Canada Reads 2019: The defenders, the books and what's at stake

If you're searching for new reading material, and up for some feisty competition to help you decide, look no further than the literary version of Survivor — better known as Canada Reads

The annual weeklong debate starts Mar. 25 and pairs famous Canucks with a Canadian book of their choice as they duke it out to select a winner. The overarching theme this year is "one book to move you"; many of the selections feature nuanced approaches to topical subject matter such as inclusion, women's rights and mental illness.

The Canada Reads 2019 contenders (in alphabetical order) are:

Fredericton-born comedian Ali Hassan will host for a third year.

The prize

CBC

The winning Canada Reads author typically gets a major boost in sales and joins an elite club of previous winners that include André Alexis, Kim Thuy, Lisa Moore, Lawrence Hill, Hubert Aquin and Michael Ondaatje.

The victorious defender will emerge with bragging rights and join high-profile figures such as fashion media personality Jeanne Beker, Olympian Clara Hughes, and musician Jim Cuddy among many others who have also taken their books to the finish line.

Learn more about each book and its defender below.

Chuck Comeau defends Homes

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A window into the human impact of an ongoing humanitarian crisis, Homes by teenage refugee Abu Bakr al Rabeeah (written with the help of his ESL teacher, Winnie Yeung), tells the story of the author's childhood first in Iraq, then living through a civil war in Homs, Syria, before moving to Canada.

Chuck Comeau, drummer for the rock band Simple Plan, says he chose the book because it "really opened my eyes."

"To actually have a first-person account of it and to put yourself in the shoes of someone who had to go through it and then finally gets, I guess, what they wanted — to be able to leave and to go to a new country," said Comeau.

"But then the guilt and the sadness of having to realize that you have to leave all your family and friends behind and then you have this whole new world ... is just fascinating."

Lisa Ray defends Brother

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Actress, model and activist Lisa Ray, who's known for her roles in the Oscar-nominated film Water and, more recently, as host of Top Chef Canada, says Brother by David Chariandy is "pulling out threads" around "prejudice, race and class warfare."

The story, set in a Scarborough, Ont., housing complex in the 1990s, focuses on the lives of two brothers, the sons of Trinidadian immigrants, and the societal battles faced by many of black and brown ancestry.

"We are a country that should be very proud of our record in terms multiculturalism and human rights," said the Indo-Canadian actress. "But there is some heavy stuff going on still in our own backyard and this is a book that is going to encourage people to take a look into their own neighbourhoods and try to make a change right there."

Ziya Tong defends By Chance Alone

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By Chance Alone explores the horrors of the Holocaust and the journey of life afterwards through the lens of real-life survivor Max Eisen.

Defender Ziya Tong, known for hosting Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, says the memoir is particularly resonant in a time when younger generations are becoming less connected to Second World War atrocities and know little about them.

"How are we expected to learn from history when we don't even know what history is?" said Tong. "That's why this is such a profound and timely book. This is the book that this country needs to be reading right now."

Yanic Truesdale defends Suzanne

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The French bestseller Suzanne (La femme qui fuit) by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette is a portrait of a conflicted woman compelled to choose between her family and career in the 1950s, observed through the eyes of her granddaughter.

Yanic Truesdale, best known for his role as Michel Gerard on the cult favourite TV series Gilmore Girls, says Suzanne speaks to him because he, too, experienced a unique upbringing with his free-spirited, artistic mother.

"I think I can talk about the book and the journey and defend this character, Suzanne, who at first, yes, is not someone that you would normally like," the actor said about the 2015 novel. "When you dig a little deeper into people's reasoning and behaviours ... you often discover humanity."

Joe Zee defends The Woo Woo

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Joe Zee, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Toronto as a child, is best known for his work in the fashion industry as a stylist, TV personality and former creative director for Elle magazine.

Zee says The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong appears to be a simple coming-of-age story, but quickly delves into the stigma of mental illness in a family and the role that culture can play in it.

"In Asian culture, we are a culture that deliberately pushes away the feelings that we have, deliberately don't bring up things that are uncomfortable to talk about," said Zee. "What Lindsay [Wong] has done in this book is say, 'Hold up. There is something going on and we have to do something about it.'"

How to watch

CBC

The debate, which will take place March 25 to 28, will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. ET and on CBC-TV at 4 p.m. It will also be livestreamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.

If in the Toronto area, tickets are available to be part of a live studio audience.