Tag Archives: Scotiabank Giller Prize

André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs


Hermes and Apollo are having some beers in Toronto. As they leave the bar, they make a bet: Any animal with human intelligence would be more unhappy than humans. The wager: one year’s servitude. If only one creature is happy at the end of its life, Hermes wins. This is the premise of this short novel by André Alexis, the winning entry of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Of course the statement of that bet will lead to an argument about whether what was meant was being happy at the very moment of passing away…

Because they are close to a veterinary clinic as they are having this conversation, they decide to bestow “human intelligence” on the fifteen dogs that they find in the kennel that night.

All around the kennel, dogs woke from sleep, startled by strange dreams or suddenly aware of some indefinable change in their environment. Those who had not been sleeping – it is always difficult to sleep away from home – got up and moved to the doors of their cells to see who had entered, so human did this silence feel. At first, each of them assumed that his or her newfound vision was unique. Only gradually did it become clear that all of them shared the strange world they were now living in.

One of the dogs figures out how to unlock his cage. Others dogs do the same or are helped out of their cages. Twelve of the dogs decide to escape and leave the premises as a group.

The dogs develop different a way of communicating, with a more elaborate language that is theirs only. Humans cannot understand it, nor can other dogs. One dog even composes poetry.

Humaneness messes up with their canine nature and disturbs the normal negotiation of dominance between dogs. A lack of tolerance for difference leads some of the dogs to murder the ones by whom they feel threatened.

One dog leaves to escape the violence and finds a human family. He learns to communicate with the female master. This will lead to tragic consequences.

At some point, Zeus is upset about the gods’ interference with life on Earth and asks them to stop it, which may be as effective as asking children to stop wanting candy.

I thought this book made a quite imaginative use of animal characters. It is also quite humorous, with funny descriptions of mischievous Greek gods having beers in Toronto pubs.

As I was reading this book I was asking myself what if this story had been written about 15 cats, or 15 horses, or 15 rabbits (oh, wait, it’s 150 already)? In fact, the gods of the story do raise this question…

– It would have been different if we’d given cats this so-called intelligence, said Apollo.

– It would have been exactly the same, said Hermes. What we should have done was give a human the intelligence and capacities of a dog.

– I’m tired of this business, answered Apollo. Let’s talk about something else.

And what if all coincidences we see in life, all accidents, all unintended consequences where just the results of some random bets by the gods?



Alexis, André. Fifteen Dogs. Coach House Books, Toronto, 2015.

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Heather O’Neill, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night


As I was reading this book I kept being thrown back into the mood and atmosphere of my graduate sociology studies. And I kept wondering why. And it was somewhat uncomfortable. It took a late night conversation with my husband to put my finger on it. And there are a number of reasons.

First, the book is set in what seems to be the first half of the early 1990s. This was a very intense period in my life. I was a graduate student, worked as a teaching and research assistant, lived alone in Montreal, was involved in a very intense relationship, and worked very hard on figuring out the next steps in my life. It seems to be a period in which every impression and every emotion had a very sharp edge… I don’ t think that any other period of my life had that intensity, or not for such a prolonged period.

Secondly, it reflects some aspects of Montreal that I am not currently in touch with given where I live and work, although I did have a glimpse of other lives in the past. My life, as it is, is definitely sedate and suburban, very much removed from funky urban possibilities. Did I forget those even exist?

Thirdly, I found myself somewhat asking myself whether Heather O’Neill had any right to write a book set in Montreal, with French-Canadian protagonists, given them a voice in English, except for the odd French expression, and swear words, finding their way in dialogue. And indeed, how does she have the right? Well, she does… Her narrator does not distance himself from the characters and does not judge them, playfully accompanying those characters in their adventures, idiosyncratic choices, and showing us the peculiar world they are living in, through the eyes of Nouschka Tremblay, raised on Saint-Laurent boulevard, in the heart of Montreal, but significantly on what is a boundary between two worlds, sitting on the fence, so to speak.

I will be talking more about the book in the coming days.

I selected it in part because it was on the Giller Prize long list, but also because Heather O’Neill interviewed Eleanor Catton at the Drawn and Quarterly bookshop on September 21. Well now, the book has made the short list, and we will have to see whether it lands the Prize… Out of the 3 books from the long list that I chose to buy, 2 made it to the short list.


O’Neill, Heather. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. Harper Collins, Toronto, ON, 2014.


