Category Archives: books

Family (and other) Dramas R Us

I don’t usually think about the ways in which the novels I read might be linked. Occasionally something occurs to me midway through a book and I remember another book, recently read, with similar themes, perhaps even similar situations, or similar locales. I read a lot of Canadian authors, so that kind of checks out, location-wise, at least. It’s a big place, Canada, but when you read enough, you’re bound to read more than one novel set in St. John’s or Winnipeg or Cape Breton.

I read three novels in relatively quick succession recently, set in those exact locations, and in that exact order, but I didn’t realize until I wanted to write this post that all three were first novels for each of the authors, which is kind of a coincidence. And I do love a good coincidence.

It’s interesting how books in my life line up to be read. Sometimes it’s library holds coming in fast and furious and in order to make sure the books are returned on their due dates, they need to be read in a particular order. With or without renewal options. Sometimes books just jump out at me from a list on a blog or in the books section of a newspaper or maybe someone whose book suggestions I respect has tweeted something about a particular book and bam, that one gets added to my list as well. I typically have a to-be-read stack like most people, but that stack might sit neglected for weeks or even months when holds arrive and other books are thrust toward me. And that’s ok, they’ll be there for me, they’re not going anywhere.

The books I am talking about here are ones that came, seemingly, out of nowhere. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles was a book that sounded intriguing to me, so I added it to my holds list a very long time ago. And it arrived, suddenly, like all holds do, and so I read it, and to be honest, it took me a few tries to get into it. Once I found I was able to sync up to its groove, though, I tore through it in less than a week. It’s not an easy read, parts are harsh and cruel and I occasionally had to walk away from it. I wondered at one point if my initial hesitation had to do with what was coming. Can you be “book psychic” I wondered. Or does the author just do a really great job of setting everything up for us? Is it foreshadowing at its absolute best? Probably, yes. Definitely, actually.

Next, I read Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead because of a tweet from someone (I no longer remember who) who had read it and loved it, and it was available at my library so I grabbed at it too. I loved the characters in this book so much and the story was so beautifully told with love and pain and longing, and it was hard not to get dragged in deep to its world of equal parts love and pain.

Finally, I read Crow by Amy Spurway because I read a review of it and it too was shockingly available at the library. Crow is a tragic, hilarious, and at times overwhelming family and community saga with a whole lot of wild twists and turns and some of the most unforgettable characters ever.

And so while I didn’t start out planning to read a theme, I somehow did read a theme. Another coincidence, and a happy one at that.

In all three novels, family is at the heart of the story, and not just the family you’re born to, but the family you choose, the relationships you foster and the ones you run from. The ones who drive you around the twist and the ones who keep you sane. The ones who hurt you because of the love they have for you, and the ones who just, well, hurt you. And sometimes they are all one and the same, sometimes even wrapped up within the same person. The characters in these novels are wonderful: complex and perfectly imperfect, fighting for their lives, their loves, and their places in the world, much like we all are.

Relatable? Completely. And very, very highly recommended.

 

 

 

Lit in the City

This year I was once again thrilled to be a part of Hamilton’s very own gritLIT Literary Festival.

In the past, I have been on the organizing committee as a volunteer, as part of the marketing team, and most recently as the writing contest manager. Yes, gritLIT does have a writing contest, and you should probably enter. Next year, of course.

For a festival that happens in April, it’s not unusual that a lot of the heavy lifting and organizing and planning goes on late in the previous year. And late this past year I was extremely preoccupied while my son was in hospital, then with his subsequent recovery, and sadly my gritLIT responsibilities fell away. And Jen, our artistic director was amazing about it, of course, and of course the contest happened and then the festival happened and oh was it a good one, friends. For gritLIT’s 15th anniversary, stops were pulled out, let me tell you. I do wish I had been able to be more involved this year, but there is, of course, always next year to amp up my involvement. And now, let me tell you what I did get to do.

I hosted two workshops over the course of the weekend. The first was world building with Thea Lim, author of An Ocean of Minutes, the book that made me want to start a book club JUST SO I COULD TALK ABOUT IT WITH SOMEONE. And Thea is delightful and so, so knowledgeable and funny, and honestly, her book is as wonderful as she is, and everyone should read it. And then talk to me about it. Please. I’m begging you.

