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March 11, 2009

The thoroughly unregulated state of Criticism

In what will be my last mention of Canada Reads (for this year), let me say that I’m glad that The Book of Negroes won. Though I don’t think it was a great novel– in fact, it was the most failed of the lot, I think, in those elusive “novelistic terms”– but it is a good book, one I enjoyed reading. I don’t know that it’s the novel all of Canada should read, but it’s one I think most people will like reading, which is certainly something. Though I would definitely be interested in the future to see a panel less composed of books that Canada has read already.

How wonderful though, the sound of readers reading. Ordinary-ish readers talking about books the way that people do, provoking similar conversations that must have continued out in waves. Some of the panelists more astute at literary discussion than others, but the mix was interesting. A spotlight, perhaps, on the kinds of bookish conversations going on all the time in this country amongst people who read. Showing people who might talk books less how to do so, opening up new avenues for readers who might be inclined to just look at books one way (though I think the panel actually could have done a lot more of this. Too many questions were stock.)

I was interested to read a commenter on one blog questioning the use value of this kind of discourse though, wondering why Canada Reads didn’t use “trained critics” instead of celebrities. And the “trained critic” thing really caught my attention, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put that way before. How do you become one of those? What is the system of accreditation? As much as free reign of the common reader in the blogosphere is terrifying, what should we make of the thoroughly unregulated state of Criticism?

Though they have editors, of course, but often these people have no formal accreditation either. Often the critics become critics because the editors are their friends, which makes the whole thing about as formal as a blogroll. Academic background might be considered a requirement, but I’m sure there’s a whole league of critics without one who think such a lack is a kind of merit. That you can’t really understand a book until you’ve worked for a while in a logging camp. Maybe no one’s a critic until they’ve read Northrop Frye (which I haven’t done, except for The Educated Imagination, which was quite short). Point being, there is a certain self-appointedness inherent in literary criticism, a lack of a foundation to the trade, and if I were a literary critic, I’d always be terrified of somebody lurking around every corner demanding to see my papers.

Because for all talk of the problems of democratization, I find the fallibility of criticism no less troubling. Common readers on the internet, at least, (should) lay no claim to authority, but critics do, and they are just as often wrong. I’m thinking about William Arthur Deacon’s limited vantage ground, and the writer who has just realized that an older critic was probably right years ago to infuriatingly tell him he was just too young to “get” Anita Brookner. And what about Henry James’ assessment that Middlemarch “sets a limit to the development of the old-fashioned English novel”?

I just know that I was feeling terribly sick last October, and every single book I encountered was tainted as a result, and I hated most of them desperately. Unfairly too, and mightn’t critics have months like that, or at least days? And wouldn’t it be a lot of pressure for one to have to pretend one is convinced one is always right? When, I wonder, does the doubt creep in. Because it should. Critics are only human.

I write all this not to undermine literary criticism, and not as a blogger’s rant about who owns the books really. I actually am an accredited admirer of literary criticism in that I have a Masters degree, in addition to subscriptions to Canadian Notes and Queries AND The London Review of Books, so there. But the idea of the “trained critic” did frame the whole “online literary discourse is in the hands of the masses” hysteria in a brand new way for me, which is one that I think is worth a ponder.

March 8, 2009

(Almost) Definitive

Oh, this is good. Melanie from Roughing It In the Books gets a bit more definitive than I did about what she’d recommend for the nation to read. Her choice is Thomas Trofimuk’s Doubting Yourself to the Bone, which I’ve never heard of, and have requested at the library. And I’ve managed to narrow it down to two, which is the best I can do. Pickle Me This’s recommendations for Canadian books the whole nation should read is The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Lawrence, and Russell Smith’s Muriella Pent. The first because I bet you have strong opinions of Lawrence based upon having read The Stone Angel in grade twelve, and this might challenge some of them. The second, because it demonstrates that contemporary Canadian fiction can be fabulous to read, and different than anything else you’ve read before.

March 6, 2009

What would you bring?

