Archives for category: Writing

Songs for the Cold of Heart

 

For my latest “Should I Read It?” review, I talked about a novel that is buzzy in part by virtue of its obscurity.

Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart was a massive bestseller in Quebec, but its English-language translation (released in Canada in July 2018) was relatively unknown until it landed a spot on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist on October 1.

It’s the odd-one-out on a shortlist filled with books that are already Canadian bestsellers in the English-language market. The Giller nod has given it a huge awareness (and sales) boost.

Should you read it? Here’s my review >> audio

And how is Dupont’s tiny Quebec publisher, QC Fiction, coping with the Giller spotlight? Here’s a piece I wrote for the Globe & Mail.

The Booker Prize is over (the Canadian in the running didn’t win, but Anna Burns’ The Milkman did, and by and large people seem to be pretty chuffed about that).

The Governor General’s Literary Awards winners have been announced (all 14 of them).
Here’s my story for the Globe & Mail.

And the Writers’ Trust has handed out seven literary awards and more than $260,000 at its annual Writers’ Trust Awards ceremony.
Here’s my story for the Globe & Mail.

 

Literary award season is in full swing. Some things are turning out pretty much as people might expect. Some things are a surprising surprise. Some things (ahem, Esi Edugyan + Patrick deWitt) are destined to become the the focus even when there’s something else more interesting to talk about on a list….

My thoughts on this year’s award season so far …

In the Globe & Mail:

The Man Booker Prize shortlist could have included two Canadians this year, with Esi Edugyan and Michael Ondaatje both longlisted. In the end, only Edugyan made it (as she did for her previous novel in 2011). To the disappointment of many, neither Sally Rooney nor Nick Drnaso (who would have ben the first ever graphic novelist to be shortlisted) made the cut. I contributed the part about British people enjoying a flutter on the Booker to this Globe & Mail piece.

The most high-profile of the Writers’ Trust shortlists is for fiction, but the Trust celebrates its fiction nominees alongside authors in various genres and at all stages of their careers. When their fiction shortlist was announced, I looked at how it fit into the bigger picture of what the Writers’ Trust does to support Canadian writers.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was, for me, surprising in that it didn’t include Rawi Hage or Joshua Whitehead (so I was pleased to find them on the GG fiction shortlist two days later). Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart was probably the biggest surprise inclusion – though only because in anglo Canada people haven’t heard of it yet. The appearance of Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt, together again as in 2011, stole all the headlines (though it wasn’t the most interesting thing about the list).

The Governor General’s Literary Awards shortlists finally give the nod to Miriam Toews that many felt had been absent from other prizes thus far. Two Giller longlisted authors make the shortlist here. And small Quebec indie QC Fiction, newly in the spotlight after Monday’s Giller shortlist announcement, makes the translation shortlist.

On CBC Radio:

What’s notable about this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist and who’s on it? I popped in to to give listeners a run-down >> listen

 

The risk of the long read
(This column first appeared on open-book.ca in December 2013)

Garth Risk Hallberg (cue a thousand “Risk is my middle name” jokes) made headlines last month for getting paid a lot of money for having written a very long book. The amount of money (US $2million) and the length of book (900-odd pages) were the two key pieces of information for you to take away from each and every story written on the topic. Comparisons were made to The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, comparisons that had nothing to do with plot, setting or theme and everything to do with word count. Yes, these books are all quite long.

So when did our willingness to read a long book become so noteworthy? After it won the Man Booker Prize, I reviewed Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for Day 6 on CBC radio, and the length of the book was one of the first things we discussed. I wondered why people now seem to view reading a long book as though it were an Olympic sport that should come with a medal for achievement, because really it’s only reading. Mere minutes later, apparently having forgotten everything I’d just said, I posted a picture of myself holding the book spine out, rather than face out, in a “Look how well I did, Mum,” pose of self-congratulation. To be impressed at my feat of getting through the book so fast was the most common first response from those who had heard the review. And this from book industry colleagues who all read for a living – many of them, I’m guessing, far more, and far more quickly, than I do.

In reporting on Hallberg’s book deal, The New York Times said that “the long novel is experiencing a resurgence,” which might be true, or might be just a new headline for an old story. To pick just one example: Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, received an advance in the region of a million quid, clocked in at more than 1,000 pages, and sold like Billy-o on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, in an age we might now think of as one that was more friendly to the long novel – let’s call it “the past” – Proust was forced to pay the printing costs of Swann’s Way (the first of seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time) himself because no publisher would touch it; and Dickens’s books, though long, were presented in an episodic format that hid their ultimate length. Stephen King has always written books the size of coffee tables, of course, but perhaps the airport read is exempt from this game of who did it longest.

