12/04/2012 03:34 EST | Updated 02/03/2013 05:12 EST

Memoirs, historical explorations up for B.C. non-fiction prize

Two memoirs and two historical investigations will vie for one of Canada's top non-fiction literary honours.

Organizers of the $40,000 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction unveiled a short list of four titles on Tuesday.

West Coast writer and former Canadian poet laureate George Bowering made the cut for Pinboy, in which he recounts tales from his youth in the Okanagan Valley in the mid-1950s.

The book focusses on the "pain and yearnings of the teenage years," according to the jury, comprising retired Vancouver Public Library city librarian Paul Whitney, Globe and Mail books editor Martin Levin and publishing industry stalwart Jan Whitford.

"George Bowering has crafted a unique memoir of adolescence, of his adolescence, that is by turns charming and self-deprecating, funny and perceptive, raunchy and sensitive," the jury wrote.

Robert Fowler's much more serious memoir is also in contention. A Season in Hell: My 130 Days In the Sahara With Al Qaeda — a frequent nominee for Canadian book prizes this season — tracks the Ottawa-based diplomat's kidnapping in Africa.

"Because the reader sees only what the author sees, and knows only what Fowler knows, the book reads with the tension and pacing of a fictional thriller, despite the fact that we know from the outset what the eventual outcome will be," the jury said.

"Fowler's gripping account, from the moment of his abduction, is astonishingly detailed, at times chillingly detached and at times heart-wrenchingly moving, but always nuanced and thoughtful, never maudlin or self-aggrandizing."

Candace Savage spent a decade researching the history of Cypress Hills, Sask. for her book A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape. Nominated for the B.C. prize and recently a winner of the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, the book explores the dark and tragic history of the region.

"A Geography of Blood takes the reader on a surprising journey, haunting and melancholy, but one that ultimately begins to overcome the 'decades of mistrust, sharp as razor wire' that stand between us and the tens of thousands of 'displaced people, refugees in their home and native lands,'" the jury said.

Modris Eksteins rounds out the short list for his Vincent van Gogh-inspired Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. Rather than a traditional biography of the famed artist, the Toronto-based historian explores the cult of van Gogh that arose after his death and which continues today.

The jurors described Solar Dance as "a fascinating work of cultural history, and a provocative analysis of the roots of the modern era as it developed in the social and political turmoil of the early 20th century."

"This short list exemplifies how crucial the best Canadian non-fiction is to the ongoing construction of our national identity," said Keith Mitchell, chair of the B.C. Achievement Foundation, which administers the annual prize.

Altogether, 143 books were submitted for consideration. A long list of 10 was revealed in early November.

The winner — who will join the ranks of past recipients such as Charlotte Gill, John Vaillant, Russell Wangersky and Patrick Lane — will be announced at a ceremony in Vancouver in February.