I recently joined a book club and the process of selecting our booklist got me thinking. I’ve always enjoyed reading books that are slightly off the beaten path. Maybe it’s the thrill of discovery, maybe it’s the challenge, or maybe I’m just a little bit snobby but I know I’m not the only one who resists the overwhelming glut of “book club bait.” So I decided to create a list called “Not Your Mother’s Book Club,”* as a resource for like-minded individuals. From time to time I’ll share some highlights from the list, grouped thematically, with the hope that I can shine some interest on some little known or forgotten gems.** If you want to view the entire list or add selections of your own, please visit the Goodreads list I created. If any Ann Arbor District Library users are reading, I’ve also created a list spotlighting titles available within the AADL system.
Today I’ve decided to focus on books by Canadian authors that deserve a wider readership in the United States. I’ve always been confused why Canadian literature (or “Can Lit”) isn’t better known in the U.S. Here’s a start toward amending that.
The Day the Falls Stood Still, Cathy Marie Buchanan (Voice)
Synopsis: “Steeped in the intriguing history of Niagara Falls, this is an epic love story as rich, spellbinding and majestic as the falls themselves.
1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, Bess’s vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating and harboring a secret.
The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him against her family’s strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the falls for themselves. As the couple’s lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.”
My thoughts: This is the closest title on this list to a “traditional” book club selection. With beautiful prose, an engaging romance, and centering around a vivid historical time period, this book is hard to put down.
All My Friends Are Superheroes, Andrew Kaufman (Coach House)
Synopsis: “The Amphibian took Tom to the Stress Bunny’s end-of-summer party, 1998. It was the first superhero party Tom was ever at. He nudged the Amphibian with his shoulder. ‘Watch this, ‘ he said. ‘Hey – hey, The!’ The Battery looked. The Seeker looked. The Phoney, the Ticker, the Couch Surfer, the Frog Kisser – almost everybody in the room looked. Including the Perfectionist. The Amphibian didn’t think it was funny but the Perfectionist giggled. She’d never noticed how many of their first names were ‘The’. She smiled at Tom. She flicked her hair over her shoulder. All Tom’s friends really are superheroes. There’s the Ear, the Spooner, the impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she’s sure that Tom has abandoned her. So she’s moving to Vancouver. She’ll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom’s beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he’s visible, or he loses her forever. A funny, sweet story, All My Friends Are Superheroes will remind you that the greatest superpower of all is love.”
My thoughts: Unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Book clubs are often looking for “quick reads” and this definitely qualifies. Can be read in just a few hours. Provokes a lot of discussion.
Fear of Fighting, Stacey May Fowles (Invisible Publishing)
Synopsis: “Combining Stacey May Fowles’s sharp prose with Marlena Zuber’s whimsical illustrations, Fear of Fighting revolves around Marnie, a broken-hearted young woman fighting for something more in Toronto’s lonely, urban landscape.”
My thoughts: A lovely book that reminds you that you’re never as alone or unloved as you might believe.
Come, Thou Tortoise, Jessica Grant (Knopf Canada)
Synopsis: “A delightfully offbeat story that features an opinionated tortoise and an IQ-challenged narrator who find themselves in the middle of a life-changing mystery.
Audrey (a.k.a. Oddly) Flowers is living quietly in Oregon with Winnifred, her tortoise, when she finds out her dear father has been knocked into a coma back in Newfoundland. Despite her fear of flying, she goes to him, but not before she reluctantly dumps Winnifred with her unreliable friends. Poor Winnifred.
When Audrey disarms an Air Marshal en route to St. John’s we begin to realize there’s something, well, odd about her. And we soon know that Audrey’s quest to discover who her father really was – and reunite with Winnifred – will be an adventure like no other.”
My thoughts: Charming doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan (Picador)
Synopsis: “Berlin, 1939. A young, brilliant trumpet-player, Hieronymus, is arrested in a Paris cafe. The star musician was never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black.
Fifty years later, Sidney Griffiths, the only witness that day, still refuses to speak of what he saw. When Chip Jones, his friend and fellow band member, comes to visit, recounting the discovery of a strange letter, Sid begins a slow journey towards redemption.
