June 13, 2009

Home and Native Land

Here's a confession: I get kind of ridiculously excited when books mention and/or are set in Canada. Not the CanLit type of books set in Canada -- where everything is ostentatiously Canadian, the kind of books that teachers like to thrust at you with crazy eyes, proclaiming that yes, we do have a literary culture here -- but books where characters are Canadian, or things are set in Canadian cities, and it is what it is, with no fuss about it.

It bears repeating: although I like a lot of Canadian literature, I don't like it because it's Canadian, really. And some of it I don't like. Actually, a lot of it kind of sucks. There's this one book in particular, As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, that is probably in the twenty worst books I've ever read. Nobody likes it -- but it's still on syllabi everywhere because it's So! Canadian!, and so we have to read it even though it's terrible.

That's silly. And I think that it does a disservice to the amount of books out there that are written by Canadian authors and are really darn good. Things like Fall on Your Knees, for example, or Tigana, or Life of Pi. I wish more of the Canadian lit studied in school was less self-conscious, and more well-written.

What brought this up, you may ask? I just started reading Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear, and I am so very excited because it's full of Toronto, which is where I live. It's full of streets I've eaten on, or shopped on, or gone to school on -- streets I've walked almost every weekday, although hers are set in 2062 and are no doubt different in some crucial respects. But still: it's neat. And E. Bear is American and lives in Connecticut or something like that, and so it is doubly charming.

Of course, this probably wouldn't have charmed me as much as it did, had I not received a very peculiar piece of mail earlier in the week, of which I have provided a photo:

canada

Yup. "Canada". Canada, the magical fairy land that may or may not exist, hence the dubious quotation marks. I live in "Canada" -- allegedly.

Now, normally I wouldn't make fun of Phenix & Phenix (blog/company site) at all, because they are staffed with very nice publicists who often send me very interesting books. But come on: this is silly. I know that Canada is rather far away from Texas (and, like, a millionty times BIGGER than it, don't even get me started) but I feel compelled to assure everyone that, yes, it does exist. Also, a lot of the rumours are true: we have a Queen, two official languages, a socialized healthcare system that mostly works, and we eat poutine (the food of emperors). We do not typically live in Igloos.

(Yes: I know. This was probably someone's hurried addition to the envelope, since the CANADA part of the address was initially left off. Honest mistake, etc. I'm still going to laugh at it.)

It makes me wonder, though -- and this question is for you, Americans, et al -- what do you notice if/when books are set in Canada? Do you notice? Do cultural references sometimes leave you hanging? I know that I am often called upon by my American cousins to explain points of governance or culture -- are you inclined to call up an Canuckian friend for clarification, or do you just let things be?



And does anyone else get excited when they read things set in their hometown? I am lucky; Toronto's a big city and there's lots written about it. But I wonder about smaller cities. Does anybody write about Toronto, Ohio, population 5676?

Maybe they should. Authors, I bring Toronto, Ohio to your attention. But if you'd rather write about the original, that's definitely fine with me!

15 comments:

Dragnew said...

Hi! I was instructed by a very official looking box thing to introduce myself via comment. It seems kinda pretentious to do that, so I'll make myself known by commenting about this post!

I live in Auckland, New Zealand. There aren't a lot of books I've read set here, and I'd like to read more, although they may not be too thrilling, as it's not the most exciting of places. Still, it'd be fun to be able to say "I've been there!" when I've, y'know, been there. At this point, I'm reduced to doing it with Hobbiton when watching the Lord of the Rings movies.

Oh, and it's good to know that Canada exists. I had some suspicions for a while.

kiirstin said...

"the kind of books that teachers like to thrust at you with crazy eyes, proclaiming that yes, we do have a literary culture here"

That made me snort tea. I have been in those classes. The latest was a Masters' level lit appreciation course, at which point I thought -- really? we still have to worry about this?

I really love Charles de Lint's fantasies set in Ottawa (ie. Jack of Kinrowan), and more after I spent four months living in Ottawa. I am always secretly excited by finding a reference to something Canadian I wasn't expecting in a book. Most recently it was in Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, where Alice Munroe pops up to rescue the Queen.

kiirstin said...

Also, pls excuse the extra "e" on Munro's name there. Perhaps I *do* need more Canadian literary instruction...

Nicole said...

Glad it's not just me, because I am constantly thrilled and gushing abut how excited I am to read book set in New York City. Like you said I love the familiarity and knowing the streets. I am also psyched to read about places I have visited and know a little something about.

