Once & Future

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

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!):


Kamouraska by Anne Hébert


Five Legs by Graeme Gibson

November 23, 2011

Canada Reads 2012: Literary Chop Round-Up

I managed, despite a sleepless night, a broken furnace, and two cranky small children, to make it out to CBC’s Canada Reads 2012 launch today! Ten minutes before I left my house, the Book Madam (Julie Wilson) tweeted the final five line-up and I was able to form all kinds of prejudices in the hour it took me to get downtown on the subway. Last year I had expressed my disappointment with the purely “entertainment” background of the panelists and this year’s list seemed to push even further in that direction, threatening even to make true yesterday’s sarcastic jibe about reality tv stars.  The books were solid, but the panelists? I was skeptical. I will cautiously, optimistically say now that my fears seem largely unfounded. What sounded bad on paper (“supermodel”, “star of reality show”) turned out to be gross simplification of much more interesting and, thankfully, well-read personalities.  I had the chance to ask a few quick questions about the reading habits of each panelist, summarized below. (Apologies to the CBC for cribbing their images – time is short this evening.)

Anne-France Goldwateris clearly a formidable woman. She earned some derision on Twitter for her comment (which I managed to miss – such is a hazard of tweeting something live) that she doesn’t read Canadian literature, but when I asked her what she reads instead she directed me to Danielle Trussart’s Le train pour Samarcande. This is not only a Canadian book (from Quebec, and as Goldwater claims to be a staunch Federalist, I assume Quebec still counts) but was a contender for this year’s Combat des livres. She also spoke highly of Dany Laferrière’s Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer (another Quebecois novel), describing Laferrière as “a french Anne Tyler”. Goldwater self-identifies as a heavy reader and, having heard her speak now, I believe her. I have no doubt she will be a very strong contender for the win.

Arlene Dickinson also claims to be a heavy reader. This I don’t doubt – not only was she eloquent, concise and poised at the launch, but she picked what is in my opinion one of the strongest books on the list. But I have to lament briefly the loss of the old Canada Reads format; you know, the one where panelists actually get to recommend for us a book of their own choosing, because Dickinson, when asked, spoke passionately about an entirely different work of Canadian non-fiction, Margaret Trudeau’s Changing My Mind. I overheard her later recommending this book again to someone else, so colour me intrigued! How many other panelists are fighting for their second (third, fifth, eighth…) choice? Regardless, Dickinson is standing behind a wonderful book, and she seems as able as anyone to give Anne-France Goldwater a run for our money.

I was totally skeptical about Shad, and now I feel like a total douche for doubting him just because he’s a rapper. His introduction to Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre sortof blew my mind; a perfect blend of eloquence, politics, rousing rhetoric and insight. Unsurprisingly, he is another self-described heavy reader, though admits he is “more of a non-fiction guy” (was this a pitch? I’ll never know). Still, when I asked him to recommend me something, he chose Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection, as well as Tolstoy – “his later non-fiction stuff”. *swoon* He is no intellectual lightweight. I’m secretly rooting for him & Aguirre to win – though I haven’t read the book and can only hope it lives up to my (now-heightened) expectations.

Okay, okay, the gushing ends here. Alan Thicke. When I asked him if he reads much, he almost laughed and said “no, not at all.” Just hockey books, I ventured? No, “mostly periodicals”. Okay, fine. Every panel needs a Nicholas Campbell, I guess. He’d sort of lost me during his introduction anyway, when he made some pretty bone-headed jokes about books for men versus books for women which fell pretty flat in a field where the lady-writers had produced heavy, serious books about war, human rights and revolution.  The room chilled noticeably (more so than Anne-France’s revelation that she is a Stephen Harper supporter – a pretty ballsy move in the middle of the CBC, let me just say).

My friend suggested that Ken Dryden should have defended his own book, and I really could’t agree more.  What a treasure HE turned out to be! Too bad that’s not how the game works.

Stacey McKenzie was another self-identified heavy reader of “non-fiction books”, “like memoirs”. Unfortunately I couldn’t wring any further evidence out of her because she insisted that her choice, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road, was the book she’d most recommend any day of the week, out of any field. Sounded a bit like a pitch to me. She admits she “has ADD” and needs a book to be snappy and grab her right away, or she can’t get into it – a quality which never struck me as being conducive to particularly extensive reading, but those could be my pesky prejudices again. What she lacks in eloquence she more than made up for in enthusiasm. I now fully expect On a Cold Road to completely blow my mind.

So learn from my mistake, O Reader. This might not look like much of a literary panel on its surface, but just below lurks the makings of some potentially great literary debate. Fingers crossed! Now for the reading – I’m cracking the spine on The Tiger tonight – and we’ll revisit the subject in February. I’m so excited to be… well, excited!

November 21, 2011

Back to Work!

Oonagh Elizabeth, her grandmother, and a carrot.

It has been five months since my last post. It has been an eventful five months for me. I am now mother to two beautiful girls, the younger of whom turned four months old yesterday. This might seem like a short “maternity leave” by Ontario standards, but Oonagh is a shockingly calm and self-satisfied baby and now, just over the newborn hump, I find I have no further excuse to avoid writing from time to time.

Not that I am looking for an excuse – I have been mentally composing blog posts for months now as exciting and interesting bookish things have cropped up, but have simply lacked the spare hands to type them up. I’ve re-read two epic speculative fiction series with mixed feelings, had heaps of much-anticipated new releases arrive for me at my bookstore, watched a really exciting awards season come and go, met new friends who also happen to be writers, discovered a true love of Canadian children’s storyteller Celia Barker Lottridge, had revelations about a three-year-old’s expectations of narrative, learned bizarre new things about digital textbooks… all of which I’m drooling to blog about, and will, over the next few months.

But probably most pressing, as my readers probably already know, is the imminent announcement of this year’s Canada Reads picks! I haven’t been following the bloggosphere at all these past months so I post this in innocence of everyone else’s three cents worth. But for my part, I am excited this year. While the CBC hasn’t abandoned their new crowd-sourcing mechanism for picking books (which I railed about last year) this year’s focus on non-fiction pretty much scuttles any potential that the final list will wind up as lackluster as last year’s. Canadian non-fiction is virgin territory for Canada Reads, and every one of the top 10 books (and, really, the top 40) is a big, relevant, important read. They can’t really go wrong, unless the five panelists are all 17-year-old reality television refugees without a literary credit among them. My reading this year – especially over the last six months – has been shamefully indulgent, so I’m thrilled to have an impending pile of books which will actually challenge my sleep-deprived and rusty intellect a little. My great hope is that the same will be true of the scores of people who read these books this year.

The big reveal is Wednesday, and I promise to do my homework between now and then. I’ll be back on twitter, the blogs, and, come Wednesday, the CBC building! Anyone else going to be there? I could use a little hand-holding through my return to the adult world. Not to mention that it will be the first time in months I’ll have two-or-more hours spent without a pre-schooler attached to me. I want to make the most of it!

No pressure, I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself either way! See you around…

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.

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