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CanLit Faves

By karynwisselink
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A list of my favourites. Fiction and Poetry!
Nikolski

Nikolski

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

Magnetic Anomaly

My name is unimportant.

It all started in September 1989, at about seven in the morning.

I’m still asleep, curled up in my sleeping bag on the living-room floor. There are cardboard boxes, rolled-up rugs, half-disassembled pieces of furniture, and tool boxes heaped around me. The walls are bare, except for the pale spots left by the pictures that had hung there for too many years.

The window lets in the monotonous, rhythmic sound of the waves rolling over the stones.

Every beach has a particular acoustic signature, which depends on the force and length of the waves, the makeup of the ground, the form of the landscape, the prevailing winds and the humidity in the air. It’s impossible to confuse the subdued murmur of Mallorca with the resonant roll of Greenland’s prehistoric pebbles, or the coral melody of the beaches of Belize, or the hollow growl of the Irish coast.

The surf I hear this morning is easy enough to identify. The deep, somewhat raw rumbling, the crystalline ringing of the volcanic stones, the slightly asymmetrical breaking of the waves, the water rich in nutriments – there’s no mistaking the shores of the Aleutian Islands.

I mutter something and open my left eye a crack. Where can that unlikely sound be coming from? The nearest ocean is over a thousand kilometres away. And besides, I’ve never set foot on a beach.

I crawl out of the sleeping bag and stumble over to the window. Clutching at the curtains, I watch the garbage truck pull up with a pneumatic squeal in front of our bungalow. Since when do diesel engines imitate breaking waves?

Dubious poetry of the suburbs.

The two trash collectors hop down from their vehicle and stand there, dumbstruck, contemplating the mountain of bags piled on the asphalt. The first one, looking dismayed, pretends to count them. I start to worry; have I infringed some city bylaw that limits the number of bags per house? The second garbageman, much more pragmatic, sets about filling the truck. He obviously couldn’t care less about the number of bags, their contents or the story behind them.

There are exactly thirty bags.

I bought them at the corner grocery store – a shopping experience I’m not about to forget.

Standing in the cleaning-products aisle, I wondered how many garbage bags would be needed to hold the countless memories my mother had accumulated since 1966. What volume could actually contain thirty years of living? I was loath to do the indecent arithmetic. Whatever my estimation might be, I was fearful of underestimating my mother’s existence.

I went for a brand that seemed sufficiently strong. Each package contained ten revolutionary ultraplastic refuse bags with a sixty-litre capacity.

I took three packages, for a total of 1,800 litres.

The thirty bags turned out to be adequate – though I did on occasion enlist my foot to press the point home – and now the garbagemen are busy tossing them into the gaping mouth of the truck. Every so often, a heavy steel jaw crushes the trash with a pachyderm-like groan. Nothing at all like the poetic susurrations of the waves.

Actually, the whole story – since it needs to be told – began with the Nikolski compass.


The old compass resurfaced in August, two weeks after the funeral.

My mother’s endless agony had worn me out. Right from the initial diagnosis, my life had turned into a relay race. My days and nights were spent shuttling from the house, to work, to the hospital. I stopped sleeping, ate less and less, lost nearly five kilos. It was as if I were the one struggling with the tumours. Yet the truth was never in doubt. My mother died after seven months, leaving me to bear the entire world on my shoulders.

I was drained, my thinking out of focus – but there was no question of throwing in the towel. Once the paperwork was taken care of, I launched into the last big cleanup.

I looked like a survivalist, holed up in the basement of the bungalow with my thirty garbage bags, an ample supply of ham sandwiches, cans and cans of concentrated frozen orange juice and the FM radio with the volume turned down low. I gave myself a week to obliterate five decades of existence, five closetfuls of odds and ends crumbling under their own weight.

Now, this sort of cleanup may seem grim and vindictive to some. But understand: I found myself suddenly alone in the world, with neither friends nor family, but still with an urgent need to go on living. Some things just had to be jettisoned.

I went at the closets with the cool detachment of an archaeologist, separating the memorabilia into more or less logical categories:

• a cigarillo box filled with seashells
• four bundles of press clippings about the U.S. radar stations in Alaska
• an old Instamatic 104 camera
• over three hundred pictures taken with the aforementioned Instamatic 104
• numerous paperback novels, abundantly annotated
• a handful of costume jewellery
• a pair of Janis Joplin-style pink sunglasses

I entered a troubling time warp, and the deeper I plunged into the closets, the less I recognized my mother. The dusty objects belonging to a life in the distant past bore witness to a woman I’d never known before. Their mass, their texture, their odour seeped into my mind and took root among my own memories, like parasites. My mother was thus reduced to a pile of disconnected artifacts smelling of mothballs.

