Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is #888 on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1001 Books write ups with my own impressions.

Hard Times is one of the lesser known Dickens novels. It’s been on my shelf for 10+ years, and I’ve started it more than once, without getting much farther than the schoolroom chapters, where the teacher is named “Mr. McChokemchild.” A library ebook helped me get past the small font in my Penguin Popular Classics edition, and I soon wondered why no one told me this book has so much more than school children. It’s a classic Victorian social novel, tackling class, unionization, alcohol abuse, gambling, infidelity, and more. It’s sort of a North and South, with more humour and less romance.

Well, someone did try to tell me. The 1001 Books Hard Times write up not only mentions Gaskell (in an unfavourable comparison) but the entry is right beside the entry for North and South, highlighting the fact that these stories were being serialized at pretty much the exact same time – what a time to be alive! You know, if you weren’t a factory worker… or a woman…

The write up also would have helped me make the connection to utilitarianism, a philosophy I’ve been interested in since reading The Brothers Karamazov (and since going down several rabbit holes related to the current crop of tech-bro philosophers who are rebranding it as Effective Altruism). This theme is first explored in this early classroom scenes – what is an education for? What’s the point of “wondering” when you can memorize facts?

The write up portrays Hard Times as a bit of an unfocused look at these various social issues, and I guess it is, but compared to Dickens’ known works like A Tale of Two Cities, I found this one more satisfying. It read faster (not only because it’s significantly shorter), the characters were more varied, and while some were one-dimensional “bad guys”, most had some depth and showed some growth, even some of the female characters. And it’s just very funny. The circus ringmaster, Mr. Sleary, with his lisp and his rolling glass eye, was played for comic relief, but he speaks the line that sums up the book:

‘People must be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow…they can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning. Make the betht of uth; not the wurth.’

Chapter VI

To me, that’s as good as “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (though perhaps not as good as “the best of times” etc.) I’m glad I finally read this. For me, that’s four down, six to go for the 1001 Books-worthy Dickens novels.

1001 Books

20 Books of Summer 2023

After skipping last year, I’m back at it again, joining Cathy in creating an overly-ambitious, unrealistic plan to read and review twenty books this summer. Though perhaps I shouldn’t sell myself short. Reviewing my past record, there’s a decent chance I’ll get to these, eventually… of my 20 books of summer 2019, I’ve now read 19. This year’s list is a combination of carryovers from summers past, prize winners and longlisters, review copies, and the few remaining 1001 Books that are sitting unread on my shelf (or books by authors who appear on that list.) Guess I’ll have to visit a used bookstore soon to replenish!

  1. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1001 Books, previous on a 20 Books list)
  2. Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1001 Books, previous on a 20 Books list)
  3. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (1001 Books, previous on a 20 Books list)
  4. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (1001 Books)
  5. The Ambassadors by Henry James (1001 Books)
  6. [Holding this space for another 1001 Books pick, pending a trip to Wee Book Inn]
  7. The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (1001 Books adjacent)
  8. The Ladybird by D.H. Lawrence (1001 Books adjacent)
  9. Abigail by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix (on a previous 20 Books list)
  10. Green Darkness by Anya Seton (on a previous 20 Books list)
  11. Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (on a previous 20 Books list)
  12. Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani (one of the books I bought in a Covid-induced haze last year)
  13. You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwakae Emezi (another Covid book)
  14. Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell (2022 International Booker Prize winner)
  15. Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches (2023 International Booker Prize shortlister)
  16. [Holding this space for the 2023 International Booker Prize winner, in case I haven’t read it]
  17. I (Athena) by Ruth DyckFehderau (a review book from this year)
  18. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (just a plain old “been on my TBR forever”)
  19. Milkman by Anna Burns (Booker prize winner)
  20. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon (cheating as I’m about to read this)

Join in at 746 Books and hold me accountable!

