761 Words about Canada Reads

2011 winner

Hm.

Days Two and Three of Canada Reads have come and gone. Terry Fallis’ book The Best Laid Plans is the winner. That is just about all I’m going to say about that.

I have been heartened in the past days to see so much insightful, funny and honest commentary on Canada Reads… it makes my job that much easier. It felt, for a while, as if were the only one writing about this stuff; I wondered, sometimes, if it wasn’t easier for me to do it because I don’t have a place within the established literary circles, or publishing, or radio… I’m just a blogger, you know? I have no real vested interest except for that which is concerned with being able to live in a culture that respects books and writing, that privileges writers and well… takes this stuff seriously.

I’ll read just about anything and give it a chance. I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to reading and there’s almost nothing I won’t try to read. Like Debbie Travis, there are some books I just haven’t been able to finish, just couldn’t do it. I only have so much time in

Random shelf in downstairs hallway. No order, definitely no dewey decimal system. They’re arranged whimsically, and I read ’em all. Cherry Ames Dude Ranch Nurse,  please meet Louis Althusser.

my life, and like Nancy Pearl and her Rule of 50, I don’t feel guilty about it. That said, there are very few. Confession: never, ever, was able to finish Old Man and the Sea (10th grade reading assignment). Nor have I managed to finish Eat, Pray, Love (Gah! so bad). I say I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, but now I can’t actually remember if I finished it. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

We’re all allowed our personal opinions. That’s cool and I want to keep it that way.

In a contest, though, such as this they have set rules. Criteria that they need to take into account when they judge a piece of writing. Sara Quin said it during the post-game show — that in the end “it’s a job” — they had criteria and she had to work within those rules. I can’t, and won’t, say I agree with her choice, but I like that she worked within the rules of the game and that she took her job seriously. That everyone had a different idea of what those rules were is clear, though, and problematic.

I’ve been getting really caught up in this, so want to take a step back. I don’t want to nit-pick every little bit of this, because (thank god) other people are offering up reportage and play-by-play of what happened yesterday and today. There are some really great blogs out there talking about the competition now, and about the books, and giving their really smart comments and  analysis. Do a tag search, and you’ll find tens of sites, all with interesting fresh things to say about this show.

I’m more interested in a comment that Debbie Travis made in the post-game show, about a conversation she had with Ami McKay. I’m paraphrasing, but she said that Ami told her there’s a “code” of conduct — that authors don’t talk down other author’s books. Jason McBride wrote a great article about this in the December 2010 Quill & Quire. His question was “Is honest criticism possible in the tight-knit world of CanLit, where everybody knows everybody else?” and it’s a good question to ask. It’s pertinent to this space, here, because I know the whole Canada Reads gameplay thing has made it very difficult for people in the literary community. That difficulty trickles down to little wee blogs like Box761 — I can get 300 hits on a posting, and not a single comment. People don’t want to talk about it, not out loud, anyway, and certainly not in public.

Debbie Travis said it herself — that her job was to say what the writers can’t. That said, though, did Debbie or any of the other panelists do that? I think not. It was an exercise in diplomacy, all around. Even when one of the panelists didn’t like a book (or even finish it), their stock phrase was “it didn’t move me” or “it’s not my thing”.  Not a single person there said “the writing wasn’t great, and I wonder how it got into this contest” …. something I’ve wondered about a couple of these books (and no, I’m not going to tell you which ones).

Instead, they latched on to these ridiculous arguments about how x book is better because it will help teenagers read more, or it will encourage more people to go into trades… wtf? Since when is Canada Reads about making teenagers and “semi-illiterates” interested in reading? Since when does that mean we dumb down the entire canon of great literature in Canada? That we privilege “easy reads” over great writing? Argh.

What has bothered me from the very beginning is this sense I get that all of this is just so much filler… something to drive hits to their site.  Someone, somewhere, in the bowels of CBC decided that hits to the site and tweets with the #canadareads hashtag were the indicators of success for this process. The part of this competition that got the least amount of air time was the books themselves. I know what each author thinks is a great gift for christmas, and I know more about what some random Canada Reads “team” thinks of the books than I care to know. I read about the Canada Reads Dinner Party Contest, and what five select bloggers think about Canada Reads blah blah blah. It was incessant, the noise coming from the Canada Reads portal.

What I didn’t see, until day two or three of the actual competition, was anyone really talking about the books. And before you think I’m just snarky for the fun of it, I want to go on record here –it wasn’t all that bad.  On Days 2 and 3 I wasn’t able to listen to it in real time (life intruded), so I was able to have a leisurely stroll through the replays, and it felt almost-kinda-maybe like they were sorta-almost getting to the point where there was some interesting commentary on the books themselves. Jian Ghomeshi was really great (though seems ambitious — is he bucking for a tv show?) and he moderated it ably. He wasn’t great at hiding his biases, but that’s okay. The debaters were — by the end of the competition — doing better at actually discussing the books themselves. In fact, during the post-game show, I found them all to be very appealing and smart. During Day 3’s pre-show live audio feed, they were delightful and real. I liked them by the end of it all.

