Shelf Talkers: Thanksgiving 2015 Edition
The experts say (well, let’s put “experts” in quotation marks here—the “experts” in the Self-Help section say) that an understanding and expression of gratitude in our daily lives is one of the keys to greater happiness and a more thorough sense of well-being in our own existence.
It’s a good suggestion, and likely a valuable process, but an ongoing sense of gratitude is something I have never quite been able to integrate into my generally more cynical days.
Which is why, every year, I find myself looking forward to Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, in Canada, is one of the most peculiar of national holidays: it’s not drawn from any particular religious tradition, it doesn’t really mark any historical event, it’s just ... there. The second Monday of every October, an opportunity to give thanks, to quote the official 1957 proclamation that created the occasion, for “the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”
Because of Thanksgiving’s peculiarity, it’s become a very personal holiday for many, myself included. Certainly, there are cultural traditions (I’ve been counting down to the first dinner of “A Turkey Dinner Every Month!” season for six weeks or so), but for many people, the Thanksgiving weekend is a chance to celebrate not a bountiful harvest, but the bounties of our own lives. We spend time with our families, we spend time alone, considering the year past...
It’s probably my favourite holiday.
But Thanksgiving is, in many ways, still a harvest festival (without all the fun pagan trappings that such a label might imply), and every year I seem to spend a considerable time talking (you may have seen this coming) about books.
I could go on about how books are a blessing, make some connection to the idea of a “bountiful harvest” of good reading, but instead, I’ll just say this:
When I suggested to our panel of independent booksellers that we should devote this column to Canadian books that we’re thankful for, the response was almost immediate, and overwhelming.
Everyone, it seems, has books that they are truly thankful for—they’ve just been waiting for someone to ask.
So this weekend, as you spend your non-pagan harvest festival celebrating your blessings, the booksellers of the Shelf Talkers column would like to invite you to a celebration of Canada’s literary bounty.
Consider it a Thanksgiving dinner of sorts—folks are taking second and third helpings (because it’s too good to stop at just one plateful). One bookseller takes an impressively large first helping, a gasp-inducing serving. We’ve got fiction and non-fiction, new books and classics, something for every appetite. Two booksellers are fighting over a juicy drumstick, and it looks like things are going to get heated when, as if by magic, the other leg appears out of the kitchen (because, in this season of bounty, why shouldn’t two booksellers get to enjoy something as juicy as that?).*
Two booksellers are fighting over a juicy drumstick, and it looks like things are going to get heated when, as if by magic, the other leg appears out of the kitchen.
And of course, just like at a traditional Thanksgiving feast, we’ve left room for dessert. And that’s where you come in. Like the best hosts, we leave it for our guests to provide the after-dinner treats. There’s room in the comments for exactly that: what’s a Canadian book for which you’re grateful this year?
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Be careful out there.
I am truly thankful for the publisher Biblioasis in general.
They have a great eye for what is topical, erudite, and for simply what needs to publish for the common good, as opposed to just another sniffer of trends.
Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, by A.J Somerset, is a work of nonfiction that tells of the author’s attitude to guns. Somerset is a former soldier, and an unapologetic weapons enthusiast, who might be the only centrist in the gun debate.
The author is mindful of both sides of an almost entirely polarized debate, which heats up after every mass shooting in North America, but he chiefly argues for some measure of common-sense restriction, and provides an eye-opening history of gun culture as what has been called "policy by other means."
The subject is serious, and Somerset tackles it from several neglected historical perspectives, and, where possible, even treats it with some sardonic humour.
Somerset is particularly good on the obvious, but seldom remarked-upon, urban/rural divide that—much more than political divisions—tends to make one choose a side. He spends much time skewering the NRA for its rightward lurch in recent decades, and its almost canonical view of the Second Amendment at the expense of the First.
He describes his endeavour as being "after the Wellspring of Crazy."
Arms is a smart, at times uncomfortable, well-researched, and very necessary piece of work from a rare bird in contemporary political discourse: a radical moderate.
