Category: Book Review

Art to the rescue

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The “best school project ever” continues. AppleApple is studying nature art, and has looked mainly at the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a well-established British artist who works with materials found in nature to create ephemeral installations, mostly outdoors: they aren’t meant to last (though he does photograph them, and they’re definitely worth seeing, if you have time to click on the link).

As AppleApple was working on her project, we discovered that Meghan Harder, a young local artist and recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s fine arts program has been creating nature art right here in Waterloo. (The Canadian Mennonite featured her on the front cover in January.) So we arranged to meet Meg Harder yesterday afternoon in Waterloo Park, where a year ago, with help from some friends, she’d built a “human nest.” With her teacher’s permission, AppleApple got to skip out of school early, and we trekked through snow banks and found the spot where the nest had been made.

Here’s what the nest looked like a year ago

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Here’s what the nest looked like yesterday

After our hike, Meg and her boyfriend generously spent another hour with us, drinking tea and answering AppleApple’s questions. (I had a few too: I couldn’t help myself!) I’ve given very little thought to conceptual art, and we talked a lot about art that tries to communicate an idea or generate a conversation. For Meg, the process of creation is more important than the final creation. She also talked about the way in which nature art invites passersby to interact imaginatively with something they may not even realize is art, making it accessible to an audience outside of the traditional gallery setting, where we all know that what we’re seeing, if we go there, is art.

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AppleApple took lots of notes. I’m fascinated to see how she’ll synthesize her material. I also need to find a way to print these photos, which she’ll be using for her display. Any ideas? The deadline is fairly tight, and I want to get this bit of the project (the part where I’m helping out) done this weekend.

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one of AppleApple’s installations, after the snow fell

A note re health: Antibiotics to the rescue, again. Thankfully, I am feeling much better.

I felt well enough to go to yoga last night, although I struggled at times. The thought that soothed me, as I repeatedly fell out of a balancing pose, was “this is the body I’m in.” I just kept telling myself that, and it made me feel better, calmer, maybe. I want to be like my character Aganetha in Girl Runner, who I think fully and without judgement inhabits her body, born with a talent for awareness of its strengths and limitations. Doing a regular practice like yoga puts me in touch with precisely where my body’s at on any given day or hour; sometimes I feel strong, and sometimes I feel weak. Sometimes my strength comes as a surprise, on a day when I’ve felt discouraged or down; and sometimes it’s my weakness that comes as a surprise, although not last night. I knew I was feeling crummy. I would like to think that success is not limited to the days when I feel strong, rather success is the willingness to continue practicing, and to meet my body where it’s at. These bodies of ours do such amazing things. I don’t believe they’re just vessels for our spirits, they’re the expression of life itself.

Even right now: I’m able to write because my body is stilling itself into quiet focus.

:::

One last thing. My dad forwarded me a review of The Juliet Stories in the MQR (Mennonite Quarterly Review), which is an American journal. The reviewer engages with the book as both a personal and a political work. It moved me to tears. This link is to a PDF file that includes the review (scan down, as it’s toward the end). Here’s the last line: “After reading The Juliet Stories, I’m convinced Snyder should be named one of the top women writers everyone must learn to know, given the power of a text that questions the permanency of borders, and the ways journeying somewhere new might cut each of us wide open.”

Reading List, 2014, an ongoing project

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Last year was the first that I kept track of the books I read: see Reading List, 2013, on ongoing project. (For stats from 2013’s reading list, please go to the bottom of this post.) I liked keeping track so much that I’m doing it again this year. I will be updating the list regularly, and there will be a link to this page on the RH side of the blog. As before, I will arrange the list in blog fashion, from end to beginning, with the current month and most recently read book appearing first.

July

My Struggle: Book One, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
* bought at Words Worth Books
Too much to say. Was only going to read the first volume, but have since bought the second. Yes, it’s as advertised: an oddly compelling “autobiographical novel.”

June

The Clocks, by Agatha Christie
* borrowed from my brother’s shelves
Not one of her best. Written rather late in her career. I guessed the ending, which always disappoints me in an Agatha Christie book.

Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, by Bill Bryson
* book on tape, borrowed from the library
My daughter and I listened to this ebook on our drive to and from Ottawa. It was a pleasure, and we learned lots, although Bryson’s stylistic tics were pronounced, somehow, by his reading. If something wasn’t described as “excessively” something or other, it was “astonishingly” or “shockingly” or “thoroughly,” etc. We got a kick out of noting every hyperbolic exclamation.

May

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
* from our shelves, dating from my childhood
It felt like we read this book all winter. Our energy for the series kind of waned (we’d left this book to read last). In fact, we’d had only one chapter left to read for the better part of the month, but just hadn’t finished it off. I insisted we finish it before May ended, so we literally read it on the last chapter on the last day of the month. The kids felt like it ended abruptly. (In fact, it may have ended abruptly because my copy is completely wrecked and missing its cover. Hm. Was the last chapter really the last chapter?) The book is an idealized portrait of farm life, but appealing for that. Who could make, yet alone consume, all that luscious food for ordinary every day meals? I skipped any sections that detailed the building of things. The kids’ favourite chapter was my favourite in childhood too: where the parents leave the kids home alone for the week, and the kids eat all the sugar. AppleApple was particularly taken by the idea of being home alone and in charge, and thought they could manage it, if we’d like to try going away. Yeah. Not going to happen anytime soon…

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
* bought at Bryan Prince Booksellers after a reading there (with The M Word) earlier this month
I wrote about this in detail on my main blog. I was deeply moved by this book. I have quibbles with it, but only quibbles. I think that its structure is a bit rough and the writing seemed flat at times, the sentence structure repetitive, but I couldn’t decide whether or not that bothered me (I’m looking at it from a technical standpoint, and I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to structure; but I don’t think this detracted from the reading experience, so here is a case of a looser structure serving a larger purpose). There was a lot of bitterness in the book too, expressed by the main character — rage at a health care system that treats mental illness differently than other illness (a rage that is more than justifiable); and the gutting portrayal of abuse of power within the Mennonite church (an experience that doesn’t ring true to mine, but I didn’t grow up in a conservative, isolated Mennonite community). So there’s anger coursing through this book, as well as genuine peace. I was deeply touched by what Toews offers her reader.

