Once & Future

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

February 25, 2011

Wild Books I Have Known

Steph at Bella’s Bookshelves recently published a lovely post about “37 books that I’ve known and loved enough to feel a sense of familiarity and affection when I see them on my shelves.” It got me to thinking about my own personal reading attachments, especially in light of the fact that for the last few weeks all I’ve been able to bring myself to read is Frank Herbert’s Dune chronicles, for probably the 10th time.  A devoted reader is lucky when on that rare occasion a book grips her enough to really get lost in it, forming an attachment for life that’s hard to describe in terms of any other media, except perhaps film.

In my own experience, I have only really fallen in love with one or two books every couple of years.  Even that, though, amounts to quite a number of books – so I thought I’d offer an even more specific list.  I was thinking about what books formed me. Not “which books were my favorites” or “which books are the best”, but which books really and completely seized me and changed the way I thought, or changed the direction of my life.  I look at them, and have to wonder: those people who don’t read – and there are a lot of them – what forms them? Because god knows who I would be without books. Nothing like me. And god knows who I would be without these specific works.

What about you?  What are the books that built you?

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

My mother read this book to me for the first time when I was six, and it terrified me. I don’t remember being terrified – I remember being a little bit alarmed by Fenris Ulf – but apparently I was alarmed enough that my mum stopped reading at this point and didn’t come back to it for the rest of the year.

But she did eventually read them all to me, and then I read them again myself, and again, and again, and again. I was so convinced that Narnia was a real place and that with enough determination I could get there that I absolutely obsessed night and day over it. I read the books in painstaking detail looking for clues about how to get there, or evidence that The Last Battle was in fact a forged work by the White Witch designed to fool us into thinking Narnia wasn’t there anymore so that we (read: clever and adventurous children like myself) would stop showing up. I had every bit of Narnia paraphernalia you could name, lions were my favorite animal, and I even tried to read Lewis’s sci-fi in the hopes that they contained more clues to the true fate and location of Narnia. They, for the record, did not.

I don’t remember giving up on Narnia until I was into grade six – and even then it was only because I moved to Calgary and my co-Narniite (Livia, my then-best friend) moved to London. I would have been 10 by then – so Narnia seized me for about four solid years.

Dune by Frank Herbert

I read Dune the summer between grade eight and nine – all the rest of the series too. This was a mind-blowing experience. Call it egoism, but I seemed to have decided that becoming an omniscient, timeless, infinitely-wise super-being was something immediately within my grasp. Not only that, I was sure that the route to Wisdom was in A) all the adult reading I could cram into my head B) transient, mind-altering ingestibles (i.e. the Spice, or chocolate covered coffee beans) and C) totally obsessive introspection and/or navel gazing. I also spent a good deal of that summer teaching myself tricks of self-control, like moving only one muscle with the exclusion of all others or inducing sleep at any time or place (in myself, of course. I was big on breathing excersizes.)

I also fell in love with Duncan Idaho and another boy on my soccer team whose name was (coincidence? I don’t think so.) also Duncan.

Mostly, I read anything which I could pretend had “value” (i.e. no more pulp!) and thought about it until my head hurt.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

It was Kurt Vonnegut that made me want to become a writer. Not that I had any intention of writing what he did – although I kept a journal trying to record amusing, cynical and anecdotal observations about the real world – but he gave me a different idea of what writing could be. It wasn’t just disembodied narrative, a story told by anyone to anyone. You could be a character, the teller, and pour yourself into the reader with great effect. He also taught me irony, deadpan and sarcasm – oh how I absorbed them.  Thank god by the time I read Vonnegut I was beyond obsessing over the contents of a book – although I did recognize myself as a Bokononist for some time. He was the first I read where it was the form of the book, the writing – not the story – that impressed me.

Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint

This is one of Charles de Lint’s many books – and for whatever reason, the one that stabbed me in the heart. This book precipitated me leaving home. The year before I went through a very short Once and Future King phase – a book which I debated adding to this list but left off because I can’t quantify what it meant to me as well – in which I was going to be a filmmaker and my magnum opus was going to be a three-part O&F film. I still have a script I did up of the first half of The Sword and the Stone. For whatever reason I had become disillusioned with my film-making skills and was desperate for something more to my talents. In Dreams Underfoot I thought I found it.

I was going to be a gypsy, a transient, a busker and an artist as well as a part-time waitress. I couldn’t pick a favorite character in Newford (Jilly) so I wanted to be all of them. I really just suddenly identified very strongly with a lifestyle, a subculture, a people. I picked up violin again and taught myself to fiddle and worked out a comprehensive plan for hitting the road in a permanent sense. It changed my fashion sense, my outlook and my expectations. Finding these people made my heart soar. The only real letdown was when I finally got to Toronto and didn’t find a single like mind.

Good News for a Change by David Suzuki & Holly Dressel

This was a David Suzuki book I bought on a whim because I was newly into “collecting” books and, at Nicholas Basbane’s suggestion, felt my “collection” needed a theme. I was watching a lot of The Nature of Things at the time and for whatever reason decided I wanted a science/nature/environment themed collection. This was in hardcover, and the last copy available at Book City, so I bought it.

