It was a tremendous honour to be one of the judges of the 2015 Governor General's Literary Awards and an absolute delight to be able to congratulate Mark Winston, winner in the Non-Fiction category, at the awards ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa last night.
As the three of us on the jury collectively wrote, "In Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, Mark Winston distills a life's devotion to the study of bees into a powerful and lyrical meditation on humanity. This compelling book inspires us to reevaluate our relationships with each other and the natural world. Vital reading for our time."
Please ask about it at your local bookstore and consider giving this book as a gift--along with a jar of local non-pasteurised honey! (I never thought I'd be offering holiday gift suggestions, but I'll stop at nothing to help great writers sell great books.)
Now that I've admitted that, I'll also enthusiastically recommend the rest of the books on the non-fiction shortlist, as well as a couple of others from among the 198 books under consideration. (Yes, we had to read/assess 198 books. In about five months. No, my eyes haven't fully uncrossed yet.)
The Social Life of Ink by Ted Bishop
This is a fabulous romp through the history of ink, how it has shaped culture, history, our minds and hearts. I rushed out and bought a Lamy fountain pen as soon as I finished this book and I've been writing with it, blissfully, ever since. [Look at that, another gift suggestion: this book + a nice fountain pen. Here's one good site: www.stylo.ca]
Norval Morrisseau by Armand Garnet Ruffo
A mesmerising, dreamlike biography of the important and complex Aboriginal artist. The language of this work is so finely and richly textured, I would almost call it a literary painting. It is at once the story of a man and a people, a personal biography and a vast history. I will never look at a Morrisseau painting, or any painting, the same way again. [Leave your holiday shopping to me! This book + a Morrisseau print or set of Morrisseau cards or set of paints or a sketch pad.]
Dispatches from the Front by David Halton
I must admit that I did not pick this book up expecting great literature (because I had only known and admired David Halton as a television journalist), but it impressed and astonished me from the earliest pages and continued to enchant me to the end. Like his father's extraordinary dispatches, David Halton's writing soars. This book is captivating, engrossing and surprisingly moving. Even if it's not your kind of book, you won't be disappointed. And the history buffs in your lives would all like you to get them a copy.
Party of One by Michael Harris
Fortunately, this book is no longer relevant in any pressing or immediate way. Historians may turn to it to try to understand how Canada was nearly strangled within an inch of its essential values, but I am delighted to say that it is now a historical work. Buy it for your diehard Tory friends who still believe Stephen Harper had the country's best interests at heart.
Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan
Shortly after our shortlist appeared (without this book on it), Stalin's Daughter was awarded the prestigious Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction. I cannot tell you how loudly I whooped when I saw that news, as I was still losing sleep over this magnificent book's puzzling omission from our list. Extremely well-written, impeccably researched, this is a tender and enthralling account of Stalin's only daughter and her incredible--at times almost unbelievable--life. [Gift suggestion: this book + some contraption that will turn it into a hand weight; it's over 600 pages]
The House with the Parapet Wall by John Terpstra
My final words to my partner and son before heading to Ottawa for the jury meeting that would decide the shortlist and winner of the Governor General's Award were these: "I won't be back until House with the Parapet Wall is on the shortlist at the very least!"
Well, I was. Or rather, it wasn't. Or rather, while I made several impassioned (and convincing, I thought) pleas for the book, the decisions of the jury must be made by consensus, and while there is always a modicum of compromise and concession, there is no out-and-out bargaining allowed, no I'll scratch your book if you scratch mine. Ultimately, as we all know, these lists and prizes come down to the personal tastes and preferences of the judges and a slight change to a jury might result in a radically different list of finalists. (Witness how varied the shortlists of the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the Giller Prize were this year, for example.)
Though I was unable to sway the other two jurors and the book is, admittedly, not for everyone, I found The House with the Parapet Wall to be a work of exceptional artistry, crystalline beauty and transcendence. The architecture of language alone makes the book worth savouring, but its resonant themes of love and loss and place and home are also explored with a masterful grace. One of the many notes I had stuck to frontispiece was, "this book calls to us from the greater possibilities of literature." And the last note I wrote to myself was this: "Be prepared to go on a hunger strike for this book."
After the shortlist was announced and some time had passed, I wrote to the author to tell him how much I had adored his book and what it had meant to me. He was grateful, humble, and said he was glad I didn't have to miss a meal.
Gift suggestion: buy this book for someone you love, someone who adores great poetic writing and who views books as works of quietly majestic art. Even better, buy it for two people. The author is also a carpenter, so you could always get in touch with him and order a cabinet to go with it. [www.johnterpstra.com]
I hope this was helpful. I realise that buying books means adding to the craze of holiday consumerism, but it also means giving a few writers a much-deserved lift.
Cheers & Merry Reading ~
p.s. Some of you might have read the account of my NYC show and aftermath on Facebook, but for those who haven't...The show went fantastically well. It was sold out with a waiting list and the audience was wonderfully responsive and raucous--my favourite kind. The puzzling bit came later, upstairs, where a large group of friends had gathered for a celebratory feast in the venue's restaurant.
As I left the performance space, I was handed an envelope of cash (from ticket sales), which I tucked it into my backpack before zipping it shut. The backpack sat, along with all my props, costumes, a heap of coats and other bags, beside our table (along the restaurant's back wall: no through traffic) all evening, and we ate, drank, made merry and laughed our heads off for hours. After dinner, a friend drove me and all my gear to the apartment of a very dear friend, Harvey Sachs, who was gracious and generous enough to host my whole family for the weekend. The following morning, I unzipped my bag to count my earnings and everything was there--my wallet, my computer--except the envelope of cash.
There is still something so bizarre about the whole thing that I cannot quite believe it happened. I was in touch with the owner, the manager, the friend who drove me home, I turned Harvey's apartment upside down several times, etc., but the money never turned up. No doubt the riches will be returned in other ways. And in the meantime, I feel immensely fortunate to have come home with all the important things: health, love, friendship, family, and so many generous souls and hearts around me.