Note: it helps to imagine the title of this post read by Dave Chappelle as Rick James.
For the last three years, I’ve challenged myself to finish a long, intimidating book before New Years. In 2011, I read The Magic Mountain, in 2012 I read Infinite Jest, and this year I’m reading Middlemarch. All the while, a group of Edmontonians have been reading ambitiously for the past three Decembers too and they call it a Bookstravaganza! They took a different, and I gotta say, more fun approach and made it competitive and charitable. It’s like a readathon and Movember combined without the creepy mustaches. I love the idea, and you can expect to see me in on this next year! In the meantime, follow the Bookstravaganza blog, and check out my quick primer:
- The concept is pretty simple: read as many books as you can during the month of December. Participants post short reviews to the blog as they go and the most books read wins.
There’s no criteria for choosing books, but the choices are seriously great. Most of the participants posted a stack of books at the outset and in each one there are SO MANY books that I am jealous of and want to be reading RIGHT NOW (no offense Middlemarch!) My favourite stacks: This one including Slaughterhouse-Five, She’s Come Undone, Ficciones, and JPod and this one including Into the Wild, Outlander, Lullabies for Little Criminals, and The Sisters Brothers and this one (pictured) because of The Girls, The God of Small Things, and Naked Lunch.
- Charitable donations are encouraged, on a one-time or per-book basis, to the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, which puts books in underfunded school libraries. I’ve sponsored founding member Matthew Stepaniac at a modest per book rate. He is on fire right now, reading at a book-a-day pace, so I’m a little nervous!
- The ten readers have some pretty impressive stats. One of them read 31 books last December. That’s insane!
- The reviews are great because they’re quick reads and there are multiple updates each day. Here’s a great little review of Todd Babiak’s Come Barbarians which simultaneously made me want to read it immediately and lock it up somewhere because I know I will be traumatized!
Is there a statute of limitations on monthly roundups? Let’s hope not! Already 20% into December (and #Middlemarch13,) so let’s do this.
40 Below Official Launch #1: I’m really impressed by the continued buzz around this local, indie book. I only attended one of the two official launches, but it seems everywhere I turn I’m hearing about a TV appearance, or seeing the book on the bestseller list – really well done, 40 Below crew!
I got my book signed straightaway by mastermind Jason Lee Norman and contributors Michael Hingston and Dani Paradis. Dani read her poem about her hippy parents, which may or may not be based on a true story. There were a few awkward moments when people asked me to sign their books because they thought I was her – I guess I can see how brown hair + glasses + purple sweater + sitting as same table was confusing. I’ll take it as a compliment as Dani is much younger and more fashionable than I!
Vernon R. Wishart was my favourite reader. His story about his wife’s speedy Christmas Day labour and delivery was even funnier read aloud. I learned that it was a true story, as that Christmas baby, now in her 50s, was in the audience.
Don Perkins didn’t read, but he did write my favourite sentence in the whole book, and signed right next to it with a real fountain pen! Check out his take on the event here.
Before heading home, I bonded with fellow 40 Below reject Matthew Stepaniac and had a good chat about book blogging. Watch for a post very soon about his Bookstravaganza project.
(I also attended a little event with Margaret Atwood this month, which you can read about here.)
For once I actually posted about most of the books I read this month, thanks to Novellas in November and #ReadWilkie. Here are the two exceptions:
- Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann: I was let down by this book, which was billed as The Great Gatsby meets The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a character study that moves through five people’s perspectives, and unfortunately, each narrator is weaker than the last.
- Why Here? by Michelle Ferguson: Similar thematically to her debut From Away, Why Here? is a better written sophomore novel but has a terrible title. Full review to come.
Books I Want to Read:
I suddenly have a slew of non-fiction books to read. I’ll probably wait till January to get to them, given my Middlemarch ambitions. Non-Fiction New Year? More about those later, but let’s give a quick shout-out to Eat It, a collection of women’s writing on sex and food, for having a great title. I also added On Beauty by Zadie Smith, my Classic Club Spin pick (was to lazy to do a post) and discovered it’s the only Smith book that doesn’t appear to even exist at the library.
