O Canada – My Ten Personal Favorite Canadian Novels or Story Collections

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Here are ten works of Canadian fiction which have, over the years, particularly moved me.  This list is by no means authoritative or complete, just ten books. There are way too many Canadian fiction writers and works for any one person to be familiar with all of them. Many major works do not appear on my list.  This is only my subjective list of ten Canadian novels or story collections which have meant a lot to me. I live a few hundred miles south of Canada but often look north to find good fiction.

 

 fifthbusiness‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies (1970) – This is the novel which more than any other got me started, for better or worse, down the road of reading literature.  I wound up devouring the entire Deptford Trilogy and thus realized that there were writers I never heard of out there writing great stuff.  Davies was a magician with words.

9780224059732‘Autobiography of Red – A Novel in Verse’ by Anne Carson (1998) – Carson brings the Greek tale of Geryon into modern life as only she can do.  This is poetry for people who generally don’t read poetry.  There is a place reserved on Mount Olympus for Anne Carson.

‘The Wars’ by Timothy Findley (1977) – This novel, more than any other, depicts trench warfare and the other nightmares of World War I as we follow a Canadian enlisted man to France.  ‘The Wars’ was one of the first war novels to bring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to our attention.

roseflo‘The Beggar Maid – Stories of Rose and Flo’ by Alice Munro (1978) – In Canada, this collection was called ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.  This is the story collection that got me started reading Alice Munro, and I have never stopped since.   She has been called a modern-day Chekhov.

‘The Loved and the Lost’ by Morley Callaghan (1951) – This is a novel about a white woman who becomes fascinated with black music and culture and men in Montreal jazz nightclubs of the 1950s.  Morley Callaghan was probably most famous during his lifetime for knocking down Ernest Hemingway in a boxing match refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

a_fine_balance‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry (1995) – This novel offers a vivid Dickensian view of the city of Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay).  It was picked by Oprah’s Book Club back in 1996.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood (1985)  – This is science fiction, but not too far-fetched, of a totalitarian Christian fundamentalist takeover of the United States government.  The Christians are able to quickly take away all women’s rights.

51fhrw1-72l-_ac_ul160_sr104160_‘No Great Mischief’ by Alastair MacLeod (1999) – This novel tells of a Scottish clan who settled on Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia.  It is written in austere majestic prose.

“I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it.” – Alastair MacLeod

1791074‘A Fairly Good Time’ by Mavis Gallant (1970) – Mavis Gallant published 116 stories in the New Yorker, and her stories are excellent.  Here is one of her two novels which are now available at NYBR Classics.  She is a pleasurable writer you read for the well-crafted sentences.   I want to read another of her short story collections very soon.  Here is the best sentence I found regarding Mavis Gallant.

“We feel that if a story doesn’t illuminate a whole life, Gallant’s not interested in writing it.” – Francine Prose

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‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ by Mordecai Richler  (1959)  – This is an hilarious satire of juvenile delinquents in a Jewish slum district in Montreal.  This you read with a perpetual smile on your face.

 

 

Do you have Canadian favorites? I would like to hear from you as to your favorite Canadian writers.  Surely there are many I have missed.

 

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Do I have Canadian favourites. Oh yes, and two of them are here – A fine balance, and The handmaid’s tale. (I’m rather partial to Alias Grace too). I have read No great mischief too and enjoyed it, but it’s not up there. I’ve read other authors in your list but not the books you mention – Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley and Mordecai Richler (who was given to me by a Canadian Traveller in a Tasmanian Youth Hostel back in the 1970s!) I have Gallant on my kindle but haven’t got to her.

    I love Alice Munro of course.

    Do you call Yann Martel and Michael Ondaatje Canadian? I liked Life of Pie and The English patient. I also liked Margaret Laurence’s Stone angel.

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    • Hi Sue,
      I do consider Yann Martel and Michael Ondaatje as Canadians. I read ‘Life of Pi’, but like you say about another book, it’s not up there for me. I thought ‘The English Patient’ was wonderful but am not sure I’m remembering the movie or the novel. I’ve done them both.
      However I’m still not ready to consider Emma Donoghue a Canadian even though she lives there now.
      I’ve read a couple of story collections by Mavis Gallant and one of her novels, and just recently I’ve had a strong urge to read more of her stories. You can expect to see one of her collections on my blog soon.

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  2. Me too, Sue, it’s interesting that the early ones (i.e. pre-internet LitBlogs and before I discovered Kevin From Canada) made it to bookshops here in Australia, because that’s how I must have bought them. I’ve read Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy and loved it I also read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale (and a few more of Atwood’s); A Fine Balance (and a couple more of Mistry’s); and also Solomon Gursky was Here by Mordecai Richler (that one was nominated for the Booker, I think).
    The Wars got me into trouble. It was our last day in Paris, and I refused to go out and wander the markets with The Spouse because I just had to finish the book. He’s never let me forget it. I’ve read three or four more by Findlay though I didn’t like all of them.
    I’ve reviewed 28 Canadian books on my blog so I won’t list them all, but I’d have to say that Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels is stunning and also The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (no relation).

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I was an avid reader of Kevin From Canada, and he stopped by here once in awhile too. He is missed.
      I know that ‘Fugitive Pieces’ is a classic that I haven’t read, but I have not heard of the other two. Probably the two that came closest to making my list but didn’t were ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachmann and ‘How the Light Gets In’ by Louise Penny. I thought ‘The Imperfectionists’ was wonderful, but then he wrote a really bad novel called ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’, so he did not get included. Even though ‘How the Light Gets In’ is in the crime genre, I thought it far surpassed its genre, and was great enough to be included. I suspect that is Penny’s greatest novel.
      I doubt I would have bypassed a day in Paris to read ‘The Wars’.

