Monthly Archives: March 2014

Canada Reads 2014 – refreshed, inspired, re-energized

Canada Reads

This was a palate cleanser year for me with respect to Canada Reads, an annual Canadian literary event I’ve followed regularly since its inception in 2002. (Here’s a handy summary of the books, book defenders, moderators and more, including the parallel lineups for the French language equivalent, Le Combat des livres.) I’ve been most engaged in the books, the discussions and the featured debates since 2011, the year the event was extended to invite more online participation.

Perhaps I’ve been so engaged since then that I’ll admit, I experienced a touch of Canada Reads fatigue going into the ramp-up to this year’s debates. I’d mused a year earlier …

“… you know, part of me wishes I could go into the debate one of these times to be convinced without having read any of them, or to test with some purity whether the debates stand on their own as a truly useful way of being introduced to the books. Of course, the debates can’t help but be predicated on some beforehand knowledge of the books and authors. Anyhow, it’s not how Canada Reads books have come to be marketed nowadays, is it? The five-book packages and bookstore displays started in November, and we’re meant to respond. Still, don’t you think it’d be an interesting approach to learning about the books to intentionally go in blind one year?” (from Some thoughts on Canada Reads Eve [February 9, 2013])

So, that’s what I did this year.

Taking this approach, I went into the debates feeling refreshed, with some new perspectives and very curious to see how the celebrity defenders were going to do their jobs. I’ll also admit that I emerged from the 2014 Canada Reads debates feeling entertained, challenged and energized, having had my thoughts about the contending books and subject matter provoked in all sorts of positive ways.

Bearing in mind that Canada Reads is not just a battle of books, but the alchemy of theme, book, defender, strategy and a dollop or two of the unexpected, the 2014 edition delivered … and some. The two final defenders – Wab Kinew, championing Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and Samantha Bee, championing Rawi Hage’s Cockroach – were two of the most determined, articulate, well prepared and quick thinking combatants the program has ever seen (Bee’s periodic dips into weepiness notwithstanding). Add to that the eminence, eloquence, gravitas and revelatory humour of statesman Stephen Lewis, and the program boasted some of the most balanced, respectful and riveting Canada Reads exchanges ever, such as the Kinew-Lewis debate about violence and torture in The Orenda.

You could almost put aside the books here and argue that the arguments themselves were the most potent and inspiring aspects of this year’s program.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

Interestingly, the tenacity with which the book/defender combination of Bee/Cockroach made it to the final round had me the most intrigued throughout. That’s the Canada Reads finalist book I’m going to read first, based on both Samantha Bee’s spirited and resourceful defence, as well my friend Paul Whelan’s great review.

Suggestions for next year? On the basis of the invigorating discussions this year, I know I’ll be interested again in 2015, and would love to submit the following ideas for consideration:

  1. Thematic idea #1 How about an examination of indelible characters in Canadian literature that all Canadians should get to know … but not the usual suspects, like Anne of Green Gables or Duddy Kravitz? I’d nominate the likes of Maggie Lloyd from Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel, Desmond Howl from Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music, Sheilagh Fielding from Wayne Johnston’s The Custodian of Paradise or Egg from Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich.

  2. Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

  3. Thematic idea #2 How about books that will introduce you to the complete works of (perhaps) underappreciated or unknown authors, or authors that have slipped a bit below the CanLit radar? How about selections from the works of Barbara Gowdy, Matt Cohen, Robertson Davies or Judith Merril, for example?

