January 23, 2015
My book club met last night to discuss Ellen in Pieces, which I’d been looking forward to because I’ve got feelings about this book. I reread it last weekend, and was delighted to find I enjoyed it just as much and came away with a deeper appreciation of the novel’s structure. It’s a novel that’s slightly disorienting to encounter the first time, but to read it again, you get to look around a bit more. It was fascinating to see signs of Ellen’s eventual fate embedded in the text from the very beginning. I read the chapters from other characters’ perspectives differently too—the first time, I’d been consumed by trying to figure out how these other stories related to Ellen’s, whereas this time, the connections seemed stronger and more straightforward. The most devastating moment in the whole book continues to be the ending to “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen”, which I’ve read for the third time now and the effect hasn’t lessened at all. Anyway, this time the novel seemed a bit easier to get lost inside and wander around a bit it. It is definitely the kind of book that is made for rereading.
Plus, the book club liked it too, and it made for interesting discussion. And we got to eat blintzes, which I made because they’re in the book, even though I didn’t know what they were. It turned out they were delicious. Good to know.
What else have I been reading lately? I read Anne Enright’s 2000 novel What Are You Like?, which had been sitting on my shelf for awhile. I started off in love with the stunning sentences, and then grew frustrated with the novel’s fragmentation (and I think I get bored with most novels at the point at while the mentally ill protagonist starts carving symbols into her legs). But then it unfolded in the most marvellous conclusion, and I saw that I should have had faith in Enright all along. The story of one woman’s unravelling via her pregnancy reminded me of Emily Perkins’ A Novel About My Life, which I feel as though I need to read again.
Speaking of reading again, I pulled Bronwen Wallace’s People You’d Trust Your Life To off the shelf, which is a book that everyone should return to again and again. I’d read part of it while I was waiting for Iris to be born, so now the book is all tied up in that kind of nostalgia. I think that the book was a strong relationship to Adderson’s Ellen in terms of its masterful depiction of actual life (which happens to belong to a woman) and flawed, larger-than-life characters. But it also occurred to me how somebody ought to write an essay on Bronwen Wallace and Grace Paley as literary companions. Their works speak to each other, and are also unflinching in their politics. Good at titles too—I think that Wallace’s title sounds like a Paley one. And that Faith Darwin would have had a lot to talk about had she encountered any of Bronwen Wallace’s characters in the playground.
What else? I am knitting balaclavas for my children, and enjoying knitting and purling so very much. We are watching season 2 of Broadchurch. I loved Andrew Pyper’s new novel, The Damned, coming next month. And I’m now reading Thomas King’s A Short History of Indians, and finding it curious, fascinating and horrifying. It’s a really peculiar book. So glad to be reading it finally.
December 31, 2014
It was the year in which planes started disappearing from the skies. A bad year, on a global scale, and while a good year in many ways on the homefront, it’s been an exhausting autumn and I have found the wider world to be distressing and depressing. There were some days when I couldn’t bear to look out the window, let alone at newspaper headlines. And so the holiday was so very welcome when it finally arrived last week—Stuart has had two weeks off work, and we turned off our internet for the first one. I didn’t go online for a week and it was amazing. We had a very nice Christmas, and things have been very social and chocolate-covered ever since. I’ve read so many books, and they’ve all been amazing. And my online habits have still not recovered from the break so I’ve had more time to read than ever—I’d like that to continue. I like the extra time that arrives when the internet’s off.
2014 was also the year in which I stopped keeping track of how many books I’ve read. I mean, I keep a qualitative count here, which seems good enough to me. Which is to say that I don’t know how many books I read this year, but oh well. I’ve also learned (from the last few weeks in particular) that I am really better off reading closer to home, following my fancies and pursuing my own curious avenues. I’m almost tempted to do a reading project like Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is On the Landing, in which she spent a year reading books from her own shelves—except that it turns out that there are many 2015 books I really am looking forward to. I just have to remember that new books are not the whole story. That perhaps it’s smart to wait on the hype. That rereading is one of the great pleasures of the reading live. That as readers, we can plot our own bookish paths. There is liberation in that. And I do have this feeling that the wayward journeys make for better blogging anyway.
