Category Archives: Canada Reads

Some thoughts on Canada Reads Eve

“Canada Reads is staging a turf war for 2013, with the five competing books each representing a different region of the country. Those five books will be defended by five celebrity champions and battled down to one winner ­ the book all Canadians should read.”

Canada Reads

One of my favourite parts of the extended Canada Reads 2013 ramp-up has been the weekly Twitter chats hosted by CBC Books – one chat focused on each of the five contending books, plus one chat wrapping it all up, looking at common themes, making predictions and so on.

During that final chat, I came to a couple of realizations. What dawned on me then will appreciably inform my perspectives and reactions going into the broadcast (radio, video, liveblog, podcast, Twitter commentary using the #canadareads hashtag, et al) debates from Monday, February 11th to Thursday, February 14th, when a final survivor/winner receives a Canadian book sales Valentine. (You can check out a replay of that final chat here.)

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

First, it occurred to me that among the five finalist books, there was neither a singular book that captivated me vastly more than the others, nor was there one that aggrieved me as so patently unsuitable, so not in the league of the others or of the overall Canada Reads honour. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese puts indelible and courageous faces to Canada’s dark chapter of residential schools and their abuses on First Nations families and children. The Age of Hope by David Bergen traces the adult life of a small town Canadian woman from pre-World War II to the 1980s and asks if a life seemingly quietly lived is still rich and fulfilled. Two Solitudes by the late Hugh MacLennan was written in the World War II era and offers still potent reflections on the polarities of English and French Canadian society, traditions, politics and more. Away by Jane Urquhart tells a mystical, folkloric multi-generational tale that travels from Ireland in the 1840s through to contemporary settings in Quebec and Ontario. February by Lisa Moore focuses in heartwrenching and intimate detail on the effects, leaping back and forth in time, of the 1982 Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster on one woman and her family.

Themes of the personal and political intersect in various of the books and are echoed between books. Plot lines, secondary threads or references to everything from prejudice to tragedy to individual vs tribal, social or communal identities to, of course, hockey appear in some form or another in all of the books.

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

OK, I do have a couple of favourites. To my mind, the descriptions in Indian Horse of the physical exhilaration of hockey played flat-out in bracing cold air on hard ice, playing so vigorously and so joyfully that it becomes a transcendent, healing thing offers one of the most lyrical tributes to the sport – really, to any sport – that I’ve ever read. Page after page, I marvelled as I reread Two Solitudes just a few months ago – having first read it close to 40 years ago – how resonant its themes still are. The book captures vivid divisions and differences brought to life with characters who are if not fully fleshed out are attractive, endearing and compelling. Those divisions include French/English, young/old, rural/urban – and the book contends that ultimately, Canadians want to, can and do transcend them.

The Age of Hope by David Bergen

How Canadian is it, then, that I feel that all of the Canada Reads finalists could be justifiably and defensibly the winner? That’s either very good – the books are all high calibre, meritorious, resonant, lively and deserving of cross Canada attention and respect – or that’s worrisome. Are they all homogenized or compromised in some way as to be minimally offensive to the broadest cross section of potential readers? I don’t think so. If the #canadareads chats are any indication, there are definite opinions about merit and identification with themes and characters that will surely be grist for the debates. Interestingly and perhaps a bit ironically, it appeared that some of the most vociferous exchanges during the chats were about Hope Koop, who some thought benign, bland, passive, lacking in spirit … but wait, perhaps she’s enigmatic, perhaps she has more gumption than she’s given credit for. Is she someone that all Canadians can relate to and should get to know?

February by Lisa Moore

Second, it occurred to me that I’ve read all five Canada Reads books again in advance of the debates. It just so happens they’re all books I’m likely to either have read already or would have on my “to be read” list, but I knew I also had to have my homework done before February 11th, if not well before then to take part knowledgeably in any of the lead-up discussions or to fully appreciate the author interviews, music playlists and so on. But 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?

Away by Jane Urquhart

From or near the outset, the Canada Reads book left standing every year has been touted with the phrase “the book all Canadians should read.” In 2002, when musician Steven Page championed Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion to the “win”, I remember following and enjoying the debates and the debaters, delighted at this new way of celebrating books, reading and readers. That year, I tuned in to the broadcasts having already read four of the five books – but I’d read them because I was interested in them before Canada Reads came along. While perhaps it happened, I don’t recall there being a protracted period of time before those first debates when everyone was exhorted to prep and read beforehand and had their own debates and discussions as extensively as they do now. (Mind you, there wasn’t then the network of blogs, hashtags and other outlets for broadcast, discussion and participation that there are now.)

But riddle me this: if we’re all supposed to read all of the finalist books beforehand, when the debates conclude and “the book all Canadians should read” is crowned … well, haven’t we all already read it? Does Canada Reads just need to fine tune its taglines, or have the objectives shifted in significant ways that shut down the magic of discovery or in fact open up new possibilities for how we collectively connect as readers?

