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.
You can read an Alice Munro story anytime you want
This post is just to say that you can read an Alice Munro story anytime you want. Even right now! A few possibilities:
- The New Yorker: Do you have free articles left at The New Yorker? Use one. Do you have a subscription? Even better, binge away – there are 61 stories dating back to 1977. Are you at your limit for free articles? I’m sure you know ways around that. For instance, I found out that you can borrow issues in Libby. If you don’t know where to start, here’s a guide to some of her stories available online.
- The library: Your library system probably has many Munro books, available right now, for free. Sixty-five in Edmonton, some with immediate ebook and audio access. There are, in addition to the major collections: book club kits, translations (in Chinese, Korean, Polish, French, and Spanish), early works, biographies, books for which Munro wrote a foreword, and books for which she acted as editor.
- The bookstore: Dozens of Munro books are in stock at my local chain bookstore, and while she’s not on hand at Glass, I know they’d order her in. If you order a newer edition, be aware that Penguin Canada has, for some reason, updated the cover art on a few of her books recently. I think they look kind of gross.
- Other: You could, of course, start a paid ebook or audiobook at any time. And you’d be hard pressed to find a used bookstore in Canada without a few of her books kicking around. Even outside Canada, I’ll bet you have pretty good access to a recent-ish Nobel winner.
That was a long preamble just to say that you could read a Munro story at any time. I’ve been thinking about this since reading her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage. I was feeling sappy about such a profound and entertaining reading experience, partly because I could have read it anytime in the past twenty years, but I put off till now. So I just want you to know, you don’t have to wait.
I don’t say this in a “life is short, read good books” kind of a way (though you probably should). Or in a “read her stories to develop empathy” kind of way (though if anyone’s writing can help with this, it’s hers). And definitely not in a “put your phone down and read for *self care*” kind of way (though again… perhaps…)
But more in a, “isn’t it amazing that you can?” kind of way. In a moment, on a whim, for free, you can be reading a story by arguably the world’s greatest living writer.
The closest approximation of the feeling I’m trying to convey is probably this iconic meme from Da Sharezone. I’m not saying you have to, but I think it’s important to know that you can. You can leave! Or you can read Munro.
Let’s also have a moment of appreciation for an author who did, indeed, “hit da bricks” (she hasn’t published much, if anything, since her Nobel win in 2013) rather than limp on, gathering up awards and distributing hot takes. I don’t know what Munro would post on Twitter, and given the proclivities of some of her contemporaries, I don’t want to know.
Three ways to get into poetry
I’m a fairly well read person. No, this post isn’t about what it means to be well read. Just take my word for it. I’ve read across many formats and genres, and many traditions and eras. I do have a weak spot though: poetry.
I remember learning exactly two poems in school. One was A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne and the other was To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, and both are about dead white dudes who were feeling horny. Jeez, is it any wonder I wasn’t taken with it?
I’ve read three poetry collections so far this year, and I loved each of them. I’m not good at saying why, exactly, but I can tell you how I found my way in. Continue reading
CanLit for Cynics: Q&A with Peter Unwin
When I wrote about CanLit cynicism for carte blanche, I started with Alex Good’s book of essays, Revolutions (full Q&A here). Then, a very strange novel fell into my hands (actually, it was placed there by Kelsey at Freehand Books) and I knew these books were meant to be together. Searching for Petronius Totem is a strange, hilarious book, and author Peter Unwin is a bit strange and hilarious himself. Read on for the full Q&A.
Many thanks to Mr. Unwin, and Ms. Attard at Freehand books!
2016 Year in Review #1: The Stats
You may notice something different about this year’s stats, compared to other years. Let’s see how long it takes to spot it…
- Books read in 2016: 35, down from 69 in 2015. That was on purpose, though. And I’m not counting rereads, kids books, or books I read for work.
- Shortest book: Bluets by Maggie Nelson (112 pages)
- Longest book: Cecilia by Frances Burney (1,056 pages)
- Format: 97% paper, 3% ebook, 0% audio (compared to a third of my reading on ebook and audio last year)
About the Author
- 100% female (58% in 2015)
- 34% person of colour (up from 20% 2015)
- 37% Canadian (same as 2015) 38% American, 11% British, and 1 each: Korean, Japanese, French, Filipino.
