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Anna Porter: Variety of Canadian non-fiction makes speed reading an asset

A life in publishing has made Anna Porter a fast reader. She figures she can motor through about 300 pages an hour, once she has a grasp on the book. This came in handy as a juror (along with Globe and Mail books editor Jared Bland and the Vancouver Sun's Daphne Bramham) for British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, which received more than 140 submissions. Ms. Porter, an award-winning author herself, spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in Toronto before heading to Vancouver, where the prize will be awarded on Friday.

What was the jury process?

We sent one another e-mails with our top picks, as opposed to some of the juries I've been on where you eliminate books. This was a very encouraging way to do it. We had a number of phone conversations. We had at least one or two before the long list and then a couple on the shortlist and then one for the winner only. It was quite interesting that we were so unanimous. We had unanimous agreement on the long list and the shortlist, although we had five books on the shortlist, which is one more than usual.

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I think the big difficulty with general non-fiction as a category is that it is so varied. How can you compare some of these books to one another? They're very, very different. I mean, how do you compare [the books of] Carolyn Abraham with J.B. MacKinnon? What in heck do they have in common? I was blown away by not only the range, but the quality.

I'd like to hear your brief impressions of each of the five shortlisted books. Let's start with Graeme Smith's The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, about his time reporting there for The Globe and Mail.

I found it to be both a riveting read and an extraordinarily tough read, because of what he sees, observes and reflects upon. I don't know him. But by the time I finished reading the book, I felt that I did know him. I've got to tell you, I resisted at first because I thought, "Oh, God, I can't stand it, it's too painful, too depressing." But I couldn't put it down.

What about Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914?

It's a little bit unfair because I was so much looking forward to reading this one and it is an extraordinary book. It's a history that I know and I've read a lot about this period. But her, I think, unique gift as a historian is that she's able to write about the individuals in a way that you can actually see them. Her portrayal of the people who led Europe into that mass slaughter is amazing. And so you keep reading, even though it's a massive book.

Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America.

I think I've read all of his books, and I love his humour, and I also love his tough critical stance. He's not a guy to be bought by gestures. This book is at times hilarious, but it's also angry. And it's both personal and based on history and politics. I think he's one of the finest writers that we in this country are fortunate to have.

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J.B. Mackinnon's The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be.

This is the most poetic of the books on the shortlist and it speaks to the heart and also to the imagination. A lot of the books that have to do with the environment are so grim that you're not sure whether you should go join a demonstration or sink into your bed and cover your head because it's so hopeless. This book is not like that. I really loved it.

Former Globe and Mail reporter Carolyn Abraham's The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us.

I love family stories, always have. It's a wonderful family saga and she's a superb writer. It's highly entertaining. You really get swept up with the story and she has a great voice for storytelling.

It's a very strong shortlist. I can't wait to find out which book you selected.

It's an extraordinary book and I'm just thrilled that it's the winner, absolutely thrilled.

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