At any rate, if you’ve engaged as a reader with the Canada Reads books and the process by which they’ve been chosen and the opportunities you’ve been given to discuss them, that’s all genuinely wonderful. One thing we need to remind ourselves before the debates start, though, is that we should not confuse any of the collegial and insightful discussions among readers and thoughts from the authors with what happens next: a show with its own machinery, agendas and dynamics. Laments in recent years – particularly last year, during the sometimes vitriolic non-fiction debates that crossed into personal terrain for authors and defenders – that Canada Reads takes its tone more from reality shows than literary salons are rather beside the point. Yes, we know. The defenders, with their range of literary credibility (and even proof that they’ve read all of the books) are public figures and presenters first (yes, even this year’s Charlotte Gray). Canada Reads has always set out to entertain as well as inform. Those who think the informing part is incidental, absent or thin can choose not to tune in, or can take part in the lead-up discussions of potentially more substance. But because Canada Reads is not and has never pretended to be a literary salon that I can recall, the entertainment fireworks and strategic machinations are wild cards that are part of the mix, and for some, part of the fun.

There is still room within the Canada Reads format as it has evolved to appreciate the expected, to react but not be too fazed by the unexpected and to even engage in it differently from year to year. If you do tune in to the final Canada Reads events, you can be assured that something we can’t possibly predict will happen to surprise us all. Something beloved or seemingly sure won’t be. Whatever the outcome, it’ll be worth returning to in iterations of its current form in years to come.

Thanks to Sean Cranbury. After Canada Reads 2012, he initiated and moderated a lively and collegial discussion on Facebook that informed my Canada Reads participation and perspectives this year.

See also:

Canada Reads 2013 virtual book club

The Canada Reads web site gives you everything you need to know about the recently announced finalist books for Canada Reads 2013, the debaters, 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 from February 11th to 14th, 2013.

Between now and February, many of us will be avidly reading and re-reading these fine books in preparation for some lively and passionate discussions. To help everyone get up to speed on the books, we’re offering this compendium of reviews and articles. 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

Starting January 3, 2013, CBC Books will be hosting a weekly Twitter chat to discuss each of the Canada Reads finalist books. Learn more here … and hope to see you there.


Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse
by Richard Wagamese
(Douglas & McIntyre)
representing the BC & Yukon region championed by Carol Huynh (@HuynhCarol)

Reviews and articles:

CBC books trailer for Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese:


The Age of Hope by David Bergen

The Age of Hope
by David Bergen
(Harper Collins Canada)
representing the Prairies & The North region
championed by Ron Maclean

Reviews and articles:

CBC books trailer for The Age of Hope by David Bergen:


Away by Jane Urquhart

by Jane Urquhart
(McClelland and Stewart)
representing the Ontario region
championed by Charlotte Gray

Reviews and articles:

CBC books trailer for Away by Jane Urquhart:


Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

Two Solitudes
by Hugh MacLennan
representing the Quebec region
championed by Jay Baruchel (@BaruchelNDG)

Reviews and articles:

CBC books trailer for Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan:


February by Lisa Moore

by Lisa Moore
(House of Anansi Press)
representing the Atlantic Provinces region
championed by Trent McClellan (@Trent_McClellan)

Reviews and articles:

CBC books trailer for February by Lisa Moore:

Debaters in place, strategies mapped out, challenges gearing up for Canada Reads 2013 turf wars

Canada Reads

After a bracing foray into non-fiction in 2012, Canada Reads 2013 returns to fiction. The framework for choosing the final books to be debated this time involved dividing the country (somewhat awkwardly) into five regions. Canadians were asked to recommend the novel they wanted to represent the place they call home. From a voted top 10 books per region to a second vote to narrow it down to top 5 books per region, the chosen debaters have brought it down to …

Canada Reads

  • Carol Huynh (@HuynhCarol) will defend Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (Douglas & McIntyre), representing the BC & Yukon region
  • Ron Maclean will defend The Age of Hope by David Bergen (Harper Collins Canada), representing the Prairies & The North region
  • Charlotte Gray will defend Away by Jane Urquhart (McClelland and Stewart), representing the Ontario region
  • Jay Baruchel (@BaruchelNDG) will defend Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan, representing the Quebec region
  • Trent McClellan (@Trent_McClellan) will defend February by Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press), representing the Atlantic Provinces region
    Read my review of February, by Lisa Moore

I hope to post reviews of or commentaries on the other finalist books in the weeks to come. I’m also hoping to speak to some of this year’s debaters/book advocates and will post about that shortly.

The Canada Reads web site gives you everything you need to know about the books, the debaters, 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 from February 11th to 14th, 2013.

Our Canada Reads challenge to you

Leading up to the debates, here’s a way to get some more sparks flying between you and your book friends and tweeps.

