Category: Reading

My poetry book club: an interview, with notes

Photo by Nancy Forde. Humour by all of us, and some more than others.

 *Note # 1: Last month, in honour of Poetry Month, my poetry book club was asked to take part in an interview for a literary blog. And then due to a staffing change our chance at modest book club fame fell through — but we’d already answered the questions and posed for a group photo (any excuse to get together and eat cake, really!). So I’m posting our photos and responses here instead.

*Note # 2: Yes. We are called the Smeops. No. No one will ‘fess up and take credit for the name.
*Note # 3: Please imagine a friendly omniscient interviewer voice leaning toward the microphone to ask these questions. Like Carol Off on As It Happens. Humour me?
Note # 4: These are the books we’ve read since our first meeting, October 17, 2010, though not in strict order of reading. (And here is my blog post on that inaugural meeting!)
Pigeon, Karen Solie
Morning in the Burned House, Margaret Atwood
I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being, Johanna Skibsrud
Bloom, Michael Lista
Methodist Hatchet, Ken Babstock
The Cinnamon Peeler, Michael Ondaatje
New and Selected Poems, Vol. II, Mary Oliver
Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins
Human Chain, Seamus Heaney
The Anatomy of Clay, Gillian Sze
Groundwork, Amanda Jernigan
The Book of Marvels, Lorna Crozier
Horoscopes for the Dead, Billy Collins
Seal up the Thunder, Erin Noteboom
Note # 5: There will be no more notes. There will be questions and answers. Questions, more answers. And so on. And so forth. Until the end. At which point there will not appear even one more note.
Photo by Nancy Forde. We are, from left to right: Eugenia, Amanda, Christyn, Matthew, Maggie, Craig, Carrie, Karl, and Nancy.
Why did you decide to start a poetry-only book club?
Geez, these questions are hard. Reading poetry is a lonely pursuit, and that seemed a shame and possibly unnecessary. It feels great to share a good poem. – Karl
I didn’t help start it, but I wanted to join because I find that reading poetry alone is not as much fun as reading or discussing it with others. I love hearing how other people responded to or interpreted a poem, and frankly, even how different it can sound when read by other people. – Eugenia
Well, I usually tell people I like poetry over a book club because we are all restricted with time, and if for some reason you can’t read a whole book of poetry before the meeting, well you still get a feel for it and can comment, something that doesn’t usually happen in a book club.
 Second, it’s not common and so has that mystique about it as well as a little bit of my third point …
We get to be the “cool” kids. Everyone wants to be in our club! Joking aside I know I personally feel a little boost in my ego whenever I say I belong to a poetry club.
 Oh, and the food, wine, and “adult time” are also big draws. Plus I laugh the most there than anywhere else. 
 Amanda
Good question. The inward nature of the goings-on between poem and reader seems at odds with a book club. Maybe it is. And yet in my opinion, this poetry-only book club does work, somehow: we sporadically gather, chosen book at hand, noteworthy pages marked up, and if we’re so inclined, tip our experience of a poem outward into the room, in hopes of getting a little closer to it, and in hopes of being understood by the others sitting there. I didn’t start this club, but I joined in order to read and talk poetry with good people who like to do the same.  Maggie
The poetry-only book club was Karl’s idea. At first, we were only three, and we got through two Canadian collections together (P.K. Page and George Johnson), and then one of us moved, which left just me and Karl, awfully small for a club. Who reads poetry, we wondered, and more importantly who wants to join us and talk about it? I remember putting the idea out onto Facebook and my blog, and I remember my surprise and pleasure to discover that poetry-lovers are everywhere. All you have to do is ask. That was two and a half years ago. At some point, we named ourselves The Smeops. We first met to discuss Pigeon, by Karen Solie. After that, we read Morning in the Burned House, by Margaret Atwood. Our next book will be Seal Up the Thunder, by Erin Noteboom (aka the amazing YA author, and our neighbour, Erin Bow), who is an on-again-off-again Smeop. She didn’t want us to read her poems, but she hasn’t come for awhile, so this is our way of getting back at her. – Carrie
I enjoy poetry, but am more apt to pick up a novel before a collection of poems. By joining the club, I give myself a reason to read poetry. – Christyn
The club had already begun when I was kindly invited into the fold when I had recently moved into Waterloo from having lived rurally for a decade. Carrie asked me if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. I am an English Lit alumna and, as a single mother, the idea of having adult conversation not related to Dr. Seuss (or, only sometimes related) was enticing. If I can’t get a sitter, everyone is accommodating and allows to me to host [I lied: *Note # 6: Nancy is a consummate host, and we love coming to her house! The photos were taken there, in her kitchen, and her cozy back room.] It’s wonderful to have a “night out” in my back room discussing the potency of words with people who are great fun and all have different opinions/approaches. A chance, also, to get to know members of this new community and feel some belonging. – Nancy
How does your club choose which books you will read?
Members suggest them. – Karl
Randomly. – Maggie
