The theme: One book to bring Canada into focus.
The five contenders for Canada Reads 2020, in order in which I read them:
I read this book when it was shortlisted for the 2017 Giller prize. I loved how funny it was, and had every intention of reading the sequel when it came out but I haven’t done that yet.
From my review: “At first, I didn’t know how I was going to feel about the magic realism in the book. But Eden Robinson is skilled at combining the real with the supernatural. And humour. Humour might be her secret ingredient. Jared uses humour as defence against his friends, his dysfunctional family, himself, and the mind that he thinks he’s losing. And it all works; so well that I was sorry to see it end and happy to hear there’s more coming.”
This book was on the 2019 Giller shortlist, so it’s fresh in my mind. This is my personal favourite, but I’d be surprised to see it win. It’s a challenging read and challenging reads don’t tend to do well on Canada Reads.
From my review: “This is a humdinger of a book. Not so much the length, rather what’s found between the covers.
Megan Gail Coles gives us warning before the narrative begins: “This might hurt a little. Be brave.“”
And it does hurt. But it’s also brilliant.
“Maybe the hard truths in this book will go some way into bringing about the change Coles is fighting for in the province she loves.”
I have a lot of admiration for people who can hit rock bottom and still claw their way back up. For Jesse Thistle, rock bottom meant a serious, years-long addiction to drugs and alcohol, living on the streets, and doing anything it took to feed his addiction.
Jesse and his two older brothers ended up in a foster home when he was just three. From there, they were shipped to their paternal grandparents in Brampton, Ontario. Their grandparents loved them, but for Jesse it was too little too late. He longed for his parents and felt responsible for their abandonment.
Jesse started stealing at a young age: “Now I had a strange and satisfying feeling of control – control I’d never had before.”
Going to school, for Jesse, was like a form of torture: “Going to school was like entering a battleground full of feral gangs, chanting and scheming and beating the shit out of one another.”
It wasn’t like he wanted to live this way: “I’d tried accessing treatment before, many times, but the places all had long waiting lists, or needed insurance, or were outpatient only – there was always some kind of restriction.”
Jesse had to spend time in jail in order to detox: “If the physical symptoms of alcohol delirium tremens just about killed me, the ever-increasing psychosis of withdrawal from crack broke me into shards of shame and pity and guilt that burned under my forehead like napalm watered with gasoline and lit by a blowtorch.”
But it wasn’t until he was starving and puking up blood and considering suicide that he knew he had to get help or die.
Jesse Thistle is now an assistant professor of Métis studies at York University and an inspiration to many.
Not only is this a personal account of Samra searching for her identity, it also highlights the ways in which being a queer Muslim is unique.
As an Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan, Samra learned to hide her identity at an early age in order to avoid being a target of discrimination and violence.
After moving to Canada with her family, Samra continued to oppress her authentic self to appease her parents and their traditional beliefs and customs, as well as to try and fit in with her new country. She experienced bullying and racism on one side, and an arranged marriage to her cousin on the other.
Samra spent the next two decades trying to untangle the unhappy mess her life had become, and try to figure out who she really was.
Maybe this identity – this label I wear that defines me – is my house. And my voice was in here all along. My siblings have the keys, and my parents are finally regular visitors here. Maybe the roof opens on a hinge to show that there are no rigid limits, no boundary between this house and the sky, the rest of the world. What luck, to have this house, with its solid foundation, this home that supports me as I refine my perspective, over and over and over again.
Samra Habib is the creator of Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Project: “What I didn’t realize at the time was that through listening to other queer Muslims’ stories and asking questions, I was trying to find the courage to share my own.”
“We have always been here, it’s just that the world wasn’t ready for us yet.” — Zainab
This is the book I was most curious about, not knowing anything about it or about Doctorow’s writing style. I knew it was made up of four stories/novellas, and was considered to be dystopian. Considering the theme, I kinda think they could get some relevant discussion out of this book… it got me thinking.
Unauthorized Bread: “The way Salima found out that Boulangism had gone bankrupt: her toaster wouldn’t accept her bread.” Because the companies that make the appliances control what products you put into them. Before the company went under, Salima’s toaster would not accept just any bread, and her dishwasher would not accept just any dishsoap, etc. But, as Salima tried to get them going again, she discovered that she could change the computer inside them, shifting control to the user.
Salima went on to help change the appliances in the whole apartment building. Until she found out what would happen if they were ever discovered.
I didn’t love this story, but I found it interesting – it got me thinking about capitalism and power.
Model Minority: When I realized that the protagonist in this story was a superhero I was put off – I prefer my stories to at least have the possibility of reality about them. But I read the story anyway feeling ho-hum about it most of the way along, until I got to the last paragraph… which blew me away, and I realized what he had done with this story.
Radicalized: This story begins one way and then veers off in a completely different direction.
Joe learns that his wife has cancer with only three months to live. Just as he was overcoming his anger to live out his wife’s days in as much love and peacefulness as they could, they found out that their insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of any “experimental” therapies that might give Lacey a chance. Joe’s rage came back. Taking a cue from his wife, he searched online for a support group of men in the same situation and found one that he became a part of. It helped. But it also sucked him into something he didn’t see coming.
This was probably my favourite of the four stories.
The Masque of the Red Death: Martin is prepared for the apocalypse that he knows is coming – it’s just a matter of time. He has his fortress in the hills stocked and ready, and “the Thirty” – the people he’d invited to join him – awaiting his cue.
At first, all is well inside the fortress. But once they start running out of supplies, and have to go out, things get panicky. It’s hard to hide from a virus.
One thing had been very clear to Martin all his life: the takers were steering the ship, and they were going to crash it.
Are you watching the debates? Any thoughts, favourites, or predictions?
You can find more information about Canada Reads and the debates here – the books, the authors, the defenders, and how to watch.
A new and wonderful thing this year… Jael Richardson is re-capping each show on her Instagram page. Check it out!