By now you all know that Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize last night for his novel 419. Hearty congratulations to Mr. Ferguson! And to the other nominees, Russell Wangersky, Kim Thúy, Alix Ohlin, and Nancy Richler, whose books also deserve to be celebrated. As Will toasted: “To the written word!”
Ferguson also gave a warm and touching speech of gratitude that only deepened my crush on him (Beyond Belfastis my favourite of his so far). He’s contributed to Canadiana as a humorist, travel writer, and novelist, and though he’s no stranger to accolades — he’s won thirteen awards for his previous books — it’s lovely to see him win something as significant as the Giller now.
While I would have been happy had any one of the shortlisted authors won last night, I was especially glad that 419 emerged victorious. I surprised myself by shooting my arms in the air and cheering, actually. It was not only my prediction but my choice over the others, as worthy as they are.
I can’t say that 419 is the best Canadian novel of the year, but I don’t believe that’s what the Giller designates anyway. It can’t possibly, since the three people on the jury don’t read every Canadian book published in the year, for one thing. I also don’t think the writing is as strong as some of the writing I’ve read in the other other shortlisted books. But I do believe that 419 is a timely and important novel, a significant contribution to CanLit that, in winning the Giller, is now going to reach more homes than it might otherwise have done. It’s a good thing, especially if it prevents someone from falling victim to the 419 scam.
It’s difficult to compare stories and writing. So when I think about what book I’d like to see win an award and experience the positive consequences that go along with that, I consider what the books add to CanLit. The other candidates on the shortlist add exemplary writing and storytelling, there’s no doubt. But I didn’t feel they were Giller winners. Not because their writing isn’t strong but rather because their appeal and content doesn’t have as much potential for the larger Canadian and international audience as 419, or, I think, as much potential staying power. Gary Shteyngart said, “It was like nothing else I’d read. It stayed with us like a stomach virus. It just wouldn’t leave us. So we knew it would survive the elimination process.” And it did. But while the Giller Effect exists, it’s also true that not long after a book has won, it can also be rather quickly forgotten. I don’t see this happening as swiftly for 419 as it could the other books.
419 does more than tell a good story; it captures not only human weakness, compassion, desire, grief, love, suffering, and freedom but also the current climate and tragedy of Internet scams and international conflict. It’s thoroughly researched and thus offers insight in addition to a thrilling plot. In later years, we’ll be able to look back on this book as a literary landmark of this time.
I know people have mixed feelings about 419. I know people are disappointed, that they believe it isn’t literary enough or as well-written as one book or another. The truth is, we have to consider more than personal taste here. We have to consider value.
It’s also out there, as it will always be, that the Giller is predictable, the books chosen are ho-hum or stereotypical, that the entire event is elitist. I guess I don’t agree with all of that. While I guessed 419 would win tonight, partly because of what the jury’s statement about it said, I also think it could have gone several different ways. Others agree. And on the CBC’s poll tonight, at one point, Ru and 419 were neck and neck at 27%.
Mainly, though, as I said last night during the CBC Books Giller chat online, “I know there are so many CanLit authors out there not being recognized tonight. But that we celebrate CanLit at all is so heartening.” It was wonderful to hear Will Ferguson echo those sentiments later: “I love that in Canada literature gets the red carpet treatment.” As it turns out, I do too.
Wow. I haven’t done one of these in ages. No matter, it’s here now, right? Here we go…
1. Matthew Trafford, Torontonian author of the critically acclaimed short story collection The Divinity Gene, is offering a writing course called The Grounded Fantastic. It’s an online course for anyone in any time zone, and it goes on for seven weeks, from February 6 to March 20. This is a specialty course so the number of students is limited. Matthew writes:
THE GROUNDED FANTASTIC seeks to bridge [the] seemingly disparate elements of fact and fancy, to create stories that stretch the imagination but ring true to the mind and the human heart. If you have ever stopped yourself from writing something because it felt too outlandish or outrageous, if you have ever longed to write outside the confines of mundane daily reality, this is the course for you.
Don’t forget, these coveted spots are limited, so if you want to do the course, sign up now! Matthew’s last course sold out fast!
2. Goose Lane Editions out east is launching a new website, and they’re pretty excited about it! This is from their press release:
[Fredericton, NB] In 1994, still in the birthing years of the Internet, Goose Lane Editions, Canada’s oldest independent book publisher, made history by becoming one of the first publishing houses in the world to launch their own website. After 18 years, the site has gone through numerous transformations, changing to suit our evolving culture as technology improved and users became more computer-savvy. Now, we are proud to announce the newest iteration of www.gooselane.com, with new features, new content, and a new promotion to kick off the launch.
In addition to a complete visual redesign, we have added new website elements such as twitter feeds and ongoing blog posts by our many employees. Sample chapters are available for many books, and an ongoing stream of events and notices is added to the main page every day.
