Some books about books that are worth reading
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.