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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I’ve posted about this upcoming contest already, but for those not yet in the know or who may not be paying attention to the date, Canada Reads begins today! Five panelists will discuss five Canadian novels and ultimately decide which book Canada should be reading now.

Although there are several views on these debates and their purpose, I’m personally hoping the discussion will focus on the books’ significant contributions to Canadian literature and less on technical aspects of each book or personal preference. I’m also rooting for Nikolski, even though I think each book is worthy of the competition, and you’ll know why when you read this post and this one.

CBC Canada Reads can be heard March 8–12 on CBC Radio One at 11:30 am and 7:30 pm (3:30 and 8:00 pm NT).

The CBC Canada Reads site’s latest post also lists live chats, Facebook, and Twitter options for those more digitally inclined. And they give a little shoutout to your truly as well! Thanks, Kimberly!

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Nominees for the 2009 First Novel Award have been announced. The prize is $7500.

And the nominees are:

  • No Place Strange, by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
  • Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant
  • Goya’s Dog, by Damian Tarnopolsky
  • Diary of Interrupted Days, by Dragan Todorovic
  • Daniel O’Thunder, by Ian Weir

The winner will be announced in April in Toronto. All finalists get a $750 gift certificate redeemable at

NB: Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize in 2009. It won the latter. I haven’t yet read this book but from the sounds of it, it’s worth checking out!

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I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep. —Yann Martel

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book reviews

Discussions on the Canada Reads book choices are underway, even though the CBC debates haven’t officially begun. I’m finding myself stimulated and wanting to be totally involved, and in reading reviews and listening to these discussions and commenting on other book blogs, I’ve also found myself quite dedicated to Nikolski, as much as I enjoyed a few of the others.

I’m wondering, having read quite a few uncertain reactions to the book, if people aren’t sure what to do with it. It doesn’t fit as neatly into the group of books as the rest of them, being first of all translated (though this isn’t the first translation on Canada Reads), which brings up the question a friend of mine asked about pitting dissimilar books against each other and thus comparing apples to oranges. Canada Reads has even included poetry in the group of books before, and this did leave me puzzled at the time. But I think the debates are not so much about technicalities as concepts and contribution to culture.

In addition to the translation aspect, the literary style of Nikolski seems to be leaving some readers feeling unravelled and lost. Which I have to say is exactly the point, in my mind. The style reflects very well the theme of the book, which is one of the things that make writing so wonderful. Think of how a poem’s structure needs to carefully marry its subject and theme. In the same way, Nikolski‘s looseness, the plot’s so-called elusiveness, mirrors the overriding theme.

In other words, the plot is probably feeling elusive for people at least partly because of how multi-layered the novel was. In the end, I think the book is about searching, belonging, finding purpose, forging identity, elusive things to begin with. I can think of so many other Canadian books with this theme, particularly one I read not too long ago: Nino Ricci’s excellent Origin of Species, also multi-layered and rich. Hmmm, I would have liked to see that book on Canada Reads, actually!

I believe the lack of a satisfying conclusion, another point often brought up, was also purposeful and it works for this book, especially in the sense that literature reflects life. Our stories continue. Any strong conclusion would have seemed too abrupt for me, I imagine. And like many readers, I too greatly anticipated the connected yet parallel characters meeting and when they didn’t it was disappointing, but also rather clever of Dickner. It might have been just too neatly done up for me if they had met. We have enough of that in movies. I’ve finally come to the point at which when authors don’t give me what I expect or want, I like it!

I have to say, this book is the one that sticks out most for me in the selection of Canada Reads books. The others are probably quite well-read by now, except perhaps Good to a Fault, and if there’s any book I would say Canada should be reading of the bunch—which I believe is the main point of the contest, to get Canada reading—it’s Nikolski. The style and prose are masterful, in my opinion, especially exhilarating because this is a debut novel, but the book also really captures the depth of what it apparently means to be Canadian—searching for identity and belonging. And the fact that it’s translated from the French offers up that extra little bit of Canadianness.