As a writer, 2014 was a year of much work and good fortune—a book in the world. I faced it down 365 days ago with a great dear of terror, just as I’d eyed the year before in which we were expecting a new baby. Both baby and book turned out pretty well. This year I’m not expecting anything at all, but that’s kind of a relief. I’ve always found that those years deliver the best things anyway, and I’m intrigued by the prospect of pursuing curious avenues in my writing life as well. I have a few projects in the works—no idea if they’ll ever grow into something solid. I’m pretty convinced of the importance of fallow periods—this might be the one. And I’m excited to find out what seeds will be sown.
Stay tuned for a post about the great books I’ve read over the holidays—my final read of 2014 will be the wonderful A Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe, which is so much fun. Up next—my first book of 2015— will be a book I bought at Book City the other day that I’d never heard of, that I plucked off the shelf because I liked the cover (and these kind of reading experiences—with room for serendipity—are what I’ve been craving). It’s a translation. Because my reading resolution for 2015 will be same as for 2014—to read more widely (which might sound incongruous with reading close to home, but it actually isn’t).
I have found these last few weeks so restful, fun and restorative—as a reader and as a human. I hope to carry that same spirit with me into the new year, and I’ll be so pleased and grateful if you come along as well. Many thanks for your friendship, support and bookish love over the past year. Wishing you all the happiest of new ones.
November 16, 2014
I didn’t know I needed a book fair. Truthfully, my taste for book events are limited because books are my whole life already, and when I go out, it only means less time to read them, and then yesterday I took the escalator up arriving at the Toronto International Book Fair, and I was instantly converted.
It was wonderful.
It was like 49th Shelf, but in real life. Our site, with it’s nearly 80,000 title listings, as I explained to passers-by today as they visited the 49th Shelf booth. These Canadian titles with their beautiful covers, and it’s my job to select which ones to feature on our main page every week, which to include on our lists. So many books, and I know the people who make them, publishers across the country whose good work makes my work so much easier and such a pleasure.
And all of a sudden, here the books were, with covers I know so well, but have never touched. My favourite parts of the fair included the Discovery Pavilion, with Ontario Presses like Biblioasis, Coach House, Mansfield Press, Second Story…so many more. Nearby was Breakwater Books, all the way from Newfoundland. And also the booth for All Lit Up, featuring books by independent Canadian publishers. Books by First Nations authors, a display of art by Canadian illustrators, and then I turn a corner and there’s Gordon Korman. Random House and Simon and Schuster had great booths too, and it was so much fun. So many books. I was in book heaven.
I had the most wonderful time yesterday, and left disbelieving that I’d really get to do it all again tomorrow. The fair was oh so good that I brought my kids and family this morning, quite sure that they’d enjoy the kids’ programming in store, and they did, as you can see in this photo of Iris helping out Debbie Ridpath Ohi with her presentation. The fair was well attended but not hugely so, this being the first year, which meant that we could browse without being crowded, and there was room enough for everyone, and room enough even for children to run amuck. It was an excellent atmosphere, and hugely cool presentations—we caught part of Jon Klassen today. I had the pleasure of introducing Catherine Gildiner yesterday, and there were also appearances by Anne Rice and Margaret Atwood, and so so many others. Truly something for everyone.
And then there were the books I bought. I couldn’t quit. Believe it or not, I’d intended to buy nothing. Because do I need books? I do not. But then I was there, and it was so good, and such a joy to see so many wonderful publishers being celebrated, to celebrate them myself. By buying their books, of course. The books I know from 49th Shelf, some of which are a little bit mythical, but there they were, and I had to have them. I bought Hot Wet and Shaking: How I Learned to Talk About Sex by Kaleigh Trace, because Harriet picked out the cover (and I have heard many good things about this book). Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome by Megan Gail Coles, because I’d featured it on our main page last week and everybody I saw today was walking around with a copy. Diane Schoemperlen‘s because it was reviewed in the newspaper yesterday. Catherine Gildiner’s Coming Ashore, because her presentation was oh so funny. And others still, just because because because. I had to leave finally because my book bag was stuffed and it was getting ridiculous.
