Scotiabank Giller longlist features surprise inclusions, omissions

September 20, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

No one can accuse them of being predictable. Anyone who was trying to outguess this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury – made up of broadcaster Michael Enright, novelist Claire Messud, and novelist and short-story writer Ali Smith – likely spent most of the day scratching their heads over the 2010 longlist. Granted, most of the mainstays on CanLit prize lists don’t have books out this year, the exception being Jane Urquhart, who has indeed found a spot among the baker’s dozen announced today. I’d say she’s pretty much a shoo-in to make the shortlist, too, but if today is any indication of how things will proceed from here, such prognostication is foolish in the extreme.

This year’s jury tilted toward lesser-known names and smaller publishing houses, in the process passing over some of the best-reviewed books of the year, such as Miguel Syjuco’s Illustrado (which has already won the Asian Man Booker Prize), Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (winner of the Betty Trask Award and longlisted for the IMPAC and the Orange Prize), and Emma Donoghue’s Room (shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize). In their place, the jury chose books by Johanna Skibsrud and Cordelia Strube, both of which were published in calendar year 2009, debut story collections by Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky, and a thriller set in Israel by Avner Mandelman, a virtual unknown here in Canada, despite having previously published two books with the small press Oberon. (Like Mary Swan in 2008, Mandelman’s new book doesn’t even have a Canadian publisher: it’s published by Other Press in the States and distributed here by Random House of Canada.)

Truly, this is one of the most bizarre longlists any Giller jury has produced. This is not a complaint, merely an observation.

The list in full:

  • David Bergen, The Matter with Morris (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Douglas Coupland, Player One (House of Anansi Press)
  • Michael Helm, Cities of Refuge (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting (Biblioasis)
  • Avner Mandelman, The Debba (Other Press)
  • Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists (The Dial Press)
  • Sarah Selecky, This Cake Is for the Party (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau Press)
  • Cordelia Strube, Lemon (Coach House Books)
  • Joan Thomas, Curiosity (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Jane Urquhart, Sanctuary Line (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Dianne Warren, Cool Water (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Kathleen Winter, Annabel (House of Anansi Press)

At three nominations, McClelland & Stewart leads the pack, followed by HarperCollins Canada and House of Anansi Press with two apiece. Like The Debba, Tom Rachman’s bestseller The Imperfectionists is published by an American house, The Dial Press, and distributed here in Canada by Random. The author is Toronto-born but currently lives in Rome.

The jury also tapped Douglas Coupland for his idiosyncratic Massey Lectures, Player One, which take the form of a novel. (Writing in The Globe and Mail, John Barber says this is “the first lecture series nominated for a literary award,” which is not entirely true: John Ralston Saul’s Massey Lectures, The Unconscious Civilization, won the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award.) Where Coupland’s novel is concerned, at least one person would beg to differ with the jury’s assessment: writing in the Telegraph, Ian Crichtley said that the book’s characters are “more like computer avatars than people,” and that they “become more long-winded the more dire their situation becomes.”

Of the longlist, the jury writes, “This is a vibrant and exciting list. We came very harmoniously to our final decision, which, in the ranging of its featured books between astonishing debuts and brilliant new work by already well-known, major Canadian writers, and between the historical and the contemporary, the traditional and the experimental, the long, the short, and the unexpected in both story and form, stands as a showcase in its own right of the vision, the energy, the internationalism, and the open-eyed versatility of contemporary Canadian fiction.”

The key word, of course, being “unexpected.” I had high hopes for this year’s jury, given that two out of the three members are from outside the country and thus not prone (one would expect) to fall back on the traditionally accepted verities of CanLit. And both Smith and Messud have boundary-pushing sensibilities, which led me to hope that we might see something a bit more out of the box emerge from this year’s prize. So far, the jury has not disappointed. This is a truly eclectic and, yes, unexpected list. If the jury maintains the courage of its convictions, the 2010 shortlist, which is to be announced on October 5, has the potential to be the most interesting group of books since 2006. Then again, we all know how things turned out that year.

Stay tuned.

