Once & Future

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

July 22, 2010

Birth and… more Birth at The Breakwater House

Becoming a mother these days is a decidedly political act.  For what is I suspect the first time in history, women in Western societies now by and large have children very deliberately and by choice.  This has resulted in a radical shift in how we view motherhood: rather than being the inevitable condition of our sex, it is a lifestyle choice.  Every step from conception to your child’s University career and beyond is riddled with politics and judgement. Is the world overpopulated? Should you wait until you buy the house? What about fertility treatments? Is coffee okay while pregnant? Were you forced into that c-section? Is breast best? Gentle discipline or tight control? Private, public or alternative school?  Does the unschooled child have any social skills?  “Free-range kids” or parental neglect?  Is it okay to make a kid “repeat a grade”?  Is it okay to call my kid’s professor about his marks?

The world of parenting is pure insanity, frankly.  Absolutely gone are the days where you had kids because it just happened, and then you raised them because you loved them, come what may.  No, now parenting is as much about you, the parent, than it is about the child.  Or, if Pascale Quiviger can be considered any kind of expert (I can not determine if she has any children of her own – it does not seem to be the case, but these days, who needs to have any idea what they’re talking about to spout off about motherhood?), motherhood is much, much more about the mother than the child.  In The Breakwater House, birth is a thaumaturgical force which has the power to both save and destroy mothers’ lives.  The resultant child is a powerful talisman who can heal, mend or weaken its mother.  It is decidedly not a person.

There’s no question that motherhood is a powerful condition.  A child provides a richness and sense of expanded purpose that I certainly enjoy in my life.  Nevertheless Quiviger’s characterization of the condition as “the wound of love” was maddeningly narcissistic.  The many mothers of her novel lack the strength of character to transcend the experience intact.  Victimized or damaged women are given babies (often by the eponymous house, a lovely little  device that would have been right at home in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez if Quiviger hadn’t over-explained her allegory out of either lack of faith in her readers or fear of a genre designation.) in order to heal them and give them a reason to be.  Tragically, the gift of a child is as likely to make a mother miserable as it is to heal them.  Here is the “wound” of motherhood’s love.  The collective voice of Quiviger’s mothers shouts, “I love you because I have to but I want my life back!”  The tone of the book is sympathetic: these poor women, crushed by maternal love.  Don’t you feel for them?  Aurore, mother of Lucie, is more or less exonerated of the crime of abandoning her 14-year-old daughter because she never wanted the child to begin with, and anyway, Lucie was apparently in the way of the lifestyle she wanted to pursue.  This rather late term abortion can be contrasted with Alambra’s sacrificed fetus; Alambra at least having been able to shed her burden before she had to give 15 year of her life up to it.  Both women share the same air of tragedy.  They loved their babies but, alas, my life.  My life.

Claire and Lucie, the “eyeyuyueye”, are a warning; collectively losing their lives to the loss of Odyssée.  They do not want to imagine life without her, and yet it’s difficult to discern their happiness at having been mothers from under the heavy veil of the novel’s insane, grief-stricken framework.  The only mother who seems truly pleased with motherhood is Gisèle, whose disabled daughter is literally nothing more than a love-generating device for a woman who suffered a debilitating mental illness until she was able to procure a baby which would love her forever, unconditionally, without inconveniently growing up and gaining its own life.  What this says about mental illness, the disabled, and the selfishness of mothers is almost unfathomably unethical.

Birth is not, in the Breakwater House, a process of creating a life outside yourself.  It is a process of conjuring up more of yourself.  Quiviger deserves kudos for composing the mother-who-lives-through-her-child to pitch-perfection, but that woman is extremely grating.

The “illuminated” prose the Globe and Mail blurb led me to expect was also a disappointment, either because I lack the ability to decode it or because the process of translation rubbed it out. Three pages in the Sphinx-like pseudo-wisdom begins: “It makes sense to begin at the end – at the beginning of the end, which in itself is a beginning.”  The “insights” which begin as simply asinine eventually become completely inscrutable:  “Without peace, she writes, survival is redundant.”  Huh?  Poetic descriptions without meaning assailed me throughout.  I have never been a big fan of novels written by poets for this very reason.  You can keep your Michael Ondaatjes and Gil Adamsons, I like my language to be clear and meaningful.  “Schizoid-pink” is not a colour, and if it is, it’s downright un-PC.