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Thursday Night Ramblings: Long Book Titles Must Be In Vogue Or Something


This is the time of the year where I am just itching to buy more books (yes, more than I do usually). It’s literary prize season. So I have been looking at what is getting some attention out there and I am ready to take on new authors and do more exploration of contemporary fiction. Here is what I have picked up based on long lists or short lists as the case may be…

Man Booker Prize:

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (7)

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves (6)

National Book Award:

Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See (6)

Richard Power, Orfeo (1)

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2)

Scotiabank Giller Prize:

Padma Viswnathan, The Everafter of Ashwin Rao (5)

Shani Mootoo, Moving Forwards Sideways Like a Crab (6)

Heather O’Neill, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (6)

So the mode is 6 (Stat 101 anyone?); I was too lazily to compute the average. The median is 6 as well. I thought that was in interesting factoid.

I also stocked up on some highly touted offerings of the French “rentrée littéraire”, which all happen to be far more economical title-wise:

Emmanuel Carrère, Le royaume

David Foenkinos, Charlotte

Eric Reinhardt, L’amour et les forêts

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, L’île du Pont Némo

This collection promises some good times, in addition to my other quirky choices for no good reason like the authors I systematically read, the attractive design or cover art, the cute author, or the promise of a really dismal dystopia.

Sunday Night Ramblings: After a binge of Giller Prize short-listed books, what next?


The past two weeks featured reading focused in the Giller Prize short list. I managed to read Lisa Moore’s Caught and Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again because the final gala and I finished Craig Davidson’s Cataract City the week after. I did buy the rest of the short list, but it is actually my husband’s Christmas present so I will have to be a bit patient and give him a chance to read Lynn Coady and Dan Vyleta before I can get my hands on those books. And don’t worry, he does not read my blog so it’s unlikely he will find out.

As I was travelling last week and had to endure some business-travel-related boredom and need to escape, I bought the lastest Robin Cook novel, Nano. I thought that might worth a read, an exciting mystery featuring cutting-edge technology… except I have read way too much of that genre in my life and I really did not find anything new in this book. In fact, much of the plot and characters seemed like a transposition of Coma, the book that contributed to putting Robin Cook on the map. While I added some words to my vocabulary, such as microbivores and respirocytes, the weak plot and even weaker characters (the womanizing boss!) were really disappointing. This does not mean I will never ever buy another Robin Cook every again… but it might take a while.

One author I have not read much is Tom Clancy. Given he died recently, his name has come back to my attention. I did love The Hunt for Red October and I remember reading some of it on a quiet day when I was temping for an air-conditioning company back when I was eighteen. I do have a question though: Do you have to read the Jack Ryan novels in order and can one start with the lastest novel published in 2012? The nerd in me says “better read in the right order”…

In any case, I did go back this weekend to the novel I was reading before the Giller called for my attention. So my head is back in Estonia with Sofi Oksanen and Lorsque les colombes disparurent. The question that comes to me right now, as I am writing, is why the title talks about doves (“colombes” means doves) when the German officers keep eating pigeons in fancy restaurants in Tallin. Maybe it’s because the doves have all gone… literally as birds and source of food, as well as symbols of peace. This book is certainly fascinating, with its exploration of the intricacies of life under successive totalitarian regimes and the struggles to survive of ordinary citizens, resistance fighters and collaborators.

I was also in the middle of P.O. Enquist’s Hess, about Rudolf Hess, which fits in nicely thematically with the Sofi Oksanen book. But there are some many more interesting books awaiting me on the shelves, in addition to work-related books about learning, leadership, change management and diversity… My, oh my, so much choice…

And the Montreal book fair will be on this week and I plan to go at least on Friday, but who knows… I might end up spending some of next weekend there as well.

Craig Davidson, Cataract City


This book will take you for quite a ride! It is a story of a life-long friendship between two men who take very different paths in life but whose common origins keep bringing back together. In particular, having survived an ordeal (being taken into the woods by a madman who then dies in the middle of nowhere) creates bonds that nothing can destroy. Even though the one who becomes a police officer is instrumental in the second being arrested and put in jail… And who does the second call to pick him up when he is released? And who helps him orchestrate revenge on the crook who contributed to his arrest? The Cataract City of the book is the underbelly of touristy Niagara Falls, with its residential working class neighborhoods, its small-time crooks, its seamy businesses and the survival strategies of all involved. When the two protagonists, Dunk and Owe, get lost in the woods a second time, I did not thing they would make it. But they are not the kind to curl up into a ball and wait to die, so they kept going.

This complex tale is woven from two points of view, Duncan’s and Owen’s, with their mixed loyalties, rich relationships and minor betrayals. In Cataract City, life is hard, but so are some of its inhabitants. Hard in their lack of fear, lack of forgiveness, and their dogged pursuit of a better life.