All week I’ve been contemplating the inevitable– whatever will I decide to bring to the table the day CBC calls me up and asks me to be a panelist on Canada Reads? I’ve thought about this even more than I’ve thought about my Academy Awards acceptance speech, which is saying something. In addition to the fact that I’m delusional.

I’m really convinced that there is merit in celebrating underread “classics”, and that new books indeed could do with a boost, but we just don’t know enough about how they’d stand up yet. My longish shortlist would probably include The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Lawrence, The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan, Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. Of more recent books, perhaps Muriella Pent by Russell Smith, Alligator by Lisa Moore, Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, The Way the Crow Flies by Anne-Marie MacDonald, or The Republic of Love by Carol Shields.

No doubt you strongly disagree with my picks. But wouldn’t it be boring if you didn’t?

March 6, 2009

I'm glad at least

So maybe now everyone in Canada won’t be reading The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, but I’m glad at least that I got to.

March 5, 2009

Rumours Afoot

Now reading Come, Thou Tortoise. Now full of banana scones. Rona Maynard (who never misses anything) has referred me to Persimmon Tree (an online literary magazine by women over sixty) and a review by Laura Miller of Elaine Showalter’s new book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. Dovegreyreader celebrates her blog’s birthday with an interview with Justine Picardie. Stephany Aulenback contemplates names for her baby (and in case you’re wondering, we’ve got names for our’s already, both boy and girl options lifted from children’s novels that have the hero’s name in the title). Canada Reads is now without Mercy. Zoe Heller profiled (and her new book The Believers is out now). I found the G&M’s discussion of the smutty novel Wetlands far more entertaining than I’m sure the book would be. And over at the Biblioasis blog, read Terry Griggs’ foreward to the reprint of her GG-nominated collection Quickening. The reprint is out this spring from Biblioasis, along with a new work by Griggs, both of which I’m thrilled to read– I encountered her first with the Salon des Refuses, and I’m entranced now. Rumours also afoot that she might stop by for an interview here.

March 4, 2009

On Canada Reads

Unless forgetting to do it counts as participation (however passively?), this is my first experience participating in Canada Reads as either listener or reader. And I’ve written already about how much I’ve enjoyed it, how much I’ve been challenged as a reader by others’ competing viewpoints. I’m also glad to have discovered The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, which I’ve become a wee bit obsessed with, and can’t stop talking about (and I would like a bracelet that says, “What Would Marcel Do?”). And now the radio debates, which I’m enjoying thoroughly. Which is not to say that some of the panelists don’t irritate me, but they’re a well-rounded bunch with so many viewpoints represented, and they’re challenging one another in all the ways they should be doing. My experience of their five books is being enhanced by the panelists’ perspectives. I love that books are being fought for. I love that any one could win.

Some things: I’m bothered by a lack of bolstering for Fruit, which is far from an insubstantial novel. Part of its complexity is that it can read as such, certainly, but read it again, you’ll find a different book. The book has been slated by YA, but I don’t think it is, or because if you give Fruit to a twelve year old and a thirty year old, they’re going to be reading two completely different books. There is a real darkness to Fruit, in spite of its humour, that nobody has remarked on. Also, stop talking about the nipples already, for they’re the most unremarkable part of the whole novel. And how about we talk about Peter Paddington vs. Sydney Henderson? Doesn’t Peter accomplish much the same goals as Sydney, narratively speaking, but manage NOT to be entirely one-dimensional?

Also, it turns out everybody loves The Fat Woman Next Door… And I can’t help but wonder if its age is part of that. If the thirty years since its publication have established the book within a context, and so we feel more confident supporting it than we might a book like Fruit, for example. I think it’s strange how many recent novels are included in the lot, and so criticisms that we cast upon them could go anywhere, for you never can tell. I also wonder what time will make of The Book of Negroes.

This conversation of what literature should do kind of makes me want to roll my eyes. For literature is a mulitiudinous thing, and sure it should educate (so says Avi Lewis), and confront us with morality (according to Slean), and make us laugh and show us ourselves (says Jen Sookfong Lee), but what I think it amazing about The Fat Woman… is that it does all of these things, and more. Literature should do a thousand things, and astound you at every turn.