My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
* loaned to me by a friend who thought I would love it
And she was right! I really loved this book. Part biography, part memoir, part literary investigation (not quite critique). The author is a gifted writer and reader, and also researcher. I didn’t know as much about George Eliot as I’d imagined I did. I found it interesting that her partner, George Lewes, referred to her, when she was working, as “him” or “he.” But it doesn’t seem that she was at all conflicted about her sexuality — George Eliot was a pseudonym taken for practical reasons, as Mary Ann Evans (or Marian Evans) was already a well-known critic and essayist, and she needed to separate her fiction from her reputation. Writing fiction was a much better money-making proposition in the mid-1800s than writing essays; she did very well, and was able to support her partner’s children and his former wife and the children her partner’s wife had had with another man (these were complicated domestic arrangements, not sanctioned by church or state). It strikes me that the most interesting and often the most creatively accomplished individuals do not abide by the constrictions of their time. (But I do. Should that concern me?) I like to write about that character, but perhaps I’m not brave enough or adventuresome enough to take big risks. Or maybe, like Mary Grant in Middlemarch, I’m devoted to the “home epic.” I live it out. I may be making other sacrifices I’m not willing to acknowledge, by living this way.

God Loves Hair, by Vivek Shraya
* bought after seeing Vivek read at an Indie Lit Night in April (where I also read)
Vivek has huge stage presence and confidence, and I had to buy his book after hearing him perform several of his stories. They are sweet and short and autobiographical, snapshots of a Canadian childhood and adolescence very different from own, which is one reason I loved reading them. At times very moving, and at other times very funny, the stories address self-discovery, bullying, sexuality, religion (specifically Hinduism), and family — being part of a tiny family unit living in a country and culture far from extended family, who live in India. Most moving for me is the depiction, in stripped-down not-at-all sentimental terms, of the loving support of a mother who seems to see her child as he is, and to celebrate him (she buys him his own eyebrow plucker, for example). I wonder if my older children might be able to read and relate to these stories too.

April

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
* copy from my shelves
This is such a good book! If you haven’t read it, you must. First published in 1961. Read on assignment for a piece commissioned by the lovely editor Kim Jernigan, to be published in CNQ, so technically it was work, but for all practical purposes it was a complete joy to devour again.

Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson
* read from ARC

The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, edited by Kerry Clare
* contributor’s copy
I read through the whole book on an afternoon when I was feeling wiped out by the demands of motherhood mixed with maintaining a professional career as a writer. I was poolside watching my daughter swim interminable laps. I was jet-lagged from having been overseas. I’d meant to go for a run, and instead I sat and read these essays. This is not a book about how to be a mother. It’s not prescriptive. Instead, I think it’s about why we are or aren’t mothers, and how we came to be (or not to be), and how our choices affected and continue to affect our identities. So it’s an interesting conversation, as you can imagine. I hope you’ll consider reading it too. My essay is about being the mother of four children.

Twenty tabloid-type texts, plus maps, plus broadsides, printed between 1548 and 1688
* read at the British Library
Research.

Philomena, by Martin Sixsmith
* bought for my Kobo, to take to London
The book that the movie was based on. I didn’t like it enough to finish it, and probably never will. The writing was a bit simplistic for my taste, and the story it tells is so horrifying that having been through it once in the movie version, I didn’t feel like stomaching it again on the page. If you’re already not a fan of the Catholic church, this story is so obscene in its abuses of power and corruption that you’re likely to run screaming in fury. Another story of power gone wrong. What is it with the powerful institutions and individuals? Is there any way to be powerful and behave in ways that aren’t merely neutral or benevolent when it pleases those who will keep them in power (which seems the best we hope for these days), but that actually benefit those they are supposed to serve regardless of whether or not it serves them too.

First chapter of The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger
* plucked off the shelf at a friend’s house
Dreadful. Painfully bad writing. So I stopped reading.

Word Nerd, by Susin Nielsen
* borrowed from the library (I should really buy these books for our shelves!)
Loved it. Couldn’t put it down. Stayed up past midnight reading it. (A young adult novel.)

March

Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen
* borrowed from the library
Another brilliantly written, unputdownable book for young people (to use a blurb word that isn’t really a word and should probably be outlawed; sorry. It really is impossible to put down!). This writer is wonderfully capable at capturing the adolescent voice.

Imagined London, by Anna Quindlen
* bought at Words Worth on my birthday gift card
Really lovely little book by a writer I haven’t read before, and would very much enjoy reading again. The book describes visiting London as an adult, after having absorbed London into her imagination through decades of reading about the city, across the centuries. I’m about to go to London for the first time in my life, and it seemed a prescient book to pick up and read. I’m wondering how much of the old  city I’ll be able to find and whether I’ll be able to feel its age as I walk around.

The British Library Guide to Bookbinding: History and Techniques, by PJM Marks
* borrowed from the WLU library
A short sweet guide to a history of bookbinding, with illustrations. I see that it’s the British Library’s guide, and I’m going to be at the British Library in a week! Hurrah! Bookbinders often worked separate from other craftsmen in the book trade. Books could be shipped and stored in sheets, and then bound on demand, sometimes in other countries, and sometimes months or years after the original publication. Bookbinders would sew the sheets together, and then create a spine and cover, using different materials, like vellum, made from animal skins (which was cheap to produce) or leather or actual wooden boards (oak in England). Some bookbinders were known for their talent at decorating the covers, sometimes with elaborate insets, painted pictures, embossing, engravings, etc., but most worked in more rudimentary ways, using the cheapest and quickest techniques: it was a poorly paid trade, which nevertheless required a seven year apprenticeship. This information is only moderately helpful to my research, as I’m more interested in the short, unbound broadsides and quartos, but still fascinating as I figure out who was involved in the book trade, and how all the pieces fit together.

