2019’s Contenders

NOTE: Page updated daily following the day’s debates.

Here’s a link to the CBC video which introduces the five celebrities who are celebrating these five books. There are additional videos linked from this page, which showcase the celebrities in conversation with the books’ authors.

Two of these titles I read before they were selected for Canada Reads: Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung and Brother by David Chariandy.

I requested the other three titles from the library and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s novel was only available in French, La femme qui fuit, translated by Rhonda Mullins as Suzanne, so I began that soon after the announcement but only finished this weekend (I’m a very slow reader in French).

The other two books arrived just a few days ago. So, I spent many hours this weekend reading By Chance Alone by Max Eisen and The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong, so that I would be finished before the debates aired.

“I had troubling thoughts because I knew that even if I got back home, my family would not be there to take care of me. I was liberated, but I didn’t feel free.”

“Les jours reprennent leur cours mais tu les traverses autrement. Portée par le courant. Tu sais maintenant que tu as un ailleurs. Ce que tu ne sais pas, c’est que tu en auras toujours un, et jamais le même. Ce sera ta tragédie.”

“Mother’s face seemed ready to break. It’s hard to describe. Like watching a glass ball being dropped in a slow-motion movie.”

“I never really realized how bright, crowded, and colourful my world was until I had to leave it.”

“In the blackness of the car, I felt that I had been born of the extreme nothingness that haunted my mother, a cyclonic unhappiness that was sad and terrorizing and perpetual.”

NOTE: No-spoilers in the commentary.

Day One

I’ve been following Canada Reads for as long as the event has been broadcast. Back when it was on the radio and if you missed it because you were working in the morning you had to rush home after work to catch the evening show. Back when Bill Richardson made you giggle. Back when Justin Trudeau was a defendant and not a prime minister.

Since celebrities replaced writers and thinkers on the show (yes, the books were once defended by other writers), even after the first day, I’ve felt that at least one of the books’ defenders had not read (or finished) all the other books. This should be a basic gesture of respect, yes? Respect for the other defenders’ books and their authors, but also respect for the listeners (or viewers), who are attending daily in hopes of a vibrant and informed discussion.

Although the first day’s discussion is always a little rushed because there are five books to discuss, all the defenders seem prepared today. (By the end of the week, there is time for detailed discussion because there are fewer books remaining, as one book is eliminated each day.) Perhaps more detailed discussions will reveal cracks in the wall but, for now, it’s exciting to think that all five defenders have actually read all five books.

Perhaps this goes towards my overall enjoyment of the personalities in this year’s panel, too. Generally, only a couple of the defenders are familiar to me and this year is no different. But what is different is that, so far, each seems to genuinely believe that the reasons for people to read the other books are equally valid (sometimes not even different, for instance the recognition that prejudice is an issue confronted in Brother, By Chance Alone and Homes). There is a generosity of spirit (and, correspondingly, seemingly a sincere regret when voting against a book) and that makes me want to return for the discussion on the following day as well.

Not only does this suggest to me that the panelists have considered the issues underlying these stories in their daily lives, whether via personal experience or journalistic reporting — and that’s encouraging, because it suggests richer discussions will proceed as the week unfolds — but also, on a superficial level, it makes it more interesting when it come to voting, because the panelists’ preferences are harder to predict.

My only disappointment with the day’s events is one which is unavoidable. Three of the five titles are published by independent presses, and I always hope that one of them will claim the prize. Canada Reads is such a powerful marketing engine that it’s hard not to want a smaller enterprise to benefit. So when a small-press title is eliminated early in the competition, it seems even more unfortunate. (Even if you know which titles are from a small press, this isn’t a spoiler, right?)

But when a book is eliminated because it is challenging, that does smart a little. After all, isn’t that the point? That readers be challenged by a story, moved by the story? (That’s technically the theme for this year’s panel to consider, how stories move us.)

Should we not be most moved by the most challenging story? And, when that story is penned by an underrepresented voice, doesn’t it whisper of the fact that it might be challenging only because we are not familiar with stories which represent the experiences of a marginalized group because we haven’t read many/enough of them?

In the discussions I’ve had with other readers about this year’s Canada Reads, I never heard anyone say that they were excited to read the book which was eliminated after today’s debate. It seemed too “this” or too “that” or, just “too much”, or even more broadly, it held no appeal. But what does it say about us as readers, if we decide that we are only prepared to be moved in a way that we have already been moved before?

Day Two

It comes up often, this question of like-ability. How important is it to have a likeable character at the heart of a story? Sometimes it’s all anyone can talk about. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs was all about the woman and not-so-much about her life upstairs: readers couldn’t get past her anger.

But must we like someone, in order to learn from them? What if the very characters (and narrators) we do not like, are the ones we find unlikeable because they are most like ourselves?

When characters (and narrators) make unpopular decisions, they are even less likeable. But what an interesting point raised in today’s debates: is it someone’s actions that makes a person unlikeable? Or is it simply that they have not met our expectations of them, expectations which are rooted in our own cultural outlook? (So, for instance, if the same action is taken by someone else, it’s acceptable.)

