Monday, February 28, 2011

Reader's Diary #689- Evan Hunter: The Last Spin

Two guys sitting across from one another, a gun between them. Could be a schlocky Hollywood set up, could be a great story premise. Knowing that Evan Hunter was a screenwriter, it would be easy to assume that his story "The Last Spin" is the latter.

Certainly there are elements of schlock, especially at the beginning, with its over the top dialogue, dripping machismo attitude, and melodramatic opener, but somewhere along the way, as the story becomes increasing tense, it also becomes increasingly tragic, and more importantly, it becomes a parable. "Screw the clubs!"

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reader's Diary #688- Sherry D. Ramsey: Little Things

Fans of Terry Pratchett would probably enjoy Sherry D. Ramsey's short story, "Little Things." I am not a fan of Terry Pratchett but what's this? I kind of, sort of, half, maybe enjoyed Ramsey's "Little Things." Perfect title, by the way, not just for the connection to the story, but also for my lukewarm enthusiasm for the tale. It's a fantasy tale. And for the hundredth time, I'm not really a sci-fi, fantasy guy but once again, they're about the only group of authors who put their stuff online and seem to really get that it's a great way to connect to readers and introduce them to their work.

"Little Things" is about a sorcerer's apprentice, who like all sorcerer's apprentice's I suppose, wants to get ahead. However the story is mostly about the feud between the sorcerer and another village magician. I especially liked the setting and Ramsey's exploration of the etiquette in this fictional world. It's a huge faux-pas, for instance, to undo another sorcerer's spells. However, if you don't consider yourself a fan of fantasy, the familiar set-ups get annoying. How come fantasy worlds have so many throwbacks to the middle ages and yet people are named Zipnax and Albettra? When I'm cranky, I find it really hard to think fantasy is anything but silliness. When I'm in a better mood I see them more like fairy tales for adults, but I guess my mood is somewhere in the middle at the moment. Such is February.

(Did you write a post for Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reader's Diary #687- Albert Canadien: From Lishamie

The long term impact of Stephen Harper's residential school apology in 2008 remains to be seen, but I have to wonder if it was partly behind the reason why I find myself the owner of not one but two residential school memoirs written this past year (the other is Alice Blondin-Perrin's My Heart Shook Like a Drum). Are there more being published? Or am I just more aware?

Of course when most of us who didn't go, and didn't have relatives that went, think of residential schools, our mind immediately goes to the stories of physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse. Certainly the media has highlighted many such tales, but Albert Canadien's memoir helps show the more chronic, corrosive side. My dad (a white Newfoundlander), as many in his generation would tell you, went to a school where teachers would think nothing of smacking a student in the back of the head if they weren't on task, sticking a dunce cap on a child and poking them in the corner, giving a child a belt, physically and verbally disciplining and intentionally or otherwise, humiliating them. My mom tells a story of getting an inch long welt across the back of her neck from a piece of chalk fired from across the room when she whispered to her friend. Schools back then weren't great for anyone, and I guess for some, they aren't great today, but that's getting even further away from my point. What is my point? When you look at isolated pages from Canadien's book, you could make the case that things weren't that bad for Albert Canadien, or at least any worse than other Canadians in non-residential schools; he got cracked across the knuckles by nuns with soup ladles or keys and watched his friends get kicked or humiliated by teachers. Horrible yes, but not out of the ordinary. There were even some fun days: trying skis for the first time, fishing, and so on. However, it's in the larger context where Canadien excels.

Albert Canadien, a Dene man originally from Lishamie, Northwest Territories, and now living in Yellowknife, recounts being taken away from his parents at the age of 7 to Fort Providence to attend Catholic school. If my parents saw or experienced abuses at their schools, they still went home at the end of the day. Canadien did not. If my parents disobeyed the rules, they at least new what the rules were. Often, especially at the beginning before learning English, Canadien did not. The teachers at my parents school were of the same culture, Canadien's were not.

Some of the grey nuns (Canadien's teachers) were nice people, some were not, but it's the ones that meant well and missed the mark that I found most depressing. In one particularly poignant scene, Canadien recounts a day when the nuns decided to do something fun for the kids: pick a king and queen for the day. Boys put their names in one hat, the girls in another and two names were drawn. This couple was honoured with makeshift crowns, given a special seating at the dining hall, and lavished with attention. The nuns were practically giddy. The kids on the other hand were mortified. Those not picked were relieved and felt sorry for the chosen two, who were being stared at and paired unwittingly with a member of the opposite sex, who for the most part the nuns had been keeping separated prior to this day. What did royalty mean to these kids? They're almost irrelevant to most Canadian kids today, let alone to Dene Canadian kids back in the 50s and 60s, most of whom hadn't even heard of fairy tales before attending residential schools. This discord between the nuns' intentions and the sorry outcome may not be one of the more horrific stories you'll ever hear connected with the residential schools, but something about it really saddened me.