The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence; A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence; and Lady Oracle, by Margaret Atwood
* from my shelves
I tried and failed to finish re-reading all of the above. I’ve got a writing assignment that involves re-reading a book that I haven’t read in years, but remember as foundational or influential in some way. I’ve been striking out cold. I may yet try The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I know better than to pick up In the Skin of the a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, which was a hugely important book for me from the ages of 16-20, nor would I deliberately ruin my lovely memories of Franny and Zooey (the cigarette smoke!) or any other J.D. Salinger; I think Di Brandt’s “questions i asked my mother,” discovered at age 15, might also be ruined by re-reading now. I am still considering trying Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, which I found and LOVED during my homeschool years, around the age of 13; and Middlemarch, by George Eliot, which I only read once, during grad school (and not because it was assigned, only because I wanted to). All of these books, with the exception of Middlemarch, are books I read not once, not twice, not three times, but so many times over I couldn’t count them–books read for comfort or to match a particular mood, the way other teens might turn to favourite songs.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larson, Susin Neilsen
* borrowed from the library
I borrow a lot of children’s books from the library to feed my children’s enormous appetites for reading. I try to choose a variety of books to entice their different interests and ages and reading abilities. Albus tends to enjoy non-fiction, and still prefers easy reads like graphic novels; AppleApple reads really widely, but has only recently become interested in books with “real” characters and more mature themes; Fooey likes many of the same books that Albus enjoys, plus she’s drawn to the girlier themes and covers; and CJ is loving reading books with simple vocabulary to me. But I also choose books that don’t fit in any of these categories — I wasn’t exactly sure who this book would appeal to, and in fact, no one spontaneously picked it out of the library basket that I keep in the living-room. In fact, I grabbed it at random to take to a soccer game as entertainment for AppleApple — mostly because I was pretty sure she hadn’t read it, and it’s hard to find books she hasn’t read around our house. She devoured it. I read it immediately afterward, having observed the effect it had on her. I’m still thinking about the book days later. It’s not for the younger reader, and it should be read with a parent on hand to discuss the issues raised (and there is some violence — it’s a book about bullying in the extreme). But it’s also funny and heartwarming and heartbreaking and fast-paced. Highly recommended.

One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson
* birthday gift (to Kevin)
I always enjoy Bill Bryson’s writing, but must admit this book seemed a little flabby, in need of a good sharp edit. I was curious to read Bryson’s take on that fascinating decade in which my own book is set, but I came away feeling like it was a very white male history. I don’t say that to sound reactionary. It was honestly as if women and people of colour scarcely existed. I know Bryson was writing an entertaining romp about the big events of that summer, including Babe Ruth’s home run battle with Lou Gehrig, and Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, but I kept wondering where everyone else was. Maybe I’m more interested in social history than big event history. (No need to mention it’s also a very American perspective.) The most fascinating insight I gained from the book was the apparent mass acceptance of extremist thinking that coloured the era: Hitler’s ideas and methods had roots that spread far and wide, including in North America. Anti-semitism was casually accepted, for example. Lindbergh himself turned out to be a vocal eugenics supporter (not to mention bigamist, but that came later). On the whole, it was an entertaining book, with lots of Brysonesque tidbits to enjoy. But I’d like to read an equally entertaining history of the era that would include marathon swimming and dancing (women excelled at both events), Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet who in her time was so popular that audiences packed great halls on see her, and some of the musical history, too. What was happening inside those speakeasies during the Prohibition years? (Note: Canada ended Prohibition years before the U.S., so those histories don’t neatly align).

Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, by Robyn Doolittle
* borrowed from a friend
This book got me thinking about tyrants and celebrities and leaders. Larger than life. That’s how we want our heroes. That’s why the most impossible-seeming characters wind up in power, despite being bumbling fools or ruthless autocrats or outright sociopaths. We want stories: we want myths. We always have. The gods and goddesses had outsized appetites and were obviously flawed, but we never said we wanted perfection, we the people. We are awed by enormity, by behaviour on a scale we can’t imagine of ourselves, whether it be idiocy or tyranny. Vladimir Putin is larger than life. He may appear bizarre to the Western eye, posing shirtless while conquering a variety of wildlife, but he knows what he’s doing: he’s creating a potent myth of himself. What an oddly self-inflated little man, we might think, while he smiles like the Mona Lisa and crushes his opposition. Rob Ford is larger than life. His appetites are renowned, his body enormous, his ego inflated, his inability to speak the truth unstoppable, his buffoonery legendary. Larger than life figures are built on their own lies. It is not their truth-telling or transparency that gives them power. It is their ability to create and sustain a mythology that absolves them from the ordinary rules of behaviour and self-governance. But they couldn’t achieve this alone. They needs us. And we comply. It makes sense that it’s the tyrants who are best at constructing mythologies. If the means are corruptive than the ends must be bad. We know larger than life figures have sold their souls for fame, power, wealth, even the lesser lure of celebrity. We get that desire. It’s the same one we recognize in ourselves: the desire to outlive death. Immortality. It takes the rare human being to transcend the artificial means of myth-making and become larger than life by virtue of a life lived largely. I think it’s why most true heroes live and die anonymously. Their humility prevented them from becoming larger than life.

February

Writing the Way Out: Inheritance and Appropriation in Aemilia Lanyer, Isabella Whitney, Mary (Sidney) Herbert, and Mary Wroth, by Ann Margaret Lange
* borrowed from UW’s library
Research. This was not a fun read, and I didn’t force myself through the rather tedious line-by-line reading of the women’s writing (these were some of the first women known to author and publish their work in the English language, circa 1570-1620). What I found most interesting were the biographical tidbits. Lanyer in particular lead an interesting and unusual life, born to court musicians and a musician herself, educated well enough to write and publish, and conducting an affair with a powerful courtier that did not damage her reputation in any way — when she became pregnant by him, a marriage to another court musician was arranged as cover. I also now want to know what a “bookwheel” is. It was mentioned in relation to Mary Herbert, who spread her books around to do research, or arranged them on a bookwheel (in a bookwheel?). The reference was in a text written in Mary Herbert’s time, and the author of this book didn’t seem to think it needed defining. But I’ve never heard of a bookwheel.

