Prelude to Some Reviews

I’ve been terribly, terribly lax about reviewing lately. I’ve been reading, taking notes and thinking, but I’m torn at the moment on the notion of publishing those thoughts. I enjoy it – it’s the natural output of an opinionated reader. But at the same time, my reviews this year have tended towards the testy and the cranky, and I’m feeling poorly about that. I know that every book speaks to each reader in a different way and so, as a reviewer, you have a certain responsibility to highlight the book’s strong points even if you didn’t really take much pleasure in them. But by the same token, I have read very few books this year that I would rate, on a scale of five stars, higher than a three; and I don’t think I’m doing anyone a service by blowing sunshine about something which is essentially mediocre.   It doesn’t help that in the very exciting flurry of early review copies I received at the beginning of the year I got some real duds and reviewed them as such, which probably put publicists off sending me anything ever again.  It feels a bit like betraying their good will – but at the same time, it isn’t my job as a reviewer to white-wash a book just so I might continue to receive future free books.  You wouldn’t buy it anyway.  It doesn’t sound true coming from my (metaphorical) lips.

I thought I might, then, avoid reviewing books unless they were really noteworthy.  In a way, this has just served to emphasize, to me anyway, exactly how mediocre most books are.  With the exception of Essex County and Doctor Zhivago (review forthcoming), most of the books I’ve read in the last four months have been disappointments.  They weren’t terrible, of course.  They had their moments.  But I’m hardly prepared to rave about them in public, or even lend them off to other people.  (Don’t read too much into this, by the way – just because I haven’t linked a review to a book on my reading list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.  I am also sometimes just lazy.)

So do I publish cranky reviews or make nicey-nicey?  Leave off reviewing altogether and tell you about the latest frustrations of running an independent bookstore?  To be honest I haven’t quite finalized a long-term plan yet, but I have decided to do a review dump.  Over the next few days I’ll give a cluster of paragraph-sized reviews of some of the more interesting things I’ve read.  After that, who knows.  I’m inclined to give my blog a new subtitle: “Thoughts from a very ornery individual” or something, which will serve as a warning to anyone who prefers rainbows and lollipops.  After all, we can’t all review with the same voice, just as we don’t all read with the same eyes.  Diversity is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Consider me the resident badger!

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Will the Reader Wait?

In case you’ve been in a hole (or just not on Twitter) for the last two days, you’re missing a very interesting debate over Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize win for The Sentimentalists.  Her publisher, Gaspereau Press, is on the record as saying they won’t take any extraordinary measures to meet the demand for the book: they will continue to print the books as they always have and fill orders as they come.  This means an output of about 1000 copies a week.  Given a “normal” Giller winner can expect to sell 60,000-80,000 copies, there is some debate over whether Gaspereau is robbing Ms. Skibsrud of a potential windfall.

It seems to me that the crux of the debate is whether or not the reader will wait.  Do those books need to be on shelves next week?  Or will the readers wait to read them when they can eventually get a copy?  If Ms. Skibsrud will find her 75,000 readers over three years, that’s no big loss to anyone.  But if the delay causes reader interest to wain, everyone stands to lose.

I am spectacularly naive about what generalizable groups will do.  I can’t speak for “The Readers” anymore than I can speak for “The Voters”, whose motives and actions I manage to be blindsided by every. Single. Time.  I don’t know if The Readers will wait, but limited evidence seems to suggest that they won’t.

Everyone I know was reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall last year.  Nobody is reading it this year.  The book hasn’t gotten any worse, in fact by all accounts it is ten time the book that Finkler Question is.  Maybe everybody read it already?  We aren’t selling the paperback of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, last year’s Giller winner.  We only sell Late Nights on Air to students (who read it for Canadian Literature) and I’m not sure we even have a copy of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures in stock (ETA: we do, one copy, which has been there since 2007).

Actually, our customers don’t even look at our Canadian Literature shelves.  They look at New Releases.  I don’t think this is because they have already read everything in Canadian Literature, but I could be wrong.  I have on occasion experimented by placing a new copy of an old book on a New Release display.  This is a good way to sell books which have otherwise been sitting, gathering dust, for five years.  Any bookseller can tell you this.  Having your book “on display” rather than on a shelf is the best a writer can hope for, because the Reader seems to be drawn to shiny newness.  Even the independent reader wants to be In The Know.