  1. Pair up with a book friend or tweep and challenge each other to two things: identify a favourite library, book or literacy cause, and predict the outcome of the Canada Reads 2013 debates. Speak aloud your favourite cause, but keep your predictions under wraps (for now).
  2. Write down your Canada Reads predictions – the order in which the 5 books will finish – and seal them in an envelope.
  3. Exchange your envelope with your book friend, who will also have sealed his/her predictions.
  4. Shake hands with your book friend, and commit to two things: to not open those envelopes until the Canada Reads debates finish in February, 2013, and to donate to your friend’s library, book or literacy cause if your predictions are the least accurate of the two.
  5. Tweet who you are pairing up with for the challenge and promote the library, book or literacy cause that will benefit when you win and your opponent must make a donation. Tweet to @ayoungvoice and/or @bookgaga, and we’ll keep track of everyone who is taking the challenge.
  6. When all is revealed in February, you and your book friend/challenge partner open your envelopes and determine whose predictions were closest. Whoever predicted closest to the final Canada Reads results asks their challenge partner to make a donation as the “loser” (no one’s really a loser, though) of the bet.
  7. Tweet your results and mention again the cause that benefits from your challenge.

Allegra Young (@ayoungvoice) and I have already challenged each other to make our Canada Reads predictions. We have exchanged our sealed envelopes and revealed the causes we’re representing as part of this challenge.

Allegra has selected The Children’s Book Bank as her challenge charitable cause.

The mission of the Children’s Book Bank is to provide free books and literacy support to children who need them. Many Canadian families and organizations own quality children’s books that they have outgrown or cannot use. The Children’s Book Bank saves these books from the landfill or recycling system and distributes them to children who otherwise would not own their own books. Their organization:

  • Provides children with a safe and welcoming environment where they can experience the joy of reading
  • Offers literacy support in high needs communities
  • Supports the responsible recycling of gently-used books
  • Promotes community sharing through facilitating book drives by schools and organization

You can learn more about Children’s Book Bank via their web site (

As I did last year, I’ve selected Neighbourhood Link as my challenge charitable cause.

Neighbourhood Link Support Services is a non-profit social service agency working to help people primarily in the east Toronto community to live independently and with dignity. Since 1975, with the assistance of staff and volunteers, they have helped more than 20,000 people annually across a range of ages and groups, including seniors, new Canadians, children and youth, employment seekers and the homeless. Reading and literacy are vital components of many of Neighbourhood Link’s programs and services.

You can learn more about Neighbourhood Link via their web site ( and you can follow them on Twitter.

Joining us on the challenge are:

Carrie has selected STELLAA (Stella’s Training, Education, Literacy, Learning and Academic Assistance) as her challenge charitable cause.

STELLAA aims to promote literacy to the children and adults of Africa through providing donated books and needed educational resources. The organization’s goal is to help the people of Africa to realise their potential and create the new futures for themselves, their families and their communities that will eradicate poverty. In turn, they promote environmental responsibility through the re-use of books and educational supplies, saving thousands of pounds of books from polluting landfills.

You can learn more about STELLAA via their web site (

Jeanne has selected First Book Canada as her challenge charitable cause.

First Book Canada is a registered Canadian charity that helps provide new books to children who have none. Founded in the U.S. in 1992, it came to Canada in 2006 as First Book/Le Premier Livre. With the help of publishing partners, and working with community and school programs, First Book Canada supplies books to children who have no books of their own at home. Their primary goal is to help eradicate illiteracy by providing access to books and kindling an early interest in reading that will last a lifetime.

You can learn more about First Book Canada via their web site (

Care to join us?

Happy reading or re-reading of the Canada Reads contenders. Looking forward to all of the debates … the ones in February and the ones we’ll all be having before, during and after.

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:

Non-fiction authors as characters in their own works

Canada Reads 2012

At the halfway point in the four-day series of Canada Reads 2012 debates, an interesting issue about a fundamental aspect of creative non-fiction is emerging, and it’s got me thinking. I just wanted to set down a few quick thoughts and ask for some reactions, from those following the debates and from those who are fans of creative non-fiction. I’d love to get your thoughts – either here in the comments or via Twitter – on the question of whether or not a non-fiction author needs or should be a character in her/her own work.

In memoirs, literary journalism, personal essays and other narrative forms using factually accurate material as their basis, the author of such creative non-fiction works can essentially take one of two roles in the telling of their chosen stories:

  • Participant – The author was involved in the true story in some capacity, either as an individual or part of a group to whom something happened, or as a firsthand observer, perhaps with particularly intimate knowledge of the persons and/or events that are the focus of the story.
  • Reporter – The author gathers and shapes factual information about events and persons with whom the author was not involved, and builds a story through research and filtering of trusted and perhaps not trustworthy perspectives.

This categorization is admittedly basic and simple. Also, categorizing in this fashion is rarely this cut and dried across many works of creative non-fiction. Even if a story is presented in as seemingly objective a fashion as possible, the author is likely to implicitly, subliminally or in fact explicitly demonstrate a bias, an emotional attachment of some sort and so on. There are works that cross, with varying degrees of clarity and success, between the roles of participants and reporters. I’d contend that most often, you see reporter-style non-fiction authors getting increasingly involved in the stories they’re reaching and reporting on, and becoming a peripheral character or voice in the telling of the story.

