Then for a week in March, they discuss and defend their books, voting one off every day (just like Survivor but without Redemption Island) until they come up with a champion. There are alliances, behind the scenes discussions and the book chosen isn't usually the best book in the bunch. So it's pretty much like reality TV, only on the radio. And they also have video of the panelist gathered around a table of mics and put that on the internet so it really is reality TV.
Even though the discussions don't happen until March, today they've revealed the final five books and panelists. There's an obvious reason why they do this almost more than three months before the show actually airs. Or at least it's obvious to me. We buy more books in the weeks leading up to Christmas than any other time of the year. So by choosing the five final books now, they can get a nice jump in sales for the holiday season. And it can be a substantial jump. Many CanadaReads finalists can expect a few thousand extra sales of books, plus interest in the author's other books, including ones that may be sitting on an agent's or editor's desk. And the winner can sell up to and past 20,000 books. And that's great sales for a Canadian novel. Careers can be made with those kind of sales numbers.
This year, the organizers have come up with the all-encompassing theme of which novel will change Canada. Heady stuff, especially since I think no one novel can change Canada. They can have impact, but change? Doubt it. This theme has attracted some derision from lit folks who agree with me about whether a novel changing Canada. And also the idea that these are the novels you must read for your own good. I don't know about you but when I read a novel, I read it for the pure enjoyment, not because I should, because it won an award and I should or the author is well-known or I liked their previous books or it will teach me something and change me inside. I'm a novelist and I don't really read for technique either. If the story is good, if the characters are compelling and the style doesn't annoy the crap out of me, then I'll read it. I'm also very picky and have been known to set aside a novel if it begins to bore me or something about it bugs me, like the writer wishes to teach me a lesson and beats me over the head with that message. I feel no compulsion to finish a novel just because I've opened it and started Chapter 1.
Okay, so let's look at what's been picked. Guess we're starting alphabetically, just like the CBC did. First book is Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. To be fair, I really like some of her books, like the Handmaid's Tale, the Robber Bride and Alias Grace. However, I'm not of big fan of her more recent sci-fi trilogy, and yes, it is sci-fi, I'm calling it that regardless of what anyone says. Year of the Flood is the third book in your MaddAddam trilogy which started with Oryx and Crake (more reason why it's sci-fi because trilogies are very popular in that genre). It's about a post-apocalyptic world in which we've destroyed our society due our evil environmental practices/experiments. So this is our environmental choice; the book the will help us change how we look at the environment. I started reading Oryx and Crake, but it reminded me so much of the post-apocalypso novels from the 60s and 70s. It got a lot of press and attention for its cutting edge ideas and story, but for those of us who've read a lot of science fiction (which pretty much excludes almost everyone in the Canadian literary fiction world), it was quaintly outdated. It also seemed very preachy, nothing like the great post-apocalyptic stories like A Boy and his Dog, or the best one in the bunch, A Canticle for Leibowitz. But Atwood has great name recognition and is backed by Canada's former ambassador to the UN and all around nice guy, Stephen Lewis. As a lifelong diplomat, he's gonna be able to convince a lot of the other panelists to go his way. My choice for a better Canadian post-apocalypso would be Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson. Or Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai. Both those books have great stories with the message hidden in the text, not used to beat us over the head.
Next book is The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. And this is obviously the Aboriginal book. We all must read this book in order to understand the Canadian aboriginal experience. Or in this case, the basis of the Canadian aboriginal experience. It's set around the time the Europeans first came to this land, an original story if I ever heard one (that's sarcasm in case you haven't noticed). I haven't read this book but it's got a lot of nice reviews. But at the same time, there have been some grumblings in parts of the aboriginal world, especially from those from the area where the book is set. There are concerns that Boyden's main historical sources, diaries Jesuits priests of the time, have coloured the depiction of the natives, either a pure savages who torture and rape others, noble savages who are strong and brave, or the magic Indian who has a inner awareness of how people feel, or knowledge of the future, stuff like that. As I said, I haven't read the book and am only repeating what I've read on the net. Chosen to champion this book is Wab Kinew, an aboriginal writer/activist/hip hop artist. He's also the director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. I must admit to not knowing Wab but he sounds like an excellent choice to champion this book. I actually thought the CBC would go in-house and have CBC TV reporter and author Waubgeshig Rice (Midnight Sweatlodge) be a part of this panel. If I was going to pick an "aboriginal" book for this, I would have chosen Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway. That's a wonderful novel.
