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O day of days, when we can read! - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Author: Steph (page 1 of 21)

Trigger Happy: On Literature and Fear

The recent article in the Guardian about US students requesting trigger warnings on works of literature that could potentially trigger memories and feelings of trauma has been circulating with rather diverging opinions. This type of thing resonates differently with people depending on their experiences but also on how they’ve dealt with them. Nevertheless, comments are generally polarized, with little variation: mainly, by those who think trigger warnings are valuable and even necessary and those who staunchly disagree.

Steven Beattie, writer and critic and author of the blog That Shakespearean Rag, is one of the latter. He strongly disapproves of the idea of literature with warnings. He wrote:

“A draft trigger warning policy from Oberlin, quoted in Inside Higher Education, used Achebe’s acclaimed text as an example of a work which might require a warning, saying the novel was ‘a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.’”

FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

LIFE might as well come with a trigger warning.

Literature’s entire PURPOSE is to deal, honestly and forthrightly, with difficult and traumatic experiences in a fictional context. Doing so helps build empathy and understanding. It can also help people who have experienced similar trauma recognize that they are not alone. It need not be subject to warnings that it might trigger emotional responses in its readers. That is the POINT.

I’m inclined to agree, and I take it one step further: not only does it help people realize they are not alone and also many times show characters overcoming their issues, but it also can help the reader deal with their PTSD or triggers. The thing is, trauma and emotional distress is often specific to the individual, whether it’s regarding experiences of war, suicide, rape, murder, miscarriage, infidelity, bullying, loss of a loved one (including a pet), and even, yes, even vomiting. Where do we draw the line in being considerate of others’ sensitivities, or else risk every piece of literature having some sort of warning?

While considered by many a courtesy, I see TWs as yet creating the view that most literature is dangerous, something to be feared. There are few people in this world who have not suffered some kind of trauma, and then those who would deem some traumas worse or more valid than others—as do the warnings. Literature becomes rather unjustly categorized. Putting warnings on potentially disturbing literature not only segregates the work but also insults it and the author, sends the message that while authors have the right to write what they are moved to, they may be penalized for it. TWs do a great disservice to the literature in preforming people’s opinions and setting the tone for the reading experience, as well as pre-empting certain lines of discussion that more fully treat the literature. They strip readers of their ability to make their own, uninfluenced decisions, and ultimately prevent readers, even those who might experience triggers, from a more enriching experience. This cheats the author, too, whose work it was to write a story that people could relate to and that evoked emotion. And all of these sound suspiciously like the issues of censorship. Perhaps most important, putting warnings on literature comes too close to coddling and actually even setting apart trauma sufferers as Others, rather than empathizing.

I’m not saying that people who want trigger warnings are weak and should sac up. I am saying, however, aside from what I think TWs do to literature (above), that we have to question what’s behind the avoidance. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, this isn’t really about the literature, but rather ourselves. We all have our own ways of dealing with trauma, our own levels of emotional depth of experience, of preparation for dealing with it. But the significant issue in this particular case, regardless, is fear.

For 15 years I suffered from such severe panic and anxiety attacks that I became physically paralyzed at times, and also unable to do many things, like ride public transport or drive on the highway, or go many places, like parties or movies or the theatre or the fucking food court—even out for a walk on our street. Several childhood traumas led to this. I understand fear. And triggers. And I get what it’s like to live in fear of being triggered. It can be completely debilitating. It is a strain on you and those you love. It’s torture.

I understand that trigger warnings on books are meant to alert people so that those who don’t want to read don’t have to, or they can try and prepare themselves. The thing is, again, literature, art in general, reflects us, the good and the bad. If we try and cover all the bad to help people avoid triggers, that doesn’t leave us with much for English class. Fear limits us. Instead, why can’t we take the opportunity in studying the literature to examine and question the issues within, even take a stand or be moved to action? to strengthen ourselves?

Confronting and acknowledging trauma and the feelings that arise from it is, ultimately, helpful. I can say this from experience. It facilitates mental and emotional health and fosters knowledge and the learning process. Discussion about it is also good thing—this is (isn’t it?) why we go to university or college in the first place—to learn, to grow, to question. While it worked to promote equality and discourage stigmatization, university, for me, was never a safe place (not only because I was one of the very few non-Dutch students and also the only Catholic in a Protestant school at the time); it was yet meant to challenge, and by god, it did. As one reader of Steven’s comment pointed out, challenging and triggering are two different things. This is true, but applying trigger warnings invariably negates challenge. Instead, it leaves us with only benign literature.

When I was in uni, one student refused to read Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage for our contemporary lit class because, once he found out what it was about, he said it would insult his Christian beliefs. This guy not only segregated himself but missed out on a formative experience because he assumed what the book was about and what Findley was saying with it: he remained fearful of being questioned, which meant he was never prepared with valid answers. I see this as somewhat similar to what I’m discussing here: by avoiding literature, we stunt ourselves.

Literature that examines the dark side of what it means to be human is a gift. In a classroom, it’s a tool we can use to gain perspective and understanding, to broaden our knowledge of issues, to intelligently form defensive and offensive positions, to cultivate empathy and space for healing. By applying trigger warnings, we close the doors on bettering ourselves. We perpetuate avoidance, fear of both the known and unknown. We cut off opportunity to dialogue about culture, power politics, heinous crimes, human tragedy, all part of the lives we lead. We separate ourselves from others who have suffered. We label people as too fragile. We label authors as offensive. We categorize literature as threatening or safe. We change the point of literature entirely. In that case, why take the class at all?

