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Review: Hooked on Canadian Books, by T.F. Rigelhof

T.F. Rigelhof

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

One of the most perplexing issues in Canadian literature is that it is haunted by a lack of critics. There are book reviewers and there are academics, but what has been missing is the voice that can see how the literature fits together. Good critics offer context to content. They see through the maze of the new and the old and map what they see so that others can follow and learn and make discoveries from the great blur of words that fills our minds and shelfscapes.

Seamus Deane, for example, set Irish literature into context. Hugh Kenner did a similar study of Modernism. Critics such as these generated enormous discussion, not just in book clubs or in classrooms, but among artists. What Canada needs, and above all what the Canadian literary arts deserve, is more discussion of books and authors that can show us our own image, help us paint the imaginative portrait of what makes this country what it is.

Alas, the map of Canadian literature is still waiting to be drawn. There are those who doubt it can be done. Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden is a useful collection of essays. So is B.W. Powe's A Climate Charged. But essay collections, while vital, are not the map. They are forays into unfamiliar territories. They are reports home. They are The Jesuit Relations of contemporary literary culture.

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T.F. Rigelhof, a retired professor of literature from Montreal's Dawson College, has created in Hooked on Canadian Books a fascinating series of discussions around what he deems to be the best Canadian novels since 1984, and the justification for his choices is worth the read. His selections include work from more than 100 Canadian writers, among them Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Alberto Manguel, Michael Ignatieff, Hugh Hood, Paul Quarrington, Carol Shields, Lisa Moore and Thomas King. Strangely missing from his findings are Alistair MacLeod, Seán Virgo, Anne Michaels, Antanas Sileika and Barry Callaghan, who would make my list with justification.

Hooked on Canadian Books is not the map, but it is a series of insightful (at times incendiary) arguments and observations about the Canadian novel that will perhaps raise the level of literary debate in Canada. It is also a book that wants to connect the Canadian novel to the larger issues of literature - the context of the content. (It is a shame that such a book has not been written for Canadian poetry or Canadian drama. The temptation in addressing CanLit is always to look at it historically, as in The Literary History of Canada.)

Rigelhof explains that Hooked on Canadian Books "is a celebration of novels written in English by Canadian writers that have made a difference in this reader's life and have the power to do the same for you." This sounds like a sales pitch on late-night television, but Rigelhof is being modest. He has, diligently and intelligently, presented a series of well-organized arguments that examine the Canadian novel from the perspective of a reader who is trying to anatomize a very diverse spectrum of writing, omissions notwithstanding.

Hooked on Canadian Books goes beyond the work of John Moss's useful 1981 A Reader's Guide to the Canadian Novel by not only selecting those works that have spoken to his educated eye for the past 26 years, but that have also evoked key questions that still haunt us when we summon up the pantheon of spirits in Canadian literature. Questions such as, "What is Canadian in our literature and who qualifies as a Canadian author?" are still germane to any discussion of CanLit, because those are the questions that professors such as myself hear when they tell their students to open the Atwood and Weaver anthology in a general education course.

Rigelhof's answer as to what is Canadian examines the issue with a refreshing sanity, arguing that what is Canadian can be Canadian if it is good literature and it is written here. I find it annoying that such a question still needs to be asked, but Rigelhof is not daunted by annoying questions. Instead of registering disdain, he connects the works of Josef Skvorecky, Janette Turner Hospital, Bharati Mukherjee and Austin Clarke to the broader traditions of literature that were expounded by such voices as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Euripides. Bravo. The work of a good critic is to join the dots, to connect the contemporary to the broader tradition, the regional to the international, and the personal to the universal.

I am waiting for that day when local book clubs and book lunches will see Aeschylus in Atwood and Coriolanus in M.T. Kelly. There are book clubs all over the country, but at times the book clubs, brave as they are, often become a case of the blind leading the blind. There are CanLit courses at colleges and universities, but these are dwindling in number at an astonishing rate, and they are constantly up against the problem of curriculum committees that toss out the old in favour of the latest craze, and the idea of a literary tradition in our own backyards sputters.

It is a wonder that our literature has survived this long. Hooked on Canadian Books should be a must for these forums as it will, at least, generate the kind of informed discussion that is necessary to a healthy literature. And until the map-making critic shows up, the Canadian reader is going to have to find his or her own way. This book will give them some useful ideas of where they could end up.

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Bruce Meyer is the author of 30 books and a professor of English at Georgian College in Barrie, Ont.

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