By Jean Baird | May 17, 2011

Category: the increasingly odd world of prizes. One day the following two emails showed up in my inbox within 10 minutes of each other.

Dear friends —

I need your help!

Reliable sources tell me that I am running neck and neck with one other book for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award — and only you can help me win the $10,000 prize and the opportunities that the award might open up for me!

My book Buying Cigarettes for the Dog is one of five short-listed for the award, out of 225 books published last year in Alberta. Maybe you’ve read it, and hopefully you liked it. It has received over 20 reviews: all but one of them positive.

The writer then suggests giving him a boost, and supplying the online voting address, adding that I could vote every day if I wanted to, and on different computers if I had them. The letter also provided some YouTube addresses in case I wanted to see him read from the book.  It was from Stuart Ross.

The other e-mail went like this:

Dear friends of Alberta Lit,

The top five books for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award have been selected. Two Alberta authors are qualified finalists. One of them is me, and the book is The Frog Lake Reader.

Voting will take place until April 30, 2010. That’s how the winner will be chosen: by number of times the book gets “clicked” on the website below. It seems you do not have to be in Alberta to be an Alberta reader. Mirabile dictu! And you can vote as many times as you want!

Of course I would love to have your vote(s).

So put this up on your Favourites bar and click away.

For more information about the prize, its finalists, and how to vote, visit http://www.albertareaderschoice.ca/

Myrna Kostash

I really like Stuart Ross. He’s a good guy who writes and edits good books. And he cares deeply about writing. But on his Facebook page he was taking a bashing about this fan-fest approach to selecting a winning book. Stu responded:

The organizers *designed* this prize to work the way it is working. At the finalists’ panel on Saturday, they trumpeted that 8,000 votes had been cast. They consciously chose a system where one can vote repeatedly: every two hours. They could have designed it differently, but they didn’t.

They also said that the prize is being monitored to avoid “ballot-stacking” and that it hasn’t been a problem.

So all your moralizing and pontificating (in my living room) about ballot-stuffing is entirely bewildering to me. I’m tempted to theorize on what it’s rooted in, but I won’t, because it’s not fair to project.

But I’ll tell you: I have been working in Canadian literature, mostly of the small press variety, for 35 years. I have run reading series, started book fairs, published the works of dozens of other writers out of my own pocket, in the magazines I’ve run and the books I’ve published, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars never recovered. I co-run a volunteer list-serv that sends news of Toronto literary events to 700 people, I mentor younger and older writers.

I have never won a prize, except in a Cracker Jacks box. So for me, no, literature is not a popularity contest, it’s not about ego, it’s not about prizes.

But I could use the $10,000, and I could use the doors this could open for me if I won.

And, frankly, I think my book is the most adventurous of the lot, and the best-written.

Hell, I voted for his book. A couple of times.

Meanwhile Rob Mclennan is looking for votes to be the poet laureate of the blogosphere and the Toronto International Festival has started a new poetry-reading contest—the winner gets an official invitation to the festival. For better or worse, shifts are happening on the Canadian prize scene.


1988 Jury: The Rt Hon Michael Foot, British Labour politician and editor of the Tribune. Sebastian Faulks, British novelist and journalist. Philip French, film critic and radio producer. Blake Morrison, writer and poet. Rose Tremain, you know.

David Lodge – Nice Work VPL

Guest report from Colin Ellard

A barrel-chested captain of industry clashes with a willowy feminist English scholar during Margaret Thatcher’s era of decimation of higher education in England. Some bright bureaucrat has the idea that an exchange program where professors spend time inside factories will somehow enhance the lives of both working stiffs and inhabitants of the Ivory Tower. I liked most of this book, even though its portrayal of academics was a little hackneyed (or maybe things are just that different in England). There were a few laugh out loud lines: “all the men on campus were married, gay or scientists,” for one. I recounted this line in an elevator conversation and it turned out that one of the other riders was a young female assistant professor. She guffawed her agreement. The big sex scene, though one knew it was coming from page one, was still great fun, especially the gender reversal with the powerful male character falling head over heels in love while the woman offered him a literary deconstruction of the very idea. The ending of the book drove me nuts. What’s the plural form of Deus ex Machina? It’s as if Lodge suddenly became bored with the whole premise of the book and tried to find a way to wind everything up quickly and not-so-cleanly.

