Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Canada Reads challenge

Canada Reads 2012

Want to follow along with the Canada Reads 2012 debates and add your own element of challenge to it, that will benefit the library, book or literacy cause of your choice? Read on!

The Canada Reads: True Stories battle lines have been drawn. Here are the five non-fiction titles and their defenders, who will launch into extensive literary debate (not to mention trash talking) starting now and culminating in a series of debates come February:

As host of the debates Jian Ghomeshi contends, “With this combination of powerful personalities and compelling true stories, we expect sparks to fly in the debates.”

Leading up to the debates, here’s a way to get some more sparks flying between you and your book friends and tweeps.

  1. Pair up with a book friend or tweep and challenge each other to two things: identify a favourite library, book or literacy cause, and predict the outcome of the Canada Reads 2012 debates. Speak aloud your favourite cause, but keep your predictions under wraps (for now).
  2. Write down your Canada Reads predictions – the order in which the 5 books will finish – and seal them in an envelope.
  3. Exchange your envelope with your book friend, who will also have sealed his/her predictions.
  4. Shake hands with your book friend, and commit to two things: to not open those envelopes until the Canada Reads debates finish in February, 2012, and to donate to your friend’s library, book or literacy cause if your predictions are the least accurate of the two.
  5. Tweet who you are pairing up with for the challenge and promote the library, book or literacy cause that will benefit when you win and your opponent must make a donation. Tweet to @BookMadam and/or @bookgaga, and we’ll keep track of everyone who is taking the challenge.
  6. When all is revealed in February, you and your book friend/challenge partner open your envelopes and determine whose predictions were closest. Whoever predicted closest to the final Canada Reads results asks their challenge partner to make a donation as the “loser” (no one’s really a loser, though) of the bet.
  7. Tweet your results and mention again the cause that benefits from your challenge.

Julie Wilson (aka BookMadam) and I have already challenged each other to make our Canada Reads predictions. At the official exchange of the envelopes, we’ll tweet the causes who will stand to benefit from our challenge. Won’t you join us?

Happy reading or re-reading of the Canada Reads contenders!

Julie Wilson




Named by Open Book Ontario as a Rabble-Rouser, Julie Wilson is the Literary Voyeur behind, The Madam at Book Madam & Associates and the Host of Julie’s short fiction collection, Seen Reading, will publish with Freehand Books in April 2012. Follow her on Twitter: @BookMadam and @SeenReading.




Vicki Ziegler

Vicki Ziegler is a Web site/online/social media manager who is privileged to work with the Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry, among other amazing clients. She reads steadily and omnivorously, blogs about books from time to time at, and tweets regularly about things literary via @bookgaga.

The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

I’m very excited to welcome another guest book reviewer to the Bookgaga blog. This time, I’m delighted to swing the spotlight over to Isabelle Giraud, a dear book friend I met on Twitter and with whom I’ve since been up to Canada Reads-related mischief (but that’s another story). You too will fall in love with ebullient Isabelle when you follow her on Twitter @BlueShoes55, where she waxes in rhapsodic and heartfelt fashion on books and other lively subjects.

The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler was born in 1941 in Minneapolis, Minnesota but grew up in Quaker communities around North Carolina. After graduating at age 19 from Duke University, she majored in Russian studies at Columbia University. She married Iranian psychiatrist Taghi Modaressi and the couple had two daughters. Tyler and her husband lived in Baltimore, Maryland whose streets and neighbourhoods, especially the historical suburb of Roland Park, provide the background of most of Tyler’s novels.

Tyler won the 1989 Pulitzer prize for Breathing Lessons and the 1985 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist which was made into a film starring William Hurt and Geena Davis – and has a strong cult-following although she is not a literary household name. She taught English studies at Duke and is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Tyler creates narrow domestic universes within the confines of a few streets, sometimes a few rooms, where she minutely dissects, with a light hand and infinite compassion the lives of slightly off characters. Her characters are so deeply beloved, their behaviour so factually recounted, readers are forgiven if they take a while to realize they are in fact witnessing people affected with various personality disorders trying to muddle through life.

The Amateur Marriage is one such novel. Pauline and Michael meet the day of Pearl Habour and fall passionately in love. The story of their courtship, Michael’s wound, the subsequent story of their marriage is told in Tyler’s deceptively simple style but it gradually emerges that everything is not right and the contrasting upbeat tone sounds more and more desperate as years go by. There are and have been scenes, painful ones. Incidents, humiliating ones. The reader comes to the gradual realization one of the pair suffers from a form of mental disorder, not socially debilitating enough to be treated or even diagnosed in those pre-Prozac days but that in the long run catastrophically erodes the fabric of family life.

