Tag Archives: Quebec Lit

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier

and the birds rained down

Translated by Rhonda Mullins

Winner of the 2011 Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie

Shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English Translation

Selected for Canada Reads 2015

Just over a week to go until Canada Reads 2015. The next shortlisted title I decided to pick-up was the other French Canadian title on the list, And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins. This is the first time in the history of the show that two French Canadian books have been featured at the same time. Of the five titles, this was the one that I was least looking forward to reading. It wasn’t that I was averse or hostile towards the subject or anything, it just didn’t excite me like the others did. Saucier’s novel is the story of two very senior citizens, living the life of hermits in the hopes of dying on their own terms. This was an interesting book with a lot of complex themes, but even a week after finishing it, I can’t definitively say if I enjoyed it or not.

The strength of this novel is how Saucier weaved such a thematically complex story with such a simple plot and a very small cast of characters. Many of the six living characters are really well rounded and probably the best developed of the three novels on the show this year. Tom and Charlie, the two octogenarians at the centre of the book, are instantly memorable. They are at the heart of what this novel is about: the right to live and die on your own terms.

Saucier’s writing is very heavy on theme, and big themes at that – life and death, falling in love, personal reflection, and man’s primitive connection with nature. My biggest problem with the novel, and the reason why I’m undecided if I like this book, is that at certain points, theme seems to come at the expense of everything else. Plot is often times slow, dialog is sometimes clunky, and narration is often direct and literal (although perhaps this could be a problem with the translation). The biggest problem I had though, at least in my reading, was the complete and utter lack of humour. The whole concept of this novel, two old guys living in the woods, surviving off the avails of a pot farm run by their quirky friends, and eventually the old guys are joined by a 65 year old escaped psychiatric patient. The comedic possibilities are endless, but almost never materialize. The result is a fairly dense and heavy book.

Of the four books for Canada Reads 2015 I’ve finished so far, this book least fits the theme of “One Book to Break Barriers.” There have been a lot of novels in recent years that take on this topic of dying on your own terms – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and Extraordinary by David Gilmour are a couple of examples. But, I don’t feel that And the Birds Rained Down hits as hard as those novels. As I’m writing this review, I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly what exactly it was with this novel that I didn’t connect with. But, if you read a lot, chances are you’ll come across the odd book where you’re only reaction is “meh, it’s alright.”

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Ru by Kim Thúy

RuKimThy5573_f

Translated by Sheila Fischman

Winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction

Winner of Canada Reads 2015

Shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Shortlisted for the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award

I’ve been moving through the Canada Reads 2015 novels at a good pace. I’ve gotten through three and have over two weeks to get through the final two, so I should have more than enough time to be ready for the show. After finishing Intolerable, I decided to tackle Ru next as it seemed like the logical next book to read. The author, Kim Thuy, is a Vietnamese –Canadian who lives in Quebec. I recognized this title from the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist and the 2010 GGs, but I wasn’t overly familiar with the content of the novel. This is the story of Vietnamese woman who was a young girl during the Vietnam War, subsequently lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually grew up in Quebec. The main character, An Tinh Nguyen, is mother to a child with autism and eventually works for several years in Vietnam as an adult. Ru, for me, fell somewhat flat. This book is an example of form over function.

The inherent issues that surround a translation aside (even though this is done by the master of Canadian translation, Sheila Fischman), the structure and form of this book make connecting with Nguyen in any meaningful way very difficult (for example, I had to flip through the book to even remember the name of the protagonist). Ru is told through a series of vignettes. They range from a half-page to 2 pages, with the majority being about a full page. So, at 141 pages, there are a lot of vignettes. Each individual snippet resembles a prose poem more than it does a work of fiction. It is high on metaphor, symbolism, and imagery, but low on forward-moving narration with very little linearity. This is, without a doubt, a post-modern novel; interestingly enough though, the individual vignettes have an air of modernist stream-of-consciousness. While none of these points are inherently negative, for me, Ru just didn’t connect. I had trouble buying-into the narrator, because I was too wrapped up in the poetic nature of the book. I found myself reading this as if it was poetry – focusing on those associational elements you look for in the genre and not keeping those mental notes on the progress of the story.

