Reading Canada: Nikolski vs Wild Geese

This year I have decided to tackle not one, but two Canada Reads projects – CBC’s mainstream Canada Reads 2010, as well as Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads Independently over at Pickle Me This.  This is less ambitious than it sounds.  As I have mentioned more than once, the CBC’s picks this year were for the most part books I had read before and was indifferent to, so there was room in my reading schedule for a book club marathon which might actually introduce me to some undiscovered Canadian gems.  It also helped that I won a full set of all the Canada Reads books, so I had all this budgeted money to spend!

I started this year with one of each in my reading queue.  In Nikolski and Wild Geese I had, in order, a book I expected to love and a book I expected to hate.  “Quirky magical realism” describes the ultimate in literary enjoyment in my world, while “bleak realism” is pretty much the bane of my existence.  I imagined I’d take time out of the book I didn’t like to indulge in the one I did.  But for better and for worse, neither book conformed to my expectations.

Nikolski is a wide favourite for the Canada Reads 2010 title, as far as the blogosphere seems to suggest, in any case.  It’s fairly obscure (though it DID win the Governor General’s Award for translation as well as a host of awards in the original French), quirky and just a little experimental.  The writing is good, the characters are likable and the imagery is whimsical and evenly-hued, like a Coen Brothers film.

Nautical imagery and themes seep into everything, often, to be frank, at random.  “Spot the ocean metaphor” is an amusing game to a point; that point for me was when I asked why we were being asked to play.  I didn’t find the novel as a whole evoked “the sea” with any particular success.  More success was had in casting the whole episode as An Adventure With Pirates! which I followed with excitement, waiting for the big swashbuckling finale that makes the whole exercise clear.  But, as others have already pointed out, no finale was to be found, no denouement or climax or even conclusion.  The book ends abruptly, something which struck me as simply lazy.  Where some books leave you hanging with a purpose, I got the impression Dickner simply wasn’t sure where he was going with his nautical language game and called it to an end when his time expired.

I didn’t hate the book, but I was certainly disappointed.  Dickner shows great aptitude with words and I really loved his characters – Joyce and Arizna in particular – but I really felt that he didn’t have a lot of control over this work.  Perhaps it was some first-novel syndrome.   He has some cute ideas and some great turns of phrase, but he lazily ended with that, as if some hazy themes carried for a brief time by directionless characters constitutes a story.   The “three headed book” was a particularly interesting meta-presence, but as with much in the book, it failed to realize anything significant.

Meanwhile, Wild Geese was a simply masterful work.  “Bleak” is an unfair assessment of it.  It’s true that Ostenso creates in Caleb Gare a truly terrifying presence, someone who manages to oppress every page of the novel without having to raise a hand or even his voice.  Ostenso’s  feat is even more astonishing today, given that all the tension, leverage and oppression in the book is rooted in societal norms which on the whole no longer exist.  But despite the iron-clad tyranny of Caleb’s regime, the reader is given a lifeline in the form of his youngest daughter Judith, another incredibly crafted, strong female character.  Judith’s strength carries enough hope to the reader that the book is compelling rather than depressing.

Contemporary participants in “Canadian realism” should read Ostenso carefully.  If you’re going to make your reader hurt, you ought to give them some kind of release, otherwise what you’ve created is nothing more than beautifully written suffering porn.  Sometimes I feel that “bleak” novels amount to little more than a contest to see who can compare life to the most inescapable pit-trap.  This is neither realistic nor fair, nor do I think it tells us anything about the human condition, unless you already believe that life is an inescapable pit-trap.  In any case, Ostenso does not punish us in this manner, but instead offers us a very well-considered and beautifully executed climax and conclusion.  I can’t recommend this one enough.

Upwards and onwards!  I’m half way through Marina Endicott’s Good To a Fault and about to start Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat – so with luck I will be half way through by Canada Reads mountain by this time next week.  Wish me luck!

Reading by the Inch

On final tally, I determined I read exactly 21 books last year – not an impressive total.  Speaking with a coworker I identified another part of the “problem” – my fatal attraction to epic, dense, 1000-page door-stoppers rather than more modest reads.  My coworker likes her fiction “sparse” and blew through most of J.M. Coetzee’s oeuvre last year, by comparison.  Such choices mean she out-paced my reading 2 works to 1, while still keeping to worthwhile literary reads.