At the time I had re-enrolled at the University of Toronto (after a previous stint studying Celtic Studies under the aforementioned influence of DeLint)  and was planning on doing a degree in French Literature to pursue my love of Dumas (you’ll notice his works are not on this list – I thought about adding them, but while I adore them, they haven’t influenced me much. They are simply the most indulgent works of literature to my tastes.) I planned to pursue a career in translation.

This book changed everything. I had always been politically-minded and prone to “debate”. My mother had been leaning on me to become a politician or a lawyer since I was ten. It had simply never occurred to me to take her seriously because I saw myself as an “artist” or at least “artistic” and felt I belonged more in the humanities. Literature, film, music. That kind of thing. But Good News framed everything for me in a whole new context: there was a battle going on out there to save every aspect of culture, science, environment and society and there were good people who just needed more bodies. There were very practical and reasonable things that needed doing and nobody seemed willing to step up and do them.

More than that, I had that epiphany. I was not particularly artistic. I have a talent for music, but this is really more to do with math and pattern recognition. It has more to do with logic than art.  Every degree or project I had taken up designed to refine my life as an artist had flopped miserably. But what I was really good at was arguing. Fighting for things. Seizing the moral high ground and strong-arming the world so that it went my way. Well as it happens, these are very useful skills for activists.  Why my career in the Environmental Sciences never went far is another story, but Good News catapulted me into four long years of an Environment & Geography degree.

Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & Hunter Lovins

Paul Hawken and the Lovinses – this belong with Good News but they’re different entities. If Good News woke me up, this one gave me a specific direction. Unlike most activists, I am not a bleeding-heart lefty. I definitely believe in socialism, but for economic reasons. I am an environmentalist, but because I have a bee in my bonnet about efficiency, not because I think trees have rights. This is what kept me away from politics or activism for so long – I hated the way these issues had been marginalized, supported by the “fringe” and made irrelevant to people actually just trying to live their lives.  Natural Capitalism became the book I most loaned to other people, and formed by philosophy of economics, environment and living for quite some time.

A Gentle Madness by Nicolas Basbanes

Having spent much of my twenties in the thrall of the politics of the environment, you might wonder how I got here today, a staunch and committed bookseller, collector, and blogger.  Thank Basbanes.  He was responsible for turning me onto my environmental degree as well, but once I’d come out the other side of that degree I found myself still more committed to my books than to some causes.  I’d always read books and always collected books, but it wasn’t until the reading and collecting reached a certain critical mass that I realized I was never getting out of it, and I wouldn’t be happy if I ever did.

Later books of his like Every Book Its Reader and A Splendor of Letters kept nudging me more and more into the book hole.  I became as interested in the reader as in the book.  I became interested in collectors, collections, publication histories and bibliographies.  I realized this was a whole life, not a hobby, and, once again, returned to school to study Book History.  Unlike the frustration and disillusionment I’d encountered during my environment degree, I found myself encouraged and rewarded continually in Book History.  And, after all, wasn’t this what I’d really loved all along – books?  Many books caught my attention and enthralled me during my life, but Basbanes has the honour of being the writer that made me think about the meta-book, the world of being bookish.  And the longer I live here, the more it is my home.

February 22, 2011

My Tax-Time Present To Myself…

I have always, always wanted to join the Folio Society. I remember being maybe 14, 15 and hoarding one of their little fliers (which came, I think, in a larger batch of junk mail) in the back of my diary for months, years, planning and underlining and circling my future purchases. Then there was some talk a while ago about splitting a membership with a friend or two, both of us buying a few books to make up our obligation without breaking the bank. But it never happened.

In more recent years I have visited their website a couple of times a year, always telling myself “I’ll join when they publish that thing; that shady, unknown future thing that I absolutely have to have.  I’ll know it when I see it.  That’s what I’ll join.”

That day has finally come.  I signed up this weekend, and this is why:

The 1st Edition of the Violet Fairy Book

The other thing I’ve always, always wanted is a full set of all of Andrew Lang’s coloured Fairy Books.  I lived and breathed these books when I was a child (it’s amazing the violence and misogyny didn’t scramble my brains, but this is a testament to a child’s ability to get exactly what they want out of a story and discard the rest) and thought as a young adult they would be the simplest things to collect; not so.  The original Coloured Fairy Books are extremely expensive to come by despite being fairly common (as far as collectible Victorian books go) – the first volume, the Blue Fairy Book, might run as high as $10,000 and subsequent books are still going to cost in the $2000-$4000 range.

Dover's current paperback design.

Subsequent editions aren’t very pretty.  Hardcover “library editions” were reprinted all through the 20th century but without the lovely gilt covers or, really, anything else to recommend them.  Currently, you can buy the whole series from Dover Publications for like $15 a pop – which I did – but they’re exactly as ugly as you would expect a Dover edition to be (sorry, Dover).

The new Folio Society editions, on the other hand, are beautiful.  As with all Folio editions, these are well made, beautifully printed books bound in hardcover with decorative bindings and a slipcase apiece.  For this series Folio has also commissioned a different contemporary artist to illustrate each volume.  If I had any hesitation it was obliterated when I saw that the first volume, the Blue Fairy Book, was illustrated by Vancouver artist (and bookmaker) Charles van Sandwyk.  The five artists so far lined up to illustrate the Red, Yellow, Green, Violet & Brown books are no slouches either.  I’m mad with anticipation to see who they get when (hopefully not if) they do the rest of the series.