English Almanacs, Astrology, and Popular Medicine: 1550-1700, by Louise Hill Curth
* borrowed from UW’s library (on my alumni card)
Research. One interesting tidbit I noted was that the midwifery manuals of the time gave instructions on how to bring on a late cycle (ie. terminate an early pregnancy), as pregnancy wasn’t considered to have begun until “quickening,” which is when the mother could feel the baby moving inside her (usually sometime early in the second trimester). Another interesting tidbit was that some “hack” writers worked directly for printers and actually lived on the premises, churning out cheap text, basically.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
* bought from Words Worth on my birthday gift certificate
I loved this book. It’s haunting, though. I met Chris Cleave when we read together on stage at the Vancouver International Author’s Festival. He’s a talented writer who knows how to craft a good story. He also writes compellingly in the voices of his characters — in this case, a teenaged refugee girl from Nigeria, and a high-powered British women’s magazine editor. It’s the refugee story that’s haunting. It’s set in Britain, but feels relevant to what’s happening here in Canada, too, as Canada’s federal government takes a hard turn away from helping refugees, including cutting access to health care. A refugee is by definition a person who is seeking refuge. Refugees do not leave their homes by choice. Many have survived horrors we fortunate Canadians can’t fathom. To criminalize, marginalize, or further disadvantage those who come seeking help seems at best callous, and at worst actively evil. I wonder: why do we think we deserve our wealth and comfort? Doesn’t everyone deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter where they’re born?

The Days Are Just Packed, by Bill Watterson
* from our shelves
More Calvin and Hobbes as bedtime reading for the little guy (and sometimes other listeners too). I think we might have found our favourite strip in this one, though. Calvin’s mother is walking through the house discovering a complete disaster, obviously caused by Calvin. She roars out, “CALVIN?” Calvin appears before her, wearing one of those masks that has eyeglasses, nose, and moustache attached. He affects an accent: “Who eees theees Kahlveen?” That is one of our new favourite lines. But I’m ready to find a new bedtime book to read! Maybe when we get the gas stove installed in the living-room we can start reading together in front of the fire. I think part of our problem right now is location: I read to CJ in his bunk bed, which has room for the two of us and maybe Fooey, although AppleApple tries to crawl up sometimes too, and all the while I’m worrying that the whole thing is going to collapse onto Albus who is lying in the bunk below.

How To Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran
* bought and read on my Kobo
I’ve wanted to read this book for awhile, and came across a snippet quoted in Macleans regarding hair removal, and that sealed it: I was sick and couldn’t get out of the house, so I purchased it instantly for my Kobo. (This is the excellence and danger of e-books, and it makes me nervous for traditional bookstores, which of course I continue to love and support). This was a good Kobo book. I probably won’t read it again, and don’t particularly feel moved to share it, although I enjoyed it very much, and would recommend it to other feminists c. my age. The author is, in fact, almost exactly my age. Many of her observations (this is billed as a feminist manifesto for our era) felt familiar, like I’d thought them already myself. Her style is witty and very British, and she has a much more casual attitude toward drinking, smoking and doing drugs than I do (in fact, I thought the chapter titled “Intervention” might be about her family doing an intervention on her, given the number of times she describes being falling down drunk; but it turned out to be a lucid argument against plastic surgery). She grew up poor, the eldest of a very large family (even larger than mine! 8 kids!), and was homeschooled (like me!), and became a wunderkind writer in her teens (not at all like me!), and perhaps its the proximity with celebrity that pressures her to behave in ways that I actually don’t feel remotely pressured to conform with, such as Brazilians, plastic surgery, and owning a $1000 handbag and staggering about in stilettos all day. Honestly, I feel neither pressure nor interest in any of these things, nor do I feel less of a woman for not caring. The chapters on those subjects felt beside-the-point. Her view of women as history’s “losers,” however, makes a lot of sense: that the reason women continue to struggle for equality is that for millennia we were shut out of doing anything: pre-20th-century there are virtually no female philosophers, scientists, artists, composers, architects, politicians, or explorers. We got to be muses, nuns, mothers, or whores. We’ve therefore left a thin trail of visible accomplishment over many centuries, and this has been treated as proof of our inferiority. But we’re not inferior: what we lacked was birth control and antibiotics to treat UTIs (a compelling theory, I think). She suggests asking a simple question to identify insidious forms of sexism: do men have to do this too? i.e. Do men face pressure to totter around in shoes that prevent them from running away from a predator? Nope. There’s some sexism right there. So recognize it, and be done with it. Unless you really love your stilettos, I guess.

January

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander
* bought at Words Worth, part of my birthday gift
Short stories. Jewish characters, most of them contemporary, some stories set in the US, and several in Israel. This felt like encountering a view of the world so different from my own that I pained me to think in the patterns I was forced to think in; I don’t say that as a negative, but a positive. Most of the stories dealt up moral quandaries that the reader was forced to weigh in on, as witness, just like the characters themselves were caught up in impossible scenarios with no morally just outcome (that I could see). These stories seem to show how easy it is to tumble from being an innocent bystander to willing witness; and also how culpable the witness can become, and how steep the drop. Once you’re in, you’re in deep. (Not coincidentally, most of the stories are directly or indirectly about the Holocaust.) The story that will stay with me longest is set in Israel, on two hills that have been claimed, one each, by Jewish settlers. It moves from the early 1970s to the present, skipping forward in time, and it moves in directions you’d never predict at the outset, and ends with a situation that seems so absurd and yet so immoveable that is gets my stomach churning just thinking of it. Most of the stories move from an appearance of realism to a tone closer to fable by their end, moral puzzles that could be argued over indefinitely. Most have a timeless quality. This is an excellent book.