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      • Yes, I loved Kevin’s blog, and I haven’t yet found a replacement, maybe there won’t ever be one because he was so well-read and had such a broad grasp of things…
        It’s always tough to write lists like this. Who’s in and who’s out, should we include a book whose author mostly wrote less worthy stuff, which genres make the cut, and so on. Still, I like to read these posts, they stimulate conversation and there’s always at least one book that’s a temptation.
        LOL I have very fond memories of that day in Paris, (and he did eventually persuade me to go out for lunch).

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  3. I’ve yet to read Mavis Gallant but hope to get to her soon. I have a couple of her collections on the shelf, one of which is from NYRB. Glad to hear you are a fan.

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  4. Among your list, I’ve only read Alice Munroe.

    I noticed there isn’t any French Canadian writer on your list. Perhaps you could try Michel Tremblay.

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    • Hi Emma,
      I know that Mordecai Richler and Louise Penny are from Quebec but they probably aren’t French-Canadians. Thanks for the suggestion of Michel Tremblay. I did read his Wiki entry, may investigate farther.

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  5. I must admit I feel ashamed because I think that probably the only Canadian I’ve read is Margaret Atwood – though I have read *a lot* of her books!

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  6. In my long term attempt to read everything he ever published, I once spent an entire day in Boston College’s O’Neill Library reading Robertson Davies plays. (I didn’t have borrowing privileges there.) I must report that I didn’t enjoy the plays as much as the novels, short stories, and essays but I was a fanatic about this project.

    Yes, I’ve read other Canadian authors–several on your list. Of those not on your list Mary Lawson comes to mind.

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  7. HI Martha O,
    ‘Fifth Business’ was a wonderful revelation for me, but I tried reading his Cornish Trilogy and thought it was somewhat stagey. So I am not surprised he wrote plays too.
    I looked up Mary Lawson on Wiki. It looks like she got a late start novel writing but has received a lot of acclaim since then. I’ll watch the reviews for her next.

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  8. Actually her first, Crow Lake, is my favorite. It gave me a slap-my-forehead moment about how self-identification and leaving are recurring themes in Canadian Lit.

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  9. As a Canadian I am very poor at reading Canadians. But you have hit many of the classics here. No Great Mischief along with Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion are two of my favourite books of all time. Many of our writers are immigrants and maintain identities that bridge identities. I am very fond of MG Vassanji’s In Between Life of Vikram Lall and Shyam Selvadurai’s Hungy Ghosts. A new generation of Quebec writers are also coming to light and that is where most of my Canadian reading lies. There is a new publisher called QC Fiction to look for, Samuel Archibald’s collection Arvida (Biblioasis) is very solid and there are many more that are offering new fresh fiction.

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    • Hi roughghosts,
      I have heard of MG Vassanji, but not Shyam Selvadurai. As far as Quebec writers go, I believe Leonard Cohen would be classified as from Quebec, and Louise Penney is very much a Quebec writer. I looked up the area she writes about and it is quite far south and very close to the United States. She does capture the French flavor of the area although at least what I read is translated into English. I wonder if there is a Quebec writer who writes in French and has their work translated into English.

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      • The Quebec work I read is all in translation. QC Fiction is a new publisher and their first book Life in the Court of Matane by Eric Dupont came out in July (I reviewed it for a journal). Biblioasis publishes a number of Quebec writers in translation. They are a good independent publisher for Canadian writers in general, slightly less mainstream but they have been making a good showing in award nominations. I’ve just started reviewing for a Canadian journal called The Rusty Toque (still waiting for my review copy, another quebecois writer I like Maxime Raymond Bock). I thought it would be a good way for me to explore more Canadian literature away from the established older names.

        You might want to look at Richard Wagamese too, a First Nations writer. I read Indian Horse which is widely loved and my problem was that I thought the ending was too “paddling off into the sunset” feel good for a book that deals with a dark part of Canadian history. My biggest problem with much contemporary Canadian lit is that it starts good but opts for neat endings that don’t always live up to the promise of the story. But that book has some of the most amazing writing about hockey (the outdoor rink variety) I have ever read. He is very popular. There are in fact a number of native Canadian writers coming to the forefront. I need to explore more.

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        • Hi roughghosts,
          This idea of French-language literature published in Canada has me intrigued. I don’t read French but read a fair amount of French literature in translation. I wonder if Quebec novels would be eligible for the Prix Goncourt.
          Eric Dupont, Maxine Raymond Bock, Richard Waganese, French language writers in Canada.

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          • In English speaking Canada Qebecois writers are often ignored or not recognized as being translated. An example is Kim Thuy’s Ru, a book which has been very popular. Because she is a Vietnamese Canadian, the fact that she writes in French and her books are translated is overlooked. French speaking Quebec writers can (originally) come from places like Haiti, North Africa and many other countries (just as English Canadian writers) but in people’s minds “Quebec” writers are still tied to the idea of families, typically Catholic, that have been in the country for 100 years or more. The site Quebec Reads features reviews, etc on “younger” Quebec writers translated books and those not yet translated.

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            • I just visited the Quebec Reads site. There was an interesting article about Arvida which is a Quebec novel up for the ‘Best Translated Book’. award. I suppose Quebec is the center for all French language publishing in the Western Hemisphere.

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  10. I would have to throw in a Margaret Laurence novel, but would have to think of which one. Also Sinclair Ross’ As For Me and My House. And I would second your Atwood and Findley picks.

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    • Hi Thomas,
      You are the second person to mention Margaret Laurence. I looked her up on Wiki and see she had quite a career. She must have been writing just before I became interested in world literature.
      I also looked up Sinclair Ross on Wiki, because that was a name I was completely unfamiliar with. It looks like his first novel written in 1941 which you mentioned was his most famous.

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