Bella's Bookshelves

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

Category: other book stuff (page 1 of 9)

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!

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!

Year’s End and Then Some

2012 was a great year for Bella’s Bookshelves. I found good friends, albeit mostly online, who helped me understand and forge my place in this world and who allowed and encouraged me to give back to it in several ways. Yes, this world, not just the literary one. These new friends are mainly bookish—authors, publishing professionals, book bloggers, book lovers in general. It is not amazing when you think about it—rather, it makes sense—that books bring people together in intimate ways.

I’m utterly grateful for these friendships, for the warm exchanges between us, for the scores of books, some so beautifully inscribed, that I have received over the past two years, for the important and fun copy editing, proofreading, and writing work that publishers have entrusted to me, for the contributions I’ve been invited to make to the Quill & Quire and the CBC, and for the joy I find in recommending books to you. I’ll say it again: it was a fabulous year for me and for Bella’s Bookshelves, and the kindness, generosity, encouragement, and support constantly surprised and buoyed me.

And I needed that. At the same time, I was experiencing severe anxiety and mild depression. I had it for about fifteen years, but in 2012 things came to a head. I started to have panic attacks every day, wherever I was: in the car, behind the cash register at Greenley’s when a customer approached, even while just out enjoying a walk with Lucy and my husband. I avoided going on busy streets, and then streets altogether, because even one person on the other side could make me feel crowded. Instead, I took sanctuary in the nearby woods. I was afraid to take the train to Toronto (though money is more the issue there). I had panic attacks as soon as we hit the 401, or certain intersections or areas of town, particularly the street on which I worked. I physically struggled to get out of the car to go to work. Some attacks were so severe my limbs contorted and froze, I shook and cried uncontrollably, and I couldn’t get enough air. If we were in the car, my husband would have to pull over. I was always petrified that I was going to barf.

Finally, I hit my limit, not just of panic attacks and anxiety and being unable to do anything but also of hearing myself bitterly complain that I was incapable of change regardless of my efforts. It’s amazing how much we can put up with, though, how avoidance makes our agony greater, yet we continue the way we always have. But by March, I couldn’t make myself do anything, except get to work (and then barely). Thanks to the last shred of tenacity in me, I made an appointment for therapy. Along with medication, another thing I was phobic about, it has helped tremendously.

Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.

Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.

In April or May I quit my job at the bookshop and started freelancing full-time again from home. That action in itself changed so much, especially since I love the work and it’s coming in regularly. I also started writing short stories again and have had some truly life-changing writing coaching. And my posts on this blog have given me great opportunities. I’ve been on the Giller stage with Michael Enright and Erin Balser at Word on the Street, I’ve done CBC radio interviews about Canada Reads 2013, I’ve posted on the CBC blog, I’ve worked with Esi Edugyan and Sarah Selecky on discussion questions for Half-Blood Blues and This Cake is for the Party, I’ve edited Ann Patchett for Kobo, and I’ve submitted a book proposal to Anansi Press (fingers crossed!).

The direction I’m confidently taking now, one dedicated to helping authors and publishers produce their best work and sell as much as they can, as well as pursuing publication of my own stories, is good. I feel that in my soul. I know what I’m doing. I know where I belong. I’m happy. And busy. Now that I’m freelancing full-time, it takes more of my time than a regular job. Then there’s my creative writing (writing, being part of a writer’s group, doing Sarah’s Story is a State of Mind course, and mentoring with her soon!). I’ve recently started reading more, though not nearly as much as I want to. I also like to be connected to all of you on FB and Twitter. I love this blog, and I love being in the bookish loop.

Where Reviewing Comes In

But it’s obvious that my reviewing on Bella’s Bookshelves has fallen off. Partly it’s because I’ve been tied up doing other things. But also I haven’t felt an urge to do it, and this has been a great cause of stress, not least because so many have kindly and generously and excitedly sent me books for review and I’ve accepted them.

Read but not yet reviewed

Read but not yet reviewed

Someone suggested that perhaps I haven’t been inspired to review here because now I am writing my own stuff, or that reviewing for the Quill, for money, has taken away my desire to do it for free. The former is possible, I suppose. Not the latter: money is a bonus but not a determining factor for me; with the Quill, it’s about fulfilling a goal and contributing to what I think is Canada’s greatest lit mag. And reviewing for them is different than the kind of reviewing I’ve done here.

No, I think it’s more that I find reviewing here exceedingly difficult. It takes me an entire day, at least, to write a review for this blog—because I want to make sure I include everything, because I have such strong feelings about what I want my reviews to be, because books are hard work to make and are thus not to be taken lightly, because I want my writing to be my best, and because I suddenly have no idea why, considering the over-abundance of reviewers and reviews, I should do it. I have been struggling with this question for a couple of months now.

Then today I came upon Saleema Nawaz’s post called “The Art of the Elegant Review.” I read it three times. I cleaned the house and while I was sweeping I thought about it. I’d been composing an “I can’t do it, I’m taking down the shingle” email, believe it or not, when her post showed up.

