Aritha van Herk Recommends George Melnyk


Third Person Plural
by George Melnyk
with a Foreword by Aritha van Herk

Genre: Essays

First Person Plural by George Melnyk is a collection of essays on the subject of identity and self-image. The book begins with the author’s personal memoir as a Canadian of Ukrainian heritage who arrived in Canada from a “displaced person” camp after the war. It also studies similar questions of identity and image as they affect other persons, including the Serbian-Canadian novelist David Albahari, artists Natalka Husar and Marie Elyse St. George, and Leonard Cohen. Other essays deal with the bombing of Hiroshima as portrayed by Japanese manga comic books, and the perception and image of movie stars like Marilyn Monroe. Numerous photographs complement the essays.

P1010330 George Melnyk is a cultural historian and essayist. First Person Plural is his 26th book and it continues his essay publications that began with Radical Regionalism (1981), and then continued with Beyond Alienation (1993), New Moon at Batoche (1999) and My Mother is an Alien (2003). George is the author of the two-volume Literary History of Alberta (1998-99) and numerous books on Canadian cinema, including One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (2004) and Film and the City (2014). He lives in Calgary, where he teaches at the University of Calgary.

Why I recommend this book:
This collection of essays, a meditative gathering that focuses on images and their affect, connects characters as disparate as Marilyn Monroe and Leonard Cohen with George Melnyk himself. In the process, he examines how images project and protect identity, and how we come to understand ourselves through images.

The book’s epigraph, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, declares, “Everyone has three lives: a private life, a public life and a secret life.” This interesting premise is augmented by other lives, George Melnyk’s visual life, textual life, and visionary life; and these writings throw his projections onto the shadowed screen of individuality and community.

The most interesting and effective motif in these essays is Melnyk’s conflictedness about his Ukrainian roots, his admission that he is part of a triple diaspora, and thus has been pulled in multiple directions. He says, “My escape into western Canadian identity was a conscious way of avoiding the problematic past and its ongoing iterations in contemporary Ukraine.” This “hiding/revealing” informs both the content and the approach of the essays. He confronts directly why he for a long time repressed his Ukrainian heritage and the effect his family’s displacement and migration has had on his choices and his intellectual enthusiasms. His sense of being an outsider, “of being ashamed of who one was,” delineates the profound reverberation of subtle alienations.

These essays are written with Melnyk’s straightforward style, his bluntness both unusual and disarming. They are best when he is personal, when he looks intimately at those images that compel our attention, whether they are photographs of Marilyn Munroe or of himself as an infant, sees himself as the stateless refugee, “Melnyk, Urii Roman,” on his way to Canada. That is a powerful platform from which to investigate his fascination with art and image, the play of history and fiction.

These essays are most compelling when they dare to investigate what matters to an individual and his reading of himself. In his projection of the personal, Melnyk succeeds in living that Kroetsch line of “unhiding the hidden” even while he dons another disguise. He says, “The essays hold up a mirror to different parts of me—my ethnic self, my artistic self, and my new regional self. When I combine them into a single self I become the kind of western Canadian I am today.” His yearning to imprint himself “onto a known geography” ventures into the unknown with a journey that collapses the familiar and the strange, and that engages with both known and alien geographies. He becomes the “kind of western Canadian” who embodies then our doubts and our determination, our archive and our aspiration. And what could be better than that?

Links for people to buy the book:
Frontenac House
Alpine Book Peddlers

Aritha van Herk 88 Guest reviewer’s latest title or project:
I am working on a book about Calgary, and a place-biography of Robert Kroetsch.

From The Alberta Award of Excellence site: Aritha van Herk is an acclaimed author, teacher and mentor who has made significant contributions to the canons of Alberta and Canadian literature. Her work has enriched the lives of readers across Canada and around the world, helped to shape a generation of writers and fostered a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Albertan. Aritha van Herk’s work to enrich the lives of her fellow Albertans and Canadians includes her eloquent and ardent contributions as an advocate for the arts. In 1983, she joined the University of Calgary’s Department of English where she helped to develop the school’s nationally and internationally regarded creative writing program; she played a key role in the development of Canada’s first English PhD program in Creative Writing. Aritha’s reputation as a professor and mentor is one of exacting standards tempered with the compassion, guidance and insight young writers need to develop their craft. Many of the students Aritha has worked with at the U of C have gone on to become productive and celebrated Canadian authors in their own rights and they all acknowledge her guiding hand as an important factor in their success.

Sharon Butala

Sharon3 Sharon Butala

What is your latest release and what genre is it? A novel: Wild Rose, published by Coteau Books

Quick description: Sophie is a young Quebecoise who comes west in 1884 to homestead with her new young husband Pierre in hopes of escaping a life she finds stifling and in search of freedom. But by the time their son is three Pierre has deserted leaving her destitute, with no one to turn to and with a child to raise. Determined to hang onto her dignity and her integrity and to save her child from a blighted life caused by her failure, she takes every ounce of her courage and intelligence and all her physical strength, and slowly makes her way, honourably, on her own in a mostly hostile and unforgiving environment, one that leaves no margin for mistakes. On this hard road she learns, finally, what it takes to be an independent, whole woman.


