Twelve months, twelve books, twelve great Canadian authors

Staff Writer Grace O’ Connell gives you one CanLit work to read for every month of the year


World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

With typical Canadian irony, try starting your year off with an ending by reading this, the culmination of Davies’ Deptford Trilogy. This novel tells the story of just how far one man can go, and how many changes, disguises and mysteries can flow from a single person.

The man in question was once known as Paul Dempster, when he was introduced in Fifth Business, the first novel in the trilogy. World of Wonders finally—though not completely—allows the reader behind the curtain to discover exactly who this man is and has been.

This final installment also resurrects and explores the host of characters traced through the first two novels—the second of which is The Manticore, a great read for anyone interested in Jungian analysis. A dark novel shot through with Davies’ particular brand of dry wit, World of Wonders is home to one of the most compelling characters ever to come out of CanLit.

Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

Surprise, not all CanLit is set in Toronto! You won’t feel nearly as cold next February after you realize how much colder it is in Manitoba.

Kiss of the Fur Queen is the story of two Cree brothers who are sent to one of Canada’s infamous residential schools after being plucked from Mistik Lake, their Northern settlement and the home to a host of quirky characters. At school, the boys suffer abuses that haunt them throughout the rest of the novel.

But Highway has an incredibly deft touch. Even while dealing with serious and painful subject matter, he manages to inject humor and even joy into the narrative. One of Canada’s most gifted playwrights, Highway fares just as well in novel form.

This book touches on native culture, Catholicism, adolescence, sexuality and family relationships without ever feeling scattered or unfocused.

Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig

An early book from the progressive Toronto publisher House of Anansi, this book follows a young woman on her quest to find her lover Coenraad. Her only clues come in the form of elaborately coded hints that Coenraad, a spy, places in National Geographic magazine.

Sound unbelievable? It is—and after a while you start to wonder if the narrator is truly someone you can trust.

This book is hilarious and beautifully written, a perfect pick-me-up for a drab March weekend. It’s short, too, so if midterms are starting to crop up again, you can grab this slim volume for a short study break without feeling too guilty.

Despite being the winner of the City of Toronto Book Award, Basic Black with Pearls and Weinzweig in general have come to reside amongst Canada’s lesser known gems. Search this one out. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

The school year is nearly over, and you’re about to head home to whatever town or city you hail from to once again enter the workforce for four magical months. This book will cheer you up by assuring you that no matter how awful that job waiting tables or tree planting might be, it could definitely be worse. It could be Microsoft.

In what is arguably Coupland’s most entertaining book, you follow several Microsoft programmers as they search for something more fulfilling than endless hours spent coding. They’re computer geniuses, social failures, isolated weirdos—and possibly the most hilarious cast of characters written in recent years.

Coupland is most famous for his first book, and its title, Generation X, subsequently became engraved in our modern lexicon. He is also one of the finest writers ever to emerge from the West Coast, as any Vancouverite can tell you. This is not a book just for techies, but for anyone with an offbeat sense of humor and an appreciation for Coupland’s personal brand of hip, sharp commentaries on pop culture.

The Address Book by Steven Heighton

Did you think you were going to get through a year of CanLit without any poetry? Our country has launched and is continuing to churn out some of the best poets in the western world.

Heighton’s creative translations of classic texts might actually make you miss your classes because they’re so engrossing, and the sections of his completely original poetry will reach you on a personal and emotional level. Technically breathtaking, Heighton makes his flawless structure an invisible backdrop, leaving the beauty of the language to thrill the reader.

Heighton is also a Queen’s grad—for more on him, please see the interview on page 15—and he has done his alma mater proud with the slew of awards he’s racked up for his novels, poems and essays. This most recent collection is an amazing achievement.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje

To showcase Michael Ondaatje’s talent, I could have picked In the Skin of a Lion. I could have just sent you to the video store for The English Patient. But there’s more to the reigning king of CanLit than even Ralph Fiennes’ chiseled mug can convey.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid combines a long narrative poem with prose, photographs and actual documentary material about William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, who earned a reputation as a cold-blooded murderer before his death at 22.

