Saturday, December 11, 2010 |
The theme of this year's Canada Reads campaign was finding the "Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade." Given the theme, the final five were very surprising. Only one is a major award-winner (The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour) and two made significant dents in the bestselling charts (Unless in 2002 and The Birth House in 2006). But major awards and major sales do not make a read "essential." To further explore why each of the Canada Reads titles this year are indeed essential and worthy of the moniker "Essential Canadian Novel of the Decade" (a hefty crown to wear, I may add!), we turned to our stand-in defenders to explain why their selection is essential and what essential really means.
Mr. Harper is at it again. Seen the video yet? There he is, seated behind his Korg, banging out pop tunes from, like, a hundred years ago.
Neil Diamond, The Who, BTO, the Beatles. If you're a white, male, English, septuagenarian rock star, you probably got covered by the PM and his band.
This can only mean one thing, of course. Election!
Of course, you already know that if you've read The Best Laid Plans. Quite apart from its literary merits (and they are legion), Terry Fallis's book cracks the code on Ottawa's indecipherable smoke-signals. Prorogation, non-confidence motions, stacked Senate, first-past-the-post. All that stuff used to confound me. But not anymore. The Best Laid Plans broke it all down -- into hilarious, sexy, bite-sized nuggets.
Still unconvinced? Think about this. Which do you prefer? Laughter, or tears?
If you're hankering to spend this holiday season in deep sorrow, pick up any of the other Canada Reads books. Seriously. Want to read about shattered dreams? Check out The Bone Cage. Keen to explore the inevitable decay of body and spirit? I've got a copy of Essex County I can lend you. Or how about spending a week mourning for humanity? Unless is waiting at a better bookstore near you.
If, on the other hand, you want to feel joy. If you choose hope over hopelessness, mirth over misery, then The Best Laid Plans is the book for you.
It's as exhilarating as a toddler's laughter on Christmas morning. And with an election in the offing, isn't that essential?
Admittedly, I think I've got a huge advantage in this week's theme. Why is The Birth House an essential read? Every single one of us was born into this world thus making childbirth a crucial part of life without which we wouldn't even be able to read, ergo The Birth House is the most essential book. Fellow defenders, you've just been Canada Reads lawyered.
Not convinced? You just have to look at the world population clock for a few seconds to see that childbirth isn't going away. It's a timeless theme. Think about the controversial notion of being "too posh to push." Or the scientific advancements that allowed Adriana Iliescu to give birth in her sixties and who now, at the age of 72, says she's inspired "to believe that it would be possible for her to have another child."
As @trudi_e says about The Birth House on Twitter, "it's good fiction rooted in some real history, and it is timely, with the resurgence of midwifery." During the era in which the book is set, doctors diminished the important role midwives played in communities across the country. Today, as science keeps pushing the limits of the human reproductive system, the question still remains: just because we can, should we?
I'm a voracious reader, but I don't keep books around unless they're real favourites -- so many books, so little shelf space. In effect, the titles that make the cut are my "essential reads." Note the plural: I'd hate to have to narrow it down to just one.
So how do I make a case for a single novel being essential for the whole country? To me, it comes down to this: a book deserves a spot on the national bookshelves if it tells a story that hasn't been told before and/or offers a unique viewpoint. Take that book off the shelf, and it leaves a gap in our collective cultural imagination.
The Bone Cage takes readers into a world that hasn't been previously explored in CanLit fiction. Every couple of years, the Olympics roll around and our foremost amateur athletes -- who have toiled in obscurity, for the most part -- stride into the media spotlight, carrying the hopes of the whole country on their shoulders. If they make the podium, we share their moment of glory. But the years of training, the injuries, the physical and psychological toll -- the back story -- remain hidden. And if they don't win a medal they bear the weight of the country's disappointment, and are quickly forgotten. The Bone Cage gives us the back story, in vivid and compelling detail. That's what makes it an essential read.
What does the word "essential" mean when we're talking about Canada Reads? Some people love period fiction, others read science fiction exclusively but if you fancy yourself a lover of literature, you're likely someone who approaches all books with an open mind...right? An essential book means that it's a great example of a certain kind of book, whether it's fantasy, historical fiction or mystery. It's not only a great representation of its genre, but is enjoyable for people who don't usually read that kind of book.
Essex County is exactly that. It's not just an essential graphic novel, but an essential book. It is a perfect example of how good a graphic novel can be, but has a reach beyond those who are already fans of the genre. Yes, author Jeff Lemire is a skilled illustrator, but he has also created universally captivating characters and a story that is uniquely Canadian. The product is something that all Canadians should read.
Why is this book essential? Three words: It's Carol Shields. Didn't they make you read The Stone Diaries in high school? She's one of this country's most talented writers. Hands down.
...But you don't have to take my word for it. Just listen to Amanda Bird. She's a community librarian with the Edmonton Public Library, and she's been pushing the "essentialness" of Carol Shields much longer than I have...
Come on Unless fans! Canada Reads wants, nay, needs to hear from you! We all know why Carol Shields is essential, it's time to fill the rest of the world in on the secret.
What do you think? Are any -- or all -- these novels essential reads? Why or why not?