At other times Canadien's account seems too factual, nearly void of emotion. Very often his feelings needed to be inferred. However, in one short paragraph, he hints at why this might be and arguably the style of the book itself becomes another tragic reminder:
...being forced to follow a structured life under the strict watch of the priests, Sisters, Brothers, and being afraid to question anything or show emotion, did have an affect on me. [...] It is one of the legacies of residential school life.
From Lishamie is a highly controlled, very detailed memoir, but traces of emotion and Canadien's warm personality manage to seep through. We should be happy that he managed to hold on to that. He has my utmost respect.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Great Wednesday Compare #8- Lady Macbeth VERSUS Nurse Ratched

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Tom Sawyer VERSUS Lady Macbeth), with a final score of 7-0 was Lady Macbeth.

Interestingly, I had a few people comment that the last match-up was a good one. And yet, poor Tom Sawyer didn't get a single vote. My favourite compares are when there are a lot of votes and it looks like it could go either way.

Tom Sawyer is one of the few classic novels that I'm positive I've read, in its original form, as a kid. Others, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and Ulysses, I think I may have read, but in all likelihood, were illustrated adaptations. However, I remember the book itself with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It was illustrated, but definitely with the entire story intact. I also remember wondering what in the heck "whitewashing" was in the famous fence scene. Was it paint? Cleanser? Some sort of bleach? It took me years to finally figure it out. Other than that, I remember little about the book or Tom the character.

Vote in the comment section below before Feb 22nd: Who is the better character?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reader's Diary #686- Margaret Atwood: Untitled corpse/doctor story

I admit it, I'm pressed for time here. But as I've sworn to review at least one short story per week, I've gone looking for flash fiction, micro-fiction, something that gets my synapses firing. And I've really struck gold. This comes from a 2006 edition of Wired magazine: 6 word sci-fi stories. By now there's a good chance you've heard of Ernest Hemingway's 6 word masterpiece:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
But how about 6 word stories from Orson Scott Card? William Shatner? Alan Moore? This is a pretty interesting list of authors, and the quality of the stories ranges from-- okay, a headline doesn't constitute a story to wow, it's amazing how 6 words can be a complete tale. None approach the genius of Hemingway's, but some come close. And while some authors seem pre-occupied with a punch line, some of the fun ones still work. One of my favourites comes from Margaret Atwood:
Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.
See? Like Hemingway's story, there's an actual character and plot. The beginning is missing, but that's the mystery that makes the story appealing. What the hell is the doctor doing with those corpse parts to make money? Delightfully twisted.

I wrote one a while ago that I'll share:

She binged on life, then purged.

Feel free to add your own below.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brag Post

It happened at some point on Wednesday: a quarter of a million hits. I saw it coming for some time and wasn't sure what sort of post I'd do. A recap? A few goals for the future? A list of thank-yous? For a while I thought I'd use this milestone to announce a new blog: A BookMineSet blog without the Blogspot extension. But despite my five years of blogging I still lack any tech savvy to set that baby up, so here I am. Still at home at It's okay, it's comfy here and after 250, 000 hits, the doorbell's still working so for now I'm staying put.

Funny story about hits. A couple of days ago, I got an email from my friend Barb. Barb is one of my earliest friends made through blogging by the way, and my family and I will visit her for the 2nd time in March. We're very excited. She blogs over at Bad Tempered Zombie. But don't let the name fool you, she's quite kind. It's true she's walking dead and she'll eat your brain, but she's also uber-awesome. Check out her blog. Anyway, Barb wrote to tell me she'd been checking her own stats counter lately and noticed a few hits from Halifax from people searching for "'John Mutford' jerk." I guess after 5 years of blogging you make some friends, you alienate others. Oh well. To those I haven't alienated, thank-you all.

Now, what does a litblogger do to celebrate? Why, he gets some brand new bookshelves of course. Actually, the shelves are unrelated to the stats counter, but I'm just trying to cram as much boasting into one post as I possibly can. And besides, the shelves don't really count as boasting since I had very little to do with them other than staining. The actual construction was done by a close friend of ours whom we've met since moving to Yellowknife. Actually before Yellowknife, my family and I moved so much I didn't really care for bookshelves. Bookshelves meant keeping a lot of books and a lot of books meant a lot of boxes to pack and a lot of boxes to pack meant a lot of time and money. But we love it here and in October we also found a house that we really love. All was left was the bookshelf...

