January 16, 2015

Canada Reads 2015

I haven't mentioned it here yet, but Bone & Bread is on the longlist for Canada Reads 2015!

The list was announced in December, right at a moment when I was on the point of bursting into tears after a very hard night with a four-week old baby, trying to recover from dehydration, having not slept for over 24 hours and expecting a house guest to arrive within the hour --- to a very messy apartment I had not yet managed to tidy up. It is definitely no exaggeration to say that regardless of what happens next, the appearance of my novel on the longlist felt like a gift that arrived at the perfect moment. It made me think of what Sara Crewe says in A Little Princess: "The worst thing never QUITE comes." ***

But now there are only a few days left before CBC announces the final five books, which means there are only a few days in which to savour the possibility that Bone & Bread might be selected. So this is me, savouring:

Ahhhhhhh.  Mmmmmmm.



For years I've had daydreams of a book of mine being discussed on this show. Ideally, defended by some well-read indie rock musician... have you noticed that the musicians' picks often win?

I'm cherishing this fantasy even more this week because my mother has just discovered CBC Radio and thinks it's the greatest thing ever. Yesterday, she was telling me about something she was listening to about Twitter and reading 50 books in a year that she thought I would be interested in!

I know there are lots of thoughts among writers, not all positive, around the notion of the themes that have been used in the program over the past few years, or the public voting that happened, or pitting fiction against non-fiction, or against the very concept of one book winning at all...but I don't think these issues are all that serious. Of course we all agree that Canada should read more than one book, but the producers are doing their best to make a lively show that will engage listeners. Another thing I've been hearing lately is a call to include poetry. And I do think it would be amazing to have an all-poetry edition. Maybe with poets as the panelists... although I suppose that might, ahem, undermine the celebrity aspect somewhat. (Well, for people outside of the literary community, anyway.) On the other hand, how else are we going to turn our poets into national celebrities?! This show should definitely happen. I want to live in a country that idolizes its poets. Hmm, but maybe this just illustrates how writers think differently than radio producers.

So can a book really change Canada, or break barriers? I think...yes. reader by reader, absolutely. Why couldn't it? I have to admit that when the theme of "breaking barriers" was announced ("books that can change perspectives, challenge stereotypes, and illuminate issues"), I did think of my novel because I believe that Bone & Bread does just that, in more than a few ways. But then we already know that all writing that put you into another person's perspective builds empathy and compassion just by taking us outside ourselves. Really, I think reading as a basic act is transformative and illuminating, so any of these books could fit the bill. And though of course I'm gunning for my own, I think can imagine great discussions emerging around all these titles. I'm especially rooting for Eden Robinson's wonderful Monkey Beach to make it through to the shortlist.

If you want to vote for your picks (just for fun...I'm pretty sure this doesn't affects the selection of the books, which is up to the mystery panelists) or just see what's in the running, you can do so on the CBC site here.

*** I'm not so naive that I actually believe Sara's notion. I do know that in many instances the worst thing does happen, but sometimes I can't help but see the world through the lenses of my favourite books.

January 6, 2015

Books I read in 2014

The first thing you need to know is that I feel like a failure. I was ultra geared up and ready for year two of the 50 Book Pledge, and I didn't make it, mostly because my belated charge to the finish line --- armed with poetry collections and graphic novels --- was interrupted by the arrival of the baby in mid-November. Ah, well. I came close! 43 books in 2014. And it would be more if I counted all the Dickens and Austen rereads, or the reread of a bunch of Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik series, after I found a bunch of them at the McGill Book Sale. Or if I hadn't abandoned quite so many books partway through...or gone travelling for three weeks in UK (awesome), instead of sitting around at home reading (typical). 

You can see what I read here. Or find me on Goodreads.

Here is the breakdown according to the same categories I assessed last year:


By genre*

22 novels
7 children's/YA
4 poetry collections
3 graphic novels
3 memoirs
3 non-fiction 
1 short story collection

Compared to last year, I read the exact same number of poetry collections and children's/YA (huh), and just one shy in memoir and graphic novels. I read three more short story collections last year, but then again I read a LOT of short stories in 2014 for the Room fiction contest and the Journey Prize jurying. Five fewer novels.

* Some of the books fall into more than one genre, e.g. a graphic novel that is also a YA book or a graphic novel that is also a memoir, but I've kept each book to one basic genre.

