I don’t keep track of the books I read, so this year I would like to. Maybe I’m reading less than I think, maybe more, who knows? Do I read mainly fiction, non-fiction, across the spectrum? More women writers than men, or perhaps not? I also find it interesting, as a writer, to think about why I’ve chosen the book I’m reading: was it recommended by a friend, did I stumble across it at a bookstore, did I read a particularly compelling review, was it written by a friend or acquaintance? Also interesting to me as a writer is: where did I get the copy of the book? E-book? Library? Bought? Borrowed?
I’ve also decided to arrange this in blog-fashion, from end to beginning, with the current month shown first.
That Scatterbrain Booky, by Bernice Thurman Hunter
* bought used through Abebooks after discovering the trilogy is out of print and our library doesn’t carry it
I guess this will be the last book finished in 2013. All four kids have been listening to this one. I remember it from childhood and it’s oddly applicable to the book I’m writing, as its setting is early-1930s Depression-era Toronto. The writing itself is patchy, and there are lots of out-of-date phrases to confuse everyone, but the stories are entertaining and stuffed with now-obsolete and forgotten details of life as it was. The story is based on the author’s own childhood. With the father unable to find work, the family goes hungry, parents fight, the bailiff tosses them out of several houses, and Aunt Aggie sends them a Christmas chicken in the mail. We may read the next two books in the trilogy, although AppleApple, who has already read them, warns that it gets into older themes and that she really didn’t like the boyfriend who Bea ends up marrying. And now — onward to a new year!
Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver
* bought at Words Worth earlier this year
Really loved this book, loved diving in, sinking in, loved the juicy messiness of Kingsolver’s expansive style. A bit preachy in parts, but Dellarobia is a wonderful character, as messy and big-hearted as the book itself.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
* from our shelves
This is the book we chose to go with after finishing the Little House series. It’s my second time reading it aloud to the kids (the younger ones had never heard it, however). I found the language at times archaic and peculiarly English is phrasing, and we didn’t like that girls aren’t supposed to fight in battles, and I sometimes had Mrs. Beaver say things that Mr. Beaver really said, just to make Mrs. Beaver sound less domestic and more interesting. I also wasn’t sure about the White Witch, who didn’t seem very powerful, ever. And I was troubled that some of the evil things that were on her side were described as being deformed, which seemed an unfair elevation of physical perfection/attractiveness over the ugly and unloved beings. Plus I was sad when the wolf was killed. I guess I’m not much drawn to battles between good and evil. But the kids enjoyed it very much. We won’t read the rest of the series, however. They can gravitate to it on their own when they’re older, if they wish.
Hell Going, by Lynn Coady
* bought on my Kobo on impulse a few months ago, before it won the Giller
I loved this collection of stories. I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure about recommending it to my mother, but maybe that’s not fair, and she should get a chance to read them too. I won’t say these were easy stories. The endings in particular presented challenges, and I wasn’t confident I was getting everything that was there to be found. But I didn’t care, ultimately, because there was so much packed in to each story, the stories were interesting as all hell, and the characters were so entirely themselves. I will definitely read this again, and if I were to teach again, I would find a story from this collection to share with the students — probably Mr. Hope, just because it’s in some ways the most relatable, but also because it broke my heart, like a good story should.
20 short stories and 20 creative non-fiction exercises, with three drafts total for each assignment, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Nov. 28, delivered to English Dept for pick-up on Dec. 6
Some generalizations about marking. One: it’s time-consuming to comment in detail, and I wonder whether students will use what I’ve suggested (or even read the comments). Two: nobody can punctuate anymore. That’s a huge generalization, but I base it on the fact that only one student of twenty handed in a clean draft, free of punctuation (and other grammatical) errors; and these kids are smart. So something’s gone wrong. (Yes, that’s a sentence fragment. I’m doing it for effect.) Three: it’s bloody hard to write a short story. Takes years of practice, let’s face it. I hope my students will feel encouraged to keep practicing.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
* a gift from a friend
Essays by the really wonderful novelist, whose description of her years as a freelancer shamed me with her work ethic and non-snobbery about writing regularly for a wedding magazine (among other, much more prestigious magazines). I loved this book. Not all of the essays were equally great, but there were brilliant ones among them, and much advice I’ve felt compelled to share with others. I read parts out loud to my class from the essay on writing (and being/becoming a writer), including the section on Grace Paley, which had them agape and impressed. It felt like a book where I would be reading something and would think of someone specific with whom I wanted to share what Patchett was saying. Highly recommended, it pretty much goes without saying. (Side note: I thought I was having a slow reading month, and just realize, looking back, that I’ve read quite a lot this month without even noticing. I’m glad for that.)