And that there'd be me, reading beside my spanking new book shelves. Thanks Simon, they're even better than I could have imagined.

Not the most eloquent post I've ever written, not the worst either. But it's another post. And there'll be another, and another, and another...

I promise/warn you.

Smiley emoticon.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Canada Reads 2011- Day Three, Here Lies The Body of Leslie Moore, No Les, No Moore

Yay! It's negative reinforcement Christmas!

Cut the program down to just 3 days? Continue using celebrities? Knock out Essex County on the first day? Don't worry CBC, all is forgiven. The Birth House didn't win. Whew, that was close.

And while I did initially predict The Best Laid Plans would win, I was way off with the rest.

I had a lot more to say today but I made the mistake of checking out Charlotte Ashley's take over at Inklings. Honestly, she captures so many of my feelings about the program today that I won't bother repeating most of it. Check out what she has to say, including her suggestions to improve next year. I will comment on some of her points though, especially the one about the Canada Reads "myth," as she calls it,
Canada Reads is a cause in support of literacy. It is a way of getting more Canadians to read, or Canadians to read more. What’s more, it gets Canadians to read the right thing; books that are good for us, that raise awareness about minorities, history, and democracy. Canada Reads is a responsibility: a directive handed down from our Mother Corporation that will get us all on the same page. And since it has to be read by everybody, it’s important that the Canada Reads winner be easy, short, non-offensive and “Canadian”. To fail to choose such a book will set literacy and nationalism back a hundred years.
Very well said. But I'd like to add that to some extent a myth of self-importance is necessary. According to the Canada Reads website, the chosen panelists are told only to "select the book they think Canadians should read." It doesn't specify whether or not this means "essential" or "accessible" or "responsible," "educational," "entertaining," "inspiring," or "challenging." Yet year after year the Canada Reads panelists will argue their mandate almost as much as they argue their books. I've read a LOT of commentary about this year's books and panelists not being up to the same standard as past years. They were frustrating yes, but we're suffering Saturday Night Live syndrome if we think this lot was vastly different. Debates didn't have any more depth in the past (well, maybe 2 days worth more depth but the panelists can't be blamed for that), strategic voting was always going on (though perhaps no one has been as honest and open about it as Georges was today) and they've always taken this way too seriously. But if they didn't take it serious, the program wouldn't be as entertaining as it is. To fight for a book, when they have to realize no book is going to please all Canadians (note the CBC directive above doesn't use the word all), they have to pretend it's of the utmost importance. Otherwise it's just a book club that we aren't allowed to participate in.

Debbie Travis said today that "[Canada Reads] is not Survivor." The Survivor comparison, of course, has been bandied about since the inception of Canada Reads. Critics of the program use it as an insult and a good many fans of the program defend against it with all they can muster. Survivor is a low-brow... oh, dare I even say it without spitting... television show. They know Canada Reads is much more. It has noble causes (see Charlotte's myths above) and it's about books, not uncleverly disguised Doritos ads and bikini-clad low-lifes eating sheep testicles in Borneo for money. They argue that it's more akin to an insider view of how the Giller is chosen, debating about quality literature and so on. But the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's a reality show, no doubt about it. And that's in the entertainment sense of the phrase, not the documentary sense that critics wish the term meant. I do find it entertaining. I do like reading the books and picking my favourite. I do like picking heroes and villains from the panelists. I would like more discussion of the quality of the books, I really would, and I would like my favourite book to always win. But that's Canada Reads. There's plenty of room for improvement, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Not always getting what we want keeps it interesting (and what keeps us screaming from the deepest depths of the blogging world to the lofty peaks of the Twitterverse.)

Back to today's show for a second. I'm glad they addressed the anger that listeners expressed about Debbie Travis's not having finished The Best Laid Plans. She said that she finally did last night, but I don't know if I believe her. I also find it surprising that so many people care. It's not as if she didn't attempt it. If that was the case, then people should complain-- it was the whole reason she was invited to appear the program, to read and debate all 5 books. But she tried The Best Laid Plans, found it difficult and frustrating to read and threw it down. I think it was a pretty damning indictment and of all the issues I had with Debbie Travis's performance-- and if you read yesterday's post, I had many-- that wasn't one of them. I finish whatever book I start, no matter how much I hate it. And yet I've had so many people, bloggers and non-bloggers alike, tell me that it's a waste of time to do so. An author has the responsibility to grab you in so many pages or they've failed, or so they say. Did Debbie Travis have the responsibility to finish in order to debate the merits or lack thereof of this particular book? She read enough to know what the plot was, who the characters were and what they were about, and that she really didn't like any of it so much that she had to put it aside. I think it was fair. Voting off other books before she went after that one? Not so much.

