Once & Future

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

October 26, 2012

Canada Reads 2013: By The Numbers

Ladies and Gentlemen, your Canada Reads 2013 Longlists!

So how does it shake down? Here’s some statistics:

Total Nominated Women: 30

Total Nominated Men: 20

Gold Star Goes To: British Columbia, with 9 women & 1 man nominated.

Total Nominees By Publisher:

Random House: 23
Penguin: 6
Harper Collins: 5
House of Anansi: 5
Douglas & McIntyre: 4
MacMillan: 2
Everyone Else: 5

Oldest BookAnne of Green Gables, 1908

Published in 2012: 8

Published 2001-2011: 25

Published 1993-2000: 6

Published before 1993: 11

MATH MOMENT!

Published in the last 10 years: 66%

Published in the last 20 years: 78%

Published 20 or more years ago: 22%

Lots of books I’d like to read among these finalists! Get your votes in by November 12th and on the 14th we’ll know who our finalists are!

October 23, 2012

Book-Lover’s Guilt

In case you weren’t feeling glum enough about the imminent closure of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, last night we got the news that Canada’s largest independent publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, has filed for bankruptcy.

The news brought a chorus of astonished gasps and moans from Twitter. Nobody likes to see things like this. Good, experienced publishing people could lose their jobs. Writers could lose their publishers. Their books could go out of print. Oh, and something about the cultural contribution too. Canadian culture, supporting our own, something something.

Of course, if everyone who was so sad to see them in straits actually spent money on their books, they might not be so bad off. That was the first thing I thought, in any case. Oh man, when was the last time I bought a Douglas & McIntyre book, anyway? The summer of 2010, Darwin’s Bastards, Zsuzsi Gardner? July 2010. Cigar Box Banjo, Paul Quarrington, for my husband’s birthday. November 2011, Something Fierce, Carmen Aguirre, for Canada Reads. That’s $80 in two years. No wonder they’re going out of business! Why didn’t I pick up Daniel O’Thunder, Lightning, The Book of Marvels when I saw them? And why didn’t I buy them all at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore?!

The fact is I can barely feed myself and my children, let alone every writer, publisher and bookseller in Canada. But that doesn’t prevent the lingering guilty feeling that I somehow should have tried.

My coworkers and I sit here scratching our heads this morning, wondering how this could have happened to D&M. They have a phenomenal list. We bring in – and sell – almost every single book they publish. What more must a publisher provide? Great, well made books that people want to buy. Isn’t that the formula? How can that fail to pay the bills?

Admittedly, I live in a bubble. Our bookstore sells books nobody else can manage to move. My customers are heavy readers who – bless them – never ask about the prices, just pay them. My friends are heavily educated and literate, with a strong sense of social responsibility when it comes to supporting the local. My 276 Twitter followers seem to be 200 authors, 75 publicists and my mom. The millions of people who buy and read 50 Shades of Grey? I don’t know who they are.

So maybe out there in the real world, D&M’s excellent books are going unnoticed. Maybe all the “buzz” the journalists, bloggers, reviewers and publicists claim to be out there is being generated by review copies and good intentions. I’m a bookseller and a blogger, after all.  I have my share of books given to me, and what I buy I often buy at cost. Maybe I am to blame after all. Do we excuse ourselves from buying books because we feel our endorsement, our “word of mouth” is worth more than the $19.95 we’d spend on the book? I wonder sometimes. I don’t know how else to reconcile the contradiction I’m seeing. We all love and “support” these books, and yet the money isn’t there. Are the readers – the ones who don’t work for the publishing houses, who don’t get their copies for free – there? Are they reading our reviews and buying the books? Does buzz equal sales?

We’re troubled, this morning, about what this could all mean. If a Douglas & McIntyre can’t make it, I wonder if anyone can. Does a publisher need to be propped up by a mega-bestseller (and does a Canada Reads winner not suffice)?

