books, what I brought home

Okay, is it weird that I can often do my best book shopping in Value Village, totally not a bookstore, totally ignorant about the classification of literature? If this keeps up, I’m going to end up wanting to go every week or so! While of course I want to support publisher, author, bookshop, industry, I can’t help but get a thrill when second-hand book shopping.

The hardest part about this kind of shopping is finding books you love but already have. Then I know it’s a compulsion, an addiction I’m fighting. I don’t need several copies of favourite books just because I might now have found the pristine hardcover, but I will buy a different edition if it’s special in some way.

Look at what I found today:

After buying the Bean Trees, I'd decided only this weekend I wanted to try this book again. And here it was today. Score!
I'm a sucker for children's books, especially classics. This edition's jacket is rather brittle and a bit torn but the copyright is 1962, after all, and the hardcover is in fine condition otherwise. Illustrated by Mary Shepard. I loved this story growing up!
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. I've been attracted to this book for a while and then it was reviewed during KIRBC's Keep Toronto Reading Series and that doubled my desire. What luck!
Another I've eyed up for some time because I love a good medieval mystery. A lovely Penguin.
Winner of the 1999 Booker. I read Coetzee's Foe in university and I've been forever meaning to read this. South Africa has always intrigued me and Coetzee's writing is excellent.
I'm not lying when I tell you I've never read The Great Gatsby. It's my brother-in-law's favourite book and he's not a huge reader. That's saying something. Plus, I figure it's time.
Pulitzer Prize winner. I've saved my most exciting purchase for last. I'm in love with Annie Dillard. Her books are among my very favourite, especially this one and Holy the Firm (but not the Maytrees, really). And this edition is totally gorgeous. It was published in 1974, appears to be a 1st ed. It's a lovely large hardcover, with beautifully designed jacket, endpapers, and layout. It smells just as it should, and sends a thrill up my spine to hold it. I cannot wait to read this book again. It is perfect.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek endpapers; these photos don't do the book justice.

I can’t tell you what a great day it is when I buy second-hand books. O the stuff you can find, the places you’ll go!

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authors, books

Ottawa, Mayfair Theatre, 18 May 2010

Who’s Who lists her hobbies as “‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system,’ although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin and her daughter Anouchka, about 15 miles from the place she was born” (taken from her website).

Now I ask you, is there any more intriguing author description than this? I think not.

Even better, I’m sitting at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, several rows up from the stage, waiting with bated breath and pounding heart to meet this very person, someone I’ve admired for years—and not because I too love witchcraft, rebellion, diamonds, tea, and biscuits, although I do. It’s because she is none other than Joanne Harris. If you don’t know who Joanne Harris is, shame on you. (You’re missing out.)

As part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Harris is to read from her newest novel blueeyedboy and then participate in a Q&A, later open to the audience. After that you can get your book(s) signed (there’s a limit of 42 per person, artistic director Sean Wilson jokes, and thank God, because I brought five and had wanted to bring more), and then nestle back into your seats, popcorn on your knee, for a special screening of Chocolat, which is, of course, one of my favourite films.

My coffee table overfloweth

Before everything starts, I quickly visit the book table where Harris’s books are being sold and pick up a copy of Chocolat. Mine has the film cover, and I don’t prefer that for my books, but after deciding I don’t much like this other cover either and considering the sentimentality I have for my well-read copy, I put the new book back and return to my seat. I’m trying to remain calm but I’m buzzing. Harris has come all the way from Yorkshire (incidentally my favourite place on the planet) and this is her first visit to Canada, the first time I’m seeing her in person.

And then I turn to my right, wondering where the throngs of fans are, and there she is. Joanne Harris, author extraordinaire, is casually perched on the arm of one of the theatre seats, clutching a gargantuan cup of what I later learn is Coke, sipping merrily through her straw while chatting with two other women. She’s smaller than I thought, topped with a close-cropped pixie, clad in a black soft leather motorcycle jacket, red blouse, and black jeans. The finishing touches: ballerina flats and a sparkling necklace. She looks edgy but sweet: a little dark with the light. How very like her.

I realize I’m beaming. Joanne Harris looks to me like an imp, and I do not mean that in a bad way. Suddenly she laughs, and her youthful, vibrant face is instantly and amazingly transformed. She is one of those people who lights up when she smiles, eyes crinkling to crescent-moon slits. I want to gobble her up.

I also want to go over there and meet her. But I’m looking about and not a single person aside from the two women with her, who seem to be involved in the event, acknowledge her presence. Either they don’t think it’s proper writers festival event etiquette or they’re too polite. They can’t possibly not know it’s her. But no one is even looking her way. I’m both flabbergasted and trying to swallow my racing heart. Aw, screw polite, I finally decide (I’m not totally Canadian anyway!), and make my way over to her. I’m not missing out on this opportunity. I came three hours to see her, after all.

Of course I’m a complete bumbling fool when I ask if I can interrupt and then try hard not to come across as the creepy fan who ends up in horror stories, or the Twihard-ish enthusiast. But I can’t help it. I’m practically vibrating with nervousness and excitement and I say stupid, inarticulate things. And then it’s Joanne being polite and calming me down by being so remarkably grounded and casual and making it seem as though she’s an old friend. She’s one of us. But I know there’s something special about her. One of the women obliges me with a photo of the authoress and me, which comes out looking as though we are two classmates goofing around in a photo booth. It is brilliant—until I realize later I had forgotten to save it. Merde.