I was annoyed by the way events were unfolding. What had started out as a simple matter of sweeping up was gradually turning into a laborious initiation. I looked forward to the time when I would finally reach the bottom of the closets, but their contents seemed inexhaustible.

It was at this point that I came upon a large packet of diaries – fifteen softcover notebooks filled with telegraphic prose. My hopes were rekindled. Maybe these diaries would allow me to put together the pieces of the puzzle?

I arranged the notebooks chronologically. The first one began on June 12, 1966.

My mother headed off to Vancouver when she was nineteen, feeling that a proper break with one’s family should be gauged in kilometres, and that her own falling-out deserved to be measured in continents. She ran away one June 25, at dawn, in the company of a hippie named Dauphin. The two confederates shared the cost of gas, shifts at the wheel, and long drags on thin joints rolled as tight as toothpicks. When not driving, my mother wrote in her notebook. Her script, very neat and orderly at the outset, quickly started to furl and unfurl, tracing the eddies and whorls of THC.

At the beginning of the second notebook, she had woken up alone on Water Street, barely able to stutter a few halting phrases in English. Notepad in hand, she went about communicating through ideograms, by turns sketching and gesturing. In a park, she made the acquaintance of a group of arts students who were busy crafting delicate origami manta rays out of psychedelic paper. They invited her to share their overcrowded apartment, their cushion-filled living room and a bed already occupied by two other girls. Every night at about two a.m., the three of them squeezed in under the sheets and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while they discussed Buddhism.

My mother swore she would never return to the East Coast.

Whereas her first weeks in Vancouver were recounted with a wealth of detail, the rest of her journey grew more and more elliptical as the demands of nomadic life evidently supplanted those of narration. She never stayed anywhere more than four months, but would all of a sudden take off to Victoria, then Prince Rupert, San Francisco, Seattle, Juneau and a thousand other places she did not always bother to identify clearly. She scraped by thanks to various paltry expedients: hawking poems by Richard Brautigan to passersby, selling postcards to tourists, juggling, cleaning motel rooms, shoplifting in supermarkets.

Her escapade went on like this for five years. Then, in June 1970, we showed up at the Vancouver central station with two huge duffel bags just about bursting at the seams. My mother bought a train ticket to Montreal, and we crossed the continent in reverse, she curled up in her seat, me nestled in the depths of her uterus, an imperceptible comma in an as yet unwritten novel.

When she got back home, she briefly made up with my grandparents – a strategic truce aimed at securing the endorsement she needed from them to buy a house. In short order, she purchased a bungalow in Saint-Isidore Junction, a stone’s throw from Châteauguay, in what was to become the southern periphery of Montreal, but which at the time still retained something of the countryside, with its ancestral houses, its fallow land and its impressive population of porcupines.

Now saddled with a mortgage, she had to take work in Châteauguay – at a travel agency. Paradoxically, this job put an end to her youthful roving, and to her diaries too.

The last diary ended on an undated page, circa 1971. I closed it, deep in thought. Of all the omissions that punctuated my mother’s prose, the most important was Jonas Doucet.
Nothing was left of that transient sire but a stack of postcards scribbled with indecipherable handwriting, the final one dating back to 1975. I had often tried to crack the secret of those cards, but there was no way to make sense of their hieroglyphics. Even the postmarks were more revealing, as they limned out a path that began in southern Alaska, went up to the Yukon, then back down again toward Anchorage, and ended in the Aleutians – more precisely, on the American military base where my father had found employment.

Under the pile of postcards was a small, crumpled box and a letter from the U.S. Air Force.

I learned nothing new from the letter. The box, on the other hand, illuminated a forgotten pit in my memory. Now totally flat, it had once contained a compass that Jonas had sent me for my birthday. That compass came back to me in astounding detail. How could I have forgotten it? It was the only tangible proof of my father’s existence, and had been the pole star of my childhood, the glorious instrument with which I’d crossed a thousand imaginary oceans! Which mountain of debris was it buried under now?

I combed the bungalow from top to bottom in a reckless frenzy, emptying drawers and cupboards, searching behind the sideboards and under the rugs, crawling into the darkest recesses.

It was three in the morning before I tracked it down, stuck between an aquarium-sized deep-sea diver and an apple-green garbage truck, at the bottom of a cardboard box perched on two rafters in the attic.

The years had not improved the appearance of the poor compass, a five-dollar gizmo most likely found near the cash register of an Anchorage hardware dealer. Luckily, its lengthy proximity to metallic toys had not demagnetized its needle, which persisted in pointing (what seemed to be) north.

