My Canada Reads 2013 Campaign

There it is, this year’s gimmick: CBC’s annual Canada Reads competition this year is gonna be a regional turf war.

I’ve been skeptical in past years about Canada Reads’ new focus on crowd-sourcing and competition. More measured people than I have written about the downsides of turning authors into dancing self-promotionary monkeys, about getting “Celebs” of dubious literacy to champion books they may not have even read, let alone liked. Last year I flaked out entirely on the competition, reading only 3/5 books and tiring, in the end, of the theatrics.

Yet Canada Reads continues to hold my interest because of the conversation it creates. Love it or hate it, I don’t think any other Canadian literary event consumes as much virtual ink as this one, and the strength of the community that has grown up around it is unmistakable. One wants to be part of that conversation, even if only to be the voice of dissent. People really talk books around Canada Reads, lots of people.

So at least for the time being, I’m in. In the past I have floated disinterestedly through the nomination process, but this year I’m going to be pro-active in favour of what I want to see on Canada Reads, of what I think is missing.

What I think has been missing is this: our literary heritage.

Canada Reads has, since the introduction of crowd-sourcing, become the game of publicists and promoters. They want to push their new titles, their frontlists. These authors are out there now trying to drum up sales and create buzz, and power to them. But I miss the olden days of undiscovered and half-forgotten gems, or bringing classics to a new generation. There are going to be people out there championing the small presses, the young writers, and the languishing mid-career tryhards. Me, I’m going to stick with what I know: our history. The stodgy old backbone of CanLit, much maligned but increasingly ignored and unread.

An interesting condition of this year’s competition (and perhaps this has been the case for years now, but there it is writ plain) is that the book must be “…available in Canada and published by a traditional publisher … and must be readily available.” This sets the game up in favour of the hot new frontlist, as most day-to-day readers only know what they see on the shelves of their local new-book store. I am going to do you all a favour and feature, over the next two weeks, some alternative sources and alternative suggestions for nominees drawn from some overlooked backlists and publishers. My mandate will be to put forth some suggestions that are at least 20 years old (I know! ANCIENT!) but still excellent, and drawn from all corners of the country. I will feature presses one at a time, and try to give you a good assortment of suggestions from the five regions.

Got it? Okay, to get you off on the right foot I am going to take a gimme in the form of House of Anansi’s new A-list imprint. Anansi’s great idea lunch just this fall with a great backlist of Canadian writers, and here are two for your consideration (note to Anansi: add more!):


Kamouraska by Anne Hébert


Five Legs by Graeme Gibson

Rediscovering George Sand

Like most people, I subscribe to Netflix. And like most Canadians, I often find myself watching strange miscellany because, really, Netflix Canada doesn’t offer very much. But last month I stumbled quite by accident onto a goodie (“Movies Featuring a Strong Female Protagonist”), a 1991 biography of George Sand starring Judy Davis and Hugh Grant called Impromptu.

I have been fascinated by George Sand ever since reading Les Trois Dumas by André Maurois (confusingly translated as The Three Musketeers in English). Sand features prominently in Maurois’s 1957 biography of the Dumas family, both as friend to Dumas pere and probable lover of Dumas fils. Even in the background of a biography of another Sand shines through and dominates her scenes. As much as anybody, Sand appeared to steer the ship of French Romanticism through sheer force of will and influence. Judy Davis channeled this domineering version of Sand and it was impossible not to fall in love with her pantaloon-wearing, cigar-smoking, balcony-jumping personality. Like most movies, though, so much about Sand was left to be known – why could she spend her time taking up with every beautiful young genius in Paris? Where was the husband? And why was she avoiding the obviously-way-cooler-than-Chopin Alfred de Musset (as interpreted by Mandy Patinkin)? Oh, and she was a writer, right? What did she write, anyway?