At this particular point in time, however, the “return” of the long novel does seem to be in step with a different form of marathon narrative consumption. When Netflix launched House of Cards in February of this year, viewing it became, for some, a feat of buttock-numbing, eyeball-popping endurance. Marathon viewing was the order of the day, and a smart piece by San Fran Lit Blogger Scott Esposito suggested an interesting interpretation of this in respect to reading habits:

“This emergent behavior [of marathon viewing] takes all we have been hearing about shortened attention spans and throws it out the window,” he wrote. “You could make quite a dent in ‘War and Peace’ in 12 hours. Anyone up for the unabridged version of ‘Clarissa’? One producer remarked that people are now watching TV the way they read a novel. A novel? I thought the novel was dead.”

So, just as many despair of society’s unwillingness to read when there’s so much good telly around, is it actually the case that the telly got so good by becoming more like the novel? Eleanor Catton cites being heavily influenced by boxed sets of The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad in writing the 832 page The Luminaries (which I did binge read, though perhaps you should take your time), and when Hallberg’s City on Fire was picked up by UK publisher Jonathan Cape last week for a comparatively paltry-seeming £200,000 (c. $347,000), acquiring editor Alex Bowler said that it was unlike any other novel and would more appropriately be compared to an HBO boxed set.

It is no accident, many feel, that the age of boxed-set TV binge watching has also been that of some of the best-scripted TV drama in a long time. Gone is the need for every episode to be self-contained or to finish with a cliff-hanger that will bring viewers back a week later. The narrative must stand up to back-to-back viewing and simultaneous, real-time social media analysis, and must have the depth to reward multiple re-viewings. To write a 900-page novel is an ambitious and impressive undertaking to be sure, but it might also be just what our TV-exercised brains are hungry for. Mr. Hallberg is asking his future readers to take their time with his book, but he may not be asking his publishers to take such a risk after all.

Alexander Masters cover

 

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Especially when it comes to celebrated biographer Alexander Masters’ relationship with “I,” the enigmatic author of 148 diaries found in an Oxford Dumpster. Fifteen years after the discovery of the diaries, Masters’ latest book, A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip, is the result: a biography, mystery, love story and chronicle of social class in 20th century England.

It’s a delightful read.

I reviewed it for the National Post, here.

 

The crowd at Wayzgoose 2014

A new publishing season is in session after the annual Coach House Books bash.

My latest column for Open Book: Toronto is about The Week We Wayzgoosed.

Read it here.

 

When Tattoos Get Serious Ink

This column originally appeared on Open Book: Toronto (now open-book.ca) in January 2011.

As you’re probably aware, a feisty Swedish chick is rocking the charts at the minute. No, not Robyn – though come to think of it a duet of some kind would be…interesting – I’m talking about Lisbeth Salander: tattooed computer hacker and heroine of Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Crime fiction (and, more specifically, Scandinavian crime fiction, but more on that later) has always been big business, but with the success of the Larsson books something seems to have crossed over. Where there has always been a bit of a “them” and “us” mentality among “serious readers” (“they” read fluff, “we” read literature), the Larsson series has been embraced by both sides. As all three books continue to dominate bestseller lists, publishers everywhere are desperately seeking “The Next Stieg Larsson.” Indeed, it’s become so sexy to seem Scandinavian I was half expecting to find new novels by Linwöød Bårclay and Giles Blönt trumpeted in the spring catalogues.

This isn’t the first flush of Scando-crime mania, however. Some of the “next” Stieg Larssons actually came long before him: the “first” Stieg Larssons, if you will. Back in 2003, Henning Mankell was described by the UK’s Observer as “the best Swedish export since flatpack furniture.”, and his books have borne the endorsement of none other than Michael Ondaatje, who called him “by far the best writer of police mysteries today.” Mankell’s are page-turning police procedurals relished by a Booker Prize-winning novelist of the most serious literary kind.

