Saturday, 5 July 2008

Final First Canadian Book Challenge review.....

It has ended, the First Canadian Book Challenge, eh? I came to it late, having joined the Blogging world only last October. The Canadian Book Challenge was the very first challenge I joined. And I challenged myself, and I enjoyed it, making my inner literary bookworm glad that I was finally reading something other than fantasy in Canadian literature, even if it was not Atwood or Davies. My Cool Inner Literary Bookworm would prefer that I read all the good Canlit that's out there....she is ashamed that I hate Mordecai Richler and had to read inumerable Canadian books already in high school and for my Canadian literature university course, so I feel like it's a chore to pick up another, no matter the good reviews it's getting......I do like Hugh MacLennan, and I like a lot of Canadian poetry, so I'm not totally in my CILB's bad books!

Anyway, for this challenge I mostly picked books off my shelves. And I read 10 out of 13, which considering I joined in October, is better than a book a month for this challenge! So while I am disappointed I didn't complete it, I am proud of what I did read.

My final book, Piece of My Heart by Peter Robinson, I finished late on June 30. I have read the Inspector Alan Banks mysteries from almost the time they began to be published. It's a strange feeling to read these mysteries, because Peter Robinson sets his mysteries in Yorkshire, where he was born! He lives in Toronto now. So I'm reading a Canadian book set in another country, written in that voice - I love the Yorkshire accent, having lived in York, and I'm familiar with the landscape and people. So this raises a question that was raised years ago in my Canadian Literature class in university: what makes a book Canadian? Is an author, newly emigrated from another country, and setting their book back in that country, a Canadian writer? How? This is a question that raised voices, temperatures, and words in my class. So I pose it now, because I think it is at the heart of the dilemma of Canadian literature, and not one addressed often: when does a writer/book become Canadian? I know, that when I write, my most natural setting is the Canadian landscape, and that our landscape dominates most books written by people who have been in Canada long enough. We can't get away from the sense of land, of trees (except maybe Toronto!), of water, of the earth - it fills our senses and we are intimately connected with the moods of the land and seasons. We have to be, to survive here.

It's not a question that is easy to ask or answer. It is one that has puzzled me since my professor raised it way back in 1990: so I was wondering if, for the second Canadian Book Challenge, it was a question we could think about as we read through our selections. Even Charles de Lint, who is my pick for this second Challenge (I'm reading 13 of his books - see sidebar for the selections), was born in The Netherlands. Yet, his voice is Canadian, his settings Canadian, in tone, mood, how he relates to the environment - trees, the earth, the world of faery - it is Canadian in tone, not American, not Dutch (that I am aware of, and having a Dutch stepfather, I am somewhat aware of Dutch sensibilities and perceptions!). What makes a book Canadian, and when does an emigrated author become Canadian in his writing? which I think means, when does a writer absorb his settings enough to write about them? Because this question would do for any country with a high immigrant population, or for expats writing. This is not meant in any way to say that a newcomer to Canada isn't a Canadian writing; what I am interested in is exploring when Canada gets into the bloodstream, the memory, the senses, when Canada imposes itself on the person.

I know from my year in the UK, that I have taken in something of the York spirit, the English sensibility, because I lived there. I do not think could write a book from the English perspective yet; I could write one from a foreigner living in England, though. And indeed I will, one day! Because I love England, and I carry some of that landscape with me now.

So when I read Peter Robinson, or any other author setting their books in Yorkshire - the tv versions of Dalziel and Pascoe are also set in Yorkshire, which raises homesickness in myself and my husband when we watch them! - I can see the landscape, the rhythm of the words, and I know if it's accurate or not. Peter Robinson is, and so is Piece of My Heart.

Piece of my Heart is the most recent of the Inspector Alan Banks mysteries in paperback. It is set in the same place - Yorkshire - and in two different time periods, the late 60's - 1969 and current day - 2005. The murder involves the music scene of the 60's, a fictional band named the Mad Hatters, and the murder of a journalist in 2005 who is writing an article about the Mad Hatters, who still exist as a band in current day. I found the switching back and forth a bit hard to get used to, because the 1969 timeline introduced all new characters, as well as the regular detective squad - Detective Annie Cabot and others of Alan Bank's squad, who investigate the current murder. Once I got used to who was investigating what, and realized there was a link between the two, it got much easier and I was able to relax and enjoy the mystery. I guessed wrong on the murderer, which I do enjoy almost as much as being right! - and I love the interplay between Annie and Alan. They have a new Superintendent which brings new elements - the former one had given Banks leeway to pursue investigations without too much detail, and the new one is ambitious, with surprises for Banks and Cabot and the rest of the squad.

The mystery itself is about the murder of a girl at a music festival in 1969, and then the modern-day murder of the journalist. Both have red herrings, lots of clues, and are linked together. I ended up enjoying how the timelines were brought together, and finding out what happened to the detectives on the original case. The investigations were satisfying and as always, the Yorkshire elements of the moors, and the weather, affected the tone - the current day part is set in autumn, a time of grey skies, wind and rain.

This is not the very best of the Banks mysteries - his award-winning Strange Affair is one of the very best - but it is solid and good, and better than many continuing mystery series being published.

I took a break while composing this post, and I began wondering about authors like, Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance), Michael Oondatje (The English Patient), Nalo Hopkinson, all of whom are emigrants and all of whom have won major awards as Canadian writers. Most of their books are set away from Canada, or have characters going from Canada back to their native land; and I think this shows their minds absorbing the new land with memories of the old. Compare them with Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, L.M. Montgomery, Alice Munro, Douglas Copeland, and, our Aboriginal authors: Pauline Campbell, Thomas King, Jeannette Armstrong, Thomson Highway; or Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, William Gibson: all big names in Canadian fiction, all writing from different perspectives and backgrounds. All are ours, new writers and old. We have a lot to celebrate in our Canadian fiction. And I think it is all Canadian, from the time someone enters our country, to people born here, to people who have always been here.

Myself, from my own experience, I think once someone has decided to live here, they begin to become Canadian, and this is reflected in their writing. I think people also carry with them memories of the land they were born in, and this is also in their writing. Definitely reading a wide range of Canadian fiction will give you a good understanding of the make-up of the Canadian population now, and understanding of some of the influences in our culture.

So, just some reflections as I close on the first Canadian Book Challenge. For anyone who is now curious about the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, eh? go here and join us!!

Oh, and I've read nearly everything by Farley Mowat except his war memoirs, and I love Margaret Laurence's The Diviners. But since I read mostly fantasy and mysteries, it has only been in the past 20 years that we have had an explosion of writing - of books - in these fields. I know count Canadian writers Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles de Lint, Louise Penny, Karen Irving, L.R. Wright, among my favourite of writers, period. And my Inner Literary Bookworm, while sniffing at the genre titles, is nodding her head. She's going to try to slip me some Douglas Copeland soon, I know, as well as Rohinton Mistry and Michael Oondatje (I love The English Patient as a movie, and everyone says the book is different, so I didn't want to lose what I loved about the movie.....)......and Margaret Atwood.


heather (errantdreams) said...

Grats on getting through so many of your challenge books!

Bybee said...

I know I'll keep referring back to this's better than a whole semester of Intro To Canadian Literature!

Susan said...

heather: thanks! It is a challenge, isn't it??

bybee: wow! thanks!! My prof might be happy then too! (even if it was 17 years ago I took it!) It's such a touchy subject, when does a writer belong to their new country - we have expats living abroad whose work still counts as Canadian even though they left years ago!