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: A Review

I have a good reason for reading mostly short stories, aside from the fact that my leisure time is limited (and I thoroughly enjoy them). It’s also that I have trouble focusing on novels. Few of them keep my attention for long, and I don’t say that to be snotty or judgemental of the writing or story: no, it’s likely the self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder that I’ve acquired over the last couple of years. I struggle daily with this issue; it’s a wonder I get anything done at all.

Goldfinch

The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius, 1654

Along comes the hugely intimidating, then, Goldfinch, touted ecstatically by some and emphatically loathed by others. I think that’s a good sign, myself. A book that polarizes opinions so strongly has to be worth checking out—at least, if you like to participate in book chat. And I do have a thing for fat books, mainly the look of them, I admit. As an editor, I also fear them. Will I find that at least 100, 200, pages could have been cut?

But like McCarthy’s The Road, which I avoided for a while because the first paragraph annoyed me (in the end the book made me so enthusiastic for McCarthy that I bought and greatly appreciated much of the rest of his stuff), I finally bought The Goldfinch, hardcover and all, because I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was keeping me up, even not in hand. I barely knew what it was, beyond the tweets I’d seen. I hadn’t read a review (still haven’t). The night I bought it and took it home, I actually felt a huge sense of relief. Some might say there’s a sense of Fate in that—indeed, it’s a major theme in the book.

The next morning, it won the Pulitzer (just like The Road!). Rather than putting me off, as some awards can, the accolade only inflamed my curiosity. Still, I’ve read a grand total of only eight Pulitzer winners, not counting the ones I tried and couldn’t finish. I was yet iffy about the whole thing (What if it’s stuffy? What if it disappoints me? How big is the text? How wide are the margins??).

Christ: this is an awfully long preamble to my “review,” but I tell you all this because getting past one’s often rational fear of big, potentially dense books is the first significant step to allowing oneself to experience something truly good. I opened “Fats” to the first page and began to read, even though I was in the midst of three other, quite good books, though sadly I didn’t miss them when I put them down at night.

The Goldfinch begins with an immediately intelligent, engaging, descriptive first-person voice that at first glance made me apprehensive again (Dickensian narratives, which once enthralled me as a child and teen, can lose me now) but then tricked my wariness into rapt attention by starting near the end of the story (ooh, mystery!!) and then with the questionable line: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” I say questionable because who knows if this would have been true, considering all that follows? And how full is this line of guilt, regret, and loss? Thus begins the beginning, when our narrator, Theodore Decker, is thirteen. We understand he’s telling this story years later, which works well.

The structure of this book, how carefully constructed it is, is one of its best features. Without the plan, we would perhaps not be so intrigued at first bite. Secrets would lose their potency, surprises would unravel before their time. I cringe to be so cliché, but The Goldfinch is beautifully, thoughtfully wrought—like a painting with its layers.

Within minutes of starting, we have a clear sense of Theo’s relationship with his mother, and their social status—just before the museum they are visiting together on a school day (Theo has been expelled) explodes. Bombs: a terrorist attack, they later say. Theo is left crabbing through the debris, disoriented, only to meet a dying elderly man who mysteriously gives him a ring and a destination and entreats him to take with him the titular painting that has fallen off the wall—its own grand character throughout the book right to the last words. This, together with the loss of his mother, ultimately turns our narrator’s life upside down. And this is where the questions of Fate and choice apply.

What follows is an unmoored young man’s anarchic journey into adulthood, fuelled as much by his obsession with The Goldfinch (which he has kept paranoically hidden) as by drugs, alcohol, and his friendship with inimitable Russian street urchin Boris.  Blackouts and casual sex and dodgy art and furniture dealings, and more death…but also passion and love and knowledge and wonderful, wee Popper (Popchik), the dog who doesn’t die, contrary to my fears of what role this dog would play throughout. Themes of guilt, belonging, social status and self-identity, desire and obsession, and honesty are intertwined, but not so heavily that one might get lost or overwhelmed. Most of all, the story explores the human condition through obsession, the quest for identity, and the power of human weakness. We can all relate to some degree.

How could I resist such a compelling narrative related by a young, modern-day storyteller so extraordinary in his classical personality, with his intriguing philosophical angst, and even so typically prone to dizzying self-destruction? How could I roll my eyes at Boris, the bestie who provides the sometimes laugh-out-loud humour with his manner of speech, and, we discover, orchestrates the twists in the novel? And what about Hobie, who, while somewhat stereotypical, warms the cockles with his affable demeanour, elbow patches, cologne of furniture glue and varnish, and dimly-lit hodge-podge of a house full of antiques?  Yes, the names too are slightly stereotypical, but they work because they seal the characters’ personalities appropriately, in the same way a banana peel seals in its fruit.

You can read the synopsis of The Goldfinch here. But even if you’ve read other lip-smacking novels about books or art or antiques or mysterious or nefarious goings on, or musing, philosophical orphans, or all of the above combined (I was reminded of a modern-day David Copperfield sometimes)—even if the story sounds familiar in any way, you won’t feel as though you’ve read The Goldfinch before. The voice and mood are…different.

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt. Img from the BBC You Tube interview

I couldn’t help but be in awe of the writing as well as the story. Tartt struck me as some kind of prodigy. (Granted, I haven’t yet read anything else of hers, but having read the synopsis of The Secret History, and an article on its cult following, I’m getting the gist of where her intelligence and propensities lie and am willing to bet her other books betray such a glut of worldly knowledge as well. I mean, she’s either exceedingly well-versed in literature and art and culture or she’s damn good at faking it—and I very much doubt the latter.)

In fact (I find this out while writing this post), Barry Hannah, a writer-in-res at the University of Mississippi while Tartt attended, accepted her into his graduate short story class while she was only a freshman. “She was deeply literary,” he said. “Just a rare genius, really. A literary star.” She published The Secret History to major critical acclaim in 1992 (it sold out its first print run) when she was twenty-nine.

