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October 6, 2015

Canadian books for high school readers


This summer, I got one of the coolest gigs I’ve ever had, the opportunity to write a list of suggested Canadian  fiction titles with which high school English teachers can freshen up their syllabus. As I write in the piece, I was inspired by Natalee Caple’s “Why I Teach Brand New CanLit,”  which was about university classes, but her points were just as relevant for high school teachers as well. And it was no challenge to come up with the 25 titles I ultimately included in the list—I do suspect that teachers are actually spoiled for choice in this context, should they choose to be.

My list appears at Education Forum, which is the magazine of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation. You can read it here.

October 1, 2015

The Possibility of Elephants

adultonset-194x300“I had a job at Pizza Hut in the last years of the old century, the location on Toronto’s Bloor Street just west of Avenue Road. I worked the take-out counter, serving ancient slices that were sweating under the heat-lamps, and one day I looked up from the till to see an elephant lumbering by, a bright emerald ribbon secured to its tail…”

And so begins my essay on rereading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, which is also about the mutability of memory, of literature, and of streetscapes, Bloor Street’s in particular. It’s about Balloon King, Starbucks, mistakes in fiction, parallel universes, and the Shafia family murders. It’s about Honest Eds and trauma, Daniel Libeskind’s “Crystal” and Jian Ghomeshi’s creepy voice. Plus, about having a two year old.

Anyway, I am really proud of it. As many of you already know, the word “essay” comes from the French verb “to try” and for me this piece was certainly an experiment. But I am very pleased with how it turned out, and grateful for Rohan Maitzen and her colleagues at Open Letters Monthly for their work on the piece, and for giving it such a wonderful home.

Now go and read it here! 

September 24, 2015

Solid Gold


This week for Picture Book Friday, I bring you the October issue of Quill and Quire, which is on newsstands now. As part of their special Kidlit Spotlight, I took part in a panel discussion focussed around the question, “Are we living in a  golden age of Canadian picture books?” It was a very neat, informative and wide-ranging discussion with a bunch of kidlit experts (of which I am now—it’s official). As someone with strong opinions about most books I read, good and bad, it was interesting to hear from others with different points of view. (This is the reason I’m never going to start the blog I was born to write, called “Picture Books I Really Hate”, because these things are so subjective.) It was also really interesting to learn from people whose roots in Canadian children’s books go back to the 1970s (which is basically when Canadian children’s literature began) and find out what is different and what has stayed the same. And is this a golden age? I really do think so. I was pleased that my quotation from Ursula Nordstrom closed our discussion, about books that are written from the outside in, versus books written from the inside out (i.e. the best kind). And there is such a greater level of sophistication in Canadian books at the moment, even by the same writers who were working 30 years ago. Kathy Stinson’s Red is Best is a classic, timeless and fantastic children’s book, but her recent award-winning The Man With the Violin is on a whole other level, which is where so many picture books are appearing these days. It’s a real pleasure to be a part of this literary moment.

Also in the issue are great children’s book reviews, and plenty of other good stuff. Make sure you pick up a copy!

August 20, 2015

Preventative: The Litter I See Project

clareToday my short short story, “Preventative”, is up at the fantastic The Litter I See Project, a brainchild of the excellent Carin Makuz. She has enlisted a slate of Canadian writers to create a piece inspired by a piece of litter (“the litter I see”) in order to support literacy. Readers who enjoy these pieces are encouraged to make a donation to Frontier College. Find out more about the project here.

My story:

“She’s all arms and legs, that girl,” was what everybody kept saying to Myra when Teeny turned six and got gangly. Which irritated Teeny, who was not only pedantic but also sensitive to remarks about her appearance, and so she’d glare at whoever was speaking and she’d say, “That’s not even true. I have a body.” Slapping her bum to make the point, storming away, a tornado of limbs. Eventually Myra’s sister felt she had to have a word.

“That girl needs to learn to watch her tone.”

Read the whole thing here. 

May 31, 2015

Close to Hugh in Globe Books

close-to-hughMy review of Marina Endicott’s new novel, Close to Hugh, appeared in the Globe and Mail this weekend. It’s a book so very much about its own style, its words as materials, and I found myself wanting to respond in a way that honoured that. I’m so pleased with what I came up with, which was a pleasure to write, because there is so much remarkable and interesting about Endicott’s huge and sprawling novel. It’s not perfect, but it’s never boring, and it’s so original and ambitious. I read it twice in April, book-ends to our England trip, and now I’ve got nostalgia now for its pages and how they remind me of suitcases and waiting for our taxi to come.

From my review: “Rich with adjectives, the novel addresses huge and general questions about the meaning of life and the universe with remarkable specificity. ‘We are tiny, unknowable, unimaginably unimportant, far from everything, only close to each other,’ one character observes, which on a macro level is the point of Close to Hugh but, as the novel demonstrates, is also totally wrong. Because of how art itself brings the world into startling, vivid focus, and suddenly every little thing has meaning after all.”

Read the whole thing here.