- Three Edmonton-area authors this year, being generous with one who moved recently!
… did you catch it? Yes, I did the #readwomen thing this year, and my experience will be covered in a separate blog post. Brace yourselves: unlike many who do this sort of thing, I did not come to any shattering realizations, and I *cannot wait* to read some dudes in 2017.
Genres and Lists
- 11% classics (same as 2015), 63% contemporary lit fic (about the same as previous years), 11% nonfiction (all memoirs), and a handful of erotica, poetry, and graphic novels.
- 2 1001 Books for a total of 127 read.
Probably gonna mix it up a bit next year, say, read some nonfiction that isn’t memoir?
- 17% were rated five stars (up from 11% last year), 49% were four stars, 23% were three stars, 14% were two stars and poor Nora Roberts gets just one.
- The most underrated book was After Claude, which I rated a 5, compared to average 3.55 rating on Goodreads. Which I assume is due to people getting offended, which is the whole point.
- The most overrated book was The Liar, which I rated a 1, compared to average 3.94 rating. It was just bad.
- Headed for about 17,000 page views in 2015, down from 23,000 in 2015. And 11,000 visitors, down from 15,000.
- I’m not panicking, because my review of The Fault in Our Stars, which amassed 7,000 views in 2013-2015, was viewed just 400 times this year. Looks like kids writing papers have moved on to another book. Similarly, my review of Sleeping Beauty is not pulling the numbers it used to (nor am I seeing as much filth in my search terms). I think a lot of my traffic in 2014/2015 was artificial due to people landing on those posts – and quickly clicking away. They were never my readers anyway. The moral is: never review YA or erotica.
- An Oryx and Crake readalong recap from 2013 continues to perform, due to a post on a Something Awful forum which I’m sorely tempted to pay for so I can see what it is… anyone a member? Hit me up!
- On course for 45 posts this year, up from 39 posts in 2015.
- Most viewed post of 2016 is that mysterious Oryx and Crake one.
- Most viewed post that was actually written in 2016: Intro post of the Cecilia readalong, likely due to a little help from CBC.
- Least successful post in 2016: Short Story Advent Calendar Video Reviews. Same as in 2015, it’s a Booktube post. Okay, I get it, you guys don’t like the Booktube…
Stay tuned for best books, disappointing books, and 2017 plans, of which I have several!
It’s a CanLit Celebration
Facebook memories are good for one thing: reminding me that at this time last year, I’d already published a comprehensive post about Edmonton’s fall line up of literary festivals and events. This year, I’m attending just one event. (Insert excuses such as work, kids, and rockstar husband* here.) But it’s going to be a gooder.
Edmonton’s LitFest is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and so is the Canadian Literature Centre. As if that wasn’t enough to justify a party, the CLC also just released a book of essays, Ten Canadian Writers in Context, edited by friend-of-Reading in Bed Jason Purcell. This party just got upgraded to a soirée: the LitFest Ten-Ten Soirée and CLC Celebration to be exact.
The Short Story Advent Calendar 2016: Giveaway open till Oct. 9
Disclaimer: Giveaway copy is courtesy of the kind people at The Short Story Advent Calendar, but I bought my own copy. I know one of the creators, Michael Hingston, and reviewed his novel The Dilettantes here.
Forgive me for talking about Christmas in early October, but the second edition of The Short Story Advent Calendar is on sale now, and I’m so excited to offer one copy to a lucky reader. Continue reading
Paper Teeth by Lauralyn Chow: Director’s Cut Review
Publication date: September 1, 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Read this if you like: Historical CanLit, Edmonton and Calgary settings, funny family stories, non-traditional structure
Check out Paper Teeth on Goodreads
Thanks to: NeWest Press for the review copy and Lauralyn Chow for answering my questions
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Paper Teeth by Lauralyn Chow for Vue Weekly.
