Saturday, August 02, 2008

'How to Be a Canadian'

by Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson

Humour, 2001
Douglas & McIntyre, pb, 201 p.
How to Be a Canadian is a hilarious insider’s look at the country, covering subjects as diverse as fashion, culture, sports, religion, politics and mating rituals. Sample topics include Twelve Ways to Say “I’m Sorry”, Rules of the Road, The Mating Habits of Canadians, and Canadian Cuisine (and How to Avoid It). Fast and funny, loaded with wry advice and barbed commentary, this book will teach you everything you need to know about how Canadians really act.
After reading Will Ferguson’s Japan travel memoir last year, Hitching Rides with Buddha, I knew I needed to read more. So when I found this on the discount shelves (if you’ve read this and remember his comment in the introduction, that might make you smile) at Munro’s in Victoria last fall, of course I had to get it. And it was the perfect antidote to my recent summer heat-induced lethargy and general feeling of blueness. Even though I’ve lived away from Canada for over 11 years now, I’m still a Canadian at heart, and the Ferguson brothers had me chuckling throughout. A very fun read.
Canadians speak French and English, often at the same time. Trayz sophisticated, n’est pah? Known far and wide as master linguists, Canadians excel in particular at translating cereal boxes. Often, when the U.N. needs a cereal box translated, they call in the Canadians, who parachute out of stealth bombers clutching boxes of Capitaine Crounche and K de Special. In a situation unique among the world’s nations, English Canadians know what the French is for “riboflavin”, “niacin” and “part of a complete breakfast”. And vice versa. English Canadians don’t know what riboflavin is (no one does), but they sort of know what it looks like in French. And vice versa. (p. 12)

[Tips on how to write a Canadian novel]
Setting – Setting is important. It has to be bleak and foreboding: maybe Cape Breton or outport Newfoundland or a cabin in northern Ontario.
Plot – Avoid this at all costs. Instead, the characters should just sort of mope from scene to scene, maybe staring into the distance now and then to remember events that happened long before. You don’t want a sense of forward momentum in a novel. You want “atmosphere.”
Humour – God, no. Instead of humour, you want irony. And lots of it. Your book should be drenched in irony. Soaked in it, even. When someone squeezes your book, irony should ooze out from between the pages. It should reek of postmodern alienation and ennui. The more postmodern the better.
Character – In Canadian novels the men – especially the father figures – should be brooding alcoholics, or brooding violent alcoholics, or pathetic losers who aren't really alcoholic but are still quite pathetic, or recovering alcoholics, or violent losers, or brooding pathetic recovering alcoholics who are also violent.
The main female character must be victimized. That goes without saying. She has to be victimized. But here’s the thing – she should also be empowered. That’s right. In Canadian novels, you get to have it both ways: “empowered victims.”
Style – Keep it simple. Stark. Unfurnished. Underwritten. Subject + verb + object again and again and again and again. SVO. SVO. Stick to the bare minimum offered by the English language. Do not use adverbs. And if you have to use adjectives, keep them short and simple and obvious to the point of redundancy (i.e., “blue sky,” “white clouds,” “wet rain,” “unfaithful husband”). (p. 144-146)
My Rating: 4/5
(#32 for 2008, 2nd Canadian Challenge)


  1. [Tips on how to write a Canadian novel] are too funny, especially Plot and Humour! Wondering, are the authors Canadian (as in an insiders inside take or an outsiders inside take)? My father was actually taught by French nuns but only retained his prayers and a few other "choice" words in anger. "Cereal Box French", like a good crossword puzzle, goes great with morning coffee, lol...

    Don't know that I'd run out and buy the book but I'll definitely check for it at the library. Cool review!

  2. I love that you excerpted the "How To Write A Canadian Novel" piece. Many examples jumped immediately to mind:

    1. Setting- Kevin Patterson's Consumption or Mary Lawson's Crow Lake.

    2. Plot- Anything by Alice Munro. As for the no forward sense of momentum, I'll pick David Bergen's The Time In Between or Ondaatje's In The Skin Of A Lion.

    3. Humour- Surely he's referring to Atwood's "humour." As for the postmodern alienation, I wonder if Douglas Coupland could sue for slander despite not having his name actually used.

    Character- Pathetic loser fathers? lullabies for little criminals. Victimized, empowered female characters? lullabies for little criminals.

    Style- Not sure with this one. Perhaps Toews' A Complicated Kindness fits the bill.

  3. This sounds like a funny books, Nat. I love the tips for writing a Canadian novel. :-)

  4. We're going to Seattle next month and will take the ferry over to Victoria. Should I look for Munro's? Any other must-sees there?

  5. Hi Nat:)
    well this must have been a break from the rather demoralizing novel about Japan's demise (I am still going to read it). I like the fact that canadiens speak french and english in the same sentence and the expression the mating ritual of canadiens :)))

    Have a good week Nat

  6. That is too true! That summarizes just about any Canadian novel I've ever read.

  7. Wanda- Yes the authors are Canadian which I think was what made it funnier for me. If you can find it at the library, it was definitely an amusing read.

    John- I thought others might get a kick out it, especially since it's so true! And I like your suggestions of books that fit the categories. LOL about Douglas Coupland, there is actually a quote from him on the cover. :)

    Wendy- It was really funny, just what I needed. :)

    Teresa- How long are you going for? Are you just going over for the day? You should definitely stop by Munro's. It's on Government Street not far from the Inner Harbour, which if you come over on the ferry from Seattle, it will land you in that area. Afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel is nice but expensive. Instead you can stop by Murchie's tea shop (nice tea and cakes) which is next door to Munro's. :)
    Butchart Gardens is of course famous and very nice but it's a ways out of town. Otherwise the main tourist area is right down by the harbour where you can just wander around but if you'll have more time and would like some specific suggestions, just let me know. Or check out this link.

    Madeleine- This was the perfect break after Shutting Out the Sun! :)
    I think Shutting Out the Sun affected me because living here I see the effects of conformity and 'group think' first hand. It may not seem as demoralizing to you, and I do think it's worth reading if you're interested.

    Chris- LOL. Isn't it? :P

  8. Wonderful review! I added it to my TBR.

  9. Teddy Rose- It was a fun read. I hope you enjoy it! :)


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