So, as I’ve explored with the last two books, how does this title hold up when examined through the lens of this year’s theme, “one book to break barriers?” In my reading, not well. This was a beautiful book, but it doesn’t hold up to the critical examination that this theme requires. Ru touches on different threads that could “break barriers” – the immigrant experience, returning to your homeland, raising a disabled child, but none of these threads are pulled to the point of adding anything new to the discussion. On a more positive note, there are interesting scenes and passages of a childhood in the midst of the Vietnam War and spending time in a refugee camp.

Ru was just ok. Not great, not terrible, just ok. It was a very fast read so it’s not a huge time commitment. As I said, the language and the “poetry” of the novel are quite beautiful – it loses points because of difficulties with plot. This may be right up someone else’s alley, just not mine (as evidenced by its list of accolades). Even though I have 2 books left to read, I think it is a safe bet that Ru will not be taking the title.

The December Man by Colleen Murphy

The December Man

Winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Award for Drama

The 1989 Montreal Massacre was one of those rare moments of violence on a grand scale rarely seen in Canada. As Canadians, we often assume that mass murders such as this are reserved for our neighbours to the south. Fortunately, they are infrequent in Canada but, for this reason, they often have longer lasting legacies and impacts. The December Man, the 2007 play by Anglo-Quebec playwright Colleen Murphy, uses this tragedy as its backdrop. I really really enjoyed this book; many scenes and conversations really hit me hard. With only three characters, you really get pulled into the family dynamic and feel for the young man, Jean, who is the centre of the story.

This Governor General’s award winner is a short play, only 61 pages, but it is very deliberate in its pacing. What this particular play has become known for in the decade since its premiere is its narrative technique – it is told backwards in time with each scene moving a few months in reverse, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, with scene one taking place in March 1992 and the final scene unfolding in December 1989. It may sound odd if you haven’t experienced a play or novel like this before, but it provides an interesting dynamic with the characters. The play opens with two parents grieving the death of their son while they gas themselves to death in their living room. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reverse time that Colleen Murphy uses is really the only way to tell this story and once you finish it, you realize that linear forward time simply wouldn’t work.

The December Man is ultimately a story about what happens at the periphery of these public tragic events; what goes on beyond and outside the view of TV news cameras. Jean is terribly affected by what he experienced and witnessed at Ecole Polytechnique; in 2015 he would be treated with PTSD, no questions asked, but 1989 was a different time. The driving catalyst of Jean’s breakdown is his mother (remember high school chemistry – a catalyst isn’t the cause of a reaction, merely an accelerant). Kate doesn’t understand what her son is experiencing and simply wants him to move on and get over it. She cares deeply but doesn’t know how to properly deal with what has happened. This is very difficult and painful to read because you can so empathize with Jean. At one point, on the one year anniversary of the massacre, Jean admits to his mother that he hasn’t been going to classes; she replies with “If you’d been really smart you’d have skipped classes this exact day last year and saved us all a lot of trouble.”

This is a hard book to review because of the reverse chronology. I can’t say too much without giving away huge spoilers. Not much happens in terms of plot in this play, but it is a masterful combination of psychological and domestic drama where often times silence or a single word speaks huge volumes. I would love to see it staged. This short book can easily be finished in one sitting, but it will haunt you long afterwards. A must read for a fan of Canadian drama, Quebec literature, or anyone who likes to read sad stories.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach

Winner of the 2008 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2008 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Selected for Canada Reads 2014
Longlisted for the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book ~ 2008

Rawi Hage himself is an interesting character; he’s a Lebanese immigrant to Canada, suffered through his home country’s civil war, he’s lived in New York, is an accomplished photographer, drove a cab, and somehow managed to end up and settle in Montreal in 1992. In addition to all of this, he has a dark brooding look that just oozes intensity. He seemed to explode out of nowhere onto the Canadian literary scene in 2006 with the now contemporary classic De Niro’s Game. Hage’s first novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor-General’s Award and won the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – one of the world’s richest literary prizes and at the time, one of the only worldwide English language awards. Hage published novel number two, Cockroach, in 2008. The accolades and nominations quickly rolled in further cementing his place in 21st Century Canadian literary culture.

