Monthly Archives: February 2013

Another milestone, a continued commitment to literacy and literary causes

I’ve mused in previous blog posts about the importance of literacy. From those musings, coupled with wise advice and support from book and publishing friends and acquaintances in real life and online, I’ve made a commitment to supporting literacy initiatives and programs … every time I hit a followership milestone on Twitter.

This time, I’ll confess I’ve strayed a bit from literacy causes to literary causes. Inspired by the recent Al Purdy Show, I’ve made my donation as follows:

Al Purdy A-Frame

In 1957, Al and Eurithe Purdy bought the property on “the south shore of Roblin Lake, a mile or so from the village of Ameliasburgh, in Prince Edward County… (the) lot bordered the lake shoreline, a teacup of water nearly two miles long. Dimensions of the lot were 100 feet wide by 265 long.” This became the home where Al Purdy wrote many of his most stirring and influential works. Even while the storied A-frame cottage was being built, it also became a meeting place — for poets, for poetry lovers, for those aspiring to be poets, and for those who wrote and supported Canadian literature in other forms. Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Tom Marshall, George Bowering, Earle Birney, Lynn Crosbie, Steven Heighton, Patrick Lane, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland … the CanLit who’s who is too immense to exhaustively list.

Now, in addition to upgrading and preserving this deservedly historical site, supporters envision a Writer-in-Residence Program:

“The residency program for the A-frame was designed by poets David Helwig, Steven Heighton, Karen Solie and Rob Budde. The poets were selected to include a broad poetic sensibility, geographical reach, breadth of experience with residency programs, knowledge of Purdy’s work and personal experience of the property. Both David and Steven were long time friends of the Purdys and spent many decades visiting Roblin Lake.

“To begin, the residency will operate for 8 months, from April 1 to November 30. Later the winter months may be added. The A-frame will provide time and a place to work that is attractive and of historic significance. Writers can apply for a term of one to three months. The residency will be open to all writers, but preference will be given to poetry and poetry projects. The jury will also consider proposals for a one month project in critical writing about Canadian poetry each year and will be open to unusual and creative ideas for residencies.”

Learn more at the Al Purdy A-Frame Association page.

As I’ve mentioned previously on this subject, much more important than numbers of followers or influence scores or whatever is that we are in this social milieu reading and writing and talking … about books and literature and print and digital formats and reading devices, and on to bookstores and libraries and the vital reading and writing experiences in all their forms. I value those who follow me and converse with me, those that I follow and learn from, and those that I come across even fleetingly in this vibrant tweeting, retweeting, chattering, enthusiastic and engaged environment. It’s not the numbers of them (although that there is endless potential for book friends out there continues to take my breath away), but the quality of the discourse and the spirit, dealing with fundamental issues, not to mention myriad delights.

Numbers are just numbers. But then again, we can use those numbers in creative ways to challenge ourselves to remember, to recognize, to give back. Through this exercise, I’ve learned about other organizations and institutions supporting literacy, literary causes and books that I’d like to recognize in future, so I’m going to set a goal to do just that whenever I hit one of those “number” milestones. I challenge other book tweeters and bloggers to do the same.

Canada Reads gets its mojo back

Canada Reads

I admit I went into Canada Reads 2013 with a certain degree of trepidation and even fatigue this year. I’ve followed it with enthusiasm since its inception in 2002, typically tuning in to the debates having read at least some if not all of the books. I’ve always delighted in the unabashedly nerdy and quintessentially Canadian celebration of books and reading as the focal point of an ongoing radio/television/interwebs series/event. This was captured perfectly by a tweet from the Canada Reads 2013 moderator after things wrapped up on Valentine’s Day:

@jianghomeshi From an American friend: “only in Canada would you have a reality show about reading books.” Yep. And proudly so. 🙂

