There was only one rule: they couldn’t recommend anything from their own house.
House: Brick Books
Person: Alayna Munce, Production Manager
Title: The Stubborn Particulars of Grace by Bronwen Wallace (M & S)
If I had to recommend one book that all Canadians should read, it would be Bronwen Wallace’s 1987 collection of poems, The Stubborn Particulars of Grace. It’s currently out of print, but it sure shouldn’t be; the book is both accessible and artful, moving and hard-hitting, not a dud in the batch. The poems are bewildered and wise at once, deceptively pain-speaking and conversational. They’re like a late night conversation in the dark on the porch over scotch with your best friend—that graceful grappling with the most ordinary, most complex elements of life. From the opening poem about the awkward saying of grace around the family table, to the final poem called “Particulars” (which revisits that table, that grace, looking for a way to say “just once, / without embarrassment, bless”), The Stubborn Particulars of Grace finds the tender spots we didn’t necessary know were tender, and gently presses. I snap up a copy whenever I see one in a used bookstore—it makes a great gift—and it’s the book I name whenever anyone who doesn’t usually read poetry asks me for a place to begin. A Canadian classic.
House: Creative Book Publishing
Person: Donna Francis, Editor/Marketing Manager
Title: Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Anansi)
A Canadian book I think everyone should read is Annabel by Kathleen Winter. Her main character is a hermaphrodite, a subject I confess to knowing very little about before I read the novel. I was drawn in from page one, and struck by the sensitive way the author approached the subject. For me, the book was about multiple conflicts, each seemingly compounded by the other. I struggled along with Wayne, the main character, as he searched inside himself for his identity. I also thought the struggle of conflicting personalities between Treadway and Jacinta was very compelling, and very well portrayed, and I found myself sympathizing with her desire to be back in St. John’s. This book forces you to think about how life choices affect who you are and how you live your life. I particularly liked this thought from Thomasina: “Everyone is a snake shedding its skin.”
House: Cormorant Books Inc.
Person: Marc Cote, Publisher
Title: The Wars by Timothy Findley (Penguin)
The Wars, by Timothy Findley. The Wars is a beautifully written book about the horror and insanity of war. It is the story of an attempt to put together a shattered world, in which the form of the novel is itself a metaphor for the book’s contents. One of the “perfect” novels written in the English language.
House: Goose Lane Editions
Person: Cory Redekop, Publicist
Title: The Waterproof Bible by Andrew Kaufman (Random House)
The Waterproof Bible, by Andrew Kaufman. Why? Because as good as Canadian novels are, we need artists like Kaufman to push at the boundaries and see what a novel can do. Because it is effortlessly whimsical without setting your teeth on edge, a hard combination to achieve. Because genre fiction gets a bad rap. Because it’s practically unclassifiable as a genre. Because it is so unlike any novel I’ve read recently. Because it has a race of aquatic frog people, which should be enough in and of itself.
House: Nimbus Publishing
Person: Kate Kennedy, Editor
Title: Bear by Marian Engel (New Canadian Library)
Perhaps because I do so much rereading in my work, I don’t do all that much of it after-hours, so I wanted to recommend a book that was fresh in my mind, even though it remains to be seen whether it will become a lasting favourite for me. Marian Engel’s 1976 novel (or novella, really, at 144 pages) Bear was recommended to me a few years ago by a friend who gave me only the vaguest inkling of the nature of the central relationship between woman and bear. Based on this and without doing any further investigation I then bought a first-edition copy of the book for my youngest sister for Christmas. Only when I finally read the book myself last month did I realize what an odd present it makes, particularly for a family member.
But I’m recommending it nonetheless because in addition to some fairly graphic interspecies sex, this book is a fascinating study of how a person relates to herself and her desires, and how she translates her close observation of a non-human animal into a new outlook on her own comportment. As well, it shows the sharp difference between loneliness and aloneness. Briefly: Lou, a lonely librarian in the city, is given the opportunity to spend a summer cataloguing the private library of a house in northern Ontario that has been left to the institute that employs her. Just before arriving at the house she is informed that the former owner’s pet bear is still in residence and that she’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
The heightened interiority in Bear (it’s also in Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley, another of my favourites) is something that I think tends to make a stronger impression on me than fast-paced action or witty dialogue (although I like these things too). Finally, there is something a little miraculous in how gradual Engel manages to make Lou’s journey seem in the space of so few pages. It’s economy of language, but also of scenery. Read it! (Check out Kate’s blog)
House: Breakwater Books
Person: Kerry O’Neill, Marketing and Publicity Coordinator
Title: Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (Penguin)
Fifth Business is a classic, Canadian book. Davies’ application of Jungian psychology makes for an incredibly interesting read, and like every great book should, it teaches you about empathy and what it means to be human.