11.20.2005

what i'm reading: robertson davies, pierre berton

After too many distractions and not enough time spent reading, I've just finished the final book in Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, World Of Wonders. Although the second and third books in the trilogy occasionally felt like essays on Jungian psychology and performance theory shoe-horned into novel form, the subject was so compelling that I didn't mind. I found these books extremely engaging, and I loved Davies' writing. I'll definitely read more from him.

Next up is something by Pierre Berton. You know I love history, and I've gone on several historical odysseys in my reading: Ireland, 19th Century New York City, the civil rights movement. The first two, especially, became somewhat of a reading obsession, to the point where I can't read another book about either for a long time. (Since someone will ask, no, I am not of Irish descent. I just have a thing for Ireland.)

Now I want to learn about Canadian history, and from what I know of Pierre Berton, he's the obvious choice to take me there. Plus, I saw all his books in these beautiful editions in Chapters. It made me want to own them all! And once books are on my bookshelf, they must be read. (Now you've learned my other material weakness, besides Home Outfitters and Linen 'N Things.)

The slightly obsessive-compulsive inside me wants to start with the two 1812 books and work my way through in chronological order. The teacher and literary-enabler inside me says, pick a topic that most interests you, start there and read in any order you please. And the insane compulsive inside me berates, What about your already-full reading list? Those books aren't on it! (I know she's insane; I just nod and smile.)

Sitting on my shelf right now is The Last Spike, one of two books Berton wrote about the building of the trans-Canadian railroad. (The other is The National Dream.) The second half of the 19th Century is "my" era, dating back to my university years. More recently, the World War I era has begun to rival that. But in any case, The Golden Spike seems like a good place to start. Unless I succumb to mild OCD and begin with 1812.

Whenever I read a lot of nonfiction, I always read novels in between, for a change of pace, and to give my brain a rest. The next novel I want to read is Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which imagines Charles Lindbergh defeating FDR in the 1940 presidential election.

27 comments:

M@ said...

I met Pierre Berton not long before he died, when he was signing his last book, Marching As To War. He was by then very sick and could only barely walk.

I was at the event -- a by-invitation-only affair attended by numerous media personalities and politicians -- to lend legitimacy to a photographer friend who was dispatched to take photos for a satirical political rag. They put me on the list for interviewing Mr Berton and there I was, face-to-face with a Canadian icon without preparation of any kind.

Apparently it went well; if nothing else I had a nice chat with him about the tension between popularized and academic history. He was very animated and extremely interesting to talk to.

Unfortunately many of his books -- the 1812 ones I can speak to especially -- are not rigorously academic, and depend on anecdote and popular fictions. But they are often very enjoyable to read and give one a great sense of the subject.

redsock said...

I meant to tell you this week -- maybe you saw it -- that the Globe and Mail published a list of the 100 most important Canadian books.

The Last Spike was on it -- Berton's only mention.

L-girl said...

I didn't see it - thanks! I'll take a look right now.

That mention is good incentive to start with that book. Also the history of how a railroad was built seems like it could be really interesting.

M@, nice memory, thanks for sharing it. I thought Berton had a reputation for being very reliable - thorough research worked into a very readable style. Hm, I'm surprised to hear otherwise.

MattInTO said...

For Canadian history, I bought a book called A Brief History of Canada. Excellent and enjoyable read. Check it out. Written like a textbook but slightly shorter and probably more than you'll ever want to know. If you grew up in New York State or another location in New England, there is definitely overlap, especially where the various Native American/First Nations tribes were concerned.

Matt

Marnie said...

>Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication by Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of a Foreign Power (1946) Kellock-Taschereau Commission


Oh yeah, that's my favourite. Such a racy plot, and the characters, so lifelike!

We're all going through the list and counting, right? Can it be that I've read only 17 of those books, with a few more that I've read part of, or think I've read but can't be sure? Tsk tsk.

L-girl said...

LOL, yes, some of those titles were a bit surprising. Good thing it's not a list of best loved Canadian books, I'd be seriously concerned.

Frankly, I'd be worried if you had read too many of these!

L-girl said...

For Canadian history, I bought a book called A Brief History of Canada. Excellent and enjoyable read. Check it out.

I will, thank you!

Written like a textbook but slightly shorter and probably more than you'll ever want to know.

Ah, this can't be true. You're talking to someone who read an 1100-page book about three years in American history (civil rights history). For folks really into history, like I am, there's only the knowledge of how much we don't know. I'll check out the book, though, it sounds like a good introduction.