19 magazine assignments, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Nov. 21, returned to students on Nov. 28 (one student did not complete the assignment, so I’m still waiting to mark that one)
The assignment was to find a current Canadian literary magazine, and review three pages of it. Many students really looked around to find a magazine they liked. Some critiqued the literary magazines for being too dense and intellectual (Brick was called out by two students for this). One student brought in a fascinating essay from Canadian Notes and Queries (I think, if memory serves) on how readers don’t fit into schools, or into the education model of reading. My reader-kids could totally relate to the examples cited.
The Wreckage, by Kerry-Lee Powell
* bought from Words Worth at the Wild Writers Fest after hearing Kerry-Lee read
Poems. A slim chapbook based on the author’s father’s life and death. Bloody brilliant poems. I read this collection several times over yesterday evening, and was brought to tears, spine-tingling shivers, and even in one poem to a child-like terror. This woman is a such a good poet. These poems have the rawness of real emotion combined with structural rigour. I’m blown away. Can’t wait to share it with my poetry book club. (Update: we’re going to read it for our next poetry book club! And Kerry-Lee just announced a two-book deal with Harper Collins Canada, so when she goes big, you can say you heard it here first!)
The First Four Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* Fooey borrowed it from her elementary school library
Short, and sad. We were so worried about Laura. She doesn’t seem happy. Almanzo (he’s called Manly in the book, but the kids hated the name and insisted I call him Almanzo) likes having nice things and spending money. He gets them deeply in debt. It made us appreciate Pa and Ma’s frugal nature. Pa might not have been a successful farmer, but he knew better than to splurge on things the family couldn’t afford. Even while he and Laura are deeply in debt, Almanzo comes home with an expensive clock (that gets burned up in a terrible fire at the end of the book). Their baby boy dies mysteriously. Their house burns down. Almanzo keeps betting on the farming, and losing. Laura keeps repeating the saying, “It all evens out in the end. The rich have their ice in the summer, but the poor get theirs in the winter.” “I hate that saying,” said AppleApple, and I knew just what she meant. Now … what will we read next?
19 query letters, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Nov. 14, returned to students on Nov. 21 (one student did not complete the assignment, so I’m still waiting to mark that one)
Some very fun inventions here. I enjoyed reading what my students imagined they might write someday. It was a bit of work tracking down the agents they’d cited, and some had been more successful than others in finding potential agents who might be interested in their work.
Malarky, by Anakana Schofield
* purchased at Words Worth Books (had to special order it, which seemed silly, as it’s won prizes!)
I’ve met AK via email, and conversed with her quite a lot, and really really like and admire her. She’s funny, she ballsy, she works hard. So I’ll admit to being a little bit afraid of reading her book just in case I didn’t like it as much as I like her (maybe this is how friends feel about my books). But I really liked Malarky, and would recommend it highly. The book is not without its challenges, as the narrative is not straight-forward and chronological, but the voice of Our Woman is very compelling. I found the book very funny to begin with, and Our Woman, too. As her losses become apparent, her outline becomes fuzzier, and she loses some of the humour. At times, I found myself wishing she were the funny self-deprecating character I’d first met, but this is a book about grief, and it brings the reader inside the grieving process (if you want to call it a process, rather than a disorienting experience that isn’t as predictable as “process” makes it sound). I wanted Our Woman to be funny, again (but grief can rob us of funny, at least for awhile). I wanted her to make more sense (but grief is disorienting). I wanted her not to seem so needy, to forgive herself, to reach out to her friends (but grief is isolating). So the book itself is all of these things, as it needs to be, to be what it is. One more thing: AK writes a good sex scene. And they’re funny too.