I am swayed, against my will almost, by the comments in the live chat — people wrote things like “I could barely sleep last night because of anticipation” (weird), and “love the talk about canlit, this is great!” and “I’m going to go out and buy these books”… these are things that I cannot deny. Canada Reads does have a strong influence. All the more reason, though, to take seriously their responsibility toward keeping the tone of it respectful, of not selling out to the lowest common denominator, and of not making a spectacle of themselves just to get hits.

Things like this drive me crazy (from Facebook today):

Just like all 10-year old children, Canada Reads needs to understand that any attention is not good attention.  They could take all of that frenetic social media energy and use it for good. Respectful, author-empowering, calm, informative “edutainment” (shudder. I couldn’t think of another way to say it. Forgive me) that will by its very nature help Canada read more.

This has been a difficult post to write. I despise the frantic, empty,  exclamation mark-happy prattle that they’re serving up. I abhor the Hunger Games-ishness of it all, and find myself wanting to tell the grown ups over at CBC what their kids are doing while they aren’t looking. I find it impossibly frustrating that by all accounts this has been the most “successful” Canada Reads ever — largely because they are gauging that success by counting hits and click-throughs and memberships in the CBC Book Club, etc. I am torn, because while I complain about all of this, I also bought all five books and read them and found myself delighted by a few of them. I saw the chat scrolling down, full of people emailing from all over Canada and beyond… I saw that it was really something that people loved. I don’t really get it, but I’m willing to concede it.

I haven’t been slagging on Canada Reads for all these months for no reason. It’s because I really thought — and still do — that they could be doing it better. That whether they like it or not, the CBC is in the position of great power to shape culture, to further appreciation of writing, and to model respectful behaviour toward those who create that culture that CBC is disseminating.

Next up? The Bookies. Sigh.

Essential. Accessible. Whatever.

With some trepidation I chose today to watch the Hunger Games online — live video feed plus chat (moderated by Hannah Classen and Brian Francis).

I was planning on blogging about it today, right after the big event but, well… I painted my bathroom instead. Then I did some laundry, played with the dogs, trolled the internet, you know.

Yeah, it was that interesting.

Good point, Box 761

I found myself distracted by the inane commentary of the live chat — I spent some fascinated moments looking to see what Brian Francis was going to paraphrase; I started sending comments, just to see if they’d post them (see above). It was kind of fun, in a slighty nauseating kind of way.

Worried that I was going to lose some of it. I started cutting and pasting, just so I could go back and enjoy it all later… insightful comments about the whole Canada Reads process like one from a listener/emailer named Aaron, who asked:

What does the winner of this get?

Oh dear.

And really, aside from amusing myself with the online chat stuff, I did listen, really I did. I’ve made this topic a bit of a speciality of the house, these past few months, and I do a lot of thinking about it. Aside from rummaging around  my own big brain, I’ve been finding some bloggers/writers who are writing some pretty interesting stuff about #canadareads lately, as well.

I mentioned the Walrus article in a previous post — essential reading, I think (more on that word, essential, later), and after much quiet out in the Districts (a Hunger Games reference, fyi) people are finally starting to talk. Charlotte Ashley over at Inklings has been writing some really great, funny and honest stuff. Her exasperation is a breath of fresh air.  Bonnie Stewart, social media maven, wrote some great commentary here today in her blog. I like this, and I love the fresh, irreverent… frustration I hear in these voices.  We’re all bookish sorts, we all love writing, reading, reading about writing — all of it. And what I am starting to hear is a sense of loss — where is the respect, the dignity that writing should have?  What is the CBC doing to contribute to meaningful commentary about literature in this country? Is Canada Reads doing it?

Nah. I can’t even go into depth on this one right now. It makes me tired and bores me. I’ve said it over and over again. Watching that train wreck today was like, I dunno… watching a pretend show about books. It was like a sitcom book panel — you had a smart and earnest young woman, a driven “career gal”, a business man, a sports guy (“life is a battle!”), and an Aboriginal actor/director. After an agonizingly long introductory session (with cheesy voiced-over slideshows for those watching online) with awkward speechifying, they finally got to the point in the show where they were supposed to, you know, debate.

I must have nodded off for a moment because the next thing I knew, they were talking about books being “accessible” and “popular” and then some of them seemed to think that the point of the show was to discuss “getting kids reading”…. Nowhere did I hear anyone even attempt to qualify what “essential” means. I’ve been waiting for that for a while now, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it continues to go unproblematized. So what if the entire shebang is based on these books being “essential”, right?

