Feeds:
Posts
Comments

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I would like to recommend 25* (okay, now 30 because I decided to add non-fiction and poetry) of my favorite women writers from around the globe:

Jang Eun-Jin – No One Writes Back

Barbara Comyns – Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

Assia Djebar – A Sister to Scheherazade

Elizabeth McCracken – Thunderstruck and Other Stories

Fatima Mernissi – Dreams of Trespass

Jacqueline Baker – The Broken Hours; The Horseman’s Graves; A Hard Witching and Other Stories

Ahdaf Soueif – A Map of Love

Mary Swan – The Boys in the Trees

Valeria Luiselli – Faces in the Crowd

Nuala Ní Chonchúir – Mother America

Kjersti Skomsvold – The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am

Alissa York – Effigy

Park Wan-Suh – Lonesome You

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo; Sugar Hall

Aglaja Veteranyi – Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta

Jenny Offill – Dept. of Speculation

Clarice Lispector – The Hour of the Star; A Breath of Life; The Foreign Legion

Lucy Wood – Diving Belles and Other Stories

Nawal El Saadawi – God Dies by the Nile

Kate Atkinson – Life After Life

Anna Gavalda – I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere

Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni

Kiran Desai – Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

Karen Russell – St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half a Yellow Sun

Missy Marston – The Love Monster

Roxane Gay – Bad Feminist

Leslie Jamison – The Empathy Exams

1785957184655662223729220706308

In an attempt not to bail on my “post regularly” resolution a mere 25 days after the resolution post, here’s an update on what I’ve been reading and how my read slow / read big project is coming along (spoiler alert: it’s not):

In January, I truly believed my work schedule for this semester would allow me to take things slow and read big. Boy was I wrong. After my last post, things suddenly picked up with editing/proofreading work, which is great, because that helps with another of the resolutions! However, my “leisurely” reading time has all but evaporated. I now only read for pleasure on the bus to and from work.

What I Read

Even though I’ve not been able to read “big” I’ve managed to squeeze in 4 shorter reads so far this year (not counting work reads). I just finished reading Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (Groundwood), a YA graphic novel that won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Illustration. The artwork is beautiful and evocative, and the story is insightful. The graphic novel captures that difficult moment between childhood and teenage years when there is a dreadful “inbetween-ness” that sometimes separates kids from their parents and their friends, and sometimes even their own understanding of themselves and their own behaviour. Some of those problems stem from an awareness and a desire to appear more “grown-up” and deal with “grown-up” things, but not having all the information or the emotional capacity to cope with the fall out/consequences. The story deals with several complex and difficult issues with a light, non-preachy touch, and is compulsively readable. 4 stars.

Simon Rich’s collection of short stories, Spoiled Brats (Little, Brown), has some absolute gems in it, but I found more misses than hits in this collection. Rich is certainly clever, and I can see him developing into a great comic writer, but at this stage I found the comparisons to Woody Allen to be off the mark. However, there are 5 or 6 stories in this collection that had me in stitches: “Sell Out” and “Animals” and were among the best and show his potential for humour and depth. The less impressive ones were entertaining but without staying power. Worth picking up for “Sell Out” and “Animals” alone, but expect more and better from Rich as he develops over the next few years. 3.5 stars.

I was enamoured of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper (dorothy) for the first third of the book and a small section near the end. I loved the prose, but found myself tiring of the selfishness of the characters, and struggled to get through the last two thirds of the book mostly because of my own reactions to those characters and their lack of (or willful blindness to) self-awareness, and their narcissism. However, I will certainly be watching out for Nell Zink’s next book, because she is clearly a talent to be watched. 3.5 stars.

My first read of the year was also one that has already made my “Best Reads of the Year” list, which is a hell of a feat. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (dorothy) is darkly hilarious, macabre, and moving. The Willoweed family, an aristocratic family on the decline, must deal with first a flood, and then a mysterious plague of madness and death that sweeps through the village. Both the events and their consequences change the family forever. My only problem was that I felt as though the ending rushed a bit (or perhaps the problem is that I just didn’t want the book to end). 4.5 stars.