I’ve written reviews here on Reading in Bed for many years. Writing for print publications is new to me, and there are many differences:
- Getting paid
- Actual deadline
- No links or gifs
- No writing about yourself and your feelings
You also have to limit the word count. That’s not something I do here on the blog. I love a long review. I had to keep my review of Paper Teeth under 800 words, and I had about 1,500 in my first draft.
So, if you didn’t get enough of my ramblings in Vue, here’s a longer version, along with the full text of my Q&A with Lauralyn Chow. I loved this book, and if you’re into historical CanLit, especially Edmonton and Calgary settings, you’ll want to check this out.
2016 Alberta Readers Choice Award: Real Talk
The above image (used with permission) is pretty optimistic. Does anyone read all five books before voting? Don’t people just vote for the author they know, or the book that looks to be up their alley?
I love the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award in spite of my belief that it’s basically a popularity contest. Some great books have won (The Shore Girl by Fran Kimmel in particular).
I wrote about the Edmonton-heavy shortlist for Vue Weekly. For that article, I had to keep things pretty neutral. Here are my real opinions, for those who care. Voting is open till 11:59pm on Wednesday August 31.
Conspicuous Consumption #2: Podcasts
A feature in which I tell you about my book-related media consumption in a conspicuous manner.
I’ve been driving for about seven years now, and I’ve wasted so much time listening to the radio.
It took me more than five years to realize I could borrow audio books from the library. That was great and all, but I’m trying to cut back on reading this year, so rather than go back to terrible radio commercials, I finally figured out podcasts.
If you are thinking “what is there to figure out?” please remember I am old and that those audio books I listened to were on CD. Anyway, here’s what I needed:
- Android app: Pocket Casts
- Speaker (Not affiliate, just a tip so you don’t have to go through two duds like I did)
- Some good podcasts. See below.
The must listens
Overdue: I love this concept: each week, one of the hosts reads a book that “you should have read by now” and explains it to the other. These guys are funny and take the books just seriously enough, which is to say, not terribly. I enjoy the episodes about books I’ve read more than those about books I haven’t, but, you can definitely still enjoy an episode without reading the book. That’s kind of the point.
Try this episode: Peter Pan
Writereads: Yes, I am a frequent guest host, but hear me out! CanLit is woefully under served in the literary podcast world, and Writeread’s monthly themes ensure there’s something for everybody. Writereads is a book club, so you really should read the book before listening to the podcast, but when I haven’t, I just listen to the first portion in which Kirt and Tania talk about their current reads and CanLit happenings.
Try this episode: The ones with me, but also a classic Tania-and-Kirt one like this one, about an L.M. Montgomery book that features filthy language (…the episode, not the book.)
Can’t Lit: Besides having the best name, Can’t Lit fills in a very specific niche by interviewing Canadian writers with a heavy focus on poets. No stuffy pretentiousness here, the interviews are offbeat and funny. No need to do the reading, though you’ll probably want to read all the author’s stuff afterward.
Try this episode: Michael Christie
Backlisted: British writers John Mitchinson and Andy Miller (also an excellent Twitter-er at @i_am_mill_i_am) resurrect a forgotten backlist title every two weeks and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read it, or heard of the author, or even intend to read it, the discussion is fascinating. I do hope to read one of the backlisted titles one day, and might start with this one:
Try this episode: Good Morning Midnight
Hidden Histories: This six-episode series is over, but it’s worth going back and listening. The topic at hand is “the great forgetting” of British female authors prior to Austen. I’d heard of Frances Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft, but I learned about Aphra Behn and Hester Thrale and many more. And the episodes are blessedly short.
Try this episode: Bluestocking culture: how did women become writers?
- Reading Envy: A recent episode features “book speed dating,” in which the host reads the first 50 pages of a bunch of books and decides which ones to continue and which to get rid of. Brilliant!
- Lit Up: Interviews with totally important authors, like Nell Zink.
- No Resemblance: This podcast hasn’t even put out an episode yet, but check out the intro: writers submit short stories, which will be read by the host. This one’s local and I’m excited to see what kind of stuff comes in.
So, do you like stuff? Specifically podcasts? Tell me which ones!