One last quibble: The blurb on the back of the 2010 English paperback edition (pictured) is completely misleading.  It suggests a narrative structure which is not there at all, and even describes events which never happened: Lucie and Claire take turns telling stories to Odyssée?  When?  The blurb inside the front flap is much more honest.  This marketing sleight of hand I think reveals the difficult task Anansi has ahead of them:  How to sell a book about motherhood which will probably frustrate most actual mothers and mystify most non-mothers?  I wish them luck but I’m afraid I can not help.

July 12, 2010

Oh, the movie/tv tie-in…

I sympathize with publishers on this one, I do.  One of your literary titles has been optioned for a movie or TV mini/series – what luck!  Now the poor, overlooked book can reach thousands of new readers, brought in by the millions of film publicity dollars.  You rush the book into a new edition ready and waiting for its new audience.  Of course, the new edition had better be obvious to the movie-going public – you wouldn’t want to miss a sale to a customer who might not remember just exactly what the name of the book was, or the author.  You might need to tweak the title a little bit – better Away from Her than The Bear Came Over the Mountain, say.  You might provide some visual cues – a new cover design inspired by the film, perhaps.  You do what you need to do.  You publish a movie tie-in.

The movie tie-in works very well strictly to advertise itself.  But it works so much worse as an addition to one’s library.  This is plainly a fact in my mind as I spent much of last month trying to stealthily smuggle my book face-in wherever I go, for fear that someone might see the very embarrassing cover.  Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart’s airbrushed mugs make me feel as if I’m reading the latest issue of People, not a book.  This is bad luck on my part.  Unlike many movie-goers, I am perfectly aware of the title and author of the book a movie may be based on, and I have a privileged ability to special-order whatever edition I want through my bookstore.  But the sad reality is that once a movie tie-in has been published, it replaces the previous edition.  Too bad for you if you wanted something a little more subtle.

My issue with an edition like this Possession is unquestionably the celebrity faces which feature so prominently in the design.  This seems to be the Style for films based on literary fiction – I have unfortunate editions of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours on the shelf as well:

This is not, however, a universal design. It seems to be the case only when we’re unfortunate enough to get a film version where the stars are supposed to be a bigger draw than the source material. Case in point? Harry Potter books have always looked like… Harry Potter books.  Meanwhile, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, despite their massive following and iconic cover design (iconic enough that older literary classics have been redesigned to attract the Twi-trained eye), got the film treatment, presumably to sell to those of us who only considered watching the films for the eye candy.  The lesson here is that if you hear an interesting book has been optioned by Brad Pitt and will be released staring Robert Pattinson in 2012, BUY IT NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN.

I am sympathetic to the need for a movie tie-in, I am.  But publishers, please, try to spare us when you can!  Here are a few examples of tolerable tie-in covers:

Okay. Here we have the tie-in for Ruby Weibe’s Temptations of Big Bear. So here’s a step up from the airbrushed faces: we still have the movie’s star (Gordon Tootoosis) but he’s not staring us down. The picture they’ve chosen is fairly well-framed. Some thought to book design appears to have been made, rather than just importing the movie poster. Not too shabby.

Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of Murder could pass for a “regular” book if not for the “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” banner across the top which, frankly, is pretty subtle.  No celebrities, and nobody gets higher billing than the author.  This works.

I think these are hilarious. Okay, maybe not the best way to help market the movie or TV show. As seen… where? Starring who? But if your goal is to sell books and not to market the movie, then why not a generic sticker? Anyone who saw the show is going to come looking for the book and an “AS SEEN ON TV” sticker is a quick memory aid.  It’s also removable, which is a plus.

On that note, it occurs to me that a collection based on movie tie-in covers might actually be kinda fun.  Private Library – any thoughts?  As some parting food for thought, here’s one place I think the movie tie-in was an improved design:

June 21, 2010

A Hazard of Reviewing

Lately I’ve done a lot of thinking about the art, or business, of reviewing books.  This isn’t a new preoccupation, of course – I posted about it once before here – but it’s an ongoing one, inflamed recently by a series of events.