Coming up on the blog:
- Middlemarch Read-Along hosted by Too Fond: Intro post coming soon (hopefully no statute of limitations on those, either) but so far, so good. I feel like I’m learning a life lesson on every page.
- Storytellers Book Club: Finally getting into this! I’m reading Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love. I’m five stories in and each one is better than the last.
- 2013 Wrap Up: Might do another vlog. Hope I can do it in fewer than five takes, unlike last time.
In the interests of time, I’m skipping the list of blog posts that usually appears here. Tell me all of your December reading plans! Are they ambitious like mine, or are you taking it easy for the holidays?
My rating: 4/5 stars
With astonishing range and depth, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady gives us nine unforgettable new stories, each one of them grabbing our attention from the first line and resonating long after the last.
Equally adept at capturing the foibles and obsessions of men and of women, compassionate in her humour yet never missing an opportunity to make her characters squirm, fascinated as much by faithlessness as by faith, Lynn Coady is quite possibly the writer who best captures what it is to be human at this particular moment in our history
I apologize for posting the following self-congratulatory tweet, but for book bloggers, I don’t think it gets better than being acknowledged by an author you love. The Giller Prize’s Twitter account asked us to review a long-listed book in 13 words exactly:
It’s true, though, “trapped” was the first word that came to mind after reading this collection. Reading these stories was uncomfortable and claustrophobic. I was literally squirming at times. Coady gets us so close to her characters, it’s almost embarrassing, and I have a real problem with vicarious embarrassment. I’m one of those people who have to change the channel when a character is too exposed, or being made a fool of.
The first and last stories were the strongest. Maybe that’s just primacy bias, or maybe it’s my own experience that made these stories devastating – the first is about an alcoholic, the second about a teenage pregnancy, both topics that tend to punch me in the gut.
“Wireless” opens with a hangover, and it’s one of the best descriptions of one I’ve read:
She lay flat on her back for twenty minutes, gauging the pain, the depth of her dehydration. The song in her ears. She sat up, and a second later her pickled brain slid back into its cradle in the centre of her cranium. Time to throw up.
I haven’t had a hangover in five years and reading that made me shudder. The whole story is disconnected and fuzzy, like that poor, pickled brain. What’s with the two mentions of Beanie Babies? What’s with the title? What’s the deal with Ned, the man Jane meets, another alcoholic who is lying to her for unknown reasons? We never find out.
The last story is “Mr. Hope,” and it’s another strange one. This is the one that really prompted my “uncomfortable” response. There’s something off about the whole thing and I can’t figure out what. Is it because the narrator refer’s to her teachers large belly as his “D,” as in the shape of a “D,” given the (gross) internet meme thing “she wants the D?” Because the way Mr. Hope interacts with the kids is kind of age inappropriate, and you wonder what else inappropriate is going on? Like this scene, where he is inexplicably trying to force a grade one class to come up with a definition for “love:”
“Love is when you hold a puppy.”
Mr. Hope slammed his fist against our sweet-faced grandma-teacher’s desk.
“LOVE IS NOT,” he bellowed, “WHEN YOU HOLD A PUPPY.”
Behind me, I could hear someone’s breath hitching rapidly in and out and I tried to shush whoever it was as quietly as I could.
“Where is it?” Mr. Hope demanded to know. “What is it? Think about that, people. You’re all so sure about this thing, and you can’t even answer the question. I’m not asking you when it is. A rock is a small hard round thing. Okay, that’s not great, but at least it’s a start. So what kind of thing is love? Big or little? Soft or hard? Black or white? Or coloured?”
And it gets more awkward from there. I reread this story in it’s entirety for this review, and it struck me differently this time. That’s the great thing about these stories – they’re ambiguous, not in an unresolved way, but in a way that you can read into differently each time.
