Category Archives: Canada Reads

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

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

I’m excited to introduce Bookgaga readers to another insightful guest book reviewer who comes at things from some intriguing angles. Paul Whelan, over to you: I am an architect whose worldview has been shaped by a belief that cities and buildings are active participants in our real and imagined lives. My reading is evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, but usually underpinned by my deep love of human history.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

A book titled Cockroach almost begs the reader to embark on an insect-metaphor hunt. And there are many here to find. If you are the type of reader who wants to make connections between for example Kafka and derogatory racial profiling, it’s all here for the counting. But for me there was so much more to this engaging novel. I read it twice as the combination of character, story and language aligned to keep me off-balance, but eagerly stumbling forward.

The nameless main character is simultaneously off-putting and endearing. His childlike attitude towards his shoplifting and break and enter crimes seems devoid of conventional morality. He oscillates from compelling observations of his adopted city through to being weirdly off-putting. Regardless I wanted him to succeed in his seductions and his crimes. I never lost interest in his interactions with Montreal and its inhabitants.

Cockroach inhabits a city that operates under rules that are invisible to him. His judgment of the naïveté of those around him is equal to his own unexamined naïveté. He coolly exposes the false posturing of both his fellow-immigrants and the soft lives of the Montreal well-to-do. Rawi Hage creates passages of power and beauty such as the hero’s musings on his state-appointed psychiatrist.

“She was quiet and I knew she wanted to ask me if I had killed Tony once I had the gun. I knew she was hooked, intrigued. Simple woman. I thought. Gentle, educated, but naïve, she is sheltered by glaciers and prairies, thick forests, oceans and dancing seals.”

Cockroach’s hero has experienced a far harsher world and has little patience for the morality of the well-fed.

Hage’s novel maintains a tight relationship to the viscera of Montreal. The reader is kept in constant contact with the ice and slush of winter, the hunger before the next welfare check and incessant sexual longing. The hero is desperately in touch with his physicality and is deeply grateful for every scrap of food or sexual encounter. Even his break-ins seem tempered by seeming simpler needs. He takes what he wants based on his assessment of the inhabitants, but mostly food and information.

What I have avoided writing about is the plot. For most of the novel I simply read along for the ride. I was equally intrigued by the hero’s direct pleasure from life and the inexorable unfolding of his story, which skirts around all the great issues – hunger, sex, love and revenge. But there is a great story here that slips through the entrails of Montreal and all its inhabitants.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Paul is the fifth and final – to review the contending books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

I’m very pleased to welcome another terrific guest book reviewer with some fresh perspectives to the Bookgaga blog. Over to Rebecca Hansford, who will introduce herself: I am an undergraduate student at Queen’s University, completing my final year in Biology and Psychology. I am currently conducting a thesis, examining how lakes change over time due to climate-related issues. Majoring in science instead of English was a tough choice for me as I have an electric passion for reading. I particularly enjoy fiction that integrates scientific facts, environmental issues and dystopian societies.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood tells the brilliant story of two contrasting women’s survival in a rapidly deconstructing society. The characters’ surroundings are devastating but familiar, a world focused on consumerism, flashy products and unnatural gene splicing. Humans have destroyed the environment and the government has a tyrannical hold over the population. However, the general population is so obsessed with consumption that little attention is given to the political chokehold.

From this corrupt and unnatural society, a small religion of naturalists emerges, the Gardeners. The Gardeners promote vegetarianism and minimalist life choices despite the current society’s focus on consumerism and unnatural product obsessions. At first glance, the Gardeners’ society seem to be a modern-day garden of Eden, however, by delving into two distinct narratives, Atwood exposes both the negative and positive aspects of this religion while telling the story of the Gardeners’ response to the impending doom of the Waterless flood.

Atwood jumps effortless between narratives and time describing the lives of the Gardener women, before and after the Waterless Flood. The juxtaposition of the two women’s characters is remarkable. Toby is a hardwired, strong woman, who learns to fend for herself at an early age. By using third person, Atwood distances the reader from the slightly closed off character. In contrast, Ren is an open, resilient but slightly dependent character. Ren’s narrative is first person and begins when she is a young child, giving the reader an easier connection to this character. The changing narrative is wonderfully done and keeps the reader engaged. Atwood also describes the Gardeners’ prayers, enabling the reader to see into this interesting religion.