I’m sure you have all seen Andre Alexis’s piece on the state of Canadian criticism recently published in The Walrus.  The article has caused some stir, agreements and disagreements with points or names.  For my part, I agree with him.  Canadian reviews do not move me to buy or even think about the books they cover.  This week, with Alexis’s essay fresh in mind, I felt bombarded by proofs.  I have been repeatedly confronted with glowing, meaningless reviews of books which I would only have described as mediocre.  This baffles me – am I really so far out of touch with other readers?  What am I missing here?

I once read the memoirs of a British diplomat who had spent some of his career in Canada who (and I’m badly paraphrasing here, being unable to remember exactly what book it was or who wrote it) described the Canadian attitude towards its artists and thinkers as seen by an outsider.  He said Canadians will make a genius and a hero out of anyone who shows the slightest indication of talent.  In some enthusiastic collective act of nationalism or cultural cheerleading we elevate the mediocre to the status of promising, and the passable to the status of genius.  This is an embarrassing and perhaps insulting assessment of the Canadian canon and I don’t want to agree with him.  But his biting sentiment drifts to mind in any case as I read my newest Quill & Quire, or the Afterword’s impotent “Buy It or Skip It” reviews (which can never bring themselves to tell you to Skip anything; only perhaps wait until the paperback).  I can’t believe Hope Larson’s bland young-adult offering Mercury warrants a starred review from the Q&Q; nor comparisons to Daniel Clowes.  The book was readable; which is to say, I read it.  I won’t ever read it again, and fifteen years from now, while combing the library for books I’d recommend to my daughter, I doubt it’ll come to mind.  There are simply a lot of better things available.

Insert this article here, The Tyranny of the New.  Ihara’s thesis – that we celebrate books which should rightfully be shadowed by their superior predecessors – feels absolutely spot on.  Ihara points fingers at an industry which needs to sell books, but I think there’s more to it than that.   Canadian literature is an inherently new field.   One which, by the way, likes to disown its forefathers, but anyway.  I feel as if, increasingly, the average reviewer simply doesn’t have the time or ability to contextualize what they’ve just read.

And perhaps this is not a question of willful ignorance, but a simple hazard of the occupation.  Who has time to read old books???  I’d be pushing it to claim I read 50 books a year.   That’s roughly one a week, a good rate to be publishing reviews whether I am a blogger or a journalist.  The industry wants me to review new books – that’s what they sell, and that’s what they mail me – and so, to an extent, does a reader wondering whether to make that next purchase.  A career reviewer probably starts reviewing in her twenties or thirties, giving her, perhaps, 5-10 years of prior, adult reading experience to draw on for her reviews.  This is barely a step into the library, I think we can agree.  To compound the slightness of this survey there’s the unfortunate fact that both students and reviewers often have to skim or sample their books in order to meet deadlines.  This leaves little time for deep, thoughtful readings, inquisitive side-readings, dabblings in related but informative works.

No, familiarization with the best literature of our civilization is a life-long pursuit, one which is extremely difficult to do justice to if one’s reading schedule is crammed with, most likely, the latest mediocre offerings from the frontlist trade catalogues.

I think this does much to explain the mass of  “There, you see?” (to quote Kerry Clare) reviews.  All you need to read to pull up snippets of “brilliant” prose is… the book under review.  Looking over the text as if it exists in a vacuum is certainly an approach to literature.  A. S. Byatt made a useful distinction between poets and novelists in her Possession, one which I think also describes the textual scholar from the biographical one – “For the difference between poets and novelists is this – that the former write for the life of the language – and the latter for the betterment of the world.”  The “life of the language” is a wonderful thing, but I, personally, do not believe in Barthes’ death of the author.  A text (Barthes knew this) does not exist in a vacuum and it is useful to know where the elements of the text came from.  It is useful especially to a reviewer, who has a responsibility to communicate to the reader – who may have a depth of reading on a subject which is very deep indeed – how that book compares to other, similar books, or how it stands in its treatment of its subjects.  This requires extensive reading, depth of knowledge and possibly even some expertise.  We need to read more old books.