A few of the other notable bits include:
- A story that’s made the best use of texting I’ve encountered in fiction- and I know that’s quite a feat, have heard from authors who’ve set their stories in the past specifically to avoid having to deal with technology,
- An Edmonton winter story that should have been in the 40 Below anthology; I know so because I drove myself nuts searching for it in my copy of 40 Below while writing my review,
- Stories about self-harm, anorexia, self-doubt, and general dysfunction. Cheery stuff.
Some of these stories stuck with me. Some of them made little impression at all. I want to see what Coady can do with a novel-length story. I know, it’s probably a book-snobbish way to think, but it’s true. Rather than the recent and critically acclaimed The Antagonist, I want to start with Strange Heaven which sounds right up my alley. Another story about a teenage mom – I really should branch out.
The Giller Effect
Reviewing the book’s Goodreads page, I was surprised to see only 101 ratings. The Giller Prize was announced a few weeks ago, and the long and short lists have been out for months. I’m not sure if Goodreads ratings is a valid criteria, but it’s easy to do a few comparisons:
Past Five Giller Winners:
- Hellgoing – 101 ratings
- 419 – 4000 ratings
- Half-Blood Blues – 6563 ratings
- The Sentimentalists – 1691 ratings
- The Bishop’s Man – 3187 ratings
The other 2013 shortlisted titles have around 100 ratings each too, so maybe they just need more time. Though somehow long-lister Claire Messud has nearly 10,000 ratings for The Woman Upstairs!
To ensure this wasn’t a Canada thing, I checked out the recent National Book Award recipient Good Lord Bird – 500ish ratings. Maybe people (or, more specifically, people who are active on Goodreads) don’t give a shit about award winners. Compare (and weep) with Dragon Bound’s 15,000 ratings.
As for whether or not Hellgoing deserved to win, well, you’ll have to wait for my review of Caught for my final thoughts. I only read these two, so I can’t weigh in on the travesty of The Orenda not making the shortlist. Totally a coincidence that I read the two female authors on the shortlist too, I swear!
My rating: 4/5 stars
40 Below is Edmonton’s Winter Anthology. Stories, poems, and essays about or inspired by winter in Edmonton.
Like many (most?) book bloggers, I have some writerly ambitions of my own. Last winter, I spent the tail end of my maternity leave picking away at a submission for the 40 Below anthology. There’s nothing like a new baby and a two-year-old to make you feel the isolation of an Edmonton winter, so my story wasn’t particularly positive. Nor was it particularly good. Earier this year I received a very nice, personalized rejection email from editor Jason Lee Norman (author of Americas, my review here.) I have absolutely no hard feelings (it was pretty bad) and really enjoyed the whole process of writing and revising. If nothing else, it gave me something to do at 2am other than the usual dead-eyed scrolling through Twitter.
I was excited to find out who did make the cut. It’s a who’s who of Edmonton writers, including a whole bunch who’ve been reviewed here on Reading in Bed: Michael Hingston, Jessica Kluthe, Diana Davisdon, and Jennifer Quist. Not that it’s all #yegwrites establishment. There are plenty of authors I’ve never heard of, and even a couple of kids. Variety is the strong point of the collection. With that in mind, here are a few of my picks:
- Story that I related to on a personal level: Sirens by Diana Davidson. It actually resulted in a Twitter therapy session as two other Edmonton book bloggers and I read it around the same time. They both happen to be pregnant, and Davidson’s story is about a first-time mother struggling with postpartum depression in the dead of winter. I brought my first baby home in literal 40 Below weather and went through postpartum depression too. Davidson gets it just right and I was shaking at the end.
- Favourite very short story, I’m talking 9 sentences: Moon Calling by Don Perkins. Mostly for the last sentence: “But that moment of the infant embracing its own future ripeness, that’s the moon that calls.” You have to read the other eight, trust me.
- Story that’s really a parenting lesson: A Winter Lesson by Alan Schietzsch. That lesson? Go outside. Your kids don’t feel the cold.
- Story that reminds you exactly of being a kid: Sandwich Season by Margaret MacPherson. Kids are weird and do weird things, just like in this story.
