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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 7) - "G" is for Gallant, Gowdy, and Gruen

For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “X” and “Z”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“G” is for Mavis Gallant

Best known as a short story writer, she also published novels, plays and essays.  She published 116 stories in The New Yorker throughout her career.  Alongside Alice Munro, Gallant is one of only a few Canadian authors whose works have regularly appeared in the magazine.

I recommend The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant as a great compilation of her short stories.

“G” is for Barbara Gowdy
Gowdy's stories look at the extreme, the strange, and the abnormal.  She often draws on magic realism as a writing style, combining the fantastic or unusual with realistic and believable descriptions, placing her within the tradition of Southern Ontario Gothic.

Novels (which I would recommend):

Mister Sandman (nominated for 1995 Giller Prize)
The White Bone (nominated for 1998 Giller Prize and Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize)
The Romantic  (longlisted for 2003 Man Booker Prize and nominated for Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize)
Helpless (nominated for 2007 Giller Prize)


“G” is for Sara Gruen
Gruen is best known for Water for Elephants which was made into a major motion picture in 2011.

Novels (which I would recommend):

Water for Elephants
At the Water’s Edge 

Review of At the Water's Edge (3 Stars)

Three wealthy American socialites (Maddie Hyde, her husband Ellis, and their friend Hank) go to Scotland in 1945 to find evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. While the men go on the hunt, Maddie stays at an inn and gradually becomes friends with Anna and Meg who work there and Angus, the innkeeper. As the men search for the mythical creature, Maddie ends up searching for herself.

It is this search for self that is the most interesting aspect of the novel. Maddie gradually realizes that her life has been a pretty, pretty fraud: “And pretty it was: I’d lived in fabulous houses, been driven around in fancy cars, and drunk only the finest champagne. I had a closet of designer gowns and furs. My life consisted of waking up at noon, meeting up with Hank and Ellis, and then bouncing from eye-opener to pick-me-up cocktail to nightcap, and staying out all night at dances and parties before starting all over again the next day. It was full of luxurious trappings and shiny baubles, and that had blinded me to the fact that nothing about it was real” (148). As she becomes friends with some local village women, she finds out she can become a genuine person whose life is more than just posturing.

Maddie is not the only dynamic character. Ellis changes as well; granted, some of the change is more just Maddie’s perception of him, but his behaviour towards the end of the book borders on the unbelievable. A credible character change requires a realistic time span and sufficient motivation, but those seem to be missing.

The examination of female friendship is certainly one of the book’s focuses. It also describes the effects of war on the ordinary people, a contrast with Ellis and Hank who have been given medical dispensation from military service. Life in war-time Scotland is far removed from the privileged lives in Philadelphia with which she is familiar, lives that are reminiscent of those found in The Great Gatsby. Unfortunately, the war is not the dominant presence one would expect; periodically, the author inserts statistics about the number of injured and dead soldiers as if to remind everyone that a war is going on.

The part that I wish had been omitted is the romance element. Once the book veers off into gothic romance territory, it becomes very predictable. A bodice-ripping sex scene is expected. Undoubtedly, this book will be adapted into a film where the ending will be happily applauded.

The theme is stated quite explicitly: “monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight” (349). Hitler is certainly one of these monsters but, otherwise, the monsters all come from a certain class of society, so there is a definite bias.

I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and really enjoyed it. This novel does not come up to the same standard. It has some unrealistic events (an Atlantic crossing on board a supply freighter during WWII) and tends to be stereotypical in terms of its portrayal of people. Maddie’s sexual awakening seems an unnecessary detour on her journey of self-discovery; just as we begin to glimpse strength in her character, we also see her need to be rescued by a man.

The novel begins well but it gradually devolves into a historical romance.