October 22, 2012

Canada Reads 2013: Dundurn Press

And so, to recap: This year Canada Reads is once again crowd-sourcing their shortlist, asking members of the very literate public to submit their suggestions for long-form, fictional contenders for the top prize. This year’s catch: the books will be divided regionally, one each from five Canadian regions will go toe-to-toe. I don’t think this is much of a limitation – we love our writers wherever they come from, right? The only thing I would like to see, and what I am actively promoting this month, is some representation from Those Who Came Before us, a book or two, maybe, written at least 20 years ago. I don’t care where they are from.

For the last two weeks I have been profiling publishers who have, for one reason or another, been safeguarding our literary heritage and keeping some older classics in-print and available for us. From those publishers I have been putting forth a few suggestions, books I don’t think should be overlooked by writers whose names we all know but who we haven’t, I bet, actually read. Look back: I have covered House of Anansi’s A-List, The University of Alberta Press, McGill-Queens University Press and Penguin Classics.

Let’s kick off this week with Dundurn Press. I looked this way because I remembered their lovely and, frankly, hilarious Voyageur Classics (check out the Hudson’s Bay Company colours – awesome!), but quickly reminded myself that they do us the great service of keeping ALL SIXTEEN of Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna books in print. I know, !!! With no further ado, look this way:

Atlantic Provinces:


L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle

“Valancy lives a drab life with her overbearing mother and prying aunt. Then a shocking diagnosis from Dr. Trent prompts her to make a fresh start. For the first time, she does and says exactly what she feels. As she expands her limited horizons, Valancy undergoes a transformation, discovering a new world of love and happiness. One of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s only novels intended for an adult audience.”

Ontario:


Mazo de la Roche, The Building of Jalna

“In The Building of Jalna, Adeline, an impulsive bride with an Irish temper, and her husband, Captain Whiteoak, select Lake Ontario as the site of their new home. De la Roche chronicles their trials and tribulations during the building of the house, the swimming and skating parties, and the jealousies and humourous events that arise. This is book 1 of 16 in The Whiteoak Chronicles.”

October 17, 2012

Canada Reads 2013: Penguin Classics

One week left to get your Canada Reads 2013 nominations in! I’m waiting ’til the bitter end to send mine in, and in case you are too I’m offering recommendations as a free public service! There’s a catch, though, which is that I am trying to bring our heritage back, trying to drag an oldie into the mix to see how it holds up in debate to all the youngsters we’ll no doubt see in the line-up. All of my recommandations will be at least 20 years old, arranged by publisher to give you all a sense of who is keeping what in print, in case you have forgotten.

So far I’ve talked a little about House of Anansi’s A-List, the University of Alberta Press, and McGill Queens University Press. That’s two academic publishers to one mainstream – a bit of an inevitability when you’re talking about who is willing to provide the public service of guarding our cultural heritage for its own sake. But there are big players in the Classic Canadian Literature game, maintaining lists of, also inevitably, some of our biggest, brightest, most well-known literary giants. There is a romantic tendency, on my part as much as anyone’s,  to want to use Canada Reads as a vehicle to promote lesser known writers deserving a kick at the Professional Writer can. While I absolutely want to see some unknown titles on a good top-five list, I also like to see a few good old stalwarts. It lends credit to whoever wins – an unknown winner among unknown nominees feel a bit like a straw dog, standing in for something with a real soul. If a book is that good, surely it can stand it’s own against the best?

Penguin Books Canada will probably represent at least one or two of this year’s finalists, whoever they be. But I’m going to look in particular at those titles which have made Penguin’s internationally relevant Penguin Classics line. I’m not going to lie to you, some of these books are on my list of all-time favourite books. They stand up against the giants of literature from any country, any time. I’d be happily shipwrecked with them. I’m so proud to be a product of the same culture which produced them. I hope to Pete that you had to read them in school, if not on your own time, but if you haven’t, do yourself a favour: do.

