Once & Future

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

December 1, 2010

Prelude to Some Reviews

I’ve been terribly, terribly lax about reviewing lately. I’ve been reading, taking notes and thinking, but I’m torn at the moment on the notion of publishing those thoughts. I enjoy it – it’s the natural output of an opinionated reader. But at the same time, my reviews this year have tended towards the testy and the cranky, and I’m feeling poorly about that. I know that every book speaks to each reader in a different way and so, as a reviewer, you have a certain responsibility to highlight the book’s strong points even if you didn’t really take much pleasure in them. But by the same token, I have read very few books this year that I would rate, on a scale of five stars, higher than a three; and I don’t think I’m doing anyone a service by blowing sunshine about something which is essentially mediocre.   It doesn’t help that in the very exciting flurry of early review copies I received at the beginning of the year I got some real duds and reviewed them as such, which probably put publicists off sending me anything ever again.  It feels a bit like betraying their good will – but at the same time, it isn’t my job as a reviewer to white-wash a book just so I might continue to receive future free books.  You wouldn’t buy it anyway.  It doesn’t sound true coming from my (metaphorical) lips.

I thought I might, then, avoid reviewing books unless they were really noteworthy.  In a way, this has just served to emphasize, to me anyway, exactly how mediocre most books are.  With the exception of Essex County and Doctor Zhivago (review forthcoming), most of the books I’ve read in the last four months have been disappointments.  They weren’t terrible, of course.  They had their moments.  But I’m hardly prepared to rave about them in public, or even lend them off to other people.  (Don’t read too much into this, by the way – just because I haven’t linked a review to a book on my reading list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.  I am also sometimes just lazy.)

So do I publish cranky reviews or make nicey-nicey?  Leave off reviewing altogether and tell you about the latest frustrations of running an independent bookstore?  To be honest I haven’t quite finalized a long-term plan yet, but I have decided to do a review dump.  Over the next few days I’ll give a cluster of paragraph-sized reviews of some of the more interesting things I’ve read.  After that, who knows.  I’m inclined to give my blog a new subtitle: “Thoughts from a very ornery individual” or something, which will serve as a warning to anyone who prefers rainbows and lollipops.  After all, we can’t all review with the same voice, just as we don’t all read with the same eyes.  Diversity is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Consider me the resident badger!

November 11, 2010

Will the Reader Wait?

In case you’ve been in a hole (or just not on Twitter) for the last two days, you’re missing a very interesting debate over Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize win for The Sentimentalists.  Her publisher, Gaspereau Press, is on the record as saying they won’t take any extraordinary measures to meet the demand for the book: they will continue to print the books as they always have and fill orders as they come.  This means an output of about 1000 copies a week.  Given a “normal” Giller winner can expect to sell 60,000-80,000 copies, there is some debate over whether Gaspereau is robbing Ms. Skibsrud of a potential windfall.

It seems to me that the crux of the debate is whether or not the reader will wait.  Do those books need to be on shelves next week?  Or will the readers wait to read them when they can eventually get a copy?  If Ms. Skibsrud will find her 75,000 readers over three years, that’s no big loss to anyone.  But if the delay causes reader interest to wain, everyone stands to lose.

I am spectacularly naive about what generalizable groups will do.  I can’t speak for “The Readers” anymore than I can speak for “The Voters”, whose motives and actions I manage to be blindsided by every. Single. Time.  I don’t know if The Readers will wait, but limited evidence seems to suggest that they won’t.

Everyone I know was reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall last year.  Nobody is reading it this year.  The book hasn’t gotten any worse, in fact by all accounts it is ten time the book that Finkler Question is.  Maybe everybody read it already?  We aren’t selling the paperback of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, last year’s Giller winner.  We only sell Late Nights on Air to students (who read it for Canadian Literature) and I’m not sure we even have a copy of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures in stock (ETA: we do, one copy, which has been there since 2007).

Actually, our customers don’t even look at our Canadian Literature shelves.  They look at New Releases.  I don’t think this is because they have already read everything in Canadian Literature, but I could be wrong.  I have on occasion experimented by placing a new copy of an old book on a New Release display.  This is a good way to sell books which have otherwise been sitting, gathering dust, for five years.  Any bookseller can tell you this.  Having your book “on display” rather than on a shelf is the best a writer can hope for, because the Reader seems to be drawn to shiny newness.  Even the independent reader wants to be In The Know.

