The Birds That Stay is Ann Lambert's first novel, a murder mystery set in a small village in the Laurentians, north of Montreal. And Lambert brings to her first book more than two decades of experience as a theatre direction, playwright, and English teacher, all of which inform her novel, and in this recommended reading list she shares works that have similarly served as a foundation for her, both as a reader and as a writer.
Although narrowing the list down wasn't easy...
How do I isolate ten books to recommend from the range and depth of Canadian literature? How do I not include Barometer Rising, The Tin Flute, The Wars, Le Matou, Unless, A Complicated Kindness, A Fine Balance, The Life of Pi, The Book of Negroes, Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Tiger, The Break and so many other terrific books? I decided to select books by Canadian writers whose work prompted a watershed moment for me, over a lifetime of reading.
The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence
This was the complete novel for me. It told the story of a woman, Morag Gunn, who migrated from her rural Manitoba home to Toronto, in her quest to be a fully-realized, autonomous woman and human being. It seemed to tell an entire Canadian story in microcosm. I was 16 years old, and it was the first Canadian novel I’d ever read. It made me feel like our stories did matter, and that we had a right to tell them. It was about a woman’s sexual desire, and believe it or not, it was the first time I had ever read an honest, authentic depiction of it. It was about where the injustice of race, class and gender intersect. It also had such a strong sense of place, which definitely influenced my own book with its understanding of how place can be an essential character. I still remember her descriptions of the Canadian landscape, rural and urban, and especially of the river Morag observes everyday from her house where she lives alone in the last years of her life. I remember wanting to be Piquette, her daughter, a wandering musician and the child of Morag's enduring passion for her Metis lover, Jules Tonnerre. Each character is described with such ferocious honesty, and the entire cast was anchored by Morag who becomes like the river that flows past her house, a force of nature answering only to herself.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
I read this when it was published in 1985 during the Reagan presidency, when the right-wing evangelical movement in the United States certainly made the dystopian speculation in the book seem terrifyingly possible. Apart from being a compelling thriller purely on the level of plotting, it was such a powerful allegory of those who would create a theocracy fueled by greed, xenophobia and profound misogyny. In the handmaid’s story, I recognized so many systems of belief and behavior that rang so true—especially the hypocrisy of those self-appointed guardians of “morality” who use it to secure and maintain their power. I am not surprised that this book resurfaced as a hit TV series, as it is and is so timely again, when we are faced with the kakistocracy of the Trump regime.
The Way the Crow Flies, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
I love MacDonald’s work as a playwright, but the fact that she could move from writing brilliant plays to equally brilliant novels was so impressive to me. She must have planted the idea, however, that maybe I could try my hand at a novel as well. In The Way the Crow Flies, I remember thinking how vividly she evoked the period in which I grew up—the 1960’s. Although I didn’t live on an air force base where this novel is set, I remember that the feeling, the zeitgeist of that time was so perfectly rendered, it spoke to me very powerfully. Because there is a murder at the heart of it, I also remember thinking you can write something “literary” and be a page-turner at the same time. It was a definite inspiration for The Birds that Stay.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordechai Richler
I first read this book in high school, as it was on my “North-American Literature” curriculum. The book is lovingly set in Montreal, but in a part of the city I did not know yet at my time of reading, and one that to me seemed so much more alive and significant than the suburbs where I grew up. It is also set in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal, where Duddy goes on his quest for the land that will make his reputation and solidify him as a somebody in his community, and most importantly in the eyes of his grandfather. I remember loving the life force that was Duddy Kravitz, his determination to make it, to prove himself to his family and community. I remember the dread I felt as his determination turns to desperation, and despite his wanting to do the right thing, he never can seem to. I remember laughing out loud, and the liberation I felt experiencing Richler’s irreverent, hilarious and outspoken characters. Duddy was the first literary Jewish person I ever met, (except for Shylock) and despite his many flaws, I loved his story, and how so many around him were swept up in his dream, until it all came crashing down around them.
Balconville, by David Fennario
This is a stage play that took first Montreal, then much of Canada, by storm. To my knowledge, it was the first bilingual Canadian play written. I saw this at the Centaur Theatre when I was about 22 years old, and a political science major thinking about going to law school. Suddenly, on stage, was a world and characters I recognized as my own; it wasn’t set in Toronto, or the mid-western US, or London. It was my city and they were speaking my languages. “Balconville” is the place you go when you cannot afford a vacation—only a Montrealer would know what it means. I remember clearly thinking that maybe I could do this—maybe I could write a play. David Fennario made me think that I could tell stories about where I was from, that in the specifics of my place and time could be found the universal. I became a playwright from that evening onward.