This was my first introduction to Rawi Hage. I haven’t yet read De Niro’s Game or his third novel Carnival. Cockroach is the story of an unnamed narrator making his way through a cold Montreal winter in an unspecified time. The narrator is an Arabian immigrant who lives in utter poverty. He recently tried to kill himself and is forced to have regular sessions with a therapist where he delves into his shady and pragmatic past growing up in his home country. In Montreal, he befriends and falls for Shohreh, a member of the Iranian diaspora into which he has been adopted. All the while, the narrator has recurring fantasies and hallucinations of himself becoming a cockroach, slithering and crawling his way through the underworld and into the homes and lives of those he admires and despises. This unnamed narrator is very gritty and dark but at the same time is very “real.” His pragmatism and survival instincts trump all else – including his better judgment.

This novel is equal parts psychological, psychedelic and Kafkaesque. Frankly, other than the flashbacks during the therapy sessions, very little happens in terms of plot in this novel. We are taken on a journey through the narrator’s exploration of the mundane and every word of it is riveting. We see the plight of the impoverished immigrant, the closed-in nature of the a diaspora in a large city, the baggage that a newcomer brings with him from his homeland, and just how far someone can go to survive and how the very definition of “survival” is entirely subjective. We join our storyteller as he collects welfare cheques, works as a busboy, smokes hash and snorts coke with his Iranian friends, and talks out his past with his therapist; we then join him through kaleidoscopic fantasies and delusions of becoming the cockroach.

The highlight of Cockroach was the quality of the writing. Rawi Hage uses a poetic language that is free of pretension that is so hard to find in contemporary fiction; it exudes elevated prose but doesn’t reek of MFA syndrome.  He uses highly imaginative metaphors and spares no graphic detail.

Rawi Hage is at the forefront and very representative of the current generation of future CanLit icons: born outside our borders, a working class background (i.e. he’s not an English professor), highly original stories that are rooted in literary tradition, and willing to take risks in his writing. That being said, Cockroach is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. This is a novel for anyone that wants to delve into the dark nether-regions of the human soul with the possibility of never coming out.

Book of Mercy by Leonard Cohen

Book of mercy

Leonard Cohen recently released his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, his best release since Various Positions in my humble opinion. So, needless to say, I have been listening to lots of Cohen’s music lately, reconnecting with old favorites and grooving to his hearty baritone rhythms. Obviously I decided it was a good time to read some Cohen. His bibliography is quite extensive, likely more so than most CanLit fans realize: eight original books of poetry, two novels, one collection of selected poems (for which he won, and subsequently refused, the 1968 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry), and one anthology of selected poetry, songs and prose. I haven’t actually read a lot of Cohen’s works; other than a few selected poems in Canadian literature classes, I’ve only read two of his books – his debut collection Let Us Compare Mythologies and, about 10 years, his infamous novel Beautiful Losers. I was up for a challenge this week, so I chose the 1984 book Book of Mercy.

Book of Mercy is collection of prose poems that take the form of devotional “contemporary psalms.” I have always struggled with prose poems and even more so with deeply religious writing, so I knew going into this collection that it would be a tough read. This collection, while frustratingly difficult, was an enjoyable and interesting read. If you’re familiar with either Cohen’s writing or music, you will recognize many of the themes and motifs present in almost all of the poems, especially if you imagine Cohen himself reciting them to you with his haunting deep voice.

All 50 of these prose poems are steeped in Judeo-Christian imagery and Biblical references – to the extent that someone unfamiliar with the basics of the Old Testament would likely be lost. Frankly, if you were to present these to a quality 4th year literature major, they would likely think these are translated 14th century Middle English devotions, not poems from a Jewish Canadian written in 1984. Overall, I would use one word to describe Book of Mercy: sad. The speaker is writing from a place of pain, spiritual torture, and religious uncertainty. At various points, the writing is desperate, angry, dark, but it is always gripping and, above all, sincere. Leonard Cohen is an extreme example of poetry being inseparable from the poet and this particular collection is case-in-point why.