My husband was slightly more skeptical then me – “So this is like Columbia House for books” he guessed.  I got my back up a bit over that.  Yes, it’s a book club that requires certain obligations of the member (in this case, buying 4 full-priced books over a period of time).  But they aren’t out to scam you, and the product is very high quality.  Further, though copies turn up in used and rare book stores fairly frequently, joining is the only way to really guarantee you’ll get these exclusive editions.  (And I should note some Folio Society books turn up more frequently in bookstores than others – it is certainly the case that there are some books which are more rare than others.)  They also publish books that are unavailable in any other edition – a quick glance notes Count Belisarius by Robert Graves, The Complete Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Isle of Voices and Other Stories.

And don’t get me started on the limited editions!  Right now I’m just pleased as punch that I’m a member and can, for one year at least, buy lovely books at my leisure.  Next on my schedule is their illustrated Possession by A.S. Byatt to replace my hideous movie tie-in copy.  I can happily spend the rest of my year browsing the website and making wish-lists.  Happy tax-time to me!

February 14, 2011

Review: Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King

I had every intention of participating this year in Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads spin-off, Canada Reads Independently. Kerry’s books are frequently more eclectic, more off-the-beaten-path and more carefully chosen than some of what we’ve seen on the CBC over the last two years.  This year’s line-up was particularly independent looking, to the point where I was actually unable to find one of the books – Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady.  I ordered and bought the remaining four a month ago with every intention of devouring them as quickly as possible.

The bad news part of this post is, I don’t think I’m going to make it.  I’m a bit burnt at the moment on inflicted picks – not, of course, that I suppose I won’t enjoy these.  But after the official Canada Reads books I’m feeling a little Canada’ed-out and need a real change of pace.  Some comfort reading is in order over here, and I’ve a line up of Rushdie, Eco and Frank Herbert to help me recover. I did, however, manage to read one of the five picks, Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King.

Late last year in her fairly contentious piece in the Canadian Notes and Queries, The Other F-Word, Nicole Dixon isolates what she calls the “girl voice”; a “first-person, present tense, child-like” narrator which, Dixon claims, is symptomatic of a craving for “perpetual adolescence” amongst Baby Boomers.  In the context of feminism, this seems to point to an infantilizing of female characters in literature.  Yet something about the argument left me skeptical, and with Truth & Bright Water I realized why.  I don’t, first of all, buy that this is phenomenon restricted to literature’s female population, nor do I buy that it suggests a desire to cling to adolescence.

Truth & Bright Water, almost the first novel I read after finishing Dixon’s piece, features exactly the kind of protagonist Dixon is singling out: 15-year-old Tecumseh, narrating in the first person his fragmented and uncertain present tense existence.  King, who was 56 when he published Truth, certainly is a Baby Boomer, but it would be small of the reader to interpret his choice of narrator as a youthful avatar.  Truth & Bright Water, like many of the books Dixon singles out (among them A Complicated Kindness and Lullabies for Little Criminals) is about a particular kind of life in the balance.   It happens that adolescents embody transition and potential very well.  We don’t know, for much of the book, how things are going to turn out for the protagonist, and not strictly because the book may offer up further plot twists.  An adolescent life is one whose path hasn’t been chosen yet. Will life’s trials beat them down, set them on a darker path?  Or will they overcome them, learn to weather them, and emerge a wiser, stronger survivor?

On the one hand, we have every cause to be troubled by elements in the life of our hero: his mother is secretive and emotionally distant while his father is irresponsible and unreliable.  Tecumseh’s best friend and cousin, Lum, is erratic, overbearing and in his own way, oppressively reliant on his younger cousin.  Money, employment and stability seem elusive in the life of young Tecumseh.  But on the other hand, Tecumseh is still young and pretty well grounded.  He has a nice dog (and don’t take this trivially – Soldier was a remarkably stabilizing force in this novel, even if none of it is written from his point of view), loving members of his extended family, and a crazy artist who has taken him on as an assistant and possible protegee.  For much of the novel you feel things could go either way for Tecumseh: and not in terms of his plot, of this story.  It’s his whole life, his whole future that seems able to go either way, depending on which forces outweigh the others.  And through him, it’s the future of his entire community, the existence he represents that could go either way.

I think this is a great strength of the adolescent-narrated novel, be that youth male or female.  There’s a sense of real potential or loss that keeps you holding your breath through every introduced pressure that I don’t think would hold the same weight if the character were older.  In an adult, we might have the story of redemption (life already weighed to heavily in the CON column, but perhaps it’s never too late to turn things around) or a story of tragedy (life rolling along quite nicely until something soul-shattering occurs), but you don’t get that nice tension you get in a life undecided.  The protagonist’s innocence is also vital to maintaining the tension: when Tecumseh’s mother disappears for a weekend, he assumes she has gone off on vacation, to a resort in Alberta they once visited as a family.  An older, more cynical person might have had other suspicions (as Tecumseh’s father did).  Similarly Tecumseh never quite puts all the pieces together with regards to his mother and aunt’s history with the artist, Monroe Swimmer.  These benefits he gives to his doubts are vital in maintaining his course towards, possibly, a bright future.  I don’t want to suggest that survival requires ignorance, though: just that it buys our hero a little time until he has developed the strength to assume that knowledge.

