Canadian Authors – Five Stars & a Maple Leaf

The Olympics puts me in mind of Canada, which puts me in mind of some of my favorite fiction authors.  I know you can’t talk of “Canadian authors” in a monolithic sense, the same way you can’t treat  “U.S. authors” as a homogenous group, but I find that many of my favorite literary fiction novelists hail from that great county to our north.

Take Alice Munro, short story writer extraordinaire.  Before you say that you don’t like short stories, consider that Alice Munro’s short stories, some of which are linked by recurring characters, have the richness and depth of the most finely-layered novel.  Munro’s writing shines with intelligence, elegance and strength as she explores friendship, love and loss in women’s lives.

Another Canadian master of the short story is Mavis Gallant, whose spare literary stories have been gracing the pages of The New Yorker for more than half a century.

Then there is Margaret Atwood, a whole literary universe unto herself, whose elegant and layered prose covers the gamut of genres from literary fiction to essays to poetry to science fiction to historical fiction.  The first Atwood novel that captured me was Cat’s Eye, a somewhat traditional (for Atwood) narrative arc that depicts a painter who returns to Toronto, where she grew up, for a retrospective show of her art.  While in Toronto, she grapples with disturbing memories of childhood friendships and treacheries.  It would take too much space here to survey Atwood’s many fine books, but I’ll just mention that two of her most recent, Oryx and Crake and its parallel novel (both stand on their own, but they are intertwined) The Year of the Flood, are searing dystopian works of art that kept me up late at night and have been haunting me for months.  Atwood includes just the right telling details that make the futuristic nightmares seem just a small step from our own world. Continue reading “Canadian Authors – Five Stars & a Maple Leaf”

Toronto, Mon Amour

I grew up in Seattle, and am used to hearing out-of-towners who visit the downtown library raving about our breathtaking city (and libraries). Well now I know how they feel. I just returned from my third visit to Toronto, where I was speaking at a library conference, and have been boring everyone silly with effusions of praise for this great city, the fifth most populous in North America and one of the most culturally diverse cities in the image-of-toronto-reference-libraryworld. The city has great arts and theatre, and a hot clubbing scene, a terrific public market with amazing variety of foods (and the most cheese I’ve seen in one place outside of Paris), a gorgeous main library that anchors a tremendous library system with 99 branches, and even their own space needle, a mere three times the height of ours.

image-of-icy-toronto-courtesy-of-grant-macdonaldBut what I like best is what a wonderful walking city Toronto is, with great long streets that stretch for miles through a terrific succession of ethnic neighborhoods, from Greektown to Little Italy, Portugal Village to Cabbagetown, Koreatown to Yorkville. That such a vast city maintains its human scale is partly thanks to the influence of urban thinker Jane Jacobs, best known for her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who helped keep Toronto from making the common missteps of modernizing cities, such as bisecting themselves with huge freeways. I’ve been there during a heat wave, a chilly autumn, and a cold snap, and I just couldn’t keep from walking for miles and miles.

Readers interested in getting a taste of Toronto’s rich history have plenty of great fiction to choose from, from Michael Ondaatje’s story of a seeker in Continue reading “Toronto, Mon Amour”

Comedy from Canada

Slings & ArrowsAre you constantly annoyed by what’s on commercial television and find you have watched all the hot HBO series from beginning to end? Try Slings & Arrows, a three season comedy from Canada available on DVD. The story takes place behind the scenes of the fictional New Burbage Festival, a theatre troupe modeled loosely on the real life Stratford Festival, in Stratford Ontario. The Canadian actors and writers offer a subtly different voice from the US or British shows I’m used to and the episodes are chock full of behind the scenes back-biting and shenanigans delivered with pure Shakespearian flair.

The first season begins when the festival falls on difficult times with the untimely demise of its artistic director Oliver Welles. In a pinch they bring in the notorious Geoffrey Tennant, formerly an actor with the production, best remembered for his mental breakdown while on stage seven years earlier playing Hamlet. Tennant must cope with the notoriously difficult play, the foibles of his cast of actors, a sponsor run rampant AND the ghost of Oliver. No need to be Shakespeare literate to enjoy the production – the fine acting brings the playscript to life right before your eyes.