These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* purchased at Words Worth Books for my eight-year-old daughter’s birthday present
We’ve finished the series! (Well, we’re embarking on The First Four Years, now, but are keeping in mind that Laura did not prepare it for publication, and it remains in draft form, different in tone from the rest of the series.) I’ve loved and read this last book in the series repeatedly, especially during my teen years, but even into my early 20s. I’ve now read it twice to my children, out loud, in my 30s, and this time around I was overcome by emotion. I could hardly read the scene at the end where Laura leaves her home to go and live with Almanzo, after they’ve just wed. “Don’t cry, Mommy, or I’ll cry too!” CJ (age 5) told me, but I couldn’t help it; I was this close to sobs. “I miss little Laura,” said AppleApple (age 10), as we all thought about how quickly our beloved character had grown up. Yes, exactly. I was unable, this time around, to lose myself in the romantic side of the story, though that clearly enchanted Fooey (age 8); Laura is so young, married at 18, and what were her choices? The hurried wedding is described very differently at the beginning of The First Four Years, striking since we’d just read the same scene a few days before: in the unrevised version, Laura worries about marrying a farmer, about the hard labour of being a farmer’s wife, and about poverty, and Almanzo promises to give it three years, and then do something else if it doesn’t work out. That conversation is left out of These Happy Golden Years. I think a lot was left out, and purposely. She wasn’t writing about herself, exactly, but about a character, and life is not like fiction. It’s fiction that’s kept this series an enduring classic. I understand, too, why she wanted it to end with this book.
In the Field, by Claire Tacon
* purchased from Amazon.ca
I read this debut novel (published in 2010) in preparation for moderating a panel at the Wild Writers Festival this month. I’ll admit that I had a hard time getting into the book, and nearly gave up after several attempts, but it was worth persevering in the end. The editor should be taken to task, as this is a good book essentially rail-roaded by its first fifty pages; every book needs a set-up, of course, but the opening felt artificial (and tedious) in comparison to many of the vivid emotionally real-feeling scenes that come later on. Claire is an articulate and thoughtful writer, and I look forward to her second book.
Traplines, by Eden Robinson
* this is my second copy, snapped up at Words Worth Books when I saw it on the sale table (I gave my first copy away)
This is the kind of book that calls out to be shared: and it’s made up of just four short stories, set in Northern B.C. and Vancouver, on reserves and off. The first story “Traplines” is a punch to the gut of brutal emotion. Just read it. The second story is completely chilling. The last has an ending that disappointed me, because it used a bait-and-switch tactic that seemed to cheapen what she was doing overall. The book was published in 1996 (!!), but holds up over time. I haven’t read Eden Robinson’s subsequent novels, I must confess, in part because reviews mentioned their graphic violence, which is certainly present here too; maybe also because she’s published novels, not more short stories (maybe I feel like I can stomach violence in small doses). Be warned, but don’t let the violence get in your way: this book should be read as a Canadian classic. I’ve been enjoying re-reading favourites from my shelf to share with my creative writing class.
20 poems plus drafts, by students in my creative writing class
* handed in on Oct. 16, returned to students on Oct 23 after a marathon marking night at my on-campus office (I don’t procrastinate)
I erred on the side of generous in my marking, but wanted to recognize effort and engagement, along with skill and effect. Some very strong work was handed in, and I was very pleased by the students’ use of drafts. I used a very basic rubric to mark the work, with quite broad categories for comment (grammar, syntax, style; content and creativity; structure and organization; and use of drafts). It’s creative writing, so while I want to recognize those who show particular skill or spark, I also want to give everyone a chance to succeed — by showing improvement from draft to draft, or by showing the willingness to experiment, to use critique, to engage with the material. If I saw that, I marked high. We’ll see how the next round goes.
“the making of a story”: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante
* purchased at Words Worth Books on advice from a friend
An excellent resource, which I’ve been digging into regularly as I teach creative writing this term. Include stories and essays by established authors, along with LaPlante’s thorough and thoughtful and in-depth discussion of various subjects related to creative writing, plus some writing exercises (these are fairly complicated, I find, and not as useful for shorter in-class exercises). Highly recommended.
Canary, by Nancy Jo Cullen
* page proofs; I purchased a finished copy from Words Worth’s book table at the Wild Writers Festival after reading the book
Read in preparation for leading a panel at the Wild Writers Festival in November. Intriguing stories, each one involving a gay or lesbian character (or characters). I haven’t read a book like this before, where it’s not strictly gay fiction or straight fiction, but about the intersections between gay and straight characters. There were some terrific stories in here, too, memorable characters, and an appealing embracing tone, that somehow managed to be both warm and sardonic.
Keeping the Peace, by Collette Maitland
* purchased from Amazon; shame, Carrie, shame!
Read in preparation for leading a panel at the Wild Writers Festival in November. Quiet stories with a strong sense of place, which I recognized almost immediately: Gananoque, which is near Kingston, Ontario, and also near where my husband’s family lives.