Watching an interview with Tartt and looking up images of her, I peg her as a compelling, intense woman, deep and thoughtful, seemingly reserved (her clothes and hair, her pose on the back of the book). But at the same time I get the impression that her exterior is housing a bit of a ruffian, perhaps Boris-like even, the country-raised child with sagging socks who maybe smoked behind the shed at nine and always has a swear on her lips that she has to stop herself from letting fly. Tartt says that she wants people to find reading her books fun—and that, I think, along with how she says it, is telling.

As a reflection of Tartt’s knowledge and research, The Goldfinch is also enriching, which for me is partly what makes it so much fun. It truly delivers on that literary promise of taking you out of your bed or armchair and dropping you in various countries and worlds (underworlds too) the likes of which you probably won’t otherwise experience. Amsterdam is as visceral as Vegas and New York. We learn how to restore antique furniture, and the history of, well, a great many things. Foreign languages grace the pages (very few, thankfully), and references to artists and their paintings, especially, can send you Googling (they did me, anyway).

But don’t let me give you the impression is book is work. It’s not, I tell you. Though Theo’s time in Vegas with Boris does run somewhat overlong, there is yet a point to it. Though sometimes you may feel that Tartt might have got somewhat authorially rather than storily (I think I made those two up, but you get the gist) lost in her writing, you come to appreciate it because she’s just so damn good at writing. It’s like, I was thinking, when you’re emailing someone you really enjoy, and thus you take the time to include all the details, all the thoughts. You compose rather than dash off. So in the end, while I did feel there were bits that made me feel I was losing my grip, I appreciated them too because they rounded out things. The reader has a full experience. She took the time to make sure of it.

It’s not often, by the way, that you may feel impatient. Generally, I had to force myself to slow down while I read, and not because I had felt tempted to skip parts, but rather because it was so exciting I wanted to cram it all in at once. I brushed my teeth with it. I read it under streetlights while waiting to pick up my sister from work. I took it out for the five minutes I had a smoke break. This ADD brain of mine was at least temporarily cured, my reading funk ended.

What I’m trying to say is that Tartt’s writing is beautifully crafted. She has an excellent, intuitive sense of which words to use that will properly evoke a sensory reaction. Nothing about this book is unskilled or lazy. It’s masterful, really, both in its scope and craft. It’s kind of like the Bible: you know how people say the Good Book’s got everything? In The Goldfinch, there is mystery, intrigue, humour, love, death, friendship, betrayal, history, and vivid characterization. But it’s all knit together so well it’s not overwhelming. You don’t even notice the page numbers. What you come away with is not a sense of your own triumph (OMG I MADE IT THROUGH!!) but rather a sense of Donna Tartt’s impressive coup. And that you were gone for the duration of this book and now must resituate yourself in the real world. Don’t worry if you feel like Theo emerging from the explosion or his fever-soaked delirium in Amsterdam.

You will be all right.

Project Bookmark Canada: What it is and why you should support it

downloadI recently had the privilege of being featured on Project Bookmark Canada’s site as a Page Turner. What this means is that I wrote about what the project is, what it means to me, and how it ties in with my profound love of CanLit. And then I donated $20 to help the organization—spear-headed by author Miranda Hill (Sleeping Funny, one of my favourite story collections)—put up bookmarks across Canada for the nation’s literary enrichment and cultural heritage.

You can read the post here (apparently, Google gets pissy if you duplicate content, so I can’t post it here as well). And you can donate, too, if you like!

The Back Forty

i-cant-keep-calm-its-my-birthday-bitches-66Back forty: n. wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this morning—I only know that it far exceeded what I could have imagined. My husband of 11 years woke me up with the best birthday card I’ve ever received. I was ugly crying before I even got out of bed. Then he led me around the house while I found and opened 50 gifts. Forty of them were wee baggies of candy with slips of paper describing beautiful, touching reasons he loves me. I was, still am, overwhelmed by them. It’s really amazing to see yourself the way someone who loves you see you. The rest of the gifts were treats to spoil me with. There was lots more ugly crying in my pjs and tons of bear hugs and so much freaking happiness!

I put 40 years of life behind me today. This was never going to be a big deal—until a couple of months ago when suddenly it was. Before that, I laughed about it. It sounded ridiculous. After all, I still thought I was going to be in my thirties forever, invincible, even.  I look younger than forty, I think younger, I act younger, I feel younger. But as the days passed, I suddenly found myself saying “forty” with emphasis, like this: FORTY. It sounds fat and old and ominous. Rationally, I know it’s not. But now I feel left behind by time. As though it’s passing without letting me do and be and have the things I want now. It’s leaving me in the dust. I don’t want to turn 50 and never have been on a tropical vacation! I wanted things to be different by now! But there’s no point in denying it: you can’t think that the day before. It’s happening whether I’m ready or not.

Over the past few months I’ve found myself questioning everything, unable to make decisions because what I once knew and liked and saw and did no longer hold the same certainty of interest. Whereas I simply went for the things I always went for, because they were me, now I’m not so sure about what I like and want to do and where I want to be. I’m not so sure of who I am. Plus I’m…softer. Just a little. Okay, ten pounds. Anyway, I’m in the process of some major shift (with any luck it will be more than just a gravitational pull of skin). I’m changing. I FEEL IT. I’m in the back forty, that wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area (the fifties, seventies, nineties?). This isn’t the time I’ve got everything figured out, even after thirty years. Hang on, Self, you’re in for a bumpy ride (that will likely, hopefully? never end!).