I was pleased with the book. It made a satisfying read. But before I sign off on it (You May Read It Now, Loyal Reader) I want to point out the presence of one conceit that has become a pet peeve of mine: the presence of art or intellectualism as a healing force.  As Tecumseh comes towards the end of the book we get the sense that, despite the tragedies he’s had to witness or survive, he’s going to be All Right In The End because he’s been taken under the wing, to some extent, by Munroe Swimmer.  Munroe turns out to be not just a producer of kitschy tourist-art; but an internationally traveled art restorer and liberator of aboriginal artifacts.  Beneath his crazy-artist guise is a man, possibly the only man in the book, really aware of the greater political, historical, and economic issues that have brought his community, embodied by Tecumseh, to this precarious position it is in.  He takes on Tecumseh for reasons that aren’t really clear – he might have a history with his mother, or Tecumseh might just have been the right-aged-kid present at the right moment.  But by the end of the book, we learn that Tecumseh is recovering, stabilizing, in some part with help from music lessons Munroe is now sponsoring and encouraging.

Which is fine, but I can’t help but feel there’s a conceit here on the part of the book’s very intellectual and upwardly mobile author.  Of all the “positive” influences in Tecumseh’s life, art and music are the only two that seem to be uniquely offered to him.  These are the tools in his arsenal that might make the difference between his future and the life lived by his neighbours.  They aren’t even “traditional” in any sense, giving us the sense that it’s community values or consistent, deep-held traditions that are keeping Tecumseh rooted – it’s the “civilizing” effect of art and, frankly, Western music.  What are we to read into this?  I found myself wondering, especially given that Tecumseh didn’t seem drawn to art or artistic expression prior to the gifted piano.  This wasn’t him learning to “be himself”, this was the medicinal application of High Culture.  Is it really such a salve?  What does it mean to cultures who don’t necessarily produce “high culture” when it is treated as such?

Still, this is a lovely book.  I’ll get to the other Indies in time (I promise!), but I am glad and gratified that Kerry’s competition got this one into my list this year!

February 10, 2011

Review: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Over the last two days, I have been rather harsh on this book without a lot of substance to back up my vitriol, and I hope today to make up for that.  My opinion of the book isn’t as passionate as all that, if anything I’m mainly disappointed.  Going in to Canada Reads 2011 this was the book I looked forward to the most: billed as a funny, irreverent take on Canadian politics, I felt I was probably the ideal audience.  I am continually harping on the overly depressing state of Canadian literature (and of most literature since 1910, really), pining for the days when books had heroes.  And I love politics.  Love.  I have even gone so far as to work as a volunteer for one of our major political parties, so a lot of the backroom shenanegans offered up by Fallis were familiar to me.  I knew there was a lot to expose there.

The first thing to understand about Best Laid Plans is that it is written for a very conservative (presumably small-c, as the heroes are all Liberals), possibly older, audience.  Fallis is trying to show us a situation gone zanily out of control, with all the hyjinx and absurdity he could pack into his 300 pages.  Unfortunately, his idea of what constitutes “zany” and “absurd” is about twenty years out of date.  Daniel Addison’s election campaign is publicly executed by two punk kids from his English for Engineering class who are, in every scene, giving poor Daniel aneurysms with their shocking fashion choices: Mohawks, piercings, and fishnet define their characters.  We’re talking about a subculture that’s been around since the 1970s, and which is currently practiced by teenagers so widely that you can buy a fishnet shirt in a mall in Brantford.  This is hardly the cutting edge of hooliganery.  So when Daniel discovers with amazement that his charges don’t have criminal records and are actually (gasp!) pretty good in school, he might be having his world turned inside out, but this reviewer found herself rolling her eyes. Similarly the “scandal” that brings about Angus McLintock’s election is, yes, shocking enough to colour an election, but it’s hard to imagine that the intelligent, experienced main characters of the story would be quite so taken aback.  Cheap S&M jokes are bandied about in a Sienfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that” kind of way, but again, this reader was a lot less shocked than the jokes seemed to warrant.  In both cases what really baffled me was that Daniel, the transmitter of all these gasps and shocks, is supposed to be – what, 31? 32?  He’s a young guy, more or less fresh out of University and an old hand at Parliament Hill.  You’re going to tell me he’s never seen a live Mohawk before?  That he was channeling a 50-something (60-something?) author was painfully evident.

That the author is a little out of touch was evident in other ways.  When something newsworthy happens, bystanders whip out their “Betacams”.  The poor dear.  Even in news media, nobody uses Betacams anymore – nor is it the shorthand for hand-held recorded film.  His glimpse into Academia was sheer fantasy.  Daniel decides he’d like to quit being a mover and shaker in Parliament and “takes a break” – waltzing right into a tenure track job in the English department of a major Canadian university!  I beg your pardon?  Without a decade of sessional work, thankless publishing, and living on $12,000 a year?  Must be nice!

