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Commonwealth Writers' Prize Shortlists Announced

The shortlists for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, awarded to promising new voices and/or exemplary new works of English-language fiction from the Commonwealth, have been announced. The following are those representations only from Canada and the Caribbean. The winners will be announced on April 12.

Mark Collins, director of the Commonwealth Foundation, had this to say about the prestigious award:

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is distinct and unique in that the books that win often have strong insight, spirit and voice about the incredible diversity, history and society of the Commonwealth. The Prize aims to reward the best of Commonwealth fiction written in English and in doing so, spots rising talent and creates new literary figures from the Commonwealth. This is the Prize to watch for tomorrow’s best-sellers. [source]

I’m always excited about shortlists and award winners; rarely am I disappointed in the chosen books. If there’s anything I appreciate, it’s fine literary fiction. On this best book list, there are a few that have been nominated for other major prizes, like the Giller and Governor General’s Award, as well. That’s promising! A hearty congratulations to the authors, as well as a huge thank you for writing these books and contributing to our culture. Without literature of this calibre, we would certainly be lost.

Caribbean and Canada Best Book:
The Winter Vault
by Anne Michaels
February
by Lisa Moore
Euphoria
by Connie Gault
Goya’s Dog
by Damian Tarnopolsky
Galore
by Michael Crummey
The Golden Mean
by Annabel Lyon

Caribbean and Canada Best First Book:
Under this Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
Daniel O’Thunder by Ian Weir
The Island Quintet: Five Stories by Raymond Ramchartiar
Diary of Interrupted Days by Dragan Todorovic
The Briss by Michael Tregebov
Amphibian by Carla Gunn
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Books are a Girl's Best Birthday Gift

This week I received my second birthday gift in the mail. How exciting that is! My birthday isn’t till February 20th (I’ll be 36), but the post, of course, doesn’t know that, and better to mail something ahead of time than too late. (I sent a special edition to my sister in England for her birthday [January 20th] and it still hasn’t arrived.)

My family and close friends know that they can’t go wrong with giving me books, even if it’s for every holiday and my birthday. So one of my sisters sent me Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which has been on my wish list since I read it: I kept giving it to people and never bought it for myself after I gave away my own copy because I felt it would somehow come back to me. Well, it did; it came unexpectedly in the post with a lovely card. I was ecstatic! I love it when people know me so well.

The second gift was also a book, beautifully wrapped in quality paper with a large classic print and encircled with twine. It too had an artful card that accompanied it. Both my sister and my friend are art lovers and they appreciate paper and books as much as I do. The book was Gunnar’s Daughter, by Sigrid Undset, author of the 1928 Nobel Prize Winner Kristin Lavransdatter (which is a fantastic substantial saga, one to hunker down in the winter months with, preferably with Cloudberry tea and on a sheepskin).

I think there’s nothing more rewarding, more satisfying, than receiving a gift that reflects a person’s true understanding of you. If books and paper and art are your thing, may you be forever blessed in the receiving of them, as I am.

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Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner: A review

I love stories in which various unlikely characters are tied together in some way and often, as the reader hopes, come together, even if only briefly. The ways in which human beings find themselves somehow connected is fascinating to me. Often, too, these stories are told from the perspective of each main character; I’ve always enjoyed this. I can think of several books presented in this way, from Carol Shields‘s brilliant Happenstance to Julian Barnes’s humourous Talking It Over.

As for the unlikely characters and the strings of objects and/or events linking them together, look at Nick Hornby‘s A Long Way Down, in which four people find themselves surprisingly met in a strange location—the rooftop of Topper’s House in London—where each had previously decided, before they saw the other, to privately commit suicide.  More recent is A School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, in which eight strangers gather together for a cooking class and become transformed and connected through the art of creating and preparing food.

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, the 2008 Governor General’s Award winner for translation, is one of these books in which strings of events, objects (a compass that points only to Nikolski, a Frankenstein of a book with no face, fish, books, and the sea), and themes (namely, archeology and history and pirates), as well as one man, Jonas Doucet, link 3 young people.

Told from the perspective of each, the story unfolds in a surprisingly original way, with humourous yet touching prose as Noah, Joyce, and an unnamed bookseller come from distant places in search of meaning and purpose, but either end up meeting or coming so close as to pass like ships in the night. Added elements of magic realism, which I especially enjoyed, make the story all the more compelling and wondrous. Dickner even acknowledges the unlikely by blatently labelling it so, which adds to the humour (you can tell he was having writerly fun): an apology of sorts without apologizing. The description of the Book with No Face was so excellent I read it aloud to my husband:

The book had followed an unimaginable trajectory. After several decades on the shelves of the library of the University of Liverpool, it had been stolen by a student, been passed from hand to hand, escaped two fires, and then, left to its own devices, returned to the wild. It had crossed thousands of kilometres in various bags, travelled amid the cargo in damp crates, been thrown overboard but continued on its way in the acidic belly of a whale, before being spat out and retrieved by an illiterate deep-sea diver. Jonas Doucet finally won it in a poker game in a Tel Aviv bar one intemperate night.

