Every year in March, Canada’s “battle of the books” makes me proud to be Canadian. To have a week-long radio debate focus the country on Canadian literature is pretty powerful stuff. Five celebrities each champion a book they have chosen which best fits the theme that year– this year’s theme is “Bringing Canada into Focus.”
My daughter and I get tickets to be in the studio audience for one of the debate days, usually the last. I’ve completed reading all five shortlisted books and will give a brief summary here of each, in no particular order. In order to listen to the debate you can tune in to CBC Radio March 16-19. Just google Canada Reads 2020. There are live streaming options, both video and audio, as well as podcasts. Or just turn on CBC Radio One at 11 am ET on those days.
My favourites to win are in a four-way split: From the Ashes, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, Radicalized, and We Have Always Been Here all deserve to win and are worth reading. Two are memoirs and two are fiction. The one I would not recommend was Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, even though it is going to be the basis for a TV series that is coming out soon and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. Small Game Hunting was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2019.
Samra Habib’s memoir is an exploration of the ways we disguise and minimise ourselves for the sake of survival. As a child, Habib hid her faith from Islamic extremists in Pakistan and later, as a refugee in Canada, endured racist bullying and the threat of an arranged marriage. In travelling the world and exploring art and sexuality, Habib searches for the truth of her identity.
Habib writes honestly about her deeply personal journey to finding her authentic self within her family, her faith, and in her community. I especially liked how she circled back to her faith after coming out, because being a Muslim had always been a huge part of her life and she wasn’t willing to give that up.
Four novellas explore the quandaries — social, economic and technological — of contemporary America. Cory Doctorow’s characters deal with issues around immigration, corrupt police forces, dark web uprisings, and protection from a pandemic. These approachable dystopian short stories with tongue-in-cheek humour are set in the future, but feel like they are only one step away from present reality and quite frighteningly currently relevant.
Being poor is expensive. Being a refugee lucky enough to have been granted a set-aside apartment in a Boston high-rise has all kinds of hidden costs. Such as ‘smart’ kitchen appliances programmed to only work with certain manufacturers’ ingredients. It’s great to teach yourself how to hack those systems. Even greater when you can show your fellow refugee neighbours’ teenage kids how to do the same. Not so great when you realise you’ve just exposed yourself and them to the possibility of decades in prison. Now what? This story is about taking control of the power in faceless technologies, rather than by being controlled by them.
Since his arrival on this planet, the American Eagle has fought for truth, justice, and the American way. Now he’s come face-to-face with the fact that cops routinely beat up innocent people, hide the evidence, and lie about it. He’s determined to use his superpowers to defend these victims. He has no idea how corrupt the system is–and how much worse he’s going to make matters. Radicalized
When Joe and Lacey’s insurance company told them it wouldn’t pay for ‘experimental’ treatments and that it was now time for Lacey to go away and die, something changed inside Joe. He spent more and more time on a dark-net forum with others whose loved ones were going through the same thing. A place where more and more people were saying, “If you’re going to do something drastic, don’t let it go to waste.” Then the bombings began. This story puts the focus on ruthless profit hungry drug companies.
The Masque of the Red Death
Martin’s a smart guy. He knows the big collapse is coming. He’s spent years creating his hidden desert retreat, the one stocked with enough food, guns, and antibiotics for Martin and a bunch of his invited friends. These are the men and women–well, Martin hopes some of them will be women–who intend to ride out the coming catastrophe and emerge to pick up the pieces. Because they’re the smart ones. Nothing about their plan could possibly go wrong. It’s interesting, in light of the recent corona virus outbreak, that of all the dangers inherent in the imaginary apocalypse of this story, the most dangerous of all is disease.
Jesse Thistle is a Métis-Cree academic specialising in Indigenous homelessness, addiction, and inter-generational trauma. For Thistle, these issues are more than just subjects on the page. After a difficult childhood, Thistle spent much of his early adulthood struggling with addiction while living on the streets of Toronto. His memoir details how his issues with abandonment and addiction led to homelessness, incarceration, and his eventual redemption through higher education. “Society, I figured, cares more about criminals than they do about the homeless.” Once he actually committed a crime and turned himself in so he could be cared for and get medical help with his leg.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles
Defended by Alayna Fender who is is a cat-loving, Canadian, LGBTQ YouTube content creator who brings her frank and funny perspective to a wide range of topics, with wellness and sexuality being her specialties.
This debut novel revolves around a cast of flawed characters all connected to a trendy St. John’s restaurant, The Hazel. Over the course of a snowy February day, they are implicated in each other’s hopes, dreams and pains as they try to survive harsh economic times in the province. They even talk about “storm chips” at one point, a term that I heard from Newfoundlanders on the radio when they talked about their recent mega-snowstorm. The cover makes me think of a deer frozen in the headlights.
This is a #MeToo story. Not too many books I’ve read, come with a warning, “Warning: Contains scenes of sexual, physical and psychological violence.” It also says at the beginning in the dedication, “I wrote this for myself. And the beautiful vicious island that makes and unmakes us.” Then it says on the next page, “This might hurt a little. Be brave.” Although in the beginning I found this novel hard to connect with and a bit overwritten, it actually grew on me as the story progressed and I ended up finding it very powerful. Because it features abuse of two women, parts of it may be difficult and/or triggering for some to read, although none of the violence in the book is gratuitous–it needs to be there because it is crucial to the story and the author does handle it well.
This is a novel about Jared, a compassionate 16-year-old, maker of famous weed cookies, the caretaker of his elderly neighbours, and the son of an unreliable father and an unhinged mother. As Jared ably cares for those around him (in between getting black-out drunk) he shrugs off the magical and strange happenings that follow him around. It is the first book in a trilogy.
This book is supposed to be funny, earthy, and a coming-of-age story where the kid is more ‘real’ than the grown-ups, but it just didn’t work for me and I couldn’t connect with it. I felt confused, like I was missing some critical information. I wish that the author had helped me to understand. I did have some sympathy for Jared, but it all just got too strange and hard to follow and it put me off.
Local shadow pre-debates are no doubt happening across the country like this Canada Reads 2020 event at Clareview Library in Edmonton, Alberta which was attended by my sister-in-laws! The books were debated last week by several library staff and local authors and it was an entertaining hour of lively discussion, wit, and hilarity. They voted for which book they thought should win; will their choice match the real Canada Reads 2020 winner?