I also hosted and participated in K.D. Miller’s workshop which was all about connecting art and stories and was about as perfect a workshop as I have ever attended. Her most recent collection of short stories is inspired by the works of Alex Colville, and she brought small recreations of Colville paintings as prompts and inspiration. If you don’t know Colville, please be aware that there is a LOT going on in his paintings and they make for excellent – if potentially dark – writing prompts.

I then attended a fascinating panel with Tamara Faith Berger, John Miller and Claudia Dey (who has impeccable style, FYI) which was all about writing sex in literature, and later that evening I went to another panel called Confronting the Apocalypse featuring Thea Lim, Waubgeshig Rice, and Larissa Lai. And finally on Saturday a discussion about love, loss, and betrayal with Claudia Dey and Antanas Sileika and moderated by Ann Y.K. Choi who remains one of the loveliest people on earth.

I also got to drink wine with Gary Barwin and gush to Thea Lim not only about how much I loved her book but also how much I loved the Largehearted Boy playlist she created for it, because I am a sucker for those book playlists, honestly. And hers is a really good one.

If it seems as though I am namedropping, I totally am, and I’m not done. On Sunday, I watched Liz Harmer and Scott Thornley as they talked Re-imagining Hamilton with Mark Osbaldeston, and then I had to go home and, you know, spend some time with my family.

So basically what I’m saying is that when you attend and/or volunteer at a literary festival, you get to meet a lot of amazing, amazing authors. They will blow your mind in their workshops and on panels and in interviews, and then they will graciously sign your books and you might even get a chance to drink wine and talk random shit with them. Authors, they’re just like us!

There was so much more I wanted to see and participate in and next year, when I am a full-fledged volunteer again, and I don’t have to spend twelve hours a day in a hospital for five solid weeks during the most formative time of the festival, I will do it all.

Thanks for being amazing, gritLIT. Can’t wait until 2020.

Emily Starr 4ever

I am rereading Emily of New Moon because of Russian Doll.

If you’ve watched or are watching Russian Doll on Netflix you will probably understand the reference. If you’re not, well first off you SHOULD because it’s amazing, and next off, well… I don’t want to spoil it at all in case you watch it (which you should) but the main character makes reference to the book a few times over the course of the first season. And while Nadia, the main character,  is not the most optimal person to aspire to be, as soon as she mentioned Emily of New Moon, I definitely wanted to be her friend. (Ok fine, I loved her and all her flaws anyway, but the Emily reference put it way over the edge.)

There have been so many instances in pop culture, movies, TV where characters claim to love or hate books and those choices have resonated with me but this is the first time I’ve felt it viscerally. For real.

I spent a lot of time during my childhood and youth in the Barton branch of the Hamilton Public Library. I absolutely loved it there. My mum took my brother and me pretty regularly and then of course when I was old enough to go by myself, I went every opportunity I could, starting when I was around 8 years old or so because it was 1975 and obviously if you could walk, you could get yourself to wherever you needed to be, without parental supervision. (One day I will write a post about taking my younger brother and some of the other neighbourhood urchins to see the movie The Hindenburg because that was totally age-appropriate.) But back to the library. I would sometimes go with friends, but I mostly went on my own and I would stay as long as I possibly could.

In typical 1970s childhood fashion, I was required to be home when the streetlights came on. Once after browsing in the children’s section, I had signed out a few books and then another one – a teen book, in the teen section, scandalous! – caught my eye so I started reading it and before I knew it it was dark, the streetlights had been on for a while and I had to bike home alone, completely freaked out. 42 years later and I still remember that the book that had me captivated/terrified was Are You in the House Alone? and I was convinced that the killer was after me as I biked as fast as I could along Barton Street to home. Honestly, every book for young adults in the 1970s was either terrifying or about sex. Which to be fair was also terrifying at the time.

But I didn’t find Emily at the branch, I found her at the main library downtown. If you know Hamilton you know that the Central Library is a massively modern (well modern in 1980) structure with a lot of glass and concrete. It’s a fantastic building and I love it so much. But, if you are of a certain age, you will also know that the earlier Central branch was at Main St. and MacNab St. (it’s now a courthouse) beside what used to be the Canadian Football Hall of Fame – and that is where I found Emily.