We chat about Yorkshire and I tell her I’ve brought her a taste of home—Yorkshire Tea—and she thanks me for being so thoughtful and says that had she had it this morning, her day would have been completely different: hence the giant Coke. Apparently we don’t know how to make tea here (I quite agree!). She tells me a story about Betty’s, where both of us have been, that makes me guffaw and thus embarrass myself. But Joanne Harris is full of stories, and before long we’re chatting and laughing almost like people who’ve met before. I’m enamoured, and suddenly I know that tonight will never be long enough to say all the things that have been building up for years. Especially since most of it won’t come to me till she’s gone.

The lights dim and I return to my seat. The magic is about to begin. A spotlight illuminates the already glowing author, and she begins to introduce blueeyedboy, warning us that this is not a book about food, and it is not a book that takes place in France. It is not, in fact, even a book that many people like, seeing as they found no likable characters in it. With this, she elicits appreciative laughter from the mostly senior audience. Then she begins to read. In my seat I shiver with delight, listening to her round tones and alto voice as she enunciates the words she’s written as though she remembers the love of her craft, which she poured into this book. Her rich English accent makes me think of hot chocolate with cream and chili. I could listen forever.

All too soon, the bit she is reading is over and she takes a seat, concession stand drink in hand, one leg crossed over another at the ankle. The questions are good, about blueeyedboy (though because the book has many twists, not much can be discussed at the risk of spoiling it for those who haven’t yet read it) and herself, too, and she answers them freely and off the cuff, intermittently taking sips through her straw. What we learn is that she is not at all like Gloria, a horrid woman in blueeyedboy, and that she does not like to be asked which of her characters she is. (This is understandable. People have this very interesting need to make books at least somewhat autobiographical regarding the author, which confounds me because it strips away the author’s very purpose, which is to imagine outside herself.) We also discover that a certain red evokes the smell of chocolate for her (thus she calls it chocolate red), and that she dislikes and ignores when people tell her she must write a certain way about certain things (e.g., about food and France).

Listening intently, I realize with chagrin that I’ve been a very naughty and negligent girl having written a review directly after finishing blueeyedboy far too late at night and having read others’ reviews to feed my own. It’s irresponsible and unintelligent, and even kind of cheating, and I’m deeply ashamed. Of course the point was not to like the characters. Of course there’s deeper things going on than I allowed myself to process, having devoured the book as quickly as possible in preparation for this event. In light of having met Joanne and hearing her speak her mind, in remembrance of the brilliance of her other books, and thinking about the book in retrospect, I feel diminished, and look forward to racing home to delete or vet my review, as cowardly as that is. The things is, I’m still not sure what exactly I would change, even though it’s not a good review.

I find myself also desperately wanting to chime in during the Q&A period, to get in on the conversation, to protest that indeed blueeyedboy does have food in it, and lots, as a matter of fact. There’s biscuits and pies and rotting vegetables and fruit and likely more I don’t remember, not only the vitamin drink. Joanne can’t help but include food, it seems (and I certainly don’t object). In fact, what I’ve noticed about all her books is how sensual she is: how prominent are the senses of taste and touch and smell and hearing. Colours also factor in many of her books, right from her first novel, The Evil Seed. These are thesis topics, methinks, and though it’s been ten years since I graduated from uni, I think I may yet pursue them.

One audience member asks her question in French, and without hesitation Joanne answers her back also in French, with an impeccable accent. Of course I knew she could speak it, but for me to hear it, and for her to have the opportunity to do it here in Ottawa seems meaningful to me. Even more so when the audience obviously understands her answer.

Finally, it is time for her to sign our books. The lineup isn’t long but, sadly, neither are there many in the audience. “Better than Glasgow,” Joanne said to me earlier, where only two men showed up, and one of them to escape the weather. Nothing could be worse than Glasgow, she said wryly, though apparently she still managed to enjoy herself.

Gamely, Joanne signs all five of the books I’ve brought and takes two more photos with me, unfortunately neither as good as the one that got away. She accepts the Yorkshire Tea as well, but only one teabag to sneak for breakfast next morning. Much to my pleasure she remembers the story of my copy of The Evil Seed, which was out of print until recently and is still unavailable in Canada. I’d written her about how I acquired it a few years ago, and now looking at it she tells me that only 1000–2000 copies had been printed, and only in the format I own. I have in my possession a rare book indeed, and now it’s signed. Too bad it’s also stamped by the Nipissing Public Library.

Joanne Harris and me

I can’t stay for the viewing of Chocolat, as much as I would like to. I am happy at this event, with Joanne, mingling with other people who appreciate good literature. I’m in my element, and I know in my heart this is where I ought to be on a regular basis, among authors and good books, and people who love to read. But I am staying with a friend, who eagerly awaits my report on the evening.

Amid moviegoers trickling in, I leave the theatre and Joanne, stepping out into the cool night regretfully but also exhilarated, and at the same time somehow knowing I will meet her again. Joanne Harris is not a woman one easily forgets, her magical writing not so easily put aside. I feel certain that her next book, or perhaps the next after that, will have me not on the train but rather boarding a plane for Yorkshire.

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At last! My leatherbound classics have all arrived safely. They came slowly, though I have to say that did allow me to appreciate them all the more as they trickled in (they came in 8 shipments! Plus no customs fees that I’ve seen). They really are gorgeous. I was afraid they might not be as thick as they looked or as nicely put together but that is not the case. I can’t wait to properly feast my eyes on each one of them! They’re lovely. I feel as though I have new friends. As I experience each one, I’m thinking of the work that went into them.

