KfC’s 2013 Project: Revisiting 12 Canadian authors who influenced me

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” — Robertson Davies

KfC's 2013 Project

KfC’s 2013 Project

That quote showed up in my inbox a few months back, re-discovered and sent to me by a longtime friend, Marilyn Potts. I certainly was aware of it, although I will admit it had been a few decades since I had last brought it to mind. The email was very timely however because the reminder served as a catalyst to bring together two "reading" thoughts that had been separately percolating in my mind:

— Every time I headed into the basement to search the shelves for an older book, I kept coming across Canadian novels that I had read in my youth (and again in maturity) and found mysef thinking "I really should read that again".

— 2013 is one of those marker years for me: I turn 65 in February. I was looking for some project that would celebrate both that personal landmark and year five in the "publication" of this blog.

So I quickly decided that my 2013 project would be to pay attention to Davies' perceptive thought and revisit 12 novels — one a month — that had served to develop my tastes in Canadian fiction. I've read all of them at least twice (in youth and maturity) and a third read of each did seem in order. Having said that, I am not quite prepared to admit that I have arrived at "old age", so I'd like to modify Roberston Davies quote just a bit: insert "again when you get control of your own time" in the first half of the phrase and, to preserve the symmetry, "at dusk" in the second half (since fine buildings do look different at dawn and at dusk).

I know that only a third of visitors to this blog are Canadian, so I need to make a few qualifications before revealing my schedule. The first is that, unlike the United Kingdom or even the United States, Canadian fiction publishing is a comparatively "young" animal. While there are certainly Canadian authors who were published prior to World War II (Sinclair Ross and Frederick Phillip Grove are two that come to mind), they were originally published in the UK or US, with volumes exported back to Canada. Hugh MacLennan is generally regarded as the first writer to attempt to portray Canada's national character and even his first novel (Barometer Rising, 1941) about the Halifax Explosion was first published in the US. So foreign readers here (except, of course, those from Australia and New Zealand which have similarly young publishing industries) are going to find a very “modern” tone to this list of “classics” — all were first published post-War.

That also means that my life and Canadian publishing occupy the same time frame — okay, I wasn’t reading these books as a child but even the oldest was published less than 25 years before I first encountered it. More important, however, is that in the mid-1970s I was a weekly book columnist for the Calgary Herald and most of these seminal authors were still alive and publishing. That is reflected in this list — I interviewed or met all of the first six authors whom I plan to reread (usually in connection with that particular novel), so much “classic” Canadian fiction took place in real time for me. And that also means my project schedule is roughly in reverse chronological order — I’ll get to older works in the July to December slots.

Finally, this is very much a personal list and not meant to be an attempt at “12 best Canadian novels ever”. Indeed, my favorite Canadian novel — Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance — isn’t part of the project, because I last reread it just before starting this blog and it is too soon for a revisit. (If that perks your interest, Will Rycroft has an excellent review of it here.) And, while Mordecai Richler is part of the project, the chosen novel would not be the conventional choice as his best: I’ve already reviewed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (and that review is by far the most often visited post on this blog). And I have excluded many authors because they are still publishing (Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaeghe). Only two on my list are still publishing — Margaret Atwood makes it because her career breaks into two parts (pre- and post-“speculative” fiction) and Alice Munro because, because,…well, because she is Alice Munro (the volume that is part of the project was her first collection, published 45 years ago). I would like to think we have not read the last of her new work yet (and I will be reviewing her latest in just a few weeks, which is why she gets pushed to December in the project).

What follows is the list, by month in case you would like to follow along or join in the project on some selected months. A quick scan shows that all but the Hugh Hood selection are available in Canada — non-Canadian readers might have a challenge finding a few of them but Abebooks has sources for all at reasonable prices. (If you are really keen, my essay on economically buying Canadian fiction — here — has some strategies on how to reduce shipping costs.) Except for this month where I have delayed the review to allow anyone who wants to take part time to read the book, I’ll try to post the review in the first week of each month.

January — Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies
February — The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields
March — Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler
April — Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood
May — White Figure, White Ground, by Hugh Hood
June — The Studhorse Man, by Robert Kroetsch
July — The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence
August — Cabbagetown, by Hugh Garner
September — Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan
October — Collected Stories, Alistair MacLeod
November — The Tin Flute, Gabrielle Roy
December — Dance of the Happy Shades, by Alice Munro

I am very much looking forward to this reading journey — I hope that some visitors here will find a reason to join at least part of it, be it re-reading an old favorite or taking up a Canadian classic for the first time. These 12 authors have been influential in defining Canadian literature — as a new generation of authors grows into prominence, it is important not to overlook the contribution that they have made.

50 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: Revisiting 12 Canadian authors who influenced me”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I think rereading books (and I do quite a bit of that) is very interesting as it says a great deal about how we’ve changed or whether personal experiences have altered our perspectives.

    Sounds like an excellent plan to me.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I obviously agree with your sentiments. It is interesting, however, that there are some books that I am almost afraid to read again (I’m fairly certain I would not like them as much and would rather retain the positive memory) while there are others (including all those on this list) that seem to demand another go. I’m certainly looking forward to it.

  3. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Re-reading is a doudle edged sword. I re-read 2 of my favorite books last year: The Great Gatsby and A Catcher in the Rye. Salinger seemed even more brilliant to me 30 years on, but sadly, Fitzgerald’s work felt brittle and hollow.
    I’m sure your choices will be more rewarding, as you have already read them each twice. I look forward to your new “mature” insights.

  4. Trevor Says:

    I’m excited about this, Kevin, and will join you on a few of these as time permits (though maybe not on the same month; I have the Davies but am not sure I can read it in January).

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think you mean January not July (and will edit it if that is the case) for the Davies. One reason I put the whole list out is so people can do some planning if they do want to read (and comment) along. I will certainly welcome your thoughts when you do choose to offer them.

  5. Definitely the Opera Says:

    Great that you’re including Surfacing — it’s one of my favourite Atwoods. I first heard of it thanks to Andrew Samuels’ chapter on it in his book the Political Psyche. And this year I saw Lost Song (2008), with Suzie LeBlanc, and realized that that film is a very serious conversation with Surfacing.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      A lot of serious Atwood fans are not even aware of Surfacing so I am impressed by your comment about it. Even when I interviewed Ms. Atwood about it, our conversation digressed more into Survival, her critical overview of the history of Canadian fiction which appeared the same year (1972). It has been some time since I last read it and Peggy and I parted ways a few books back since I am not a fan of dystopian fiction. Rereading it is going to be an interesting experience.

  6. Dave Margoshes Says:

    An interesting project, and a very interesting list, Kevin. I’ve read them all – they (the authors, if not necessarily the chosen books) represent pretty much a cross section of what might be considered the pre-21st century “Canadian canon” (starting in about 1990) though Ondaatje is conspicuously absent, and Hood is perhaps an outsider. I’ve only read each of them once – I’m an immigrant, after all, and my experience of CanLit only began in 1972 – and I’m not sure that any of them, with the exception of the MacLeod stories, would make my own list of books I want to reread before I die – I’m older than you but don’t figure I’m old enough to start on that project yet. (Because I grew up in the U.S., my list would be dominated by American authors: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Salinger leading the list. I’d also like to reread some of the memorable authors of my childhood/youth: Saki, DeMaupassant, London, Conan Doyle, Poe, Runyon and many others. Gee, I hope I live long enough… Maybe I should get started after all. I notice that Philip Roth recently said he too was going to be doing a lot of rereading.)

    (By the way: you say you’re going to revisit twelve novels, but two of the titles are in fact story collections, the MacLeod and the Munro. Glad to see that.)

    Any way, you’ve got some great reading ahead of you, and I look forward to seeing your “dusk” reactions.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Dave: Sorry about the novel/collection confusion — I got so fixated on putting “authors” not “novels” in the headline that I lost track during the post itself. Proving again that no one can edit himself, if you know what I mean.

      I accept that Hood is an outsider — he was my favorite Canadian author during the 1970s so his inclusion is very much a reflection of personal bias. I also wanted to include Ondaatje (specifically In The Skin of a Lion) but knew that once I started including authors who are still writing, this would be a two or three year project. Which, frankly, it may well turn into if this year is successful for me.