Tiger, by Tash Aw
* a gift from my Kobo to me, apparently
One short story, so it really doesn’t count as a book, but it was the bridge between Boyden and Englander, so I need to mention it here (I am reading at an unprecedented clip due to a combination of strep and waiting on ms). I liked it enough that I would look up Tash Aw’s other books — but does he write short stories? That’s what I’d want more of. Hm.

Born with a Tooth, by Joseph Boyden
* bought on my Kobo, but I can’t remember when or why
This book was originally published in 2001 by a small Canadian press (Cormorant). It’s since been re-released by Penguin, no doubt in response to Boyden’s subsequent literary successes, but I think this is his first book. I loved this book. I cannot recommend it more highly. Short stories. Some so tragic they’ll burn a hole in your chest. I was crying in the dr’s office while finishing the last story today. My favourite story was one where professional wrestlers come to the reserve and put on several shows, told in the voice of an eight-year-old boy. It’s brilliant. But I loved them all. I don’t know any way to get closer to the things I don’t understand, and want to understand, than fiction. In the final section, when Boyden writes the same narrative over in four different stories, told from four different perspectives, he reveals so many things impossible to see, unless seen through other eyes. Most of the stories are set on reserves, but the bleakest are off reserve. Another brilliant story is Legend of the Sugar Girl, about the residential schools. I feel like our country is harbouring enormous unacknowledged collective wrong-doing that will haunt us until we collectively act to put it right. But I don’t know what that act would be, exactly. The most hopeless (and useless) characters are the white people, arriving to “do good” and fix things and misinterpreting everything they see. The most hopeful characters are the children and the old people, and the drunks, who are attuned to the spirit world. This book made me feel that this whole world longs for healing–that’s what Wiman (below) is talking about too. Spirit-healing. I want everyone to read this book.

All Hat, by Brad Smith
* bought as a gift for my husband a long time ago; found on our shelves
I read this book after meeting the author at the Wild Writers Festival this past fall. I often buy books for my husband that sound good, but more masculine than my own taste prefers (like Rawi Hage, for example, and Paul Quarrington). But I like to read books by writers I’ve met, and I sped through this in a day (while down with strep throat and looking for a good escape). It’s pulp fiction, really, well-structured, with likeable hard-luck characters. Also, it depicted a world removed from my own, marked by casual violence and small-time crime, and I appreciate being taken out of my element by a book. I was sometimes troubled by the depiction of women as saintly and ruined or hard-core and ruined; but in a sense all the characters were a bit ruined, ragged around the edges, and that was part of the book’s charm. I’m going to call the book: Southern-Ontario-cowboy-noir.

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, by Christian Wiman
* a gift from my dad
This is not a light book. The thinking contained here has to be taken in slowly, unpacked slowly. I could only read so much at a time, and it reminded me, in some ways, of a devotional book that one might read a portion of daily. It took me a week of quiet mornings to read once, and I could easily read it many times more and find different things to appreciate. It was written over the course of seven years, and I could feel that in its progression–that it captured and reflected the changing nature of the poet’s relationship with his body (which was stricken with cancer), and with faith. I liked that he acknowledged change in his own thinking and responses, but also that he honoured his whole self, who he had been and also who he would become–and even how he would continue to live even after death in the lives of those connected to him. I’m often tempted to write off my former selves as so much less knowledgeable, as if to suggest that my self has experienced progress, gotten better, somehow. I thought a lot about Nelson Mandela, too, when Wiman wrote about how the rare person seems to allow joy to stream through them–the way a child is so wholly joyful that it brings us joy to witness and remember its possibility. I also found myself thinking about people who have died, whose lives resonate in my own. I’ve read a surprising number of meditations on death and dying in the last year. Maybe it will become part of what I write next?

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris
* bought at Words Worth as a Christmas gift for my husband (but I knew I’d be reading it first)
It was a slightly odd experience to read this essay collection after having read Sedaris’s most recent one; this goes back a few years, and the writing style is in some ways less developed, a bit rougher, though highly entertaining. The endings are more abrupt, the ideas not quite as fully realized. But I loved several of the essays. One should be mandatory reading for anyone wanting to write memoir: it was about how his work as a memoirist changed how his family members related to him, and he to them, and it was both very very funny, and truly terrifying (for me, as a sometime writer of memoir).

It’s a Magical World, by Bill Watterson
* from our shelves
Around the age of six, all of our kids have become enchanted with Calvin and Hobbes. We own a number of dog-eared collections. CJ, our youngest, is not quite six and has just discovered the books. He can’t read yet, so I started reading this collection to him, and it became our bedtime reading this month (after finishing this collection we moved directly on to another one). What’s odd, to me, is that there is no way an actual six-year-old can understand what Calvin, the fictional six-year-old, is talking about most of the time, and yet all of my six-year-olds have loved it. My kids are all horrified by Calvin’s behaviour, but it clearly intrigues them, and they follow him into his imaginary worlds (which CJ only partially understands, sometimes confusing the imaginary world for the real world). Often other kids join in the listening, too, although it’s hard to get four kids crowded around one book, and the comic strips need to be seen as well as read for maximum enjoyment. One of the observations that tickled me greatly was when Calvin asks his dad why grown-ups never play. His dad explains that grown-ups do play, but only at inconvenient times when they don’t feel like doing it, and they record all their play so they can feel like they’ve accomplished something worthwhile (ie. I go for a run at 6AM and afterward log my distance, and I call it recreation!). To which Calvin observes that grown-ups really know how to ruin a good time.

