The Journal’s favourite CanLit

Members of our editorial board name their must-have reads

Margaret Atwood
Morning in the Burned House

Margaret Atwood. Wow, bold choice. But really, I made it because I think she’s overlooked as a poet. I’m willing to bet that every person who reads this has read an Atwood novel, but the number of Atwood poetry fans seems to shrink enormously.

A good place to start is her 1995 collection Morning in the Burned House. It contains, I think, some of her best verses, and to me her poetry is some of her best writing.

She writes distinctly modern poetry, and she does it well, but part of what makes it so special is the unmistakable tinge of Canada mixed in with the contemporary poetic flavour that often emanates from Britain or the U.S.

“February” is a good example of the challenging undulation of Atwood’s images. She loves to show us the untidiness of our lives, to tear away the appearances we construct. “In the burned house I am eating breakfast. / You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast. Yet here I am,” she writes.

Sit down and have breakfast with her some time—there’s a lot to learn.

—James Bradshaw

Mordecai Richler
Solomon Gursky Was Here

My father doesn’t have many heroes, or so he says, but Mordecai Richler is one of them. So it was only natural that I should grow up reading the adventures of Jacob Two-Two, the star of Richler’s popular series for kids.

When I moved on to Richler’s other books, I was hooked. Solomon Gursky Was Here is without a doubt my favourite of his works—it’s an epic, in every sense of the word.

Spanning time, generations and space, it touches on Arctic exploration and corrupt business back-stabbing that is astonishingly reminiscent of the politics of the Bronfman family, Canada’s own whisky barons.

The narrative jumps—at times incomprehensibly—between the mid-nineteenth century Canadian backwoods life of Ephraim Gursky, who is introduced to the reader as “a small fierce hooded man cracking a whip,” and the 1980s persona of Moses Berger, an endearingly pathetic personality with a strange obsession with the now-legendary Gursky clan—and numerous eras and characters in between.

Richler does a masterful job of linking these complex plotlines and people into a well-woven whole that is a delicious read.

—Anna Mehler Paperny

Leonard Cohen
Stranger Music

I’m not the world’s biggest poetry fan, nor am I at all inclined to be a poet, but there’s something about Leonard Cohen’s writing that makes me want to throw everything away, run off to Montreal and write lengthy odes to handsome boys with day-old stubble who will never look at me twice.

Stranger Music, a collection including work from most of Cohen’s volumes of poetry and lyrics from many of his albums, stirs up all the artistic inclination that’s settled at the bottom of my otherwise-rational brain and inspires flights of passion every time I open it up.

Some of Cohen’s poems are stark and fearful, while others explore deeper themes while also transforming the mundane into the beautiful. In “Streetcars,” Montreal’s seedy Ste-Catherine Street becomes the site “where the crutches hang / like catatonic divining twigs.”

I’ve never been able to put my finger on what exactly it is that is so beautiful about these words, sitting innocuously together on the page, despite the fact I took a whole class last year that was dedicated to analyzing exactly that.

There simply is no fancy term to describe Cohen’s ability to put words together exactly how they belong, to evoke with a short phrase the essence of the most troublesome of romantic and worldly neuroses, and to comfort and inspire the reader in turn.

And there shouldn’t be such a term, either. It’s the ineffable magic in Cohen’s particular way with words that gives the poems their value.

—Vanessa Crandall

Terry Woo
Banana Boys

As a young Asian-Canadian, Terry Woo’s Banana Boys profoundly impacted my sense of identity, and it has done the same to every Asian I know who has read the book.

The novel details the lives of five Canadian-born-Chinese friends (CBCs) shortly after one of them mysteriously dies.

Woo writes from personal experience as a CBC himself, and every memory he writes about resonates with the unseen demographic of the young male CBC. Torn between two cultures, the banana boys—yellow on the outside, white on the inside—are caught in varying degrees of identity crisis.

As well as being a sharp and humorous work of fiction, it establishes some sense of identity for those of the same ethnicity as the novel’s characters. This isn’t to say that Banana Boys is for only Chinese or Korean people—the departure from such stereotypes is what sets Woo’s novel apart.