I hope for Ms. Skibsrud’s sake that Gaspereau is right, and the readers will wait for her.  Certainly some will.  With any luck that number will be enough to pay off her student debts and buy her a year or two of leisure time in which to write another beautiful book.  If we need anything in Canada, it’s a solid class of working writers, undisturbed by a second “day job”.  I have my fingers crossed for you, Johanna.  I hope I’m as wrong about readers as I am about everything else people do.

A Twofer – Skim & Essex County

So my lip service to the Canada Reads Top 40 announced last week was to read a couple of books I already owned. I know, I’m such a pillar, standing here supporting our publishing industry like this.  But honestly, 40 books whose claim to being “essential” is either mass popularity or social media savvy – I’m not going to run out and buy them all, so why buy any of them?  I’m holdin’ out for the top 5, kids.  And here’s hoping they’re not the five I’ve already read.

I was, however, pretty tickled that two graphic novels made the cut – Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki (real-life cousins) and the Essex County trilogy by Jeff Lemire.  I’d long since bought both, since they’ve collectively racked up every award in comics and even a few outside, but I hadn’t actually got around to reading them yet.  And now I have.

Reading Skim made me more irritated than ever about the fiasco surrounding Mariko Tamaki’s Governor General nod.  This is a short book as far as the text goes – I was through it inside of an hour, toddler interruptions included.  What gives it the depth and length of a novel was Jillian Tamaki’s art, obviously inseparable from the words as far as the whole goes.  The graphic presentation is unquestionably Skim‘s strong point; it’s what lends poetry to an otherwise pretty straight-forward teens-coming-to-know-themselves story.

Teens-coming-to-know-themselves is a pretty standard trope for graphic novels these days.  Some of the best (if not all of the best) work in graphic novels now is autobiographical – see Speigelman’s Maus, Lynda Barry’s What It Is, Joe Matt’s Peepshow and Craig Thompson’s Blankets – and to a man and woman, graphic novelists seem to have been drawn from high school’s outcast classes.

I closed Skim thinking, well, that was no Ghost World.  Skim and her friend Lisa are petulant and insecure, “rebelling” against their suburban (Scarberian) Catholic school upbringings via a very mild mid-90s Goth aesthetic, skipping school now and again, and smoking.  They hate everyone else and, of course, increasingly develop a sense of self through art.  Having been a high-school-Goth in 1994, I found Skim and Lisa pretty bland – at the time, I’d have called them wankers.  Their outcast-ness feels forced, a lame attempt at differentness, enforced by stereotyped teen Christian princesses.  See 2004’s film Saved! for point of reference.  But despite the fact that they wear black and cut class, these nice girls are gonna be okay in the end, you can see that from the beginning.

By comparison, Ghost World‘s Enid & Becky jump right off the page with their pop-culture savvy and penchant for outrageous hyperbole.  They’re smarter, hipper, and skirting a more dangerous edge.  My 15-year-old self would have KILLED to be friends with these girls.  But after re-reading Daniel Clowes’ version of the outcast-teen-story, I have to give Skim credit for what it does do rather than what it doesn’t.

Skim isn’t treading any new ground, but the story is gently and beautifully gendered thanks to Jillian’s art.  You just want to lend Skim a pile of books and give her a big hug.  Hers is  a more universal teenage experience, the same sad stuff we all went through to some degree.  The moodiness of the naturalistic landscapes haunted by teenagers all trying to hide from each other will probably resonate with the confused teen in your life, and it’s Jillian Tamaki we have to thank for that.

But it was Jeff Lemire’s Essex County that gets my gold star of approval this weekend.  While invoking familiar Canadian themes of cold winters, small-town hockey dreams and wheat-covered rural life, he manages to avoid comparison to anyone at all.  He gets that Canadian tone just right, without waving flags, sentimentalism, or a tongue in cheek.