By nation

15 American 
9 Canadian 
3 English 
1 Scottish 
1 dual American-Canadian 
1 Australian
1 New Zealander
1 Nigerian
1 Dutch 

I think this must be the first year in my life where I did not read mainly CanLit! Interestingly, the same number of Americans as last year.

By gender
30 books by 25 women
13 books by 8 men


Highlights

The first two books I read in January, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Dinner by Herman Koch, remain among the most memorable reads of the year. I also really liked Americanah


The last two fiction titles I read in 2014,  The Opening Sky by Joan Thomas and The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter, were also outstanding. I have so much love and admiration for these women, so while I might technically be biased, I truly adored these books and you should still run out and buy them immediately. And as many of you might know, sometimes it is harder to be completely transported by the writing of someone you know...and I was. 


Also, the Susin Nielsen books are wonderful. Strongly recommended for the young people in your life, or just, you know, you. 


Lowlights

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp was thoughtfully gifted to me by a friend and it was full of useful information that I have already put to use...and I can definitely endorse the basic premise and techniques outlined in this book. However, I feel like it was written for morons, or at least people with some kind of hyper-amnesia, like the guy in Memento. It really sticks with that principle of "Tell them what you're going to say, say it, then tell them what you've said," but it adds in "say it seven more times." It would be a lot better if it were condensed into about twenty pages written for neurotypical readers, or maybe just a large infographic. I cannot express the annoyance of having a newborn baby and precious little reading time that I then spent trying to power through this repetitive book that kept trying to prove a premise I was already willing to accept merely by picking it up. (Fourth trimester, yo.) That being said, thanks, Dr. Karp, for your valuable techniques!

And I didn't really love any of the Divergent trilogy, but the last one, Allegiant, was especially annoying to me in the way it ended. 

Best Discovery?

Well, I had a very relaxed stretch of reading after I finally picked up a book by Alexander McCall Smith at the library. I ran through a bunch of his Edinburgh-set mystery series (the Isabel Dalhousie books), which made for excellent light pregnancy fare.   

December 2, 2014

Two weeks old

Well, it looks like I won't reach my goal of 100 blog posts for this year, but I have the best excuse possible:


So far she is the cutest, sweetest little baby ever, and I am just stunned and elated that she is finally here. 

November 3, 2014

Judging the Journey Prize

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it here before or not, but I was on this year's Journey Prize jury! I still feel pretty lucky to have been selected. Lucky in a very peculiar, synchronous way: the day before I was asked to participate, I was actually idly wishing that I could be part of the jury. I was reading something about short fiction in Canada, thinking about how I hadn't read any short stories in a little while and how fun it would be to read all the best ones of the year. I even wondered if there was a way to go about being invited...like tweeting about it or emailing someone. But I did nothing except think it and the very next day when I got an email about it I basically fell off my chair in the office. (And yes, promptly began all manner of very earnest wishing...for a sudden million-dollar windfall, for perfect bangs, etc...but I'm still waiting on all of those.)

The Journey Prize Anthology 26

I wrote a little bit about the judging process in our collective introduction to the anthology (which you should go buy right now!), as well as in a more detailed Q & A with Brad de Roo just posted on the blog of Guelph's wonderful bookstore, the Bookshelf.

So I'd planned to write about it here, but I think I've pretty much covered it everywhere else. I'll just say, again, that it was a true pleasure and honour to read and discuss these stories by so many talented Canadian authors. I also feel really fortunate to have been paired with Steven W. Beattie and Craig Davidson, who are both very perceptive and fine writers --- as well as gentlemen and all-round good guys.

All still smiling after a long day of judging!

I've written about it before, but winning the Journey Prize in 2008 was truly one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me...and not only because it helped me to pay off my student loans many, many (many) years earlier than expected. The Writers' Trust does so much good work for writers in this country. Check out this week's profile in Maclean's, aptly titled "How the Writers' Trust of Canada Saves Authors," where you can also read excerpts of the five shortlisted books that are up for the fiction prize.

Tomorrow night all of the prize winners, including the winner of the Journey, will be revealed at the Writers' Trust gala, but before that happens I want to again congratulate all of the amazing writers who appear in the anthology. It was a privilege to read your work, and thank you for writing.

