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.