On a rainy early summer evening, possibly the same summer as the Are You in the House Alone? experience, I went downtown with some older kids from our street. We had taken the bus downtown specifically to go to this library, I remember that because I guess we were that cool. And I also remember wondering if kids were even allowed in this formidable place. I was definitely nervous; the building was big and dark and very, very different from the bright, windowed, one level branch library I loved so dearly. But walking in was a revelation. It was much brighter than I had expected, the facade had always seemed gloomy – masterful but gloomy all the same. The main floor was massive – the building itself is quite large, although when I pass it, as I do daily now, on my way home from work, it seems a little less gigantic than it did when I was 11. The floors were cool marble, and there were two wide marble staircases that dazzled. And there was, in fact, a children’s area. The paperback racks spun quietly and as I browsed, a thick book caught my eye. I recognized the author, but the cover seemed more modern than something written by L.M. Montgomery should have been which didn’t make a lot of sense but then it was the 70s amirite? So I found a place to sit while my friends wandered around and I started reading and it was SAD, friends. Like really sad. Before we even left the library to head home I was completely hooked and immediately transported to Emily’s lonely world, so I signed it out. Nervously because I wasn’t sure my library card would even work at this big, impressive library. But it did, and I took Emily home.

This cover! I mean, how could I have left it there?

I loved her right from the start. I loved her relationship with her father and her relationship with nature. I loved the fact that she composed descriptions and elaborate events in her head – most of which involved her dying pitifully and tragically and everyone in her life being super sorry that they were mean to her now that she’s dead, which is a thing that I also did when I was 12 (it is probably a thing  a lot of 12-year old highly dramatic kids do to be fair) and then when she had some actual paper she wrote these scenarios down (which is also a thing I did.) I especially loved the letters she wrote to her dead father which act as a kind of diary for her, and in which she pours out her heart dramatically about her experiences living at New Moon with her aunts and cousin. Emily is so fucking emo, you guys, it’s amazing.

In Russian Doll, Nadia searches for her own copy of Emily of New Moon for reasons (again, which I won’t spoil) and when a friend tells her did you know it’s the same author as Anne of Green Gables, Nadia says, “Everyone loves Anne but I like Emily. She’s dark.” And Emily is dark – so dark – and a little bit extra. She has a sort of intuition, a second sight kind of thing that includes visits from The Flash (not that one) and a kind of spooky understanding of people, which is and has always been my total jam. And Emily feels things deeply – so very deeply – but she can also make adults a little afraid of her, and who doesn’t want that power as an overly dramatic preteen? In short, Emily was and continues to be everything to me.

So I’m glad Russian Doll reminded me how much I loved the Emily books, and how much I love them still. I’m not sure I’ll go on to reread the others in the Emily series, but New Moon will always be a favourite and it, like the library where I found Emily and the night I found Emily, will always be a treasured memory. It was more than 40 years ago but sometimes it feels like it was just last summer. I have a lot of amazing childhood memories and I will always be so grateful that so many of them revolve around books and libraries.

 

When You’re a Jet…

I have been reading A LOT lately. A lot. For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary, but at the beginning of the year I set a goal to read 40 books and you guys. You guys, I have read 21 books so far. And it’s not even the halfway point of the year. And I haven’t even had vacation yet, which is when I typically do the bulk of my reading. So, making pretty great strides if I do say so! And I want to do a roundup of the latest books I’ve read, I really do. But I need to tell you first about the book I am currently reading, and about one passage in particular.

If you follow me on social media, you probably saw photo earlier today of a page from a book with a crude red sort-of-square around a paragraph with the caption “I…I have never felt so seen.” Which is, honestly, pretty dramatic, even for me. And I feel I need to expand on this, because it brought a flood – A VERITABLE FLOOD – of memories, and I think you, my half dozen or so loyal readers, will enjoy this story that will serve to explain so much about me.