I hope for Ms. Skibsrud’s sake that Gaspereau is right, and the readers will wait for her.  Certainly some will.  With any luck that number will be enough to pay off her student debts and buy her a year or two of leisure time in which to write another beautiful book.  If we need anything in Canada, it’s a solid class of working writers, undisturbed by a second “day job”.  I have my fingers crossed for you, Johanna.  I hope I’m as wrong about readers as I am about everything else people do.

November 1, 2010

A Twofer – Skim & Essex County

So my lip service to the Canada Reads Top 40 announced last week was to read a couple of books I already owned. I know, I’m such a pillar, standing here supporting our publishing industry like this.  But honestly, 40 books whose claim to being “essential” is either mass popularity or social media savvy – I’m not going to run out and buy them all, so why buy any of them?  I’m holdin’ out for the top 5, kids.  And here’s hoping they’re not the five I’ve already read.

I was, however, pretty tickled that two graphic novels made the cut – Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki (real-life cousins) and the Essex County trilogy by Jeff Lemire.  I’d long since bought both, since they’ve collectively racked up every award in comics and even a few outside, but I hadn’t actually got around to reading them yet.  And now I have.

Reading Skim made me more irritated than ever about the fiasco surrounding Mariko Tamaki’s Governor General nod.  This is a short book as far as the text goes – I was through it inside of an hour, toddler interruptions included.  What gives it the depth and length of a novel was Jillian Tamaki’s art, obviously inseparable from the words as far as the whole goes.  The graphic presentation is unquestionably Skim‘s strong point; it’s what lends poetry to an otherwise pretty straight-forward teens-coming-to-know-themselves story.

Teens-coming-to-know-themselves is a pretty standard trope for graphic novels these days.  Some of the best (if not all of the best) work in graphic novels now is autobiographical – see Speigelman’s Maus, Lynda Barry’s What It Is, Joe Matt’s Peepshow and Craig Thompson’s Blankets - and to a man and woman, graphic novelists seem to have been drawn from high school’s outcast classes.

I closed Skim thinking, well, that was no Ghost World.  Skim and her friend Lisa are petulant and insecure, “rebelling” against their suburban (Scarberian) Catholic school upbringings via a very mild mid-90s Goth aesthetic, skipping school now and again, and smoking.  They hate everyone else and, of course, increasingly develop a sense of self through art.  Having been a high-school-Goth in 1994, I found Skim and Lisa pretty bland – at the time, I’d have called them wankers.  Their outcast-ness feels forced, a lame attempt at differentness, enforced by stereotyped teen Christian princesses.  See 2004’s film Saved! for point of reference.  But despite the fact that they wear black and cut class, these nice girls are gonna be okay in the end, you can see that from the beginning.

By comparison, Ghost World‘s Enid & Becky jump right off the page with their pop-culture savvy and penchant for outrageous hyperbole.  They’re smarter, hipper, and skirting a more dangerous edge.  My 15-year-old self would have KILLED to be friends with these girls.  But after re-reading Daniel Clowes’ version of the outcast-teen-story, I have to give Skim credit for what it does do rather than what it doesn’t.

Skim isn’t treading any new ground, but the story is gently and beautifully gendered thanks to Jillian’s art.  You just want to lend Skim a pile of books and give her a big hug.  Hers is  a more universal teenage experience, the same sad stuff we all went through to some degree.  The moodiness of the naturalistic landscapes haunted by teenagers all trying to hide from each other will probably resonate with the confused teen in your life, and it’s Jillian Tamaki we have to thank for that.

But it was Jeff Lemire’s Essex County that gets my gold star of approval this weekend.  While invoking familiar Canadian themes of cold winters, small-town hockey dreams and wheat-covered rural life, he manages to avoid comparison to anyone at all.  He gets that Canadian tone just right, without waving flags, sentimentalism, or a tongue in cheek.