Currently Reading: Eric Lundren’s The Facades (Overlook)

I’ve also decided to let you folks know what books I buy, because if I buy something, I’m confident I’ll get around to reading it someday, and I’m also confident that I will enjoy it enough to own it forever (because I only ever get rid of duplicates). So, here’s a new little segment:

Newly Shelved But Not Yet Read (Jan/Feb)

I am Radar – Reif Larsen (Penguin)

Welcome to Braggsville – T. Geronimo Johnson (William Morrow)

Get in Trouble – Kelly Link (Random House)

Blood-Drenched Beard – Daniel Galera (Hamish Hamilton)

And the Birds Rained Down – Jocelyne Saucier (Coach House)

Works – Edouard Leve (Dalkey Archive Press)

Fancy – Jeremy M. Davies (Ellipsis)

Of Things Gone Astray – Janina Matthewson (The Friday Project)

The Old Ways – Robert MacFarlane (Penguin)

Etta and Otto and Russell and James – Emma Hooper (Hamish Hamilton)

When Mystical Creatures Attack! – Kathleen Founds (U Iowa P)

The Land of Laughs – Jonathan Carroll (Viking)

Hotel Andromeda – Gabriel Josipovici (Carcanet)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – Caitlin Doughty (Norton)

Silver Screen Fiend – Patton Oswalt (Scribner)

Every Blade of Grass – Thomas Wharton (self published)

The Librarian – Mikhail Elizarov (Pushkin Press)

The Voyage – Murray Bail (MacLehose)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Catherynne Valente (Square Fish)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Knopf)

In other news, at this pace, I will have to declare bankruptcy by the end of the second quarter. Until I typed those all up, I did not realize there were that may new books in the apartment, because they are scattered in so many different rooms. Wow. Well, at least it’s not heroin, I guess.

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2015! I took the month of January off from the blog (unannounced, apologies for that) to rest, regroup, and reconsider a number of things related to my reading life. So, in this first post of the new year, I thought I should identify some changes I am hoping to make this year, for my blog and my life. Here are four to begin with:

#1 – SLOW DOWN: I’m tired of rushing. I want to take time and savour some longer novels that I have been putting off because I knew they’d eat into my time for other books and that would impact my annual reading goal. So, I’m cutting my reading goal by more than half. I’m only aiming to read 20 books this year (assuming, of course, that I will read more, but not pressuring myself to do so). I also read for two of my day jobs, so it becomes more difficult to find time to read for fun, especially if I have to take work home. So instead of reading more, I’m hoping to read bigger and at a more leisurely pace.

*NOTE: Since starting the draft of this post, I discovered the tragic flaw in this cunning plan to read bigger: that 500 page book is just not convenient to read on my commute because it doesn’t fit in my purse, and it’s bloody heavy, and it’s awkward as arse. So, my new plan is to leave the big reads at home for bedtime reading, and carry a small book for commutes.

#2 – Write more blog posts more regularly and with more variety. I would like to post more about what I read (instead of just end of year recaps), make nerdy lists with commentary about books I’ve read, post short reviews, and write about bookish things that I find interesting or problematic. Not just to be negative for negativity’s sake, but to bring issues that I have with contemporary reading culture out into the light to perhaps encourage debate about them in a civil way. For example, the rush to speed market books on social media when what a book really needs is time to find its audience; the importance of the “critical” in literary criticism and reviewing; the superficial way sites deal with books reviews/recommendations (the dreaded listicle or capsule cheerleading post); the reasons I find the campaigns for diverse reading so sad (but of course, necessary), etc. So, in the coming months, there may be some changes happening with the blog content. With this, there is likely to be some growing pains, as I try to find ways to keep things organized. Please bear with me!

#3 – Boycott Amazon for book buying: I am tired of the big bad wolf and the negative way it has impacted the entire book industry (and I’m tired of the people who continue to support it when there are so many other viable options out there). I’ve always supported local independent bookstores first (and am happy to order books in and wait a few weeks), and only ever used the big bad when I had no other option for books I needed quickly or books that were not available in Canada. I’ve now decided that those are no longer good excuses, so I won’t be spending my dollars at Amazon or Book Depository anymore. Instead, I will be exercising patience and ordering books in from my local independent bookshop, Audrey’s Books, or All Lit Up for Canadian titles, and from Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway for my UK/Irish titles. I have also started ordering books directly from the publisher and have already received fantastic books from dorothy, a publishing project, and Pushkin Press. I know that Amazon is pervasive and has its fingers in many pies (Goodreads included). I do eventually want to extract my self from Amazon’s clutches entirely, but as someone who grew quite dependent on Goodreads for tracking books for my TBR list (that now has over 1400 titles on it), un-Goodreading that information will take a lot of time that I just don’t have right now. So, my TBR shall remain where it is, but my shopping is now Amazon free.