The first impression I had of each was the fragrance of bonded leather and the wonderfully designed cover, usually with a sort of woodcut design and an inlaid illustration in the centre. YUM. The pages have either gilded or silvered edges and a ribbon bookmark completes each volume. I can’t even believe, as I go through them, that I got four of these for free!

There is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Other Stories, illustrated by Sir John Tenniel, an English illustrator whose pictures for Alice date back to 1865. Those are the illustrations I’m most familiar with. The latter bit of the title of this particular volume excites me: I’ve actually never read other stories by Lewis Carroll! On a side note, I was in Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire last October and there is a carving in the choir that they say may have inspired a bit of Alice in Wonderland. Isn’t that cool? I regretted not taking a photo then but I had suddenly felt ill and escaped the church shortly after. (Maybe it was the church, because minutes later we stopped in a tearoom where I had lapsang souchong tea and shared a slice of decadent carrot cake with my sister and mom, and I felt wonderful.)

Next we have Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, illustrated by no other than Arthur Rackham. I love Arthur Rackham. I have a copy of Dicken’s Christmas Carol and also Barrie’s Peter Pan and a few other books illustrated by him as well. Anyway, this volume is also beautifully designed and the endpapers made me sigh.

The Arabian Nights edition is translated by Sir Richard Burton, ethnologist and linguist, among many other heroic things, which makes it one of the oldest translations of the stories in existence, but it does read a little like the King James Bible. Yet Burton has an adventurous life story regarding his visits to Mecca, and that’s what captivated me in the first place. There are other translations I’ve read and would like to read, particularly that of Husain Haddawy, but I have read this one before and liked it. And the illustrations in this book are flat-out gorgeous. Soft and colourful and wonderfully interpretative.

Jane Austen’s Seven Novels is a very pretty volume, and nicely laid out inside. I love having the books all in one place as well and look forward to reading especially Northanger Abbey, which was my favourite of hers that I’ve read. I admit to not having read all of them, and that makes me all the more excited to read them in this book.

For years and years I’ve wanted to read Sherlock Holmes, and here they all are in one scrumptious volume, but as with many of the classics, I tend to put them aside for more contemporary fiction because I don’t want to fall behind. The classics have been around for ages, so there’s no rush. Perhaps that’s an odd way of thinking, and I certainly didn’t always feel that way. There was a time when I devoured classics like they were going out of style (ha!). I’m still interested in Conan Doyle (has anyone read Arthur & George by Julian Barnes? Great novel about Conan Doyle) and I still look forward to spending many a night ensconced in mystery. I’ve been craving mystery lately.

I read H.G. Wells in high school, when I was going through a Piers Anthony, Ray Bradbury, Wells, Orwell, etc. phase. I love all this stuff, which may surprise people, and I haven’t read all of Wells, though I’d like to. Now I have the chance. The cover and design of this book that comprises seven novels reminds me of the old paperbacks I used to read that sold for something like 60 cents when they first came out. Nostalgia really enhances a reading experience!

I have never read Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey in full. Bits and pieces yes, and I have an illustrated children’s version of The Odyssey. I don’t have a clue why I haven’t read them in their entirety; the stories are fascinating. I absolutely adore mythology and the times of Troy. You should see my three-volume Bulfinch’s Mythology, illustrated by Giovanni Caselli (who lives on Malta, where my parents live, with the largest personal non-fiction library on the island. Cool, eh?).

Now, I’ve been intrigued by Dante’s Divine Comedy since I read some of it in university but just haven’t made time for it. It’s not exactly light reading. But this incredibly lovely volume, famously translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and decorated with Gustave Doré’s 1867 engravings, is incentive to make time, believe you me. Boy, I have my reading time cut out for me…

This might surprise some people but I really enjoy gothic literature. I haven’t read a ton of new stuff, and I don’t think Twilight counts, but Poe stands out in my memory as one of my favourite gothic authors. We dissected Poe in university till all the fun was gone out of what I was reading, so I look forward to reading these stories again, long out of university, just for the atmosphere and tales themselves. Studying what was really going on behind the writings I read actually fascinated me for the most part, but for Poe, I just wanted pure darkness and horror, mystery and macabre. Delicious. Just like this thick volume, whose endpapers feature artful blood splatters reminiscent of a Pollock painting.

It will come as no surprise, then, that Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles haunt my shelf. I can’t wait to sink my fangs into this tome. Of course I’ve read these impressive books before, but I’m thinking their particular silver, black, and red leather casing this time will lend an extra special thrill. These might be ones I read aloud to Colin, an upgrade from the Twilight series he actually listened to me read.

Speaking of blood, Gray’s Anatomy is a huge and beautifully illustrated book. The cover is stunning, in my opinion. I’ve actually never seen GA before (the book, not the show, though I haven’t seen the show either). Mine is the 15th edition, and includes photos, diagrams, and drawings, and has kept my attention for quite a long time already. I’m not a huge fan or reader of non-fiction but the human body has always fascinated me. When I was little, I spent hours upon hours with my nose buried in my parents’ medical encyclopedias, which had clear pages with painted bits of our insides that when overlapping another page made the picture more complete. (I wonder what happened to those. I’ll have to email my parents.) When I took kinesiology, biomechanics, and fitness assessment in university, I used to pour over my textbooks just for fun. I memorized all the veins, muscles, bones. The way our bodies operate and how complex we are is nothing short of miraculous, in my mind. While I am sure I’ll never read Gray’s Anatomy cover to cover, I’m certain I’ll find myself exploring the matter-of-fact, simple descriptions in the interest of better understanding and appreciating myself and humans in general.

