Bella's Bookshelves

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

Category: books (page 1 of 7)

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores North American Giveaway

I’ve posted about this hilarious book before, compiled by writer and bookseller Jen Campbell, and it’s finally just been released in North America! Jen’s generously offered to send a lucky winner a signed copy all the way from England. Thinking about Christmas yet? This book will make the perfect gift for a bookseller friend or any booklover who’s spent time browsing in a bookshop.

Customer: Have you read every single book in here?

Bookseller: No, I can’t say I have.

Customer: Well, you’re not very good at your job, are you?

A simple Twitter question posed by John Cleese — “What is your pet peeve?” — inspired Jen Campbell to start a blog that collected all the ridiculous conversations overheard in her bookstore, everything from “Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?” to the hunt for a paperback that could forecast the next year’s weather; from “I’ve forgotten my glasses, please read me the first chapter” to “Excuse me … is this book edible?”; and from “Can books conduct electricity?” to “My children are just climbing your bookshelves: that’s ok… isn’t it?”

In addition to these gems, Overlook and Jen Campbell have selected new material from booksellers throughout the United States and Canada, thanks to very generous (and eager) submissions. Christopher Sheedy, at Re: Reading on the Danforth, has a bit in there, too!”If we didn’t know it already, this irresistible book is proof positive that booksellers are heroes, the world over.” Hear hear!

For more info:

Jen’s blog: http://jen-campbell.blogspot.com

Jen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/aeroplanegirl

The Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/weirdthingscustomerssayinbookshops

Jen is currently accepting submissions from booksellers and librarians for the sequel, More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, which will be published next year.

Now! To enter the contest, simply write “Pick me!” in the comments, and I’ll have the draw in a week, on November 7. Good luck all! Trust me, this book, with all its weirdness and quirky illustrations, will make you laugh.

UPDATE: Weird Things just got nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award!!

Giving Over to the Reader in You

There are tons of book people, and we have different reading habits, prefer different types of books and reading locations and formats, have diverse ways of organizing our books, and differently prioritize the way we live our love of books (some are collectors before readers, for instance, but are still readers). However, one thing I’ve found is that for the most part, we harbour not only a love of books and reading but also a weakness for accumulating more than we can read. And we often see this as a bad thing.

This morning, I read a post by Pasha Malla called “Bookshopping.” In it, he talked about how he felt on walking into a bookstore, overwhelmed by the number of books, sad that so many would likely not be touched (“all those spirits and lives sunk into unending shelves of ignored words”), feeling as a writer a futility, then, in what he was contributing.

Because we love books (reading, buying, writing them), none of us wants to become depressed when we walk into a bookshop. For a different perspective, Malla turned to Borges, who wrote:

Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home, I feel I shall die before I come to the end of them, yet I cannot resist the temptation of buying new books. Whenever I walk into a bookstore and find a book on one of my hobbies—for example, Old English or Old Norse poetry—I say to myself, “What a pity I can’t buy that book, for I already have a copy at home.”

How many of us could have written the same thing!

And I think, This is where I find the beauty in reading but also in owning far more books than I’ve read: the number I have, or the number I’m confronted with in a store, signifies abundance and flexibility and diversity. For which we’re fantastically lucky, really. I have the gift of being able to walk to my own shelves or the shelves in a shop and pick what I like depending on what attracts me right then. I don’t see all the books as languishing. I see them as potential.

Of course anyone who truly loves books buys more of them than he or she can hope to read in one fleeting lifetime. A good book, resting unopened in its slot on a shelf, full of majestic potentiality, is the most comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper. — David Quaimen

When faced with abundance, we often cower — an inappropriate response in many cases, when you think about it. But abundance wasn’t only what Pasha was talking about; as an author, he was feeling sensitive to all those labours of love on the shelf, perhaps never to be touched. It is sad if we look at it that way. How do we make ourselves feel better about that while not buying up every copy in the store? We simply keep doing what we love, buying and reading what interests us. Most important, we understand our bookbuying and reading selves as absolutely essential, and not only to keep alive the industry that keeps our passion sated.

In the end, Pasha concludes: “Each of those books that appears so ignored, really, only needs one human being to ignite its potential, to breathe life into it, to rescue it from the dead heap of remainderdom.” As Borges wrote,

A book is a physical object in a world of physical objects. It is a set of dead symbols. And then the right reader comes along, and the words—or rather the poetry behind the words, for the words themselves are mere symbols—spring to life, and we have a resurrection of the word.

It’s exciting, isn’t it?

What Good Fiction Looks Like

Sorry if you thought this was going to be one of my serious opinion pieces. But really, every time I write a review I tell you what good fiction looks like, don’t I?

So just for fun — because I’m really struggling with writing reviews right now and that frightens me — you guys want to see what’s on my tbr pile, not including the many books I’ve actually bought and haven’t read? These are all the books waiting to be read and reviewed right now, sent to me by publishers and authors. They are shelved right beside my desk and every now and then I turn to them and say, “I know, seriously, I know. I really can’t wait to get to you. I wish I could read you all RIGHT NOW!” How does one have such great fiction waiting and not read it at once? I WANT to read all these. I’m dying to. But I am only one person and I pretty much read for a living, too. So this pile goes down slowly (but surely).

I left a little Paddington Bear in there for you. You can click on this photo to enlarge, too.

And then there’s my bedside table, and all of those except one, the bottom one, are also waiting for something. Tomato Red is by Daniel Woodrell, and I just really want to read that book because Woodrell is one of my favourite writers on the planet. But The Sisters Brothers is for June book club and review, Beautiful Ruins is a review book, the Gifts of Imperfection is for therapy, Inside is for work, and A Matter of Life and Death or Something is also for review. I’m reading that and Inside and Gifts right now. All three are very good, particularly Inside, which I don’t want to put down.

I think it’s fun to look at what others are reading or what they’ve got on their shelves and in their tbr piles. Want to share? Lead us to your photos by including links in the comments or simply list the books.

 

Seen Reading

This is not a review. Not yet. I only just went to bed with the book (I badly wanted to tweet last night that I was taking Julie Wilson to bed but my computer was already off), and I haven’t finished it. I just wanted to call your attention, you book lovers, you readers, to a book I think is very cool. You may have already heard of it. You may have already seen my reaction to it, even.