Characters and narrators who make unpopular choices do not fare well with readers. They make us uncomfortable because they remind us of all the times we have disappointed someone (if only ourselves). And as hard as it might be to forgive someone else, forgiving yourself is just as hard.

Fortunately, that doesn’t matter. Because forgiveness is so Last Year.

At least that’s the view of one panelist who, in an effort to boost the profile of their chosen book, suggested that because the theme of last year’s Canada Reads winner was forgiveness, that theme should not be central in this year’s winner as well.

(Ironically, last year’s winner is set against a backdrop of war – oops, this panelist is also defending a story about the human cost of war. If anyone else is ticking off “forgiveness” on their checklist, as over and done with, that checker-offer is likely also filling the column under the header “war stories”.)

And me? I don’t require that my characters and narrators are likeable, only that they be credible. I don’t require that the celebrity panelists are likeable either. Nor that they always say likeable things.

This defendant apologized more than once for taking a different tack, seeming uncomfortable with the idea of challenging a specific book. (Maybe even with the idea of not being liked? Not being “nice”?) Another defendant indicated that the Holocaust memoir was not as moving for them as another book (and not their own book, but another defendant’s).

True things are not always nice things. How do we navigate this space, between being honest and being liked? Must we choose one at the expense of the other?

Should we expect to find it easy, this process of pitting Sexism, Racism, War, Mental Illness, and the Holocaust against one another?

Should we expect to be liked when we select and triumph our single – important above all others – cause?

Day Three

Where do we find hope?  How much responsibility do writers have to create a space for hope in their books?

Each of this year’s books could be described as a tragic story.

Childhoods are lost, family members are lost, and horrors are experienced.

But each one of these books could be described as hopeful too.

Two of the authors are very young, presenting memoirs, so their age alone and assuming a long and full life could be viewed as hopeful.

Any concentration camp survivor, who emerges from a system which was designed to exterminate, exists as a testament to hope.

Two of the fictional characters have grappled with loss and death and resolved to move forward to tell a story and find hope through that act of storytelling.

Is it fair to expect to find hope in a book if we have not already allowed it to take root in our own selves?


When I sat down to watch today, I already knew how it was going to end. And not just because I’ve paid attention in the debates. But all the articles and interviews, all the extraneous discussions and comments: every little detail. I had it all figured out.

And that’s not saying that I loved how the whole event played out. I was disappointed about the first book to go; it had some great prose in it. Evocative sentences that deserved to be read aloud. When literary merits were discussed in relationship to one of the more prize-sticker-decorated books, I wished that other book was given a nod. (But I’m also glad we avoided that whole non-fiction versus fiction debate, and whether a journalistic style is more or less useful to transmit truths than a creative style.)

Mostly what I loved about this year’s debate was – to borrow from the panelist defending the life choices of the main character in their book – that everyone was trying their best.

At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. That the producers were trying to represent a variety of voices, a variety of experiences, a variety of writing styles. That the defenders were trying to promote their selected story with vigour and dedication. That the schoolkids in the audience were trying to look interested.

It’s easier to sit on the sidelines of a production like this and poke at it. It’s harder to suggest alternatives.

It’s easier to look at the selection of books and say that there is a particular kind of voice/experience/writing style missing, a voice/experience/style which is deserving.

It’s harder to say which of the five existing choices should not have been selected because it is less deserving.

It’s easier to say what specific language should be used in discussions, because that’s the language which makes you feel seen, makes you feel like you matter.

It’s harder to say what should be used instead, when those same words make someone else feel erased, insignificant.

In 2010, when Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony was in consideration, the debate circled around whether it was enough of a Canadian story: it’s the experience of only one community, not a nation, some argued. But of course, this nation does not exist without immigrants, others argued, and in Canada’s case, particularly the Chinese-Canadians whose labour constructed so much of the national railway which pushed the Confederationist agenda to the forefront and secured “national unity”. Which is a problematic concept, because of course this nation exists because law-makers disregarded the fact that these lands are the homelands of other peoples, indigenous groups, whose stewardship of these lands is traditional and ongoing, despite historical efforts to disenfranchise and eliminate these caretakers. The other four books that year were all by white writers (some from underrepresented groups, however) and one of those books won. (See, I’m not even going to spoil 2010 for you, if you have been inspired  to dig into the CBC archives!)

So here we are, less than a decade later, with a remarkably diverse group of panelists and authors. All of whom seemed to have been trying their best. (If you haven’t checked out the additional videos and articles: have a look!) Because I’ve been trying my best to diversify my reading too, in those intervening years, this seems like progress to me. Maybe not perfection, but certainly progress.

But what I really loved about this year’s debate? I was wrong.

(I also really hated being wrong. If we’ve been chatting back-channel, you know where my heart fell. And even if you have only read this post, I declared a bias on Day One which was a factor in the finale.)

I thought I knew exactly how it was going to end. And I think all the panelists went into today knowing how it was going to end as well. (At least one of them discussed this openly.) But two of the panelists changed their minds. In interviews, they had spoken about aspects of their personal experience or awareness that made them particularly sensitive to one story. But today’s discussion expanded their understanding and changed their votes. In the course of talking about books and stories, aspects of those narratives took on new gravitas or new dimensions of importance.

Quite literally, books changed minds.

Comments below, expect them to be spoilery