In just 2 days CBC Radio will launch its 10th anniversary edition of Canada Reads, the literary smackdown event that annually has Canadian book sales soaring, CBC listeners on the edge of their seats, and critics up in arms. Love it, or hate it, it's impossible for Canadian readers to ignore.
As I'm a Canadian reader, I've decided to once again weigh in. It didn't hurt that the producers offered me a gift pack of all five books to discuss the program on my blog-- more on that later.
Before getting into my predictions, thoughts and so forth, perhaps a little history of my relationship with the program is in order. For those regular readers of my blog, I'll keep it short, I promise-- you know this stuff already. I was an early fan of the program and blogged about it regularly. Of course being a fan doesn't mean that I thought they did everything right and like most listeners I had suggestions on how it could improve. My main complaint was, and still is, the use of an exclusively celebrity panel. I campaigned, shouted loudly, irritated the producers, and they irritated me in return. At its worst, I boycotted the program for a year. At its funniest, I was inadvertently sent an inner-office email from one of the producers who, quite correctly, defined our relationship as "weird." Then, last year, I was a panelist of the National Post
knock-off version, "Canada Also Reads." Like most knock-offs, I don't think it adequately compared with the original, but it, and a few other knock-offs, seemed to get the producers' attention that some changes might be in order.
I give them credit for finally reaching out to the listeners (and readers), even if I don't quite agree with the way they did it. For the first time ever Canadian readers were asked to nominate books of the past 10 years they felt should be on a top 40 list of essential Canadian reads. I like this idea and the list itself, but not in connection with the Canada Reads program. Here's why. Such lists have become the latest fad at CBC. There was the list of Canada's Greatest
individuals, then there was the Canada's Seven Wonders
program. I don't have an issue with these things as long as we don't take it all too seriously. It's a fun way to get the country talking, remembering, feeling some pride, and I'm sure it helped the CBC in the ratings department as well. Win-win. The book list could be considered in the same light. However, that 40 list was whittled down to 10 and then to five to be debated by, once again, celebrity panelists. These changes do not
work for the betterment of the program. First of all, books from all of Canada's rich literary past are no longer possible contenders. A frequent beef that people spouted last year was that 2 of the contending books (specifically Generation X
and Fall on Your Knees
) were already read by a great number of Canadians and didn't make it interesting for those listeners who wanted the show to introduce them to something new. Perhaps this was a part of the producers rationale in restricting the books to the past decade. However, in doing so we lost the possibility for such books as Rockbound
, Next Episode
, or Sarah Binks
, books that were in danger of being forgotten forever, if not for the resurgence in interest thanks to Canada Reads. But my biggest issue against the Top 40 list being used to find the Canada Reads contenders is that it took too much control away from the panelists. Up until now panelists were allowed to bring whatever book they wanted to the table (with a few exceptions, such as non-fiction, and so on). They took a book they felt passionately about and defended it with all the strength and strategy they could muster. With one exception. A few years ago Rufus Wainwright was set to defend Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers
. Because of a scheduling conflict Wainwright had to back out and Molly Johnson was brought in to replace her. While she remembered liking the book in university, it wasn't her choice book and it showed. Lacking the noticeable enthusiasm of the other panelists, Beautiful Losers
lost. Perhaps it would have lost under Wainwright's defense as well, but it certainly would have been nice to hear from someone who picked it as something all Canadians should read. Are we to get a panel of Molly Johnsons this year? Sure Lorne Cardinal picked Unless
from a list of ten, but what would he have picked had his options been wide open? No matter how enthusiastic this year's panelists will be, at best they'll come across as hired spokespeople doing their best at a celebrity endorsement.
But enough of the negativity. At least the producers' intentions were admirable. Reaching out to the listeners and getting them involved is at least a step in the right direction (of course, I know a way to get them even more involved, but I digress). During the Top 40 nominations, the Canada Reads staff reached out to bloggers, librarians, independent book store owners, and everyday readers and invited them to have their say. It was through this opportunity that my nomination, Jeff Lemire's Essex County
was first suggested, it was subsequently nominated by none other than Mariko Tamaki, and the ball kept rolling from there, bouncing it into the Top 5 to be debated next week. Are the Canada Reads producers and staff doing all of this selflessly? Of course not. I mentioned above that they asked me, and a few other bloggers to discuss the program on our blogs this year in return for a prize pack of Canada Reads books. I know it's cheap publicity for them. However, in her initial request, producer Kimberly Walsh wrote that she had "no expectation that [I] be excessively positive, just that [I] be fair." The fact that I was even one of the ones asked is a surprising step. Few have been as loudly critical as I have over the past ten years, but they seem to be embracing, for once, the constructive criticism. In return, they've gotten more web buzz this year than I've ever noticed before. Much has been negative, but the Canada Reads folks don't seem to running away from it, and not in an "any publicity is good publicity" sort of way either. They've addressed some of the concerns, defended some of the concerns, and at the very least, have acknowledged the concerns. They almost threw out the baby with the bathwater this year with their drastic changes, but at least they're looking to improve.