It’s called Seen Reading, and it’s by Julie Wilson. I’ve included below a very interesting press release that was sent to me earlier, as well.

This is me, when I received the book in the mail last night. I hadn’t been expecting it — I’d fully expected to buy it. I still will because I think it would make a great gift.

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That right there is genuine book excitement, folks — a friend even pointed out my dilated pupils so you know I’m not faking! I didn’t pose for this picture: when I unwrapped the book, I ran and grabbed the camera and propped it on a shelf and pressed the button and jerked back and it almost instantly took the photo. Pure luck I made it in there, and not looking too much like a dork. First try, even! What you don’t see, unfortunately, is the dog right at my lap looking up at me and doing her boxer bean dance because I’ve barely come in through the door and my flurry of activity has got her all excited, too.

In the (exciting) moment is what this photo is.

I’ll tell you why, too. Seen Reading is a really neat concept. So neat I was trying my damnedest last night to swallow back the raging jealousy. Why did I not think of this? How many of us haven’t been curious as to what others are reading when we catch them in the act in public? Before my husband and I had a washing machine and dryer and our own place, I used to go down to the laundromat with my book. Every single time someone else had a book too I struck up a conversation. I waited till their nose wasn’t in the book and I’d ask them about it. Like it? I’d say. Or, I’ve heard about that one! One time I went out and bought a copy of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls because of a laundromat conversation. (We’re booksellers all, when we’re readers.) I never finished it. But that’s kind of the beauty of it, too, isn’t it? I always marvel at how someone can love a book so much and I strongly dislike it or vice versa. Chacun à son goût! The difference in people’s reading tastes intrigues me. They say there’s someone for everyone. It’s like that with books, too. Well, to each his own. I love witnessing that.

I’ve been known to lower the passenger window in our car and stick out my head to gawk at a pedestrian who was amazingly walking and reading at the same time. The last time I did this, all I got was a Caucasian male, in his twenties, junk food gut and wearing a trench coat, longish shaggy hair, carrying a black backpack, and reading some battered paperback sci-fi novel that may or may not have been by Robert Heinlein. I couldn’t tell; I was in a moving car. I wanted to shout at him, Hey! Awesome! I love it that you’re reading and walking! I love seeing such nerdiness! I think you’re cool! Or maybe, you know, just give him a thumbs up and drive away grinning.

I’ll talk more about Seen Reading when I’ve finished it, but I’ll tell you that what’s cool about this book is that Julie’s taken her observations of readers in transit and imagined who they are, how they got there, where they’re going. There’s a description of her reader, the book they’re reading, even sometimes the page they were on. And across from it, on the left-hand side, which is interesting in itself, is the fictional scene she’s imagined about that reader — it might be from when they were a kid, or what they did on a particular morning, or how they interacted with a family member or beloved.

Julie’s taken an everyday thing, readers in public, extraordinary or exciting perhaps only for people who love books, and wondered aloud about these wonderful people who make up the urban transit landscape. I have so many questions about this! I think it’s fascinating. I mean, why do we read in public?  So many reasons! What is it saying about us? Is there anything these readers in public have in common? Are they all wearing some similar article of clothing? Are they all a similar age? Are they a certain “type”? Do readers in public generally read a certain kind of book? Perhaps more interesting: do readers on the Toronto transit have what they read in common? Are they reading predominantly Canadian, or even Torontonian, authors? If there’s nothing at all in common besides the fact that they read in public, interesting in itself, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

It’s this question Julie asks and imagines the answers to, and it’s this question that also makes us want to connect with the people we see investing their time in a book. Each time we ask a person about what they’re reading, it’s not only about the book: it’s also an urge to connect with someone we feel an instant, albeit it perhaps fleeting commonality. For book lovers, there’s no denying we feel a special unspoken connection with others who read. Certain car owners, motorcyclists, too, feel it, people who have an article of clothing or an accessory in common…it’s all about a sense of validation, of fitting in, of belonging. A meeting of passions.

Sometimes we say something, sometimes we don’t: instead, we quietly watch as they turn the pages, as they dogear, smile, become absorbed — as they mirror ourselves. We understand what they’re doing. To a small extent, we already know who they are. But that makes us want to know more about them.

Julie gives us one interpretation. And best thing about her profiles, about her sketches, is that they’re not, in fact, short stories. Not to my mind. Better, even, in this case, they’re open-ended, a kind of teaser. Beautifully, sympathetically rendered paragraphs that encourage more interpretation, further imagining. Her pieces are as transient as her readers, as they come and go from one stop to another — mere glimpses, but deeply considered. And perhaps most neat of all, they’re in book form. I want to say it’s a kind of postmodern thing, but Ms Wilson is too forward-thinking for postmodernism. She’s forging her own, thoughtful, curious path. There’s more to this than I’ve told you, more than meets the eye, to quote a famous Transformers cartoon.

That’s one of the great things about this book. As simple as it is, as much as it’s one woman’s imaginings about the characters she observes, it’s also making a societal statement and asking societal questions. As readers, both of any books and this one, all we need do is think about it. I think we’ll find our minds opened.

MEDIA RELEASE: FREEHAND BOOKS AND HARPERCOLLINSCANADA ANNOUNCE SIMULTANEOUS PUBLICATION OF SEEN READING BY JULIE WILSON

February 24, 2012

For Immediate Release:

 Freehand Books and HarperCollinsCanada announced today the simultaneous April 1 publication of SEEN READING by Julie Wilson. Freehand Books acquired Canadian English print rights to the title over a year ago. HarperCollinsCanada acquired Canadian English digital rights this month.

“I believe this could be a first for Canadian publishing,” says Samantha Haywood, who arranged both deals on behalf of Transatlantic Literary Agency. “It is certainly a first for me as an agent. It just goes to show that when the industry works in the best interests of the project, everyone walks away happy. The partnership makes good business sense for all involved.”

Seen Reading is the exciting debut collection of microfictions from Canada’s pre-eminent literary voyeur, Julie Wilson. Based on the beloved online movement of the same name, Seen Reading collects more than a hundred stories inspired by sightings of people reading on Toronto transit, each reader re-invented in a poetic piece of short fiction.

