So remember that time I started this blog to read the longlist from the 10th Anniversary of Canada Reads (2011)? Well, turns out starting a challenge mid-way through the year means that you’ll soon be tempted to add your voice to the next year’s competition and that, my friends, will side track you. Yes, I have been spending the past few months browsing my non-fiction titles and trying to convince Canada that they should give true stories a try. I was asked by CBC Books to put together a list of five titles that I would pick to be the final five non-fiction books for Canada Reads 2012. As you can see, The Tiger, by John Vaillant made it to the final five in the end, which I was pretty jazzed about.
After picking the list, I was hooked. I felt like I was a part of the process from the beginning, so you can imagine that when the final five books were chosen, I read them all. The Tiger, by John Vaillant, Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre (SPOILER ALERT: it won. I’m sure you knew that), On A Cold Road, by Dave Bidini, The Game, by Ken Dryden, and Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat. If you haven’t had a chance to read all these books, I’m going to take a second here to give you some really basic information here to get you on board with me.
Title: The Tiger
Author: John Vaillant
Synopsis in 140 characters: Due to illegal poaching of tigers in the Primorye region in Russia, one tiger seeks to avenge the man who wounded him by hunting him down.
Features: Tigers, Russians, story of survival, poachers, suspense and pine nuts. There are definitely pine nuts.
Why I liked it: This book tells a story unlike any I’d ever heard before. It tackled relevant, important issues such as the environment and on the most basic level, how out of touch we are in Canada when it comes to what happens around the world. Then there’s also the fact that it’s the story of a tiger terrorizing this small town in the middle of a remote region in Russia. Scary stuff. (There’s a documentary by Sasha Snow of this book – you should really see it.)
What surprised me: Reading from the point of view of a tiger was different. Though there have been mixed reviews about this showing up in non-fiction, I liked it. I thought it added a lot to the story, and I love the way John works with words. I’ve interviewed him, and he’s a really fascinating guy which comes through clearly in his writing.
Track to listen to when reading: The Gravel Road, by James Newton Howard from the soundtrack to “The Village”.
Title: Something Fierce
Author: Carmen Aguirre
Synopsis in 140 characters: Aguirre’s darkly comic memoir follows her life entwined with the Chilean resistance movement in Bolivia against General Augusto Pinochet.
Features: Coming of age, family life, resistance, traveling throughout South America, fear, politics and so much more.
Why I liked it: I started reading this book on a 7 hour flight, and it was finished by the time I landed. I couldn’t put it down. I knew very little about Pinochet’s dictatorship, and even less about how one lives one’s life as a member of the resistance. I learned so much while reading this book, while at the same time feeling like I was watching a movie as it was such a thrilling and terrifying story.
What surprised me: What surprised me most was her writing style. I had heard a lot about the book from other Canada Reads fans before I started reading it, mainly about how she was too casual in her narrative. I didn’t find this to be an issue at all. I thought her voice was passionate, fresh and well presented. At times it was casual, but not in a way that I found rushed or sloppy.
Track to listen to when reading: Hasta Siempre – Buena Vista Social Club. I love this piece. It’s not right for every scene, but there’s something about it that really gets to me. Worked really well when reading the earlier chapters of this book.
Title: On A Cold Road
Author: Dave Bidini
Synopsis in 140 characters: Bidini travels from coast to coast with the Rheostatics while weaving in the voices of Canadian rock and roll pioneers who paved the way.
Features: Musicians, tour buses, drugs, alcohol, Goddo (who have the best stories hands down), laugh out loud moments, and, of course: passion, hopes, and dreams.
Why I liked it: I loved the format of the book. Bidini clearly wanted to tell his story, and he also wanted to tell the story of the Canadian rock and roll legends who came before him. Neither of these topics would have been right for a book on their own, but together they create a strong narrative. Bidini guides us through the stories while traveling across Canada and sharing his own. It’s funny, it’s moving and above all, it’s a really personal piece of writing.
What surprised me: That my uncle was in it! My uncle is Denton Young who was in the band Zon, and he shared some great stories throughout the book. They were a blast to read, and it kept me turning the pages excitedly, hoping another one would show up. Rik Emmett is also a family friend, and his stories were a pleasure to read as well.
