Cross Country Checkup's 2017 winter book list

These books were suggested on our January 3, 2016 program from callers across the country and from our guests: Randy Boyagoda and Robert J. Sawyer. With guest host, Susan McReynolds.
Canadians share their picks for the annual Cross Country Checkup 2017 winter book list on January 8, 2017. (CBC)

Every year, Cross Country Checkup asks our audience for their recommendations for our annual winter book list. This year, callers from across the country (and one from South of the border!) gave us their picks for what books you should pick up this season. Check out the list below, save your own copy of the list here, and let us know on social media what books you would have recommended.

Guest host Susan McReynolds spoke to two invited guests during the program who each made their own recommendations, which are included in the list.  

Randy Boyagoda is Professor of English at the University of Toronto and Principal of St. Michael's College. He's also a book critic and author and author of Governor of the Northern Province and Beggar's Feast and a biography of Richard John Neuhaus. And Randy somehow finds time to serve as the President of PEN Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer is the only Canadian writer to have won the three major awards for best science fiction novel of the year: the World Science Fiction Society's Hugo Award, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His latest novel, Quantum Night, is on the Canada Reads longlist. (See our video interview with him online)

Captivity, by Gyorgy Spiro; pubslihed by Restless Books

Captivity, by György Spiró

Randy Boyagoda, Toronto: The book came out about 12 years ago in Hungary but it's only more recently been translated into English. I've seen this book many times in bookstores but it was only on the cusp of winter that I decided I wanted to read an 860-page historical novel set in first century Jerusalem. It's about a young Jewish man and his series of adventures and misadventures. 

He winds up in a jail cell with some Jewish guy named Jesus. He meets Pontius (Pilate) and he hangs out with Herod. I mean it's a really deep historical novel but that's actually why I found it so interesting; it has nothing to do with let's say contemporary Toronto or the South Asian experience. You know the very fact that it is such a dramatic departure from most anything and everything that I might be reading about or engaging, with drew me in.

There's something kind of grand and demanding and almost kind of exhausting [about the size of the book.] It's such an immersive experience and it felt too heavy for the summer. But it's exactly right for this time of year. 

Randy Boyagoda on the books he chooses for the winter, and why he recommends Captivity by György Spiró. 7:53
Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye, by Zac Unger; published by Da Capo Press

Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye, by Zac Unger

Roger Armstrong, Calgary: It's a riveting book, and it is a true story. It's written by Zac Unger and Zac is actually a firefighter in Oakland, California. But the family are well — his wife is Canadian but they decided to spend a family holiday in Churchill, Manitoba in search of polar bears. And this is the story that goes into that adventure. It involves climate change scientists, deniers, believers. It has its light moments and it has its enlightening moments.

One of the comments from the book that stayed with me is from a housewife in Churchill, Manitoba. She said, "I like to go out for a walk but it's a little awkward to push the baby-stroller and carry the shotgun at the same time."

Susan McReynolds: That sure puts your daily constitutional into some kind of perspective!

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr; published by Scribner

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Lois Gagnon, Alexandria, Ont.: One of the most uplifting books I have ever read. It was given to me by my sister and it sat on my bedside table for a couple of months I suppose before I got into it. When I had, I simply could not put it down. It follows a young blind girl through Paris and down to Saint-Malo during World War II. 

It's so honest, it was simply wonderful. It took the author 10 years to write this book and it's superbly crafted. I've been reading all my life, and I'm quite elderly now and it really takes an exceptional book to move me the way this one did.

Visiting Fellow, by Dave Williamson; published by Turnstone Press

Visiting Fellow, by Dave Williamson

Audrey Waytiuk, East Selkirk, Man.: It's a very light read and it draws you forward. The main character has just gone through a divorce and he's found another girlfriend that he's dating and he takes her on his fellowship to Australia in Tasmania.

There's a lot of character development and I think it's a lovely book. I enjoyed it. And I have to give a little bit of background about this because I'm in a fan club for the author, David Williamson, and that club consists of only two other people. He's published quite a few books and when a new one comes out I send one to each of the members and then we talk on the phone about it.