Book of Mercy is not for the casual reader of poetry. It is difficult, confusing, and filled with obscure references. I read more poetry than most, I have a degree in literature and I have studied English at the graduate level, and still, I struggled greatly with this book. But, that is not to say this is a title to be avoided. If you’re a fan of Leonard Cohen, it is a fantastic example of what makes him tick. Just know that you’re not alone when you shake your head and mutter “huh?”

Fall by Colin McAdam

Winner of the 2009 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction

Shortlisted for 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Colin McAdam’s second novel, Fall,  is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. The story focuses on a pair of roommates: Julius, a typical high-school jock who is light on intellect, and Noel, who at once is both protagonist and antagonist, is the dark and brooding young man whose true character becomes clearer as the novel progresses. McAdam effectively uses a combination of narrative techniques and multiple points-of-view to tell this story. Fall‘s strongest attribute, however, is its pacing. Coming in at a respectable 358 pages, McAdam makes the most of every sentence. Each and every detail is meticulously sketched out for the reader and, for the really attentive reader, subtle hints and foreshadowing abounds in this novel.

Set in St. Ebury, a fictional private boarding-school in Ottawa catering to children of diplomats and well-to-dos, Fall takes place at a pre-Internet and pre-cell phone time; St. Ebury could be described as a non-magical Hogwarts (with words like Headmaster and Head Boy being used). This setting creates a feeling of privilege and exclusivity that permeates the writing.

The narration alternates between the first-person perspectives of both Noel and Julius with the occasional chapter narrated by William, Julius’s father’s driver. McAdam does a fantastic job in creating unique voices for the two main characters. Chapters narrated by Noel are done so from the distance of around a decade. His chapters are made up of long and intricate sentences that are very reflective; Noel is always trying to answer rhetorical questions that he seems to be grappling with. Julius’s chapters are told from the present using sentences that are sharp, truncated, and impressionistic. This immediately furthers the contrast in intellects between the two characters. The few chapters that are narrated by William are more so a release-valve to provide foreshadowing and an external analysis of yet-to-unfold events. Fall is also filled with a fantastic cast of supporting characters: the title character, Fall, who is Julius’s girlfriend and Noel’s object of obsession; Ant and Chuck, friends of the main pair; and the parents of the main characters.

At this point, I have to give a spoiler alert. Late in the novel, Noel is described as a sociopath by William. Early events narrated by Noel begin to paint this picture: his first sexual encounter, in Australia with Meg, is quite dark; he has a habit of dressing in his roommates clothes and staring at himself in the mirror when he is alone; and, probably most disturbing, he recalls cutting the tail of his cat as a child because he wasn’t happy with his birthday present. Later of course, he kills Fall and maims Julius. What is most interesting about Noel is that he is an incredibly sympathetic character, likely because of McAdam’s use of the “unreliable narrator.” I am not sure if I think that Noel is a sociopath/psychopath. If he really is, his narration might be manipulated to make him remorseful; that is ultimately the question that you are left with when finished with Fall.

Indexical Elegies by Jon Paul Fiorentino

When I originally bought this book, it was for one reason: its cover. I had not heard of Jon Paul Fiorentino, I didn’t know what the central premise of the book was, and in fact I didn’t even read the back of it. This is a testament to the quality cover design done by the publisher. Fast-forward 18 months, I was perusing my poetry shelf trying to decide what to read and this book popped out at me, again because of the cover design. Because of my complete unfamiliarity with the author, I went into this book blind, not knowing at all what to expect. Indexical Elegies is a mix of sad, esoteric, misanthropic, and refractory poems.

Fiorentino proves himself to be a master of wordplay and phonetic manipulation. This volume has interesting combination of alliteration and mid-line rhyming; the poems are not necessarily metrical but not necessarily completely free from structure. This collection, especially the last sequence “Transprarie”, has a strong sense of despondency and anxiousness; but of course this is to be expected with the word “elegies” in the title. The speaker seems at great unease with the world around him. Manitoba also seems to bear the brunt of his agoraphobic writing.