I’m impressed by the subtle balance of Canada Reads gender-wise, by the way. Four out of the five books are by men, but many of them take into account women’s lives and experiences. And the panel is three women to two men. I feel that with this kind of balance, gender really ceases to be an issue, and we can get on to more exciting things.

Online, I’m really enjoying debates coverage at That Shakespeherian Rag, Roughing It In the Books, and the Keeping It Real Book Club.

March 1, 2009

Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay (trans. Sheila Fischman)

I’m sure there are reasons involving the nature of translation and French-Canadian prose which might explain why Michel Tremblay’s novel The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant makes such little use of line breaks, paragraphs and even chapters. My own hypothesis, however, involves Tremblay’s creative intentions, that his book constructs not so much a narrative as a day, a neighbourhood, as life itself (see Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction”, noting in particular, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores on the consciousness.”) Life itself, you see, does not come with line breaks, and paragraphs, and neither do neighbourhoods, particularly those partial to scenes of chaos, cacophony and carnival.

Such is the kind of neighbourhood depicted in Tremblay’s novel, the Plateau Mont Royal on the second day of May, 1942. The novel presided over by a Greek-style chorus– Rose, Violet, Mauve and their mother Florence, unseen by all except cats and crazy people– knitting booties on the balcony of a tidy yet apparently abandoned house: “We’re here so that everything will keep moving ahead. What’s knitted is knitted– even if it isn’t knitted right.” And move ahead indeed everything does, as the rue Fabre awakens, its residents starting their days, niece and oncle in one particular house staging a race to the bathroom.

It is in this house that the fat woman lives, too old and too fat to be pregnant, but she is, risking her health. She’s confined to a chair in her room, listening to the sounds of life inside her crowded apartment. She lives with her two sons, her husband and his mother, brother, sister, and her two children, and in such close quarters, tempers flare, dramas are enacted, bodies excrete, are washed, make love, and make life. The woman is ridiculed for the state she’s in, for exercising a degree of agency in her reproductive life. Six other women on the street are also pregnant, but each of them are more burdened than blessed than the fat woman, who is having a baby just because she wanted one. Though this is also WW2, during which men with pregnant wives are exempt from the draft, French Canadian men in particular reluctant to fight a war for the English, or for France who they see as has having abandoned them.

The novel takes place over the course of one day, various plot lines connected by geographical proximity. Following the fat woman and her family, their various neighbours, including the two local prostitutes, and the fabulous cat Duplessis, all presided over by the knitting sisters. The story takes turns both hilarious and tragic, characters marvelously wicked and cruel, driven by whims, driven by passion– there is everything here. Like life itself. The novel actually driven by life, or at least its promise, punctuated by baby kicks: “She rubbed her belly. The baby had just moved and her heart contracted with joy.”

This is a political novel, written during a political time, but even more importantly, the novel is far more than that. It achieves universality even in its specificity, and I read it divorced from its context– I don’t know Montreal well, the history and culture of Quebec I know only in the vaguest terms. What remains, however, is a wonderful piece of Literature, which was not the sense I got from The Book of Negroes once its context was taken away. I did get such a sense from Mercy Among the Children, but that book never came alive to me the way this one did. The way Fruit did too, which was literary in spite of its accessibility, and whose simplicity might have obscured the various planes on which it worked. (I liked Fruit‘s ending, so terribly haunting, not at all what one would have expected for a book that was bright pink).

What counts against The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is that it’s difficult, work to get into, though once I was hooked it was a pleasure. But reading did require a fair bit of revisiting, maps on the endpages, diagrams in the margins, there were several bits I did not understand, necessitating a rereading. But how engaging is that? A book that can’t be skimmed over, that you have to work to get inside, but once you’re there, you’ve earned it. The book is yours. So I’m going to go along with the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable, that Canadians are smart enough to be so challenged. That we get the kinds of novels we deserve, and so The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant would really be quite the compliment.