Truthfully, there’s not a lot to say about the Complete Works of Shakespeare. There’s not really any embellishment to the text, though the cover is very rich and attractive. I wanted this one because of how beautiful it is, but also because my Riverside is so full of marginalia from when I studied that it sort of ruins the reading.

Of course I took photos of the books but most didn’t work out and my stupid batteries are dead and the camera sucks and I’m a terrible book photographer. Also, the words on the backs of pages shows through, oddly—the paper isn’t that thin and they don’t show when you’re just reading. Strange. Anyway. I’ll put the ones I saved all in a row here instead of throughout the text so I don’t have to worry about trying to squeeze them in by their relevant paragraphs (if you click on them, they’ll get bigger and a little better). I wish you could see these books in person! Birthday money well spent.

Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales

Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales

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Every now and then, a publishing headline will catch both my eye and my sympathy as a proofreader. This time, Penguin Group Australia has been forced to reprint a pasta cookbook after one recipe called for “salt and freshly ground black people.”

For more, read the BBC News article that was released on Saturday, April 17th.

Obviously, mistakes like this are easy to make. God knows how many times I’ve typed odd slipups like this, and thank goodness I catch most of them before I publish or print. When I worked at a publishing company, we used to keep notebooks of such errors we caught, and then on bad days (regrettably there were many) we’d pull out those notebooks and have a good guffaw or two. I wish I could remember them all, because they used to have us in stitches. Perhaps not oddly, the only one I recall was an easy-to-miss goof: “Take the time to medicate” when it should have read “meditate.” No kidding! we spluttered. I imagine that one had an impact on me because we all needed to do that while working there.

Anyway. I agree with Penguin on this error (lucky for the proofreader, they found it forgivable): it’s an easy mistake to make and miss (the mind works in interesting ways and on several levels), and an honest one. Hardly something to get one’s knickers in a knot over. Honestly, I have to admit, I laughed aloud.

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Last night I finished devouring The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which was excellent and the review for which will come soon, possibly even tonight. I’ll be buying the second in the series, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, in trade, to match, if I can manage to wait that long….

And since I have some time before editing again, and since Jessica Grant is coming to Belleville (!) and I’m going to hear her read, I’ve started the next book on my list, Come, Thou Tortoise.

Here’s what I just emailed my friend about CTT:

Dear Kath,

I have just started Come, Thou Tortoise and am on page 6 and though it might take a little getting used to the style [as it did for McCarthy’s The Road, which I totally loved], there is something about it that’s already got me teary. And it has nothing to do with the jam I accidentally smeared on page 5. (I thought of you. I’m glad I’m not borrowing your book. If I were I’d only be allowed to read it in safe places [away from food and tea and dogs, etc.], and I always read books in unsafe places.)

Now I’m off to work, book in hand, clutched to my chest. Work is definitely an unsafe place to read, for several reasons (never mind the food). But a girl’s gotta be true to her nature. And this book is fast proving irresistible! It is endearing. It is excellent to the power of 60.

PS. Thank you, bookseller girl, for giving me two bookmarks with my purchase that exactly match the cover’s colours! A nice touch.

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Despite petitions against Amazon’s proposal to physically expand into Canada and fear of how it would affect Canadian bookstores in particular, the Department of Canadian Heritage has approved the move. Amazon will be building a distribution centre here after all.

When I first posted about this, the discussion centred on whether or not Canadian heritage and booksellers would suffer. According to Heritage Minister James Moore, however, Amazon has agreed to promote Canadian products and keep the country’s interest in focus.

For a detailed look at the rationale behind the DCH’s approval, and for more on this story, see Quill & Quire’s Amazon Approved for Canadian Expansion. It looks to me as though we have a giant on our side. I sincerely hope everything happens as expected and we will see Canadian literary growth rather than further decline in our favourite industry!

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I was just surfing the Internet for some publication info on an early 1900s book I have when I came across this gorgeous set I must add to my collection. Barnes & Noble or not, I don’t care. I really love the look of these leatherbound classics and can totally imagine all of them prettily sitting in an impressive row on my shelves. My God, my heart is pounding just looking at them. I’m not joking!

The funny thing is, I did buy the Narnia one, twice, one for my mom and one for one of my sisters. At least, it looks the very same. I found it at Costco and had my hubby buy the copies for me while I was in England (I was afraid they wouldn’t be there when I got back). I wanted one too (I’m not averse at all to having several editions of a book), but it had to go on my list. And now so are the rest of these classics!! I didn’t know they existed.

They are inexpensive as well but I can’t have just one. I love sets and I especially love complete works in one volume, and I especially enjoy when they use original illustrations or versions or the best translators. Arthur Rackham? Reprints of first editions? Be still my heart!

Oh, I wish someone would buy the entire collection for me right now (well, perhaps minus the Wicked books. I can do without those)! I mean, what if they disappear, as so many books on my wish list have? [Gak! Already Narnia and HCA’s Fairy Tales are currently unavailable!] Oh, I feel quite desperate about it. Obsessed, really, dangerously close to pulling out the credit card. Anyone have a rich relative they can lend me, just this once? C’mon, there’s only 15 I want! And for a limited time everyone gets the membership price of $17.98!! Let’s see, that’s only about US$270. [$233.74 to be exact, without the two I want that are unavailable; I checked by adding them all to my cart, you know, just to see how it would feel.] Really, is that asking too much??

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Michael Crummey’s Galore, one of the books featured in my Beautiful Books post, won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Fiction. Hooray!

