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Field Notes - The Jury Is In
by Andrew Vaisius

I'M TRYING to divvy up lunch like a momma robin to six two-year-olds 'at the daycare centre when the phone rings.

"Hello, Andrew? Is this a good time to talk?"

I am noncommittal. Pandemonium reigns at the table, but my presence won't ensure a joyful chorus right now. Andrea Philp, the executive director of the Writers' Guild, is on the horn, wondering if I could be on the jury for the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Why me? is my question, but I don't ask it. Instead, I agree. It's a chance to work with four others to adjudicate the premier writing award in the province, and I consider it an honour.

Andrea says, "Sixteen books are entered so far, and it's the last day for submissions, so I don't expect many more. You've got eight weeks before you meet for the short list."

In two days the instant bookshelf arrives by courier. I am both awed and oppressed. Those of us who don't quit our day jobs are forced to do hard labour in the arts with time that's borrowed, stolen, or manufactured from nothingness. We grin like monkeys and glory in the connection to the real artists on the other side of the bars. But with two Governor General nominees and a past GG winner in the pile of books I'm judging, the bars dissolve, at least temporarily.

The McNally Robinson Award is a mixed-genre prize, and I'm confronted with the entire range: poetry to play, novel to archaeology, aviation history to Inuit sculpture. Criteria, anyone? I adopt the Canada Council's catchall credo - excellence in writing - and hope to judge appropriately.

To be safe, I resolve not to set a schedule that I might break, but to read two books a week so as not to be sorry. No more newspapers. Skip the radio. I don't own a TV, so no withdrawal pains from that addiction. Read. My mantra. Read!

Lunchbreak? Read. Nodding off? I pinch myself awake. Slip the bookmark back to the chapter's beginning. Now flick off the switch. My aching eyes pop open in the darkness as I wait to go blind.

I once prided myself on thorough reading, sensitive reading, thoughtful reading, but this task scrambles those notions. Like a marathon swimmer I cut through the surface wellgreased and half-submerged. Maureen Hunter's Transit of Venus arrives in the mail and I kick myself for not reading Beautiful Lake Winnipeg when I had the urge. Are there no limits?

Mentally I compile a short list as I transfer from the Not Read to the Read stack. Two certain choices so far: Sandra Birdsell's The Chrome Suite and Robert Kroetsch's The Puppeteer. Dichotomous writing. One from the heart, the other from the head, though not exclusively. More a reflection of their resident muses. Might they be roughly typed the female and the male voice? The bleakness in Birdsell's creation is palpable and unrelenting. Am I twisted to be so drawn to it? The devised structures of The Puppeteer, which are similar to Alibi's offbeat cast of characters and calculated/-ing language, are splendiferous and challenging.

A developmental psychologist once stated that children's true creativity is best observed not in their three-dimensional creations, but in their single-plane constructions. Practice for the print medium? Take Patrick Friesen's book of poetry You Don't Get To Be a Saint. It pursues so many directions and radiates with such sensual and concrete imagery that I am transfixed. How can mere words be so dexterous and nimble, so weather-burned and pure? Who the hell won the GG Award for poetry last year?

If the short-list meeting is democratic, I muse (defensively) that my opinions are worth only 20 per cent. Then I worry that it will be a meeting of divergent lobbyists.

Three books left and one of them points specifically to the problems of cross-genre selection. Shirley Render's history of female aviators in Canada entails massive research, hundreds of personal interviews, and a travel schedule that probably reads like the pilots' own logbooks. Should this spadework be heaped onto the judging scales? I'm saved from having to decide by the writing.

A week prior to the short list the phone again rings through the tumult of work. An organizer informs me that one juror has dropped out - I'm elevated five per cent! - and another juror has critiqued all the books. He has also supplied a copy for distribution. Would I like one?

Say what? Whoa. Is this a lightly veiled, hell, a naked attempt to influence decision?

"Samantha! Eat your sandwich. Leggo of Tim's finger, please."

Perhaps this is simply a helpful gesture to tasteless, ignorant, rookie jurors. I politely decline, though I express the hope that the critiques will be brought to the meeting so we can all share them. A charming childcare-worker reply. Yet I notice that a worn-down mind, like a wornout body, is susceptible to outside diseases. Paranoia strikes.

"David, why are you looking at me like that? Drink your milk."



MY SHORT LIST is finalized. Birdsell, Kroetsch, Friesen, Carol Shields's The Republic of Love, a wonderfully crafty comedy, and hesitatingly, out of the blue, my bird in hand, Fran Howard's The Ivory Comb, a novel for young people with complexity, grit, and dam good storytelling. With MY list complete, interest in the lists of my fellow jurors is piqued.

We meet on a bright, below-zero Winnipeg morning and develop a speedy consensus around four books, with forceful arguments for two others. I can't help thinking that this is going too fast. I blank out on character names, episodes, and anything approaching intelligence about what I've read. Points are floated over the table timidly, then emotively conveyed with the weightiness of lead. My dear dark horse, The Ivory Comb, is (to mix a metaphor) eaten up and spat out vehemently as a piece of revisionist liberal treacle. I am momentarily dumbstruck. Oh, let it pass, I mumble, though under my breath I swear never to quit child care for a job in English Lit. Teaching can bend the mind in such a Self-important way.

Fortunately, while shifting alliances we agree on more than we disagree. In the end, arriving at a short list seems easier than the sound and fury preceding it. So easy, in fact, we go right ahead and pick a winner: Sandra Birdsell. Unanimously, with minor concessions. The final numbers: two months, 20 books, and nearly 4,000 pages. Tonight I'll begin reading Mowat's Lost in the Barrew to my children at storytime. A tale of survival. It seems fitting.


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