Once & Future

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

January 7, 2013

Canada Reads 2013 Review #2 – The Age of Hope

David Bergen preempted this review in the last chapter of The Age of Hope with a scene in which Hope’s middle daughter, Penny, divulges her intention to write a novel that sounds like it’s likely to be a biography of her mother.

“It will be too episodic. You’ll need some backbone to the story. A plot. My life was plotless.” Hope tells her daughter. Later she thinks her friend Emily’s life might make a better book. “What was so important about Hope Koop? Emily, in every way, had lived a more interesting life.”

Emily isn’t the only one. Hope is surrounded by people whose lives sound as if they would make good novels: her Olympian daughter, her strange, tumultuous, declining son, her cousin caged in marriage, a hitch-hiking indigenous man, even her house-cleaning Communist co-worker. These colourful supporting characters might have livened up the book but for Hope’s solipsism  She is so “mystified” by herself, the world, and the people in it that the other people who appear in her life are pushed away, appearing only in glimpses seen at a distance.  It is as if Bergen’s project was to pluck a character from the margins, the most ordinary background character he could think of, and do them some kind of justice by giving them centre stage.

While I appreciate Bergen’s desire to give a voice to a demographic that is not given enough credit, good intentions on behalf of the author do not make a good story. Hope’s story is boring. Bergen mirrors the simple mediocrity of Hope’s life with equally simple, mediocre language and leaves the reader very little to hold on to.

Hope has brushes with plot – episodes – which threaten, occasionally, to turn into interesting stories. She has a nervous breakdown and spends time in an institution having electroshock therapy. She has to rebuild her life after a bankruptcy.  In late life she meets a man and embarks, abortively, on a new, adult relationship. But none of these episodes are given much page space or gravitas, and Hope’s relentless ignorance and obstinacy prevent her from really taking these events into herself, letting them change her or put her on a new path. No, they are blips, potholes, on the road through her dull, mediocre life.

What was perhaps the most baffling thing about Age of Hope was how other characters would occasionally suggest that what we were reading was somehow extraordinary. Hope’s friends comment about how different she is. Her different way of looking at things. She reads books, we’re told, though she doesn’t often seem to like or understand them. If this was meant to suggest that the people of Hope’s community were on the whole even more self-centred, ignorant and little-minded than she was, I am terrified for the people of Manitoba.  The few moments of free-thinking and charity she afforded others hardly warrant more than a golf clap. Stayed friends with your friend the divorcee? Yah, okay. Drove your daughter’s friend out for an abortion? Want a medal?

Perhaps this was a very bad reader/book pairing, but I found very little to like in this book. At least when Dostoevsky wrote The Adolescent he was purposely painting a portrait of a headstrong, self-absorbed, painful stage of human development. Hope, on the other hand, never grows up. If anything, she becomes more adolescent as she ages.

Perhaps I missed the joke, though. Perhaps “Age of Hope” was meant to be ironic, and this was a cynical tirade against the generation that squandered the wealth of a civilization. That might help me justify why Bergen, a perfectly competent writer, bothered “tackling” this story. Alas, that might be too much to Hope for.

My money is still on Indian Horse. And I Hope you’ll join us on Twitter Thursday, January 10th 2013 at 2pm EST to discuss Age of Hope under the #Canadareads hashtag! You can read a roundup of the reviews at Bookgaga’s blog here.

December 28, 2012

Canada Reads 2013 Review #1 – Indian Horse

If you, like me, are horribly, inexcusably ignorant of Canadian Indigenous history, you will probably want to read Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse with Wikipedia open next to you.

Perhaps you don’t; perhaps Wagamese’s beautifully crafted sentences and compelling story alone will suffice for you. Perhaps you will read for the fire and excitement of the sport – hockey – that is the focus of most of the book’s narrative. Perhaps you will just read to know what happens to Saul Indian Horse, the book’s very likeable protagonist. Perhaps you won’t find your mind racing away with the issues and implications of what he has written. Perhaps you are that very focused person.

I am not that focused person. I got as far as page 8 before my jaw hit the floor and I scrambled for my iPhone. I thought I knew my history. How did I not know children were being kidnapped at gunpoint by representatives of the residential school system as recently as 1961? But wait – it continued after that? The Residential schools were still run by the churches until 1969? The last school didn’t close until nineteen-ninety-six?

Was I asleep during the reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Apparently so; but I, like so many other people, get most of my history from novels, for better or for worse. Historical fiction has a lot of detractors in literary circles, people who feel that fancy costumes, dates and out-of-scale events deter from the human heart of good writing. I think this is 100% pure crap. A story is a story, and stories have characters and there is nothing less human about Wolf Hall‘s Thomas Cromwell than Things Fall Apart‘s Okonkwo. I wasn’t there for either of their lives: thats why I read the bloody book. But I digress.

