Canada Reads 2010: Introduction

March 7, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Once again, yr. humble correspondent has teamed with Alex Good of Good Reports to provide colour commentary for CBC’s Canada Reads debates. (Think of us as a crankier version of Siskel and Ebert, or Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.) Stay tuned over the coming week for nail-biting, back-stabbing, and assorted other surprises and indignities. We’ll likely say something about the debates, too.


Alex Good: I guess this is the third year we’ve been commenting on the “irresistable, if hugely reprehensible” (Stephen Henighan, naturally) Canada Reads program. But the fact that we’ve kept at it for three years suggests that things maybe aren’t as bad as Henighan makes them out to be. Just criticizing the program serves an important function, I think. And then there have been all of the Canada Reads spin-offs this year, which are also worthwhile. It’s all part of our great national literary conversation, right?


Still, we have been critical in the past. Probably more so than most other write-ups I’ve seen. Which makes it all the more surprising that the CBC keeps encouraging us. I attribute this mainly to the social connections and general affability of one Steven W. (that’s “W” as in “Where’s the launch party?”) Beattie.

So here we are again. Leading off with some general introductory thoughts.

I’ll start by being nice. Whatever you think of the program, you do have to appreciate the effort CBC puts into it. It’s more than just a radio show. The website is also quite impressive. They’ve got a resident blogger named “Flannery” (who seems to be one of those unfortunate media types with no last name), and a whole lot of interesting extra features, from interviews to readings to book club coverage.

Yeah, most of it is pretty fluffy. But still.

The panel this year consists of the usual C-list of Canadian celebrities. Perdita Felicien was the only name I immediately recognized. Apparently Michel Vézina is big in Quebec literary circles, which only goes to show that the two solitudes are still going strong since I’d never heard of him. I’m wary of the ringers. Last year was particularly egregious with Avi (Mr. CBC) Lewis running the table, his only competition coming from fellow broadcast personality Jen Sookfong Lee. This year we have two people coming from similar backgrounds in Simi Sara and Michel Vézina. Isn’t that kind of like having dancers appear as the celebrities on Dancing with the Stars? I mean, radio isn’t easy. I know the others have all been on television and radio, but it’s not like they’re professionals.

The books have been pretty roundly criticized. In part for being titles that are already very well known (prompting cries of “Canada Re-Reads”), and also for being, in the words of more than one joyless critic, “unbelievably boring.”

Fair? Sort of. Blame The Book of Negroes. Serious, dull stuff has a leg up on the competition when it comes to contests like this. Looking back, King Leary seems more and more like an aberration.

The Jade Peony is boring. Oh my god is it boring. I think Jessa Crispin had a line a few years ago about wanting to use the pages of a dull book to saw through her wrists with paper cuts. That kind of boring. The story of a Depression-era family in Vancouver’s Chinatown, it … zzzzzzzzzzz.

Burning question: Can Samantha Nutt, a prominent social activist (married to another prominent social activist, who also happens to be Ontario’s Minister of Immigration) say anything about this book other than that reading it will be good for us and make us all better Canadians and … zzzzzzzzzz.

Generation X. Coupland’s never made it onto a Canada Reads program before, which is odd. Odder still is that he gets his debut with … his debut. I’m not a big Coupland fan, but I can at least see some rationale for choosing this book, since it meant a lot to some people when it came out. And it’s at least something that is, if not completely, then at least a little different than the the usual run of domestic dramas.

Burning question: Can Roland Pemberton explain why a book about generational angst as expressed in the lives of a gang of SoCal slackers, written before the Internet, before 9/11 and the Bush years (and before their demonic bastard offspring in the form of the Harper regime), before the financial crisis, and before anyone cared about global warming, is still relevant today, even to older Xers?

Nikolski is a book that’s been hanging around my office for a while in various forms. And I have to say I’m really glad that this program finally forced me to read it. It’s a very clever entertainment and the writing is probably the sharpest of any of the books on this year’s list. And it’s a translation! What does that tell you?

Burning question: Can Michel Vézina make a populist case for what is the most self-consciously “literary” book on the list?

There is a lot to admire in Good to a Fault. Too much, perhaps. I thought Endicott really nailed these characters and their world, but this book seemed to me to be nearly twice as long as it should have been. Does the fact that it was a (surprise) Giller nominee disqualify it from this program? I don’t think so, especially since I don’t think it got much of a bounce out of the Giller.

Burning question: Is Simi Sara a ringer?

The poster child for the “Canada Re-Reads” critique is Fall on Your Knees. Yes, this was an Oprah pick. Which translated into sales of something like three million copies. So why bother pimping it here? It’s already won the lottery. But for that, I think it would be a terrific choice. Not my thing (domestic drama again, combined with historical romance), and re-reading it this past week I found the writing on a sentence-by-sentence level weak, but there’s no denying the power it has. And it would be a popular choice. One thing you have to say about Oprah is that she knows her audience. And is her audience all that different from the CBC’s? I imagine there’s quite a bit of overlap.