This work not only won Ondaatje the Governor General’s award, but also solidified his reputation as a permanent star of not only the Canadian but also the international literary scene. Unlike the other Ondaatje texts mentioned, this one is unlikely to show up on your reading list, so make sure to seek it out for yourself.

Open Secrets by Alice Munro

Canadians write great short stories—we really do. And no one does it better than Alice Munro.

This is a perfect book to work through slowly, reading a story here or there while relaxing in the summer heat. Each one presents fully formed characters many writers would be unable to match, even in full length novels.

The events in these stories seem at times surreal, but it is impossible to distrust Munro. What lies at the core of each of the eight tales is the writer’s gift for the elegant and understated portrayal of human emotion. This is a quintessentially Canadian collection from the woman whom The Atlantic Monthly called “the living writer most likely to be read in 100 years.”

Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley

Findley, best known for his groundbreaking work The Wars, would be impossible to exclude from a list of CanLit greats. You can round out your summer with this satire of the story of Noah’s Ark.

With Findley’s characteristic flair for complicated familial relationships and utterly believable eccentrics, this book flows along beautifully. Be prepared, however, for disturbing scenes: Findley has never been one to shy away from controversial images, and has shocked conservative Canadian society on several occasions. Not Wanted on the Voyage is no exception.

Read this book, and you will be fully prepared to refute any criticisms of CanLit as traditionalist or boring.

Self by Yann Martel

Ever since Life of Pi exploded onto the shelves, Trent grad Martel has been a household name. Self is his first novel, a startling examination of identity set in multiple locations throughout Canada and the world.

The plot is deceptively simple: one day, the speaker and protagonist of the story wakes up to find that he is now a she. This novel is worth the read simply to see how Martel deals with this transformation.

An incredible work that challenges the traditional assumptions surrounding sexuality, Self is also a technically accomplished novel. Martel showcases his gift for language as he writes and translates constantly between the speaker’s three languages of Spanish, French and English.

The main character’s childhood is one of the highlights of the book, perhaps best summed up in his confident exclamation: “Gender in matters of love struck me as of no greater consequence than flavours in ice cream.”

Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill

Did you get dropped during the “turkey drop?” Before you pull on those pajama pants and start the chorus of “it just doesn’t make sense, we were so in love,” read Martin Sloane to see a break up that really makes no sense.

But even that summary barely scratches the surface of this book—it is also a fascinating portrait of a Jewish-Catholic marriage in small-town Ireland, one that examines family, childhood, loss and the inability to separate life into clean and simple sections, as is often done in fiction.

The novel is partially inspired by the works of Joseph Cornell, an important figure in the New York City art scene from the 1940s to the 1970s. The title character is an artist of a similar nature, and this visual aspect not only ties the novel together but lends it a sense of haunting surrealism that is hard to shake even after closing the book.

Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

I hardly have to remind you what a stressful time November is for students. But I’m going to go easy on you: Murder in the Dark is a mere 87 pages long.

You can’t go wrong with the first lady of Canadian literature, no matter which of her many works you choose to read. Let Murder in the Dark whet your appetite for more of our country’s most talented wordsmith.

This deft little collection of short prose and prose poems will expose you to Atwood’s incredible gift with language and narrative. In more leisurely hours, make sure to dip into her novels to witness her eerily compelling creation of characters.

Some highlights of Murder in the Dark include “Happy Endings,” “Simmering,” and “Bread.” There now—wasn’t that more fun than an MSN study break?

Typing: A Life in 26 Keys by Matt Cohen

Quite possibly one of the most readable autobiographies ever written, Matt Cohen’s Typing will have you looking at CanLit in a new light.

Is it really all written from a frowsy, Protestant, middle class mindset? Or is this just the self-justification of a writer who always felt overlooked by the CanLit scene? Cohen is one of the bright lights we ignored during his lifetime, and as a result, he always felt alienated. Yet this book is full of humor.

Finish the year with this interesting take on the 1970s heyday of Canadian publishing, the decade when Findley, Atwood, Munro and Richler burst onto the scene in a serious way. Call it our answer to the Bloomsbury group or the Wordsworth-Coleridge-Keats-et al circle.

Cohen’s interpretation of both the era and of CanLit in general is an interesting context to apply to the rest of this list.

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