The stack (not pictured: a few on my Kobo)

International Booker Prize 2023 mini reviews

Here are my brief thoughts on the books I’ve read so far, and my plans heading into the home stretch. It’s been nice to get back into the IBP this year, after a half-hearted 2022, skipping 2021 entirely, and getting derailed after a strong start in March of 2020. Not all the books have been nice though!

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson, translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley
This book is trying to be so many things, but ends up being a big old mess. I saw a reviewer compare Svensson to Franzen and yes, there are some similar themes around family, activism, and shadowy bureaucracy, but that’s not all there is to this book. Svennson adds: triplets! Babies switched at birth! Possible incest! Suicide! Cults! Monkeys! Infidelity! Depression! Eating disorders! Synesthesia! Child actresses! Peacock feathers! I’m sure I missed several recurring themes. All this stuff took attention away from the main family unit, which, Franzen would never.

Pyre by Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
I said what I needed to say in this post. This story was too opaque for me, so I felt a remove, but I would try more from the author, particularly The Story of a Goat.

The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker
People talk about this book like it’s a thriller but it’s a lot more… but also a lot less. More because of the complex language and extremely close narration, and less because when the story finally tips over from expectation and dread to action, it kind of falls apart. The meandering style works very well for revealing shocking parts of the character’s thought process and history, but a lot less well for shocking violence and split-second decisions. Then, the ending left me with more questions than answers, and not in a good way.

The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated from the French by Richard Philcox
I was hyped for this book because I’ve enjoyed both Caribbean literature and Bible retellings in the past. Then I read some reviews that said this was too close of a retelling, with not much new to say. That might be true, but, I loved it. At times funny and absurd, it was mostly just calming and meditative. Reading this felt like a respite from life. Which is sort of how my religious grandparents would talk about their faith, so, there’s that! Condé is a fascinating person, and I wish I could find an English translation of her Wuthering Heights retelling (which is the equivalent of the Bible for me).

On deck, I have copies of Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund, and Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel out from the library. Is Mother Dead didn’t make the shortlist, but it’s a shorter (and beautiful, with full colour endpapers) book so I will try to get through it. I’ve read a few raves about Time Shelter. My copy of Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches finally arrived, and I’m waiting on Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim… and that’ll do it for me, unless something not listed here takes the prize, as I always like to read the winner!

Memories, modems, and martinis

This is a short piece I wrote for Hungry Zine‘s special edition “Mall Food”, a full issue dedicated to food culture in West Edmonton Mall. You can buy the issue here.

In the year 2000, West Edmonton Mall was at its peak: Phase IV was complete, the dragon in Silver City was breathing fire at regular intervals, Playdium had just opened, and Nickleback played a show at Red’s — when it was still called Red’s, and they were still a local band. These are just a few of the things that made West Ed what it was at the dawn of the new millennium, but one tenant stands above the rest as the most Y2K-coded thing the mall has ever known. Offering a heady mix of martinis, cigars, and high-speed internet access: Bytes Internet Cafe.

The “internet” or “cyber” cafe had a brief moment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when home computers weren’t a given and dial-up was unreliable. It’s a food and drink concept that doesn’t really exist anymore. Now, we have our phones out, maybe face down on the table if we’re being polite, whether we’re at a humble Boston Pizza (Phase II), a trendy hand-pulled noodle place (Mogouyan, Phase III), or the swanky, Fantasyland Hotel-adjacent L2 Grill (Phase I). Every cafe is an internet cafe.

But in the Y2K era, going online was not just novel, but also a very contained experience. “Surfing the net” usually took place in a dedicated computer room or lab — not the best places to eat and drink, Mountain Dew and Doritos aside. (If you were truly online in this period, perhaps you were sipping an electric-blue Bawls soda, with its 64 mg of caffeine.) Sitting down to check your email while sipping a latte was something special.

Continue reading

How translated should a book be?