By demonstrating Gardener prayers in addition to each woman’s view of the religion, the reader gains three perspectives into the Gardener religion. As a treat, the reader also gets a taste of Atwood’s renowned poetry as Atwood threads religious symbolism seamlessly into the novel. Using these prayers, Atwood comments on organized religion by emphasizing the positive, natural aspects while highlighting the problems and hypocrisy within its organization.

The Year of the Flood poses interesting questions regarding the current technology and economy focused society. In a world of gene-splicing, questionable medicine and secret-meat burgers, how far can society depart from the natural world before it becomes detrimental to human society? Atwood makes the reader question the society’s focus on playing God, while making us wonder if our society has also crossed this line. Atwood reinforces the inconvenient truth that current lifestyle choices are leading to a disaster of global scale and asks the reader if our society will also have to face the consequences of our consumerist actions one day.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Rebecca is the fourth – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

I’m really thrilled to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wise and diligent guest book reviewer. Sue Reynolds is a life-long reader and animal lover whose sudden, passionate love for Bette Davis movies threatens to consume all of her reading time.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues has won or been shortlisted for an impressive array of prestigious awards since its publication in 2011. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, to name a few. The great success of the book has generated countless descriptions and reviews, both in print and online. In the interest of taking a different approach, the Bookgaga kindly suggested that my review might take the Canada Reads theme into consideration.

Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, moves back and forth between Berlin and Paris in 1939-40, and Berlin and Poland in 1992. Its action revolves around a jazz band, the Hot-Times Swingers, which is composed of black and white musicians from the United States and Europe. With World War II looming on the horizon and harassment of “undesirables” (band members Chip and Hiero are both dark-skinned black men, Paul is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew) becoming increasingly violent, the Hot-Times Swingers flee Berlin for Paris, partly to escape the worsening situation in Berlin, partly to meet and record with Louis Armstrong.

Edugyan smoothly moves from the drama of the Swingers, their interpersonal tensions, artistic struggles and more serious challenges of avoiding the Nazi presence in Berlin and Paris, to future scenes with the surviving members, years later, who are now old men. The 1992 sections of the novel feel almost like a detective story, as Sid, our elderly narrator, and his best friend, Chip, travel to Berlin and Poland in search of Hiero, the genius trumpeter, assumed killed during the war but alive and living in obscurity.

Canada Reads asks: what is the one novel that could change Canada, that Canadians can look to for inspiration? That will compel Canadians to make a change in their lives, at home or at work, in their community, in their country or around the world? Although the bulk of Half-Blood Blues takes place on the world stage with the horrors of World War II as a backdrop, the novel has an intimate and personal feel to it. We are witness to the creative process that Sid and his bandmates live for and we watch Sid’s infatuation with jazz singer Delilah Brown play itself out.

Half-Blood Blues works its magic, not necessarily through its story, but in how it tells that story. Edugyan conveys the mysteries of jazz music through her use of the written word:

“Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, this barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.

…I might’ve been crying. It was the sound of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling. The very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart. Yeah, that was it. It was the sound of the kid’s coming of age. As if he taken on some of old Armstrong’s colossal sadness.” (p. 278)

Whether Edugyan is describing the freedom found in creating music or the chaos of thousands of panicked Parisians trying to flee their occupied city, her prose sings and reminds us that we are interacting with a living, breathing language. This, I think, is her gift to her readers: she calls attention to the musical, evocative beauty of the English language, how it can be bent and twisted to do the writer’s bidding.

Should all of Canada read Half-Blood Blues we may end up with a nation of book-lovers who have decided to read aloud, the better to hear the music embedded in every text they open.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Sue is the third – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Allow me to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wonderful and perceptive guest book reviewer. Natasha Hesch loves novels. She started out as a public librarian, and now works at BiblioCommons. She regularly shares short reviews of what she has read as tegan on BiblioCommons’ library software.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

I had been wanting to read Annabel by Kathleen Winter for quite some time, but it had just not made it to the top of my reading list. When Vicki asked me to read and review one of the 5 selected Canada Reads books, I jumped at the opportunity to review Annabel.

As I made my way through the novel on my daily TTC commute, I kept thinking about this year’s Canada Reads big question “What is the one novel that could change Canada?” I haven’t read the other 4 Canada Reads titles, but by reading Annabel I think Canadians could become more open-minded and accepting of other people’s differences. Discrimination against people who don’t fit neatly into sex and gender constructs persists today.

