Talking About the World, Talking About Canada: Noah Richler's Reading List

Book Cover What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Noah Richler's new book What We Talk About When We Talk About War is published by Goose Lane Editions. The following complementary reads are listed in alphabetical order by author. 

Book Cover Eating Dirt

1. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill: Canada is a resource economy resuscitated, treating the back yard as a bank and spending ruthlessly. Anyone watching the mining companies and the salivating zeal with which they are developing the Athabascan tar sands, or waiting at the edges of the Peel River basin, knows this. And yet we have always been thus, and many Canadians, as I do, owe the ease of their university educations to being able to work summers in the bush. I did so in the Yukon, across the prairies and in Northern B.C. I worked in oil and gas exploration in the boom that ended in 1980, and also in iron mines and prospecting for jade, tungsten and asbestos, even, One of the great Canadian jobs I did not have was tree-planting, though I won’t forget the return of friends who did, typically coming home lean and mosquito-bitten, but in the money, too. Charlotte Gill’s book tells of this tribe, in prose that is sometimes a little too lofty and wistful, but that is dirty and ribald enough in the right parts to be convincing and real and an excellent volume not only in the environmental shelf any bona fide library of Canadian living--there is much to be learned, here, about the forests that are one of the country’s primary metaphors--but in its Work section, too. Read this book because it is a lot of who we are.

Book Cover March Forth

2 & 3. March Forth, The Inspiring True Story of a Canadian Soldier’s Journey of Love, Hope and Survival by Trevor and Debbie Greene: Captain Trevor Greene, is the reservist from Vancouver who, in Kandahar province in March 2006, had removed his helmet in accordance with local custom during the meeting he was conducting with village elders when a deranged young Afghan struck his head with an axe. Miraculously, Greene survived. After many operations , a variety of alternative treatments and a lot of therapy, the forty-something soldier, an author in a previous life,  is and far enough a road of recovery that he was able to write this book with his partner Debbie, now his wife. This book is as much hers and it is evident that without her fierce, unhesitant love, Greene would likely have been adrift – or dead. March Forth is astonishing for its revelations of medical science, but more so for the love of Debbie’s heaped into it. An amazing story, as is that of another courageous wounded young veteran, Liane Faulder’s The Long Walk Home: Paul Franklin’s Journey from Afghanistan. The very least we can do, whatever our political position, is to read these accounts of hard lives redirected.

Book Cover The Long Walk Home
Book Cover Generals Die in Bed

4. Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison: Charles Yale Harrison was an American born Jew who moved to Montreal at an early age and fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War One. This novel, explosively controversial in its day, is often mentioned in the same breath as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Now published by Annick Press, a children’s press, this was once a novel read by (and condemned by) adults. Strange that it should have been relegated to a young adult siding, as if its only lessons, about the savagery of war, are little more than folkloric. There are scenes in this book that are disturbing and brilliantly set--memorably, one of soldiers enjoying a swim in a river behind the lines, away from it all until the bloated body of a French soldier slain at the Somme floats downstream towards them. But it is the last moments of this novel--one that Harrison makes a point, contra the usual disclaimer, of saying are rooted in experience--that proved so enraging to generals and patriots. Harrison describes, at the battle of Arras, the willful slaughter by Canadian soldiers of surrendering Germans. Perhaps this is why the book is not one that General Hillier, Peter Mackay, or Stephen Harper is reading, certainly. There is at least the possibility that Canadian troops have not always behaved impeccably, which is only to say that to let patriotism blind us to this possibility is to lie to ourselves, an act that does no one any favours.

Book Cover In the Orchard the Swallows

5. In the Orchards, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs: Okay, so now I’m cheating – on the basis that Peter Hobbs, an Englishman, lived in Montreal for a few years and it was during this time that he did a lot of the writing of In the Orchard, the Swallows, and that makes the novel Canadian, right? More so, I am including it because it is one of the best novels I have read in a decade, an exquisite and perfect slim novel that brings to mind the work of Bruce Chatwin – for its Utz or The Viceroy of Ouidah length, but also for its slightly Victorian feel. In the Orchard, the Swallows tells the story of a young Pakistani man who returns, enfeebled after years of imprisonment to the mountain village where his misdemeanour was to have fallen in love with the daughter of a local politician and to have been incarcerated as a consequence. The prose is simple and beautiful, Hobbs’s descriptive passages of pomegranates providing the best fruit scenes since D.H. Lawrence’s figs that I can remember. There is a touch of Chekhov and his lady with the lapdog, too, as the claim cannot even be made that his unnamed narrator’s love is in any way reconciled. But there is catharsis, and without being at all coy, Hobbs’s suggestion is that it comes through writing. The 38 year-old Hobbs would know. He was deathly ill for a decade and it was reading and writing that, in large measure, saved him.