Pyre by Perumal Murugan, tr. Aniruddhan Vasudevan and The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, tr. Daniel Levin Becker

Pyre was the most accessible of the International Booker Prize longlist, availabilty-wise. My ebook hold came in almost right away. It’s quite short and sparse, and it’s a propulsive story with an inevitable conclusion that still manages to be shocking. But I’m left with questions, some specifically about the characters, and some about the accessibility of translated works in general. How much can a person reading in English understand the author’s intentions? How much hand-holding should a translator do?

In Pyre, Kumaresan, a young man from a tiny village in southern India, moves to a nearby city to work. He meets a girl, Saroja, and they elope, with plans to settle back in his home village. Saroja leaves her whole life behind, on a promise that she will be accepted by Kumaresan’s family and village, eventually. They eloped because they are from different castes, and neither family would have been in favour of the marriage, but they both seem to believe that when presented as a fait accompli, people will come around.

People do not come around. Not only are the couple not accepted, but they are instantly, continuously, relentlessly, and violently rejected, most vehemently by Kumaresan’s mother, but also by close family members, friends, and village officials, who consider cancelling a planned festival until Saroja can be cast out.

As a reader, am I to believe that Kumaresan, who grew up in this village and in this culture, had no idea this would happen? Is he very naive? Or was he blinded by love (or lust?) Or was he influenced by his time in the city, where rules around caste are more loosely observed? It was never clear to me, so I had a hard time understanding how annoyed I should be at this guy because Saroja, of course, bears the brunt of the villagers’ ire.

Apart from that (rather major) unknowable element of Pyre, much of the language was obscure to me. Names for food, clothing, and such were often presented in Tamil, and probably for good reason, but even my Kobo couldn’t help me out – no dictionary definitions, not even Wikipedia entries in many cases. Had I read a paper copy, I would have figured out sooner that there was a translator’s note and glossary in the back, but even those were pretty thin.

I’m not saying that translated books need to hold my hand. I can google as well as anyone, though after a few attempts at searching “Tamil castes”, “Nadu castes”, and so on, I was not much wiser as to how much Kumaresan should have know. This story, which is otherwise told in a very straightforward manner, remains impenetrable to me on some levels.

On the other hand, IBP longlister The Birthday Party feels a little over translated. I don’t think Three Lone Girls is a real place in France, but if it was, surely it would be Trois Filles Seules. Nor do I think that Stories of the Night, the book Marion reads to her daughter at bedtime, is real, but if it was, it would surely be called Histoires de la Nuit – and that’s the title of this book in French. “The Birthday Party” is a very literal title, since the setup is Marion’s fortieth birthday, and we first meet her husband Patrice, neighbour Christine, and daughter Ida as they prepare for her party. Histoires de la Nuit or Stories of the Night is much more suggestive.

Even the dog’s name is changed from Radjah to Rajah – Radjah seems to be a variant spelling that’s more popular in French. I promise I would have understood that the dog’s name is roughly Prince – though maybe I should just be glad it wasn’t rendered as “Prince”!

All this Anglicization annoys me. I wonder if that’s because I’m overconfident in my French reading abilities due to my Duo Lingo streak, or, if the characters just feel more familiar. I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone enough to have my home invaded (mild spoiler, but don’t worry, I’m on page 300 and have NO idea where this is going to end up), but I am, like Marion, a working mom who met my husband on a first-generation dating website. I also understand the context of contemporary, Gilet jaunes-era France a bit better than I understand caste-related violence in 1980s India. But I wonder what cues and references I am missing?

I have a feeling I’ll be doing a little more research on both of these books – Pyre to illuminate the characters and plot points I may have missed or misinterpreted, and The Birthday Party just to see what other readers think of this complex and thrilling story. Here’s a review for Pyre that helped me understand a bit more about the author; I learned that he’s written a book from the point of view of a goat, which was given a rave review by Parul Seghal, for one thing! As for The Birthday Party, I tried to read the first chapter in French with an ebook sample, but it was not happening. Perhaps I could read a review in French though?