#4 – Begin seeking out a publishing job in earnest. I don’t often discuss my personal life on this blog, but since this goal is related to my reading life, and since this is a long-held dream of mine that perhaps I need a little push to chase, I shall post it here. I have spent the last couple of years as a freelance copy-editor and proofreader, and have been lucky enough to do work for two excellent independent publishers that publish a lot of fiction in translation. I have loved every minute of it. Now is the time to be brave and make a move toward finding a more permanent, full-time position (or at least a steady contract work) so that I can leave my current day job behind (which has been rewarding, but is not my calling). I am not a writer and harbor no delusions of becoming one, because I lack the talent. I have only ever wanted to be an editor, and now is the time to start down that path (well, 20 years ago would have been the time, but as a kid from the prairies, I didn’t know that was a career option!). So, by this time next year, with anyone out there who reads this to hold me to it, I will have set some plan in motion to get myself a job in publishing – whether that be going back to school for another Masters degree (in publishing this time), or finding an entry level job at a publishing house. Hooray! I’ve finally decided what I want to be when I grow up.

I have other resolutions in mind for the year, but I think four is quite enough to be cracking on with. I hope you all have set yourselves a reading resolution for the new year, whether it be to read more, read slower, read aloud to your kids, read a book by someone who doesn’t look like you, read a book translated from another language… Whatever it is, use your resolutions to open your horizons.

I’ve decided to do a top 20 fiction list this year with 6 additional books in other categories (a children’s book, 3 non-fiction, and 2 graphic novels).The fiction list is split into halves:
THE TOP 10 (in no particular order, because frankly they each have their individual charms)

These were my 10 favourite reads of the year. Some of them were published in 2014, some not.

One of my favourite reads of 2014.

One of my favourite reads of 2014.

Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco: A quiet but incredibly powerful book (a pair of linked novellas). The prose is lovely and deceptively simple. It is like looking into a pool of crystal clear water. You can see the bottom, but once you dive in you realize it is much deeper than it appears to be. It is the story of a writer vows to never write another book, and instead becomes a copyist, producing intimate “portraits” of people in writing.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: A book I regret not reading sooner, but that I doubt I would have appreciated had I read it sooner. A near perfect book read at the perfect time.

No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-Jin: One of the Library of Korean Literature titles from Dalkey Archive Press that (full disclosure) I edited while working in Dublin as an unpaid intern there. This was my favourite of the series of 10 Korean novels that I edited. It is an unusual and moving story about the need for communication and connection and the ways we cope with tragedy and grief.

The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant: I loved this book about an indifferent rent collector who is unable to remain indifferent to the suffering of his tenants and embarks upon a comical and desperate scheme to improve their lives.

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken: Hands down, my favourite short story collection of the year. Each story revolves around grief, loss, and ways in which the ripples from those emotions affect others.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer: My description of this book to friends is mostly expletives followed by, “Just buy it.” Authority is also awesome and I’m sure the entire Southern Reach Trilogy would be on this list, but the flu kept me from getting to Acceptance, so I’ll just put the first book on here and let you discover the rest on your own.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: Intense, terrifying, moving, imaginative. Basically, it is Gaiman. Just read it.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli: Polyphonic and fragmentary. Narrative worlds weave in and out of one another in surreal ways. A woman in Mexico City writing about her past in New York and about an obscure poet from the 1920s, Gilberto Owen, who comes to life through her reflections. Masterful. Excellent translation.

Sweetland by Michael Crummey: A story about landscape, identity, community, and the tragedies and truths that shape our lives set on an island off the Newfoundland coast. Also about the things we can’t leave behind. Funny, haunting.

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki: The story of a small Angolan beach community threatened with destruction by the Soviets for the sake of the construction of a monument to a dead dictator. Contains a memorable cast of characters: the children with a cunning plan, a mad Cuban called Sea Foam, a ghost, a lovesick Russian, and a gangrenous granny, among others. Excellent translation by Stephen Henighan.
The Next 10 (again, in no particular order)

I read too many really good books this year to limit myself to a top 10, so here’s the next 10 good reads on my list.

The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker: Atmospheric, creepy, and elegantly told tale of Arthor Crandle, a fellow down on his luck who takes a position as an assistant to none other than H.P. Lovecraft., the godfather of weird fiction.

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson: An intense and moving story of a father-son relationship. The imagery is incredibly vivid and almost magical realist or fabulist in the first half of the book. The narrative shift in the second half changes the tone but manages to maintain the tension in the narrative. Excellent read, excellent translation.

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes: Another book that’s been around for ages, but that I’m only getting to now. I’ve worked my way backwards through Rhodes’ catalogue and can say with confidence that no one can write about the macabre and the melancholy with such humour and wit. Ultimately, Rhodes writes about love, and ultimately, his books are uplifting, but prepare to have your heart broken in the process. (You will also laugh, and cry, and probably chuck the book against the wall. This is all normal.)