Each of the three volumes of the novel tell the story of one or more characters from Essex County, Ontario.  Each character lives a life interlaced with the others (a small-town given – even the faces and names of the Essex County “short stories” included at the end of the Collected Essex County are familiar, being evidently someone’s uncle, grandfather, or neighbour.)  But despite all these connections and overlapping histories the characters are all grappling with crushing loneliness.  If there is a Lemire-ian hallmark, it is surely the stark black-and-white full-length panel of a character, alone at a table in a room obviously intended to hold more people.  The black shadow cast against two or more walls of the room will reveal some domestic symbol in negative: a cross, a clock.  The discomfort of those rooms contrasted with the neutral, trying-to-just-get-by expressions of his (adorable) characters leaves a deep impression.  It’s masterful work.

The loose style of Lemire’s art gives the impression of something which has just occurred to him, dashed off in a hurry.  But the sketchbooks at the back of the Collected volume tell a much more complete story of drafts, rewrites and thought.  The book also does the trick of making you want to spend more time in this world with these – or other – characters.  Essex County – Lemire’s version – is a deep world rich with untold stories.  The three shorts included in the Collected whets the appetite.  That is the mark of a master story-teller.

In other news, is anyone else having a hard time voting for their top-10 Canada Reads title?  My instinct is to vote for the book I most want to read, rather than the one I’ve read and liked best.  I mean, for Pete’s sake, I don’t want anything I’ve read before on that list.  So how could I vote for something I’ve already loved?  But then, how essential can I say something is that I’ve never read?  Oh well, the saga continues.   November 7th (or is it 9th?), you can’t come soon enough.

October 25, 2010

All complaints aside, I’m still excited…

…about the Canada Reads “top 40″ to be announced Thursday!  In the end I folded and submitted a recommendation against my better judgement (it was a past Canada Reads winner, but given I suspect MANY past Canada Reads winners will be on the list, I’d like one on there that actually feels “essential”, to me).  The final list will be, I suspect, a bit of a Janus, with half the list being over-read, popular books the likes of Book of Negroes and Three Day Road, and the other half the product of write-in campaigns organized by enterprising or beleaguered authors.  And honestly, that’s not a bad mix.  If it makes it that way into the final five, we’ll have a fun little reading list.

I am nursing a little wish-list.  Books I’d like to read, but in all honesty probably won’t get to anytime soon if they don’t make the Canada Reads cut.  The sad truth is that for all my whining, I’ve actually read very little “recent” Canadian literature – not even the big sellers.  So with no further ado, here is my top-5 dream-list!

Canada Reads 2011 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (I know, I know…)

2.  DeNiro’s Game or Cockroach by Rawi Hage (I’m not picky.)

3.  Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey (“epic”, “historical” and an Atlantic Canada Reads nod? I’m in!)

4. The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (I need to laugh now and again, by god.)

5. Elle by Douglas Glover (More history – this time with added feminism!)

***

I’ll have to hold out until next year to get my fix of older titles.  I was so hoping to see certain names on a Canada Reads list — those authors have the misfortune not to have published anything major in the last ten years.  Canada Reads panelists of the future, how I hope you’ll Google me…

Canada Reads 2012 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

2. Anything by Josef Škvorecký (Swell Season?  Bass Saxophone? Two Murders in my Double Life?)

3. Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche (Tell me a 16-book Canadian soap opera from the 1930s wouldn’t be dead fun to read.)

4. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (Poetry, queer lit, historical fantasy and international cred all in one.)

5. Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint (One of his best, I think – short stories.  Pretty please?)

***

Good luck to everyone tomorrow!

October 15, 2010

“What to Read” Works Itself Out

Want something with a strong, character-driven narrative? Literary credentials?  Depth and length? Elif-Batuman-inspired-Russianness?

How about a brand-shiny-new Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago?

I think I’m in love!

October 15, 2010

A Short Note on Books I Will Probably Never Read

About Cormac McCarthy’s latest, Michael Chabon says, “The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greater fears.”  The rest of Chabon’s analysis in his essay Dark Adventure, in Maps and Legends, served as just as much of a warning-off: this is a book I will probably never read.

Never say never, I know, but I have to tell you I have no stomach for horror or gore at the best of times, and I am absolutely intolerant of harm and death of children.  Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes floored me with its scenes of baby theft-and-murder swaddled in an otherwise feel-good tale.  Jodi Picoult’s short story “Weights and Measures” in Neil Gaiman’s Stories collection had me tearing up at the cash register at work – I mean, I had to stop for fear that I’d start bawling in the middle of the store.  I don’t think I could ever take an unapologetic, stark look at an unforgiving end-of-the-world scenario starring a little boy who is afforded no innocence.  It ain’t happenin’.

