Wednesday, March 3, 2010 |
A good novel is a tiny planet unto itself. For the days or weeks it takes to turn the pages, you become immersed in that world. When reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, I am Elinor Dashwood, forced by circumstance and temperament to be the voice of reason in a flighty family. So I was thrilled to be asked to moderate and record five book clubs for CBC Radio's Information Morning in Fredericton. Each year the show asks local book groups to tackle the Canada Reads books. Some are real groups that meet monthly, others come together just for Information Morning.
The key to getting lost in a good book (with apologies to Jasper Fforde) has to start with relatable characters. CBC Fredericton's Recommended Reading panel gets together on-air on a regular basis to discuss popular books. Two of the panelists had no trouble relating to Marina Endicott's Good to a Fault. They found Clara, the woman who possibly takes a good deed too far, compelling and believable. They understood her motivation. Tyler, the lone male on the panel, didn't get her at all. But dissent is a good thing -- otherwise it's a pretty dull discussion.
At the next club, the question of accessibility was raised. Should the Canada Reads winner be accessible to all Canadians, even new ones? At the New Brunswick Multiculturalism Council, several of the eight members felt strongly that Doug Coupland's Generation X was not for them. This was an interesting group. Only three of the members were in Fredericton. The rest joined us by conference call from around the province. Some were employees of the Council, and others were clients in Employment Language Training Program. It was the liveliest debate of the week.
Some people felt that this book is dated, but others argued for its place in the pop-culture pantheon. The most insightful comments came from those who felt that the language and the characters' feelings of disconnection were a mystery. They could not understand why anyone would want to cut themselves off completely from their families. Coming from places where family is paramount, they had no cultural compass for this and little patience for it. One member argued that The Jade Peony deserved to be atop the Canada Reads podium, ahead of Generation X.
Which brings me to Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony, the story of a Chinese family in 1930s and 1940s Vancouver. The CFB Gagetown book club had a hard time with this book. Few of the members could relate to it, and only a couple thought it should be on the Canada Reads list. The eight members of the group did not hold back. Some had trouble with the structure of the book and the subtlety of the writing or could not relate to the characters.
The book did have three strong defenders, people who loved the beauty of the writing. Everyone agreed on the value of the historical aspect of the book. Every member felt they'd learned a great deal about the immigrant experience, especially the Chinese experience, in Canada.
The members of the Fredericton High School club all agreed that Ann-Marie McDonald's Fall on Your Knees was a page-turner, though one young man said he felt compelled to keep going, even though he really didn't want to! This was a controversial book when it was first released in the late 1990s. Incest, murders, mental illness, despair. Not easy material for many of us, so I found it especially interesting to see how these 17-year-olds would react.
The three young women and two young men filed in on their lunch hour, ate their sandwiches and apples and then got down to business. It was clear, right from the start, that they had a good grasp of the novel and its themes. Grade 12 student Hilary Ball came right out with the fact that she hadn't liked any of the characters. George Kennedy, in Grade 11, called it "the best worst book" he ever read. Erin MacQuarrie, Clara Bartlett and Patrick Allaby were more measured in their opinion. Patrick thought it was pretty depressing, but overall felt it deserved to be on the Canada Reads list.
The most interesting moment for me came when we talked about James, the father of the clan. Despite his actions, they felt compassion for him. That's the mark of a good writer, don't you think? Well done, Ms. MacDonald.
I have yet to visit my last book club, a group at the Minto Public Library, near Fredericton. They're tackling Nicolas Dickner's Nikolski. I can't wait to hear what they have to say.
If they're like all of the other clubs I've visited, they'll be passionate about what they've read, even if some of them are passionately against it. And that's the great thing about literature. It takes you places you've never been, sucks you down the rabbit hole of the characters' lives and makes you think.