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.
While researching my novel about squatters and street-involved folks, I read Genet and Orwell’s accounts of living on the street. Then I stumbled on Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown. This nonfiction book is set in Tent City, a squatted community that existed on Toronto’s Lakeshore Boulevard from the late 90s to 2002. I remember the area well, having ridden my bike past it many times, always slowing a little, as though the faces I saw through the fence somehow added weight to my back wheel.
Bishop-Stall lived in Tent City for the last year of its existence and his book chronicles his heartbroken, hard-drinking time there. From the first pages I was hooked: by his shell-shocked yet lyrical voice, and the unforgettable people he encounters. If you’ve ever been curious how thin the line is between the homed and the homeless, the gainfully employed and the criminal, this book delivers true insight. A work of gritty, diary-style reportage, Down to This introduces readers to some of the city’s least fortunate. It’s a book that requires you to do more than slow your pedalling; it forces you to come to a complete stop while you deeply consider life on the other side of the fence.
If you’ve ever been curious how thin the line is between the homed and the homeless, the gainfully employed and the criminal, this book delivers true insight.
Becky Blake is a two-time winner of the CBC Literary Prize (for non-fiction in 2017 and short fiction in 2013). Her debut novel, Proof I Was Here, is out this month with Wolsak & Wynn’s Buckrider Books.
I had to wait a while to read Mamaskatch, and it was even better than I expected it to be. Reviewers have commented on its timeliness, and on the blend of candour, tenderness, and humour with which Darrel McLeod tells his family’s story. All true! I want to mention as well the skilful crafting of this memoir, which begins and ends with McLeod’s mother and charts both of their journeys as he becomes a young man. Mamaskatch is beautifully structured and, page by page, utterly compelling. McLeod knows when to take the reader in close, and he uses imagination where it is needed. He is a musician and writes with a keen awareness of sound, weaving into his prose many snatches of song along with the sounds of Cree, French, and the language of crows. Raw life is made into art, shared. It’s a powerful book.
I saw the late John Lavery read in Ottawa more than fifteen years ago. It was a local showcase night—John lived across the river in Gatineau—and he popped out of the line-up like a firecracker. He gave an astounding reading of the entire short story "Peter, Said the Bird" from the collection Very Good Butter. The rhythm was relentless and bouncy, the language and plot ridiculous and touching and full of surprises. I had never heard anything like it and haven’t since. One of my top five stories of all time.
Missy Marston’s first novel, The Love Monster, was the winner of the 2013 Ottawa Book Award, a finalist for the CBC Bookie Awards and the Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice. Her latest novel is Bad Ideas.
I picked up The Outlander after hearing Gil Adamson read in Banff. Like the horse barrelling through town or thunder rolling over mountain ranges, The Outlander roils with energy, a fast-paced road novel set in the untamed Canadian Rockies. The story: a mysterious and wild teenage “widow by her own hand” flees into the wilderness at the turn of the 20th century, stealing horses, meeting grizzlies and facing a historical landslide. Part survival story, part gothic romance and straight-up, hang-onto-your-saddlehorn adventure tale, The Outlander is hold-your-breath suspenseful and exquisitely rendered, precise and beautiful. Adamson, a poet, took ten years to write The Outlander, which won several awards, including the Dashiell Hammett Prize for crime fiction. I’ve recommended The Outlander before and will again. Read it!
Trinidadian-Canadian writer Sonny Ladoo was murdered in 1973 during a visit to his homeland, one year after the publication of his novel, No Pain Like This Body (Anansi). The book is unlike any other set in the Caribbean. It is unrelenting in its depiction of a community bruised by indentureship, adrift and turning on itself. The acts of violence are made more poignant because they are told from a child’s perspective. “Ma was bawling…Pa turned her over and pushed her face inside the tub; trying hard to drown her. Her feet were high in the air, and her whole body was shaking...”
It’s likely that this violence and the rawness of the language will turn off some readers but those who persist will be rewarded with a story that is bereft of any kind of adornment, any hint of literary influences. In short, the reader will be rewarded with a book that is utterly original. Some stories remain with us because of a memorable character or an unexpected plot twist or the originality of the language. No Pain Like This Body has all of these but it is the fidelity of the author’s vision that makes it unforgettable.
Rabindranath Maharaj'smany books have won or been shortlisted for such prizes as the Trillium Book Award (winner) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (finalist). His latest novel is Fatboy Fall Down.