Of course, there are challenges and dangers tipping in both directions on the objectivity/subjectivity scale with authors reporting on versus participating in the stories captured in their non-fiction works. If a firsthand observer or protagonist is passionately entwined in his/her story, that can make for a captivating, stirring read, but it might also be a read where the veracity and balance of interpretation of events is in doubt. If a reporter remains distanced and cool in laying out the elements and issues of his/her story, does it make for a more trustworthy, balanced account, but also something less compelling? Conversely, if a reporter is too explicitly engaged or has an agenda, does that too plant doubts?

An interesting recent example of a reporter becoming a character in the story on which she was reporting is author Susan Orlean and her book Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend. One could take closer and more arms length approaches to capturing the story of the iconic animal figure, an attractive and heroic German Shepherd that went from movie and television star to a still enduring commercial franchise and cultural touchstone. The book could have been a historical or pop culture study, but as she went along in the personal researching and interviewing for the story, Orlean admits to becoming more and more personally engaged in the story. As a result, she speaks directly and describes her participation in the shaping of the story, and why specifically the story of Rin Tin Tin resonated for her, particularly at the stage in her life when she was writing the book. Some readers might find that approach intrusive or distracting, others might find that inclusion (not intrusion) makes the story easier to identify with and even more absorbing.

Much rarer and perhaps temperamentally simply not possible is the non-fiction work where a participant in the story attempts to simply report objectively on the story. Is that possible? Hold that thought.

At the start of the two debates so far, moderator Jian Ghomeshi has cautioned panelists and audience that the debates are about the books, not about the authors. But with just about every question or point of debate, that distinction gets regularly blurred. (You could also say that distinction was downright smeared on the first day by one of the panelists who leveled provocative accusations at two of the authors. Since I’m not completely convinced the provocation wasn’t a stunt, and whether it was or not, it’s a somewhat tawdry distraction, I’ll point to this coverage of the controversy and carry on with the discussion.)

Interestingly, over the first couple of days of the debates, there have been discussion points and references to how much we get to know Ken Dryden, Dave Bidini, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre in their respective books. This doesn’t really come up as a point with John Vaillant, as The Tiger is a book firmly positioned in the unobtrusive reporter-style spectrum of creative non-fiction. (That’s not a dismissive categorization – it’s elegant, masterful, transcendent storytelling with solid reportage as its base.) But if we’re supposed to keep authors distinct from the “characters” in their books, how then are we to assess the “characters” of Ken Dryden, Dave Bidini, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre.

Whatever you feel about issues of authenticity and trust in their stories, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre are clearly the central protagonists of their books. For those that admire and defend the books, and even those who don’t, no one denies that readers have personal reactions or connections to the Marina and the Carmen in the books. The same goes, in many respects, for Dave Bidini, although he balances his own account with a reporter’s instinct for drawing in the perspectives and voices of many other people who have shared his experiences as an up and coming musician travelling the highways and byways of Canada building one’s career. No one has commented thus far in the Canada Reads debates that they aren’t seeing or hearing enough from the Marina, Carmen and Dave of their respective books.

The Game, by Ken Dryden

Why then have the panelists, almost to a person, all remarked that they haven’t been engaged by or felt they learned enough about Ken Dryden – the aspiring athlete and happy kid in his dad’s backyard, the victorious goalie on a storied Canadian hockey team, the family man struggling to make family time, the thoughtful mortal struggling with fame and future aspirations – as depicted by Ken Dryden the author? Is it just possible that Ken Dryden the author has pulled off the unique feat of taking a convincing and trustworthy reporter-style approach to a story in which he is the main participant?

Rereading The Game in preparation for Canada Reads, having read it previously closer to its original publication in the early 1980s, I was impressed again at the almost preternatural thoughtfulness with which Dryden stood back from his own life and passions and took a bigger picture view of the nature of the sport to which he’d devoted his life to that point. That he was able to do that so objectively means that perhaps he sacrificed some personal warmth and connection with some readers to put some thought to bigger issues that, as it turns out, are still deeply relevant today. In throwing the net a little wider than his own personal experience, but judiciously using that experience to lend credibility to his broader observations, I think Dryden has crafted a gold standard work of creative non-fiction that is both thought provoking and touching. Maybe that makes it the book that all Canadians should read.

Are non-fiction authors obliged to be characters in their own works? Can they be reporters and even mine their own experiences, but put it to greater creative or critical use? Just some food for thought in the bountiful banquet that is this year’s Canada Reads debates.

My reviews of Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, by Carmen Aguirre

Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre

It wasn’t until close to the end of Something Fierce, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, that Carmen Aguirre’s youthful account of navigating war torn and dictatorship-ravaged South America in the 1980s began to capture my heart.

It was futile to wait for my spirit to join my body again. I realized as I stood in that Patagonian phone company that maybe it never would. This was the biggest sacrifice I’d have to make. The body cannot take chronic terror; it must defend itself by refusing to harbour the spirit that wants to soar through it and experience life to the fullest. And so it was that, as we stepped outside into the glaring light, got on the first bus we saw and zigzagged our day away, my spirit was left back in the phone company along with the mirrored windows and the echo of voices connecting to far-off homes.