(“You know, you don’t have to single-handed keep Canadian publishing afloat,” said my husband. Yes, but…)
So what fun, revelling in bookish things, meeting and re-meeting book people—my people. How rare in this day and age to have an event in the publishing industry so big and forward-looking and optimistic. A party instead of a funeral. The world as a bookstore. It was refreshing and so much fun to be celebrating reading, and readers, and writers and books (and booksellers too!). There was nothing tired about it, and being there was such a pleasure.
I’m a bit sorry that we can’t do it all again tomorrow again, but I’m excited to do it again next year.
November 10, 2014
“Commemoration serves a political agenda, where nations adopt a single story that comes to represent past wars, constructed to uphold a version of the story that allows a nation to maintain a positive perception of its past. In the absence of multiple voices all speaking their own stories, nuance and contradiction are subsumed under an authoritative narrative.” –Carol Acton, “Lest We Forget: War and Memory in the 21st Century” , TNQ 131
I renewed my subscription to The New Quarterly in July, but something went amiss (in particular: my ability to follow up on things) and so only just today did I receive my copy of TNQ 131 whose theme is “War: An Uphill Battle.” But I’m glad about that, because I think I’ve been looking for this exact read as we head into another Remembrance Day, a day that overwhelms me because I think about it oh so much. Though you mightn’t think so—I don’t wear a poppy. But not for thoughtlessness, no. Rather, I am so uncomfortable with the authoritative narrative, which seems to have become even more heightened since a mentally-ill man with a gun charged through Ottawa last month and murdered another man who was a soldier. Some might explain this as the soldier having given his life for us, which doesn’t make any sense. I am also so troubled by how war devastates soldiers’ mental and physical health—it’s as bad for them as it is for anyone. I learned about war from my grandfathers, who were both quite adamant that there should never be another one, that no human being should have to go through that. And they knew what they were talking about.
I’ve only just started reading TNQ, but am already finding it enthralling—in particular Ayelet Tsabari’s essays about her experiences in the Israeli army and growing up under the threat of war, how those experiences formed the person she’d become. A piece by journalist May Jeong about her experiences reporting from Afghanistan. (She writes, “If we are serious about bringing women’s rights to the this country, we have to end the war first.”) Stories and reflections on war and conflict, by writers including Kevin Hardcastle and Tamas Dobozy. The essay, “Mud” by the brilliant Rachel Leibowitz. “Look, Don’t Look” by Diana Fitzgerald-Bryden, on what violent and graphic images do to those of us who watch them. And Karen Connelly’s “#ItEndsHere” on the war(s) on women, along with poems from her latest book, Come Cold River. So many voices, so much nuance and contradiction. It’s a really stunning issue. I’m glad to have finally received it.
So what to do then when you’re a person who won’t wear a poppy, but who wants your daughters to remember the brutal, thankless war their great-grandfathers fought, and one before it in which their great-great-grandfather died. When you’re allergic to sentiment and glorification, you think that death doesn’t make one a hero and also that all this death and injury is such a waste, and you understand the ramifications of Canada having abandoned its role as a peacekeeper. Well, instead of a moment of silence, we talk and talk, and ask questions, and point out contradictions, and reflect, and we read, and we learn.
I am very pleased with the new picture book, Bunny the Brave War Horse, by Elizabeth MacLeod and Marie Lafrance, which doesn’t glorify war at all or mask its ugliness, but won’t terrify young readers either. When a soldier dies in the book, no one suggests it was worth it. But the story keeps the memory of WW1 alive, and we can strengthen the connection by pointing out that that it was really not so long ago. There is nuance here, the soldier thinking to himself that the battlefield (with its poppies) must have been a beautiful place before it was wracked and scarred by war.
I also appreciate the book In Flanders Fields by Linda Granfield, which was first published in 1995 and has just been reissued. Harriet is too young for all the biographical details about John McRae and his poem, but we read the poem itself last night, accompanied by the stirring illustrations, and it made me cry. (It is possible that I so allergic to sentiment because I am particularly susceptible to it.) Yes, it’s definitely part of that authoritative narrative, which would suggest that I have indeed broken faith with those who died, but I haven’t, and neither do I wish current Canadian forces troops anything but “support”, whatever that means. Except what it means has been hijacked, and it’s all very hard, and awful and (really) unnecessary. It is.
An uphill battle, indeed.