How to read the 2023 International Booker Prize longlist in Canada

2023 will go down as the year everyone’s International Booker Prize predictions were wrong. I was surprised not to see Mieko Kawakami, Han Kang, Yōko Tawada, or Sayaka Murata, and I was so sure we’d see the new Can Xue, Barefoot Doctor, that I shelled out nearly $30 for the ebook!

I love this list though. It’s the most accessible one I’ve seen in years, meaning that even in Canada, you can read the whole longlist ahead of the prize being awarded, if you want to. You could buy half the longlist right now from Canadian retailers. You could buy the whole longlist from Blackwell’s for $332.77 CAD.

These insights and more are available in my annual spreadsheet. It includes a bit of demographic info, but mostly helps you figure out where to obtain these books in Canada for the best price. My sources are noted, but generally, Canadian cover prices are from Glass Bookshop, library availability refers to Edmonton Public Library, and UK editions are from Blackwell’s. All prices are in CAD and include shipping. I didn’t bother linking to publisher’s websites this time, because for once, it’s not necessary.

I’m happy to see a nice range of languages (Tamil, Bulgarian, Catalan, and Norwegian, in addition to the usual suspects – but notably, no Japanese!) and a nice range of ages (the youngest writer is 35-year-old Amanda Svensson, while the oldest, and the oldest ever to make the list, is 89-year-old Maryse Condé – or is she 86, as Wikipedia claims?) though it’s skewing a little older this year, and very heavy on Gen X writers (seven out of 13).

I got a lot of traction (i.e. almost 100 likes) on a tweet complaining about the “creative” way book prizes present their longlists. The International Booker Prize gave us the courtesy of a text-based list, but even then, you have to click through to see the authors and translator names, so for your convenience, here’s your plain-text, detailed longlist*:

  • Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang
  • A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson, translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley
  • Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
  • Pyre by Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
  • While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
  • The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker
  • Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, translated from the Russian by Reuben Woolley
  • Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
  • Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated from the French by Frank Wynne
  • Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
  • The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated from the French by Richard Philcox
  • Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
  • Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches

And shout out to Bookstagrammer time4reading who posted her own simple list of books plus where to source them in Canada – she’s Toronto-based, so if your library or prefered bookstore is in TO, check her out.

As always, follow the IBP Shadow Panel for reviews and Eric Karl Anderson for a peek behind the scenes (he usually gets to go to the awards ceremony, I think!)

*Not seeing any official sources for the original languages so I took my best guess!

Felicia’s Journey from book to screen

This is not, technically, an entry in my very occasional series in which Rachel makes me watch a movie adaptation of a short story. First of all, Felicia’s Journey is a novel, not a short story, and secondly, Rachel had nothing to do with it – though I hope she takes this as a sign that she should read this book and watch this movie. 

But, much like the adaptations of Calm with Horses and Escape from Spiderhead, which Rachel did inspire me to criticize, the 1999 film “Felicia’s Journey” was flattened on its way to the screen. I continue to have the distinct feeling that filmmakers just don’t trust movie-goers to appreciate a nuanced story with characters who don’t fit neatly into “good” and “bad” categories, or to tolerate anything but a happy (or at least, hopeful) ending. 

This film fares a little better than the other two in presenting morally grey characters, and of the three adaptations, might be my favourite, for sticking to the plot (more or less), for keeping the bad guy pretty darn bad, and because it gave me some new insight into the characters. The other two mainly made me wonder what went wrong.

I came to Felicia’s Journey through Cathy and Kim’s “A Year with William Trevor” event. I wasn’t particularly drawn to this book (I’m not big on teenage-pregnancy-as-plot-point, and I talk enough about “journeys” at work) until I realized there was a Canadian movie adaptation, available for free on CBC Gem. Director Atom Egoyan is legendary here, and I’ve never seen any of his movies.

