book reviews

A while ago I posted about impulse buying Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie from our local grocery store. The cover is what got me first, but also I hadn’t delved into a mystery in eons, though I can’t think of why. Growing up I swallowed mystery novels whole, from Encylopedia Brown, to Trixie Belden, to Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators, to Agatha Christie and others.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of six mysteries (the second book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, was just released), and is Alan Bradley’s first novel. With only fifteen pages, Bradley attracted Doubleday and now has several other publishers on board for the series. Those same fifteen pages, all he’d written at the time, won him the acclaimed British Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger Award, and the book has gone on to win many other accolades since.

Now 70 and residing in Malta, where my parents live (had I the cash on hand and the free time, I’d visit my parents and have a chat with him! He’s actually on beautiful Gozo, Malta’s sister island), Bradley has previously authored two non-fiction books—the controversial Ms. Holmes of Baker Street (which apparently suggests Sherlock Holmes was a woman!), and a memoir called The Shoebox Bible. After reading Sweetness and feeling a sort of inexplicable kinship with Bradley, I’m sure I’ll read at least his memoir.

Literature is blessedly speckled with headstrong, intelligent, and spunky young girls who are both brilliant and hilarious, and I can’t tell you how much this thrills me. (Another debut novel that promises such a character is Mathilda Savitch, by Viktor Lodato. It’s on my wish list!) But none I can recall, from Harriet the Spy to Nancy Drew, compares with the clever, imaginative, and irresistibly lovable eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an “aspiring chemist with a passion for poison,” who possesses a level-headedness that shames me and a unique way with words (not to mention, though I’m just about to, her own fan page!). Very soon after I began reading, I was laughing aloud, admiring the turns of phrases and original similes, and thoroughly enjoying our narrator’s extraordinarily mature yet believable voice. At the same time as Flavia is wise beyond her years, Bradley reminds us of our young character’s age with incidences of sibling rivalry, getting into trouble, adventures with her “sidekick” bicycle (affectionately named Gladys), and poignant vulnerability.

Although I thought the mystery well set up, I admit there were several times I was pulled out of the story, being for some reason hyperaware of the author behind the writing. This had nothing to do with Flavia possessing knowledge and a vocabulary beyond her years: I fully accepted that, since her background, independence, and two “weird sisters” lent to the story in this respect, and I very much enjoyed learning from her about chemical compounds and their effects. I think it may have been the fact that I felt things sometimes a tiny bit contrived, as they can be in mysteries. Things might unravel just a little too neatly, or the investigator comes far too easily to conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere. On the other hand, this may have been purposeful: there were indeed times when I felt, along with Flavia, sure of myself in deducing what was going on only to be pleasantly surprised.

I was thrilled, because of my love of England, that the book was set there, in a small village called Bishop’s Lacey,which reminded me of several places I visited in North Yorkshire last year. The particularly English vocabulary and expressions made me smile, and although it is possible for this story to be placed elsewhere, even in Canada, something about it being set in 1950s England gave the novel a distinct flavour that worked very well in terms of history, atmosphere, characterization, and of course subject, since the mystery centres on two valuable English stamps, particularly the Penny Black.

Another thing I very much enjoyed was that the novel was cleverly spotted with all sorts of vagueish literary and cultural references I actually got, endearing me all the more to the gloriously well-educated Flavia (and the author!) but also making me feel quite proud of myself, of course.

I’ve already sung Sweetness‘s praises to several friends, and I’ll sing them here as well. This is a first novel worthy of the attention it’s commanded by being memorable and sweet, intriguing and funny. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I have to say, is deliciously rich.

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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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what I brought home

All this book talk got me in the mood to go shopping, particularly second-hand book shopping. I needed to drop off some stuff at Value Village today so I thought I’d just run in and take a peek to see what they had. Almost an hour later, still in Value Village, I was standing with a small pile of books in my hands. Surprise!

What I brought home: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which I’ve been meaning to buy forever and the beginning of which I feel I’ve read a million times standing by the shelves in various bookstores; Testament by Nino Ricci, because I absolutely loved The Origin of SpeciesThe History of Love by Nicole Krauss, which I read when it first came out and which I really enjoyed and would like to read again; and lastly, a book of translated (from the Czech) folktales called The White Princess, by Mária Ďuríĉková. I have always adored folktales and have French, Russian, Tibetan, and more collections of them on my shelves. This is a clothbound book printed and bound in Czechoslovakia, in very good condition, almost fine even, and the illustrations by Miroslav Cipár are totally awesome. I think they might be watercolour.

