Canada Reads 2014 – The Books

canadareads2014Wow. I had heard that 2014’s Canada Reads was going to better than ever and I didn’t think it was possible … until now. I missed Jian‘s announcement of this years books and celebrity panelists, but I’m not going to let that stop me for weighing in.

yearofthefloodFirst up: Stephen Lewis defending Margaret Atwood‘s The Year of the Flood. Can it get any better than this? No. I mean, it’s Stephen (freakin’) Lewis defending Margret Atwood and a book about human folly leading to the end of times! I love this. Lewis is one of the greatest humanitarians, thinkers, and diplomats this world has ever seen. I admire him greatly. And Margaret Atwood is Margaret Atwood. Also a mental giant, fabulous writer and admirable soul. Combined, I like to believe that they are unstoppable. The Year of the Flood is my favorite of the MaddAddam trilogy, and it is definitely a book all Canadians should read. Lewis is a great orator and he can convince me of almost anything. And he may get some pointers from his son, Avi Lewis who defended Lawrence Hill‘s The Book of Negroes to win in 2009.

orendaNext up, Wab Kinew defending The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. I am not familiar with Kinew, but from what I’ve read he appears to be another heavy hitter. Musician, broadcaster, journalist, intellectual. I think he is going to do a commendable job, but it shouldn’t be too hard. He’s defending The Orenda after all. I haven’t read The Ordena yet, but if it anything like Boyden’s other works it will not only be a good read, it will be an important read. And that is what Canada Reads 2014 is all about. Boyden’s novel Three Day Road was chosen in Canada Reads 2006, but did not win. Will this be his year?

halfbloodbluesAnnounced third was Donovan Bailey defending Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. I haven’t read Half-Blood Blues yet, though I would like to. It comes with high acclaim, but I can see one slight draw back with it – it is not set in Canada or about Canadians so to speak. Sometimes in Canada Reads debates this can pose a problem. On the other hand, Bailey is a competitor who is not used to losing. From what I can remember he is quite well spoken, but will he be able to hold his ground against the likes of Lewis and Kinew?

cockroachBefore we start taking ourselves too seriously let’s look to Samantha Bee defending Rawi Hage‘s Cockroach. I don’t mean to imply that Bee is a lightweight or that the other panelists are not funny, but let’s face it, Bee is most widely known as a comedian. She is witty, smart and humorous and that may win her some points. I don’t know much about Cockroach, although it received a lot of acclaim when it came out in 2008. Set in Montreal, it may gain the favor of listeners/ readers from la belle provence.

annabelAnd finally, Annabel by Kathleen Winter is being defended by Sarah Gadon. I know absolutely nothing about Gadon except that she is an actress who has been in a number of David Cronenberg movies and appears to be a rising star. Annabel, on the other hand is a book I have read and enjoyed. Set on the East Coast, it is a novel dealing with sexuality and small town life. It is riveting.

So there we go. As you can probably tell I’m gunning for Stephen Lewis and The Year of the Flood to win, but realistically the book that I find most deserving never wins Canada Reads. I have yet to read three of the contenders, so perhaps my opinions will change. Who do you think will win? Only time will tell.

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Canada Reads 2013 Round Up

Canada Reads is upon us. One of the things I like and hate most about Canada Reads is that you can never predict what is going to happen or who will win. We have to remember that these are not just books at play, but also the sometimes quirky and unexpected personalities that defend them. Yes, I’m thinking of you Justin Trudeau circa 2003 (was it really that long ago?)

For 2013 our books and defenders are as follows:

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese defended by Carol Huynh,

The Age of Hope by David Bergen defended by Ron MacLean,

Away by Jane Urquhart defended by Charlotte Gray,

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan defended by Jay Baruchel,

February by Lisa Moore defended by Trent McLellan.

indian horseRight now the fan favorite, hands down, seems to be Indian Horse according to this CBC pollThe one thing that could derail Indian Horse‘s success is Carol Huynh, the books defender. Huynh was a complete unknown to me before this and as it turns out she is a wrestler. I would like to think that this will give her a competitive edge somehow, but never having heard her speak I can honestly say that I have no idea how well she will do in the literary wrestling ring that is Canada Reads. The book itself, however, is breath taking. I can see other celebrity jurors  who get voted off early falling hard for Indian Horse.

bergenSpeaking of getting voted off early, I think The Age of Hope should be the first to go. Of all the books, I think it was the weakest in meeting the Canada Reads criteria. I also think it will not appeal to as many of the panelists as some of the other books (ahem, Indian Horse). That being said, it is being defended by none other than Ron MacLean. Not only is he a persuasive speaker who regularly has to go up against Don Cherry, but I am also really, really interested to see why he chose The Age of Hope. Will his reasons be compelling enough to convince me, not to mention the other panelists, of its merit as a Canada Reads contender? And if all goes according to plan, he will quickly become an advocate for Indian Horse once his book gets voted off.