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books, reading

KIRBC Civilians Reads panelists

Canada Reads is a well-known CBC program. Perhaps not quite so well-known yet is the Canada Reads spinoff Civilians Read, dreamed up and hosted by an excellent booklovers’ blog called Keepin’ it Real Book Club (KIRBC). This time around (they’ve done it before), five panelists, each pulled from the publishing trade, battle it out over the same five books Canada Reads will begin debating on March 8 on CBC Radio ONE: Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy, Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, Generation X by Douglas Coupland, and Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott. I’m excited about this list of works, mainly because so far I’ve already read 3 of the 5.

As I type this post, I’m listening to a podcast by the KIRBC gang that is exciting because I feel as though I’ve rediscovered a lost piece of my life I’ve long missed. It’s been eons, about ten years or so, since I’ve had any sustained stimulating discussion about Canadian literature among other booklovers, and not only stimulating but intelligent—which you generally do not find in your local bookstore or library club. Wait—let me rephrase that lest I offend anyone: at least, I haven’t found that in the book clubs I’ve joined…and left. What I’m listening to now is the kind of discussion I want to hear in Biblio. It’s very good, well done, but not too serious—a perfect balance. Laughter abounds, and you can really hear the energy in the room. It makes me jealous, makes me wish I was there, but I feel woefully unprepared for such things now, being so out of practice.

Have a listen to the KIRBC podcast (at about 6 minutes in, I think, there’s a little blank air but keep listening, it will catch up) and see what you think. Their discussion has me pondering about not only who might win (I’m rooting for Nikolski, but the Jade Peony is a fave as well), and how best to defend a novel, but about how we might perpetuate this kind of appreciation for literature—particularly Canadian, which to my mind merits our support—by constantly changing the way we appreciate it, by how we voice that appreciation, and by keeping our expression of it interesting, unique, imaginative, exciting, and most of all tempting.

I’ve been thinking about this for Biblio, so that I don’t have a lame book club and so that I can watch those deserving books we discuss and promote fly out our wooden doors, beautifully wrapped in paper and twine, ready to be devoured with a cup of tea.

But I think the KIRBC has a fine head start (especially on unique: check out their YouTube pre-game confessionals in the bathroom, the only room with a closed door!). Stay tuned for more each day as they continue their debate!

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Animal Farm. Cover Simon Tomlinson

I’m a huge fan of Penguin books. I love the stuff they print and I love their covers, and I’m especially attached to that age-old cute penguin and the orange. They’ve established quite a household icon, Penguin has, but now they’re turning some of the creative work over to you.

In my literary travels, I came across My Penguin, a site that provides Penguin copies of certain titles for 5 quid (it’s a UK site. I can’t find anything like this under Penguin Canada). The catch is, the covers are blank. You design your own cover.

Magic Tales. Cover Natasha Cheti

I have to say this gets me pretty excited. Doesn’t it sound like fun? And I can totally imagine a section in Biblio but also my own home of special edition Penguins designed by inspired readers. Unfortunately, I don’t know that you can actually buy the books that have been designed and it seems they can no longer accept covers for their gallery. But I don’t think that stops you from buying a title or two of your choice and designing your covers, though.

In my previous post, the Alice cover was illustrated by Design Monkey. Take a look at the other covers on My Penguin here and here. Many of them are excellent! I have too many favourites to mention.

If I was any type of confident artist, and I assure you, I unfortunately have no skills, I’d definitely illustrate my own book cover. Perhaps for the Grimms’ Magic Tales or Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray or Carroll’s Alice. Which would you choose?

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bookshops, tea

Alice cupcakes by Natalie Bode

One of the things I can’t wait to do is host tea parties at Biblio, whether for children or adults. When I first conceived Biblio in my head, my idea was that each room would have a literary theme, and the kids’ room was Alice in Wonderland (sci-fi and fantasy was a hobbit room or somewhere in Middle Earth. I may still do this). I was on the prowl after that for anything literary that I could decorate with or use. Shortly after I wrote my ideas, I came across the Alice in Wonderland Cardew tea set in Winners. At least, part of it, anyway.

I was so excited I bought the 6-cup tea pot, the cookie tray and another different tray, the creamer and sugar pot, and a 2-cup tea pot, which I later gave to my sister. I imagine serving tea from this set to the children celebrating a birthday at my shop or having a tea party with friends. The party-goers will sip tea and bite into decadent ridiculous-looking cupcakes, and I or one of my staff will read a good story aloud—perhaps the mad tea party chapter from Alice? Maybe they’ll all even get a literary goody bag before they go!

