Get to know the Top 40: Cultural Biographies


Were you completely overwhelmed by yesterday's Canada Reads: True Stories Top 40 list?

Fear not. For the next week, we'll be posting primers about each of the contending titles. Today we tackle the Cultural Biographies. Each of these nominees tells a story of cultural life, whether literary or musical. Two, Mordecai and Gabrielle Roy are about major figures in Canadian letters. Jane Austen, meanwhile, was written by Carol Shields, herself a major figure in Canadian letters, about the life of one of her literary influences. Dave Bidini's On a Cold Road is a memoir about his life in Canadian music, while Eric Siblin explores the mysterious life of Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suites from the 18th century to the present.

The Book: Gabrielle Roy: A Life by Francois Ricard, translated by Patricia Claxton


What's it about? An intimate and personal biography of French-Canadian author Gabrielle Roy, written by her agent, assistant and friend Francois Ricard, who is also a professor of French literature at McGill. The English edition was translated by Patricia Claxton.

Did the critics like it? Yes. Quill & Quire named it one of the best books of 1999.

What else do I need to know? Gabrielle Roy's best known novel is The Tin Flute, which is regarded as having laid the foundation for Quebec's Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. Translator Patricia Claxton has won two Governor General's Awards for translation, one for this book, and one for Roy's autobiography, Enchantment and Sorrow.

The Book: Jane Austen by Carol Shields


What's it about? Beloved Canadian author Carol Shields offers her take on Jane Austen's life and work from an admiring fellow writer's perspective. This book was published as part of the Penguin Lives series.

Did the critics like it? Yes. The Observer called it a "welcome and sensitive addition to the canon", and the book won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction in 2002.

What else do I need to know? Carol Shields was best known for her novels The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party, and Jane Austen was her only foray into biography. She has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General's Award and the Orange Prize among many others, and was given honorary degrees by 15 different universities and colleges across Canada.

The Book: Mordecai: The Life and Times by Charles Foran


What's it about? Charles Foran's biography of cantankerous genius Mordecai Richler is a thorough overview of the author's life from his narratively rich childhood on St. Urbain in Montreal to his literary success. It is the first biography written with access to the Richler family's letters and archives.

Did the critics like it? Yes. Foran's biography was widely admired for its comprehensiveness. The National Post declared it the "definitive biography of Richler." Foran has also been praised for his illustrious narrative detail — it's a biography that reads like a novel.

What else do I need to know? Mordecai won this year's Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction and the Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Prize.

The Book: On a Cold Road by David Bidini


What's it about? Former Rheostatics guitarist Dave Bidini made his transition to the writing world when this book, his first, was published in 1998. It's an account of the life of a touring Canadian musician. Bidini kept a diary while on tour with the Tragically Hip in 1996 (the Rheostatics were their opening act), and On a Cold Road is a mix of Bidini's own touring experiences and anecdotes from other Canadian musicians.

Did the critics like it? Did they ever. Quill and Quire called Bidini's debut book "well-crafted, personal, and passionate," and Bidini has since become as well known for his writing as for his music.

What else should I know?You can follow Bidini on Twitter, where you can egg him on as he jokingly trash-talks the other nominees.

The Book: The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin


What's it about? Baroque music intrigue! Eric Siblin was a pop music critic before the J.S. Bach's Cello Suites captured his ear and changed his life. The Cello Suites is a book about classical music for people who don't know much about classical music (and even the experts seem to appreciate it too!) Siblin explores the provenance of a Bach work that was long thought to be a mere technical exercise, until it was discovered and recorded by famed cellist Pablo Casals (who did for the Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations).

Did the critics like it? Absolutely. The Cello Suites won praise from both Quill and Quire and The Walrus, and The Economist named it a Book of the Year in 2010.

What else should I know? You can listen to Casals recording of The Cello Suites here. You might just understand why Siblin was so enchanted.

You can vote for these titles (or any of the other 35 books) in our Canada Reads: True Stories vote for the Top 10 contest! To cast your vote, head over to the poll. You can vote for up to five titles. Doing so will help these books move one step closer to being officially entered in this year's battle of the books.

The Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10 will be revealed on Tuesday, November 1, on Q and right here on CBC Books.

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