Haphazardly, at best. We don’t have a group leader, and at times we wish we did, but no one wants to be “uber-Smeop.” So we muddle on collectively. Occasionally, we meet without a specific collection, and bring favourite poems to share. We’ve chosen a few collections after hearing a particularly amazing poem read aloud. Those meetings are some of my favourite. I love hearing someone read a poem out loud. We have some brilliant readers in the group, although Karl will dispute his talents. Nancy can bring us all to tears. Craig does voices. I’m pretty sure he did a Yeats poem performed as heavy metal — that really happened, right? Back me up, someone. – Carrie
I think it was, more specifically, “Yeats as Metallica,” not to be confused with my own “Babstock as Jim Morrison.” Not one of my prouder moments. It was the olives talking. – Karl
People come across poems, throw out suggestions. I read “I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being” one night because a friend had sent the link to me via my blog and we all thought we might take on Johanna Skibsrud collection as a result.  Nancy
In your experience, how do the discussions in a poetry book club differ from those in a regular fiction-based book club?
I’ve not been part of a fiction book club. Anyone? – Karl
They don’t, really, at least in my experience. Members in both types of clubs interpret the works in individual ways, and share their reactions based on life experience and personality. – Eugenia
Maybe we can say that our poetry club is more than just an excuse to get drunk on wine? Sorry, that observation’s based on the book club experiences of certain household spouses who shall remain nameless. – Craig
I rather wish we could spread our idea more and show people that poetry is for everyone, not just the few literary elite. In the group we all come from different backgrounds and yet, for the most part, we generally agree on a work of poetry. We may differ in opinion on exact poems, but I’d say on the whole we agree — and we tend to like the works that are the most “readable.” (Erin would make fun of me for that word!) – Amanda
I’m not convinced there is any definitive difference. There may be a little more talk around form, language and sound as opposed to plot, character and theme, but this is of course a generalization, considering the many books that dabble in more than one genre. – Maggie
An observation: often, even people who love reading poetry feel inadequately equipped to talk about it — until they come to our book club, that is! Our conversations are lively, sometimes in-depth, occasionally moving, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Poetry wrestles with the Big Themes: life, death, memory, love. So does fiction, I realize, but a poem is so distilled. There isn’t plot to discuss, or character development; instead there are big ideas, compressed. With a poem, it’s tempting to say, “I liked this one,” or “I didn’t like that one,” so the challenge is to go beyond that and understand why (Matthew tries to keep us focused!). – Carrie
Poetry covers so many facets of life and its experiences and interpretations, that our discussions are similar (all over the map). I find that the poetry club elicits an emotional side of me that a book club never did. In the few hours we get together, every emotion can be covered. There are tears, moments of silence, confusion, anger, and lots and lots of laughter. It’s a safe place to examine life. I love seeing how each of us (so different in so many ways) will take away something so similar, yet so different from each of the collections. I walk away every time with a new perspective of life and a new nugget of knowledge. – Christyn
Well we have a historian, a few writers (who’ve also published poetry), a computer scientist, teachers, someone who works with the deaf, I’m a trained actor. We all have different passions and we certainly can disagree. But I think it’s the ability to read a collection and get a sense of a poet within a month. My favourite part of the night is when we’ve all brought found poems or ones we’ve loved or love or just discovered and we read them aloud to one another. So, whereas a book club may discuss that one book’s plot, climax, character development, emotions about certain chapters, etc. I would think the fact that we read poetry that can sometimes have been composed over decades by the poet—at different times in their lives—we get perhaps a broader spectrum of the person penning the poetry: when they were in love, depressed, enlightened, lonely, pensive. Also, it’s amazing to see the different reactions even a poem of 10 lines can evoke. The poet writes the poem but it can hit each of us in its own subjective way (as books can), but because the words/content of poetry or on a much smaller scale than entire chapters of words in books, often I think we talk about how one “line” or one “phrase” or even one “word” made the poem for us (or ruined it, etc.)  Nancy
Photo by Nancy Forde
Can you share a few of the club’s favourite collections?
My favourites so far: Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood, and Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins (not strictly speaking a single collection). – Karl
I’ve particularly enjoyed the times when we’ve goaded ourselves into sharing poetry that we’ve written. There’s great vulnerability and exhilaration in doing that. I’ve sometimes thought that a good poem is like a good wedding, because attending someone else’s wedding can make you want to reflect on your own commitments, and a good poem can make you want to cobble words together yourself. That doesn’t ring true for everyone, of course, but there’s some kind of consonance there for me. – Matthew
We hardly ever have consensus on a collection, but the poet who garnered the most positive response was Billy Collins. – Eugenia
And of course I’m going to list Billy Collins as a fav 😉  Amanda
Fortunately, there’s little consensus, which keeps the discussions lively. But every once in a while, we stumble across the sublime, and there’s pause for thought. These are the intimate moments that are great to share. – Maggie

