Friday, January 01, 2010

THE LINEUP (Canada Reads 2010: Independently)

My gang of celebity panelists and their excellent picks below, in alphabetical order by panelist. I am very excited about every single one of these books, and I hope my excitement gets a little contagious.

The Champion: Steven W. Beattie

Steven W. Beattie is review editor at Quill & Quire, and administrator of the literary site That Shakespearean Rag.

The Book: Moody Food, by Ray Robertson

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 tells the story of Bill Hansen, an employee at the Making Waves used bookstore, who meets an itinerant musician named Thomas Graham, an American transplant decked out in a “white cowboy boots and a red silk shirt, all topped off with a white jacket covered with a green sequined pot plant, a couple of sparkling acid cubes, and a pair of woman's breasts.” Graham (a figure loosely based on the real-life ’60s rocker Gram Parsons) enlists Bill and his girlfriend, Christine, to join him on his idealistic quest to create what he calls “Interstellar North American Music.”

First published in 2003, 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 Champion: Rona Maynard

The first book that captured Rona Maynard's imagination was I Can Fly by Margaret Wise Brown. The most recent was The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. In between, she has edited Chatelaine, written the memoir My Mother's Daughter and contributed to the anthology Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. She speaks across the country on the life-changing lessons she's learned from difficult people, and blogs at She believes that no one is ever too old to be enchanted by timeless words read aloud.

The Book: How Happy to Be by Katrina Onstad

Ever since Katrina Onstad’s debut novel How Happy to Be kept me immersed throughout a cross-country flight in economy class, I’ve been urging friends to discover this neglected millennial spin on the mother of all stories, coming of age. Not that the jacket copy mentions that term. The adjectives scream modernity—hip, ironic, sardonic, sassy—as if the publisher doesn’t trust the Jaded Generation to give a snarky tweet for a young woman’s fumbling and belated struggle to start living like a grownup instead of a resentful kid.

Onstad’s journalist heroine, Maxime, is on the face of it a princess of irony—a pop culture maven with a perpetual hangover and an unsparing eye for the foibles of stars whose self-important pronouncements sell The Daily, “a paper so right that Hitler would have made the commute.” About to turn 35 and still partying like a commitment-phobe at frosh week, Max embodies the studied brittleness of a culture in flight from reflection and responsibility. She’s way too smart not to know it. A frequent guest on TV roundtables about the manufactured topic du jour, she sums up her requests this way: “Swing music is back, could you take an anti-swing stance? What do you think of Gap greeters? Is sex the new virginity? Virginity the new modesty?”

A former film critic for The National Post (speaking of right-wing papers), Onstad limns Max’s workaday world with deft comic flourishes that capture the navel-gazing nuttiness that’s now being packaged as news by aging hipsters in thrall to trivia. But there’s a lot more at work here than spot-on satire. Max’s studied cynicism conceals the fear and bone-deep loneliness of the still-unparented child she is at heart—daughter of a mother who died way too young and a feckless hippy father in constant retreat from his own grief. Among the many rewards of this incisive novel is the unsparing light it shines on baby boomers, whose own brand of narcissism paved the way for their children’s obsession with glossy nothings.

Max’s eloquently portrayed frustration with her trendy pastiche of a life makes her a poignant and compelling character. She knows exactly what she doesn’t want—the same old same old. But what can she embrace with her whole being? And does she dare take the risk? That’s the unspoken question posed by the return of an old boyfriend who would never fit in at a celebrity press conference. Max’s triumph—and Onstad’s—is that she makes the leap, and you root for her all the way. The best stories never do go out of style.

The Champion: Melanie Owen

Melanie Owen is a writer, editor and social media consultant living in Calgary, Alberta. Recently most of her days are spent chasing after her toddler daughter and drinking too much tea but she does manage to get some reading and writing done every day. She has an unhealthy obsession with collecting the New Canadian Library paperbacks that were published in late 1960s/early 1970s in an array of garish colours – and has since started a blog about reading her way through them:

Melanie can also be found at

The Book: Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso

I told myself I wasn’t going to pick a New Canadian Library book for this but, lets be honest, what else have I been reading these days? Besides, I keep buying this book for people so obviously I love it and feel that if called upon to defend it I would be able to do so. I’ll be honest – this isn’t a happy book (no great NCL books are in my opinion) but it is good. I find that most people haven’t heard about this book or Martha Ostenso and they both deserve a lot more recognition. Published in 1925 this one takes into question the prudish morality of the day and is very much steeped in what was considered the Canadian realist literary attitude. There is a lot of - what I like to call - "nature going on", meaning: talking about nature/weather in a metaphorical sense - no Can Lit classic could be without that. But it also seems to me that is must have been interesting time for women to write say what they wanted to say without being shunned too much. Lind Archer, the lead character, is definitely an independent woman trying to hold on to some of her independence while still living acceptably in the small community around her. Apparently Ostenso wrote the novel in six weeks for a novel writing contest and it is said that she wrote it with her married English Professor lover - who later left his family to be with her - and so maybe she wasn't so interested in what the morality of the day was? Either way, it is a fantastic read and will stick in your mind for a long time.

