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Audience chooses County’s must-read book of the year

At County Reads 2023, Holly Kent, who spoke to Why Birds Sing (written by Nina Berkhout), Andrew Janikowski, winner defending Operation Angus (written by Terry Fallis); MaryAnn Farrell who defended Greenwood (written by Michael Christie); Dominique Jones with No More Nice Girls (written by Lauren McKeon) and moderator Ken Murray

By Sharon Harrison
Operation Angus is the book everyone in Prince Edward County should read, that according to local resident Andrew Janikowski who admirably, humorously and successfully defended the title at the 2023 County Reads debate with the winning book title written by Terry Fallis.

Forming part of the County Reads Authors Festival, the 14th annual County Reads Debate returned to its most recent location at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Picton, in-person for the first time in three years due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Joining Janikowski on stage were MaryAnn Farrell who defended Greenwood (written by Michael Christie), Holly Kent, who spoke to Why Birds Sing (written by Nina Berkhout), and Dominique Jones who outlined why No More Nice Girls (written by Lauren McKeon) should be everyone’s choice to read.

Presenters each year are free to choose any fiction or non-fiction, providing it is by a Canadian author and has been published in the last three years.

“We would not have a County Reads if it were not for the courage of the four intrepid defenders sitting in front of you,” said Barbara Sweet, Prince Edward County Public Library CEO, to the crowd gathered.

She acknowledged how much work it takes for each presenter to defend their book of choice, as well as the pressure of getting up on stage to speak in front of an audience.

“It is also an evening’s entertainment for us, your audience, and we are possibly introduced to a new author or to a new subject or unique perspective.”

County resident Ken Murray, novelist, essayist, playwright, short story writer and teacher, once again stepped up to the role of moderator and emcee, as he introduced the four presenters and guided them through the process.

“It’s so good to be back in the space with you all,” said Murray.

Each presenter was allowed a full six minutes to express why their title of choice should be the overall winner of the annual debate, where they were then given a further minute each to summarize and make their final pitch of why their defended book should be the winning title of the 2023 County Reads Debate.

“They are each going to have a book they each passionately defend and present as the book you must read,” outlined Murray. “You are going to make the decision, so you have the ballots in your hand, so listen closely.”

“They won’t be able to tell you every reason why you should read this book, but they will tell you the best ones, and there will be a bit of banter back and forth.”

HOLLY KENT PRESENTING WHY BIRDS SING BY NINA BERKHOUT
With the order drawn randomly, Picton resident Holly Kent outlined why, in her opinion, Why Birds Sing written by Ottawa poet and novelist Nina Berkhout, a novel she describes as one of her favourite books ever, should be read by everyone.

Kent is executive director at Ontario Book Publishers Organization and the Open Book Foundation, and arrived in the County in 2018, residing here with her husband, 15-month-old son and black Labrador.

Kent’s pitch mainly consisted of reading an excerpt “as the best way to sell the book”.

Set in Ottawa and in small towns in Ontario and Quebec, it involves an opera singer, Tulip a temperamental parrot, but also love, friendship and song, where Kent describes the title as a “light read in tone, but not in content” and “exceptionally written with so much empathy”.

She said the book has a fantastic cast of characters readers would like to get to know.

Paraphrasing a quote from the book, Kent said, “When she chooses even to look and trill like a songbird, why do birds sing; they sing to sing, birds sing because they can”.

“This book is a love story, sort of. I’m told not to tell you too much as I really do want you to read this book and don’t want to ruin a thing,” she said. “It is written with a tenderness and compassion that I wasn’t expecting and it brought me to tears more than once.”

“One thing this book does very emphatically is paints a picture of a cast of characters of flawed people, of fat people, joyful people, of people who are going on with their lives and are finding a reason to sing every day.”

MARYANN FARRELL PRESENTING GREENWOOD BY MICHAEL CHRISTIE
Indicating how she preferred to be behind the scenes rather than standing before an audience, marketing specialist MaryAnn Farrell, who resides just outside Picton, presented Greenwood written by Michael Christie.

Providing an introduction to some of the characters and a glimpse of the storyline of her chosen title, Farrell described the 501-pages as a “daunting read”, but one that she “embraced at once”.

A work of fiction, the focus of Greenwood is about the love of the land and relationships connected to the land, the trees, where it not only highlights their importance and the protection they need, but the speaks to the erasure of the world’s forests, the protection of old-growth forests, and the potential for ecological destruction, all centred around the structure of the growth rings of a tree.

“This epic family saga provides us with a study of the Greenwoods across the generations,” said Farrell. “It allows us to drill down into the characters, their motivation, their fears, their concerns in the time when they lived, the environment and surroundings always contributing to their existence. “

The story begins in 2038 as the world’s forests have been erased by fungal infections and insect infestations, and while the novel’s centre point is 1990, the storytelling continues through 1934, 1974 and 2008.

“If a fungal disease can destroy an entire colony of trees across the world, the climate crisis provides a wake-up call to show what else we can expect.”

“I am reminded that the complexities of trees inside and out, young and old, majestically tall and mere seedlings,” said Farrell. “The story is accessible and is complex and shows a sense of hope in each character’s connection to the trees.”

Farrell made comparisons to the rural County community as the natural elements are relied upon to nourish the crops, vineyards, gardens and forests, so that the many foods, wines and all the other ingredients vital to lives and livelihoods, can be enjoyed.

“We have also witnessed the winds, floods and storms that have ravaged areas, but we have also experienced the sense of community that helps volunteers, and aids and celebrates our families, friends and where we live,“ expressed Farrell. “We share that connection; it’s a County connection, it’s a Canadian connection, and many of these elements are represented in this story.”

Farrell says central themes in the book, one with great depth with characters than can frustrate include hope, family and inheritance.