To celebrate our launch, we’d like to extend a special offer. For every day the week of January 23, we will be offering one book a day at a special highly-discounted price. Roadsworth, YOU comma Idiot, The Famished Lover, Miller Brittain, The Black Watch, Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy, and Ganong: A Sweet History of Chocolatewill each take over one day of the week with a drastically discounted price to help celebrate our new look and attitude. All this, in addition to our regular feature of free shipping on orders of $60 or more. To take advantage of these offers, simply create an account with Goose Lane. By doing so, you’ll also ensure that you are regularly updated on upcoming special offers.
To obtain review copies, arrange for interviews or to request permission to publish excerpts, contact Corey Redekop at email@example.com or (888) 926.8377. High-res book cover and author image files are also available at www.gooselane.com.
3. How much love do you have for the classics? I may have bought books before this, but the first I remember buying with my own money was when I was ten years old. There was a tiny independent shop in our shitty little mall (the mall where I got my first job at a ’50s fish ‘n’ chip diner horrifyingly named A Salt and Batter), where I used to hungrily peruse the few shelves of paperbacks. My first purchase there, while my mom waited for me outside the shop, was a Signet copy of Moby Dick. I’ve never managed to finish that story—sadly, because I find it appealing—but maybe I’d have more luck reading it in the bathroom? Behold, Moby Dick printed on toilet paper. (Who has the time to do such things?!)
4. Fans of Annabel: Want to read an early short story by Kathleen Winter? It’s called “Jolly Trolley,” and also appears in her first book boYs, which I haven’t yet acquired. What do you think of the style of this story?
5. I’m a big fan of British productions. Right now I’m addicted to MerlinandBeing Human. I love BBC stuff. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about British shows. I also enjoy Tudor-based shows, and wouldn’t you know, the BBC is releasing a War of the Roses saga, based on the books of none other than Philippa Gregory. Gregory is one author who totally surprised me. Not in a million years did I think I’d pick up any of her books, but I couldn’t resist buying a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl, finally, in secret, after many times putting it back. And then I devoured it, and bought all the others in the series. She can write some pretty good sex, can Gregory. Not like Ken Follett, for instance. Ugh. I’ve yet to find out how Martin does sex in his Game of Thrones books (so far I’ve only watched it, and from what I can tell, it’s…copious.) Anyway, really excited about this new BBC show, which will “be told uniquely from the point of view of powerful women who ‘shaped their men and who shaped history in the process,’” and will be “many episodes.” Awesome!
6. Being a copyeditor who cares about grammar and the way things are written, I somewhat struggled listening to Stephen Fry’s sound-sex clip, and yet, oh, the man can weave words, can’t he? On reflection, I do actually believe he has a point, one I’ve learned over my nine years now of freelancing, especially editing fiction. Fry is extraordinary and exciting in general, but here too. He’s not saying proper use of the language is not important, and I don’t think that the way he says this, so exquisitely, so eloquently, necessarily contradicts his point so much as actually illustrates it. Language is meant to be played with, I believe, and I would much prefer to read something beautiful or stimulating than perfectly correct—which often leads to awkwardness, anyway. I am okay with colloquialisms if they are clear enough for me to understand, as Fry mentions. We don’t need to take things literally all the time. Language, I believe, should be elastic. Ultimately, I’m disappointed when errors are the only things someone takes away from something otherwise good; it’s reading with a superiority complex. I don’t mean to say by any means that I would leave errors in texts (unless they were in fiction and meant to be there, but you have to know the rules to break them), or that proper use is not important (and I argue not just in formal occasions); what I mean is, I’ve relaxed my pedantry, or rather restricted it to my freelance jobs. There is a time and place for it. What I find more interesting than correctness is creativity. Apparently, the dictionaries think so too.
7. Haven’t got a wall of books? Try this library wallpaper! I’ve always wondered what it would be like to shelve my books by colour, but it would be too disorganized.
8. Some read banned books during Freedom to Read week, which is coming up in Canada February 26–March 3, and some actually wear them…in bracelet form.
10. Have you heard already about the unpublished Brontë manuscript that was found, the mini one produced by fourteen-year-old Charlotte? The tiny magazine (second issue of Young Men’s Magazine), said to shed important light on her later work, was auctioned off and won by the Paris Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits, which paid £690,850.
13. Even though I find this new mural of authors together on the beach with their most famous works (look closely and you’ll see that Atwood’s is The Handmaid’s Tale, which has also been made into a film and an opera) rather unattractive, I do adore the look Shakespeare’s giving Atwood as he fills in a word of her crossword puzzle, and the impish grin she’s giving us. And is Stephen King doing fart noises with his armpit to cheer up an unimpressed Edgar Allan Poe? The mural is painted at the Ocean City Free Public Library.
14. I bookmarked this a long time ago, meaning to have a thorough look at it. It’s pretty cool. Check out BookDrum: ”the perfect companion to the books we love, bringing them to life with immersive pictures, videos, maps and music.”