So please consider:

Ontario:


Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels
It is an abject CRIME that Davies has never been represented on a Canada Reads shortlist. This is probably my favourite book by one of my favourite authors. From the blurb: “Gypsies, defrocked monks, mad professors, and wealthy eccentrics—a remarkable cast peoples Robertson Davies’ brilliant spectacle of theft, perjury, murder, scholarship, and love at a modern university.” How could you not love this?


Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words

Another favourite book from a favourite author! Findley was already up for Canada Reads for Not Wanted on the Voyage, but while Not Wanted is definitely my favourite work of Findley’s, I think Famous Last Words is a more literary, more accomplished novel. Read as a “retelling” of a brilliant poem by Ezra Pound’s, it is a work of unqualified genius. The blurb: “In the final days of the Second World War, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley scrawls his desperate account on the walls and ceilings of his ice-cold prison high in the Austrian Alps. Officers of the liberating army discover his frozen, disfigured corpse and his astonishing testament—the sordid truth that he alone possessed. Fascinated but horrified, they learn of a dazzling array of characters caught up in scandal and political corruption. The exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor, von Ribbentrop, Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, Sir Harry Oakes—all play sinister parts in an elaborate scheme to secure world domination.”

Quebec:


Mordecai Richler, Solomon Gursky Was Here

Did you know Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood are the only Canadian novelists to ever make the Canada Reads finals twice? Neither of them have won, either. Nor do I think they would, because the panelists tend to like to give the prize to books which “need the attention”. But their presence in the field is important, I think, in order to bring the discusion up to standard. So how about Solomon Gursky? The blurb: “Moses Berger is very young when he first hears the name that will obsess him and drive him on a quest across Canada and Europe. His life becomes consumed with unravelling the secrets from the startling, almost mythical life of a man and family shrouded in lies.”

October 15, 2012

Argh, Neal Stephenson!!!

WARNING! What follows is like a review, only without any of the pensive analysis and even-handed evaluation one might expect from a reasonably seasoned reviewer. What follows may contain coarse language, frustrated outbursts, and crass sentiments. What follows is my I-just-put-the-book-down reaction to Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, REAMDE.

First of all, know that I am a huge – HUGE – Neal Stephenson fangirl. I think he’s just brilliant – a smart, big-idea thinker who writes snappy, smart, funny prose and tells intricate, incredible, well-plotted stories. I admit, yes, he is long-winded. But I have ever maintained that it pays off. Sure, it takes like 500 pages to get in to Quicksilver. But, no worries: there’s another 2500 pages after that in the story. It’s worth it, it’s to the point. Anathem might have two appendixes of raw mathematics to absorb but who cares? It’s plot math. Learn the math. It will enrich your reading experience and make you a fundamentally better person.

And I’ll admit, yes, his writing lately has been a bit rough-shod. Anathem is a minor mess of typos and in bad need of a substantive edit. It seem clear to me that it was written in one pass with no especial effort made to edit – but it is precisely this quality of instant, unedited genius that makes me love Stephenson. Obviously, everything that falls of his tongue is golden. He’s just talkin’, man. He’s just telling you a story, and it’s the greatest story ever told. He’s just raw dumping ideas straight into your lap. Ideas communicated to you by the best, funniest, most excellent characters doing all the coolest things.

So I was so very psyched about REAMDE even though, admittedly, the jacket flap made the story sound dull. Because, it’s Stephenson! He could write a phone book and it would blow your mind. 100 pages in, okay, maybe it would have been nice if someone had done an edit. Specifically, someone who understood Stephenson’s audience because, you know, we know what an URL is. We don’t need it explained. 200 pages, now we’re getting somewhere. 400 pages, it’s not clear where we are now.

500 pages in – the half way mark – I’m starting to feel disheartened. Because the story as I understood it blew up 200 pages ago, and the new story isn’t clear yet. I’m waiting for one of those big-idea bombs of Stephenson’s to hit and make it all mean something. I flip ahead to the end – yes, I read the end before the middle, this is common in my world – and it doesn’t seem immediately obvious that anything revolutionary is coming. So I wonder, well shit, what if this is all there is? And I have another 500 pages of it to go?