However one remembers, though, the point is just not to forget, and I haven’t. I won’t.
November 2, 2014
Tomorrow night in my blogging course, we will be discussing Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”, which really might be one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, and whose wisdom is remarkably applicable to blogging, as well as to life itself. “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”
So I’ve been rereading the essay, following its twists and turns (and thinking about how much the public streets walked by Woolf’s narrator in “Street Haunting” can stand in for the blogosphere, “a form of society that doesn’t enforce identity but liberates it, the society of strangers, the republic of the streets, the experience of being anonymous and free that big cities invented”).
And then there was an excursion to Kensington Market to purchase not a pencil, but boots for the grown-ups in our family, because the shop there that caters to Portuguese construction workers is the best place we know to buy new Sorels. This was yesterday, and we’d woken up to flurries, so it seemed essential that we buy boots immediately. Plus while in the market, we’d get to pick up wood-smoked bagels and sausages from Sanagans for our evening meal. Once the boots were bought, Stuart with stroller was sent on the bagel errand, while Harriet and I took a quick diversion into Good Egg to scope out potential birthday presents for him.
Where I found this book, Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, based on her illustrated New York Times column. I’d never read the column, but I had been reading Solnit’s essay, which references Kalman’s work, her art, this book. And here was the book in my hands, so I had to have it. I came out of the shop with a stack of books, but pleased with myself. “Only one of these is for me.”
When I got home and went through the Solnit essay again, however, I found that I’d been mistaken. While a section of “Woolf’s Darkness” indeed shares a title with Kalman’s book, Solnit doesn’t mention Kalman at all. I’d made the whole thing up. I’d bought the book by accident. Which was kind of interesting to me, because I am so interested in the connections between books, how they speak to one another, and now I’m fascinated too by the idea of the mistaken allusion, the connection that was never there at all. But now it is, because I supposed it was. Our reading lives are such a tangled web.
All was not lost though. While Kalman’s book was far from Solnit’s essay (though for me, the two shall be linked forevermore—and they’re actually interesting companions), the book was wonderful. It was as though my mistaken allusion had been a trick to get The Principles of Uncertainty into my hands, where it had belonged all the while.
Full of gorgeous images, funny stories, curious questions, and delightful things. It has an index, as all the best books do, and an appendix with images of postcard collections (one of postcards with waterfalls), collected food packets, a list of all the characters in The Idiot by Dostoevsky, and the family recipe for the honey cake referenced on page 54:
“The kitchen is small, spare and shiny. We drink tea an eat honey cake in the hot stillness of the afternoon.”
This afternoon, I baked that cake with Harriet, because today had an extra hour within and there was space for such a thing. We had to borrow a bundt pan from our neighbour, Sarit, because we don’t have a bundt pan even though I thought we did. It seems there is no limit to what I’m capable of remembering wrong.
We had a good time baking—it is much less frustrating baking with Harriet now than when she was three and compelled to stick her hands in the batter (and she sneezes in the bowl hardly ever now). I explained to her that we were making a cake from the book that I had bought by mistake, and it’s that a wonderful thing about the universe—that an accidental book can lead to cake in the oven on a sunny afternoon:
“And then the all-clear sounded and people returned, hope undiminished. They returned, so elegant and purposeful to the books. / What does this have to do with bobby pins and radiators and kokoshniks? One thing leads to another.”
Then when we were all done, I proceeded to TWICE pick up the bundt pan (which was constructed of two parts) incorrectly, separating the bottom from the sides and batter seeping out onto the table. (“I heard at least two ‘fucks,'” Stuart inquired after. “What went wrong?”) As I spatula’d up the mess, Harriet patiently parroted what I’d been saying to her about the accidental book as we’d baked, that sometimes mistakes lead us in the most interesting directions.
“I don’t know if it’s quite the same with baking,” I confessed, sorry that everything was not so poetic, but perhaps it is, or it’s just that this cake is forgiving, because it was, and the cake was wonderful. Delicious, moist, and a perfect balance of spice and sweet. One thing leading to another indeed, and what good fortune when the thing one’s being led to is cake.
