February 26, 2005

Canada reads . . .

Typically of a night I will tune into CBC Radio One to catch the six o'clock news, then follow that up with the public-affairs program As It Happens. This week AIH was truncated for the annual Canada Reads series. Surprisingly for a literary-minded person, this isn't the sort of thing that really turns me on. It has to do with an intense dislike of Canadian fiction, with the occasional exception. But on Tuesday night I was a little bit slow turning off the radio. Imagine my surprise to find out that one of this year's panelists was my friend Sherraine MacKay.

Needless to say, I paid closer attention this year. And I'm glad I did, too, because some of the books on the short list sound quite intriguing.

Canada Reads is a CBC project begun in 2002, a sort of literary "reality show," in which celebrity panelists promote a work of Canadian fiction that they think the whole country should read. Five books are shortlisted, and their advocates defend their choices in a panel discussion over five days. From the second round onward, one book is eliminated by ballot until only the winner remains.

Sherraine is a world-class fencer and an Olympic athlete, having competed in Sydney and Athens (and currently training in Budapest in anticipation of Beijing). I actually know her because she married a good friend of mine who attended my church when he lived in Ottawa (i.e. before getting married and moving to Europe).

Her Canada Reads pick was No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield, a novel about members of a black community in Montréal during WW2. She defended it pretty well, too: it survived until Day 4.

The other panelists and their books included: novelist Donna Morissey, defending Rockbound by Frank Parker Day; pop artist Molly Johnson, who substituted for Rufus Wainwright to defend Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers; Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow, advocating Margaret Atwood's recent science fiction novel Oryx and Crake; and author and former National Librarian Roch Carrier, whose short story "The Hockey Sweater" is literally a national symbol (an excerpt is printed on the reverse of the $5 bill), stumped for Volkswagen Blues, a novel by French-Canadian author Jacques Poulin.

In the end, when the votes were all counted on Friday, Rockbound edged out Oryx and Crake as as the novel all of Canada should read. Maybe I will, too.

The Canada Reads site contains audio blurbs from the five panelists and RealAudio of all five days of debate.