I also wanted to address the issue of whether or not an author and his/her past success (awards, money, reputation) matter in whether or not a book gets voted off. Again, this come back to what the panelists of the year perceive to be their mandate. Personally, it could matter for me. First and foremost, I'd be voting off my least favourite book. However, if my favourite (i.e., the one I was personally defending) got voted out early, then my next favourite and so on, until I'm left with two books I either don't really like or feel ambivalent about, I'd probably go with the "need" of the win as a voting point. I implied above that the debates aren't really important. However, for the authors (and their publishers) they're very important. We're talking a huge jump in sales for the winner. So, if I can't decide between Fallis and McKay, I'd probably base my vote on sales. Why not? Her book was a bestseller already, his was not.

I have similar thoughts about the panelists. All else being equal-- again, assuming my favourite book is out of the running and I'm unenthusiastic about any of the others-- I'd be just as likely to vote for a book based on the eloquence of its defender or against a book based on the obnoxiousness of the defender. When the quality of the writing (quality being subjective in most cases), is taken out of the equation, that's when (and only when) panelist abilities and personalities, past awards, books sales and the like should enter the picture.

But it's all done, for another year. I'm not overly enthusiastic about this year's winner as I've yet to read it, but I'm curious to do so. I'm happy the Birth House didn't win and that in the Canada Reads readers' poll Essex County won with over half the votes. That's more than the other 4 books combined! I guess I wasn't as off the mark with that one as I'd thought.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Canada Reads 2011- Day Two, We probably don't have a lot in common...

"You look up from the book and you think, 'Oh, I'm not in 1917, I'm in my kitchen.'" - Debbie Travis on The Birth House

But my beef with The Birth House was that I had the opposite reaction. I was never, even for a moment, convinced of the setting. To me it always felt like a 21st century author projecting back.

This was just one of the many, many times I felt myself shaking my head at Debbie Travis's remarks today. It felt like she read an entirely different novel than I. If I'm going to be completely honest, I started to even dislike Debbie Travis. I hate that. She has a different opinion of a book. She's been on a radio program for just two days, and except for seeing her products at Canadian Tire I've never seen nor heard the woman before. She might be just lovely.

She also might be right. Clearly the other panelists liked the book. Lorne Cardinal called it his stiffest competition. Ali Velshi has praised it. No one has said anything at all disparaging about it. Quite frankly, I can't see how it can lose at this point. And I just don't get it. While I know I'm being unfair towards Debbie Travis, I really, really don't like The Birth House. I despise it. And yet it clearly has its fans. Legions of fans. I've been wanting to sit at that table for so many years now and today I questioned my ability and right to sit there. Yes, I can debate with the best of them. I can stick to my guns and I can admit when I'm wrong. But I clearly cannot recommend a book to Canadians that they will like. If they like the Birth House, then I don't know how to proceed. I'll think of my 5 least favourite Canadian books and just pick from those, I guess. Clearly I can't judge books, or panelists.

Did you hear Jian Gomeshi at the top of the show? Last night, in the Twitter/Bloggo-spheres, apparently Lorne Cardinal was shouldering the blame for Essex County's elimination. Odd since every thing I read seemed to be pinning the blame on Ali Velshi. Odder still because I thought Debbie Travis was to blame. My perspective obviously needs an adjustment, my glasses need a scrubbing, or my ears need a good syringing. Are Travis and the Birth House at the center of some black hole that sucks in all light rendering them invisible to critics? I don't get it. No, no. I must be wrong.

When Debbie Travis says, "I'm not interested in Canadian politics" I'm wrong for finding that offensive. That a grown woman in a free country with full democratic rights is not interested in politics is not as reprehensible as I find it. She was born in the UK and immigrated to Canada in the 80s, but I'm sure the "Canadian" part of her comment was just in reference to the Best Laid Plans, right? What she meant to say was that she's not interested in politics, in general, right? And that's okay. I'm letting it go. I'm letting my disappointment in Essex County's elimination and the praise of the Birth House destroy my zen. They are books. This is a silly radio show. Nothing more. Ommmmmmmmmmmm.

