Cross Country Checkup's Winter Reading List

January 3, 2016

With guest host Susan McReynolds


André Alexis' recommendations

A novelist, playwright and short story writer. His most recent novel, Fifteen Dogs (Coach House Books, 2015) won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (originally published in 1883)

"As soon as someone comes in, you know that they're good or evil. I love the speed of the moral universe that you come into. I love that with Long John Silver, he plays with you because you're not sure if he's good or evil. By the time you get to Long John Silver, this set-up of good people, bad people, is played with in a really interesting way. I found myself surprised by how much I loved it as an adult, as a writer."

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte Press, 1973)

"I recognized in it how he uses ideas playfully. [The book] asks all sorts of questions about the real and the unreal, but in an incredibly amusing way, with ridiculous diagrams. The thing I love about it is his voice. So much of him is creating a space for the reader to feel comfortable with Kurt Vonnegut. Beautiful work."  

The Search for Heinrich Schlogel, by Martha Baillie (Pedlar Press, 2014)

"How it's laid out is poetic. It starts in Germany, goes to Canada, to Frobisher Bay, then to Toronto. The thing that moves me is that it's one of the few books that approximate my sense of the strangeness of Canada. Reading about Heinrich's journey to the North, how irrational and strange the North is, the fear and perception of Canada as 'other' geographically, there are few other books that do that."

Pasha Malla's recommendations

Malla writes a monthly books column in the Globe and Mail. He also writes about books for Pasha is the author of The Withdrawal Method (House of Anansi Press, 2008) and People Park (House of Anansi Press, 2012)  

Oranges, by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus Giroux Inc, 1998)

"The book is about the science and cultivation of oranges and the characters around orange growing in Florida and California. It's a page-turner equal to murder mysteries and the 'pulpiest' fiction. [McPhee] is remarkable at allowing his curiosity to fuel an energy on the page that translates into a similar momentum in your reading. It makes you want to eat oranges. Every kind of orange you can get your hands on."

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf (first published in 1842) (Oneworld Classics Ltd, 2009)

"It's one of the most genuinely terrifying, unsettling, wildly imaginative books I've ever read. For anyone who wouldn't mind curling up on a cold winter night with a book that will scare your socks off, this book is terrific. It was written almost 200 years ago but feels contemporary. I'm surprised that no Hollywood studio has jumped on it and made a crummy version of it."  

1996, by Sara Peters, (House of Anansi Press, 2013)

"One of my favourite books of Canadian poetry ever.  It's an outstanding first collection.  Everyone I have recommended this book to has loved it. I think there are a number of amazingly talented poets in Canada but I do think there's sometimes a barrier with poetry. People feel like they won't understand it or they don't have the proper training. This is a book that might be worth picking up because it's so deeply felt, and the images are so crisp and beautiful. It's accessible and challenging at the same time."

Alissa York's recommendations

York is the author of Fauna (Random House Canada, 2010) and Effigy (Random House Canada, 2007).  

Pig Earth, by John Berger (first published 1979) ( Bloomsbury Publishing PLC 1999)

"It's the first in a trilogy which looks into the French peasant experience at a time when it's changing, when people are leaving the land. Berger inhabits the skins of these people. There's such depth of idea. I always think about earth and air, when I think of John Berger. There's a moral courage to his writing that I think is more and more rare."

Mr. Potter, by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002)

"Mr. Potter is loosely autobiographical, based on the story of Kincaid's father who she only knew from a distance. Her writing is so unique, I feel like there's an original mind on the page. It's experimental, but rooted in emotion. You have to give the book a little time so you learn how to read it, and then you get inside the story."

Close to Hugh, by Marina Endicott (Doubleday Canada, 2015)

"One of the most engaging novels I've ever read. It's a week in the life of a gallery owner in a sort of fictional Peterborough.  It's not just any week. It's a week when things are coming to a head in his life and in the lives of his friends. Endicott is so good at moving into and out of the thought stream of her characters.  She has tremendous facility there."


The Reason You Walk, by Wab Kinew (Viking, 2015)

"In an open sharing way, he tells the story of his life. He's got a beautiful way of storytelling. It is a story that tells itself. I've had limited contact with First Nations' culture. The way he describes his culture and experience, I felt like I could really connect with that. The way he shares is like an open hand."

How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain De Botton  (Vintage, 1998. First published in 1997)

"It draws on Proust's life and fiction, giving insightful advice on how to live well. It's short but beautifully written and because it meant so much to me, it was the most memorable book this year. It fine-tuned the way I look at myself and how I engage with the world."

