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September 25, 2016

My Literary History, via the Victoria College Book Sale


I must have gone to the Victoria College Book Sale when I was student there (and when I worked at the Victoria College Library, which the book sale supports) but I don’t really remember it. My appetite for books then was more theoretical than practiced, and I didn’t yet have tastes of my own. When pressed, I would have told you that I admired Margaret Atwood, but looking back, I don’t think I had any idea what she was up to in her work. I was still reading the books I thought I was supposed to be reading back then, buying battered paperbacks with familiar names—Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence. They were always men. It makes total sense now that I didn’t have very much fun reading these books, or even remember them. I recall reading The Years, by Virginia Woolf in my undergraduate years, and finding it all very difficult to decipher. I remember reading it again in the months before I went to graduate school, and being able to make sense of it, and being oh so relieved—perhaps I was finally getting smarter.

It was in the years I was out of school that I finally figured out who I was as a reader. Living in England helped, with its omnipresent literary culture, but after that I lived in Japan, and that helped too. To go from being overwhelmed by print culture to being functionally illiterate was amazing, and having so few books available to me—we read whatever we could get our hands on. I don’t know that there has ever been a more important bookshop for me ever than Wantage Books in Kobe, where I first found Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and also Carol Shields Various Miracles. It occurs to me that as a reader and I writer, I was actually born there.

I returned to Toronto in 2005, to attend graduate school at the University of Toronto, and I returned also to my job at the EJ Pratt Library. We were so poor then, as I attended school, and Stuart waiting for his permanent residency, without which he was unable to work. When I went to the Victoria College Book Sale in 2005, I remember knowing I probably shouldn’t. We didn’t have the money for it. And me being who I am, and books being what they are, I ended up spending $14 (—this was the half-price Monday, I think) which was a terrific indulgence and one I appreciated so much. I wrote about it here, and reading that list now, these are all books that meant a great deal to me—Penelope Lively and Hilary Mantel (pre-Wolf Hall!). Over the next few years, I would buy everything from Margaret Drabble’s back catalogue at the Victoria College book sale, which fundamentally has been my gateway to major (mostly British) women writers. Laurie Colwin too, and Muriel Spark, Jane Gardam, Anita Brookner and Doris Lessing

2006 was the year I bought Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which my friend Kim handed to me saying, “You’ve got to read this,” wholly unaware that the blurb on the back by Amy Tan said precisely that this was the type of books that drives one to do such things. I was no longer poor by 2007, so bought about 20 books. In 2008, I purchased an actual tower—with Penelopes Fitzgerald, Lively and Farmer.

By 2009, I realized I’d bought all the books available at Half Price Monday and would have to up the stakes a bit. It was also the first year I went with a baby and the year I bought my first Barbara Pym—Excellent Women. In 2010, I left my baby at home, and went determined to buy books I really wanted to read and not ones that would simply gather dust on the shelf—that was also the year I bought Bronwen Wallace’s story collection, which has never been dusty.

2011 was the most fantastic year—Rachel Cusk, Isabel Huggan (who I hadn’t even read yet!), Lynn Coady, Caroline Adderson, Ali Smith, and more. I missed the Vic Book Sale in 2012—we were in Alberta for my sister’s wedding. It’s possible I missed it again in 2013, with a small baby in my life and an awareness that more books was the last thing I needed. I was perhaps still trying to get through the books I’d purchased two years before. But my small baby grew, and in 2014, she screamed the entire time I was browsing, which solved the problem of too many books (and not because I cut my browsing short, but just because the screaming baby made it hard to concentrate)—that was the year I bought just two books!

Last year I got to go child-free, a few hours stolen while Harriet and Iris were at school—that was when I got a box of Narnia and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (which I would turn out to love, against all my expectations, but in accordance with everyone else’s).