The main character of Annabel is a child who is born a hermaphrodite. Treadway, the father independently decides that the child should be raised as a boy: “[Treadway] knew his baby had both a boy’s and a girl’s identity, and he knew a decision had to be made.” (Winter, 26). Although Jacinta and Treadway’s baby is born in 1968, I wonder how different of a situation parents would be in today? I didn’t look into what the typical medical practices are today, but there is still a definite requirement to label a child: governmental institutions still impose the binary of male vs. female upon parents right from the start. I took a quick look at the Ontario and Newfoundland form for getting a birth certificate, and both forms still have only two check boxes available for sex: male or female. At a federal level, Statistics Canada also erases the existence of intersex individuals: on the 2011 Census of Population, only male and female populations are recorded.

Annabel really makes you think about the labels that are placed upon people, and the problematic nature of trying to label everything to try to understand it. Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to naming, defining and labeling things: “Everyone was trying to define everything so carefully, Jacinta felt; they wanted to annihilate all questions” (Winter 45). By labeling things, we are often imposing limits; as Winter eloquently writes “You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name” (Winter 350).

As a reader you can’t help but want Wayne to just be who s/he is. There is a very sweet moment early on in the book where Wayne longs for a girls orange bathing suit. He begs his mother for one, but knows his father would not approve: “Could we get me a bathing suit like Elizaveta Kirilovna’s and not tell Dad?” (Winter 86). I wanted to buy the swimsuit for Wayne/Annabel. The innocence of Wayne’s desires are at times heart-breaking. I think if all Canadian’s read this book, they would empathize with Wayne, and be more open to accepting the blurry lines that exist with sex and gender identity.

There is much time spent in the novel on bridges. Thomasina, who accepts Wayne/Annabel for who s/he is, sends postcards of bridges to Wayne/Annabel. S/he is obsessed with these bridges, s/he is constantly looking at the postcards and redrawing the bridges. I couldn’t help but think that the bridges were a symbol of the interstitial space that Wayne/Annabel lives in. A space bridging two places, not male, not female, but in between.

Wayne/Annabel as a character is a very inspiring one. S/he never complains about his/her situation, no matter what happens to him/her. Although at times Winter writes Wayne/Annabel through very difficult experiences, I was very happy and relieved that Winter wrote Wayne/Annabel to a ‘happy ending’. I think that Annabel as a novel has the ability to create empathy for people who are different than one’s self. I look forward to the Canada Reads debates.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Natasha is the second – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

I’m delighted to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another thoughtful and insightful guest book reviewer. Cheryl Finch is an editor in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in non-fiction manuscript development; website copywriting and SEO; online article writing; and content marketing. Cheryl can be reached at

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

Set in the mid-1600s, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda is a fascinating and often harrowing account of life during the French colonization of New France, when warring Huron and Iroquois nations fiercely battled for control of the fur trade, and resolute Jesuit missionaries were determined to convert their Huron allies to Christianity.

The Orenda chronicles the experiences of Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) girl; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary. As the story unfolds, Bird has led a small war party out to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughters, who were killed by the Haudenosaunee. Christophe is delivered to Bird’s temporary camp as part of the Wendat’s crucial trade arrangement with the French colonists, and Snow Falls is captured after Bird and his warriors attack a Haudenosaunee hunting party, killing her family. Christophe and Snow Falls are brought back to Bird’s village as captives.

Thus begins an uneasy and forced association among the three. They mistrust each other, but they also need each other. They feel superior to each other, but they also envy each other. They have many differences, yet they share common drivers: loyalty to family, spiritual conviction, the will to survive. And they are united in their fear of brutal torture and slow death by their current or future captors.

The Orenda is narrated alternately in the first person by Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe themselves, each character speaking directly to a loved one with the freedom and honesty accorded to only the most trusted of confidantes. They reveal their intentions, motivations and knowledge, giving us, the readers, a fully informed understanding of their conduct. We see that each character has virtues and flaws; each character is truly human, worthy of our understanding and empathy.

The characters themselves do not have the benefit of this insight about one another – they see the “what” but don’t know the “why”. They must simply interpret each others’ actions in the context of their own experiences and belief systems. Incorrect assumptions and misunderstood behaviour foster suspicon, judgment and intolerance. Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe slowly grow to accept, and eventually appreciate, respect, even care for one another, but this is a long and arduous process made all the more difficult by language barriers, religious differences and subjective frameworks.