Other accolades so far include:

FINALIST 2009 – Governor General’s Literary Awards – Fiction
FINALIST 2010 – Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Choice Award
FINALIST 2010 – Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award

Here’s a description of the book in Crummey’s own words, which is more interesting than the jacket version:

I’ve spent a lot of time inviting myself into other people’s stories over the last four years. I pored through archival documents and community histories and collections of folk songs, looking for material I could adapt to the little universe I was shaping out of my own sense of Newfoundland. Among many other things I found defrocked priests with a weakness for drink and Protestant women, a witchcraft trial, peculiar baptism rituals, storms and shipwrecks and merwomen, a lunatic who claimed he was God’s nephew and the rightful heir to the English throne, a four-legged chick, mummers, merchants, livyers and bushborns, cures for toothache and rheumatism and a dozen other ills, sectarian brawls at polling stations, English evangelists and American doctors and a visionary political reformer with a dirty little secret, an alcoholic opera singer, love and murder and heartbreak and revenge. And, of course, a man swallowed by a whale.

All of these things found their way into the book, in one form or another. But it’s the ubiquitous story of the dead rising from their coffins I kept coming back to as I was writing Galore, it was the charge in the novel’s engine. So much of Newfoundland’s story seems tied up in it, the unlikely resurrection after all hope has been lost. Loss and heartbreak and grief, yes. And otherworldly resilience in the face of it. Rebirth. Wonder.

That’s from the Random House site, where you can find a description of the novel, reviews of the book, and read the rest of Crummey’s comments here.

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I’m not a graphic designer, or a designer of any sort. I’m not an artist, either, so I don’t know what technically constitutes good design, though I am sure of what I like and what works. I pay attention to the design of everything, whether how something was engineered or how things like fabric and wallpaper and furniture and books present themselves. Mainly, I simply appreciate beautiful things, and for me books are very much among them.

Since I’m a bibliophile as much as a bookworm, most of the time I don’t just buy any edition of a certain book. I buy the one I think looks and feels best. I notice a book’s cover, and I often buy because I’ve been attracted to that first. If it’s a hardbound book, I like to take off the dust jacket and look at what’s underneath and how it is bound at the spine (I notice the endpapers too). I love when books showcase a designer’s creativity and ingenuity.

If it’s trade paperback, which is my preferred form (though clothbound is certainly yummy), I am attracted to matte covers, like Penguin’s Eat, Pray, Love (though the layout design and typesetting and print quality leaves something to be desired), for example, and I pay attention to the spine design and how the book falls open (hopefully the binding is not too tight and the book falls open nicely. Usually these have soft paper, too, or deckle edges).

The cover, finish, binding, paper, and layout design all have to complement the story well to create a fulfilling experience for me. The bonus: if the book smells great. I adore my hardback copy of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Everything about it is perfect. And the fragrance, divine.

Here is a random sample of book covers I find attractive.

Evokes the mood well
Another woodcut-y silhouette and a design trend I can't resist
An excellent read too. This cover really captures the characters and story
Like the story, delicate and beautiful
Can't wait to buy this one!
Another sea monster one!
Love the simplicity and style of this
I love Penguin editions!
Another Penguin, another silhouette cover
Just like Atwood, this cover is CLEVER!
The UK design is much nicer than my edition
A design trend I love
Seeing a pattern here?
Similar to the ones above. Love the colours in this
Love the colours and the design. Suits the story well
I can't wait to read this one
I think I like this one better. UK edition

Speaking of Penguin, I could post a million of their covers here. Their clothbound classics (above) would look stunning as a set on my shelves, as would their other sets, particularly their Dickens one and the Bill Amberg set. Gorgeous! Coralie Bickford-Smith is Senior Designer for Penguin Books and man, can she design books! She is quite possibly my favourite (I absolutely love everything on her site and covet all of it—I can’t choose), though I also absolutely love award-winning Canadian book designer (and author! Have you read the End of the Alphabet? It’s a gorgeous book designed by Kelly Hill, and a lovely story) C.S Richardson, and might prefer him. He designed a few books I own (not just the covers) The Bedside Book of Birds, and the now infamous Nikolski.

For more lovely covers, check out The Book Design Review’s posts here.

Lastly, here is one more cover that doesn’t particularly fit in my list above but I have to include it because I think it’s very funny:

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If you haven’t already heard the great debate on Canada Reads today, you must! Today is the big day! Find out the “magic of Canada Reads,” and how the winning book was chosen, though as Jian says, “everyone’s a winner.” Certainly I believe that all five books are selling well right now, and probably began a great sales run when they were first announced.

Let’s get started. I’m sipping lemon ginger tea and savouring a piece or three of my ever favourite Lindt dark chocolate with chili, listening to the first votes, even though I already know who won (WOOHOO!!!!! Yes, that warranted that many exclamation points. I almost exclaimed aloud but restrained myself. I’d been trying to avoid checking all day while at work but I happened to get an email with the winner in the title).

So! An interesting situation. My heart is pounding as I hear two votes against Nikolski, but since the tie-breaker is between Good to a Fault and Nikolski, to my mind the outcome is obvious. And…yes, Good to a Fault is out. Listening to this as though I don’t know the outcome, I’m thinking about how The Jade Peony once again slips by and again I’m on tenterhooks. Will that book survive simply because there aren’t strong enough feelings about it in these debates? Not to say it doesn’t merit a win; it’s an excellent book and Wayson Choy is a writer who knows his craft.

Anyway, enough of that, since you already know who won. Truthfully, there’s not a lot of commentary to work with this time around, and today’s debates can’t have been much longer than ten minutes or so, so I’m unsure if I’ll find enough to say (those who know me would laugh at that!).