I equivocate on whether or not to finish the book. Over 24 hours I talk myself into and out of forging ahead. In the end I stick to the book for the sole unquestionable reason that I am completely in love with Csongor – the romantic lead, if the book can be said to have one – by now, and am skimming the paragraphs for physical descriptions of him. “Armed Hungarian man-tank” – be still my heart! It helps that Sokolov is also turning out to be a very yummy badass, so, okay, I can do this. It’s still Stephenson. There’s probably some pay off coming soon anyway.

700 pages and I’ve rallied a little. The characters have stopped meandering and they seem to be coming together to form a more unified plot of some kind.

800 pages, most of the characters are meandering again. Csongor – where is Csongor? I don’t know, but now we’ve met Seamus, who is sort of amusing.

900 pages. I’ve resorted to reading other people’s reviews of the book already, as they are less tedious than the book itself. I learn the final 150 pages of the book are basically one big gun battle, packed with the minutia of various firearms. Classic Stephenson infodump, but who the hell cares about guns? They aren’t even futuristic scifi guns. Oh man. I’m skimming again. Csongor’s back, but he’s had to take a back seat to the other, actual badass characters in the book. Sokolov makes every other character in the book entirely redundant. People are killed who I don’t remember having been introduced. The romantic climax of the book is over in three lines and pays off not at all. I can’t tell you how robbed I am feeling at this stage.

I’m still waiting for the payoff when I realize I’m reading the acknowledgements. I slam the tome shut. So that happened. I have finished, despite resistance, Neal Stephenson’s latest novel and basically, I’m so disappointed that I’m numb. Was it even that bad? Maybe I was hoping for something else? Would I be so disappointed if I hadn’t set the bar so high?

Well fuck that, really. I read Stephenson because I like my bar HIGH. REAMDE falls on its ass during the qualifiers and I still sat around for the final, that’s all. Should have read something else after the preliminary flub.

Back in the saddle, though. It’ll be at least another year before Stephenson’s likely to be able to vomit out another 1k pages, so that’s a good amount of time to detox and find what I wanted in someone else’s work. And who am I kidding? I will be all over Stephenson’s next. One fall? Really? I’ll survive. Maybe the next will be all that and more.

October 15, 2012

Canada Reads 2013: McGill Queens University Press

Votes are due in October 24th! I can’t believe how soon that is, so without wasting more time today I continue my Canada Reads 2013 campaign. For those of you just tuning in, I am bound and determined to raise the visibility of older works of Canadian literature, and so I will be featuring some overlooked publishers who have been keeping up the good work of keeping older CanLit in print. I hope to make a range of suggestions for each region defined for this year’s competition. Last week I pointed to House of Anansi’s A-List offerings and the University of Alberta Press.

Today I have the pleasure of featuring the McGill-Queens University Press and some of it’s affiliates. I’m pleased because a MQUP focus lets me do double-duty today. Not only does MQUP publish offerings from the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts, but they happen to have a good back-catalogue of Hugh MacLennan, and Mr. MacLennan gets my shout-out today because next week the Montreal’s Writers’ Chapel Trust will be laying a plaque in the Writers’ Chapel of St James the Apostle Anglican Church in his honour.  (Want to attend? contact Adrian King-Edwards @ The Word Bookstore, wordbook@securenet.net, 514-845-5640.)

So here is some MacLennan, but also some major selections from the Early Canadian Texts. Don’t turn up your nose like that – have YOU read them? That’s right. Please do consider:

Quebec:


Hugh MacLennan, The Watch that Ends the Night
“George and Catherine Stewart share not only the burden of Catherine’s heart disease, which could cause her death at any time, but the memory of Jerome Martell, her first husband and George’s closest friend. Martel, a brilliant doctor passionately concerned with social justice, is presumed to have died in a Nazi prison camp. His sudden return to Montreal precipitates the central crisis of the novel.”


Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague

Atlantic Provinces:


Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The Clockmaker


James De Mille, A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder
I had to mention this somewhere – possibly Canada’s first science fiction novel! An oddball work of adventure and philosophy very much in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs or, hell, George Sand.

Ontario:


John Richardson, Wacousta or, The Prophecy


Phyllis Brett Young, The Torontonians

October 12, 2012

Canada Reads 2013: University of Alberta Press

On Tuesday I fielded the crazy idea that Canada Reads 2013 should feature one, if not more, older books. My reasoning being that we in Canada like to pooh-pooh our history without knowing it very well, and as the years crawl by deserving writers who forged the path for the newer ones are being forgotten and neglected. Canada Reads lets us remember them and, perhaps, compare them to the newer generation to see how both have fared, how both came to be, and how the old informed the new. Despite what you might surmise after browsing a bookstores shelves, quite a lot of good Canadian Literature remains in print in excellently curated serieses and editions. Over the next two weeks I will feature a number of presses who keep excellent backlists, and I will put forth some regional suggestions of classic CanLit which are at least 20 years old. Before you cast your vote in this year’s competition, I hope you will stick with me and remind yourself of some older but still worthy contenders.

Looking West? Let me point you at the University of Alberta Press, whose cuRRents series in Canadian Literature contains some excellent choices. Canada Reads has asked us to stick to full-length novels this year, but I hope you’ll have a look at U of A’s full list out of your own interest – they have a special focus on poetry and no small number of short story collections. But here are four novels from two under-read Westerners for your consideration!

Prairies and the North:

Robert Kroetsch, The Studhorse Man
“Hazard Lepage, the last of the studhorse men, sets out to breed his rare blue stallion, Poseidon. A lusty trickster and a wayward knight, Hazard’s outrageous adventures are narrated by Demeter Proudfoot, his secret rival, who writes this story while sitting naked in an empty bathtub. In his quest to save his stallion’s bloodline from extinction, Hazard leaves a trail of anarchy and confusion. Everything he touches erupts into chaos necessitating frequent convalescences in the arms of a few good women–excepting those of Martha, his long-suffering intended. Told with the ribald zeal of a Prairie beer parlor tall tale and the mythic magnitude of a Greek odyssey, The Studhorse Man is Robert Kroetsch’s celebration of unbridled character set against the backdrop of a rough-and-ready Alberta emerging after the war. ”


Robert Kroetsch, What the Crow Said


Sinclair Ross, Sawbones Memorial
“After practicing medicine for forty-five years, Doctor “Sawbones” Hunter is retiring. It’s April 1948, and the long-awaited hospital in Upward, Saskatchewan is about to open. Although the war is over and the town is buoyed by optimism, a change is in the air. Revealed through dialogue and memory, Sawbones Memorial is the story of one man as told by his town.”


Sinclair Ross, Whir of Gold
“Sonny, an aspiring musician, and Mad, a young woman down on her luck, struggle to survive in the mean streets of Montreal.”

October 10, 2012

My Canada Reads 2013 Campaign

There it is, this year’s gimmick: CBC’s annual Canada Reads competition this year is gonna be a regional turf war.

I’ve been skeptical in past years about Canada Reads’ new focus on crowd-sourcing and competition. More measured people than I have written about the downsides of turning authors into dancing self-promotionary monkeys, about getting “Celebs” of dubious literacy to champion books they may not have even read, let alone liked. Last year I flaked out entirely on the competition, reading only 3/5 books and tiring, in the end, of the theatrics.

Yet Canada Reads continues to hold my interest because of the conversation it creates. Love it or hate it, I don’t think any other Canadian literary event consumes as much virtual ink as this one, and the strength of the community that has grown up around it is unmistakable. One wants to be part of that conversation, even if only to be the voice of dissent. People really talk books around Canada Reads, lots of people.

