Every March, the CBC hosts a uniquely Canadian program called Canada Reads, wherein five personalities from various fields (media, music, acting, etc.) choose one book written by a Canadian author to defend in a Battle of the Books style tournament. Dubbed a “literary Survivor” (this competition dates back to 2002, which explains the reference), each participant presents their arguments on why their chosen book is the most important to Canadian readers at a given time. Then, like its reality show model, participants vote a book off the island—I mean, out of the competition—until there is only one standing. The winner is deemed the book all Canadians should read. This year, due to pandemic-related disruptions, Canada Reads will take place from July 20 – 23, and will be broadcast on CBC Radio, CBC television, CBC Gem, CBC Books, YouTube, and Facebook.
The participants this year fit the described profile of “celebrities who [are] avid readers but not the “usual suspects” when it [comes] to talking about books on the CBC.” This isn’t the Giller Prize or the Governor General’s Award; these books are chosen by Canadian citizens outside of the usual literary circle—a democratization of book awards, if you will. Meet the participants and their selections below!
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Coles
Newfoundland playwright Coles takes a big swing with her debut novel, situating this fiery condemnation of patriarchal society and its various players in a trendy St. John’s restaurant. Not an easy read, but one that rewards patience with an explosive back-half. A born-and-bred Newfoundlander, Coles brings her particular insights of the island to her work, crafting what CBC calls “a tough-love letter to the place she says she could never leave.” This book was chosen by Canada Reads participant Alayna Fender, a YouTube content creator whose focus includes wellness and sexuality. Fender’s fascination with the novel rings clear in the description she gave of it in an interview: “It almost feels like you’re on this train and it’s going somewhere bad, but you don’t know where it’s going. Then you see it’s going over a cliff, but you can’t get off. The train goes over the cliff and it’s horrible, but you survive. And then the train explodes.” Doesn’t that make you want to pick it up right now? Or am I just a masochist?
Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
Four dystopian tales round out this collection by speculative fiction powerhouse Doctorow. But in typical Doctorow fashion, these stories don’t feel as removed from reality as would be comfortable. A little too close to home, like Black Mirror. As the LA Times describes them, “[a] collection of four novellas that take on political and social themes relevant today — medical care, immigration, white male rage and technological monopolies, among others — and wraps them in a layer of fiction, thin enough that most of these stories could be happening, if not today then tomorrow at the latest.” Doctorow’s interest in technology runs more toward the realistic “what ifs”: how would this technology work differently under different power structures? Oh, and he has some thoughts on the relevance of heroes like Superman and Batman in the 21st century: “I wanted to address the simplicity of Superman and also the moral suspectness of Batman in light of the current age. The idea of Batman, a billionaire who operates with impunity as a vigilante and is heavily armed because he’s a military contractor — I think that plays really differently in 2019.” Radicalized is being defended by Akil Augustine, a content creator and producer who has worked for the likes of Nike, Chapters Indigo, the Raptors, and the Leafs.
We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib
A life of hiding came naturally to Sabib thanks to her persecuted upbringing in Pakistan, where she and her family were part of a religious minority. After moving to Canada, Habib found she was still hiding—this time, her sexuality. We Have Always Been Here is an open expression of queerness by a Muslim author, something Habib recognizes as all too rare. Due to her position of relative privilege (with a tolerant country backing her), Habib uses her feelings of safety to shine a light on an often over-looked subject, with a memoir about the joy found in her Muslim and LBGTQ+ identities. “I think I am relatively safe and I thought, ‘OK, I can do this without risking a lot,” she told CBC in an interview. It wasn’t an easy road by any means, but after sustaining racist bullying, sexual assault, and a rebellion from an arranged marriage, Habib’s connection to her faith only grew, and her story here ends on a high note. We Have Always Been Here is defended by actor Amanda Brugel, who says “”We need more immigrant stories. I knew nothing about the queer Muslim experience and I wanted to get to know this community.”
Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
The Trickster figure is a staple of Indigenous storytelling; so much so that Robinson says, “When I was growing up, we would sit around the kitchen table after supper and have coffee and cigarettes and just tell stories; many of them were Wee’git stories. ” (Wee’git is another name for Trickster in the Haisla/Heiltsuk culture of British Columbia) Son of a Trickster is a book eight years in the making—in Trickster fashion, its shape kept changing on Robinson, from a short story to a longer story to a full novel. In this story, Jared is the titular son, an empathetic burnout teenager who is not aware of his heritage and wonders why ravens keep talking to him (just normal teen things). And by the end, Robinson realized she had the first book of a trilogy on her hands, so stay tuned for more (the second instalment Trickster Drift was released in 2018). Son of a Trickster is being defended by Kaniehtiio Horn, an actor of Mohawk descent, who says of the novel, “I think it highlights the Indigenous experience in Canada, but without shoving the trauma and the hardships and the realities that we face as Indigenous people in Canada down your throat. It’s got magic in it and I think it’s accessible to all Canadians.”
From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle
The title of this one says it all. Jesse Thistle is a phoenix if there ever was one; at one point homeless, at one point in prison, and suffering years of addiction, Thistle now finds himself not only a published author but a PhD candidate (and assistant professor in the Department of Equity Studies) at York University. From the Ashes is his story, an open wound of a book that details his childhood, subsequent struggles, and the effects of colonization throughout generations. Without any formal training, Thistle’s writing has an eloquence and a poetic quality that offsets the harshness of his subjects, but doesn’t lose any honesty for this. As a review from Quill & Quire puts it, “Reading it requires you to take your thoughtful self, not just your judging and forgiving self, to the edge of places most of us don’t like to visit or think about.” From the Ashes is defended by country musician George Canyon. Speaking to the book’s openness, Canyon tells CBC, “Never has a book had this effect on me. Ever. At some points I was laughing. At some points I was ugly crying — and trust me I’m frickin‘ ugly when I cry. Then at other points I was yelling at the book. I’ve yelled at the TV, but I’ve never yelled at a book.”
Vaughan Public Libraries staff held our own Canada Reads mini debate. Check it out below!