The people who run Canada Reads changed things up for the 10th year of the contest, choosing for the first time five non-fiction books for the annual battle.
Of those five, three have tenuous connections to this country.
The Tiger by John Vaillant takes place entirely in the far east of Russia. Vaillant is a Canadian author, and the book raises a lot of concerns about the environment, conservation and the preservation of the role of large predators in that eco-system, but The Tiger isn't set in Canada and none of the people we meet in it are Canadian.
Carmen Acquirre's book Something Fierce tracks her remarkable journey as a teenage revolutionary, trying to overthrow the Pinochet regime in Chile. As a young exile, she and her family moved to Canada, and throughout the book she returns to Canada when things get too hot in South America. The Canadian passages are very brief, and not important to the story.
In Prisoner of Tehran, Marina Nemat tells her own harrowing story of being thrown in the notorious Evin prison as a teenager, eventually agreeing to marry one of her interrogators and leaving the prison. Canada comes to play only after she and her new husband decide to emigrate.
None of those books are really about Canada. They're all fine books, wonderful stories and well told, but their connection to Canada is extremely thin. In the case of The Tiger and Prisoner of Tehran, the connection is non-existent. The authors of the two books make their homes in Canada, but their stories do not.
The remaining two books are set entirely in Canada. Dave Bidini chronicles the journey of Canadian rock bands as they travel from gig to gig across the country in On A Cold Road, and Ken Dryden's The Game is all about his storied career with the Montreal Canadiens, one of the best sports books ever written. You can't get more Canadian than a book about hockey.
I'm not sure how the books for Canada Reads were chosen, or if any criteria on their Canadian-ness had to be established. I'm sure it will come up during the national debates, and I don't think the books chosen necessarily have to have a certain amount of Canadian content in order to be considered, but I do think it's an issue.
Esi Edugyan faced a similiar criticism when her book Half Blood Blues was awarded the Giller Prize. The book is about American jazz musicians in Nazi Europe, and critics thought the Giller should go to a book that reflects more of Canada. I don't think that's a fair argument, Edugyan was born and raised in Canada, studied at the University of Victoria and currently lives in the country. Even though her book isn't set here, she couldn't be more Canadian. Half Blood Blues is the story she felt she had to tell.
But I do think organizers of the Canada Reads debates should have considered the setting and the content of the books they selected for the annual battle. The issues raised in the three I mentioned are all important, and the books will get a bump in sales thanks to the attention generated by the debates. I thoroughly enjoyed all three, it just would have been nicer if I learned a bit more about Canada along the way.