Beatlebone, by Kevin Barry (Doubleday, 2015)

"[It's] about an Irish island that John Lennon bought. The novel absolutely sings. If you're as great a master of fiction as Kevin Barry, you can break some of the rules. Kevin breaks off for about fifteen pages to tell you about the genus of his story, and how he got involved in the research."

Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck (Weinstein Books, 2015)

"Set in the 1700s in Swedish Lapland. It deals with the practical problems of a very harsh winter and also deals with the supernatural problem of a mountain being haunted and people disappearing. The whole novel has this tension between what's real and what's not. I live in a small cabin in the bush, so there's always tension between the spooky aspect of wolves being in your yard when it's cold and dark, and the real practicalities of life".

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg  (Penguin Press, 2015)

"Aziz Ansari teamed up with a sociologist and worked with top researchers and conducted focus groups and studies, and went all over the globe to get an idea of what romance is today in our culture, especially for young people in urban places and how that looks different in different societies. It's an interesting read. You can learn something from it while being entertained. It is hilarious. I enjoy it as somebody who loves being educated and reading about research and things that are based in fact."

Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper, by Caroline Woodward (Harbour Publishing, 2015)

"It's a memoir of a very unique life experience - manning a lighthouse. It's also a great love story. Love of life, of books and writing, and of living your dreams, and of people and the environment. The book is a great example of following your passion. Caroline is a role model to young men and women. It's about the importance of keeping our lighthouses manned rather than automated. This is one of the best modern-day memoirs I've read. I wish I had read something like this when I was young."  

Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett

"The characters he creates and the satire he writes about the modern world is fantastic."

The Age of Hope, by David Bergen (HarperCollins Canada, 2012)

"Somehow the way David Bergen writes, he turns this ordinary life into the extraordinary.  It's absolutely a lovely read.  It's not a thriller, but I couldn't put the book down.  You can feel the strength in the main character."

A Man Called Intrepid, by William Stevenson (first published 1976) (Lyons Press, 2000)

The caller referred to this tribute from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Sir William Stevenson, a WWII spy and the subject of the book: "As long as Americans value courage and freedom, there will always be a special place in our hearts and our minds and history books for the man called Intrepid."

A Little Life: A Novel, by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

"Definitely one of the buzzier books of the year. It's a heavy book and emotionally powerful but beautifully written and definitely something that would fit the mood of reading in the winter.  It's been eight or nine months since I read it, and it's still there with me."

Death and Mr. Pickwick, by Stephen Jarvis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

"It's a novel about the rivalry between Charles Dickens and Robert Seymour. I found it interesting because it deals with the Georgian Victorian era in London. It's a wonderful read, written very much in the Dickens style.  The book is just brimming with characters. The amount of research that must have gone into this book is just tremendous. Most people would enjoy it.  It's like a movie in that it establishes the characters and rolls the way a good movie should."

One Hit Wonders, by Patrick Warner (Breakwater Books, 2015)

"It's a murder mystery. A bit madcap. You're laughing out loud on one page, and having to re-read passages because there's so much going on, on the next page. I want to give a shout-out to local publishers and all the regional press of the country that are doing fantastic work."

The Age of Legends Series, by Kelley Armstrong (HarperCollins 2014, 2015)

"I enjoy junior novels. They're a nice bit of brain candy before bed. They have all that teenage angst. Just because it's junior, it doesn't mean that it's not worth reading. I read it as an adult, the same as with Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and other popular novels."

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, by Max Tegmark (Allen Lane, 2014)

"Worldwide there's been a phenomenon of people turning away from studying science and technology. This book is by someone who absolutely loves what he's doing. His sheer joy of being in math and physics is on every page. The book is written so that even if you've never studied mathematics you can follow. He links the size of our universe and the big questions to everything from Agatha Christie and Lego to gambling and cycling. I'm blown away by his ability to bring everything to a level that someone, even someone with no grounding in math and physics, would be curious about."

Tide Rips and Back Eddies: Bill Proctor's Tales of Blackfish Sound, by Bill Proctor and Yvonne Maximchuk' (Harbour Publishing, 2015)

"He tells the stories of people in central coast areas. It's easy reading, and factual and interesting."

I Wasn't Always Like This, by Shelley A. Leedahl (Signature Editions, 2014)

"It's about a woman who just picked up and said 'I am done with motherhood and got the courage to leave her life and find out that she wanted to live in another place, and wrote about leaving and having to face all the insecurities about what she was doing and the hard facts of finding the truth of herself. She does it in such a clear and humorous way. It's such a wonderful surprise to find a Saskatchewan writer that I'd never heard of. She's so well-spoken."