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My Canada Reads includes Quebec fiction

Most of the fiction from Quebec that I've read in the past nine years has been connected to Canada Reads, whether I was being introduced to Nikolski or revisiting an already-loved book such as The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In 2003, when Next Episode won Canada Reads in an upset, I worked on a complementary series of readings from contemporary Quebec. The most memorable book on that list was Gaeten Soucy's 2000 novel, La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes, which I read in Sheila Fischman's marvellous translation, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches.That must have been a tough literary code to crack, incendiary storytelling about a family with its own language and suffocating laws.

Since most of the books recommended for our Top 40 list so far have been from what one person called the ROC ("Rest of Canada"), I decided to call around asking for recommendations of essential novels from Quebec.

I asked translators, as well as some past Canada Reads participants, and told the translators they could pick a novel they'd worked on — it must be hard enough already to choose one out of all the books they've spent months living in.


Sheila Fischman, who has had two of her translations chosen for Canada Reads, recommended a novel first published in French in 2004:

"My choice is Adieu, Betty Crocker, by François Gravel, translated by me and published by Cormorant in 2005. It is the story of a woman who is, on the outside, as ordinary as they come: a mother and housewife who does a pretty good job at both, but who has a secret: she cannot and does not leave her house, ever. Not even to step outside for a chat with a neighbour. To Gravel, she is a heroine: not a kitchen goddess, not a neurotic perfectionist. Rather, she is an example of how significant, how inspiring the most ordinary tasks, the most ordinary people, can be. It is a theme and a novel that go against the grain, one that pleads for the most ordinary tasks, the most ordinary life, as something marvellous. This is truly a book for everyone. I hope that others will agree with me."

David Homel's eighth novel, Midway, has just been published by Cormorant (clearly a discerning publisher). He recommended Fairy Ring by Martine Desjardins, published in English translation by Talonbooks in 2001:

"This book caused some critical stir when it came out, then faded away, and I think it's time to take another look. Fairy Ring is set in the year Freud published his major essay on hysteria, and baroque mental disorders hover around all the characters, especially Clara Weiss, the heroine of this novel set in Nova Scotia. And when an upset woman like Clara also turns out to be an expert in mycology, hold onto your hats! Oh, yes, full disclosure — I translated this book with Fred Reed."

Anne-Marie Withenshaw was a panelist in 2009, when she championed Michel Tremblay's book. Her favourite from this century is Suddenly the Minotaur, by Marie-Hélène Poitras (DC Books, 2007), translated by Patricia Claxton:

"Marie-Hélène Poitras is a young Montreal author who won the Anne Hébert Prize with her first novel. I had worked with Marie-Hélène on many occasions before I even knew she was a novelist. She was actually my editor when I was writing for the music section at Voir, and then became the music critic for the TV show I hosted in 2006-2008, Flash on TQS. Sometime in 2005 her editor sent me Suddenly and a collection of her short stories, La mort de Mignonne et autres histoires, and I could not believe such dark, powerful and quite frankly troubling stories came from such a luminous girl, whom I reported to weekly as a writer, no less. Suddenly the Minotaur is certainly a difficult novel emotionally, especially in its early pages, but the story's resolution and its heroine's conquest of her fears, and the learned life lessons of love and trust are a compelling and inspiring read."

I also asked Canada Reads-winning author Nicolas Dickner — but not panelist Michel Vézina, assuming that Michel would again recommend Dickner's Nikolski as he did so successfully last year. Nicolas picked two novels:

"The first one is Guillaume Vigneault's Chercher le vent (Boréal, 2001), translated by Susan Ouriou, and published in 2003 by Douglas & McIntyre under the title Necessary Betrayals. Although some scholars consider it a mere example of pop lit, it's actually very well written, with a very strong sense of storytelling.

"The second one is Dominique Fortier's Du bon usage des étoiles (les Éditions Alto, 2008), translated by Sheila Fischman, and published this very autumn by McClelland & Stewart, under the title On the Proper Use of Stars. It's a bit embarrassing for me to be lauding the book, since I wrote a blurb for it — but I have to say it's a very nice novel, beautifully written, telling an unusual tale involving Victorian society, romanticism, plum pudding recipes and ethnological discussions about Inuit. It's geeky, but in a mild way. And it's a novel of both Canadian and contemporary interest, for it's giving an updated version of the Franklin expedition in the Northwest Passage."

Nicolas's editor at Knopf, Pamela Murray, was keen to draw attention to his second novel, published in 2009 as Tarmac by les Éditions Alto, and forthcoming in English as Apocalypse for Beginners, translated by Lazer Lederhendler.

"Two star-cross'd would-be lovers meet in the fateful summer of 1989. Hope Randall is a polymath with a special affinity for science and a peculiar family heritage: for generations, various Randalls have received a premonition of the date of the apocalypse, and each Randall eventually succumbs to madness when the planet inexorably continues to spin past the designated date. Mickey Bauermann's heritage is more concrete — literally, as the family has a thriving cement business. Hope and Mickey forge a strong bond as they strive to escape their destinies from the comfort and safety of the Bunker, Mickey's bungalow basement. Along the way the Berlin wall crumbles, zombies lurk, David Suzuki is worshipped, one-way tickets are purchased and ramen noodles are consumed with fatalistic abandon and little regard for sodium content. Readers who admired the sly humour, intelligence and originality of Nikolski will once again find themselves under the spell of Nicolas Dickner's fictional world."

Well, that novel comes out in December, so technically it fits into our 10-year celebration!

Another way to choose books is, of course, prizes, so I checked out the books up for the Governor General's Award for French-to-English translation this year. The fiction contenders are The Proper Use of Stars, and a second book translated by Sheila Fischman, The Blue Notebook, her rendering of Le cahier bleu by Michel Tremblay. Also in the running are The Breakwater House, Lazer Lederhendler's translation of La Maison des temps rompus by Pascale Quiviger and L'été funambule by Louise Dupré, translated as High-Wire Summer by Liedewy Hawke. (Don't those translators have great names?)

What about you...do you have a favourite novel from Quebec? It's not too late to make a recommendation...you have till midnight tonight before the Canada Reads coach turns back into a pumpkin. Use our handy online form, go to Facebook or Twitter or have your say in the comments section below.

Senior producer Ann Jansen fantasizes about running away from home to St. Pierre et Miquelon with a backpack stuffed with books — short stories, poetry and novels.

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