- Story that I didn’t want to end: Conversation by Ky Perraun. I read it and then read it again because I need to know what happened!
This book is an obvious buy for anyone who is into the arts scene here in Edmonton, but I think it has some crossover appeal too. It’s actually a great gateway drug for people who don’t read short stories. The pieces tend to be very short, and the theme is very accessible, so it’s easy to dip in and out. It would be so cool if people in other Northern climates, or even those who don’t talk about wind chill for six month of the year, picked up this book. I’d love to read some non-local reactions. I also think it would make a great bathroom book and I mean that as a compliment. I am very picky about what books are kept in my bathroom.
Oh and if you were wondering, my story was about my memories of New Years Eve 1997, when we got the first snow of the year and the temperature dropped from zero to minus twenty over the course of a few hours. I was out without a coat (because: teenager) and made a rash decision based on getting out of the cold that affected my life for years afterward. Maybe I’ll try to fix it up someday!
I hear winter’s about to hit Edmonton this weekend. Should be plenty of snow on the ground for the two 40 Below launch events:
- 40 Below Launch at Block 1912: Sunday Nov. 17, 2:00 pm. This is the one I’m going to, so obviously it’s the place to be.
- 40 Below Launch at Audreys Books: Tuesday Nov. 19th at 7:00pm. Who knows, maybe I’ll show up here too.
Thank you to the editor for sending me a review copy of this book!
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Pilgrimage opens in the deep winter of 1891 on the Métis settlement of Lac St. Anne. Known as Manito Sakahigan in Cree, “Spirit Lake” has been renamed for the patron saint of childbirth. It is here that people journey in search of tradition, redemption, and miracles.
On this harsh and beautiful land, four interconnected people try to make a life in the colonial Northwest: Mahkesîs Cardinal, a young Métis girl pregnant by the Hudson Bay Company manager; Moira Murphy, an Irish Catholic house girl working for the Barretts; Georgina Barrett, the Anglo-Irish wife of the hbc manager who wishes for a child; and Gabriel Cardinal, Mahkesîs’ brother, who works on the Athabasca river and falls in love with Moira. Intertwined by family, desire, secrets, and violence, the characters live one tumultuous year on the Lac St. Anne settlement; a year that ends with a woman’s body abandoned in a well.
Set in a brilliant northern landscape, Pilgrimage is a moving debut novel about journeys, and women and men trying to survive the violent intimacy of a small place where two cultures intersect.
If you ever need a reminder of why access to reliable birth control is so important, read this book. Today, women go on the pill in adolescence and have IUDs inserted as soon as postpartum healing allows. We send our partners to be “snipped” or we go to the corner store and choose from an array of gimmicky condoms of dubious “for her pleasure” claims. One hundred years ago, women were at the mercy of their fertility or lack thereof. Or, more to the point, they were at the mercy of the men that might make them pregnant. Diana Davidson takes us back in time, but not far from home, to tell us about three women whose lives were changed by pregnancy. Continue reading
LitFest starts tomorrow! If you are thinking, “But Laura, it’s a nonfiction festival, and you barely read any nonfiction,” rest assured, LitFest organizers are pretty flexible about including authors who write all types of books, and, as a blogger, I can (maybe, almost) call myself a nonfiction writer too. Plus, I was fortunate enough to win tickets to a couple of events, so it’s a no-brainer! Here are the events I’m attending, and my top three picks for the rest of the festival.
I’m attending these events:
- ME ME ME! From the website: Finally. An event about the most important person in the world — YOU! Get your very own one-sentence biography from a professional author, have a photo shoot, and hear bits of brilliant memoir that will be featured later at LitFest. Your host is the extraordinary Bridget Ryan. Oct. 16, 5:30 pm, at Bohemia.
This is sorely needed, as my go-to pictures online are a blurry selfie and a picture from about four years ago. I’m also terrible at bios.
