Christine Pountney's Lit Wish List Holiday Book Picks

What Canadian books would you like give or recieve this holiday season?

Christine Pountney—Sweet Jesus (McClelland & Stewart)—Skyped in with her Lit Wish List: 12 Books That Tell the Truth, and they don't lie! There's sure to be something on this list for the truth-seekers in your life, from current titles to some classics you may already own but might now read again once you've heard Christine's pitches. I particularly love how she talks about remembering the experience of reading a book through her senses, rather than intellect. It's one of the reasons she believes reading is a visual medium, something that inspires us to recall pieces of story as if something we once tasted.

Below, I've divided the chat into three sections, because what started out as a chat quickly evolved into a thoughtful commentary on the damaging nature of big bang blockbusters on book culture, nuanced reading—and living. You're in for a real treat!

The chapters of our conversation are as follows:

1. An introduction to Christine's novel Sweet Jesus. (The novel is set the week before the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, just called last night. How timely!)
2. Christine Pountney's Lit Wish List: 12 Books That Tell the Truth.
3. Christine Pountney's reflections on the role and value of literature.

I've also included the text of Christine's Lit Wish List recommendations after the videos.


Christine Pountney's Lit Wish List: 12 Books That Tell the Truth

1. Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals:

A whimsical take on squalour and heartbreak in childhood; a beautifully written and expertly crafted story about a pocket of life we don’t hear much about in Canadian literary fiction: the world of drug dealers and dreamy orphans. This is a book about the redemptive nature of the imagination; how stories can lift us out of the gutter, provide escape, shelter, even love.

2. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be:

This book takes as its material the present day. It delves unabashedly into the minutia of routine, work, friendship, obsession, ambition, desire and disappointment. It’s about freedom—how to be free in life. It is a very modern book, with an old-fashioned kind of mission. It possesses just that moral quality I look for in literature, that has something to do with a belief that books of fiction have relevance to us on a moral level, that they can instruct us, even as they delight us. Heti’s novel is overtly preoccupied with grasping at some truth about modern life, whatever that might be, in all its mercurial, non-linear complexity.

3. Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge:

Read this for the sheer intellectual engagement with its subject matter on all levels - human consciousness, memory, motive, politics and modernity—but also for its quality at the level of the sentence.  

4. Claudia Dey’s Stunt:

This book is steeped in Toronto lore and a doorway into the author’s illuminated imagination, in a way that feels intimate and trusting. There is truth in the daring to expose an interior life that is so singular, so idiosyncratic and captivating and unique. You learn some true thing about the nature of subjectivity, and the nature of consciousness, to look at the world through Claudia Dey’s eyes.

5. Alison Pick’s The Sweet Edge:

Like the canoe trip described in the story, this book is quiet and deep and challenging - a great investigation on a psychological and emotional level into relationships, commitment, love and betrayal.

6. Michael Winter’s This All Happened:

This is a beautifully-written novel about youthful passions: art, intellectual ambition, enthusiastic friendship, exuberant love, a sense of belonging to a certain place at a certain time, and yet, the uncertainty about how it will all turn out. The lives of its characters are so incredibly well-observed, it’s impossible not to—by means of comparison—see your own life in a more accurate way.

7. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God:

Like its title, this book is shattering and ironic and divine. I remember loving the way Carson handles the emotional and the creative and the academic in equal measure; it is beautifully written, full of surprising images. The sequence involving Emily Bronte was riveting. Carson infuses everyday words with a kind of mysticism, and gives things that are officially considered “mystical” a kind of wry, down-to-earth feel, often setting Ancient Greek gods in the modern era, getting into taxis, picking up the telephone.