How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
* purchased from Amazon; I can hardly admit this out lout, but it’s sadly true
This is a terrific book! Read it, everyone. I’m reading it in preparation for leading a panel at the Wild Writers Festival in November, and I was lucky enough to start it the day before the Giller longlist came out, which made me feel ahead of the curve. It’s just a damn good book, so get it and read it, and you’ll be able to say, years from now, that you knew right from the start that de Mariaffi was a talent to be reckoned with.
The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2013, edited by Suzanne Buffam
* purchased at Words Worth Books, read for poetry book club
I only half-read this book. There were a few good poems, but nothing I would keep with me forever. Maybe that’s setting the standard too high, but I want a poem I can keep forever when I read a new collection of poetry.
In the Palm of Your Hand: the Poet’s Portable Workshop, by Steve Kowit
* purchased at Words Worth Books on recommendation from a friend who teaches creative writing
What a fabulous resource! I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is teaching poetry as part of a creative writing class. It’s a very practical guide to writing poems by yourself, or in a group setting. I’m using it as a resource to plan my creative writing classes on poetry, but I think some of the advice, observations, and exercises would apply in a more general sense to any form of writing.
Little Town on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* purchased at Words Worth Books as a birthday gift for my 8-year-old daughter
Every time I read this series, it changes; or more precisely, my perspective changes, and I experience it differently. I remember when town seemed so big, when the social events described seemed so thrilling, and this time around the smallness of the town and the social life gave me a sense of claustrophobia. Laura is only 15 when Almanzo expresses interest in her. The kids LOVED the romantic element, even CJ, who is only five. I appreciated the thrill, too; but felt more like Laura’s parents when she tells them that Almanzo Wilder wants to take her sleighriding behind his beautiful horses: sober. How many options does she have? The lack of choice dims the romance for me. But I can tell my kids are not in the least troubled by it. We started the next book the same night we finished this one, and it’s always been my favourite: These Happy Golden Years. I wonder whether I will take the same pleasure in it, reading it now.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris
* purchased as an ebook specially for cottage, read on my Kobo
I started this one at the cottage and only finished it now, a good two weeks post-cottage. My concussion is my excuse. I can’t focus on text for long stretches, which is cutting down on my reading time. My mom has gotten me another David Sedaris book on tape, because I really loved this one. I’m trying to figure out why it worked so well, and essentially, it’s just very very entertaining. I kept reading bits out to Kevin. The essays aren’t linked thematically, except that they’re (mainly) personal pieces structured around episodes in the author’s life. (Is this something I could do? I’m not doing any writing right now, due to the head injury, but my next project may be creative non-fiction along these lines.) I’d like to lend the book to Kevin, but he hates reading on the Kobo. I, sadly, seem to like it, even though that feels wrong, like I’m betraying my favourite independent booksellers.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, by JK Rowling
* purchased as an ebook specially for cottage, read on my Kobo
I read this as all books really ought to be read: in one feverish gulp, setting aside all other worldly cares, as one can only do at the cottage. Because I was reading it as an ebook, I had no sense of its length, but suspect it must be pretty thick. I stayed up til 2am finishing it and I’m a fast reader! Rowling’s skills are perfectly suited to the mystery genre (which is a form I love), and her sensibility is not as dark as some mystery authors (the ones I don’t like nearly so much). She’s created a great detective team, and I’m looking forward to being thoroughly entertained by the next instalment (if she so chooses). The woman knows plot and pacing, and even when I knew we were chasing down red herrings, I was happily entertained by her storytelling.
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
a birthday gift from my daughter AppleApple, bought at Words Worth, on my advice
* I started this back in May, and read it much like I read Wolf Hall: slooowly. Finally finished it at the cottage. But it’s the kind of book I don’t find difficult to dip into and out of; nor am I always in the mood for it. But it waits patiently till I am. I found myself wanting confirmation that the history was accurate, because it’s so brilliantly imagined. Thomas Cromwell changed in subtle ways in this book: there was a rumour, scarcely mentioned, that he’d had an innkeeper killed so he could steal his wife, a woman he liked, and that he’d put her up in a house in the city, for example. The way Mantel has constructed the story, we’re in Cromwell’s head, yet he doesn’t share everything. His power is waning, slim, and he knows it. He’s more anxious, less certain, more willing to shape-shift to please, but his options are running out. The King is depicted as impulsive, self-deluding, childish, impossible to control — even for Cromwell. I miss Cromwell the husband and father of the first book, and rather dread the inevitable end of the next book: the last in Mantel’s planned series. After that, I want her to write a novel about how Elizabeth manages to come to power. It can’t have been easy. She must have been a skillful politician, and I want to see it.
Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin
purchased as an ebook, read on my Kobo
* Story collection from a fellow Anansi author who was short-listed for the Giller prize last year for her novel, Inside (both books came out at the same time, which seemed a bit odd). I was really riveted by the stories, which almost all had a surprising plot twist or unexpected turn. I found myself reading expectantly, wondering what Ohlin had up her sleeve this time: she has an inventive imagination for plot. But the characters themselves felt oddly the same, story after story. Ohlin carefully created interesting and thorough back-stories for each character (and there are a lot of stories; they’re quite short), yet despite their differences there was something about her authorial voice that gave an evenness to the characters. All were likeable, but bland or removed or distanced from their emotions in a way that protected them from real harm. They were all weirdly untouchable, which kept them apart from the reader. Except maybe in my favourite story (sorry, the title isn’t handy), placed toward the end of the collection, in which a father visits his teenaged daughter who is in a coma due to a car accident. That story moved me to tears, perhaps because the father’s untouchableness was so heart-breaking. I think my issue with many of the other stories was that I was entertained and interested, but not moved. It didn’t help that many of the endings simply dropped off a cliff. I like an ending that turns back on itself instead. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and recommend it to short story fans.
The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
from our shelves
* A classic survival story that grows more difficult to read the older I get. This book held everyone’s attention. We’ve found ourselves referring to it often, when we’re hungry or bored, thinking of how much worse it was this family. We also recognized that it was technology that failed them. The family was unprepared purely because they expected the trains to keep running all winter. This winter was only a few winters removed from the complete self-sufficiency of Little House on the Prairie, yet reliance on new technology, on connections, on “town” and stores, came easy for everyone — and very nearly killed them. It also depicts a switch to a cash-culture, which puts a different kind of pressure on Pa to provide. It’s distressing to observe how money disadvantages people, especially those with different non-cash-related skills — like the amazing ingenuity for survival that Pa and Ma possess. I marvel at her button lamp and his hay sticks; and also at their refusal to give up hope.
Is Everything Meeting Up Without Me? (And other concerns), by Mindy Kaling
purchased as an ebook, read on my Kobo
* Okay, it’s slim and silly, but I love Mindy Kaling’s sense of humour. An excellent light summer’s read. Can’t wait for The Mindy Project to start up again this fall (I hope, I hope! What if it’s been cancelled?). I watch next to no TV, but I love this show.
Hana’s Suitcase, by Karen Levine
borrowed from the library
* Recommended by my 10-year-old, who got it out from the library, thinking she might read it to her younger siblings while babysitting them this summer. But she decided it was too sad and that they weren’t quite ready for the story of the Holocaust, yet. She thought I would like it. I did. I highly recommend it, and think perhaps my 8-year-old would like it too. I wept most of the way through, though, so I’m not sure it would work as a read-aloud story.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
purchased as an ebook, read on my Kobo
* Loved this memoir. Couldn’t put it down. Felt nourished by it. No small feat, as my expectations are high. Wrote more about it in this blog post.
Nineteen unpublished stories by emerging Canadian writers
sent to me by editors at The New Quarterly literary magazine
* I was a judge for a story contest. Reading these stories reminds me to be thankful for everyone who saw potential in my early efforts. Reminds me that good stories can be flawed, but they have to come from somewhere true and open. Reminds me that the best stories are the ones that have something to say, and I don’t mean something didactic, I mean something essential. This is almost impossible to quantify, by the way, but you know it when you read it.
Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens
borrowed from the library
* Yup, another memoir on death. Why am I drawn to this subject right now? I have no explanation. A slim volume, compact essays originally published in Vanity Fair, written by the famously controversial writer who was dying of cancer, or “living dyingly,” as he called it. I was struck by the suddenness of the end, how he didn’t know until he died that he would, which is actually what Barnes wrote about a fair bit: how the mind can’t comprehend its own non-existence. I liked this collection far more than Barnes’ work, maybe because Hitchens’s experience was so immediate, his suffering was present, there was nothing theoretical about his struggles. He seemed so alive in his writing, too. That in itself was moving. It felt like there were no barriers, no tricks.
Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes
borrowed from the library
* A memoir on death. Can’t believe I actually perservered and waded through this one. Not sure what I got out of it, but it did make me feel like I don’t brood on death nearly as much as Mr. Barnes does. I found his reflections on the writing life more interesting than those on death, which, for all his thinking on the subject, he never seemed really to be able to grasp and wrestle with. The idea of immortality, or living through one’s words and work, was interesting to me — mainly because it seems so presumptuous.