The Champion: Patricia Storms

Patricia Storms is an award-winning cartoonist, as well as an illustrator and author of picture books and humorous gift books. She was the artist for the 2008 TD Summer Reading Club, and recently traveled to Nunavut as an author/illustrator for the 2009 TD Canadian Children’s Book Week. Her newest picture book, ‘The Pirate and the Penguin’, was published September 2009 by Owlkids Books. “Wonderfully expressive faces, hyperbolic cartoons and the occasional use of speech bubbles combine to make the illustrations both quirky and fun”, writes Kirkus Reviews. Patricia lives and creates in Toronto, with her husband Guy and two fat cats.

The Book: Hair Hat by Carrie Snyder:

Perhaps it’s unfair to pit a collection of short stories against a list of novels, but I couldn’t help myself – I am so smitten with Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat, it simply had to be my ‘Canada Reads 2010: Independently’ pick. The eleven stories in Snyder’s debut collection are charming, quirky, mysterious, and Snyder’s wry prose is sharp and spare. The teenager describing the adults who surround her at a summer barbeque: I hated them all, exquisitely. Or the young girl agonizing over her humiliation: I knew what my face looked like at that moment, the mouth in a stupid O, and I wished I could undo it and throw that face away. Tales of seemingly ordinary lives, subtly revealed to be discomforting and dark, are all delicately linked by a strange, mysterious man whose hair resembles a hat. People in these stories have secrets, are unhappy, unsettled, and it is the presence of the Hair Hat Man, like the lone stranger in a small Western town, who wakes them from their clouded slumber. In the story ‘Comfort’ the woman who finds the Hair Hat Man at her front door thinks to herself, “His presence, his hair hat, were uncalled for, an accident, a misfortune, a blemish on an otherwise clean, calculated day that should have held nothing but the ordinary reminders and warnings.” At first just a passing, quirky description, the Hair Hat Man moves closer into focus as the stories progress, until finally becoming fully formed in the second last story, ‘Missing’. Things are not always what they appear to be, people misunderstand, and are misunderstood; they lie to themselves and to others. The Hair Hat Man knows this only too well: “More people should be themselves; the world would be a different place.”

The Champion: Dan Wells

Dan Wells is a bookseller, publisher, editor, bookbinder and generally useless fellow who lives with his wife Alexis and two boys in Belle River, Ontario.

The Book: Century by Ray Smith

Ray Smith’s Century is one of the most important and neglected novels in our literature. First published in 1984 by Stoddart, it was immediately still-born, as the acquiring editor left the press and there remained no one to champion it. Books such as Century require a champion: if the Canada Reads institution – and surely it is, by now, an institution – worked, it would be books by the likes of Ray Smith, and not by already commercially successful writers such as Ann Marie MacDonald, which would get a bit of the limelight. The best thing about something like Canada Reads is the sense of discovery. But I digress…

Biblioasis re-released Century earlier this year as part of our Renditions Reprint series. Charles Foran wrote the introduction to the novel, arguing it is among the greatest works of Canadian literature yet produced. Beyond a bit of word-of-mouth excitement on Twitter, no one but Steven Beattie over at the Shakespearian Rag took any notice at all. Beattie wrote, in part,that: "... 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."

Ray Smith has been at the literary forefront in this country since the 60's, and I think it’s shameful that so few people know who he is. His Cape Breton is The Thought Control Centre of Canada, along with Sheila Watson's Double Hook, heralded the introduction of the Canadian postmodern. His Lord Nelson's Tavern -- which we'll re-release as part of our Ray Smith Reclamation project -- raised the ante considerably. And Century blew everything open: it's as if Musil or Walser or Mann immigrated to Canada. It's an intensely moral, beautiful, horrifying, fearless novel. (If it is, indeed, even a novel. There are those out there who see it as a collection of stories.)

I'll leave you with the last words of Foran's intro: Ray Smith was, and still is, an artist of great seriousness and, I sometimes think, greater sadness still. Nearly a quarter century after its publication -- that word again! -- CENTURY continues to stand alone in Canadian Literature, apparently too singular, strange and unclassifiable. Out of this sad truth comes a happy one: the book remains to be discovered. Here it is.