Canada Reads Day Five

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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