But after 2012, I don’t think I was alone in feeling a little disenchanted by the whole enterprise. The multi-tiered selection process (which, admittedly, I contributed my two cents’ worth to …) seemed interminable. As in 2011, the selection process also had a whiff of social media boosterism shading into overt lobbying that was uncomfortable at times. Along with that, there was increasing questioning of what exactly constituted the “Can” in the CanLit the program was supposed to bolster. (Terry Fallis wrote about it here.) And then the 2012 debates themselves tipped pretty shamelessly into the theatrical. This was perhaps unwittingly exacerbated by the subject matter that year being works of non-fiction, affording at least one vociferous panelist the excuse to level personal attacks against authors who were ostensibly one and the same with the real-life characters in their books. It wasn’t about the books for much of the debates – it was gratuitous showmanship writ large, and it left readers ill at ease and other writers and commentators often furious (for example: With Canada Reads, the CBC is bottom-feeding on culture by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer in The Globe and Mail.)

For CanLit lovers, hope always springs eternal though, so I was cautiously prepared to try to engage again in 2013. I decided that I would take part in the discussions that focused on the books. CBC Books provided ample opportunities to do just that via hosted Twitter chats and other events and activities. I followed other readers’ reviews and articles and had myself a grand time just thinking about the merits of the books, and the dedication and creativity of the authors. I also decided I would leave it at that if the debates kicked off with any hints that it was going to go off the rails again. I said my piece here about how pleased I was with the strengths of all of the finalist books – any of them was a justifiable and defensible winner – and I went into it on February 11th with great optimism. I was not disappointed. In fact, I was hugely impressed.

While all of the 2013 books were strong, the Canada Reads outcome is alchemy of book and defender, with a dash or two of strategy and voting kismet. Much as the theatrics overtook the actual book debates last year, I don’t begrudge the show some drama … well, because it is a show. But this year, the drama that emerged was in service to the books, products of the passion, intellect and wiles of a group of gracious, collegial but still lively defenders. (OK, Ron MacLean could’ve toned down the puns just a bit …)

One theatrical element in the Canada Reads formula is the moment when everyone gasps, when the book that is seemingly most beloved gets taken down by some vagary in the voting or by some hinted at behind-the-scenes dealing gone awry. This rendition of Canada Reads was no different, but the seemingly unexpected early departure of Indian Horse actually transpired very organically, transparently and germanely. Panelist Charlotte Gray took laser aim at the book’s relative shortcomings – not at the author or the worthy themes of the book, but at the book’s flaws in written execution. So, the surprise wasn’t really a surprise, nor does it mean disaster and obscurity for the “voted off” book. Indian Horse has and will continue to do just fine, as will all of the books. Neither does it mean that the voting format should be reconsidered. The suggestion that the moderator should cast a deciding vote in ties subverts the role of the moderator … who wears his bookish heart on his sleeve just a little bit as it is.

The culmination of Canada Reads 2013 was genuinely suspenseful and satisfying. Two well-matched and articulate defenders (actor/screenwriter Jay Baruchel and comedian Trent McClellan) championed books (Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan and February by Lisa Moore) with connections to time and place that are particularly poignant in this cold month of February. Their closing comments were some of the best of a crop of quotable quotes by all of the panelists this year.

Canada Reads will have to grapple again next year with a theme or construct that will captivate readers and will ultimately scale to something relevant for new prospective readers across Canada. It’s going to be difficult for the show to top the charm, chemistry and acumen of this year’s panelists. But again, I’m not alone in knowing I’ll be looking with renewed interest at the next rendition of Canada Reads, and the next intriguing set of book and defender match-ups.

For a second year, an added enjoyable dimension to Canada Reads has been the challenge that Julie Wilson (aka BookMadam) and I concocted. At the time of the reveal of the five finalists, we wrote down our predictions of the order in which we thought the books would be voted off. Both of us chose a literacy cause to champion, and when the winning book was announced, whoever least accurately predicted the outcome had to make a donation to the cause of choice of she who more accurately predicted the outcome. (We ended up tying, so both charities benefited.)