From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, Sid leads the reader through a fascinating, little-known world, and into the heart of his own guilty conscience.
Half-Blood Blues is an electric, heart-breaking story about music, race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.”
My thoughts: I haven’t read this one yet but it’s been highly recommended. It won the Giller prize last year.
On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock, Dave Bidini (McClelland & Stewart)
Synopsis: “David Bidini, rhythm guitarist with the Rheostatics, knows all too well what the life of a rock band in Canada involves: storied arenas one tour and bars wallpapered with photos of forgotten bands the next. Zit-speckled fans begging for a guitar pick and angry drunks chucking twenty-sixers and pint glasses. Opulent tour buses riding through apocalyptic snowstorms and cramped vans that reek of dope and beer. Brilliant performances and heart-sinking break-ups.
Bidini has played all across the country many times, in venues as far flung and unalike as Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and the Royal Albert Hotel in Winnipeg. In 1996, when the Rheostatics opened for the Tragically Hip on their Trouble at the Henhouse tour, Bidini kept a diary. In On a Cold Road he weaves his colourful tales about that tour with revealing and hilarious anecdotes from the pioneers of Canadian rock – including BTO, Goddo, the Stampeders, Max Webster, Crowbar, the Guess Who, Triumph, Trooper, Bruce Cockburn, Gale Garnett, and Tommy Chong – whom Bidini later interviewed in an effort to compare their experiences with his. The result is an original, vivid, and unforgettable picture of what it has meant, for the last forty years, to be a rock musician in Canada.”
My thoughts: I haven’t read this one either but it was a finalist for the all non-fiction Canada Reads this year. I’ve heard it’s a great pick for music lovers.
Home to Woefield, Susan Juby (Harper)
Synopsis: “Prudence Burns, a well-intentioned New Yorker full of back-to-the-land ideals, just inherited Woefield Farm–thirty acres of scrubland, dilapidated buildings, and one half-sheared sheep. But the bank is about to foreclose, so Prudence must turn things around fast Fortunately she’ll have help from Earl, her banjo-playing foreman with a family secret; Seth, the neighbor who hasn’t left the house since a high school scandal; and Sara Spratt, an eleven-year-old who’s looking for a home for her prize-winning chickens.
Home to Woefield is about learning how to take on a challenge, face your fears, and find friendship in the most unlikely of places.”
My thoughts: If your book club is looking for a good comfort read, this is a good pick. This is Juby’s first adult novel (she’s written several books for young adults) and I hope she plans to write more for older readers.
One Bird’s Choice, Iain Reid
Synopsis: “Meet Iain Reid: an overeducated, underemployed twenty-something, living in the big city in a bug-filled basement apartment and struggling to make ends meet. When Iain lands a job at a radio station near his childhood home, he decides to take it. But the work is only part time, so he is forced to move back in with his lovable but eccentric parents on their hobby farm. What starts out as a temporary arrangement turns into a year-long extended stay, in which Iain finds himself fighting with the farm fowl, taking fashion advice from the elderly, fattening up on a gluttonous fare of home-cooked food, and ultimately easing (perhaps a little too comfortably) into the semi-retired, rural lifestyle. A hilarious and heartwarming comic memoir about food, family, and finally growing up, One Bird’s Choice marks the arrival of a funny, original, and fresh new voice.”
My thoughts: A lovely memoir. Reflective but never self absorbed, Reid is an appealing narrator. I read this book while my car was repaired and the several hour wait passed in a snap. Especially recommended for twentysomethings who worry they’re not living up to their potential. Reid’s memoir is evidence you’re not alone.
* Sorry, Mom! No disrespect to mothers intended. Having had a mother who inspired my own quirky reading tastes, I know not all moms read boring (or the same!) books. But you can’t deny that most “book club selections” are picked with a certain clientele in mind and center around similar themes. Not everyone can relate to or is interested in those themes. Hence the title.
** At least in the United States. Some of these books are better known internationally.