Canada Reads 2010: Day 5

March 12, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Steven W. Beattie: “I honestly think it’s an adavantage to have a book that doesn’t have an identity yet.” That was the lesson that Roland Pemberton took away from the Canada Reads 2010 debates, after witnessing the two Goliaths – his own book, Generation X, and Perdita Felicien’s choice, Fall on Your Knees – drop out of the running first and second. He has a point. When all was said and done, it was the two relative unknowns – The Jade Peony, which won the Trillium Award and the City of Vancouver Book Award, but could not reasonably be considered a household name, and Nikolski, this year’s only true outsider – that made it to the final round. When it became apparent after the tie-breaking re-vote that Good to a Fault was out, Jian Ghomeshi said that Nikolski was “by every measure the dark horse going into this contest.”

And yet it was the dark horse that ended up going the distance. Samantha Nutt, who said early in today’s program that she was voting “with [her] heart” when she voted against Nikolski, later admitted to a bit of strategy following the first day’s debate, when she “realized people were liking it more than [she] expected.” Nutt said she felt confident that The Jade Peony could win against Good to a Fault, but she was nervous about going up against Nikolski. By contrast, Simi Sara, the diplomat on this year’s panel, said that she had made up her mind from the start that if her book was voted off, she would throw her support behind Nikolski.

So, a surprise victory for Nicolas Dickner’s strange, iconoclastic, allusive, and (something none of the panelists made mention of this week) funny novel. And yr. humble correspondent, who was pulling for it from Day 1, couldn’t be more pleased.

Alex Good: A dramatic conclusion? Actually … no. I feel like kicking myself for leaving out my prediction from this year’s intro, because in my draft I had picked Nikolski to be the winner. Though I didn’t see things going down quite the way they did.

The final vote came as no surprise. It seemed pretty clear throughout the show that The Jade Peony didn’t have a lot of support. It was just flying under the radar. And I’m glad Nikolski won. It was my favourite. Though I think Fall on Your Knees would have also been a great popular choice.

Two final comments:

(1) Could that opening re-vote have been more absurd? They had to do a re-vote because of the tie, but the way the vote broke down, the tie-breaker was going to be Michel’s. Unless somebody else changed their vote … but at that point why would they? … the result was a foregone conclusion. I imagine everyone rolling their eyes as they went through the motions.

(2) OK, yes, Michel was a great panelist. I said after Day 1 that he was also the worst panelist because of his occasional difficulties with English, but in the end I think that helped him. As Jian commented, he managed to come across as opinionated without being arrogant. A fluent English speaker would have seemed pompous and patronizing delivering the same lines Michel did in his fractured pronunciation. But I don’t want to cover the big guy in wet, slobbery kisses. Because, and I don’t think this can be stressed enough, he was a total fucking über-ringer! Come on! This was as bad as Avi Lewis last year. Vézina is a professional author, publisher, editor, literary critic, and radio personality! Up against an athlete, a doctor, a hip-hop performer, and a television host. He should have been kicking ass all over the place.

Overall, however, I give this year’s program high marks. Of the three of these we’ve covered now it was the best. But really, if they’re going to bring in ringers like Lewis and Vézina, then why not have a full panel of well-informed, articulate, bookish commentators and leave the celebs out of it? That might be really interesting.

Canada Reads 2010: Day 4

March 11, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Alex Good: “Oh my! That is an upset!” – Samantha Nutt on Fall on Your Knees being voted off today

And it certainly was. Or … sort of.

Stunned panelist Perdita Felicien certainly didn’t have any illusions about what happened, calling the vote “purely strategic” since “no one wants to go against the best book.” Which was Samantha’s rationale for her vote against it yesterday. The vote breakdown was interesting though. Samantha didn’t stick to her strategy and instead went against Niklolski. I guess she figured it was more vulnerable. Michel turned against Fall on Your Knees for what I think were strategic reasons (“I like short action books” didn’t cut it for me, especially coming from a guy like Michel). Roland, justifiably shocked to be alone in his vote, held firm against Good to a Fault and looks locked in against it the rest of the way. He even had to apologize a couple of times for beating on it. Perdita’s decision to go against The Jade Peony was, in retrospect, a mistake. She should have taken out Good to a Fault while she had the chance. She claimed “payback,” for Samantha’s vote yesterday, but revenge seems to have blinded her. Simi continues to rule as the strategy queen, knocking off the strongest competition, though perhaps not with the votes she thought she’d have.

And that’s how it played. This should make for an interesting finale.

Samantha was once again called out for “sitting here quietly” “in a savvy way” while the other two books go at it. Is this going to work?