In keeping with my interest in the peripheral commentary, I saw the following on Facebook this evening:

"Gateway book"?

I think there’s a whooooooole lot of confusion in that post. (Where do they get their stats, and help me out here — is “semi-illiterate” better or worse than “semi-literate”?) I get what they are trying to say, but it’s a cobbled together mish-mash of ideas that culminates in the Grand-daddy of all concepts.

I refer, of course, to that of the “Gateway Book”.

Holy mother of all things literary, what the heck is that? I have no doubt that the person who wrote that post thought they were making some really valid points. Some of those points were voiced by our celebrity panel earlier today. For some reason, all of a sudden, books aren’t about you know, craft, or art

Books are now about being “accessible” (which I guess in our culture now means “easy”?).  At this point, I would be happy if they went back to talking about “essential” — somehow that’s less offensive to me.  “Accessible” means “easily approached or entered” (according to my quick but hilariously apt google search for a definition).  At least “essential” implies worth of some sort. In my world, “accessible” means that all people are able to access the material, not that the book is easy for “semi-illiterate” people to understand.

I'll bet she's reading Lemire's book right now!

But. um. Gateway book? hee hee. What’s next, reading chapter books? Staying up all hours of the night reading?  OMG, what if they start to read… poetry.  It’s like Reefer Madness, but with words. You know, it seems harmless at first, you let them read a few picture books, some comics, then a graphic novel… then all hell breaks loose — they’re reading everything and don’t care who knows it!

It’s as if writers (and Canada Reads judges) are now the social workers of the reading world. They have to get those kids reading, and it has to be easy, that goes without saying.

 

Hm. Where was I?

Sorry, so easy to get carried away. There’s almost too much to think about here, and so little time. Tomorrow this will start all over again. We will hear Georges say that life is a battle. We will see Ali Velshi do his thing —  slyly clever schtick-y sound bites that upon reflection don’t actually say much. Debbie Travis — successful mogul Debbie — will continue to slide her eyes down and sideways and tell us how nervous she is. Lorne Cardinal will be thoughtful but not forceful (I almost forgot he was on it for a moment there). Sara Quin will be articulate and free to speak her mind, and flush with the power of being a swing vote.

Who’s going to get kicked off tomorrow? I think they must be going in reverse order, from best book down, so I think Carol Shield’s finely realized and beautiful book Unless will be the next to go (in my mind they were tied for 1st place). I don’t like it, but there you go.  Essex County is a great book, and it made me think about novels and the creative process in ways that many other books haven’t in a long time.

Personally, I’m pretty sure that none of those five books are the “essential” book of the decade. Maybe someday we’ll all have to have a little chat about that — which books we think are essential.

First, lets define essential though, okay?

 

10:28

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Brian Francis:

“Haunting connections between the characters…cinematic.” Sara

Monday February 7, 2011 10:28 Brian Francis

10:28

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Hannah Classen:

And she didnt’ even need all the time!

Monday February 7, 2011 10:28 Hannah Classen

10:28

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Brian Francis:

Lorne’s turn.

Monday February 7, 2011 10:28 Brian Francis

10:29

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[Comment From Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers : ]

What does the winner of this get?

Oooh! the anticipation…

Can’t wait to see what those scamps at CBC have up their sleeves for the CBC Canada Reads extravaganza next week. Read a great article in Walrus Magazine the other day, by one Jeet Heer. Aside from my blog (of course), you should read this in preparation for the Games. Good to do some homework.

My homework is to finish reading The Bone Cage — I think it’s a strong contender for a number of reasons, and I’ve thought this since before reading the book… it’s just that Angie Abdou seems to have the most coordinated PR effort. She’s genial and enthusiastic and is everywhere on social media. She is, I think, this year’s Katniss.

My last post garnered some fascinating comments (offline). These comments suggested that my gripes should not be limited to what I’ve been discussing lately, but that I need to “go higher”. I thought about that, and realize that there is some merit —  that while what I’ve been talking about is all valid, it is merely a symptom of a more systemic issue. That said, it’s the books coverage, and more specifically the Canada Reads contest, that really get my goat. And, really, it was almost too easy. Who can resist that?

Other than that, nothing much going on here at present. Just trying to dig ourselves out of the omnipresent snow.

Red Shoes, Connecticut, and A Lesson in Alphabetizing

I’m sitting in a Toyota dealership, waiting for my car’s regularly scheduled maintenance to be completed. I came armed with all of my tools – Sony e-reader, iPad, Blackberry. In the past half hour since I got here, I’ve used all of them, but find the iPad the most beguiling.

Right now I’m people watching…. Such a motherload of characters here, in this little dealership today. My current fave is the woman with red patent leather high heels. She also has dangly earrings like cherries (I am not making this up!), an ankle bracelet, a full length pleather coat, and a fake Louis Vuitton bag. She is both over- and under-dressed. She has been swanning around the showroom, clickety-clacking her heels and stroking her chinny-chin-chin and looking very important.