Can The Orenda inspire social change? In some ways, things are no different today than they were for Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe 400 years ago. In both the national and international contexts, people of diverse cultures, belief systems, lifestyles, customs and languages live together but don’t necessarily understand or respect each other, resulting in misinterpretation, judgment and prejudice. Warring nations fiercely battle for economic and religious control, often resorting to ritual brutality rooted in tradition and vengeance. Change will only be possible if we make the effort to listen to each other, consider differing viewpoints, and understand the “why” behind the “what”. We must focus on our similarities rather than our differences, and learn to empathize. We must recognize that every human being is capable of great compassion and extreme cruelty, depending on past experience and present circumstance.

These are not quick or easy undertakings. Important change takes significant time and effort. But if we don’t start, it will never happen. The Orenda closes with the words “Now is what’s most important … the past and the future are present”. This book certainly has the potential to change Canada and even the world, if we choose to take its lessons to heart.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Cheryl is the first – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Canada Reads – how I’m approaching it in 2014

Canada Reads

About a year ago, as I was musing about the upcoming Canada Reads debates – having read all the finalists, read and collected reviews, taken parts in discussions and online chats – I made this observation:

“… 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?”

Well, that’s pretty much what I’ve decided to do heading into Canada Reads 2014. I’m not going in utterly tabula rasa, but I am going in open to being convinced. Here is what I’ve done or not done:

  • I did previously read one of the books – Annabel by Kathleen Winter. I’m not rereading it, nor have I read or am I going to read any of the other contenders until after the Canada Reads 2014 debates and outcome.

  • I have been gathering and reading reviews and articles about all of the finalists. Links to those pieces are assembled in my ongoing Canada Reads 2014 virtual book club blog post.

  • I have recruited five wise and articulate readers to review the finalist books, with a view to the strength of each book and how it fits the Canada Reads 2014 theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?” I’m excited to be publishing my friends’ pieces here in the days to come. Stay tuned!

Here are the Canada Reads 2014 pieces by my guest reviewers:

Canada Reads 2014 virtual book club

Once again, the Canada Reads web site gives you everything you’re going to need to know about the recently announced finalist books for Canada Reads 2014, the book defenders, what everyone else thinks about the books and the debaters and what their strategies should be … all ramping up to the actual debates, which will take place in early March, 2014. (The debates are scheduled a little later this year because of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which run from February 7th to 23rd, 2014.)

Between now and March, many of us will be enthusiastically reading and re-reading these fine books in preparation for some lively, heated and surprising discussions. To help everyone get up to speed on the books, we’re offering again a compendium of reviews and articles. (Please note that while most are positive, some are critical and perhaps even provocative. The idea here is to share how others have reacted to the finalist books, in whatever fashion, as long as it’s thoughtfully expressed.) If you have or know of any pieces that should be part of this collection, contact me via @bookgaga or add a comment below to get the relevant link added. Thanks!

Canada Reads Twitter book club

On November 28, 2013, last year’s champion Canada Reads defender Trent McClellan (@Trent_McClellan) will kick off the discussions with a #canlit Twitter chat. CBC Books will host additional weekly Twitter chat to discuss each of the Canada Reads finalist books in the new year.


The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood

by Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood)

(McClelland & Stewart)

championed by Stephen Lewis

Reviews and articles:


The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda

by Joseph Boyden (@JosephBoyden)

(Hamish Hamilton Canada)

championed by Wab Kinew (@WabKinew)

Reviews and articles:


Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues

by Esi Edugyan

(Thomas Allen Publishers)

championed by Donovan Bailey (@DonovanBailey)

Reviews and articles:


Cockroach by Rawi Hage


by Rawi Hage

(House of Anansi Press)

championed by Samantha Bee (@iamsambee)

Reviews and articles:


Annabel by Kathleen Winter


by Kathleen Winter (@supremetronic)

(House of Anansi Press)

championed by Sarah Gadon (@SarahGadon)

Reviews and articles:

October 1970, by Louis Hamelin, translated by Wayne Grady

Update: October, 1970 remains in contention as a Top 10 pick for Canada Reads 2014.