There has been much said about the strength of Angus McLintock’s character, and I won’t disagree.  He was fun and likable man, easy to cheer for.  He also lives in an alternate universe of rainbows and puppies where everyone can have their cake and eat it too.  His solutions to political problems were insultingly facile.  If life were without hard choices, of course we’d all be better people.  The suggestion that these simple, perfect-fit-everyone-wins solutions exist and today’s insanely hard-working politicians just wouldn’t take them is a preposterous.  Angus’s character ultimately suffers because he has no flaws (I’m sorry, gas doesn’t count) and never has to make any hard decisions.

Daniel, meanwhile, just can’t seem to decide where he stands on anything.  He’s desperate, desperate to leave politics and yet he spends the entire second half of the novel having fits every time his boss calls because it could mean the end of “his career in politics”.  Mere weeks earlier he is vomiting in the bush outside his MP’s house because (and I’m not sure here why, exactly, he was so ill at this time – I read the passage three times and it was absolutely unclear.  So the following is guesswork) he might actually win his election.  He’s an easily flustered boy, our Daniel.  When Angus is scheduled to meet with a women’s rights lobby, the first thing I thought was “Oh good, this should be easy. Angus is, after all, the widow of a leading feminist; he has this one in the bag.”  I’m quicker than Daniel, I guess, who spends the whole chapter having fits because he thinks his boss is being murdered by the women’s lobby – literally.  I guess they give tenure-track jobs to just anyone these days.

During the Canada Reads debates, Sara Quin valiantly made a cause for women in Best Laid Plans by bringing up the only really great character in the book, Muriel Parkinson.  Here we did have a great woman and a great character; credit where credit was due.  Unfortunately I felt she was more than undermined by the caricature that was her niece, the eventual love interest.  Lindsay, hot young poly-sci grad student, has maybe four lines in the whole book.  We do know, however, what she is wearing in every scene she’s in.  She’s a very complete OKCupid profile, a list of likes and dislikes.  She loves her grandmother, watches hockey, wears tight clothes – what’s not to like?  I didn’t like, personally, that she wasn’t a character.

Maybe the most disappointing thing about Best Laid Plans was that Fallis failed to expose or lampoon a lot of the actual darkness going on in the back rooms of politics.  He was off to a good start when he caught his ex-girlfriend with her boss in his office: but he balked at drawing any conclusions about what this means to be a woman trying to get ahead in party politics.  Instead Rachel was apparently actually involved in a relationship with her boss.  His lampooning was painfully shallow, making straw-men out of the Tories and fools out of the NDP.  There was no bite to this satire.

There’s a word for fiction which is all lightness – they call it fluff.  It might divert you for an hour or two, and it might make you giggle now and again.  If that’s what you want, this is your book.

February 9, 2011

Canada Reads Day 3: A Little Enthusiasm? Anyone?

There’s a myth about Canada Reads that I would like a stab at debunking today.  It has always been around, lurking in the occasional rhetoric of the show, though coming more and more to the forefront in recent years as the producers started buying what was a particular kind of in-show tactic.  The myth goes like this:

Canada Reads is a cause in support of literacy.  It is a way of getting more Canadians to read, or Canadians to read more.  What’s more, it gets Canadians to read the right thing; books that are good for us, that raise awareness about minorities, history, and democracy.  Canada Reads is a responsibility: a directive handed down from our Mother Corporation that will get us all on the same page.  And since it has to be read by everybody, it’s important that the Canada Reads winner be easy, short, non-offensive and “Canadian”.  To fail to choose such a book will set literacy and nationalism back a hundred years.

What Canada Reads is, in reality, is a national book club.  The people who participate are already readers and CBC listeners.  It generates a book chosen, once per year, through a little round of fun and discussion by a panel of informed readers.  The books up for grabs are already favourites of the panelists, books which have won a place in their hearts for simple, appealing reasons.  Canada Reads winners in the past have been a little quirkier, a little lighter, and a little more interesting than your standard award fare.  They are recommended because they are loved, not because they are good for you.

Today’s Canada Reads debates – Day 3 of only 3 days – certainly progressed from the self-promoting nonsense and backstabbing strategies of the previous two days, but it progressed to a subdued, embarrassed, funeral-like atmosphere.  Once Unless had been voted off, it was as if all enthusiasm for any of the books suddenly evaporated.  Even Ali Velshi and Debbie Travis, the two television personalities whose books remained in contention, didn’t seem very excited for their chosen picks.  Their defenses had, from the get-go, felt false and theatrical.  And now, left standing, they seemed almost embarrased to have made it that far.  The other three panelists made some kind of a go at making the remaining two books sound appealing (Sara Quin’s “..and I don’t get to pick Essex County or Unless?” plea sounded almost too serious), but everything felt forced.