“Everyone at Freehand was so excited when we found out about this project,” says Sarah Ivany, Freehand’s Managing Editor. “We were all fans of the Seen Reading online movement, which is such a fresh and creative concept. However, we didn’t want to rush the book to print—we believed that this collection had the potential to be so much more than a facsimile of a pre-existing blog. Julie, editor Robyn Read, and designer Natalie Olsen (Kisscut Design) have all put an extraordinary amount of work into this book, and I am delighted with the results. Julie’s known for being a creative force within the publishing industry, but she’s also a really beautiful writer, and I can’t wait for people to get their hands on this collection.”

“The unique nature of this project is a clear fit for the direction HarperCollinsCanada is taking with our digital publishing program,” said Deanna McFadden, Associate Director of Digital Product Development at HarperCollinsCanada.

Wilson has been working closely with Read and Olsen to ensure that the transition from new media to literature is a smooth one, to come full circle with a new online community to be launched in conjunction with the book’s release, April 1. Freehand Books has contracted Ziegler, Mitchell, and Associates to redesign and expand the Seen Reading website, www.seenreading.com. The new site will feature a blog, reading guides, a newsletter, and interactive forums where people can log their own reader sightings and connect with like-minded literary fans.

“My own love of reading includes curiosity about what others are reading, and how they came to those books,” says Vicki Ziegler, web/online/social media manager for the Griffin Poetry Prize. “My team is now helping to extend the online presence of a venture that celebrates that curiosity, with the extraordinary Julie Wilson no less. That’s bookish nirvana.”

For her role as both creator and author, Wilson is thrilled with the evolution of Seen Reading from blog to book to online community, and the opportunity this unique publishing partnership brings to the table. “I love Seen Reading dearly, and the love-in continues with the tremendous support of Freehand Books and HarperCollinsCanada. Over the years, I’ve considered self-publishing, but just like the web of friends you call when you start dating someone new, you benefit from some distance, along with a variety of opinions and perspective. I simply don’t want to do this alone, because nothing about Seen Reading is intended to point to a solo identity beyond casting myself as The Literary Voyeur. Too many people feed into it, from writers to publishers to booksellers, librarians and, of course, the reader. That more than one publisher should help spread the word speaks to the true nature of Seen Reading.”

For more information, to request a review copy, or to arrange interviews, please contact Freehand Books Managing Editor Sarah Ivany at 403-452-5662 or via email at sivany@broadviewpress.com. For more information about the ebook, please contact Rob Firing, Director, Publicity and Communications at HarperCollinsCanada at 416-975-9334 x141 or via email at rob.firing@harpercollins.com.

About the author: 

Julie Wilson is The Book Madam, a self-professed “professional publishing fan” living and working in Toronto. She’s the past Online Marketing Manager for House of Anansi Press and recent Host of the CBC Book Club.

You can follow Julie on Twitter: @BookMadam and @SeenReading, and you can tweet your own reader sightings using the hashtag #seenreading.

Praise for Seen Reading:

“Beneath the surface of Julie Wilson’s energy, biting wit, and quirkiness lays intelligence and insight—a fresh observer to the dynamic ways in which we communicate.”—Anthony De Sa

“I spy, with my little eye, something that is utterly delightful. Take a peek at Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading. There are treasures to be found within.”—Ami McKay

“With Seen Reading, Julie Wilson has done something revolutionary for the time: seamlessly combine books-related gossip, arts reportage, and creative writing in every post. The results are exhilarating and deliciously voyeuristic.”—George Murray, Bookninja.com

There and Back Again

The one book I must always have on my shelves. The one I would have with me on a desert island. The book I would have if I could have only one. (But if I could have more than one, say one more, the LOTR trilogy, in one volume, would be the other. Illustrated by Alan Lee, of course.)

I’ve been there and back again for twenty-eight years, since the story was first read to me in grade three, under a large tree in the Alliston, ON, St. James cemetery beside my elementary school. Mrs. Henderson read from a giant hardcover plastic-covered library book, illustrated by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, the copy of which I years later inherited when the book was discarded and my mom worked at the library, and which I promptly, lamentably, lost at a friend’s house. The Hobbit has been the single-most influential book in my life.

Mrs. Henderson, if you’re out there: thank you. I still have a crush on you.

I get the urge to read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings every Christmas. Unfortunately, I can’t live in the Shire or go on adventures on the neverending road, but I can read myself there!

Which books do you love to revisit?

[For those like me who care—though if you do, you probably already have it bookmarked—I give you The Hobbit Blog. Watch the production videos! And the trailer. Oh, the trailer.]

To see it much larger and clearer, and just all around better, click here.

Books to Buy or Ask For This Christmas

Give books for Christmas!

This post is a little late, considering there’s only two weeks now till Christmas, but it’s not so time-consuming to pick out a book or four (and what’s easier to wrap than books?), and you should still be able to order online in time for Christmas at some places (many publishers, like Anansi, are selling directly, and offering nice discounts!)…or ask for these fantastic books on your wish list. Alternatively, you can ask for a gift certificate to spend at your local bookstore (preferably independent! My sister did this last year. She lives in Barrie but she called the store where I work and ordered a gift certificate for me, which they sent her in the mail, totally without my knowledge. I had had no inkling whatsoever. Awesome. Guess how long it took me to spend it)!

Okay. This post was a lot of work! Which is too bad, because since I’ve run out of steam, I’m not going to include other bookish gifts, like bookish jewellery, or cards, or other fun stuff that I often include in my LitBit posts. I grew very overwhelmed, too, while writing it: there are so many great books not listed here! so many I wish I could share with you, and even more types of literature, like plays for instance, I haven’t covered. Non-fiction is a huge category with countless subcategories, like bios, and travel, and books on how to write, etc.
This is why I’m a bookseller right now, but also why I want to broaden my horizon and find a job at which I can help publicize more books to a wider group of people. Anyway, if you have any books you think would make fantastic gifts, share them in the comments. If you need more suggestions, check out the annual edition of the Advent Book Blog, where there are several recommendations each day, submitted by enthusiastic book lovers. And don’t be shy; what books are on your list this holiday season?

