The theme for Canada Reads this year is ‘Starting Over’. The debates air March 21-24. You can get the quick low-down of the books and panellists here. Here are the 5 books in the order of when I read them:
1) The Illegal by Lawrence Hill, defended by Clara Hughes, six-time Olympic medallist
I read The Illegal before it showed up on the Canada Reads longlist. You can read my full review here. Through Keita’s story, The Illegal brings our attention to the plight of refugees and displaced people. Their reality of having to leave their homes with the knowledge that they may never be back, fits in nicely with the theme of ‘starting over’. Lawrence Hill won the Canada Reads competition with The Book of Negroes. Will he be able to do it again?
2) Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, defended by Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, the largest travel adventure company in the world
I read Birdie as soon as I saw that it was on the longlist. You can read my full review here. Birdie is a beautifully written book with many layers to delve into and discuss. It fits the theme nicely, and has important things to say about Indigenous issues as well as issues that are universal. I think Birdie has a very good chance of winning the debates, and I would be happy if it did.
3) Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz, defended by Farah Mohamed, founder and CEO of G(irls)20, a global platform that empowers girls and women around the world
Bone & Bread is engaging and extremely readable. Two sisters grow up together in a Montreal neighbourhood, above a bagel shop. From the beginning we know that the younger sister, Sadhana has died, and 6 months later, Beena is making trips back to Montreal to clean out her apartment.
If you listen, you can almost hear the sound of my son’s heart breaking. In the backyard, under the drone of the lawnmower, there’s a dull clanking, a sick rasp of metal like iron on bone, the chafing of something serrated. It could be a falling branch from the lilac bush or a stray rock caught against the blade, but from where I sit looking out the kitchen window, the muted noise of the mowing comes through like a throbbing ache.
Alternatively, we hear the story of their life together and that they are no strangers to heartache. When they are young, they lose both of their parents (at different times), and have their Uncle move in with them; he is critical and suffocating to live with and doesn’t understand how to take care of two young girls. When the older sister is 16, the two girls both miss their period at the same time; Beena is pregnant and Sadhana is anorexic.
After the birth of Quinn, the sisters move out from under the critical eye of their Uncle and squeeze themselves into their own small apartment. While there, they help each other finish school while taking care of a child and trying to stay healthy and keep eating.
My sister aimed to succeed in everything she undertook, and in being sick, she surpassed everyone’s expectations.
Sadhana proves hard to live with after years of close proximity. Beena is tired of keeping watch over everything she eats, while having a strip torn off her whenever she says or does something Sadhana doesn’t like. She also feels protective of her relationship with Quinn; she feels that Sadhana may have too much of an influence on her nephew. When Quinn is 8, Beena decides it’s time to start her own life, and she moves to Ottawa.
Quinn’s nose was running down onto his lips so he could taste his own sorrow, and as I tugged down his zipper and held him, stiff and unwilling in my arms, I wanted to tell him that emotion was like a carnival ride: its heights and depths might stagger and astound, but after the first time, he would know that he could walk away when it was over, legs shaking but still alive. But it was a non-transferable kind of truth, in both conveyance and meaning. I couldn’t bring myself to say it. And not everyone, I supposed, was able to walk away.
The sisters continue to keep in touch, and Beena continues to feel responsible for Sadhana’s illness. When Sadhana dies, Beena replays their last visits (and arguments) trying to find clues as to how Sadhana lived her last days.
If Sadhana’s a ghost, I haven’t seen her. I haven’t spotted any signs of her shading my footsteps or tracing my name across a rain-soaked window. In a way, though, I’m not surprised. I spent so many years watching her disappear, little by little, that it is impossible for me to believe that there could be any of her left over.
… the work of getting closer, of loving harder, is the work of a whole life.
There are many times in the girls’ lives when they are ‘starting over’ after some sort of tragedy or big event; the death of their parents, Sadhana’s illness, the birth of Quinn, moving away, and finally Beena having to move on without her sister in the world.
4) Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter, defended by Adam “Edge” Copeland, actor and retired professional wrestler
I have been wanting to read one of Winter’s books for a while now, so Canada Reads gave me the nudge I needed to finally do it. I loved many things about this book, but it was the one I found the hardest to focus on while reading. I’m going to guess that it was his writing style that made my mind feel sticky. But the more time that has gone by since reading it, the more it has grown on me and stuck in my head.
The book is about Henry. Henry tries hard to have a good life, but things just keep falling apart. He goes through a painful break-up, tries desperately (and embarrassingly) to win her back, then tries getting away by going to Afghanistan to work with a couple of his buddies. While there, a bomb goes off and kills his friend; he ends up feeling partly responsible for the death.
The friend that died owned an old abandoned house on the coast of Newfoundland. Partly to make amends, Henry decides to start fixing it up. As he works on it, he runs into one problem after another. At one point, while dumping some garbage into the incinerator, he falls in and feels himself starting to cook. After being rescued, he feels like he has a new lease on life. In an interview, Winter talks about how this very thing happened to him and that everything in his novel is true; it has all happened to either him or someone he knows.