October 21, 2014

Côte Saint-Luc Reads 2014

I'm really thrilled that Bone & Bread has been chosen as this year's Côte Saint-Luc Reads pick! The Côte Saint-Luc library book club has already read and discussed it, and I get to stop by and meet some readers and librarians later this week. (Thursday, October 23rd, if you'd like to come.) I hear that there will be music...and food! I'm really excited, actually. Nervous, but maybe even more excited than nervous! This might even be a first for me. 

The event is part of Canadian Library Month....and Quebec Public Libraries Week. I wish I'd known earlier that October was Library Month. I love libraries!



Isn't it a lovely poster? It makes me a little shy to see how much of it is taken up with my photo. But I'm going to try to rise to the occasion by wearing a fancy purple dress I bought in Kensington in London... 

October 13, 2014

Why Natalee Caple teaches brand-new CanLit (and why you should, too!)

In case you missed it, novelist and English professor Natalee Caple contributed a brilliant guest post to the QWF Writes blog called "Why I teach Brand-New CanLit." 

I urge you to read the original post, but I am going to quote at length from it here about her excellent reasons for teaching new Canadian books, even when it makes her job as a professor (in terms of constantly redesigning her syllabi and lecture notes, etc.) harder:


  • The books are never out of print.
  • Pre-ordering books helps to let the publisher and the bookstore know that the titles are desired.
  • The material is often quite relevant to students’ daily lives. This allows students to identify better with the settings, characters and scenarios.
  • Authors are accessible, alive and often available to Skype into the classroom so that students can ask them questions directly.
  • Student presentations are much better. Instead of Googling a biography and retyping a handful of academic quotes they have to read the whole book (they do complain about this).
  • Student essays are much better. Their close reading skills really improve because that is all they have to rely on.
  • Student confidence in their own readings improves. Because they don’t have to compete with the scholarly opinions of experts they learn that it is okay to rely on and develop faith in their own readings. This causes them to engage more deeply and so…
  • Students get better marks. When they see this they start to appreciate the work they did.
  • Students become more willing to take risks in thinking.
  • Plagiarism is greatly reduced. In fact, because a brand new book is so unlikely to have essays on it in circulation, to plagiarize really means paying someone to create an essay. Far fewer students are willing to take this extra step as it requires more planning and seems somehow more actively dishonest.
  • Canadian culture is reinforced as real and ongoing, lively, diverse and present.
  • Book sales show up in a timely fashion for authors. Titles get circulating at a time when it is most beneficial. We all know that numbers have become incredibly important to the sale of future books and that there is some self-fulfilling prophesy there.
  • I get to stay engaged with my peers in the writing community. I am giving them my support and staying on top of my field.
  • I get to read all the books I wanted to anyway and call it work! Did I say that it is my dream job?
Isn't this amazing? I can say that as an aspiring writer in university, it was completely life-changing (and ambition-fueling) to read contemporary Canadian Literature in the classroom. One professor assigned Strange Heaven as an extra-credit assignment in an Atlantic Fiction course and mentioned how Lynn Coady had been a student in his classroom not that many years earlier. (And I felt affirmed, somehow, to hear that she was quiet in class, like me.) I can only imagine how much more galvanized I would have been if I had had the opportunity to meet or Skype in class with one of the writers whose work I had read and studied. 

I also strongly agree that close reading develops crucial critical faculties. Education shouldn't be all about research and organizational skills, important as those are. When students begin grappling with texts on their own and developing their own arguments, learning becomes more profound and, I think, more rewarding. But Natalee has already covered all this more succinctly in her original post....

...so I'll just add that as a published writer, it has truly been a privilege to be invited into several classrooms where students have read and studied my work. The experience has been incredibly positive -- and instructive, too. Students actively engaged in trying to make sense of a text will ask very incisive questions. And of course it is intensely rewarding to know that students are reading and engaging with your work at that level. I might even go so far as to say there is almost nothing MORE rewarding for me as a writer. This is the kind of knowledge that gets you through the occasional long bad days of struggling to finish the next story or novel, slogging away at the day job unjamming another photocopier, or thinking about people with business degrees who make eight zillion times more money, etc.

So all of you wonderful, lovely, gorgeous Canadian Literature professors out there: please consider teaching brand-new CanLit!