Borrowed Finery, by Paula Fox
* borrowed from the library
Memoir by noted children’s author, about her own childhood. I heard her interviewed on Writers and Company by Eleanor Wachtel last winter, and wanted to know more. At times I found the writing dragged, weighed down by a formalism that bored me a bit, which seemed strange because her childhood was bizarre, the parenting and care she received at times completely outrageous. But it seemed to pick up speed as the book went on, and I enjoyed it overall. Maybe the unemotional tone provided necessary distancing between the author and her parents, and even, perhaps, between the author and who she was as a child. I kept thinking: you must have felt something, you must have had some emotional reaction — yet the description was so muted that it seemed stripped of emotion. But who knows, maybe the child had to rid herself of intense emotional reaction in order to survive the temporary and constantly changing living situations her parents abandoned her in, and the countless adults, many of whom were complete strangers, whose care she was left under, often for months and even years at a time. I haven’t read her children’s fiction, that I can recall (I may have read it as a child, when I read everything I could get my hands on.) I wonder whether I would like it. (Here’s an odd tidbit about Paula Fox: she had her first child very young, and gave it up for adoption, a daughter, with whom she developed a relationship much later in life. The daughter grew up to be a famous psychologist, if I’m remembering correctly, and the mother of Courtney Love. So Paula Fox is the biological grandmother of Courtney Love.)

Interference, by Michelle Berry
* galley sent to me by publisher
This is my second read-for-blurb in the past month, which is kind of odd. I haven’t been asked to read-for-a-blurb in ages and was a little worried about saying yes, twice, in such a short time, like I’d kicked off a trend. But no one’s asked me since. And the thing is that I love to read! I love to read and think about why I love a book I’m reading — and I did love this book, just like I loved Tasneem’s; two very different books by very different writers. Michelle’s is set in the present, and deals with some very contemporary and dark issues including cancer, pedophilia, disability, kidnapping, and disfigurement. The thing is, the book isn’t dark! It’s often funny, and although I wondered at times whether I was being led toward a dark turn, that never happened. Instead, Michelle’s writing led me toward the light. I loved that — the surprise of it. I was drawn in by the multiple perspectives, the layers of experience, the tight plotting that kept me turning pages and wondering what would happen next. And I was kept in by the genuine emotion stirred in me. “Tenderly brutal” was the phrase that leaped into my head (for Tas’s book, the phrase was “big heart, big mind”). In the end, I was moved to tears. Plus, Michelle perfectly captures the experience of being on a women’s recreational sports team (hockey, in this case). This book, like Tas’s, comes out in the spring. Look for it!

Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynn Truss
* bought at Words Worth, birthday gift to myself
Such a fun read. I’m passing this on to my husband, who can’t punctuate a sentence to save his life, and would really like to learn how. I learned a lot from this book (or had a lot confirmed), especially about the pesky comma. I like thinking of the comma as a tool for artistry and flow and rhythm, open to interpretation, rather than a rule-bound device of typography like the period (which Truss calls the “full stop,” because she’s British). I also learned why British writers put the full stop outside the quotation marks sometimes, and sometimes not. It was a distinction I could wrap my head around, yet which seemed rather pointless. Then I wondered if that’s how many people feel about punctuation in general: sure, sure, I get it, but does it really matter? Does it really change our basic understanding of the writer’s intention? (Clarification of meaning seems the point of punctuation.) In the end, I realize I’m a bit of a stickler, but also open to and interested in the historical and on-going shifts in all aspects of written/printed grammar. But a writer should know the basics. Caps at the beginning of sentences. Periods at the end. How to punctuate speech. Etc. I think I would ever so slightly enjoy teaching grammar.

Hair Hat, by me
* going over the original manuscript, comparing it to the printed book
I didn’t have a finished version of the book, in a digital file. It was published in 2004 and has been out of print for some time. (I still have copies, which is the only way you can get the book.) I had the digital file that I’d submitted to Penguin Canada prior to copy editing, so I went through it line by line, comparing it to the printed version in the book. Mostly there were small copy editing changes (and I actually found myself agreeing with everything the copy editor had suggested; sorry, 28-year-old Carrie). I couldn’t help making a few other tweaks, here and there, though in no way want to disturb the magic of the original. Would I write this same book now? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lovely and unique offering, and an excellent first book. I’m still really proud of it.

Where the Air is Sweet, by Tasneem Jamal
* bound galley sent by publisher
Tas is a friend and asked me to consider “blurbing” for her. As always, when approaching a friend’s book, I do so with some trepidation, but I need not have worried: I loved this book. It is set in Uganda before and during the era of Idi Amin, among Uganda’s Asian community, and it is rich with detail and real with incremental change, and as smart as it is moving. It’s a story that reminded me that political buffoonery is amusing only so long as the buffoon has no real power; and it also made me consider the home I want Canada to be in this world. It comes out this spring: put it on your must-read list. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished it.

:::

Finally, some not-very-deep stats from 2013 (last year’s reading list). Overall, I read 57 books (not counting the reading I did for a story contest and the class I taught.) Of those, 39 were by women, and 17 by men (and one was a mixed anthology). I read almost equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction, which surprises me: 19 fiction, 18 non-fiction. Plus five books of poetry. I also read 14 chapter books out loud to the kids — aha! And those were all fiction, so when added into the equation I did indeed read more fiction overall. (I didn’t keep track of picture books read to the kids.)

And now for a different set of stats, of interest to me as I carve out a career as a writer. How exactly did I come by the books I read? The majority (23) were bought at Words Worth, our local indie book store here in Waterloo, plus one from an indie book store in Hamilton. Ten were borrowed from the library, and one was borrowed from a friend. Nine came from our shelves, and I purchased and read nine on my Kobo. Three were bought via Amazon, two were gifts, and one came from a used bookstore (via Abe Books) because it’s out of print.

So there it is. A year in books. In conclusion: so many books! I can’t keep up! And yet I will always want more! My bedside table is piled high and there are many more books I’m looking forward to buying and reading in the year to come. How grateful I am for the riches of words and books.