15. You must already know by now that Oliver Jeffers is one of my favourite children’s book writers and illustrators.Lost and Found, Up and Down, The Way Back Home…these are a few of my favourites. And if I had money, I would be snatching up these lovely silver pieces of jewellery based on his books. Oh. My favourites are the penguin necklace, the boy necklace (I’d have one with both charms on one necklace, because the two belong together), the penguin ring, and the heart in a bottle.
16. I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately: art made with books. Perhaps the idea is ages old, I don’t know. Whatever the case, artists these days are making pieces that demonstrate extraordinary vision and a deep love of the act of creating. The amount of time it must have taken to make each of these twelve works! My favourite is the Su Blackwell papercut piece of the girl in the forest (you must have a look at her incredible site. I wish I could do such things!). If you love papercut art as much as I do, check out this book, Paper Cutting: Contemporary Artists, Timeless Craft. I could spend hours over and over again perusing the photos. Oh, the jawdropping beauty, and the seeming impossibility of the works! We have this book at the store but unfortunately I have a book-buying ban on now, out of necessity.
17. Ever wondered about the life cycle of a book? This is a simplified version, ideally how things transpire, and only up until the book is distributed (in other words, not the life cycle after, once it’s been bought, of course), but it’s great nevertheless for writers looking to publish and who should go into the process knowing what to expect, or for those who want a greater appreciation for the books they buy and read (and review).
18. This isn’t being officially announced until February (so stay tuned for further details), but I’ve asked if I can post it here anyway. Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen—whom many of you already know as tweeter for @NicholasHoareTO and book blogger at Literary Treats—has organized a cool venture with her workplace, the Art Gallery of Mississauga, in partnership with the Mississauga Library System and sponsored by publisher Thomas Allen, who will be donating five copies of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick for the event. Jaclyn read Chris Van Allsburg’s Chronicles of Harris Burdick, a book of only gorgeous illustrations and captions reportedly presented to a publisher by Mr. Burdick with the promise that the text would follow. However, Mr. Burdick was never heard from again, and the publisher printed only the illustrations and their captions. Since then, on the Harris Burdick site readers have been entreated to create their own stories about those illustrations.
Inspired by this, Jaclyn got the idea to host a teen workshop (ages 10–19) at the gallery called Tell Me a Story, which will invite participants to tell their own stories about the paintings they are shown.
From the press release draft:
Gallery visitors often view art and ask, what is this artist trying to say? What does that object in the painting mean? But for this workshop, we take things one step further and invite you to tell us your own story about the piece you’re observing. The art will be the springboard for your creativity. We’ll provide captions to suggest unexpected ways to look at the art and inspire original storytelling that takes the art beyond its canvas, but in the end, it’s all up to you. Surprise us! Take us—and the art—to places we’ve never before imagined!
The concept behind Tell Me A Story comes from Chris Van Allsburg’s Mysteries of Harris Burdick and The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Van Allsburg, who also wrote The Polar Express and Jumanji, tells us that many years ago, a mysterious artist named Harris Burdick submitted illustrations with captions to a children’s book publisher. Burdick promised that he would return the next day with the stories to accompany the illustrations, but he was never heard from again.
Van Allsburg and other authors have since written stories for Burdick’s illustrations, and now Van Allsburg further challenges his young readers to create stories of their own. Therefore, not only are the Harris Burdick books collections of highly imaginative tales, but they also call to readers to use the Harris Burdick images as springboards for their own stories. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of unique stories that can be created from the same fourteen images!
Now imagine the hundreds of unique stories hidden within the AGM’s permanent art collection. Twenty-five years years of art… How many stories can we create?
The AGM/Thomas Allen initiative is planned for Monday, March 12, 11:00am, and Wednesday, March 14, 11:00am. If you’re interested, contact the AGM or Jaclyn at jaclyn.qua-hiansen[at]mississauga[dot]ca.
Photo by rocketlass. Found on Levi Stahl's book blog I've Been Reading Lately
Happy Halloween, readers!
Besides Thanksgiving, Halloween is my favourite time of the year. Its spooky atmosphere makes me shivery with delight! I like to revisit Ray Bradbury’s October Country or The Halloween Tree, or Something Wicked This Way Comes (I covet this, by the way), or Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party(lamentably not one of which I was able to fit in this year), and snuggle with the hubby and dog and watch cheesy horror flicks or, much better, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I love sitting in the living room at night and watching brown and vermilion leaves skip and swirl dryly down the shining wet street. Mmm. Bradbury captured October Country better:
that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain . . .
I actually had a long post, a fun horror review, prepared for today, but on talking with the author, we decided that the review would be better left for a time closer to the release date of the book. The fact is, I can give you the review but you won’t be able to check out the book for at least a year. So it’s of no great use to you.
