Some books about books that are worth read­ing

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - FORUM - AN­DREW AR­MITAGE

I don’t nor­mally re­view books about books. They leave me with a headache, a long list of what I haven’t read and a bunch of re­grets. But this time around, I have two of them, both cap­tured me dur­ing my an­nual fall cold. Wheez!

The first is Nick Mount’s Ar­rival: The Story of CanLit (Anansi, $29.95). The first job tasked to me when I ar­rived as a young li­brar­ian at York Univer­sity was to “do some­thing” with 5,000 vol­umes bought en bloc from a Mon­treal book­store. They were mine, to or­ga­nize, col­late, process, and (on the sly) read.

I had no French and half of the many shelves held books in a lan­guage I could not read. I soon learned. Equally un­fa­mil­iar with Cana­dian writ­ers and nov­els, each week I took home a hand­ful, read them and came back for more. So passed in front of my eyes the likes of The Moun­tain and the Val­ley, Beau­ti­ful Losers, and The Watch That Ends the Night.

In the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury, Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture was trans­formed. What was once a trickle be­came a tor­rent as writ­ers like At­wood, Munro, Ladoo, On­daatje, Co­hen, Blais, and Morde­cai Rich­ler came burst­ing out with books. Nick Mount says in his in­tro­duc­tion, “I wrote this book be­cause it didn’t ex­ist.” And then writes a book that puts that huge out­put into per­spec­tive.

Along the way, Mount throws in mini-re­views of that era’s books, rated from one star to five. These are equally akin to the mar­velous text with crit­i­cal com­ments such as the author’s as­sess­ment of Mar­garet At­wood’s The Jour­nals of Su­sanna Moodie. “At­wood’s mas­ter­piece, the book has never been out of print, and we will still be read­ing it in a cen­tury from now (if we still read, if there is still a we.)”

As I turned the pages, the names, ti­tles, book­stores, Yorkville, Rochdale, and pub­lish­ers (M&S, Coach House, House of Anansi) flashed be­fore me, bring­ing back a time in our lit­er­a­ture that has never been sur­passed, although as Mount notes, our writ­ers just get bet­ter and bet­ter.

It is dif­fi­cult to re­view what is es­sen­tially a bib­li­o­graphic es­say but Mount re­views an era without for­get­ting about us, the read­ers. Without read­ers why would be have a na­tional lit­er­a­ture?

“His­tory,” Mount writes, “has a hard time with read­ers. Au­thors leave us their books, of­ten their let­ters, jour­nals, and re­views, clip­pings archived against their ruin. Pub­lish­ers leave ac­counts of books bought and sold, in­ter­nal memos, cor­re­spon­dence with the au­thors they pub­lished and those they didn’t. But most read­ers leave noth­ing behind, no record of their ex­is­tence other than a page turned down, maybe a name on a book­plate, a note in a mar­gin.”

Thanks Nick for re­mem­ber­ing us and for re­mem­ber­ing them.

Hard on the heels of Mount’s opus came Robert McGill’s War is Here: The Viet­nam War and Cana­dian Lit­er­a­ture (McGill-Queen’s Univer­sity Press, $34.95).

McGill is from some­where up here. I re­viewed (and didn’t much like) his first novel, The Mys­ter­ies (set on the Bruce) although a sec­ond book, Once We Had a Coun­try, smacked this reader in the skull with its set­ting, tone, and mem­o­ries of an­other time.

Canada did not fight in the Viet­nam War but the con­flict seized the Cana­dian imag­i­na­tion. As au­thors both here and soon to ar­rive ad­dressed the war, Canada came to be known as a lib­eral, hos­pitable and hu­man­i­tar­ian place.

McGill writes, “Cana­dian artists of all kinds ad­dressed the Viet­nam War di­rectly in their work. “And then the names roll by: The Guess Who, Light­foot, Greg Curnoe, Joyce Wieland, Prairie Fire, Ann Wall and Den­nis Lee (The Chil­dren in Nathan Phillips Square). Which sent me back to an­tholo­gies of war po­etry; David Hel­wig’s Af­ter the Deaths at Kent State and David McFad­den’s Dwight D. Eisen­hower on His Death.

Along the way, McGill pays ref­er­ence to Mark Satin’s Man­ual for Draft-Age Im­mi­grants to Canada (Anansi, $14.95.) Just reprinted from its 1968 roots, this ti­tle sold some­where up to 60,000 copies. I wasn’t a draft-age im­mi­grant, just a war re­sister who found a new home in a new coun­try. But I re­mem­ber well the book and its im­pact on a na­tion and a peo­ple. In a new in­tro­duc­tion to the Man­ual, James Laxer says, “Our his­tory makes Canada uniquely suited to wel­com­ing refugees in the era of Don­ald Trump and the alt-right, just as it has wel­comed refugees in the past.”

I think about that now hav­ing been a wit­ness to my coun­try talk­ing in refugees from Uganda, Viet­nam, and Syria, among others.

De­spite the pres­ence of a few big­ots, Canada is, on the whole, is a tol­er­ant wel­com­ing so­ci­ety. One could do much worse than to live in Canada.

And we should not for­get that times rarely change. Ed­i­tors Sarah Hip­worth and Luke Ste­wart re­mind us in Let Them Stay: U.S. War Re­sisters in Canada, 2004-2016 (Iguana, $29,95).

Let Them Stay is a book of oral his­to­ries, public state­ments, and per­sonal nar­ra­tives by sol­diers of con­science and their sup­port­ers. Dur­ing the many years of the Viet­nam War, some 50,000 strug­gled to make a new life in Canada. To­day, there is still a long list of those who ar­rived at a dif­fer­ent time when a dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment was in place.

One book al­ways leads to an­other. In this case, Nick Mount made me think about Leonard which is all the name one needs. Which led me to Kari Hesthamar’s So Long Mar­i­anne: A Love Story (ECW Press, $19.95).

At 22, Mar­i­anne Ihlen trav­elled to the Greek is­land of Hy­dra with Nor­we­gian writer, Axel Jensen. Jensen, on his way to be­com­ing Nor­way’s lead­ing nov­el­ist, wrote while she kept house. And then one day, a man in­tro­duced him­self as Leonard Co­hen.

Axel aban­doned Mar­i­anne for an­other woman. Leonard stepped in be­gin­ning a love af­fair that spanned sev­eral con­ti­nents only to end with the words: “Now so long, Mar­i­anne, it’s time that we be­gan to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”

So Long Mar­i­anne is a dream of a book, beau­ti­fully writ­ten and nos­tal­gic.

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