The Recommend: Masterpieces, Celebrities, Survival, and Magic

Research shows that most of the books we read are the result of one thing: someone we know, trust, and/or admire tells us it's great. That's why we run this series, The Recommend, where readers, writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.

This week we're pleased to present the picks of book blogger Laura Frey (reading-in-bed.com), Melanie Fishbane (whose debut YA novel is Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery), Katherine Ashenburg (whose debut fiction novel—following many nonfiction works—is Sofie and Cecilia), Karen Hofmann (whose forthcoming short story collection is Echolocation), and Bruce Cinnamon (whose debut novel is The Melting Queen).

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Laura Frey recommends Éric Dupont's Songs for the Cold of Heart

I am a blurb skeptic. Blurbs are, at best, the most biased form of literary criticism. Just check how often a blurber’s name appears on the acknowledgements page. At worst, blurbs are clichéd, or taken out of out of context, or of dubious veracity (did Gary Shteyngart really read all those books?).

The blurb on Songs for the Cold of Heart got all my skeptic senses tingling:

“If the Americans have John Irving and the Colombians Gabriel García Márquez, we have Eric Dupont. And he’s every bit as good as them.”—Voir

Like most Canadiens anglais, I didn’t hear of Éric Dupont until this English translation hit the Giller Prize longlist in 2018. I wondered if he was really as good as Irving and Márquez, two luminaries of world literature (and longtime personal favourites of mine). Or was this blurb just another bloated piece of hype?  

Let me put one doubt to rest immediately: the blurber definitely read the book. Irving is mentioned by name several times in Songs for the Cold of Heart, and the tall tales, European side trips, and extreme tragedy all seem to be written in the style of and in tribute to Irving’s novels. And like Márquez, who filled One Hundred Years of Solitude with multiple Aurelianos and José Arcadios, Dupont filled his story with multiple Madeleines, and exactly one hundred years’ worth of the Lamontagne family’s trials and triumphs.

But “as good as”?

Does Dupont chronicle small-town Québec the way Irving does small-town New Hampshire? Can he create memorable characters, the Princes du Québec to Irving’s Princes of Maine? Does his fantastic version of Rivière-du-Loup tell us something about living in a country founded on and still reeling from colonialism and the exploitation of resources and people, like Márquez’s Macondo does?

Absolument.

The heart of this story is the mid-century Madeleine who travels from Québec to New York to have an abortion. Though specific to a particular time and place, Madeleine’s journey is timeless, iconic even. This particular plot point, and the book as a whole, is very wrapped up in the Catholic church, which played (and still plays) an outsized role in the colonization of Canada. The story spins out from Madeleine’s journey, forward and backward through time and back and forth across oceans, giving us perhaps the first Canadian novel to cover the entirety of the twentieth century, and the most memorable and conflicted heroine I’ve read in years.

The story spins out from Madeleine’s journey, forward and backward through time and back and forth across oceans, giving us perhaps the first Canadian novel to cover the entirety of the twentieth century, and the most memorable and conflicted heroine I’ve read in years.

Laura Frey

Believe the hype. The Great Canadian Novel has arrived (en Anglais, finalement) and it’s every bit as good as its blurb.

Laura Frey is a book blogger at reading-in-bed.com. She lives in Edmonton with her husband and two children. She is taking an extended social media break, but she might come back to her Twitter account (@LauraTFrey) one day.  

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Melanie Fishbane recommends Martine Leavitt’s My Book of Life by Angel

I first read Martine Leavitt’s award-winning novel-in-verse, My Book of Life by Angel, in 2012 and I remember how I felt reading it. Angel’s story is still with me. Leavitt compassionately gives voice to the sex workers who were murdered by Robert William “Willy” Pickton, as well as those who are normally not taken seriously because of their profession. Living in one of Vancouver’s toughest neighbourhoods, sixteen-year-old Angel doesn’t feel like she has any options. A drug addict, she is tied to her pimp boyfriend, Cal, because she believes he is the only person in the world who loves her. But, when her best friend, Serena, goes missing and Cal brings home a new girl—who is eleven years old!—Angel knows that she needs to save the new girl and find a way out. While it isn’t an easy topic to read about, Leavitt’s elegant verse makes us want to fight for Angel, as she is fighting for herself. This is a story of survival.

With over seventeen years' experience in children's publishing, Melanie Fishbane lectures internationally on children's literature and L.M. Montgomery, whom she has been obsessed with since she first read Anne of Green Gables in Grade Six. She teaches English at Humber College in Toronto and contributed to the essay collection, L.M. Montgomery's Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911–1942. Maud is Melanie's first novel.

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Katherine Ashenburg recommends Marni Jackson's Don't I Know You?

If someone told you the premise of Marni Jackson’s book, Don’t I Know You?—that a heroine named Rose, in 14 stories that take her from adolescence to her sixties, has a series of encounters with celebrities who range from John Updike to Bob Dylan, Meryl Streep and Karl Ove Knausgaard—you might think “weird.” Or “gimmicky.” Or “impossible.”