At that point, Aguirre seemed to finally and tellingly encapsulate the profound trauma that the life forced on her by her Chilean revolutionary parents had wrought on her bodily, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. To that point, Something Fierce had intermittently captured my interest with its understandably uneven account of a girl growing to young womanhood living the double and triple life of a political refugee in Canada and undercover resistance operative in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The story veers from a firsthand account of the upheaval, injustice and at times mortal danger of the brutal Pinochet regime – in essence, the disturbing and enraging facts and figures of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine brought to life – to the fancies, dreams, desires, fashion and pop culture whimsies, moods and petulance of a typical teenager perhaps anywhere in the world.

At times, the juxtaposition of a child’s or young woman’s quotidian aspirations with life threatening situations put each world in stark relief. In other instances, it struck dissonant notes, making none of it seem real or resonant. Overriding that was this reader’s discomfort with the decisions of the child’s parents which might have been well meaning, dedicated, passionate, but were also idealistic, naive and heedless, putting this girl and her siblings in extraordinary and almost continuously inhumane circumstances. I admired Aguirre’s precocious and preternatural resilience, but couldn’t get past her use as something just mere shades away from a child soldier, however worthy the cause.

As one of the Canada Reads 2012 finalists, is Something Fierce the book that all Canadians should read? If this book is supposed to say something essential about Canada and being Canadian to all Canadians, I’m not sure. Canada’s role in Aguirre’s story is as something of a stopping or resting point between revolutionary forays. As such, Canada could be viewed as a sanctuary, but it’s seems to be a convenient stopover (in contrast to fellow Canada Reads contender Prisoner of Tehran, where Canada is viewed as a peaceful, protective haven and a truly desired new home). Certainly, Aguirre’s continued life and career is testament that Canada became a home, but this isn’t part of the story or a significant part of the epilogue of Something Fierce. Inspiring to all Canadians, though, is a profile of a young and determined individual to be faithful to family, home and convictions.

See also:


My reviews of other Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

The Game, by Ken Dryden

The Game, by Ken Dryden

“A time capsule buried at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931 and revealed on Thursday (January 26, 2012) contains an NHL rule book, a municipal code, financial information on the team and a tiny carved ivory elephant of mysterious origin.”(1)

Hockey in all its forms, in all its lore, never fails to captivate many Canadians. But do we listen carefully to those voices from the distant (1931 NHL rule book …) and more recent past?

The Game by Ken Dryden, first published in 1983, offers enduring contributions to sport literature, non-fiction and Canadian literature. Considering it comes straight from one of the most accomplished players of the sport (written by him, not mediated through an interviewer or ghost writer), the book intrigues and challenges because it’s not entirely a celebration of the sport of hockey, but a reverential and at times very troubled examination of it. The Game is neither a light nor quick read, but it’s an absorbing and thoughtful reflection on the game of hockey and the experience of being part of a team. The book will fascinate fans and students of the sport as well as those interested in the history, psychology and national resonances and significance of this particular sport.

This reader’s patently unscientific observation is that some of the best sports commentators that played sports themselves are those that have a full, clear and at times undisturbed view of the expanse of the playing field for most of the game – players such as catchers in baseball and goalies in hockey. That premise is perhaps debatable, because hockey lore and culture will also attest to goalies often being singular, separate by choice from the rest of their teams and even eccentric. At any rate, I’ll use the positive aspects of that premise to suggest that makes Ken Dryden an especially thoughtful and clear-eyed analyst – as close as you can get to objective – of Canada’s national sport.

Dryden approaches the game from many different angles, from the professional and technical, to the cultural, the personal and the philosophical. Some of the most engaging sequences in The Game capture the experience of working as part of a team, from the often rollicking accounts of travel and locker room camaraderie, to the continuum from grueling physical commitment to the collective euphoria when teammates come together as one and strive for victory. Most intriguing are Dryden’s incisive reflections on the individual experience of and effects of being part of a team:

The great satisfaction of playing goal comes form the challenge it presents. Simply stated, it is to give the team what it needs, when it needs it, not when I feel well-rested, injury-free, warmed-up, psyched-up, healthy, happy, and able to give it, but when the team needs it.

The Game is one of five contenders for the 2012 rendition of Canada Reads, which seeks – through longlist and shortlist popular votes followed by a final round of debates with celebrity book advocates – to find the memoir, biography or work of literary non-fiction that would be meaningful for the entire country to read. Part of the lead-up to the debates in early February has included online chats on the CBC web site with the authors of the contending books. Dryden eloquently stick handled reader questions during his turn(2), and I was pleased to be able to pose this to him:

Q. Throughout The Game but especially towards the end of the book, I found your reflections on being an individual, being part of a team, and finding one’s individuality by being part of a team to be really resonant. Do you think that being part of a team in some form or another (sports, but also other activities, like music, etc.) should be a formative part of everyone’s upbringing?

A. It is always hard to find the mix that feels right about being an individual and being part of a group. Sometimes a group forces the best out in you; sometimes a group takes away what you most fundamentally and forces you into a role that isn’t you. But we will all live our lives in both circumstances, and we’d better find a way of learning how to be good at both. So, yes, I think it’s crucial to have those group and solitary experiences. And almost nothing now that is truly important gets achieved now by just an individual.