But first, the book. Based on the title and cover, I was expecting some kind of heartfelt family drama, but instead found a thriller. Or maybe a mystery. Not about Felicia – a good Irish Catholic girl getting knocked up, abandoned by the father, and rejected by her family is a tale as old as time, and the additional drama due to the father joining the British army is a tale going back to at least 1916. Joe Hilditch, though? At first, he’s presented in a very particular way – the way he wants to be seen – as a fastidious middle-aged middle manager who has a big appetite for food, but who otherwise lives quietly and correctly. He seems like the type of pleasant, older man that kids on TikTok would want to “protect at all costs,” until he meets Felicia, newly arrived in England and looking for her wayward boyfriend.

Hilditch appears helpful at first, suggesting where she could look for a young man in industrial Birmingham. But soon he’s following Felicia, and manipulating things so that he’s the only one who can help her. We learn he’s done this before, and clue in pretty quickly that he doesn’t befriend wayward teenage girls out of the goodness of his heart. But, if you had asked me why he does it, exactly, at page 50, or 100, or maybe even 150, I wouldn’t have known. The slow reveal and unravelling of Hilditch is shocking and mesmerizing.

The movie takes a more direct route to showing us what Mr. Hilditch is up to, and why. His house is full of relics, he wears outdated clothing, and drives a vintage car, all of which are pristine. He’s fussy at work and at home, a man who is forever stuck in the past, still trying to please his late mother, never quite measuring up. Bob Hoskins, who I’d only known as “the Roger Rabbit guy” up to this point, is great at portraying Hilditch as alternately smug and near cracking under the pressure. Elaine Cassidy as Felicia, who I barely recognized from The Wonder, gives a quiet and passive performance, which is as it should be. Flashbacks to her home life in Ireland are set to very generic Irish music, but the setting is beautiful, especially the ruins of Glanworth Castle, and provide a striking contrast to the bleak industrial landscape she finds in England.

I will never figure out why Felicia is wearing chunky platform sandals in the movie, though. That’s certainly not in the book, and I was exhausted just thinking about a four-months-pregnant girl clomping around in those all day. Period-appropriate for the 1990s, yes, and Felicia is pretty naive, but no real girl would do this!

But I digress. There are other, somewhat-more understandable choices we need to discuss. 

I will give the movie props for keeping a controversial part of the story, in which Hilditch coerces Felicia into getting an abortion. The film portrays this in all its ambiguity – Hilditch is probably right that this makes sense, but he does it for all the wrong reasons, and Felicia doesn’t come around after, and is suitably traumatised by what she’s done.  

But we lose a pivotal passage in the book, in which, after the abortion, Hilditch starts to see Felicia in a more sexual light (Madonna-whore complex, much?). The movie is almost entirely desexualized, actually. Hilditch is portrayed as some kind of voyeur, luring young runaway girls into his car for conversation, mostly, taping it all with a hidden video camera, meticulously labeling and cataloguing the tapes at home. This does translate very creepily on film, but in the book, Hilditch is an exhibitionist, not just driving the girls around, but flaunting them in restaurants and rest stops, taking sick pleasure in the whispers and stares (real and imagined) as passersby trying to puzzle out what relationship this middle aged man could possibly have with these teenage girls. Hilditch’s need to be seen as successful, sexually, is in constant tension with his need to keep up appearances (it’s always some out-of-the-way roadside diner, never anything remotely near his home or work). These passages are so creepy and depraved, and the videotapes have nothing on it. 

In the book, this actually comes to a head at the abortion clinic, where Hilditch simply can’t help calling himself Felicia’s “boyfriend” to the unamused clinic staff. Unable to form normal relationships, Hilditch is reduced to tricking strangers into thinking he impregnated a teenager.