Which leaves me woefully unprepared. I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me if I repost last year’s week of blog entries leading up to Halloween. In fact, they’re quite fun, I thought, and if you didn’t already see them, you may enjoy taking a trip through them. If you have already read the posts, you might not mind revisiting the links and videos again.
Last year on the blog, I wrote a post about getting ready for Halloween with some of my favourite books and movies. Then I celebrated by doing a week of awesome (if I do say so myself!) Halloween Treat Classics posts—no tricks! only treats.
The weekday after a long weekend is always extra hard for me, and I imagine it is for others, too. So let’s start off with some amazing news!
1. The Governor General Literary Award nominees were just announced today, and the fiction nominees are: Patrick DeWitt, for The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan, for Half-Blood Blues, David Bezmozgis, for The Free World, Marina Endicott for Little Shadows, and Alexi Zentner, for Touch. This is only the second time ever that two authors have been nominated for all three major Canadian literary awards. All this overlap makes it pretty easy for those who want to read all the nominees of the various awards, eh? My hearty congratulations to all the publishers, authors, and staff who made these books the best they could be! UPDATE: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was up for consideration, but the author respectively requested that his publisher not submit the book, as he feels he’s won the award a fair number of times already (that is, five times). The Cat’s Table does remain on the Giller shortlist.
2. Some of you may be interested in the Guess the Giller contest going on now till Nov. 8. You may be pretty excited about potentially winning a copy of each of the shortlisted titles, for instance: that is, Esi Eduygan’s Half-Blood Blues, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, Lynn Cody’s The Antagonist, and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Doesn’t tempt you enough? How about a Kobo Touch e-reader and a $50 gift certificate from Chapters/Indigo? Still not enough incentive? Okay: how about the grand prize for guessing the winner:
• A visit from the 2011 Scotiabank Giller prize-winning author to contest winner’s home town, courtesy of Scotiabank. The hometown or residence of the contest winner must be in Canada
• A restaurant meal for the contest winner and four (4) guests with the 2011 prize-winning author (maximum value: $500 CDN ), courtesy of Scotiabank. The restaurant will be selected in the sole discretion of the sponsor and all decisions made by the sponsor are final.
•A set of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted books
•A Kobo eReader, courtesy of Kobo, with a $50 CDN gift certificate to Chapters Indigo, courtesy of Scotiabank
Approximate value of the prize is $5,000.00
Off to enter!
3. Since I was a teen, I’ve counted Raymond Carver among my favourite short story writers. Last week the hubby and I enjoyed a movie called Everything Must Go, based on Carver’s very short and quite different story titled, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Read the story (link will take you there) and watch the movie—the trailer is below.
4. I couldn’t help but spend quite a bit of time scrolling through this site: Awesome People Reading. What is it, exactly, about seeing someone read that makes other readers so happy? I’m always dying to ask people what they’re reading if I can’t already tell, and when I’m looking at magazines or pictures, I always try to discern what the title is in the subject’s hand. The other day there was a kid in the shop totally sprawled out in one of the leather chairs, reading a dinosaur book. My first thought was, I need a camera!
5. Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have begun Emily Books, an indie bookstore that, according to them, is more like a club, and they sell only ebooks. They’re just getting started, but here is their campaign. They can also be found on Twitter. Will we see more of these ebook stores in the future?
7. “This Cake is for the Party,” the prequel, “The Lightest One I Could Make”: a new story by Sarah Selecky in the Walrus, November 2011 issue. I’m sorry if I’m coming across as a major fan girl. It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it. It’s a good story!
8. Jessica Westhead‘s short story “Community,” from her collection called And Also Sharks, has been dramatized for radio! My computer is having problems right now, which is VERY ANNOYING (everything I do is delayed, whether it’s typing letters or clicking on another site, or whatever), so I’m not getting to listen to this without it constantly skipping. I hope it doesn’t do that for you. Maybe it just needs some time to download and buffer or whatever. I hope you can listen!
9. Watch how a book is made, from the Middle Ages (love those illuminated manuscripts!) to the present—actually, even now, the process is evolving. I personally find this history fascinating. Has anyone read Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book? That novel will increase your appreciation for the dear ones on your shelves, too! (Thank you to For the Love of Bookshops for “making books” links!)
11. I’m sure that by now you all have heard of The Night Circus? In the last LitBits I posted an article about the marketing aspect of it. This week, something interesting is happening: Thursday, October 13th marks the date that Erin Morgenstern’s “circus of dreams” was born. On October 13, 1886, at the stroke of midnight in London, the first circus doors opened to the public. This upcoming Thursday marks the 125th anniversary of this event. I have to admit, okay, that in general, I’m not cool with circuses, at least not animal or freak ones. Cirque du Soleil is different, and I’d love to see that some day. Anyway, I approach circus books with a degree of caution. This book, like Water for Elephants, has met with rave reviews for the most part, though one recent article in the New York Times had a different stance. Nevertheless, you can be sure that Random House has some neat stuff planned for this anniversary, like this free game, for instance. I haven’t yet read the book, but I plan to—because the story idea intrigues me. Erin is also coming to my area, for anyone interested. She’ll be reading as part of the International Festival of Authors in Picton, at Books and Company on October 28, 7pm. Tickets are $10.
