Recent reading: Awards season

by Sunita

I’m still reading, somewhat more slowly given other demands, but steadily. Fall is awards season in literature-land and new short and long lists are popping up all over. And of course October is when the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced. This year the committee went for a candidate whose choice lots of people could understand and approve: Kazuo Ishiguro. Like many readers, I’ve read Remains of the Day, and we have several other books of his on our shelves. I didn’t love Remains of the Day, which I read soon after it came out, so I hesitated to read more from him, but that was definitely my problem not his. It’s a brilliant, lovely book, but I encountered it just when I was really tired of reading about the travails of comfortably situated white people and I couldn’t see past that, even though I could see the quality and artistry. I need to reread it, but that will have to wait until I’ve read some of the other works. I’m especially looking forward to The Buried Giant.

Man with seagull coverI read one more off the Not The Booker Prize list and loved it: Man With A Seagull on His Head by Harriet Paige. It’s a debut novel from a small press and it’s just as quirky as the title suggests, but it’s also insightful and quietly satisfying. It tells the story of artist Ray Eccles and the people around him. Ray is (literally) hit on the head by a diving seagull while he’s at the beach and he becomes obsessed with painting a woman he saw there at the same time. He’s discovered by a couple, George and Grace Zoob, who find and publicize “outsider artists,” and becomes quite a sensation. I hesitate to describe Ray as an artist, although he clearly produces art, because I think of artists as guided by intentionality, and Ray is compelled to paint rather than choosing to do so. His talent and fame affect the Zoobs and their young daughter, as well as the object of his paintings, Jennifer Mulholland, and Ray himself. The story is told from multiple POVs and stretches over a couple of decades despite being a fairly short book. And there is a pigeon. It’s a meditation on art, loneliness, attachment, and other aspects of the human condition, all told in an understated, unpretentious but deeply thoughtful way.

I also discovered that one of the major Canadian literary prizes, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, had just released its shortlist this week:

  • Transit by Rachel Cusk
  • Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin
  • Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill
  • Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
  • I am a Truck by Michelle Winters

I already have the Cusk in my TBR; I picked it up after reading the previous book in the series, Outline. I was able to get samples of the O’Loughlin and the Winter and as soon as I finished the Winter sample I bought the book.

I Am A Truck coverThe story is set in French Quebec and New Brunswick and features Agathe and Réjean Lapointe, a happily married couple whose quiet life is upended when Réjean disappears, leaving his beloved Chevy Silverado by the side of the road. Agathe can’t believe he would leave his truck like that, with the door open no less, but when weeks pass and there is no sign of him, she pulls herself together and goes on with her life. The chapters alternate between “Now” and “Then,” with Now describing Agathe’s life after Réjean and Then offering glimpses of Agathe and Réjean in the past, showing the reader events that led up to his disappearance. There are twists I definitely didn’t see coming, and the last and longest chapter, entitled “Now On,” brings the characters and storylines together in ways that tie up the loose ends without making me feel manipulated. It’s a short novel but it packs a lot into the wordcount

With this book and the other small press books I’ve read recently, I’ve been struck by how original they feel. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read that many (and it’s been ages since I read a Canadian-set novel), but they don’t fit the formulas I’ve come to recognize in major-release novels. They’re frequently about ordinary people in ordinary jobs and the emphasis is on how they react to and cope with life events (mostly in believable and understandable ways). They’re not self-consciously “experimental” works, but the authors take risks in form and style; for example, the Winters has French dialogue interspersed among the English narrative and dialogue because Agathe and Réjean speak French almost exclusively, and it feels appropriate.

I have three of the five unread Goldsmiths books sitting on my shelf now, including the formidable and agressively modernist Phone by Will Self. I’m hoping to report back on some of those next time.