Good Lord, I know I'm being unfair. What has reality radio done to me to judge a person this flippantly? Debbie Travis, I'm sorry. You're doing a bang up job. And to those who love The Birth House, good on you. I hate it and think it's... nevermind. Good on you. We'll just agree to disagree.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Canada Reads 2011- Day One, "Don't criticize what you can't understand." Oh wait, they didn't.

"I'm disappointed. I'm not surprised. Honestly-- and this is nothing against all of you-- but I do think you represent the demographic that I hope, at least, I'm not going to get to talk about the book much more, you're the demographic that isn't going to read this book and I think that it's a shame."
-- Sara Quin upon learning that Essex County was eliminated from the competition

What do you think? Sour grapes or accurate observation?

I've been pondering it, and it's hard to say. On the one hand, it could be an easy swipe. "You're too old and out of touch." It negates any issues that the panelists might have really had with the book, ignoring all their arguments with a nice dose of ageism. But then, the panelists really didn't offer any substantial critiques other than just not getting it. Debbie Travis equating graphic novels with Twitter? Lorne Cardinal calling them the "gateway to reading?" I guess they'd really thumb up their noses at the millions of Japanese-- of all ages, I might add-- that enjoy manga. Even more comical (pardon the pun) was Ali Velshi claiming that he saw one of the goals of Canada Reads as inspiring people to read more and improving literacy levels and this was why he voted against Essex County. Yes, political satire and historical novels about midwifery will turn the young folks on to reading. Egad. Thank God this man is not a teacher.

On the other hand, even if Sara Quin's demographic comment was correct, does that mean Essex County should have stayed? Clearly the other panelists actually did read it, and clearly they thought it was the weakest of the bunch. I wish they had better reasons (they didn't like the artwork, they thought the characters weren't well developed, something), but they read it at least. I'm frustrated when people ridicule graphic novels out of ignorance, but these panelists read it and still didn't like it. And let's face it, most of Canada Reads listeners aren't teenagers and a large portion of Canada's readers are over 40. If Essex County isn't going to win over the older demographic, should it win? Old people count, too.(For what it's worth, I know a few people over 40 that loved Essex County).

"I don't know that I could be swayed. I don't think any of us were going to be swayed here. I think that we all sort of came in with our, with our feeling pretty set in stone." - Sara Quin on whether or not the other panelists could win her over

Well, nice going Sara. Way to expose the illusion of Canada Reads. But she's probably right, especially on day one. After 25 minutes of summarizing their books, introducing themselves, and other formalities, Sara had just about 15 minutes to plead her case. Most panelists were planning to X Essex County before they sat down. Which is a shame since Quin arguably made the better arguments. Debbie Travis made her book sound important, but about as much fun as a historical textbook. George Laraque in his attempts to sell the Bone Cage to everybody, made it sound like it had all the substance of the Da Vinci Code. And everyone seemed to take the essential thing way too seriously. But if someone whose book was eliminated already was sitting on the fence between two of the other books, the other panelists could, in theory, win them over.

And with today's vote, my predictions are already thrown amok. While I knew Essex County didn't really have a shot (and as with poetry and short stories, that means graphic novels will never make it to the top 5 again, by the way), I had expected it to make it to the final two based solely on strategy. So now I'm at a lost. Unfortunately I think, because Velshi seems to really like it, The Birth House seems to have a better shot than I'd assumed earlier-- though I think Debbie Travis really needs to tone it down if she's to win over Sara Quin.

Not a bad show today. Despite my frustrations, it was entertaining, especially watching Jian Gomeshi really trying not to show his bias but clearly throwing Essex County as many lifelines as he could. Good try Sara and Jian. Now I'm rooting for Unless. But like Essex County, it doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell. Not to worry, I'll be just as happy if the Birth House doesn't win. I haven't even read The Bone Cage or Best Laid Plans but they have to be better than the Birth House. Don't they?

Reader's Diary #685- Donna Tartt: A Garter Snake

When I first met my wife-to-be she had a full blown phobia of snakes. It hardly mattered as it was in Newfoundland where there were no snakes at the time, and as long as we avoided the pet store, she was fine. I was fascinated with the idea of a phobia, though. I have fears, just like anyone else. If an unleashed barking rottweiler was running towards me, yes, I'd probably crap my pants. But this makes sense. Hyperventilating over a glimpse of a snake on TV does not. Since we've had kids she's tried her best to control it and keep it to herself, as she doesn't want to pass on her irrational fear, and I'd venture to say that her phobia has been downgraded to a regular old fear at this point.

