Better Read Than Never: Katherena Vermette’s THE BREAK

Credit to for this image, and for choosing The Break for their Best First Novel Award — but buying from a local bricks’n’mortar bookstore is a virtue.

[7-minute read]

I grew up next to the Six Nations of the Grand River, played hockey and ball with guys off the Rez and then came high school. All the “upper-ender” kids came to Caledonia High School, so I was in class with them and added Native teammates and friends via football and basketball. (Phys. Ed. efforts with the webbed stick told me I was way too far behind to even try to play lacrosse with the Porters and Logans and Thomases.) Had we known the term, I might have described myself as “woke” when it came to an understanding of, and empathy and affection for, Indigenous people. I would have been wrong, of course.

Travelling across Canada after graduation, I got off a bus at the Winnipeg terminal in 1977 and didn’t know where I was. This is Canada? I was 19. My tenderfoot experience hadn’t prepared me: this was an assault to the senses and my small-town sensibilities, a sudden exposure to realities that most non-Indigenous Canucks, more or less actively, ignore or suppress. At the simplest level, it was the first time in my life where *I* was the ethnic minority, and my skin tone also made me (or my pockets, which were far from deep at the time) a target for desperate panhandlers. It was a pathetic carnival of faces ravaged by addiction, poverty, listlessness, need and other forms of oppression. My first grim sight of Winnipeg looked like a war zone, minus the helmets and artillery.

I was a young white Canadian. I had a lot to learn.

I still do.

Katherena Vermette’s The Break, set in Winnipeg’s North End, could be called my most recent bit of instruction if that didn’t insult the art of the thing. I was a little slow to that party, too, three years after this startlingly strong first novel made a national splash on Canada Reads. (Disclosure: three years late in getting to a novel is pretty good for me. Though a CBC Radio devotee, a part-time lit-wit and former English Creature, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to CR, and now, like so much of what we took for granted, it’s semi-cancelled.) But that makes it a perfect candidate for my Better Read Than Never series. Hurray.

The Old Smiling White Guys Book Club (not its real name) that I tag along with has been a delight. It pushes us to read fiction that stretches and challenges us, and the conversations have been, well, thrilling is not too strong a word. (I was so hungry.) We’re about a year in, and I think it was January’s conclave where one of us reported that he was being sweetly goaded by his partner: Where are the women on your list? Where are the writers of colour? The group responded with a bravery and openness that are characteristic. At the same meeting where we gulped, sat up straight and agreed to an extra meeting where we’d open the door to POETRY, fer gawd’s sake, we also agreed that our next novel would be The Break. We all knew about it, all felt it was something we really should’ve gotten to in the Age of Reconciliation, but none of us had. So: March. Let’s give ourselves a shake.

Well, *I* was shaken, before I even cracked the cover. I was visiting a dear buddy, someone who has found, for many years now, a wonderful sense of community and spiritual consolation in exploring the Anishinaabe (Mississaugas) part of his heritage. He is battling a rare cancer now. We sat in his den, catching up with each other. He explained his treatment protocols. He listed all the support that sustained him. He showed me the stack of textual nourishment on his coffee table.

“Hey! K, I’ve been looking for The Break. You finished with it?”

He wasn’t. He couldn’t continue, even though the bookmark sat at page 272. “It’s not that it’s not well done. She’s really good. It’s just, ah, it’s too hard.” I was amazed. He could put down a novel he’d invested in deeply, that he was, what, 50 or 60 pages from completing? That’s some pain.

Katherena Vermette brings the pain.

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A.L. Kennedy (on rewriting and joy and justice)

Wendy-joon, who doesn’t Tweet – who doesn’t even write much, that I know of – is nonetheless a chronically well-read haunter of libraries. If you see her driving ‘round town, you may see a slightly open-mouthed look of attention on her face, an intense calm, if she’s listening to one of the books-on-CD that is among the 7 or 27 that she’s borrowed from her local branch. (Libraries! What pillars of civilized living they are!) And now that I’m officially an Automobile Owner again, she even has me hooked on the habit of listening to books. Yesterday, a 20-minute stick-shift errand turned into a two-hour drive because of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, but that’s not what this post is about.