Next on the list is the African-Canadian book. Or if you want to be extremely cynical, the book written by a woman of colour. It's Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan which won a whole pile of awards a couple of years ago. And the story behind its publication is interesting. It was first supposed to be published by a mid-level Canadian publisher. But that publisher almost went bankrupt, or did, I can't remember. So it languished for awhile until it was picked up by someone else, and won the Giller in 2011. It's the story about black jazz musicians in Nazi controlled France and the disappearance of one of them. I started reading this book and found the beginning very beguiling. I loved Tthe story about the musicians hiding out in Nazi occupied lands and how it was progressing. However, like a lot of Canadian literary fiction that comes out of creative writing programs, after several pages, the book changed its timeline and flashed forward (usually books like this flashback so this was a bit of a change). And in that time change, the compelling story of the musicians trying to survive, disappeared and we got a story of one of the musicians, now much older, coming to terms with what happened. I was so disappointed because to me the best story to be told, was the one where she started and I wish she would have stayed in the present (or at least the present of when the story started), instead of flashing forward and back. So the momentum of the beginning was completely lost, so I put it down. Edugyan has a great champion for her book, Canadian gold medalist Donovan Bailey. He will probably do a great job of convincing some panellist to keep his book. My choice for the African Canadian book would be anything by Nalo Hopkinson (any of her books are miles better than Half Blood Blues).
Next up is the immigrant story, a classic Canlit trope. There have been many great books written about this subject. And that's a reason why it's part of the Canlit scene. For me, this is one of the strongest parts of Canlit because we get these writers, some from other lands, some second or third generation, who write these powerful stories about being part of Canada. Or maybe they've set the book in their homelands. There are times when some of these books get predictable, usually with some kind of atrocity committed at the end, but for the most part, I really enjoy how many books and writers use the English language in different and similar ways, as well as the Canadian story in different yet similar ways. The book chosen is Cockroach by Rawi Hage. I haven't read it yet but I really enjoyed his first novel De Niro's Game. It's pretty much a coming of age novel but set in war torn Beirut. Great stuff. And because of that, I won't suggest another book for this section because I'd like to read Cockroach, which is the story about immigrant life in Montreal during a harsh winter. Hage has a big celebrity supporting his book, Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee. It's an interesting choice to support this book. She's funny and smart so she could use that to get folks on her side.
Finally, we have the LGBT book, Annabel by Kathleen Winter. Heard a lot about this book, mostly good, but haven't read it. It's the story of a transex person named Wayne and raised as a boy in rural Newfoundland. As you probably expect, there is probably lots of difficulty in Wayne's life as he is pressured to suppress his feminine side and he probably doesn't want to or can't. It could be very predictable or it could not. Haven't read it so I probably will. Championing this book is that girl from Cosmopolis or The Dangerous Method and soon to be in the sequel to the rebooted Spiderman series, Sarah Gadon. Never heard of her, had to Google her but she looks like a promising actress. Whether she can hold her own against the like of Stephen Lewis, Donovan Bailey and Samantha Bee is this discussion is up in the air. While I haven't read this book, if I had to choose an LBGT Canadian book, I would have picked Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall.
So those are the five books that can or just may, change Canada. Some are interesting, some aren't. Really nice for the CBC to categorize them into simple areas of vital importance to Canada so we can fully and truly understand how they will change Canada for us: the Environment, the Aboriginal question (whatever that means), People of Colour, Life of Immigrants in Canada and LGBT issues. Phew CBC, thanks for doing that so I don't have to work so hard to understand what message each book is trying to present. Of course, since the discussions will be in March, I will probably not blog about this reality radio show until then. So we will resume our regularly scheduled Amazing Race programming (at least on my side; Gord also does Survivor).