The Huffington Post Canada is proud to be a returning sponsor of the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In the weeks leading up to the March 4 announcement of this year's prize winner, our readers can look forward to reading excerpts from each of the five finalists. (The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share.) To kick things off, here is some background from Charles Taylor Foundation Chairman Noreen Taylor on what it's like to narrow the field down to the deserving final five.
The lead-up to the short-list announcement is always filled with anxious moments. We know we will have to handle each and every difficulty arising from the jury's choice. As so much of the value of the Taylor Prize is derived from the exposure these shortlisted books receive in each 6-8 week cycle, our biggest concern is: Will these shortlisted authors be available to partake in this intense media exposure? Will each author actually reside in Canada? Or, more to the point, will they be residing in Canada from the time that the book is named to the shortlist to the day after the winner is selected? My fear is not only that they will all be living in Australia but that they will have all taken important postings in South America. Experience has taught me to be fearful.
Then, there is the problem I face as a "fan" of non-fiction writing. This not only causes me to have read a large number of the books submitted throughout the year, but to care about them. I fret about whether the jury will have appreciated the ones I thought were "special." For whatever reasons, some books burrow themselves into a place in your heart. I don't know how this happens, but it does happen. No matter what, you find yourself hoping that your favourites will make the shortlist...and always regretting that some that you love did not receive that same enthusiastic support.
From wondering whether the journalists will show up for the shortlist press conference to worrying whether a heavy snowfall will prevent anyone at all from attending, the period from January 1 to the moment of the announcement a little over a week later is a time of sleepless nights. And then, suddenly, a juror comes to the microphone and begins to speak...
Just as suddenly, all the fears that have been so bothersome fall away. As we hear, for the first time, how many books were read and re-read, and as we hear to the jurors talk about their process of selection, the whole project of bringing Canada's best non-fiction to its well-deserved audience is, once again, worthwhile. Of course, there might be difficulties, but Australia is suddenly do-able. There are flights daily, and one will be suit the schedule. And, as for that job in Argentina, we will fly the author here and back or re-adjust our schedule to take care of their work requirements. Every potential problem which seemed so insurmountable the week before suddenly becomes insignificant as that first juror begins to speak. The books are just that good.
So, what was the response to this year's choices? Well, two of the finalists live in the United Kingdom and the other three are spread across the country. As far as I know, none of them has signed contract for work on the other side of the globe which will force them to work night and day for the next two months. My fears that they will all be unavailable and all our efforts to heighten the awareness of their book will come to naught fade away. And, finally, here's the best part: I had already read most of this year's shortlist shortly after each book was published, and, truth be told, these books were my favourites too!
What the jury said: "Carol Bishop-Gwyn does for Celia Franca what history requires and demands. She gives us the complex story of an artist both driven and tyrannical, both sensitive and unreasonable, but someone able, with little help and in what was little more than a cultural backwater, to found a ballet company which was to become one of the best in the world, the National Ballet of Canada. The company still bears her stamp. Bishop-Gwyn's rich biography tells us exactly why."
What the jury said: "We measure Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King, our two world war prime ministers, by the extent to which each rose to the occasion, led our country to bloody war, and led us out again, each of them effective warriors striving for peace. Tim Cook's <em>Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars</em> portrays these two men as they really were, men moderately able to lead Canada through a dark time and, despite their numerous shortcomings (particularly Mackenzie King's), able to survive politically. Cook's great achievement is his capturing of Canada as it grapples with its identity."
What the jury said: "In taking on the life of P.K. Page, Sandra Djwa needed to be as driven and sensitive as her subject. <em>Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page</em> is not only the story of one of Canada's greatest artists and poets, but also a history of the flowering of Canadian literature and culture in the twentieth century. Using the tools of the scholar -- letters, notes, diaries, manuscripts, texts and interviews -- Djwa fashions a compelling and necessary biography. She does the important job of leaving us with the big, rich life story, which gives an extra dimension to the art of a great writer."
What the jury said: "<em>Leonardo and The Last Supper</em> is the latest in Ross King's studies of medieval Italian masters from Machiavelli to Brunelleschi to, now, the grand master of all, Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper is the most famous painting in the world excepting only for another by the same painter, the <em>Mona Lisa</em>, and it is the painting that raised da Vinci from the status of a highly promising but exasperatingly unproductive painter to the rank of the greatest artistic genius of all time. <em>Leonardo and The Last Supper</em> is a masterly exercise in the art of popular biography."
What the jury said: "Fluently written, comprehensively researched, and scrupulously balanced, Andrew Preston's <em>Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith</em> describes how the foreign policy of the United States has been and is influenced, alternately decisively and marginally, by the fact that so many Americans regard themselves as a people chosen to do God's work to others and because American leaders all the way from Lincoln to George W. Bush have used religious convictions to justify political acts. Showing that the centrality of religion in American life is by no means unique to fundamentalists and neo-conservatives, this important work has such chapter titles as "High Priests of the Cold War" and "A Judeo-Christian Foreign Policy," which convey Preston's originality and, indeed, his bravery."