And that brings us to the biggest change of Felicia’s journey from book to film. Why is Hilditch the way that he is? As you may have gathered, it is indeed because of issues with his beloved late mother, but the intensity of this revelation is dialled way, way down for the film. What becomes clear near the end of the book is so shocking and sad, it makes the reader question what they’ve read so far, and what the book is about in the first place. If you only watched the movie, or watched it first, you might not feel like something is missing, necessarily, but the book is just on another level here. I can’t quite figure out why Egoyan softened the blow for movie-goers, as he’s known for some pretty out-there stuff. 

The movie also brings things to a close too quickly. In the book, some Jehova’s Witnesses become entwined in Felicia’s, and therefore Hilditch’s life, and their constant questioning chips away at what’s left of Hilditch’s sanity, bit by bit, until he’s brought to a breaking point. It brings a psychological thriller aspect to the book. In the movie, this plot point is there, but it goes from zero to sixty in a single scene. Similarly, in the book, Felicia spends a harrowing couple of nights (at least?) on the streets, bouncing between shelters, store entryways, and squats, and making friends with all sorts of unsavoury characters. It takes her from naive to desperate. These b-plots (“journeys”, I suppose) are necessary for the end of the story to make sense, and to have emotional depth. I have to think these story elements were cut for time, which is unfortunate but (somewhat) understandable. 

The very end, and the sense of where Felicia’s journey will take her next, is not wholly changed, but it’s cast in a much more hopeful light. I can’t say a lot more, but it was the very final scene of the movie that inspired this post and my initial note to self was “they can’t keep getting away with this!”

They really can’t. “Shadow of Violence”, “Spiderhead,” and now (well- 24 years ago) “Felicia’s Journey” took dark, messy, stories and made them more palatable for film. Felicia’s Journey is still well worth the watch, for Bob Hoskins, for the sets, for the preserved line of dialog from the book in which he muses that “Mothers can be difficult”, which, indeed. But please, I beg of you, read the book too!  

Molly of the Mall by Heidi L.M. Jacobs

Jane Austen-inspired novels are so numerous and varied that they form not just a distinct genre, but many subgenres. There are alternate points of view, prequels and sequels, genre crossovers, and modern retellings. Then there are novels that don’t adapt or retell or modernize, they simply appreciate. Molly of the Mall by Heidi L.M. Jacobs is one of these, and because it doesn’t hold too tightly to the source material, it is much more than another Austenesque novel. 

Molly is a satire, a campus novel, a bildungsroman, and a romance. It’s an appreciation of Austen, but also of Woolf, Eliot, the Brontës, Hardy, Burns, and Daniel Defoe, among many others (Molly is named after Defoe’s scandalous heroine Moll Flanders, one of many delightful literary character names.) It’s also a celebration of Edmonton as a literary city.

Molly MacGregor is an aspiring “authoress”, studying English at the University of Alberta and selling shoes at West Edmonton Mall circa 1995. This is the era of card catalogues in the library and captive peacocks in the Mall – a far cry from today’s Edmonton, and far from where Molly wants to be. She finds Edmonton too cold, too bleak, and too bland a place from which to realize her literary and romantic ambitions. She spends much of her time in imagined conversation with her favourite authors and heroines, primarily “Miss Austen.”

Austen heroines don’t always have the most useful romantic advice, though. Upon spying her crush, Molly wondered:

“What would Persuasion’s Anne Elliot do now”? but then realized she would nod cordially, and proceed walking down the Mall, using her sensible millinery to prevent meaningful eye contact with a man not formally introduced to her. This might be why I so rarely summon Persuasion in my daily life decisions.

Austen’s oft-quoted writing advice, that “three or four families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,” isn’t much help either. Molly laments that “coming from Edmonton was strike one for an aspiring writer.”

But Edmonton books are just as varied and diverse as Austen-inspired books, and as relevant to Molly’s interests, covering campus life (Michael Hingston’s The Dilettantes), retail ennui (Shawna Lemay’s Rumi and the Red Handbag), and West Edmonton Mall itself (the title story of Dina Del Bucchia’s Don’t Tell Me What To Do). There are even Janites in Edmonton: Melanie Kerr wrote Pride and Prejudice prequel Follies Past, and Krista D. Ball puts Lizzie and Darcy modern-day McCauley in First (Wrong) Impressions.