This collection is a very quick read, almost too quick. With about 65 pages of poems, most of which are no more than 50 words, I finished this book with about 70 minutes of reading. These are not “everyman” poems. I think the occasional or casual reader of poetry would struggle with Indexical Elegies. This book is more suited to someone who has studied poetry, reads it often, and is familiar with the elegiac tradition pioneered by 17th and 18th century poets like Donne and Thomas Gray.

The Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler

I’ve felt like that the last month or so I have gotten away from the original reason I started this site, to review pieces of “classic” CanLit and contribute my two-cents on Canadian culture. With this in mind I have decided to focus my reading for this blog on my New Canadian Library shelves and review some oldies for the next few months. Whenever I need to kick-start my enthusiasm for reading again I usually reach for one of two authors, either Mordecai Richler or Margaret Laurence. I was in the mood for something funny so the obvious choice was Richler. I picked up one of his shorter novels that I hadn’t read yet, The Incomparable Atuk. This novel is one of Richler’s more eccentric pieces of satire; it has a similar feeling and tone as Cocksure, likely one of the strangest novels to come out of Canada in the 60s. Atuk is about an Inuit (or, as they were known in the 60s, Eskimo) poet who achieves national stardom and is transplanted to the soul corrupting city of Toronto.

The Incomparable Atuk was Richler’s follow-up to his best known work, Duddy Kravitz. The story starts with Atuk gaining fame as a gifted Eskimo poet and falling into a crowd of memorable characters. Although it is a short book, the NCL edition comes in at 178 pages with big print, it is very dense in the amount of story that is packed between the covers. It would be hard to summarize the novel because the book is basically just a bunch of random stuff that happens to Atuk and his inner circle; some of these include game show appearances with deadly punishments, cannibalism, swimming Lake Ontario, Eskimos being locked in a basement being forced to create “authentic” pieces of art, and of course Richler’s trademark witticisms on the state of post-WWII Judaism.

Something that always impresses me with Richler’s work from the 50s and 60s is his ability to seamlessly shift point-of-view with almost every chapter while still keeping the book as a whole very cohesive. I think part of the reason Richler is able to pull this off is because of how unique and memorable his characters are. All of his novels have a lot of characters and almost all of these characters are very well developed. Within two pages you have a sense of what this character is all about and which side of Richler’s proverbial fence he or she stands (this usually having something to do with the character being either Jewish or anti-semitic). I haven’t said anything specific along these lines in relation to this particular book, but all of my aforementioned comments apply to this novel.

You can never go wrong with a Mordecai Richler book. The Incomparable Atuk is a great representation of his approach to writing and the themes that are explored throughout his writing career as a whole. Richler was a master at holding a mirror up to Canadian society and exposing our foibles with hilarious and biting satire. If you liked Cocksure you would definitely enjoy Atuk.

Song of the Taxidermist by Aurian Haller

When I was browsing through Goose Lane Editions’ website looking at their spring catalog this book caught my attention for two reasons, first was the catchy title, and the second was the author. I have heard a few songs by the Aurian Haller Band and was quite taken with their unique sound. The poems in Song of the Taxidermist are very interesting and unique. The poems are collected into short sequences, with each poem being able to stand on its own but when brought together with its cohorts, a thing of eclectic beauty is created.

This is rock and roll poetry at its best. The verse is rhythmical and has a noticeable auditory quality to it. The images that the poems evoke vary from classical ideas of beauty to deeply dark and disturbing. The poem “Four Ponies” is highlighted by four pictures of Merry-Go-Round horses in unusual places taken by the author. This is a very haunting section of the book. The sequence “Dwelling” looks at the idea of “home” and what makes a home and is one of the most heartfelt parts of the book. The poems in the title sequences are framed around a taxidermist performing his work on various animals while thematically exploring what is beautiful and the role of the onlooker in making that determination.

