Canada Reads 2012: true stories, big stories, our stories

Canada Reads 2012

Although it made the most noise and seemed to garner the most attention, the big story was not harsh, borderline slanderous words thrown out as calculated debate tactics by one panelist to two authors whose books were in contention for the winner of this year’s Canada Reads competition. While distracting, that provocation (if you must and haven’t, you can learn more here) thankfully turned out to be something of a sideshow to the much bigger story: that a finale perfectly capturing the fabric of today’s Canada was triumphantly executed with exemplary and quintessential Canadian finesse.

If you missed it, the final round for winner of Canada Reads 2012 pitted the book Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre, a story of Chilean refugees in the Pinochet era in the early 1980s, defended by award winning hip hop artist Shad, against The Game by Ken Dryden, a both wide reaching and personal reflection on Canada’s national game from one of its most revered players, defended by actor, songwriter and TV show host Alan Thicke. Hmm, “pitted” sounds like a heated conflict. It generated heat in that the final defenders and the remaining panelists waxed heartfelt and poetic about the inspiring themes in both books, but that heat was warmth, not the more ephemeral sparks of gamesmanship. That collegial and respectful coming together at the end exemplified many of the Canadian values that this annual “battle of the books” culminates in exploring every year. And as finalist Shad remarked at the outset of the final day’s discussions, it was “hair splitting” at that point to crown any of the books a titular winner.

Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre

It was remarks like that that also highlighted one of the greatest delights of the entire debate series. Book defender Shad embodied diplomacy and grace throughout the proceedings. He not only courteously acknowledged the views of his competing book defenders, but found regular opportunities (not just ones dictated by specific questions from the moderator, Jian Ghomeshi) to sincerely and evenhandedly praise the other books with a level of knowledge and detail that spoke to his studious reading of and supplementary to the entire finalist list. (He admitted in an off-camera chat after one of the debates that he was reading up on other Ken Dryden books, ostensibly for more debate fodder, but clearly for sheer interest and enjoyment, too.)

There were wonderful contrasts and symmetries produced by the final pairing of Something Fierce and The Game, dichotomies that simply would not have been put in such intriguing relief if the final two were, say, Something Fierce and Prisoner of Tehran (two books both about daunting new Canadian experiences), or The Game and On a Cold Road (paeans to Canadian cultural icons firmly rooted in this country). The contrasts and, in essence, the yin and yang of the final two books made for a satisfying, balanced view of what Canadians should be reading – really, both books if they haven’t already – to truly gain insight into what it means today to be a Canadian.

Some of the contrasts of the two books that were most striking and thought provoking included The Game‘s tribute to but also pointed examination of a sport that is a transcendent cultural touchstone in many ways, part of the traditions of many native born Canadians, but is not without its problems that Dryden pointedly tackled in the early 1980s and are still sadly relevant today. This is set against Something Fierce‘s unflinching account of an extraordinary new Canadian experience (where it might not be readily apparent where Canada actually fits favourably in the story), sparked by political upheaval elsewhere in the world in the early 1980s (interesting!) that is still in many respects sadly relevant today.

Both books have a strong foundation in the importance of family, even when those families have their shortcomings, as all families do. As a professional athlete who traveled constantly, Dryden worried poignantly about being an absentee parent, but he also celebrated the generosity of his parents in providing a home and support for he and his siblings to play out and realize their dreams. The word “shortcomings” is too mild to describe the outright dysfunction in Aguirre’s family dynamic – from divorced parents to a mother and stepfather who then drew their children (including a child born while essentially on the run in South America) into subterfuge and danger. But Aguirre’s choice to continue with her mother’s political causes when she became an adult is testament, in part at least, to profound familial love and respect.

The two books are a true study in contrast in terms of authorial voice. The voice of Something Fierce exudes warmth, passion, as well as a youthful, mercurial and unfiltered heedlessness and comparative lack of processing of thoughts and motives. That last is not a criticism, but just a description of the callow narrator’s perspective. The voice of The Game is cooler, more cerebral, more thoughtful, having stepped back more from the events and issues in which the protagonist was directly involved. But a more analytical or meditative approach doesn’t preclude warmth and compassion and humour, too, and it’s there, but more subtly woven into the narrative. Ultimately, both voices convey profound kindness and a desire to do the right thing in the world at large. Aren’t both voices just two sides of the Canadian identity coin?

While attending all four of the Canada Reads debate tapings for web streaming and TV, I was really gratified to talk to lots of fellow readers, particularly non-fiction enthusiasts with very personal connections to the books being discussed. One reader wisely observed that an aspect of the Canadian immigrant experience that many might not realize or appreciate is that many people come to Canada with a heavy and perhaps somewhat grudging heart. Canada may be a choice and even a haven, but a significant number of immigrants are leaving their countries of origin with regrets and reluctance. That remark coupled with Shad’s steadfast and levelheaded defence of Something Fierce were revelations for this reader.

This all is not to dismiss that the words spoken at the beginning of Canada Reads have faded away or necessarily should. They rankle, and will likely be talked about, tweeted, hashed over, deconstructed on blogs and, most significantly, will clutch at and wound hearts for some time to come. Beaming more brightly, though, is that when Canada Reads righted itself after that initial outburst, it brought to all Canadian readers a stimulating discussion highlighting the contrasting but complementary personae, desires and values that make up the Canadian identity.

See also:

Non-fiction authors as characters in their own works

My reviews of Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

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