awayInitially Away was favored to win Canada Reads 2013, and with good reason. Not only is the book a well loved Canadian classic and award winner, it is also being defended by the formidable Charlotte Gray. I suspect Away still has a good chance of taking the title, though I must admit I would be a little disappointed if it did. It just seems like one of the usual suspects.

twosolitudesSurprisingly, to me at least, I think Two Solitudes has a very good chance at making it until the end, but not winning the title. It is a book that has certainly stood the test of time. It is as relevant to day as it was when it first came out in 1945. I think it also captures what Canada is about for a vast section of the population. Jay Baruchel is likely to give a well thought out, personal and I am expecting humorous defense of the book. But will this be enough to make it the ultimate winner?

february_lisa_mooreFinally, February. I see it outlasting The Age of Hope and Away, which means that I think it will do quite well in this battle of the books. It is being defended by Trent MacLennan, a comedian who’s work I am not familiar with. The book, however, is solid and I think it will be well liked by the panelists. I can also see a panelist who gets voted off early throwing their weight behind February.

So that’s the way I see it. Away and The Age of Hope getting voted off early, the last three fighting it out in a blood bath of unprecedented proportions. I hope the winner will be Indian Horse, but who knows. By this time on Tuesday everything may have changed. I will try to post throughout the week, but my vacation may get in the way. Good luck to all!

Canada Reads: February by Lisa Moore

february_lisa_mooreI think that what I am about to say is going to make me very unpopular, but bear with me. I wasn’t totally blown away by Canada Reads candidate February by Lisa Moore. Without a doubt the writing was fabulous. Moore can slide the reader seamlessly back and forth in time and place with little to no effort. She moves you to places you did not know you were going to go and before you know it you’ve been there and back. I cannot stress enough that I think she is one of the best writers in Canada today.

But the story wasn’t all that compelling to me. Especially since it was about the Ocean Ranger disaster off the coast of Newfoundland, which should have been enough to drive the story forward. I am coming to realize as I write this blog that story is really important to me. I need a reason to keep turning those pages. As a result, I felt February was a bit draggy at times. I also tend to like stories told in a more linear fashion.

The story itself revolves around Helen, the widow of an Ocean Ranger worker and how her life and that of her children move forward with a huge absence in their lives. Helen’s son John seems to get a more attention than her other children, and yet his parts of the novel did not fit as cohesively into the rest of the story as others.

February is my last read for Canada Reads, so how do I think it will do? Lisa Moore, like Jane Urquhart (Away), has a loyal and committed following who want to see her win. Will this be enough? I suspect it may be. I think February has a very good chance at taking the Canada Reads title. It is being defended by Trent McClellan, and although I admit that I am not overly familiar with him, he is funny and I think he will be able to win over votes and that’s what counts.

Who would like this book? People who appreciate good writing will love February. Even though I was not draw in by the story personally, I can see that this is a great book and would recommend it with ease to a great variety of readers. Because of the setting it also reminded me a bit of Annabel by Kathleen Winter.

Canada Reads: Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

twosolitudesAt first glance Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan seems like a natural choice to sweep Canada Reads. It is an iconic Canadian novel and Governor General Award winner that captures the plight of the English and French in Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century. MacLennan’s writing is clean, crisp and timeless, concealing the fact that it was written more than sixty years ago.

But as I got more into the novel, I became less convinced. The plot moves along at a snail’s pace. This is largely due to MacLennan’s impromptu ravings over the (multiple) two solitudes that form the backbone of the novel. He expounds many times and at length on the dichotomies that prop his story up: French vs. English, Catholic vs. Protestant, Religion vs. Science, America vs. Canada and the list goes on. I think I prefer a little more subtly. Overall, these digressions make the novel about 200 pages longer than it should have been.

Some of the characters in Two Solitudes, however, are truly memorable and Canadian. I am thinking specifically of Yardley, the retired seaman from Nova Scotia who decides to buy a farm in the all French outpost of St. Marc. He is one of those characters in Canadian literature that you can’t help but love. I put him up along side Matthew Cuthbert. The relationship that develops between Yardley and young Paul is one of the sustaining factors of the novel. This relationship is certainly more plausible that the supposed romance that takes between Yardley’s granddaughter and Paul. But now I am digressing much as MacLennan does.

Initially I thought Two Solitudes would fair quite nicely in the Canada Reads debates, but now I’m not so sure. Away, defended by Charlotte Gray, and The Age of Hopedefended by Ron MacLean will surely surpass Two Solitudes. I think Two Solitudes‘ defender Jay Baruchel has a lot of popular support, but can he stand up to the likes of Gray and MacLean?

Who would like this book? The usual CBC Canada Reads crowd – that goes without saying. I think this novel would also appeal to the historically and politically minded. It really is a key work in depicting Canada’s social history.