Giddy-making news

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Forgive the giddiness. There’s a whole boatload of giddy-making news today.

Let’s start with Alice Munro. You’ve already heard, of course, but she earns top billing, because NOBEL PRIZE! Awarded today to a woman from a small town in Ontario who has spent her career here in Canada quietly writing short stories. She rarely makes public appearances. She is the opposite of someone who seeks the spotlight. And yet the light seeks her out. I’ve seen her read and speak twice, rare occasions that remain vivid in my memory. A year ago, I was asked by the National Post’s books editor to review her last book, Dear Life, and I accepted, in fear and trembling and excitement, because it seemed the opportunity of a lifetime: to write a tribute (hardly a review) to an author whose work I’ve admired, loved, and read and re-read for comfort and pleasure for the better part of my life. (Who Do You Think You Are? whispered to me as I worked on the piece, and whispers to me now as I re-post it, but there it is. I’m a fan. If Alice Munro were a hockey team, I would know all the stats.)

Now, I’m going to share some other news in entirely un-Munrovian fashion (first of all, by sharing it) with a tweet I saw this morning:

“@HouseofAnansi at #fbf13 hit it out of the park w / 3 sales of @carrieasnyder new bk #GirlRunner in Holland, France & Italy on same day. Wow!”

To interpret for you: House of Anansi is my Canadian publisher, currently attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, and, yes, they’ve sold the rights to Girl Runner in three more territories: more translations! Wow, indeed. My family is looking forward to celebratory meals of Italian, Dutch, and French specialities. Suggestions welcome. Spaghetti, gouda, and baguette with stinky cheese? (I said no to Albus’s request for pizza, unless it’s a non-north-Americanized version.) We’re going to start preparing and eating these meals at home, however.

And now, back to work. Revisions, revisions, and prepping for class tonight where I’ll be talking about … revisions!

Wild

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click on photos to see in full

I haven’t been getting enough sleep and it may be due to my late-night reading material. I just finished Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which should not be dismissed merely because it has an Oprah book club sticker on it. I really loved this memoir. It was everything I hope for in a book: I was entertained, I was moved, I learned new things, I met fascinating characters, it touched me, it felt relevant to my own experience without being preachy, it expressed a deeper human truth while remaining particular and individual, and it had a compassionate moral outlook. And it was written by a woman. Hurray! I’ve been mildly troubled by my male-author-heavy recent reading trend. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading books by both men and women, but I kept waiting for the female-authored book that would speak to me with authority. And Wild did.

I won’t give a detailed plot synopsis, because you’ve probably already heard about the book or even read it yourself, but the narrator is hiking 1100 miles of wilderness trail, by herself, age 26, several years after the death of her mother, as a way to recover her life from a seriously scary downward spiral. Because I read it as an ebook, I can’t easily thumb through to find favourite bits, but I loved when this troubled spirit recognized that her efforts to get out of herself, to escape, had been not actually what she longed for. What she longed for was to get in. It was such a simple and profound way of expressing the paradox of the human mind and spirit: how the easy way out is always a trap, because it prevents us from finding what we really crave, which is a way into ourselves — and the way in is hard. And yet, it’s also not hard because it’s so right, because it lines up who we want to be with who we are, I think. Peace. Grace. Stillness.

So, two things I loved about the book. One, it was about hard physical effort. I related to that as a path to entering into one’s life and self. Two, the acknowledgements. I read the whole book with pleasure and ease, and it almost came as a shock to see the author thanking mentors, grant-giving institutions, writers’ festivals, and writing retreat centres. Right! I thought. This effortless-seeming book was written by a writer. Obvious, I know. But it gave me a feeling of kinship to recognize the work behind the scenes, to remember that every wonderful piece of writing began as an idea, and was supported by an invisible web, and brought to being by the same hard yet right process of steady work. That it didn’t just emerge whole. Cheryl Strayed wrote this book the same way she walked the trail: with help, alone, in doubt, and in hope. Sure, there are some ecstatic moments along the way, but writing a polished and complete book is kind of like walking 1100 miles of wilderness trail (or so I imagine): it’s a grind. You’re going to hate that you’re doing it some days, and think you might actually be crazy. You’ll be afraid and have to tell yourself that you’re not. You’ll be humbled by all you’re not, and also by all you are.

It’s the grind that yields.

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In other news …

Most of the fallen tree is now piled in our front yard.

I spent yesterday afternoon deliberating with other members of The New Quarterly’s story jury, as we picked out a winner and runners-up for their emerging writer story contest. I learned a few things that I hope to apply in my creative writing class this fall. One is a total ban on sex scenes — I mean in their stories, not in the classroom; well, actually, I mean both, but the latter does not generally require mentioning. Only well into one’s writing career should one should attempt to write a sex scene, and even then … which reminds me, Cheryl Strayed wrote a really good sex scene. So it’s not that it can’t be done well, it’s just not a promising place to begin. Everything I type right now seems to be loaded with double-entendres. Which is probably part of the problem.

Anyway, that was yesterday, and I also zoomed all over town on my bike. My muscles are aching from lifting weights yesterday morning, and they’re still aching from a push-up extravaganza on Friday morning, not to mention the general battered and bruised feeling I carry following my evening soccer games (now on Thursdays and Sundays), and Saturday’s long run. I’m taking today off except for yoga stretches.

I scored a replay-worthy goal in Sunday’s game. It’s the goal I’ve been envisioning for months. I believing in envisioning, by the way. I believe if you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it in real life. The goal came off of a beautiful cross on a strong run up the left wing. I was on right forward, and running hard. The ball crossed ahead of our centre forward and I caught it on my right foot at the top of the box, controlled it like I knew what I was doing. The centre forward, behind me, told me I had time, take my time, and I did, somehow calmly positioning the ball and as the defender rushed me, I shot it over the goalie’s fingertips, skimming an inch under the bar, and swishing the back of the net.