Brief biography:
Sharon Butala is the author of seventeen books. Wild Rose is her seventh novel, she has published three short story collections and seven works of nonfiction, the best known of which is probably the bestselling memoir The Perfection of the Morning (HarperCollins Canada, 1994). For more than thirty years she lived on a cattle ranch in southwest Saskatchewan but a year after her husband Peter’s 2007 death she moved to Calgary to be near her grandchildren and there she remains. She has won many prizes and awards for her work, including the Marian Engel Award and most recently, the Kloppenburg Award for Literary Achievement. She has been invested in the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and is an Officer in the Order of Canada.

Links to buy Sharon’s first name book:
It is obtainable from: Coteau Books (follow the links) or from your nearest independent bookstore, in Calgary: Shelf Life Books, Pages in Kensington or Owl’s Nest Books.

Sharon’s promo links:

What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a novel set in the present whose protagonist, Gen, is sixty-five, facing retirement and struggling to finally remember, admit to, understand, and integrate a confusing and troubled past while also dealing with the lives of her grown daughters, AND a work of non-fiction with Simon and Schuster called so far, Taking On the Day about women and aging, which is a memoir to follow the story told in The Perfection of the Morning.

Readers might also be interested to know that there is a manuscript of the rest of Sophie’s life from Wild Rose on that might some day be published too.

Sharon’s reading recommendation:
I am currently reading several of the batch of fall novels and I think so far I have most enjoyed Dianne Warren’s Liberty Street (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.)

Fred Stenson

I’ve known Fred Stenson since I managed Sandpiper Books in Calgary, when he first came into the store to promote a new book he had edited, Alberta Bound: Thirty Stories By Alberta Writers. And, oh-my-goodness, the memories of that time (1986) have just come flooding through when I looked up the link to the book, which is still available used but is no longer in print. (Perhaps a good utilization of the new technology of eBooks would be to breathe life into great collections such as this one. But, I digress …) I’ve followed Fred’s career and have read his books ever since that time, and I know him to be a gentleman, a caring soul, a writing instructor and mentor, very, very supportive – and a fine writer! So I am particularly pleased to feature Fred Stenson on ReadingRecommendations and bring his writing to the attention of all my blog readers. smt

photo by Greg Gerrard

photo by Greg Gerrard

Fred Stenson

What is your latest release and what genre is it? A novel called Who By Fire

Quick description: A dangerous sour gas plant is built close to a family’s farm in Canada’s Rocky Mountain foothills. The plant malfunctions and poisonous sour gas flows down the slope and endangers the family and occasionally kills livestock, reminding them of the lethality of the situation. The story is how this changes the family and the community and determines the family’s fate from then on. The youngest son becomes an engineer and finishes his career in the Alberta oil sands, running the sulphur unit in an upgrader. Problems of loyalty have followed him all his life, and he has never found a healthy way to deal with that problem.


Brief biography:
I was born on a southern Alberta farm in a situation similar to that depicted in the novel, though the characters are not patterned on my family or myself. After this farm upbringing, I pursued a career as a novelist and freelance writer. Except for frequent travels, I have lived my adult life in Alberta, Canada, in and near the city of Calgary. Who By Fire is my sixth novel and ninth work of fiction (three story collections). I have two adult children from a first marriage and live in Cochrane, Alberta (near Calgary) with my wife, Pamela Banting.

Links to buy Fred’s book:
The novel is published by Doubleday Canada. It is available at: Chapters/Indigo stores or through Chapters/Indigo on-line – Hardcover and Kobo – eBook; and at Amazon – eBook and Hardcover. Most Independent Bookstores in Canada will carry the book, including: Shelf Life in Calgary and McNally-Robinson in Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

Fred’s promo links:

What are you working on now?
I am doing some commissioned work at the moment, but will return to fiction soon. I have several books in mind, some partially completed. Of the latter, one novel is set in the movie industry, where I worked for a time. Now that I’ve written a contemporary novel, Who By Fire, I’m not in a hurry to get back to historical fiction. A contemporary novel, maybe even one written in first person, appeals to me.

Fred’s reading recommendation:
A kind of New Year’s resolution was to up my reading. I’ve always read avidly, but I wanted to read more and catch up on some classics I’ve missed along the way. In that way I have been reading the novels of the Norwegian Nobel winner Knute Hamsun (Hunger, Growth of the Soil, Pan) and a couple of Doestoevsky’s works: The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot. Of contemporary novels, some of the recent reads that have affected me most include: City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, The Disappeared by Kim Echlin, and the novella Grayling by Gillian Wigmore.