Naturally I resolved this year to read shorter, but still worthwhile, books.  I have been meaning to read more Martin Amis, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, Orhan Pamuk, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe and whathaveyou.  How slight an investment, after all, to read a book which actually fits in my purse.

This resolution lasted about ten minutes.  I can’t help it.  The books that really turn me on are best measured in pounds.  I want to read Wolf Hall, The Children’s Book, Foucault’s Pendulum and Don Quixote.  A University of Toronto professor is offering a very tasty course in romanticism this term and I’m already drooling at the thought of reading Lorna Doone and The Laodicean.  I’ve been waiting all year for the paperback release of Dan Simmons’ Drood.  It has been a full year since I’ve read any Dumas, and I have been itching to read La Reine Margot.  Not a volume under 500 pages among my treasures.

My saving grace is Canada Reads Independently, the Canada Reads alternative cooked up by picklemethis’s Kerry Clare.  Having read most of the CBC’s picks, I was thrilled to have five genuine discoveries to play with.  Only one – Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso – could be found on my bookstore’s shelves, but it appears to be of a reasonable length.  With luck the other four – ordered as of this morning – will share the trait and intersperse the otherwise epic year of reading I have ahead of me.  With luck I’ll get through more than a dozen books this year.

I know numbers don’t matter and it isn’t a contest, but it’s still disheartening to see everyone around me chewing through 50+ books in a year and feel myself out of the loop with my handfull.  This is a pep talk for myself, this post.  Maybe I’ve read fewer books than some, but I bet I am in the running in terms of sheer yardage.  A reader by the foot, that’s me.

2010 Reading List

Though I don’t have a “theme” to my reading this year as I did last, I am still participating in John Mutford’s The Canadian Book Challenge 3 over at The Book Mine Set.  Canadian books are marked with an [*].


Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso [*]
Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, tr. David R. Slavitt
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott [*]
Hair Hat by Carrie Snyder [*]
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, tr. Grossman
Jade Peony by Wayson Choy [*]
Moody Food by Ray Robertson [*]
How Happy To Be by Katrina Onstad [*]
Generation X by Douglas Coupland [*]
Century by Ray Smith [*]
Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel [*]
Margaret de Valois by Alexandre Dumas
Chicot the Jester by Alexandre Dumas
Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green
The Forty-Five Guardsmen by Alexandre Dumas
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James de Mille [*]
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Breakwater House by Pascale Quiviger [*]
The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov
Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel [*]
A Study in Scarlet / The Valley of Fear by A. Conan Doyle
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
The Secret Life of Owen Skye by Alan Cumyn [*]
Drood by Dan Simmons
The Gladiators by Arthur Koestler
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Stories ed. Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio
Maps & Legends by Michael Chabon
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson [*]
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod [*]
The World More Full of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema [*]
Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and other Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perroult by Angela Carter
The Price of a Bargain by Gordon Laird [*]
Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King [*]

Graphic Novels:

Order of the Stick Volume 4: Don’t Split the Party by Rich Burlew

Y the Last Man Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 2: Cycles by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 3: One Small Step by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 4: Safeword by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 5: Ring of Truth by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 6: Girl on Girl by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 7: Paper Dolls by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 8: Kimono Dragons by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 9: Motherland by Brian Vaughan
Y the Last Man Vol. 10: Whys and Wherefores by Brian Vaughan

Bone Vol. 1: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 2: The Great Cow Race by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 3: Eyes of the Storm by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 4: The Dragonslayer by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 5: Rock Jaw by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 6: Old Man’s Cave by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 7: Ghost Circles by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 8: Treasure Hunters by Jeff Smith
Bone Vol. 9: Crown of Horns by Jeff Smith

The Rabble of Downtown Toronto by Jason Kiefer [*]
KENK: A Graphic Portrait by Richard Poplak, Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore & Nick Marinkovich [*]
Quarter-Life Crisis by Evan Munday [*]
The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks [*]
Mercury by Hope Larsen
Gunnerkrigg Court Vol. 2: Research by Tom Siddell
Drop-In by Dave Lapp [*]
Afrodisiac by Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca
Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O’Malley [*]
Skim by Mariko & Jillian Tamaki(s) [*]
The Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire [*]
Sword of my Mouth by Jim Munroe & Shannon Gerard [*]