As I was rereading The Game in advance of the Canada Reads debates, it just so happens I was also rereading The Antagonist by Lynn Coady (yes, it’s that good – a discussion for a future review, I hope). The story of a troubled former hockey enforcer, Coady’s protagonist actually finds solace in the purity of the physical pleasure of the game and being part of a team. This line from The Antagonist certainly echoed what I was reading at the same time in The Game:

“team in the purest sense – when you’re as individual as you’ve ever been knowing you’re completely unalone. Completely with.”(3)

While its reflections on the essence of team and teamwork were most appealing to this reader, there are many other interesting layers and threads to The Game. Dryden’s childhood reminiscences are lively and charming, particularly of the uniquely configured backyard that made his home the destination for all the sports-loving neighbourhood children. The Game also purveys a hefty slice of sports history: a fabled sports franchise at a storied pinnacle, featuring and going behind the scenes with some of the sport’s greatest players and coaches. If you’re a fan and familiar with that era, the names and talents and signature moves will leap from the page. Even if you’re not familiar with them, Dryden creates a balance of veneration and down-to-earth insights around those superstars that will draw you in. As well, Dryden gives equal and respectful consideration to the sports journeymen and to others supporting the game behind the scenes that gives a well-rounded picture of how the sport is served up to its avid spectators.

Dryden’s pointed observations about the NHL’s rationale for tolerating violence (remember, this was first published in1983) are, sadly, still relevant today. In that regard, The Game is most assuredly not a sealed time capsule, but still part of the ongoing debate. As he summed it up:

The NHL theory of violence goes something like this: Hockey is by its nature a violent game. Played in an area confined by boards and unbreakable glass, by players carrying sticks travelling at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour, collisions occur, and because they occur, the rules specifically permit them, with only some exceptions. But whether legal or illegal, accidental or not, such collisions can cause violent feelings, and violent feelings with a stick in your hands are dangerous, potentially lethal feelings. It is crucial, therefore, that these feelings be vented quickly before anger and frustration explode into savage overreaction, channelled towards, if not desirable, at least more tolerable, directions. In essence, this is Freud’s “drive-discharge” theory of human aggression.(4)

… and as he responds:

The NHL is wrong … if Freud was right, anthropologist Desmond Morris is also right. As Morris believes, anger released, though sometimes therapeutic, is sometimes inflammatory; that is, by fighting, two players may get violent feelings out of their systems, or, by fighting they may create new violent feelings to make further release (more fighting) necessary. If Freud was right, the NHL is also wrong believing as it does that fighting and stick-swinging represent the only channels by which violent feelings can be released. Anger and frustration can be released within the rules, by skating faster, by shooting harder, by doing relentless, dogged violence on an opponent’s mind, as Bjorn Borg, Pete Rose and Bob Gainey do. If Freud was right and anger released is anger spent, then a right hook given is a body-check missed, and by permitting fighting, the NHL discourages determined, inspired play as retaliation.(5)

Dryden’s observations again are balanced. He posits with the passion of someone who has been literally in the midst of the collisions and skirmishes and their aftermath, and with the level-headed analysis and supporting arguments of the lawyer and politician he became after he left the sport.

Again, I was pleased to follow up with him on these contentious aspects of the sport during the Canada Reads online chat:

Q. I learned a lot about the evolution of how the game of hockey is played – the strategic, tactical and physical changes – from The Game. I think that should be a primer for anyone aspiring to play, to manage, to own a team, to make policy associated with hockey at any level. Do you feel anyone in the hockey world – amateur or professional – has a sense of that evolution and heeds today what you highlighted back in the 1980s?

A. I think all of us tend to forget our own histories. And history is particularly important now when we see all the head injuries and yet any suggestions as to changes is met with the answer – you can’t do that. That would be changing the nature of the game. If we knew that history, we would know that this game is always changing – once hockey was played 7-against-7 with no substitutions and until the 1920s without the forward pass. These things transformed how hockey is played and it is a much better game because of it. We are at a moment where we need to know we can change again, and again make hockey a better game.

By turns thoughtfully, almost coolly erudite (although maybe Don Cherry has also spoken about Freud’s “drive-discharge” theory of human aggression, and I just missed it because I mute Coach’s Corner) … and warmly heartfelt, The Game is a cornerstone Canadian work. It’s not a hermetically sealed and concealed time capsule, intriguing but frozen in time. It’s still current and relevant today.


1. Maple Leaf Gardens time capsule offers peek at 1931
Conn Smythe’s son has theory of mysterious ivory elephant’s origin
CBC News (January 26, 2012)

2. Transcript of CBC Books live chat with Ken Dryden (January 5, 2012)

3. The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady (2011, House of Anansi Press), p. 118

4. The Game, by Ken Dryden (1984 edition, Totem Books) p. 189

5. The Game, by Ken Dryden (1984 edition, Totem Books) p. 190

See also:

Ken Dryden on how he writes

My reviews of other Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

The Tiger, by John Vaillant

The Tiger, by John Vaillant

Man disdains nature at his ultimate peril, individually and collectively. John Vaillant drives this home with elegant and unforgettable ferocity in The Tiger, his enthralling account of the hunt for a man-eating tiger in in a harsh, remote area of Russia’s Far East in the late 1990s.

