The Agenda's year in books: 2020 edition

Highlighting the books and authors featured in a year of extreme weather events, calls for social change, a U.S. presidential election, and an unprecedented pandemic
By Carla Lucchetta - Published on Dec 29, 2020



With COVID-19 dominating the news this year, a good number of the books featured on The Agenda focused on pandemics, past and present. But U.S. politics, social change, and extreme weather events were also hot topics that brought authors to our airwaves. Here is a taste of some insightful and informative conversations.


Why do we love pandemic literature?

Our panel of books with pandemic storylines featured Emily St. John Mandel and her novel, Station Eleven, depicting the aftermath of a pandemic that wipes out much of the world’s population; Saleema Nawaz, author of Songs for the End of the World, about a group of people navigating their lives during a coronavirus pandemic; and Emma Donoghue, author of The Pull of the Stars, which focuses on nurses in Ireland during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. But writing dystopian fiction is quite different than living through the reality of a world-wide infectious disease outbreak. “I predict that fewer people will write about pandemics because seriously, who wants to write about this when you’ve just gone through it?” said St. John Mandel. “It’s just no longer speculative.”

Travelling in a COVID-suspended world

Toronto-based journalist Ethan Lou arrived in China to visit his ill grandfather just in time for Chinese New Year, but after one visit he was locked out of the care home. From there, he planned to travel to several European countries, ending in Germany where he'd spent his early childhood. But COVID-19 had other plans for him. The result is his book, Field Notes From a Pandemic, part travelogue, part reflection on how past outbreaks have changed the world order, and how this one is being managed. He told Steve Paikin, “It was definitely a jarring sight to see China back then. And even when I left China, I felt very relieved that I was leaving it all behind. I did not expect the plague to just follow me. A great part of my book deals with how I feel there’s a collective blind spot on the part of everyone. I think if more was done back then, we would not be in this situation right now.”

Creating a Pandemic Children's Story

McMaster University medical student Nicole Crimi's Patty and the Pandemic earned her a shout-out from Premier Doug Ford during a press briefing in late September. Also an artist and illustrator, Crimi wanted to create a story that would help children understand health guidelines and how to keep one another safe. Here, Hamilton-Niagara Hub journalist Justin Chandler interviewed her about why she took on the project amid a chaotic school year. 

Epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews also shed a light on disease and epidemics. He talked to Nam Kiwanuka about his book, On Pandemics: Deadly Diseases from Bubonic Plague to Coronavirus, and why some viruses make the jump from animals to humans, which ones have staying power, and how societies have dealt with pandemics throughout history. And historian Timothy Winegard discussed his Charles Taylor Prize-nominated book, Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator. In the book, he tracks how the disease-carrying pest has killed nearly half of humanity over the centuries.

Taylor book prize nominees in the Agenda studio
Charles Taylor Prize nominees, along with the writers they mentor, producer Carla Lucchetta and host Steve Paikin (centre) in the Agenda studio, February 2020.

Speaking of the Charles Taylor prize, 2020 was the last year the honour would be bestowed on a Canadian non-fiction writer. The Agenda's annual prize panel featured authors Mark Bourrie, Robyn Doolittle, Jessica McDiarmid, Zia Tong, and Timothy C. Winegard, all vying for the $25,000 prize given out at a luncheon just a few weeks before the March lockdown. Looking back, it's a bittersweet memory that we crowded into a ballroom at the King Edward hotel in Toronto, sharing conversation and a lavish meal, one of the last book events or gatherings of any kind for many of us in attendance that afternoon.

Climate Change and the Environment

Can cities help fix the Climate Crisis?

Former Toronto mayor David Miller visited us from his home office to chat about his book, Solved: How The World’s Greatest Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis, based on his work as director of international diplomacy and global ambassador of inclusive climate action at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. “What I'm getting at is most of the world's carbon emissions are in cities," Miller said. And amongst the biggest cities of the world there are real solutions happening today, not waiting for new inventions but actually happening today."

A polar bear’s journey through the Arctic

On the precarious life of polar bears due to changes in their natural habitat, explorer and author James Raffan’s Ice Walker: A Polar Bear's Journey Through the Fragile Arctic is a fictional account based in science that gives readers a glimpse into the life and plight of the iconic creature. "If you believe in anthropogenic climate change and you look at the length of the winter available to the polar bear populations in southwestern Hudson Bay... the length of the time in which ice is on the bay is diminishing markedly since the industrial revolution. And we've kept closer tabs on the actual number of days that there is ice available for hunting more so in the last four decades than any previous time before that going back to the 19th century. But bears are creatures of the ice. The ice is disappearing. And I don't care how you slice it, that is a problem for the ice walker.”

U.S. Politics

Conservative dreams of a boring America

On the eve of the U.S. presidential election, American satirist P.J. O'Rourke gave Steve Paikin his take on how the divide gripping the U.S. seemingly worsened in the four years of Trump's presidency, from his book, A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land. “I’m not asking everybody to come together in a group hug to sing "Kumbaya." I’m simply asking us to get back to substantive arguments and to get away from this identification and hatred of the other that we seem to be going through right now.”