This year I teamed up with Allegra Young (@ayoungvoice). Behold our predictions:

So, my predictions weren’t bad but hello! Ms Young completed nailed the entire sequence in which the books were voted off until February emerged victorious. As a result, I’m happily making a donation to Allegra’s charitable choice, Children’s Book Bank.

Joining us for the Canada Reads challenge this year were Carrie Macmillan (@Cmacmizzle) and Jeanne Duperreault (@jaduperreault). They report that their predictions were tied: they both got the placing of February, Indian Horse and The Age of Hope correct, but switched Two Solitudes and Away. So, they’re both going to donate to their respective causes – STELLAA (Stella’s Training, Education, Literacy, Learning and Academic Assistance) and First Book Canada.

It’s safe to say there were a lot of Canada Reads winners this year.

Some thoughts on Canada Reads Eve

“Canada Reads is staging a turf war for 2013, with the five competing books each representing a different region of the country. Those five books will be defended by five celebrity champions and battled down to one winner ­ the book all Canadians should read.”

Canada Reads

One of my favourite parts of the extended Canada Reads 2013 ramp-up has been the weekly Twitter chats hosted by CBC Books – one chat focused on each of the five contending books, plus one chat wrapping it all up, looking at common themes, making predictions and so on.

During that final chat, I came to a couple of realizations. What dawned on me then will appreciably inform my perspectives and reactions going into the broadcast (radio, video, liveblog, podcast, Twitter commentary using the #canadareads hashtag, et al) debates from Monday, February 11th to Thursday, February 14th, when a final survivor/winner receives a Canadian book sales Valentine. (You can check out a replay of that final chat here.)

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

First, it occurred to me that among the five finalist books, there was neither a singular book that captivated me vastly more than the others, nor was there one that aggrieved me as so patently unsuitable, so not in the league of the others or of the overall Canada Reads honour. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese puts indelible and courageous faces to Canada’s dark chapter of residential schools and their abuses on First Nations families and children. The Age of Hope by David Bergen traces the adult life of a small town Canadian woman from pre-World War II to the 1980s and asks if a life seemingly quietly lived is still rich and fulfilled. Two Solitudes by the late Hugh MacLennan was written in the World War II era and offers still potent reflections on the polarities of English and French Canadian society, traditions, politics and more. Away by Jane Urquhart tells a mystical, folkloric multi-generational tale that travels from Ireland in the 1840s through to contemporary settings in Quebec and Ontario. February by Lisa Moore focuses in heartwrenching and intimate detail on the effects, leaping back and forth in time, of the 1982 Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster on one woman and her family.

Themes of the personal and political intersect in various of the books and are echoed between books. Plot lines, secondary threads or references to everything from prejudice to tragedy to individual vs tribal, social or communal identities to, of course, hockey appear in some form or another in all of the books.

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

OK, I do have a couple of favourites. To my mind, the descriptions in Indian Horse of the physical exhilaration of hockey played flat-out in bracing cold air on hard ice, playing so vigorously and so joyfully that it becomes a transcendent, healing thing offers one of the most lyrical tributes to the sport – really, to any sport – that I’ve ever read. Page after page, I marvelled as I reread Two Solitudes just a few months ago – having first read it close to 40 years ago – how resonant its themes still are. The book captures vivid divisions and differences brought to life with characters who are if not fully fleshed out are attractive, endearing and compelling. Those divisions include French/English, young/old, rural/urban – and the book contends that ultimately, Canadians want to, can and do transcend them.

The Age of Hope by David Bergen

How Canadian is it, then, that I feel that all of the Canada Reads finalists could be justifiably and defensibly the winner? That’s either very good – the books are all high calibre, meritorious, resonant, lively and deserving of cross Canada attention and respect – or that’s worrisome. Are they all homogenized or compromised in some way as to be minimally offensive to the broadest cross section of potential readers? I don’t think so. If the #canadareads chats are any indication, there are definite opinions about merit and identification with themes and characters that will surely be grist for the debates. Interestingly and perhaps a bit ironically, it appeared that some of the most vociferous exchanges during the chats were about Hope Koop, who some thought benign, bland, passive, lacking in spirit … but wait, perhaps she’s enigmatic, perhaps she has more gumption than she’s given credit for. Is she someone that all Canadians can relate to and should get to know?