Not yet read, for review

Not yet read, for review

There have been plenty of essays and posts on reviewing, some even heated. The right way to review, the right things to say, the way you mustn’t write a review, the way you must…I don’t much care for most of them because I have enough shoulds in my life and I don’t like being told what to do or what I can’t do. But Saleema’s post, even more than the bookcase of books I’ve been sent making doe eyes at me, answered my question as to why I should continue to review, as much as I’ve felt resistant, scared, dubious, guilty, and overwhelmed.

Saleema describes author Joan Thomas’s review of Atwood’s Robber Bride as “not some kind of boldly negative exposé (that’s at least what some people (not me) mean when they wish we had more ‘real’ reviewing), but an insightful and elegant take on the novel.” She talks about the value of longer, explorative reviews over “brief reviews, star ratings, Likes and +1s.”  She quoted a sentence she appreciated for its craft. And then she tweeted to me, “I know I’m elated to find long, excellent reviews everywhere they turn up, online or offline.”

And I thought, hey. I’ve written the kind of reviews she likes. There is a place for them. There is value to them. People read them in their entirety.

More not yet read, for review

More not yet read, for review

And that’s what it took, not much but enough, together with the terrible thought of disappointing everyone who’s sent me books for review, for me to finally change my mind.

I’m a slow reader. I’m a very slow reviewer. I feel I should apologize for this to all those wonderful people who have sent me books with the hope of a thoughtful review in a timely manner. There are about a hundred books now, and I badly want to read every single one of them.

So then. The reviews will continue, but in order for me not to dread them, they have to be when I can and when I feel ready to put my best effort into them. If you can be (very) patient, I promise they’ll be worth it.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

I’m sitting in the living room by the tree, Bing’s voice like molasses dripping in my ears. I snuggle deeper under my soft red HarperCollins blanket, sip chocolate chai tea in my Random House mug, and rest my eyes on all the fairy lights and shelves of books. Just looking at books elicits so much emotion in me. Warmth, nostalgia, comfort, sanctuary, the hint of adventure.

We don’t often get holidays, but now is the time, and it’s one of the cosiest holidays, too. So many of us don’t get the time we’d like to read through the year, so my wish is that you allow yourself that much coveted time. Almost every day, as much as I’m pulled to do nothing but read, I don’t. Or I read things I feel I must instead of things I really want to read.

This holiday, let’s not only give and get books, let’s read them too. Let’s live in them, really notice the writing, the stories, the gifts they truly are.

Merry Christmas, dear readers! Happy holidays!

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“Give Canadian” and “Defying Convention: Reading Short Stories”

On the #CanLit chat today on Twitter with @CBC books, a couple of us were talking about the impressions people have of Canadian literature. Usually, these are unfortunate and misguided impressions, caused inadvertently by school teachers or others who define CanLit as only from a few major authors like Atwood, Ondaatje, Shields, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with these authors or their writing, but CanLit is so much more than the canon.

We also discussed the negative and negligent attitude toward short stories. I’ve found as a bookseller that the response is exactly the same from each person when I offer short stories and people decline: No, I don’t like short stories. They leave you hanging, they never feel finished, they aren’t fulfulling, etc. It’s true that the short story can seem strange if you’re used to novels. But good short stories are simply not guilty of being unfinished. The craft of writing a short story is very precise. And it allows you afterward to think about the literature more so than after reading a novel. Short stories entice you to engage, and they often cause more of an emotional reading experience than you may have with a novel. Yes, short stories can be a bit of work, but not always. They do take some understanding of form, but not anything that’s beyond you as a reader to comprehend. And most importantly, not all short stories are the same. Lydia Davis’s are sometimes a paragraph, while Miranda Hill’s are long and very fulfilling.

When I made up a short story table at the bookstore where I worked, I targeted those readers who often found themselves short on time or with frequent small chunks of time during their day—such as waiting in line, at the airport, while commuting, before getting out of bed, before falling asleep—saying that they could still read an entire piece of fiction in their busy days rather being constantly interrupted in the story of a novel. And you know what? The table was such a success (in store, on Twitter, and on Facebook) that not only did we keep it going for at least half a year, we also now order in more collections than ever before. Short stories right now are being published left, right, and centre, and are being more widely recognized among our readers and literary awards juries. The signs are all here. Short stories are in. But still far too many aren’t willing to catch the wave.

Many times I’ve argued for the expansion of our views on CanLit, here on the blog or elsewhere. Examples of the posts I refer to can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here. And then I thought, maybe it’s easiest if I just make lists of Canadian contemporary CanLit people can browse. “Give Canadian” was created in response to 49thShelf’s invitation to make a list of CanLit we’d recommend for Christmas. And because short stories are my very favourite format, and I’d love to be able to share that passion and excitement with others, or to change others’ minds about short stories, as well as showcase superb contemporary CanLit, here is my list called “Defying Convention: Reading Short Stories” (contemporary CanLit short stories).

Happy browsing! If you buy any of these books, try shopping at your local indie. If you have to go elsewhere or order online, at least you’re buying and supporting our Canadian talent. I don’t think we should only read Canadian, of course, but I love it enough to say  I think it’s worth trying out. You never know. You may love it. Just as I did when it was introduced to me.

If I’ve forgotten any, let me know. These lists are from my own bookshelves.

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