- Purchase The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman from McNally Robinson, Canada’s Largest Independent Bookstore
October 22, 2014
In these uncertain times (though I am unclear about which times were ever certain) with so much fear, hatred and violence in the world, what books should we turn to? Could there possibly be a book into which escape is possible, all the while the experience of reading sharpens our senses in connection to the troubled world around us?
But in fact there are three, Jo Walton’s “Small Change” series, which begins with Farthing, then Ha’Penny and Half a Crown. We devoured them on our summer vacation this year, detective novels set in an alternate history in which Britain had declared peace which Germany in 1940 and began a slippery slide into Fascism underlined by establishment powers. Such fun absolutely, and yet they’ve never been far from my mind ever since, particularly in light of government response to terror threats in the UK and in Canada lately which has seemed eerily similar to the story Walton writes in her book.
Though this similarity is most deliberate. Walton writes:
“I wrote these books during a dark time politically, when the US and the UK were invading Iraq without a Security Council resolution on a trumped up casus belli. I was brought up by my grandparents, and the defining event of their lives was WWII, it cut across them like a knife. To find a government I had voted for waging a war of aggression really rocked my expectations. If I’d been in Britain I’d have marched and protested, but I was in Canada, which kept out of that unjust war. My husband is Irish, and Ireland wasn’t doing it either. I think it was my isolation on this that went into writing these books.
I had read a lot of cosy mysteries, Tey, Sayers, Christie, Heyer, and considered the interesting fact that they were about sudden violent death and yet they were written in a way that made them safe, indeed cosy. I thought I could use this to write about fascism, and not in a closed known historical context where we’re safe and sure of the ending either.”
We live in a good world—this is one thing I am not uncertain about. And while art is so often a mirror or a window through which we understand the world, it’s so essential that sometimes we see it from a different point of view, which Walton does so brilliantly here, reframing history in a way that helps us understand and navigate the uncertainty of right now, and strive to be better than we are.
October 14, 2014
I was always going to love this book. Would have loved it for the cover alone, the colours, the jumbled shelves, even if it weren’t a celebration of bookshops, which are things I like to celebrate better than almost anything else. “Some Wonderful Things” is a collection of bookshop facts appearing every few pages throughout the book, and I adore any mindset that collects under such a designation. Under which the entire book should appear, probably, because it’s that good, a variable delight. The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell, which asserts that bookshops are here to stay and more excellent than ever, and such a vital part of communities and our reading and writing lives.
I dare you to read this book and not start planning trips around the world to the incredible bookshops featured within its pages—I’m already planning a trip to Silverdell Books in Kirkham, Lancashire, which is a bookshop/ice cream parlour; and how have I never been to Munro’s Books in Victoria BC; and a trip to Parnassus Books in Nashville has never been so necessary; and Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice is the most exquisite sight I’ve ever seen. Campbell shares short profiles of bookshops on six continents (because sadly, there’s not one on Antarctica yet). I do appreciate that at least one shop in the book is within walking distance, The Monkey’s Paw here in Toronto getting special treatment, and I want to go back to Re:Reading on the Danforth, in particular since I read that owner Christopher Sheedy rejigged his store’s layout to accommodate families with strollers (so nice!).
More than just a travel guide, The Bookshop Book is a history too, of the history of bookshops in general and the stories of remarkable ones (which is most of them—including a bookshop on a boat, a bookshop without an address, a bookshop that only stocks one book, and many many more). Campbell talks to writers including Tracy Chavalier, Bill Bryson, Ian Rankin and Ali Smith about their bookshop thoughts.
Ali Smith: “If I owned my own bookshop? I remember when I first found a copy of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, a slim Penguin from the 1970s—you wouldn’t even notice it on a shelf. My bookshop would be full of those types of things: the books that, when you picked them up, you knew immediately that that was the book you were going to read that day. Moreover: whatever you’d been planning on doing, you’d just sit down with that book you’d picked up by chance and read that instead. The days when we sit down with a books o good we don’t get up until it’s read—those are some of the best days of our lives.”
