CBC Canada Reads 2023 has officially wrapped, crowning one title as the book all Canadians should read "to shift their perspective" this year. It was a smart and tight series of debates this year, with well-prepared panellists who fought hard but graciously for their chosen books.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia's novel Mexican Gothic, defended by#BookTok/TikTok star and nursing student, Tasnim Geedi was first chopped on Monday, followed by Michael Christie's Greenwood, defended by actor and filmmaker, Keegan Connor Tracy. Day three saw a tie, with two votes for each of Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah, defended by bhangra artist and educator, Gurdeep Pandher, and Ducks by Kate Beaton, defended by Canada’s most successful Jeopardy! champion, Mattea Roach. Tracy was stuck breaking the tie, saying she was going to "just vote with [her] heart" and casting the deciding vote to bump Hotline off.
Getting right down to it, the discussion around Ducks returned, as it had in previous days, to the ethics of the extraction industry that serves as the graphic novel's backdrop. "I'm saddened by this book," said Greyeyes, acknowledging that Beaton tried to explore, in the book, the difficult tension of personal responsibility around working in a harmful industry. "I think about the costs, certainly for Indigenous people, certainly for the environment," Greyeyes continued, questioning what happens "when the workers leave and take that wealth... there's this void."
Roach pointed to Beaton's afterword, which explores Beaton's expanded perspective, years after her brief time in the oil sands, while looking back to write the book.
As the conversation shifted to Station Eleven, Roach praised Mandel's novel, but noted its widespread popularity (Station Eleven is an international bestselling award winner upon its publication in 2014), and the fact that it was published earliest out of the books in the competition, meaning "a lot of Canada already has read it".
Tracy cited the "pandemic fatigue" many people are feeling, and questioned whether another pandemic-centric story is what is most widely needed for readers at the moment.
The panellists got to take a breath as the competition broke for pre-recorded support messages for Roach and Greyeyes.
Greyeyes, a well known and popular Associate Professor at York University got a message of support from his student, Karley Jugusic, who was the first person to recommend Station Eleven to him, while Avneet Sharma, a dear friend of Roach's, sent his endorsement for the Jeopardy champ.
Next up, Greyeyes' children and his wife, Nancy Greyeyes—who got a laugh from Greyeyes when she called his "professorial voice" "hot"—shared touching messages of support. Lastly, Phil Roach, Roach's father, started his support message is an adopted Atlantic Canadian accent in honour of Beaton's Nova Scotia roots, and wished his daughter well. He was followed by Roach's mother, Patti MacKinnon, who cheekily referred to herself as the younger Roach's "original debate partner" and wished Roach the best of luck.
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AS the debate resumed, attention was paid to the significance of Ducks being the only graphic book in the competition (where a graphic book has not previously won). "There's a uniqueness to what Ducks does... [it] moved me in a way no other book [here] does," said Roach, adding that "so many people write [graphic novels] off as a genre".
Geedi praised Beaton's nuanced examination of the oil field workers and her ability to peel back the layers of initially unsympathetic characters, compared to the flatter villainy of Station Eleven's corrupt cult leader.
Pandher was cagier, but gave credit to Ducks ability to show "lessons" that can allow "us to grow as a country... [lessons] about letting people feel included, respected."
Tracy noted the difficulty of the comparison, saying it was a bit like comparing "apples to oranges" given the difference in style and genre between the two books, and noted in the end it boils down to how each books "makes you feel". She praised Beaton's courage and craft in "[bringing] to light the sexual violence that so many women experience... even though it wasn't the central theme, I think that's a message that people need to see." Several panellists through the competition have highlighted Beaton's deft and impactful depiction of sexual assault, which is represented in the book by entirely blacked-out panels.
Greyeyes questioned whether Beaton was as successful as Mandel in creating "particular voices" for each of her characters, something Mandel, a highly decorated writer, has been praised for.
Tracy had praise for both books and was particularly complimentary of Mandel's writing, calling Station Eleven "more layered tale than Ducks... a story you can get swept up in and lost in". Pandher praised "a very good balancing act" by Mandel, calling it "a novel where everybody matters".
Heading into the final vote, Ali Hassan poised the question to all panellists, "which of the two books taught you the most about the messiness of being human?"
Geedi gave the point to Station Eleven for that specific question, while Tracy noted strengths in both books. Pandher also acknowledged both books, but delved into Station Eleven, and the "20 years later" section specifically. It looked at this point like Geedi and Pandher were leaning towards voting Ducks out, with Tracy as a wild card.
Roach, defending her chosen book, noted that "the ethical quandaries [in Ducks]... these are real things... as we sit around this table" while Station Eleven's plot, as a dystopian novel, was more thematic in its real world application.
Greyeyes praised Ducks but noted that memoir, as the story of an individual, could have less universal application, that there is a necessity to "ignore the world [outside the story]". He also noted the theme of individualism in Ducks' discussion of the ethical implications of the extraction industry, and how the extraction workers prioritized personal gain, even if it was badly needed, over community good.
As the debates wrapped, the panellists were treated to a final Canada Reads tradition: messages of support from the writers themselves, Mandel and Beaton. Both sent warm and heartfelt messages of thanks to their respective champions before each Roach and Greyeyes were given a 60 second window to make a final case for their chosen books.
Roach went first, highlighting the importance of a different, and often excluded genre—graphic novels and memoirs—and how a graphic book winning Canada Reads could open a new world of reading for Canadians.
Roach addressed each panellist individually, calling back to things they had praised Ducks for during the debates, and urged them to vote for Beaton's memoir.
Greyeyes took a more aesthetic approach, praising the beauty of Mandel's novel, saying "one of the gifts of Station Eleven is that is asks you to hold onto what is beautiful in your life".
Hassan re-capped the votes, noting how Geedi and Pandher had both voted against Ducks one time each, and that Tracy voted against Station Eleven on both day two and three, once again setting up a three to two win for Station Eleven if the panellists went with their past voting patterns. However, a surprise was coming, with Geedi casting the deciding vote.
CBC Canada Reads Final votes:
Mattea Roach voted to eliminate Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Michael Greyeyes voted to eliminate Ducks by Kate Beaton
Keegan Connor Tracy voted to eliminate Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Gurdeep Pandher voted to eliminate Ducks by Kate Beaton
Tasnim Geedi voted to eliminate Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Beaton was standing by via video conference from her home in Cape Breton to congratulate Roach for the big win, saying she was "honoured to be in the company of these four brilliant books and these champions". She addressed Greyeyes' concerns, voiced throughout the competition, of the ethics of the extraction industry and "the human toll of oil and mining", and referenced the Sydney, Nova Scotia tar ponds, in which benzene and sulfur-containing tar ponds were buried underneath a park in the province, ostensibly to help mitigate health and environmental concerns. Despite this plan, many local residents still suffer elevated rates of cancer, Alzheimer's disease, respiratory and heart problems, and other health issues. "I'm speaking in solidarity," Beaton said, and confirmed her commitment to discussing the dark side of the extraction industry.
Greyeyes was gracious in defeat and returned to highlight Mandel's achievements and how pleased he was to get to tell her directly how much he'd loved the book. He gave a final endorsement, saying "I'm delighted I could share my perspectives about the intricacies of the novel... it's a novel you can return to... it rewards [you] the more you do."
Hassan closed the competition by noting the real-world "Canada Reads" effect, confirming that all the books in the competition have become bestsellers during the debates and thanking the panellists who "worked tirelessly" before and during the competition.
For more information about Canada Reads and CBC Books and to watch re-plays, visit their website.