Mankell himself arrived on English-language bookshelves in the slipstream of a Dane named Peter Høeg, author of international bestseller Smilla’s Sense of Snow (published in English in 1993), and Høeg’s international success arrived a distant 25 years behind that of Swedish crime-writing duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Then, in the noughties, following the trail blazed by Mankell and his distinctive brand of crime with a conscience, came writers including Karin Fossum, Håkan Nesser, Åsa Larsson, Kjell Ola Dahl, and Jo Nesbø (more on him later, too).

In 2003, as a junior editor at The Harvill Press, I wrote an article for the UK’s Crime Time magazine in which I talked excitedly about our growing programme of crime in translation. The phenomenon was already alive and kicking then; it was perhaps just lacking a true poster boy. My boss at that time, by the way – a man later profiled in the Bookseller for his role in bringing books in translation to an anglophone readership, and, this year, appointed CBE for services to the publishing industry – was the inimitable Christopher MacLehose: publisher of…Stieg Larsson.

But back to the crossover. Type Books, where I can be found recommending reads two days a week, could be categorized as more on the more serious side in terms of its inventory and clientele. We have a crime section in both stores (and anyone who’s wandered in with a hankering for a good murder mystery has likely had a Mankell, Nesbø or Icelandic Indri?ason pressed into their paw by me), but never have we had a crime title shift like the Larssons. This is partly a matter of economics. Readers wanting Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol were more likely to look online or at Costco before going to a bookshop, and even then it would likely be Indigo where the piles are high and the discounts are deep. With Larsson though, we’ve been selling stacks, at full cover price, to readers who are happy to go to their local bookstore for a top-quality work of fiction. Some customers seem a little sheepish about it, apologizing for needing a “quick fix of junky reading.” Our response is usually, “Don’t feel guilty. They’re good!”

It’s this crossover formula, perhaps, in addition to squatting rights on the bestseller lists, that has publishers chomping at the bit. This type of crime fiction has busted way out of Margaret Cannon’s Globe and Mail column: it’s on the cover of the New Yorker (Jan 10, 2011, “The Stieg Larsson Mystery…why the books are so popular”), it’s the cover story of this month’s Quill and Quire (“The Boom in Crime Fiction”), and it’s been the subject of many a column and feature article. Martin Amis’s editors weren’t looking for the next James Patterson (despite top-notch sales, on a literary list that would be, y’know, lame), but they all have their eyes peeled for the next Stieg.

Closer to home, the crossover power of crime was evident in a crime-writing focus at last year’s International Festival of Authors, and it’s about to manifest itself in the form of a brand-spanking-new imprint. Adding crime and mystery to their stable of very good books, Anansi launches Spiderline [http://www.anansi.ca/titles.cfm?pub_id=1502] in February. Of the two launch authors, one, Elena Forbes, has been published by Anansi before and now creeps into the Spiderline web. The second, whose debut novel will be the first to bear the new colophon, is Ian Hamilton, a Burlington native who came to them with four near-ready manuscripts in his drawer. This is a shrewd move on Anansi’s part. Crime fiction, for the most part, thrives in series format. Get someone hooked on lovable rogue Harry Hole (Nesbø) or crotchety, cardigan-wearing Kurt Wallander (Mankell) and they will want to join them on future cases. This is one advantage to publishing crime in translation, as we were doing at Harvill a decade ago: with translation you can buy into an existing series. Even if you can’t yet read them yourself (depending on how good your Swedish happens to be), you know you have four, five, six already written books with which to build your author, and you can plan your long-term publishing strategy accordingly. In signing someone with a readymade series, this is what Anansi/Spiderline has done.

As I was writing this column I received a text from a former colleague at Random House UK. The new Jo Nesbø hardback, The Leopard, would be going in at #1 on the coming weekend’s (London) Sunday Times bestseller list (by the time you read this, it will already be there). Stieg Larsson won’t be writing any more books (well, unless you count the one his girlfriend may or may not finish from his existing notes), but there are plenty more fish in the criminal sea. Expect to find them on a bestseller list and in a literary-leaning bookstore near you for a long time to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we prepare to ring in 2013, here, in no particular order, is my top 5 for 2012.

Nonfiction

Londoners by Craig Taylor
These oral testimonials create a living, breathing portrait of a city. I was happy to see the book turn up on two out of three National Post critics’ lists on the last Saturday of the year, proving my love for it isn’t too too swayed by my personal love of London.