We’ve found that a collection of poetry is almost always uneven, but the joy is looking for that poem that resonates. We don’t always agree on which poem was magical, but we like disagreeing. I’d say disagreeing keeps us together. – Carrie
The most favourite was Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room(also the most light-hearted). We also have others that bring about lots of laughter and inside jokes! – Christyn
I think Billy Collins was popular with everyone across the board and Margaret Atwood is so hard not to appreciate. I missed out on a couple of collections but fell in love with Mary Oliver and I absolutely was thrilled by Michael Lista’s Bloom, though not everyone loved it. We have good fun about who loves what and why (or why they seriously do not).  Nancy

On the practice of patience

snowdrops in ice

Heavy subjects on my mind, but no clarity. As I don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation, I won’t talk specifically about what happened at the Boston marathon on Monday afternoon. What felt so very strange was watching the raw photos and eyewitness accounts on Twitter only minutes after the explosions happened, with no context, no analysis, no filter — much like being a witness to something rather than being given a story, or told a story. In the evenings I am reading the Little House on the Prairie books to the kids, and when Pa has to go away to work he walks hundreds of miles, and his family waits for him to come home, with only one letter, months into his absence, to assure them that he is well and alive and will be returning to them.

I wonder if people used to be better at waiting, more practiced at patience.

Now we want to see and know instantly. I can text my husband from the grocery store to ask what’s missing from my list. I can text him a play-by-play description of the swim race my daughter is swimming in, even though we are 100 kilometres apart, and send him photos of the event. I like this. I’m comforted by it.

But I also recognize that I expect it, almost. I feel like I need to know. I also feel like I need to express, immediately, whatever it is I’m thinking. What are we recording in our blogs, in our Facebook statuses, our tweets? It’s the minutiae of where we’re at, in this moment. It’s the stuff of life, the stuff that does not keep, no matter how we mark it, and broadcast it to our friends. This too shall pass.

In the end, I’m not sure our narratives, the ones that are being written now, the stories that matter to us and stick with us, are all that different from the books that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote. She wrote her childhood experiences first as a memoir, but that version was rejected by publishers. Finally, she shaped her memories into something different, going from first person to third, eliding experiences, leaving great swathes out, altering the tone, turning the minutiae, the scraps, into a whole arcing storyline. I feel like I’m telling my story in real-time, here on the blog, but that it’s not the same story I would tell if I decided to write a book about my life. Do you know what I mean? And yet, in both mediums, I am hoping to land on something universal, something lasting, some deeper human connection.

This blog plays the part of witness, I think.

Right now, today, I am suspended. I’m waiting. It feels like I’m waiting to find out about EVERYTHING. No amount of texting and twittering and Facebooking can tell me what’s going to happen. In this way, I’m not so unlike Ma, and Mary, and Laura, and Carrie, waiting to find out what’s happened to Pa, going about their daily routines, keeping busy, keeping their spirits up, hoping for the best. No matter how immediate our access to information, Life remains largely mysterious. The shape of our lives remains mysterious, as it is happening to us. And so we pluck out the scraps and offer them for examination. We photograph our meals and our cups of coffee. We record the kilometres we ran today. But it doesn’t really tell us, does it, where we’re at, and what is happening to us, or, more precisely, what is going to happen.

I suspect that the instantaneous nature of contemporary communication only distracts me from this truth. Patience remains an art that needs to be practiced, and appreciated. And so I wait as best I can.

Time to pick up the kid from the school bus

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I would just like to say that today has gone by too fast. This week has gone by too fast.

I would also like to say that I’m not looking forward to my evening run in the still-cold, still-blowing, still-flecked-with-occasional-snowflakes springtime. At least it will be light.