The Tiger is a potent amalgam of different genres and subject matter, each one of which could stand on its own as an engrossing read. Vaillant has forged an unusual, suspenseful action thriller/murder mystery, pitting the intimidating but not unsympathetic presence of a powerful predator against first one man with whom he has specific grievances, and then against a growing team of trackers and investigators looking to halt the predator’s deadly rampage. Subtitling The Tiger “a true story of vengeance and survival”, Vaillant has commented in interviews that the uncanny ability of the tiger to single out specific people for its revenge – chiefly an unemployed logger turned poacher who has inadvertently stolen food from and injured the tiger – adds a “Stephen King” aspect to the story that makes it even more menacing. Coupled with detailed crime scene analysis and forensic procedural elements as the investigation and hunt commences, led by game warden and expert tracker Yuri Trush, The Tiger is a breathtaking true crime read unto itself.

The tale is immensely deepened, however, because Vaillant thoughtfully incorporates into it other investigations that transform the central tragedy into a touchstone for much more, symbolic of problems, challenges, but also hopeful opportunities on numerous levels. The Tiger is filled with vibrant character sketches of individuals striving to survive physically, emotionally and as a community and culture in an isolated area of the world alternately exploited and ignored by Russia, China and other international forces and influences. Vaillant also offers up a reverential National Geographic-calibre examination of a stunningly unique world ecosystem. That examination is stimulating and educational without being monotonously encyclopedic or pedantic. Finally, Vaillant melds it all into a environmental paean that is pointedly cautionary and can be applied universally, all without sanctimony.

The Tiger achieves many fine balances in its interplay of different types of storytelling. The reader will grieve for individuals, a community and a way of life that, while demanding and unforgiving, is still beautiful and stoically pastoral. At the same time, the reader will also cheer for the awesome (in the truest, purest sense of awe), magnificent tiger, who is also fiercely adapting and trying to make a life for itself in an exotic land encroached upon by waves of change triggered by political conflicts, technological pressures, economic demands, societal upheaval and more.

Having managed to grasp and skilfully weave so many thematic threads, Vaillant reminds us that the strength of memorable storytelling is fundamental to our human fabric:

For most of our history, we have been occupied with the cracking of codes – from deciphering patterns in the weather, the water, the land, and the stars, to parsing the nuanced behaviours of friend and foe, predator and prey. Furthermore, we are compelled to share our discoveries in the form of stories. Much is made of the fact that ours is the only species that does this, that the essence of who and what we understand ourselves to be was first borne orally and aurally: from mouth to ear to memory. This is so, but before we learned to tell stories, we learned to read them. In other words, we learned to track. The first letter of the first word of the first recorded story was written – “printed” – not by us, but by an animal. These signs and symbols left in mud, sand, leaves and snow represent proto-alphabets. Often smeared, fragmented, and confused by weather, time, and other animals, these cryptograms were life-and-death exercises in abstract thinking. This skill, the reading of tracks in order to procure food, or identify the presence of a dangerous animal, may in fact be “the oldest profession.”

This rousing tale affects us so profoundly both because it is so richly layered, but also because it is so elemental.

See/hear also:

John Vaillant reads from The Tiger

The Tiger, by John Vaillant (author video)

My reviews of other Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat

Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat

The Penguin paperback edition of Prisoner of Tehran offers a subtle but arresting feature that I hope is part of the original and any other editions of this fine book. You can see Persian emblems or motifs in spot varnish when you tip the book cover in the light. Curving over the book spine and extending to the back cover, you can feel their faint imprint as you’re holding the book – which you likely won’t do for long, because the book is a compellingly swift read. It’s a lovely, pervasive reminder of the book’s cultural underpinnings. The emblems also hauntingly resemble snowflakes – imagery that recurs to surprisingly powerful effect throughout this unforgettable story.

Author and protagonist Marina Nemat quickly ushers you into a riveting account of her terrifying experiences during the Iranian revolution of the early 1980s. Her voice has the flat affect of someone battered and shell shocked, but strikingly determined to survive. While that voice is at times so strangely modest and understated as to be almost unnerving, you are irresistibly drawn into her harrowing tale of being arrested at the age of sixteen for acts so tenuously seditious to the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini as to be ridiculous. It is that ridiculousness that makes the physical and mental tortures she endures that much more nightmarish and incomprehensible. The terms by which she negotiates – if it could be dignified to call it such – and the circumstances by which she navigates her eventual freedom, after over two years of prison life, are almost inconceivable and border on the surreal. Nemat’s prenaturally calm voice throughout it all helps you to stay with the twists and turns – sometimes heart pounding, sometimes heart wrenching, sometimes grindingly banal – that she and the other young women with which she is imprisoned face almost daily.

