Monday, September 6, 2010

Review of "Continental Revue" by Winifred Bambrick

Continental Revue, by Winifred Bambrick won the Governor-General's Award for Literary Merit in fiction for 1946. The novel depicts a circus revue that travels around Europe (mostly Britain and Germany) in 1938-1939. As Bambrick's biography in the Canadian Encyclopedia indicates, the author herself traveled in similar circumstances, so there is undoubtedly a biographical element to this novel.

Continental Revue is one of the more unique novels that I have read. Bambrick begins, appropriately, with a cavalcade of chracters. There are well over 20 characters of significance, but Bambrick mentions virtually every member of the revue. These brief character introductions are made within the context of the show, and it gives the reader a sense of the immense variety of the revue, even if it is unwieldy.

Fortunately, after the first third of the novel, Bambrick focuses more tightly on a small number of central characters and the love triangle the forms between Peter (an English artist), Kathi (an Austrian ballerina), and Tania (a Hungarian dancer/performer). Peter is captivated by Kathi's beauty and falls in love with her immediately and Kathi falls in love with him, at least in her own way. Throughout the novel, Bambrick emphasizes Kathi's otherworldliness and simplicity. It is never clear exactly how Kathi experiences love. In contrast to other characters, Kathi's thoughts and emotions are rarely revealed to the reader. Tania is a cunning, resourceful, beautiful woman who constantly seeks to position herself strategically in her career. She often serves simultaneously as the intermediary between and third wheel to Kathi and Peter. She falls in love with Peter, and tries to convince him to be with her instead. Indeed, Peter does seem to connect better with Tania, though he is wary (and at times fearful) of her power and manipulation. While Kathi is ethereal, Tania is immensely passionate, and Peter seems to vascillate between reason and passion. It makes for a compelling dynamic.

The coming war dominates the novel, and geopolitical tensions take centre stage near the end. Bambrick is at pains to show how the happy multiethnic, multinational revue is destroyed both due to internal and external tensions. Personal rivalries and international conflicts force splits in the company. Nazi policies cause problems for the non-German members of the revue, while at the same time, the large number of German members causes other countries to shun them.

Continental Revue is a very good novel. While the first third is disorienting, once it hits its stride, the novel really flies. It has compelling characters and weaves in the tension of coming war.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review of "From Gauntlet to Overlord" by Ross Munro

In 1945, Ross Munro's war memoir "From Gauntlet to Overlord" won the Governor-General's Award for Literary Merit in nonfiction. Munro served as the Candian Press's war correspondent in Europe and North Africa. "From Gauntlet to Overlord" details Munro's time with the Canadian Army, with a specific focus on the Normandy invasion and the development of the distinctly Canadian army.

As one might expect, Munro writes in a clear, concise style and includes a nice amount of details. Munro has a more balanced style than I expect from war correspondents, as they generally establish close relationships with the soldiers they come to know, which influences their writing. While it is clear that Munro had some close friendships with certain Canadian soldiers (which he is transparent about), he also manages to write a very balanced account. He humanizes all of his subjects including enemy soldiers. In addition, he does not shy away from the destructivness of war.He also provides nice insight into the unique position of the war correspondent, entirely dependent on the military, and yet clearly separate. Munro relies on the army completely for access, information, and even the ability to transmit his articles, yet he strives to maintain a level of objectivity.

Overall, Munro depicts the war honestly and with humour and humility. He makes his surroundings, motivations, and interests very clear, and he writes without artifice. Anyone who is interested in a first person perspective on the Second World War, and the Canadian Army in particular would be well-served by Munro's book as would anyone interested in the reality of the war correspondent.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review of "We Keep a Light"

The next book I am reviewing is "We Keep a Light" by Evelyn M. Richardson. I skipped "The War: Fourth Year" as it is the 4th volume in a series (which I would eventually like to read), so I hope to come back to it at a later point. The fiction winner for 1945, "Two Solitudes" by Hugh MacLennan is a Canadian classic, which for once, I have already read. I highly recommend it as both an excellent novel and as an important piece of Canadian culture. References to "two solitudes" are still very common in contemporary commentary.