CanadaReads: Away by Jane Urquhart

awayI first read Away by Jane Urquhart shortly after it first came out in 1993. I remembered it being a novel set primarily in Ireland. My second reading last week revealed that a good portion of it also takes place in the back waters of Canada and Port Hope. As such it reflects the struggles of early Irish immigrants to Canada during the time of the Potato Famine and makes a very traditional pick for CanadaReads. I say traditional, because it seems to me that Away reflects the strand in Canadian literature that we learned about in school – think pioneer story, new immigrants, the savage land, encounters with First Nations peoples. In short it is a rather traditional Canadian story, if such a thing exists.

Urquhart is known for her lyrical and poetic writing, and that is what Away delivers. I am not a fan of this style – I align my taste more with Hemingway, quick and to the point.  However, her writing style corresponds very nicely to the overall tenor of the story, which verges towards magical realism at times. To me Away does not stand up to other of her works, such as The Stone Carvers, but many critics will disagree with that statement.

How will Away fair in CanadaReads? Good question. It is being defended by Charlotte Gray, and I believe she knows her stuff and will defend the book admirably. At the end of the day, however, will the traditional nature of the novel appeal to the panel or drive it away (no pun intended)? I am at a loss to predict Away‘s viability as the next CanadaReads champion.

Who would like this book? This book is for lovers of straight up, traditional Canadian lit. It reminds me of Roughing it in the Bush by Susanna Moodie. Obviously, CBC obsessed reader like me will also read it because of CanadaReads.

CanadaReads: The Age of Hope by David Bergen

bergen

The Age of Hope

I always think that I am a fan of David Bergen until I actually read him. I feel the same way about Ian McEwan. They are both highly praised, award winning literary writers, and yet I tend to walk away from their books feeling a little meh. It was with that in mind that I launched into The Age of Hope by David Bergen for Canada Reads.

The novel is not a real page turner. It is about a woman’s life as a wife and mother starting in the 1950’s. To say that not much really happens in the novel might be a little of an understatement. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the story is Hope’s on going battle with mental illness. At various points in her marriage she is institutionalized and receives electroshock therapy. I found these episodes fascinating due to my interest in mental illness, but they were not enough to sustain the novel.

Although I am not a real fan of The Age of Hope, I am impressed by Bergen’s writing. The whole thing is written from the point of view of a bored stay at home wife and mother, and I think Bergen captures that voice precisely. One would almost think that Bergen himself is a bored house wife. The tone and mood he creates are dead on, the problem is it’s just not something i want to read about.

One big question remains: How will The Age of Hope do in Canada Reads? Difficult to say. It is being championed by Ron MacLean, and lets face it Ron MacLean can hold his own against Don Cherry, so I think he will be able to argue persuasively in the arena of Canada Reads. But will that be enough? I don’t think the novel can stand on its own against the other contenders, but we shall see.

Who would like this book? Good question. Obviously readers of Canadian literary fiction will read The Age of Hope regardless of what I say. And they should – I am all for supporting Canadian arts. Beyond that, I would recommend this novel to those who like moody prose more than plot driven tales. And of course, it is required reading for fans of Canada Reads.

CanadaReads: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

indian horseFor a novel that could be described as a tale about residential schools and hockey, I was pleasantly surprised. Those are two things that would not send me racing to read a novel. I never would have read Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese if it had not been a Canada Reads pick. That is one of the things i love about programs such as Canada Reads – they take me out of my reading comfort zone and it is usually worth it.

So I did not necessarily love Indian Horse, but I certainly enjoyed it. It is a deeply powerful novel. Oddly enough if you know me, it was the writing about hockey that moved me. Admittedly, I played hockey for three brief seasons during university but that did not spawn a passion for hockey in me. In fact, whatever is going on with the NHL this year is barely a blip on my radar other than to say that The National is never running late because of hockey.

Wagamese’s writing about hockey is breath taking. I was glued to the page, waiting to see elegance would arrive next on the page. Here is a small sample of a hockey scout describing the game.

“Hockey’s grace and poetry make men beautiful. The thrill of it lifts people out of their seats. Dreams unfold right before your eyes, conjured by a stick and a puck on a hundred and eighty feet of ice. The players? …. They’re conjurers.”

Wagamese takes the game of hockey and turns it into something mystical. It really is stunning.

What are Wagamese’s prospects when it comes to Canada Reads? Without having read the other contenders, I would have to say pretty good. This is a story that will appeal to all Canadians. Though chosen to represent British Columbia and Yukon, most of the narrative takes place in other regions of Canada and tells a story that occurred in virtually all regions of Canada.

Who would like this book? Obviously this book is going to appeal to CBC listeners and followers of Canad Reads. That almost goes without saying. Hockey lovers should also count themselves in as ones who would love this book. But I would hesitate to limit Indian Horse‘s appeal to those crowds. For me it was the writing that makes Indian Horse stand out. It was absolutely luscious. I will be keeping my eyes open for anything else Wagamese writes.