I admit I have similar fears about Emma Donoghue’s Room.  I understand the material is presented with innocence and humour, but the subject matter gives me the shivers.  Is this a mommy thing?  How did it treat the rest of you?  Is my squeamishness unfounded?

October 14, 2010

Characters vs People

Somehow I grew up biased against non-fiction.  I suspect it has to do with the libraries of my parents, stacked wall-to-wall with excellent literary and Canadian novels, interrupted only by old university textbooks.  At first non-fiction seemed boring and later, when I came to know a thing or two about the Public’s reading habits, I associated non-fiction with reading celebrity memoirs or true crime accounts.  Non-fiction was either academic or low-brow.  I forced myself to read non-fiction about 1/3 of the time: I considered this a sort of penance paid for self-education.  Mostly these books were about science, politics, environmentalism or food.  Things about which I felt I ought to be Educated.

So it surprises me to some extent to find that, over the last few years, some of my favourite books have been non-fiction: Eleanor Wachtel’s collections, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading and Deep Economy by Dave McKibbon.  The extent to which I am beginning to prefer a good collection of essays, or a memoir, was made obvious this week as I read Michael Moorcock’s contribution to the Neil Gaiman-edited short story collection, Stories.  Moorcock’s contribution, also called Stories, starts out “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch…” and launches into the history of a group of writers.  It took me three or four pages to realize that what I was reading wasn’t fiction, but autobiographical.  The shift in my perspective, the sudden sharpening of my interest was a physical sensation, like putting on a new pair of glasses.  Suddenly, this was the best story I’d read yet.  A dozen pages in I hesitated and wondered, maybe this is fiction after all?  Can anyone write fiction that true, that compelling?  All those characters, dates, events, histories, relationships!  The depth and complexity of the story Moorcock is telling seems impossible to replicate in fiction.  Maybe it’s the lack of descriptive landscape, and of poetic language.  Maybe just knowing it’s true makes me more curious.  But something is different.

The best book I’ve read in a long time is Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.  No, maybe not the best.  Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was amazing.  So was Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators.  But I haven’t been as engaged by any book this year the way The Possessed engaged me.  The books is a series of vignettes of Batuman’s time spent In Academia, from life as an undergrad, to post-graduate assignments in Russia in the dead of February.  She sets out explaining that she wanted to be a writer, but that the right path, for her, was to study literature, rather than to study writer’s craft.  The experiences she subsequently racks up, from a summer in Samarkand studying “Ancient Uzbek” to helping to coordinate a conference on Isaac Babel certainly made for meaty retelling.  Somehow I can’t imagine workshopping stories in New Jersey can provide quite the same anecdotal kick (but I could be wrong).  The Possessed was side-splittingly hilarious, insightful and inspiring.  These were good stories.  The complex connections she can draw between her life, the lives of her beloved Russian masters, and the universal experience of life did justice to her ambitions.  I’d read anything Batuman writes now, right down to a laundry list.  She has authority, experience, insight and style.  What more can a novelist boast?

Now, as a life-long devotee of The Novel, I feel I need to engage with something longer and deeper, with characters I can root for and despise, and longer plots I can follow.  I need something that can reaffirm my faith in the novelist’s ability to write as true and as deep as an essayist or memoirist.   Batuman makes me crave Tolstoy – Anna Karenina? – , Moorcock tempts me to explore Dashiell Hammett – I think I have The Thin Man on my shelf – and Michael Chabon now has me re-eyeing Sherlock Holmes.

What would you recommend?  Who are the best story-tellers, the best crafters of narrative truth and story?  I’m in the market for a new book…

October 12, 2010

Two Cents Worth on Canada Reads 2010/2011

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, CBC has announced some fairly major changes to the format of their annual Canada Reads competition in celebration of their 10th anniversary.  The response to the announcement has been mixed, by which I mean everyone is complaining about it.  The reader-responses posted to the Canada Reads website have all been positive, but the media/blogosphere criticism has already drawn out some official justification from the CBC (complete with straw-man defenses, claiming they don’t have the budget to include poetry and short story collections in the competition).