Today, though, instead of grabbing the sick bag, I’ve decided to raise my arms in the air and yell “Yeehaw!” That might be the Jack Daniel’s talking already, but it’s also reflective of the choice I want to make. For this new time to be fun. For the bumps to be so ridiculous I’m airborne and laughing. Hello, 40, and welcome! Let’s be fabulous. Let’s write better stories than we did in our thirties—and publish. Let’s go on that tropical vacation we’ve never had. Let’s help others write better stories. Let’s read more fantastic books out of which we’ll get more because we’re older and wiser and more empathetic. Let’s just do everything, only better, because now we can. Let’s celebrate!

That’s a pretty good segue into what I want to do next. One of my favourite things to do on my birthday is give. It makes me feel good, of course, and I love the anticipation and seeing others happy. I bought my sister and my husband a gift for today. They don’t know it yet (unless they’re reading this post or I’ve given it to them already). Admittedly, neither gift was a book, but that’s only because today I didn’t want to be predictable—to them.

To you, I’m going to be somewhat predictable. First I’m going to list forty books on my shelves that I really love. They’re not all of my absolute favourites, of which I have an insane number, and they’re in no particular order. They’re just forty books I very much enjoyed for various reasons.

Second, one of you will receive a SIGNED (to you!) copy of Sarah Selecky’s superb collection This Cake is for the Party! (Finalist for the 2010 Giller, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, CBC Bookie Award for Best New Writer, and Globe 100 Best Canadian Fiction). No, it’s not a new book, but it’s a great book. The writing is crystal clean, strong, evocative, and memorable. This book did so much for me, I can’t even tell you, not least of which was to introduce me to Sarah, a wonderful, beautiful, talented woman who has inspired me, hired me, and made me a better person. I’m celebrating with her cake.

To win: comment and tell me your best birthday ever. I’ll pick one of you and let you know you won. And then I’ll send you the book. (If you’d like to comment without entering the contest, you can! Simply let me know you don’t want to enter.)

Thank you all for reading and supporting and encouraging and sharing the book love!

~40-year-old Steph

 Forty Books I Recommend

  1. The Carnivore, by Mark Sinnet (ECW Press)
  2. The End of the Alphabet, by C.S. Richardson (Anchor Canada)
  3. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen)
  4. The Bear, by Claire Cameron (Doubleday Canada)
  5. A Blessed Snarl, by Samual Thomas Martin (Breakwater Books)
  6. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine (Europa Editions)
  7. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh (Simon and Schuster)
  8. Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt (Anansi Press)
  9. Sandra Beck, by John Lavery (Anansi Press)
  10. Dead Politician’s Society, by Robin Spano (ECW Press)
  11. The House on Sugarbush Lane, by Méira Cook (Enfield and Wizenty)
  12. On Sal Mal Lane, by Ru Freeman (Anansi International)
  13. The Kept, by James Scott (HarperCollins)
  14. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (Riverhead Books)
  15. The Outlaw Album, by Daniel Woodrell (short stories) (Little, Brown)
  16. A Land More Kind than Home, by Wiley Cash (William Morrow)
  17. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (Anchor Canada)
  18. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly (Simon & Schuster)
  19. The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie (short stories) (HarperCollins)
  20. Sleeping Funny, by Miranda Hill (short stories) (Anchor Canada)
  21. Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell (short stories) (Coach House)
  22. Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong (short stories) (Anansi)
  23. Radio Belly, by Buffy Cram (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
  24. Bird Eat Bird, by Katrina Best (short stories) (Insomniac Press)
  25. The Divinity Gene, by Matthew Trafford (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
  26. A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson (Douglas & McIntyre)
  27. And Also Sharks, by Jessica Westhead (short stories) (Cormorant)
  28. All We Want is Everything, by Andrew F. Sullivan (short stories) (Arbeiter Ring Pub)
  29. The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc (ECW Press)
  30. Once You Break a Knuckle, by D.W. Wilson (short stories) (Penguin Canada)
  31. Bull Head, by John Vigna (short stories) (Arsenal Pulp Press)
  32. Pilgrims, by Elizabeth Gilbert (short stories) (Penguin)
  33. I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro (short stories) (Grove Press)
  34. Tenth of December, by George Saunders (short stories) (Random House)
  35. We Live in Water, by Jess Walter (short stories) (Harper Perennial)
  36. How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi (short stories) (Invisible Pub)
  37. Welding with Children, by Tim Gautreaux (short stories) (Picador)
  38. The Help, by Kathleen Stockett (Berkley Trade)
  39. Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee (short stories) (Hamish Hamilton)
  40. The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black (short stories) (Nightwood Press)

Shit! Am I at forty already?? (SEE WHAT I MEAN?)

There are so many I missed. There may be some overlap but you can check my reviews page, and also always feel free to ask me for recommendations. I have SO MANY to recommend beyond these forty here.

Thank you again, everyone, for reading! I look forward to your b-day stories!

xxx

The Bear, by Claire Cameron. A Reaction

The Bear, by Claire Cameron

The Bear, by Claire Cameron

Perhaps even more so because it’s based on a true story in a place I’m well familiar with, The Bear by Canadian author Claire Cameron absolutely devastated me. A family of four goes camping on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, at Bates Island. In a horrifying and chaotic sequence of beginning pages, the parents are attacked, killed, and—yes, as is naively, gruesomely witnessed by Anna, our narrator—eaten by a black bear. The children, a five-year-old (Anna) and her toddler brother (Alex, aka Stick), who have been shoved into a Coleman cooler by their father in a desperate effort to protect them, do not comprehend what is happening. When they finally emerge from the Coleman, Anna takes tear-inducing instructions from her dying mother to canoe off the island to be safe. Run aground on a nearby island, the children struggle to survive as their young psyches compute what is happening only enough to get by. I should say here: while the children in this book are added (the true story involves only a man and woman), we are never asked to suspend our belief for the sake of the story: the children’s experience and the narrative voice are wholly acceptable. Anna’s sentence structure and thought process set a pace that never falters, even as she struggles to make sense of her surroundings and what is demanded of her; her many tangents serve as anchors with which we she keeps herself moored, things she can still identify, recall, and depend on.

