For better or for worse, literary talk is all about lists these days, particularly with awards season in full swing. We are all over lists, ourselves: last week, for example, we blew up the Internet with Oddballs and Getting Weird, two lists that add new context (and genres) to the season's literary conversation. That said, lists can lack substance – and they're altogether arbitrary. But that arbitrariness is part of the fun, as Armin Wiebe makes clear in his post below.
How many books from Armin Wiebe's 100 Novels List have you read? And have you got your own list?
Lists require rules, criteria to determine who or what gets on the list. Lists are sorting devices, tools to help us manage the chaos. Lists are exclusionary, an assessment of worthiness, possibly even a subtle shaming device. In the book world a title on a list shows that the book has been noticed. Authors and publishers strive to have their titles make the anticipation lists, those lists of books sure to be hot in the upcoming season. We want our books to make the best-seller lists, though really there can be only one “best” seller at a time, and then we want our title to get on the long lists and then the short lists for prizes so our book may get on to prize winners’ lists. Those with immortality in mind will dream of being on the ultimate list, the canon.
Of course, the most lucrative lists for writers are the famous-TV-personality-got-excited-about-these-books lists, because these lists offer comfort to the potential reader/buyer who may be apprehensive of opening a book no one has approved. A list can also make a reader feel unworthy if one has not read the books on the list, and we want to belong, we want to be part of the discourse about the list.
For a reader, perhaps the most important lists are personal lists: books I have read, books I intend to read, books I read this year, books I have read twice, and so on.
In reaction to a recent list of 100 must-read novels, I compiled my own list with these simple criteria.
- Each novel had to be by a Canadian author.
- Each book had to be a novel, not a collection of stories.
- Each author could appear on the list only once.
- I had to have read each novel all the way through.
A numbered list implies ranking. In my list the titles are numbered in the order that I remembered them. Preference ranking occurred within the rule that each author could appear only once. This forced me to select a title if I had read multiple titles from one author.
The list is too long for me to comment on each title for this piece so I will pick out a few titles just to give you a sense of what those particular novels have meant to me.
An Ordinary Decent Criminal, by Michael Van Rooey: Michael published three crime novels about an ex-con desperately trying to go straight. One of the last times I spoke with Michael was in a Winnipeg liquor store. His eyes filled with tears when I told him my wife had died the previous month. Only a year later Michael himself was gone, at only 42.
The Street Where I Live, by Maara Hass: This novel from the 1970s presents a hilarious picture of Winnipeg’s fabled North End. Maara’s wild character names such as “Shmarkaty Kapusta," “Moise the Manipulator,” and “Reb Slawchuck” inspired me to invent colorful names for the characters in my Gutenthal novels.
Two novelists named Thomas, Curiosity, by Joan Thomas, and Tattycorum, by Audrey Thomas: I read these novels simultaneously one summer, Curiosity at home in the city and Tattycorum at the cottage. Both are set in a similar period in England and as I alternated novels it would take a few pages sometimes before I realized I was in a different story.
The Englishman's Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe: I read The Englishman’s Boy during a road trip across southern Saskatchewan and finished it in East End. The following day my wife and I visited Fort Walsh where we went on a tour led by a Nakota woman who showed us the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre and told the Nakota version of the story I had just read in Vanderhaeghe’s novel.
Since my list is too long for this space I have culled the titles but left my original numbering in place.
1. What the Crow Said, by Robert Kroetsch
2. I'm Frankie Sterne, by Dave Margoshes
3. The Missing Child, by Sandra Birdsell
6. An Ordinary Decent Criminal, by Michael Van Rooey
7. Dickie, by Wayne Tefs
9. Lightning, by Fred Stenson
12. The Street Where I Live, by Maara Haas
13. Erebus, by Robert Hunter
14. The Players, by Margaret Sweatman
15. Curiosity, by Joan Thomas
16. Tattycoram, by Audrey Thomas - Tattycorum
17. Swede's Ferry, by Allan Safarik
20. The Linnet Bird, by Linda Holeman
21. The Pale Indian, by Robert Arthur Alexie
22. Petitot, by Susan Haley
27. The Beothuk Saga, by Bernard Assiniwi
28. Weddings, by Dave Williamson
30. Venus Humm, by Suzette Mayr
31. Solitaria, by Genni Gunn
32. Emancipation Day, by Wayne Grady
33. Where Shadows Burn, by Catherine Hunter
34. Choke Hold, by Todd Babiuk
38. Swann: A Mystery, by Carol Shields
40. A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence
41. Crackpot, by Adele Wiseman
42. Cabbagetown, by Hugh Garner
44. Leaving Wyoming, by Leo Brent Robillard
45. Santiago, by Simone Chaput
46. Where the Rocks Say Your Name, by Brenda Hasiuk
47. Three Views of Crystal Water, by Katherine Govier
49. What the Body Remembers, by Shauna Singh Baldwin
51. Cherry, by Chandra Mayor
52. The Yellow Volkswagen, by Elizabeth Woods
53. Running West, by James Houston
54. The Thirteen, by Susie Moloney
55. Infrared, by Nancy Huston
57. The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe
58. Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, Drew Hayden Taylor
59. Ru, by Kim Thuy
60. Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill
62. The Guy Who Pumps Your Gas Hates You, by Sean Trinder
66. Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson
68. The Assignment, by Michael Meyer
69. Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King
70. The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp
71. Sunday Afternoon, by David Elias
72. The Truth Is…, by Mary Soderstrom
73. The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, by Rhea Tregebov
75. The Red Heron, by Karen Dudley
76. The Geranium Girls, by Allison Preston
77. Midway, by David Homel
79. I Thought I Would Be Happy, by Jim Nason
80. Sins of the Suffragette, by Allan Levine
81. Fall From Grace, by Wayne Arthurson
82. Needles, by William Deverell
84. Purdue: Or How the West Was Lost, by Geoffrey Ursell
85. Tanya, by Kristine Kristofferson
86. Blind Night, by Cordelia Strube
87. Foreigners, by Barbara Sapergia
89. Watermelon Syrup, by Annie Jacobsen
90. Wednesday Night at the End of the World, by Helene Rioux
92. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
94. Bone Dance, by Martha Brooks
95. Luna, by Sharon Butala
96. The Well, by Sinclair Ross
97. Spanish Fly, by Will Ferguson
99. The Whore Mother, by Shaun Herron
Showcasing a selection of stories from Armin Wiebe's 30-year writing career, Armin's Shorts features tales from the familiarly fictitious Mennonite community of Gutenthal, re-imagined origin stories from the subarctic, and flights of pure fantasy set in modern day Winnipeg.
Funny enough to make your "grandmother sit up in her black trough coffin and laugh," and so gut-wrenching you'll feel "that clunk in the heart, and that wrunsch in the stomach," master story teller, Armin Wiebe, presents a veritable smorgasbord of short stories that cover the gamut of human experience with a wry sense of humour, a stern sense of justice, and a warm and tender heart.
Armin Wiebe is the recipient of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. He has four published novels, one play, and his short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. A teacher for many years, Armin Wiebe is now retired and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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