Book Cover Damned Nations

6. Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid by Samantha Nutt, M.D.: Dr Samantha Nutt, a staff physician at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital is a pivotal role model to Canadian activists and youth through her work with War Child Canada, the NGO dedicated to assisting children in conflict zones that she founded fifteen years ago. Damned Nations is a hybrid of memoir and argument, and a powerful reminder that the principles and strategies concerning humanitarian assistance that are argued in the safety of home, in corridors of government and the UN, the activity of actual aid workers in the field is impassioned and heroic. Nutt’s dedication is exemplary and unabated, her commitment staggering, and the warnings she makes about the risks to effective NGO work through their deliberate appropriation by the defence ministries of governments ones that absolutely must be taken seriously. As Nutt points out, “resistance to co-operating or collaborating with the military on the part of aid agencies is not rooted in leftist, bleeding-heart rhetoric but in international law and an understanding of what actually works on the ground.” Nutt made this point in the Globe and Mail recently vis-à-vis the Harper government’s cynical plan to make Canadian mining companies the distributors and arbiters of aid by designating NGOs to have to work with them in the countries in which they operate. The column was bold and, for good reason, distressed. Her independence of mind, as much as her experience, is what makes her such an inspirational figure, and this book a must read for the legions of Canadian youth wanting to find ways to “make a difference.”

Book Cover Better Angels of Our Nature

7. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker: Steven Pinker is Montreal’s genius export to Boston and to Harvard, a celebrated scientist of the mind who would be completely insufferable even without his legion of researchers were he not also so damn entertaining, bright--and rigorous. Pinker is to evolutionary science as Niall Ferguson is to twentieth and twenty-first century history. The Better Angels of Our Nature is Pinker’s rich, methodical but always lively course through history, from hominids forward, proving though data, references to culture and other scientists’ pioneering work that humankind is actually nicer and more civil now, as anyone taking in The Game of Thrones knows. Women, especially, have never had it so good – merely an observation backed up by Pinker’s facts. This book has given me new intellectual confidence in what, even after finishing my own new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, I still doubt but have to believe: eliminating war is a possibility – and a scientific one at that.

Book Cover Neuf jours de haine

8. Neuf jours de haine Jean-Jules Richard: French-Canadian Jean-Jules Richard, a veteran of the World War Two D-Day landings, published this quite extraordinary novel in 1948. To my knowledge, it has never been translated into English, which is a great pity as it is quite unforgettable, not only about the landing and the ‘C’ Company’s push inland, but about the soldiers’ Canadian composition and their affecting aspirations. Canadians are fed a lot about the First World War and the Battle of Vimy Ridge being so important to the country’s national formation, and a lot of it is nonsense. (This year, the Conservative government and the Vimy Foundation’s over-reaching included special Canadian cinema showings of Oh! What a Lovely War! and, inevitably, Passchendaele, but also the equine prop from the National Theatre stage production of War Horse being shipped to the Vimy Memorial, a reliance on fiction that is both ironic and discomforting). The portrait Richard’s novel draws, of the fighting and the barbarity to which humankind is reduced, and of the opportunity for Canada to create something meaningful out of the New World, is touching, convincing and real, in a novel replete with memorable moments.

Book Cover The Cage

9. The Cage by Audrey Schulman: I am thrilled for Audrey Schulman that, this past winter, she received an excellent review in the Sunday New York Times book section for her most recent novel Three Weeks in December. Schulman is Canadian and clearly I have been speaking to the wrong presses, or not forcefully enough, about getting her published here. Schulman’s imagination is fecund, and tropical. She reminds me of Helen Humphreys, not least as she is prolific and so consistently a good writer though still off the map of mainstream consideration, and also of Barbara Kingsolver, whose capacity she shares for plots and the charting of intimate human relationships. The Cage, a novel she wrote some seventeen years ago now, has all of Schulman’s intensity though markedly less florid a landscape, closer to home. The novel is set in the Arctic, where the photographer Beryl Findham uses a steel cage to protect herself as she takes shots of polar bears. The discoveries she makes are as much about herself in a novel, the atmosphere of which I had not forgotten in the years between my having read it and, just recently, putting it in the hands of one of my step-daughters made curious by the global warming our charming government denies.

Book Cover The Juliet Stories

10.  The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder: Full disclosure: way back when, in the early years of the National Post, I hired Carrie Snyder as an intern, but I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think she was a bright, hard-working woman with fine literary tastes and exceptional qualities. Even then (which was actually not so long ago), Carrie was an observer with a capacity for making my bluster feel ridiculous with her quiet, almost sotto voce responses to crises. That capacity for observation, and also for calm amid the chaos – this time not the newsroom, but of Nicaragua after the revolution, and of the Friesen family later enduring a crisis of their own – are qualities she brings to The Juliet Stories. Carrie is a natural. These linked stories about a young idealistic family arrived in Nicaragua as peace activists and then, not according to plan, returning to Canada, are written in prose that is alternately tender and distressing (as families are), but always atmospheric and clear. I loved these stories, too, for their new worlds and allegiances. A book that makes a reader look forward to the next.

April 26, 2012
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