I also want to commend the Canada Reads on their website
attention this year. Never had they had this much build up. They've had top 40 recommendations, Brian Francis' resident blogger posts, the Canada Reads staff themselves debating the books, podcasts and articles on the authors, books, and more. I don't remember them ever promoting the contest this much and they've done it wonderfully.
Now, on with my predictions and picks. Admittedly, I'm at a disadvantage in that I haven't read two of the contenders (The Bone Cage
and the Best Laid Plans
). They had hoped to get the books to me in time, but I inadvertently gave them my wrong address (I moved across town in October of last year and gave them my old postal code). But ignorance has never stopped me from shooting my mouth off before. So, without further ado, here are my choices followed by my predictions...
Who should win...
1. Essex County- Jeff Lemire
No surprise here. I nominated it after all. For a whole list of reasons, not the least of which is that it feels so much like a Canadian novel and yet it's cutting edge. The story should appeal to traditionalists and the format should appeal to those looking for something new to the CanLit scene. The rift between those who represent the old guard of Canadian writing where the stories are more carefully paced and introspective and the new wave of Canadian experimental writing with its quirky characters and flamboyancy is huge and growing. I think Lemire's Essex County
might just provide the segue that we were missing.
2. The runner up, if I'm to believe the reviews and synopses that I've read, should be Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans
. One of our largest cultural exports is our comedy and with the success of This Hour Has 22 Minutes
and the Rick Mercer Report
, clearly we like political satire. With Richler no longer with us, we need someone new to take his place. But I get the impression that Fallis might be lacking Richler's acerbic wit. I'm a little nervous that he plays it too safe. Good satire can't do that.
3. Unless by Carol Shields
A good story is a good story. Unfortunately I think Shields' death and reputation as one of Canada's foremost writers will overshadow the discussion of the story. Perhaps it represents the old guard that I was talking about earlier, but it's still beautifully crafted. Humorless, maybe, but touching. I actually prefer this one over the Stone Diaries
4. The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
- Again, I have to base this on the impression I've gotten from other peoples' reviews. I get the impression it's a little slow going, especially if you're not interested in sports. King Leary
may have won a few years back, and it revolved around a hockey player, but that one was funny and had such a memorable character. I don't get the impression that this one is anywhere near as compelling as that book, and I've not heard from anyone that it's funny.
5. The Birth House by Ami McKay
- Sometimes after I've read a book that I didn't like, it softens in my memory over time. Unfortunately, I think I've grown to dislike the Birth House
even more. It's not funny either. Nor does it need to be. My own top pick isn't funny. But worse than not being funny is that the Birth House
tries to be. I won't get into all my other reasons again, but you can read my review
1. The Best Laid Plans
by Terry Fallis- It sounds to me that it's one of the most entertaining of the lot. Plus, with its political stuff, it'll be perceived as intelligent. That's a pretty good combination. However the biggest reason it will win is through process of elimination. It'll most likely be the least polarizing.
2. Essex County
by Jeff Lemire- Don't let its making it this far fool you. It doesn't stand a chance. Everyone knows this and it'll be strategic that it gets this far. Then just when us fans get our hopes up, the claws will come out. Unfortunately the discussion will be all about graphic novels versus regular novels (I'll eat my shirt if someone on the panel doesn't whine, "It's just too hard to compare a graphic novel to a normal novel.") and worse, they'll get sidetracked with graphic novels versus comics (note to nerds: no one cares). The merits of the story itself will barely get a mention. (Prove me wrong Sara Quin!)
3. The Birth House
by Ami McKay- They'll all claim politely that this book is funny, but secretly someone will disagree. This vote off will be the most diplomatic vote off of the whole debate. It's a book we're supposed to like. Canadian history, feminist themes, a vibrator joke, rural Canada... the fact that it's all so terribly forced won't be mentioned (shhhh! McKay might be listening!) Despite that, I have faith in the panel that it'll be taken out, no matter how polite the execution. Debbie Travis will be shocked.
4. The Bone Cage
by Angie Abdou- Oh man. Georges Laraque will be pissed. All the panelists will genuinely like this book, but admit that it's lacking something. Plus Laraque will be so intimidating, without even opening his mouth, that people will want his book gone. The strange thing is, despite Laraque's earlier dismissal of Essex County
, he'll be one of its biggest defenders from this point on.
by Carol Shields- This will be an entirely strategic vote and its vote off in day one has already been decided. Atwood, Richler, Munro and Laurence haven't won one of these things, and Shields won't either. There's such a thing as too popular. The panelist will say, and perhaps fairly, that enough Canadians know of Shields' writing already. If they haven't read Unless
before, they probably won't now. There's no real point to it winning. To acknowledge her talent? Hasn't it been acknowledged?
What about you? Will you be listening? Which have you read? Who do you think will win, and most importantly, who do you want
Labels: Canada Reads 2011, CBC