February by Lisa Moore

Second, it occurred to me that I’ve read all five Canada Reads books again in advance of the debates. It just so happens they’re all books I’m likely to either have read already or would have on my “to be read” list, but I knew I also had to have my homework done before February 11th, if not well before then to take part knowledgeably in any of the lead-up discussions or to fully appreciate the author interviews, music playlists and so on. But you know, part of me wishes I could go into the debate one of these times to be convinced without having read any of them, or to test with some purity whether the debates stand on their own as a truly useful way of being introduced to the books. Of course, the debates can’t help but be predicated on some beforehand knowledge of the books and authors. Anyhow, it’s not how Canada Reads books have come to be marketed nowadays, is it? The five-book packages and bookstore displays started in November, and we’re meant to respond. Still, don’t you think it’d be an interesting approach to learning about the books to intentionally go in blind one year?

Away by Jane Urquhart

From or near the outset, the Canada Reads book left standing every year has been touted with the phrase “the book all Canadians should read.” In 2002, when musician Steven Page championed Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion to the “win”, I remember following and enjoying the debates and the debaters, delighted at this new way of celebrating books, reading and readers. That year, I tuned in to the broadcasts having already read four of the five books – but I’d read them because I was interested in them before Canada Reads came along. While perhaps it happened, I don’t recall there being a protracted period of time before those first debates when everyone was exhorted to prep and read beforehand and had their own debates and discussions as extensively as they do now. (Mind you, there wasn’t then the network of blogs, hashtags and other outlets for broadcast, discussion and participation that there are now.)

But riddle me this: if we’re all supposed to read all of the finalist books beforehand, when the debates conclude and “the book all Canadians should read” is crowned … well, haven’t we all already read it? Does Canada Reads just need to fine tune its taglines, or have the objectives shifted in significant ways that shut down the magic of discovery or in fact open up new possibilities for how we collectively connect as readers?

At any rate, if you’ve engaged as a reader with the Canada Reads books and the process by which they’ve been chosen and the opportunities you’ve been given to discuss them, that’s all genuinely wonderful. One thing we need to remind ourselves before the debates start, though, is that we should not confuse any of the collegial and insightful discussions among readers and thoughts from the authors with what happens next: a show with its own machinery, agendas and dynamics. Laments in recent years – particularly last year, during the sometimes vitriolic non-fiction debates that crossed into personal terrain for authors and defenders – that Canada Reads takes its tone more from reality shows than literary salons are rather beside the point. Yes, we know. The defenders, with their range of literary credibility (and even proof that they’ve read all of the books) are public figures and presenters first (yes, even this year’s Charlotte Gray). Canada Reads has always set out to entertain as well as inform. Those who think the informing part is incidental, absent or thin can choose not to tune in, or can take part in the lead-up discussions of potentially more substance. But because Canada Reads is not and has never pretended to be a literary salon that I can recall, the entertainment fireworks and strategic machinations are wild cards that are part of the mix, and for some, part of the fun.

There is still room within the Canada Reads format as it has evolved to appreciate the expected, to react but not be too fazed by the unexpected and to even engage in it differently from year to year. If you do tune in to the final Canada Reads events, you can be assured that something we can’t possibly predict will happen to surprise us all. Something beloved or seemingly sure won’t be. Whatever the outcome, it’ll be worth returning to in iterations of its current form in years to come.

Thanks to Sean Cranbury. After Canada Reads 2012, he initiated and moderated a lively and collegial discussion on Facebook that informed my Canada Reads participation and perspectives this year.

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