Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christie Blatchford Wins Governor-General's Prize (And My Small Part In That)

As one of the three judges for this year's Governor-General's literary prize for non-fiction, I can now confess - with today's announcement - that I agonized for weeks about Christie Blatchford's book.

This was my third term on a GG non-fiction jury, and I am proud to say that I'm almost pathetically scrupulous about judging literary prizes. I give every nomination more than a fair shake, even the frivolous titles, because when I'm doing jury duty I always find myself waking up in a sweat in the middle of the night, at least once, after having had a dream that goes something like this:

I'm finally at the jury meeting in Ottawa after a summer of reading books, and the first thing my fellow jurors say is this: 'What an incredible surprise! Who knew? Such brilliance, and in a little book about puppies! Who would have thought?' And then I remember the little book with the cute baby collie on the cover that I chucked across the room after reading half the preface.

In the case of Blatchford's Fifteen Days, all summer I kept telling myself: No, this book can't be that good, you like it so much because of your own notorious preoccupation with the cause of Afghan liberation, your fellow jurors will give you a withering look and you'll feel like an eejit for putting it on your shortlist.

I didn't trust my own judgment.

But, as it turned out, my fellow jurors Chantel Hebert and Marian Botsford Fraser turned out to have been similarly haunted by the power and grace of Blatchford's work. They were at least as enthusiastic as I was, and perhaps as surprised by how moving, how elegant and engrossing, a book like this could be. Fifteen Days is nothing like the fashionably detached and cynical high-brow stuff that so often passes for journalism about Canada's military mission in Afghanistan (Chris Wattie's Contact Charlie being a fine and notable exception). Instead, Blatchford relies on straightforward, plain-language, real-world reportage, and the result is easily in the same league as Michael Herr's Dispatches - which is not just a classic of war reporting, but a classic in the genre of literary journalism.

To her great credit, Blatchford is possessed of an enormous affection for the central subjects of her book - the working soldiers, and their families - and she's also possessed of that rare writer's intelligence that consists mainly of knowing when to just get the hell out of the way and let the book's subjects speak for themselves.

If you've read much of Jimmy Breslin or Studs Terkel, you'll know well enough to put Fifteen Days on the same shelf with their books.

And kudos to the other four non-fiction titles we shortlisted, too: Douglas Hunter's God's Mercies - Rivalry, Betrayal and the Dream of Discovery; Sid Marty's The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek; James Orbinski's An Imperfect Offering - Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century; and Chris Turner's The Geography of Hope - A Tour of the World We Need.

In other literary news and gossip, I see in the Globe that the novelist Timothy Taylor is giving high and well-warranted praise to one of my usual hangouts, the Vancouver Review (in the latest issue, I'm on about Michael Petrou's fine book, Renegades, on the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War). I have to confess that in Taylor's essay about VR, I especially got a kick about this bit: If I had to choose a favourite piece, an exemplary piece, however, one that captured the spirit of the magazine while pointing to its central concerns, I would have to choose Terry Glavin's harpooning of Greenpeace pieties in the Fall 2004 issue. There would have been any number of counterintuitive ways to illustrate the piece. But Ms. [Gudrun] Will's and Mr. [Mark] Mushet's idea seems somehow beyond improvement. They chose a recipe: "Minke Whale with Juniper Berries."


Blogger darcy mccannel said...

you got this one right, Mr.Glavin. Ms.Blatchford's book is so deserving of the GG. I was moved by her narrative and I'm no less moved by the juries decision to reward this look at our men and women in the military.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Vote early and vote often, rules permitting. How could one have ever known?


5:54 PM  
Blogger L said...

What I like about ol' Christie is her great fondness for manly Canadian men, her non-weepy depiction of suburbanite and immigrant murderousness, her wide- nosed plainness, the way she lets her subjects talk, and the cruel insightful balance of her sentences. I don't think the Post or Globe deserve her, but you voted for the right broad yourself, Terry-Jury...

2:52 AM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

No surprise at all, her writing is consistently brilliant. I've always envied her ability as a journalist who connects with people on a visceral level, delivered with a great sense of humour. Haven't read her book yet but it's next on my list of must-reads.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Graeme said...

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4:48 AM  

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