Les Belles Soeurs, by Michel Tremblay
Similarly to Balconville, this beautiful, iconic play put a piece of my world on stage. In the women of Tremblay’s deeply humane play, were versions of my mother and my aunts, my matantes, telling their hilarious and heart-breaking stories about the quotidian while yearning for a better life. Choked and suffocated by the Catholic church, limited opportunities for women and poverty, their anger, their jealousy, their pettiness and their broken hearts are all so recognizable and compelling. All of this range of human emotion was expressed injoual, the version of the French language unique to Quebec, which I had never heard before on stage. It was thrilling.
The Rez Sisters, by Tomson Highway
Inspired by the Tremblay play, this is a perfect pairing with Les Belles Soeurs. In this heart-breaking and hilarious play about seven women on a fictional First Nations reserve in Northern Ontario, we recognize the same jealousies, pettiness and daily struggle to put one foot in front of the other as we do in the women of Tremblay’s play, but Highway fearlessly examines the lives of these women affected as well by alcohol addiction, domestic abuse, and the violence of racism. Nonetheless, the Rez Sisters travel to the biggest bingo in the world in the hopes of changing their fortunes, and in the case of one sister, winning enough money to buy a porcelain toilet. Although written by a man as well, the sensitivity, honesty and tenderness with which Highway portrays these women is remarkable. It is like he himself shape-shifted like the character of Nanabush in the play andbecame these flawed, damaged, resilient human and humane women.
Judith Thompson is one of Canada’s greatest writers—but because she is a playwright, many have not heard of her. Read or attend any of her plays—and you will enter worlds you’ve never seen on stage before. Thompson often writes about the marginalized, isolated and damaged people struggling to gain some kind of understanding of their lives and the world they inhabit. Her storytelling is fearless and ferociously honest, marked by a willingness to explore aspects of the human experience few people want to discuss let alone look at, combined with an urgent sense of theatricality.
Like Judith Thompson, as soon as I start an Alice Munro story I know I am in the hands of a masterful storyteller. How she teases such meaning and depth from seemingly trivial or commonplace moments, the acutely observed characters, the secrets of the human heart she so fearlessly exposes while maintaining her love for and tender humanity of the characters never ceases to impress and astonish me.
Scorched (Incendies), by Wajdi Mouawad
Every time I teach this play, I simultaneously wish I had written it and recognize the impossibility of my ever writing something this extraordinary. This disturbing, provocative, profound play written by Lebanese-Canadian Mouawad is about a twin brother and sister who are sent on a quest by their catatonic mother to return to her civil-war ravaged country in search of their father, and a brother they never knew they had. The play moves back and forth in time, slowly exposing the devastating truth about their mother’s past, and how it implicates them in her suffering. It is the best work I have ever read or seen about the physical and psychological ravages of war, and of rape as a weapon of war. It was made into a very powerful film called Incendies which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. It should have won.
Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan
I was thinking at first this would be another almost unreadable chronicle of the brutality and horror of slavery, which it was—but it is so much more. I loved the relationship of Washington Black, a young slave on a Bermuda plantation to Titch, the central figure of his life. I loved the agency he slowly, torturously begins to acquire. I loved the unexpected adventure I was taken on, as though I might have flown in the Cloud Cutter itself, had it not been destroyed and swallowed by the sea. I also loved that although beautifully written and sensuously evoked, it too was a page turner. Somehow I missed reading Half-Blood Blues. I will rectify that immediately.
In a small village in the Laurentians, north of Montreal, a reclusive older woman is found strangled outside her home. Roméo Leduc, Chief Inspector for Homicide, is one day away from his first vacation in years but reluctantly answers the call on the case. Marie Russell lives in the same small community. She did not know her elderly neighbour, and she does not expect to become embroiled in solving her murder. But when a startling new clue emerges, Marie becomes an inadvertent detective. As Marie and Roméo combine wits to find the killer, they are forced to face demons from their own pasts as they confront a case where no one and nothing is really as it seems.
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