And now this year, which is the whole point of this post. Believe it or not, I did not actually intend to write my autobiography via my history of the Victoria College Book Sale, but that seems to be just what I’ve done. And this year was a very good haul. Penelope Fitzgerald seems to be the one author left whose books I was discover via the book sale—I got Innocence and The Means of Escape. The Mysterious Case of Leon, by Ellen Raskin, whose The Westing Game is so beloved by me and I reread it in December when I was sick. This novel is meant to be quite different, but it’s full of her characteristic illustrations (she wrote wacky picture books during the ‘sixties, and did you know she designed the original cover of A Wrinkle In Time?) and I think I’ll like it.

I got The New House, by Lettice Cooper, because a Persephone Book for $5 is a deal not to be missed, though I know nothing about Lettice, except that Jilly Cooper married her nephew and wrote the intro to this edition. The History of Little Orphan Annie, by Bruce Smith, was a STEAL for $1, and perhaps a book that had been waiting its whole life to get to me, and this is why I love book sales, the serendipity. Mother Superior is the first book by the excellent Saleema Nawaz, and I wanted to buy this book when I visited her in Montreal this spring, but it wasn’t on the shelf, so I was glad to get this copy. And finally, Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay, because the number of amazing writers and readers who testify to his greatness are legion. I think this one will be fun.

The Victoria College Book Sale seems as much apart of my autumn as the leaves changing colour, or the kids heading back to school. A pleasure in recent years is encountering friends there without even having made plans to do so. This year, we followed up our book browsing by heading out for lunch together, and admiring all new acquisitions, revelling in the goodness of books.

September 25, 2015

A Veritable Marathon

CPwvy-eUAAExzgjThis morning I had the pleasure of dropping my children off at their respective schools, and then heading over to Victoria College to pre-drink for the book sale which started at 10am. By which I mean that I ordered a chocolate croissant and a cup of tea at Ned’s Cafe, and indulged in all of it—the food, the time, the solitude, the book sale anticipation. Thinking also about the extraordinary kindness with which people have responded to my previous blog post, and how it has caused all kinds of people special to me but far flung to get in touch after ages, and the whole thing has all been wonderfully buoying. I wasn’t expecting that. I just needed to get the words out, all 2000 of them, which took and hour and a half the other night, but it was time well spent, I can now say. As was this morning, the pleasure of my own company. I have adjusted extraordinarily well to having my mornings free (of the children, I mean; my mornings are generally full of work—I worked extra hard this week so that today I wouldn’t have to). The whole arrangement is so good, I feel like it should be illegal.

And the book sale? (BTW, this year they have a blog!) It was fantastic, and this is the first time I’ve not had to browse while toting a screaming baby. (Last year, whenever I turned a corner, someone would look up and say, “Oh, that was your baby crying.”) I’d intended to buy very few books, but it turns out that’s far simpler to accomplish when one is doing the toting a screaming baby thing. This year, alone, I managed to put down far more books that I picked up, but still came away with a sizeable pile, although nothing on years past. Complete Chronicles of Narnia—we’re halfway through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe now, and we’re loving it. (Stuart and I, growing up on different continents, were both traumatized by the cartoon film version of this book as children, so have never really read the books.) So we look forward to reading the other books in the series. And also The Borrowers, and Margaret Laurence’s The Olden Days Coat to add to our Christmas Book library.

I picked up Carol Shields: The Art of a Writing Life, which I read about ten years ago but would like to read again. Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books, because Kate Sutherland handed it to me, and I generally follow her advice on most things. The Unreluctant Years: A Critical Approach to Children’s Literature, by Lillian H. Smith, famous Toronto children’s librarian who now has a library in her name. Published in the 1950s, I’m interested to see how this reads now—particularly now since I am an official children’s literature expert myself.

And finally, the novels. I walked around in the fiction section upstairs and was at one point holding a stack of ten books, which is lunacy because I have so many books to read already, I do not need to be gathering more. So I whittled my pile down to The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald, and God On the Rocks, by Jane Gardam, both is excellent condition, and I feel very good about my choices.

Even with the tea and croissant, however, I find myself exhausted by the whole experience. One who has never lived it could not imagine how tiring it is to browse for books for two hours, pressure on the back, the shoulders, all that standing. Not to mention fighting for space with other browsers, elbow weaponry. Carrying the books around in the meantime. It’s a veritable marathon.