Jenn Hubbs of Curiosity House Books (Creemore, Ontario) has two servings, starting with fiction:
I'm thankful for Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies
A snowball, a stone, a mystery, a recollection and a complex narrative: this is the first installment of what would become the Deptford Trilogy, and the first CanLit book I read that accurately portrayed life in a small town, with all its inherent idiosyncrasies. This story of Dunstan Ramsey and Percy Boyd Staunton, involving myth, history, spiritualism and a sly sense of humour, was the perfect introduction to Davies' body of work, and lead to me reading everything Davies wrote over the course of one summer.
Jenn follows that with some non-fiction, for a well-balanced meal:
I'm thankful for Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother, by Helen Humphreys
This slim, powerful volume contains a wealth of emotions and reads as an intimate conversation between the author and her brother, who died of cancer at age 45. There are 45 short chapters (one for each year of her brother's life), and each mixes memory with her struggle to understand his death. As a reflection on his life and her corresponding sense of loss, there is both joy and grief between the pages, and I felt honoured that the author chose to share these intimate feelings. It was the perfect book to read after my father's passing, as if I had found someone who could comprehend my personal sense of loss.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry was a huge milestone series for me. When as a teenager, I first read The Summer Tree I had no inkling of a Canadian writing culture, let alone that anyone in Canada was writing fantasy, the genre I loved most. Kay’s deft remixing of mythology and folklore quite literally opened whole new worlds of reading to me. I’ve followed his work ever since, and love to revisit Fionavar every chance I get.
Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books (Uxbridge, ON), chooses wisely, adorning her plate with three carefully chosen dishes:
Mercy Among the Children, by David Adams Richards
A true Canadian classic set in the Miramichi but emblematic of rural Canadians across the land. Archetypal characters, beautiful language, and a story worthy of Tolstoy won this book the 2000 Giller Prize.
Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis
This book was astonishing in its originality and thought provoking in oh, so many ways. You will never again look at your dog in the same way. My pick for the 2015 Giller long before this year's list was announced.
Matt Cohen created a gorgeous, lingering novel that won the 1999 Governor General's Award just weeks before he died. A story of love and of reconciliation, at times heartbreaking and at times quirky—but at all times beautiful.
I got to this book late—I read it for a university course and the whole time I was reading it I wished I'd read it when I was younger! Everyone knows about Anne of Green Gables but until you've read it, you can't really understand how great this Canadian classic is. Anne contains multitudes: she is sometimes brave and sometimes scared, often precocious, very loyal, and absolutely delightful to read. Anne's relationships with her foster parents, her best friend, and a certain boy are endearing and heartfelt. I think every young Canadian should read this book.
Black Feathers is Robert Wiersema’s most chilling book to date. Featuring a cast of the true-to-life characters that Wiersema is known for, with just enough of a magical twist to blur the lines of what is real, Black Feathers will keep readers turning pages while on the edge of their seats.
And Carolyn Gillis, of King’s Co-op Bookstore (Halifax, NS), shares Chadwick’s appetite for Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry
One of the books I am most thankful for is The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. It is a trilogy bound into one book. The three separate titles are The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. It is Kay's take on the Arthurian Legend. I read it every year. I love the language and imagery in the book. The characters are so well drawn that they have come alive for me and I would recognize them if I saw them walking down the street. This book is more than just a fantasy. It is story about dealing with grief and the ways that is manifested. It looks at friendship, and all of its many aspects. It is about hope, and how to find it in the darkest places. How sacrifice is required for the greater good, and how to do it with grace and a panache that mitigates slightly the grief of loved ones. This trilogy gives me something new with each reading, and it makes my heart ache and rejoice anew each and every time.
And now, I think it’s time for dessert—what is a Canadian book you’re thankful for this year?
*I write this with the full awareness, and no small pleasure, that Guy Gavriel Kay is likely going to have a field day with it on Twitter, having The Fionavar Tapestry compared to a juicy drumstick. I may even have done it on purpose. How could I resist?