I have done my share of complaining here and there, but after a beautiful weekend’s reflection on the matter, I thought I’d elaborate my primary issues with the new format.

Last year after the announcement of the 5 books in competition, there was a fair amount of disappointment voiced by Canada Reads’ more ardent followers because the list was too contemporary, and included two books which “everyone had read” – Fall on Your Knees and Generation X.  This spawned the Canada Reads spin-offs of which the CBC was so supportive, including Canada Also Reads and Canada Reads Independently.  The genesis of these spin-offs has been ret-conned, it seems, with Canada Reads supporters claiming these stemmed from the success and enthusiasm for Canada Reads, rather than from disappointment in the official list.

For anyone who was paying attention last year, this year’s format-change seems completely baffling.   Rather than shore up last year’s weaknesses and push for a more diverse list, the CBC has decided to go whole-hog in the direction of Fall On Your Knees by presenting a format that will ensure that every book nominated will be something everyone has read.  Three caveats of the competition guarantee this result: the narrowing of the time-frame to the last 10 years, letting readers nominate their favourites and taking the “top 40″ by vote tally, and an odd emphasis on books which have demonstrated “commercial success”.

Now one of two things has happened here:  either I have wildly misjudged who Canada Reads’ followers are, or the CBC has.  Why do we need to have a competition between the five best-selling Canadian books from the last decade?  Are we presuming a great love of re-reading amongst the CBC’s listeners, or is there a secret mass of non-readers who tune in to Canada Reads of whom I am unaware?  A Canada Reads listener will be someone who loves books, and someone who tunes in to the CBC.  Some defenders of the new format have lashed out against criticism, saying Canada Reads is some kind of populist competition, to which I have to say bullshit.  That might be the intent, and I’m sure there are light readers out where who make Canada Reads their one literary excursion per year, but I don’t buy for one second that these make up any kind of listening majority.

I heard a paper delivered once called “Divergent paths? Postcolonialism, book history and Three Day Road” which argued, basically, that there was a gap in the 2006 competition between the readers who loved Three Day Road and the panelists who felt it contained problematic postcolonial themes.  This young academic felt the “average reader” wasn’t picking up on the nuanced issues with the book that panelists did, suggesting that the Canada Reads followers were less sophisticated readers than the panelists.  Sounds like the CBC’s line, right?  During the question period following this paper, the academic was asked what sort of sample she’d drawn on for her research – who were these “average readers” who’d held such strong opinions of Boyden over Toews?  They were, we learned, librarians.  Dozens upon dozens of librarians, people who read all five nominated books and furthermore, were well aware of the postcolonial issues and liked the book anyway.  Four years later, Three Day Road is rising in the opinions of critics, academics and readers, and seems less and less like a simple, entertaining book, suitable mainly for simple readers.

Research sampling is fraught with issues, but nevertheless it fits, in my mind, that Canada Reads listeners would be librarians, book bloggers, book-club members and English graduates.  These people may not be Frederic Jameson or Frank Kermode incarnate, but they are people who read and who think.  They are people who have read the bestselling books of the last five years. I don’t know who could possibly be served by a Book of Negroes nomination.  The book has sold 500,000 copies in Canada.  It might be the favourite book of 50,000 of those people, but that doesn’t mean Canada Reads needs to recommend it to anyone.  We already know.

Let me back-pedal in conclusion, and say that we know not what lies ahead and, who knows, we may be surprised by a short-list of new books that haven’t already won all the major literary awards and bestseller spots.  I will read those books and be glad of it.  But right now it looks unlikely, even if the daily “Reader Recommendations” are to be believed.  I forsee a shortlist of Life of Pi, Three Day Road, and Elle; more laurels on their laurels, and a bored listening public.  I miss keen, unexpected recommendations and rooting for the underdog.  What’s a heavy reader to read?

October 4, 2010

Writing “Great Men”

The subtitle of Iliya Troyanov’s Collector of Worlds had me giddy with excitement: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton. The last time I’d read a novel of Richard Francis Burton it was To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book of Philip Jose Farmer’s classic Riverworld saga, in which an eternally resurrected Burton hunts an eternally resurrected Hermann Goring down a river, along which lives every human being who ever lived.