In the end, they resorted to apologetic arguments about how good the books will be for us.  Sure, they might not be great, but it will help democracy.  Maybe they’re not that appealing, but it might serve the cause of women.  How this miracle would be achieved is a bit of a mystery.  Readers aren’t sheep and booksellers aren’t fools.  If the book isn’t good, if it can’t be recommended and hand-sold to a reader sparkling with optimism and leisure time, they won’t read it.  Why would a non-reader pick up Best Laid Plans?  Because they want to become more politically engaged?  Why would a reader uninterested in politics pick it up?  It doesn’t offer beautiful prose or deeper insight to compensate for the politics.  How does being “good for us” encourage anyone to read a thing?

The Canada Reads myth treats Canada Reads followers like employees rather than participants.  In a year where the Canada Reads process was more participatory than ever before, this is particularly wrong-headed.  The people who are following the debates are the bloggers, publishers, librarians and booksellers.  Now they are going to go home and interface with a public who won’t have heard the arguments, but who will want to know who won.  We didn’t follow the debates so that we could learn the curriculum to take home to our classes; we wanted to take part in a process designed to generate a book we could love and recommend.

I know for my part, as a blogger and a bookseller, I could not recommend either Best Laid Plans or The Birth House to most of my customers or readers.  Even if I hadn’t read them, why would I recommend something to my savvy, intelligent customers because Ali Velshi says it will make them better citizens?

Anyway, maybe I’m being a tad too bleak here. Some people apparently did read and enjoy The Best Laid Plans.  But as to whether it will appeal to the bulk of the potential customers who are, again, intelligent, frequent readers, I have my doubts.  They want a good, well-written, satisfying read.  They aren’t going to buy it just because of the Canada Reads sticker, and I am not going to recommend it.  That’s what matters, not the “accessibility” or how much better it will make us as citizens.

I also think the CBC needs to reconsider how the program is appealing to the online communities these days, because I fear they’re alienating their biggest advocates: the blogs.  Online discussion this year was scarce and generally disappointed in tone.  If we, the vanguard, can’t get excited about the competition or its yields, will readers?

I have some suggestions to the CBC for next year.  I think this will help me, and maybe some of the program’s other former followers regain a little faith:

– No more polls to determine who gets to be on the show.  This turned a contest between beloved books into a contest between promoted books, and that’s bad.

– Keep two or more pseudo-intellectuals on your celebrity panel. Writers, critics, academics, etc.

– Vet the celebrity panel choices to include a good mix of old and new, unknown and popular books.

– Aside from the (excessive) “pitches” given at the beginning of each show, don’t let the panelists talk about their own books, except in rebuttle.  We know they want to promote their own book.  But the most honest discussion comes from discussing the merits of the other books.

– Cut the book promotion down by a half and replace it with… more discussion!

– Bring back the community round-ups!  The online community this year felt separated and un-engaged.  Twitter is not a community medium, it’s a one-way cork board.

I look forward to reading the rest of your responses!  I feel a bit glum about the whole thing, so maybe someone else’s peppy take on the contest can cheer me up some.  I’d love to become a cheerleader once more!

February 9, 2011

A Canada Reads Day 2 Round-Up

Day 2 commentary was a little scarcer to find than day 1 – but what can be found is excellent and well worth checking out!

The Keepin’ It Real Book Club continues with the insider view.

John Mutford at the Book Mine Set tries to keep a positive face on!

Ruth Seeley continues her very thorough recounting of the day’s festivities.

Buried in Print discusses the middle.

As yesterday, do let me know if you have thoughts to contribute!  Our (civilian) debate is much more satisfying than the official thing.  ;)  Upward and onward  – the finale airs in 45 minutes!

February 8, 2011

Canada Reads Day 2: Strategy

Jian Ghomeshi, writers and producers of Canada Reads 2011: for the love of Pete, if you read this before tomorrow please HEAR MY WORDS and let’s engrave a new Canada Reads rule: after half an hour of listening to panelists and authors publicize their books, all debate questions should begin with “Which book OTHER THAN YOUR OWN.”

While today’s debates contained some sparkle and sizzle of insight and passion, it was in equal parts marked by eye rolling hyperbole and outright… how do I put this… cow poo. “Which book is the best written” was an unapproachable question to begin with, but Ali Velshi’s attempt to somehow twist the question to support his poorly written contestant, The Best Laid Plans, was laughable. I nearly stood up and cheered when Debbie Travis tore into it in response (though her admission that she didn’t finish reading it hampers her credibility somewhat).  The other panelists seem to be similarly floundering as they attempted to twist the question to their own agenda, but at least, in the end, each admitted that sure, if writing is what you care about, maybe, grudgingly, Unless is your book.

This also had the consequence of then requiring each of the panelists to explain exactly why, though Unless may be the best written book, it isn’t the best, or “most essential” of the remaining contenders.  Score one for literary analysis: by putting Unless under the microscope the panelists were forced to trot out actual passages, themes and devices, resulting in the most “literary” debate we’ve had on this show yet.  Ali Velshi’s shameless attempts to turn every conversation into a conversation about Best Laid Plans also put his book under the microscope, though the depth of that excavation was proportionately appropriate to the depth of the book: that is, not very.

