suburb, like Black Swan Ville”). Until this novel I’ve picked up Mitchell’s books but put them quickly down as they sound daunting: narrative here and there, characters in various time periods – all in all a little more work than I wanted this year. But in Black Swan Green Mitchell lets down his hair a bit and tells a reasonably straightforward story of one year in the life of 13 year-old Jason Taylor in grey, glum 1980s Thatcherite England. One of the very best looks at the interior of a young mind since I read Ian McGillis’s Edmonton tale, A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry.

Or as Ron Mitchell put it in the Washington Post Book World:<>
"After the sprawling scope and pyrotechnic style of his Booker Prize-nominated Cloud Atlas,'David Mitchell could have delivered nothing more surprising than this charming, quiet novel about a 13-year-old boy. In 13 connected stories that take place in 1982, young Jason Taylor describes his perilous trek through schoolyard trials, his budding interest in girls and the simmering tension between his parents. Straddling the wonders of childhood and the anxieties of adulthood, he speaks to us in a voice that mingles insight and naivete — not too cute, not too slick. The result is a novel that's alternately nostalgic, funny and heartbreaking.

'It's all ranks, being a boy,' Jason reminds us, 'like the army.' He lives cautiously, always attentive to shifting, unwritten rules about what to wear, how to greet friends, where to sit on the bus, what songs to like. For the young men of this little village in Worcestershire, England, life is governed largely by the dread of being thought gay. 'Mind you,' Jason tells us, 'if they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in 'Black Swan Green Parish Magazine,' was me, they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.'

Being a sensitive boy with an interest in literature is fraught with risk ('Books're gay'), but Jason can't help studying everything around him, spinning his own Walter Mitty fantasies of adventure. Although we see only a few lines of his poetry — nothing especially noteworthy — his fresh insight into other people and his raw enthusiasm for the world endow this winding commentary with the joy of little revelations: 'The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in Fox's Glacier Mints.'
"Books're gay". Yup, heard that one a few times in my youth. Alas, I don't think things have changed all that much.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Devil and the Disappearing Sea

The sad thing is, there really is a bit of Borat in real life in the post-Soviet "stans" (including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, or the proud "Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan"). For proof, take a look at two recent books of reportage on Central Asia which both feature the same central incident, the Aral Sea catastrophe. Rob Ferguson is a Canadian writer from Toronto who released The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: A True Story about the Aral Sea Catastrophe in 2003. Tom Bissell, an American writer from Michigan, published Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia in 2003.

In 1960 the Aral Sea, which sits between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was the world's 4th largest inland body of water, bigger than Lake Huron. By 2002 it had shrunk to 20% of its size and experts say it will completely disappear by 2020. "The quiet Chernobyl" is indeed a tragic environmental event, but both books are pretty hilarious at times in telling the depressing story. When presented with the tortuous details of corruption, bureaucracy and crime, what can one do but laugh?

Ferguson arrived in Uzbekistan in 2000 to work on a project aimed at saving the Aral Sea. His book is more narrowly focused on the tragicomic tale of what befell him and the project. Bissel first visited the area in 1996 as a US Peace Corps worker before returning in 2001 to research the story for a magazine. His book is longer, describing the history of the area as well as his travels around Central Asia with his Uzbek pal, Rustam.

Jonathan Franzen, of The Corrections fame, provided a nice blurb for Bissel:
If you don't think you want to read a book about Uzbekistan, think again. Line by line, Chasing the Sea is as smart and funny and entertaining a travel book as you'll find anywhere; and behind the lines are real passion and a wholly justified outrage over one of the world's great political and environmental catastrophes. Tom Bissell is a terrifically sympathetic young writer. Give yourself a treat and read him.
Good Reports, the Canadian book website, discusses Ferguson's book here.

Friday, December 01, 2006


When I think of Russia, Ukraine or other post-Soviet states struggling to recover from the dead hand of Communism, humour doesn’t come immediately to mind. Every step forward is followed by two back, and life just looks crushingly hard for so many people.

So the film Borat seems cruel, especially using a real country, Kazakhstan, as the source of some of the comedy. But Borat exists within the comic convention of the innocent abroad, the naïf who ends up exposing the hypocrisy and venality of the so-called civilized folks, the city people, the smart guys. Many people have pointed out that it is Americans who end up looking the most foolish.

Gary Shteyngart is an American writer, a Russian-Jewish-American writer to be specific. His two novels have a bit of Borat in them, with main characters both foolish and wise and usually funny. Both books poke fun at both the North American characters and the locals – Russians, and various thinly disguised Eastern Europeans.

Absurdistan is his second novel, a funny, crude but smart book about Misha Vainberg, the arrogant, fat son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. In a series of misadventures, Misha hurtles from St. Petersburg to college in the United States to a tiny country in the Caucasus called Absurdsvani. Recently the New York Times named it one of their “10 Best Books of 2006”.

I thought Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, was one of the most enjoyable books I had read in awhile. We follow Vladimir Girshkin in a series of misadventures from New York to Miami to “Prava” in Eastern Europe.

Lovers of Borat’s pokes at post-Communist states should take a look at Molvanîa: A Jetlag Travel Guide by Santo Cilauro et al. This is a hilarious parody of stuffy travel guides like Fodor’s, which some have pointed to as a possible inspiration for Borat. Molvanîa is an entirely fictitious Eastern European country. But the guide is entirely realistic, detailing attractions such as the Museum of Medieval Dentistry or helpful phrases such as “"Kyunkasko sbazko byusba?" (“Where is the toilet paper?”)