12. Any Poe fans here? I love Poe, though studying him in university burst my bubble a little. By now, though, I’ve forgotten the underlying meanings and can just enjoy his stories as the wonderful gothic creations they also are. And now, one of my favourite male actors, John Cusack, is playing the author himself in a thriller of a movie called The Raven, to be released in 2012. I’m excited about it! Watch the trailer.
13. While you’re in Poe mode, there’s also this movie coming out called Twixt, about a hack horror writer visiting a small town in which he ends up investigating the murder of a young girl. Poe appears in the movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who said this: the story is “inspired by the eerie writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe” and came to him in a vivid dream he had while on a trip to Istanbul. The trailer for Twixtis spooky!
14. Switching gears here, the CBC is celebrating 75 years of featuring CanLit, from interviews to reviews to stimulating discussion. I have always loved browsing the CBC archives for old stuff with Atwood and for Halloween files (that I posted last year), and they’re taking a look back in the celebrating, too. They’ve started with Alice Munro, who’s got about 20 collections of stories to date but at the time of her interview had only three. Whoa. Have a listen to Alice Munro and Don Harrow on Morningside in 1978.
15. You’ve read writer’s blogs, but have you ever read a character‘s blog? Always Under Revision is the blog of Kate, a character in Leona Theis’s novel in progress. In her posts, Kate details what it’s like being written, as well as chats about her author’s progress and daily happenings. I thought it an interesting, creative spin on the typical author’s blog. I’d say it’s a good (but potentially dangerous when I think about it, if you’re in any way unstable!) method of getting inside a character’s head, let alone a writer’s!
16. I was reading the Saturday Toronto Star this weekend and to my surprise saw a few book covers I recognized on the front page of the Entertainment section. I always read that section but don’t see much on books. This time, there was an entire page and a bit, an interesting article called “Shortchanging the Short Story,” mainly but not solely about Zsuzsi Gartner’s recent collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives making the Giller shortlist, and what she has to say about that and short stories. What do you think after reading it? Are short story collections shortchanged? Should there be no distinction between novels and short stories—should we just have, as Gartner wishes, books? I’ve written about short stories here before, and I’d love to know what you guys think about this article.
17. Want to win a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table? Go to Random House’s BookClubs page! They have a biweekly contest to win books, so while you’re there, sign up for the newsletter. It really is possible to win: I’ve done so twice!
18. I’m looking at Margaret Atwood’s newest book, called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, published by McClelland & Stewart, and you know how books often list the author’s other publications? In this book, Ms Atwood’s previous books take up TWO pages. There are 21 books of fiction, 14 books of poetry, 9 non-fiction books, and 6 kids books. And that’s just books. Kind of makes my “I can’t write” whinging really pathetic!
19. Check this out, this is so cool! Trevor Cole’s award-winningPractical Jean…in photos:
20. I’ve waxed poetic about my artist sister, Thérèse Neelands before (by the way, she’s joined Twitter), and Oliver Jeffers as well, who also happens to be one of my sister’s sources of inspiration. So what do you get when you combine the two? A Christmas ornament that T made and forgot to give me last year and instead presented me this Thanksgiving weekend: I give you Boy, of Oliver Jeffers’s Lost and Found (the short film of which I posted for you in LitBits 19), Up and Down, How to Catch A Star, andThe Way Back Home:
Boy, from Oliver Jeffers's The Way Back Home (also featured in How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, and Up and Down. Ornament by Thérèse Neelands.
Believe me, you have to see this dude in real life (and we have to do something about that little bit between his legs, which is, of course, where the twine comes through. It’s too hilariously placed). Seriously, though, in real life, this little guy is amazing. My photos are shite. Also, she made Penguin, and my other sister got him. I demand him next Christmas. Also, I want the Martian from The Way Back Home. I hope you’re reading this, T. Oi, Oliver, if you’re reading this: thank you!! Also, you and my sis should get together and do something artsy.
Anything you want posted in LitBits? Contact me or send me a tweet!
Carolyn Black’s mind works in mysterious ways. Her stories in The Odious Child are strange and unusual, but they nevertheless touch on the deeper condition of humanity and are also beautiful and vibrant. Like John Lavery’s Sandra Beck…TOC is insightful, creative, original, and a very fine example of how language, when in the hands of a talented wordsmith, can be both powerful and fun.
Those were the words I used on the CBC–Giller Prize page to nominate Carolyn Black’s debut collection of short stories called The Odious Child. Sometime at the beginning of this year, I came across Carolyn’s story “Thirty-Seven Women” on the Joyland site, which features Canadian short fiction. I liked it so much that I googled her and saw that I could read another story, “At World’s End, Falling Off,” online, too. After that, I contacted the Toronto author to tell her how much I loved her writing. She told me I could read another story, called “Serial Love,” in the latest Journey Prize Stories anthology (issue 22), which we just happened to have in the store. I went to the shelf, found the copy, opened it to her story, and stood there and read it immediately.