It’s about five ordinary guys who happen to be Asian, not the other way around. The characters’ ethnicities and struggles are not overtly celebrated, but they subtly permeate every aspect of their lives in the form of such issues as childhood ostracism and relationship woes.

The issues faced by the characters speak to wider concerns about Asians, especially Asian men, and where they place themselves in Canadian society. To some, Banana Boys has become a rallying point for a generation of Asians who, believing themselves alone and lost in their struggle for identity, find themselves not so alone anymore.

As Terry Woo puts it, “I’m glad to be a banana. I like being a banana. I like who I am.”

—David Lee

Paul Quarrington
Whale Music

I must credit Etobicoke’s Canadian Shield art rockers, The Rheostatics, for introducing me to Paul Quarrington.

With great admiration, they named their landmark album, 1992’s Whale Music, after his novel of the same name. It is fitting, I suppose, that a great Canadian band led me to love a great Canadian author. After all, they both create art that reeks of an elusive, yet distinctive, Canuckness.

Whale Music tells the story of Desmond Howell, who, with his brother Danny, reached international pop superstardom in the 1960s. At the height of their fame, Danny dies in a car accident. Subsequently, Des degenerates into an erratic, overweight, overly medicated, eccentric recluse. Think Brian Wilson.

We enter the story as our clumsy protagonist, long tired of the mainstream music biz, has rejected all societal norms and expectations. Des spends most of his time obsessively constructing a sprawling, instrumental opus—not for humans, but for whales—and eating jelly-filled doughnuts.

“The record execs say that Whale Music isn’t commercial. I say it’s not my fault whales don’t have any money,” Des says.

Claire, “an alien from the planet Toronto,” enters Des’ life and challenges him to re-engage with the world beyond his home studio and Yamaha 666.

The story is nakedly honest, unabashedly quirky and friggin’ hilarious.

While your first impression of Des is that he’s just this crazy, delusional and disconnected artist, by the end, you feel like you actually get the whale music. It’s pretty wild. So, if you love cheering for a frustrating but lovable anti-hero, and if a unique take on the great rock and roll story sounds right up your alley, then I whole heartedly encourage you to check out Whale Music.

But, you don’t have to take my word for it—props to LeVar!—since the novel won several awards, including the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

—Brendan Kennedy

Ann-Marie MacDonald
Fall On Your Knees

If Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees taught me one lesson, it’s this: if you’re home sick from school, this devastating tale of the lives of one Cape Breton family will not make you feel better.

I was initially charmed by the dedication the book’s four sisters—Kathleen, Mercedes, Frances and Lily—and their father, James, seemed to have for each other, embodied by Lily’s project to diagram the family tree.

But as I read further and uncovered the source of that devotion and its manifestations, my warm, fuzzy feeling turned to shock, disgust and anguish.

MacDonald manages to create real, multi-dimensional characters where other authors might have demonized or caricatured them. In doing so, she provokes disturbing questions about what it means to love one’s family and provides an extreme example of the way parents and children everywhere shower each other with affection and agony at the same time.

I suppose it’s a testament to the power of MacDonald’s writing, though, that despite gaining a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach to go with my head cold, I couldn’t put Fall on Your Knees down. And although that sick day was seven years ago, the novel is so potent that the feeling is returning as I write.

—Emily Sangster

Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables

Every little girl should read Anne of Green Gables at least once in her life—or at the very least, watch the movies. Of all the things I’ve learned in my 22 years, some of the best life lessons have come from Anne Shirley.

I learned that some mistakes are blessings in disguise.

I developed an appreciation for bosom friends, kindred spirits, a healthy imagination, creepy ghost stories and “raspberry cordial.”

I was informed that “every day is fresh, with no mistakes in it,” which is good to know since I’ve made my share of them.

I learned to be very careful about dyeing my hair, and while I’ve made some glaring mistakes over the years, it’s never turned green.

Anne taught me to keep food covered unless you want mice pudding—a lesson I thought I’d never use, but it’s come in handy living in the Ghetto.

I learned that if you can be very angry at someone, you can probably also love them.

I learned that girls are just as smart as boys—and that some of us have got the pigtails to prove it.

And most of all, it taught me never, ever, under any circumstance, to call a little girl with red hair “carrots.”

—Cara Smusiak

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.