The Bookshop Book made me think of my own bookshop stories: marvelling at The World’s Biggest Bookstore as a child, compulsive book buying at Nicholas Hoare the summer I spent the paycheques I should have been saving for university tuition, the Waterstones in Nottingham and having money after a long bout of poverty, Shakespeare and Company in Paris where my husband and I had our very first fight, discovering Margaret Drabble at Wantage Books in Kobe, and when Harriet ate a sandwich she found on the ground under a table at the Waterstones in Edinburgh, The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, an altogether delightful place. It made me think of the bookshop stories I’m passing onto my own children, the bookshop adventures we go on together, even though the destinations are getting rarer. But bookshops, this book and the voices within it assert, will never disappear altogether.
Unsurprisingly for a book that heralds places in which the book as object is their reason for existing, this book as an object is a most remarkable one. Hardcover, gorgeously designed, with two sections of colour photographs that make clear that these bookshop are as lovely as Campbell says they are. The prose is something else that falls under the category of “some wonderful things” and the whole thing is a delight to encounter, something I first intended just to dip in and out of, but I couldn’t help myself and read the whole thing. You will probably have a similar experience.
Want to know something really wonderful though? I’m in it. I’m even in the index (and yes, there is an index. In fact, there are two. Because this is the very bookish of books.) I wrote a small piece about my sadness at losing our beloved Book City last winter, which is included on page 176. And I appreciate that while Book City Annex is gone, my love for that place has been immortalized within The Bookshop Book, a most fitting place for such an ode. Good company too, and it’s an honour to be a part of project like this, celebrating places that are the best places in the world.
The Bookshop Book is out in the UK now. It’s coming out in Canada in the new year. Make sure you pick up a copy. This is definitely a book you will treasure.
September 23, 2014
I have been hearing rumours for some time that Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels were to be issued with covers by my very favourite illustrator in the universe, Julie Morstad, and these rumours seem to have manifested into reality. I am so excited. Each of the covers is so intriguing and delightful, and I may have to end up owning every single one of them. Elsewhere, I adored the essay “Love Song to My Belly” in Brain, Child Magazine by Goldberry Long, who is the best writing teacher I have ever had. And closer to home, I got to see Caitlin Moran at the Toronto Reference Library last night, and she was wonderful, plus everyone I know was there, and I got to pick up a copy of her novel, How to Build a Girl, which I’m reading now and keeps making me guffaw, which makes everyone around me uncomfortable.
And a strange thing: I spent the weekend rereading the wonderful Chez L’Arab by Mireille Silcoff for a review I’m writing for CNQ. I read it first a month ago, followed by Joan Thomas’s The Opening Sky. And found it odd that both books referenced the same zen koan, “No Water, No Moon.” So that was weird. But it gets even weirder, because upon rereading Silcoff’s collection, I was reminded that a character in the story not only reads the paragraph, but then goes on to encounter it in a podcast shortly after, the koan an uncanny echo in the story just as it was in my own experience. The connections between books and the wider world are so unfathomable.
September 19, 2014
Iris is the solution to everything, namely if your “everything” is getting away with the world’s most paltry book haul from the Victoria College Book Sale (which runs all weekend). And my everything was certainly that very thing this morning, because I have so many books and the bookstore called me yesterday to let me know my order is in, plus the one I bought online yesterday direct from the publisher etc, so I didn’t need any more. So this is all I came away with, which I am quite pleased about, because under most circumstances I have absolutely no restraint.
I’d come prepared with a cookie and a cinnamon bun, hoping these would keep Iris occupied for a little while, and they did, for about 10 minutes, as she snacked in her stroller. But then she wanted out, which she demonstrated by screaming and screaming, because Iris has recently come into her own as a piercing soprano. I ignored her for a little while, and tried to pretend there was nobody else around. And then finally, I took her out and put her in her carrier, browsing continued, popping a “dumma” (soother) into her mouth, but that peace lasted no more than sixty seconds. Who screams while sucking on a soother? But Iris wanted to go, so I let her, and that was okay, because underneath the book tables were boxes and boxes and more books, and Iris likes things in boxes, and I got to look at a whole bunch more books while she played with a box of Goosebumps paperbacks (hence my excellent picture book selection).
