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January 14, 2021

Celebration Wednesdays

#CelebrationWednesdays is a thing I made up yesterday as an excuse to be baking a cake with rainbow sprinkles in the middle of a roller coaster week. Roller coaster week in the pandemic sense, of course, which meant that I barely left the house, but the world has been hard and the weather is grey, and I’ve had plugged ears since Boxing Day that have only become worse since I started squirting random liquids into them in order to ameliorate the situation.

And so the answer was cake. (The answer is always cake.)

I made Smitten Kitchen’s confetti cake with butter cream icing, and it was so very delicious. And I determined that, for the duration, we’ll be celebrating something ever Wednesday, no matter what. And yesterday, that celebration was vaccines. The friends of ours who work in health care are beginning to get theirs. Our friends in New York are getting theirs too. A friend told me that school staff in Ontario will be among the Stage 2 vaccinations too, which is the best thing ever, and it all makes me so happy and is definitely reason to celebrate. It will be some time before I get the shot myself, I suspect, but seeing as I don’t get out much these days, I’m willing to be patient.

Right now I am reading Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked, the story of her grandparents’ house in Southwest England and the role it played as a backdrop to the tumult of twentieth century. During World War Two, Lively’s family sheltered six small children evacuated from East London, and she put the story in a context I’d never considered before, having taken these evacuations for granted as part of history. But how bizarre it must have been—officials would come to rural homes and take stock of their capacity, and then inform residents of many people would be arriving. People who would stay for years (and had nits and wet the bed). Can you imagine going through that? What mass organization must have been required. And some of it was very disorganized—Lively writes of plans made for specific people to billeted in particular places, but when the time came, the London stations were so overwhelmed with passengers, they had no choice but to just put them on the first trains available, no matter where they were going.

She also writes about the national spirit in 1939, which I’ve never really thought a whole lot about. During the past year in particular, I’ve found myself wondering if my grandparents ever looked at each other and muttered, “Goddamn you, 1943,” but then of course they didn’t, because my grandfather was away at sea. But Lively writes about the very beginning of the war, about the catastrophic predictions for aerial bombardment from the Germans, which experts had been talking about throughout the 1930s. This was no 1914, “this will all be over by Christmas.” Lively writes, “Anyone alive to official anticipation of what would probably happen in the first days and weeks of war would have been expecting the end of the world they knew.”

The story of these mass evacuations was also one of extreme poverty, vast income inequality, a need “to preempt… mass panic and consequent breakdown of law and order” as attacks began.

Anyway, it all made me think about how there is nothing new under the sun… And about the strangeness of living through history, which I never experienced properly before the last five years or so. I was 22 on September 11, 2001, but for me that was too young to properly understand the implications of those events, or how I was connected to them. One day I think I will write something about how it was watching Mad Men that prepared me for the tumultuous times that we’ve been living through. The visceral way that the show presented what it was to experience the 1960s, the deaths of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. (“WHAT IS GOING ON?”)

Anyway, the great thing about Celebration Wednesdays is that they lead to Leftover Cake Thursdays.

Whatever gets you through.

January 13, 2021

The Push, by Ashley Audrain

“Sippy-cup sinister” is one of my favourite literary genres, books like Emily Perkins’ A Novel About My Wife, Harriet Lane’s Her, Melanie Golding’s Little Darlings, and other forbears including We Need to Talk About Kevin and Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.

Helen Phillips’ The Need also falls into this category, and I’m still overwhelmed by how perfectly she nailed the nightmare of being awoken in the night to a small child standing over you. As terrifying as anything you’d ever fear discovering under the bed.

And Ashley Audrain gets that uncanny disquiet in her buzzed about debut, The Push, and a woman for whom motherhood fails to take, raising questions of nature and nurture, and eventually culminating in her worst nightmare.

The novel is wholly successful as a thriller, full of twists and surprises, and so compelling in its ambiguity, even if that ambiguity is enraging, but that’s the point, the nightmare. (My one criticism is that the back stories exploring the protagonist’s maternal lineage seem insufficiently fleshed out and are perhaps unnecessary…)

But I couldn’t stop thinking about The Push in the context of Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, which I had read just before it. A very different novel, but similarly exploring the ways that mothers are not permitted complexity, whether it’s desire, ambivalence, fallibility, or fears.

