Monday, November 26, 2007

A Fan's Notes

Driving home from a friend’s Grey Cup party last night we passed the dark hulking mass of Commonwealth Stadium, empty and even a bit menacing on a cold November night. We had just watched those loveable losers, the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, win the Cup for the first time this millennium, and only the third time ever, but the game itself was rather dull. April is the cruellest month, but November is the grimmest. Neither fall nor winter, just grey and glum.
Perhaps one should read uplifting, happy books in November to dispell the gloom. But maybe novels work like the Blues – depressing music that is paradoxically cheering. If so, then Frederick Exley’s classic novel, A Fan’s Notes, should be worth a year of Prozac as this thinly-fictionalized memoir is truly grim. Michael Schaub picked it for the Bookslut blog's Top 100 Books of the 20th Century list, but gives fair warning to readers:
A Fan's Notes is more beautifully written than 99.5% of the books I've ever read; it's a nearly perfect piece of art. Did I enjoy reading it? No, no, good God, no. ....
I'm not sure I have the heart to urge this book on any of my friends, all of whom have quite enough depression in their lives already. In fact, sometimes I wish I could un-read it. But I'm damn sure convinced that this belongs on the 100 Books list; I am utterly certain of its worth. I'll never forget it; I'll never stop wishing that I could.
First off, much of the book is set in Exley's hometown, Watertown, a small city in upper New York state. I lived in Kingston, Ontario years ago, and Watertown was the closest US town. I went there on Sundays when I needed a bottle of wine with dinner (this was the olden days when the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) was closed on Sundays). The drive from Ontario through northern New York was depressing - true grey, economically depressed, grim landscape. It was full of those towns you drive through and wonder, what on earth do people do here to survive?
That grey, grim landscape of northern New York sets the tone for Exley's book, which is essentially a recounting of Exley's life of failure. Throughout the book we have are treated to Exley's thoughts on football, or more accurately, the existential emptiness of sports fandom. In the novel Exley is obsessed with the NFL's New York Giants, and particularly their star running back, Frank Gifford (yes, future husband of Kathie Lee...).

Walter Krin in Slate notes that "the drunken bore of A Fan's Notes is never boring. He's vibrant with resentment, alive with failure, a sad sack superman." That's it exactly - 'alive with failure'. Like a Bukowski madman, Exley's nutbar protagonist is magnetic. And like a car crash - you can't look away.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Naked and the Dead

Another of the American literary lions gone ... Norman Mailer died Saturday (November 10). While he was particularly a giant in his own mind, with a legendary ego (six wives!), Mailer did indeed loom large over the literary landscape of 20th century America.

Mailer wanted to write the Great American Novel, and tome after tome made the attempt, but many of the obits note that Mailer will be remembered for his non-fiction, including his pivotal role in "the new journalism" aka the non-fiction novel, creative non-fiction, literary non-fiction, narrative non-fiction (choose your term!). His two Pulitzer Prizes came for non-fiction works: The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner's Song (1979).

Even what many consider his best novel, his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948) is based on his own war experience in the South Pacific in the Second World War. Published when Mailer was only 25 years old, The Naked and the Dead is considered one of the very best WWII novels. The Modern Library ranked it at #51 in their list of the Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century. Despite being forcedby his publisher to have his infantrymen characters use the made-up expletive "fug" (instead of, well, the favoured army expletive!), the novel was groundbreaking for its realistic depiction of men at war, in this case a platoon of Americans fighting the Japanese on a South Pacific island. Highly recommended, especially in this week after Remembrance Day.

With Mailer joining Saul Bellow (RIP 2005) and Kurt Vonnegut (2007) in the literary afterlife, the mantle of Grand Old Man of Letters passes to Gore Vidal. At 82 Vidal is one of the last of the generation born in the 1920s, along with William Kennedy (Ironweed) who is 79. From the 1930s generation there are a number of lions still with us, many of whom are still writing great books:
Some great obituaries, mostly laudatory (most mention his many sins!):

Mortality disgusts us, on occasion. We needed Mailer, and still do - he fought hard, he was brave, and flawed and luminous. Mailer once said, "Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit." We have died, this month, a little more.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Sojourn

A U of A education professor seems surprised, even alarmed, that Edmonton high school students are thinking about the world wars of last century during Remembrance Day ceremonies (according to an Edmonton Journal article here).
The prof implies that it would be better if kids were thinking about current conflicts, like Afghanistan. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with kids and educators thinking about war and peace in today’s world but most of us worry that kids don’t think enough beyond five minutes ago! Isn’t it good that teens are stopping to think about the truly catastrophic events of last century, events that changed the world we live in today?

As terrible as the war in Afghanistan is, and every one of the 71 Canadian deaths should and must be mourned, it is important that we Canadians remember the obscene slaughter once known as the “war to end all wars”. 66, 655 Canadians died in the First World War - Canadians from little hamlets like St. Albert (5 deaths listed on the cenotaph, just outside the Library).