October 1970, by Louis Hamelin, translated by Wayne Grady

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”
Doris Lessing, Under My Skin

For its latest foray into rallying all Canadians around one compelling book, CBC’s Canada Reads recently kicked off the discussion for its 2014 literary tournament with the question, “What is the one novel that could change Canada?” and then elaborated:

We want the final contenders to be great stories, but we also want them to address the issues facing Canada today. In these times of political change, economic uncertainty and civil upheaval around the world, what’s the one book we can look to for inspiration? That will compel Canadians to make a change in their lives, whether it’s at home or work, in their community, in their country or around the world? Perhaps Canada needs a novel to inspire compassion, humour, political engagement, environmental awareness, insight into the lives of First Nations, or a new lexicon for mental illness?

We want you to recommend the novels that have this power.

I was delighted to be asked to offer a recommendation and here’s how I responded:

Change is best ignited by first understanding pivotal moments of social upheaval, the layers and complexities of how they came to be, and how we as individuals and as a nation responded. What better piece of recent history to consider than the October Crisis, reimagined in vivid fictional form in October 1970 (translated by Wayne Grady from the French novel La Constellation du Lynx by Louis Hamelin). The retelling of the series of events in Quebec that culminated in domestic terrorism, kidnappings, murder and Canada’s only peacetime invocation of the War Measures Act is compelling unto itself. Adding a spirited cast of characters gives voice to the maelstrom of conflicting social and political aspirations and agendas that collided so violently at that time. Expanding the story in this fashion also allows room to examine how that clash of societal, governmental, civil and other forces translates into personal challenges, dilemmas or opportunities. Through the lens of what came before and how it succeeded or failed, we can evaluate social change that probably still needs to happen or at least continue to evolve today.

In terms of subject matter, scope and approach, October 1970 is not for the faint of heart. It’s a sprawling, prickly, often violent amalgam of political and social history and commentary, police procedural, action thriller and murder mystery, with great dollops of intellectual, faux intellectual and ribald meanderings along the way. It fascinates and infuriates with its rollicking cast of characters, many with satirical monikers, that even a list at the front of the book doesn’t keep fully sorted out. The book is saturated with vibrant animal imagery from beginning to end, largely depicting or connoting the harsh but sometimes ambiguous hierarchy of predators and prey.

The book rewards the dedicated reader though, with a denouement boiled down suspensefully to a true page turner, particularly surprising since we all already know the ending. But no matter where we were, how old we were (I was 10 years old, perhaps precociously followed what I could on TV and in the newspaper, and was utterly bewildered and terrified), how much we comprehended of what was going on and where we stood politically and philosophically, this fictional interpretation offers some plausible explanations for troubling holes in the story. The story can still shock and reveal new, startling details in this retelling and rendering, more than 40 years later.

If this sounds like a book that fits the latest Canada Reads call to action, you can still vote for it among up to 10 titles until 11:59 p.m. ET on Sunday November 3rd. Vote here. If the time has passed and/or you’re not inclined to getting gladiatorial with your reading, this admittedly thorny book is still worth your consideration.

See also:

Read October: As the only Quebec novel on the Giller Prize longlist, Louis Hamelin’s take on the FLQ crisis is unsettling
by Noah Richler
National Post
October 10, 2013

Get to know the Top 40: 6 Books that will change your perspective on Canada
CBC Books

Canada Reads gets its mojo back

Canada Reads

I admit I went into Canada Reads 2013 with a certain degree of trepidation and even fatigue this year. I’ve followed it with enthusiasm since its inception in 2002, typically tuning in to the debates having read at least some if not all of the books. I’ve always delighted in the unabashedly nerdy and quintessentially Canadian celebration of books and reading as the focal point of an ongoing radio/television/interwebs series/event. This was captured perfectly by a tweet from the Canada Reads 2013 moderator after things wrapped up on Valentine’s Day:

@jianghomeshi From an American friend: “only in Canada would you have a reality show about reading books.” Yep. And proudly so. 🙂

But after 2012, I don’t think I was alone in feeling a little disenchanted by the whole enterprise. The multi-tiered selection process (which, admittedly, I contributed my two cents’ worth to …) seemed interminable. As in 2011, the selection process also had a whiff of social media boosterism shading into overt lobbying that was uncomfortable at times. Along with that, there was increasing questioning of what exactly constituted the “Can” in the CanLit the program was supposed to bolster. (Terry Fallis wrote about it here.) And then the 2012 debates themselves tipped pretty shamelessly into the theatrical. This was perhaps unwittingly exacerbated by the subject matter that year being works of non-fiction, affording at least one vociferous panelist the excuse to level personal attacks against authors who were ostensibly one and the same with the real-life characters in their books. It wasn’t about the books for much of the debates – it was gratuitous showmanship writ large, and it left readers ill at ease and other writers and commentators often furious (for example: With Canada Reads, the CBC is bottom-feeding on culture by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer in The Globe and Mail.)