Thankfully I am an athlete in my prime.

September 19, 2014

Iris is the solution to everything

booksIris 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 24, 2011

Vic Book Sale 2011

There are not words for how amazing was my haul from this year’s Victoria College Book Sale. Though I did not do as I intended, which was to buy only books from a list of titles I was looking for. From the list, I found one: Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love, because I’ve never met anyone smart who didn’t revere it. The rest I couldn’t help but pick up alongside it, and I’m so pleased with my selections– I didn’t make the mistake of buying aspirationally, or picking more battered paperbacks condemned to sit unread on my shelf a half-decade.

The only problem is that I am still determined to get through that unread shelf that I’ve been plowing through for the past six months– they’re in alpha-order by author, and I’ve read up to K so far. And in order for these books to continue to be read, I’ve decided not to read a single one of these delicious new selections until the shelf is empty. Which is a bit torturous, actually, but also very good incentive.

Books got: Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin (which I’ve read already, but has been missing from my library), A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, The Best of Friends by Joanna Trollope, Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With by Susan Swan (I read this when I was in university, and hoping the title might justify my lifestyle at the time), Fables of Brunswick Avenue by Katherine Govier (we don’t live on Brunswick, but we do live about 30 metres from it), Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald who I am determined to learn to appreciate, The Temporary by Rachel Cusk who is Rachel Cusk after all and I love everything she touches, You Never Know by Isabel Huggan who I’ve never read. I actually wanted The Elizabeth Stories but didn’t find them– have been interested since Elizabeth Hay’s recommendation on Canadian Bookshelf, I got The Rosedale Hoax by Rachel Wyatt which was pubbed by Anansi in 1977 and which I learned about from Amy Lavender Harris’s book Imagining Toronto, Elspeth Cameron’s memoir No Previous Experience, Lynn Coady’s Strange Heaven, Saving Rome by Megan K. Williams which my book club is reading next month, Ali Smith’s collection The First Person, Caroline Adderson’s novel Sitting Practice, and Wendy Wasserstein’s The Elements of Style.

And in about 40-some books’ time, I’ll be permitted to read them!

September 23, 2011


At the age of 2 and one quarter and a bit, Harriet is now officially weaned, which I’m telling you now for a couple of reasons. The first is that I truly enjoying horrifying the kind of people who become horrified by the fact that I’ve breastfed for so long. The second reason is because it’s quite a milestone, and I don’t like the idea of breastfeeding having to be a private thing, business that I keep to myself for fear of horrifying somebody (except when I want to horrify someone, as previously noted), because it really is of the mundane essential stuff of life that I write about on my blog all the time. And the third reason I raise the topic here is because breastfeeding was always when I got my periodical reading done, and the loss of this reading time each day now means that I’ve got magazines piling up in my house at a terrifying rate. Plus it’s September, which means there is a new release out basically every day that I’m meaning to getting around to read, and the Victoria College Book Sale is this weekend (which is, as many of you know, the thing I enjoy in the world more than anything else at all except Afternoon Tea). So there will be books, books and more books, and now I’m a bit terrified at the prospect of my leaning tower of magazines.

April 10, 2011

Carol Shields, yard sales, departures and arrivals

When I looked out the window at our gorgeous Saturday, I had a craving for a yardsale, but suspected it was too early in the season. Not too early to get outside though and take in that glorious sunshine. We walked down to Kensington Market after breakfast, determined to spend no money, but then got hungry, went to the bank, and bought an empanada, a peanut butter and jam cookie from Miss Cora’s Kitchen, and a block of cheese. In retrospect, it was a very positive change of heart.

Then walking back up Major Street, all my dreams came true. A woman was selling a pile of stuff out on her sunny lawn, and so we crossed the street with glee. There wasn’t much that caught my interest, however, though it’s the browsing that’s half the fun anyway. But double the fun when I see that Carol Shields’ Collected Strories is on sale for 50 cents. Which is not only a bargain, but it contains an unpublished story. What a prize! I couldn’t think of a better find.