Each of the three volumes of the novel tell the story of one or more characters from Essex County, Ontario.  Each character lives a life interlaced with the others (a small-town given – even the faces and names of the Essex County “short stories” included at the end of the Collected Essex County are familiar, being evidently someone’s uncle, grandfather, or neighbour.)  But despite all these connections and overlapping histories the characters are all grappling with crushing loneliness.  If there is a Lemire-ian hallmark, it is surely the stark black-and-white full-length panel of a character, alone at a table in a room obviously intended to hold more people.  The black shadow cast against two or more walls of the room will reveal some domestic symbol in negative: a cross, a clock.  The discomfort of those rooms contrasted with the neutral, trying-to-just-get-by expressions of his (adorable) characters leaves a deep impression.  It’s masterful work.

The loose style of Lemire’s art gives the impression of something which has just occurred to him, dashed off in a hurry.  But the sketchbooks at the back of the Collected volume tell a much more complete story of drafts, rewrites and thought.  The book also does the trick of making you want to spend more time in this world with these – or other – characters.  Essex County – Lemire’s version – is a deep world rich with untold stories.  The three shorts included in the Collected whets the appetite.  That is the mark of a master story-teller.

In other news, is anyone else having a hard time voting for their top-10 Canada Reads title?  My instinct is to vote for the book I most want to read, rather than the one I’ve read and liked best.  I mean, for Pete’s sake, I don’t want anything I’ve read before on that list.  So how could I vote for something I’ve already loved?  But then, how essential can I say something is that I’ve never read?  Oh well, the saga continues.   November 7th (or is it 9th?), you can’t come soon enough.

All complaints aside, I’m still excited…

…about the Canada Reads “top 40” to be announced Thursday!  In the end I folded and submitted a recommendation against my better judgement (it was a past Canada Reads winner, but given I suspect MANY past Canada Reads winners will be on the list, I’d like one on there that actually feels “essential”, to me).  The final list will be, I suspect, a bit of a Janus, with half the list being over-read, popular books the likes of Book of Negroes and Three Day Road, and the other half the product of write-in campaigns organized by enterprising or beleaguered authors.  And honestly, that’s not a bad mix.  If it makes it that way into the final five, we’ll have a fun little reading list.

I am nursing a little wish-list.  Books I’d like to read, but in all honesty probably won’t get to anytime soon if they don’t make the Canada Reads cut.  The sad truth is that for all my whining, I’ve actually read very little “recent” Canadian literature – not even the big sellers.  So with no further ado, here is my top-5 dream-list!

Canada Reads 2011 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (I know, I know…)

2.  DeNiro’s Game or Cockroach by Rawi Hage (I’m not picky.)

3.  Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey (“epic”, “historical” and an Atlantic Canada Reads nod? I’m in!)

4. The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (I need to laugh now and again, by god.)

5. Elle by Douglas Glover (More history – this time with added feminism!)

***

I’ll have to hold out until next year to get my fix of older titles.  I was so hoping to see certain names on a Canada Reads list — those authors have the misfortune not to have published anything major in the last ten years.  Canada Reads panelists of the future, how I hope you’ll Google me…

Canada Reads 2012 (If Charlotte Got To Choose)

1. The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

2. Anything by Josef Škvorecký (Swell Season?  Bass Saxophone? Two Murders in my Double Life?)

3. Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche (Tell me a 16-book Canadian soap opera from the 1930s wouldn’t be dead fun to read.)

4. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (Poetry, queer lit, historical fantasy and international cred all in one.)

5. Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint (One of his best, I think – short stories.  Pretty please?)

***

Good luck to everyone tomorrow!

“What to Read” Works Itself Out

Want something with a strong, character-driven narrative? Literary credentials?  Depth and length? Elif-Batuman-inspired-Russianness?

How about a brand-shiny-new Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago?

I think I’m in love!

A Short Note on Books I Will Probably Never Read

About Cormac McCarthy’s latest, Michael Chabon says, “The Road is not a record of fatherly fidelity; it is a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greater fears.”  The rest of Chabon’s analysis in his essay Dark Adventure, in Maps and Legends, served as just as much of a warning-off: this is a book I will probably never read.