Despite all the hassle of fixing up a century old house, he finds himself enjoying the work and his life starts taking on a new shape; a good one.
They were into it now. He and Martha were pursuing Tender’s ambition. It astonished him and made him feel guilty. That he was enjoying her. He was supposed to be bearing a cross but this was an ambush of joy.
The book felt very Newfoundland-y to me (a good thing). The descriptions of the area and the people felt Wayne Johnston-like and Michael Crummey-ish. The whole thread about going away to find work to support yourself and your family feels very Atlantic Canadian. And the connection the characters have to the land feels strong.
He was not happy to be leaving his family again for work in Alberta. But he was also eager to do it. Embrace the suck, is what they say in the army, and the truth is both compulsions exist in us: to stay and to leave. It’s for the family, John said, which makes leaving some kind of commitment to stay.
Henry stepped down into the cellar that pointed out to sea. My secret place, Henry said aloud – so it wasn’t a secret he kept from the land. He wanted the land to know.
The ‘starting over’ theme in this book is solid. After the death of Tender, Henry and Tender’s girlfriend find a way to start again without him, through their grief and guilt.
The snow drifting against the house sheltered the bass of the party and allowed the people who were recovering from the mourning of Tender Morris to really let loose. The heat was turned down for the rooms were hot with bodies. This was not a summer party. It was a party that requires grim conditions, the short days and the bitter cold and a death in the family and a dark night and very few reasons to go on but you do go on. Having kids was not enough. A party like this was necessary and John Hynes knew it. If life were to continue on this bald rock in the ocean, if a laugh were to be had, then this party at John and Silvia’s was the dream that disturbs hibernation, that wakes you into a spring thaw.
(In the Acknowledgements, Winter tells us that there was a poem on his fridge that he read every day of writing this book; Love by Czeslaw Milosz. Read it; it’s beautiful.)
*Thank you to the Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book.
5) The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami, defended by Vinay Virmani, writer and star of the 2014 hit film Dr. Cabbie
The Hero’s Walk drew me in from the very beginning with vivid descriptions of life in India as well as the family members and neighbours involved in the story. The characters were so well-drawn that I wanted to know more about every one of them.
… people were like trees, they grew and changed, put out new leaves that you forgot to count, and when you weren’t watching, they even died.
The plot of the book is driven by the death of Sripathi and Nirmala’s daughter who has been living in Canada for 9 years and has a 7-year-old daughter, Nandana. After the death of Nandana’s parents, she has to move to India to be with her mother’s family, but for her it is a whole new world.
This is an obvious ‘starting over’ for Nandana, as well as for the family who welcomes her to their home. But, the main character of the book is actually Sripathi, disappointing son of Ammayya, stubborn husband of Nirmala, discouraged father of Maya and Arun, and neglectful brother of Putti. His life is so full of regrets and disappointments, financial and societal pressures, that he has a hard time seeing past these things to what is really important. The death of his daughter has filled him with guilt and regret, the wish to be able to change the past, and anger. He struggles with control over his emotions, and longs for forgiveness. Many of his reactions and decisions made me mad, but mostly I felt for him, and hoped he would be able to find a way to forgive himself and enjoy his family.
He had forced himself to forget his daughter’s betrayal, for that was how he regarded her marriage, the life she had chosen for herself. It was true that it was he who told her never to come home, who had refused to reply to her letters or her phone calls, but by dying she had stolen from him the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven.
*Thank you to Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book.
I liked all of these books. In the past there have been a couple of stand-outs for me to get behind, but this year I would be happy for any of these books to win. They are all good and I loved them for different reasons; they all fit the theme and stand a good chance at winning. We’ll see if I can be swayed in any kind of direction by the panellists’ arguments over the next few days.
You can watch all 5 book trailers here.
Here, Canada Reads authors describe their book in one sentence.
Canada Reads starts tomorrow (March 21) and runs until March 24. I’ll be sure to let you know which book is the winner!
Day 1 – Minister Without Portfolio has been voted off. I’m okay with that. Vinay has convinced me that I don’t want to see The Hero’s Walk go, and it was so close.
Day 2 – Bone & Bread has been voted off. After hearing what all the panellists had to say about this (or not say about it), I am okay with the decision. The Hero’s Walk and Birdie live to see another day!
Day 3 – Today was tougher for me. I was sad to see Birdie go, and for reasons I still can’t quite figure out. It was a good day for debate, though. There were a few tears from me as I listened to the panellists say lovely things about all the books (even the ones that were not their own). And now we are down to The Illegal and The Hero’s Walk; very different from each other. Will they vote for the best story/writing, or will they vote for the one that best fits the theme? I have an inkling which it will be based on the debates today, but you never can tell what’s going to happen…
Day 4 – The Illegal is the winner of Canada Reads 2016! Yes, I was sad to see The Hero’s Walk eliminated (very sad, but not as sad as Vinay appeared to be), but it’s kind of cool to have a writer win the Canada Reads competition twice for the first time. A very good one – Lawrence Hill. Really, I have to go read some more of his books.
It was a good year with great panellists, interesting debates, and wonderful books. Now I’m ready for Canada Reads 2017!