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

My Wendyful friend wouldn’t let me leave her home the other month without A.L. Kennedy’s On Writing. Stephen King’s same-titled look at the scribbling life was great, and I was up for another even if I’d never heard of Ms. Kennedy. She’s a wordsmith and often a funny one, but her artistic aim is true. Much of the book is simply a collection of her blogs on the writing life over a few years. They’re short, witty, wise, and not infrequently they draw blood.

So now I’m a Kennedy fan, though I’ve never read any of her six collections of short stories or half-a-dozen novels. She also teaches creative writing, an activity about which she is amusingly and reasonably doubtful. Yet as she went back to start a new term at Warwick University, she focussed on the delights of the job. One of those deep pleasures, in the midst of the general deafening solitude of her writing life, was the mere collegiality of the thing, the fellow-feeling, being among others for whom word-spinning is also bread and hearth and home.

The second great delight, she says, is in re-writing.

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Better Read Than Never: COURTENAY’s The Power of One

The Real Nelson Mandela, being sworn in. (Not Morgan Freeman.)

Sometime during the weeks following Nelson Mandela’s death, I started thinking of The Power of One, a novel that had meant a lot to me in the early ‘90s. (In a fit of bad poetry, I once wrote, “The loneliness birds are croaking…” and feared and heard them often that decade. I still do, sometimes, though I now remember that those birds were inspired, if not stolen, from the novel’s narrator.) Among the many articles and tributes that I read to Madiba, there were references to his enjoyment of boxing as a young man, and the things that he had learned from it. Right! And The Power of One is set in South Africa, centred on the boxing obsession and exploits of a white boy, and wait, wasn’t there a black man in prison who inspired his fists and his mind? I went looking, and found a free on-line torrent (okay, my wife did), but I didn’t really get into this second reading until I was holding a paperback copy. I could say it was an unconscious desire to respect author’s rights, but it was mainly a bibliophile’s bias. I like the feel of 500 pages between my fingers.

The Power of One was a first novel by Bryce Courtenay, an Australian advertising executive who wrote the book as a mid-life challenge¹, setting his adventurous and spiritual and polemical – and, I wasn’t surprised to discover, highly autobiographical – story in his native South Africa. This rambling tale, which he’d planned as a “practice novel”, sold millions. I liked it.

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Better Read Than Never: FALLING MAN

Got DeLillo? Here he is, somewhere in New York City.

Not everybody gets Don DeLillo. If you don’t pay attention to the contemporary art of the novel, you may not have even heard of him. Presto! That’s why I’m here today! Mr. D. is in the pantheon of current American fiction writers. Literary fiction, that is – this is not a “page-turner”, and he’s no Dan Brown. (That would be like comparing Vincent Van Gogh to the guy who makes the blue outlines for the old “paint by numbers” craft sets.) And I’m no DeLillo expert: of his major, and often hefty, acclaimed novels – White Noise, Mao II, and the famous Underworld – I have read precisely none. I tiptoed into his work with a comparatively slender novel called The Body Artist. It was clever, admirable stuff, a bit morose, and I don’t remember much about it. It left me cold, or maybe I was there to begin with. I may, however, need to read it again.

My recent second voyage into DeLillo Country was his 2007 novel Falling Man, the post-9-11 book he hadn’t intended to write. I found it on a remainder shelf in a mega-bookstore back home in Canada, next to a non-fiction book by Martin Amis in the same historical vein: The Second Plane. I was trawling for all-things-I-can’t-get-in-China, and not only were these two volumes a few cultural steps higher than the Harvey’s burgers and Baskin-Robbins cones I’d been gorging myself on last July, they also seemed fated together to increase my lugging for the next month’s return trip to China. And here’s why The Body Artist might deserve a second look: Falling Man is a novel I’ll be thinking about for a long time, one that I immediately started re-reading once I’d finished. How did he do that? It’s brilliant, but also an accessible introduction to a challenging writer.

See those towers? On the left, the back jacket, peeking through clouds.

We later find that one of the central characters is Keith Neudecker, a thirty-something lawyer and lover of games. We first meet him, though, as he staggers down a New York street. The novel opens like this:

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Better Read Than Never: THE ALCHEMIST

It’s just a short stroll. Painless, really.