Burton was a gift to Farmer, a figure who was easily as fantastic as his major literary contribution, the first major English translation of the 1001 Arabian Nights.  He spoke 30 languages, completed a Hajj (in 1853 no less, when you really had to walk there), fought more duels “than perhaps any other man of his time”, brought both the Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra to the English-speaking world, and tried in earnest to learn the language of monkeys.  If Farmer had made this stuff up, it would have been gratuitous.  But Burton really lived, publishing widely and kept extensive diaries proving he’d lived, so he was fair game.  In all of human history, he was the one real man suited to serve as the hero of Farmer’s novel.

The possibilities Burton offers to a contemporary, literary writer are many.  Even I, a Burton fangirl if there have ever been any, will admit he is a problematic figure.  He may have been something of a real-life Allan Quartermain, but Burton could not have been Burton and Quartermain could not have been Quartermain if the British hadn’t been swarming all over Africa and the Middle East during that period, conscripting, bullying and shooting the locals.  Even Burton’s unusual sensitivity to the rights and customs of the local people is offset by his participation, and a sense that he is treating his life as an extravagant circus-show.

Still, I have the sense that there was something different about Burton, something which set him apart from his peers.  Regardless of his moral culpability, he did things no man before him did, spoke loudly against things no other man would (to the great detriment of his career and personal life), and left a bigger footprint than almost anyone else.  Whatever sort of man he was, he was a special one.  Therein is the meat and potatoes of a great novel.

The biggest disappointment of Troyanov’s treatment of the material is that it is boring.  He takes on the modern task of filing all the heights of the Burton legend down, laboriously and at length turning exciting and remarkable episodes of his life into bland, introspective, third-person accounts.  The “action” (as it were) is narrated by three “native” observers: a Hindu manservant, three Turkish officials, and the Yao guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay.  All of these observers are deeply confused by Burton as a man, and so their recollections of him are marked by a total inability to account for anything he does.  Burton is never allowed to speak for himself in these chapters.  As soon as he opens his mouth, his words are replaced by a banal description of approximately what he might have said.  Burton is given an interspersed “point of view”, but it also fails to speak for the man.  These passages are psychological episodes.  Rather than put you in the event, they remove you by fogging the view with the ramblings of Burton’s memories, or self-doubt.  Again, he never seems to speak.  He hums and haws his way through a Hajj and a months-long hike from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika.  There is certainly an expert hand drawing the scenes for this play.  The landscapes and weather patterns of North and East Africa some so alive as to make the reader shiver and sweat along with the suffering characters.  And perhaps this was Troyanov’s project to some extent: to show a place so unmasterable that even characters written into its midst can’t take their place at the top of the narrative hierarchy.  Burton, along with the rest of the British (and local, for that matter) life, was barely a smudge on the inalterable qualities of Africa.

If that be the case, I say: pick someone other than Burton!  Why squander such a wonderful character by burying him in all this noise?  Unless the project is to bury him, and all I can say to that is that I think our historical memory is poorer for it.

It isn’t that I think the task of fiction is the romanticize our history: far from it.  But any treatment of a historical personage – especially one with such a legendary reputation as Burton – has to address the question of why he or she has the reputation he has.  If Burton is just another Brit, this time with an affinity for languages, why have we made of him the legend that we have?  What special, or privileged, or misinterpreted, or unrecorded quality of the man or his chroniclers brought about the history we’ve written and accepted?  This is probably the central question of a much better work of historical fiction: Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators. Koestler, like Troyanov, has chosen an oft-romanticized but problematic historical figure as the centre of his novel – this time the escaped gladiator-slave and revolutionary Spartacus.  Koestler’s account of the events of the Gladiator War (73-71 BCE) is nuanced, politically astute, and incredibly relevant.  He deftly shows that the problems of leaders two thousand years ago are the same problems of leaders today, and the ethics of leadership are every bit as knotty and unappreciated.  This war is bloody and completely without heroes, without a “good guy” or “right” in sight.  Nevertheless, Spartacus emerges as an important figure.  He has been humanized, especially when compared to Kirk Douglas’s bronzed swashbuckler.  He flirts heavily with tyranny and commits many atrocities.  His followers denounce him from time to time, and he makes no friends.  And yet we understand what it is that makes him a hero of history.  His character might be complicated, but it hasn’t been diminished.

