Bill Stenson on the Best Use of a Bobby Pin in Literature, and Other Great Reads

Bill Stenson's new novel, Ordinary Strangers, is this year's winner of the Great BC Novel Contest. Judge Audrey Thomas says: "At times very funny, at times horrific and at times so sad, this novel will make you think hard about what it means to be a family and how far one can travel on the rocky road to forgiveness without completely falling apart.” 

In this recommended reading list, Stenson suggests going beyond Earle Birney, sings the powers of understatement, names the best use of a bobby pin in literature, and tells us about the poet that every Canadian should read before dying. 

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Spit Delaney’s Island, by Jack Hodgins

When this book first came out it was alarming to me. Most of the books I was reading and enjoying were from the East Coast, Ontario, and a few from the Prairies. There is something about a local environment that informs its characters and how they perform, and Spit Delaney’s Island advised West Coasters that Earle Birney wasn’t the only writer entitled to explore what goes on here. Many who have read this work respond by asking a question beginning with: “Are people out there really...”

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Spirit Wrestlers: Centennial Papers in Honour of Canada's Doukhobor Heritage, by Koozma Tarasoff and Robert B. Klymasz

This book is a one-volume encyclopedia that documents the Doukhobor people's struggles in Canada over the years. It is packed with details of their journey from Russia to the Prairies and eventually into BC. While the specifics found in this text are important, Koozma Tarasoff’s greatest gift is in capturing the spirit of the Doukhobor people. 

*

Homesick, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

I’ve always found writing from the Prairies to be grounding and very real. The strained relationship in this novel between Alec and his daughter Vera is painful and desperate, and what Vanderhaeghe demonstrates is that by leaving certain things out, the reader is forced to do some of their own thinking. I appreciate such timely understatement, a trait that some of our best works lose if exposed to Hollywood. Vanderhaeghe teaches us with everything he writes, but this novel, possibly one of his least renowned, is a true gem. The scene where the geese fly south I will remember forever.

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In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje

I suspect this book is on many a reader’s list. What I learned from it was a technique for taking a historical, fact-based story and making into a fictional narrative, almost toying with myth. It’s one of the few books I reread soon after my first time through, with very rich and provocative prose that at times reads like poetry. Ondaatje is a great Canadian writer, one whom I appreciate the most for the early works in his stellar career.

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A Student of Weather, by Elizabeth Hay

I could have chosen any of Elizabeth Hay’s books, but this one keeps coming back to me. This novel has the thinnest of plots but still manages to engage the reader, forces one to evaluate jealousy, the difference between love and lust, what holds family members to one another and what forces them apart. I cherish the sense of controlled desperation throughout.

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A Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Beth Weeks grows up in this novel and we feel her journey. I liked the technique employed—the going through an old scrapbook—as a roadmap for the novel. There is something mythical and supernatural in the story, but just enough that you don’t abandon the real-life struggles that take place. Anderson-Dargatz uses this shimmering, two-sided coin in some of her other works such as The Spawning Ground. Filthy-Billy is one character that stays with you like a tattoo does, whether you like it or not.

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Book Cover Fat Woman

Fat Woman, by Leon Rooke

This short novel, plotted out, seems absurd. Many of Leon Rooke’s narratives are like that. They demand that you buy in to the absurdity and it is clever how Rooke often succeeds. People often try to get others to conform to what it is they believe is the correct way of looking or acting or believing. As you follow the thread that runs through the book you can’t help asking yourself: What’s wrong with those people? Ella Mae has a big heart and a big body and she deserves better. The metaphor is brilliant.

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Lonesome Hero, by Fred Stenson

This book is an example of how who we are and what we must be become is more complicated than simple personal choice. While the theme is universal and the treatment here is constantly on the edge of irony, what stands out for me is the fishing scene where Tyrone finds the perfect blend of compliance and self-preservation: probably the best use of a bobby pin in literature anywhere. Fred Stenson is best known for The Trade and Lightning but his novel Lonesome Hero should not be overlooked. 

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The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane, by Patrick Lane

Asking who is your favourite Canadian poet is like asking which mouthful of food have you enjoyed the most in your lifetime. Patrick has taught me a lot, through his poetry, his reading and his teaching. I’ve often had him into my classes and after every session he walks back into his world of creating the marvellous nuance of language and I walk away a wiser man. When you read his poetry on the page it feels effortless, but when he reads to you and offers the source of his inspiration you understand this poem alone was likely a fifty-hour investment. No one in Canada should die without reading Patrick Lane.

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About Ordinary Strangers:

This novel begins at a fair on a hot August day in 1971 in Hope, BC. Sage and Della Howard are driving to Fernie to start a job and begin a new life. They stop for a break, lose their dog and in the search find a crying toddler in the nearby woods instead; and just as unexpectedly are back on the road continuing their journey with her. As the story unfolds and years pass, the Howards keep their dark secret and raise Stacey as their own. A compelling and original story, with fascinating characters, well-paced, that takes you to the other side of happenstance and fear.

November 5, 2018
Books mentioned in this post
Spit Delaney's Island

Spit Delaney's Island

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
More Info
Spirit wrestlers

Spirit wrestlers

Centennial papers in honour of Canada's Doukhobor heritage
edition:eBook
tagged :
More Info
Lonesome Hero

Lonesome Hero

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane

The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane

edition:Hardcover
tagged : canadian
More Info
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