Barbara Amiel on judging the Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction

Five extraordinary books, two celebrity judges and only one winner
Barbara Amiel

On Monday evening the winner of the richest book prize in Canada, the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for non-fiction, a cool $60,000, will be announced and I know the result. That’s the single advantage of being a judge. The disadvantages are legion—including the legion of authors and their friends, associates and publishers who will think your decision befits that of a donkey’s ass.

My first experience as a book judge was in 1988. A new prize for non-fiction had been established in Britain called the NCR Book Award. I can’t remember a thing now except that I was uncomfortable and sure I had damp patches under my arms sitting in the very prissy hotel room with the other judges, some of Britain’s Great and Good literary lions. We read dozens of books and met for tremendously civilized discussions over tea and buns which were nearly thrown across the table several times. I have never recuperated from having to deliver a synopsis of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to a black-tie audience in London on awards night. You probably have not read A Brief History of Time or, if you did, have not lived to tell the tale. The first part was a rattling-good read and the second part left me in mud up to the top of my head. Still, I knew the NCR prize was a very good thing because non-fiction quite often gets a bit of a pass-over in the literary prize field and this prize was at the time the richest book award in the UK.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Hilary Weston Prize.  When I was chosen as a “celebrity” judge together with CTV’s Seamus O’Regan, the announcement was made at Weston headquarters in Toronto on the ground floor of the new Loblaw store. There was a little dais set up between the delicatessen counter and pastries with rows of chairs. I thought it a very appropriate place. Writing is nourishment for the body and soul, Loblaw is a Canadian enterprise and the Westons have a history as down-to-earth billionaires. I was mildly worried that a handy bun might be thrown at the dais by a non-book-loving groceries’ shopper but the announcement went off without a hitch—although the whole thing clearly bemused passers-by as we sat legs crossed, blocking their shopping carts.

Being a pessimist I was prepared for the worst on reading the five finalists, particularly since as a celeb judge I hadn’t had a say about the shortlist. In fact, I was riveted by all the books—though clearly not all equally—and on topics I had never thought would rivet me even if stranded in darkest La Guardia airport (a very nasty place) with no Kindle or Indigo Kobo e-reader.

A Geography of Blood, for example, is a story set in the dust-dry hills of remote Saskatchewan with tales of “fur traders, Métis and Indians.” Worthy, I thought, doubtless very Canadian but nope, not for me. In fact, yes, very much for me and for you, too. Exceptional writing after all can make any subject dance for the reader and in this case, Candace Savage’s book did it and made me cry—real salt tears.

The Measure of a Man by J.J. Lee is as cosmopolitan as Savage is rural but it’s cosmopolitan in no way I had known about. There are so many obscure but fascinating worlds under our noses, busy anthills of emotion and wisdom.  Who could have expected to feel such affection for a little shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown where a few old men make bespoke men’s suits? Author Lee apprenticed in one, Modernize Tailors in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and his history of men’s clothing and tailoring woven together with a personal memoir is a non-fiction tour de force.

I drive two gas-guzzling cars. One is a small Nissan that I can easily park filled with my “stuff” and one is a huge Toyota Minivan for my dogs filled with their “stuff.”  I’ve never cared much about brand of cars, don’t give a fig whether mine is Japanese, Korean or German—less keen on anything Swedish for some obscure reason to do with the sort of drivers Swedish cars seem to attract—but given my disposition, this would hardly prepare me to rave about Straphanger, a book by Taras Grescoe that has “Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile” emblazoned on the front cover. But look, how can you resist a book where the author has really done his research and takes you into the driver’s cabin of the Chou rapid train in Japan, colloquially known as the “Chuocide line.” A book so temptingly written that you begin to question your own viewpoints and, anyway, it’s so much fun to be along for the ride.

Far, far away from the world of Straphanger is the Berlin of the 1930s: author Modris Eksteins (who is distinguished in having virtually no presence on Google, an achievement in itself), won oodles of prizes for an earlier book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. His short-listed book for the Weston Prize Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age centres on the man who created modern art, Vincent Van Gogh. Europe in the 1930s was heading into very nasty times although it can’t be beat for fascination—the Weimar Republic in its death throes, politics and culture at each other’s throats, artists taking up arms and in the middle of this comes a sensational trial I knew absolutely nothing about—the Wacker trial of 1932 with charges of mass forging of Van Gogh’s work. The questions raised at that trial echo today and as Eksteins takes us into it, he tackles huge metaphysical and even epistemological questions with such easy prose you think you are just reading a wonderful art detective story.

If Berlin in the 1930s is not your cup of tea, then let non-fiction take you to the Middle East and author Kamal Al-Solaylee’s book Intolerable. A book about coming out gay makes sense in Western society but one doesn’t actually think of the problems of such a matter when your life begins in Aden and see-saws into Cairo, Beirut, and London before coming to Toronto. Obviously, if you sit down and ponder the implications of being Muslim and gay in theocracies or countries in transition to theocracy, the problems are immense but this is not a whiney book or even a book of victimization. It’s not really even a book about being gay. This is about survival and identity on many levels. The whole story is so singular and unlike any biography I have ever read.  I could not put it down and speaking as a heterosexual Jewess, I am so glad Al-Solaylee let me in. This is a world I could never have experienced.

So there we are. Five books. Five extraordinary reads and only one winner. To be announced Monday night.