March 16, 2015
I’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“.
But 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.”
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
There 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.
What 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 49thShelf.com, 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
I 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
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.
October 8, 2014
The New Family is a really neat project by writer/editor Brandie Weikle that features all the wonderful ways that modern parents are remodelling family life, a project underlined by the challenge: “I bet we can find 1000 ways to be a family.” And I’m so pleased that today, my own family is in the mix, a family whose constitution is not unusual by any means, but I’m glad to tell the story of how our family began with a decision we made in 2008 not to buy a house.
“It was almost Copernican. Because there’s an order to the universe: we hook up, we move in, become property owners of an impossibly small space equipped with a windowless den. We wait until that small space acquires enough value that we’re able to trade up for a proper home, albeit a starter one. And only then are we ready to start pondering such a thing as the future, to put down roots and maybe even have children.”
But we decided to do it another way, and I am so happy we did.
October 1, 2014
Blogging is all about immediacy, and I love that, though it’s hard when plans are brewing in other less-immedate media that I can’t tell you about for months and months. But I have couple of neat things now. The first is that I reviewed The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton in Chatelaine, which is one of “9 Hot Books to Read in October“. The review is also in the print issue of the magazine, in which you can also read this story about a woman who climbs trees for a living. I enjoyed the book a lot, and it’s receiving some excellent buzz (not just mine).
The second thing is that I helped to make this list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime for 49th Shelf and amazon.ca, which is a very good answer to the question, “Does Kerry have the best job ever?” So pleased to have come up with a list with favourites and curiosities, which will no doubt irritate people, but we all know that it’s THE definitive list, so no matter. You can also add your own picks to the mix, which is fun. And I do so appreciate anything that gets readers excited about books.
September 7, 2014
I was so pleased to review Joan Thomas’s new novel, The Opening Sky, in this weekend’s Globe and Mail.
““Never explain, never apologize,” is part of a quotation attributed to Nellie McClung, the title of a chapter in Joan Thomas’s novel The Opening Sky, and an admirable motto, unless one happens to be parent to a young person whose behaviour embodies it. Which is the predicament in which Aiden and Liz find themselves.”
August 19, 2014
Today, a little dream came true. My short story, “If Life Gave Me Lemons”, has been published at Joyland. It’s a story about unrequited love, finding yourself, the bizarre culture of English teachers in Japan, and all the ways we fool ourselves. I love this story, not just because it’s part-ode to my life in Japan more than 10 years ago, though the lovingness of that ode is mostly hidden. But it’s there. So I’m so pleased that the story has found a home, and what a home it is. Thanks to Kathryn Mockler for her great edits, and to the Joyland team for making such a fantastic space online. I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.
August 3, 2014
My review of K.D. Miller’s wonderful story collection, All Saints, was in the Globe and Mail yesterday. I enjoyed the book so much when I read it in July, and appreciated its vital links to Lynn Coady’s Giller-winning collection, Hellgoing, as well as its Barbara Pymmishness, and the ways in which outright Pymmishness is subverted.
“…All Saints reads like a collision between Pym and Lynn Coady’s recent Hellgoing, whose epigraph is from Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem which asks the question, “When churches will fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into.”
The easy answer is condos – their developers are the only ones still banging on All Saints’s door. As with those in Coady’s collection, Miller’s characters are negotiating existence in a world in which the old rules and morality Pym satirized no longer apply.”
July 2, 2014
Things are busy around here with the usual summer things (swimming pools, barbecues, celebrating Canada Day at Queen’s Park, not sleeping at night, lazy days, beer and chicken wings with my husband on a rooftop patio) and with a top-secret project that is going to keep things quieter on the blog front this summer. Which is as it should be–you’re all out gallivanting anyway. But I did want to share two amazing things I’ve been up to lately in celebration of two really excellent books.
The first is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which I was lucky enough to review for Canadian Notes and Queries 90, their summer issue. It’s out now. The review was a pleasure to write, to be working with material that was just so good. The book is the most hilarious heartbreak I’ve ever experienced. A teaser of my review:
“While markedly different in style and tone, All My Puny Sorrows reads as an interesting companion to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, another book about grief and trauma, in which Deraniyagala recounts the loss of her family in the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami. Both books are haunted by narrators whose voices are measured and understated, existing to evoke the dead and the past rather than to illuminate the present, partly because the narrator in the present is a hollow shell of grief. And that grief itself remains a quiet presence in the text, until it doesn’t, bursting onto the page with a torrent of rage. Interestingly, both narrators enact their rage by making obnoxious phone calls, describing themselves as “haunting” the calls’ recipients on whom they (inappropriately, but who can blame them for that?) lay blame for their tragedies.
Unlike Wave, however, and just like everything Toews has ever written, All My Puny Sorrows is also terrifically funny. The young version of Elf is a wonderful character, with her dramatic flares and karate-chop gestures. The most hilarious scene in the book takes place at a funeral (of course) when a young child steps up and begins to eat the ashes of the deceased. Elf and Yolandi’s mother emerges as the real hero of this story, a woman of unlimited faith and optimism (and who, in shock after her daughter’s death, answers every utterance with, “Ain’t that the truth”). And this is Yolandi’s revelation as well, that all this grief has not been put upon her alone, and that her mother, in her obsession with Scrabble games and detective novels, is trying to decode the mystery of things and put words together so they mean something, just as Yolandi herself is.”
I am also very pleased with my interview with Saskatchewan Metis writer Lisa Bird-Wilson about her short story collection, Just Pretending. I read the book in early May and found it incredibly affecting. Bird-Wilson’s answers to my questions were thoughtful, challenging, provocative and profound–just as her book is. And a taste of that?
“Also, don’t you think there’s something a bit unfair about criticism that turns on the fact that stories made the critic feel bad? It’s unfortunate, but I’ve really noticed that audiences want you to read things that are funny—boy, they love that kind of thing. I find myself sometimes trying to excise funny bits from my stories and use them for readings—shame on me for bowing to the pressure but we all want to be liked, don’t we? I guess it’s human nature—we want to be able to laugh together—but in order to laugh together we also have to cry together sometimes. And sometimes we just laugh our way through the pain because there’s nothing else you can do.”
Reading the whole thing here.