But I was reminded once again of ophidiophobia this week as I read Donna Tartt's wonderfully written "A Garter Snake." A lot of what makes it great is the character building at the beginning. For those who think short stories can't have fully realized characters, they should read this one. The fact that Tartt takes on young males characters and does it so convincingly is quite an accomplishment.

"A Garter Snake," about two cousins who find themselves reluctantly putting up with one another while staying at their grandmothers, deals with realistic and typical stress of childhood. Tartt makes a pretty convincing case that it's these minor stressors that shape who we come to be as adults.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Canada Reads 2011 - Pregame Post

In just 2 days CBC Radio will launch its 10th anniversary edition of Canada Reads, the literary smackdown event that annually has Canadian book sales soaring, CBC listeners on the edge of their seats, and critics up in arms. Love it, or hate it, it's impossible for Canadian readers to ignore.

As I'm a Canadian reader, I've decided to once again weigh in. It didn't hurt that the producers offered me a gift pack of all five books to discuss the program on my blog-- more on that later.

Before getting into my predictions, thoughts and so forth, perhaps a little history of my relationship with the program is in order. For those regular readers of my blog, I'll keep it short, I promise-- you know this stuff already. I was an early fan of the program and blogged about it regularly. Of course being a fan doesn't mean that I thought they did everything right and like most listeners I had suggestions on how it could improve. My main complaint was, and still is, the use of an exclusively celebrity panel. I campaigned, shouted loudly, irritated the producers, and they irritated me in return. At its worst, I boycotted the program for a year. At its funniest, I was inadvertently sent an inner-office email from one of the producers who, quite correctly, defined our relationship as "weird." Then, last year, I was a panelist of the National Post knock-off version, "Canada Also Reads." Like most knock-offs, I don't think it adequately compared with the original, but it, and a few other knock-offs, seemed to get the producers' attention that some changes might be in order.

I give them credit for finally reaching out to the listeners (and readers), even if I don't quite agree with the way they did it. For the first time ever Canadian readers were asked to nominate books of the past 10 years they felt should be on a top 40 list of essential Canadian reads. I like this idea and the list itself, but not in connection with the Canada Reads program. Here's why. Such lists have become the latest fad at CBC. There was the list of Canada's Greatest individuals, then there was the Canada's Seven Wonders program. I don't have an issue with these things as long as we don't take it all too seriously. It's a fun way to get the country talking, remembering, feeling some pride, and I'm sure it helped the CBC in the ratings department as well. Win-win. The book list could be considered in the same light. However, that 40 list was whittled down to 10 and then to five to be debated by, once again, celebrity panelists. These changes do not work for the betterment of the program. First of all, books from all of Canada's rich literary past are no longer possible contenders. A frequent beef that people spouted last year was that 2 of the contending books (specifically Generation X and Fall on Your Knees) were already read by a great number of Canadians and didn't make it interesting for those listeners who wanted the show to introduce them to something new. Perhaps this was a part of the producers rationale in restricting the books to the past decade. However, in doing so we lost the possibility for such books as Rockbound, Next Episode, or Sarah Binks, books that were in danger of being forgotten forever, if not for the resurgence in interest thanks to Canada Reads. But my biggest issue against the Top 40 list being used to find the Canada Reads contenders is that it took too much control away from the panelists. Up until now panelists were allowed to bring whatever book they wanted to the table (with a few exceptions, such as non-fiction, and so on). They took a book they felt passionately about and defended it with all the strength and strategy they could muster. With one exception. A few years ago Rufus Wainwright was set to defend Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. Because of a scheduling conflict Wainwright had to back out and Molly Johnson was brought in to replace her. While she remembered liking the book in university, it wasn't her choice book and it showed. Lacking the noticeable enthusiasm of the other panelists, Beautiful Losers lost. Perhaps it would have lost under Wainwright's defense as well, but it certainly would have been nice to hear from someone who picked it as something all Canadians should read. Are we to get a panel of Molly Johnsons this year? Sure Lorne Cardinal picked Unless from a list of ten, but what would he have picked had his options been wide open? No matter how enthusiastic this year's panelists will be, at best they'll come across as hired spokespeople doing their best at a celebrity endorsement.

