Canada Reads Day Four

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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