Strictly speaking, it was a miniature mariner’s compass, composed of a transparent plastic sphere filled with a clear liquid in which there floated a second, magnetized and graded sphere. The inclusion of one sphere inside another, as in a tiny matryoshka, guaranteed a gyroscopic stability that could withstand the worst storms: no matter how strong the waves might be, the compass would lose neither its bearings nor the horizon.

I fell asleep in the attic with my head sunk in a cumulus of candy-pink insulation, the compass resting on my forehead.

Superficially, that old compass seems perfectly unremarkable, just like any other compass. But on closer examination one realizes that it doesn’t point exactly north.

Some individuals claim to be aware at all times of precisely where north is located. However, like most people, I need a marker. When I’m sitting behind the bookstore counter, for example, I know magnetic north is located 4,238 kilometres away, in a beeline that runs through the Mickey Spillane shelf and goes to Ellef Ringnes Island, a pebble lost in the immense Queen Elizabeth archipelago.

But, instead of pointing toward the Mickey Spillane shelf, my compass lines up 1.5 metres to the left, right in the middle of the exit door.

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Why it's on the list ...
I have only read this book in French and it was amazing. The way the characters come to close to each other but without touching each other is maddening and beautiful at the same time.
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In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion

edition:Paperback
also available: Audiobook (cassette)
tagged : historical

In the Skin of a Lion is a love story and an irresistible mystery set in the turbulent, muscular new world of Toronto in the 20s and 30s. Michael Ondaatje entwines adventure, romance and history, real and invented, enmeshing us in the lives of the immigrants who built the city and those who dreamed it into being: the politically powerful, the anarchists, bridge builders and tunnellers, a vanished millionaire and his mistress, a rescued nun and a thief who leads a charmed life. This is a haunting …

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Excerpt

An April night in 1917. Harris and Pomphrey were on the bridge, in the dark wind. Pomphrey had turned west and was suddenly stilled. His hand reached out to touch Harris on the shoulder, a gesture he had never made before.

-- Look!

Walking on the bridge were five nuns.

Past the Dominion Steel castings wind attacked the body directly. The nuns were walking past the first group of workers at the fire. The bus, Harris thought, must have dropped them off near Castle Frank and the nuns had, with some confusion at that hour, walked the wrong way in the darkness.

They had passed the black car under the trees and talking cheerfully stepped past the barrier into a landscape they did not know existed -- onto a tentative carpet over the piers, among the night labourers. They saw the fire and the men. A few tried to wave them back. There was a mule attached to a wagon. The hiss and jump of machines made the ground under them lurch. A smell of creosote. One man was washing his face in a barrel of water.

The nuns were moving towards a thirty-yard point on the bridge when the wind began to scatter them. They were thrown against the cement mixers and steam shovels, careering from side to side, in danger of going over the edge.

Some of the men grabbed and enclosed them, pulling leather straps over their shoulders, but two were still loose. Harris and Pomphrey at the far end looked on helplessly as one nun was lifted up and flung against the compressors. She stood up shakily and then the wind jerked her sideways, scraping her along the concrete and right off the edge of the bridge. She disappeared into the night by the third abutment, into the long depth of air which held nothing, only sometimes a rivet or a dropped hammer during the day.

Then there was no longer any fear on the bridge. The worst, the incredible had happened. A nun had fallen off the Prince Edward Viaduct before it was even finished. The men covered in wood shavings or granite dust held the women against them. And Commissioner Harris at the far end stared along the mad pathway. This was his first child and it had already become a murderer.

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Volkswagen Blues

Volkswagen Blues

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary

In this classic road novel, Jacques Poulin tells the story of a man in search of his brother. The geographical journey — through Detroit, into Chicago, on to St. Louis, along the Oregon Trail and into California — becomes a metaphor for the exploration of the history of the French in North America.

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Running in the Family

Running in the Family

edition:Paperback

In Michael Ondaatje’s beloved family memoir, fact and fiction blur to create a dazzlingly original portrait of a lost time and place. Ondaatje left Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) at the age of eleven. Almost twenty-five years later, he returned to sort out the recollected fragments of experience, legend, and family scandal, and to reconstruct the carefree, doomed life his parents and grandparents had led in a place where couples danced the tango in the moonlight, where drink, gambling, and romance wer …

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Player One

Player One

What Is to Become of Us
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : literary, suspense

In his 2010 CBC Massey Lectures acclaimed novelist and visual artist Douglas Coupland explores the modern crises of time, human identity, society, religion and macroeconomics and the afterlife in the form of a novel, a 5-hour story set in an airport cocktail lounge during a global disaster.