To bring this polemic back to a point, better historical coverage might help us reviewers call a weak book weak, by comparing it to earlier, stronger attempts at the same thing.   There should be as much virtue in promoting an older book than a newer one. To reassure publishers, the old refrain of “publish fewer, better books” comes to mind. I thought it was an asinine sentiment at first, but I don’t think I was reading widely enough of new books to realize how badly this is, in fact, needed. Rather than publishing fifty-thousand new books, catching the flash-in-the-pan sales, and having the book out of print three years later, why don’t we publish fewer books and focus publicity and sales on achieving a longer tail? Instead of having ten-thousand “published authors” who can’t make ends meet, perhaps we should have one-thousand making a living off of it! But this is idealistic, and unlikely to go anywhere in a print culture where all the players – bloggers, publishers, booksellers, cultural bureaucrats – all want to be writers.

All of this culminates in an excuse for why I don’t do more reviews.  I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on many of the books I read, and then I need to rush on to the next book.  I am thirty pages into Pascale Quiviger’s The Breakwater House and already I’m finding I need to research gardens and gardening in order to make heads or tales of some of her more whimsical poetics.  It’s too easy to be a lazy critic.  I think criticism is a valid vocation and I think the Canadian critical scene has the talent to take it up a notch, especially given so many venues which lie outside the influence of major newsmedia conglomerates who are as happy as anybody to just toe the cultural industry line.  But we need to be critical of our own efforts, and unafraid to compare a new book to an older, better one. We should be prepared to state bold opinions that some books should be skipped.  If this means dismissing the books written by our co-workers, our social media buddies, and our friends, then so be it.

I think, also, I will be showing more discrimination when choosing review copies.  I have particular expertise and can review very well on some subjects.  I suspect such is the case with most of you.  I am less likely to have to publish a potentially embarassing review if the book was carefully chosen to begin with.  Another place to be less lazy, I suppose.  Fewer, better books, fewer, better reviews.  In the end, ideally, more credible reviews and more successful books.  I can try.

June 16, 2010

Reader’s Guilt

I’m having a miserable week of sleep deprivation, sick and cranky toddlers and moving stress which, naturally, puts me in no frame of mind for either sending or receiving coherent textual information. Proper blog posts, papers and articles sit in draft form on three computers. I try to make headway with Byatt.

I consider myself a fairly disciplined reader. I force on myself a reading schedule under which I am prevented from reading “too much” of any one genre – I try to balance old with new books, fiction with non-fiction, Canadian with International. I try, generally, to stick to one book at a time, to avoid philandering.  I do my best to finish books no matter how dull and uninteresting I find them.

This doesn’t always work.  I’ve had to abandon books from time to time.  I was comforted to learn recently that I’m not the only one who couldn’t stomach Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.   I gave up on Richard Fortey’s geological epic The Earth.  More recently I tossed William Buck’s edition of The Mahabharata (it was not at all as inspiring and engaging as Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana, one of my all-time-favourite reads).  And, embarrassingly, I didn’t finish Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angelique.

But that isn’t bad, I think.  It’s a few books from many.  I’m generally, as I say, disciplined.

Nevertheless I have to make a confession about which I feel even worse than I do for failing to finish certain dull books:

I can’t read the poetry in A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Alright, a snippet here and a couplet there, yes.  This is fine.  But the 8-page rendition of Swammerdam?  Entire chapters of Ragnarok?  I can’t do it.  I want to just flip, flip, flip, until I return to the narrative.  And I can’t shake the feeling that this makes me a deeply flawed human being (tongue only slightly in cheek).  After all, this is a story about poets, about poetry, about the meeting of souls through text.  And I’m skimming for plot.  But I can’t help it.  I’m just deeply uninterested in the poetry.  In that sense (and watch for fuller elaboration when I review the book) I am absolutely the opposite sort of reader than the book’s two scholars – I care not a whit for the text, but quite a lot for the biographical details of the lives of the poets.

I am absolutely in love with this book, despite my vulgar reading of it.  But who knows how much less I’m getting out of it than I could?  Fret, fret.  I get so much reader’s guilt!  Anyone who thinks reading is a form of entertainment and not some more complex process of self-vetting is kidding themselves.  None of us come out of this process pearly-white.