Writing in Blood: From the website: A writer’s family is both rich source material and a minefield, especially when the material remains nonfiction instead of being transformed into fiction. This panel – Jenna Butler, Lawrence Hill and Jessica Kluthe, with moderator Elizabeth Withey – discusses their personal experiences, and offers their thoughts for others shaping a family memoir. Oct. 26, 2pm, Stanley Milner Theatre
I’m reading Hill’s The Book of Negros right now and it’s blowing me away. I will be purchasing a paper copy so I can get it signed. I’m excited to see the other authors too. Jessica Kluthe, of course, wrote the powerful memoir Rosina the Midwife. I heard Jenna Butler read from her book of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, at the NeWest Press Spring Spectacular earlier this year. And I love Elizabeth Withey’s One Hundred Widows project – stories about earrings with no mates. Sounds weird but the execution is beautiful.
My picks of the other events:
- CLC Brown Bag Reading Series featuring Todd Babiak on Wednesday Oct. 23, and Lawrence Hill on Friday Oct. 25, both at noon, both in the student lounge at the Old Arts Building, University of Alberta. No explanation needed, right? It’s free and it’s two awesome authors! I hope to make it to one or both of these.
- Dan Savage. Oct. 21, 7pm, Winspear Centre. I used to read his column in Vue (or was it See?) along with Josey Vogels’ “My Messy Bedroom” while riding the bus to and from University, hoping that people didn’t think I was checking out the escort ads. I’d love to see Savage say “DTMF” in person.
- Digital Tools for Writers with Omar Mouallem, Saturday Oct. 26 at 10am, Stanley Milner Library. Really sad I’m going to miss this one. Someone go and take notes, okay? It’s free!
See you there, #yegwrites peeps!
My rating: 4/5 stars
A breathtaking literary debut, Love Letters of the Angels of Death begins as a young couple discover the remains of his mother in her mobile home. The rest of the family fall back, leaving them to reckon with the messy, unexpected death. By the time the burial is over, they understand this will always be their role: to liaise with death on behalf of people they love. They are living angels of death. All the major events in their lives – births, medical emergencies, a move to a northern boomtown, the theft of a veteran’s headstone – are viewed from this ambivalent angle. In this shadowy place, their lives unfold: fleeting moments, ordinary occasions, yet on the brink of otherworldliness. In spare, heart-stopping prose, the transient joys, fears, hopes and heartbreaks of love, marriage, and parenthood are revealed through the lens of the eternal, unfolding within the course of natural life. This is a novel for everyone who has ever been happily married — and for everyone who would like to be.
I thought this was going to be another one of those books that hits home, and it was, but not for the reasons I thought. I knew that the main character’s mother dies and that we learn about how his wife is able to support him by tuning into his needs. Quist says this of that opening scene (read the whole interview at her publisher’s web site):
The fact is, the opening scene is based on a real experience my husband and I shared when his father died unexpectedly and alone. During that disaster, I coped with my own shock and grief by making my husband’s feelings and perceptions the only things that mattered to me. It was a desperate strategy meant to get both of us through the experience as undamaged as possible. I went back into that hyper-empathetic frame of mind to write the first chapter of the novel. I’d been there before. The rest of the book – the fiction – evolved out of that truth.
I figured it was the story of a happy marriage made even happier by a traumatic event. That’s… not how it works for me. My husband lost his father four years ago, just three weeks before the birth of our first child, which was traumatic and accompanied by postpartum depression. We turned inward rather than toward each other. Neither of us were good spouses during that time. So, I was prepared for a literary smack upside the head – why didn’t this make us stronger? Why couldn’t I put my needs aside when my husband was grieving? Why couldn’t he see that I was struggling too?
But the book wasn’t about smack downs at all. Nor was it a marriage manual (though Quist gives some great pointers here.) It was, duh, a story, and once I got over the second-person perspective I was immersed and not worrying about the state of my marriage. Love Letters speaks directly to my tastes in many ways – the prairie and maritime settings, the morbidity, the Catholic relics, the heroine who is most definitely a feminist and shares my incapacitating fear of bugs (if I ever see a tar sand beetle I will die.) Continue reading