But enough of the negativity. At least the producers' intentions were admirable. Reaching out to the listeners and getting them involved is at least a step in the right direction (of course, I know a way to get them even more involved, but I digress). During the Top 40 nominations, the Canada Reads staff reached out to bloggers, librarians, independent book store owners, and everyday readers and invited them to have their say. It was through this opportunity that my nomination, Jeff Lemire's Essex County was first suggested, it was subsequently nominated by none other than Mariko Tamaki, and the ball kept rolling from there, bouncing it into the Top 5 to be debated next week. Are the Canada Reads producers and staff doing all of this selflessly? Of course not. I mentioned above that they asked me, and a few other bloggers to discuss the program on our blogs this year in return for a prize pack of Canada Reads books. I know it's cheap publicity for them. However, in her initial request, producer Kimberly Walsh wrote that she had "no expectation that [I] be excessively positive, just that [I] be fair." The fact that I was even one of the ones asked is a surprising step. Few have been as loudly critical as I have over the past ten years, but they seem to be embracing, for once, the constructive criticism. In return, they've gotten more web buzz this year than I've ever noticed before. Much has been negative, but the Canada Reads folks don't seem to running away from it, and not in an "any publicity is good publicity" sort of way either. They've addressed some of the concerns, defended some of the concerns, and at the very least, have acknowledged the concerns. They almost threw out the baby with the bathwater this year with their drastic changes, but at least they're looking to improve.

I also want to commend the Canada Reads on their website attention this year. Never had they had this much build up. They've had top 40 recommendations, Brian Francis' resident blogger posts, the Canada Reads staff themselves debating the books, podcasts and articles on the authors, books, and more. I don't remember them ever promoting the contest this much and they've done it wonderfully.

Now, on with my predictions and picks. Admittedly, I'm at a disadvantage in that I haven't read two of the contenders (The Bone Cage and the Best Laid Plans). They had hoped to get the books to me in time, but I inadvertently gave them my wrong address (I moved across town in October of last year and gave them my old postal code). But ignorance has never stopped me from shooting my mouth off before. So, without further ado, here are my choices followed by my predictions...

Who should win...

1. Essex County- Jeff Lemire No surprise here. I nominated it after all. For a whole list of reasons, not the least of which is that it feels so much like a Canadian novel and yet it's cutting edge. The story should appeal to traditionalists and the format should appeal to those looking for something new to the CanLit scene. The rift between those who represent the old guard of Canadian writing where the stories are more carefully paced and introspective and the new wave of Canadian experimental writing with its quirky characters and flamboyancy is huge and growing. I think Lemire's Essex County might just provide the segue that we were missing.

2. The runner up, if I'm to believe the reviews and synopses that I've read, should be Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans. One of our largest cultural exports is our comedy and with the success of This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the Rick Mercer Report, clearly we like political satire. With Richler no longer with us, we need someone new to take his place. But I get the impression that Fallis might be lacking Richler's acerbic wit. I'm a little nervous that he plays it too safe. Good satire can't do that.

3. Unless by Carol Shields A good story is a good story. Unfortunately I think Shields' death and reputation as one of Canada's foremost writers will overshadow the discussion of the story. Perhaps it represents the old guard that I was talking about earlier, but it's still beautifully crafted. Humorless, maybe, but touching. I actually prefer this one over the Stone Diaries.

4. The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou- Again, I have to base this on the impression I've gotten from other peoples' reviews. I get the impression it's a little slow going, especially if you're not interested in sports. King Leary may have won a few years back, and it revolved around a hockey player, but that one was funny and had such a memorable character. I don't get the impression that this one is anywhere near as compelling as that book, and I've not heard from anyone that it's funny.

5. The Birth House by Ami McKay- Sometimes after I've read a book that I didn't like, it softens in my memory over time. Unfortunately, I think I've grown to dislike the Birth House even more. It's not funny either. Nor does it need to be. My own top pick isn't funny. But worse than not being funny is that the Birth House tries to be. I won't get into all my other reasons again, but you can read my review here.

My predictions:

1. The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis- It sounds to me that it's one of the most entertaining of the lot. Plus, with its political stuff, it'll be perceived as intelligent. That's a pretty good combination. However the biggest reason it will win is through process of elimination. It'll most likely be the least polarizing.

2. Essex County by Jeff Lemire- Don't let its making it this far fool you. It doesn't stand a chance. Everyone knows this and it'll be strategic that it gets this far. Then just when us fans get our hopes up, the claws will come out. Unfortunately the discussion will be all about graphic novels versus regular novels (I'll eat my shirt if someone on the panel doesn't whine, "It's just too hard to compare a graphic novel to a normal novel.") and worse, they'll get sidetracked with graphic novels versus comics (note to nerds: no one cares). The merits of the story itself will barely get a mention. (Prove me wrong Sara Quin!)