Thankfully the panelists today did try to address what they were looking for in this “most essential” Canadian book.  Unfortunately, the general consensus seems to be that essential = accessible.  Georges Laraque continued with his absurd suggestion that picking the wrong Canada Reads champion will deter readers from reading ANYTHING EVER AGAIN.  The winner has to be a book that appeals to the Average Person.  The same argument came up last year, when someone (Perdita Felicien?) suggested she didn’t like that Nikolski made her think too much, and Michel Vézina shot back with some crack about how we learn to read in school and a little thinking shouldn’t scare anyone.

What I found striking about the direction of last year’s debate vs this years is that last year, a shot about the reading ability or education of the panelist was enough to scare them all into keeping a more complex novel like Nikolski around.  And of course it did: the 2010 panel was a fairly intellectual one, including a doctor and a writer/critic.  But the 2011 panel are entertainers down to a man.  Suggesting they should be higher-minded in their reading would roll right off their backs.  While Lorne Cardinal and Sara Quin seem to be working hard in the cause of literature, the other three panelists are bending over backwards – perhaps because of the “light” nature of their books – pressing for the quality of literature to be set aside.  This has to be “for everyone”.  I’ll eat my hat if choosing a “simple” Canada Reads winner over a literary one adds any buyers.  If I could call for a little realism when considering who our Canada Reads devotees are, please.

In the end though, the votes had more to do with strategy than the debate.  While I won’t miss The Bone Cage, I do find it baffling that a book so little discussed could be voted off 3-2.  Three people just up and decided to give a barely-mentioned book the boot?  I smell conspiracy.  It only makes me a little uneasy because I disliked The Best Laid Plans so intensely and I don’t like seeing it move on.  Especially given the hate Unless is unjustly receiving!  I shiver at the thought of this stinker taking the prize.  Not that I’m discounting The Birth House – this is a prettier, better-written, perfectly middle-Canadian book that would make a good deal of sense to win.  And I suppose it probably will.  Only one more day to find out!  Here’s hoping.

February 8, 2011

A Canada Reads Day 1 Round-Up

Unfortunately I’ve got a doctor’s appointment that prevents me from listening to Canada Reads live this morning (Day 2), so in the meantime I thought I’d give you a round-up of some excellent Canada Reads Day 1 summaries from ’round the CanLit bloggosphere!

The Keepin’ It Real Book Club continues its excellent (and decidedly positive) coverage.

John Mutford at the Book Mine Set shares his always insightful thoughts.

Ruth Seeley offers a very thorough breakdown of what happened on Day 1.

Box761 made me giggle with her snarky commentary!

A younger perspective from Lit up by the city.

Buried In Print gives a very well-read perspective on the show.

Did I miss you?  90% of the fun at Canada Reads time is the debate in the community, so pass along your blog post and lets all keep in touch!

February 7, 2011

Canada Reads Day 1: Twitterrage

Canada Reads 2011 is off to an ignominious start, I’m sorry to report.

After thirty-three minutes of introductions, including some extremely hokey book mini-trailers complete with bird-and-baby sound effects, the panelists finally settled into some “debate” over the relative merits of their books.  Jian called out Essex County early on as the “elephant in the room” – the little format that shouldn’t be.  To which I scoff – if there was an elephant in the room, surely it was the CBC’s repeated insistence that this competition was about finding the “most essential” book of the last decade whilst gesturing at a stack of books nobody has ever heard of.  The meaning of “essential” wasn’t even scrutinized.

Out came the knives and Essex County was chopped to ribbons for its one and only fault – being a graphic novel.  Panelist Sara Quin made a valiant effort to defend the medium, asking if viewing art at MOMA was a shallow experience, but I fear she took the wrong tack.  The other panelists didn’t feel Essex County was unmoving or un-artistic, they just felt it “wasn’t a novel”, whatever that means.  Lorne Cardinal even chided it for being more like a collection of short stories.  Format, apparently, is of great concern here.  This is a Canada Reads panel playing tightly by the rulebook.

Hopefully they will remain just as anal retentive about semantics when they finally question this term “essential” and Unless gets its due.  Surely as the only book with prior literary credentials, awards and reputation it is the only one which can be defined as essential?  I don’t see how anyone can, with a straight face, claim that a first novel written in the last three years which nobody read in any way approaches the essence of anything, except obscurity.

Obviously I’m annoyed at Essex County‘s undeserved exit.  As is, it seems, much of the Twitterverse.  I had no idea Sara Quin was the star she appears to be – Canada Reads seems to have finally attracted those hordes of young, non-“CBC type” readers to its show that it always wanted.  Shame the book they came to see got scuttled off with so little regret.  I honestly wonder if they’ll stay to follow the rest of the show.  I wondered that myself, briefly, but then realized now we have the chance for the panelists to finally get in to the huge and glaring flaws the remaining books sport.  I desperately want someone to call into question the one-dimensional insult that Best Laid Plans‘ Lindsay was.  Actually I still just have it out for Best Laid Plans in general.  Grr, etc.

But I do fear for Unless.  Perhaps Sara Quin will take it up now that she’s free (she gave some indication she might lean that way, but that was before Lorne Cardinal’s mean about-face!), but the increased author participation and visibility in this year’s show (as I posted about yesterday) continues apace, and poor absent Carol Shields just isn’t there to toot her horn.  Me, I’d better get reading too.  I’m supporting Shields largely on her reputation right now (and the fact that I was so underwhelmed by the other three books).  I’d better make sure my mouth is where my money is.  See you all tomorrow!