      As for short stories, it is a sign of the importance of the genre in Canada that (as far as I can tell) every author on the list but MacLennan also published short stories although I don’t think Kroetsch’s were published in book form and Roy’s were for children.

      And I take your point about American (and international writers). One of the reasons I wanted to do the project was that Canadian publishing is so young that even some avid readers are not aware of its “roots” and how recent they are. When I took a course on the Canadian novel at the University of Calgary in 1971, it was only the second year that the course had been offered.

  7. Helen Says:

    I am starting off the New Year by reading an Australian Classic Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. It must be well over thirty years since I read this book. It is extraordinary how much more I have taken in this time as I now have some idea of the places Lindsay has used.

    This is definitely a good re-read for me.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      One of the subtler influences that led to this project is Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers. She revisits “older” Australian work fairly frequently (as I noted in the post, “older” in both Australia and Canada is “pretty recent” in the UK and US) and I have appreciated the way she gets me acquainted with some Australian classics that I don’t know at all.

  8. Kerry Says:


    This is a great project. I know I will be joining you in November and your re-read of The Tin Flute. I have been slow getting to it, but have it on hand and now have a definite time limit on reading it. You couldn’t know the favor your were doing me, but thanks!

    I hope to get to a few of the others too. As you know, my reading/blogging time has been quite limited, but I have been getting in more reading lately, at least. So, I should be able to get to another Canadian or two, whether a few of the others I have on hand or taking the opportunity to grab a few more while they are the subject of interesting conversation (as there always is on your blog). Basically, I will join you for at least one and will enjoy the rest of the project whether I read along or not.

    And I look forward to your thoughts on Alice Munro’s newest. I picked it up because Trevor put it on his best reads of 2012 list and it made the Tournament of Books and I hadn’t read nearly enough of her. I am so happy I did. She is amazing.

    And Happy New Year!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I am stretching Munro’s latest out — indeed, set it aside for the holiday season because her melancholy doesn’t fit well with celebrating. I’ll get back to it this week.

    And certainly I look forward to your thoughts whenever you get the chance to catch up.

  10. acommonreaderuk Says:

    I read most of Robertson Davies’ books some years ago and have just purchased a used version of The Running Man which I intend to read soon. A truly great writer who will one day be revived I feel.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think even in Canada Davies has gone into a bit of a shadow. I suspect that his best novels aren’t “literary” enough to attract academic attention and get placed on course lists, so a new generation doesn’t know him. And at the same time they are a little too formal to land with a lot of readers. It is interesting that UK readers tend to like him when they read him — some would argue that he spent most of his life doing the best imitation possible of an Oxbridge don. 🙂

  11. Cherine Hlady Says:

    I love your project Kevin and how wonderful to give classic Canadian fiction attention. The Diviners and Fifth Business are two of my favourites. My own list would also include a Timothy Finley (probably The Telling of Lies) and Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley, which I am really overdue to revisit!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Cherine: A good friend whom I discussed my list with before finalizing it also said Findley should be on it — I have to say that he was never a particular favorite for me (to the point that I haven’t read any of his novels a second time). And Buckler’s name didn’t come to mind — perhaps because his novel catalogue is pretty slim.

  12. Isabel Says:

    Thank you for your explanation on the publishing history. I had no idea about the Canadians not having its own books until rather recently.

    I tried reading Richler’s novel and just couldn’t finish it. I’ll look at your review and try it again.

    Atwood – I love her dystopian works. I’ve found out that other readers like either her dystopian works or her other novels; very few like both.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’ve run into that response to Richler before — he is one of those authors who tends to land more favorably with male rather than female readers. And I have also wondered if he expects readers to bring some knowledge of the north-eastern urban Jewish experience to his books (not unlike Philip Roth).

      As for Atwood, I agree with you. Her dystopian novels are so different from her other works that it is as though they are produced by a completely different author. In the year that Oryx and Crake came out, one of our three Shadow Giller jurors refused to consider any other book for the Prize — the other two of us couldn’t even finish the novel.