And now Chapters and Indigo are selling the very same Alice in Wonderland tea sets, with cups as well, in anticipation of Tim Burton’s exciting Alice in Wonderland film. I don’t prefer the mugs they sell so I went online to find the kind of teacups and saucers I want, and I found them. Three different ones I like, actually. As soon as possible, I’ll nab as many sets as I can.

Design Monkey's Alice

On top of the tea parties families can privately book, I’ve thought of having an open one, as well. For this, the window display will showcase different copies of Alice in Wonderland (I already have three editions! Read about the history of this book here) and perhaps a crazy-looking marzipan cake and Alice figures, and playing cards strewn about, and invitations too.

On purpose, I have never used my Alice in Wonderland tea set myself, not in the 3 years I’ve had it. It’s for Biblio only. Every day I glance at it sitting on display in the kitchen and I have to smile. I can’t wait to set that very important date for Biblio’s grand opening. Perhaps I’ll have Alice in Wonderland invitations, entreating you not to be late!

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Manguel’s personal library from the NYT h/t Alan Jacobs

My library is not a single beast but a composite of many others, a fantastic animal made up of the several libraries built and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life. I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t have a library of some sort. The present one is a sort of multilayered autobiography, each book holding the moment in which I opened it for the first time. The scribbles on the margins, the occasional date on the flyleaf, the faded bus ticket marking a page for a reason today mysterious, all try to remind me of who I was then. For the most part, they fail. My memory is less interested in me than in my books, and I find it easier to remember the story read once than the young man who then read it. — Alberto Manguel

Isn’t this picture of Manguel’s collection gorgeous? I’m so jealous! And look, he even has Harry Potter on his shelves! (You can guess all you want what that might mean about him, but instead read this. It’s excellent. Manguel is a man after my own heart and I feel sure he and I would get on famously.)

For a while I had a page on this site where I had planned on posting pictures of readers’ bookshelves. Unfortunately, I haven’t received any photos and I decided to scrap the page to conserve space. That may change as more readers visit this site, though, or if I find a better theme. The voyeur in me really wants to see your photos!

Since I’m into my own library and books, I’m incurably curious about what others are reading and particularly what their own collections look like. When I visit someone’s home, that’s where I gravitate to: their books. I take note of their bookcases, whether shelves on milk crates, Billy configurations from IKEA, antique shelves, or contemporary and unconventional shelves. Then I peruse the collections. I can spend hours doing this, I must confess, though I have only been rude enough to do it at my sister’s house in England.

BBC News Magazine has an article today called “What Does Your Bookcase Say About You?” Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s had the idea of posting people’s personal library photos. I’m also not alone in being interested in other readers’ libraries, of course. Peter Sandico is a bibliophile who feels the same way I do. He has a theory, as well, about what our books say about us. While I wholeheartedly concur that books are an extension of the self, I can’t agree that I display my books because I want people to think a certain way about me (that never occurred to me!)—I display my books because I’m in love with them and enjoy being surrounded by them, and adore looking at them and browsing through them, and because I firmly believe that books make a room. I also agree that our books and the way we shelve them say things about us.

I display my books neatly; they line up nicely at the edge of the shelves. This might be from my Chapters or library days but I think I’ve always done it. It tells you that I like order and neatness, which is very true—er, in most cases. But I also have let go of the control a bit (as in life in general) and whereas I used to organize my books by nationality (Canadian, American, Indian, and so on, though children’s were just all together, and then even alphabetically), I’ve become more lax.

Generally, all the books an author has written are together, but otherwise I pretty much put the books where they fit best on the shelves. Sometimes I care about how they look beside each other; thus I have a bunch of beautiful fat novels together (Kristin Lavransdatter, Anna Karenina, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Historian, etc.). No matter what, though, my little library is completely for me. I feel so strongly about my books, my dear friends, that I couldn’t care less if anyone judges me or my choices negatively. I like what I like for me, not for anyone else—books are after all highly personal belongings—though I admit it is lovely when people compliment me on my collection. It makes me happy.

What do your bookshelves look like? Are they neat and organized or piled willy-nilly on top of each other? Do you have uniform shelves or mismatched ones? Do you put other things on your shelves besides books?

