Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

February 21, 2010

Reading Canada: Jade Peony vs Moody Food

Alright, Round 3 of my attempt to get through all ten books on the Canada Reads and Canada Reads Independently lists by March 1st.  It’s going better than I thought!  Not only am I making actual headway (though with 4 books to finish in the next week it might not look that way) but the order I’ve chosen to read the books in, based on a complex grab-the-book-nearest-you system, is causing the books to form neat little pairings that bring out like themes.

Jade Peony and Moody Food, for instance, both turned out to be books for boys.  I’ve always been sensitive to gender roles in literature, probably because I’ve always felt that my favored brand of tough-girl heroine-ism is chronically underrepresented.  I go into every book looking for that strong-headed, righteous girl to cheer for and follow, and in both Nikolski and Wild Geese I certainly, refreshingly, found it.  By Good to a Fault and Hair Hat I’d descended into the realm of prissy and confused self-victimized women, and now in Jade Peony and Moody Food I find women have vanished altogether into the background.  Don’t misunderstand me: both books are perfectly fair to women in most respects, but it isn’t really about them.  These are books about boys.

Jade Peony, set in Vancouver’s Chinese community in the 1930s and 1940s, depicts life as seen through the eyes of three Chinese-Canadian kids who are forging new hybrid identities.  Aside from the perils of the immigrant experience coupled with the usual agonies of adolescence, we have extra tensions provided by the Second Sino-Japanese War followed immediately by World War II.  Though issues of immigrant identity and coming-of-age are certainly boy’s and girl’s issues, the addition of the wars into the mix fixes the characters’ focuses into men’s territory: Us vs Them, Politics and Enemies, Upheaval and Independence.  The three major women in the book, Jook-Liang, Poh-Poh and May, all have great potential as leading literary ladies but instead they are the sacrificed, the aspects of society which have to bend and give in the wake of war.

Liang’s story was probably the weakest of the three for this reason.  She is told she is good for nothing and though she resolutely resists the idea of limitation she nevertheless is treated by Choy as a tiny innocent lens through which to tell the story of the Elders of the community.  She has no agency whatsoever in her story’s climax, when her Monkey Man is taken from her to play a basically political role in returning bones to China. For the remainder of the book, she is relegated to the background where she lives an apparently typical teenaged Canadian life.

Her grandmother, Poh-Poh, is certainly a stronger force in the book but nevertheless represents the outgoing traditions and beliefs.  She is briefly vindicated as a ghost in Sekky’s story, but it still took her death and disappearance to bring that about, and ultimately her death is the catalyst that brings Sekky out of the woman’s realm and into the bad world of boys, fights, soldiers and adventures.

Poor May is the ultimate casualty of the boy’s world.  I won’t utterly spoil the book for you, but her fate hardly seemed to be her own.  Instead it was the byproduct of the fights, the enmity, the side-taking and the wars.

I did, however, love the book.

I can’t say as much for Moody Food.  This book was so far off into the boy’s world that I seriously considered somewhere around page 60 handing it off to my father to read for me.  I felt very strongly right from the beginning that this wasn’t a book intended for me.  “Buckskin” Bill and Thomas Graham’s descent into drug-fueled musical ecstasy was, right from the beginning, a teenaged boy’s fantasy taken too far.  To Robertson’s credit , the only people who seem unaware of how utterly immature Bill and Thomas are being are Bill and Thomas.  The supporting cast are rolling their eyes from the very beginning.  Late nights, early mornings, drinking binges, wacky hyjinx, harder and harder drugs and, through it all, the search for musical epiphany – man, I knew these guys in high school.

But Robertson didn’t invent the genre and what he’s portraying seems to be an actual decade of male hormones allowed to run rampant.  This book drove home for me why I’ve never really liked the idea of the 60s.  For a decade that spawned so much positive change – women’s rights, minority rights, environmental awareness, social liberalization, individual freedom – the actual stories on the ground so often seem to be undermined by the participants’ inability to actually understand what they were doing.  The positive changes seem like afterthoughts of the central experiment, which was to live a life of hedonism.  The great hangover of the 60s seems to have come when a generation of teengaers finally woke up one morning and realized they had to actually work for change.  And so most of them hung up their hats and gave up – because effort, puh, yah right.

