The next two months of The Agenda in the Summer are all about making connections. Authors and storytellers talk to me about their inspirations, urbanists share their ideas for making our cities more livable, and ordinary Ontarians — like Mario Rigby, who spent two years walking across Africa, and Morgan Cameron Ross, who’s dedicated a website to documenting historical Toronto — share their passions.
As in past seasons, I’ve interviewed many authors, which means I’ve read a lot of books. As challenging as it is to choose highlights, I’ve described some of my favourites below. But many others also left impressions on me: Pauline Dakin’s Run, Hide, Repeat, an engrossing memoir about her father’s involvement in organized crime; Hamilton-born musician Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars, which describes his discovery of his Mohawk heritage; Ricky Atkinson’s memoir, The Life Crimes and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson: Leader of the Dirty Tricks Gang, which explores his past as a bank robber and his quest for redemption; Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shrewed, a collection of essays from her three decades covering women’s issues.
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I’ve learned so much from the guests this year — these books, in particular, have stayed with me:
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Cherie Dimaline has written several books, but her latest has garnered many accolades, including the Kirkus Prize in the United States and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature. The Marrow Thieves is set in a dystopian future where people have lost the ability to dream — unless, that is, they eat the bone marrow of Indigenous people. If it sounds grim, that’s because it’s a commentary on the Sixties Scoop and residential schools, which saw thousands of children separated from their parents. Above all, it’s a book about family and what you would do to protect your loved ones. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I think it might be a good idea for schools across Canada to incorporate it into their curriculum. This past spring, it was optioned for television, meaning its message may soon reach a wider audience.
Boys: What It Means to Become a Man by Rachel Giese
As culture celebrates the potential of girls with slogans like “The future is female” and “Girls run the world,” there seems to be a growing chorus of “What about our boys?”
Raising a son in the 21st century is complicated. Journalist Rachel Giese explores what it’s like for boys to grow up in a culture that expects them to behave like boys but then penalizes them for doing just that. As the mother of a seven-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter, I was surprised to realize that I have blind spots about raising a son — this book gave me an understanding that I would never otherwise have had as a parent.
The Vanity Fair Diaries, Tina Brown
When Tina Brown moved to New York City in her 20s to make history by reviving a failing Vanity Fair, she kept a diary. The Vanity Fair Dairies comprises entries from 1983 to 1992. Brown’s vision and drive put the magazine on top of the publishing world —along the way, she made great friends and plenty of enemies. The likes of Harvey Weinstein, Anna Wintour, Arianna Huffington, and even Donald Trump make appearances in the pages of the diaries. In an entry from September 5, 1987, she reflects on Trump’s The Art of the Deal, writing, “Anyway, it feels, when you have finished it, as if you’ve been nose to nose for four hours with an entertaining con man and I suspect the American public will like nothing better. Very glad I got it for the mag.”
Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men by Daemon Fairless
One day, while taking the subway with his wife, Daemon Fairless had a confrontation with a fellow rider. He was seen as a hero by the other people on the train, but he was left shaken. A science journalist with a master’s degree in neuroscience, Fairless found himself wanting to more fully understand the roots of violence.
Fairless spends time with men who have committed horrible acts, and at times, the book is hard to read. But his work provides insight into the possible causes of — and solutions for — violent behaviour.
The Boat People by Sharon Bala
Sharon Bala’s first novel is a timely commentary on the asylum seekers around the world who have fled their homelands because of war or persecution only to find that other countries are unwilling to give them refuge. The book is based on the true story of a ship that arrived in British Columbia in 2010 carrying 500 Tamil refugees who had fled persecution in Sri Lanka at the end of that country’s civil war. Bala tells the story from three points of view, reflecting the complexity of the situation. It is a heartbreaking and maddening story that humanizes the refugee experience, complicated and nuanced as it is.
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
Parents often say they don’t want their children to have it as hard as they did when they were younger. But do all parents feel that way? In The Sparsholt Affair, one of the most intriguing novels I read this past year, author Alan Hollinghurst goes there. It tells the story of a father and a son, both of whom are gay; the former had been forced to keep his sexuality secret, while the latter grew up during a time of greater tolerance. It’s a big, layered book about generational change, and Hollinghurst peels the layers back slowly and precisely. Read an excerpt.
Britt Wray’s book about the efforts to bring back animals that have become extinct was a finalist for the 2018 Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Award, and was shortlisted for the 2018 Non-Fiction Saroyan Prize. When we think of de-extinction, we tend to think of Jurassic Park, but Wray makes it clear that she’s not talking about bringing back dinosaurs. Science has found a way to bring back some extinct species, but it can’t actually bring back an identical copy. While exploring ethical issues, biology, and cutting-edge research, Wray makes complex scientific concepts accessible.