So at least for the time being, I’m in. In the past I have floated disinterestedly through the nomination process, but this year I’m going to be pro-active in favour of what I want to see on Canada Reads, of what I think is missing.

What I think has been missing is this: our literary heritage.

Canada Reads has, since the introduction of crowd-sourcing, become the game of publicists and promoters. They want to push their new titles, their frontlists. These authors are out there now trying to drum up sales and create buzz, and power to them. But I miss the olden days of undiscovered and half-forgotten gems, or bringing classics to a new generation. There are going to be people out there championing the small presses, the young writers, and the languishing mid-career tryhards. Me, I’m going to stick with what I know: our history. The stodgy old backbone of CanLit, much maligned but increasingly ignored and unread.

An interesting condition of this year’s competition (and perhaps this has been the case for years now, but there it is writ plain) is that the book must be “…available in Canada and published by a traditional publisher … and must be readily available.” This sets the game up in favour of the hot new frontlist, as most day-to-day readers only know what they see on the shelves of their local new-book store. I am going to do you all a favour and feature, over the next two weeks, some alternative sources and alternative suggestions for nominees drawn from some overlooked backlists and publishers. My mandate will be to put forth some suggestions that are at least 20 years old (I know! ANCIENT!) but still excellent, and drawn from all corners of the country. I will feature presses one at a time, and try to give you a good assortment of suggestions from the five regions.

Got it? Okay, to get you off on the right foot I am going to take a gimme in the form of House of Anansi’s new A-list imprint. Anansi’s great idea lunch just this fall with a great backlist of Canadian writers, and here are two for your consideration (note to Anansi: add more!):

Quebec:


Kamouraska by Anne Hébert

Ontario:


Five Legs by Graeme Gibson

October 10, 2012

Rediscovering George Sand

Like most people, I subscribe to Netflix. And like most Canadians, I often find myself watching strange miscellany because, really, Netflix Canada doesn’t offer very much. But last month I stumbled quite by accident onto a goodie (“Movies Featuring a Strong Female Protagonist”), a 1991 biography of George Sand starring Judy Davis and Hugh Grant called Impromptu.

I have been fascinated by George Sand ever since reading Les Trois Dumas by André Maurois (confusingly translated as The Three Musketeers in English). Sand features prominently in Maurois’s 1957 biography of the Dumas family, both as friend to Dumas pere and probable lover of Dumas fils. Even in the background of a biography of another Sand shines through and dominates her scenes. As much as anybody, Sand appeared to steer the ship of French Romanticism through sheer force of will and influence. Judy Davis channeled this domineering version of Sand and it was impossible not to fall in love with her pantaloon-wearing, cigar-smoking, balcony-jumping personality. Like most movies, though, so much about Sand was left to be known – why could she spend her time taking up with every beautiful young genius in Paris? Where was the husband? And why was she avoiding the obviously-way-cooler-than-Chopin Alfred de Musset (as interpreted by Mandy Patinkin)? Oh, and she was a writer, right? What did she write, anyway?

 Lucky for me, I was able to indulge in my new-found Sand obsession the very next day because I had already secured a small Sand library in anticipation of the day where I really had to, just HAD to learn everything about her. I began with a scholarly biography, Naked in the Marketplace by Benita Eisler. Eisler’s biography is informative if not especially exciting, given, I think, the drama of the material. Eisler is thorough with her history but committed to a more psychological portrait of Sand than I might have preferred. Here is a woman who was on the bleeding edge of French politics her entire life long, having been involved with the Second Republic, the Imperial government of Napoleon III, and being a key player in the formation of the French Third Republic, yet Eisler chooses to focus on Sand’s personal growth as expressed through her semi-autobiographical, political novels. Sand’s impact on other cultural revolutions such as a nascent feminist movement and Romantisism was glossed over in favour of analyses of how her personal relationships informed her art. The resulting portrait was one of a self-involved, passionate woman of great strength, but a self-centred George Sand is difficult to reconcile with her socialist governmental politics, and communal sexual politics. This was clearly a woman who wanted to change the world, and not just out of ego. Hers was truly a philosophy of libertéégalité, fraternité.