Final! Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads Rankings:
1) The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay (trans. Sheila Fischman)
2) Fruit by Brian Francis
3) Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
4) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
5) The Outlander by Gil Adamson

February 23, 2009

Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: The Outlander by Gil Adamson

Right there on the back cover of Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, it’s labelled, “Part historical novel, part Gothic tale, and part literary Western”. The sort of hybrid book readers go crazy for, and I’ve certainly never heard a word against it. Adamson’s first novel (though she’s published collections of short stories and poetry before) has at its forefront Mary Boulton, “The Widow”, who we find at the beginning of the story fleeing through the woods with dogs on her trail, being pursued by her enormous red-headed brothers-in-law. It appears that she’s killed her husband, so the brothers are determined to find her and force her to face some kind of justice.

The book refers back to a time when the maps were all empty, though we know that Mary Boulton is in Western Canada. The shape of the novel being her track across that empty place– imagine her as a furiously dotted line. Along the way she encounters several different characters, though some are hallucinations. Never safe, she stays nowhere too long, and passes from one port to another until she ends up in the mining town of Frank, British Columbia.

The book’s strongest feature is its language, I think, which is gorgeous and evocative. Describing a nature which is in turns glorious and brutal, as well as the bare facts of Mary Boulton’s situation– her hunger, her sickness, her madness. She’s an intriguing character, even more so in the flashbacks when we see she comes from a background like nothing you’d expect of a murderess, and that she was a very different kind of girl once upon a time.

Unfortunately, I never felt I got close enough to her, to understand why she killed her husband, to understand why she runs. She was a character distant enough to be called just “The Widow”, and those around her were even more distant, incidental to her flight. The plot seems a loose construction around the language, which dragged down to reveal that not so much was there. The book said to be “gripping” but I was never gripped. With every page, with every new character she encountered, I’d think, “Ok, now it starts…” but it never did for me.

Which I don’t think is the book’s fault, but I was just so far from its ideal reader. “Part historical novel, part Gothic tale, and part literary Western” seems a recipe for the kind of book that puts me to sleep. Which is why my review is a bit lax here, but there really aren’t hours in the day for me to spend thoughtfully reviewing books I don’t like. Particularly when so many others do like this one, and they can’t all be wrong. I’ll be really interested in hearing readers’ arguments for this book, but I think it might all just come down to a matter of taste.

**Check out a more positive take on The Outlander over at the Canada Reads site.

Canada Reads Rankings (so far):
1) Fruit by Brian Francis
2) Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
3) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
4) The Outlander by Gil Adamson

February 16, 2009

Reading in a Chorus

I’ve long been fond of the fact that I’m part of a chorus of readers, both on-line and in the actual world. The deceptively unsolitary nature of reading endlessly delights me, though I’ve never really been driven have us all start singing the same song. I am difficult that way. So my Canada Reads challenge is just as much an experiment, but already I’m finding positive outcomes.

On Friday night we attended the Canada Reads event at the Toronto Metro Reference Library, hosted by Matt Galloway, and featuring Gil Adamson (author of The Outlander), Patricia Hamilton (I KNOW!) speaking for The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, Brian Francis (author of Fruit), Donna Bailey-Nurse championing The Book of Negroes, and Sarah Slean speaking for Mercy Among the Children, along with its author David Adams Richards. We received the familiar joys of listening to authors read from their work, learning about their books’ origins, but also the rarer joy (in public forums, at least) of readers championing beloved books. I do believe there is nothing else like it, the infection of avid readership. I came away from the event with new perspectives on the books I’ve already read, and I am bursting to read the final two.

At home, Canada Reads has become a family affair, and I’m enjoying that experience too. Underlining the fact that my opinions are so not subjective– my husband has adored The Book of Negroes, for instance, and we’ve had so many spirited discussions about our different interpretations of the book. Our differing opinions informing each other, though never managing to change our minds, oh no. But still, that there are no wrong answers here, no clear winners or losers. Each of the books has its own reasons for emerging victorious, and those lucky among us will get a sense of every one.

(Above, Matt Galloway with the fabulous Brian Francis.)

February 13, 2009

Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Following along with Canada Reads online, I’ve found it a testament to both the book and its author that so many readers have been driven to put down Mercy Among the Children because of its “bleakness”, or because “it’s depressing.” Doesn’t that strike you as a powerful effect for a novel to have? To be abandoned for reasons quite different from being boring, or incomprehensible. Any assemblage of text that can hit one that hard must be something of an marvelous construction.