Tyler’s secondary characters manage either by daily denial or by vanishing. She is at her best describing her characters’ coping with the unendurable – here a daughter’s prolonged disappearance:

Amazingly, Michael began to have mornings where Lindy’s absence was not his first thought upon waking. Instead he would travel towards the realization in a kind of two-step process, floating contentedly upward into the warmth of the summer sunlight, the chug-chug of a neighbor’s car starting, the musical murmur of voices elsewhere in the house until all at once – ‘Something’s wrong.’ And his eyes would fly open and he would know. Lindy’s missing.

We recognize fragments of ourselves in Tyler’s stories. Personality disorders are but the pathological manifestation of general character traits and she touches tenderly on this universality of our human condition without ever using “big words”. Astonishingly her contribution to modern American literature in general – and the narrative of mental frailties in particular – is not more widely recognized. Psychiatrists have been known to remark that writers, Dostoyevsky or William Styron for example, are far better at describing mental illness than medical manuals. One can only wish that one day Anne Tyler will be given her rightful place in the literary pantheon. She definitely is a reigning goddess in mine.

Favourite books by Anne TylerSaint Maybe, Morgan’s Passing, Celestial Navigation, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Tin Can Tree, A Patchwork Planet.

Looking at my reading list from some different angles

I’m not a competitive reader. I don’t typically sign up for the “read 100 books in a year” challenges et al. The prospect just leaves me a bit intimidated, a bit bewildered, and a little worried that the unalloyed joy of reading would go right out the window if I set myself on a path like that. Kudos to you who try them – they’re just not for me.

That said, a couple of reading challenges have come across my radar that had me thinking about how I stacked up without being conscious of setting out to meet those specific challenges. I made some interesting discoveries.

The 5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge
from The Book Mine Set blog, by John Mutford

The concept of this challenge is to read and review at least 13 Canadian books (of any genre or ilk) in the period from July 1st (Canada Day, of course) to the next July 1st. Participants share links to their reviews on Mutford’s blog. Yes, there are prizes, but Mutford emphasizes throughout that the main point is to share one’s delight in Canadian literature and have fun.

If I was part of this very worthy challenge, how would I fare? From July 1st, 2010 to July 1st, 2011, I read and reviewed 24 Canadian books of fiction (novels and short stories) and poetry, as follows:


Up Up Up, by Julie Booker

In that period, I read one more Canadian book of short stories, Up Up Up by Julie Booker, for which I haven’t yet written a review. I adored that feisty, ebullient collection of indelible characters, many of whom seemed able to simultaneously squeeze the heart and tickle the proverbial funnybone. I know I was extremely busy with the day job around that time (and Up Up Up probably buoyed me through that patch), but I do need to go back and fill that gap in what I know I wanted to review this year. Till then, here’s a review that I think captures quite nicely what that charmer of a book is all about. (1)

So far, from July 1st, 2011 to the present, I read and reviewed 7 Canadian books of fiction (novels and short stories) and poetry, as follows:

Cool Water, by Dianne Warren

I’ve read, but not yet reviewed, the following. Since I haven’t reviewed them, I’ve found and linked to some other interesting and astute reviews.

So then … I’d say I’m pretty enthusiastic about literature from my home and native land. That’s not such a bad thing, eh? In the July, 2010 to July, 2011 period in which I read 25 Canadian books, I read a total of 39 books – 64% CanLit.

If I wanted to spawn a personal challenge from these findings, I could go in different directions. Do I challenge myself to read yet more CanLit, or do I challenge myself to venture further outside Canada’s borders for my reading choices? How conscious/premeditated/planned versus unconscious/spontaneous/instinctual should my reading list be? Fellow readers, how much do you think about, plan or not plan your reading in this regard?

Here is another reader challenge that was promoted this year:

Year of the Short Story

As it states on the web page, YOSS (Year Of the Short Story) aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause—to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.

So far this year, I’ve read 4 short story collections:

I’m still hoping to read at least two more this year:

  • The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black
  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

In 2010, I only read one short story collection:

In 2009, I read four short story collections:

I do think I want to both read and review more short story collections. I’ve certainly enjoyed the collections I’ve encountered in recent years … so yes, why not more?

