Category Archives: Newfoundland author

This is the Cat, by Berni Stapleton

ithisisthecatEven the most compulsive overreader would be hard-put to read every book published by a Newfoundland author every year, but I try to get through a good cross-section of local fiction. One thing that always mystifies me is why some books seem to fly under the radar, getting far less acclaim and attention than (I would think) they deserve. Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat is one such book. Most Newfoundlanders probably know Stapleton best as an actor, comedian, and playwright, but her fiction debut shows she’s got significant talent in this area as well. 

This is the Cat tells, in short chapters and snippets of e-mail, the story of Bridie Savage, who lives the life of a modern-day Newfoundland artist, existing from contract to contract strung together with long threads of Employment Insurance to keep her balancing in between. She’s currently in an ongoing argument with Service Canada because they claim that her benefits are “exhausted,” although, as Bridie points out, her benefits aren’t nearly as exhausted as she is. Interspersed between chapters from Bridie’s point of view and her emails with Service Canada and others are chapters narrated by one of Bridie’s two cats, who is enjoying the latest in her long series of incarnations, and happy to have finally found a means to communicate with the outside world through Bridie’s Come-Pewter (the cat’s syntax and grammar leave much to be desired, but her insight and wit are on-point). Oh, and let’s not forget the ghosts inhabiting Bridie’s downtown St. John’s house, and the prostitutes camped out at the end of her street — all these characters and many more parade through this vividly detailed, funny and poignant story.

I think one of the keys to writing a story with quirky, fantastical elements (like ghosts, and cat narrators) is to keep the real-life elements as believable and grounded as possible, and this is where I feel Stapleton really shines. Anyone who has had a protracted battle with any kind of bureaucracy will be able to relate to Bridie’s Service Canada emails, but beyond this, the fact that Stapleton has lived the life of a working artist in this city for many years really shines through — even when the details of Bridie’s working (or non-working) life are clearly exaggerated for humourous effect, the author’s knowledge of the world she’s writing about shines through. It doesn’t necessarily come across as autobiographical but as “write what you know” in the best and truest sense: take what you know well and use it as a jumping-off point to explore the fantastical, including a cat who once lived with Cleopatra and is now using your computer to create an online dating profile for you without your knowledge.

The quirky main human character and her animal narrator invites, in my mind, comparisons to Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise, another witty and unusual local book that won acclaim and awards when it was released a few years back. I’m surprised This is the Cat didn’t get the same level of attention, as in my mind it certainly deserved it. While I know that Stapelton keeps pretty busy on stage, I hope that she (and possibly her cats) find the time to return to the Come-Pewter for more fiction before too long.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

Found Far and Wide, by Kevin Major

Layout 1Years ago, I noticed the interesting fact that one of Newfoundland’s greatest maritime disasters — the great sealing disaster of 1914, in which nearly 80 men perished when stranded out on the ice for two nights — occurred in 1914, a few months before World War One started and hundreds of Newfoundland young men went overseas, many to die in the trenches on the Western Front. I wondered if any men who were survivors of the sealing disaster subsequently went off to fight and die in the war, and thought of how interesting it would be to write about a character whose life intersected with both these events.

In fact, the life of Kevin Major’s main character in Found Far and Wide, Sam Kennedy, touches not just on these two events, but also on the 1920s era of Newfoundlanders working on the high steel in New York City, run-running during the US Prohibition years, and Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s work in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Sam’s a bit of a Newfoundland Forrest Gump in that sense, on the scene for so many key events of our history, but he’s no happy-go-lucky schumck like Gump. Sam’s a pretty intense guy, and it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what motivates him. The events he lives through and experiences are depicted in vivid and memorable detail (I especially liked that the war experience we see up-close through Sam’s eyes is not the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, which has been written about so much by Newfoundland writers including Major himself in other works, but the earlier and lesser-known Gallipoli battle). The man himself, at the heart of these great occurrences, remains a bit of an enigma — perhaps to himself as much as to the reader.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

Art Love Forgery, by Carolyn Morgan

artloveforgeryCarolyn (no relation) Morgan’s first novel, Art Love Forgery, illuminates a little-known true story from Newfoundland history, embellished with details from the author’s imagination.

The facts: a European artist named Alexander Pindikowsky painting murals on the ceiling of the governor’s mansion in St. John’s, in the 1880s. Pindikowsky was in prison at the time for forging cheques, and was permitted to reduce the term of his sentence by carrying out artwork for the governor — under guard, of course. At some point, Pindikowsky married and had a daughter with a Newfoundland woman named Ellen Dormody. Little is known beyond that, but you can see how that would be more than enough to pique a novelist’s imagination and get her itching to create the rest of the story.

In fact, author Carolyn Morgan has only recently come to fiction, having been for most of her career a visual artist. Her background not only explains her knowledge of and interest in Pindikowsky’s story; it also shines through in the lovingly detailed descriptions, not only of Pindikowsky’s murals but also of Ellen’s millinery creations, and most tellingly, the process of creation for both characters. For a story that takes a little-known oddity of local history and fleshes it out into a story with fully rounded characters and period detail, Art Love Forgery is a great read.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

The Money Shot, by Glenn Deir

Layout 1The Money Shot is one of several novels coming out in the next few months or so that I have some insider knowledge of: it was one of the strongest entries in an unpublished-novel contest that I had the honour of judging a couple of years back. Glenn Deir’s tale (although I didn’t know it was Glenn Deir’s then, as the contest was blind-judged) of an unscrupulous, back-stabbing local news reporter was a wickedly fun romp from start to finish. When I found out that the author was someone who had considerable experience in that world of local journalism, I knew that even if The Money Shot is not a roman a clef about the local CBC station (and you kind of hope it’s not, because you’d hate to think your evening news is being brought to you by anyone as awful as Deir’s antihero, Sebastian Hunter), still, there’s got to be some kernels of truth there.