Michel continues to be the intellectual loose cannon, championing Nikolski‘s “polyphonic structure” (didn’t expect to hear that on a show like this) while talking about how it reflects modern society’s “intrinsical ways of communications” (something getting lost in translation there). He also scored a major zinger against Perdita when she expressed her reluctance to read difficult books.

Michel: It’s been 50 years since education was compulsory in this country!
Perdita: What are you saying?
Michel : You should be able to read.

Ouch! Is he going to get away with that? You have to wonder, because right after this exchange when Jian called for the vote Perdita seemed very keen (“Let’s do this”). More payback? Michel also voted against Fall on Your Knees, so that’s where she might be going.

Another good program, overall. Could have done without the intro claiming that the winner will be a “guaranteed bestseller,” and that the program sells “more books than any other literary award in Canada,” but the commercial angle seems unavoidable. Also nice to see the shout out to the blogosphere.

Steven W. Beattie: “Omigod! The quarterback is toast!” – Die Hard

Okay, I’ll admit it. I did not see that coming. Yesterday, Fall on Your Knees looked destined to go all the way in this year’s Canada Reads competition; today, it became the second casualty, following yesterday’s Generation X massacre. This was, let’s face it, “purely strategic.” Simi Sara, who cast the deciding vote against Ann-Marie MacDonald’s book, even admitted that it was “nothing personal.” “I do love Fall on Your Knees,” Sara said. “I think it’s a Canadian classic.” But, she said that it’s already had its day in the sun and she felt that it was time “to see another book shine.”

None of this sat very well with Perdita Felicien, who was audibly stunned. “I feel like I want to cry,” she said. Later, when the discussion had moved on to the remaining three titles, Felicien was heard to remark, “I’m having a hard time, but let’s be professional.” Still, as Alex points out, the Olympian may have only herself to blame for today’s surprising turn of events. By casting her vote against The Jade Peony as payback for Samantha Nutt’s vote yesterday, she ensured that both Nikolski and Good to a Fault remained in contention, and simultaneously sealed her own book’s fate. She’s been a pugilist from day one, but by trying to get back at Nutt, she got hoist on her own petard.

The rest of the discussion was the best so far. Vézina was back in form after a lacklustre couple of days, not only talking about Nikolski‘s “polyphonic structure” (which I agree was surprising to hear in the context of the CBC’s literary popularity contest), but also pointing out that Dickner’s approach in the novel mirrors the disjunction of modern city life: “Nowadays, in our urban way of living, we don’t know our neighbours.”

He was also brilliant in defending the book against readers who don’t want to rise to the challenges it poses. This included not just Felicien, who said that the book “leaves too much to the reader” (“I don’t want to do that much homework,” she said, and later said that she doesn’t want to think when she’s reading a book, prompting Vézina’s wicked response quoted by Alex above). But Vézina also had to defend the book against Nutt, who said it was “too disjointed” and who found the non-linear structure “frustrating,” and against Jian Ghomeshi, who said that the reader has to fill in some gaps in the story. “I believe readers have a responsibility in filling in the gaps,” Vézina said. When asked to give a final pitch for Nikolski, he took direct aim at his detractors, saying that “it should be read because it’s not an easy book.”

Vézina also hit the nail on the head in his critique of The Jade Peony when he said that the book made him feel like he was being lectured rather than being told a story. He was on shakier ground when he criticized Choy’s structure by talking about what he would have done differently, but he was so strong elsewhere today that this was easy to overlook.

Nutt, meanwhile, continued to allow the panelists to duke it out over the other books, extending what Ghomeshi characterized as her “rope-a-dope” strategy from earlier in the week: “As long as they’re attacking each other’s books, they’re not attacking mine.” Today, when Ghomeshi called her on it, she admitted, “I’ve been sitting here quietly, watching it all go down.” Whether that strategy will continue to work in her favour is anybody’s guess. I’m beginning to have this nagging feeling that the two books remaining in contention after tomorrow’s vote will be Nikolski and The Jade Peony, which would mean that Vézina will have to work twice as hard to convince his fellow panelists that the literary title should win out over the educational one. Stay tuned.

Canada Reads 2010: Day 3

March 10, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Alex Good: I must say I’m enjoying this year’s program more than previous years. Mainly, I think, because of the honesty factor. Today’s show was a good example. We knew going in that Generation X was going to be the first book voted off based on what everyone had said thus far. Still, you never entirely know how these things are going to work out. But when the votes were counted it was pretty much what everyone expected. All the haters stuck to their guns and gave Generation X the boot.