Exploring the Trumpification of Fox

CNN’s media critic Brian Stelter explored Donald Trump’s over-the-line relationship with FOX News and its anchors in his book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth. Of the unorthodox bond between Trump and Sean Hannity, Stelter said, “If you want to find collusion in the Trump years, this is it. Hannity and Trump are personal friends. They talk about their families, their lives, their grievances. But they also exchange talking points and themes and ideas for future shows, and then Hannity is also pushing for Trump to hire certain people or fire certain people. This is a back and forth relationship that turns Hannity, a television host, really an entertainer, into a shadow chief of staff.”

Social Issues

Trauma, Addiction, and Recovery

In From the Ashes: My Story of being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way, Jesse Thistle chronicles his life before and after homelessness and hard times – ultimately a story portraying the possibility of personal transformation and lasting change. He told Nam Kiwanuka what it meant to him, and the difference it made in his life to research his Indigenous roots and find belonging there: “When I went back [to Saskatchewan], there was a whole community of elders, relatives that were there waiting for me, basically, to come back and rediscover who I was as a Métis-Cree person. I went back with my doctoral supervisor and interviewed the ancestors from the Northwest Resistance. And I heard there were other people like me from my generation who didn't know who they were – it was like I have the keys to understand my own trauma. I understood that I’m part of a larger sociological push of dispossession in this country that ended with my generation and the intergenerational trauma fraying away the edges of our community and our kids got lost. It created a fellowship and gave me back a sense of my identity where I wasn't afraid.”

Being Black in a White Place

Author and journalist Eternity Martis spoke to Nam Kiwanuka about her book, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up. Martis's memoir reflects on her experiences at Western University in London, Ont., where she found the atmosphere unwelcoming and hostile to a Black woman. “A lot of the book is about Western and London. And coming from Toronto, it wasn't that I was exempt from anti-Black racism, but I had left as a child, and so, going into this place that wasn't as multicultural, there's a lot of innocent-seeming comments like, "I love Black people." Or, "I've never seen a Black person in London." And I thought it was kind of funny, but then I started to find that these comments were a bit more malicious. I once went to a party and a couple of students showed up in blackface. And so, things that I wasn't used to back home were happening in this environment that I was new to, and I didn't really know how to talk about it because I had never experienced these things.”

Fighting Racism in Canada

In his book, The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, Toronto writer and activist Desmond Cole reveals the blatent and underlying racism that exists in Toronto, no matter how it touts its diversity. "This is the problem with what people call a multicultural city," he explained in this interview with Steve Paikin. "I think it's more accurate to say it's a segregated city. Because you can't be in whole spaces. One of the most fascinating things I found about Toronto in the last 30 years is that as the entire population of Toronto has become more Black and brown and other racialized people, the downtown core has become more white. That tells me everything that I need to know about this city."

Other authors that brought social issues to light in their books were journalist Justin Ling with his book, Missing in the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System that Failed Toronto's Queer Community; and feminist writer Lauren McKeon with her offering, No More Nice Girls: Why It's Time to Stop Playing By the Rules, on how to build on forward movement spurred by the #MeToo movement.


A Memoir of Addiction and Recovery

Wildly popular band Great Big Sea might've brought the party to Canadians, but behind the scenes founding member Séan McCann struggled with alcohol addiction that covered an even deeper secret: at age 15, he'd been sexually abused by his parish priest who'd become his best friend. In One Good Reason: A Memoir of Addiction and Recovery, Music and Love, written with his wife Andrea Aragon, he unravels how finally confronting the truth took their struggling marriage to a greater level of understanding and acceptance. In one of the most affecting interviews for me, he tells Nam Kiwanuka about the after-effects of the abuse: "Everything I believed in was gone. I mean, I was a believer, too. I was fully indoctrinated into the Catholic faith. This was a man who was my best friend, who was my parish priest, my confessor. He had the power to forgive my sins, the keys to heaven and hell. And in retrospect, now, that's way too much power to give to someone. Anyone. Ever."

Wisdom Earned Through Life and Music

She's a popular and lauded singer-songwriter, a Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee, a Member of the Order of Canada, a podcaster, and star and executive producer of the network TV show, Jann. She also became a beacon for people all over the world who recognized their own lives in her frank and emotional social media posts about her struggle to caregive her mother who lived with Alzheimer's. Jann Arden's new book, If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging, reveals her personal reflections on the strength and self-acceptance she's found after the death of both her parents.

And, if you've ever wondered about Toronto punk rock roots, watch this interview about the book Tomorrow is Too Late, with co-author Shawn Chirrey and contributing author Simon Harvey, about the hardcore punk subculture that existed for a time in the city in the 1980s.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Steve Paikin's popular annual music show within which this year he spoke to author Peter Jennings about his book, Until I Smile At You, about Toronto songwriter Ruth Lowe who penned hit songs for Frank Sinatra. 

And since we're talking about Ol' Blue Eyes, Paikin finally reveals what's up with his life-long fascination with the mid-century crooner.

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