Mike Steeves' first novel, Giving Up, has been much talked about and lauded in the past few weeks. It's a coming of age story in a loose sense about a couple who came to adulthood with great expectations, but who are forced to come to terms with their own limitations: "James is obsessed with completing his life's work. Mary is worried about their problems starting a family, and is scared that their future might not turn out as she'd planned. In the span of a few hours on an ordinary night in a nondescript city, two relatively small events will have enormous consequences on James' and Mary's lives, both together and apart."
In this list he shares some more titles that also loosely (which is to say interestingly) fall under the "coming-of-age" umbrella.
No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod
MacLeod’s publisher had to coerce him into turning over the manuscript for his great and only novel. The painstaking care he brought to his prose is evident on every page. A Proustian reverie of a man visiting his alcoholic brother in his dilapidated apartment and casting back through his memory to the tragic death of his parents, his upbringing in impoverished Cape Breton, working in the mines of Northern Ontario, and his arrival into middle class comfort. Probably the best Canadian novel of the last 50 years.
Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson
Anne Carson’s breakthrough verse novel. An examination of adolescence using the structure of Greek myth. Carson employs the metaphor of monsters and monstrosity to devastating effect, tracking the painful experiences of a young boy named Geryon who finds himself cast on to the rough fringe of society.
Runaway, by Alice Munro
The second story, "Chance," is enough to recommend this superb collection. It may not be her best, but it was my first introduction to her work so it holds a special place for me. It’s hard to articulate what’s so affecting about the story of a young academic taking a train, but something momentous takes place between the lines on the page that marks the exact moment where the protagonist passes from innocence to experience.
Execution Poems, George Elliot Clarke
George Elliot Clarke’s Execution Poems tells the story of George and Rufus Hamilton (Clarke’s cousins), two black men in New Brunswick who were hanged for robbing a cab driver. The poetic suite excavates this sordid story and somehow creates a work of tragic beauty, full of slang and Shakespearian brilliance. Clarke has provided a much needed corrective to the often ignored history of race in this country, and shows how far off we still are from leaving behind the disgrace of slavery in North America.
Louis Riel, by Chester Brown
A remarkable book. First rate storytelling paired with gorgeous drawings. Brown gives the broad strokes of a complex history and paints a portrait of Riel’s developing political and spiritual consciousness. In the appendix Brown explains how he used the historical material—where he compressed time, or conflated characters, or elided an event to speed things along—which could serve as a "how to" guide for anyone looking to write a historical narrative.
From the 15th District, by Mavis Gallant
Mavis Gallant has the ability—like all great short story writers—of covering a novel’s worth of material in twenty thousand words or less. In this collection, her focus is on the lives of Europeans living through the cataclysmic wars during the first half of the twentieth century. The pleasure—if you can call it that—is reaching the end of one of these stories and seeing how far Gallant has brought you along, how much the characters have changed since the beginning of the story, and how you—the reader—feel as though you have passed through the same bitter experience as the characters.
The Withdrawal Method, by Pasha Malla
A remarkable book of stories from one of the best writers in the country. The story "Big City Girls" is the most clear-eyed examination of childhood sexuality I have ever read. But in every story, the author brings his considerable moral imagination to bear with fantastic results.
Let’s Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson
Come for the thrilling and beautiful sentences—stay for the brilliant and profound analysis of aesthetics and taste. Carl Wilson’s classic rumination on the enduring appeal of Celine Dion is a master class on music and art. But most surprisingly, it’s a moving account of the author’s transformation from callow youth to mature, sensitive, and generous young man.
Mike Steeves lives with his wife and child in Montreal and works as a fundraiser at Concordia University. Giving Up is his first novel.
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