And the focus of late has been to get all Canadians to remember those wars. Lest we forget! This year alone we have had the re-dedication of the Vimy Memorial in April, the opening of two new plays about Canada and the First World War this fall (The Wars in Calgary and Vimy in Edmonton), the filming in Alberta this summer of Passchendaele, a major feature film about the Great War, and events this weekend for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, in which over 4,000 Canadians died.

Vimy and Passchendaele are Canada’s two great victories of the First World War, Vimy in April 1917, Passchendaele in November 1917. While Vimy is remembered as a sparkling victory using Canadian ingenuity that ‘forged a nation’, Passchendaele is remembered as a futile massacre, a pyrrhic victory. Indeed one recent WWI history notes:

“There is one battle … on the Western Front that is synonymous with slaughter: it is Passchendaele… even more than the Somme, Passchendaele symbolizes the futility of trench warfare.”
Saturday November 10 is the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele (or the 3rd Battle of Ypres, as it is officially known). Unlike Vimy there is not a wealth of books celebrating the Canadian victory. Daniel G. Dancocks attempted a revision in his 1986 history, Legacy of Valour: The Canadians at Passchendaele, calling the battle “controversial” but still a “breathtaking accomplishment.”

I've recommended many Canadian WWI novels before but not Alan Cumyn's 2003 novel The Sojourn. While it isn't strictly a Passchendaele novel, the main character does fight at an earlier battle at Ypres, in 1916, the year before Passchendaele. Val Ross noted in the Literary Review:
"Cumyn's achievement is significant. The Sojourn is intelligent, unsentimental, unflinching. Among Canada's best war novels, beside High MacLennan's Barometer Rising, Timothy Findlay's The Wars, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Kevin Major's underrated No Man's Land, The Sojourn can take its place."

And Robert Wiersema noted in the Toronto Star:

"With The Sojourn, Cumyn has written a timeless novel of life during wartime, a work that speaks truly, if not loudly, of the fundamental human costs of war, of death and sacrifice, of loss and pain, of fleeting joy and lingering terror. The Sojourn can be mentioned in the company of such modern classics as The Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Thin Red Line."
The Famished Lover, published in 2006, is a sequel to The Sojourn. Longlisted for the 2006 Giller Prize, The Famished Lover follows Ramsay Crome, the protagonist of The Sojourn, into his post-war life. Saying more than this would give the plot of The Sojourn away (suffice to say, there is a reason the cover has a pin-up painting on it!). Reviews of the sequel were mixed, ranging from somewhat negative in Books in Canada (... only for the most dedicated collector of Great War literature.") to positive in the Literary Review ("... a compact, well-written and highly entertaining novel").

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Late Nights on Air

The pundits were right this year - Elizabeth Hay won the 2007 Giller Prize for her novel, Late Nights on Air. While some stuck to predicting a win for the heavyweights - Ondaatje and Vassanji - the heavy betting was on Hay. There seemed to be a consensus in the air that it was Hay's time.

Late Nights on Air is Hay's third novel, following Garbo Laughs (2003) and A Student of Weather (2000). The Library also has her acclaimed 1997 story collection, Small Change.
News reports on the Giller can be found here:
  • Globe & Mail
  • CBC
  • Toronto Star - includes a sidebar on the rather odd quixotic protest by Margaret Atwood. She and her husband brought their own box dinners to the Giller ceremony to protest the host hotel, The Four Seasons, and its "role in a massive resort development in Grenada that threatens an endangered species: the Grenada dove".

Friday, November 02, 2007


Sometime this weekend you should enter the Guess the Giller contest, either online here or offline at the table just inside the Library front door. The Giller Prize (for best book of fiction in Canada) will be awarded on Tuesday November 6, with the ceremony televised live on Bravo TV (7:00pm Mountain). Some of the folks I've talked to haven't realized that one prize of a set of all the nominated titles will be awarded from just the St. Albert Public Library entries. And last year there were less than a hundred entries, and I think only two correctly guessed the surprise winner (Vincent Lam for Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures) - so your chances are pretty good! As well, there is a great grand prize this year (awarded from all entries nationally) of a trip to a literary festival in Canada (Toronto or Vancouver perhaps?).

Right now the betting is on Elizabeth Hay and her novel Late Nights on Air, followed by M.G. Vassanji and The Assassin's Song at #2, Michael Ondaatje and Divisadero at #3, Daniel Poliquin and A Secret Between Us at #4, and finally Alissa York and Effigy at #5.

It is an entirely new jury this year, so one can't assume that there will be a repeat of last year's surprise, with the dark horse winning. But still, I would not be surprised if Alissa York (pictured at right) pulled off an upset! York currently lives in Toronto but she has lived all over Canada, and was born in Athabasca, Alberta. She notes that although she only lived there seven years, it was an important time:
"My imprint from that time is incredibly strong… I’m drawn to writing about people with their insides showing. There’s a boiling down of human experience in small towns."
With Athabasca just up Highway 2 aways from St. Albert, I'm pulling for her to win!
Bookninja has an audio interview with York, just posted today [here] (a 27 minute MP3). Bookninja is picking York to win.