"We Keep a Light" was one of two nonfiction winners in 1945. The book depicts family life at a small island lighthouse in Nova Scotia. For those interested in such a subject, "We Keep a Light" is ideal. However, for the general reader, I think that this book is wanting. First off, Richardson's perspective is very family-focused. She spends a lot of time talking about her children and husband and she includes a plethora of minute (and I would add inane and irrelevant) details. Secondly, there is no clear structure. While the book is roughly chronological, Richardson often goes back and forth in time, which can be disorienting.

One gets the impression with this book that it is simply a very proud mother extolling her family's superiority by surviving and thriving in a difficult situation.

Some may find such a work appealing, but I did not.

Review of Partner in Three Worlds

"Partner in Three Worlds" by Dorothy Duncan is an interesting choice for nonfiction winner. It is written in the 1st person from the perspective of Jan, a Czech who fights in the Canadian army to liberate his homeland in the Second World War. The bulk of the book describes Jan's life in then Czechoslovakia, where he is born, rises to prominence at a bank, and his subsequent fall due to an impetuous and ill-suited marriage. However, he manages to re-establish himself eventually as an artistic glass salesman, and eventually his move to North America. Duncan drew on an intimage knowledge of Jan through multiple conversations and one gets the impression that she is recounting Jan's stories verbatim as she often describes his thoughts and feelings (from a first person perspective).

One imagines that Jan must have been a great storyteller, as the book is very entertaining. It is difficult at times to remember that it's a work of non fiction rather than a novel. The book does do an excellent job of depicting Prague society in the early 20th century and additionally, the tensions that emerged in the lead up to the Second World War. There are also some excellent scenes near the end where Jan compares North Americans and Europeans.

Despite its unique narrative style (or perhaps beacause of it), the book works very well at both entertaining and informing.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review of Earth and High Heaven

Gwethalyn Graham won a second Governor-General's Award for Earth and High Heaven. Earth and High Heaven is very much a novel of its time as it focuses on the rising global anti-semitism of the 1940s with particular focus on Montreal and its (oversimplified) tripartite division between Anglophones, Francophones, and Jews. While Graham's novel explores the social divisions, misconceptions, and bigotry among all three groups, she focuses particular attention on anti-semitism.

In the novel, Erica Drake, a wealthy young woman living in Westmount (an upper class anglophone section of Montreal) falls in love with Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, originally from Northern Ontario. In the beginning of the novel, Erica must confront her own prejducies when she first meets Marc. However, these prejudices pale in comparison to those of her father and mother who refuse to have any interactions with Marc.

Graham excels at depicting the social milieu of Montreal and, in particular, the discrimination felt by Jews in this era, though it should be noted that she also pays attention to conflict between anglophones and francophones.

While the plot itself isn't particularly novel or interesting, Graham's excellent prose, witty dialogue, and detailed characters make it a very entertaining novel. Plus, it is hard to be too critical of a novel written in order to combat bigotry. Overall, it functions better as a historical work than high literature, but it is a very enjoyable book nonetheless.

Review of The Incomplete Anglers

The Incomplete Anglers by John D. Robins won the Governor-General's Award for Literary Merit for Nonfiction in 1943. The book tells the story of a fishing trip Robins and a friend took in Algonquin Park in Ontario. As the title implies, the book is not a heroic tale of man overcoming nature, but rather the misadventures of two inexperienced fishermen, which Robins makes very clear at the beginning. Throughout the book, Robins unfolds his narrative with humourous self-deprecation.

On the whole, it is a very entertaining read, and a worthy winner of the award. In fact, Robins' prose is so excellent that the book reads more like fiction. Of course, it also has the benefit of truth.

I know that I'm not putting many details here, and I have to admit that I'm writing this review a few weeks after finishing the book, but I do highly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review of The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek

Thomas H. Raddall's collection of short stories, entitled The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek won the Governor General's Award for Literary merit in fiction in 1943. The short stories could best be termed local colour. They are generally set in rural Nova Scotia and portray the Scottish heritage, seafaring tradition, and the first nations. Within that context, there is a large variety here: everything from a fishing story to one that takes place on the day of the Halifax explosion.

