Friday, March 6, 2009

Canada Continues to Read

I've not bothered posting anything about the Canada Reads proceedings to-date for a few reasons. 1)I've read none of the books. 2)Steven Beattie and Alex Good have been doing a bang-up job over at TSR. 3)It's all about fiction and I have little interest in contemporary fiction, per se. Not that I don't ever read it and haven't enjoyed some works of it, I just don't have the time or energy to sift thru it looking for the best of it.

But I still tuned in to all episodes this week. I think it was a particularly weak year. I don't think Jian Ghomeshi did a very good job hosting it. As Steven and Alex have pointed out, he wasn't exactly an impartial mediator. He also asked a lot of questions that led to inevitably trite and repetitive answers. I also found the repeated insistence on the commercial impact of the show needlessly crass. But all the blame can't rest on him. The champions, on the whole, didn't seem all that well chosen and were content for the most part to wallow in generalizations and feelgood vagaries. There was caginess, particularly on the part of Avi Lewis and Jen Sookfong Lee, but very little by way of eloquent--or even accurate--testimony on the books' behalf. Hardly any quotes from the books were provided over the course of the week. We heard that Adamson had the best prose, but we heard none of the prose itself. This seems a significant shortcoming when you're talking about supposedly literary books.

And tho I haven't read any of the books, as I said, The Book of Negroes was hanging out in my apartment for a couple of weeks while Rachel read it, and I was subjected to numerous "listen to this" recitations of incredibly bad, cliche-drenched expository prose from it. Rachel did finish the book because the subject matter's of interest to her--she said that she could see the seams where Hill was integrating material from non-fiction books she'd read on the topic--but hated every minute of it. I don't see how the other books could have been worse than this one. Style isn't everything in a novel, but a total dearth of it has to be damning at a certain point. (Then again, MG Vassanji keeps winning awards...) The book's style never came up once, at least not in any substantive way, during the debates. And it won. And it's a bestseller. And it won the Commonwealth Prize. It's got an awful lot of miles out of its gripping subject matter.

I like the idea of this kind of round-robin discussion of different books, but it doesn't seem that the "Survival" format's any more conducive to picking a good book than any other prize jury. The only book from Canada Reads '09 I'm likely to check out is Tremblay's. But better to read it in French. I've read and/or seen performed two of his plays, Bonjour là, bonjour and Les belles soeurs, and the language he uses is so much the point of his writing--unlike Hill, who seems deaf and indifferent to linguistic felicity--that it's exceptionally difficult to translate without losing a great deal of the original's elan. One could imagine a typical paragraph of Hill's, on the other hand, actually being improved in translation. Say, into a film. Or, better yet, a mini-series! Cha-ching!

I think they should really do one of these Canada Reads with a panel of experts. Bring in Philip Marchand, Zsuzsi Gartner (a past participant), Steven Beattie, Alex Good and Stephen Henighan. Now that would be an interesting discussion.

1 comment:

Zachariah Wells said...

[Alice Burdick, who hasn't got a blogger account, emailed me the following note, which she said I could post here.--ZW]

I caught a few of the episodes of Canada Reads this week (well, two) and I agree that all of the 'champions' were a lot more champignon. The only book I've read on the list was The Outlander, which was a wonderfully written book. Too bad they got that actor dork to talk about it. I've always loved Gil's short stories and poetry, though, so I'm probably biased. A lot of the complaints (that I heard) about the book were that they couldn't really 'relate' to the main character. Stupid. Most of the arguments seemed to be about how uplifting or not the stories are. Sort of missionary.

Interesting, too, Rachel's experience of The Book of Negroes. Another friend of mine mentioned how boring and un-nuanced the main character is in that book - how the slave traders etc. have a lot more depth as characters...