Richard Wagamese is telling the very human story of a boy heavily, heavily damaged by Canada’s horrifying colonial history who finds some peace through his incredible gift as a hockey player. The stark contrast between his off-rink and on-rink life is beautifully illustrative of the power of talent or sport to provide an escape from the most awful circumstances. But it was difficult for me to share Saul’s love of the game because, though evocatively, powerfully written, as soon as a white person showed up, he would ruin everything.

The short period of peace in the book takes place during the time Saul plays with an Indian hockey team against other Indian hockey teams. It’s a beautiful thing to read, the camaraderie and hope borne of these games. As word of Saul’s talent gets out, his team – The Moose – starts to play games and tournaments against white teams, and from there everything goes to hell. It is very hard for a person like me not to have a political reaction to a narrative like this. The history is so recent, and the setting so familiar. Canada continues to deal out racism, oppression and vast injustice to its Indigenous peoples. Read the news lately? Exactly. I could not be a passive reader of this book.

Horrified though the book left me, I think this book’s ability to evoke a reaction like this in me – and, I hope, thousands more Canada Reads readers – is a very good thing. I hope it provokes us all to bone up on our history, current political movements, and provokes some action. I doubt that was Wagamese’s intention when he wrote Indian Horse, but frankly there are few enough books being written about Canada’s Indigenous history that even the even-handed, polite and non-accusing narratives like this one should shock and incite the reader.

The book is not perfect. Wagamese makes use of one of my pet peeves, the Character Saved By Books trope. I know, books can protect and save anybody, but surely, once in a while, an illiterate person can be the hero of their own story? Must every sympathetic protagonist be bookish?

I also found Saul’s descent into alcoholism abrupt. He doesn’t take his first drink until page 180 of a 220 page book. Saul’s life between the ages of 15-18 takes most of the book, time spent exploring and understanding the world through Saul’s eyes with beautiful, careful prose and acute observations. The years between 18-25 seem to float away in one three page chapter, and the next thing we know he’s in his thirties, an alcoholic, and writing a book. I got the feeling Wagamese knew where he wanted to go with the ending but didn’t know how to get there, so he just left the time in between off the page. I would have been happier with a book longer by fifty pages, better understanding Saul’s post-hockey existence. It might have brought his return to hockey at the end a little more gravitas.

Still, I think this book will be a fierce competitor for the Canada Reads title! I certainly feel it should be a must-read for Canadians. If there are any educators out there reading this, get Indian Horse on your syllabi. It’s a beautiful, readable book students will adore and the history is so, so important. Don’t wait for it to win or not win Canada Reads. This book should be out there either way.

November 30, 2012

Canada Reads 2013: The Panelists

The Canada Reads 2013 list is out, and yesterday I had the pleasure of going down to the CBC building in Toronto to meet, greet & grill all five panelists. What I learned made me even more optimistic about this year’s show. Last year I spoke with the 2012 panelists about their reading habits and in hindsight, their answers reflected a lot of what turned me off about last year’s show. Two of those panelists were not really readers at all, and a third spoke disparagingly about “Canadian Literature”. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Shad, an enthusiastic, heavy reader, who brought the prize home for Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce.

This year I spoke to the five panelists about their reading habits and asked them to recommend a not-Canada-Reads book for me. Their answers were diverse, intelligent and revealed a panel of first-rate readers.

Charlotte Gray is a gimme. She is an academic and a writer who has won every award for non-fiction that I know of. Of course she is a heavy, heavy reader. Gray admits she doesn’t sleep a lot, and reads different kinds of books at different times of the day. She spoke highly of Will Ferguson’s 419 and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase as nighttime reads, both of which she read before they won their respective 2012 literary awards. As a heavier, daytime read she recommended Tim Cook’s recent Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King & Canada’s World Wars. I have no doubt that this is a woman who will have read most of the finalists already, and will read them again before the debates. She and Urquhart (self-identified “Alpha Females”) will be, in my opinion, very hard to beat.

Ron MacLean was the last panelist I expected to be so literate. My apologies! MacLean says he “reads professionally”, feeling that reading is one of the responsibilities of a public figure. He spoke both to me and on stage of how he feels reading is a way of having a two way conversation with the society he is sometimes seen to represent. He is genuinely enthusiastic about Bergen’s The Age of Hope, and has some very sophisticated opinions about art, “gender fluidity” and the big themes of the book to bring to the table. His favourite recent reads were literary non-fiction: he sited Nuala O’Faolain’s Almost There and John Ralston Saul’s recent A Fair Country, and admits he’s looking forward to reading Jian Ghomeshi’s own 1982. And Jian wasn’t even standing nearby!