Whether the role of the novelist is to serve history or simply to tell a story, the use of real people is a powerful tool.   History has already awarded them weight.  You need to treat the character as if they carry that weight, either to offset the weight with other devices or to address why it’s there.  You can’t pretend it isn’t there.  Or you could, I suppose, but the result (in my case, at least) with make the reader suspicious of your motivations or storytelling skill.

September 6, 2010

Wishlist, Fall 2010

I sometimes wonder how some of you can get through books so quickly. I’m coming to suspect I am a Slow Reader. It could also be that I have a 2-year-old who does not like me reading on her watch (though she ought to be counterbalanced by a job that lets me read, sometimes, 7h a day), or that for the second time this summer, I am embroiled in a book that exceeds 700 pages. Nevertheless, my “want to read” pile is growing much, much more quickly than my “read” pile.

We have a rule in my house: you read 5 books off the shelf before you get to buy one more. My history with this rule is poor, but lately has been improving. It helps that I’ve moved, and in rearranging my library I’ve rediscovered many delicious reads I’d forgotten I’d bought. But the list of books I want to buy is growing unwieldy.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson

Has anyone else around here noticed that Canada houses a really disproportionate number of the world’s most excellent speculative writers? Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles DeLint, Nalo Hopkinson – and Robert Charles Wilson?  Wilson’s latest, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, has racked up more awards and kudos than I could possibly list here – but watch to see who wins this weekend’s Hugo [ETA - it didn't win, but I'm still excited!].   I talked myself into skipping this one in cloth, but now that it’s out in trade format, I’m twitching impatiently.  My heart always has room for another work of post-apocalyptic steampunk social commentary!

The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson

Three things made this book drool-worthy for me: 1) NYRB publishes beautiful, well-made books of great literary value and somehow, I don’t own a single one… yet. 2) Michael Chabon is in the small club of Authors Who Can Do No Wrong as far as I’m concerned – and if he says this book is good, I believe him! 3) I’m an unashamed devotee of historical fiction – and, come on, Vikings!

February by Lisa Moore

I had something like zero interest in this book until recently.  Steven Beattie’s assessment that “For Moore, language has always been more important than plot,” killed any enthusiasm I might have had right off the bat.  Then Salty Ink featured it in its “Atlantic Canada Reads” competition.  Of all the awards to pay heed to, sure, this one was obscure.  But the recommendation was borne out by the Booker Prize panel, who longlisted it for the prize this fall.  Kudos flooded in then, and suddenly, over a year after it was released, everyone was claiming to have loved this book all along.  Okay, okay, you win!  Let’s see what language has done here. I look forward to being wrong on this one.

Kanata by Don Gillmor

Meanwhile, Don Gillmor’s Kanata has been exciting for me right from day one. Have I mentioned I adore Don Gillmor? And historical fiction? And Canada?  Unlike some, I don’t feel Canadian Literature is groaning under the weight of ponderous works of collective nostalgia: I rather feel that we still lack a good national historical imagination and it shows in our increasingly vacuous sense of context.  Most Canadians don’t know their history and I feel it’s in no small part because we don’t have enough memorable stories about it.  Will Kanata help flush out that body of work?  I can’t wait to find out.

Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Even though I haven’t read this books, I’ve still referenced it and quoted it in dozens of conversations over the last half-year – one of the advantages of working in a bookstore, I guess.  I can skim and sample enough to talk about something without actually reading it.  But this one demands a full read-through.  The notion of “cheap” is one of my pet peeves; rooted in a bit of a bourgeois attitude that it isn’t cool to speak of or care about prices, and exacerbated by my close involvement in an industry which is suffering in large part because people would rather save $2.50 than help support an important cultural industry.  Of course it’s cheaper to buy books from Amazon than your local independent – but at what cost?   I am going to read this book and then, I hope you will too.

Have you ever wished you could just pick up a book, press it to your forehead and absorb its contents? I’m sure this would suck all the pleasure out of reading but some days, like today, I really have picked my preferred superpower.  So many books, you know?  And so little time…

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