Category Archives: books

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.

 

The sweetest hangover

And just like that it’s over, we tend to our wounded we count our dead…

Wait, no that’s not gritLIT Festival. That’s Yorktown, from the Hamilton soundtrack.

For those of us on the committee, by Sunday night we sort of felt like walking wounded. It’s a lot of time to spend in the gallery, the hotel, running here and there, organizing, etc. But it was, as the kids say, WORTH IT.

gritLIT happens over four jam packed days in April, and while it goes by in an absolute flash, I’ve always found it takes me a few days of post-festival processing, reflecting, and regrouping, to put my thoughts down in blog post form. In fact, in looking through my drafts, I found my gritLIT wrap-up post from 2016. Partially completed, never posted. Whoops.

This year, thanks to a renewed passion for writing and blogging, I vowed I would rejuvenate this tired old girl (the blog, not me) and inject some life into it. There are multiple reasons for this, one of which involves gritLIT, and, as I said on Twitter, what better time to resurrect something than Easter weekend. This is also, in case you don’t already know, the time to watch Jesus Christ Superstar because of Jesus, obviously, but also because who doesn’t need a little funkiness during their holiday weekend? Also, last year I watched it and LiveTweeted it, and Ted Neely, who was Jesus in the film, retweeted me AND tweeted at me, so GOALS.

But back to gritLIT. This was my second year on the organizing committee and the first time I really felt fully invested and fully a part of the festival. Probably because I knew the ropes more or less, but mostly because I felt I had more of a role this year. The first year on any committee you join is kind of observational – at least for me it is – but this year I was ready to rock. And I did.

As always, the festival opened with an evening of poetry, and this might have been my favourite event of the entire festival. But wait, you say. How can the first event be your favourite, when everything else has yet to come? Well never fear, I would be heard to say after EVERY event “I think that was my favourite” so bear with me. We heard from Robin Richardson, two poets from Hamilton Youth Poets, and then from the incomparable Vivek Shraya. They were all so electric.

Another highlight from Thursday was the chance to hear Iain Reid read from I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was a book I loved even though it confounded me – or maybe because it confounded me. Rebecca Rosenblum read from So Much Love, (now on my to-read list) and both authors joined us in the hospitality suite after their readings to chat about books and beer and all things Hamilton. It was lovely.

Friday was an action-packed evening, and I was able to join Ann Y.K. Choi, Diane Shoemperlen, Lesley Livingston, and Leslie Shimotakahara for dinner at Rapscallion prior to their readings. And honestly, what a treat to be surrounded by these fabulous authors, so generous with their time, so patient with their answers to questions they’d likely been asked a thousand times before. One of the things I love most about gritLIT and mingling with authors is the mutual respect, admiration, and engagement among them, and that was in full effect at our dinner, and then later on during the readings and the discussions that came after.

Saturday, when I try to recollect it, is a blur. There was an incredible and important conversation with Bev Sellars led by Annette Hamm – everyone needs to read Price Paid, this is not an exaggeration. Then we came to ANOTHER of my favourite sessions, a panel with author Kerry Clare, who read from Mitzi Bytes, and Merilyn Simonds, author of Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. And oh my goodness, the cartoon hearts were shooting from my eyes from the very beginning, and they just didn’t stop. I read and loved both books and adore both authors, but I think the greatest part of their panel was their chemistry, how well-aligned they were, how much they enjoyed the other’s company, how much they enjoyed the other’s writing. Truly lovely, and truly inspirational.

I also was lucky enough to host Kerry’s blogging workshop  later that day which was great, and was also the kick in the ass I needed to find my blogging mojo, so I will be forever grateful to her for that.

This brings us to Saturday night, WHICH WAS MY FAVOURITE.

I have adored Denise Donlon since she first appeared on my television and in my living room hosting The New Music, and I have always been fascinated by her incredible career, so I was over the moon to learn that she would be coming to gritLIT. Her chat with Annette Hamm did NOT disappoint, and she was as charming, funny, and wonderful as I’d always known she’d be. Denise also joined us in the hospitality room Saturday night, so now I can say I’ve had drinks with her – bucket list, check. Denise came back on Sunday for a highly emotional panel that featured Chris Pannell (Love Despite the Ache) and Teva Harrison (In Between Days), and she wowed the audience – and me – yet again. I purchased Denise’s book and she signed it for me, and as she was leaving she hugged me and thanked me for bringing her to gritLIT. And then I pretty much floated down to Mills Hardware for our final gritLIT 2017 event.

