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.

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