May 27, 2010

The Short Story and Me

Apparently it’s Short Story Month. I know this because The Afterword and Steven Beattie say so.  I think this might be something The Afterword invented, to be honest I haven’t been paying a huge amount of attention because I don’t consider myself a big fan of short stories.  But that alone should have been reason enough for me to stick my neck out.  If the point is to encourage the reading of short stories, I am the perfect target market – an avid reader who for no particularly good reason avoids the form.

The last two short story collections I read were Joyce’s Dubliners and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, both of which I read for a class on modern literature.  Because, I think, of the context, I have no fond memories of either book.  And, because they are considered to be two of the finest examples of the short story in the English language, I assumed that since I didn’t really like them, I wouldn’t really like any short stories.  This was five years ago – I don’t think I’ve read a short story since.

But it wasn’t always this way.  When I was a kid – 11, 12 years old – I had subscriptions to Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction.  I read The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror every year from 1990-1998.  For years I felt Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s collections of “adult fairy tales” (from Snow White, Rose Red through Black Heart, Ivory Bones) were the reading highlight of my year.  And Charles de Lint’s first collection of Newford stories, Dreams Underfoot, was probably responsible for changing my life.

I know, that’s sad from a literary standpoint.  Some teens latch on to Holden Caulfield or Jack Kerouac or Nietzsche; not me.  I was living in a small down up the Ottawa Valley, hating every minute of my life there.  I didn’t have the patience or the focus to channel my frustration into anything useful, but I did have a grab-bag of strange and various talents, and a vivid imagination.  In de Lint’s stories I met folkies and artists and buskers who were living, as far as my 16-year-old self was concerned, the perfect life.  I was already a talented violinist, so I decided to take up fiddling, and jumped ship to Toronto at my earliest convenience.  I wasn’t quite done high school and I didn’t have anywhere to live, but I was determined to find the community of like-minded de-Lint-ian vagabonds who would, I was sure, be my best friends forever.

Suffice to say it didn’t end up quite like that.  Still, Dreams Underfoot moved me to Toronto and motivated me to have some of my more memorable adventures.  Once the busking season ended and winter started making itself known I dabbled in the more indoor – but nevertheless de Lint-inspired – career path offered by the University of Toronto’s Celtic Studies program.  Failing this I meandered through a similarly inspired and equally brief film career, still determined to find the faery artists of de Lint’s world.  Even now, years later, when I muse about the cozy bookshop I’d love to someday own, my mind calls up Mr Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery, a de Lint creation.

This is probably the other reason I’ve shied away from short stories: I’m afraid if I go back to them I’ll find they weren’t nearly as good as I thought they were when I was 14.  Looking back at what moved us as young people is bound to be an embarrassing exercise.

This week I thought I’d meet my 14-year-old self half way.  Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu is supposed to offer magic and fantasy in the vein of John Crowley, which is to say, with style and skill not often found in genre writing.  I did quite like her full-length novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  And serendipitously, Ladies of Grace Adieu is illustrated by Charles Vess, who I met earlier this month at TCAF, and who illustrated so many of the Charles de Lint books of my youth.  Fate?  Anyway the book has been sitting unread on my shelf for four years now.  It’s time.

May 3, 2010

“Imaginative” Literature in 1910, 1945 and Now

Late Victorian novels are not the great things of human literature, and a reader may blamelessly amuse or depress himself with them as he will.  I prefer to be amused.” – Andrew Lang in the Illustrated London News, 1907.

Andrew Lang is nowadays remembered almost exclusively for furnishing the world with the coloured Fairy Books, but in his day (1844-1913) he was a deeply popular and influential journalist and literary critic with hundreds of books, articles and edited volumes to his credit.  Most of his work falls broadly into the categories of folklore, fairy tales, Greek classics, anthropology and romance, though he dabbled in much more.  There’s no question he felt strongly that “imaginative” literature was the highest literary art: for him, “realist” literature was the work of a literary photographer, a scientist.  Not an artist.

In Lang’s day, “realist” novelists like Henry James and Thomas Hardy were only just taking the stage and their literary philosophy was not yet the dominant paradigm.  Remember that reading “for pleasure” was only newly considered an appropriate activity for people of quality – reading a novel of any kind in 1840 would have been frowned upon as a waste of time.  By 1870 or 1880 novels for the educated classes were just starting to make a comeback and what consisted of a “literary” novel wasn’t yet set in stone.  Lang felt nobody of his period could stand up to “Homer, Molière, Shakespeare, Fielding, and so on” but felt a definite preference for the emerging school of romantics over the realists.  He championed Robert Lewis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard; Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain.  He admitted the “perfection” of writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Zola and Ibsen but he felt their novels were bitter, and greater art was “wiser, kinder, happier and more human in his mood”.