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I meant to post this earlier but didn’t have time, so we’ve missed a day, but February 21–27 is Freedom to Read Week.

Here is what the Freedom To Read site says about this:

Freedom to read can never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Books are removed from the shelves in Canadian libraries, schools and bookstores every day. Free speech on the Internet is under attack. Few of these stories make headlines, but they affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they choose to read.

Exercising his freedom to read. photo: Graham Lavender.

How does this make you feel? I get angry reading it. I personally don’t believe anyone has the right to tell me what I can and can’t read, should or shouldn’t explore when it comes to books. Literature is a reflection of life, creativity, imagination, essentially what it means to be human on this planet.

As such, it is our duty, I say, to read as much as we can, educate ourselves, and even form our beliefs and ability to defend those beliefs through what we read. Take what you will from what you read and toss out the rest you don’t want. But don’t deprive yourself of good literature simply because you’re told you’re not allowed to read it. Sticking your head in the sand or allowing someone that particular power to censure stunts your growth and limits your awareness of the world and its events, philosophies, and creativity around you.

This week in particular, but always if you like, exercise your prerogative to choose what you want to read. Think for yourself. Pick a book from the challenged and banned books list and read it. Better yet, speak your mind about it here in the comment section! Perhaps in the future we can get a spinoff on Canada Reads going, with readers defending their favourite challenged or banned books. In this way you’re not only thinking for yourself but supporting authors and their freedom to write.

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The shortlists for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, awarded to promising new voices and/or exemplary new works of English-language fiction from the Commonwealth, have been announced. The following are those representations only from Canada and the Caribbean. The winners will be announced on April 12.

Mark Collins, director of the Commonwealth Foundation, had this to say about the prestigious award:

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is distinct and unique in that the books that win often have strong insight, spirit and voice about the incredible diversity, history and society of the Commonwealth. The Prize aims to reward the best of Commonwealth fiction written in English and in doing so, spots rising talent and creates new literary figures from the Commonwealth. This is the Prize to watch for tomorrow’s best-sellers. [source]

I’m always excited about shortlists and award winners; rarely am I disappointed in the chosen books. If there’s anything I appreciate, it’s fine literary fiction. On this best book list, there are a few that have been nominated for other major prizes, like the Giller and Governor General’s Award, as well. That’s promising! A hearty congratulations to the authors, as well as a huge thank you for writing these books and contributing to our culture. Without literature of this calibre, we would certainly be lost.

Caribbean and Canada Best Book:
The Winter Vault
by Anne Michaels
by Lisa Moore
by Connie Gault
Goya’s Dog
by Damian Tarnopolsky
by Michael Crummey
The Golden Mean
by Annabel Lyon

Caribbean and Canada Best First Book:
Under this Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
Daniel O’Thunder by Ian Weir
The Island Quintet: Five Stories by Raymond Ramchartiar
Diary of Interrupted Days by Dragan Todorovic
The Briss by Michael Tregebov
Amphibian by Carla Gunn
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This week I received my second birthday gift in the mail. How exciting that is! My birthday isn’t till February 20th (I’ll be 36), but the post, of course, doesn’t know that, and better to mail something ahead of time than too late. (I sent a special edition to my sister in England for her birthday [January 20th] and it still hasn’t arrived.)

My family and close friends know that they can’t go wrong with giving me books, even if it’s for every holiday and my birthday. So one of my sisters sent me Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which has been on my wish list since I read it: I kept giving it to people and never bought it for myself after I gave away my own copy because I felt it would somehow come back to me. Well, it did; it came unexpectedly in the post with a lovely card. I was ecstatic! I love it when people know me so well.

The second gift was also a book, beautifully wrapped in quality paper with a large classic print and encircled with twine. It too had an artful card that accompanied it. Both my sister and my friend are art lovers and they appreciate paper and books as much as I do. The book was Gunnar’s Daughter, by Sigrid Undset, author of the 1928 Nobel Prize Winner Kristin Lavransdatter (which is a fantastic substantial saga, one to hunker down in the winter months with, preferably with Cloudberry tea and on a sheepskin).

I think there’s nothing more rewarding, more satisfying, than receiving a gift that reflects a person’s true understanding of you. If books and paper and art are your thing, may you be forever blessed in the receiving of them, as I am.

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