The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black. Nightwood Editions, April 2011, paper, pp. 160.
And now I’ve read The Odious Child, Carolyn’s debut collection of short stories, released by Nightwood Editions in April this year with an interesting cover I did not understand until reading the 7th story (although since this book makes me feel somewhat…distrustful or, rather, uncertain, I wonder if there is even more to it than that. Like the stories, there seems something extra significant. Isn’t there always, with ladders and doors? Or wait—could this be about the escape in story 10? It might make more sense to use the title story…). In fact, I’ve read some of these stories three times, because I enjoy the writing so much, but also because these are not stories you can simply breeze through. More than any other collection I’ve read this year so far, this one has been the most challenging, the most thought-provoking, particularly regarding meaning.
Most of the eleven stories are tricksy, wily creatures, which, like their narrators, seem somewhat unreliable and defiant of certain summary. As a student of English I learned to analyze, to look for metaphor, etc. But what if the furry, feral child in the title story isn’t some sort of animal but actually a child the narrator locks up and hides; isn’t a metaphor for anything—say, the narrator’s psyche—but rather some freak of nature, some fantastical creature?
“Urban fantasy,” the stories are labelled (I’ve discovered a new favourite genre!), and there is indeed a sort of magic realism to them, an otherworldliness, surrealism, even in the ones that seem straightforward, like two of my favourites, “Wife, Mistress,” and “Retreat.” These two stories, especially, talk about rules and propriety, how things should be, yet the characters in them make conscious decisions to break the rules (with both positive and negative consequences), while the other stories themselves mostly break with convention by blending reality and fantasy.
In any case, these stories are not your average CanLit fare. The interesting thing about this is that a major theme is order, concreteness, reflected in such precise language that I found myself treating the very book itself carefully, keeping it pristine, turning the pages deliberately, smoothing their surfaces, leaving it altogether unmarked and clean. Orderliness transcended the stories into my own behaviour. The exact opposite behaviour, in fact, even though I loved this book just as much, to that which I exhibited with Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For the Party. That order, this precision, the deliberation with which the narrators choose their words and the author constructs—one gets the sense that these stories are well mapped out, and that everything in them is meaningful—all contrast with the elusiveness, the unreliability, the shimmer in realism as it’s replaced by surrealism or absurdity. Nothing here is black and white. Lines are blurred; reality is measured not in the events themselves nor in the character’s voices but rather in what we the readers surmise is true. Can we trust it?
Thinking about this further makes me wonder if the title of the book mightn’t have been better called Games, after another of the stories, in which a lonely woman (who sort of reminds me of Harriet in After Claude), concocts romantic fantasies, considers past boyfriends, and deludes herself into thinking the one she truly loved might still love her. The stories in The Odious Child are serious and insightful, touching yet even slightly horrifying—but they are simultaneously playful; they contain an overriding theme of deep-seated, thrumming desire, for love, for sex, for order, for understanding, for connection and belonging, and to create, but they are also dryly humorous, especially “Martin Amis Is In My Bed.”
The stories are also exercises in invention, examinations of language more so than form, although the two are inseparable (Carolyn very much enjoys playing with words and punctuation but also tense), and defy reality by containing imaginary objects and people and personified objects, and delving into that weird and wondrous entity we know as the psyche, explored most notably in “At World’s End, Falling Off” (in which an extraordinarily beautiful man disappears), “Hysteria” (in which a woman’s head separates from her body yet they are still able to function), “Martin Amis Is In My Bed” (in which a writer manifests her muse), “Tall Girls” (in which a man suddenly notices and becomes obsessed with tall girls, and one in particular), and “The Odious Child.”
Carolyn Black is sort of playing games here too, then, with reality and fantasy, with language, with us. Some may wonder: What are we to make of this collection? Just when you think you get a story, the ending defies you, dares you to say you do. I am lost reading the title story. Perhaps if I stop trying so hard, everything will come to me. It will reveal itself in an explosive OH moment, like the one Jasper experiences when he finally gives up on trying to fantasize about his red-headed tall girl.
He gives up. Surrenders. A passive lethargy invades his limbs. He allows the tide of it to carry him out, far out, to sea where his body floats like a discarded object on the surface.
His mind goes under.
It dives away from his body, jackknifing into the murky deep. And there—there!—a portal opens wide, revealing a miracle of vibrant colors and sounds. Images hidden until now.
They are ripe and everything he has waited for.