The White Princess, clothbound 1988

What I left behind, only because I think I can find better editions: The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James (I gave my copy to my mom. Has anyone seen The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw? It’s creepy and I love it!); The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which was one of my favourite books when I was a kid and which I checked out of the library countless times; Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde by RLS (nope, I still haven’t read this!); and The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, which has been on my list since I long ago copyedited a book that made a study of it.

From The White Princess

Sometimes I don’t know which kind of bookshopping I prefer. I’ve always really enjoyed buying new books and I imagine Biblio will be a new-book store. I prefer things to be organized, and to not have to take ages to sift through piles of books. I guess it depends on my mood, really. When I lived in Hamilton, my ex and I would map out all the second-hand shops and take a day exploring. The haul we’d bring in those days! The treasures we found! It was so much fun to pour over some of them in the cafés we’d stop in for a break or at home before putting them on the shelves.

I’m happy with my finds today and am eager to get reading. Have any of you read these books? What did you think of them?

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Oh  my God, we’re heading to the vote! As I’m listening, I’m actually on tenterhooks. From the discussion, as I mentioned elsewhere, Good to a Fault seems invisible in the debates and mostly absent from the discussions, and thus is the one, for me, that should be the first to go.

They’re voting…Auugh! And an untimely phone call from work!! On my day off! [cursing]…

Well, okay, I’ve just heard that the votes were handed in and they’re not going to release the result until tomorrow. Cliffhanger!!

So my initial thoughts on today’s discussion, then: better discussion today! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Though it’s hard to sort out comments when they talk all at once. Still, the enthusiasm is infectious. I’m really loving Michel’s comments, both in the confessionals and during the competition, especially his point about what a writer once told him: that perhaps the most important words are the ones the author decided not to write. How true with Nikolski!

He was also right in bringing in “humanity and garbage,” two very relevant or current topics. Aside from the threads of fish and geography, which I think are other significant topics, humanity and garbage will be good ones to talk about, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say on them. As I say this I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by the themes in this book and the volumes they speak. So I loved Michel’s very valid question about what constitutes “deepness” for literature, going on yesterday’s accusations that Nikolski was “thin.” I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

Based on Ghomeshi’s questions, I have to admit that I answered with Nikolski each time: my favourite character, the most (currently) inventive writing, etc. Honestly, I’m trying to be less biased and more open to the other books, which as I’ve said before I also enjoyed, but I keep coming back to Nikolski. It ended up perhaps surprisingly winning on Civilians Read; will it surprise here, too?

Sam’s 30-second defence of the Jade Peony was also impressive. I did love the book very much (I love all of Wayson Choy’s writing) and if Nikolski doesn’t win, the Jade Peony is my second choice. I also loved Sam’s answer to the question regarding the point of Canada Reads and whether or not books have had their day. I agree with her most, I think, when it comes to this.

What’s interesting are the preconceived notions the panelists took in about the books but also we as readers have brought to the competition regarding the books because of their past reception. I’d really love to know how our expectations have changed or if our perceptions of the books have, based on the debates thus far. To see how Charlotte Ashley’s have already changed, see her Inklings blog post on Day One.

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American online giant Amazon has requested government approval to establish operations here in Canada. In consideration of this, the Canadian Booksellers Association has a few things to say and has asked that the government deny Amazon’s request. The press release states:

CBA President Stephen Cribar argues that Amazon’s entry into Canada would detrimentally affect the country’s independent businesses and cultural industries: “Individual Canadian booksellers have traditionally played a key role in ensuring the promotion of Canadian authors and Canadian culture. These are values that no American retailer could ever purport to understand or promote.”

CBA urges the Canadian government and the Department of Canadian Heritage to continue its support of our unique cultural perspective by placing reasonable limits on American domination of our book market and rejecting’s current application.

With Biblio and other indie shops in mind, I firmly stand behind the CBA. Do you? We’re urged, then, to support them and the preservation of our Canadian culture by writing to our MPs and ministers of culture and industry, and even to the prime minister. I’m conflicted about this, wondering what the point might be, especially since Harper seems too busy for this sort of thing, but one never knows. Better to do something than nothing.