But you would be wrong. Because Don’t I Know You? Is not only unique but funny and wise and touching. Along the way Rose grows up, gets relationship counselling from Joni Mitchell, marries and has a child, lets Bob Dylan crash her family holiday, trades stories of marital woes with Gwyneth Paltrow while Paltrow gives her a facial, takes fennel tea and sympathy from Leonard Cohen as she mourns her mother, and enjoys an afternoon fling with Adam Driver. Jackson’s sleight of hand makes this all seem … not exactly normal, but compelling and in some strange but profound way, believable.I go back and forth between choosing “Bob Dylan Goes Tubing” as my favourite story, or the tour de force conclusion in which Rose goes camping with Cohen, Taylor Swift and Knausgaard. And I defy anyone to read the title story, in which a pitch-perfect version of Keith Richards operates on Rose’s liver, without laughing out loud. One of the distinctions of Jackson’s non-fiction work is her humour, and this first fiction follows in that tradition, from the smallest word play (the memory of Rose’s husband’s affair was “still livid in my mind”) to Paltrow’s earnest, pseudo-scientific (and ultimately sweet) approach to skin care.

Jackson makes you think about celebrities, why we create them (as she writes, “we author their fame”) and what it means when they infiltrate our lives. Adam Driver coming to shovel your walk is only one step further from the fantasies many of us have about famous people. But for me, the creation of Rose is the centre of the book; the celebrities exist, in their down-to-earth glamour, to show us the different and changing faces of Rose. When I decided to recommend Jackson’s book, I went to the short story section on my bookshelves. It wasn’t there and after some worry (to whom had I lent it?), I looked for it in the novel section. There it lives, and with good reason, because the cumulative effect of the stories is novelistic in the subtle, psychologically canny, affectionate way they show you a woman evolving.

Jackson makes you think about celebrities, why we create them (as she writes, “we author their fame”) and what it means when they infiltrate our lives. Adam Driver coming to shovel your walk is only one step further from the fantasies many of us have about famous people.

Katherine Ashenburg
sofie

Katherine Ashenburg has worked as an academic, a CBC Radio producer, and the Arts and Books editor of the Globe and Mail. She has written about travel for the New York Times and architecture for Toronto Life magazine. Her books include Going to Town: Architectural Walking Tours of Southern Ontario Towns and The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die. Sofie and Cecilia is her first novel. 

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Karen Hofmann recommends Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy

I can remember only one book from my second-year CanLit class at UVic, back in the 1980s: Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business. Since that class, I’ve reread The Deptford Trilogy, of which Fifth Business is the first instalment, probably every five years, and recommended it to countless other readers. The trilogy, which includes the novels The Manticore and World of Wonders, tells the stories of Dunstan Ramsay, a Canadian schoolteacher and veteran of the First World War, and some of his associates: Magnus Eisengrim, aka Paul Dempster, a world-class magician; Liesl Naegeli, a Swiss academic and impresario; Percy Boyd Staunton, appellate Lieutenant-Governor, and his bitter, drunken barrister son, David Staunton. 

The Deptford Trilogy books are expansive, fun books, full of smart, passionate characters and rich with esoteric information on subjects from hagiography to prestidigitation to Jungian analysis. They’re humanist, on the side of a balance of mind and body, emotion and logic. They invite readers to learn more—about the world, about the small hidden things of the world, about themselves.

Karen Hofmann's book Water Strider was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Prize at the 2009 BC Book Awards, and her story “The Burgess Shale” was shortlisted at the 2012 CBC Short Fiction Contest. Her first novel, After Alice, was released in Spring 2014, and her second novel, What Is Going to Happen Next, was released in Fall 2017. Echolocation is her latest book. Karen lives in Kamloops, BC.

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Bruce Cinnamon recommends Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen

Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen should be mandatory reading for all Canadians. The book follows two Cree brothers from northern Manitoba as they’re taken to a residential school where they experience sexual abuse, cultural genocide, and religious brainwashing. It then shows the different ways they deal with the aftermath of this trauma in their adult lives.

Throughout all of their trials, the two brothers are followed by the Fur Queen—an impish trickster figure who helps them survive. Highway’s whimsical storytelling style infuses the most horrific of scenes with dark humour and unexpected, inappropriate beauty. Some of the ugliest chapters in our history (not only residential schools, but violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women, gay bashing, and the AIDS crisis) are refracted through the rainbow-hued kaleidoscope of magic realism—a sugary glaze over a rotting, rancid piece of meat.

The end result is a book unlike anything else I’ve read, a masterpiece of tonal dissonance, and my all-time favourite Canadian novel. 

 

Bruce Cinnamon was born in Edmonton and grew up just downstream in Fort Saskatchewan, along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. He holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Alberta and a Master of Global Affairs from the University of Toronto. His favourite authors and literary influences include Garth Nix, Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges, Rachel Carson, Thomas King, Tomson Highway, and Italo Calvino. The Melting Queen is his first novel.

February 19, 2019
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