As challenging as many of these stories are, they are also extremely rewarding. They are not out of reach. Whether or not all stories are clear almost becomes irrelevant. It is enough for me that I have a grasp, as tenuous as it is on one or two stories; it is more than enough that the writing is superb. There is pure genius present here, I promise you. Carolyn’s prose is impeccable, her word choice fitting, her stories strong and orderly and beautifully spare. It’s such a fantastic thing, writing that is both efficient yet so very rich!
The Odious Child of Carolyn Black is anything but odious.
Thank you to Nightwood Editions and Carolyn for my copy of The Odious Child. For an excellent and extremely insightful and revealing interview with Carolyn, do visit Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This.
All right, this is just too good not to post. I have to admit that given all the stuff I said about Canada Reads, and how people picked up on what I said and refuted it on their own blogs, CBC’s newest project sounds like a personal challenge. I’m sure it’s not, but my heart is pounding.
Nevertheless, this is very cool, and an opportunity for those who love discussing books to do so…with SHELAGH ROGERS!!
Have you ever watched Canada Reads and wished you were sitting around the table with the panelists? Have you ever listened to someone reviewing a book and said “I could do that”? Well, if you think you can talk books, Shelagh Rogers and The Next Chapter want to hear from you. We’re looking for Canadians who are passionate about what they read. If you’re lucky, you just might find yourself on national radio, discussing books with Shelagh Rogers herself!
I’ll admit it right now: this scares the shit out of me. I can hear people jeering, Put your money where your mouth is, VanderMeulen! Yet I never said anything about thinking I could talk books—in fact, I’ve doubted that very thing on this blog repeatedly. I’d like to think I can, I dream about it, but I never meet my own standards. All I said is I wanted the panelists to talk books, er, properly.
So do I have the balls to put together a pitch? To go through auditions, and talk with Shelagh Rogers (were I chosen) about a favourite book on air? Hell no! I’m not contestant material. I’m one of the most inarticulate people on earth when it comes to talking. On screen or paper, fine. But I don’t know how, and I haven’t really had any practice aside from over ten years ago in classes, to talk books and sound intelligent in the process. This opportunity is very, very cool, but it frightens me. Go ahead and say it: CHICKEN!
Yes, yes I am.
I hang my head in shame. Because this kind of attitude, this fear of success, even potential success, is why I am where I am today, instead of doing something truly great.
Last year I blogged about Canada Reads, excited to be avidly following it for the first time. While the book I had wanted to win did emerge the champion, I had expected much more from the show and was ultimately disappointed. I hadn’t realized beforehand that Canada Reads was basically a belletristic take on the reality show Survivor. Whereas I’d leaned forward to hear an intellectual discussion on why each book should or should not be hailed as an essential Canadian read, what I mainly heard, among some astute comments, were too many breaks, personal digs, cutthroat strategy, and surface commentary. And voting always seemed to come way too soon.
When I voiced my disappointment, it was explained to me that Canada Reads, like the CBC, is for the masses. The panellists are therefore not a gaggle of Fryes or Blooms or Atwoods but rather celebrities brought on to bring in the general public. Not that these celebs lack intelligence, but the discussion should not then be of the standard I anticipated and wanted, or the program would be viewed as inaccessible and elitist—much the same way CanLit itself is stereotypically considered, I add. (Yet there are people I know who adamantly maintain Canada Reads is those very things—elitist and unappealing to the masses. I disagree. And assume these are also the people who nod when panellists complain of a book being a difficult read or too much work. Sigh. For God’s sake, it’s not Pound we’re reading.)
So fair enough. I can certainly understand and even appreciate such reasoning about CR being for the masses. And it’s been hard to be a CanLit enthusiast and not get caught up in the warm glow of belonging to the discussion. So I couldn’t help but want to follow again this year and voice my thoughts alongside everyone else, and also hope for better when the program was revamped and promised to break new ground in response to general controversy. I was excited.
But yesterday, Day 1 of Canada Reads 2011, I was again disappointed. I felt let down because, even though this is a game, and even though it was only Day 1, I want a more in-depth debate and more time spent discussing the books; in other words, my values haven’t changed. Less than three hours is hardly enough time to fairly discuss five novels in the first place, so Day 1 is also guilty of having wasted precious time, considering the majority of the show had little to do with the books. I concede that Canada Reads is really to give Canadians a taste of literature, to get them excited to read. It’s working in that case. But this is not so one of the panellists can win a million dollars, after all; rather, it’s to determine which of the five books is the must-read for Canadians. That’s kind of serious, in my view. It’s a considerable responsibility, coming from the CBC.
So I want a degree of literary criticism, even from celebrities, because they did spend months preparing for this, and because I want the reason I must read a certain book to be based also on fact, not mostly opinion or emotion. Granted, some quoting was done today, which made me rather happy, but still I want more, as I’ve said of bloggers’ reviews, than the fact they liked or disliked the book. I want more than constantly arguing and trying to determine the point of Canada Reads. Please, for the love of God, someone set everyone straight so we don’t waste time on that and the difference between “accessible” and “essential,” on defining “novel,” “well-written,” and the like.
