Category Archives: books

Sick Day(s) Reading

My cold started on Friday afternoon with a scratchy throat and a stuffy nose. By Saturday it was worse, but I mostly ignored it because I had, like most people on the weekends, SHIT TO DO. On Sunday I was practically bedridden, and honestly, I probably deserved that.

I stayed home from work on Monday and Tuesday, and while I spent a lot of that time napping, feeling sorry for myself, and staring into the middle distance, I did manage to read three books.

Regular days never seem to have enough hours in them, but sick days draaaaaag, so I was happy to be able to do something with my time. When you’re not exactly sick enough for bed but also not well enough to go to work, well that’s the perfect storm for sick day Netflix bingewatching (I did a little bit of that too, thank you Derry Girls, season two) and sick day reading. And fortunately for me, Hamilton Public Library had come through with a bunch of my holds last week, so I was set.

I’d been waiting to read Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things for months, and I was so happy to finally have it in my to-read pile. It’s as good as advertised: funny and dark and strange and occasionally kind of gross – taxidermy is at the heart of the novel with lots of graphic descriptions of animal gutting, roadkill scraping, and more – but there is also the story of a family grieving for loves lost and trying to come together to thrive and survive in spite of the forces against them, and the ones truly of their own making. I loved the Mortons and their drama and their messy, messy lives, and the book was a dream to read.

I also read Supper Club by Lara Williams. A few weeks ago while waiting for my son who was attending a comedy show in Toronto, I spent some time wandering in Book City. Supper Club was a book I picked up initially for the cover (it’s lovely) and then for the front flap description because it sounded intriguing. And while I didn’t purchase it that evening, I was intrigued enough to add it to my library holds and I’m very glad I did.

Supper Club is the brainchild of two young women in London who dream of and then create a secret club, a place where women can be themselves, can take up space, can reclaim and sate their appetites for food, drink, and life. Their lives outside of Supper Club are messy and their relationships challenging. As the book progresses, we slowly learn more and more about the book’s narrator, Roberta, the trauma she experienced that ultimately leads to the demons that drive her and to the choices she makes.

Like Mostly Dead Things, Supper Club is graphic in its descriptions, but instead of taxidermy, here it’s food and drink. Food is ever-present, the backdrop, the all-encompassing ingredient that motivates and drives and it is, frankly, glorious. (And now I know how to create a sourdough starter, should I ever want to.)

And finally, to round out my sick day reading list, I read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and I can’t remember for the life of me where I heard about that book or why I put it on my holds list, but I’m not even going to talk about it here except to say that I didn’t like it. I found it reductive and predictable and while some of the language was lovely it was overall a quick, relatively unsatisfying read.

So there, Reese Witherspoon.

And, now that I am healthy-ish and back to work, my book consumption will return to its regular pace, alas. Still, it was kind of luxurious to spend three days just reading. I’d like to do it again soon…this time without the fever and sinus headache, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come and cry with me as I gush about Melissa Barbeau’s The Luminous Sea!

It’s not difficult to become completely taken by The Luminous Sea based on the cover alone, which of course they tell you not to judge books by, but here is a secret for you: I do in fact judge books by their covers. Well, maybe not judge exactly. But I am definitely a sucker for a well-designed and beautiful book cover and this one might be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

The premise of this novel is a relatively simple one, yet we quickly find out that simplicity is deceiving. Vivienne is a young summer student hired to study the potential reasons for the glow-in-the-dark waters in a fictional bay and area of Newfoundland. One evening while out on the water taking samples she catches a creature unlike anything ever seen before, brings it to the lab where she works, only to have her discovery taken over by other researchers whose motives may not be as pure as they should be.

I would like you all to know that from the moment the fish creature landed in Vivienne’s boat, I had made up my mind that I would die for her. The fish creature. Well, for both of them, really. And the entire book had me holding my breath, waiting to see if I needed to jump in, somehow, and rescue them.

The Luminous Sea is a short-ish novel, under 250 pages. By all rights I should have been able to finish it in a day or two. Between commuting. lunch hour reading, and after work reading, I usually consume a lot of pages in a few days. But this book. This book I had to take in small doses, doling it out to myself as a reward for completing a task. It was something to be savoured in the early evening sitting on the deck after dinner with a glass of wine. A chapter or two at a time, no more. This story demanded to be drawn out, to let the words – the beautiful, evocative words – settle in my head and my heart. I needed time to process each magical phrase, to allow the imagery to wash over me.

I realize I am being dramatic, but there is not a lot I can do about that, I’m sorry. Read this and you’ll understand:

“The evening is calm, the ocean uneventful. The copper sea unspectacular in its beauty. Sun pennies dapple the water and Vivienne feels as if she is sitting in a bowl of shining coins worth so little they have been taken out of circulation. She eases the boat around the point and heads towards the stacks of the sunken ship, just past the lighthouse. As the sun sinks in the sky, the pennies disappear and the water regains its mundane jewel colours — emerald, sapphire, lapis, turquoise, tourmaline. The ocean extends for endless, monotonous, beautiful miles.”

Every line is like this, every line is beautiful.

Fog is exhaled onto the landscape by the fog dragon that lives over the far hill.

The night is described as ‘glassy’.

The sea throbs; the fish creature curls like a galaxy.

It is all too glorious.

The novel is fast-paced as well, and that is one of the reasons I slowed it down as I read it. It is so easy to read quickly because the story itself is gripping, but doing so would be like taking a train trip with only the destination in mind, being in an incredible hurry to get there, with no attention paid to the breathtaking scenery en route. And that would be a shame.

The Luminous Sea did, in fact, leave me breathless many times as I read it. The final section unravels at breakneck speed, and the ending is perfectly poignantly, perfect.

Wade into it, friends. It’s a stunning, wonderful read. And promise to let me know how much you loved it. And how much you cried.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!