For CanLit lovers, hope always springs eternal though, so I was cautiously prepared to try to engage again in 2013. I decided that I would take part in the discussions that focused on the books. CBC Books provided ample opportunities to do just that via hosted Twitter chats and other events and activities. I followed other readers’ reviews and articles and had myself a grand time just thinking about the merits of the books, and the dedication and creativity of the authors. I also decided I would leave it at that if the debates kicked off with any hints that it was going to go off the rails again. I said my piece here about how pleased I was with the strengths of all of the finalist books – any of them was a justifiable and defensible winner – and I went into it on February 11th with great optimism. I was not disappointed. In fact, I was hugely impressed.

While all of the 2013 books were strong, the Canada Reads outcome is alchemy of book and defender, with a dash or two of strategy and voting kismet. Much as the theatrics overtook the actual book debates last year, I don’t begrudge the show some drama … well, because it is a show. But this year, the drama that emerged was in service to the books, products of the passion, intellect and wiles of a group of gracious, collegial but still lively defenders. (OK, Ron MacLean could’ve toned down the puns just a bit …)

One theatrical element in the Canada Reads formula is the moment when everyone gasps, when the book that is seemingly most beloved gets taken down by some vagary in the voting or by some hinted at behind-the-scenes dealing gone awry. This rendition of Canada Reads was no different, but the seemingly unexpected early departure of Indian Horse actually transpired very organically, transparently and germanely. Panelist Charlotte Gray took laser aim at the book’s relative shortcomings – not at the author or the worthy themes of the book, but at the book’s flaws in written execution. So, the surprise wasn’t really a surprise, nor does it mean disaster and obscurity for the “voted off” book. Indian Horse has and will continue to do just fine, as will all of the books. Neither does it mean that the voting format should be reconsidered. The suggestion that the moderator should cast a deciding vote in ties subverts the role of the moderator … who wears his bookish heart on his sleeve just a little bit as it is.

The culmination of Canada Reads 2013 was genuinely suspenseful and satisfying. Two well-matched and articulate defenders (actor/screenwriter Jay Baruchel and comedian Trent McClellan) championed books (Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan and February by Lisa Moore) with connections to time and place that are particularly poignant in this cold month of February. Their closing comments were some of the best of a crop of quotable quotes by all of the panelists this year.

Canada Reads will have to grapple again next year with a theme or construct that will captivate readers and will ultimately scale to something relevant for new prospective readers across Canada. It’s going to be difficult for the show to top the charm, chemistry and acumen of this year’s panelists. But again, I’m not alone in knowing I’ll be looking with renewed interest at the next rendition of Canada Reads, and the next intriguing set of book and defender match-ups.

For a second year, an added enjoyable dimension to Canada Reads has been the challenge that Julie Wilson (aka BookMadam) and I concocted. At the time of the reveal of the five finalists, we wrote down our predictions of the order in which we thought the books would be voted off. Both of us chose a literacy cause to champion, and when the winning book was announced, whoever least accurately predicted the outcome had to make a donation to the cause of choice of she who more accurately predicted the outcome. (We ended up tying, so both charities benefited.)

This year I teamed up with Allegra Young (@ayoungvoice). Behold our predictions:

So, my predictions weren’t bad but hello! Ms Young completed nailed the entire sequence in which the books were voted off until February emerged victorious. As a result, I’m happily making a donation to Allegra’s charitable choice, Children’s Book Bank.

Joining us for the Canada Reads challenge this year were Carrie Macmillan (@Cmacmizzle) and Jeanne Duperreault (@jaduperreault). They report that their predictions were tied: they both got the placing of February, Indian Horse and The Age of Hope correct, but switched Two Solitudes and Away. So, they’re both going to donate to their respective causes – STELLAA (Stella’s Training, Education, Literacy, Learning and Academic Assistance) and First Book Canada.

It’s safe to say there were a lot of Canada Reads winners this year.