By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder
from our shelves
* Finished it! Almost didn’t think we’d get through this one, as we’ve been at it, off and on, for months. We were bogged down by the heavy descriptive passages early on (perhaps inspired by Mary’s blindness and Laura’s care to convey detail to her), and there are some difficult sections for my youngest listeners: murder, Pa almost getting lynched on payday, Ma and Laura feeding and housing a stream of uncouth men come to settle and work in the wild West. There’s a lawlessness to this life, and danger that makes Pa seem rather selfish for moving them around like he does. The action moves from place to place and never settles, so the family seems quite uprooted. But boy was CJ excited when Mr. Edwards turned up to thump someone over the head and save Pa in one scene. We all have happy memories of the Christmas in the Little House on the Prairie. Interestingly, my kids no longer trust Pa when he promises that this new home (a tiny claim shanty built haphazardly in one day) will bring the family fortune, at last — it’s how the book ends, and none of my listeners believed him. I wonder if Pa’s own family did?
A Pocketful of Rye, Agatha Christie
plucked of my bro and sis-in-law’s shelves, at their farm
* Holiday reading happiness. Definitely read before, but couldn’t recall the ending. Reading it has inspired me: I want to polish Girl Runner into something akin to pure entertainment and reading pleasure. I’m a literary writer by instinct, but plot’s nothing to sneeze at.
Noted: this month I am dipping into and not finishing a number of books. Not sure why. Here’s what I’ve been reading, yet not finishing:
Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes
The Book of My Lives, Alexsander Hemon
bought at Words Worth after reading excellent review, plus it was recommended by a blog friend
* Memoir. Intensely interesting essays on the lead-up to war, being an immigrant, being duped, playing soccer and chess, and so much more, and everything I’m writing down sounds reductive, because each essay is a great deal more than its subject-matter. Hemon is entertaining, often very funny, and yet he’s creating these structures that are solid, that feel lasting, like I could return to them over and over, that invite questioning. Big questions. What separates us? What binds us? What is identity? He looks deeply into love. He doesn’t let himself off the moral hook, ever. That he’s writing in a language he learned as an adult amazes me, but I suspect it also adds richness to his tone, that we’re hearing those layers of language and culture and experience subconsciously. Read this book!
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts of Faith, Anne Lamott
chosen almost at random while browsing memoirs at the library
* Awhile back now, Lamott’s lovely essay on the importance of practicing art was floating around the internet, so I had hopes for this memoir. It started fine, describing an odd childhood, obligatory for the memoir-genre, but later essays were incomplete and sloppily-written; they would have made decent blog posts. Her story of being an alcoholic for many years was fascinating, but she never made clear how she survived, and I found myself distrusting her claims of stability in the years after that. She came across as deeply needy, obsessing over decisions that seemed, to me, quite minor, like a high-maintenance friend. I strongly disliked the sense that she wanted to give me advice; I needed and hoped for something more universal, for depth of observation rather than mere confession. The book was published in 1999, a lifetime ago, really, so I’m sure Lamott has grown and changed. She certainly chose wonderful poems (not by her) to preface different sections.
Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan
from our shelves
* A short-ish chapter book that I remember reading as a child. Quietly compelling. Youngest (age 5) had trouble keeping track of who Sarah was. Maybe because the idea of someone coming to replace a dead mother was too difficult? We are having trouble finishing chapter books these days, so went with this very short one. This month we started but did not finish The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, but the structure proved too complex for my 5 and 7 year-old. The names kept changing (sometimes the grandmother was called grandmother, sometimes by her actual name), there were too many characters, and the language and sentence structure were too sophisticated — made me appreciate the simplicity of the Little House series, which may be why it works so well for reading aloud, even to young children. (Note: my 10-year-old loved Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark series.)
My Life Among the Apes, Cary Fagan
bought at Bryan Prince Bookseller after reading with the author at GritLit in Hamilton
* Stories, long-listed for the Giller. I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. The stories are quiet, the telling plain and unadorned, and never frenetic or showy or rough or troubling. I appreciated them, and admired their clean structure and tone, but having come a small distance away from the book, I now wonder whether their tidyness makes them almost slightly forgettable. Like I need an edge to cut me a little bit. That said, I would recommend this book.