The first question was: Which author constructed the most vivid images and used language the most beautifully? Now, Wayson Choy is an excellent writer, as I’ve said. His books are on my shelf and when I heard him read from Not Yet at the Hart House lectures last May, I was smitten. He writes…well, beautifully.

But I lived much more vividly through Nikolski, I have to admit, and this isn’t about me having been to Montreal (about a gazillion years ago) and never having been to Vancouver. The images are so concrete I was actually in these places. I could sense the dark of the streets when Joyce snuck out at night, the atmosphere of the bookshop, the fish shop; I could smell the fish, as Vézina said, and the Book with No Name; I could feel the warm wind through my hair as Noah’s mom drove across provinces and when Noah and his son went for a romp on the beach. From the various chaotic residences to the weather, the damp of the Montreal torrents, the cobbled narrow streets—I don’t know, I was just so present in every chapter, every place. It’s been a while since I read the book now and I still remember details quite vividly in my mind.

The second half of the question is tricky because, of course, Nikolski is translated, so you’re sort of pitting Choy and Lederhendler against each other, rather than Choy and Dickner, because no matter what, you just can’t translate literally and there are such things are good, bad, and better translations. This is the question of all the debates over the last five days that stumps me the most. I can’t commit to an answer, as much as I want to say Nikolski stunned me with its writing and is thus the winner here. But that’s perhaps not fair; I read that book more recently, and I’d have to go back to The Jade Peony to see how I feel. Their styles are so different, as Jian mentioned, that it’s very hard to compare them. Both are spare and poetic but…different.

Next, Jian asked: Which of these two books do you feel is more relevant for people across Canada? Now here’s THE question! I am genuinely surprised that several of them feel The Jade Peony, it documenting so specific an experience, though Sam’s comment about the book asking (and telling) what it means to be Canadian, and that our search for identity is perhaps what best defines us, was pretty validating. I’ve said as much several times, though I’ve given that more thought lately and feel that Canadians are perhaps stuck on this interminable search when all along there are indeed concrete things across all our experiences, whether we’re natives or immigrants, that define us as Canadians, people residing in Canada, that we can perhaps stop lamenting that our identity is elusive.  For this question, the defences for Nikolski were once again bang on. Simi’s comment that because Nikolski is more widespread it might appeal to more Canadians mirrors what I think.

Again, and this time quite masterfully, Vézina defends the main criticisms of Nikolski—that it’s hard to follow, you have to fill in the blanks, it’s too “thin” and unsatisfying, etc.—by saying you need to read it as though you’re looking through a box of family photos (he mentioned this yesterday but it bears repeating because it’s so excellent), and when he says Nikolski is an “impressionistic book” I want to jump up from my couch and laptop and hug him. Yes! What a beautiful way to describe it. I would also add that there are several threads throughout the novel that keep it strung together, so it’s really not easy to get lost, which is why I was puzzled by the comments that suggested otherwise. There are the common themes of each character: Nikolski, searching (from searching for computer parts to searching for identity), finding, belonging, history, geography. There are the common ancestors and family members, particularly Jonas.

So endearing, Vézina’s heart-thumping nervousness before they conduct the final vote! He actually got me all teary with his reaction when his book won. Didn’t he sound as though he might cry himself? Of course, I’m ecstatic. Nikolski was my choice when I first saw the lineup of books, since I’d read it before they were announced, and I am genuinely excited and happy for Dickner (and Lederhendler). It makes me doubly happy to see it win on both Civilians Read and Canada Reads 2010.

Which would be a great place to end this post, but since the discussion turned to what the panelists learned from their participation in the contest, we’re not quite finished.

To begin with, I have to say I don’t love the amount of strategy we saw in the voting over the days because, yeah, I want the voting to be done on the merits of the books and keeping in mind the ultimate goal of Canada Reads, but it is indeed a contest, a battle of the books. It’s all in “how to play the game,” as Jian said, so I suppose there will always be votes against books simply to keep them out of the running. I’m conflicted about this, and when votes like this are made, I feel it somewhat cheapens this sort of contest. But again I concede: this is pretty much Book Survivor.

At the end, Perdita said she learned “Don’t trust anybody.” I want to say you can’t take any of it personally, of course, but as I’ve mentioned before, reading is a personal, intimate, and emotional activity; how do you not take it personally? After all, you’re defending the book you chose. Any digs against it seem somewhat to criticize your choice as well as your ability to champion your book. Hence the revenge votes.

I think this is why I was so worried about how the debates would go, so worried that the best book (of course, in my opinion!!) might not win. Yet all that aside, Nikolski did indeed emerge triumphant, and there’s truly nothing like that sense of satisfaction and validation. I can sort of relate to how Vézina felt, but then I picture Dickner, who I’m sure has been following along. Imagine his joy!

Party tonight? Mais oui!

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Phew, what a long, busy day at work. I’m finally home, finally fed, and finally ready to post commentary on Day Four of Canada Reads. Once again, I’m not recapping but assuming you’ve already heard the discussion.

These debates interest me immensely, and as we edge closer to the number one book, I find myself unable to confidently predict things as they’re currently going. There are several surprises and it seems things can go any which way—and didn’t they today! A “Canada Reads shocker,” said Jian, when Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees was voted off. I have to agree with Simi Sara about the reasons for voting off the book, but Perdita had an interesting point about choosing your vote based on the merit of the book rather than going with strategy (though I have my doubts she followed that herself. She was, after all, plotting revenge, and in trying to survive, I wonder if she did indeed always vote with her heart). Because this is a contest, how does one balance the two?