Why Endorsements Don’t Sell Me A Book

Whenever I’m receiving at the bookstore, I check out almost every book. I take note of the design first and then read the covers, and if I’m interested I often flip through the text to sample the writing. Today I was perusing a copy of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I, a new release by Penguin (under their Viking imprint) (note: there was nothing I could see indicated on the box or invoice telling us to hold back the book, and I did check, though Penguin’s site shows a release date of April 4. For that reason, the book is not yet out on the floor). I have three other books by George, so this one caught my attention because of her name and the subject matter. And it’s a really desirable hardback (albeit cumbersome, being 688 pages), with attractive cover art and a nice finish.

Then I read the back endorsements and I honestly suddenly felt overcome by the desire to throw that beautiful book. These particular endorsements culminated into the straw that broke the camel’s back and inspired this post. I’m serious about this, because I assume that endorsements are a crucial part of the marketing strategy and often affect a buyer’s decision, particularly if they recognize the endorser. So how many of you are utterly weary of reading hyperbolic clichés like “Stunning tour de force,” “Best book I’ve read…” “The next so and so” (lately every suspense, thriller, and mystery author is the next Stieg Larsson—seriously, it’s laughable now), “An utterly engaging masterpiece,” “A literary banquet,” “The prose sparkles…” “Soars with inspiration and crackles with joy…” ad nauseum? And then there’s “Think so and so and so and so…” or “Think so and so and give him such and such, etc., and you’ve got…” and other bizarre author mashup recipes. Lastly, there’s the unimpressive yet overused “So and so does it again.”

Often, the endorsements are flowery and overflowing with adjectives. And when you clump a bunch of them together, the effect, for me, is not that I’m going to bust if I don’t purchase this book right now because it sounds so freaking awesome. It’s rather that I’m turned off or nonplussed. If these writers are saying the same thing about everyone, if they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a few original words of praise, what is that telling me not only about the writer but also the book itself?

These endorsements do the author no favours, then; in fact, quite the opposite. They’re trite and unimaginative, and as such have lost their credibility. When reading them, I get the sense that the reviewer either didn’t love the book but was asked to produce a sentence or two for clout or had no time to come up with something that might indeed reflect any genuine emotion. And I’m not sure who’s that busy. In the end, I open the book and let the the writing speak for itself. That, above all else, is what sells a book to me. I always read before buying.

What gets to me most is that these hackneyed tidbits splashed across covers are typically written by renowned authors. Or reviewers for notable newspapers. People who, one expects, have at least a modicum of talent in the way of creative writing, and not only talent but imagination. So are all these poor reviewers suffering from endorser’s block? Why do all these books sound the same? And is it really possible that we have this many stellar books being published? I argue no. Either we’re getting lazy in our reading and critiquing or our standards are slipping. Not every book is perfect, and that’s likely not what the blurbs are saying but they’re coming pretty damn close. Every book’s a potential award winner. Another reason I can’t believe the endorsement hype. I’m too often disappointed.

If we—I include us book bloggers, booksellers, book lovers who recommend books, as well as esteemed endorsers—cannot think of anything original to say in praise, how can readers believe us? And how can what we say be effective if it sounds as though we’re trying too hard to come up with brilliant and clever blurbs? Each book is different; each author deserves our translation of how we feel into unique compliments that sound genuine. Incidentally, I find more examples of this genuineness on book bloggers’ sites, because they’re just trying to share the love, not dress up a sentence or two for their coming out on the front or back cover. Perhaps more publishers should start quoting us, the real person, the average reader, on their books. We receive ARCs all the time. Some authors argue that we book bloggers are relatively ineffective when it comes to book sales. Perhaps we could improve that by venturing out of our box. The question that arises is, is an endorser’s name more important than what they say? I’d hate for that to be true.

Regardless, a note to professional endorsers: hyperbole is tiresome. Cliché is boring and unimpressive. Tiresome and boring and unimpressive equal ineffective and unattractive. Even insulting.

So I issue a challenge to all of you out there who are reviewing books, whether book bloggers, authors, newspapers, or journals. And I include myself. Create your own vocabulary, but try not to use the thesaurus. This is not about you: it’s not your job to try and make yourself sound awesome at the same time. So no more tours de force, no more masterpieces, no more stunning literary banquets, no more authors’ finest and most compelling page-turners, no more unputdownables. No more entertaining, superb, captivating, enthralling, brash, irreverent, inventive, and impressive volumes or debuts. No more exaggeration. Be original. Be creative. Be bloody fair to the author. Praise means nothing when it’s over the top and you’ve said it to all the girls.

I See You: 37 Books I Have Known

For many of us, the exceptional reading experience is kind of like knowing a person in the biblical sense. You could also say it’s like seeing a person, the way they do in the (fantastic) movie Avatar. Or like namaste, meaning several things but here meaning, I honour the Spirit in you which is also in me. Something like that. If we’re paying attention, we become one with a very good book, which is perhaps partly why we feel reluctant to finish or part with it, why we sometimes feel we have to catch our breath or remember to breathe, why we sense a communion and understanding, even or often with the author, or simply clutch a book to our chests. It’s heartfelt, what we feel. It deep and profound.

In my opinion, we don’t get to experience this enough, but I can say I’ve read at least 37 books that I’ve known and loved enough to feel a sense of familiarity and affection when I see them on my shelves. Like coming home, it is, when you open the book you’ve loved, again. This is because certain books cause reading to be a memorable experience we fondly recall and not just because of the story. It’s just like that first sweet kiss (and I put first before sweet on purpose. My first kiss, although memorable, was not sweet but messy).

I wish I could give you a list of one favourite book for every year of my life I’ve put behind me, not least because I think it would be interesting. What was my favourite book when I was 4, 12, 17, 26, 32? Unfortunately, I haven’t documented this, and I’m also the kind of person who has many favourites. Everything is my favourite, according to some of my friends. That’s not totally true, but I do get pretty enthusiastic about many books.