Very rarely do I read a book in one sitting, but last night I picked it up at 10:30 and finished it in just over two hours. I actually went back through, thinking I must have skipped things in my eagerness, but everything I looked at I remembered. After the first few pages, I had wanted to stop. An almost overwhelming feeling of resistance to the book made me close it, at first. I’m not sure whether it was the point of view of a young child, which did take a little getting used to, or something else. Maybe that other feeling you get at the same time as being morbidly fascinated. Maybe fear.

But I opened it again, obviously, and tore through it (let’s not make the comparison to a hungry bear through a campsite). An excellent choice, the ending. Very well done. While it has a necessarily different tone, Cameron manages to make it flow seamlessly from the previous part and finish on a hopeful note.

Still, The Bear made me cry and subject my husband, when he came to bed, to my reflections on life and death especially, but also empathy for the kids (I won’t subject you, too. I was blubbery and went on about how this couple went through life, making choices, growing up, meeting, being together, deciding to go camping, and then BAM! they’re attacked by a bear and eaten. La fin. One day you’re there and then you’re not. I said, so fine, maybe we don’t all live to a hundred, but why can’t we all just die in our sleep, whatever age we’re meant to go? Why so many terrible ways? Eaten by a bear. It’s so utterly horrific and sad and overwhelming. I mean, this really happened: I remember it. It was 1991, and I remember, because I was both fascinated and freaked out).

It may be inevitable that this book gets compared to Emma Donoghue’s Room, but it would do the reader well not to hold up one against the other. It wouldn’t be entirely fair. While both are based on true stories and told from the perspective of a five-year-old who experiences a traumatic event, the voices are quite different. Like Room, though, this novel is going to stay with me a long time. I hope I can go camping in Algonquin again…

PS. As a bookseller, I met many people who were afraid to read Room. I dare you to read The Bear. These kinds of books: they’re not just reads, they’re experiences. What books are meant to be.

Hello Again, Plus Simon & Schuster’s Winter Survival Pack

It embarrasses me to say I haven’t posted here in almost a year. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how all of a sudden. Aside from freelance work, writing short stories, and teaching creative writing, I was having an existential crisis as a book blogger. I goggled at the piles of books sent me that I hadn’t yet read, was overcome with guilt, and also, unrelated to the guilt, began to wonder why I was reviewing. Which then made it increasingly difficult to review. I asked myself who really cared, who really read, what it really meant to be a book blogger in the grand scheme of the book world. Was it worth all the effort? Certainly, from blogging came new and exciting jobs, and a shitload of wonderful new acquaintances and pals, and of course, the great books. I’m very thankful.

But it’s hard to keep up, man. There are so many books, so many people. It’s a cool but overwhelming world. As for blogging, I do it for free, but it’s still a lot of effort and time because I want to give you consistent quality, and I’m a perfectionist who’s always trying to anticipate what everyone might respond. I fear sounding dumb or like a fraud or that I missed something essential in the writing. So I started lagging in motivation. In the meantime, I gained a sister, a dog, and ten pounds. I started smoking (after 13 years of having quit!) and drinking coffee. (Never mind the Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort and Gibson’s. Hard liquor has always been a given.)

But I missed blogging, after I stopped feeling guilty for not doing it. I’m not promising that I’ll be back every week, but I’d like to still contribute in some meaningful way to the book world. I may not publish long reviews anymore, but whatever I write, it will still be thoughtful.

UPDATE: One thing before I get to the fun stuff: it is completely coincidence that I decided to say hello again on the day that CanLit author and enthusiast Chad Pelley decided to shut down his popular site Salty Ink. Just so you know, he’s got a new endeavour called The Overcast. Check it out. I’m following it, even though I don’t live in the area. Newfoundland is an exciting contributor to CanLit and the arts scene.

To push off again, I’m starting light. Simon & Schuster created their Winter Survival Pack to promote some of their new books but also treat readers with other goodies in appreciation. What fun! And you, dear reader, can win this stay-warm kit!

The Kit includes:
- 1 pair of mittens
- 1 pair of reusable hand warmers
- Scented candles
- 1 pair of socks
- 1 hot water bottle
- 1 Simon & Schuster Canada signature mug
- 1 Sower’s Blend tea
- The Ultimate Survival Guide (Canadian Edition)
- The Demonologist
- The Troop
- The Best Cook Book Ever
- Chicken Soup for the Soul: Wonders of Winter

- Hyperbole and a Half
- Octopus’s Garden
- Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants

Go to S&S’s site Five Ways to Stay Warm for Winter and enter the contest. Good luck! PS. Hyperbole and a Half is a laugh and a half, I swear!

S&S Stay-Warm Prize Pack

S&S Stay-Warm Prize Pack

 

Short Stories for Breakfast Weekly Recap

20130519_110722I’m really enjoying this practice, you guys! It hits so many spots: an enriching start to the day, an entrance into the creative state of mind, a way to sample as many authors as I can, to get through the many books I have I’ve not yet touched. Christians often read daily devotionals, and you know, I get it. My daily devotional is a short story in the morning. It is truly edifying.

On that note, I’m reminded that last year I drew up a book proposal for an anthology of short stories. It’s a special one, and I’ll say more when I can confidently do so. But this series of recaps as well as my kitchen bookshelf has got me thinking even more about this proposal, about the stories I would include. I’ve been reluctant to submit the idea, though I know it’s good, in case I can’t follow up with the work because of how much time it may take. But I’m already doing much of the “work,” I see. I’m now prepared to revisit the proposal. I’ll keep you posted on any news.

