Canada Reads 2012: Literary Chop Round-Up

I managed, despite a sleepless night, a broken furnace, and two cranky small children, to make it out to CBC’s Canada Reads 2012 launch today! Ten minutes before I left my house, the Book Madam (Julie Wilson) tweeted the final five line-up and I was able to form all kinds of prejudices in the hour it took me to get downtown on the subway. Last year I had expressed my disappointment with the purely “entertainment” background of the panelists and this year’s list seemed to push even further in that direction, threatening even to make true yesterday’s sarcastic jibe about reality tv stars.  The books were solid, but the panelists? I was skeptical. I will cautiously, optimistically say now that my fears seem largely unfounded. What sounded bad on paper (“supermodel”, “star of reality show”) turned out to be gross simplification of much more interesting and, thankfully, well-read personalities.  I had the chance to ask a few quick questions about the reading habits of each panelist, summarized below. (Apologies to the CBC for cribbing their images – time is short this evening.)

Anne-France Goldwateris clearly a formidable woman. She earned some derision on Twitter for her comment (which I managed to miss – such is a hazard of tweeting something live) that she doesn’t read Canadian literature, but when I asked her what she reads instead she directed me to Danielle Trussart’s Le train pour Samarcande. This is not only a Canadian book (from Quebec, and as Goldwater claims to be a staunch Federalist, I assume Quebec still counts) but was a contender for this year’s Combat des livres. She also spoke highly of Dany Laferrière’s Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer (another Quebecois novel), describing Laferrière as “a french Anne Tyler”. Goldwater self-identifies as a heavy reader and, having heard her speak now, I believe her. I have no doubt she will be a very strong contender for the win.

Arlene Dickinson also claims to be a heavy reader. This I don’t doubt – not only was she eloquent, concise and poised at the launch, but she picked what is in my opinion one of the strongest books on the list. But I have to lament briefly the loss of the old Canada Reads format; you know, the one where panelists actually get to recommend for us a book of their own choosing, because Dickinson, when asked, spoke passionately about an entirely different work of Canadian non-fiction, Margaret Trudeau’s Changing My Mind. I overheard her later recommending this book again to someone else, so colour me intrigued! How many other panelists are fighting for their second (third, fifth, eighth…) choice? Regardless, Dickinson is standing behind a wonderful book, and she seems as able as anyone to give Anne-France Goldwater a run for our money.

I was totally skeptical about Shad, and now I feel like a total douche for doubting him just because he’s a rapper. His introduction to Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre sortof blew my mind; a perfect blend of eloquence, politics, rousing rhetoric and insight. Unsurprisingly, he is another self-described heavy reader, though admits he is “more of a non-fiction guy” (was this a pitch? I’ll never know). Still, when I asked him to recommend me something, he chose Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection, as well as Tolstoy – “his later non-fiction stuff”. *swoon* He is no intellectual lightweight. I’m secretly rooting for him & Aguirre to win – though I haven’t read the book and can only hope it lives up to my (now-heightened) expectations.

Okay, okay, the gushing ends here. Alan Thicke. When I asked him if he reads much, he almost laughed and said “no, not at all.” Just hockey books, I ventured? No, “mostly periodicals”. Okay, fine. Every panel needs a Nicholas Campbell, I guess. He’d sort of lost me during his introduction anyway, when he made some pretty bone-headed jokes about books for men versus books for women which fell pretty flat in a field where the lady-writers had produced heavy, serious books about war, human rights and revolution.  The room chilled noticeably (more so than Anne-France’s revelation that she is a Stephen Harper supporter – a pretty ballsy move in the middle of the CBC, let me just say).

My friend suggested that Ken Dryden should have defended his own book, and I really could’t agree more.  What a treasure HE turned out to be! Too bad that’s not how the game works.

Stacey McKenzie was another self-identified heavy reader of “non-fiction books”, “like memoirs”. Unfortunately I couldn’t wring any further evidence out of her because she insisted that her choice, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road, was the book she’d most recommend any day of the week, out of any field. Sounded a bit like a pitch to me. She admits she “has ADD” and needs a book to be snappy and grab her right away, or she can’t get into it – a quality which never struck me as being conducive to particularly extensive reading, but those could be my pesky prejudices again. What she lacks in eloquence she more than made up for in enthusiasm. I now fully expect On a Cold Road to completely blow my mind.

So learn from my mistake, O Reader. This might not look like much of a literary panel on its surface, but just below lurks the makings of some potentially great literary debate. Fingers crossed! Now for the reading – I’m cracking the spine on The Tiger tonight – and we’ll revisit the subject in February. I’m so excited to be… well, excited!

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