None of these books had been published in 1995, though. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, another of her literary confidants, Molly would have to write the great Edmonton novel herself.

Molly aspires to serious literature, with plans for a “watershed Canadian coming-of-age novel,” and a “historically accurate, gothic bodice-ripper set in Saskatchewan”, but this novel is a comedy. Molly’s modern-day woes and Regency-era sensibilities make for delightfully funny observations about subjects as diverse as academia, consumerism, and the dateability of Oasis’ Gallagher brothers. The Edmonton-specific details are a treat, and mall workers the world over will relate to the staff rivalries, tedious closing shifts, and ubiquitous Boney M. Christmas music.

The humour rarely misses, though Molly’s novelistic plans, complete with comparisons between classic literary tropes and their Canadian equivalents (Heroines and Heifers, Passions and Pastures) are really only funny the first couple of times. Much better are Molly’s flights of fancy about classic literature, such as this Middlemarch-inspired daydream:

Passing Mall Security, I imagined bursting, breathlessly, into their inner sanctum, declaring, “This is urgent! I must address the shoppers! No time to explain.” I imagine they’d scratch their matching shaved heads and then hand over the PA system mic. “Attention shoppers,” I would start, “I have been reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch non-stop for the past three weeks, and I must tell you this. After 593 pages, Will Ladislaw has just kissed Dorothea. What does this have to do with you? It has everything to do with you. This is literature’s finest kiss. Here, let me read it to you.”

All this satire is hung on a rather low-stakes romantic plot. Molly has many suitors, but they’re nearly interchangeable, except for the “turtleneck” (Molly’s term for her pretentious classmates) who makes unwanted advances and is never heard from again. One of her admirers is her own sister’s ex-boyfriend, but this is never addressed. This seems like a situation rife for conflict in a book that could have used more of it. 

The romance eventually comes to a neat conclusion, allowing the literary to take centre stage. Jacobs takes a real gamble in the last act, having Molly complete a year-end assignment on a “cheese poet” that is almost too outlandish, and too specifically Canadian, but she pulls it off. The details are best discovered by the reader, but it not only works as a comedic triumph, it also proves that Molly can indeed write from and about Edmonton, and that she doesn’t have to fall in with tired “nature and survival” CanLit tropes. A great Canadian novel can be about anything, even a shoe store in Phase III of West Edmonton Mall. It can even be funny.

2022 Year in review

Georges Croegaert, “Reading”, 1890 (source)

I read slightly fewer books this year (40) than the previous few, but given the fulfilment of my resolution to watch more movies (49, at least ten times more than any recent year, follow along on Letterboxd), I’d say I broke even.

I’ve heard it said that when it comes to resolutions and habits, it’s easier to stop something than to start; after all, what could be easier than not doing something? But it’s so much more fun to add more of what you love. That was my mindset this year, when I decided to add movies (back) into my life, which had unpredictable and wonderful consequences to say the least.

I’m not sure what I want to add in 2023. Writing, maybe? I didn’t post a single traditional book review this year. Much as I enjoy lighter and funnier writing about books, there’s something special about a real, formal book review. I recently discovered a review I wrote back in 2021, for a publication that never went forward (will post it here soon!) and remembered how much I like the close reading, the research, and the writing and rewriting process.

I also hosted a readalong for the first time in a few years, and while it was technically a bust (no one joined except my sister and brother in law!) it reminded me how much I love to immerse myself in a topic, and allow myself to follow various rabbit holes and threads.

Aside from books, I’m submitting a piece to a publication for the first time in a long time, about two subjects that are special to me: malls and food. I don’t really expect it to be accepted, but I’m getting the same buzz (and same frustration!) of over-researching and over-writing, in the hopes that I can pare it down into something readable.