  4. Host/moderator The inaugural Canada Reads in 2002 was moderated by actor/comedian Mary Walsh. For the next five years, Canada Reads was moderated by author and broadcaster Bill Richardson. For the last seven years, Jian Ghomeshi has helmed the program. Is it maybe time to give Jian a well-deserved break and seek a change in the moderator’s chair? (Heck, if he is reluctant to completely disengage, Jian could probably be an able book defender.) While there are already calls for him for Prime Minister, a good interim role for Wab Kinew might be as an incisive and astute moderator who would bring an informed sensibility to the proceedings. His impressive acumen in this year’s Canada Reads proceedings was enhanced by his overall preparedness and knowledge of all of the books, and his ability to respect his opponents without being either hostile or overly ingratiating. I think he could manage a future Canada Reads competition with equanimity and aplomb. Just a thought …

See also:

Post-mortem: Canada Reads 2014, by Allegra Young

Spending time most gloriously with 500 poets and poetry translators

Gathered at another table

A year ago, the table welcomed 300 poets and translators. A year later, 200 more poets and translators have joined the festive gathering, making for some interesting shuffling in the seating arrangements, to say the least. Are Helen Adam and Fleur Adcock having a surprising meeting of minds? How about ee cummings and Nancy Jo Cullen … or Edna St Vincent Millay and Joe Strummer? Anselm Berrigan is now next to his father, Ted, and his mother Alice Notley is further down on the other side, engrossed in conversation with Idra Novey. We trust Helen Guri and Jason Guriel will have no mishaps with wine glasses or cutlery …

I’ve been tweeting a #todayspoem tweet every day since December 26, 2011, inspired by this. In addition to revisiting and going deeper in my own poetry collection, #todayspoem has compelled me to go further afield in print and online, and my daily tweets have reflected both my own explorations and those sparked by other generous and eclectic #todayspoem contributors. While I continue to imagine what this 500 poets and translators I’ve tweeted would have to say to each other if I sat them at a table … again, I’m fantasizing about the new guests who will be joining them in the days, weeks and months to come.

The following are links to more information about each of the unique poets and translators from whose work I’ve tweeted in a little over two years – personal web sites, articles, interviews, essays, biographies and bibliographies. I kind of hope that these might be starting points for others to explore these artists, too. The excerpts from their work that I incorporated into #todayspoem tweets are saved as part of the Today’s Poem Pinterest board.

Tea table image from

Book traffic report #2

Stack of books

As I’ve mentioned, we here in this household overflowing with books have launched a year-long look at how books make their way into (and out of) this place. We’re now two months into the exercise and we’re not only learning some interesting things about our book acquisition and sharing behaviours, but I think this added awareness might be influencing us, at least a bit.

At the end of February, the two columns on my home office whiteboard tallied up as follows:

Incoming: 9

  • 9 paper books / 0 digital books
  • 2 purchased / 7 received or received as gifts
  • Of the 2 books purchased, one was purchased online and one was special ordered via and purchased in a bookstore (Book City)
  • 5 of the 7 received books were complementary copies from publishers or authors
  • 1 book that had been loaned to a friend was returned.

I observed last month that I’d like to see more of our purchases taking place in physical bookstores, where possible. So, we paid more attention to that this month, and I’d like to continue to do that in future.

Outgoing: 16

2014 to date: 17 books incoming, 31 books outgoing

Not sure if there is much to conclude this early on, but I do want to keep up the Little Free Library habit (maybe it’s time for us to get a box of our own, either at home or hmm, maybe up at the cottage …?) and I also want to be mindful of purchasing at and supporting our bookstores. I admit the outgoing book figure surprises me a bit, but then my husband commented that he’s surprised at how many books are still coming in …!

I mentioned before that I am keeping track of the titles coming in and going out, but am not specifically listing them in my reports here. (No one gave an opinion either way about me mentioning titles.) With outgoing books in particular, I’ve wondered if mentioning the titles might make it look like we’re rejecting or kicking perfectly fine books out of our house. Again, I note that some of the books we’ve taken to Little Free Library boxes are reading and/or paperback copies of books we’ve since purchased in hardcover and/or in first editions. In some cases, the books were on specific subject matter and have grown out of date or usefulness. In some cases, admittedly, there are books we’ve relinquished that we don’t expect to revisit, to put it carefully. As I said previously, that doesn’t mean that someone else might not happily welcome them and add them to the “incoming” column in their households. (In fact, when I check our neighbourhood Little Free Library boxes to which we’ve donated, I’m also kind of happy to see that our books have departed.)

Book stack image from