May 22, 2015

My Grandmother’s Rolling Pin


This week at the 4 Mothers Blog, they’re writing posts that tell the history of their families through objects, and I’m so pleased to be their guest-blogger this week. I wrote about the solid wooden things that connect me to my family’s past, in particular my grandmother’s rolling pin, and pie, and how baking is a complicated feminist legacy.

You can read my post here.

March 16, 2015

My review in CNQ 92

CNQ92-CoverI’m very pleased to have a book review in Issue 92 of Canadian Notes & Queries, which should be on newsstands now or soon. I’m pleased first because it’s a neat issue—my friend Rebecca Rosenblum wrote a wonderful essay about the role played by levelled readers in early literacy, and I loved JC Sutcliffe’s piece on Innu and Inuit translation (including of Sanaaq), and lots of other intriguing pieces I have yet to explore in their entirety, including Alex Good’s talked-about take-down on “Canlit’s ruling gerontocracy“.

chez-larabeBut I am really pleased about my review in the issue because it’s of Mireille Silcoff’s Chez L’arabe, which was a really great book, one of my favourite reads of last year. And because my review is one of the best I’ve ever written, I think. I worked really hard on it and I’m really proud of it as a testament to Silcoff’s work and as a piece of writing in its own rite.

“In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes, “the most truthful way of regarding illness… is one purified of…metaphoric thinking.” Albeit from an angle less concerned with truth than fiction, celebrated journalist Mireille Silcoff, in her debut story collection, Chez L’arabe, also situates illness as a point at which metaphor fails. At the centre of the book is a character suffering from a condition in which the spinal cord develops holes and begins leaking fluid until there is “no cushion around [the] brain, soft brain knocking against hard skull, no buffer, and every car ride felt like a prelude to an aneurysm.”

cnwAnd what is the reader to do with that?

Metaphorically speaking, this affliction is a universal one, particularly in literature. Has there ever been a book that was not about metaphoric bumps in the metaphoric road that makes minds hurt (metaphorically)?

But no, the metaphor is too obvious, too awful. Particularly when we’re presented with a character walking to the car with her tripod cane, who then must lie face down across the backseat with her nose pressed into a cushion. “[P]lease be very careful on the potholes,” she tells her taxi driver. There is nothing metaphoric about that.

Sometimes, as both Silcoff and Sontag show, a thing is just a thing, and thus it is materiality with which Chez L’arabe is preoccupied.”

Buy the magazine, and read the whole thing. And then read the book. Read everything!

March 5, 2015

Perhaps the alphabetizing is a diversion

IMG_20150305_132621There is something. I am not sure what it is. Perhaps we’re that much closer to the sun and the days are longer, though winter is still very present, and maybe it’s that I’m keeping my head down and just trying to make it to the finish line. With March Break on the horizon (and we’re having a Dreaming of Summer party, inviting friends over so their moms can drink sangria in the morning with me), plus we’re spending much of April in England, which I’m so excited about. Before we leave, I am quite adamant that I shall finish the second draft of my novel, so that’s a preoccupation of late. I’ve been reading so many exceptional books (Eula Biss’ On Immunity at the moment), and reading fewer think-pieces. The other day, I culled my to-be-read shelf and got rid all the books I kind of always knew I was never going to read, and all the books that I was intending to read because I thought I should (and while I’ve meant to stop acquiring such books, I sometimes even fool myself). And then I alphabetized the books that were left, whereas before they’d been a series of teetering stacks. And it feels good, tidy, exciting. Though perhaps the alphabetizing is just a diversion. Is it possible that alphabetizing is always a diversion? I don’t think so though. It’s an order to chaos, something that makes sense. Regardless, it does feel like I’m walking along on the edge of something.

IMG_20150210_083952What else? Heidi Reimer’s winning essay about female friendship has been published in Chatelaine. I interviewed Marilyn Churley about reuniting with her son and her fight to reform adoption disclosure in Ontario. My profile of Julie Morstad is now online at Quill and Quire. A few weeks back at, we did a virtual round-table on The State of the Canadian Short Story that was amazing. And finally, here is a photograph of my children, because I know there are a more than a few readers who visit this site for only that.

February 11, 2015

My Julie Morstad story in Quill and Quire

quill-featureI hope you’ll pick up the latest issue of Quill and Quire, which is on newsstands now. It has a feature on Canadian horror (including a bit with Andrew Pyper, whom I interviewed this week at 49thShelf for his new novel, The Damned, which I really liked) and a huge spotlight on Canadian children’s literature. And right in the centre of the issue is my piece on Julie Morstad, of whose work I am quite beloved—Julia, Child, the Henry books with Sara O’Leary, the award-winning How-To, Singing Through the Dark, and more. The feature includes images from her forthcoming book with O’Leary, This is Sadie, which is going to blow your mind with its goodness. The piece was such a pleasure to write.

October 14, 2014

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

IMG_20141014_211718I 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.”

IMG_20141014_211858The 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.

IMG_20141014_211908Unsurprisingly 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.

IMG_20141014_211930Want 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.

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