The annual battle of the books is already heating up.
Thursday morning, the host of CBC’s annual Canada Reads event, Jian Ghomeshi, officially introduced 2013’s slate of five panelists and the books they’ve chosen to defend. This year’s twist is that each book (and therefore each panelist) will correspond to a different region of Canada.
Olympic wrestler Carol Huyhn, representing the region British Columbia and Yukon, selected Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese; Broadcaster and Hockey Night In Canada host Ron MacLean chose David Bergen’s book The Age of Hope and is representing Prairies and North; historian and biographer Charlotte Gray is taking on Jane Urquhart’s iconic novel Away, to represent Ontario; Actor, producer, and writer Jay Baruchel picked Hugh MacLennan’s classic novel Two Solitides, to represent Quebec; and comedian Trent McClellan, representing the Atlantic region, chose Lisa Moore’s novel February.
Canada Reads consists of debates between the panelists. Books are eliminated one by one, Survivor-style, and the last one standing is declared the winner.
After last year’s foray into non-fiction, which produced some of the most spirited debates in the program’s history, this year’s Canada Reads, the twelfth annual, has returned to fiction.
For the regional aspect of this year’s Canada Reads, CBC turned to democracy. Canadians from each region nominated books. After several rounds of voting, the nominations where whittled down to a shortlist composed of five titles from each region. After that, the final decision was up to the individual panelist chosen to represent each region.
Listening to each of the panelists speak about their books, some of the selections made perfect sense; others were incredibly surprising.
Athlete Carol Huyhn chose a difficult, emotional text in Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, a novel about an Ojibway man in treatment for alcoholism, who tells his story as a kind of therapy. Huyhn said that while the loneliness and isolation the character faces affected her deeply, what most connected her to the book was the “physical joy” Indian Horse experiences while playing hockey. “I identified with the way he found freedom though sport,” the wrestler said. “That physical release and the connection to his body.”
Charlotte Gray picked Jane Urquhart’s Away because both the structure and the subject matter resonate with her. As a historian, she found herself drawn to the “vibrant and earthy” historical aspect of the text. “I am very tired of the notion that Canadian history is somehow boring and pedestrian, all men in tall hats making laws,” she says. She also loved the power of the characters, whom she described as “women pushed to extremes. And who doesn’t love extreme women?”
Jay Baruchel’s choice, Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, had to do with his interest in the deep and complex relationships between the anglophone and francophone communities in Quebec. While many emphasize the adversarial aspects of that relationship, Baruchel believes that a deep, mutual respect and love ultimately defines the bilingual culture of Montreal, his home city. He urged those tuning in to the competition to remember the quote by Rainer Maria Rilke that inspired the title: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” He said the book embodies Montreal, which he described as “the most Canadian city.”
Both Ron MacLean and Trent McClellan’s choices seemed unexpected at first: the broadcaster and the comedian chose what are arguably the most sombre books. The Age Of Hope, MacLean’s selection, is a quiet, deeply introspective novel about a woman struggling to come to grips with her ordinary life in Winnipeg. February, McClellan’s pick, chronicles the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in 1982, which killed 84 aboard and devastated Newfoundland. But both panelists spoke eloquently about how these difficult books had moved them. MacLean noted that it was the narrative of aging “and coming to grips with one’s own mortality” that attracted him, a universal theme he could identify with and internalize. McClellan said that the book he chose, though tragic, was as its core “about relationships. Death is the way that be lose people we love for good, and that is something that everyone can relate to.”