Burning question: Can Perdita Felicien clear the Oprah hurdle?

All those questions and more to be answered starting Monday.

Steven W. Beattie: “Joyless critic”? Why I oughta …

Okay, I’ll admit that when I called this year’s Canada Reads list “unbelievably boring,” I was exaggerating for comic effect (and in an attempt to contrast this list with The Afterword’s shadow list, which seems to me, if not better, at least more diverse. Then again, I’ve got a selection in The Afterword’s competition, so I’m not exactly an unbiased observer …). Still, you have to admit a certain déjà vu when it comes to this year’s official competition. We have an Oprah pick, a Giller nominee, and a book that’s lent its name to an entire freaking demographic (and even has an entry in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary). These are not exactly choices out of left field. There’s no Fruit on this year’s list; no Icefields; no Rockbound. Even Nikolski, which is the only genuine outsider in the group, was published in English under Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction program in 2008 – not exactly underdog material. The smallest publisher represented here is Calgary’s Freehand Press, which scored a home run with Good to a Fault when it was shortlisted for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. True, it probably didn’t get as big a bounce from that year’s shortlist as did the eventual winner, Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, but still …

This is not to suggest that Good to a Fault is an unworthy title. It’s a solid story, elegantly written, but, as you suggest, Alex, it’s about 150 pages too long. The theme of where goodness comes from – whether it’s prompted by altruism or by guilt – is intriguing, Endicott is a superior writer of dialogue (likely as a result of her background in the theatre), and Clara Purdy is a genuinely interesting character. But the book wears out its welcome well before the (rather muted) climax. Still, it’s a title with enough popular appeal that I could see it going the distance in this year’s competition.

Good to a Fault could easily end up in the final two alongside Fall on Your Knees, the other populist choice. I haven’t read this one since it first appeared in 1996. My reaction then was decidedly mixed: I liked some of the Gothic stuff at the beginning, and the author’s theatrical background (again) means that she’s got a good handle on things like pace and the modulation of suspense. But the book is way too long, and the final “shocking” revelation is telegraphed way too soon (and in any event won’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen a Judith Thompson play). Still, there are scenes in the book that have stuck with me through all these years (the scene in which Materia performs an ad-hoc caesarean on her daughter Kathleen using the sharpened kitchen scissors is one notable example), and there aren’t too many books I can say that about.

But Fall on Your Knees is a known quantity. It was a New Face of Fiction selection in 1996; the other New Face of Fiction book on this list is much less recognizable, although I hope this year’s competition will rectify that situation. Nikolski, one of my favourite books from 2008, is a strange, surreal novel that manages to be humorous and philosophical at the same time. The writing is seamless (all credit to translator Lazer Lederhendler), the patterns of metaphor are rich and well integrated into the flow of the story, and although the plot (such as it is) meanders, it never feels wayward. Nikolski is absolutely the most “literary” novel on this list, but I hope that this year we might see a repeat of 2003, when Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode came out of nowhere to win. It will all depend, I suspect, on Michel Vézina’s ability to defend his chosen title.

In any event, Nikolski deserves to beat the pants off the remaining two titles. About Generation X, the less said (at least by me) the better. Published in 1991, it launched a flurry of winking, too-clever-by-half, maddeningly self-conscious novels from Douglas Coupland (at the rate of almost one per year ever since), and by a legion of younger acolytes (the influence of Coupland’s first novel is as undeniable as it is lamentable). Generation X created the template for books such as Microserfs and JPod, and all of the elements that made those novels so aggravating are present and accounted for: the obsessive cataloguing of brand names and corporations; the cutesy aphorisms (“At meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, fellow drinksters will get angry with you if you won’t puke for the audience”); characters who are little more than collections of tics and idiosyncrasies and who say things like, “It’s Splittsville for this little Neapolitan waif.” With luck, it’ll be Splittsville for this book early on in the proceedings.

Finally, The Jade Peony is the most obviously ennobling title on the list; the one that, as you say, Alex, you read because it’s good for you. But by this point, the theme of old-world tradition abutting new-world realities (a theme well explored by Henry James over 100 years ago) seems a bit tired, and the novel doesn’t really take us anywhere new or unexpected. Samantha Nutt has her work cut out for her if she wants to repeat last year’s triumph of edification over entertainment.

So, there you have it. Five books, five panelists, one joyless critic. It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next five days.


One Response to “Canada Reads 2010: Introduction”
  1. August says:

    Things are never as bad as Stephen Henighan thinks they are.