There was a year, back there somewhere in the early oughts, when it seemed everybody was reading Paulo Coelho’s short novel, The Alchemist. First published in Portuguese in a small late 1980s print run, it became first a Brazilian and then an international literary phenomenon. More copies were sold than live in my country (my home country Canada, that is, not China!). Perhaps it was the contrarian in me, maybe it was just a case of distraction, or it is conceivable that something in the breathless reaction some people were apparently having (and the frenzy with which it was bought) that put me off it. Sometimes ignorance and bias aren’t all bad.

I should’ve liked it. It is a story that speaks unabashedly of spirit, of living simply, of pursuing extraordinary dreams, and while I’m no great exemplar of them, I can enthusiastically get with these ideas.

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Better Read Than Never: HOW TO BE GOOD

Twice during our China sojourn we have vacationed in Thailand. We went not primarily for the sun (though warmth in the midst of a northeastern winter was good), nor for the sights and the great food (both gorgeous and easily found), and certainly not for the sexploitation of Bangkok (not goin’ there). My wife and I, and even our almost-equally word-nerdy son, look forward more than anything to the books. In Chiangmai, a northern city we first visited in 2010 for sun and historical ruins and support for elephant preservation, we found several shockingly good English bookstores. This past February, we lugged about 40 pounds of books out of there, eventually shipping them home to Dalian.

I was a Nick Hornby fan, based on the reading of only one novel, High Fidelity. Poring through numberless shelves of the kind of books (in the kind of shop) we can only dream of in our middling Chinese city, I was arrested under the H by a new Hornby title: How To Be Good.

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Read, However: The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

I can’t say this one was “better read than never”, which faithful readers of this site expect my book reviews to be (sub)titled. I don’t really know why I read it, although I did like the cover photo of a summery small girl leaping into a river, even more than I disliked the magenta cast of the author’s name – REBECCA WELLS – on the front and the full-back-jacket glossy of the writer. The dust jacket of the book fairly screamed Back away now, Howdy, this ain’t meant for the likes o’ you, but it was in my bedroom (ah, the price of marriage is a sometime surprise!) and I was tired and I never meant to actually finish it and besides I’d heard of Ms. Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and thought I’d do a little slumming in the bestseller swamp. Arrogance is bliss, too.

By the way, the book is called The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, 

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I’m a fan, but I still haven’t read the best known books. His Wonder Boys sold well and was turned into a box office success with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire at the wheel, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for Michael Chabon. Yes, and there was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, too, which won the double-crown of speculative fiction, the Hugo and Nebula awards. My first awareness of him might have come in buying a hardcover version – on clear-out from Books on Beechwood, a great little Ottawa bookstore – of his young adult novel Summerland, which had a superbly whimsical dust jacket to go along with its super-nifty title. (Mini-review: if you like any two of children, baseball, goodness, and fantasy-without-swords-or-dragons, you’ll like Summerland. Three or more? Home run. I went four for four.) Then came what made me a Chabon fan, the marvellous non-fiction of Manhood for Amateurs, but that’s not the subject of this review, either. (Real quick? Men who can read, should. He thinks heartily about many things needful for males. Funny, too.)  He’s good, alright.

I write, though, of Chabon’s first novel, published when he was 24, started before and completed during his M.F.A. tour of writing duty In California.

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A Planet, Several Moons and a WORLD

My reading list is always long, all the more so now that, just for fun, I’m doing a university course in 20th century American fiction: Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Pynchon, Morrison, et al. I have some definite gaps in my life reading list. To clear my path to the Excited States of Narrative, I eagerly finished another novel by one of my discoveries of the summer, a Scottish writer named Andrew O’Hagan. Our Fathers was filled with beautiful writing and memorable characters, and his Be Near Me took me far away from Ottawa. Amazing stuff, really. The incidental descriptions of youth, education, social mores and fads are wonderfully quotable, and I will be using them.