If you’ve spent much time in the academic world, Lodge does provoke loud laughs. In this novel, one of my favourites—“A character who, rather awkwardly for me, doesn’t herself believe in the concept of character. That is to say (a favourite phrase of her own), Robyn Penrose, Temporary Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Rummidge, holds that ‘character’ is a bourgeois myth, an illusion created to reinforce the ideology of capitalism…” Colin is a scientist so he might not have hooted so much over this sort of English department nonsense.

Bruce Chatwin—Utz VPL

Guest report from Aaron Peck

Utz is, at least, the most successful of Chatwin’s three novels and his funniest book overall. Even compared to the two travel books, he feels more focused here than he does in the entropic Songlines or the maundering In Patagonia (both of which I admire for different reasons, despite their factual errors). Utz is the first book wherein the line between reportage and fiction is successfully blurred.

On rereading, I found myself laughing out loud at the scenes in the Restaurant Pstruh or etymology of the Utz’s family name. His characters are more developed, or sustained, than they are in any of the other books (with the exception of On The Black Hill). However, at times his characterizations verge on caricature. But this works because the subject of the novel is a collector of porcelain dolls, and because those dolls become allegorical the reader can imagine that the characters are like porcelain dolls themselves (e.g. Utz’s best friend the Dr. Vacláv Orlík, a paleontologist who studies the common house fly, musca domestica; Dr Frankfurter, the New York porcelain dealer, and his ugly hands).

Chatwin has also fine-tuned his digressions. The excursus on Rabbi Loew’s golem is fascinating, for example. Because of the lives of the characters (collectors, writers, opera singers, and academics), the erudition never feels out of place, and Chatwin’s lucid prose makes some potentially distracting topics feel like a natural part of the story.

The use of the past perfect tense, however, is a little odd particularly because the crux of the whole book surrounds whether or not Utz had a moustache. Because of the choice of tense the telling feels too contrived when it is finally revealed whether or not the narrator remembers there being moustache, the way this acts as a key to Utz’s character. The ending gets away with itself, and Chatwin tries too hard to conclude things conclusively.

Utz resolves an ambiguity in Chatwin’s writing: how to blur the line between fact and fiction convincingly. For the first time, whether or not a character (i.e. Kapsar Utz) is based on a real person or not is moot in a first-person Chatwin account (Chatwin claimed he was based on a person he met in Prague as a young man). Also taking on a European subject (as he also did in On The Black Hill) feels more honest. In his books set in far off places, I can’t help but feel irritated by narrator who wants us to feel pathos for the lonely rich English nomad. What, in the end, makes his earlier works stand a cut above neo-colonial ethnography was his irony, observation and (much like Michel Leiris’ ethnography) his first person perspective. In Utz he is closer to home, and his depiction of Europe, particularly Prague, in the 1960s is compelling.

As the study of the psychology of a collector, a complicated look at how a person can survive totalitarian regimes, and (also like On the Black Hill) an elegy for the twentieth century, Utz is rich, funny, and brief. The biggest failings it has are the final section, but there is much in this book to learn from and to enjoy. Much like his late admirer W. G. Sebald, Chatwin’s books leave at least this reader saddened. With Utz it felt that Chatwin was getting his stride, trying new things, and for the most part succeeding, and we can only wonder what he would have written next.

Utz was Chatwin’s last novel. He succumbed to AIDS in 1989.

Penelope Fitzgerald—The Beginning of Spring VPL

Many critics and readers rave about Fitzgerald. Some go so far as to claim she is the best British novelist of the last half of the 20th century. Her reputation has increased since her death in 2000.