Raised as a practicing Christian in a middle class, fairly secular and unashamedly Westernized family, Nemat and her family and friends, and by extension many fellow citizens are exposed to repression and extremism that will be starkly eye-opening to many Canadian readers. After all that happens to her, including the familial alienation she confronts when she returns from her ordeal, Nemat somehow musters the astonishing and instructive grace to offer a bittersweet meditation on what hatred and outrageously wielded power can do to human decency.

A surprisingly redemptive theme and sequence of imagery recurring through the book binds Nemat’s story together, figuratively and literally. It starts in the early pages:

It took me five minutes to get to the church. When I put my hand on the heavy wooden main door, a snowflake landed on my nose. Tehran always looked innocently beautiful under the deceiving curves of snow, and although the Islamic regime had banned most beautiful things, it couldn’t stop the snow from falling.

Somehow, the snow is both beautiful, but also unstoppable – delicate, enduring, but sometimes heartbreakingly ephemeral:

One morning in August 1972 when I was seven, I picked up [my mother’s] favourite crystal ashtray. It was almost the size of a dinner plate. She had told me a million times not to touch it, but it was beautiful, and I wanted to run my fingers over its delicate patterns. I could see why she liked it so much. In a way, it looked like a giant snowflake that never melted.

That beautiful object is all too soon shattered, presaging other things that will shatter with the same vulnerability:

His eyes were blank, as he, like me, tried to understand the devastating, lonely gap that death had left behind, the terrible falling from the known into the unknown and the terrifying wait to hit the solid ground and shatter into small, insignificant pieces.

Cumulatively, though, those fragile snowflakes can collect to cool, cleanse, comfort and ultimately offer regeneration, which Nemat clearly and deservedly yearns for after all she has suffered:

It was a perfect summer day, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but I wished for snow to cover the earth; I wished for its cold and honest touch to embrace my warm skin. I wanted my fingers to lose their sense of touch in deep frost and ache. I wanted all the shades of green and red to disappear under the weight of winter and its shades of white so I could dream and tell myself that when spring came, things would be different.

As Nemat simply observes about the place in the world that would finally provide her and her new family with haven and solace: “I liked the name ‘Canada’ – it sounded far away and very cold but peaceful.”

Throughout Prisoner of Tehran, Nemat deals in grief and loss of myriad kinds, in which the destruction of books and writings marches in sorrowful lock step with the death of loved ones. She takes on courageously how one faces different kinds of oblivion, including the shame, silence and denial of friends and family when she re-emerges from imprisonment. That her inspiring tale of singular resilience culminates in her seeking a new life in Canada, where she eventually gets the support she needs to tell this story, is both stirring and gratifying.

I love my country already, but Marina Nemat has given me yet another way to articulate what is wonderful about it. Prisoner of Tehran is a strong and deserving choice for all Canadians to read, to appreciate from a startling new perspective just how sweet this country is.


My reviews of other Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

Join us for a Canada Reads challenge

Canada Reads 2012

Take a look here for the challenge details

… and then join us here!

Julie Wilson (aka @BookMadam) and I recently exchanged our Canada Reads predictions in sealed envelopes:

As part of the exchange, we described to each other the charitable causes we were supporting as part of this exercise (see below). We then had an intriguing chat about the rationale for our predictions, without giving our choices away. It’s an interesting way to defend your choices, without giving them a way – try it!

Julie has selected Books With Wings as her challenge charitable cause.

Books with Wings is a literacy project which provides new picture books for First Nations children residing in isolated Canadian communities. The organization is currently working with Abraham Beardy school in Shamattawa, Manitoba. The school is located approximately 1300 km north of Winnipeg, and the children there are in great need of literature. The project currently receives support from Toronto nursery schools, where books are collected, and from other philanthropic organizations committed to improving literacy rates in First Nations communities, such as the Dreamcatcher Fund, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, First Book, and Books With Wings’ corporate sponsor, Hugo Boss. Books with Wings has recently expanded to other First Nations schools in the NWT and in BC, and hopes to one day achieve national scope.

You can learn more about Books With Wings via their web site ( and their Facebook page.

I’ve selected Neighbourhood Link as my challenge charitable cause.

Neighbourhood Link Support Services is a non-profit social service agency working to help people primarily in the east Toronto community to live independently and with dignity. Since 1975, with the assistance of staff and volunteers, they have helped more than 20,000 people annually across a range of ages and groups, including seniors, new Canadians, children and youth, employment seekers and the homeless. Reading and literacy are vital components of many of Neighbourhood Link’s programs and services.

You can learn more about Neighbourhood Link via their web site ( and you can follow them on Twitter.


On February 10th, 2012, Julie and I did our Canada Reads predictions reveal.

Our predictions scoring system accounted for the order in which the books were voted off, with a bonus for predicting the winner. The accountants at Price Waterhouse determined that although our Canada Reads predictions differed, Julie (aka @BookMadam) and I scored a … tie! That meant that both of our charities – Neighbourhood Link & Books With Wings – won our Canada Reads challenge. Neat, eh?