The photo in question

This passage is from Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion and it is excellent. That’s all I am going to tell you about it, you can read the reviews – the book came out yesterday – and they will tell you everything you need to know, and a hundred times better than I ever could. Moving on.

I learned to read when I was around 4 years old. I spent a lot of time indoors as an asthmatic child. The asthma went undiagnosed until I was about 8, and because of that, in my early years I suffered a lot of sleepless nights (as did my mother) and since I couldn’t always be particularly active, I learned to read.

By the time I got to kindergarten, I was reading at about a grade 3 or 4 level. Other parents expressed shock that I knew how to read, and told my mother that she should have left it for the the school teach me to read, that it was no good to arrive at kindergarten already knowing how. My mother, thankfully, rolled her eyes, said “What am I going to do, stop her? How can you stop someone from reading if they want to read, and why would you even do that?” and gave me more books.

By grade 1 I was reading everything, and reading was my favourite part of any school day. Our lovely teacher Mrs. Rieger developed reading groups for our class, each child assigned to the group based on their reading level. You probably remember the leveled readers in elementary school, they might still even have them. We had Mr. Mugs and Pat and Cathy (Mr. Mugs was a dog) and the idea was to work your way through each level. You can probably guess how fricking excited that made me.

Our groups were named after animals, and while I don’t remember all of the groups, I remember the lowest level were known as Kangaroos, and the best readers in the class were Elephants. I was an Elephant.

After a few weeks, it must have been pretty clear that I was burning through all the readers, and while I don’t remember ever saying I was bored – I was 7, and all shiny-eyed with how much I loved school  – but it seemed that Mrs. Rieger felt she needed to challenge me.

When we next broke up into our groups, I remember her very clearly saying “Elizabeth, you’re not with the Elephants anymore, I have a new group for you – the Jets!” At first I was excited – even though Jets are not an animal, and 7-year old Elizabeth liked everything to be just so, why not another animal, Mrs. Rieger – but then I was worried. I was the only Jet. And so I took my brand new reader and went to my section of the classroom to read. All by myself. And I read that book with tears running down my cheeks.

When my mum came to pick me up from school she could tell I was upset and when she questioned me I cried so hard, and through my blubbering, I said, “I only just want to be an Elephant!”

This must have confused my poor mother so much, not having a clue about our reading groups or what the hell I was talking about, so I guess I must have filled her in because the next day mum came to the classroom to explain what the actual fuck was wrong with her daughter. To me, at 7, being in a group of one, even though it was the “elite” reading group – to which others would probably have been added eventually – was a punishment. 7-year old Elizabeth was a fantastic reader, but she was also a very social child (she still is, actually) and while poor Mrs. Rieger thought she was doing me a favour, in reality – well in my brain – she was condemning me to a life of isolation and social exclusion. DRAMAAAAAA.

And of course the story has a happy ending, because I got to go back to being an Elephant, and I was allowed to take the readers from the Jets group home with me in the evenings and even write reports on them if I wanted to – which obviously I DID, because duh.

Please know there is SO MUCH MORE to The Female Persuasion than that passage. This was just one that stopped me in my tracks and made me think I was being Punk’d. Honestly. And I’m glad it did, because, as I said earlier, that is probably the story that best represents me and who I am.

At 7 years old and, 44 years later, at 51.

 

Apocalypse, later, once I figure some stuff out, please

When I was in grade 6, my homeroom teacher read the class a book that I think set me on the path of dystopian fiction fascination that persists to this day. The book was The Girl Who Owned a City, written by O.T. Nelson, and I have such vivid recollections of the story and the characters that I don’t even have to go to the Wikipedia page to give you the full synopsis, honestly. I won’t bore you with all the details (there are a lot, and I remember them ALL) and you can look it up if you like, but the basic premise is that a virus comes along killing everyone over the age of 12 – twelve! – and the kids are left to survive on their own.

In the story, Lisa, the main character is such a smart, badass girl, and I think the reason I continue to love this book so much is that I was around the same age as Lisa when Miss Budge read it to our class, and, at the time, I totally identified with her. I too had a little brother! I for sure was as smart as her! I could save my friends/the world too! Let a virus kill all the adults! I GOT this.