There is so much more to say – about the festival, about the incredible authors who joined us, about the wonderful committee who put it all together – but I will stop here. If you were there, thank you for being part of the festival. If you weren’t, I hope we’ll see you next year.

We have our wrap-up meeting next week, then our first planning meeting for the 2018 festival in a month or so. But first? I am just going to nurse this love hangover for as long as it takes.

 

 

The Noise of Time

IMG_6943I read The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes over the course of about a week. It’s a smallish book, coming in at around 200 pages. I could have read it faster, perhaps in two or three days, but from the very first pages, I knew it was a book I wanted to savour.

 

The novel opens with Dmitri Shostakovich waiting by the lift in his apartment building. A few nights before, Stalin had attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a well respected, popular, and internationally renowned opera. He and his cronies left after the third act. Shostakovich had also been in the audience, and later picked up a copy of Pravda to read the denunciation of his up until then beloved opera entitled “Muddle Instead of Music.”

 

Composers are used to bad reviews, of course. All artists are. They are used to criticism of their art, and used to people not understanding their intentions or their vision. But a bad review under Stalin was not simply a bad review. On page 26, Barnes writes of the Muddle Instead of Music review:

 

“There were three phrases which aimed not just at his theoretical misguidedness but at his very person. “The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music.” That was enough to take away his membership in the Union of Composers. “The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear.” That was enough to take away his ability to compose and perform. And finally: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” That was enough to take away his life.”

 

Such was life for writers, composers, dancers, actors, any type of artist at all under Stalin. In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes focuses on the life of Shostakovich, and does a remarkable job eliciting and evoking this era in Soviet history, and a society that didn’t know how not to be afraid.

IMG_6994

The novel – and at times it was difficult to remember I was reading a novel and not an actual biography – is lyric and wry, funny and heartbreaking, often surreal, and always beautiful. It is also immensely quotable. Barnes has a gift for conveying feelings and ideas in very few, yet perfectly chosen words, causing me to stop and contemplate before resuming reading. In fact, I flagged over 30 lines, paragraphs, and sometimes even entire pages as potential quotes. Definitely too many to include in a short review, but enough to make me return to the book often, to read the passages again for their sheer beauty, their compact power. The novel’s structure adds to its beauty as well, with paragraphs that are short and succinct. These punchy paragraphs are not without impact. In fact, they trigger a sense of urgency in the writing; quickening the pace at times, and at other points in the story slowing the action down. Much like a composer or a conductor controls the way the orchestra plays music and therefore the way the audience hears it, Barnes is an expert in controlling the way the book is consumed by the reader. The result is lyrical, contemplative, and beautiful.

 

Back to the lift.

After the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Muddle Instead of Music, Shostakovich remained by the lift, night after night. On hearing it ascend, and preparing for the worst, there was relief when the doors opened and it was a merely a neighbour returning home:

 

“Words were never exchanged because words were dangerous. It was just possible that he looked like a man humiliatingly thrown out by his wife, night after night; or a man who indecisively kept walking out on his wife, night after night, and then returning. But it was probable he looked exactly what he was: a man, like hundreds of others across the city, waiting, night after night, for arrest.”

 

To me, to any of us sitting comfortably in a country that has never known a dictator, never known revolution or the fear of arrest for no other reason than your beliefs are no longer in line with those of the Party, it is extremely difficult to imagine how people not only lived under Stalin’s Great Terror, but continued to create. Music, poetry, theatre, novels, opera. Art not only thrived, it flourished. Some of the most incredible writing and music of all time came out of the Soviet Union under Stalin. This is mind boggling and fascinating, and is a testament to the power of the human spirit, and to the power of art itself.

 

Lenin said “Art belongs to the People.” Barnes writes,

 

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people and who defines them? He always thought of his own art as anti-aristocratic. Did he write, as his detractors maintained, for a bourgeois cosmopolitan elite? No. Did he write, as his detractors wanted him to, for the Donbass miner weary from his shift and in need of a soothing pick-me-up? No. He wrote music for everyone and no one. He wrote music for those who best appreciated the music he wrote, regardless of social origin. He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe it to a specific function.”

The Noise of Time is exquisite, and is currently among my top 5 reads for 2016 so far. I own a copy, and am happy to lend it. I will even remove the 3 dozen post-it note flags for you, so you can insert your own. Because you will definitely want to.