This was a great book. This is one of those collections where at first reading you may not understand what exactly a particular poem is getting at but the language and images still fill your imagination. Writing song lyrics, especially Haller’s brand of contemporary folk rock, has become its own form of poetic expression; his lyrics are more than just words to a song. Haller has made the successful transition from songwriter to poet. I think Aurian Haller is a name we are going to be hearing for years to come in both literary and musical circles. Released today (February 11), Song of the Taxidermist is published by Goose Lane Editions and available here.

La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier

Translated by Sheila Fischman

Without even realizing it, every Canadian has had a piece of Roch Carrier’s writing in their hands: an excerpt from his well known conte “The Hockey Sweater” is reprinted on the back of the five dollar bill. The former National Librarian of Canada has built a reputation as one of the great observers of French-English tensions in Quebec. One of Carrier’s early novels, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, released in its original French in 1968 and translated in 1970, looks at these tensions through the lens of a small Quebec village during World War II. Quebec fiction typically has a few common structural points that are worth mentioning for those who are not familiar with les livres Quebecois. These works are often filled to the saturation point with characters. This particular novel is just over 100 pages but there are at least 15 characters that the story is told through. Also, perhaps as a result of the large number of characters or vice versa, Quebec novels are often told through a number of vignettes from the point of view of several different characters. The result is often times a rich mosaic filled with memorable dialog and sharp wit. Carrier, Tremblay, Beauchemin, Godbout, and Aquin all fit this mold. This novel is funny, heartbreaking, violent, shocking, and an all around great read that has aged very well; 42 years after its first publication, this book is still as relevant as the day it was written.

With conscription as the backdrop for the story, La Guerre, Yes Sir! centers on a family who’s son has just been killed in the war; a troupe of English soldiers, or the maudits Anglais as they are referred to, bring the body to the parents’ kitchen for the wake, making this young man the first war casualty of the village to be repatriated. What ensues is a mix of a tears, laughs. fists, tourtiere, and cider. As I mentioned previously, dialog is the driver of this novel, but there is one scene in particular that I believe demonstrates the linguistic and cultural divide better than any other: Arsène, the local gravedigger and butcher is enjoying the wake as much as everyone else but has been making very strong comments against the men in uniform. Bérubé, a soldier who recently returned home with the body of the casualty, takes great issue and brutally assaults Arsène to show him what being a soldier is truly like. The other guests of the Corriveau home make no comment and many barely even take notice, but the Anglais who delivered the casket take great offence with this, decide the party is over, and evict the well-wishers. This is a great insult to the French villagers, and without giving too much detail that will spoil the book, does not go unpunished. The idea that English soldiers dare interfere with the grieving village’s customs is an insult of the highest order. With all of this in mind, it will come as no surprise that the overall tone of the novel is decidedly anti-war. We have characters who are deserters, characters dodging conscription, and characters who will do whatever it takes to be disqualified from conscription; take this example from page 1:

Joseph spread the five fingers of his left hand on the log.

[…]

His other fingers, his other hand, seized the axe. It crashed down between the wrist and the hand, which leapt into the snow and was slowly drowned in his blood.

Renowned translator Sheila Fischman did a superb job on this book. Fischman has a keen eye to translate sentences or phrases that could be considered untranslatable. One technique that is used in this novel is leaving some of the French writing as is. One obvious example is the title. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was the original title; it is meant to highlight the linguistic divide, and to change this would be to take away part of the fundamental raison d’etre of the novel. Much of the profanity, and there is a lot of it, is also preserved in the original French. For those who are not familiar with how to swear in French, it is mostly taken from words that are religious in nature, i.e. hostie, tabernacle, or vierge; whereas English profanity is taken from words that were originally sexual in nature. This is very effective because if Fischman were to simply transliterate this it would be senseless. The book reads like it could have been written by an Englishman from Quebec;  the language is rich and the translated  idioms and speech patterns fit the class of character that Carrier is portraying.

This book is a fine read. It is definitely a must for anyone interested in any facet of Quebec culture. This is also a must for anyone who is interested in the effects of World War II on small town Quebec, or really any small town. Or, if you would simply like a funny book, this is pretty good choice.

 

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