Needless to say, I definitely want more than voting based almost solely on strategy to win; we witnessed that today in decisions that didn’t seem consistent. Lastly, I don’t find it exciting when things get a little nasty and the program descends to reality show antics. Survivor theme or not, appeal to the masses or not, this is the CBC and we’re talking literature and culture, not trash.
All that said, I think the CR discussion would be much better if no one had anything to lose and it was just a panel on the books—you can sometimes hear more considerate commentary from those panellists who’ve been voted off early and now have nothing to lose. But of course what I want would be changing the program into something else altogether. This is meant to be a contest. Unfortunately, I don’t consider the game well played. Judging from the majority of comments on Twitter and the live chat, many would agree. In fact, the CBC probably finds itself terribly hard-pressed these days to please anyone at all with Canada Reads. The program seems to generate more controversy than satisfied listeners and readers.
Thus, I’ve come to the conclusion that Canada Reads isn’t for me. I know it’s okay that I decide this, I know there are many Canadians who love books and Canadian literature and don’t participate in or follow Canada Reads. But as a blogger the decision to not post about it or even read the books (unless they truly interest me) actually makes my heart race a little. I’m confident that letting go is good for me; it will allow me to focus on books I want to read (CR took up a LOT of time!), on posts I want to write. But I admit a part of me feels scared about dissing a CBC program (it’s the CBC!!) and concerned that not following and blogging in some way about Canada Reads kind of makes me a black sheep in CanLit circles.
What I’ve said about Canada Reads might get me labelled a literary snob. But look: in school, we read and discussed books beyond whether or not we liked them, said not only that a book was well-written or beautiful or weak but continued with why. We touched on opinion (whereas Canada Reads seems to be mostly opinion, which I find frustrating) but focused on elements of the stories. It was predominantly in university where I learned to be mindful and critical of what I read, to form my emotional reactions into articulate, less effusive but still compelling, probing essays. We learned to compare literature, to study “literature without borders,” to examine similar and contrasting elements as well as apply what we were taught in producing literary criticism of our own. We learned to interpret and thus mostly better appreciate a work and author’s skill.
And while I wrote a post on how we can break free of the CanLit stereotype, that was really for those many who keep telling me they find CanLit depressing and grave and erudite and such. But I LOVE CanLit. I love Atwood and Shields and Ondaatje and Findley and many of the authors in the canon. I also enjoy those in between, and the wordsmiths who aren’t getting the attention they deserve at all, like John Lavery or Jessica Grant (just got her short stories!), for example, authors deemed less accessible or essential, less worthy of the hyperbolic enthusiasm reserved for Franzen and Co., because of their quirkiness, their elevated skill, their subject matter.
This is where I come from as a reader, reviewer, and book blogger. It makes sense, then, that I feel Canada Reads and many of the books I’ve been reading lately aren’t worth my time, as uncomfortable as that might make me to admit. It’s true I read for escape, like many others. But I read predominantly because I take pleasure in and am very excited by the creativity of authors who possess genuine talent when it comes to knowing how best to command our language. They don’t just have a great story idea, like Ken Follett, say; they master both the story and the language. Unlike Ken Follett. This is the difference between popular fiction and literature. And on this blog, I’d like to talk about literature.
Until now I’ve been playing it relatively safe in order to not be hailed a snob, in order to be wider read and appreciated and accessible, in order to prove myself open and concerned more with getting people to read than with getting people to read what I deem quality. As a bookseller, too, that’s the skin I’m supposed to wear—at least, in my community and type of store. And I’ve been honest in my posts, but even though I do believe it’s great that people are reading something at least, that mission isn’t feeling true to me as a reader and booklover anymore. I’m feeling uncomfortable and unhappy. I don’t enjoy selling Danielle Steel. I don’t derive pleasure from blogging or tweeting about books that don’t impress me just so I can be in the loop. I’ve been spreading myself too thin. And I am exhausted. And unfulfilled. The truth is, I’m woefully underwhelmed by much of the stuff being so overwhelmingly praised as the next best thing in books. Like the hype surrounding Canada Reads for months, all the publicising of rather mediocre books has made me wary and of a mind to blog in the opposite direction. It’s tiring attempting to write literary reviews of books that aren’t literary.
So I want to hitch up my trousers and bring my literary enjoyment up to standard, which in turn will give you, I hope, a more consistent and enjoyable blog to read. If that means culling some of the tbr pile and people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, so be it. If it means not participating in or following popular national book programs, so be it. I work over 40 hours a week and what little free time I eke out is precious to me. As I get older (hey, I’ll be 37 on the 20th!), I find myself increasingly impatient with things that bore me, disappoint me, or keep me from what I value most or would really like to explore on Bella’s Bookshelves. There are literary meals to cook and treats to bake. There are a few publishers and authors who have sent me good books that beg my attention, and deserve it.
My motto here is quality. My aim is to make you believe that.