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Blog: Wordplay

Canada? Reads

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.


Canada Reads opens the door to non-fiction

For the past decade the good folks at Canada Reads have been filling reading wish lists with fiction, but they're trying something different this time around.

The 2012 version of Canada Reads will be all about the non-fiction.

Here's my early list. I'll probably amend it several times over the next couple of months, but here are some of the books I'm thinking about right now.

The Game by Ken Dryden

Still one of the best books about not just hockey, but about sports. Think of it; a smart, literate man finds himself a member of one of the greatest sports teams of all time, and he has the foresight to keep notes of his experiences. Very, very few books have ever given us this kind of insight into the world of professional sports.

On A Cold Road by Dave Bidini

Dave has written a lot of great books, including The Hockey Nomad, but this is my favourite. The stories of bands touring across this massive country to play for almost anyone, combined with Dave's own experiences in The Rheostatics, make this a great read and a real winner. I still reach for it almost once a year.

As Near To Heaven By Sea by Kevin Major

A history of Newfoundland, and a fascinating and funny book. You may think you know a little something about Canada's easternmost corner, but you have no idea how weird and wonderful the history of that place is. Until you read this book, of course.

Baltimore's Mansion by Wayne Johnston

Another book about Newfoundland, this one starts with the story of the colony's first governor. Let's just say things didn't go very well. It include's Johnston's recollections of his own family mixed feelings at joining Canada. Did I say mixed feelings?

Pierre Berton

All right, I live in the Yukon, so there had been be some Pierre Berton in the mix. I did enjoy Arctic Grail, though some people quibble with some of the facts in the book. But I guess I would have to say Klondike should be added. We sometimes get a little tired of gold rush stories here in the territory, but this book really does capture the insanity that gripped the world in 1898. Again, some historians take issue with some of the facts in the book, but you can't take issue with the brilliant storytelling.

A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah

Ishmael tells his story of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone, and his eventual rescue by UNICEF. It's a heartbreaking book, and the thing that really blew me away is how it changes how you view the news. There are still conflicts erupting every day, children are still being led to war, and you view those stories with more compassion after you read this book.

Saying goodbye to my youth

R.E.M. have been around for more than 30 years, and more often than not shrouded themselves in a bit of mystery. They could be as hard to decipher as some of Michael Stipe's early lyrics.

So it's probably not a surprise they decided to announce the end of their run not with some huge farewell concert, but rather through a brief statement on their website.

They've decided to call it a day.

Some people no doubt think they should have done that a while ago, maybe after drummer Bill Berry left the band. It's true their latest records don't live up to their earlier releases.

But those earlier records? Come on, from Murmur through to Automatic For The People, that's some of the best pop music ever made, consistently excellent and always changing, a good enough run to lead me to wonder if R.E.M. can make a case for the best American band ever.

Mind you, I can't really be objective on the matter. R.E.M.'s music is incredibly important to me.

I was a music fan when I entered university in the fall of 1984, but the music I preferred was heavy metal. The louder the better. For some reason, I had chosen to attend a small liberal arts school in Nova Scotia, the kind of place that handed you a worn black sweater and a Violent Femmes record when you enrolled, just so you would fit in.

R.E.M.'s second record was just out, and there's no way I should have enjoyed Reckoning. Maybe it was because I wanted to fit in, or maybe the record was just really good, but I couldn't get enough of that record. Even today, 7 Chinese Brothers takes me right back to a room in North Pole Bay, the late afternoon sun cutting through the cigarette smoke and bullshit.

Those afternoons made me a fan of the band, and as new records came out and as R.E.M. style and sound changed, I changed along with them. They were never shy of changing their sound, of turning up the guitars when they wanted to, adding strings to their arrangements, and whenever they released a record and it sounded different, I thought it sounded great.

They lost some fans along the way, of course, people who thought the band was selling out. But I don't think that was the case. As more and more people got turned on to their music and they started to play bigger places, they adapted the sound to reach to the furthest corners of those stadiums. It was different, louder in some cases, but it was still R.E.M.

You can make the argument that this band or that band was great, but I think R.E.M. was the greatest band to come from the U.S. in part because of their willingness to change. They didn't remake Murmur or Reckoning, they made new and original music every step of the way.

My one regret? I never saw them live. A bunch of kids piled into a van and drove to Toronto in the 80s to see them at Massey Hall, and I didn't go. Idiot.

Peter, Michael, Bill and Mike, thanks for the memories.