I don't think I realized it when I read it that Fall on Your Knees was set in Canada, but then that's not saying much. I don't really remember much about the book other than thinking it was good.

Nicole’s latest blog post:Items of Interest: Behind the Scenes at Hachette Book Group Audio

Christine said...

Dragnew -- Hey, I'd be pretty excited, too, if I'd been to Hobbiton!

Kiirsten -- Yeah, it's strange. There's so much out there that's being written now that's brilliant and fantastic -- but we're stuck in class reading Gabrielle Roy and Stephen Leacock. Now, I like both of those authors, but they're hardly representative of the whole of Canadian book culture. In the Canadian Fiction class I took two years ago, there wasn't anything written later than 1985, and the bulk came from, say, the 30s through the 50s. Gives a really false impression of what we've actually got going on, I think.

Nicole -- Fall on Your Knees was set down East -- largely in Cape Breton, which is in Nova Scotia. I can't vouch for its regional accuracy, though, since I have not yet been down East.

EL Fay said...

I honestly can't think of a single book I've read in the recent past that was either written by a Canadian author or set in Canada. And I didn't even realize that until I read this post. (Sorry.) I read a lot of translated fiction, so I've read books from many different countries . . . just not Canada.

Something I've always wondered: when writing/speaking English, do Canadians use British or American grammar and spelling?

EL Fay’s latest blog post:Sunday Salon

Christine said...

It's pretty much a mix. We put the Us in words like colour, honour, and neighbour, but we have a more American vocabulary (sweater instead of jumper, trunk instead of boot, etc.). Some words are just crazy: we write lieutenant but pronounce it leftenant.

glumpuddle said...

hahaha As For Me and My House the book we love to hate!!!

I totally agree with you on this Christine. Totally. And I have to add to your exciting things about things Canadian in books - I love reading Canadian theologians - they use stuff like hockey to illustrate their points instead of baseball/USAfootball etc.

The most recent "Wow" moment I've had around Canadian lit has to do with Margaret Atwood. Ms Atwood lives in TO, and contributed to a book I think you reviewed - something to do with love letters. Anyhow, her love letter is set in a particular restaurant on Bloor street that I've walked past a gazillion times. I loved having this familiar place in the middle of this not-particularly-Canadian book. So Cool. Now I confess that I sort of look for Ms Atwood in that particular location - but I think she probably doesn't really hang out there all the time. Still. I look. And a park she mentions in a book of essays is right there outside my church. I'm an Atwood fan, can you tell?

avisannschild said...

I'm just working on a review of a book I requested in part because it's partially set in Montreal, where I live (Last Night in Montreal), but I was very disappointed in her portrayal of the city. I didn't recognize it hardly at all!

I was pretty happy to read The Perseids and Other Stories by Robert Charles Wilson, which is set in a future Toronto, even though I don't know Toronto well enough to judge whether he described it well or not.

I have As for Me and My House but I've never read it!

avisannschild’s latest blog post:Mailbox Monday: BEA & other loot! (June 15)

Ali said...

That envelope is hilarious.

I get excited about seeing my city in books, too, especially when the book is by a local author, or someone with some connection to the city.

Ali’s latest blog post:Who's Your Local Author? Bookworms Carnival, coming up!

Melanie said...

As for me and my house ... as a Saskatchewanian I must say I detest that book as well. Thank goodness I am not alone!

I've just finished reading Tanya Huff's latest, The Enchantment Emporium, set mostly in Calgary and using Calgary fully as part of the story. I enjoy seeing those touches.

Melanie’s latest blog post:Moon Tiger

Christine said...

I think that everyone hates As for Me and My House, with the exception of my former prof, who wouldn't shut up about it. But you're certainly not alone in your sentiment!

glumpuddle said...

I think that possibly my grade 13 English teacher (I date myself!) also liked As for Me and My House or why would he have assigned it instead of some Margaret Atwood novel that all the other classes were doing. (It wasn't Handmaid's Tale as that was not yet published. Oops, that dating thing again.)

kiirstin said...

I believe we read Fifth Business (Davies) in Grade 13, which was a pretty inspired and fairly daring choice for our small, rural high school. They had a lot of faith in us. I loved that book, despite finding other Davies difficult to wade through.
.-= kiirstin´s last blog ..Claymore Volume 1 by Norihiro Yagi =-.

Christine said...

Yeah, Davies is big and smart but he's also a great read. I'm always glad when teachers pick Davies!