Odd that there is this populist aversion to Coupland, despite the fact that he’s such a popular author. I have to wonder if things would have turned out differently if Roland had picked a more recent, and better, book, like The Gum Thief.

Samantha Nutt was Ms. Honesty in the early going. When Jian brought up the fact that The Jade Peony was flying under the radar thus far (as pointed out in yesterday’s expert commentary), she confessed that her strategy was to lay low. Then, when she voted against Fall on Your Knees, she was open about voting strategically, trying to take out the “Goliath” thus far.

The discussion went well. It seems pretty clear that Good to a Fault is next off. When Jian tossed out a question about which book had the strongest sense of time and place, no one mentioned Good to a Fault (even though a couple of panelists mentioned two books in response). This forced Simi to play a bit of defence, saying that Good to a Fault is a universal text. Which was well played, but surely in a losing cause.

Michel was disarmingly honest as well. When the question of class came up he basically just shrugged it off and admitted that notions of class didn’t play much of a role in Nikolski. But on the issue of the “Canadianness” he was floundering a bit, wondering where the francophone presence was in the other books. This wasn’t getting him anywhere.

So overall another good program. Jian is making some interesting points as things go along. I like the way he started off today’s program with the observation that these books are all “youngsters” (that is, all written in the last 20 years). That made me wonder what a Canada Reads program made up of books published pre-1970, say, would look like. One thing’s for sure, those would be five books most Canadians would not have already read.

So … next off: Good to a Fault. After that, things should get (strategically) interesting.

Steven W. Beattie: It’s funny that you enjoyed today’s discussion so much, Alex, because I thought it was easily the weakest thus far. Not so much because the panelists were weak (Simi Sara is proving to be quite eloquent in defending Good to a Fault, Samantha Nutt finally came out of stealth mode around The Jade Peony, and Perdita Felicien continues to scare the living shit out of me), but because the topics were all so boring.

Even Jian Ghomeshi was forced to admit that the subject of Canadianness “comes up every year,” and, honestly, every year it’s a non-starter. “Surely it’s not an unfair question,” Ghomeshi said. Well, in a way, it is. It’s an easy default subject to talk about on a program called Canada Reads, but each year the overwhelming response (which yr. humble correspondent would heartily endorse) is that it doesn’t matter. Sara got it right when she said that “trying to determine what being most Canadian is” when discussing these books is a mug’s game, if only because it’s close to impossible to agree on the relevant criteria.

I will admit that there were two moments in this discussion that gave me pause this year. The first was Michel Vézina complaining that except for Nikolski and a few “very short mentions” in Fall on Your Knees, “the French-speaking fact of Canada is totally absent in all of these books,” despite the fact that 25% of the population (according to Vézina) is francophone. You’re right, Alex, this went nowhere.

The other moment that gave me pause (literally: once again, I had to rewind the playback to make sure I’d heard correctly) was Nutt’s astonishing assertion that the immigrant experience “is one that you don’t often get in fiction.” This is where you can imagine my eyes popping out of my head on rubbery stalks à la Jim Carrey’s in The Mask. The immigrant experience is not often reflected in our fiction? Really? Well, let’s see: Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures; The Amazing Absorbing Boy; Barnacle Love; Cockroach; Soucoyant; Brown Girl in the Ring; The Electrical Field; Obasan; Certainty; In the Skin of a Lion; More; What We All Long For; Some Great Thing; The End of East. And that’s just off the top of my head. Arguing that The Jade Peony is the most Canadian book remaining in competition because “it’s about a quintessentially Canadian experience” is one thing, but it’s impossible to suggest that novels about the immigrant experience are hard to find in Canada.

At one point, Ghomeshi suggested that Good to a Fault is particularly Canadian because it features a working-class woman who spends most of the novel in hospital and doesn’t have to pay for it. Tommy Douglas would surely approve. However, what interests me about this comment is not so much what it says about Canadian health care, but what it says about something the panelists seem to be studiously avoiding when discussing Endicott’s novel. We’ve now had three days of discussion around this book, and the subject of cancer has not come up once. This is no small matter in the book, since it’s Clara’s discovery that Lorraine is suffering from ovarian cancer that prompts her to take the family into her home. The fact that this subject has so far been off-limits is interesting; it will be interesting to find out whether it’s broached tomorrow or Friday, should Good to a Fault make it that far.