Audrey Watiuk phoned Checkup from East Selkirk, Man. to recommend Visiting Fellow by Dave Williamson. Waytiuk heads up the author's fan club which has a robust three person membership. 2:26
Stripped to the Bone, by Ghada Alatrash; published by Petra Books

Stripped to the Bone: Portraits of Syrian Women, by Ghada Alatrash

Antoinette Tomasich, Calgary: It's an exploration of Syria through its women. There are seven stories in this collection about different women who are totally unique. The author doesn't shy away from confronting the atrocities against women in her home country. 

But it's not all about the atrocities; it's about friendship, family and love. And what I found displayed so beautifully is the love of homeland that you carry with you no matter where you are — no matter how much has changed. And really, deep down, we are all people and we all want the best for ourselves and the ones we love. 

This is what she portrayed in this book and I found all the stories touched me. But the last one absolutely brought me to tears. So it's a book I highly recommend.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx; published by Scribner

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Marjorie Ross, North Hatley, Que.: It starts off in the late 1600s and it describes two individuals coming from France to New France — into the new world. It gives an excellent picture and it goes right up till present day — 2010 or so. But it touches a lot on the whole lumber industry and how we've been diluting our forests since way back then. And also the treatment of the Indigenous people by way of colonialism at its worst.

So I think it's sort of timely now with the conversation around Indigenous people and their treatment and also because of our core environmental issues. 

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese; published by Douglas & McIntyre

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese

Marjorie Ross, North Hatley, Que.: It was basically a very short novel about a young boy coming from residential school and becoming a good hockey player. I'm a hockey player and I taught in the Northwest Territories for many years so I could relate to it. It doesn't give you too many of the gory details which is sort of nice, but how this young fellow ended up playing for the Toronto Marlies — which is the farm team for the Maple Leafs — and gives an excellent description of how he was taken from his home and then became a good hockey player.

In Another Country: Selected Stories, by David Constantine; published by Biblioasis

In Another Country: Selected Stories, by David Constantine

Randy Boyagoda, Toronto: It's a remarkable collection of short stories and what's remarkable about them is the internal diversity of the stories — the range is amazing. In 200 pages you can go through 10 different stories and enter 10 radically different worlds. 

The title story is about a married couple, late in life and then a discovery. There's a revelation about the husband — a past lover of the husband's. I don't want to give more away than that because it is so worth discovering on your own how this doesn't break a marriage apart. 

And then a couple of stories later, you're reading about a business man who loses his soul in the middle of a business meeting and then discovers that he no longer has a soul and is still moving through life and looking on, trying to figure out all the people he sees about him. And it ends in this kind of crazy, wonderful evocation of the climax of Dante's Inferno. But it's in an elevator in Hong Kong. You're reading this and wondering: How did he just bring that off? What an amazing thing. I would reread things like this. I've already reread some of the stories because again they're well-crafted and beautifully written. 

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman; published by Atria Books

A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman

Binta Colley, Marshfield, Vermont: The book takes place in contemporary Sweden and it opens with this man having a one-way dialogue with his wife and you're not sure where he is but you discover that his wife has died and he is at her grave site. 

He's the neighbourhood curmudgeon. He's the man in your neighbourhood who, when you cross his yard, will come out of the door, wave his hand and tell you, "Get off my grass!" He doesn't like animals; he doesn't like his neighbours and all he wants to do is commit suicide and join his wife. But in the process of doing these things he keeps getting interrupted by a neighbour who needs to borrow a ladder... a neighbour whom he ends up saving. 

And he basically tries to shut himself out of the world but every time he goes out the door it's because he's doing something good. And it's a wonderful book because it's a book that makes you laugh, it makes you cry and it makes you recognize the people that you grow up with in a community. And what happens when you actually do the right thing all of the time. So in the end he becomes a neighbourhood hero as he is dying. 

The Road Is How, by Trevor Herriot; published by HarperCollins

The Road is How, by Trevor Herriot

Kurt Armstrong, Winnipeg: Herriot tumbles off a ladder in middle age and it triggers this crisis for him, and he decides "I need to go on a pilgrimage." But he can't afford a plane ticket to Spain or to Chile or something like that. So he just goes out the front door of his house in Regina and heads east, walking out through the grass and the sloughs and things. And so The Road is How is this poetic, meditative read about the wilderness, masculinity, love and marriage. He reflects on what it is to be a middle aged man in this life.

