Friday, August 6, 2010

My new favourite second hand bookstore

I have found a new second hand bookstore. It's name is Value Village, the one near the corner of Baseline and Merivale (Clyde) Avenue in Ottawa. Admittedly, some of the pulp fiction on the shelves is best used for propping up the wobbly leg of a table, but recently, someone with reading tastes similar to mine must have donated her entire library to the needy.

Over the past month or so I've been finding books that I vaguely remember thinking of reading when they came out, but didn't, for whatever reason. Often I read books uniquely appealing to older adults so that I can review them for my column in Ottawa's Forever Young, when actually I might be more interested in something aimed at a more general audience.

Among my recent VV finds was Jane Urquhart's The Underpainter, which won the Governor General's award about ten years ago. I met Jane years ago when she was writer in residence at the University of Ottawa. She gave me excellent advice about the novel I was working on, which has since been published; it's An Amethyst Remembrance (Ottawa, Baico, 2008) I try to read everything Ms Urquhart writes, but for some reason skipped The Underpainter. Some reviewer wrote, at the time that it came out, that the central character was unlikeable. Back then I was up to my bangs in teaching writing, and doing my own writing, and reading books for my column, so decided that The Underpainter could wait, and never got to it.

Since then, I've come to realize that the likeability/unlikeability of a central character is not a sensible criterion for judging a book. After reading The Underpainter, I thought the central character, the painter, was typical of many artistic personalities that I've encountered over the years. People struggling in the arts need to develop strong egos. It's certainly morally wrong to use people, as the underpainter did, without ensuring that relationships are reciprocal and that the other person is getting something worthwhile in return. But it's not unusual.

Going beyond the level of "what happened" to areas of meaning, it seems to me that the novel is about capitalism. Urquhart also makes readers question whether a distinction should be made between "great art"/"high art" and "practical art/crafts" . One of her characters is a china painter. (She did not mention that Renoir started out as a china painter. though she probably knows that.)

In summary, The Underpainter is a thought provoking novel, especially for anyone involved in the arts. I urge you to read it and to check out your local "Veev" to see what inexpensive literary treasures may be waiting for you on the shelves.

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