What I find fascinating is that in Lang’s time, this was still a conversation.  Today, the account has been settled: Hardy, James, Tolstoy, Zola, Ibsen et al are “literature” while Stevenson, Kipling and Twain are, at best, “children’s” literature or a specialist, historical topic.  Certainly Kipling and Haggard in particular are difficult to approach today because of their flagrant colonial attitudes, but surely they’re no more problematic than Conrad?  Nevertheless Kipling in particular is grossly out of fashion.

Reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s 1945 biography of Lang is fascinating not only as a glimpse of how a late Victorian literary critic saw the state of his contemporary literature but also as a glimpse of how things had changed by 1945.  Green was a scholar, critic and member of the Inklings, a literary discussion group based out of Oxford in the 1930s and 40s.  The most famous Inklings were C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, but at the time Green wrote this biography several of the Inklings were active and influential in literary circles.  They shared the opinion that narrative, imaginative literature had an important place in the cannon and were active in promoting this view.  So from Green’s view in 1945, Lang and his circle were the pre-cursors of a literary movement which, at his time, looked to be gaining strength and momentum.

How strange that sounds today!  Green faults Lang for overlooking, of all people, William Morris, who he feels was the “greatest” of these new Romantics and whose prose works seem to have been ubiquitously available in 1945.  Today you’ll be lucky if you can get a bookstore to order you a copy of The Well at the World’s End and most people would be shocked to hear that Mr. Morris was anything other than a designer of textiles.  Lang held that “Romance is permanent.  It satisfies a normal and permanent human taste, a taste that survives through all the changing likes and dislikes of critics”.  Green agrees, adding that the “‘Catawumpus of romance’ has raised its head again…in the works of C.S. Lewis”.  And in 2010?  If there is a single critic out there anywhere seriously advocating romance or, more broadly, narrative, imaginative literature, I’d like to know about it.  We’ve experienced a full rout.  Romance and fantasy are the exclusive realms of children and philistines.  High Literature does not accept their company.

And in history’s defense, the blame seems to lie in equal parts with writers of romance and fantasy.  There are few, if any, contemporary writers of fantasy or romance that deserve to be in literary company.  Is this the product of fashion?  If Scott, Dumas, Stevenson, Kipling, Twain, Lewis & Tolkien were taught alongside and with equal consideration the Modernist tradition, might more, better writers give the genre a go?  Or perhaps we just need a nouveau Inklings, a latter day Andrew Lang to “take up the cudgel” for what is rapidly becoming a lost art?  I advocate both for my part, if my opinion holds any sway.

March 12, 2010

Canada Reads 2010 Wrap-Up

I’ve put the finishing touches on an order to Random House and with that, we here in bookseller land are prepared to administer Canada’s latest future bestseller (right?  Right??!?) to an anxious public.  It’s already all over Twitter, so I won’t pretend I’d be the one to spoil it for you:  Nikolski has been crowned the winner of CBC’s Canada Reads 2010!

I guess I’d better pry my foot out of my mouth!  I really didn’t see Nikolski pulling through but I am THRILLED about it!  Michel Vezina, to whom this win is entirely owed, managed to turn my mind right around on this book and, apparently, did the same for the other panelists.

I have a theory about Canada Reads and why it will never really be truly disappointing:

By appointing a panel of pseudo-celebrities who are at least desirous of being of the intelligentsia you set up a situation where as much as anything, the panelists don’t want to be seen as populist, mainstream or ignorant.  We saw this in the first two days:  “Oprah” is a dirty word in this world where the panelists feel they are being called upon to provide literary guidance, to educate as much as to entertain.  So a smart panelist who appeals to Greater Literary Values will shame, to some extent, these panelists out of voting against his or her title because they don’t want to be seen as pedestrian.  A smart book defended by a not-especially-literate panelist may not make it, but a smart-enough book by a very literate panelist will.  A smart book defended by a literate panelist is a guarantee.  Knock on wood.