If Eisler made any compelling case, it was for the enduring presence of George Sand in her novels, so there I went next. Eisler and, earlier, Maurois claim Sand’s most important and famous works were her early novels, Lelia, or Indiana perhaps. Good luck to you finding anything in print, says I. Oxford World’s Classics has an edition of Indiana, but even in my obscure end of the world this has yet to hit the shelf. Instead I found I’d picked up Pushkin Press‘s relatively new (and definitely beautiful) edition of Laura: a Journey into the Crystal. This proto-fantasy novel was published near the end of Sand’s career and ought, I’d have hoped, to present a mature, distilled George Sand who had arrived at her personal conclusion.

My hopes might have been too high. Laura bears more resemblance to the pulp novels of an Edgar Rice Burroughs, dashed off in a hurry for money. There are some interesting meditations on the nature of art and science, of beauty and the ideal, but the novel really only gains any traction when it conjures up moustachioed Oriental villains, magical soul-enslaving gemstones and crazy alien ecosystems found at the North Pole. There are cringing descriptions of “brutal, primitive Eskimos” and blood orgies juxtaposed with long-winded descriptions of geomorphic formations. There’s a reenactment of a kind of reverse Orpheus & Eurydice rescue. In short, the book is a dog’s breakfast, as perhaps I should have expected from a totally unknown work from a relatively unknown writer written in an experimental vein.

Not, I think, that the read was totally without value. The central relationship in the novel between the protagonist Alexis and the titular Laura is explored with a maturity that exceeds that of the players. Both Alexis and Laura can only love each other in their ideal forms, found inside a shared hallucination (OR IS IT). In “real” life they snark and tease and annoy each other, and wonder where went the beautiful young thing they fell in love with “inside the crystal”. Yet in the end they do marry and are reconciled to a very ordinary, plebeian, un-ideal life. This seems a cynical conclusion presented by a woman who was such a tireless Romantic throughout her life. One wonders if she’d become just a bit bitter in her later years.

It seems obvious to me that I should have secured a more extensive Sand library, because what I’d put together was, in the end, unsatisfactory. A biography that glossed over the compelling bits, and a novel which was probably unrepresentative of her work. Both books gave me a glimpse of the Sand I think I would have liked, just before turning and galloping off in another direction. If anything I am more curious now than I was before. I feel as if Sand is an undiscovered keystone for the Romantic movement, and around her there are better stories told, or to tell. I will keep looking! If even weak works produce curiosity, then there is something big waiting to be uncovered.

“Franz Liszt, am Flügel phantasierend” by Josef Danhauser. That’s Dumas in the chair at the far left, and Sand swooning just next to him.

October 1, 2012

An Anniversary of Sorts

The shortlist for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced this morning, which in a bookstore means a rapid once-over of the store and the orders to see what we have and what we need get into stock. We managed 1/5 this year; not our worst year. In doing my research, I happened to notice that it has now been 10 years since I started working in the bookstore. The shortlist of 2002 was the first I ever worked on.

We’ve never been the kind of bookstore to attract bestseller-like traffic, but we do pride ourselves in keeping a long backlist. So while we didn’t sell many copies of that year’s winner – Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe – we do still have it in stock. Looking back to that 2002 shortlist, I’m pleased to see we actually still have 4/5 of THOSE books. Maybe this is a testament to the lasting value of those books, or maybe we’re just slow on the uptake. But if ever you’ve doubted the strength of the books that make a Giller shortlist, look back:

Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe
Bill Gaston, Mount Appetite
Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York
Lisa Moore, Open
Carol Shields, Unless

Ten years on, those choices hold strong.

So I suppose what I’ve learned in ten years of bookselling is that however random and unworthy a list may or may not look at the time, only time can really bear it out. Those jurists are no fools, and what is today unknown to us might be classic tomorrow.