Frank Reid runs a printing company in Moscow, 1913. Born and raised in Moscow, a child of British parents, Frank has been schooled in England, married while there and has returned to Russia to run the family business. Without any apparent cause, his wife has left him to return to England, initially taking their children, then returning them mid-voyage. Frank is faced with a household of domestics, a business to run and children to supervise.

It’s another version of “The Fall of Icarus” with our narrator (for most of the novel) always looking in the wrong direction, or not grasping the facts of what he does see. And, of course, neither can the reader. It’s not a book about questions and answers, or plot, or character motivation. Fitzgerald can deftly present a complex character in a few sentences, and with as much ease and certainty have a main character remain vague.

Communism is shifting, and Frank and the little details of his life are caught in that larger pattern. If I were on a jury, this is a novel I would want to discuss. It’s accomplished, but I found parts of it frustrating—the symbolic Lisa, the mystical tree-hugging scene—and would want to hear others’ thoughts.

Marina Warner—The Lost Father VPL

Multi-generational romance story mostly set in Italy. The whole thing is just too familiar—a scandal that affects a family for generations, the shifts of women’s rights, blah, blah. Before the first chapter is a map and a crib sheet of the various generations.

Rosa is the older, ugly sister. Cati is the younger, gorgeous sister. Rosa falls for bad boy Tommaso. Cati acts as their go-between. Brother Davide is forced by honour and custom to fight a duel to defend his sister’s honour (and we aren’t sure which one he is defending, though we do know Rosa gave Tommaso a hand job). A shot ricochets off a rock into Davide’s temple and he dies a slow 18-year death from lead poisoning. He couldn’t die right away, eh, or we wouldn’t get the next generations to suffer, and look back.

During those 18 years Davide immigrates to the USA, the first-born child, a son, dies on the ship. He returns to Italy and his wife eventually follows and the youngest child, Fanina is born Italian. It is Fanina’s daughter Anna who is writing the story and trying to make links, to her mother and to her past.

The story line happens in chunks—early 1910s, 1930s, 1985, but not in chronological order, and there are flashbacks within each section. Anne is writing a novel The Duel based on the family story. Anna addresses her mother in the second person, as though the 1985 sections are a letter. It’s off-putting. There are also long passages from Davide’s diary. His style seems pretty much the same as Anna’s.

Sections of The Duel, and most of the novel are passages from the novel-in-progress, are pure bodice-ripper. In the following section, Davide has returned from America to a troubled time in Italy, under The Leader. A desperate woman approaches him, hoping for help for her missing son:

She had refused to get up, now held his legs in a hug, and her face against his thighs, turning now one cheek then the other into the material of his trousers, just below his crotch, and he was dismayed that she might smell him, that his buttoned fly, however spick-and-span—and they were freshly laundered—might carry some old aroma all the same, for he knew how bodies animate and inform even the most lifeless paraphernalia, how Maria Filippa surely with her scent as a sore leaves spoor for a hunting dog in a forest. When the ironing was being done, if he came in, holding out a shirt or a collar for a special attention before he put it on, he caught sometimes, among the warm breadlike goodness of pressed linen and cotton, fragrant from soap and water, the stab of pungent humanity, a momentary trace as the heavy iron stamped the blood lingering around the soft white squares of cotton they wore during their time of the month. The woman sensed his fear and, perceiving that he had placed this construction upon their encounter, pressed herself closer to the soft protuberance of his cock, touching his balls with her cheeks, one side and then the other, wheedling the while. He had a moment—it was more than a moment, it was minutes together—when he wanted to cup a hand around her head and for all that they were still almost in the street, open his trousers and feel her tongue lap him and her lips close on him. But the moment passed, for there was something in her grasp of his legs that was so awkward, so inexperienced, and the pitch of her entreaties remained so anguished that he knew she was only doing what she imagined might persuade him to help her; and a wave of self-loathing washed over him, that a woman like her could think of a man like him in such a light.

