Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Canada Reads Independently

Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has decided to run a separate book club of sorts, due to her disappointment with the official CBC Canada Reads shortlist. She asked me in December if I'd care to select a title to defend. I asked her, at least in part with my tongue in my cheek, if I might choose one of my own. Kerry said that the fact that I had endorsed a book by publishing it was good enough for her.

But: which title should I choose? I immediately gravitated to our Renditions list of reprints. I love this series, and consider it in some ways the heart and soul of the Biblioasis enterprise: to ensure that important and unjustly overlooked works of Canadian literature are brought back into print, that they are given a chance to find the audience they deserve. If Canada Reads worked as it should, it would be books like these -- overlooked classics, in my opinion -- and not recent bestsellers and more common fare -- that would be given a shot at the spotlight. If I could afford it, I'd do 3-4 of these titles a year, and you would see books by Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee, Susan Kerslake, Norman Levine, Leon Rooke, Mavis Gallant, Douglas Glover, Mark Anthony Jarman, Linda Svendson and many others alongside the already existent titles by Terry Griggs, John Metcalf, Ray Robertson and Ray Smith (3 of them). I've viewed the series as a form of service, of giving back, and it is something I hope we can eventually grow as a bit of an aesthetic counterpoint to the New Canadian Library. As it is, unfortunately, I may have to take a break from the series for a year or two until my finances make it once again possible to take the hit these titles inevitably are.

Of the current Renditions titles, my favorite at the moment may just be Ray Smith's Century. I worried about selecting this title for Kerry's program: it's elicited wildly different responses from its readers. There are those who think it perhaps the most important work of Canadian fiction published: Charles Foran said as much in his introduction to the book, and a few others since the title's re-release this past Spring have concurred. Others have read it and hated it, and have not seen what the big deal is about. It is certainly an uncomfortable book: dark, troubling, sad, moral, while remaining blackly humorous, as is the case with so much of Smith's work. Steven Beattie, reviewing the book on That Shakespherian Rag this past summer, said, in part: "... the experience of reading Century is bracing, even 23 years after it was first published. Its pervasive sense of melancholy in the face of a fallen world may even carry greater impact in our post-9/11 society. In any event, it remains sui generis: a strange, searing work by one of our finest literary practitioners." It is one of the books I most hope readers of this blog -- all six of you -- will pick up. And i'm thankful for Kerry for agreeing to read it, and giving it a shot at finding at least a few more readers.

I was surprised to learn later that the same Steven Beattie chose another Renditions title, Ray Robertson's Moody Food, as the title he'll be defending. Beattie writes: "Rock and roll novels are difficult to pull off. It’s hard to capture on the page the unkempt spirit of the music – its energy, its anarchy, its ethereal, emotional immediacy. Which makes Moody Food, an extended booze- and drug-fuelled odyssey into Toronto’s Yorkville (and beyond) in the 1960s, a fairly stunning achievement ... the novel is many things: a modern retelling of The Great Gatsby; a vividly realized portrait of Yorkville in the 1960s; and a metaphor for the disillusionment of the generation that came of age pursuing a heady mix of peace, love, and marijuana smoke. Robertson has said, "I believe that no matter what artistic pursuits you have, you want to be regarded like a rock star." Ambitious and ultimately highly moving, Moody Food is that rarest of all beasts: a great rock and roll novel."

The other contestants are:

Katrina Onstad: How Happy to Be.
Martha Ostenso: Wild Geese
Carrie Snyder: Hair Hat.

To read the write ups about each book and its defener, please go here.

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