Winners of the Alberta Literary Awards
An update - May 22nd, 2020
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Thank you, YYC
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
As a millennial interested in all things linguistic, I figured I would end up reading this book eventually when I heard about it on one of my favourite podcasts (The Allusionist); I was not, however, very excited to do so. In my experience, the topic covered in this book comes up in conversation pretty often. Maybe a parent or older acquaintance has asked you to explain why youngsters these days use so many exclamation marks in text messages and emails, or why a simple period can be interpreted as overly terse—even passive aggressive. I think, for people like me—who came of age online—these questions are strangely frustrating: like most language skills, learning the “new rules of language” happens naturally, without very much direct effort. Even when you feel like some sort of expert on the subject, trying to explain the rules in any depth to internet outsiders is just, well, difficult.
When I heard about McCulloch’s book, I assumed it would be frustrating in this same way: too shallow to really learn anything new about the mysterious language rules that I already probably know. But yay, I was wrong! Because Internet is a fascinating read—I didn’t want to put it down, and I didn’t want it to end. McCulloch really dives into the nitty-gritty details of (predominantly English) language change since the early days of the internet. The way her dual roles of linguist and internet person play off each other makes for a productive and fun-to-read exploration of her topic.
In various ways, McCulloch explores the role the internet has come to play in our social lives, and, of course, how its existence has affected the way we communicate with one another. She categorizes the various types of internet users and considers why each group communicates in its own particular way online: e.g., why older generations so often use ellipses (…) and other repeated forms of punctuation to separate thoughts (turns out this was quite common in earlier iterations of informal written language, like letters and postcards), while youngsters just hit “send” after each distinct utterance, almost defeating the purpose of using any punctuation at all. Another highlight is her deep dive into what “lol” actually means these days, in all its nuanced complexity—because, as you’ve probably noticed, it very rarely indicates the literal act of laughing out loud. “Lol” can be used to create a passive aggressive tone; it can be used as a subtle request for empathy; it can soften a moment of confrontation. If any of this sounds even mildly interesting to you, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Because Internet—even if only to give you a few solid anecdotes for the next time a boomer asks you to explain millennial texting etiquette.
Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty
The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher
Julie Schumacher brings back Jason Fitger, the hapless academic hero of Dear Committee Members. Now Fitger finds himself chair of an English department under siege from the forces of evil, embodied by a predatory Department of Economics. This novel isn’t quite as fall-off-the-couch funny as the first, but still a most entertaining read, and very attuned to the practical challenges of teaching literature in the 21st century. For example, a couple of students registered in Fitger’s Literature of the Apocalypse class threaten a lawsuit because the depressing reading list was “detrimental to their mental health.”
I Am A Truck by Michelle Winters
Quirky and strange tale of a Francophone couple whose lives are turned upside down when the husband suddenly disappears from his Silverado truck. Winters presents their dialogue in untranslated joual, but it somehow works even for a reader like me with only rudimentary high school French. Some very bizarre and deeply funny moments, especially as Agathe discovers “le rock and roll."
Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury by Sigrid Nunez
A lot of fine readers I know really liked Vanessa and Her Sister, a fictional recreation of the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. But I resisted it, for some reason. I often dislike fictionalized biographies of my literary heroes – though David Lodge’s efforts in that genre are exceptional. However, when tidying shelves in the store during the Christmas rush, I stumbled upon a new title by an author I love, Sigrid Nunez.
It’s a slim volume called Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, and it makes a nice companion piece to Nunez’ previous work of recent fiction, The Friend, which is about a loving relationship between a woman and a dog, but the book is also a nod to Woolf’s own Flush, an imagining of the life of the spaniel belonging to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
There’s a lot to love in Mitz. The portrait of the daily domesticities of the famous marriage in its final years. The heartbreaking backstory, saved to the end, of a South American monkey snatched from her forest home and subjected to dreadful suffering. The fine detail of the loving care Mitz received from Leonard Woolf – she lived inside his jacket, picked dandruff from his scalp and was exceedingly jealous when Leonard showed physical affection to his wife. A sketch of background events in the lives of the Bloomsbury group in the years when war clouds gathered, including the heartbreaking loss of Vanessa’s son Julian in the Spanish Civil War.