  13. ol brucie Says:

    this is a terrific idea though agree with the earlier comment that it can be a double-edged exercise. I re-read Catch-22 recently. When I first read it as a teenager, I was smitten. On the recent re-read I was a little embarrassed. (this also happens when I listen to records with the same gap)

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I too struggled with Catch-22 when I read it again a few years back. And I admit that I do wonder if I will find a few of those that I have picked somewhat dated — still, that is part of the attraction of the project.

  14. Cathy Olliffe-Webster Says:

    Interesting that I happened across this post. Only a few weeks ago I was having a conversation about rereading books we enjoyed as kids, to see if they had holding power.

    Your list, above, has some of my favourite books EVER, Canadian or otherwise. The Stone Diaries, Surfacing and The Diviners are novels I think about all the time, decades after I first read them. So glad to see the often overlooked Hugh Garner on your list.

    I’ll be looking forward to your posts!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Cathy: I read enough books each year that I always like to include some second or third reads — although usually that means a return to classics or other non-Canadian work. In some years, that has meant a project devoted to one author (the six volumes of Proust or A Dance to the Memory of Time were a couple of previous revisit projects for me). This will be the first “geographic” based one. As your comment and previous ones indicate, I seem to have succeeded in including at least a few books that bring back fond memories for visitors here.

      I was surprised to see that Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown was still available (albeit with a quote three to five week wait) from Indigo. Despite the considerable reputation it had when I was young, it seems to have dropped from sight in the last few decades and I look forward to bringing it back to attention, however limited my effort might be.

  15. Lee Monks Says:

    A great project: I will try and join you on a ‘leg’ or two. And I very much look forward to your reappraisals, Richler and Davies in particular.

  16. Lee Monks Says:

    I have read some MacLeod stories, Kevin, and they were indeed outstanding. I’m pretty sure it was a ‘Collected Stories’ as well – I’ll have to check on that.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      They probably were — he only published two collections and they were gathered together (along with a few other stories) in a volume that I have seen called both Island and Collected Stories.

      I’m also going to bring a Hugh Hood short story collection into my short story pile when I head to the basement to unearth White Figure, White Ground. He was probably better known for his stories back in the 1970s when I first encountered his writing and I remember them well. He was part of that exceptional group of short story writers (Clark Blaise, John Metcalf, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler) that were in Montreal at the time. I’m interested in seeing how they have held up as well.

      • Lee Monks Says:

        Yes, Island is the collection I have: it bears a rather McGahernesque cover.

        I have never heard of Hood before today so I’d be interested to find out, certainly.

  17. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Terrific idea Kevin. I hadn’t given much thought to how our literature shapes our cultural identity, but reading your list and realizing that I’d read 7 of them made me feel very Canadian. I’ll be along for 7/12ths of your journey.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Susan: I certainly hope my thoughts on those seven bring back memories, whether or not you agree with them. And please watch out for the other five — perhaps I can convince you to try one or more of them.

      And while striving for geographic balance wasn’t on my agenda, the list does pretty much cover Canada’s regions (B.C. being the exception) — collectively, I think the 12 authors speak to many aspects of our national character, with appropriate regional undertones.

      • susanonthesoapbox Says:

        I’m intrigued by the remaining 5 (primarily because they made the KFC cut) and will try to fit them in as well. I picked up my Robertson Davis today at Chapters. I asked the sales clerk where I could find it. She said she’d never heard of him, took me to the Canadian travel section and told me to look under the “R”s, What’s this world coming to!!!

  18. leroyhunter Says:

    Re-reading is something I’d love to do more of, but can’t seem to quite fit in. This is a fascinating project. I admit the majority of names and titles are new to me but I look forward to the reviews and am sure I’ll end up picking up a couple from the list.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It does help that I have total control over my own time and don’t have to fit reading into an already busy schedule. It also seems that when reading new fiction I often hit streaks of books that are just okay (or perhaps not even that) — the prospect of picking up something that has impressed me previously is very appealing then. I hope you will find a Canadian or two who has some appeal for you as this project proceeds.

  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ll add my voice to the chorus saying what a good idea this is, and be another seconding (thirding) Sheila’s comment that it’s also a double-edged sword. I’m planning to reread Gatsby myself soon, I hope it stands up for me better than it did for you and Sheila.

