Research shows that most of the books we read are the result of one thing: someone we know, trust, and/or admire tells us it's great. That's why we run this series, The Recommend, where readers, writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.
This week we're pleased to present the picks of Carrianne Leung (That Time I Loved You), Sharon Butala (Zara's Dead), Dimitri Nasrallah (The Bleeds), Kim Clark (A One-Handed Novel), and Naben Ruthnum (Find You in the Dark).
Carrianne Leung picks Catherine Hernandez's Scarborough
Catherine Hernandez's Scarborough is a love letter to the underrepresented folks and communities that are so marginalized that they are often erased in public discourse, let alone in literary fiction. Scarborough tells stories of everyday people in a pocket of a suburb. Through multiple characters across a linear timeline, Hernandez leads us through one year in their lives. These are little stories told through the eyes of children, single mothers and Ms. Hina, a city worker who tries to do these families justice. I admire Hernandez's delicate attention to these characters. They are fully realized, fully fleshed, complicated characters for whom we ache and cheer on. Hernandez reminds that everybody has a story, and what appears at face value as perhaps quite ordinary is imbued with what is not immediately visible.
These stories highlight the small gestures of love and survival. What a woman would risk for her child's happiness, how a child imagines a future, and especially, how the bonds of community and kinship are life-giving. It is a beautifully lyrical book, a gift in our troubled and troubling moment. Scarborough reasserts what it means to be human. Hernandez tenderly guides us to look through the eyes of a young, Black graffiti artist targeted by the police, and in the next moment, she introduces us to a former white supremacist through his love for his daughter. These characters defy the stock representation of people and communities to reveal shared hopes, fears, and joy in a dangerous time.
Carrianne Leung is a fiction writer and educator. She holds a PhD in Sociology and Equity Studies from OISE/University of Toronto. Her debut novel, The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications, 2013) was shortlisted for the 2014 Toronto Book Awards. Her second work of fiction is That Time I Loved You (HarperCollins Canada, 2018), a collection of linked stories set in Scarborough in the 1970s.
Sharon Butala picks David Bergen's Stranger
I just finished reading Stranger: A Novel by David Bergen. Bergen is an award-winning writer who has never shied away from international settings and getting inside the minds of people of different genders, cultures, and even languages. I am in awe of what seems to me to be an audacity I think I lack (but feel I ought to have). He is also a writer who has always (as far as I know) gone for a prose style best described as minimalist and which I always think of as American, and which I like only when it works. (Mostly, I find it simply derivative, annoying, and boring.) With Bergen, it pretty much works, and there was even a passage where I could hear Hemingway.
As for the story itself, I was at first not very interested—partly that annoying, mannered style—and then, bit by bit, I was sucked in and happy to be engrossed in this novel. It was particularly interesting to me that he has written an indictment of men for their cruelty, even savagery, toward females both in a general way and in certain particular ways, although there are good men and bad women in this tale, which is about Iso Perdido, an unmarried Guatemalan woman who gives birth to the child of a privileged American. The rest of the story is Iso's journey to find, claim, and bring home her child. The journey is everything; love is everything, and as all reviewers never hesitate to point out, so is the contrast between the privileged and the non-privileged of this world.
Stranger is also a story about blind, gut-wrenching courage. I think that among other things, Bergen has set out to write something of an eponymous tale, an epic of the disheartened disenfranchised up against the heartless privileged of this world and what it takes for the underprivileged of the world to win out. Then, in a curious ending, he ... but you must read this excellent novel for yourself before I give everything away.
Sharon Butala is the award-winning author of 18 books of fiction and nonfiction. Last year she published the memoir Where I Live Now (Simon and Schuster Canada) and in May 2018, her mystery novel, Zara's Dead, will be out with Coteau Books.