It’s a tale of women suffered through, and carrying their children through the trials of a patriarchal society. The strength of the women—learned through ironing and daily chores—allows the family to survive.

There’s a nifty twist at the end that undermines the entire novel, and particularly Anna’s research and writing of The Duel. It might all be a romantic lie. The men have further let the women down through risky politics. The last part becomes too didactic, though that approach does suit the character of Anna. If you stand back from the novel, the structure does ask for an examination of our yearning to romanticize our pasts. But the reading of the novel is too much like plowing through 1950s Ladies Home Journals.

Salman Rushdie—The Satanic Verses VPL

This novel gave Rushdie huge fame because of the fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. The novel was banned in many countries. Bookstores were bombed, translators attacked and the Japanese translator was murdered. Riots in India and Pakistan resulted in dozens of deaths.

Broadcast on Iranian radio, the judgment read:

In the name of God the Almighty. We belong to God and to Him we shall return. I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an, and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, where they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctity. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God-willing. In addition, if anyone has access to the author of the book but does not possess the power to execute him, he should point him out to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May God’s blessing be on you all. Rullah Musavi al-Khomeini.

A few days into reading, or trying to read, this novel, the following arrived in my inbox:

Quillblog, Censorship, Egyptian literature

Egyptian author could face jail term for novel accused of “insulting Christianity”

May 10, 2010 | 11:33 AM | By Steven W. Beattie

Last year, Egyptian author Youssef Ziedan won the Man Booker prize foundation’s $60,000 International Arabic Fiction Prize for his novel Azazeel. This year, that same novel could land the author up to five years in jail if his book is found guilty of “insulting Christianity.” From the Guardian:

Azazeel has provoked controversy in Egypt ever since its publication. The Coptic church denounced it as offensive for its violent portrait of Coptic church father St. Cyril, and one critic said it “tries to Islamise Christian beliefs and takes the side        of heretics.” Now a group of Egyptian and international Coptic organisations             have filed a complaint with the country’s public prosecutor against Ziedan, a         philosophy professor, accusing him of insulting Christianity.

Ziedan claims not to have expected the book to be charged with “disdaining religions,” and goes on to say that he and “the majority of intellectuals” in the country thought the charges would be dismissed. Instead, they have been referred to the Egyptian State Security Prosecution for trial.

Azazeel has already been the subject of numerous attacks and attempts to have it banned, according to the Guardian:

The author said that there had been many calls to ban Azazeel, with four books     written attacking his novel, but so far the Egyptian government has not complied            with the demands. “Other books have been published to defend the novel, not to mention hundreds of pro-Azazeel articles,” he added. “Azazeel has kept on its             wide circulation; 18 editions have been published within two years – an      unprecedented incident in the history of Arab literature. All such events have         increased the ire of the church, which resorted to a new technique last week.”

Remember Aaron Peck’s comments about this novel? I’ll repeat them:

Satanic Verses — another of my favourites. I think this book only makes sense to apostates (myself being, of course, a Baha’i apostate, so I really don’t know how well it could resonate, with people coming from Christian backgrounds — the meat of the book is so particular to understanding what is not supposed to be said, and how it is not supposed to be said, within certain cultures and religions — for him, specifically, Islam; for me it also resonated as a Baha’i). I found the way the book blasphemed to be riveting. Also, I think for a book written in the mid-to-late eighties the way it explored the links between fundamentalism and terrorism is way ahead of its time, or rather of its time. It just took most of the world — and the WTC atrocity — to recognize this. The Blakean themes were of interest to me as well. And, finally, I think, it is his most successful example of Rushdie’s use of magical realism. I read the whole book in under two days; I couldn’t put it down.

Unlike Aaron, I avoided picking it up. I’d force myself to sit down and read 10 pages, then go off to do dishes, anything. I fought my way through to page 100 then decided to give it up. I think Aaron is probably right. I didn’t get it. And while from time to time a description or section would capture me for a few pages, it wasn’t enough to keep me at it.