You Aren’t What You Eat by Steven Poole
This smart and hilarious rant about foodie culture caught my eye in an advance edition  in the UK this past spring. I read most of it in a gastropub  and giggled away over my pint and wild boar sausages. Available only as an eBook in Canada, it’s a steal at $1.99.

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Listen to Andrew Solomon talk about his book in this episode of CBC’s The Sunday Edition and see if you can resist picking it up. Solmon’s book about children, parenting and identity is both sad and hopeful, and holds relevance for us all.

Fiction

The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am by Kjersti A. Skomsvold
This short novel about an old woman approaching death has echoes of Will Self and Alan Bennett. A terrific debut from a young Norwegian author that I was delighted to discover at this year’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy
Dobozy emerged as the literary darling of awards season, with a Writers’ Trust win and a GG nomination topping off a collection of absolute rave reviews. Linked short stories  about the lasting effects of Siege of Budapest, this collection stood out by a mile and deserved every word of praise.

Honourable Mentions


Straphanger by Taras Grescoe — an important and eminently readable book about urban transit. Watch out for the paperback in the spring.
The Measure of a Man by JJ Lee — a 2012 paperback (I came to it late). I was reading passages to people out loud I enjoyed it so much.
In One Person by John Irving — his best novel since A Widow for One Year. Too bad about the horrendous cover.

 

’tis the year of discord among prize juries, we are told.

With the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction lists all out, the verdict came in: an almost unprecedented level of dissenting opinion between the three juries threw Canada’s literary awards season into disarray. Or possibly into ambivalence, if one can be “thrown” into ambivalence (today’s “Guessing the Giller” article in the Globe & Mail might as well have been titled “Meh”).

“The Year of Discord Among the Literary Experts,” said  the Globe & Mail on Oct. 2, noting that, “the divergence of opinion among literary experts contrasts with the solidarity that occurred last year.”

An “almost unprecedented number of 12 different books have been selected by various juries and committees,” said the Toronto Star on Oct. 26.

Really? Or is it just that last year’s lists were so dominated by two names in particular that it gave the illusion of the awards being a race between only those two books?

As the publicist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize it was my great pleasure to work with Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan (the two shortlist-dominating authors in question) in 2011. What was frustrating about last year though was that the noise surrounding those two names was such that the other nominees (there were nine of them, by the way) found themselves a little drowned out. By contrast, the 2012 shortlists with their lesser (but, see below, not by as much as you’d think) accord provide, instead of one big story, many smaller ones. And isn’t that what literary awards are here to do? To re-open the window of publicity for those authors short- and long-listed for them?

The configuration this year is different, but the stats not so much.

The Breakdown (Canadian shortlists only – I’m not including the Booker):

  • In 2011, 11 out of a possible 16 books were shortlisted.
  • In 2012, 12 out of a possible 15 books were shortlisted.
  • In 2011, 3 books were nominated for multiple awards.
  • In 2012, 3 books were nominated for multiple awards.

One notable difference: in 2011, two books were nominated for all three awards (and hence became major noise-makers), whereas in 2012 none were.

Because the Giller had a six-book shortlist in 2011 it messes with the numbers a little, but let’s assume that a five-book shortlist in 2011 would have omitted Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (by all accounts the outsider), which didn’t appear on any other lists. That would still leave us with 11 books out of a possible 15 in 2011, versus 12 books out of a possible 15 in 2012.

Conclusions

  • The same number of books appeared on multiple lists in 2012 as in 2011
  • The total number of books shortlisted across the combined lists in 2012 is only one higher in the year of disagreement than it was in the year of accord.
  • The same number of books (3) appeared on multiple lists in 2011 as in 2012.
  • Book people are bad at math. But I think we already knew that.

As Mark Twain said, “There are three sorts of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” 2012 may be the year of discord among the literary judges or it may be the year that award recognition managed to sprinkle some fairy dust on a greater number of books than in 2011.

Good luck tonight (Giller nominees), on Nov. 7 (Writers’ Trust nominees), and Nov. 13 (GG nominees) to each and every one of this year’s literary dozen.

 

(with thanks to @ebcameron for swiftly pulling together these stats)

It’s been 12 years since Zadie Smith published her break-out debut, White Teeth, and 7 years since her most recent novel, the brilliant On Beauty.

So … was NW worth the wait?
On Day 6 with Brent Bambury I say … YES. With a word of caution that the novel is “crazy good” in parts, but “chaotic and cluttered” in others.

Here’s the audio.