Dimitri Nasrallah picks Gillian Wigmore's Glory
I recently discovered Gillian Wigmore’s debut novel, Glory. I hadn’t been aware of her writing before that, but given that I’m a novelist from Montreal, it’s not necessarily surprising that a poet from Prince George, British Columbia, was not on my radar. Glory is a profoundly regional novel, situated in the author’s own recreated BC interior town of Fort St. James. Within Wigmore's poetic powers, the place gains almost mythical intensity. Building upon a CanLit tradition that reaches all the way back to Susanna Moodie, nature here is practically a central character, a deeply felt presence both for the reader and the people who populate this small town around a deep lake that sparks intimidation in its neighbours for the bad weather it portends and the fishermen it swallows without warning.
Glory is a polyphonic novel, told in many voices from many angles. Wigmore has an uncanny talent for stunning her reader with eerily intimate illustrations of depression and desire. Feelings that could have been staid psychological explanations in another writer’s hands here transform into a den of circling wolves. Her characters are deeply felt, delivered in full panorama by the note-perfect regionalisms of their own cadences. Fort St. James comes to life as mysterious, overwhelming, isolated, and utterly Canadian in the hands of a sublime prose stylist.
Dimitri Nasrallah is the author of three novels, most recently The Bleeds (2018). He was born in Lebanon in 1977, during the civil war, and moved to Canada in 1988. His first novel, Blackbodying (2005), won the Quebec’s McAuslan First Book Prize and was a finalist for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal. His second novel, Niko (2011), won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was nominated for CBC’s Canada Reads and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He lives in Montreal, where he is fiction editor for the Esplanade Books imprint at Véhicule Press.
Kim Clark picks Dina Del Bucchia's Don't Tell Me What to Do
This book! Dina Del Bucchia’s (mostly) female protagonists cling to the wonky social ladder, dangling between doom and success. They’re each grasping for meaning while looking for safety, stability, a better lover, a better look, a better marriage, or a better social media response ... some degree of satisfaction ... but it’s slippery! The writing is sharp and funny, the characters scarily relatable and the material culturally critical—Oh, that Pure Fantasy lipstick! Even the situations that stretch the imagination are ... Wait, is that a real thing?
DDB really nails the first-person narrative (my favourite) in “Cold Cuts” and “Sleep Talk” but the title story “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” is so slick you can’t avoid being the “I” in Alex’s skin. Like Alex, digging into a tub of smothered fries in her Edmonton Mall hideout, this collection is “exactly what I wanted: creamy, salty, spicy, crunchy, gooey. As many flavours and textures that could fit into a paper bowl, be scooped with a plastic fork, washed down with bubbly sugar.” It’s a great thought-provoking read! Also, you’ll laugh!
Kim Clark is an author, poet, playwright, and gimp. Her newest work, A One-Handed Novel, takes an edgy dive into disability, sex, money and laughs.
Naben Ruthnum picks Cronenberg on Cronenberg
There is no Canadian artist who’s had as more of an impact on my writing and general worldview than David Cronenberg. This book of frank, detailed interviews takes you through his career up to Crash, including details such as the false pitch for a Nabokovian novel he sent to the Canada Council in order to secure early funds for his sex zombie parasite film Shivers.
Cronenberg also walks the reader through how he does the job of writing and directing, with some sideways views of working with Hollywood while shooting and living in and around Toronto. This is perhaps the most useful part of the book—it’s nice to see the final film product detailed down into a series of meetings, individual writing toil, and constant work on set and in the editing room.
The personal roots of some of the movies—The Brood, in particular, which is rooted in Cronenberg’s extremely charged divorce but emerges as a powerful pyschological horror film and not a Kramer vs. Kramer retread, also comes out in these interviews, where Cronenberg is, like his movies, always intelligent, always direct.
Naben Ruthnum is a Toronto-based literary journalist, critic, and novelist. His 2017 Coach House book, Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, parallels the evolution of the incredibly varied dish the subcontinent is perhaps best known for with the narrow ways in which South Asian identity in the West is often received. Ruthnum also writes fiction, which has been published in magazines ranging from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to Granta. He is a winner of Canada’s Journey Prize for short fiction. His first thriller, Find You In The Dark, will be published in North America by Simon and Schuster and Atria, and in the UK by Text Publishing in 2018.