So my distaste for the setting was not Robertson’s fault.  But I have at least one bone to pick with him, and that is over the treatment of Thomas and Heather’s relationship.  At first it’s pathetic and seems doomed to fail, but as the book turns darker the relationship grows abusive.  Only once does the narrator takes his eyes off the thrilling story of Thomas long enough to cast judgement on what he’s doing to his girlfriend, and the result is two airy half-pages of reflection and no action before we go back to the story.  And this is before Thomas starts Heather on the road to hard drug dependence.  Where is everyone else?  Okay, we can buy that Bill is too strung out and spineless to stand up to his idol over the treatment of “his” woman, but Christine?  Kelorn?  Slippery?  What’s going on here?  Why is everyone content to let this woman be the sacrifice to Thomas’s musical genius?

Moody Food is definitely at the bottom of my list for this challenge so far.  It was engrossing, a genuine page-turner, and uncomfortably evocative of a seriously messed-up time.  But so very not my thing.

Counting down the days and pages – two more pairings to go!

February 10, 2010

Reading Canada: Good to a Fault vs Hair Hat

Welcome to Round 2 of my Reading Canada marathon in which I attempt desperately to read all five Canada Reads 2010 books, as well as those for Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads Independently over at Pickle Me This!  I’m actually half way there, have previously read two of the remaining books, and am about to take an 11-day vacation by train out to the East Coast – so things are looking good!  I may hit that target yet.

Good to a Fault and Hair Hat were both books that, not long ago, I would have found off-putting.  I came to think of them affectionately as “the two books starring a lot of people I hate”, but this is in no way criticism.  Endicott and Snyder are describing people in painful, vulnerable, warts-and-all detail that highlights the best of the novel writer’s craft.

Carrie Snyder showed an especial talent for directing me to the very heart of a character with a mere observation of his or her lifestyle – “sandwiches made with fluffy white bread, cheese and iceberg lettuce that hadn’t yet gone brown in the crisper”.  Or the man who leaves six cents tip every day, convinced it must add up to something – he’s not sure what, but something.  These throwaway details spoke volumes about the people she carves.  I am not a devotee, typically, of the short story and so perhaps this ability to cut to the heart of the matter with expert thrusts is typical of the art.  But for me it was refreshing.

Also refreshing was the length of the book.  I don’t mean this, again, as criticism, but instead as an eye-opening observation.  I’m used to reading long, dense books which so envelop the reader that by the time you’re finished with it you feel like you’ve been in a three-week long coma.  Snyder’s short, sparse book sparkles by comparison.  I didn’t get caught up or lost and put the book down with the same feeling of discovery that I started it out with.

Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault painted a different kind of portrait of unlikable people.  On the one hand we have the Hard Done By Family, tied firmly to your heartstrings by three children who, despite their upbringing and background, are innocent bystanders in life, capable of barely credible feats like repeated re-readings of Vanity Fair at age ten – something we are to suppose any kid could do if only given the opportunity.  On the other hand we have the Meek and Boring Spinster who takes on responsibility for the Hard Done By Family in a reflexive act of something, possibly Goodness.  To make sure we don’t get too Hallmark an impression of her characters, Endicott deconstructs Clara’s goodness as a kind of selfishness and the Gage family’s vulnerability as somewhat self-inflicted, by pride if not by deeper faults.  Then, once we feel both sides are thoroughly blemished with Humanity, she props them both up with a kind of pragmatic gumption and lets you think they might all be Good after all.

I enjoyed the book, though not, I think, because of Endicott’s moralizing but instead because I never believed in an objective goodness in the first place and could just enjoy the simple story of three kids getting a better kick at the can than perhaps they might have got to begin with.  For me, this was a satisfying story of money put to good use.  Clara wasn’t using it, and I found her “hardships” pretty petty compared to the improvements made for the kids.  Maybe this was my inner mommy taking over my reading, but once the children were introduced, everyone else’s personal drama ceased to have any relevance.

I’d like to now address my confusion with its blurbs and reviews.  I have heard several people refer to the book as a “painful read” and the quote from Elizabeth Hay on the front cover of my copy also led me to expect the kind of story that makes you wince with sympathy for the main characters: Hay tells us we’re about to embark on a discovery of the fine difference “between being useful and being used”.  I find this assessment baffling.  If anyone was using anybody, Clara was using those kids to get some meaning in her life.  And it seemed to benefit them, so who loses in this scenario?  Seemed pretty win/win to me.  I wonder if maybe I was supposed to feel that Clara was more hard done by than I did?  Was I supposed to feel bad that she had sleepless nights and a dirty living room?  Or that her phone card got charged up when she herself refused to cancel it?  I missed it, in any case.  I didn’t see any “being used”, just “being useful”.  There was no Fault in the Good done in this book, as far as I can see.   This is one book I look forward to hearing the official Canada Reads debates on – I really wonder if I missed the point.