Trent McClellan won’t thank me for listing him after the two heavyweights above, but this is a heavyweight kind of year! Trent has the tools available to him, though: the book he represents is terrific and he personally remembers the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982 which would give him an emotional insight that might influence the other panelists. “So they can read, no big deal,” he quipped onstage; and he can too. He recommended Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie but admits he’s a much more enthusiastic reader of biographies, siting especially Jamie McLennan’s hockey biography The Best Seat in the House. Trent also plugged Jian’s 1982, making me a little suspicious that Jian’s newfound status as bestselling author will be the foundation of many flattery campaigns!

Jay Baruchel gets the difficult job of making a book best known for its inclusion on high school syllabi exciting to a new audience, but if his stage time is any indication, he will do just fine. He tactfully addressed Quebec’s contentious politics by referring to the province as the “cradle of Canadian civilization”, a place where “love and tension come from the same place.” As a reader he had both literary nonfiction and literary fiction to rave about, citing Joesph P. Farrell’s Nazi International and Irvine Welsh’s Porno as recent recommended reads. If his tastes seem a little macabre it is because he admits his favourite genre is horror – he is working his way through Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books right now. I almost wish Jay hadn’t been limited to the top five Quebec books to choose from. I would have loved to see what he would have brought to the competition otherwise!

Carol Huynh gets a gold star in my book because she admitted to reading seven of the ten books nominated for the BC/Yukon nod in just one month! But outside of some hard-core Canada Reads dedication Carol admits to being a lover of fantasy novels. She gushed about Tolkien and cited Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and the books of Terry Brooks as other books she has enjoyed, winning my heart instantly! She has also, of course, read all of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. When my Canada Reads buddy asked me “how jocks fare in this competition” I had to admit they have not traditionally done well, but neither have I met any who had the same enthusiasm for the material that Carol exhibited. At the launch she confessed that she was more nervous about Canada Reads than she was about the Olympics, but if I had to weight in on the subject, I’d say Indian Horse is the crowd favourite among these books.

***

Good luck to al the panelists!  I am excited to tuck into these books in the new year, and hopefully we’l have a little read-a-long, blog-a-long, tweet-a-long action to go with it. Stay tuned!

November 29, 2012

*phew*! Canada Reads 2013 Finalists At Long Last

The Canada Reads 2013 finalists have been announced! I am super enthusiastic about this list – it is the strongest, most literary list Canada Reads has settled on since they introduced the “crowd-sourcing” rounds in 2010.

It is also a very conservative, traditional list, which perhaps explains why I am pleased with it. Every book on the list has solid literary credentials, laurels and critical recommendation. There are truly no adventurous or unknown picks here.  I don’t feel there is a dark horse in this race, but here are some considerations that may or may not shape the debate:

– From a longlist weighted 30/20 in favour of women, we have a shortlist back to the usual split of 3 men and 2 women. Panelist Carol Huyhn managed to pick the ONLY book on the BC & Yukon longlist written by a man. Will gender be in issue in the debate?

– None of the books this year are translated works; notably Jay Baruchel’s Quebec pick is Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan. This isn’t surprising given the dominance of English works on the longlist, nominated as they were by an English audience. This imbalance has been corrected in the past, however, by the inclusion of a Francophone panelist who could help us learn more about Quebec’s incredible literary heritage. Not so this year. In a debate billed as a “turf war”, will MacLennan’s heritage doom him?

– On the diversity front we have only Richard Wagamese’s Ojibwe self to represent all of not-white Canada. I am a little surprised at the lack of “immigrant stories” on this list, given how prevalent they can be in Canadian Literature. Is this an advantage for Wagamese?

– Speaking of whom, Indian Horse is published by the in-limbo Douglas & McIntyre. If Wagamese’s book wins, will the books be available? I have to hope that the CBC thought this one through, and perhaps some kind of escape hatch is already inked whereby another publisher is ready to take up the reigns if the worst happens and D&M isn’t able to meet the demands of a Canada Reads win. But there is always the chance of another Sentimentalists fiasco.

– We get our literary cred back! After last year’s panel of three TV celebrities, a musician and a judge, this year’s panel boasts the incredible Charlotte Gray. Will this help raise the level of debate this year? I am extremely optimistic!

I’m off now to the launch at the CBC where I hope to meet the authors and the  panelists – I’ll be back later today with my two cents on the latter! Will you be there? See you soon!

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 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

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

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