"Last Impressions will make you laugh out loud and cry out loud. What more could be asked of a book?" —Miriam Toews
Joseph Kertes was born in Hungary but escaped with his family to Canada after the revolution of 1956. His first novel, Winter Tulips, won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. His third novel, Gratitude, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and the US National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, and both it and his fourth, The Afterlife of Stars, garnered extraordinary critical acclaim. Kertes founded Humber College's distinguished creative writing and comedy programs.
We're happy to feature a reading list of some of his favourite Canadian fiction.
The Innocents, by Michael Crummey
One of my favourite contemporary Canadian writers is Michael Crummey, and his latest novel, short-listed for the Giller, The GG and the Rogers-Writers’ Trust Fiction Award is The Innocents. The most stunning achievement of this book is that it transports us back to a small isolated cove in 18th century Newfoundland, and not for a second do we doubt that we’re there, inhabiting the world of the hapless family of young Ava and Evered, who must take whatever the world tosses their way, whatever feast, whatever famine, whatever fortune or misfortune, whatever life, whatever death.
In fact, the cove defines all things, the few things inside it as against the threatening world outside: “The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.”
No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod
The doleful, beautiful No Great Mischief, the only novel written by the late great short story writer, Alistair MacLeod, tells the story of Alexander MacDonald, an orthodontist who regularly drives across Ontario to visit his failing, alcoholic brother Calum. Time is fluid in the novel, and the two sift through the legends of their family, all the way back to the 18th century. The past here is, in fact, as alive as the present, if not more so.
The novel’s title comes from a note written by General James Wolfe prior to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham about the Scots in the new land, saying, “it’s no great mischief if they fall.” This notion of the Scots of the new land as being expendable is at the heart of the bitterness and sorrow that pervades the lives of generations of MacDonalds. Each generation has its own legends and personal catastrophes to cope with and to pass down. The love between Alexander and Calum, despite Calum’s crimes and misdemeanors, is what will, I think, most impress readers of this novel.
No Great Mischief teaches us that "all of us are better when we’re loved."
Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels
This beautiful, deeply felt novel could only have been written by a poet—and one of the country’s greatest at that. Who else could have written a sentence like this?— “If love wants you; if you've been melted down to stars, you will love with lungs and gills; with feathers and scales; with warm blood and cold.” Or sentences like these: “Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall. In their rings we read ancient weather—storms, sunlight, and temperatures, the growing seasons of centuries. A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers even after it has been felled.”
Fugitive Pieces tells the story of Jakob Beer, a young Polish boy whose parents are killed by Nazis and who is spirited away by Athos Roussos, a Greek geologist, who takes Jakob to his home on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Here he survives until the war ends, and Jakob and Athos move to Toronto, where the geologist accepts an academic post. The trouble is that the past is never far behind. Its horrors and hopes pervade this story and give it its grace and definition.
Selected Stories, by Alice Munro
It has often been said of Alice Munro that you can open one of her stories anywhere and it springs to life immediately. They are each small evocations of a whole breathing life, fulsome, suggesting a whole novel. Each is so brilliantly resonant that the author once said that, if she had the chance to do it, she would lop off the ending of each story because it is so defining and suggestive. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Her genius resides in the subtlety of her writing, the life depicted lifted in a gentle arc, then lowered as seamlessly as it began. The seeming ordinariness of events is as natural as breathing.
I want to suggest my own favourite stories from among these favourites, but yours will no doubt be different ones. Enjoy each one of these stunning jewels in its own right.
The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
The Stone Diaries remains one of my favourite Canadian novels. It documents the ordinary life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, born in 1905 to Mercy, who died giving birth to Daisy. The book, then, becomes a chronicle of Daisy’s life, and it is a measure of whether or not her mother's sacrifice was worth it. The protagonist’s name says it all: she is pretty as a flower but short-lived, her life fleeting, despite the good will she expresses in all of her life and the good nature that sustained her and those around her.
With her mother’s death, her father Cuyler flees. He is a stone cutter, but even stone has fleeting, if transcendent properties: “The miracle of stone is that a rigid, inert mass can be lifted out of the ground and given wings."
Daisy marries and has a family with Barker, who is a “voyeur in his own life” and who comes to understand that even love is fleeting. As he lies in bed with Daisy, he realizes that “love is just a word trying to remember another word.”
Daisy’s “final (unspoken) words” are “I am not at peace.” Too bad. History will nevertheless seal her in as surely as it gently erases her. The closing benediction, said over her, contradicts her, however: “Daisy Goodwill Flett, wife, mother, citizen of our century. May she rest in peace.”
How can you say goodbye forever when you've left an important secret unspoken?
"I'll tell you what I'm going to do," Zoltan said. "When I die, I'll leave my luck to you."
Zoltan Beck is dying. His devoted but long-suffering sons, Ben and Frank, are trying to prepare themselves and their families for Zoltan's eventual departure...but they can't quite bring themselves to believe that the end is really at hand, and neither can Zoltan himself. The head of a family marked by war and tragedy for decades, he "can't stand to be in a room with a miserable person" and has done his best to keep the pain of his refugee past from his beloved children. But as he faces the end of his life, he discovers a heartbreaking secret from the War that will ultimately bring the family together—or irrevocably disrupt it. Set in both mid-20th century Hungary and contemporary Toronto, this is a deeply moving novel that revels in the energy of its extraordinary characters. It is the story of lost love and newfound connections, of a father and his sons desperately reaching out to bridge an ever-widening gap...even as their time together ebbs away.
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