The Martian by Andy Weir: Think MacGyver and Castaway and Apollo 13. Space is awesome. Stylistically, the prose is not going to blow you away, but somehow that doesn’t even matter. The story is so compelling and so cool, because space is cool, and NASA is cool, and Mars is cool, that you won’t be able to stop reading.

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray: Post-war Welsh-English border. Country estate. One terrifying ghost. Tiffany Murray is an excellent storyteller. I may never forgive her for the moth thing though.

A by André Alexis: A book reviewer from Toronto obsessed with an elusive poet tracks him down in an attempt to understand the creative act. The meeting of critic and artist/hero changes both lives and provides an interesting read/meditation on inspiration and literary creation.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: Structurally very innovative. Incredibly moving. Looking forward to A God in Ruins which continues Teddy’s story.

Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Portrait of a marriage in vignettes. Moving and insightful.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: Hilarious (but also painfully close to the mark) academic satire told entirely in the letters of reference from one faculty member at a small college. I laughed a lot.

The Age of Magic by Ben Okri: While this novel left me colder than some of Okri’s other works, it is full of ideas and Faustian allusions, and some of the passages in the middle of the book are quite marvellous.

The Children’s/YA Book (but awesome for everyone even grown-ups; start with the first in the series)

I usually read a few more children’s or young adult books, but for some reason or other, I just ran out of time this year. I do have a couple of Jonathan Auxier’s books on my nightstand though, and they look great. However, I think everyone should read the Iremonger trilogy because it is the best. THE. BEST. (Which is saying something, because it currently only has two books in it).

Best. Kids' Series. Ever.

Best. Kids’ Series. Ever.

Foulsham (book 2 of the Iremonger trilogy) by Edward Carey (or, if you live in North America, Heap House (book 1 of the Iremonger trilogy), which was published over here in 2014): Continuation of the Iremonger trilogy. One of the most original stories I have read in years. Includes Carey’s marvellous illustrations of the characters and settings.
The Non-Fiction

I’m only recently coming around to reading non-fiction. These ones really grabbed me this year.

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund: I loved this book. It is an absolute blast to read. Conversational, debate-provoking, visually stunning.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: Insightful essays about fascinating topics from an engaging personal perspective.

Youth: Autobiographical Writings by Wolfgang Koeppen: Post-modern memoir. Fascinating stuff.

The Graphic Novels

I’m also new to graphic storytelling (aside from some Dark Knight Returns etc in university), but these two were supercool and I’ll be seeking out more like them at Happy Harbor.

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll: Stunning art, 5 original dark fairy tales. Good luck sleeping.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins: The title alone should be enough to make you read this.

Because my Novellas in November wrap-up was torpedoed by a nasty bout of flu followed quickly by hectic end of term chaos, here is the final word on that project .

I read a few novellas to close out the year, because illness and work had robbed me of a proper finish to my Novellas in November. The first was Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco (McSweeney’s). I think this was my favourite book of the year (tied with Foulsham). A writer who decides to stop writing books and takes to writing intimate “portraits” of people before he disappears. The clarity of the prose and the simplicity of the plot may lull the reader into thinking this is a simple story, but it is like looking into a pool of crystal clear water. What at first may appear shallow is revealed to have tremendous depth once you are immersed in it. One of the few 5 star books of my reading year.

Perhaps it was because I read it following Mr. Gwyn, but The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami was a tremendous disappointment. The best part of the whole book was Chip Kidd’s design work. I appreciated the return of some of Murakami’s characters and motifs as well as some of the little quirks of the story (like the Ottoman tax record thing), but all in all, I thought this novella was a disaster.

I finished the year with Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (Biblioasis). This was a great romp, set in Luanda, Angola, in the 1980s and peopled with a marvelous cast of characters. The children (playful, mischievous, but thankfully not the tired clichés of the “precocious prodigies”) are determined to prevent the Soviet occupying forces from displacing their community for the purpose of building a mausoleum for a dictator. Lively characters and lots of layers.

Something I noticed after the first couple of weeks of Novellas in November: as much as I enjoy reading novellas, reading so many in succession started to feel like eating nothing but appetizers for supper for weeks on end. By the halfway point, I was craving something more meaty. Novellas are a specialty narrative, and as such they make narrative choices, sacrificing certain elements in favour of others (choosing character over a sense of place, for example). This is what can make them so intense and impactful. However, like a college kid living on appetizers and beer, eventually, I began to crave those elements that were lacking in my novella diet. So, while I love novellas (and I do read a lot of them), I’d rather intersperse them with longer reading material so my reading diet is more balanced. .