Back in the real world, will this translate into sales? Book of Negroes certainly did, but this was a book that was mounting momentum before it won.  I remember Rockbound by Frank Day flying off the shelves. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews was selling well before the Canada Reads nod.  King Leary was a bit of a wiff at our store, but then it wasn’t a very good book (and I say this as a die-hard Paul Quarrington acolyte) as was Lullaby for Little Criminals for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  My boss, who has been selling books for over 35 years, said the following when I told her who won: (and I quote)

“F. U. C. K.  Who on earth is going to come crawling in looking for that?”

She had been rooting for Jade Peony, a tried and tested novel around these here parts that we thought would translate into reliable sales.  Nikolski‘s an unknown quantity, I’ll be honest.  A somewhat unconventional book, a translation at that, by an unknown first novelist.  Those are qualities I find exciting, but I’m undecided as to what my fairly conservative clients will do.  I’ll certainly let you know!

This has been fun, though.  Thanks to everyone who blogged the debates this year: I read about six blogs a day and still managed to find something fresh and interesting voiced by each one.  Enough discussion sparks my interest in even the dullest of books!  We should do this again some time, maybe next year, same time?

ETA:  Wayson Choy just walked into my store!  I’d kill to know what’s going through his mind today.  Must… be… discreet..

March 11, 2010

Canada Reads 2010: Day Four

I admit I didn’t see today’s elimination coming.  I’m not thrilled about it – the book was going to go eventually, but now there’s no “easy off” vote for later in the eliminations.

In fact, it seems to me that today’s vote, in any case, is completely clear cut.  Unless something magical happens it will almost certainly be death for Nikolski.  Rolly & Michel will vote for Good to a Fault, while Samantha, Simi and Perdita will take out Nikolski.  I don’t see who would deviate from that pattern right now, unless Perdita was feeling vengeful enough to lob another bomb at Jade Peony.  Alas, Nikolski, you deserved better.

Today’s debates started to get a little more interesting, but I notice the questions tend towards terms like “resonate” and “relate to”.  The name of the game this year seems to be finding the book which is the cuddliest, which does not bode well for a book which is experimental, edgy or technically masterful (or in this year’s case, experimental, quirky or technically competent).  Perdita’s statement that she “doesn’t want to have to think” when she’s reading a novel was possibly the most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard on this show, but may in retrospect serve to explain why a book like Good to a Fault now seems to have a decent chance at winning.

I didn’t find the moralizing in Good to a Fault challenging or insightful at all.  Clara, ultimately, took on three children who had nowhere else to go, something I think most women would do if they had the means.  And Clara has the means – she is not, in any real way, put out by taking on these kids.  She didn’t have to sacrifice anything and she was not made to suffer for her actions; it was, really, easy for her to do.  Ma Pell was perhaps the only thorn in her side but painting her as an anti-social hermit effectively took her out from underfoot.  Clayton, the character I thought was going to be the actual challenge for Clara to overcome, conveniently exits the scene before it begins.  Darwin looks like a promising challenge for the half-page we think he’s a drunk, but once that case of mistaken identity is cleared up he mainly serves to remove the last adult challenge Clara might have had to contend with: Lorraine.

So we are left with a rich woman taking on three gifted and mysteriously well-behaved children at no particular cost to herself.  We have a brief moment where she “loses” the children to Lorraine’s recovery; but no worries, her husband most likely abandons her in the end and this means, clearly, that Clara will be able to step in and support the single mother.  Lorraine lobs some unfounded criticism at Clara about something to do with class or self-righteousness, but ultimately it doesn’t feel true because it’s hard to see anything classist about housing three children who have nowhere else to go.

Alright, so that’s what I think, but then, I am thinking and not just feeling.  Oh – and on that note, Simi’s claim that it isn’t the church that supports Clara when she’s down was mind-boggling.  Of course it was.  It was Paul, mainly.  You know, the preacher, Paul, from the church.

I really wish I’d liked one of this year’s books a little more because I feel that these updates are maybe a little on the negative side.   I’m still putting my money on Jade Peony thought it isn’t out of any great love for the book:  I just disliked it the least.  It feels safe and appropriate, two things I don’t generally advocate rewarding.  So I feel a little dirty there.  Oh well – maybe tomorrow will bring great surprises, hey?  Here’s hoping!