This is a novel whose effect is to make you uneasy. It resists neat conclusions and doesn’t exactly satisfy, which is not a criticism at all, instead a testament to the novel’s power—The Push isn’t finished with it’s reader even after the reader is finished with it.

I’ll be thinking about this one for a very long time.

January 13, 2021

Gleanings


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January 11, 2021

Imperfection is a Privilege

The revelation I had last night when I was reading Ijeoma Oluo’s Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, is that imperfection is a privilege. Imperfectionism being the gospel I espouse in my blogging course and elsewhere: “There is no place for perfectionists in the blogosphere. Blogs are inherently raw, wild and unpolished. The important thing is to write the best you can, get to Publish, and then onto the next post. There will be spelling errors, and sloppy grammar, and things will be formatted weird. You’ll get facts wrong, and often you will change your mind. (Ideally, you should always be changing your mind—or at least entertaining the possibility.”

The privilege of being able to be imperfect, sloppy, raw and unpolished in public and still be taken seriously—that’s what Oluo’s book is all about. But it’s relevant in my work too, which is mainly with white women, for whom overcoming the constraints of perfectionism is a challenge. But it’s doubly a challenge for people of colour, the demand for perfection coming from within and without, from a white supremacist society ready to jump on any imperfection as a confirmation of racist bias.

So what to do that that, I wonder? To recognize it first is essential, but of course, it is not enough. What else? To do my part to combat white supremacy, to help make a world where people of colour are as free to make typos as I am. Part of the work I do to this end involves reading works by writers of colour, and insisting on their excellence, because, as Mediocre shows, our definitions of excellence tend to be defined by white guys, and I wish to challenge that. EXCEPT that it takes us right back to where we started, where writers of colour are not permitted the same latitude as those who are white. The pressure for excellence is enough to keep a writer from writing forever, which so many people who started blogs and them quit them very well know.

How about to create space then, for writers to emerge and learn and grow? I have decided that starting now, I will reserve one space in each of my courses for people of colour. To continue to insist that imperfection is for everyone—because what is imperfection if not the right to be human after all?

January 7, 2021

What I Read On My Christmas Vacation

It’s my favourite thing! Time to read! This December, I took a nearly two-week-holiday from the internet AND from the new releases that occupy most of my reading life to indulge in the titles that have been gathering dust on my shelves for one reason or another, books that are a bit dated, which seem like work, for which there does not seem to be any great occasion to finally pick up and read, and yet I keep them around, waiting for the moment. And that moment is now!

Though Michael Christie’s Greenwood is not quite that kind of book. I bought this one last summer after three excellent booksellers (Kathryn from Lighthouse Books, Allison from Beggar’s Banquet and Shelley from Blue Heron) had cited it as a favourite, but it’s kind of long, and it’s written by a guy, and I was just not that interested, even after Stuart himself had read it, and he made me promise I would read it too (because I have this obnoxious habit of not reading the books he’s read, figuring that he’s read it for both of us). And so it was the first book I picked up on the break, and was it ever wonderful. Stuart describes it as “like Cloud Atlas, but less annoying,” and I just found it enveloping, and rich with hope, and such a marvelously bookish book. Three of out of three superstar booksellers AND Stuart can’t be wrong.

I started reading Greenwood as I picked up Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I feel like I’m the last person on earth to finally read, and I’ve opted to read it bit by bit instead of all at once, which has the interesting effect of the book being in conversation with whatever else I’m reading, especially Greenwood. Anyway, I am about halfway through now—this is not a book to be rushed—and enjoying it very much.