After saying those things, I would like to confess that a pleasure of mine this week has been re-reading blog posts from last winter, when Juliet was being launched, with all of the excitement and busyness that surrounded that time. I note that we had lilacs budding and lettuce growing in March last year! I note also that we were “cooking with the kids” regularly, and that we had guests over much more often. The difference between then and now, aside from the weather, is an uptick in our evening activities. AppleApple swims three evenings a week, and practices soccer three evenings a week (sometimes back-to-back on the same evening), while Albus and Kevin are out two or three evenings a week, too. I can safely say that supper is disrupted five out of five weeknights. AppleApple can go all week without getting a hot meal. (And I haven’t even mentioned the weekend activities.)

Next up, the season of weekend soccer tournaments, with two kids now involved in rep play.

As always, the balance is so imperfect. Forget balance, I think. Live life where you’re at, so long as it’s working for you. So I’m appreciating the dog walks with the little kids in the evenings, and I’m thankful that my mom comes to help out when we’re going in the several different directions all at once.

I’m also happy to be reading almost every night to the kids. We are now into one of my favourite Laura Ingalls Wilder books: On the Banks of Plum Creek. It’s structured in such a quietly dramatic way: the borrowing to build the new house, the debt, the wheat, the hope, the plague of grasshoppers. The kids were solemn as I read last night about the glittering cloud of grasshoppers that descended and ate every green thing there was to eat. “But that’s their food! And they have the debt!” said CJ. I’m not convinced he’s got the concept of debt down, but you never know. He was really worried about it.

We were all solemn, thinking of the enormity of the loss for this family. And yet, the mother responds with gentleness, not grief. “We’ve gotten by before, and we will again.”

It made me feel utterly spoiled for choice. What do I have to complain about?

Oh, but how could Ma be so patient?

“At least they can eat the prairie chickens!”

But that whole garden lost, and the plums on Plum Creek, and the wheat … and the debt. Could I bear to wait and wait in hope as they must?

But I’ve run out of time, completely! Must race to get to the bus stop before CJ gets off.

Experiments in the key of Carrie

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Dear readers,

Shortest break ever, huh.

A few things. If you are a blog subscriber, please don’t unsubscribe. I will continue to post updates from time to time. Like now.

I find myself throwing around two vastly different ideas on how to continue blogging, with the intention of keeping it a healthy outlet and connector, rather than a time-consuming distraction or vanity-feeding outreach. My first idea is to become a weekend poster, or “slacker blogger” as suggested by a friend. As an all-in personality, this suggestion sounds tough, but just might work. I’ve got the notion that I would like to pour my daily blogging energies into the writing of a non-fiction book, so maintaining an irregular, special occasion, weekend blog would fit well with that. My second idea is to form a paid subscriber base that would make blogging a job rather than a hobby. I throw that idea out there, while acknowledging that it’s problematic from a number of angles. One is that I have serious inborn qualms about mixing creative endeavours with monetary ones. Two is that I may not have the time to give paying subscribers what they’re paying for, and that would be stressful.

So many other things to write about!

* March break: over and done, and after a long week home alone with the children I am inspired to find alternative plans for our summer holidays. My half-baked plan to let the kids look after themselves while I put ear plugs in and worked was a total fail. What was I thinking??

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* Making tea: I read a little article in Geez magazine on making your own infusions/tea by using ingredients like dried orange peel, ginger root, cinnamon stick, cloves, etc. So I’m drying the peel from the orange my son ate this morning.

* Ingratitude is on my mind. How to help my children express and feel gratitude for the many offerings they receive, rather than sulking or complaining about the things they wish they’d received instead? Hm.

* After my last post, I was grateful to hear from readers who hadn’t commented before. The one-sided nature of blogging can feel lopsided and strangely weighted, like I’m writing to a mirror-self, and that sometimes bothers me. I appreciate when people comment, or tell me in person that they’ve related to something I’ve written. It makes writing feel like less of an isolating, interior occupation — which writing so often does. I would miss that about blogging. I think I would miss it too much to stop altogether. That is my weekend reflection. What other medium allows me to connect, in a genuine and honest and real and perhaps most importantly immediate way, with so many people all at once?

So, thanks for reading. Til next time. xo, Carrie

P.S. In response to my vague idea about blogging for subscribers (above), a reader emailed to say: “It occurs to me that it might be possible to think about a blog not on a subscriber model (which might pressurize a daily post), but on a supporter model, which could be more fluid.” She also sent a link to this TED talk by Amanda Palmer on “The art of asking.” Here’s the link. Here’s a taste: “For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet … is taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.”

Wow. Thanks.

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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