Which it probably won’t. Like Alex, I suspect it will be the next to get voted off given the way the panelists have been leaning thus far. At the midpoint of the debates, I can foresee a finale in which strategist Nutt faces off against brawler Felicien for the title. I’m still hoping Vézina can rally tomorrow to make a compelling case for Nikolski. He’s going to need to if he wants to keep his book in contention past the third vote.

Canada Reads 2010, Day 2

March 9, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Steven W. Beattie: So, that’s it for Generation X, right?

Man, these guys just can’t get enough of beating up on that book. I almost feel like jumping to its defence simply because it’s such an obvious underdog (almost, mind you, almost …). Today, after Jian Ghomeshi asked the panelists which character from someone else’s book would stick with them the longest, then noted that no one named a character from Coupland’s novel, Samantha Nutt responded by saying that Generation X is not a book that “hangs on its characters.” And is that okay, Perdita Felicien? “No. Yawn. It’s not okay.” Wow. Felicien, who Ghomeshi pointed out is probably the polar opposite of one of Coupland’s slacker characters, wasted no time eviscerating the novel, which she thought was “boring.” Her assessment was met by Nutt, who called the novel’s characters “ungrateful,” and by Michel Vézina, who said that the characters in the book “were little rats that needed a good slap behind the head.” Indeed.

I did have a certain sympathy for Roland Pemberton, who must have felt besieged, but frankly he didn’t marshal much of a defence for his beleaguered title. The best he could do was to say that Generation X employs brand names as a means of critiquing our consumerist society. Ghomeshi tried valiantly to help the book, by calling it aesthetically interesting and commenting on the way it prefigured graphic novels and at one point even comparing it to On the Road.

But in the end, Ghomeshi’s intercession was for naught. When the dust cleared, Generation X was left lying there, bloodied and beaten, showing only the faintest twitches of life. If Coupland’s novel isn’t the first to get voted off tomorrow, it will constitute one of the biggest reversals in the history of Canada Reads.

But Generation X wasn’t the only book to take a pounding today. Felicien (who I never want to go toe-to-toe with) called out Good to a Fault for being “stereotypical” and said that its characters had no flaws. (An evident misapprehension: even Clara, the saint, is shown to be misguided at best, and perhaps even selfish in her reasons for helping Lorraine and her family.) When Vézina said that he will remember Clayton, the family patriarch, Felicien snapped, “You like deadbeat dads? That’s so stereotypical.” (It was unclear whether she was referring to Clayton or to Vézina himself.) She went on to say that she found the book’s moral framework too righteous, in contrast to her assertion yesterday that Fall on Your Knees is, in her opinion, morally complex.

Then, having said all that, she went on to name Mrs. Pell, the grandmother, as the character she’d remember longest from someone else’s book. She did say that she thought that Marina Endicott “could have gone further” with the character, which I take to be another misapprehension; one of Endicott’s strengths is character, and she knows just how far to push things without having her characters slip over into caricature.

Pemberton also criticized the characterizations in Good to a Fault, saying that they were “not developed well” and that the book contained too little detail. This was one of the stranger statements in today’s debate, since most of the criticism around the novel thus far has indicated that people think it contains too much development and detail.

Simi Sara, the book’s defender, also had an odd take on Good to a Fault, positioning it as a post-9/11 novel. In our time, Sara said, “there is a lot of soul-searching,” and people are asking themselves, “how do I make my life better?” However, I’m not convinced that this is any different post-9/11 than it was pre-9/11. One of Good to a Fault‘s attributes, its seems to me, is its timelessness; its themes of charity vs. self-interest are universal, and could apply equally to any location and any period in history.

Then again, the whole “contemporary novel vs. historical novel” discussion – which rears its head every year on Canada Reads – was a bit of a non-starter. Ghomeshi kicked it off by suggesting that Good to a Fault and Nikolski were the only contemporary novels on the list this year, perhaps inadvertently putting yet another nail in Generation X‘s coffin, then Vézina (faltering a bit after yesterday’s stellar performance) said that historical books have to deal with history while contemporary books have to deal with what’s happening now. Um … yeah … He went on to say, “My interest in a book nowadays is: What is it teaching me about the world?” At which point yr. humble correspondent found himself banging his head repeatedly against the surface of his desk.