Even more interestingly, before I could dive into the short stories of a youthful Ernest Hemingway for class, I had to finish another labour of love and annoyance. Annoying, because it was a first novel by another mid-20s writer, while mine remains on the dream shelf. Lovely, because the author is not only Canadian, he’s a home boy, my eldest son’s good buddy Jon. The world he has invented was beginning to hatch when Jon August McRae was in my grade 11 Writers’ Workshop in my home town high school. How cool is that, friends and (long-distance) neighbours? As long as I can restrain the muttering, teeth-grinding excesses of envy – which, fortunately, is most of the time – it is delightful to have read speculative fiction of such depth and quality from a kid who not only lounged in my living room but doodled during my English class.

At 16, Jon was drawing and scribbling and mentally living the fantastic lives of Jupiter and Io. (To tell the truth, as fine a writer as he was even then, Jon didn’t ace the course. He had some incomplete assignments, because he knew what he wanted to write and it sure wasn’t The Business Letter.) And he never entirely stopped, to the point that the first novel in his Lost and Found Souls series is out, the second is growing in his lap-top and sketchbook, and the narrative of the third novel has been roughed out.

And guess what? Io: First Book of Lost and Found Souls is a terrific read. It is a richly-imagined world with its own history, language conventions, and mythology. I mentioned Jon’s sketchbook because I am certain, knowing his drawing talent and the novel’s majestic descriptions, that he has already drawn these places, characters and events. It is a world of noble and ignoble Lords, sorcerers and causes, and young Io and his intended bride, Jupiter, are swept up in the chaos of rivalry, exile and war.

I’d heard about Io from time to time, and I ordered it immediately when Young Whippersnapper McRae bashfully let me know it was available. I felt bashful, too: there was no doubt Jon’s former writing creature was going to buy the book, but what if I hated it? Jon is well-nigh family, after all. I sighed with grinning relief not long after cracking the plain black cover, because I knew I was in good hands only a few pages in. It was no surprise that Jon could write, that he could craft some fine sentences, but I was no less impressed for all that. His descriptions, especially of place, are remarkably good; they come from an author with a full toolbox and a great eye, who has seen these places and not just once.

Where are we? We meet Io and Jupiter first as young inhabitants of a walled city in a medieval world. His father is a hunter, her daddy is a morose and mysterious blacksmith. There are whispers of disloyalty, rumours of siege and, before long, hints that there are more than workaday talents at play. When Io and Jupiter, out of juvenile curiosity and recklessness, bluff their peasant way into the castle of Lord Adrastea, they are caught up in political currents and occult powers – some of them, their own – that lead to the separation and suffering of these two loving young friends. One is imprisoned, one is exiled. One tries to survive as an enslaved gladiator, one comes under the tutelage of a nearly silent sorcerer. Each becomes more central to the battle for the city-state of Adrastea, and the broader struggle for power in the entire kingdom of Askasha. There is a palpable, though sometimes confusing, history to this place, and we are led to care about the events there, as well as the personalities that enact and witness them.

And it’s not literary candy. The language is rich, and the interior landscapes of the main characters are serious and detailed, though sometimes challenging to penetrate. The action sequences are full of colour and sensation, though there were times I felt lost. For example, a sudden outbreak of violence, fairly early in the novel when the young Jupiter and Io do bloody battle to earn themselves their respective punishments, confused me. I wasn’t sure what they were fighting, and especially why. This incident is key to creating the movement of the plot, but perhaps too lurchingly. Some of this mystery is intentional, I’m sure, for both Io and Jupiter – get the astronomical hint? He is a moon to her, and not the opposite, as we might expect in swords and sorcery – are also confused by the forces that drive and transform them. The dialogue occasionally gets a little stiff and long-winded, as can happen in fantastic medieval worlds.

Yet McRae has a good ear for dialogue, too, which shows especially in bantering conversations between Io and his cousin Ganymede. (Yes, it is another moon of Jupiter. Two points for you!) There is almost none of the awkwardly explanatory dialogue that one might expect from a youthful first-time novelist. In the conversations, in the historical depth behind each character and event, and especially in the visual depiction of this time and place, this book conjures a world that a reader can inhabit and feel. By times, I wanted just a little less pre-history and geographical detail; it reminded me a bit of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in that way. Sometimes the narration got dense. The novel certainly wants a map, and I suspect that Jon August McRae has drawn several of them that are not available in this early edition.