The Money Shot is a scathing, funny, wicked look at the world of local TV news: more cut-throat than you might think. It’s a page-turner and a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Humour, Newfoundland author, Uncategorized

Allan Square, by Shirley Murphy

allansquareStill with my project (see the review, below, of Greg Malone’s You Better Watch Out) of reading through memoirs about growing up in St. John’s, Shirley Murphy’s Allan Square was another one that made me pause and read it all the way through rather than skimming. This was not because, as with Malone’s book, it was a such a well-constructed piece of literature. Murphy’s prose style is breezy, conversational, and anything but literary — but it is compelling and highly readable.

When this book was first published it caught my attention (though I didn’t read it at that time) because my husband also grew up on Allan Square in downtown St. John’s, albeit a couple of decades later than Shirley Murphy did. Pretty much any story of growing up in that neighbourhood is going to be a story of growing up in at least some degree of poverty, and in Murphy’s case that poverty was sometimes extreme during the years of the Depression and the Second World War. She is also pretty frank about describing her family dynamics, which ranged from neglectful to downright abusive. What kept me interested is that there’s no sense of “Oh, poor me, I survived a childhood of such hardship” in this memoir. Rather, the breezy and often funny tone seems to suggest, “Life on Allan Square was pretty awful a lot of the time, but that’s life, isn’t it?” Interwoven with perceptive and sometimes funny details of everyday life at the time, Murphy’s story was a surprise hit with me.

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Filed under Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Writing Out the Notes, by Bob Hallett

writingoutthenotesAlthough (see my last post) I had been on-and-off reading a memoir by Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett’s “Great Big Sea” bandmate of many years, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to pick up Hallett’s Writing Out the Notes if I hadn’t been looking specifically for books about life as a musician in St. John’s. There aren’t a lot of such books, and the glimpses Hallett provides into his early life and musical influences were really helpful to me as I was researching the local music scene for my own current book.

This is not a memoir in the same sense that Doyle’s Where I Belong is; readers looking for a detailed account of Bob Hallett’s life are looking for a book he didn’t write. Writing Out the Notes is, instead, a collection of short vignettes, mostly about music and the influence both listening to and playing it has had on Bob Hallett. In the edition I read, the subtitle was Life in Great Big Sea, and a sticker had been added with the words and other musical misadventures. As you can see from the cover image here, it seems that a subsequent edition of the book corrected the subtitle without the need of a sticker. If you’re looking for behind-the-scenes tales about life in Great Big Sea, you’ll find very few of them here (although the tale of the band’s German tour, early in their career, will offer a few good laughs). Rather, you’ll find a working musician’s thoughtful reflections on listening to and playing music, and probably (if you also love music) a few things you can relate to.

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Filed under Canadian author, Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Mister Nightingale, by Paul Bowdring

nightingaleThe latest book by Newfoundland novelist Paul Bowdring was one I did not want to miss. Mister Nightingale is the story of a middle-aged Newfoundland writer, James Nightingale, returning to his home province after living in Toronto for many years. His marriage has ended, his books are modestly successful, and while he takes some time out to reconnect with old friends, his university-aged daughter, and his aging father, Nightingale reflects on where life has taken him and what he’s actually accomplished.

There’s a lot of reflection here — this is not the book for anyone who wants a fast-paced, plot-driven story. If I’m comparing it to other books I’ve read in the past few weeks, the comparison that resonates most is between James Nightingale and Sripathi Rao from The Hero’s Walk. Both are men in later middle life whose lives have, in many ways, disappointed them, men who feel they have not fulfilled their own early dreams or others’ expectations of them. However, as Nightingale is a writer, there is the added layer of artistic angst, which means that he not only struggles with the meaning of his artistic vocation, what it has achieved and whether it was even worth pursuing — but also that he does so in stunningly beautiful language.

This is a novelist’s novel, a book for people who love words. It’s also a fun read for anyone who knows and loves St. John’s, Newfoundland and its literary scene, which is the main reason it floated to the top of my overcrowded “to-read” list. Apart from the general caricatures of the local scene and the loving evoked details of the city, there are a few characters that are pretty clearly (and in some cases, hilariously) based on thinly-disguised real people. Another strand of the novel that will strike a chord with many readers is Nightingale’s relationship with his elderly father, Malc. Malc, who lives in a long-term care facility, occupies that marginal space around the edges of actual dementia that is so familiar to those of us who have dealt with aging loved ones. Sometimes his conversation is completely sensible, only to be replaced seconds later by non-sequiturs that show how far he’s strayed from the present-day reality.

I’ll admit there were aspects of this novel’s plot that I didn’t find entirely believable or satisfying (particularly one major incident near the end of the book), but in the end, this is not a novel to be read for the plot. This is one man’s reflection (Nightingale’s and, perhaps, Bowdring’s, though I always try to be careful in speculating about how autobiographical a writer’s work is) on what it means to be a writer, what it means to be more than halfway through your life, and what it means to go back to the place you came from. A reflective and well-written book, and often quite a funny one as well.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author, Uncategorized