Something to be read at a faster pace, however, is Agatha Christie’s (no relation to Michael, as far as I know) Crooked House, which I bought secondhand because our family had been reading Marthe Jocelyn’s middle-grade Aggie Morton series, based on Christie’s early life and her works. (Read Jocelyn’s “6 Reasons to Hook Your Kid on Mysteries”) and the fact that I’d never read an Agatha Christie book was certainly an impediment to me fully appreciating what the Aggie Morton series was up to. And I really enjoyed it! Light and fun. I am going to pass it onto my 11 year old to read next.

William Trevor’s Death in Summer was my next read, which also kicked off my focus on Ireland (though the book itself is not explicitly set there, but it’s where the author comes from). I read my first William Trevor novel the summer before last, the super weird Miss Gomez and the Brethren, which I’d discovered in a provincial park camp store and bought for a dollar. William Trevor’s novels (so far…) are so absurd and a bit psychologically grotesque, unflinching in regards to class tensions, and I love them. In this one, a woman dies suddenly, and the question arises of who should care for her 4-month-old baby, which seems more pressing than grief since the woman’s husband is incapable of feeling and never really loved her anyway, and then one of the candidates for live-in caregiver (definitely inappropriate) becomes obsessed with the father, and starts haunting their property, culminating in the baby’s snatching. ACK!

Something lighter, I supposed, after murder and summer death, so I picked up The Mysterious Disappearence of Leon (I Mean Noel), by Ellen Raskin, whose The Westing Game has been a favourite of mine for years. She was also an illustrator and wrote many picture books (and designed the cover for the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time!) and her illustrations appear in this book, which, like all of her other novels that I’ve read, sadly are not as good as the The Westing Game, which was just as silly but had a certain heft. Not so this one, but it was funny, enjoyable, and a quick read.

And then I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations, about her travels in Ireland. I bought this book in 2014 when my local bookshop was going out of business so everything was on sale and I was obsessed with Solnit after reading The Faraway Nearby, but I didn’t feel any real connection to the subject (in spite of my strange Irish name), so never read it, but I should never have underestimated the capacity of Solnit’s writing to be interesting, I loved this book, which was an exploration of Irish history, geography, British colonial, home and rootlessness, and more.

I got three Sue Miller books for Christmas after becoming obsessed with her Monogamy this fall, and The Distinguished Guest lived up to my hopes that her other books would be as good. (I have since also read The Good Mother. OMG, Sue Miller is amazing!!) It’s hard to say what Miller’s novels are about, exactly, to take such a reductive approach, when they’re such a slice of rich, full loves. In The Distinguished Guest, an elderly woman ailing from Parkinson’s who found late-in-life fame as a memoirist—writing about her marriage which dissolved as she and her ex-husband, a minister, disagreed about how their church would support the civil rights movemen, with her husband supporting radical activism, as Lily took a more measured, middle class approach—comes to stay with her architect husband and his wife, the son finding decades’ old resentments rising to the surface. There are no peripheral characters in this novel, each and every one flawed and complicated, and real.

And then, inspired by the Solnit book, I picked up The Dancers Dancing, by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, which has been sitting in my shelf even longer. I don’t know I waited! Set in 1972 as a group of students from Derry and Dublin spend a month in rural Donegal, ostensibly to learn Irish, the book was such a delight. The novel was a finalist for the Orange Prize in 1999, and it’s richly innovative in terms of point of view, the most amazing omniscience. If you like Derry Girls, you will love this book, which is not like Derry Girls that much, but it scratches the itch, you know?

My final Irish selection was Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel The Hotel, which was funny and delightful in places (the part where the clergyman dares to use the bathroom that had been exclusive to Mrs. Pinkerton (including the loofahs!) but in the end I was glad to be done with it, because it was one of those twentieth century novels in which characters talk around around the thing which cannot be articulated, and I eventually cease to care. Still, I like Elizabeth Bowen very much.

And then! I returned to Natalia Ginzburg, whose work was part of my holiday break last year. I bought The City and the House after reading Melanie’s review, and really really enjoyed it. About a group of friends whose connection falls apart after one of immigrates to America, and the house where they’d all spent time is sold, the book is epistolary and the letters were a bit awkward initially (lots of exposition, unnaturally so) but then started to flow so marvellously. I particularly loved that these friends were at mid-life, because I don’t think we read a lot of stories like that. Yes, this is definitely not an uplifting read (everything that could go wrong tends to) but I really loved it.