Of the three short-listed books from the 2013 Giller Prize that I read, this one comes closer to being winning material, in my humble opinion. However, it did not win, as Lynn Coady’s collection of short stories Hell Going did. Now I guess I’ll have to give that one a shot too.

Dennis Bock, Going Home Again


This is my second read from the Giller Prize short list, a short novel whose protagonist is a middle-aged man with a teenage daughter who just separated from his Spanish wife. After living in Spain for 20 years, he returns to his native Toronto to start a new language school and extend the business he has been successful in growing in several European countries. This return home is an occasion to reconnect with his estranged brother, who is also going through marital woes of his own. And an old love with a complex history resurfaces and stirs up old feelings. This novel illustrates a number of questions such as where is home, what is love, how does it differ from friendship, what is the true nature of our relationships with family members, what do kids really understand of their parents’ troubles, to what extent do partners really share information about past history, what makes a solid home, what does success mean, etc. This goes much beyond the first level of the story which may appear to be about midlife crisis. While the plot may look somewhat simplistic (our protagonist eventually goes “home” to his wife), the book is more about the complexity of the multiple interactions and meanings each life is built from than it is about plot.

Lisa Moore, Caught


In preparation to the announcement of the winner of the 2013 Giller Prize on Tuesday, November 5, I am doing a pre-Giller reading binge. I bought three of the short-listed works: Caught, by Lisa Moore, Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock, and Cataract City, by Craig Davidson. I had not yet read anything by any of the authors whose works were nominated to the short list this year. Since last year, I had only read the winning entry after the announcement, I thought that his year, I should get into it a little bit more and discover more authors.

So far, it’s been pretty good. I have usually liked the books I have picked from the Giller short list, with one exception that we don’t need to name here. I’ve managed to finish Caught, and I am 65% through Going Home Again.

Lisa Moore’s Caught reads like an adventure novel. It tells two parallel stories. First there is David Slaney, an escaped convict who is reconnecting with the childhood friend who first contributed to getting him in trouble to have another run at bringing in a huge load of marijuana from Columbia. Second, there is law-enforcer Patterson who is trying to catch him and on whose success depend a possible promotion and raise that would help him take care of some personal obligations, one of which is the long term care of his mentally handicapped brother. The end is not much of a surprise, as there are many warnings that it will happen, and David gets caught again. He ends up spending another 20 years in prison.

The character of David Slaney is fascinating. While he is shown in a scene where he must negotiate the price and transfer of the load of marijuana in Columbia as a wily negotiator, he is certainly not a hardened criminal. He abhors violence and is greatly concerned with everyone’s safety. In fact, one must wonder about the reasons why he got involve in this kind of activity in the first place, apart from the challenge associated with it and the influence of his childhood friend Hearn for whom he has a deep love and sense of obligation. The latter feeling, in my opinion, is unwarranted and certainly not reciprocated by Hearn.

David’s constant longing for freedom and his fear of having to return to prison does not seem to drive him to walk away from the whole deal. He feels driven to stick to his word and forge ahead to the bitter end. In their first misadventure, Hearn got away by jumping bail. A twist of faith, an illegal move by the police, causes him to not undergo trial for the second misadventure. After that, David does not maintain contact with Hearn and does not answer his letters.

In last chapter, he gets out of prison and finds his way to Hearn’s office at the university where he is a professor of English. He does not knock on his office door and does not make contact with him. He returns to his mother’s house from where he will have to build a new life. The sadness that fills this character throughout the book of very touching. The author provides a very thoughtful description of the complexity of human sentiments and the messiness of the consequences of life choices. Caught is therefore far more than an adventure novel, it is also an exploration of the depth of the human soul, caught in treacherous undercurrents of events that one, in the end, does not control.

419, Will Ferguson


2012 Giller Prize winner. A story based on cases of fraud known as the Nigerian scam. Have you ever received an e-mail from someone claiming to be a Nigerian person of importance in need of assistance to get a large sum of money out of Nigeria? The scam consists of having the gullible target pay some fees in the process of getting the money out. I have also received a similar message from someone claiming to be a lawyer from Malaysia. If you do a quick search on the web, you will find many examples of these scams. A blog I ran into also talked about how the so-called Nigerian scam was not always perpetrated by Nigerian nationals but by people from a variety of locations.

In Will Ferguson’s story, the scammer is in Nigeria and we see the events unfold from his point of view as well as that of several others in Nigeria. We are also told the story of a Canadian victim and his family. The victim’s daughter travels from Calgary to Nigeria to confront those she perceives as responsible for her father’s death. She returns from this trip with a new understanding of what may have driven her father to act the way he did and with some degree of acceptance of for the way things turned out instead of the anger that had originally filled her.


Ferguson, Will. 419. Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2012.