Great reasons why they chose their books this time from Simi Sara and Samantha Nutt, but not so much, I thought, fromVézina or Felicien. I’m worried, frankly, about Vézina; at first I was undaunted by his somewhat challenged command of English but wonder now if it will affect, as some have suggested, his ability to effectively defend Nikolski, the book I think should win. On the other hand, most of his points have been full of insight and it’s obvious he appreciates and understands the book as it is meant to be read, at least in my opinion. He sees the layers, the way in which it was written, the multiple themes, the richness of it. It works for him much in the same way it works for me, and I wonder if this is chiefly because he himself is a writer.

Based on what’s been going on during the discussions, and on the way the panelists voted this time, I think Simi Sarah might vote off The Jade Peony next, since that one too has had its day and she wants to see newer books and authors be allowed to shine. Perdita’s reaction to her book going down was not surprising, and though the result was rather unexpected, she said afterward she thought this would happen, right from the beginning. Her reaction was strong, which is okay, of course. You know she was struggling with the loss, but I wonder, knowing her background, if she felt this way about losing because of her absolute passion for FOYK or her competitive nature. Perhaps both.

The questions disappointed a little me today because, like yesterday’s question on class division, I couldn’t really see how the answers would put one book forward before the rest as that which Canada should be reading. The first question was: Which family resonated for you most and made you want to continue reading? I think the second part of this question was the most significant in terms of the contest.

What was interesting here were the different definitions of family: from Sam’s mention of family being who loves you, whether you’re related or not, to the nuclear family in Good to a Fault, to the “non-family,” as Jian called it—the extended family members of Nikolski who never met (though there were also the families of Noah and his mother, Joyce and her grandfather and cousins, etc., and the dad linking them all like a thread over time and place.

Nikolski was criticized for not having the family members meet, but I have to say, the characters not meeting is precisely what made me keep reading, because I kept expecting them to meet and I kept wondering how they would; I absolutely loved that they were so close and had no idea. It’s the same feeling you get, somewhat akin to excitement, when you see this in movies, when you as the reader or the viewer know how close they are and yet they have no idea. It makes you want to stand up and point, to shout, “Turn around, look!”

The tactic of not satisfying the reader’s desire for them to meet, as I’ve mentioned before, was in the end for me a clever move by the author. Meeting would have been too neat, too predictable, too happy an ending, and the journey, the process, is really what the book is about, so tying off those loose ends would make the theme come to a close. Instead, I like the fact that I can imagine them continuing their searches for meaning, family, belonging. In spite of the magic realism in the book, this element of related characters not meeting felt like real life, and got me wondering how close I may ever have been to meeting someone I know but without knowing it. Ships in the night, I said in my first review, and I think Rollie too described it as such in the first or second session as well.

In answer to the criticism about Nikolski‘s family members not meeting, Vézina had an excellent point, and I admit to not having thought of this while reading the book: we don’t know our neighbours, we don’t know the people we are even related to; we are a much more private society and less apt to get to know the people around us. This is a timely comment because I just read about this in the Toronto Star last week (and of course I can’t find the article now!).

When The Jade Peony was brought into the debate here, Sam again championed the book with evidence from the text. I love this, and I think she’s the only one who’s really done this rather than generalizing. It makes me lean toward her as my second choice. All through the debates, I haven’t been getting a good, solid sense of Good to a Fault, which I think is important if they’re trying to convince Canada it’s the book to read.

As to which book didn’t work well on an emotional level for the panelist, here is where I got slightly frustrated, but mainly because I can’t relate much to anyone’s answers. I was really disappointed that the “thinness” of Nikolski was brought up again—that just won’t die! It’s too strange to me, seeing as I feel the total opposite. More and more I lean toward Vézina’s defence that it’s the reader, not the book, that’s the problem in this case. This “hard to follow” complaint, or that it’s a novel you have to work at, is totally weird to me! I didn’t have any trouble following it, I certainly didn’t find reading it work, by any stretch of the imagination, and I didn’t find I had to “fill in the blanks,” as Jian said and even Vézina agreed. Although filling in the blanks, I must point out, is exactly what each character strives to do for the duration of the novel, and in many ways! They try to fill in their history, the locations of others, the voids in themselves, the missing pieces of relationships, the very apartments they live in. I mean, there are “missing pieces of the puzzle” (courtesy of SS) because there are supposed to be! Why do we always want fiction to be so neat and tidy? I just can’t even get to the point of seeing what Nikolski is being accused of. Vézina’s “family photos” simile at this point in the debate was bloody brilliant.

The final question before the vote was: Which book is likely to polarize readers; which is a love it or hate it book? My immediate answer was Nikolski, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I’ve already heard it described as such. But when Simi Sara mentioned Good to  a Fault, I thought perhaps she was right. The Jade Peony, I think, wouldn’t elicit such strong reactions, and hasn’t in the debates; people would either find it their thing or not, but I don’t think they’d hate it. However, both Nikolski and Good to a Fault brought out quite strong opinions about either characters or format, whether or not they could relate, etc. If Gen X was still in the running, I suspect that one might have come out as first choice in answer to this question because it’s so different. I find that in general about Coupland—people either really love him or really don’t.

And then all of a sudden, all too soon, it was time to vote. Again, I have to say I have no clue which way this will go, but I think Nikolski has taken a significant hit today, though there were some positive comments and some good defence. It’s just that all three books left seem almost on equal footing, that perhaps there are no favourites right now. Will there be another upset tomorrow?

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Sigh. How can I do this in a timely fashion when I have to work during the day?