And it was the perfect day for it, because I was reading Carol Shields’ play Departures and Arrivals, which I bought at the Vic Book Sale last fall. I wasn’t sure about the play at the start, but I warmed to it quickly– absolutely Carol Shields, about conversations between friends, family, lovers and strangers in the middle of a busy airport. I’d say there were about 30 Carol Shields novels contained within this slim volume, and I am so pleased that I got a chance to read it.

For the next week or so, I will be focusing on my unread books before new releases, trying to clear a little space on my shelf before things get (even more) out of control. It’s funny, there are books on that shelf that have been sitting there for years, and I’ve even tried to get rid of them but can’t, but it seems harder to actually read them. I should have one of those rules like for closets where you have to pitch anything that’s been sitting untouched for a year. And it’s true, there are these books I know in my heart I will never, ever read, but I haven’t quite come to terms with it yet. The others, however, I’ll be getting to soon.

September 26, 2010

Books, I've had a few. Regrets? Not lately.

I went out by myself on Saturday m0rning to check out The Victoria College Book Sale (whose half-price Monday is tomorrow, for anyone who’s interested). The plan, seeing as I have far more unread books that I have money, was to purchase a book or two, which was quite a different plan than in years past when I’ve purchased a book or twenty. Plan was also different than in the past, because I was attending on a full-price Saturday, having noticed in the past year or two that the Monday books are usually the same. And am I ever glad that I made the switch, because the books I came home with are absolutely wonderful, albeit slightly more numerous than two. (“But think of all the books I didn’t buy,” I pleaded as I walked in the door, so bookisly laden.)

Not one of the books I bought is aspirational and due just to collect dust on the shelf, or a book I’m unlikely to enjoy a great deal. I put much thought into my purchases, and just as much into the books I didn’t buy, and I’m happy with what I settled upon. I am extremely excited to dig into each of these.

I got Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, because it’s the Peter Wimsey novel that introduces Harriet Vane, and I’ve been led to expect fine things from it. I got True Lies by Mariko Tamaki, because she intrigues me and because it was radically mis-catalogued, and so it was fate that I found it at all. Next is Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark, because reading The Comforters is only the beginning of my Muriel Spark career. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, which I know nothing about, except that a few other bloggers have read it, I like the title, and I’m fond of that Virago apple. Sloane Crosley I Was Told There Would Be Cake, because I can’t get enough of essays, it comes well-recommended (and there’s cake). Carol Shields’ play Departures and Arrivals, because unread Carol Shields is a precious, precious thing. Bronwen Wallace’s collection People You’d Trust Your Life To, just because it felt like the right book to buy. Michael Winter’s This All Happened because it is shocking that I haven’t read it yet. And finally, Jessica Grant’s collection Making Light of Tragedy, because she wrote Come Thou Tortoise and I’ve heard this book is even better.

Can you believe that discretion was actually exercised? Unbelievable, I know. Less so was exercised today at the Word on the Street Festival, where I purchased a fantastic back issue of The New Quarterly (the quite rare Burning Rock Collective Issue 91), and the Giller-longlisted Lemon by Cordelia Strube. Harriet also got to peek through the Polka Dot Door, and meet Olivia the Pig, and there were also a lot of dogs and balloons, which are two of her favourite things.

In other remarkable this weekend news, someone who was neither Stuart nor me put Harriet to bed last night, because I’d blown the dust off my high heels for our friends Kim and Jon’s wedding. We had the most wonderful time, not least because it was within walking distance (even in said high heels). The ceremony was lovely, the bride was stunning, groom was adoring, the venue was incredible (overlooking Philosopher’s Walk, with a view of the city skyline), great company, delicious dinner, too much wine, and then we got to dance, and had so much fun looking ridiculous. We walked home after midnight happy and holding hands, and I could hardly detect an autumn chill while wearing Stuart’s too-big-for-me jacket.

