Saturday, January 05, 2013
#NewClassicReads Blog Hop
Welcome, hoppers! This blog post is part of the #NewClassicReads blog hop sponsored by Terri Giuliano Long, Rachel Thompson, Molly Greene and Christine Nolfi.
What do a Torontonian with a dim view of the future, a hilarious blind teacher from Vancouver, and a Giller sweetheart who’s all about the hustle have in common? They’ve all written classic Canadian reads.
I’ve always been a prolific reader, and the only time I hated reading was in high school, when I was tasked with reading weighty “classic” tomes about young boys growing up on the prairies - until they assigned “The Handmaid's Tale,” one of Margaret Atwood's seminal works. Atwood's writing is lush, creepy, brilliant. She's a Canadian icon, and rightly so. Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is a book I re-read every few years, sometimes to cheer myself up, sometimes to make myself feel worse – and it always delivers a little more than I'm looking for. With straightforward but nuanced prose, Atwood's dystopian future is as engrossing as it is revolting, a future where North America no longer exists and most people have lost the ability to have children. A token few are forced into a sexual servitude that's fraught with the potential for something even more dangerous.
The first chapter contains a few flashes of what are to come. The second chapter opens like this:
"A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They've removed anything you could tie a rope to."
...and we're off. Just nosing around the book for a good quote has convinced me that now would be the optimal time to re-read. And that's part of why "The Handmaid's Tale" is such a classic - I always want to revisit it.
Atwood has continued to put out dystopian tales (I think it's fair to say she's a pessimist), most recently with her serialized novel "Positron", which I've been keeping up with. Even better, she's famously clashed with Toronto's lunatic mayor and his brother, Rob and Doug Ford, over funding for Toronto's libraries. She might be a pessimist, but she's also an activist, which is a nice bonus.
So if you're looking for a beautifully written but morose view of the future, Atwood is your writer. But she's not the only game in town - Capilano teacher, author, and screenwriter Ryan Knighton has been a favourite of mine for years now. His memoir "Cockeyed," is a classic coming of age story with a twist; Knighton finds out on his eighteenth birthday that he's going to slowly go blind. There are a ton of differences between Cockeyed and “The Handmaid's Tale”; one's fiction and the other non-fiction, and losing your sight isn't exactly the stuff of slapstick, but it turns out that it's a hell of a lot funnier than the end of the world.
“Cockeyed” is smart, sad, witty, profane, profound, hilarious. It opens like this:
When I was in my early teens, my Uncle Brad was somewhat of a hero to me. He had long hair and a 1980s anthemrock moustache. He stood six-foot-six, drove an orange souped-up Chevy Nova, and stockpiled porn mags under his bed like cords of firewood. What more could a boy admire? I didn’t notice that he’d bummed around until he was thirty, only that he gave me an acoustic guitar when I was twelve. My uncle also played bass in a band, a band called— wait for it— Bender. My Uncle Brad, Nova-driving Brad, doing rock duty with Bender. Here’s a man who refused to age. That resistance is what I grew to admire most. He did not go gentle into a good benefits package or practical footwear.
I've had the pleasure of seeing Knighton in action a number of times - I always try to catch him when he's in town - once, memorably at the International Festival of Authors, when he made me laugh so hard I hurt myself a little, and then had me tearing up - from the same story. Later, he talked about how he was going to start a travel book, exploring the world through his other senses. When he mentioned that he was going to a “Rattlesnake Roundup” in one of the southern states, you could hear the audience gasp. He paused for a minute and then said, "Not to touch, people. Just to listen." The audience laughed until they hurt themselves a little. He is, without a doubt, the best natural born storyteller I've ever had the pleasure to see. If he's ever in your town, you could do worse than spend an afternoon listening to him tell stories about rattlesnakes. Jest sayin'.
The last classic read I want to talk about was actually a bit of a surprise. I had planned on writing about Billie Livingston's "Going Down Singing", (her exquisite second-person novel, published in 2000) and instead ended up embroiled in her latest, "One Good Hustle", which was long-listed for the Giller (one of Canada's most prestigious literary awards). Livingston's work is, simply, extraordinary. In "One Good Hustle", Livingston also tells a classic coming of age tale, but with a different twist. “One Good Hustle” is the tale of a Burnaby teenager, abandoned by her con artist father, who's muddling through the inconvenience of falling in love with a straight-laced Bible thumper while her mother slips into substance abuse and mental illness.
“One Good Hustle” is fresh, disturbing, gorgeous. The book opens with Sammie, the main character, explaining how her mother is talking about killing herself:
“I'm going to throw myself off a pier,” Marlene had said, and then she put more lipstick on. My mother has always liked the idea of looking pretty when she dies. So she kept at it, putting on layer after layer of mascara while she talked about how she would dive into the ocean. “My bones drifting free, finally free,” she had said, as if it was the most gorgeous ambition ever.
In other words, I thought, you want to be a jellyfish, one of those floating, white ballerina-things that dance in the quietest parts of the water.
Livingston's prose is so spare that you end up wondering how she can evoke such a vivid world. I think that's part of why her work is so compelling, why she's such a master of her craft, and why all of her books are classics. I re-read "Going Down Swinging" every few years, and now I'm going to have to add Livington's latest to the mix too. Couldn't be happier.
Imagine my surprise when, on New Year's Eve of 2012, I managed to hustle a spot beside her on Kobo's Literary Bestseller list - not a bad way to bring in the new year :)
At the end of the day, I don't think a classic read has to be fiction. I don't think it has to be written a hundred years ago by a very specific group of writers - a classic can take place in the past, sure, but why not in the future? And the classic “types” of stories, such as the coming of age story, can be written with lots of fresh new perspectives. So, for me, for a book to be considered a classic, it has to be like “The Handmaid's Tale”, “Cockeyed”, and “One Good Hustle”. It has to be a book that makes you laugh, makes you think, makes your world a little bit bigger, and most importantly, it has to stay with you. And, thankfully, like old friends, you can always go back and visit them.
So if you're looking for a great read, or to find a new favourite, why not try one of these Canadian classics? What about you? What do you think makes a book a classic?