Roost, Ali Bryan
bought at WordsWorth Books, on recommendation from Pickle Me This who had quite a different take than I did, so read her review too
* A Canadian comedy. Though I LOLed on two occasions, and got teary on another, it wasn’t enough for me. I’m hard on books, let’s be honest. I write them myself–it makes me a tough critic. This is one of those dreaded plotless books beginners are always being told not to write (or not to publish anyway, since writing them is inevitable and probably the only way to learn how not to). Writing a cynical, sarcastic mom is a tough task, and the main character is difficult to like. The scenes of domestic chaos are realistic, but that didn’t make them funny–it made them too close to my own reality, while failing to illuminate in any special or interesting way. When I compare this book to the really funny Financial Lives of the Poets I read earlier this year, it’s not a fair game. One is shallow and incomplete, the other structurally sophisticated and timely. I probably really didn’t like Roost because it reminded me of the failings of my own “Canadian comedy,” a manuscript I keep adding to and subtracting from, but know will never be good enough to publish. Oh how I wish I could write comedy like Jess Walter. I’ll keep trying. Maybe Ali Bryan should keep trying, too. The good stuff takes practice.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
borrowed from the library; later bought from Words Worth Books
* Good book. Really good. Highly recommend. Haven’t read Barnes since Flaubert’s Parrot, and I’d forgotten how excellent he is with form, how creative yet lucid. It’s amazing what he leaves out. More amazing how he brings the reader around to what feels like a full understanding of character. The ease of the structure blew my mind. It doesn’t fit into a novel-writing rubric. I’ve said nothing about what the book’s about, but it doesn’t actually matter — content is British, almost conventional, a surprise ending. But it’s the telling that makes the book terrific.
This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz
husband bought at WordsWorth Books after being mistaken for the author at a party at a writers’ festival last fall
* I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. Short stories, loosely linked, totally not advertised as such. I loved the Spanish slang, the pacing, the universal sadness, how the characters move between the country of their birth and the country that is now home. The writing can be profane and explicit, and the main characters are young men who cheat compulsively, none of which would seem to make it a book I’d relate to, but there it is. This is a good writer. I didn’t feel like he was trying, stylistically, to be anything but himself.
Seal up the Thunder, Erin Noteboom
bought at WordsWorth Books for poetry book club
* Must read it again before book club meets on Friday, but these poems moved me deeply, stirred me deeply. Loosely based on Biblical texts, with a focus on God as creator and destroyer, it made me consider the human desires to create and to destroy. I wonder whether some young men are drawn to murder because they lack the power to create, whereas women’s bodies have the capacity to bear life. That’s probably a simplistic analysis, but it has some power. God, therefore, must be male and female. I loved the poem where she named God “Endless.” The poems measure human life against eternity. They grab at some deep ache inside of me that knows how temporary this existence is.
On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder
copy from our shelves
* One of my favourites in the series. So much drama and tension, and there’s real craft in the storytelling: the grasshoppers, the debt. I’ve decided the parents are both idealized figures, but nevertheless I admire Ma’s calm and strength despite and amidst disaster and blizzards and Pa’s restlessness. The story does not match up accurately with Wilder’s real life: during the time period described, a baby brother was born and lived for nine months, but his birth, life, and death would have complicated the story in ways that Wilder must have decided did not fit with the tone. Instead, she offers the heart-wrenching story of Laura’s doll being taken from her by a selfish neighbour child, and Laura finding it weeks later frozen in a puddle, bringing the doll home, Ma’s apology and her help in restoring the doll. I still recall the power of that loss as I experienced it as a child, and as an adult, I recognize Ma’s regret at minimizing the importance of the doll to Laura. A small incident, but deeply affecting.
A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg
copy borrowed from library, recommended by web content manager at House of Anansi
* Might have to buy a copy now: recipes combined with memoir, by a well-known food blogger. The memoir is entertaining (although the writer seems awfully young, which she is!), but I’d buy it for the recipes. I made her “custard-filled cornbread” for supper last night and EVERYONE loved it.
Reconceiving Midwifery, Ivy-Lynn Bourgeault, Cecilia Benoit, Robbie Davis-Floyd
copy borrowed from library, recommended by friend who is a midwife
* read all essays specific to Ontario midwifery. It put into perspective the changes that have happened since legislation and regulation (1994), and gave me a better understanding of the origins of midwifery as a political/feminist movement. Good info as I prepare for the interview process at McMaster, although dated now, as the book was published in 2004. Also: makes me wonder how the pre-legislation midwives feel about the changes that have come about?
