- T. F. Rigelhof (Author)
Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alison Calder
Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984 is a difficult book to review, primarily because it is so hard to categorize. Part literary guide, part polemic, part collection of reviews, and part memoir, Hooked defies easy description. The author, T.F. Rigelhof, will be a familiar name and voice to many as a contributing reviewer in The Globe and Mail’s book section. But Hooked is not a collection of previously published reviews. Instead, one might think of it as being more like one of those movie guidebooks that was intended to be taken along to the rental store (in the olden days when there were such things, that is). Hooked is aimed at readers who want to read more, and who want some advice about how to spend their time. Entries on novels are arranged into four sections: Reading by Association (Kompatibilität and Novels of Friendship); Reading and Coming to Terms with the Past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Novels of Knowledge); Reading Some of “The Talented Women Who Write Today” (Novels of Comfort and Love?); and “Midnight at the Oasis” (Reading Novels of Joy and Redemption). The book concludes with a recommended reading list covering the 26 novels that Rigelhof thinks matter most to Canadians. A hard-working, dedicated reader of novels, he expects nothing less of his own readers.
One way to think of Hooked is as a tasting menu. Rigelhof presents brief samples of/advertisements for the Canadian books that he has most enjoyed reading over the past 16 years. Many entries are, at most, a page or two long, though several are longer and a few span only a paragraph. These are not reprinted reviews, though Rigelhof mentions that many began that way. In fact, they often read like reviews of other reviewers, as they include extensive quotations from other reviews as well as long quotations from the primary texts. The entry on Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing, for example, focuses more on how Annie Proulx, Noah Richler, Clive Sinclair, and Marina Endicott evaluated the novel than on the novel itself. Rigelhof’s entries are also not plot summaries: as he intends to entice a reader to pick up the book in question, he is careful not to give away a text’s secrets. Thus, many entries include necessarily vague allusions to mysterious shattering events or collisions that change characters’ lives, without revealing exactly what, precisely, is so meaningful. One caveat: the entries may not be without error (the very short writeup on Green Grass, Running Water lists the rivals for Alberta’s hand as Eli and Charlie, not Lionel and Charlie, for example).
So what, in Rigelhof’s terms, is “good, better, and best” literature? In his introduction, he lays out his hopes: “This book is written from one reader to another—to as many others as possible—in the hope that enough copies will be bought and circulated so that those of you who read privately and you who participate in reading clubs will find reader-friendly approaches to recent Canadian novels in English that expand the narratives of your own lives.” “Although” he is a college teacher of humanities and a professional reviewer and author, he is, he writes, “first, last and always a reader of contemporary fiction.” The authors he includes are “engaged and engaging: they employ whatever abilities at their command to make their works readable and they want to be read seriously even when they’re at their funniest. Who doesn’t?” Well, it seems there are a few: “some writers write to be studied rather than read, taught rather than enjoyed, and count success not in sales and readers but in tenure track points for themselves and friends within academia.” The lines he’s drawing here are well-worn and obvious: good “engaging” texts versus self-centred “academic” ones. But this division, which pops up occasionally throughout the entries, is confusing in relation to the text selection itself. A number of the books that Rigelhof promotes are written by academics or professional teachers in various capacities, and many of them have been enthusiastically adopted by course instructors across Canada (thus contributing to their sales and readership). Some of them are extremely dense structurally and linguistically, and for some, like Green Grass, Running Water, the concept of “readability” seems inadequate. It would be helpful in understanding Rigelhof’s criteria if he included some specific discussion of the bad and the worst novels as well. It’s understandable that Hooked doesn’t focus on these “bad” books—telling people which Canadian books NOT to read is all too often redundant—but without seeing what the range of quality actually is, there’s no way to measure what “good” actually means. As a result, the selection criteria seems to boil down to “books I like,” which is ingenuous considering the amount of thinking and theorizing that Rigelhof is actually doing. The way in which the project is expressed seems to be selling the project itself short.
This is not a book to sit down and read straight through: the effect would be like spending an afternoon reading back cover blurbs. The essays are provocative but short, bite-sized rather than woven into sustained arguments. Hooked on Canadian Books may be better served by being treated as an occasional reference book, one that you can pick up and put down, reading entries here and there. For me, this is a browsing book, one that reminded me of novels I’d read and enjoyed, some I’d read and disliked, some I’d meant to read but had ended up forgetting about, and some I’ll take a second look at the next time I’m in a bookstore.
- Grasping Ondaatje by Sofie De Smyter
Books reviewed: Michael Ondaatje: Distance, Clarity and Ghosts. An Analysis of Ondaatje's Writing Techniques Against a Background of War and Buddhist Philosophy. by Joan Elizabeth von Memerty and Michael Ondaatje by Lee Spinks
- Midnight's Grandchildren by Terri Tomsky
Books reviewed: Counterrealism and Indo-Anglican Fiction by Chelva Kanaganayakam
- As Canadian as It Gets by Donna Coates
Books reviewed: When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing by Stephen Henighan, Canadian Odyssey: A Reading of Hugh Hood's The New Age/ Le Nouveau Siècle by W. J. Keith, and Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries : A Reader's Guide by Abby Werlock
- Travaux de recherche by Réjean Beaudoin
Books reviewed: Le Métier d'écrivain au Québec (1840-1900) Pionniers, nègres ou épiciers des lettres? by Daniel Mativat and Lectures contemporaines de Gabrielle Roy Bibliographie analytique des études critiques (1978-1997) by Lori Saint-Martin
- Getting High on Writing by Alessandra Capperdoni
Books reviewed: Horizontal Surfaces by George Bowering and How I Wrote Certain of My Books by George Bowering
MLA: Calder, Alison. Reading List. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 168 - 169)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.