CBC Canada Reads: A Tense Vote Sets up a Tight Race Going Forward
We're at the halfway mark already in the 2023 edition of CBC Books' Canada Reads competition, one of the biggest literary events of the year and a potentially career-making accolade for the author of the eventual winning book, which will join past winners like The Book of Negroes, A Complicated Kindness, and In the Skin of a Lion.
**SPOILERS to follow for Canada Reads 2023 days one and two**
After a first day upset with #BookTok star and fan favourite Tasnim Geedi's chosen title, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic being voted off in a 4-1 surprise landslide, day two opened with Geedi being given a brief moment to give a final, eloquently impassioned pitch for her chosen book, which she urged readers to pick up despite it being bumped out of the competition. Then it was off to the races again with Michael Greyeyes up first, praising Emily St. John Mandel's international bestseller Station Eleven, saying "in terms of craft, Station Eleven is dazzling".
Geedi responded positively, saying the book pleasantly surprised her, a nursing student, who wasn't initially convinced she would enjoy a pandemic-set novel (Station Eleven was published in 2014 to great acclaimed and then saw a resurgence of interest during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic). The general debate around Station Eleven was positive, setting it up as a strong contender.
Next to speak was Keegan Connor Tracy, defending Greenwood by Michael Christie. Tracy praised Greenwood's vibrant cast of characters and the book's theme of celebrating the importance of "fight[ing] for the people and the land that we love". Free agent Geedi praised Tracy's book as well but mentioned she found it hard to connect the different time periods of the book, which explores multiple timelines over 100 years, calling it "a bit of a slog".
Greyeyes called Greenwood "a thrilling novel... beautifully written" but flagged the early 20th century section, which included a reference to cruel mistreatment of Mohawk characters, as "problematic". Tracy acknowledged she would have liked further exploration of the events in that section.
There was a brief break after the first two book's had their moment in the debates for a Canada Reads annual tradition: pre-recorded messages of support for the remaining panellists from close colleagues, friends, or family members. Actor K. Devery Jacobs offered support to Greyeyes, while American Jeopardy champ Amy Schneider put her support behind fellow champ Mattea Roach, who is defending he graphic memoir Ducks by Kate Beaton. Actor Ginnifer Goodwin appeared to offer a glowing message to her Once Upon a Time co-star Tracy, and comedian and social media star Brittlestar (also known as Stewart Reynolds) praised final panellist Gurdeep Pandher, who is defending Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah, saying that Pandher's kindness will see him in good stead through the debates.
After the short respite, the debates were back on, with Hotline in the hot seat. Pandher was well-prepared and spoke convincingly about his book, saying it is "all about creating a fresh perspective about immigrants in Canada" and praising it as "character driven".
Tracy responded, calling it "eye-opening" and explained how she related deeply to being raised by a hardworking, struggling mom like Hotline's Muna. She praised the book as "beautiful" but also described it as "bleak [despite] a sense of hope at the end".
Geedi explained her "unique" connection to Hotline, being the child of two Somali immigrants who came to Canada and weren't able to transfer their degrees, much like Muna in the book, saying "I know so many Munas... [including] my mom". She added however, "I really wish there was an extra layer of depth" in the novel and mentioned she wished Nasrallah had gone further into the character of Muna's son.
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Roach praised the incorporation of Arabic words into the book, saying it added enrichment to the character's perspective for her as a reader, but questioned the absence of a glossary to help readers fully appreciate everything being said. The panellists shared a laugh about the fact that many of the words translate to curses or similarly colourful language.
Roach was then up to defend her own title, Kate Beaton's graphic memoir Ducks. The Jeopardy champion called it "a portal into broader conversations" and acknowledge that her chosen book has "a lot less writing than the other books but I think that that's a feature and not a bug".
As the responses began, Greyeyes started off saying he loved "that Ducks is in the competition", praising the graphic novel form, but questioned the lack of exploration around the ethical implications of the extraction industry, which serves as a backdrop for Ducks. For the characters "involved in extraction", Greyeyes noted, "they do it and they make their money and then they say 'Oh I really regret doing that'... they took what they needed and then went home... it leaves a weird taste in my mouth".
Roach countered that many of the workers in Beaton's memoir, including Beaton herself, have few employment options and "[are] there because they feel like they have no other option", as the conversation continued around the nuances of responsibility the book explores.
Pander called Ducks "a beautiful book" and referenced having spent time in Fort McMurray, the area where Beaton's story is set. He praised the book's exploration of mental health issues including "isolation, loneliness... peer pressure... being away from families".
Tracy added her endorsement for Ducks, saying "this book made me think a lot after I put it down". Geedi said she was "blown away by how vulnerable her writing was" but also backed Greyeyes up on his objections to the glossing over of the extraction industry's ethical obligations, saying "you need to acknowledge your role in things".
With the debates wrapped, the panellists with books still in the competition then each had just 30 seconds to give a final plea for their chosen title, after which all five panellists had to vote for one book they would choose to eliminate.
Host Ali Hassan noted that the voting took longer than it had the first day, with several panellists seeming torn on which book to select.
CBC Canada Reads Day Two votes:
Mattea Roach voted to eliminate Greenwood by Michael Christie
Keegan Connor Tracy voted to eliminate Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Gurdeep Pandher voted to eliminate Greenwood by Michael Christie
Tasnim Geedi voted to eliminate Ducks by Kate Beaton
Michael Greyeyes voted to eliminate Greenwood by Michael Christie
And with that, just three books remain in the 2023 competition: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Ducks by Kate Beaton, and Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah. It's impossible to predict what will come in the two final days of debates, but day two seems to be setting up further debate around the ethical aspects of Ducks' setting. All three remaining books have been praised by all the panellists, so it will be tight and interesting race from here on out.
Tracy was gracious in defeat after Greenwood was removed, saying that the theme of the year ("one book all of Canada should read to shift perspective") may have worked against Christie's book. In a bit of a surprising soundbite, she said, "I don't think it is necessarily the strongest book to shift perspective", but added "I just think it's a great book that's worth reading".
The debates return tomorrow at 10:00a.m. ET. In the meantime, you can check out our interview with the panellists, in which they discuss their debate strategies and how they discovered their chosen books. We'll be back on Thursday with a summary of the final debate and the announcement of the big winner.
To view the daily CBC Canada Reads livestream at 10:00a.m. ET or for more information on how to watch and listen via radio, online, and on television, visit cbcBooks.ca