And then I took her upstairs to the fiction, which had no boxes under the tables at all, and she was obsessed with the big old staircase that we’d had to climb to get up there, so every time she was let loose, that was where she headed. A brief diversion was a wastebasket, and I let it go for awhile, but then she started picking things out of that box, so I shut it down. I had to hold her, and she was screaming and screaming. Again, I kept my head down and ignored everybody. Surely, I thought, they’d understand that a mother needs to get her book browsing done. A smart trick was holding Iris upside down, which was funny, so she laughed instead of screamed, but that only goes so far, and it made it hard to look for books. And so she kept on screaming, and I think some people may not have found it so charming, but what is a bookish mother to do, I ask you? Well, give up, which I eventually did, but only because I had no business buying books in the first place.
As I was leaving, a very earnest undergrad came up to me and pointed to Iris, who had since calmed down, because we were no longer looking at books. “Is that the baby that was unhappy?” she asked. Apparently Iris was getting a reputation. “Is she okay?” she asked me. “Well, she’s Iris,” I should have told her, but instead I promised her that she was. Whereupon we met my seven-months-pregnant friend and her two-year-old who’d turned an Old Vic couch into a trampoline. I am not sure the book sale is going to recover from a visit from the likes of us.
September 9, 2014
I don’t meme much. I don’t like memes. I like the internet best when everybody is doing her own thing, but I got tagged twice on Facebook, and I’ve been thinking for awhile about how I don’t know how to answer the question of what are my favourite books. For me, the books all blend together, their connections to each other and to the facts of my life all cumulating to pave the path of my progress. It’s not about the book but about the reading. I love books more than I love any one book. But I also love rereading, and so my list of books that have stayed with me (whatever that means—I think any book that’s any good would do such a thing) or a list of my favourites would be a list of books I’ve read more than once, and will continue to revisit to find out how they change as I do. They’re the books I’ll never get over being over.
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple : Partly circumstantial—I read this in the hospital after Iris was born, and had a very visceral connection to everything was reading then, but I just loved it so completely. It was so funny, smart, and fresh, and I’ve been longing for a book to love this completely ever since. Will definitely reread.
- Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion: I’ve read this book about six or seven times, and return to it to fall under the spell of the rhythm of Didion’s prose, and to admire the precision with which she arranges details in order of giving her stories the illusion of telling themselves.
- Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: I was so afraid of this book, my worst nightmare, the story of a woman who loses her entire family in the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. I finally obtained a library copy and was bowled over by the brilliance of the book, and so I had to buy my own copy. I haven’t reread it yet but I will. It’s a a heartbreaking tragedy, a litany of sorrows, but also beautiful, magical celebration of love and life.
- The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble: This was my first Margaret Drabble novel, which I bought at a used bookshop in Kobe. Had no idea what to expect, but fell in love with its writer, and the book too, for its vividness and how it reflected and engaged with the world.
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf: The one book I’ve read more times than Slouching… and it just gets more and more profound and lovely. I read it most recently in July, having replaced my battered and stupidly marginalia’d university copy. It’s the thinking woman’s beach read.
- The Crack in the Teacup by Joan Bodger: I’ve read this one twice, and think about it all the time. It’s about being a woman in the 20th century, about loving books, about heartache, about this city. And about the life of an extraordinary woman who was of her time and also never quite, always in a way that was fascinating.
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: (And also The Robber Bride). Of all the books on my list, I was youngest and stupidest when I first read these, but also so young that they became foundational in my understanding of the lives of girls and women.
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: This was one of those books I was never going to read, because I found all the hype at the time annoying, but I came to it somehow, and have read it five times since. I discover a whole new layer of complexity every time, and have determined that it’s just about marriage and womanhood as it is about motherhood. Also worth noting: still a gripping excellent reading when fully aware of its great twist, which is quite a literary feat.
- Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson: I will never forget the moment of Ruby Lennox’s conception, which was also my introduction to the inimitable Kate Atkinson, whose boundless enthusiasm for pushing the limits of what a novel can do makes her one of my favourite authors. Have read this a few times. It contains the seeds of every single wonderful thing she’s written since.
- Unless by Carol Shields: I’m a bit of a zealot when it comes to this book, which I’ve read so many times that its pages are covered in scribbles, and whose subtle tricky complexity continues to amaze me.
*And don’t get me started on the children’s books, Anne of Green Gables, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Charlotte Sometimes, A Handful of Time, Booky, etc. Plus Flowers in the Attic. And so many more…