March 10, 2010

Canada Reads 2010: Day Three

So Generation X gets the boot.  I wish this were more of a surprise, but it isn’t, for anyone.  Moving on.

I have been watching the debates online in video-form for the last two days and I have to comment on this experience.  Last year I listened to every broadcast faithfully at 11:30am sharp and never caught a glimpse of our panelists even once, and this was a WILDLY different experience.  I liked all these people more before I could see them.  Why is that?  The silence on the radio was serene; now watching reactions and exasperated body language is painful.  Poor Rolly, he seems like a very nice boy!  And Simi – what is with those sweaters?  On the other hand, how cool is Michel Vezina?  I want that man’s shirts!  And the wink he gave Jian yesterday when he added Fire-Breather to his resume – those two would make just the cutest dang couple, I sure hope they’re knocking boots on the side.

Another thing – who is the 6th person in their introductory montage of authors – is that Lazer Lederhendler?  I don’t remember anyone making as big a fuss about Sheila Fischman last year.

If it seems like I’m avoiding the debates, it’s for good reason: the questions Jian lobbed today were insipid.  They destroyed MINUTES of perfectly good air time with that awful “How Canadian” question again this year.  Kudos for Simi for trying to wriggle out of it.  It’s a preposterous question, as should have been evident from the minute Michel asked for Francophone content.  As if a staunch French-Canadian and a 2nd Generation Indian from Surry are going to have the slightest agreement about what’s “Canadian”.

The poverty question was an interesting one, though trying to find class divisions in Nikolski seemed like a stretch to me.  But the wording still drove me crazy: which book evoked class issues best?  What if that wasn’t the point of the novel?  It seemed like a raft designed to buoy Good to a Fault, which was the only book which was really about class.

Speaking of which, I didn’t really like Good to a Fault but I find Rolly’s continual arcane criticisms of it baffling.  There’s a lot to critisize in that book, but “too general” or “not enough detail” or “bad grammar” weren’t among my complaints.  Can we talk about preachy morality yet?

After sitting and watching 21 minutes of Canada Reads debate, my 20-month-old feels she deserves a read-through of The Monster at the end of this Book now, and I’m inclined to indulge her.  I look forward to seeing what the rest of you thought!  My predictions?  Good to a Fault or Nikolski are in trouble.  I wish I could say Fall was on its way out, but it seems to be getting too much love.  We’ll see tomorrow!

March 9, 2010

Canada Reads 2010: Day Two

I tell you what, lasting a whole day without reading anyone else’s thoughts on Canada Reads is hard!  An unexpected toddler nap schedule has allowed me to watch the broadcast online today and so I am able to get this post up sooner than yesterday – all I can say is THANK GOODNESS.  I look forward to being able to actually read your blogs!

I’d forgotten that they won’t announce the eliminated book until tomorrow, so this post might come out a little thin.  Has anything changed from yesterday?  It doesn’t look like it to me.  Some thoughts:

– Perdita Felician is a FIERCE competitor!  I don’t know if she has a literary chop to her name but she’s relentless, passionate and articulate.  I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to vote against her.

– Michel Vezina is my hero.  This man gives the show literary cred and humour to boot, and I think he will no matter what happens to his book.  I wonder if his books are available in English?  Seems like his books might be more interesting than anything on the table.

– The discussion of the books so far has been, frankly, thin.  We’re speaking mostly in rhetoric and adjectives and nobody has managed to single out any incidents or passages yet for detailed scrutiny.  I get it, the books are important or brave or passionate or complex or whatever – can we talk about specifics please?

– Am I the only one who found Good To a Fault full of moral pablum?  How could none (okay, one; under duress) of the panelists have singled out Dickner’s characters as favourites?  They were the best thing about his book!

Anyway, as of today I’m afraid it looks like Generation X is on the chopping block.  Rolly, you brought this upon yourself by coming out the gate so defensively!  Do what Samantha and Michel are doing: pretend your book doesn’t exist and hope the other panelists forget it’s there.  Gen X and Fall are Tall Poppies.  Good luck!

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