But for me, most thrilling section of the book is Nunez’ imagining of what it might have been like to be the writer that Virginia Woolf was:
“One morning while she was working in her studio in the basement of Tavistock Square, Virginia put down her pen, aware of a faint vibration, as of some deep nerve being plucked. She leaned forward, she held her breath. The eerie and rapturous feeling that something was about to be communicated to her, as from another world. She half closed her eyes and she waited. What came: a muffled music, like distant horns; a soft rising and falling, a rhythm to which she matched her breathing when she breathed again. Looking round her studio, she saw a kind of haze over all—and the next instant her mind took flight: people, houses, streets, landscapes, weather, seasons, friendships, passions, fates, patterns, necessities—
A new novel.”
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Five Wives by Joan Thomas
I hardly know what to say about Five Wives. I didn’t love it, I
didn’t enjoy it, but I certainly admired it. What a magic trick
Thomas pulls off here! She takes the true story of five American
missionary families in the 50s – people who embody to me
colonial arrogance, cultural insensitivity and misguided self-
righteousness – and somehow makes them interesting and
complex, even sympathetic. How does she do it?
Her research seems very solid of course, but more than that,
her very fine intelligence, her attunement to the spirit of the times,
and most importantly, her open-mindedness somehow make it all
work. And the novel’s saving grace (irony intended) is how the
missonaries’ evangelical certainties are questioned in the second
generation and outright rejected in the third. There’s a quote from
Wade Davis in the Author’s Note -- “Other cultures are not failed
attempts at being you” – that I think can be read both as a
judgment on the so-called “martyrs” of Operation Auca, but also as
a warning to the reader, not to judge these people by the standards
of the present day.
The Porpoise by Mark Haddon
The story starts in the present with a pretty icky family situation then plunges into the mythological ancient world with a brief sidetrack to Shakespearean London. It took me a while to get into this novel by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but once I did, I was totally entranced, hooked and reeled right in. Immensely powerful, dramatic and satisfying.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
There There by Tommy Orange
Perhaps this novel of urban indigenous life in Oakland falls into the category of what James Baldwin calls the “protest novel” – less a literary work than a “catalogue of violence.” Certainly the fraught life stories of the different characters in the first half of the book are bleak, violent and sad. When the characters gather at a powwow, the suffering and chaos that result seems almost inevitable. My possibly heretical concern with this very well reviewed and much awarded novel is that it reads at times like misery porn, and brings to mind a cynical comment in Rooney’s Normal People about “culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
For me, Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water and Medicine River, and Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce do a much more nuanced job of telling the story of indigenous peoples in the modern world.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
If you read this novel properly, it will change your life. Powers takes some of the ideas put forward by Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees and introduces a group of nerdy, odd, and lonely characters who come together in the process of understanding the profound interdependent relationship that exists between humans and trees. One magnificent tree that the eco warriors try and fail to save has remained in my heart and memory like a family member I’ve lost. This book is a game changer, the first truly spectacular eco novel. A must read.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes
It’s a good feeling to tuck into a novel and know I am in the hands of a master. And that was certainly true with The Only Story, which describes a love affair between a callow nineteen year old youth and a 48 year old woman, married and mother of two. It’s the voice that hooked me, this confessional sly self deprecating yet oddly passionate and sincere voice of the young man, asserting that this story, this love story, is the only story worth telling. Here’s an example of Paul’s views on adults, too long to quote in entirety, but I’ll provide a sample: “What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening, the spectacles they wore and the spectacles they made of themselves….” And he goes on for another several hundred words, hilariously.
It surprises Paul that the girlfriends of his peers don’t welcome his relationship with a much older woman: “You might have thought – mightn’t you? – that a girl or young woman in her early twenties would be rather encouraged by the notion that something exciting might happen to her nearly three decades on” but instead, the young women “reacted much as their parents would have done: alarmed, threatened, moralistic. Perhaps they were looking forward to being mothers themselves and imagining their precious sons being cradle-snatched.” Their disapproval doesn’t stop Paul from remaining devoted to Susan, however. For as long as he can manage it, at least. It’s hard not to like Paul, not only for his voice but also for his devotion to the woman he loves. If the last half of the book sags a bit under the bitter realities that the lovers face, it’s still a great read. The Only Story might not be the only story as far as this reader is concerned, but still, it’s a pretty engrossing one.
Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Wow! Two winners of the Booker Prize this year!
Stock for Girl, Woman, Other immediately sold out everywhere, but will be back in stock after Nov. 5th. Lots and lots of The Testaments on hand!