I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s story collection The Means of Escape after that. And isn’t it funny how sometimes a book arrives at the very wrong time? I picked up the book a few years ago, and found the first story difficult and impermeable, but I think I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind, because all this time later, the story went down a charm, and I enjoyed the collection very much, and the wide range of Penelope Fitzgerald’s approaches to fiction. How can all that come from one mind?

The Fire Next Time was James Baldwin was after that, and I’ve never read James Baldwin before. But he’s the kind of writer whose words are so part of the atmosphere we breathe that so much of the book, right down to exact phrases, were familiar to me. And what can a person really say about James Baldwin, in all his brilliance, eloquence, generosity and righteous anger? The book is wonderful, and (sigh) as timely as ever.

And then I read The New House, by Lettice Cooper, a Persephone Books edition that I bought somewhere used. Published in 1936, it’s basically about everything I’ve spent the last year wondering about, about power, society, and how things ought to work. Cooper was a socialist and her point of view comes across in the novel, but is also interrogated—what happens when a woman refuses to be selfish, for instance? Are there instances in which looking out for one’s self is necessary? It was kind of an alternative twist on Howards End, a grand home being sold as modern estates are popping up across the countryside, and there is a generational divide, a sense that something is being lost, except that “something” involves terrace slums with eight people sharing a bedroom with an outside toilet, while the middle classes fret about being down to two servants. It’s a book that is a bit too informed by ideas, but also Cooper is uncertain enough about those ideas (and still curious) about them that the effect is not off-putting. And she also does a marvelous job at making the most unsympathetic characters human and real and relatable. I absolutely loved it.,

January 5, 2021

Gleanings


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January 5, 2021

Our Darkest Night, by Jennifer Robson

In her first four novels, Jennifer Robson proven herself as a master of popular historical fiction, her books about strong independent women’s self-discovery against a backdrop of World Wars 1 and 2, weaving fascinating historical detail (Robson holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from Saint Antony’s College, University of Oxford) with scintillating narrative. Her books are huge bestsellers, and many writers, having achieved that kind of success, might determine that they’d found their formula and should probably stick to it, but not Robson, whose smash hit fifth novel The Gown did something a little different, set in 1947 as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, bringing to light stories of craftspeople who’d worked the embroidery on the wedding dress and posing vital questions about the devaluing of craft and art in general that tends to be created and appreciated by women.

And now, two years on, Robson—who: full disclosure, is a friend of mine!—has continued to demand more of herself as a writer and also of her readers, releasing Our Darkest Night, which I read on New Year’s Day and think is her finest novel yet. Set in World War Two Italy as Nina, a secular Jew, leaves her home in Venice to hide in the countryside, disguised as a the wife of Nico, a Catholic farmer, as Italy’s fascist government continues to escalate deadly laws targeting the country’s Jewish population—her father has already lost his medical practice, she is not permitted to study, local Jewish associations are being called on supply officials with lists of people they’re connected with.

And so Nina agrees to go, desperately missing home and her family, and Robson does a wonderful job of creating a beautiful dynamic between them of respect and friendship…that has the potential to blossom into something more. The goodness of both these characters and the relationship between them creating a necessary balance to the backdrop of their story, the cruel and brutal reality of racism, persecution, and genocide. Robson doing nothing to blur the sharp edges of the truth of these matters, their violence and devastation. This is not an easy read, but to make it so would be to dishonour the stories of the real people who lived through and were victims of the Holocaust. And how does a writer whose novels feature plucky heroines and smoochy covers manage to do justice to the weight of the history she is telling? But Robson does, deftly, gorgeously.

Nina isn’t plucky—she’s a survivor. And I was trying to think of what the distinction might be exactly, which perhaps is that she comes to the story without naivete and with such a profound sense of who she is and where she comes from—there is a gravitas to her boldness that makes her absolutely unpluckable. She’s a remarkable fictional creation, and Our Darkest Night is a masterpiece.