And now for the week’s recap:

May 12: Er…I seem to have lost what I read. I have no idea. I’m sorry to whoever that was!

May 13: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Precious” by Miranda Hill, from SLEEPING FUNNYRandom House, 2012. A different kind of mothering with a fantastic twist at the end.  A brilliant story from a superb, original collection. Miranda made me so jealous with this book! Do read it.

May 14: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Price of Acorn,” by Natalee Caple, from THE HEART IS ITS OWN REASON. Insomniac Press, 1998. A couple sells their child in exchange for a washing machine. Great twist at the end. Really enjoyed this story!

May 15: “Throwing Cotton,” by Sarah Selecky, from THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY, Thomas Allen, 2011. Two couples share a cottage. Sexy. This story has a Margaret Atwood feel somehow, though it’s Sarah’s own. Her way with words is my inspiration. I reviewed the book here. Sarah is my coach, my cheerleader, a kindred friend. I love her heart. I lent this book to my sister in England last July when she visited and she took it back with her because I insisted she keep it so she could finish it. I have missed it so much I bought another copy.

May 16: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Two-Step,” by John Vigna, from BULL HEAD. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012. Excellent. Difficult to summarize, as there’s more going on than just a man visiting his brother in prison for three days. Think I’m going to really enjoy this collection. Gritty. I want to sink my teeth in. Even though I hate the cover. PS. How could I not like an author who has a website honouring his beautiful, sadly deceased dog? The pictures are mmm.

May 17: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Ordinary Life,” by Elizabeth Berg, from the collection of the same name. 79-yr-old Mavis decides she needs a retreat and locks herself in the bathroom with supplies for a week, while her husband Al tries to make her come out. Sweet, funny, insightful. I love this author. I read Open House soon after my first marriage broke up, and I was hers.

May 18: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Eight-ball,” by Samuel Martin, from THIS RAMSHACKLE TABERNACLEBreakwater Books Ltd., 2010. One of the hardest stories I’ve ever read. Absolutely tragic. This chiaroscuric, insightful collection has always been a big inspiration for me. Thanks, Sam. Review of collection here.

May 19: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Master of Disaster,” by Guy Vanderhaeghe, from THINGS AS THEY ARE. I’ve been wanting to read Vanderhaeghe since university and this is my first time. I’m an idiot. This is gold.

Just before I go, I’ll leave you with a short interview I did with Open Books Ontario. They said really awesome things about this blog and me, which made my day! Also, I lie just a little bit about my day. Since I got myself a mobile, that’s really my ideal day I’m talking about.

Hope you’re enjoying these posts. Know what I’ve found? Short story a day keeps the reading slumps away!

Short Stories for Breakfast Weekly Recap

393136_10151598020025935_137351792_nHi guys! Apologies: I’ve been preoccupied with other things lately, and I missed the last two weeks’ recap. I’ll include them here with this week’s. Just a note: There isn’t a single book in this pile I wouldn’t recommend. God, I have good books!

April 22: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: Spending time with Saleema Nawaz Webster, who currently deals with the aftermath of a fire having ravaged her home last night. Reading “Scar Tissue,” from her collection MOTHER SUPERIOR. Freehand Books, 2008. Thinking of you, Saleema.

April 23: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Miracle Mile,” by Alexander MacLeod, from LIGHT LIFTING. @biblioasis. I LIVED (not a typo!) this story. Superb. Great tension, and so evocative, especially of school track meets. Fantastic similes and metaphors. Very glad I own this book! If I had time now, I’d read one by his father.

April 24: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Some Wife,” by Jessica Westhead, from AND ALSO SHARKS. Cormorant, 2011. Hilarious and so astute you’ll recognize everything in it as truth even if you don’t know anyone like these guys. A man becomes obsessed with his coworker’s wife.

April 25: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Slatland,” by Rebecca Lee, from BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES. Penguin, 2012. Holy moly, this writer. I can’t wait to read this entire book. A story about a relationship but so original in its delivery. Also funny in parts! Penguin president and publisher Nicole Winstanley said to me: “It’s better than a kickass hot coffee first thing in the morning.” I agree.

April 26: “How We Avenged the Blums,” by Nathan Englander, from WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK. Knopf, 2012. A young Jewish boy is beaten up and the boys on his side plan revenge. Excellent! Very much liked this story. PS. This is one of the most best-smelling books I’ve had the pleasure of smelling in ages (hardcover edition).

April 27: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Gaining Ground,” by Robin Black, from IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS. Great narrative voice and characterization. And funny! Random House, 2011.

April 28: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Slough,” by Pasha Malla, from THE WITHDRAWAL METHOD. Anansi Press, 2008. This is a freaking awesome story. I have to read it again.

April 29: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Guy in a Hoodie,” by Binnie Brennan, from A CERTAIN GRACE, Quattro Books, 2012. Two middle-aged teachers get tanked and try their luck scoring a joint. Funny, not so funny, and short. I think it could have worked a little harder at being better.

April 30: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Where the Bodies Are Kept” by @BarbaraLambert4, #JourneyPrizeAnthology No. 11, @writerstrust. Excellent. Reminds me somewhat of Carol Shields, but this has more of an edge. And so cool, now that I know Barbara, to recognize personal things in the story. Find Barbara’s site here. She’s the author of Cormorant’s The Whirling Girl.

May 1: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Mud Below,” by Annie Proulx, from CLOSE RANGE. Scribner, 2003. Damn, woman! When I grow up, I want to write like Annie! Such a good story.