Nutt’s assertion that The Jade Peony contains the most “inventive” writing style of the five books prompted another flurry of head banging on my part, as did her earlier claim that historical novels should be admired for the “huge amount of work” their authors put into researching their chosen period in history.

Finally, the one novel to emerge virtually unscathed from today’s debate was Fall on Your Knees. Sara voiced the argument that most of Canada Reads’ critics have already made: that the book is “a classic of Canadian literature” and doesn’t need the additional attention. However, she also said that it was a “great, epic, fantastic story.” That’s a wash, in my eyes.

So, after two days, Generation X appears to be roadkill, and no one seems willing to say anything substantial against Fall on Your Knees. Which, given the scrappy nature of the book’s defender, is perhaps unsurprising. Tune in tomorrow to find out how things play out. (Oh, that clicking sound? That’s Ghomeshi loading the gun that will put Generation X out of its misery.)

Alex Good: Have I said how much I groove to the show’s theme music? I wonder if I can get it as a download.

What I don’t like is the way Jian has to start each show with comments about the program’s influence on bestseller lists. He did the same thing last year. It makes me feel like I’m listening to an infomercial.

Anyway, here are my quick thoughts. (I should say, by the way, that I’m listening to the show on the radio, being on ye olde dyal-uppe at home, so these are immediate impressions written a few minutes after the end of the program.)

I thought today’s show was another good one. The panelists are doing a fine job, at least strategically speaking. Vézina continues to be the most interesting, saying things like “Nikolski is a book about humanity and garbage.” I just wonder if they’re going to explain this fire-breathing stuff. Roland was clearly feeling a bit of despair at the end after listening to Generation X get hammered again (not just the book, but the spoiled and ungrateful demographic) and muffing a critique of Good to a Fault (not enough detail?). It will be interesting to see how Perdita’s strong, unvarnished opinions (she really tore into Generation X and Good to a Fault) play out against Simi Sara’s “ambassadorial” technique of just wanting to see all five books win.

Two big questions came up … and then popped like bubbles. First the subject of contemporary relevance vs. the historical novel was addressed. Sort of. Nobody seemed to take a strong position. Where’s Russell Smith when you need him? Then Jian finally brought up the O-word [No, not that o-word, the other one … SWB] and the fact that a couple of the books were already huge bestsellers. But everyone agreed this shouldn’t be a consideration. So that was the end of that.

Handicapping the field after two days:

Death row: Perdita, Simi, and Michel hate Generation X. Michel, Roland, and Perdita hate Good to a Fault. (One of the good things about this year’s program is the strength of some of the opinions. They aren’t all just playing nice.) So barring some weird breakdown in the votes, those two seem likely to go first.

Dark horse: Nikolski. Yeah, it got criticized for being “thin” on day one, but it’s still hanging around.

Stealth candidate: The Jade Peony. Did anyone actually read it? Nobody seems to want to talk about it.

Frontrunner: Fall on Your Knees. Perdita might want to take it down a notch for the next couple of days. She’s playing with a lead. No need to hit the others when they’re down.

And what about the new music they play while the panelists are filling out their ballots? It made me want to get up and dance!

Canada Reads 2010, Day 1

March 8, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Alex Good: Day 1 of Year 9 of the contest and I do believe all of my burning questions received at least a provisional answer. And it was actually a really good discussion, too.

My awards:

“Didn’t See That Coming” Award: Samantha Nutt. Apparently The Jade Peony “teaches us something about ourselves as Canadians.” Uh-huh.

Big Winner: Fall on Your Knees. Perdita is a scrapper! And articulate, with a good radio voice. As far as the book was concerned, when given the chance none of the other panelists laid a glove on it and the Oprah stuff never came up. It’s looking very strong going forward.

Big Loser: Generation X. This is Dead Book Walking. I mean it took a beating. I’m not sure even I would have been that negative on it. Can’t put the blame on Roland (Edmonton has a poet laureate?), but he must have finished today feeling a little shell-shocked.

Best Panelist: Michel Vézina. His introduction to Nikolski was impressive, talking about how it relates to the social web of North American cities becoming more complex (hadn’t thought of that), and the obscure relations among modern “exploded” families. He also scored points (with me) for calling out Good to a Fault for being 50 pages too long.