Except…I really don’t. As much as I am an excellent person to have around in a crisis, I would probably be the worst person to have around during some sort of global pandemic. Supplies? Well, um let’s hit the sushi bar at Fortinos, I guess? Looting? Hell yes, head to Sephora and get allllll the lipsticks! I mean really. I am not a survivalist AT ALL.

So I think this is why I love me some dystopian fiction, especially the kind written by and starring smart, badass women. Women who KNOW that you need water filtration stuff to survive. Women who understand First Aid and what to take from an outdoorsy kind of store so that you don’t die in the first three days. And it just so happens that I read two excellent examples just recently.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison* follows the story of The Midwife, who manages to survive a deadly plague that kills most of the women and children of the world, and makes pregnancy and childbirth highly dangerous for both the woman and her baby. As a result, women are highly prized commodities, and you can imagine how that goes with men in charge. She journals her experiences as she travels often alone, occasionally with others, making camp and finding places to live and to offer her nursing/midwifery skills, attempting to keep herself and other women as safe as possible. The entire novel is fantastic, the characters are diverse and extremely well drawn, and I devoured the book within a couple of days. 10/10 for exciting survival skills tactics, I think this is one book I should probably keep on hand for the coming apocalypse so I can use it as a guide. What would The Midwife do?

Future Home of the Living God by Lousie Erdrich* has a different take on the end of the world, but Erdrich’s apocalypse is somehow creepier. In this story, evolution is reversing, and there is nothing science can do to stop it. 26-year old Cedar Songmaker is pregnant and on the run from the government – or whatever it’s called now – that is imprisoning pregnant women, often turned in by neighbours or family members. As is the case in times of crisis, little is known and what is known can’t always be trusted.

Erdrich has created a terrifying world, and like a lot of end-of-the-world fiction, it doesn’t even seem too far-fetched. Such is the state of our own world while we watch species vanish from the planet, while rights – reproductive and other – are being stripped (from women especially) and while resources continue to be depleted without a second thought from those in power.

It’s doubtful that these novels were written and intended to be survivalist manuals, but there you have it! As much as I am drawn into the story and the characters and their plight, there is a part of me that will always be excited for the “trip to the sporting goods store” scene in any apocalyptic fiction. Stocking up on weapons, (I can actually clean, load, and fire a rifle, so maybe I’m not so useless after all?) sleeping bags, water purification tablets and all that will always hold a special place in my heart, thanks to Miss Budge and her excellent choice of novel for our grade 6 class, nearly 40 years ago. She must have known what was coming.

 

 

*Meg Elison’s book was on Roxane Gay’s Tumblr as one of the best books she read last year, and Louise Erdrich’s was highlighted by Kate Harding in an article she wrote for Electric Literature. Your favourite authors can be great sources for book recommendations and what to read next!

Review, Year in. Part III: Books

Obviously, it had to happen. I had to compile a list of my favourite books from this year. This wasn’t my best reading year, I’ll admit that right from the start. And by best I mean most books read. Quality-wise it was a pretty great reading year, but by midnight, I will likely have 37 books under my belt, just short of my goal of 40. But it’s ok! Because what I lacked in reading, I made up for in actual writing, and I am feeling pretty good about that.

I’m dividing my top books into three areas: Goodreads 5-star books, Honourable mentions – mostly 4-stars, and faves from the gritLIT Festival. I feel this is the only fair way to do it. So. Here we go.

Top Books from 2017: 5-Stars, baby

  1. Hunger by Roxane Gay. I will read anything this woman writes, and I know I am not alone in that. This book was incredible. Everyone should read it.
  2. Brother by David Chariandy. Another stunner, and how it got left off the Giller Prize shortlist I will never know.
  3. The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble. I wrote a rather incoherent review of that book here, and I stand by my incoherence, but it is a hell of a book.
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. This book made a lot of “best of” lists by people I follow, and that makes me really happy because it is so heartbreakingly excellent and gorgeously written. It remains with me pretty much daily, and I suspect it will for months to come.
  5. The Break by Katherena Vermette. Also beautiful, also heartwrenching. Also one I tell everyone I meet that they should read.