September 29, 2009

Pickings less slim than planned

This is the fifth year that I’ve attended the Victoria College Booksale on Half-Price Monday, and I regret that it may have to be the last. The same books are always left over and for a long time they were exactly the books I wanted, but I have them all now, so the pickings seem a bit slim. Which is probably the reason I thought I was being so prudent as I browsed, careful to only pick up books I had some intention of reading with pleasure (rather than books I’d read if I were somebody I’d rather be, which is a mistake I’ve made before). In the end, however, my stack was not so modest. It was smaller than in years past, but that’s not saying very much.

I got an ARC of Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan (because I liked the title), The Sweet Edge by Alison Pick (because I just read her story in The New Quarterly), That Scatterbrain Booky by Bernice Thurman Hunter, Charlotte’s Web by EB White (because they’re both wonderful, and Harriet can read them when she’s bigger), Almost Japanese by Sarah Sheard (because I liked the title– Japan having once been my home– and then I saw it was Coach House, and knew I couldn’t go wrong), Dear Mem Fox by Mem Fox (I KNOW! I KNOW!, and I hope no one reading is too deterred by my being absolutely obsessed with this woman. I am so excited to read this book), The Space a Name Makes by Rosemary Sullivan, Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin (because I’ve already read it, and therefore it won’t sit on my To Be Read shelf!), Fludd by Hilary Mantel (see– slim pickings. I’ve long swore I’d never read a book called Fludd, but now maybe I will. I do love Hilary Mantel, and this isn’t the most historic of her historical fiction, and so…), Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (because I’ve wanted to read her for a while), My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier (even though I haven’t managed to get around to Jamaica Inn from last year), Goodbye Tsugsumi and Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto (because we like Japanese fiction in translation at our house), Believe Me by Patricia Pearson (sequel to Playing House, which I read in the spring), Salvador by Joan Didion (because, because, because), and Fatal Charms by Dominick Dunne (a collection of his essays. Am looking forward to it). And also, Eloise, because everyone needs a primer on misbehaviour.

September 30, 2008

A Tower of Books

Courtesy of the Victoria College Book Sale Half-Price Monday, I come home with Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier, According to Mark by Penelope Lively, Flowers for Mrs. Harris by Paul Gallico (original hardcover!), Glass Houses by Penelope Farmer, Best Way You Know How by Christine Pountney, Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelope Lively, Rainforest by Jenny Diski, Gates of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerland, Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing, 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff, Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, Liar by Lynn Crosbie, Child in Time by Ian McEwan, Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner, Regards: Essays by John Gregory Dunne, Between Friends: A Year in Letters by Helen Levine and Oonagh Berry, The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing, and Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively. Indeed, 25% written by various Penelopes, which is something, no?

October 1, 2007

So many Penguins

Well, my fears were unwarranted. The Victoria College Books Sale had more than enough books for me and the WOTS crew. And there’s still more, and you can fill a box tomorrow morning for a tenner if you’re interested. But I am finished. From the top left: Forever by Judy Blume, so my future-children can have naughty books around the house appropriate to their age group; Volume Two of Woolf’s Diaries, as I’ve only read the last one so far; Penelope’s Way by Blanche Howard, who I’ve wanted to read since her letters were published last Spring; Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, which, though I can’t believe it, I’ve never read; The Tree of Life by Fredelle Bruser Maynard; Rose Macaulay’s The World my Wilderness; Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat; another Penelope Lively– Cleopatra’s Sister; The Penguin Encyclopedia of Places from 1965, purchased for charm and not currency; At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard, whose sister has already demonstrated that Maynards write good books; Woolf’s last novel Between the Acts; Look at Me by Anita Brookner; Dominick Dunne’s Another City, Not My Own, as we love his books at our house; Lessing’s The Golden Notebook even though Joan Didion doesn’t like it; Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis; two Graham Greenes– The Heart of the Matter, which I’ve read, and Brighton Rock, which I haven’t; Perfect Happiness by Penelope Lively; The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Beach Music by Pat Conroy, which my mom, sister and I love together, and my previous copy I left in Japan.

I am now, quite officially, overbooked.

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