I thought she wanted to buy a car, but now I’m not sure. She was tippy-tapping around the SUV (the shiny red one, to match her shoes) but now she is sitting with the rest of us in the waiting room. She is one of those people who lick their fingers when they want to turn the page of their magazine. That used to seem glamorous to me; those sassy dames in 40’s movies licked their fingers when they read. Now it just makes me think about germs.

Her heels are open toed and she has coral toenail polish. I really want to take her out for a coffee. I have imagined a whole life story for her, and wish I could compare notes with her to see if I’m close.

One reason I’m here, aside from it being the regular time for this car check up, is that Mr. 761 and I are going on a road trip to Connecticut, and it’s always nice to have car checked out first. My brother lives there, with his wife and two adorable girls, and since it’s an easy drive we thought we’d go. Grandma & Grandpa 761 will also be there, and it seemed like a nice way to make a quick week’s jaunt  into something extra nice. The last time I chatted with Grandpa 761 he didn’t sound great, but I talked to him this afternoon and he sounded much better. I’m happy about that.

I like that Mr. 761’s job gives us this freedom…. For so many years we lived minute-to-minute, working at raising the kids, working at our jobs, and making ends meet. Anywhere we wanted to go had to be accessible, which ruled out a lot – even family. Now, the kids are grown, or almost-grown, and we have these month-long leaves that allow us to go places. Connecticut is only 14 hours away by car – one long day, or two lovely relaxed days – but we have never driven there together. This is our time. I’m hungry to spend this time with him, to show him places and people dear to me – places and people we were too busy/broke/tired to see until now. It really is a gift, in a lot of ways (the whole work-in-Kandahar part of it bites, as does the not having him here all the time, but we’re managing, and trying to really appreciate the perks).

So. We leave tomorrow, and I may blog, but may not. Depends.

You have not yet read a single thing on this blog today about CBC Canada Reads 2011. The reason for that is that I have had nothing much to say about it lately. I have voted already, and I’m awaiting the results of the vote next week. I’m now trolling the blogs to see what people out there are saying, and I’m starting an alphabetical read of all 40 — what the hell, right? I’ve read about half of them, but will re-read those as well, so I’m going to have some very pleasant times ahead.

One reason I’m doing it alphabetically by author is that the bright lights at CBC Canada Reads decided to alphabetize it by book title, counting THE as a word. My sense of order was so offended by this that I had to re-order it. I could not leave it the way it was. Maybe I’m too picky (I did create my own early version of the dewey decimal system for my books as a 10-year old geek girl), but you just can’t organize book titles and count THE as part of it. Holy Mother of all things Lexicographical, what school did Erin go to?

So, two Atwoods and an Abdou – the Bone Cage (which was listed waaaay down in the “T’s” instead of the freaking “A’s” where it belongs…. yikes. I’ll be reading Abdou’s book first, since it’s alphabetically FIRST (unless you do it by title, and count THE as part of it, which would just be silly).

Below, I have placed the alphabetized list of the Top 40 the way I would do it if I were my job to, I dunno,  alphabetize a frigging list of books. I’ve left the links to the reviews from Q&Q that the CBC crew put in there, but please just read the books. Or look around for more than one review (more than 140 characters would be useful).

1.      Abdou  The Bone Cage

2.      Atwood Oryx and Crake

3.      Atwood The Year of the Flood

4.      Benjamin Drive-by Saviours

5.      Boyden Three Day Road

6.      Boyden Through Black Spruce

7.      Buchanan The Day the Falls Stood Still

8.      Conlin Heave

9.      Crummey Galore

10.  Dixon The Girls Who Saw Everything

11.  Donoghue Room

12.  Fallis The Best Laid Plans

13.  Finucan The Fallen

14.  Gibb Sweetness in the Belly

15.  Gibson Pattern Recognition

16.  Glover Elle

17.  Grant Come, Thou Tortoise

18.  Harvey Inside

19.  Hay Late Nights on Air

20.  Hill The Book of Negroes

21.  Lawson Crow Lake

22.  Lemire Essex County

23.  MacDonald The Way the Crow Flies

24.  MacIntyre The Bishop’s Man

25.  Martel Life of Pi

26.  McKay The Birth House

27.  McKay Jr. Twenty-Six

28.  Moore February

29.  Novik Conceit

30.  O’Neill Lullabies for Little Criminals

31.  Pick Far to Go

32.  Redekop Shelf Monkey

33.  Robertson Moody Food

34.  Shields Unless

35.  Tamaki Skim

36.  Toews A Complicated Kindness

37.  Urquhart The Stone Carvers

38.  Vanderhaeghe The Last Crossing

39.  Whittall Bottle Rocket Hearts

40.  Wright Clara Callan