I get to describe it in detail because it may never happen again. But it happened once. I could not stop grinning for about ten minutes. It was one of those magical sporting moments that keep a person coming back to a game–when it feels like the moment is unfolding separate from thought, purely on instinct, and you know in advance you’re going to do exactly the right thing. You have utter confidence in yourself, and it seems like it’s suddenly so easy. (Of course, it’s not). Everyone who’s played a sport knows what I’m talking about it. Come to think of it, it’s another example of grace.

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AppleApple got a goal of her own in last night’s game. CJ and Kevin and I all came along to watch.

And now it’s back to work. The younger kids are at daycamp. Albus will be home from camp in two more sleeps. AppleApple is watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which she read this spring. And I’m writing scenes that are kind of like candy. They are so fun to read, and to write, it’s weirding me out.

Just another merry Monday

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shovelling with dogs, Monday morning, early

Slow start. Hi there, Monday. Why you be so Mondayish week after week?

::

I’m thinking of starting a regular lost-and-found feature. The latest on the list:

* one Playbook, lost and then miraculously found at the bottom of my sports bag where it had rested patiently since last Sunday’s soccer game, going to and from exercise studios

* one black Celtic hat and pair of pink mittens: CJ’s, last seen Friday, or maybe yesterday, who can remember? This lost hat & mitt combo represented this morning’s final crisis before leaving the house, late, to catch the bus.

::

It felt like a weekend of non-stop-ness. Maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time getting going this morning. Even the fun parts were relentlessly timed. For example, coffee date with son. (These coffee dates/errand running, with each child getting a turn, have become regular Saturday morning events.) Thankfully he did not complain about having to eat his onion bagel with garlic & herb cream cheese in eight minutes flat.

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The turn-around time was terribly tight: I was off to a swim meet in Brantford with the swim girl. There is something very similar about all of these pools, and the meets too. Noisy music; insanely tight seating (this time on deck); a dad seated directly behind you with a bullhorn of a voice hollering at his kid in the pool who clearly will never be able to hear or follow the directions being given; technical glitches with the scoreboards; expensive race sheets that you have to buy or you won’t know when your kid is racing; searching endlessly trying to locate your child’s cap, goggles, and suit amidst the multitudes of other similarly clad children; sitting for butt-numbing hours on end; child races, heart rate accelerates, sitting again; boggled by the limited supply of bathrooms in these facilities; wishing you’d brought a better snack; trying to read/work while keeping an eye on the race progression; chatting with neighbouring parents; waiting endlessly for swim kid to locate lost items at the end of the day (this meet it was a GIGANTIC copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that took us half an hour to find in the littered stands, no exaggeration.)

Watching your kid swim two fantastic personal bests in races that amount to a total of just over 2 minutes. Seeing her take deep pleasure in the reward of her hard work. Marvelling at her race-intensity. Being proud. Figuring it’s all kind of worth it.

*

Also this weekend: babysitting exchange at our house. Eight kids plus two dogs overnight. Kevin was in charge of food, and he really outdid himself. Two casseroles of homemade mac-and-cheese, a graham cracker-chocolate-cookie-cake that had everyone rushing for seconds, and a triple batch of pancakes and sausages for breakfast. “I love having kids around to cook for,” he sighed with satisfaction, to which I said, “Wha???? Don’t we always have kids around to cook for?” Apparently cooking for other people’s kids is more fun than cooking for one’s own brood.

*

Add in two giggling girls awake at 5:50am, a swim practice, a sledding miscommunication, two soccer games (no subs and a tie for me, two goals and a win for her), a carshare car, and a Super Bowl supper, and we were done. We were toast. We were ready for bed early. And the alarm sounded early. And it was Monday. It is Monday.

Deadline to meet tomorrow. Must. Get. Writing. Not. Blogging.

Reading List, 2013, on ongoing project

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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?

If I feel inspired, I will note something about the book itself, or the reading experience.
I am posting this today, so it’s obviously incomplete (I’m starting it on February 3). I will be updating the list regularly. There will be a link to this page on the RH side of the blog, and I may remind you from time to time to check back.

I’ve also decided to arrange this in blog-fashion, from end to beginning, with the current month shown first.

December

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.

November

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.

October

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.

September

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.

August

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.

July

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?

June

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.

May

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.

April

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?

March

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

February
Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
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

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
copy from our shelves, bedtime reading for children
* early chapters much stronger than later chapters, but this character is timeless (hard to believe the book was written more than 60 years ago!)
The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter
library copy, looked up after reading Beautiful Ruins
* laugh out loud funny, kept trying to read lines to husband; then it ended up being all moving and I’m surreptitiously wiping away tears while finishing the book on deck at a swim meet; husband now reading too, and hugely enjoying

January
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
bought at Words Worth after reading with him at Winnipeg Writers Fest; now wish I’d bought copy while in Winnipeg so I could have gotten him to sign it. Sadly I did not know I was in the company of genius at the time. How had I never heard of this writer??
* excellent, highly recommended, much-enjoyed by my husband too
Swimming Lessons, by Leanne Shapton
read on Kobo–my first book on Kobo!–then bought hard copy at Words Worth, recommended by Pickle Me This
* I keep recommending this book to random parents I sit beside at swim meets; my 10-year-old swim kid is reading it too
Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod
bought at Wild Writers Fest after hearing him speak on book panel; why didn’t I get him to sign it?
* absolutely loved this collection; secretly want him to write a whole novel based on the fabulous, weirdly sexy, completely real-feeling story “Wonder About Parents”
Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
borrowed copy from friend who recommended it
* suspiciously black-and-white reporting, irritating men’s mag tone, but interesting and hard to put down, and we are now eating chia seeds for breakfast
The Book of Marvels, Lorna Crozier
bought copy at Words Worth for poetry book club
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris …, Leanne Shapton
library copy, looked up her other books after reading Swimming Studies
* too much like flipping through a magazine, gorging on pictures; I guess I just crave text
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