Toronto Book Awards 2006

Toronto Book Awards Highlight Five Toronto Titles

The Toronto Book Awards Committee announced the finalists for the Toronto Book Awards yesterday, highlighting five titles that "evoke the spirit of Toronto." The finalists for the award all feature Toronto extensively in their works, and the winner of the award will receive over $10,000 in prize money.

Last year's winner, Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, was a collection of short stories that originally appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper's, and were all brought together by a cohesive narrative revolving around a newly arrived family of Russian Jews to Toronto. The stories portrayed a side of Toronto that was often ignored, yet still resonated with Torontonians everywhere through their vivid descriptions of city life. Bezmozgis' collection and his stories went on to win various other awards.

While none of this year's finalists capture Toronto in the impressive way that Bezmozgis was able to paint the urban landscape, there's still quite a treasure chest of literature being showcased at this year's awards.

Howard Akler's The City Man, which looks at Toronto in the 1930s, is a compelling read and does a great job of showcasing city life most of us were to young to remember, but falls short of Akler's previous contribution to the Unknown City project, where he really explores the Toronto that we all know and love, but is often ignored by tourists.

M.G. Vassanji's When She Was Queen demonstrates the two-time Giller Prize winner's deftness with the language, but this collection of short stories lags when it comes to looking at Toronto. Instead, his most vivid descriptions revolve around his East African and Gujarati locales. Vassanji's earlier collection of short stories — Uhuru Street — that revolves around his time in his home city of Dar es Salaam (which also happens to be my own birthplace, so I may be a bit biased) is much more nuanced.

Of the three nominated titles I have read, Wilcox and McBride's uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto is clearly my favorite, and that's no surprise: it is a collection of essays on visions of Toronto by a multitude of influential Torontonians. Sure, the essays rarely venture north of Bloor, the attached maps leave out many parts of the current Toronto, and many of the visions are too safe to be noteworthy, but uTOpia will get people thinking about the city in ways they hadn't before. John Lorinc's essay on Toronto's retail malls is particularly outstanding.

I haven't read Dionne Brand's What We All Long For yet, but her earlier work in poetry has been critically acclaimed, with her previous books winning the Griffin Prize and the Governor's General Award. Brand's nominated novel follows five second-generation Torontonians who are trying to make their way through life in the big city.

According to critics, Stephen Marche's Raymond and Hannah is a "tale of two cities" that uses Toronto and Jerusalem as backdrops for a doomed romance and the conflict between geography, culture, and religion. I just added it to my hold list at TPL, and there are still about 200 holds for it in front of me to be filled.

The winner of the Toronto Book Awards will be announced on September 6, 2006, and all the finalists will be reading from their books during The Word on the Street festival in late September.

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