So perhaps, if 2020 and 2021 were years of reading and survival, and 2022 was a year of pleasure and movies, 2023 can be all of those things and more, and I can write about them?

Anyway, here are my favourite books of the year and some light stats. I already wrote about my worst books of the year, a new tradition!

Top ten books of 2022

  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takamori (my hold on Life Ceremony is due in soon, thank goodness)
  • Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt (new book when???)
  • The Chiffon Trenches by Andre Leon Talley
  • The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarcuk, translated by Jennifer Croft
  • Either/Or by Elif Batuman
  • Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton
  • Quartet by Jean Rhys
  • A tie, because these are really short stories and only books for marketing/reading goals purposes: Foster by Claire Keegan and The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt

Book of the year

And resurrecting another Reading in Bed tradition, I hereby name my book of the year to be Either/Or by Elif Batuman. Hilarious, sad, and meta, Either/Or is both a realistic reflection of life in the 90s and a glimpse of a world that could only belong to Selin. I’m not ready to leave her behind and I hope it’s not true that this is it; Selin has two more years of undergrad left and I demand a full tetralogy! I knew this would be my book of the year when I read a very valid criticism that had to do with an inaccurate reference to an episode of Sex and the City, the sort of thing that would usually drive me nuts, and immediately thought “nope, Elif is allowed to do what she wants!”


  • 25/40 woman and nonbinary authors (more than last year and well represented in my top ten)
  • 9/40 in translation (bit more than last year)
  • 12/40 Canadian, much stronger showing than last year

Most Disappointing Books of 2022

Normally, I do a catch-all “year in review” post, and I will still do one, but, there’s been some anti-worst-books-lists discourse lately and we must push back. I haven’t even listed my worst books since 2018, so it’s high time.

Obscure for a reason

Obscure books that no one talks about and no one should read.

  • The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamad. I was excited to read this near-future apocolytic novel set right here in Edmonton, and I did indeed recognize many locations, even in their dyspotian form, but the story was so thin, and the main character so wannabe edgy, and the premise was just stealing bits from every popular YA novel in the past twenty years. Having a character walk down Whyte Ave. was not nearly enough to make up for it.
  • Bitcoin Widow by Jennifer Robertson. Such an obvious cash grab, and yet I didn’t hear anyone talking about it, so was it worth it? Jennifer Robertson tells her side of the Quadriga crypto mystery, and asks the reader to believe that she is either incredibly naive or incredibly stupid when it comes to how her (late?) husband was financing their lavish lifestyle.

Crappy classics

At least I go to cross off two entries in the 1,001 Books list!

  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. Well I’m not going to tell you that a novel written in a time when “novels” weren’t really a thing is “bad,” exactly, but I was not enjoying myself. After a certain number of piss and shit jokes it all kind of blurred together.
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. I’m pretty sure this book invented the “autofiction” genre. Ms. Stein has a lot to answer for. There are a few good one-liners in here but you have to wade through interminable pages of “this artist visited us, we visited this artist, this person was boring, this person was a genius” and it’s SO BORING.

Mainstream, Midlist, and Meh

Some recent-ish books that honestly weren’t terrible but did not live up to the hype.

  • Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au. Probably suffered from comparison to My Phantoms, which had similar themes but is just better in every way. This was totally forgettable for me.
  • Helpmeet by Naben Ruthnum. I’m just really tired of horror books that use pregnancy and childbirth (or clear analogs) as their big, scary thing. Especially from male writers.
  • Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagen. This one actually had some great moments, and is great when depicting 1980s England and the burgeoning punk scene, BUT the writing was so overwrought. And the sudden pivot to the current day halfway through was… unwelcome. I can handle overwrought when it’s teenagers we’re talking about, but when it’s guys in their 50s…
  • Mouth of Mouth by Antoine Wilson. A Giller nominee, but I’ve also seen this in American best-of lists so it’s making waves… too bad I was so let down by the twist ending.