"…when I wrote things like "The Glass Essay," I also wanted to do something that I call understanding what life feels like, and I don’t believe I did. I also don’t know what it would be to do that, but if I read Virginia Woolf or George Eliot describing emotional facts of people, it seems there’s a fragrance of understanding you come away with—this smell in your head of having gone through something that you understood with people in the story." Paris Review, #88

8. Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid:

This book taught me an early lesson that writing can take any form it wishes, and any topic, and that sometimes irreverent play is the quickest route to soulfulness. That freedom is in the daring, that writing can be like galloping away from the crime scene of your life on a stolen horse.

9. Margaret Laurence’s  The Stone Angel:

This is a book about why some old people are really grumpy. It’s a book that left me feeling full of setting and atmosphere—similar to how Carson describes reading Woolf and Eliot. I read The Stone Angel when I was very young, but still see in my mind an empty cabin on a kind of cliff, surrounded by tall evergreens, the sea glinting in the distance. It lives on as a faint memory of experience - because that’s what books can do, they enter you as experience, not as ideas.

10. Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic:

We all want to understand more about why people are the way they are and how they got to be that way. These are universally important concerns and I feel a book like The Romantic is a road map across that kind of mysterious terrain. This is a book full of mysterious terrain, as well, nature and adventure and wild children and excruciating yearnings and infuriating disinterest and sharp-eyed focus. Gowdy is like a bird of prey—no human heart can escape her quick talons.

11. Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women:

It’s been a long time since I read this book, but it was a book that I had to often put down in order to absorb, or digest, some startling insight I’d just been handed, like a fresh plum on a little dish, seemingly so simple, so humble, and yet—a plum! How magnificent! How real! There is so much wisdom in this early book of Munro’s—like finally getting all the right kind of advice you always wanted as a young woman, but somehow never got, never so plainly, or bravely, or rebelliously, or dangerously. This is a book that suggests the lives of girls and women are quietly dangerous - indeed, they ought to be! This book exhorts us, as women, to live dangerously.

12. Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz:

This book I also read when I was young, but it has stayed with me ever since, in the form of a memorable character, fully forged, completely believable. I remember the book as if I once actually knew a guy called Duddy Kravitz. It taught me to believe, as a writer, that a character can be so full of life that he literally walks off the page and moves in with the reader. How is this done? I believe it has something to do with love. If you love your characters, then they will live. They will be fleshier in your own mind and therefore fleshier on the page. You will not own them, you will simply be charged with the task of representing them. The more you love them, the more complex they are, and the harder you will work as a writer to make your portrait of them as broad as possible. 

Christine Pountney

Christine Pountney grew up in Vancouver and Montreal, and lived in London for five years before moving back to Canada. She has two previous novels, Last Chance Texaco (longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2000), and The Best Way You Know How. She has written for The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, The Walrus, Brick Magazine, and Nuvo. She lives in Toronto with her partner, Michael Winter, and their son, Leo.

About Sweet Jesus: Set mainly in Victoria, Toronto, and on the road into the middle states the week before the 2012

Sweet Jesus by Christine Pountney

presidential election, Connie, in shock over the recent bankruptcy of her husband's business, and Hannah, bereft at her boyfriend's refusal to have a child, meet in Toronto to travel by pickup truck across the border. In Chicago, they are joined by their slightly estranged, adopted younger brother, Zeus, a therapeutic clown grieving over the recent death of his boyfriend. Together, the threesome drives toward New Mexico to reunite Zeus with his birth parents, who he has not seen since he was thirteen years old. Along the way, they visit a megachurch in Kansas to witness the source of their mother Rose's faith and are confronted with right-wing Christian American politics, epitomized by an exorcism being performed on a gay teenage boy.

With wit, compassion, and razor-sharp observation, Christine Pountney has written a deeply affective novel about family connections, about faith, and how it is often found in unexpected ways.


No matter who you're buying for this holiday season—Secret Santa, work colleague, book club, family, children, host, neighbour, "friend of a friend"—books truly are the gifts that keep on giving. 49th Shelf's Lit Wish List helps you find those books and encourages you to #givecdn!

Follow #givecdn and tell us what books you'd like to give (or receive) this holiday season!

November 7, 2012
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