This book is a milestone for many reasons. Not only did it have political repercussions, it made many Brits reconsider Rushdie and his motivations. British author Roald Dahl called Rushdie’s book sensationalist and Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist”. The scandal also resulted in millions of book sales.

Peter Carey—Oscar and Lucinda VPL Winner

At this point I confess I’m a bit leery of Carey. I wonder if much of the attention he has received is a combination of his themes and his high ambition, and an increasing tendency for critics to confuse literary value with social value. Certainly with Illywhacker I think he set out to write The Great Australian Novel, or the Australian version of Midnight’s Children or The Tin Drum, take your pick.

Oscar and Lucinda does hit on Carey themes—strength and fragility, commerce, dreams and ambition, fears, religion. But there is a soft touch here, perhaps even gentleness. The reaching and overreaching ambition of his previous novels takes a different tone in this novel. If magical realism from the pen of Rushdie mimics the brushstrokes of Jackson Pollock, in Oscar and Lucinda the brush strokes mimic Vincent van Gogh. The metaphor may be clumsy, but do you see my point?

Much of the first two hundred pages introduce the two main characters of the title. We know almost immediately this is a love story, of some sort, though it is hundreds of pages before the two will meet. Oscar and Lucinda are gambling addicts, of the most unlikely sort. Lucinda is the teenage heiress of a fortune acquired from her farmer parents (though her mother always fancied owning a factory). Oscar develops a passion for the ponies as a training cleric at Oxford. Both flaming redheads are ill equipped to live in this world. They are frail, naïve and vulnerable. Oscar’s knees click whenever he moves. Lucinda is almost transparent. Yet, both are full of strength. Ah, that Carey theme of strength and fragility.

In this novel Carey weaves his themes through the symbols and metaphors of water, glass and faith. Oh, and the great quest. To give details would ruin the fun, if you haven’t already read the book or seen the movie. The novel was one of six for the Best of Booker on the 40th anniversary of the prize. Better than the Rushdie that won, I’d say.

And speaking of Rushdie, one of the many Rushdie stories is that at an award dinner for the Booker when another novel was named the winner, Rushdie slammed his fists on the table and declared that the judges knew “fuck all about literature.” That pompous gesture might better explain the distinction I am trying to make between the style of Rushdie and Carey’s use of magic realism in this novel. The Carey gesture would be to mutter “Aw, shit” under his breathe then choke on his brandy and have to excuse himself, embarrassed, to the bathroom so he could throw up.

1988 Blake Morrison

We were a jury of writers that year: Sebastian Faulks, Rose Tremain, Philip French and, in the chair, Michael Foot, who seemed keener to talk about Byron than to reminisce about leading the Labour party. As early as our first meeting, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda was the clear frontrunner. The only arguments were about which novels should be with him on the shortlist. I read the bulk of the 100 or so entries during a fortnight’s holiday with two small children in Wales, rising early and retiring late. Those we finally settled on were Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (which I read with innocent pleasure – the controversy over it didn’t erupt till the following year), Bruce Chatwin’s Utz (his last novel – his funeral was the day of the fatwa), David Lodge’s Nice Work (one of his best), Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring (one of her best) and Marina Warner’s The Lost Father.

My biggest regret was failing to get Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child on the shortlist – though in retrospect Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, was a graver omission. The final meeting lasted 25 minutes: Foot was for Rushdie, the rest of us were for Carey, so that was that. Rushdie has sometimes been caricatured as a bad loser, but at the ceremony he behaved impeccably and was generous in his praise of the winning book. All in all, a pleasing outcome. My other experiences of sitting on prize juries have been grisly in comparison.

One last note: Like hell he read “the bulk of the 100 or so entries during a fortnight’s holiday with two small children in Wales.” That’s simply impossible to do.



  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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