This was an enjoyable two weeks of reading!  Jade Peony is off to a off to a good start as well, and I think I’ll dip into Moody Food over my vacation.  Until next time!

February 5, 2010

The New Canadian Library Experiment

I’m fond here at Inklings of reporting on uncontrolled bookselling research I’ve engaged in.  It makes me feel as if I’m contributing something – data – to the debate while hiding my sometimes abrasive opinions behind lightly biased but more or less substantiated findings.  And this, certainly, is a subject I’ve had passionate opinions about in the past which I seek to see vindicated in numbers.

The New Canadian Library (hereafter, NCL) was founded in 1958 at McClelland & Stewart during Jack McClelland’s famous (infamous) regime as a response of sorts to the cheap and portable classics serieses available of American and British backlists.  The idea was to provide cheap reprints for, largely, the college market, in order to support and further the study (and therefore legitimacy) of Canadian literature.  I won’t give you too thorough a history; an excellent history of the series’s early years is available from Janet Friskey, New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years, 1952-1978, while Roy MacSkimming’s Perilous Trade also contains a good account.

What concerns me is the recent history.  In 2009, McClelland & Stewart relaunched NCL, putting the old pocket-sized and inexpensive editions out of print and replacing them with fancy new trade paperbacks at a significantly higher price point.

Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising - $12.95

The launch was celebrated as a Very Good Thing in honour of NCL’s 50th birthday, but I can tell you that from this corner of the world at least, the transition was a source of a great deal of anxiety.  It wasn’t clear right from the beginning what would be kept in print and what would be vanishing, and for a period of about a year it became difficult to get any kind of quantity of some very important titles as they had been put out of print in the old edition but hadn’t yet made it to the new one.  The increased price on the edition was also not something the academic community wanted to hear about.  These editions were intended right from the beginning to serve university students who don’t want to pay 50% for a fancy redesign.  Over a flurry of emails and phone calls we gathered that someone felt that a redesigned prestige book would get better face time at the big book chains, and would add to its saleability in the general trade market.  We academic types would have to just suck it up because the people wanted prettier books.

Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising - $19.95

These titles have been on the shelf now for roughly two years.  We dutifully stock every single title available.  Let me tell you how the new adventure is working out for us.

We have only sold two copies of any NCL title outside of the context of a university course:  Two Solitudes, and Wild Geese.  The Wild Geese, by the way, was sold to me for my Canada Reads Independently reading.  You read that right.  One “real” sale in two years.

The books are, however, still stocked to supply Canadian Lit course lists.  These are unquestionably the bulk of our NCL sales.  I am looking right now, in fact, at 45 copies of the giant new Diviners by Margaret Laurence which have been sitting unsold since September.  Our sales of this book this year have been abysmal.  In 2007, we sold about 150 copies of the old, $12.95 edition to classes totaling 290 students.  That’s about 52% of the students – a typical number for a book which is widely available in used book stores.

This year?  We’ve sold 30 copies of the new $22.95 edition to a class of 120.  That’s 25%.  Now, there’s no way to know why the students are so shy this year – it could be any number of things.  But I know they take one look at that big purple tome and turn ashen.  Students have breaking points when it comes to buying books – how hard they look for another way to find a text is directly related to the price & weight of what they’ve been told to get.  A little, cheap book they’ll buy without too much thought, but throw a big fat expensive book at them and they balk, pull up their socks and get out there to find an alternative.

Who wins under this scenario?  My impression is nobody does.  The very admirable aims of Roughing It In The Books not withstanding, I don’t see an NCL trade paperback able to compete with the trade front lists of McClelland & Stewart’s parent company, Random House of Canada.  They are more expensive, the print quality is lower (they look good in .jpg, but they’re printed on the same cheap newsprint paper that Penguin’s cheaper classics are on), and they get basically no advertising whatsoever.  I can’t believe the publishers don’t know this, which leaves the possibility that they’re just trying to milk more money out of the market they did have, the universities.  But they’re kidding themselves if they think both the professors and the students aren’t counting pennies.  They can just assign fewer books, or use the libraries.  There’s a sweet spot in academic pricing and “in line with frontlists” isn’t it.

This is on my mind with our year end (and returns season) in sight.  I find myself wondering how things look to McClelland and Stewart.  Are Chapters, Borders, Indigo and Amazon carrying more copies of the series?  Are they selling them?  At the mouth of Canada’s largest university serving a large percentage of the Canadian literature students in the country, I feel confident saying they’ve hurt their college sales.  Was it worth it, guys?  And Canadian Literature, that beleaguered old underdog, is it stronger or weaker for it?