Five disparate people are trapped inside: Karen, a single mother waiting for her online date; Rick, the down-on-his-luck airport lounge bartender; Luke, a pastor on the run; Rachel, a cool Hitchcock blonde inc …

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Emily of New Moon

Emily of New Moon

edition:Hardcover
tagged :

Emily Starr never knew what it was to be lonely--until her beloved father died. Now Emily's an orphan, and her snobbish relatives are taking her to live with them at New Moon Farm. Although she's sure she'll never be happy there, Emily deals with her stern aunt Elizabeth and her malicious classmates by using her quick wit and holding her head high.
     Things slowly begin to change for the better when Emily makes some new friends. There's Teddy Kent, who does marvelous drawings; Perry Miller, …

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Excerpt

Aunt Elizabeth had a more prosaic idea to account for Emily’s languor and lack of appetite. She had come to the conclusion that Emily’s heavy masses of hair “took from her strength” and that she would be much stronger and better if it were cut off. With Aunt Elizabeth to decide was to act. One morning she coolly informed Emily that her hair was to be “shingled.”

Emily could not believe her ears.

“You don’t mean that you are going to cut off my hair, Aunt Elizabeth,” she exclaimed.

“Yes, I mean exactly that,” said Aunt Elizabeth firmly. “You have entirely too much hair especially for hot weather. I feel sure that is why you have been so miserable lately. Now, I don’t want any crying.”

But Emily could not keep the tears back.

“Don’t cut it all off,” she pleaded. “Just cut a good big bang. Lots of the girls have their hair banged clean from the crown of their heads. That would take half my hair off and the rest won’t take too much strength.”

“There will be no bangs here,” said Aunt Elizabeth. “I’ve told you so often enough. I’m going to shingle your hair close all over your head for the hot weather. You’ll be thankful to me some day for it.”

Emily felt anything but thankful just then.

“It’s my one beauty,” she sobbed, “it and my lashes. I suppose you want to cut off my lashes too.”

Aunt Elizabeth did distrust those long, upcurled fringes of Emily’s, which were an inheritance from the girlish stepmother, and too un-Murray-like to be approved; but she had no designs against them. The hair must go, however, and she curtly bade Emily wait there, without any fuss, until she got the scissors.

Emily waited — quite hopelessly. She must lose her lovely hair — the hair her father had been so proud of. It might grow again in time — if Aunt Elizabeth let it — but that would take years, and meanwhile what a fright she would be! Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy were out; she had no one to back her up; this horrible thing must happen.

Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something — some strange formidable power in Emily’s soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way — she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistible surge of energy.

“Aunt Elizabeth,” she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, “my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this.”

An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale — she laid the scissors down — she looked aghast for one moment at the transformed or possessed child before her — and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled — literally fled — to the kitchen.

“What is the matter, Elizabeth?” cried Laura, coming in from the cook-house.

“I saw — Father — looking from her face,” gasped Elizabeth, trembling. “And she said, ‘Let me hear no more of this,’ — just as he always said it — his very words.”

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Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope

Selected Poems
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian

Kaleidoscope is the first in a series of ten volumes to be published over the next ten years as a complement to an online hypermedia edition of the Collected Works of P. K. Page. Listed chronologically by date of composition, the poetry in Kaleidoscope is fluid, wondrous and technically exquisite, drawing on subjects great and small, and it offers a comprehensive look at one of Canada's most beloved and brilliant poets.

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Excerpt

Seraphim

In the dream it was the seraphim who came
golden, six-winged
with eyes of aquamarine
and set my hair aflame
and spoke in a language which written down --
an elegant script of candelabras and chalices --
spelled out my name
but it was not my name
The mornings following were bright as wings
sky's intricate cirrus
the feathers under his wings
the wind's great rush
the bladed beat of his wings
Mare's tails traced the passage of his seraphic chariot
Hummingbirds ruby-throated roared and braked
in the timeless isinglass air and burned like coals
high in the fronds of a brass palm sunbirds sang
girasoles swung their cadmium-coloured hair
and I heard the seraphim telling once again
the letters of my name
but my name was lost in the spoken syllables

by Summer, 1976 1997

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Kiss of the Fur Queen

Kiss of the Fur Queen

edition:Paperback

Born into a magical Cree world in snowy northern Manitoba, Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis are all too soon torn from their family and thrust into the hostile world of a Catholic residential school. Their language is forbidden, their names are changed to Jeremiah and Gabriel, and both boys are abused by priests.

As young men, estranged from their own people and alienated from the culture imposed upon them, the Okimasis brothers fight to survive. Wherever they go, the Fur Queen--a wily, shape-sh …

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