February 6, 2011

My Canada Reads Pre-Game

Here we go, another year of Canada Reads, usually one of my favourite annual literary events.  As of now, Saturday February 5th, I have read 4 of the 5 Canada Reads 2011 books. I haven’t managed to crack Carol Shields’ Unless yet. I probably will have before the debates are over, but this post requires me to think a little harder than I’m accustomed to, and I felt I’d better get a head start.  In any case, I don’t think missing Unless will matter – but more on that below.

I’m on the record already voicing my excitement about this year’s books and I was, I really was. I had a little hiccup in my reading schedule that put things off a while, but by the time I could look at a book without gagging, I had Terry Fallis’s Best Laid Plans tucked snugly in my purse.  Of all the books, I was most excited about this one.  Like so many other readers, I was craving a funny book, a lighter book, and heir to Quarrington and Richler and Leacock.  I love politics to boot -how could this miss?

Well, it missed.  And it missed so badly that it cast a pall over the rest of my Canada Reads reading too.  I realized something as I set aside Best Laid Plans with disappointment and reached with dread for The Birth House. I was reading out of a sense of obligation, and moreover, I was feeling obligated to produce a particular kind of review.  This post has been and will be hard for me to lay down because there’s a serious cult of the author getting in the way of honest assessments of the book.  I have a lot of things I’d like to say about Best Laid Plans but I’m getting tongue-tied because I don’t want to offend its author, who is assuredly on the ball with this Canada Reads stuff.  He is all over Twitter, and has even posted to my blog before.  Do I really want to go tits-out and say what I really thought of his book?  Surely I should soften it down, concoct a few nice things to say? That seems to be what everyone else is doing.  (The nicest praise I can give it is that Best Laid Plans is the intellectual heir of Stuart McLean, not Mordecai Richler. Similarly, I suspect it played out better as a podcast than a book.)    Or – a real alternative – I’m actually the only reader who found deep, serious flaws with this book.  Certainly Twitter is flowing with gushing praise for it.  Really?  Really guys?  Knowing my own hesitation to speak out too loudly against it – and I am traditionally ten times more willing than the average Canadian to shove my foot in my mouth – it seems likely we’re seeing at least a little brown-nosing out there.  Without harping for too long, I found the whole book painfully conservative, like something written to make one’s 75-year-old grandfather laugh.  The humour was either crude (never miss the chance for a fart joke if it arises!) or relied on the audience’s little-mindedness.  If you find teen-aged punks, S&M and hippies shocking, Fallis’s humour works.  If, like most people, punks, alternative lifestyles and the NDP are part of your every-day life, you’re more likely to find Fallis’s humour offensive.  Fair warning.

While I wasn’t as disappointed with Ami McKay’s The Birth House or Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage, I definitely feel there’s a similar element of glad-handing going on here.  Both of these books – both debut novels – are solid, and show some promising sparks for writers who will no doubt improve over subsequent novels.  And maybe we should thank Canada Reads for this – it will give both women the sales figures they need to work on and publish later, hopefully better, books.  But neither book really shone for me.  The Birth House in particular echoed Anne-Marie MacDonald’s superior writing, without much of the daring and bite.  Think of it as Fall on Your Knees written by Lucy Maud Montgomery – pre-Blythes.  The Bone Cage certainly tread more original territory, mostly by virtue of its subject matter, but it felt thin on the insight, and absent any really interesting prose stylings.  Yet to hear Twitter and the blogs go on about them, these are luminaries of Canadian literature.  Some day, maybe.  Not today.

I do intend to read Unless, but I think it is a non-entity in this year’s Canada Reads debates for the simple reason that it doesn’t have a present, hands-on author available.  Unless the other panelists feel the way I do – that they’ve been railroaded into defending mediocre books – and want to reward one with actual literary credentials, I think Unless will be an easy book to vote off because there isn’t anyone to disappoint.  The panelists and the three above-mentioned authors (Adbou, Fallis & McKay) seem to have become thick as thieves throughout the Canada Reads process, and that’s an alliance that I think counts for a lot come the “debates”.  This won’t be about the books.  This will be about the personalities.

Glaringly, I haven’t said a thing about Jeff Lemire’s Essex County.  Well, read on – I have no complaint here.  If there’s any justice in this competition, Essex County will take the prize.  The only complaint made against the book is that it’s a graphic novel.  If you want to pretend this is real criticism, I suppose you could recast the statement and say it isn’t a very long read; as most of the story is visual and not written, you will be through the volume in a couple of hours at best.  Jeff Lemire has been brief and, generally, absent from a lot of the online build-up to the show, as I think he should be.  He is working on other projects, dedicating himself to something other than self-promotion.  The book should stand for itself.  After reading the other three, I don’t feel any of them could have stood without the promotion and enthusiasm of their authors.

This year’s Canada Reads will be a test, I think.  Is it about the book, or the personalities?  If it’s about the book, we’ll see Unless or Essex County carry the day.  If we consider personalities, this could land anywhere but on Shields’ doorstep.  I hope desperately that come the debates the literature will shine through the hype and the competition.