Ben and Lynn's 45 Books in 45 Minutes: Solid Summer Reading

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Ok — first, a confession. I had never been to Ben McNally Books. That might make me a bad reader and writer, but I’m a creature of habit and my habits only have me in the neighbourhood for cocktails and horseracing at nearby Turf. So, when I attended their bi-annual 45 in 45 on Thursday evening it was a joy to walk into their distinctly appointed store where Ben McNally and his wife Lynn Thomson greeted everyone who walked in the door (except me) by name.

45 in 45 is exactly what it sounds like — Ben and Lynn preview — I can’t say recommend, because some of them certainly weren’t recommendations — 45 books in 45 minutes to a packed house. They do this twice a year — in the spring for summer reading suggestions and in the fall for their holiday picks. The rules? The books have to be new and available. That means, most of them are hardcover — except for the occasional trade paperback original — and they came out on publishers' spring lists.

“We pick books that you’re gonna hear about, books you are hearing about, but most importantly, books you won’t hear about anywhere else, but from us,” Ben told me.

“Do you read all of them?”

“No way. Some of them you couldn’t pay me to read.”

“I read every book that I recommend,” Lynn cut in.

Then Ben handed me a list of books with short tag lines à la Hollywood blockbusters like — “women have some fun with the aging process” (I Feel Great About My Hands by Shari Graydon), “naughty bits finally included” (The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde) and “intrigue in South Africa, with Canadian content” (Water Man’s Daughter by Emma Ruby-Sachs) — and after a little wine and cheese, Ben asks someone to start the clock.

The books are divided into two categories: non-fiction and fiction. There’s no poetry, nothing experimental and not much unexpected. These are books for solid summer reading. Ben McNally is the consummate bookstore owner. He knows his audience.

And he knows how to play to that audience. Ben’s reviews of books are quick and pithy — “noted, bloated and self-important” for On China by Henry Kissinger; “one of the most irritating books in history” for Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcom; “better than the first one, according to my son Rupert” for The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg.

But Ben can also be highly praising where he thinks it’s deserved. Noting three of his titles — America Pacifica by Anna North, Swamplandia by Karen Russell and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht, Ben told us “This is the year of the young woman,” before he declared The Tiger’s Wife his favourite book of the year and that unlike the odds makers, he wasn’t the least bit surprised when it won the Orange Prize last week. His other favourite was Age of Greed by Jeff Madrick — a book that “everyone should have to read.”

Lynn’s reviews were more personal. She loved all the books she put on the list (six out of the forty-five with a heavy dose of Can-con), but her strongest recommendations came for The Spoiler by Annalena McAfee (Ian McEwen’s wife, which drew a knowing murmur from the crowd), which she called “cringe worthy” in the best possible way. “You love both the characters,” Lynn expanded,” but can’t stand any either of them,” and Witch Light by Susan Fletcher, which she said was “the best novel I’ve read in years.”

Although he noted that this fall’s new release lists looked more likely to be stacked with award-season books Ben predicted that we’d see two of his picks up there — David Bezmogis’s The Free World and Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter.

When the clock stopped Ben and Lynn had seven minutes to spare. They took some questions, clarified some of their picks and made specific recommendations for young rand reluctant readers. Ben admitted that there was one book that he had hoped would be out in time for the list, but wasn’t — Before I Go to Sleep by first time novelist S. J. Watson about a woman who loses her memory every night when she goes to sleep.

45 in 45 fills up every season — there’s no cover charge, but seating is limited. If you missed it you can email Ben and Lynn and they’ll send you their recommendations, and be sure to join the mailing list at www.benmcnallybooks.com for details about their holiday list.

Tanis Rideout writes both poetry and fiction. Last year her poems, Arguments with the Lake, placed second in the CBC Literary Awards and her first novel will be published by McClelland and Stewart in Spring 2012.

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