May 2: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Killers,” by Hemingway, from MEN WITHOUT WOMEN. Two hitmen walk into a lunch room… Well-paced, funny, fantastic dialogue. Oh, pfft. Saying anything cheapens it. Perfection is what it is. But of course. [1928] Arrow Books, 2004.

May 3: #shortstoryforbreakfast, “Corduroy,” by Adam Giles, finalist in the 2013 U of T Magazine short story contest. Sad, but good. Don’t want to give it away: you can read it here yourself!http://www.magazine.utoronto.ca/alumni-writing-contest/corduroy/.

May 4: Hmm. This seems to be missing. I have no idea what I read, if anything.

May 5#shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Across the Lake,” by Deborah Eisenberg, from ALL AROUND ATLANTIS. Many thanks to David Penhale for the reco! Washington Square Press (Simon & Schuster), 1997.

May 6: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Loving Wanda Beaver,” from the collection of the same name, by Alison Baker (O. Henry Awards). Mmm. Takes me back to my summers in Chatham in the fields detasseling corn. Chronicle Books, 1995.

May 7: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Flirtations,” by Carrie Anne Snyder, from HAIR HAT. Penguin, 2004. Really great story, excellent, natural dialogue, too. A couple with a dubious relationship goes to an academic function together. Penguin, 2004.

May 8: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Reverse Cowgirl,” by David Whitton, from the collection of the same name. Freehand Books, 2011. Not at all what I expected! The weirdest story I’ve ever read, I think, and I loved it. Enjoyed the narrative voice, the imaginativeness, the structure of the story. It involves time travel through a very interesting medium.

May 9: Was in TO and enjoyed freshly baked banana chocolate chip muffins instead for breakfast with friend AmandaLeduc (author of The Miracles of Ordinary Men, ECW Press, 2013) chez the other beautiful friend Allegra Young.

May 10: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “A Drowning Incident,” by Cormac McCarthy. 1960.www.cormacmccarthy.com/works. He wrote it while still in college. An awful story: the content I mean. 

May 11: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Ghost Stories,” by Alex Leslie, from PEOPLE WHO DISAPPEAR. Freehand Books, 2012. Very well-crafted! Excellent dialogue and such original use of language. A girl and her uncle trek through forests looking for a ghost town. ‘Course, there’s more to it than that. You’d have to read it to know.

Saleema Nawaz Updates Us on Fire Damage—And Her Books

To all who’ve read and so generously responded to my previous blog post Help Canadian Author Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire:

THANK YOU. Your responses showed kindness, understanding, empathy, and also a kindred love of literature. I feel certain that your comments have buoyed Saleema’s spirits even while she’s faced with the destruction of her home. As Sam Gamgee said to Faramir a long, long time ago, you have shown your quality, the very highest.

However: Saleema has posted an update on her blog. Please read her post. There are pictures, too. Importantly, she gently requests that since their books were mostly undamaged except by smoke, it’s not necessary for us to send her any to help her rebuild her collection.

Again, I thank you so much for your responses and suggest instead, as Denise Bukowski commented, that you buy Saleema’s books. Mother Superior is a collection of, well, superior short stories. Bone and Bread, her new novel, has already been welcomed with high praise, and the Quill & Quire has called her Anansi’s new star.

This post serves to end the campaign to send books. Even if I jumped the gun, for which I apologize, I don’t feel the posts were in vain. Saleema saw your gracious, caring comments, and at a time when all was uncertain, felt us as the ground beneath her feet.

Thank you all again.

-Steph

UPDATE on the Campaign to Help Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire

Hi all,

I just heard from Saleema and I have her permission to repost her email to me here.

Hi Steph,

Thank you again for your incredibly touching and generous idea you shared on Bella’s Bookshelves.  As much as I love the idea of receiving a hand-picked book from literary folks all over Canada, I could never accept them. Not least because many of our belongings (including books!) have been saved, but also because we are now guests in somebody else’s house — we will be staying with my in-laws for the next two months.

[Steph: No worries! You can send the books to me or give them to her personally. If you send them to my address, which you'll find on my Contact page, I will personally deliver them to Montreal or ship them myself.]

[Saleema's response: Thanks so, so much ... Of course, I would never object to somebody buying my books!  But honestly that is the most I could accept, and the support I have already felt from everyone is the most amazing bolstering help I could ever receive or want.  Please do feel free to post my earlier email.  I'm hoping to do a blog update, but I'm so exhausted, having been up for so long with just a couple of hours of snatched sleep... I'm not sure how soon it can come.]

You have no idea how much it means to me that so many people came to our aid…with offers of places to stay, food to eat, clothes to wear, and so wonderfully, books to read.

Some books have been lost to water and falling plaster, but most seemed to have been spared based on our cursory visit to the building this morning. In fact, although half of our kitchen, the bathroom, the front entryway and most of the living room have been destroyed (not by flames, but by falling plaster, fire axes, and water), our bedrooms and our hallway were spared from everything except for very heavy smoke. Many of the books were actually on bookcases in our hallway and in the half of the kitchen that was spared.

It is like a tornado has ripped through the place, with odd items here and there lying intact amidst the destruction of splintered wood and crumbling plaster.

I’m not sure how costly (or, indeed, possible) it will be to remove the smell of smoke from our large collection (and from everything else we own), but it is one we will cheerfully investigate.  I am so grateful to you and all the loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and strangers who have reached out to us.

With so much thanks,

Saleema

I’ve asked Saleema to keep me posted on whether or not the books that were not damaged by water or fallen plaster and such can be salvaged from the smoke damage (this can be pretty bad as to render the books unreadable), and if so, whether or not insurance will cover it. If the books can be salvaged and insurance will not cover it, perhaps we could start a campaign to help her pay for the recovery.