Kurt Armstrong phoned Checkup from Winnipeg to recommend The Road Is How by Trevor Herriot. He also spoke of a men's reading club he participates in. 4:08
Like a Queen, by Constance Hall; published by Like a Queen Pty Ltd

Like a Queen, by Constance Hall

Jessica McLaughlin, Port McNeil, B.C.: I had two kids in two years and, for a long while, the time I had to read evaporated. All of a sudden I made a goal to start reading again and so I started with blogs. And one of the blogs that kept flitting across my social media was this one by Constance Hall and she's hilarious and she tells 'in the trenches' stories about being a mom.

She ended up turning her blog into a book. And when it was published I tried right away to buy it because I knew it was going to be funny and beautiful and and when it was finally available in Canada I got a copy. And it just starts with something that made me so happy. It says, "One day I was drinking a soy chai and watching two women chatting and enjoying a coffee while simultaneously rocking babies and wrestling toddlers. They looked so beautiful, so wise, so strong, that I nearly cried."

She had this revelation in her life that all of a sudden the mom in Walmart with a screaming baby looked majestic to her and the mom struggling with her child in a stroller looked regal. And as I was reading this book — and it's called Like A Queen — all she's doing is affirming you as a woman and and telling you to affirm other women. It's this positive, uplifting, amazing, hysterical story.

People of the Wolf, by Kathleen O'Neil Gear & Michael Gear; published by San Val

People of the Wolf, by Kathleen O'Neil Gear & Michael Gear

Deborah Wagner, Gatineau, Que.: Rather than recommend just one title, I want to recommend the husband and wife writing team, Kathleen O'Neil Gear and Michael Gear. They're both archeologists and they write historical fiction regarding the first humans in North America.

The books are really well written; when I read them I'm learning something and I'm entertained. It's like a movie and I can't wait to get back to it… my life interrupts it like commercials.

What inspires me about the books is the amount of research that goes into them. I like looking at the bibliography because that can take you on a whole other trail.

Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb, by William Lanouette with Bela Silard; published by University of Chicago Press

Genius in the Shadows, by William Lanouette with Bela Silard

Robert J Sawyer, Scarborough, Ont.: Szilard was the guy who went to Albert Einstein and said, "We're on the verge of splitting the atom and releasing enormous amounts of energy that could be used for a bomb. I think somebody has got to warn Franklin Delano Roosevelt that our enemies during World War Two are working on this. 

So Szilard was there at the lab when Enrico Fermi made it happen. He said, "This is going to be a dark mark on human history." And he spent his whole life trying to prevent the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What a tragic figure; what a monumental Promethean figure to read about and a quirky eccentric funny insightful guy.

Time Reborn, by Lee Smolin; published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Time Reborn, by Lee Smolin

Robert J Sawyer, Scarborough, Ont.: Smolin has come to think that in modern physics we tend to dismiss the notion of time. He has a book out called Time Reborn, a nonfiction book in which he argues that the only thing we can be sure actually exists is time — the march and progression of events from the distant past through a moment that we psychologically label 'the present' and into a changeable future.

Dork Diaries, by Rachel Renée Russell; published by Aladdin Paperbacks

Dork Diaries, by Rachel Renée Russell

Maya Zandstra, Toronto: The series of books are about a girl named Nikki and she's in middle school. She has to face her enemy, whose name is MacKenzie MacKenzie. And I think it's really relatable because I'm around that age as well. 

I think that because at school all the time I read more serious books and stuff, so over the holiday break I wanted to read something that was more funny.

Mémoire d'Inuksuk, by Dorothée Banville-Cormier; published by Les éditions de la Pleine lune

Mémoire d'Inuksuk, by Dorothée Banville-Cormier

Kate Showers, Bolten-Est, Que.: This book jumped off the shelf at me in the library and because I'm at beginner level of French, I was reading with a dictionary in one hand and the book in the other. 

The story is a straightforward tale of a juvenile delinquent who goes to prison and has some sort of transformation. But the telling of it is just so gripping, even with a dictionary, that at one point I was gasping out loud. 