3. The Birth House by Ami McKay- They'll all claim politely that this book is funny, but secretly someone will disagree. This vote off will be the most diplomatic vote off of the whole debate. It's a book we're supposed to like. Canadian history, feminist themes, a vibrator joke, rural Canada... the fact that it's all so terribly forced won't be mentioned (shhhh! McKay might be listening!) Despite that, I have faith in the panel that it'll be taken out, no matter how polite the execution. Debbie Travis will be shocked.

4. The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou- Oh man. Georges Laraque will be pissed. All the panelists will genuinely like this book, but admit that it's lacking something. Plus Laraque will be so intimidating, without even opening his mouth, that people will want his book gone. The strange thing is, despite Laraque's earlier dismissal of Essex County, he'll be one of its biggest defenders from this point on.

5. Unless by Carol Shields- This will be an entirely strategic vote and its vote off in day one has already been decided. Atwood, Richler, Munro and Laurence haven't won one of these things, and Shields won't either. There's such a thing as too popular. The panelist will say, and perhaps fairly, that enough Canadians know of Shields' writing already. If they haven't read Unless before, they probably won't now. There's no real point to it winning. To acknowledge her talent? Hasn't it been acknowledged?

What about you? Will you be listening? Which have you read? Who do you think will win, and most importantly, who do you want to win?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Great Wednesday Compare #8- Tom Sawyer VERSUS Lady Macbeth

The winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Tom Sawyer VERSUS Holden Caulfield), with a final score of 4-2 was Tom Sawyer.

What a bunch of phonies. Tom Sawyer, really? Nah, I'm just kidding. I realized that I was about to say, "Holden Caulfield, you really have to love him or hate him" when I realized that I was slightly ambivalent. I remember getting about half way through Catcher in the Rye, when I was becoming frustrated with all the whining. Then when I realized that I had a touch of Caulfield in me, and had a whole lot of Caulfield in me as a teenager, I warmed to him. Though, with all the psychopaths that seem to be drawn to the book, it's a hard book to admit to liking. Anyway.

Vote in the comment section below before Feb 1st8th: Who is the better character?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Canadian Book Challenge 4- 7th Roundup!

We're now in the home stretch, gang. Past the halfway mark. And while January was as long and cold as ever, February is looking up. After a couple weeks of less than -30, it's supposed to be up to -3 come Wednesday. Balmy.

But cold weather just means there's more time to snuggle down and read. Right? Right? Oh wait, am I putting too much pressure on you? Over at That Shakespearean Rag earlier this month, Steven W. Beattie questioned whether or not reading challenges, with their artificial deadlines and quotas, are sucking all the fun out of reading. So, with that in mind, if you're not having fun, I apologize and suggest that you quit the challenge now. He goes on to add that challenges emphasize quantity over quality. I have a few issues with that. First, people read at different paces. Nicola has read 45 books for the Canadian Book Challenge so far, I've read 14. Does this mean I'm a better, more insightful reader than Nicola? Who's to say? It's not like we're preparing for an English final. Maybe it's that she reads more in her spare time and I'm wasting too much time watching Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns. Perhaps my goal to read more books is more about cutting back on TV. While I enjoy both, reading makes me feel more fulfilled in the end. And besides all that, we're all adults here and we all have free choice. Nobody is joining a reading challenge out of obligation. We're all doing it for fun. I assume no one here went to a doctor recently only to hear that your ignorance levels are dangerously high and that you must read 13 Canadian books by July 1st. Beattie says that he does not consider reading a competitive sport, but some people happen to like competitive sports. I don't and that's not why I've joined the Challenge. But if that's your reason, go nuts. Whatever your reason, I'm enjoying having you with us. What are your thoughts?

While I wait for you to ponder that (but don't ponder too deeply, it's a race!), let's get to last month's prize winner. I gave four quotes from participant reviews and asked to name the reviewer and the book. A big congratulations go out to Ordinary Reader for identifying all 4. Ordinary Reader you've won the following wonderful prizes from GooseLane Editions:

Darryl Whetter's The Push & The Pull
Keith Oatley's Therefore Choose

This month's prize, which includes all 5 Canada Reads contenders, might just be yours. To have your name entered into a random drawing, all you have to do is read and review any of the past or current Canada Reads contenders before February 28th. (If you want a fun way to recall the whole list, go here.) Let me know via email before March 1st and these five books could be yours:

And finally, while we're all gathered here today: the roundup. What Canadian books did you read and review in January? Let everyone know in the comments below.

- Make sure you tell me how many you've completed so far so that I can record it in the sidebar progress report
- It doesn't count as complete until the review is done!
- When people leave links, try to visit one another's blogs and read what they had to say. Comment. Encourage. The discussion of Canadian books is what this challenge is all about.