I read a number of other novellas throughout the rest of the year that were brilliant, and I think Novellas in November is a great time to bring them up. If you are looking for excellent short reads, here are a few that I’ve read recently that I would highly recommend:

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press)

A by André Alexis (BookThug)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Peirene Press)

The Blue Fox by Sjón (FSG)

The Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Knopf)

Twenty days into Novellas in November. The reading was a bit slower over the past ten days. I blame work. However, I did still manage to get 3 books finished. First, I picked up The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb, because it had been recommended on Twitter by Dan Rhodes (author of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, This is Life, and many more) whose books I adore. The Book of Proper Names is a darkly comic book about names, family, and destiny. The protagonist is a girl named Plectrude who has a tragic start to life, but is adopted by her aunt and uncle, and dreams of being a ballet dancer. I enjoyed the book, but I still prefer Dan Rhodes, who is a master at blending the odd, the funny, and the melancholy. You should all read Gold. 4 Stars to The Book of Proper Names.

Then my order of Mary Swan’s The Deep arrived, and I dove right in. This early novella of Swan’s uses the same polyvocal technique that she uses in her 2008 novel The Boys in the Trees. That book breaks my heart. It is an incredible meditation on community, family, and despair: a discourse on the things we can never know about each other. This novella is the story of twin sisters volunteering near the front lines in France in 1918. Swan uses the polyvocal narrative to create suspense, as the narratives of the sisters are basically contemporary to their war experience or recollections of their earlier lives, but the narratives of the others are memories told of the sisters. The story is interesting, but I found the sisters to be less compelling than they should have been. Swan has an incredible way with imagery, but (unsurprisingly, as this is an earlier work) the story doesn’t pack as much emotional punch as The Boys in the Trees. I would recommend that one as my favourite of her works. 4 stars to The Deep.

And finally, I decided to reread Shopgirl by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin). It’s been almost 15 years since I first read the book, but I am still surprised at the skill with which Martin manages to distill emotional meaning into the smallest details. The story is charming, but it also addresses complex questions in terms of the growth of its characters. I love the fact that each of the characters comes to (sometimes unpleasant) realizations about the way they treat themselves and other people. It was an absolute joy to return to this novella. Of course, before it’s time for the next reread, I will definitely be watching the film again.

So, we are now 10 days in to the Novellas in November challenge (#NovNov on Twitter) and I’ve been having a smashing time. I’ve surprised myself by finishing 5 novellas already, three new reads and two rereads: Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith, Light Boxes by Shane Jones, Ticknor by Sheila Heti, All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I started Ticknor first, but was reading it before bed when I was able to focus more on the narrative and the language, so I actually finished Portuguese Irregular Verbs first because it was a commute read (and had the advantage of being absurd and amusing, which was a good kick-off to the entire endeavour), and finished Light Boxes second (which read very quickly, in part due to the fragmented nature of the narrative). I enjoyed the internal dialogue that Ticknor has with himself (the voice that constructs a narrative in his head and the voice that reveals the inaccuracies in that constructed narrative even as it is being shaped). Portuguese Irregular Verbs was a funny take on the pomposity of academia, and I may continue reading the other novellas in this trilogy (whether I will tackle them this month is unknown). Light Boxes is surreal and strange and basically a vision of my future because up here in the frozen north the idea of an endless February hits a little too close to home. I found the imagery in Light Boxes to be remarkable, almost cinematic at times, and now I can’t wait to read his new book, Crystal Eaters. All My Friends Are Superheroes was a single sitting read one evening, and it was an absolute joy to revisit (having originally read it in 2003) because it is funny and quirky and moving all at once (and of course, it left me pondering what my own superpower might be…). Train Dreams blew me away again (having originally read it in 2012), and I remain stunned that the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2012 did not award the prize to Johnson. This novella is an incredibly tight narrative of one man’s experiences in the northwest U.S. from the late 19th C. to mid-20th C. It is a profoundly moving story that encompasses a wide range of issues from masculinity and racism in America to settlement and the notion of progress.

I’ve really appreciated the sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to finish a book in a couple of short sittings without worrying about getting too far behind on my day-to-day work. From the mid-point of the semester, guilt usually prevents me from picking up anything lengthy, and then I languish without narrative meat to feed on. However, these novellas have satisfied my appetite for stories with humour and emotional heft, without the unrealistic commitment of hours at this busy time. I think everyone should pick up more novellas to have on hand for just such circumstances.