Its pages were brittle, spotted with countless small rust-coloured specks, and if you buried your nose in it you could detect vegetation patiently endeavouring to colonize the depths of the paper. Not only was this Noah’s one book, but it was also one of a kind, bearing a host of distinctive signs. In the middle of page 58, for instance, there was a large, brownish bloodstain. Between pages 42 and 43, a fossilized mosquito had made its home, a tiny stowaway flattened by surprise. And scribbled in the margin of page 23 was the mysterious word Rokovoko. (Vintage 2009, 28)

Much like the Book with No Face, the story itself is artfully pieced together, layered and complex, weaving in and out of time and space and perspective. We truly get a sense of loss and questing, of disorganization and looseness, of being adrift in the great world without much in the way of guidance. So much of me wanted to see these three people come into their own, find a sense of peace and belonging.

While reading this book I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Nino Ricci’s Origin of Species: I think it was the sense of learning, of myriad facts, of the ever-looming character of water, that caused this. That story, too, though, is richly layered and somewhat similar in theme; perhaps a study of the two would be an interesting paper! (Alas, those days for me are long past.)

I also have a soft spot for translated literature, and this book, masterfully translated from the French by Lazar Lederhendler, blew me away with its beautifully rendered prose. The words seemed so carefully chosen, the text so seamless and smooth, without a trace of awkwardness, that it was though it had been originally written in English. I regret not having kept up with my French enough to be able to read the original work. But I do not feel I’ve  missed out in any way. This is one book I’d recommend to anyone.

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Books Exempt from Ontario's Coming HST!

This is the best news I’ve heard in ages! I’m quite relieved. When I first heard about the dreaded HST,  my heart leapt into my throat. I was horrified that I was going to have to pay 13% tax on my beloved books, among other things that don’t currently carry more than GST. But here is the Toronto Star’s word on that:

There will be some exemptions, such as children’s clothing, feminine hygiene products and books, but the 13 per cent will be applied for the first time on things like homes of more than $400,000, heating fuel, gasoline, tobacco, taxis, golf green fees and landscaping, newspapers and magazines, gym membership, veterinarian fees and even vitamins.

Imagining the expense of things when this comes into effect, and agreeing with Conservative Leader Bob Runciman in the article, I still very much wish this new tax wouldn’t happen at all, but I’m grateful that one of the things I was most worried about will be excluded. If they weren’t, what another blow that would be to book sales and shops!

Yann Martel on Stillness

Author Yann Martel. photo: guardian.co.uk

Yann Martel, author of the brilliant novel Life of Pi, has a very interesting and extraordinary project on the go. It’s called What is Stephen Harper Reading? Every two weeks, for as long as Harper is prime minister, Martel will send him a new book to read, accompanied by a letter. (I’m extremely jealous!) He’s sent 74 books so far and had about six responses, not one of them from the prime minister himself.

You really should check out this site. It’s simultaneously humorous and not at all funny. You’ll see what I mean. It’s quite thought-provoking, in fact.

I’m thinking this would be a very cool project to take on myself, actually—to read the books Harper’s been sent and Martel’s letters with them, and then actually respond. (I feel all these gratis books (what an ideal gift, yes?) are wasted on Harper, unfortunately, but who knows: maybe he secretly reads them before bed and in between sessions and waits with bated breath for the next package?)

My main point for this post, however late I’m getting to it, is this. I just read the About page, and it made me think of the post I wrote only last night. While it is a very interesting and provoking About page, and the entire script made me feel somewhat perturbed (ironically: it’s about being still but I felt moved to do something, though I don’t know what), here is the paragraph that spoke to me most at this particular time.

On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

Be still and think about that for a while.

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Spilled Tea

Almost every day there’s either a grand or small thing to discourage me from opening Biblio or from thinking the idea of books and tea will work.

Putting aside the relentless news articles announcing the death of yet another indie bookshop, take this, for instance:

I’m sitting in the living room, busy editing an article for CJDS. Beside me are not one but two sidetables on which very attractive books lie. A small shift in position and my ginger lemon tea goes flying across all four books. Two I rescue; they are happily unharmed. But my clothbound copy of The Hobbit and my oh so beautiful Bedside Book of Birds are hit on their bottom edges. No amount of dabbing will help. They rest now on floor vents, where the heat from our furnace was rising but seems to have suddenly ceased as soon as I placed the books there. Already, the Bedside Book is warping.

I want to weep. I admit to having spilled tea on manuscripts I’ve been proofing before. If the spill is major, I reprint and reproof the pages. If only a drop or two or a minor smudge, I write a little “enjoying chai rooibos tea! Sorry!” note with a smiley face. In this case, putting my tea on the sidetable, which is not, of course, unheard of, is obviously asking for trouble if I’m going to decorate those tables with books as well. Going further, perhaps drinks and books in Biblio is a stupid idea! I don’t want to spend my time marking down beautiful books because of damage.

Sigh. Will I have to enforce some rule that customers can’t sip tea and peruse a book at the same time just in case? That would be totally counter to the idea of Biblio!!

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