Track to listen to when reading: Claire by the Rheostatics, So Walk On by Goddo, Put on the Show by Zon, and Wheat Kings by The Tragically Hip (it’s a live version because the book’s about touring bands).
Title: The Game
Author: Ken Dryden
Synopsis in 140 characters: Canadiens’ goaltender Ken Dryden led the team to six Stanley Cup championships. This Canadian classic is the story of his last season in 1979.
Features: Hockey players and family life, the Canadian spirit, boys’ club, locker room pranks, post game debriefs on a bus to the next city, love of the game.
Why I liked it: I knew very little about the Montreal Canadiens during what are so often referred to as ‘the glory days’, and to hear the story told from the point of view of a goaltender was refreshing. Ken takes his time to talk to all the players and get their personal story. To me, Ken wasn’t the protagonist in this memoir – it was the Montreal Canadiens who stole the limelight, and I was happy to let them do it. This book is introspective and careful – it’s a nice change to not just hear about the wins and the celebrations, but also the difficult next step – when to approach the decision of stepping down.
What surprised me: I was surprised at how difficult I found it to read certain sections of this book. I know hockey well, I like hockey, and having worked at a bar across the street from the Bell Centre in Montreal for two years, I would like to think I know the Canadiens. I don’t know the Canadiens from the 70s, of course. I found that sometimes it was challenging to follow along to certain parts of the story that weren’t just about one of the players. More on that later.
Track to listen to when reading: The Soundtrack to the Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I know this may seem like a bizarre choice, but there’s an element of loneliness, of watching something happen but not feeling a part of it, and hard work that made me put this soundtrack on while I was reading. I realize that it’s not the music of the 70s, but it just did it for me.
Title: Prisoner of Tehran
Author: Marina Nemat
Synopsis in 140 characters: At 16, Nemat spoke out against the Islamic Revolution and was imprisoned and tortured in Evin. A candid story of survival, and perseverance.
Features: Coming of age, family life, resistance, torture, fear, politics, rape, women’s rights – the list goes on. Just read it. Read this book.
Why I liked it: I knew this book would move me, but I wasn’t aware of how much. I think it was because I was at the announcement of the Canada Reads finalists where we got to meet all the authors. There was Marina Nemat, briefly talking about all the horrible, inhumane things that happened to her. I hadn’t read her book at that point, so I don’t think I really had any idea what she had actually gone through. To think of all the rights that are taken away from her in this book is almost impossible when reading this as a Canadian woman. The way women are treated in many parts of the world is unimaginable, and I can’t tell you enough how important it is to read this book as a way to see how blessed we are to live in Canada, accept others coming not just from Iran, but many other countries and to share this knowledge.
What surprised me: What surprised me most when reading this was again, a similar comment about her writing style. Many people I spoke to mentioned that they didn’t think that she was a very good writer. I have to disagree. She described her surroundings so well in the memoir that I could, and still can, see the rooms in my head where she was imprisoned, the house she grew up in, and especially the bookstore that she visited. A particularly fantastic piece of writing was when she described the lush, verdant garden of the house that Ali buys for her. While I was reading it, I felt like I was there.
Track to listen to when reading: Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer from the Gladiator Soundtrack. I envision this piece near the end of the book, maybe after her wedding with Andre. There’s a certain finality to it, and the female voice is so strong and powerful. When the other voices come together at the end of the song, it makes me think of all the other voices of the prisoners that she met while she was in Evin, whether dead or alive, and how they continue to make a case for women. The title doesn’t hurt, either.
So what was my favourite book? It’s so difficult to say, considering they were all so different and they all had such fascinating stories worth learning about and sharing, so I’ll put it like this. The book I learned the most from was Prisoner of Tehran, the book that I think should have won Canada Reads is Something Fierce (hooray!) and the book that I am most likely to recommend to other readers is Prisoner of Tehran. I liked all the other books for different reasons, but I will get into that more in my blog post tomorrow (or Friday) about the actual competition and the panelists chosen to defend these stunning books.
Until then, I will leave you with a little something I doodled during my Canada Reads hangover on the weekend. Enjoy!