Hey Matt, congratuations!!! :)

sharonapple said...

Another good writer on Canada is Will Ferguson. He manages to mix humour with history. It's good to start off with Why I Hate Canadians, where you'll learn the three great themes in Canadian history: keeping the Americans out, keeping the French in, and trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear.(Ferguson loves Canada, but he's far from blind to our flaws as a nation.).... Bastards and Boneheads is also an excellent book on Canadian political leaders, and which pretty much outlines all of the reasons why Mulroney is disliked in Canada. .. Even the Canadian History for Dummies Book he wrote isn't half-bad as well.

Masnick96 said...

I recommend this book - I read soon after I sent my application in. It can be dry at times, but it definitely helped me understand the Canadian identity:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0771065094/sixapart-20/103-6239598-0788628

L-girl said...

Thanks Nick and Sharonapple. Ferguson is often recommended here. Nick, I'll add that to The List.

G said...

Pick up Berton's Prisoners Of The North. Essentially, it is the histories of several legendary persons in the Canadian North. The storytelling is, as with most Berton works, phenomenally engrossing. It's a brilliant historical work.

Peregrinato said...

I've been meaning to read Robertson Davies for years and years now. Eventually, I'll take a break between graduate prograsm :-P

Trevor said...

Davies is great, and Will Ferguson's Generica is right-on. WHen you progress through Pierre Berton, try and save some time for Mordecahi Richler's work - read pretty much any of his, then plan a long weekend in Montreal in springtime.

I think like a lot of the Canadians you'll blog with, I had a lot of CanCon shoved down my throat in high school -- i still have a knee-jerk reaction upon hearing alice munro or margaret laurence's name....

Peregrinato said...

graduate prograsm was a typo of course, but wow, the images it is starting to conjure...its just a tad too close to graduate prorgasm...

zydeco fish said...

I loved Fifth Business, but the other two did nothing for me. If you are looking for suggestions for seminal Canadian novels, I'll say The Favourite Game, by Leonard Cohen. But, your reading list is probably way too long by now anyway.

James said...

Careful what you read down south, you don't want this to happen to you.

mister anchovy said...

Pierre Burton was an interesting fellow, perhaps a Canadian icon. His books should be good, but I find that he could take the most interesting material and render it dry and nearly unreadable.

L-girl said...

Mordechai Richler is definitely on the list! But for Leonard Cohen, I think I'll stick to music.

The way-too-long reading list is the story of my life. But a long list from which to choose can never be a problem. I have books on my reading list for more than 10 years, no matter, I get to them eventually. That's one of the beautiful things about books. They're always there.

Mister Anchovy, that's an interesting note re Pierre Berton. I've heard just the opposite - that he takes the driest history and makes it come to life. I'll soon know which side I come down on.

L-girl said...

James, I can't get that Republic of T link to work. Post the URL? Thanks.

Amateur said...

Did somebody mention music and books?

More Canadian content.

James said...

Here's the link: http://www.republicoft.com/index.php/archives/2004/08/11/the-bad-book/

James said...

Did somebody mention music and books? More Canadian content.

I included this on the CD we made for L-Girl. ;)

SUperstereosIX said...

George Woodcock' s "Gabriel Dumont" is a good biographic acount of Louis Riel's comrade. If you don't know Louis Riel try the graphic novel "Louis Riel" by Chester Young.

As far as some music "Have Not Been the Same - the canrock Renaissance" is a must have.

L-girl said...

Here's the link:

Holy shit.

This beats the US border guard who, on our way back from an early visit to Toronto, chastised me for having a different last name than Allan. It was all I could do to not get out of the car and practice my self-defense moves on his face.

L-girl said...

Did somebody mention music and books? More Canadian content.

. . .

I included this on the CD we made for L-Girl. ;)


And it was on a tape that Marnie made for me! "Who needs a shave? That's Robertson Davies!" What a hoot.

G, thank you for the Pierre Berton suggestion, I've added it to the you-know-what.

James said...

And it was on a tape that Marnie made for me! "Who needs a shave? That's Robertson Davies!" What a hoot.

Well, Davies's beard was almost as big a celebrity as he was. :)

Beausejour said...

In light of political discussions elsewhere on da blog, you may also want to buy Spirit of the West's "Go Figure" -- for both "D for Democracy" (aka Scour the House) and for "Far Too Canadian". In addition to being a great band, this album was released in the midst of the native uprising/constitutional crisis in the early 90s, and this Vancouver-based band wrote a bit about it.