    Rereading books from childhood is I think most perilous, as what once impressed as sophisticated and intelligent can seem none of those things (and why should it? Those books were never aimed at adults in the first place). By contrast though, John Self’s end of year list includes Heller’s Something Happened, his fourth read of it and still so good he includes it in his roundup.

    There’s a famous Nabokov quote along the lines of the only books worth reading being those that are worth rereading (but how to know in advance which those are?). It’ll be interesting to how these books stand up to revisiting. Great project Kevin.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree with you about books from childhood perhaps being best left in memory instead of revisited. While I started reading some classic fiction in my teens, I didn’t really “discover” Canadian fiction until my twenties (actually, there wasn’t a lot to discover). I have already revisited a lot of my early favorites — Dostoyevsky, Salinger and Updike held up quite well; Aldous Huxley and Orwell not so well. (Fitzgerald was a mix.)

  21. kimbofo Says:

    This is a brilliant project, Kevin, and I’ll be following it very closely. I’ve got a couple of those books in my TBR, which I’m midway through sorting out (it’s taken two days already!) — specifically The Stone Diaries and Surfacing — so if I can get my act together maybe I can read them in the same month as you.

    And I second Sheila’s notion that re-reading books can be a double-edged sword — books I read in childhood and loved (the Narnia books, for instance) were incredibly disappointing when I read them as an adult. I think that’s because I could suddenly see all the sexism and overt Christianity in them.

    By comparison, I’ve read George Johnston’s classic Australian novel My Brother Jack four times and with each read it gets better and better. I read it in my teens, then early 20s, late 20s and mid-30s, so am due a re-read soon. (I need to get you a copy of this book, actually, unless you already have it, because I think you’d enjoy it. It’s not a newspaper novel per se, but it is about a war reporter who rails against living an ordinary suburban life at a time when everyone seemed to aspire to leading an ordinary suburban life.)

    And a couple of years ago I re-read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and found it an astonishingly witty book, something I did not recall from my first read 20 years earlier when I thought it was very dull and depressing.

    That said, I don’t re-read books very often, probably because I’m too anxious to read books that I haven’t read before. Same old story: too many books, not enough time!

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: It would be great if you can read along with a couple — and those two are excellent.

    I think those of us who come from the “younger” English cultures (and started reading relatively early in life) probably need to revisit some of that early reading, simply because we discovered it rather than having it taught (the way that many young Brits and Americans of my generation met their native literature). I would be very interested in that Johnston novel if you come across it — both Indigo and the Book Depository show it as out of stock so I am unlikely to find it. Both the publisher and editor of the Calgary Herald when I joined it had been war correspondents of some note (one was the first into Sicily, the other covered the Nuremberg trials) so I have some personal experience.

    • kimbofo Says:

      Actually, I’ve just discovered I also have a copy of Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business. Not sure I will read it in time for mid-January, but I will keep it close to hand for a read at some point soon.

      I think the Johnston novel is hard to come by outside of Australia. (I rescued my copy from my parent’s junk room a few years back.) I’m due a trip to Oz some point this year, I think, so next time I’m there I will buy several copies and make sure one wings its way to you.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I will await it with anticipation. And I’ll try to find a return out-of-print treasure for you.

        And if you are only two days into book organizing, I suspect getting to Fifth Business by Jan. 15 just isn’t possible —🙂 . On the other hand, it is a quick read once you do pick it up.

  23. Sharkell Says:

    A bit late for my comment but I would love to join you on the books that I can source from my library in Australia (the first few on your list are available but not some of the later ones). Thanks to you and Kimbofo (and the rest of the Shadow Giller Prize Panel) I have started reading a few Canadian books and I have loved each and every one of them.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’m delighted that you have found some good Canadian books — as has been observed here before, Australian and Canadian literature has a lot in common if only we could more readily access each others books. Your comments will certainly be welcome on the ones that you do find.

  24. shawna Says:

    This sounds like a very fun project! I’ve read some of these and not others so I think I will tag along with your project to fill in some of my current reading gaps.

    I recently re-read Solomon Gursky Was Here and it confirmed it as probably my favorite Richler novel. I’m looking to hearing how these books resonate with you now.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Your participation and comments will be most welcome. I hope you will find those you have not yet read up to the standards of the others since I did include a couple of non-obvious personal favorites.

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