January 4, 2021

Trying to Catch a Star?

Coming up:

December 18, 2020

Things I Loved in 2020

Like everyone, I’ve experienced some loss this year. Plans were cancelled, funerals on Zoom, so much uncertainty and anxiety. I posted an image yesterday of some of the signs I saw as we walked up and down the streets of our neighbourhood in the first half of the year, and I think they tell a story.

But among the many lessons that 2020 taught me, it’s that things don’t always turn out for the worst (although sometimes they do). That all those cliches about darkness before dawn and clouds with silver linings and lighting single candles and “everything is going to be okay” have some truth to them. And that there is so much to be grateful for.

I have tried my best to love the gifts that this year has delivered, and these are some of the standouts.

The Weather

Spring arrived with the crisis, and brought light and reasons to go outside, and crocuses and cherry blossoms, which is not always the case in April. The summer in Ontario was pretty beautiful. And then a cool September, which meant our children returned to school and were more comfortable in their classrooms than they might have been. Followed by an autumn more glorious than we’ve experienced in years. I loved all of it.

Getaways

We’re so lucky. I’ve been repeating this phrase all year long. Even from March-June when we were stuck in the city with no access to transit, and I’d started to doubt some of my life choices. But when in June, we felt comfortable renting cars, and a summer of fun appeared, with trips to see my family, a beautiful week at a cottage we were able to rent last minute, two fantastic camping trips, and other adventures. Access to these experiences made everything so much better.

Our Walmart Pool and other Ways to Make the Best of Bad Situation

In April, we bought an 8 foot plastic backyard pool, with a sense of how the summer might go—I love swimming, we use city pools all summer usually, and have no air conditioning—and then three days later our order was cancelled. I was devastated, but Stuart found they were still in stock at Walmart and that one arrived. IT WAS THE BEST. We were nervous originally because we share our backyard and wondered if our landlord would mind us filling the pool, which was pretty large as backyard pools go. But it was amazing! Brought pool blue back into my life. Perfect for cool-downs, the kids played in it, and Stuart even rigged me up a pool tether so I could kind of actually swim. It was the very best thing.

Supporting Local Bookstores

We’ve made it this far because of all the good things that kept arriving on our doorstep, from treats and flowers, to books books books. I’ve purchased from a variety of booksellers this year (and probably bought more books than ever before, which is saying something) but Queen Books has been a mainstay, and they’ve been so good to me!

The Food We Ate

I wrote about this already, but 2020 was delicious.

Our Kids’ Teachers

From the longest March Break ever to the return of school in September, we’ve been so grateful for the support and community of our neighbourhood school, and of heroic staff who—like so many front line workers this year—have risen to the occasion and kept our kids safe at school. Worst fears about school transmission were not realized, and all that is to the credit of school staff working under extraordinary circumstances—and also to our kids, who’ve been awesome and brave, and I’m so proud of them.

My Book Launch

I was glad to launch a book during a pandemic because there was a time in the spring when I wondered if I’d launch a book at all. I am so grateful to my friends and family, to my publisher, to booksellers and readers across the country who made my launch such a rich, special and satisfying experience. And yes, especially to Hien Hoang, who made my EPIC CAKE.

My People

There’s nobody else I’d rather be stuck with for hundreds of days than these three. They’re kind, funny, understanding, fun, up for adventures, give me space, teach me things, help me out, ask good questions, and are my favourite companions. I could not love them more—and yet, I probably will tomorrow.

You

And you! For reading my work, for loving books, for loving my book, for being a good friend or neighbour, for brightening my day, for inspiring me, for making me laugh, for lending an ear, for reading my bitchy DMs, for the gossip, for the friendship, for the book recommendations, for the encouragement, for sharing parts of your life with me. I am so glad you’ve been along for the ride and I couldn’t have done it without you.

December 15, 2020

2020: Books of the Year

Books of the Year lists are so arbitrary, but they matter because they’re an excellent way to tell the stories of our reading year and also to shine some more light on those titles that moved us. (I also helped compile the Books of the Year list at 49thShelf, and you’ll notice a bit of overlap…)

These are the books that mattered to me.