So far I’ve been giving mostly just my thoughts on the Canada Reads discussions, and now that I’m back to work and can’t blog till later in the day, I’ll keep doing that, since by now you’ve heard or watched the debates and read all the other blogs that have been documenting the Canada Reads process, such as Keepin’ It Real, Inklings, That Shakespearean Rag, and Roughing it in the Books.

To start: I don’t think too many people are surprised that Gen X has been voted off, though I thought that might be the second to go and Good to a Fault would be first, only because I’m starting to wonder if everyone read it, it’s so little mentioned. Interestingly, the same thing happened on Civilians Read: Gen X was voted off first.

I really liked the first question of the day: Which book other than your own had the strongest sense of time and place for you? I can see that answer becoming an entire paper because of how much those two concepts affect not only a story in general but also particularly the characters in different ways. Not surprisingly (because it often does seem to get left out), Good to a Fault wasn’t mentioned, though once Jian brought that up, the discussion was full of incite, didn’t you think?

For me, Nikolski comes first to my mind because of the theme of geography, because of the nomadic experiences, of travel, and how each character quite significantly passes through space and time and explores his or her life, location (even in guessing the locations of others), and history. When I think of each character’s upbringing and history, which takes up quite a chunk of the book as a whole, I think people would be hard-pressed to say Nikolski didn’t explore those strongly enough to give them a sense of where we were, even if we were being pulled from place to place. I especially got a very good, concrete sense of Montreal in general, but also of each character’s various residences and places of work. I think Dickner was actually quite aware of space and time as important elements of a story, and I would say that these are two major themes of the book.

I enjoyed Sam’s answer to this question, too, especially when she pulled out specifics from Fall on Your Knees, like Rose telling Kathryn she smells like the sea, to give a sense of placement. I was hoping for more of this, actually, a bit more specifics, in order to better appreciate the authors’ writing and prove the arguments. Sam’s comments in general on this third day are quite good; it feels as though she’s ready to pull out the stops. In general, as the debates progress, the arguments have become so much better than when they first started that I felt myself pulled in every panelist’s direction! The comments are well articulated for the most part and more in-depth and reflect careful consideration.

The second question was: How much does the Canadianness matter to you and which would you say was the most Canadian book? As you know by now, this raised the temperature in the room and I could feel myself getting a little hot under the collar, but mostly from frustration. I think this is a very difficult question because, as Simi Sara said, how one defines Canada and Canadianness is mainly based on personal experience and is subjective. Books have been written on this topic.

But I keep wondering every time this question arises: Is there nothing that we can all agree is generally Canadian? Can we really not define Canadianness? My friend says that the definition of Canadian often ends up being “some form of white, middle-class Anglophone mainstream notion,” and I’m not sure I agree with that, since, first, one of the initial things people bring up is our multiculturalism. And regardless of whether or not they feel particularly caring about Tim Hortons or the Montreal Canadiens, at one point or another immigrants do tend to participate in “Canadian” culture, whether they’re choosing Molson Canadian or attending hockey games or joining the Mounties.

In the same breath as we say Canadianness is an elusive thing we generalize that Canadians are polite, or that Canada is multicultural and thus the fabric of the country is made up of many different fibres. Canadianness is diversity—which Perdita was quick to pick up on and try to use to her advantage. Though I’m not convinced that her points, like that of transgender, illustrate Canadianness so much as the human condition.

Personally, I feel I have a grasp on Canadian literature, its special and specific tone, what makes it different and discernible from the writing of non-Canadian authors, but would others agree with me? Do I even agree with myself? Would we have all sorts of definitions of Canadian literature depending on who was asked? What about the way we can get a sense of regional fiction—how different prairie writing is from maritime writing, from west coast texts and Ontarian fiction? And within those regions are another layer, that composed of Canadian immigrant authors. Because all writers are human and we first and foremost write about the human experience, can there really be such thing as Canadian writing, leaving out, if we can, the authors’ heritage and the location of the stories?

So then, how does one answer the second half of the question: Which book was most Canadian? Initially I had thought Nikolski, once again, for various reasons (the various nationalities in the book, the nomadic experience, the immigrant experience, the sense of Canadian cities and landscape), but Sam gave such a good argument that, not for the first time, I was rooting for The Jade Peony—enough to say I think it’s the best example of Canadianness, of the common Canadian experience. At the same time, I’m asking myself, how are Canadian immigrant experiences and examples of writing different from American or other ones, leaving city aside, if we can? What makes the immigrant experience especially Canadian? (Has anyone read A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Guo Xiaolu? It tells the story of a young Chinese woman who moves to London. It’s brilliant.)

The next question was: Which book sends the message of class division the most? I was unsure about the point of this question, except that the issue did arise more than once from the discussions. Though it’s a universal thing and I’m still not sure how the answer would actually make one book better than the next in terms of the book Canada should read, it’s not an entirely invalid question, since the question is something that seems a common thread in many Can lit. novels, particularly ones written by immigrants.

And then, already, it was time to vote! Does anyone else feel each day as though it’s too soon to vote? I want more discussion beforehand! I’m enjoying myself and feel there is so much more each person could contribute but can’t because of time constraints and giving everyone a chance to express their answers. I wish the program could be an hour instead of just half. The whole thing feels as though it’s going way too fast! Am I the only one who feels that way?

Tune in again tomorrow for Day Four of the debates, and to find out which was the next book to be voted off. My guess is Good to a Fault. (Sigh. I feel so badly for the authors! Are they listening to this? Are they on tenterhooks? Do they think this fun? Do they sit there wishing they could say something or cheering on certain panelists?)

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