Canada Reads·My Life in Books

5 books that inspired Canada Reads author Jesse Thistle

Country music star George Canyon is defending From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle for Canada Reads 2020.
Jesse Thistle is the author of nonfiction book From the Ashes. (CBC)

Jesse Thistle's bestselling memoir From the Ashes describes how he transformed his life — from being homeless and struggling with addiction to winning awards in academia. 

From the Ashes is a contender on Canada Reads 2020 and Thistle said he's had a unique and powerful relationship with books over the years.

"I didn't really read until I went through the jail system... and I used books to teach myself how to read and write," he said. 

Country music star George Canyon is defending From the Ashes on Canada Reads 2020.

Canada Reads 2020 will take place July 20-23.

Here are five books that Thistle said he loved reading.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl 

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl's memoir of surviving the Holocaust, has sold over 10 million copies in 24 languages. (Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

"Viktor Frankl was a man who went through the Holocaust and became a psychologist after the fact. There were a lot of things that I did when I was on the streets. I'm a former crack addict and I'm not proud of the fact that I hurt a lot of good people during that time. I was having a hard time forgiving myself. I was given this book, which showed the horrible circumstances of the Holocaust.

The book offers a compass to guide yourself through the hard times.​​​​​​- Jesse Thistle

"People did horrible things to survive. They turned in their friends and they stole food from other people that were starving. Frankl said in the book the best of them did not survive. I knew that was true for the type of life that I had come from. I had done a lot of immoral things just to basically survive. It really tore a hole in me. So when I read him and his experiences, it almost made it like I could forgive myself. The book offers a compass to guide yourself through the hard times."

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

In this 1952 picture, Ernest Hemingway is reading a letter informing him he has won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Old Man and the Sea. (AFP/Getty Images)

"I read this book when I was in grade school. I forced myself through it. The way he writes is very direct and plain. But in that plainness, there's a complexity. He's talking about really hard things, like growing old and forgiving yourself. It also looks at trying to be something more than yourself.

Now that I've read it again as an adult, it's even deeper and more powerful. It has levels to it.- Jesse Thistle

"In the book, Santiago has a bad history of fishing and he's trying to prove himself as an old man. He's willing to do anything to stay out in his boat and get that one big fish. And he does. But in the end, all he has is a skeleton to show for it.

"But it wasn't about having the meat of the fish to be successful. It's about proving something to yourself. I thought the way that he wrote it was just brilliant. The message connected to me when I was young.

"Now that I've read it again as an adult, it's even deeper and more powerful. It has levels to it."

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho speaks during a conference in Lima, 18 August 1999. He is the author of the beloved novel The Alchemist. (Alejandra Brun/Getty Images)

"When I was first talking with the woman who's now my wife — I met her when I was in rehab — she sent me two books, one of which was this one. By chance, I just read it because it had a cool title. While I was reading it, I saw the narrative of this guy who is trying to find himself by going on this long adventure. He eventually comes back to where he's from and he realizes that what he was looking for all along in his life was where he started. 

The universe conspires to make our dreams come true. We just have to be open to listen to the universe along the way.- Jesse Thistle

"The universe conspires to make our dreams come true. We just have to be open to listen to the universe along the way. I thought that was genius. I felt I should try to do that with my own life.

"I felt I should open myself up to dream, go on an adventure and be sensitive to the universe trying to guide me, because I'm supposed to be great. And that's how I ended up here on Canada Reads."

Halfbreed by Maria Campbell

Maria Campbell is a Métis author, playwright, broadcaster, filmmaker and elder. (Ted Whitecalf, McClelland & Stewart)

"I've got to pay homage to who I think is the greatest Indigenous writer of all time, Maria Campbell. She writes about her life and the trials and tribulations that she went through. She's a cousin of mine; she knew my grandparents and my mom. In reading her book, I got to connect with a culture that I didn't have access to because I was placed into adoption as a young child. I was severed from my community.

In reading her book, I got to connect with a culture that I didn't have access to because I was placed into adoption as a young child. I was severed from my community.- Jesse Thistle

"Reading about her life, I started to understand the complexity of my life and the intergenerational trauma that we had — including how our women were exploited and men had few prospects — but ultimately how we were resilient. She's a really strong, badass woman and this book has stood the test of time."

The Truth About Stories by Thomas King

Thomas King won the Governor General's Award for fiction in 2014 for his book The Back of The Turtle. (House of Anansi)

"It's a collection of his CBC Massey Lectures that he did a while back. He talks about how we're all stories: the world is made up stories and we have to listen in those stories. There are universal truths among us all. But he also breaks it down by looking his own family history.

He shows the complexity of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers. It's just a brilliantly written book.- Jesse Thistle

"He shows the complexity of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers. It's just a brilliantly written book."

Yawar Fiesta by José María Arguedas

José María Arguedas was a Peruvian novelist, poet, and anthropologist. (Wikimedia Commons, Waveland Press)

"It's a book that was written by someone who was Indigenous in Latin America in the 1940s. It depicts the relationship between Indigenous people and Spanish colonialists in the Andes Mountains. This book has been called the greatest piece of literature from that time period. I know some people say that even today it matches up against the modern Indigenous writers.

There's no other book like it that exists.- Jesse Thistle

"The author has been criticized as being an elite. He's got mestizo blood but technically he wasn't Indigenous. The question remains if he was actually writing about the people that he had as servants. But there was a real power imbalance to what he wrote. The way he captured the life of the Quechua people is remarkable.

"There's no other book like it that exists. I started reading it at university and started to see a lot of parallels in Canada's history with Indigenous people. I just really like this book as a historical piece of literature. It really is amazing." 

Jesse Thistle's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

The Canada Reads 2020 contenders

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