Never say never, I know, but I have to tell you I have no stomach for horror or gore at the best of times, and I am absolutely intolerant of harm and death of children.  Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes floored me with its scenes of baby theft-and-murder swaddled in an otherwise feel-good tale.  Jodi Picoult’s short story “Weights and Measures” in Neil Gaiman’s Stories collection had me tearing up at the cash register at work – I mean, I had to stop for fear that I’d start bawling in the middle of the store.  I don’t think I could ever take an unapologetic, stark look at an unforgiving end-of-the-world scenario starring a little boy who is afforded no innocence.  It ain’t happenin’.

I admit I have similar fears about Emma Donoghue’s Room.  I understand the material is presented with innocence and humour, but the subject matter gives me the shivers.  Is this a mommy thing?  How did it treat the rest of you?  Is my squeamishness unfounded?

Characters vs People

Somehow I grew up biased against non-fiction.  I suspect it has to do with the libraries of my parents, stacked wall-to-wall with excellent literary and Canadian novels, interrupted only by old university textbooks.  At first non-fiction seemed boring and later, when I came to know a thing or two about the Public’s reading habits, I associated non-fiction with reading celebrity memoirs or true crime accounts.  Non-fiction was either academic or low-brow.  I forced myself to read non-fiction about 1/3 of the time: I considered this a sort of penance paid for self-education.  Mostly these books were about science, politics, environmentalism or food.  Things about which I felt I ought to be Educated.

So it surprises me to some extent to find that, over the last few years, some of my favourite books have been non-fiction: Eleanor Wachtel’s collections, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading and Deep Economy by Dave McKibbon.  The extent to which I am beginning to prefer a good collection of essays, or a memoir, was made obvious this week as I read Michael Moorcock’s contribution to the Neil Gaiman-edited short story collection, Stories.  Moorcock’s contribution, also called Stories, starts out “This is the story of my friend Rex Fisch…” and launches into the history of a group of writers.  It took me three or four pages to realize that what I was reading wasn’t fiction, but autobiographical.  The shift in my perspective, the sudden sharpening of my interest was a physical sensation, like putting on a new pair of glasses.  Suddenly, this was the best story I’d read yet.  A dozen pages in I hesitated and wondered, maybe this is fiction after all?  Can anyone write fiction that true, that compelling?  All those characters, dates, events, histories, relationships!  The depth and complexity of the story Moorcock is telling seems impossible to replicate in fiction.  Maybe it’s the lack of descriptive landscape, and of poetic language.  Maybe just knowing it’s true makes me more curious.  But something is different.

The best book I’ve read in a long time is Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.  No, maybe not the best.  Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was amazing.  So was Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators.  But I haven’t been as engaged by any book this year the way The Possessed engaged me.  The books is a series of vignettes of Batuman’s time spent In Academia, from life as an undergrad, to post-graduate assignments in Russia in the dead of February.  She sets out explaining that she wanted to be a writer, but that the right path, for her, was to study literature, rather than to study writer’s craft.  The experiences she subsequently racks up, from a summer in Samarkand studying “Ancient Uzbek” to helping to coordinate a conference on Isaac Babel certainly made for meaty retelling.  Somehow I can’t imagine workshopping stories in New Jersey can provide quite the same anecdotal kick (but I could be wrong).  The Possessed was side-splittingly hilarious, insightful and inspiring.  These were good stories.  The complex connections she can draw between her life, the lives of her beloved Russian masters, and the universal experience of life did justice to her ambitions.  I’d read anything Batuman writes now, right down to a laundry list.  She has authority, experience, insight and style.  What more can a novelist boast?

Now, as a life-long devotee of The Novel, I feel I need to engage with something longer and deeper, with characters I can root for and despise, and longer plots I can follow.  I need something that can reaffirm my faith in the novelist’s ability to write as true and as deep as an essayist or memoirist.   Batuman makes me crave Tolstoy – Anna Karenina? – , Moorcock tempts me to explore Dashiell Hammett – I think I have The Thin Man on my shelf – and Michael Chabon now has me re-eyeing Sherlock Holmes.

What would you recommend?  Who are the best story-tellers, the best crafters of narrative truth and story?  I’m in the market for a new book…