Think of it as the Stanley Cup playoffs of CanLit. CBC Radio’s Canada Reads has become a much anticipated elimination event since its inaugural year in 2004, and the puck drops March 25.
This year’s theme, One Book to Move You, does sound gentler than your average NHL game; as Canadian literature-lovers, we tend to default to kindness. And yet, at the end of this knock-out week just one book will remain as the book all Canadians should read.
First, let me introduce you to this year’s shortlist and defenders, in case you managed to miss all the promo.
Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau defends Homes: a Refugee Story by Aby Bakr al Rabeeah and Winie Yeung. “This incredible memoir will make you more compassionate and profoundly grateful that you and your children don’t have to fall asleep to the sound of machine guns at night,” he says on the Canada Reads website.
Actress and author Lisa Ray champions Brother by David Chariandy, a novel that thrusts readers into the midst of Scarborough’s immigrant population. “In Brother, we bear witness to the workings of kinship, class, gender, love, race, thwarted hopes and senseless tragedy,” she says.
Author and broadcaster Ziya Tong chose to defend the holocaust memoir By Chance Alone by Max Eisen, “a powerful reminder of what happens when we see the signs around us but choose to look away.”
Actor Yanic Truesdale stands up for Suzanne by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, a true story of the author’s quest for family secrets. “It’s about forgiveness,” he says of this “powerful book, full of rage and love.”
And celebrated fashion correspondent Joe Zee champions Lindsay Wong’s The Woo-Woo because “mental health affects us all,” he says. “This darkly comedic memoir will break your heart.”
Each day, one book will be voted off the island, and I have to say that even as the book in question is going under for the last time, I expect that the remaining champions will be waving sadly in our kind Canadian way. But it hasn’t always been kind, and the thing is that with Canada Reads, you never really know. Passions erupt. Things are said.
In 2012, panelist Anne-France Goldwater called author Carmen Aguirre, whose book Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter was being defended by the hip-hop artist Shad, “a terrorist,” and accused Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran, of being untrue.
There was outrage in literary circles and you can bet that celebrity defenders were suitably cautioned going forward by CBC producers. We don’t diss our own, and we certainly don’t call each other names. Plus we are a small country, after all, where a “bestseller” must sell a mere 5,000 copies to get the sticker.
Proponents of Canada Reads point to the windfall of sales for all of the authors, no matter who comes out on top. They say it increases appreciation for Canadian literature across the board, and while that may not be as measurable, it’s hard to argue with. As writers spend years researching, writing and editing each book to reap an average annual income of less than $12,000, any boost is welcome.
Plus, proponents say, it gets people reading whole books — Canadian books — not just Twitter feeds.
Detractors take aim at the competition itself: it is demeaning, they accuse, reducing years of personal investment into celebrity radio banter. A disservice to the very art they aim to elevate.
And so the jury’s out as Canada Reads heads into its 15th year. At least this literary sporting event will be relatively bloodless — more curling than hockey — and for this we must all be grateful, because there is so much to celebrate in Canadian literature.
For better or worse, let Canadian Literature’s Tournament of Hearts begin.
Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week.