Worst Panelist: Michel Vézina. Sorry, but this guy’s English is brutal. I don’t know how the Ceeb let him on the show. He was struggling for words and even tried to make a joke (at least I think it was meant to be a joke) that seemed to stump everyone.

Machiavelli Award: Simi Sara. Oh, she’s a pro. Introduces herself by saying her only strategy would be to have no strategy, then uses her intro time to launch into an attack on Fall on Your Knees, The Jade Peony, and Generation X for being books that everyone has already read. That has to be her strategy for beating them. But it’s looking like an uphill battle for Good to a Fault anyway.

Overall I thought it was a good show. I’m a little depressed that Fall on Your Knees came out as the clear frontrunner, but things may change.

Steven  W. Beattie: First off, did I complain last year about the annoying (and ubiquitous) theme music for the program? If not, let me do so now. If so, let me reiterate my objection: Enough with the theme music! Let’s get on with the meat of the program.

To wit:

After the usual general introductions (during which we learned that Perdita Felicien “squatted with books on [her] head” to prepare for the debates and Michel Vézina can apparently breathe fire), the panelists wasted no time getting down to what Samantha Nutt referred to as the “classroom brawl” that is Canada Reads. They brawled about Nikolski, which Nutt found “confusing” and “tricky to follow”; they brawled about Fall on Your Knees, which is “too dark” for Roland Pemberton to recommend; they brawled about Good to a Fault, which Vézina (bless him) said was 50 pages too long. But mostly, they brawled about Generation X. This was the book that took the brunt of the beating today, for both the right reasons and the wrong ones.

I will admit to letting out a little “squee” of joy when Perdita Felicien called the characters in Coupland’s book “annoying” and “too clever for their own good.” Score one for the Olympian. I will also admit to clenching my fists a little when the same panelist complained that the book has “no forward-moving plot.” Minus one for the Olympian (which I guess means she comes out even).

If there was an overarching theme to the debate today it was that plot-driven books, books in which stuff “happens,” are preferable to books that are more interior, or more focused on language than on action. Felicien’s complaint about The Jade Peony was that “not much happens.” Pemberton praised Fall on Your Knees for being “very well-written,” which he equated with being “very visual” and “cinematic.” And Nutt found Nikolski “left [her] feeling as if [she] was still waiting for something to happen.” This came on the heels of her complaint about the book’s opening line – “My name is unimportant” – “To me, the name is important.” Perhaps if she were to stop thinking about how little happens in the book, and start considering things like Dickner’s patterns of metaphor, she might notice the echo in the novel’s first line to that of another, older, equally waterlogged novel: “Call me Ishmael.” The ironic inversion here is completely intentional, and completely in tune with Dickner’s approach, which has precisely nothing to do with making things happen.

Fortunately, Michel Vézina was on hand to reply: “We’re not watching TV here, we’re reading books.” Hear, hear, M. Vézina. To be fair, this comment was in response to an interjection by Jian Ghomeshi: “A reader doesn’t necessarily want to feel like they’re doing work, do they?” (Heaven forbid, Jian.) In response to Nutt’s specific accusation that Nikolski is “thin,” Vézina pulled no punches: “If you read it in a thin way, you’ll find it thin.” Ba-boom! (I admit that here I had to pause the playback on my computer and rewind it. “Did Vézina just call his fellow panelists superficial?”) Nikolski, Vézina continued, is “not a book that tells you everything.” Pemberton agreed, saying that it “gives the reader credit.” Later on, talking about Fall on Your Knees, Vézina (who is quickly emerging as my favourite panelist) pointed out that “action is not the only purpose in a book.”

So, a mixed bag after Day 1. Here’s hoping that Vézina can convince his fellow panelists that there is more to literature than plot. If not, and should Nikolski get voted off at the end of tomorrow’s show, it may prove to be a very long week for yr. humble correspondent.

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.

Two views of human development

December 4, 2009 by · 8 Comments 

Guess which one yr. humble correspondent subscribes to.

Once people begin to buy their first adult permanent furniture, that’s when they’ve locked into their final personality. – Douglas Coupland


The process of maturation never ceases in interesting persons so long as they remain interesting. – John Berryman

Canada Reads announces its 2010 contenders

December 1, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

The contenders for the 2010 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads – the annual literary elimination contest now entering its ninth year – were revealed in Toronto today. The list of panelists is fairly interesting (it includes an Olympian, a hip-hop artist, and the executive director of War Child Canada) and the books they’re defending are … well, let’s just say they’re largely known quantities, including one Giller nominee, one Oprah pick (!), and one book with a title so ubiquitous it has worked its way into the cultural lexicon (and even has an entry in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary).