Raddall's stories are lush with details and they paint a vivid mental picture of local life. However, as strong literary works, they are a mixed bag. Nevertheless, they are generally quite entertaining. I particularly enjoyed "Champeen Liar," "The Taming of Moredcai Mimms," and Lady Lands Leviathan. They are all light and fun.

However, one story stands apart, both as darker in tone and more interesting from a literary perspective. "Winter's Tale," as alluded to above, is set during the day of the Halifax Explosion of 1917 through the perspective of a boy, James. Initially, James is unaware of why his school's windows are blown out. As the story progresses, he begins to realize the level of devastation that the city has suffered and comes face to face with some of the casualites. It is a powerful story, very well told, and I believe it to be the highlight of the collection.

To summarize, on the whole, The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek is a good collection of entertaining Nova Scotian local colour short stories. While it may not be high literature, it is nevertheless very successful on its own terms.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Might I tell you how much better watching the Olympics is in Canada?

In the course of reading the outrage at NBC in the United States , I was reminded how happy I am that I now live in Canada. In 2008, CBC/Radio-Canada broadcast the Olympics and it was quite an improvement over the NBC coverage I was used to. They showed everything they could live, but were unfortunately basically limited to 5 channels (CBC, Bold, and TSN in English; Radio-Canada and RDS in French). In addition, they had live web streaming of almost every event.

The Vancouver Olympics are even better. Technically, they are broadcast by "Canada's Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium." As a result, the 2010 Winter Olympics (which has fewer events) is being shown on a whopping 7 channels (CTV, TSN, Rogers SportsNet, and OLN in English; V, RDS, and RIS in French). Events are generally shown live with highlights from earlier in the day and they even provide an extremly useful viewer guide on their website. They also offer live streaming on, but with so many channel choices, I haven't even bothered to tune in. I should add that there are even more channels available in other languages.

One other pleasant note about Canadian Olympics coverage: the announcers have a tendency to be silent and let the sports speak for themselves from time to time. It is a very nice change from the inane banter I had become accustomed to on NBC.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

And now for a slight detour...

Contrary to what might it appear like on my blog, I don't in fact read exclusively Governor-General's award winners. That's actually why some of these books seem to take a very long time. The G-G project is a definite long term multiyear thing.

In any case, I recently read a nice Canadian political humour novel, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis. The book has an interesting history. Fallis, tired of rejection, recorded the whole novel as a series of podcasts on his website. Between the podcasts and self-publishing, Fallis managed to attract the attention of a commercial publisher, and in 2008 The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour.

The Best Laid Plans follows the improbable campaign, election, and service of Scottish-born engineering professor Angus McLintock as a federal member of parliament. McLintock is in many ways a classic "straight shooter" candidate, who is determined to do what he thinks is best for the country irrespective of polls, politics, and party. His election only comes by way of unintentional accident (I will leave the particulars unspoiled), but he comes to grow into and even revel in his new position.

The Best Laid Plans is resminiscent of other works, such as Bulworth, but it is truly Canadian through and through. It even delves into the intricacies of parliamentary procedures. The novel is very enjoyable on the whole, although the last third is too optimistic for my own tastes. Nevertheless, the Canadian political humour novel isn't exactly a bestselling, prolific genre, so if the description interests you, I highly recommend giving it a read (or at least a listen).

The Unguarded Frontier

1942 had 2 winners of the Governor-General's Award for Literary Merit in nonfiction. Edgar D. McInnis also won the award for The Unguarded Frontier : A History of American-Canadian Relations. The title really says it all with this one. McInnis describes the history of the U.S./Canada border. In particular, he does a nice job of illustrating the complex dynamic between Britain, Canada, and the United States. In this respect, he traces the development of Canada from colony to independent state (within the framework of the Commonwealth) very effectively. Additionally, McInnis delves into a variety of specific border disputes. He conveys how the border was often determined well before any exploration, which often resulted in a final, haphazard boundary based more on negotiations than geography. It is in these sections, that I find his writing and expertise the strongest and his voice at its most unique. In fact, I found myself wanting more details as to the particulars of each boundary dispute.

Overall, I recommend The Unguarded Frontier as a nice survey of the history of Canada/U.S. relations.