It’s been interesting to step back a bit and assess the patterns or trends or inclinations in my reading, to see if I want to consciously adjust them in any way. Are you doing that with your own reading? Is that a good thing to do from time to time … or should reading just be an uncatalogued, spontaneous, follow your heart/go with the flow kind of thing?


1. Book Review: Up Up Up by Julie Booker, by Katherine Laidlaw, This Magazine, September 14, 2011

2. The Canadian Book Review, March 9, 2011

3. Reading for the Joy of It blog, Janet Somerville, October 3, 2010

4. The National Post, Katherine Govier, March 20, 2010

5. Quill & Quire, rob mclennan, November, 2010

6. Pickle Me This blog, Kerry Clare, September 15, 2011

7. Globe and Mail, review by Andrew Pyper, September 17, 2011

Making Light of Tragedy, by Jessica Grant

Making Light of Tragedy, by Jessica Grant

Jessica Grant has reminded me to exercise some long-neglected, or perhaps never fully understood or appreciated muscles. Throughout the exhilarating journey through the short stories of Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy, I sensed something charmingly, arrestingly askew in each story’s setting, interplay of characters and/or narrator’s voice … but could not quite zero in on what it was, and why it felt pleasantly dizzying, but not queasy-making.

Then I came to “Milaken”, the final, most extended and quirkily warmest story of a heart melting series, and I had my answer:

“Tad shuts his eyes and convinces himself his bed is in a different part of the room. This requires a certain muscle, which not everyone has, and which must be exercised regularly and built up, over time. It is not just a matter of visualizing. It is a matter of believing.

Tad trained himself as a kid by rearranging the furniture in his bedroom. Every Sunday, he pushed his bed into a new position – up against a different wall, into a new corner. He bisected the room four different ways, blocked the closet, blocked the door. Until he could move the bed around in his head, with himself in it, and believe in each new position, one hundred percent.”

You don’t just picture the fate of the Olympic ski jumper – Grant convinces you of it, through the grammatical certainty of his bewildered but unwavering wife. You don’t just see the cozy dinner party circle with the Dean of Humanity and imagine theorizing about where in the world you would take a war criminal – Grant forever alters that place in your world. You don’t just immediately see and hear the familiar faces and voices of Peter Mansbridge and Chantal Hebert – Grant has made you certain that Chantal will indeed give Peter a friendly punch the next time you tune in to the At Issue panel. Grant doesn’t just make you see, she makes you believe, however vaguely off-kilter each story’s world is. On one hand, you might find it over the top that a young girl at a birthday party would precociously declare herself suicide bomber O-Sara bin Laden, but then on the other hand, mere pages later, when Peter’s newcast includes an abrupt, segue-less report of a female suicide bomber who seems to have changed her mind … well, you’re convinced and it’s very real.

Tad illustrates what Grant does with each story in Making Light of Tragedy. As he rearranges his furniture (and later teaches his daughter to do the same thing, a gift as wonderful as her marvellous name), so does Grant take characters and keeps reinserting them back in their own, slightly altered stories, with the elements moved around just a touch (oh, a Tad!) … and checks again to see how they’re coping. The steps to falling out of love and then into unattainable or implausible love to cope makes strange, mad but then oddly feasible sense. An entanglement of complicated multisexual office romances escalating to possible threats of violence suddenly boils down to two people trying to sort it out in an office cubicle, perhaps a cubicle that you walked past at work today.

Jessica Grant came to popular and critical attention in 2009 with her first novel, Come, Thou Tortoise. This short story collection predates the novel by about four years, and the story “My Husband’s Jump” was a Journey Prize winner in 2003. Having read Making Light of Tragedy first, this reader is now eager, ready and willing, with the seeing and believing muscles suitably trained, to move on to the novel and to look forward to more from this preternaturally assured author.

Thank you to The Porcupine’s Quill for providing a review copy of Making Light of Tragedy, by Jessica Grant.

Elimination Dance, by Michael Ondaatje

Elimination Dance, by Michael Ondaatje

La Danse Eliminatoire (Traduction de Lola Lemire Tostevin)

This exquisite little gem of a book is a pointed marvel. The words, the translations and even the illustrations (including the sardonic maps at the end) all provoke laughter – much of it delighted, some of it more than a bit pained.

In 1998, filmmaker Bruce McDonald produced a short film vividly and wistfully interpreting Elimination Dance.

Thank you to Brick Books for providing a review copy of Elimination Dance: La danse eliminatoire, by Michael Ondaatje.