Alternatively, I’ve asked her if she has a wish list. Again, I’ll let you know. If not, even if she receives doubles, your copy will be better than what she has, and she could always pay it forward by donating hers. Don’t be afraid, either, of not knowing what to choose. As a former long-time bookseller, I can advise: Let your heart tell you. What book would you match her to? What book would you press into a friend’s hand and say, oh, you must read this? Whatever you send, it will be picked with concern and thoughtfulness and received with gratitude.

Thank you so much, everyone, for your generosity of spirit so far.

-Steph

PS. Saleema is on Facebook, and her Twitter handle is @pinkmeringue

Help Canadian Author Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire

426457_10151528279906368_309430823_nUPDATE: This post is no longer in effect. Please read this one!

In case you haven’t heard yet, Saleema Nawaz, author of the collection of short stories Mother Superior and the recently released and very well received Bone and Bread, lost her apartment in a fire last night. I can only imagine how devastating this must be, and I’m deeply saddened by her loss. She wrote briefly and bravely about the experience. She lost 16 packed bookcases of books. I’m very thankful that she and her partner are safe.

What I’d like to propose—since we are all book lovers and would be utterly destroyed by the loss of our precious books, which we’ve taken years and much time and love to collect and read—is purchasing one or more books to help Saleema and her partner rebuild their library. I’m thinking we could buy our favourite book(s) for her, so she’ll have a shelf or more to remind her she is supported both as a Canadian author and friend, and has our best recommendations as well.

We all know that a house without books is not a home. We know that books are friends and lovers. And we know that without our books, we would be uncomfortable, displaced. When I look at the familiar volumes on my shelves, no matter where I’ve just moved to, they help me feel instantly at home.

This idea is fresh, and admittedly I’m writing this without her permission. I haven’t been able to reach her. Saleema will likely find this out from this post. She may protest. I don’t know.

I bought Mother Superior on her birthday. If I can do something to give back to an author who’s enriched my reading experience, right now there’s no other way I can think that’s more appropriate.

There are few things more tragic than losing one’s home for whatever reason. If the fire didn’t annihilate the books, likely all the water did.

To help, please just leave a comment below and I’ll email you with details. Saleema doesn’t yet have an address, but I will arrange the particulars of this campaign and then get back to everyone. Either all the books can be sent to my home and I can drive them to her, or we may be able to send them directly to her. She will have an apartment soon, and it would be fun for her to keep getting mail at this new address, since books in the mail are not only exciting but also make a house feel like home.

Thank you so much in advance for your support of this endeavour. If anything changes once Saleema reads this, I’ll be sure to let you know.

PLEASE NOTE: I’d really appreciate if the books you buy or donate are your very favourite, not ones you just need to get rid of. Thank you!

Short Stories for Breakfast Weekly Recap

2013-02-19 08.00.24Another week of good stories. Some better than others, but I remain convinced that I don’t have a shitty book in this whole house.

April 15: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Of God and Cod,” by Anthony De Sa, from BARNACLE LOVE. So much richness in one little story. A man leaves his family behind for a voyage from Portugal and Newfoundland. The beginning of what promises to be a very good collection of intimately connected stories. Doubleday, 2008.

April 16: #shortstoriesforbreakfast is abominably late today. But better late than never. I read “Elk Talk,” by Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favourite writers. It’s from PILGRIMS. Yes, she wrote short stories, and a novel, before Eat, Pray, Love! And her short stories kick ass. I’m jealous all over. A family in the country is surprised by unwelcome neighbours who appear on their doorstep en masse and invite themselves in. And the father has an elk call apparatus. [1997], Penguin, 2007.

April 17: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “For Puzzled in Wisconsin,” by Bronwen Wallace, from PEOPLE YOU’D TRUST YOUR LIFE TO. M&S, 1990. A woman’s reflections are triggered by a letter to the newspaper. “Dear Allie: My husband has an intricate tattoo on his chest. I am very fond of it, and I don’t want to see it go with him when he dies…” Very good, but I wouldn’t expect less from Wallace.

April 18: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Cleats,” by Johanna Skibsrud, from THIS WILL BE DIFFICULT TO EXPLAIN. My first Skibsrud read. And I like it. It’s pretty funny, this one, mature and well-done. I’ve heard more negative about Skibsrud than good, and I feel like I want to prove them all wrong. I don’t even need to read more to do that, but I will. Hamish Hamilton, 2011. (Read from the ARC)

April 19: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Big Bitchin’ Cow,” by D.W. Wilson, from ONCE YOU BREAK A KNUCKLE. I keep reading stories, like this one, that make me think, yes, this is exactly what mine’s supposed to be! A father chases his son across a frozen lake, remembering the past between them. So damn good. The structure is perfect. Hamish Hamilton, 2011. (Read from the ARC)

April 20: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Out of the Woods” by Chris Offutt, from his collection of the same name. A man goes and picks up his wife’s dead brother. Such a poor summary for such a masterful story. I love the vernacular, the tone. The greatest thing to come from the US is its literary talent. Like Woodrell, Offutt is a great American writer whom Tobias Wolff (yet another goodie) says is one of the best. I agree. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

April 21: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “With Daddy,” by Allison Baggio, from her collection IN THE BODY. In the wee hours of the morning, a girl’s father plucks her from her bed in the house where she lives with her mother, and takes a trip. Heartbreaking, an excellent story idea, and an interesting exploration of the collection title in a juxtaposition sort of way, but something tells me this story could have been better. Having worked on Girl in Shades, though, and having thought it rather strong, I look forward to reading the rest of this intriguing collection. ECW Press, 2012.

If you have suggestions, do let me know and I’ll add them to my list. Thank you to those who’ve recommended already. Duly noted!

Next up: who knows! I get to pick each day depending on what I feel like for breakfast!

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