And for learning French it was a really positive way to work on my language.

The Elephants in My Backyard, by Rajiv Surendra; published by Random House Canada

The Elephants in my Backyard, by Rajiv Surendra

Sundra Brownlee, Halifax: The book I'm recommending is a memoir, The Elephants in My Backyard by Rajiv Surendra. I was touched by it and by the author who is a young man, born and brought up in Toronto. His parents were Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka. They lived just next door to the Toronto Zoo. As a little boy, he could hear lions roaring at night, elephants and so on.

As an actor on Mean Girls, a cameraman insisted he read Yann Martel's Life of Pi. Surendra loved the book and he felt very keenly like Pi. He contacted the author and it turns out there was eventually going to be a movie made from the book. It took six years for it all to happen, and during that time this young man prepared himself for the role. He made friends with the zookeepers and went into a tiger's cage. He took five years to learn to swim at the University of Toronto. He went to India and enrolled in a boys school. Eventually, however he never got the part.

It took him a year to grieve but afterwards he went through this huge, like total reincarnation and surge of creativity. And now he's a young artist and actor in New York. I'm touched by this book as a person. And anyway I love it. So I decided to tell you about it.

The Frozen Thames, by Annie Proulx; published by Emblem Editions

The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys

Alice Gradauer, Lloydminster, Sask.: It's a very small book in more ways than one: it's only about four or five inches square or something like that and very thin. But it's a mixture of historical fact and about 40 little vignettes all related to times when the Thames froze over. It covers a time span ... from 1142 until 1895. 

The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx; published by Scribner

The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx

Duncan Bray, Squamish, B.C.: About nine years ago, I was living in the U.K. and I was thinking about getting ready to come over to Canada. I was actually listening to one of the local radio stations from Toronto on the Internet and there was talk of the movie of the Shipping News. It sold me on the idea. I felt that I had to get the book before I could watch the film and learn a bit more about where I wanted to be.

The book solidified that major decision to come to the other side of the world.

The Group, by Mary McCarthy; published by Mariner Books

The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Randy Boyagoda, Toronto: It's a novel that was written by a very good American novelist and critic, Mary McCarthy. It's this wicked satire about a group of young women who graduate from Vassar College around 1931 and enter into what they think will be remarkable lives as modern women, totally unlike their mothers in elite New York circles. 

It's a kind of wicked and in many ways sad and moving revelation of what happens to them as they try to live out their dreams as young, ambitious Progressives and it really comes crashing down. 

The book is best known these days as the inspiration for Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City and Lena Dunham's Girls the HBO series. But this is the original, very funny, very smart, episodic novel.

Come On with the Punt, by Paul Dean; published by Pedlar Press

Come On With the Punt, by Paul Dean

Douglas Dunbar, Magog, Que.: It's a delightful and short read, which has a lot of humour built into it. The story follows this particular man named Melvin who is a curiosity in high school for four years and it centres on the resettlement program that took place in Placentia Bay.

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle; published by HarperCollins Publishers

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Andrew McCutcheon, Pincher Creek, Alta.: John Darnielle was originally a poet and a musician and he released this first novel, I believe in 2015 and it's absolutely incredible. It's the the book I always tell people to read whenever they ask me for a recommendation. 

It's filled with this melancholic story of a man who was in an accident as a teenager, in which he becomes disfigured. After this incident he sort of retreats into a fantasy world and he turns the fantasy world into a game. And the book is told through these two timelines. One is he is an adult and this game resulted in an unfortunate incident with two teenagers, where one died and one was also very badly injured. The second timeline is of him as a teenager leading up to this this terrible incident that disfigured him terribly. 

It's really about the idea of a fantasy and escapism and the dangers that come along with that. The prose is absolutely incredible. And John Darnielle is an amazing storyteller.

The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, published by Back Bay Books.

The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh

Randy Boyagoda, Toronto: I actually bought The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh over Christmas. Waugh is a supreme satirist whom you can always turn to for a quick, fast, funny,sharp laugh. We live in edgy times where sharp humour seems to me to be something we seek more than the kind, the soft and gentle. And that's what satire provides.

All comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ayesha Barmania.


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