books

Canada Reads, Day One

Since you can watch or listen to the first day of the Canada Reads competition on the Canada Reads site, it seems redundant for me to give a play-by-play of the program. Instead I will try to add to the discussion.

First off, I still struggle with the choice of books for the competition. Because I believe the point is to recommend the best book of five for the nation to read, I would really prefer to see new Canadian books being given exposure, you  know, so the program could do double duty rather than rehash any hype that preceded. Three of the books for this year’s program were not even from this decade, which means, as one of the panelists said, they’ve “had their day.” One tendency I’ve noticed among booklovers, whether I was working in the library or at Chapters or reading blogs and discussing books with friends, has been to stick with the tried and true successes but often pass off the new voices of Can lit. Only Good to a Fault and Nikolski were relatively new. That said, however, perhaps this would be a different competition altogether, then, and maybe something I could start here on this site instead.

Okay, onto Day One and my impressions. My first surprise was that Nikolski became genderized—the women found it “thin” and masculine, while the men liked it. I’m surprised for two reasons: like Perdita I judge a book by its cover and not once did it occur to me that it might be a man’s book! I loved the colours, the design, the sort of whimsy of it. It’s what made me pick it up in the first place. Also, in the reading of it, I didn’t think of the content as “masculine” or more male centred. There are at least three strong women characters and the story is not something that might be labelled masculine in the same way Hemingway, for instance, has been.

As for the book being “thin,” that comment completely raised at least one of my eyebrows! Contrarily, I thought Nikolski quite multi-layered and rich, ripe with meaning and symbolism as well as substance in characters and details. It was an easy book to escape in. If there’s any sense of “thinness” perhaps it’s being confused with his economy of prose, which I believe to be skilful and suited to the content. In that sense, I agree very much with panelist Michel Vézina that perhaps it is the readers who are not bringing enough to the book, which I’ve hinted at before. Sometimes we want things to be a little too neat, and Dickner doesn’t allow that, which is another reason I loved the book.

Aside from Nikolski, because by now you know my bias, I found the discussion just a tiny bit disappointing. I dislike that everything must be so rigidly timed (I understand why but wonder if they can’t simply allot more time to the program? After all, this is a noteworthy contribution to our arts culture). People are thus challenged to say what they want in an almost frantic manner and consequently often don’t come out with very meaningful or strong commentary before they’re interrupted. At least, so it seemed to me.

However, this was only the first day and everyone is just getting warmed up. I’m hoping for more from each panelist, especially from Pemberton, who has so far been somewhat disappointing, with comments like that referring to the “poor grammar” in Good to a Fault, and a bit unfocused and seemingly more concerned about his performance. However, I think he’s a good representative of Coupland’s Generation X, and I do love his enthusiasm and hope he is able to harness it in an articulate and intelligent way.

As always, my fear is that this will become too personal rather than as objective as they can manage. I mean, I understand how hard that is, since reading is such a personal and emotional experience, but I hope the panelists can stay focused on the goal of defending good Canadian writing and telling us which contributes best to our culture and why, which I think should be foremost, though CBC has labelled this a “fight” and the idea is to be the best at convincing the audience your book is the one to read.

But I keep thinking back to my university days, when we discussed the many elements and layers of each novel, when we learned what Canadian literature means, when we explored and proffered perspectives. I know this is as much a contest of the panelists’ skill as it is of the worthiness of the books, but I hope that they can balance that with the novels’ content to put forth a really good debate series.

Regardless of which book I think should win now, I’d say all five are significant contributions to Canadian literature and, as such, should be read. For more detailed discussion on Day One and for her apt editorial comments, see Jen Knoch’s post on Keepin’ It Real.

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2 Comments to “Canada Reads, Day One”

  1. JK

    Great contributions to the discussion, Steph, as always. I think the gender divide in Nikolski is purely coincidental. There’s no way any part of that story is particularly masculine. And I think Vezina hit the nail on the head. Nikolski is probably the book that will yield the most if you put effort into it.

    It is one of the challenges of the competition to combine reality show theatrics with intelligent literary discussion. But despite everyone’s desire to “win,” I really think it ultimately comes down to the book people liked second best (assuming a reasonably adept champion) because once they’re voted off, they’ll put their weight behind their next pick.

    As for the discussion, it was a little cursory, but I think the likes/dislikes is valid. If we’re picking books for the average Canadian reader, these kind of general impressions are helpful. That said, hopefully we’ll get down to a more indepth discussion of the literary merit of the books tomorrow.

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  2. Jen, great point about what it ultimately comes down to. I keep forgetting that once a person’s book is voted off, they still have a say!

    This too is good, and is giving me another perspective; “If we’re picking books for the average Canadian reader, these kind of general impressions are helpful.”

    You’re right. I think I’m a little desperate for good bookish discussion and also feeling nostalgic and then imposing those feelings onto what I want for the contest. Which is sort of ironic, seeing as I keep referring to the point of the debates! :)

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