 Lucky for me, I was able to indulge in my new-found Sand obsession the very next day because I had already secured a small Sand library in anticipation of the day where I really had to, just HAD to learn everything about her. I began with a scholarly biography, Naked in the Marketplace by Benita Eisler. Eisler’s biography is informative if not especially exciting, given, I think, the drama of the material. Eisler is thorough with her history but committed to a more psychological portrait of Sand than I might have preferred. Here is a woman who was on the bleeding edge of French politics her entire life long, having been involved with the Second Republic, the Imperial government of Napoleon III, and being a key player in the formation of the French Third Republic, yet Eisler chooses to focus on Sand’s personal growth as expressed through her semi-autobiographical, political novels. Sand’s impact on other cultural revolutions such as a nascent feminist movement and Romantisism was glossed over in favour of analyses of how her personal relationships informed her art. The resulting portrait was one of a self-involved, passionate woman of great strength, but a self-centred George Sand is difficult to reconcile with her socialist governmental politics, and communal sexual politics. This was clearly a woman who wanted to change the world, and not just out of ego. Hers was truly a philosophy of libertéégalité, fraternité.

If Eisler made any compelling case, it was for the enduring presence of George Sand in her novels, so there I went next. Eisler and, earlier, Maurois claim Sand’s most important and famous works were her early novels, Lelia, or Indiana perhaps. Good luck to you finding anything in print, says I. Oxford World’s Classics has an edition of Indiana, but even in my obscure end of the world this has yet to hit the shelf. Instead I found I’d picked up Pushkin Press‘s relatively new (and definitely beautiful) edition of Laura: a Journey into the Crystal. This proto-fantasy novel was published near the end of Sand’s career and ought, I’d have hoped, to present a mature, distilled George Sand who had arrived at her personal conclusion.

My hopes might have been too high. Laura bears more resemblance to the pulp novels of an Edgar Rice Burroughs, dashed off in a hurry for money. There are some interesting meditations on the nature of art and science, of beauty and the ideal, but the novel really only gains any traction when it conjures up moustachioed Oriental villains, magical soul-enslaving gemstones and crazy alien ecosystems found at the North Pole. There are cringing descriptions of “brutal, primitive Eskimos” and blood orgies juxtaposed with long-winded descriptions of geomorphic formations. There’s a reenactment of a kind of reverse Orpheus & Eurydice rescue. In short, the book is a dog’s breakfast, as perhaps I should have expected from a totally unknown work from a relatively unknown writer written in an experimental vein.

Not, I think, that the read was totally without value. The central relationship in the novel between the protagonist Alexis and the titular Laura is explored with a maturity that exceeds that of the players. Both Alexis and Laura can only love each other in their ideal forms, found inside a shared hallucination (OR IS IT). In “real” life they snark and tease and annoy each other, and wonder where went the beautiful young thing they fell in love with “inside the crystal”. Yet in the end they do marry and are reconciled to a very ordinary, plebeian, un-ideal life. This seems a cynical conclusion presented by a woman who was such a tireless Romantic throughout her life. One wonders if she’d become just a bit bitter in her later years.

It seems obvious to me that I should have secured a more extensive Sand library, because what I’d put together was, in the end, unsatisfactory. A biography that glossed over the compelling bits, and a novel which was probably unrepresentative of her work. Both books gave me a glimpse of the Sand I think I would have liked, just before turning and galloping off in another direction. If anything I am more curious now than I was before. I feel as if Sand is an undiscovered keystone for the Romantic movement, and around her there are better stories told, or to tell. I will keep looking! If even weak works produce curiosity, then there is something big waiting to be uncovered.

“Franz Liszt, am Flügel phantasierend” by Josef Danhauser. That’s Dumas in the chair at the far left, and Sand swooning just next to him.

An Anniversary of Sorts

The shortlist for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced this morning, which in a bookstore means a rapid once-over of the store and the orders to see what we have and what we need get into stock. We managed 1/5 this year; not our worst year. In doing my research, I happened to notice that it has now been 10 years since I started working in the bookstore. The shortlist of 2002 was the first I ever worked on.

We’ve never been the kind of bookstore to attract bestseller-like traffic, but we do pride ourselves in keeping a long backlist. So while we didn’t sell many copies of that year’s winner – Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe – we do still have it in stock. Looking back to that 2002 shortlist, I’m pleased to see we actually still have 4/5 of THOSE books. Maybe this is a testament to the lasting value of those books, or maybe we’re just slow on the uptake. But if ever you’ve doubted the strength of the books that make a Giller shortlist, look back:

Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe
Bill Gaston, Mount Appetite
Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York
Lisa Moore, Open
Carol Shields, Unless

Ten years on, those choices hold strong.

So I suppose what I’ve learned in ten years of bookselling is that however random and unworthy a list may or may not look at the time, only time can really bear it out. Those jurists are no fools, and what is today unknown to us might be classic tomorrow.