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The books, the outfits, the gossip: Dishing on the Giller ceremony

Esi Edugyan accepts the Scotiabank Giller Prize award for the book Half-Blood Blues in Toronto on Tuesday November 8, 2011.


Last week, The Globe's Sandra Martin and John Barber weighed in on who should win Canada's most prestigious literary prize. Today, they offer their take on who snagged the big pot – and the country's glitziest book bash.

MARTIN: So John, you look pretty chipper considering the wine was flowing and the bar was open at the Giller Awards on Tuesday night. All the glitterati were there, several of them wearing flowing brocade coats over skinny black pants, but the most elegant woman in the room, was, as usual, Florence Richler, widow of Mordecai (who was a Giller-winner himself for Barney's Version, back in 1997). The American ambassador and his wife (who'd read all six nominated books!) made the trip from Ottawa, as did Bob Rae, interim leader of the Liberal Party. Malcolm Gladwell looked slightly lost as he wandered through the crowd, while the happiest people in the crush were all those former Giller judges, relieved that they didn't have to pick the winner this year. What did you think?

BARBER: I was struck by the appearance of young Barbara Amiel, looking très soignée as she circled the room several times in regal search of a seat. I thought Esi Edugyan looked fabulous, especially considering she has a weeks' old baby at home, but altogether too poised – to the point of seeming indifferent. Maybe she was just numb. And I can't look at Malcolm Gladwell without thinking about what highbrow pornographer Nicholson Baker did to the poor man's name in his last book.

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MARTIN: I don't have a lot of gossip this year because I actually spent most of the evening talking about the books. Reading is such a solitary business that I often search desperately for anybody who has read the same books and wants to talk about them. Last night the economy was forgotten, Occupy Wall Street went out the window – the buzz was all about the books on the list. I had lots of heated conversations about whether Esi Edugyan knew enough about jazz to pull off her novel Half-Blood Blues, or what was the plot line in Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, or whether Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers was really a screenplay for a Coen brothers film or a deeply felt novel about sibling rivalry. Arguing about books and reading is what the Giller is supposed to be about and for once it was. Do you agree?

BARBER: My understanding is that the Giller is supposed to popularize books, and this year both authors and jury collaborated to produce a short list of genuinely popular books. I'm not convinced that many of the people at the gala have actually read many of them; maybe that comes later. The point is that these books are all quite graspable, even (horrors!) entertaining. My experience is that reading the nominees only clouds my judgment when it comes to the main task of the evening, which is to bet on a winner. I lost again last night – for the Nth time. And neither of my three tablemates who bet on Edugyan had read her book.

MARTIN: I guess we were talking to different people. There was a big run-up to the Giller this year because two of the books, Half-Blood Blues and The Sisters Brothers, were shortlisted for the Man Booker and nothing grabs the attention of a Canadian reader faster than kudos from elsewhere. Ondaatje's novel was wildly applauded in New York and London, as well, which added to chatter which invariably surrounds the publication of one of his novels. But I also talked to people who had read and loved Lynn Coady's novel The Antagonist. Speaking of which, did you talk to Ron McLean? Unlike the usual wooden reading of the teleprompter, he presented that book, and made a crack about Don Cherry that showed a real interest in Coady and her work.

BARBER: McLean was incredible. He not only had something of his own to say about the book he presented, he put it over like nobody else. He clearly outshone host Jian Ghomeshi, who presided as if he were alone with a microphone in his radio studio. But overall I thought the CBC did a good job in its first broadcast of the Giller gala. The video interviews with authors were much crisper than the sometimes lugubrious norm established at early ceremonies. Relying on popular musicians to introduce the authors and not allowing them to read even a sentence of their nominated works seems to have pepped things up considerably.

MARTIN: You've got that right. So I'll see you again next year? Meanwhile, happy reading.

BARBER: It's dirty work but somebody has to do it.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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