But I do understand what these readers are saying, because Mercy is certainly not easy. Though it’s not difficult either, being set within the last twenty years, most excellently paced, and written in accessible language that still manages to be exquisite prose. Where I lacked access, however, was in terms of literary allusion, which restricted a whole plane of the novel’s experience. Further, I’m seriously under-read in the kinds of novels from which this one finds its tradition– nineteenth century, Russian, or written by Thomas Hardy.

I think understanding this kind of literary tradition would have provided the bleakness of Mercy Among the Children with some kind of context. But lacking that background as I do, I could only take the Richards’ narrative as I found it. The story of the Henderson family whose bad luck is unrelenting, as narrated by their son Lyle. The father Sydney committing himself to pacifism at a young age to save himself from the world around him, for he believes that whatever ill you inflict upon another will come back to you in ways that are multifold. This stance distinguishing Sydney as somebody different, a threat to the status-quo.

“You are allowed anything in this life,” Sydney’s wife Elly tries to tell him, “except the luxury of being different– this is why you are being tried.” Theirs is a world where success comes only with “deceit and treachery”, and Sydney’s refusal to pay this price means his family remains impoverished out in their tar-shack on the highway, his children are tormented at school, and he is framed for crimes he would never commit. He won’t defend himself against these accusations either, feeling such arguments beneath him. He may be an uneducated man, but he taught himself to read, and he has absorbed enough of the wisdom of books (which as “knowledge” is distinguished from “learning”) to be confident in the direction of his leanings.

As a reader I had to steel myself against the Hendersons’ fate, one horrible plight after after and soon I just became resigned (which is perhaps my version of “putting the book down”). The novel’s devastating conclusion utterly ineffectual then, for I’d become numb to it all– but as Lyle Henderson had to some extent too, I think my experience was analogous. The conclusion also somewhat satisfying in proving that Sydney Henderson was right, that everyone will get what’s coming at the end, though I wonder– at what price?

This is an interesting novel to consider for discussion, because I think most readers will focus on a judgment of the characters rather than a discussion of the book itself. Whether Sydney was right in his stance, did he betray his family, whether Lyle’s deviation from his father’s ways was justified or not. Though there is a certain limitation to this kind of discussion too, for so many of Richards’ characters are written as “types”. He explains them to us: who is weak and who is strong, and though he has sympathy for some of the most unsympathetic types (providing an understanding of the devious Pits, for instance, who are the architects of most of the Hendersons’ destruction), others (particularly those who are more “learned” than “wise”) are presented as utterly ignorant and one dimensional.

I struggled with the female characters too, who were beautiful, stupid and helpless (but with a core of inner strength), and endlessly coveted sexually, or were shrewd, mannish, ugly, and utterly unsexed. In the novel’s afterward, more hopeful scenarios are presented for these characters (or at least for those who haven’t died), but these are more alluded to rather than shown.

Mercy Among the Children read like a great novel to me, in a way that Brian Francis’s Fruit isn’t, but– guess what– I still think Fruit is more worthy of being the novel that Canada Reads. Actually dealing with much the same subject matter too– Peter Paddington would probably be well aware that we’re allowed anything in this life except the luxury of being different. Peter is feared for his differences just as Sydney Henderson is feared, because those who challenge the status-quo threaten to expose the worst about the rest of us. But because Francis doesn’t drive the point all the way home in quite the way that Richards does, and because Francis’s comedy is most engaging (and rare in Canadian lit.), I will leave Fruit at number one.

I still think The Book of Negroes is an amazing book, and worth reading for all of the reasons Avi Lewis outlines here. But I don’t think any of his reasons are good ones for picking up a novel. I really find The Book of Negroes is a kind of nonfiction incognito, and though I enjoyed it more than Mercy Among the Children, and learned much more from it, I can’t help but determine Mercy.. as a more successful work of fiction.

Canada Reads Rankings (so far):
1) Fruit by Brian Francis
2) Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
3) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

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