From the first sentence of Marie-Renée Lavoie’s debut novel, Mister Roger and Me, we are drawn into the lively world of the feisty eight-year-old Hélène, otherwise known as Joe. Growing up in the 80s with her parents and three sisters, Joe finds life somewhat humdrum, compared with that of her heroine, a TV cartoon character named Lady Oscar. Oscar, disguising herself as a man, is captain of the palace guards in the court of Marie Antoinette, leading a life of dangerous deeds and heroism. Hélène admires Oscar’s strength and bravery and, wanting to be more like her, searches for adventure, hardship and sacrifice in her own life.
Canada Reads took quite a beating last week as it was hit by some of the harshest criticism ever in its 11-year lifespan. First of all, there was much controversy over the ill-judged comments of one of the panellists. People were unhappy, and expressed their outrage in print and electronically. Never have there been so many articles, blogs and tweets written about Canada Reads.
But there were other types of criticism as well. Some thought the scope of the program was too broad, others too narrow; there should be more thought put into the choice of panellists; there should be an author or two on the panel, the way there used to be; it’s a ridiculous, condescending idea—how can there be one book that every Canadian “should” read?
Any change is bound to provoke reaction and criticism and Canada Reads has certainly evolved over the years, with changes in format, makeup of the panel, type of books discussed, and viewer participation. For the first time since its inception, this year, nonfiction books were chosen instead of fiction, and it was quite a diverse selection. Here’s a very brief synopsis of the books, in the order they were voted out:
The Prisoner of
The Tiger, by John Vaillant. Vaillant takes us on a hunt for a man-eating tiger in
The Game, by Ken Dryden. Dryden was goalie for the Montreal Canadiens for eight years and won six Stanley Cups! This is a thoughtful account of his last season with them in 1979.
Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre. This is a brave, passionate story, told from the point of view of a young woman in South America in the 80s, involved in the resistance movement to oust Pinochet from
Widening the scope to include nonfiction broadened the range of discussion dramatically, because for the first time (I think), much of the debate dealt with what constitutes a truly Canadian book. Is it important for the book to be set in
The panellists were probably as diverse as the celebrity parameter will allow. It is not a literary panel and does not claim to be so. This is a group of Canadian personalities who like to read and are willing to defend a book that they believe in, on air and in front of a studio audience. This year’s panel included a singer, an actor, a model, a lawyer, and a businessperson. While none of them write literary nonfiction, four of the five panellists do write: one has written a book; one writes song lyrics; one writes comedy; one writes legal arguments. All five are used to being in the public eye and “perform” in one way or another; at least two have to be quick on their feet to assess a situation, respond to it, and persuade others to their point of view. All love to read and had obviously read and thought about the books, and some had done outside reading to back up their position or refute the others. They all understand the power and importance of words, and took the role of defending their book quite seriously.
As Canada Reads evolves, each year brings something new, with aspirations of broadening its scope and increasing its audience. But changes that some find interesting will be problematic for others. Nevertheless, along with all the controversy and complaints this year, there was also very high praise. Some claimed that it was the best Canada Reads ever; many had ambitions of reading at least some, if not all, of the books from this year’s debates, not just the winner. A clear victory for Canada Reads.
Overall, Canada Reads 2012 was a definite success. Whether laudatory or disparaging, there have been many conversations about Canadian nonfiction. Great! Let’s count on many, many more such discussions. I am confident that Canada Reads will continue to try new things, to grow and improve, to be controversial, to garner both praise and criticism, and to keep people talking about Canadian books.
After two days of intense (fiery?) discussion, a few things are apparent. Three of the panellists are thoughtful and articulate and have done their homework (and one of them is very funny--I’m looking at you Alan Thicke!) But the other two should probably not be there. One is ill-prepared or too nervous to answer the questions properly and the second prefers inflammatory statements over intelligent discussion. Much has been written about the controversy surrounding day one, so I won’t repeat what everyone else is saying. Suffice to say that I’m disappointed, both at the disrespectful comments and the fact that my favourite book got voted off first!
Given the combination of solid story and defender, I was convinced my book would get to the final round, and I was shocked when it was knocked out on the first day. Of course, I’m talking about Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat, defended passionately and articulately by Arlene Dickinson.