Mimi Power and the I-don’t-know-what, Victoria Miles
copy sent by the author, who found me through my blog
* I warned the author that I don’t review books on my blog, but she thought my family might like her gentle, warm, and funny offering, and she was absolutely right. Both of my eldest kids read it (girl, age 10; boy, age 11), and I read it, and I’ve now passed it onto to the 7-year-old who is reading everything she can get her hands on right now. The book is illustrated, the chapters are short, and the characters are genuine. The plot is simple, but not simplistic, and it’s a pleasing and truly funny glimpse of family life, from the perspective of a 9-year-old girl. Highly recommended.
Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
re-read in preparation for poetry book club
* The poems had more depth and meaning on second reading; I should always read books of poems more than once. There was still no knock-out poem in the book, for me, but there were moments of poignance and beauty and care. Still, I think Collins may be in a position where he can publish anything without anybody suggesting he wait a bit and let things percolate, and that’s a dangerous position for a writer (although wouldn’t we writers all love to be in a such a position!).
The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King
purchased and read on my Kobo, but again I regret not having a hard copy to pass along; if I keep buying all my Kobo reads in book form this could get very expensive!
* I loved this book and had to keep talking about it to my husband as I was reading it; I felt so damn uneducated on the subject of First Nations/Indians in North America, from history to present day, but after reading Little House on the Praire was desperate for a different viewpoint, and all I can say is: I’m sorry! I’m sorry for not knowing, for making assumptions and being ignorant of history, and I’m sorry that the white-European culture of which I am most definitely a part never tried to learn from the people who were living here first, and simply assumed we’d arrived in order to improve and educate (and possibly to eradicate, given our actions) — and that we still make the assumption; Tom King’s gentle and funny tone is just perfect, somehow, he entertains even as he makes his point, and his point is: Stop asking what Indian people want and ask instead, What do White people want? Because that is the history of White/Indian relations. White people want land, always have, always will — and it’s true, isn’t it? We’re still finding reasons to take land and use it to make money, whether we’re building pipelines or decimating forests.
Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
copy from our own shelves, bought at a used bookstore about a decade ago
* read to the little kids, as I’d read to the bigger ones a few years back; Pa remains an inscrutable and unpredictable character, and I suspect him of not being a wise decision-maker; the older kids listened in often, and were horrified by the blatant racism toward the Indians, even by the most sympathetic character (Pa); we really could hardly stand to read it, and I felt compelled to keep mentioning that this was a raw and real lesson in the kind of prejudice Indians had faced, and this is part of our history, too, but it almost ruined the book for us; I’ve found the perfect antidote and will be reading Tom King’s The Inconvenient Indian next, and reporting tidbits to the kids; CJ was terribly upset about the family having to leave the cow and calf behind, never to be seen again; it’s gut-wrenching for my settled children to imagine leaving their home and possessions behind in an instant, but Laura sees it as an adventure
The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father, Jim Wight
copy has sat unread on our shelves for 12 years since I picked it up as assistant books editor at the National Post (we did not choose to review it)
* father did not pass onto to son his writing talents, and son had some personal axes to grind, but I perservered, curious to know how this remarkable writing career came to be; interesting that the real James Herriot (his name was Alf Wight) struggled to make ends meet as a vet, but became wealthy as an author, which is not a trajectory I could imagine for myself; he worked hard at writing, that seemed obvious, and he didn’t like being famous, not at all
purchased at Words Worth for poetry book club
* kept waiting for that knock-out poem to appear; many poems started promisingly, then veered into what seemed asides rather than epiphanies; felt almost too loose, too casual, and maybe not funny enough to compensate; will have to read again before book club meets to discuss in March
The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo
purchased at Words Worth using coupon sent home from the kids’ school: the book is their One Book One School choice this year; read not to kids, but to myself, in preparation for leading a workshop at the school on characterization
* DiCamillo’s “dear reader” tic really grated on me; I appreciated the neatly formed plot, but the very short chapters felt disjointed; did not see this as an award-winner
Drop Dead Healthy: One man’s humble quest for bodily perfection, A.J. Jacobs
read on Kobo, purchased spontaneously due to direct marketing in my inbox (Kobo marketers, pat yourselves on the back), on sale; but now I wish I had a hard copy so I could lend it to friends
* gentle humour rather than laugh out loud, but very entertaining narrator/narrative, full of interesting health-related tidbits, though I skipped the long list of tips at the back; easy-feeling writing that makes me want to write non-fiction too