The five books in contention are:

  • Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, defended by Perdita Felicien
  • Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, defended by Roland Pemberton aka Cadence Weapon
  • Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott, defended by Simi Sara
  • The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy, defended by Samantha Nutt
  • Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, trans. by Lazer Lederhendler, defended by Michel Vézina

Now, given that the annual CBC contest is meant to settle on one book that the panel would like the whole country to read, if you’re like me, the first question you’re prone to ask yourself is this: Are there any committed readers in Canada who haven’t already read Fall on Your Knees or Generation X? I’d wager even most casual readers in this country will have at least a passing familiarity with these two titles. And many readers have been exposed to Marina Endicott’s novel as a result of it being shortlisted for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. When The Book of Negroes won the contest last year, my feeling was they should have changed the name to Canada Rereads, given the number of people who had already consumed Lawrence Hill’s novel prior to its appearance on the CBC broadcast. This year, three fifths of the entire list could reasonably fall into that category.

It’s not that the titles are unworthy, but they are already on the nation’s radar, so to speak, which represents something of a missed opportunity for bringing attention to titles that might otherwise have gone overlooked. There is no Fruit on this year’s list, no Icefields – lesser-known books from smaller publishers that broke out of obscurity as a result of their appearance on the CBC broadcast.

Moreover – with one notable exception – they all fall within what Victoria Glendinning famously referred to as the “muddy middle range” of CanLit. The exception, of course, is Nikolski, a strange, idiosyncratic novel out of Quebec, which I thought was the best unheralded book of 2008. The fact that it’s about to gain a much larger English-language audience is heartening; the fact that it is the likeliest to be eliminated early in the competition is a foregone conclusion.

But the majority of the novels on this year’s list have an undeniable sameness about them. Indeed, three of them are family dramas: one a multigenerational saga with Gothic overtones (Fall on Your Knees), one a Carol Shields-like domestic narrative (Good to a Fault), and one a novel about the immigrant experience in Canada (The Jade Peony). That leaves only Generation X, which has now become so ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist it has lost whatever edge it might once have had, and Nikolski, the only authentic outsider on the list.

Add to this the fact that the oldest of the five titles – Generation X – was published in 1991; there is no Rockbound or Next Episode (both of which went on to win in their respective years) to be discovered by a new generation of readers. That may have something to do with this year’s panelists, who skew younger than in previous years, but it results in a certain narrowness of focus in the current roster of books.

At the announcement ceremony today, much was made of the so-called “Canada Reads effect,” the boost that being on the CBC program gives to a particular title. In the wake of last year’s victory, The Book of Negroes – which Avi Lewis, who was championing it, admitted had already been read by tens of thousands of people – went on to become an even bigger bestseller, scored a movie deal (a movie the CBC will be co-producing, not incidentally), and has just been released in a deluxe, illustrated edition. No doubt the Canada Reads effect exists. One can hope that this year, it will prompt readers to rediscover Endicott’s first novel, Open Arms, or to dip into some of Coupland’s lesser known (but better) mid-career novels such as Miss Wyoming or Hey, Nostradamus!

In the meantime, readers can get down to reading (or rereading, as the case may be) the five books that will feature in the debates on CBC Radio One during the week of March 8–12, 2010.

Why Leah McLaren is smarter than me

October 28, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

It’s award season in book world. Short lists for the Triple Crown of Canadian literature – the Governor-General, the Giller and the Roger’s Writer’s Trust – have all been announced and the jury selections pored over like tea leaves in a mug. Ah, the comforting brew of Canadian literary culture. High in antioxidants, low in caffeine.

Like everyone else, I have followed the coverage and pondered the obvious: When exactly did Douglas Coupland find time to write another novel? Who does Annabel Lyon’s hair? Is Margaret Atwood pissed?

One thing I have not wondered, however, is which of the anointed books to add to my shelf, worthy efforts though I’m sure they are. You read that right: This fall, I won’t be reading any of the books that are nominated for Canadian literary prizes. And I don’t feel guilty about it either.

from The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 24, 2009

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