Canada Reads 2013: The Panelists

The Canada Reads 2013 list is out, and yesterday I had the pleasure of going down to the CBC building in Toronto to meet, greet & grill all five panelists. What I learned made me even more optimistic about this year’s show. Last year I spoke with the 2012 panelists about their reading habits and in hindsight, their answers reflected a lot of what turned me off about last year’s show. Two of those panelists were not really readers at all, and a third spoke disparagingly about “Canadian Literature”. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Shad, an enthusiastic, heavy reader, who brought the prize home for Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce.

This year I spoke to the five panelists about their reading habits and asked them to recommend a not-Canada-Reads book for me. Their answers were diverse, intelligent and revealed a panel of first-rate readers.

Charlotte Gray is a gimme. She is an academic and a writer who has won every award for non-fiction that I know of. Of course she is a heavy, heavy reader. Gray admits she doesn’t sleep a lot, and reads different kinds of books at different times of the day. She spoke highly of Will Ferguson’s 419 and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase as nighttime reads, both of which she read before they won their respective 2012 literary awards. As a heavier, daytime read she recommended Tim Cook’s recent Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King & Canada’s World Wars. I have no doubt that this is a woman who will have read most of the finalists already, and will read them again before the debates. She and Urquhart (self-identified “Alpha Females”) will be, in my opinion, very hard to beat.

Ron MacLean was the last panelist I expected to be so literate. My apologies! MacLean says he “reads professionally”, feeling that reading is one of the responsibilities of a public figure. He spoke both to me and on stage of how he feels reading is a way of having a two way conversation with the society he is sometimes seen to represent. He is genuinely enthusiastic about Bergen’s The Age of Hope, and has some very sophisticated opinions about art, “gender fluidity” and the big themes of the book to bring to the table. His favourite recent reads were literary non-fiction: he sited Nuala O’Faolain’s Almost There and John Ralston Saul’s recent A Fair Country, and admits he’s looking forward to reading Jian Ghomeshi’s own 1982. And Jian wasn’t even standing nearby!

Trent McClellan won’t thank me for listing him after the two heavyweights above, but this is a heavyweight kind of year! Trent has the tools available to him, though: the book he represents is terrific and he personally remembers the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982 which would give him an emotional insight that might influence the other panelists. “So they can read, no big deal,” he quipped onstage; and he can too. He recommended Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie but admits he’s a much more enthusiastic reader of biographies, siting especially Jamie McLennan’s hockey biography The Best Seat in the House. Trent also plugged Jian’s 1982, making me a little suspicious that Jian’s newfound status as bestselling author will be the foundation of many flattery campaigns!

Jay Baruchel gets the difficult job of making a book best known for its inclusion on high school syllabi exciting to a new audience, but if his stage time is any indication, he will do just fine. He tactfully addressed Quebec’s contentious politics by referring to the province as the “cradle of Canadian civilization”, a place where “love and tension come from the same place.” As a reader he had both literary nonfiction and literary fiction to rave about, citing Joesph P. Farrell’s Nazi International and Irvine Welsh’s Porno as recent recommended reads. If his tastes seem a little macabre it is because he admits his favourite genre is horror – he is working his way through Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books right now. I almost wish Jay hadn’t been limited to the top five Quebec books to choose from. I would have loved to see what he would have brought to the competition otherwise!

Carol Huynh gets a gold star in my book because she admitted to reading seven of the ten books nominated for the BC/Yukon nod in just one month! But outside of some hard-core Canada Reads dedication Carol admits to being a lover of fantasy novels. She gushed about Tolkien and cited Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and the books of Terry Brooks as other books she has enjoyed, winning my heart instantly! She has also, of course, read all of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. When my Canada Reads buddy asked me “how jocks fare in this competition” I had to admit they have not traditionally done well, but neither have I met any who had the same enthusiasm for the material that Carol exhibited. At the launch she confessed that she was more nervous about Canada Reads than she was about the Olympics, but if I had to weight in on the subject, I’d say Indian Horse is the crowd favourite among these books.


Good luck to al the panelists!  I am excited to tuck into these books in the new year, and hopefully we’l have a little read-a-long, blog-a-long, tweet-a-long action to go with it. Stay tuned!

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