Honourable Mentions: 4-Stars (mostly)

  1. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill extracted all of the emotions from me for nearly 300 pages and left me flayed and sobbing on the bus at the end, and that is my kind of book, friends.
  2. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. This was a slow burn for sure. Sparse and mysterious, and a real page-turner.
  3. Bearskin Diary by Carol Daniels. Blunt and raw, Daniels tells a powerful story of one victim of the Sixties Scoop, and her lifelong struggle of belonging.
  4. Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali. Also a story of belonging, this time through the eyes of a Muslim teen as she navigates faith, life, love and high school. This is a terrible sentence that makes the book sound light and fluffy, but trust me, it’s excellent. Really well-written and Ali gives great depth to these subjects and to her characters.
  5. The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry. Kind of a mystery, kind of a thriller, an intense and gripping story of a murderer in his final 12 hours on death row.

Faves from gritLIT Festival: Books I loved from authors I got to meet/hear read.

  1. Even This Page is White by Vivek Shraya. Definitely a highlight from the festival weekend. Shraya’s reading/performance was incredible and her book is outstanding.
  2. Heyday by Marnie Woodrow. An understated gem of a novel with themes of love and loss that I think more people need to know about.
  3. Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y.K. Choi. This novel might fool you into thinking it’s a light, coming-of-age story, but that just scratches the surface, honestly. Such a lovely, multilayered book.
  4. Mitzi Bytes by Kerry Clare also gives you the initial impression that it’s a fun, sort-of-mystery – and it is, but Clare digs deeper into themes of women’s friendships, and the self we reveal – or don’t reveal – to the world.
  5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. Holy shit this book. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, and one of those novels that when you read the last page you immediately want to start over again to see where if you can figure out what the hell is starting to happen. At least that was my experience. A really intense thriller.

So there it is, 15 books that meant a lot to me this year. Lots of fiction, for sure. I seem to alternate between fiction years and non-fiction years, and for a lot of reasons, this was a true fiction year for me.

And I noticed that in many of the books I read this year, including some that aren’t listed here, the theme of belonging, of fitting in, and finding your place and your space in the world came up nearly constantly. I mean nearly every book on my lists here has the main character trying to find his or her (mostly her) place in the world, for better or for worse. Coincidence? Maybe. Perhaps it was just that kind of year. Or perhaps that’s what good fiction shows us; characters looking to fit in, to find who they are and what they want. Like most of us, I guess.

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping 2018 is not an actual trash fire like this year was. Say it with me: Less Trash, More Fire. Because we all could use a little more fire.

I yell about books I like, invite me to join your book club

After a bit of a reading drought (this is going to seem funny shortly, drought) I recently read Margaret Drabble’s excellent The Dark Flood Rises. The title makes it sound a bit like a disaster novel. It isn’t. What it is, is a nearly perfectly crafted novel, a perfectly told story, and when I finished it, I had planned to write a nice tidy review of it here on my blog. So I made some notes. What follows are the notes I quickly jotted down. I had originally planned to go back to them, to clean them up, to flesh them out, to make them, you know, readable. But rereading them tonight, I have decided to leave them as is. So here you go:


Margaret Drabble has written one hell of a book.

This is a treatise on ageing, on family, on the rise of the so-called grey tsunami (a tidal wave, more water) and the what on earth are we going to do with all these old people. On life and love and friendships and facing down your own mortality, as well as the mortality of others. The treatment of the elderly. Where will we be when death takes us, how will we go, surely not in a car wreck, but more pleasantly in bed. After a fall. Who is to know.

Themes of age, themes of water. So much water. An incredible cast of seemingly unrelated yet rather related characters living in varying degrees of opulence, with eccentricities, with faith or not, with intellect or not.

Every story is tragic, yet hopeful. Everyone is longing for something, trying to recapture something. Drabble’s characters are full and rich and intriguing. They are everyone.


Idk does this make you want to read this book?

But sometimes raw is better. I stared at these words for an hour or so, and I couldn’t rearrange them into anything else, honestly. The bottom line is that Margaret Drabble really has written one hell of a book. It’s pretty much all you need to know.

If you would like more information – or, you know, actual information – about this book, get at me. I will probably just demand that you read it.