The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

A literary highlight of my week away in July was Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, the follow up to her smash-hit debut The Mothers, which was one of my favourite books of 2016. A novel that reaches across lines of race, class and gender, across history, across an entire nation…


Brighten the Corner Where You Are, by Carol Bruneau

Now liberated from her disabled body and her marriage, both of which she describes as cages of a sort, but “What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did…”


How to Lose Everything, by Christa Couture

How to Lose Everything is a gift of a book that sparkles and sings, a sad story that’s also delightful to read, richly told and bursting with wisdom. There is something to marvel at on every single page.”


Seven, by Farzana Doctor

A remarkable balance is required to create a novel about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that is also a pleasure to read, but Farzana Doctor pulls it off with Seven, a book that is also about marriage, family, motherhood, sexuality, and rediscovering one’s self and purpose at mid-life.


Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuayasi

One more title that I am glad I got to before the year was out was the debut novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was fantastic, a debut that was so polished and assured, hugely ambitious in its reach and just as successful in execution…


The Searcher, by Tana French

What a gift is any new book by Tana French, and The Searcher is no exception. Set in rural Ireland where a retired Chicago cop has come to make a new life after escaping his old one for reasons he really doesn’t want to get into…but then a kid shows up urging him to pursue a local mystery.


A Bite of the Apple, by Lennie Goodings

This book is everything. A memoir of Lennie Goodings’ 40 years in feminist publishing. The story of legendary Virago Press, which has meant a lot to me and so many other readers. A story of 40 years of feminism too, with fractious debate, changing trends, so much learning and thinking and growing…


Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, by Tara Henley

“Looking back, it was probably L’Engle that made me want to be a writer. The epigraph for Lean Out is about all of this: about the power of stories to uplift, to inspire, to shape lives and, in fact, whole eras of human history. It’s also about the idea that we are all called on to contribute to the greater good—that each and every one of us has a role to play in the fight for the future of humanity. That spirit was something I really needed to reconnect to, and writing Lean Out was my attempt to do that.”


Writers and Lovers, by Lily King

I am unaccustomed to reading about a woman who is flawed and who takes her art seriously, and I am unaccustomed to art that treats such a woman seriously, instead of as the butt of a joke. The book begins in familiar territory but then takes its reader to unexpected places… And there’s a lightness to the tone that is possibly deceptive, that any story that’s such a delight to behold must necessarily be less than profound. That any woman who fails to be a perfect candidate must necessarily fail to triumph.


Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas

I was expecting to have fun reading Santa Monica, by Cassidy Lucas, but that the book was so excellently crafted turned out to be the most amazing surprise. Beginning with the end, the much revered fitness coach found dead in his studio, and whodunnit?


Disfigured, by Amanda Leduc

But to say that I did not grow up in a culture steeped in the messages and symbolism of fairy tales, steeped in those stories, would be disingenuous, as Leduc makes clear in Disfigured. Because these stories are everywhere, and yes, they’re only stories… but they’re not only stories. And throughout those stories are representations of disability—hands and heads chopped off in Grimms’ tales that magically grow back, and dwarfs, and women without voices, and witches with crutches, hideously disfigured beasts, and changelings, plus fairy godmothers who exist to reverse one’s fortune.


Monogamy, by Sue Miller

I became interested in her latest novel Monogamy after reading Richard Russo’s review in The New York Times, and I bought the book with my ticket to the Book Drunkard Festival (tonight!). Reading the novel over the last couple of days, and it was one of those books I was disappointed to get to the end of. It was wonderful. Why have I not been reading everything Sue Miller has ever written in the years since The Senator’s Wife? (And why was I waiting for permission from Richard Russo to find her work interesting?)


Polar Vortex, by Shani Mootoo

The novel takes place over the course of a day, and the tension in the text can be excruciating—but in the very best way. The kind of excruciating tension that makes a book unputdownable, that causes a reader to yell at a page. Polar Vortex becomes a book about truth and memory, about how little we know each other, and ourselves. Strange, ominous, haunting, it’s a propulsive read and a deliciously unsettling one.


Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell

…this is perhaps the finest book you’ll read this year. Oh, the writing! The sentences! The scene in the apple store, those pieces of fruit bop-bop-bopping on the shelves to a rhythm. The whole world so magnificently conjured, and yes, it was the universality. It doesn’t matter that this was Shakespeare’s family (in fact the bard himself is not even named), or the century where the story is set—there was an immediacy to the narrative that I so rarely experience in historical fiction.


The Smallest Lights in the Universe, by Sara Seager

Space made news this week with the discovery of possible life on Venus, and what was most exciting for me about this development was that on the team of researchers who’d made this discovery was Dr. Sara Seager, MIT Astrophysicist and author of Smallest Lights in the Universe, which I was reading last week. Can you imagine discovering alien lifeforms and releasing an emotionally powerful memoir all in the same season?


Want, by Lynn Steger Strong

Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want is packed with the same narrative tension that propelled one of my favourite books of last year, Helen Phillips’s The Need. Both of them, as is apparent from their titles, about desperate yearnings, longings, cravings, desires. For an escape hatch, for example, from the demands of motherhood, the feeding, rocking, soothing, waiting. For a way out of the trap of anxiety, a detour away from the trappings of modern life.


Misconduct of the Heart, by Cordelia Strube

This is not a feel-good comedy at all, but oh it’s so richly funny. Funny in the way the world is, absurd, preposterous, sad and hilarious. “You can’t make this stuff up,” kind of funny, which is funny because Strube does, and it’s wonderful. And even feel-good, because there is hope and there is triumph, and the reader is rooting for every single one of these lovable losers to finally win.


If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, by Leona Theis

Okay, imagine the craft and form of Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces, a premise and scope like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and an attention to the details of ordinary life that recalls the work of Carol Shields? (There’s also a Bronwen Wallace People You’d Trust Your Life To vibe that I can’t quite put my finger on…)


The Abortion Caravan: When Women Shut Down the Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose, by Karin Wells

From the vantage of 2020, it is easy to underestimate the significance of the Abortion Caravan. It took another 18 years for substantive change to Canada’s abortion laws to take effect, and even today access to abortion remains a challenge in many parts of the country. But Wells’s powerful book affirms that such ongoing obstacles to women’s autonomy and reproductive rights are why the Abortion Caravan matters more than ever. “We needed brave, badly behaved women back then,” she writes, “and we always will.”


A Match Made for Murder, by Iona Whishaw

As always with Whishaw’s books, the novel is a delight, charming and funny, cozy and enveloping—by page 7, there are already scones. It’s also a wonderful literary homage to the classics of detective fiction, and I love that Nelson, BC, comes with its very own Baker Street. But coziness is not even the half of it—the series takes on race and racism, and misogyny, rape and spousal abuse all factor in this story, which is strongly concerned with the enormous power that men had at the time (and still have now) to control the women in their lives, and also with their sense of entitlement to that control.


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is one of the smartest, most illuminating and important books I’ve read this year—or ever. A rich, engaging and fascinating text that draws a connection between India’s caste system, the Nazis’ plans for Germany’s Jews, and America’s racial hierarchy—matter-of-factly, she shows that India and America’s hierarchies are parallel, and also how the Nazis drew on America’s example for their own purposes, though there were certain examples where the Nazis wouldn’t go that far (one instance: the one-drop rule.) And just think of it—when the Nazis think you’ve gone too far.


Field Notes from An Unintentional Birder, by Julia Zarankin

What a terrifically woven collection this so, so much more than the sum of its parts, each of which is wholly impressive. Through the lens of birding, Zarankin writes gorgeously about finding herself in her mid-thirties, divorced and having left her career. So what now? And it’s through birding that she finds the answers, to this, and to other questions, including how to stay in love, how to be brave, how to be comfortable in her own skin, to understand her own history as a migratory creature, how to live in the moment, and how to have purpose. How to be.

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Book Cover WAITING FOR A STAR TO FALL

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