Marina Nemat was imprisoned for two years during the time of Khomeini. In 1982, when she was 16, she was arrested for speaking out against government propaganda in school, taken to Evin prison, tortured, and sentenced to death. She was saved at the last minute by Ali, one of her interrogators, who had her sentence reduced to life in prison. In return, in the face of threats to her family,
That left four books still in contention on Day 2, with four defenders and a wild card. Which book would be the next to go? The Tuesday debate was more engaging and collegial than Monday’s, more focussed on the quality of the writing, not just the content or the characters. The Tiger got several votes for excellent writing, and both The Game and Something Fierce earned points for engaging their audience. Not as much was said about On a Cold Road, although most people enjoyed it. But after the vote, The Tiger had to wave goodbye.
The Tiger is the story of a hunt for a man-eating tiger in
So, what can we expect tomorrow on Day 3?
Fun? Altercations? Thoughtful debate about the merits of the books in a calm, collegial, light-hearted atmosphere?
Three books remain: a hockey memoir written by one of the best goalies to play for the NHL; the story of a young girl coming of age and becoming a resistance fighter in
The repercussions from this idea have been amazing and so much fun. On a personal level, I’ve read more poems over the last month than I have over the last few years! I have revisited old favourites, like T.S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, Wordsworth, Housman and Robert Frost; I have read Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Pablo Neruda, Rilke, Robert Burns, Dionne Brand, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Charles Swinburne, Shakespeare … I’ve read poems about dogs, cooking, the wind, anger, money, the rain, digging potatoes, marriage, writing, snow, language, a sow, a scarf, dying, loving, knitting, dancing, crying …
I’ve heard Alan Rickman recite Shakespeare. I watched a video made by a young family playing in the snow while reciting “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens. I’ve listened to rap, watched performance art, seen people on the street recite poetry. I learned about ekphrastic poetry, which is written in reaction to another form of art, such as a painting, sculpture, dance… (Check out the AGO website for some intriguing modern examples of this, or read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.)
Todayspoem has brought together people from all over the world, all with a love of poetry, and thankfully, many different tastes. Every day provides a fascinating variety of discoveries mixed with some oldies. I don’t like every single poem and some I don’t understand, but I usually save them to look at again later, because often what appeals to you or connects with you depends on your mood. Some days unearth absolute gems. Imagine a day devoted to cooking for friends and coming across this:
How easily happiness begins by
dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter
slithers and swirls across the floor
of the sauté pan, especially if its
errant path crosses a tiny slick
of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.
This could mean soup or risotto
or chutney (from the Sanskrit
chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions
go limp and then nacreous
and then what cookbooks call clear,
though if they were eyes you could see
clearly the cataracts in them.
It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease
from the taut ball first the brittle,
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least
recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on
weeping as you go on in, through
the moist middle skins, the sweetest
and thickest, and you can go on
in to the core, to the bud-like,
acrid, fibrous skins densely
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most
pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare
and rage and murmury animal
comfort that infant humans secrete.
This is the best domestic perfume.
You sit down to eat with a rumor
of onions still on your twice-washed
hands and lift to your mouth a hint
of a story about loam and usual
endurance. It’s there when you clean up
and rinse the wine glasses and make
a joke, and you leave the minutest
whiff of it on the light switch,
later, when you climb the stairs.
What a delight and so perfectly suited to the day! That evening, one of our friends brought up the topic of poetry, wondering if people even read poetry anymore. I told them all about the #todayspoem movement on Twitter and they were surprised and intrigued; my husband shared our experience last year when we went to the Griffin Poetry Prize readings and how moving they were. They couldn’t believe that 1200 people turned out for a poetry reading, and were quite taken aback at my description of people elbowing each other to keep their place in line to buy poetry books! I told them how “Onions” started, and because they all love to cook, their reaction was similar to the poem’s itself; oh, you can make anything you want when you start with sautéing onions—soup, risotto, stew, pasta sauce… They loved it.
I have enjoyed this past month’s poetry fervour more than I can say. I had already started to read a bit more poetry over the past year but with the advent of #todayspoem, I am reading more than I ever anticipated. It is so satisfying to be able to share that enjoyment with likeminded people. I hope this happy movement continues to grow and gather new players. Anyone out there who hasn’t joined the fun yet, jump in anytime. Or if you just want to read and savour on your own, do that. Dig out an old anthology, or start searching on the internet. Find some poems you like, read, and enjoy! Here are some last words on the subject of poetry from the wonderful Billy Collins:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.