“I really loved this book, the complexity of the characters, the trials across the country, the courage, loss, anger, pity, and the love that manages to find its way.”

ANDREW JANIKOWSKI PRESENTING OPERATION ANGUS BY TERRY FALLIS
Introduced as a long-time family doctor in Picton, in his work as a general practitioner, Andrew Janikowski also worked as an anesthetist and emergency room doctor, as well as being one of the County coroner’s for over 36 years. Janikowski retired from medical practice last year.

“That makes you a source for novelists everywhere!” joked Murray.

In his introduction, Murray noted how Janikowski also worked part-time as shipboard physician which gave him the chance to explore the far reaches of the planet.

“He’s been to Antarctica multiple times and has explored the route to the ill-fated Franklin expedition.”

Janikowski spoke to Operation Angus, a novel written by Terry Fallis, (the third book in this particular series), and a title he describes as a “first class read and amazing book full of great characters”.

“It is a description of the bureaucratic nonsense that takes place from Ottawa and that’s worth a read by itself,” said Janikowski, igniting audience laughter.

“The description of what goes on in Ottawa in this book is so realistic it’s like watching the CBC news in writing, in print; the description of the elected members of parliament and their slightly egotistical aids seems very true to those who follow, and sometimes the despair, of Canadian politics,” he said, garnering more laughter and bringing some welcome humour to the evening.

He outlines the aspirational character of Angus McLintock, a Scottish engineering professor who much to his regret, became a politician.

“This was the beginning of a true Canadian literary character, basically an unelectable candidate in the federal election.”

He says, the suspense builds-up as you get into this book and is well-paced, but is also nothing too challenging, and the story has a wonderful and unexpected twist.

“It’s just a book that will make you really happy – really happy that you read this book.”

“It is a love story, it’s got intrigue, it’s got really smart seniors, and politicians that you love to hate, it’s all here; if you are looking for a book that will make you happy and satisfied, it will give you a really good feeling.”

“Some may shrug this book may be a little light-weight, and the characters not deep enough for some people who like very deep stories, but it’s an excellent piece of escapism and it’s the kind of book to curl up with on a long winter’s day, or take it up to the cottage and read it by the lake.”

In his final one-minute pitch, Janikowski’s humorous engagement continued.

“We all know life is tough. We worry about making mortgage payments. We worry about the cost of groceries. We worry about the war. We worry about the world. We worry and then we worry some more, so do we really need to read a book that is going to make us worry as well?” he suggested, again to much audience laughter.

“We want to read to get relief from the stress of the everyday world. We want to read to get that wonderful escapism feeling that only a good book can offer.”

DOMINIQUE JONES PRESENTING NO MORE NICE GIRLS BY LAUREN MCKEON
Sophiasburgh resident Dominique Jones, executive director with the County Foundation, brought the fourth and final selection to the stage with No More Nice Girls, written by Lauren McKeon. She is joined in the County with her husband and 15-month-old son.

“Before diving into this task, I first thought what makes a great book, what makes a book impactful?” said Jones. “Literature to me can be more than just stories, more than entertainment, what we chose to read can impact our lives and how we approach things looking forward.”

She said the title of the book may cause some to take a sharp intake of breath.

“For some, the concept of feminism and intersectional feminism creates a divide where that’s not the intent.”

Jones says the author examines the many ways in which institutions are designed to keep women and other marginalized genders having disadvantage.

“So rather than continuing to play by the rules and power structures that were designed by and reinvented a sub-section of people, we might need to look at flipping the script analyzing those rules.“

She said McKeon’s commentary can sometimes by startling and biting.

“I found it also to have humour, often of a sarcastic line, and provide some optimism on the path forward, and this book should be read by everyone in the County and our collective journey towards equity.”

Along with the presenters’ pitches, Murray also asked each defender for the top three “aha” moments from their chosen title. He also went on to ask each the same two questions, not revealed to them ahead of time.

The first question he posed to the presenters was, ‘Tell us about the first book that really affected you’.

Jones cited the Harry Potter series.

“I was quite young when they first started out; this was just a magical series that I was able to dive into and it was just not subject matter that was whimsical, it was just the joy of reading it that brought to heart and soul.”

In his now familiar humorous fashion, Janikowski mused that with being so old, he doesn’t remember his first book.

“I invariably had a book from the New York Times bestseller list, so I had six or seven of the top 10; books were always a part of my life, so it was probably something my mother read to me.”

The moderator’s second random question to the defenders, ‘The author you just presented is right in front of you, you’ve got one question, what would you ask?

Farrell responded to the question by saying she would ask how the author kept track of the characters.

“He criss-crossed the country, he criss-crossed generations, and he said the rings on the tree actually inspired him to help keep track, but even so, they are such intricate characters and I just wonder the depth he got to with each of them, how did he do that.”

Jones noted the author of her title, Lauren McKeon, was in the County a week or two ago, but indicated she would ask, “If Hilary Clinton did become president, would you still have written this book?”

With the last word going to the winner of the 2023 County Reads Debate, Janikowski thanked the audience for their support and said for those who haven’t read it, “I hope I have intrigued your interest in it”, where he recommended reading all three books in the series, starting with the first.

“It’s one of those series’ that will make you laugh out loud, and your partner will wonder what the heck’s going on with you!” he concluded.

“It’s amazing because for the price of a few dollars, and a little of your time and attention, you can dive into a book and go just about anywhere,” added Murray.

A recording of the 2023 County Reads Debate is expected to be available for viewing on the PEC Public Library YouTube channel, along with the various County Reads Authors Festival speaker interviews. Click here to visit the library’s website for links

All books presented at County Reads, as well as those showcased during the speaker series, are available at the library and at Books and Company.

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