Jon describes this self-published effort as a “zero print-run” edition to a speculative fiction series that he will continue to pitch to mainstream publishers. I hope it is someday able to appear in full, cartographically illustrated form, because it is good, good stuff. Io rewards a thoughtful reader, and if you like fantasy – there are full-bodied echoes of the best of Tolkien here, too – you’ll be impressed by this maiden voyage. While the book awaits a more fitting publication, you don’t have to wait. It’s easy to order your own copy of a well-imagined adventure (and a decidedly unusual love story) by simply e-mailing the author at . I recommend it.

Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers

FDA (full-disclosure alert): that title is a false lead and a limping excuse to drop my current favourite band name into this and nearly every other conversation. Buddy is a Newfoundland band, three guys that play a mixture of goofy, hearty and sentimental songs from down home. (They would seem to have a solid touring career, playing across the Maritimes and for the Newfoundland diaspora all over Canada.)

But that’s not what I’m writing about. (And I haven’t even heard the lads play, so that’s all I have anyway. Reminds me of the opening to a Cockburn song: Woke up thinking about Turkish drummers / Didn’t take long, I don’t know much about Turkish drummers / But it made me think of Germany and the guy who sold me cigarettes / Who’d been in the Afghan secret police who made the observation that it’s hard to live…) Buddy reminds me that I listened to a trio of terrific Canuck writers last night at the local LitWit extravaganza, one of whom was a rumpled, denim-clad Newfoundland writer named Kenneth J. Harvey.

For son Will and me, Harvey was the intriguing highlight of the evening. Faded jean jacket, flushed cheeks under several days growth of beard, a plain black ballcap pulled low over his eyes, he looked the part of the shy, beery, but soberingly clear-eyed Buddy over in the corner, down to the local Legion Hall. I knew little about him, other than that he’s just now becoming widely-known in Canada despite quite stunning “writer’s writer” international praise for over a dozen books. The guy’s a writing machine, though perhaps not an eager seller. Even by Newfoundland standards, he keeps a low profile (he lives in an outport), and didn’t do terribly well with the excerpt he read from his new novel Inside. (Maybe it was his cold.) But the lead character, an old ex-con, started to become real in my head anyway, and in the following Q&A, Harvey was by turns blunt and eloquent, raw or funny, and always and distinctively himself. We bought the book. We bought him.

The Other Fellers are superb writers, and better performers. Steven Heighton is a prolific and adventurous writer (the new novel is Afterlands, an acclaimed re-creation of the harsh aftermath of an American North Pole expedition) and as cowboy-handsome as he is serious. His was the only book I didn’t buy last night – my library groans with unread but enthusiastically purchased books – though a previous Heighton reading had inspired me to buy his poetry, which I never do. He requires himself to write riskily, to drive himself batty but fascinated by not knowing where he’s going, by writing without a map or a safety harness. I could learn from that. I am.

Trevor Cole is a guy I’ve been meaning to read since Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life was short-listed for the 2004 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. It was his first novel, and I happened to be writing happily, feverishly and anonymously for the GG herself at the time. I was intrigued (and royally ticked off) by his “overnight” success; it turns out, though, that he’d been a prominent magazine writer before that, if one paid any attention to business, which I emphatically didn’t. (And in other news, I confirmed in the signing line last night that my bride’s vague memory of having gone out with Cole once or twice was true. Long ago, friends. No, my competitive irritation comes from his having made the jump to hyperspace so far ahead of me.) Perhaps more important (and more interesting!) for you to know, he’s one of those rare authors with a radio voice and real performing skill. His new novel is The Fearsome Particles, which sounds great, and not only because of his acting. He’s a fine builder of sentences and characters, with turns of phrase that are inventive and often deliciously wry. Because I’m cheap, and because I think this might be a writer I’ll follow closely and therefore feel the obsessive and über-controlling need to read him in sequence, I bought Bray in paperback.

This was one of the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s series called “Writing Life”: three snippets of new books and an engaging conversation with and among the three people who made them. It’s been another good Feast of Words and I’ll be dining again tonight. And if you like writers and writing, you can hear some of the best Canuck authors reading their stuff on a cool new site. (My pleasure.)