October 5, 2014

Wolfe Island LitFest

All year, as I’ve been going around from literary festival to literary festival, there has been a quiet but persistent legend growing in my mind of the Wolfe Island LitFest.

“Have you heard of Wolfe Island?”

“Have you been to Wolfe Island?”

“If you get invited, GO!”

And then I was invited. So I went!!!



The 11th Annual Wolfe Island Joe Burke Literary Festival

You can see from the poster that this happened in June. But that was a mere blink of the eye ago in blogging time...

Rumour has it that Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip (!!!) is sometimes in attendance. Joseph Boyden is usually there, and this year his absence was lamented by many (including me). I was told by a few people that the first public readings of sections of The Orenda and Through Black Spruce happened on Wolfe Island. (I don't know if this is true, but it was a fact related with a significant amount of pride.)

The mystique of Wolfe Island was such that right up until a few days before I left, I wasn't 100% sure how I was getting there or where I might be staying. It was the kind of uncertainty that otherwise might have made me nervous (I like to plan! I like to visualize!), but I also knew that I shouldn't worry...I knew it was all going to come together.

I was charged with connecting with visiting Irish writer Kevin Barry upon leaving the train and to take a taxi to the dock, where we would be met by someone in a boat. Somehow, without ever having met before, Kevin and I spotted each other immediately, and along with his wife Olivia, easily found a cab.

The taxi drove along Tragically Hip Way, which caught the attention of the Irish, and as a long-time Hip fan, I had the fun task of trying to explain how awesome they are and the place they occupy in the national consciousness.

We were found by the lovely people who needed to find us (including the inimitable Mark Mattson, whose family plays a role in this wonderful festival), and we crossed very choppy waters on a little speedboat. Not knowing exactly what to expect -- or rather, having ignored some of the concrete information I did have at hand -- I was wearing heels, which made the boat boarding process slightly more nerve-wracking than it ought to have been. City girl mistake!




On a boat!

Then we crossed to the island, which was beautiful. We were fed, welcomed, introduced to a whole host of lovely Wolfe Islanders, taken to a remarkable abode known as the Duck Club, and then, later, to the venue. 



Beautiful peonies on the lunch table
 
The reading venue was a beautiful spot. The festival is supported by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an charitable environmental group that works to protect the lake and keep it safe for drinking, fishing, and swimming.

Gorgeous light at the venue
 

Listeners gathering

Posters from previous years


Ken Babstock reading

Kevin Barry's (hilarious) reading

The photos are lacklustre and incomplete, I know. But all of the readers were amazing, those pictured as well as those not. Mostly, I was too much in the moment to worry about documenting things. Tanis Rideout read a poem about Wolfe Island which was full of references to past festivals and which was somehow moving and funny even without access to the full knowledge to understand all the allusions.

My own reading started with an introduction from Dave Bidini (!!!) and some microphone trouble, and I really enjoyed the reading itself. There were actual, palpable good vibes. At one point, I was startled to look up and notice Sarah Harmer in the audience. I got super into the band Weeping Tile after they broke up (sadly!), but Sarah Harmer’s solo album You Were Here was a major theme with me and my friends during my undergrad. (Listen to this as a sample if you don't already know it...then buy it.) I was lucky enough to see her play at least half a dozen times over those years. I was so thrilled she was there and even more thrilled when she came up to speak to me afterwards!

After the readings, everyone ate, drank, and made merry. A lot of us watched part of the World Cup game between England and Italy in a nearby garage while an eclectic soundtrack, (including "Poets" by the Tragically Hip, achieving a quintessential interdisciplinary artistic CanLit moment for me!) blared at full blast. 


Merry-making evidence

Dreamy drive through a wind farm

Bundled up outside the Duck Club before a night out

Then that night Dave Bidini and his band played at a beautiful patio venue on the water, where sadly my phone was too dead to take any good photos. Although I did work up the nerve to ask Sarah Harmer for a photo that Kevin Barry was kind enough to take and send to me. She is so gracious and lovely!


Me and Sarah Harmer!

I don’t want to unravel any more of the Wolfe Island mystique, so I won't get into the antics that played out after dark (most of which, due to exhaustion, I didn't even witness).  Maybe you really don't want to know what the poets are doing... Let's just say that there are good reasons to keep guns under lock and key....