One of my mini resolutions for 2008 was to read, explore and learn more about Toronto - my new home city. This July will make it 7 years since I moved here and although I feel that I have done my fair share of exploring and discovering, there's so much more for me to see and do. I have always loved reading fictional stories set in real places. That way, when the characters are walking down a certain street, or looking at a particular landmark or speaking of a certain well known location I can draw on my own picture and memories of that spot and to me, it gives new dept and meaning to the story and almost makes the characters that much more real. Over the past 7 years I have tried to get to know about more Canadian authors and read more of their works. Before I moved here, my knowledge of Canadian literature/fiction was limited to the works of L M Montgomery. Although brilliant in their own right, her stories are hardly representative of Canadian society as a whole and I was thirsty for more.
I first came across the brilliant and award winning author, poet and activist Austin Clarke at back in 2005 at a conference at York University. Struck by his presentation, I wanted to know more about his work. Browsing through the library I found The Toronto Trilogy the books that first launched him into the North American literary spotlight. The books follow the stories of a group of West Indian immigrants as they struggle to come to terms with the city and their new lives away from the comfort (and the warmth) of the Caribbean world.
Eager to read more his works, I next picked up The Origin of Waves - a story about a chance meeting of old friends on a cold winter's day in downtown Toronto. Although I didn't enjoy it as much as the books of the trilogy, it was still a fairly good read.
Margaret Atwood is one of Canada's most well know author in recent times who has won countless awards - both local and international - for her novels, short stories and poetry. She is quite partial to setting her characters and story lines firmly in the streets and alleyways of downtown Toronto and in one book in particular - The Edible Woman - I was thrilled when she mentions a particular bus route that I often frequent myself! Cat's Eye is another of Atwood's books also set in Toronto.
More recently, one of my colleagues loaned me her copy of Richard B. Wright's award winning novel Clara Callan. Set primarily in a small town a couple hours of Toronto, with occasional jaunts over to the city, the book is about two sisters who made very different life and career choices, but who continued to be bound by ties of blood, family and a shared past. Told through a series of letters between characters, as well as diary entries by Clara the protagonist, this book would have been almost ordinary until you stop to think that the author is male, and yet he has managed to write from the perspective of a woman with a clarity and insight into the female mind that makes me wish he could transfer that power to many more of his species! Like with The Edible Woman, there is a particular scene in the book where one of characters is describing a hotel in the downtown area and commenting on its popensity for being a "by the hour" sort of establishment. As I read those lines, I realised that I actually knew of said hotel and commented how it is has only very recently gone through some much needed renovations and is now one of the hippest spots in Queen West, much sought after for art shows and such.
Saving the best for last, my all time favourite books set in Toronto are the Vinyl Cafe Series by Stuart McLean.
The books are a series of short stories featuring the zany adventures of fictional characters Dave and his wife Morley and their children Stephanie and Sam as they amble through life in Toronto. Taken from his widely popular Sunday morning variety radio show of the same name, McLean has woven this family so much into popular Canadian culture that many find it hard to believe that the characters are not real! The timbre of the tales move from the outright hilarious laugh out loud kind, to the quiet and sombre tales of lost love, growing older and experiencing hard life lessons. Through it all, McLean manages to maintain a real connection with his audience - be it through the spoken or the written word - and to date his tales continue to delight audiences across the county.