Canada Reads 2012; Final Answer

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 Tehran, by Marina Nemat. This is a memoir of a young girl in Iran during the time of Khomeini, who, at the age of 16, speaks out against the government and is imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Evin Prison.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant. Vaillant takes us on a hunt for a man-eating tiger in Eastern Russia; suspenseful, informative, thought-provoking, with an important message about the fragile balance of nature and our effects on it.

On a Cold Road, by Dave Bidini. We travel with Bidini on a colourful cross-country tour and see Canada from the unique perspective of a young rock band, The Rheostatics, with anecdotal snapshots from other Canadian rock musicians.

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 Chile.

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 Canada for it to resonate with the Canadian public, or is it enough that it be written by a Canadian and is a well-written story with an important message? The final vote, between The Game and Something Fierce, underlined that debate, with two such different stories and perspectives. In the end, Something Fierce came out on top, Mme. Goldwater having been persuaded, over the course of the debates, that this was an important book to read, regardless of one’s own political perspective. I found that singular accomplishment extremely heartening, and hope that the debates had similar effects on listeners, giving them reasons to try something they might not have considered before the program.

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.

We’re half-way through Canada Reads 2012 and how do things stand?

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, Marina was forced to convert to Islam and marry Ali. Her story is horrifying and heartbreaking, and although she eventually rejoined her family, married the man she loved and found a new life in Canada, she was haunted by the memories of that time, and of all the people she knew who had died unnecessarily. After more than 20 years, Nemat had to tell her story, to let others know something about what was happening in Iran during that time, and still continues today. Told in a straightforward, almost matter-of-fact manner, it’s a book that we should all read, and serves as a reminder that the human rights we take for granted here are not universal and we need to pay attention.

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 Eastern Russia in the late 1990s. But in order to understand this story, we need to know some of the history of Eastern Russia and the Amur Tiger, as well as current conditions in that region. The history is fascinating, but it’s shocking to learn about the extreme poverty that still exists there and the very primitive way of life that many people still endure. Some of the scenes could have been from a century ago. But the amount of information was sometimes distracting from the flow of the narrative and although it was important, there were times when I just wanted him to get on with the story itself. But I raced through the last part when I got hooked again. It was quite suspenseful and I had a lot of sympathy for all the players, both man and beast. I enjoyed the book overall, and felt that Vaillant had an important message for us about the fragile balance of nature and our effect on it.

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 Chile during the time of Pinochet; and a tour across Canada with a rock band. One of them will get the thumbs down. Let’s hope it is given and accepted in a spirit of goodwill and respect.