To commemorate my birthday on Sunday (er, I had started this on the 20th but this has been a lot of work, which is why there are no images) and on noting that the one thing about me that has remained unchanged for 37 years is my love of books, here is a list of 37 books that have affected me in different but profound ways and that stay with me for that very reason. I’m pulling these from my shelves and am posting them in no particular order. There are many more I’ve bonded with, of course; this is only a small sample. I apologize that I have not linked to the publishers of these books: for convenience and to save time, I used Amazon.ca.

Okay.  In the words of my favourite Disney read-along-books, when I was a kid: let’s begin now.

1. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I bought this book, which took Kostova 10 years to write, on impulse at Nicholas Hoare in Ottawa by the Market. It took me less than a minute to decide. Opening to the first page alone seemed a transcendent experience somehow, let alone reading it. It’s one of the richest novels I’ve ever read, so detailed (not in the annoying, tedious Franzen way or even in a Dickensian fashion) and compelling that you have to take a moment to repatriate yourself each time you put it down. Always wanted to visit Eastern Europe? Kostova takes you there. You feel like a character alongside the ones in her story, a voyeur, an adventurer. It’s multi-layered, well researched and well written, atmospheric and historical, deliciously dark yet not lacking light (a perfect blend of writerly chiaroscuro), epistolary in parts and bibliophilic. When I turned the last page, I felt I could begin again at once. I don’t remember ever feeling that way before. Instead, I put down the book and did more research myself on Vlad Ţepeş and his time (this stuff has always fascinated me anyway). I wanted to go back to school, to become a historian, to get lost in libraries and archives, to handle ancient tomes, to speak several languages, to travel. Needless to say, I felt inspired. I also thought that Kostova owed me absolutely nothing; I got everything, and more, a reader deserves. Years later, I’m reading the book in its entirety aloud to my husband.

2. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz-Zafon. Another atmospheric novel that transports you from wherever it is you sit. And another impulse buy. I’d never heard of it when I first saw it but the cover grabbed me. Afterward, I had that funny, awful feeling that I wouldn’t find another book like it and I would be doomed to spend the rest of my life saying, Yeah, but it’s not Shadow of the Wind…and often I and my sisters have said that very thing.

3. Chocolat by Joanne Harris. This is the book that’s caused me to stock every single Joanne Harris novel on my shelves, that caused me to take a three-hour train to Ottawa to meet her last year, that inspired this post. Chocolat is sensory, beautiful, imaginative, enchanting. It’s another atmospheric novel, and it made me miss France (I lived there for a year, in Paris). I related well to Vianne, I relished the abandon or rebelliousness of the characters, I was fascinated by the special brand of white magic, I deeply understood the power of chocolate. My favourite is dark with chili, and that’s one of Vianne’s specialties. The movie is also one of my favourites, and it’s the supper en plain air that inspired my idea for my grand opening of my bookshop tearoom Biblio, which will likely never happen but which is a lovely dream nonetheless.

4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I can tell you with certainty that this was my absolute favourite book the year I was in grade three. I went to a Catholic school once run by nuns, beside a large church and cemetery. It was in this cemetery, under an old, giant tree, who for all I know might have been a lost Ent, that my grade three teacher read us The Hobbit. She read from a huge, hardcover copy, illustrated with images from the 1977 animated film, and covered in plastic. Years and years later, I inherited that very copy (my mom brought it home for me when it was discarded at the library where she worked; it was stamped with the dates from when my teacher had borrowed it!) and then tragically lost it at a friend’s house (there were nine kids, that’s how). Were I to have a Dr. Tom, I’d go back in time and find it. But as fate would have it, years and years after that, I met my husband, and when we amalgamated our books, didn’t he have the same illustrated edition, only softcover! But that’s just about the physical book. As for the story, well, it hardly needs any introduction, does it? I have read it almost every single year, and last year I read it aloud to the hubby. If there’s anyone I could go back in time and meet, it would be Tolkien. He’s one of the greatest authors ever to have lived. And not just because of The Hobbit.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I doubt I need say much here. This too is something I have read multiple times. Rich in language, history, imagination, atmosphere, metaphor, mythology, landscape, a certain nostalgia or romanticism, and magic, LOTR is a masterpiece, whether or not you happen to like fantasy literature. I pick up something new every time I read it. C and I have watched the extended movies a gazillion times, too. I have to say, of all pieces of literature, this is the one I reference most.

6. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. My friend Marie introduced me to this book and according to Amazon, I purchased it October 24, 2005 (just an interesting fact). Easily the best book of that year for me. It won the 1928 Nobel Prize for literature, and is actually a trilogy made up of three books: The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross. Set in 14th-century Norway, KL is the saga of a passionate, strong-willed woman, one of the greatest classic literary figures to ever exist. The book has never gone out of print since it was published in 1927, and is translated from Norwegian, and if you ever fancy a copy, I strongly suggest Penguin’s edition in one volume, wonderfully translated by the renowned Tiina Nunnally. Settle for no other translator. Also, that edition is gorgeous, with deckle edge pages and a beautiful cover. This was such a memorable read for me, made more memorable by the Inuit tea I drank while reading it, Cloudberry and Crowberry in particular (which Marie also introduced me to), the packages of which, like flattened leaves, still mark pages in my book.

7. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Like The Historian, this book inspired me to want to change careers. In another life I’d be a rare book expert. To that end, I actually looked up book making and repair courses, but haven’t followed through. In any case, this story traces the history of a unique 500-year-old haggadah, a Jewish prayer book. You’ll never think of books the same way after reading this one, trust me. It’s rich with history and drama and beauty, and it is our best-selling book at the store, because there isn’t a staff member who doesn’t plug it every chance they get.

8. Annabel by Kathleen Winter. There are many good reasons this book made this list and is taking the literary and award world by storm. Here is my review.

9. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Here’s one for Freedom to Read week (this week!). Banned for its anti-Christian (particularly anti-Catholic) content, Pullman’s work (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) is nothing short of genius, in my mind. It’s shelved as YA but it so complex and imaginative, and obviously containing adult material, that it’s perfectly appropriate for adults. Humorous, magical, thought-provoking, and challenging, this trilogy is like nothing you’ve ever read, I promise. I read it aloud (after having read it alone), all 944 pages, to C, and the experience was truly remarkable. We never wanted to put it down. Again, one of those we felt we’d never find an equal to. PS. Important: do not go by the movie to form your impression of this book. The movie barely scratches the surface of the story, let alone reaches anything close to the potential the book offers. This would be a fantastic book club choice (I suppose just the first one), or a perfect trilogy to study and discuss in a university class.

10. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Okay, for me, this was definitely one of my best reading experiences ever. It was exactly what I needed to read at the time, and one that I’m sure I’ll need to read repeatedly. I’m quite tired of having to defend it, and Elizabeth Gilbert, though, from those who insist it’s self-indulgent, selfish, and whiny. I never got any of that, and besides, it’s a memoir, for God’s sake. You know what people respond when I say that? That I loved it because I don’t have kids and can’t understand what it’s like not to be selfish and think of others first, basically. Yup. Anyway. I personally had a near-God experience reading it, so intimately connecting with Gilbert I felt she was part of me and I her (here’s where that namaste thing come in! Plus I have a huge crush on her), and so admiring her writing. I bought and read her other books (love Pilgrims, especially), and if there’s anyone I wish I could write like, it’s her. She’s just so damn good.

11. One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid. Speaking of memoirs, here’s another, and you can read what I thought of it here. I bought Iain’s book at Word on the Street Toronto at the Anansi booth, having first read about it on their website. It’s one of my favourites because I related well to Iain but also because it inspired me to remember certain goals and to want to write again. I haven’t started because if there’s one thing I’m famous for, you may already have guessed, it’s my lack of follow-through. Sigh. Anyway, after reading his humorous, thought-provoking book, I invited Iain to read at the store, which he did with great success, and we still email now and again. Books that spark relationships are priceless.

12. Sandra Beck by John Lavery. This book is a favourite because never have I met such a lover of the possibilities of the English language. John Lavery is today’s Shakespeare. You can read what I thought of this book here.

13. Room by Emma Donoghue. The majority of you already know this book. It’s hard to recommend at the store without having someone interrupt me to say that it’s disturbing or too depressing or whatever. That annoys me. Yes, the subject matter is daunting. But the book is also heartwarming and full of hope and provocative, in the sense that you feel very emotionally charged reading it, possibly enough to want to make a difference in the world. I found it incredibly powerful in terms of inviting me to think outside my own experience to the reality of others who are not as fortunate. You can read my experience of this book here.

14. Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra. The male author, Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, took on the female nom de plume to avoid having to submit his manuscripts for military approval. Being a forceful examination of the situation of Afghan people under Taliban rule, obviously, this wouldn’t have made it past the censors. I found myself quite angry much of the time while I read this book. But it’s also beautifully, poetically written and an observant, sharp inside look at lives so foreign, so different from mine. One of the years my parents visited (they live in Malta), my mom spent most of her time devouring this book. It’s not long but it really packs a punch. If you liked The Kite Runner, try this one. But be warned, it’s not the same. For me, this was far more emotionally charged.

15. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I picked up this book several times because I like post-apocalyptic literature, and I tried to read past the first paragraph but couldn’t because I was too annoyed by such experimental writing. McCarthy’s style takes some getting used to. But something about the story wouldn’t let me go, and I finally picked it up again and then almost swallowed it whole (got used to the style very quickly that time!). Admittedly, I struggled to keep going because the situation is relentless and I could see no hope. I didn’t want it to end on a depressing note. But the story itself, the journey of man and boy, like Donoghue’s mother and son, was so powerfully wrought, it was also difficult not to continue. I’m glad I did; it was quite the experience. I was working at the library at the time and consequently ordered several copies. Later, the book won the Pulitzer Prize and I bought the really excellent Border Trilogy, years after one of my English profs had recommended it and I’d then dismissed it as man’s lit (even though I love Hemingway, also described as man’s lit). That too I remember very well, and will likely read again. In fact, it should be in included on this list. Consider this a double entry. Also, the film adaptation of The Road is incredible (how could it not be with Viggo Mortensen) but one I can watch only once. It’s very powerful, just like the book.

16. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Since these are classics and there are few left on this planet who haven’t experienced them, I doubt they need any explanation. I’m glad I first read them when Christian allegory, as obvious as it is now, was beyond me. I have a gorgeous hardcover illustrated volume of all seven books, and a fully dramatized set of 19 CDs. We listened to The Horse and His Boy
while we painted the living room over the last few weeks. Timeless, these, are, for adults and little ones. Full of humor as well as worldly adventure, morals, and enchantment, Narnia has affected the way I see certain snow, Turkish delight, a walk through the woods, a wardrobe. When Lewis breathed life into those books, he sparked a magic that lives on in us even as adults.

17. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I never wanted to be like any other character more than I wanted to be like Anne Shirley. I can’t tell you how many times I read Anne of Green Gables as a young girl, how I’d put down the book and fairly float about afterward, and dream of having someone like Gilbert Blythe. This book sparked my young, amorous heart more times than I care to remember it being broken. It caused me to be made fun of, but it spoke to my passionate self the way no other book did at the time. I also had a huge crush on Megan Follows after watching the movies. Even as a teen I wished I was Anne Shirley, but looking back I see I was more like her than I realized. Now that I’m older and somewhat cynical I’m afraid that if I read Anne of Green Gables again I’ll ruin the exhilarating experience and romance of reading it that I once had.

18. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. My sister gave me the copy she bought in the airport in England, so I have a really lovely edition. And this is a book like no other, narrated by Death. Set during WWII it tells the story of a young girl, Liesel, a lover of words and books, who steals volumes to save them from the Nazi book burnings. Liesel encounters Death three times, and is the third time when he comes across the book she’s writing of her own life. This is a wonderful story but given the time period, you can guess something terrible happens. I cried. But it is nevertheless nothing to be afraid of: it’s worth the read. Definitely my favourite book of that year.

19. The Inkworld trilogy by Cornelia Funke. Another fantasy I became entirely engrossed in, so much so that even more than a year later I’m still thinking about it. Meg’s father, a bookbinder, reads so lyrically that the characters in the books he reads from come to life and are brought into our world. Unfortunately, this time bad people come out, and at the same time Meg’s mother disappears into the book world. Courage, loyalty, love, imagination, determination, and magic make this trilogy unforgettable.

20. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Really. Need I say anything about this series? Perhaps, since not everyone is convinced? Here’s a post I wrote on the books; it did get Reeder to start them!

21. Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. If you’ve never read anything by American writer Annie Dillard, start with Holy the Firm. At less than 80 pages, it’s a personal mediation mainly on the natural world, written by Dillard while she lived in a cabin on Puget Sound. Dillard’s poetic and beautifully honest writing is thought-provoking and simple yet probing. Holy the Firm inspired me to write a poem called “Sour Grapes,” and also to read other of her books (the only one I didn’t like was her novel, The Maytrees). She is another example of someone I’d like to emulate as a writer.

22. Little Bee by Chris Cleave. While this wasn’t particularly strong writing in my opinion, at least not consistently, the reactions I had to it were quite intense. The moment I had in the shower bawling for the atrocities some people experience is one I’ll never forget. You can read my thoughts here and here.

23. Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley. I read this for my postmodern English class in university many moons ago. It was one of my favourite books of that year, and it’s definitely my favourite Findley novel. I’ve read it twice, actually, once in class, and once to compare (on my own, for fun) to David Maine’s The Preservationist, which I bought on impulse years ago while shopping for groceries, and which I also recommend. Both are classic deconstructions of a Christian master-narrative, a retelling of Noah’s Ark, both pointed and humorous. Findley’s is especially brilliantly executed and more literary and purposeful, I think, than Maine’s book.

24. Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields. Carol Shields was my favourite author for years; there was no other. Now I find it difficult to say who’s my favourite, but I reserve a very special place for her in my heart. She influenced me like no other author thus far, even Elizabeth Gilbert, both in terms of my writing and how I think in general. I’ve written numerous papers on her works, and an essay on finding the sacred in the ordinary, inspired by her. The Stone Diaries popped my Shields cherry, and I hated it the first time I read it. But one day I was ready for it, I guess, and I loved it. But it was Small Ceremonies, her first novel, that really began my love affair with Shields and I remember going out and buying everything she’d published at the time, all at once, back when I was in university and reading it all, plays, bad poetry, everything. I loved the way she wrote about women, about love, about the craft, about life. I deeply admired her relationship with her husband John. And I cried on the couch, sobbing into Kleenex, watching a CBC bio of her, when she died. Never have I felt so bereft at an author’s passing. The fact that I will never read another book by her still punches me in the gut. I take criticism of her writing quite personally, I admit, and struggle to separate myself from it. It was her book I thought deserved to win Canada Reads this year, if I’m honest, because I thought it was best written.

25. The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg. Elizabeth Berg is a bit similar to Shields, but not as strong a writer. She’s classified as women’s fiction, I’d say, but there was a time when I was very much into those stories that detailed the lives of girls and women, particularly around love and loss. The Year of Pleasures tells the story of a women in her fifties or so whose husband dies. Later, she discovers gifts he’s left for her to find, and realizing he’d like her to move on and be happy, she sells their beloved brownstone and goes off to find another town in which to live, wherever the roads take her. It’s the story of a woman who in the year following such a loss begins to find herself and her capability to still be happy. There’s a palpable sense of newfound independence and tentative confidence. I list this book here because the concept is important to me, but also because even after all these years of reading it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

26. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I doubt I need to say much about this classic romance. Aside from being such an effective novel in terms of themes (think Mad Woman in the Attic, for one), this was for me one of the greatest romances I’ve ever read. I wish I could say more but it’s been too long since I last read it. Still, I remember the atmosphere, and that I felt deeply, yearned as much as Jane did.

27. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. To be honest, I don’t remember this book much, except that it was one of my favourite Dickens’s stories, because I couldn’t put it down. What I do remember was where I was when I read it: in Switzerland at Le Châtelard, a private school for girls. I wasn’t attending but was there on a trip from Paris, where I was living for a year. It was February, and I was hiding from everyone, as I liked to do, to be left alone. I was supposed to be working on life-sized paintings of biblical figures, which I was, but I also found an old orange Penguin copy of DC, presumably in their library, and once I’d started I couldn’t put it down. I spent my days ensconced under the eaves on one of the top unused floors, devouring Dickens’s book. It was like something out of a book. I’m only slightly ashamed to say I kept it; I simply couldn’t part with it. I have it to this day, next to an antique copy of the same title.

28. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve never read anything by Hemingway I didn’t love and this one is my favourite of his. Hemingway’s style is inimitable, sparse and clean yet so evocative. I love the time period, the way the characters spoke, the group of expats themselves. And the atmosphere, ah, Spain.

29. The Incident Report by Martha Baillie. I used to work in a library, so Baillie’s story about a library worker in Toronto really hit home. Stuff that may seem unlikely in this book? Although it’s been criticized as “absurdly normalized mania,” I insist it’s all possible. This shit really does happen, these character types really do exist, and much worse, too, which is ultimately why I quit. But aside from totally relating to the character’s job, there was a vulnerability, a rawness to her and the book that made me slightly uncomfortable yet compelled to keep reading. This is life, this is possibly any woman’s life who passes you by on the city street. And then there’s a twist that wrenches your heart and leaves you staring in disbelief until you pull yourself together and finish the book, a bit shakily in my case. The Incident Report is a very cool way of telling a story but it’s also beautiful in it’s transparency and simplicity, and poignant. Not a book you’ll soon forget.

30. Belonging by Isabel Huggan. Belonging is something I’ve needed to explore because I don’t feel I belong in Canada, let alone in general. My parents live in Malta, though we four girls were born here (my parents moved back to Malta after living here about 24 years); one sister, who married an Englishman, lives in England, one is in Toronto, and one in Barrie. I didn’t choose Belleville, I followed my then boyfriend now husband here. My own roots reach for some inexplicable reason to England, particularly the north. In any case, Huggan, who’s lived in many places, including Belleville, coincidentally (I read this book before I moved here), explores the concept of home, and writes with clarity and honesty and insight. This book really spoke to me and I’ve considered her a favourite author since reading this book and her other two; she’s someone I’ve wanted to meet. Someone once said that when you find a writer like Elizabeth Huggan you don’t want her to stop. It’s true.

31. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. One of the most beautiful children’s books I’ve ever seen. The illustrations are breathtaking, and combine in a cinematic way with the magical story of a clock repairer boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station. This is a gorgeous, brilliant example of storytelling at its best and thus I chose it to “sell” on The Advent Book Blog.

32. The Arabian Nights (Sir Richard Burton). The concept of having to tell stories to save one’s life is fascinating to me. When I finally read The Arabian Nights, it was from an edition famously illustrated by René Bull, and I became so engrossed in the stories and pictures tthat I barely moved from my chair, devouring one story after the other. An enchanting taste of the Middle East. I must note here, Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz is also excellent. It was inspired by the original stories.

33. Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. I don’t think I wrote a great review for this book. I might have been gushing because I thought it so wonderful, but I hadn’t ever read anything like Grant’s writing. Audrey (Oddly) Flowers offers such a different way of seeing things one can’t help but be affected, and I have to admit I related to her a little bit. And Winnifred, the tortoise, is so excellent that I had this major urge to bring home a tortoise after reading the book (I didn’t, though). Grant writes with such precision and unique use of the language that it’s difficult not to admire her skill. My review is here, my memorable meeting with Jessica here. Come, Thou Tortoise is another of our bestsellers at the store.

34. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I can’t even tell you the first time I read this book but I think I got it from the Scholastic Book Order we used to get in school. Everyone knows this is a beautiful, heartwarming story with a lesson, but mainly it changed the way I see animals. I love this book enough to have a special edition. Garth Williams’s well-known illustrations make it as memorable and special as the story itself. How long I studied them!

35. Beyond Remembering by Al Purdy. I’m an Al Purdy fan, though I’m not a huge poetry reader, and I think I might owe it not to CanLit classes but to my ex. He was so in love with Purdy’s poetry that he came on his own to this area (places I’d never heard of before and am now, weirdly, living in) for a three-day sort of literary pilgrimage (and ended up getting in some sort of brawl here on Front Street and having to have dental work. Perhaps this too was inspired by Purdy). We went to hear Purdy read twice, which was quite the (fun) experience (wish I’d had the idea to take a camera). Among other poems, he read “Concerning Ms. Atwood,” one of my favourites, and always seemed to have young women hanging off either side of him. Honest, exploratory, gutsy, insightful, and quintessentially Canadian, Purdy’s poems give as much identity to this country as the Canadian flag. I’m a supporter of the endeavour to save his A-frame, where a good deal of the forming of our esteemed authors occurred. Beyond Remembering is the collected works of Purdy, who struggled greatly as an author but finally came into his own with large impact, and after I bought it I kept it on my bedside table for almost a year, to pick up and browse through every now and then. The coolest was selling a copy to Eurithe Purdy, Al’s wife, back when I was a bookseller at Chapters. Anyway. Purdy’s poetry is accessible and true. As with Purdy himself, there is no BS, no pretentiousness.

36. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. My first introduction to Mr. Roald Dahl and the amazing Quentin Blake. I don’t even know how to express how much I loved this book, how much I dearly loved Charlie, and Dahl’s penchant for the ridiculous and hilarious and his imaginative innovation and his style of not holding back or writing polite, tame children’s books. There is no one like Roald Dahl, no one who can read aloud like him, no one who can write like he does. He played a very large part in my childhood reading experiences. This story is gloriously original and exciting and I’ve read this many times, heard it read on record, seen the Gene Wilder movie. I could read it again and again.

37. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. I read this in French (and a French edition is the only one I have) and then saw the French movie with Gérard Depardieu (which I highly recommend), while living in France in 1993–1994. I vividly recall sitting in the living room of our high-ceilinged apartment in the 17th arrondissement (Ave. de Villiers), leaning forward and completely engrossed in the story. Written as a play, this is a beautiful, tragic, romantic story of love in the form of self-sacrifice, poetry, and suffering in silence. By turns comic, Cyrano de Bergerac is also achingly bittersweet and lyrical, and though it’s also a social commentary, I can’t help love it because of where I was in my romantic life at the time. Unfortunately, I haven’t practised or spoken French in so many years that I’m no longer completely bilingual, and I can’t understand it the way I did back then. That’s actually what makes it so special for me now.

There you have it, 37 books that have touched me and which live on in my head and heart and on my shelves. There are others, too, that I’ve only started, or that have been with me for years but which I’ve never read, and yet have as much sentimental value as those I’ve known and loved. One day I’ll get to them, if I’m lucky enough to live so long.

On Guilt and Reading

"Vilma reading on a Sofa," T.F. Simon 1898–1925, c. 1912.

I know I’m not alone in saying I often feel guilty about the embarrassingly large amount of books I own and have not read. In particular, as a booklover and book blogger, I feel like a fraud. Though I am reading, I’m not reading as much as I’d like to—or feel I should. I want to read more mainly because there are so many great books to be read but also because I do feel I’m disappointing people when I don’t read—publishers, customers, friends, family—all those who recommend books and books and books and buy them for me or send them to me free.

I know I’m not alone when I say I would like to read more. It feels unnatural not to. I feel indignant when I tell myself I can’t really love reading as much as I’ve always said of myself—as much as I’ve defined myself by for all my thirty-odd years—if I’m not spending more time reading rather than being online, say. (Oh, the stupid irony in writing this post all evening instead of reading!) And on top of feeling guilty for not reading, I feel guilty when I do read, too, because there are other things I think I should be doing, like exercising or proofreading.

I also know I’m not alone when I look at my tbr pile and then how much I’ve spent on books recently and then realize that I have enough on my shelves to last me at least a couple of years without ever buying any more. That’s when I really start feeling guilty—and then angry that I am all the time consumed by guilt.

It is absolutely staggering how often and how many people feel uncomfortable about spending hard-earned money on books (of all things!), or about buying books at full price, or having more than they can keep up with, etc. It’s all about “guilty pleasures,” whether regarding the act of reading itself or of reading certain types books or of buying them. It truly saddens and irritates me that we feel there are always more important things to be doing or on which to be spending our money. Surely we merit time to relax without feeling guilty? Surely that time is even necessary? Surely we deserve to spend our money on what we choose, in this case books, not drugs or some such, and surely that can’t fall under the judgment of others?

Why do we feel guilty, or let ourselves be led to think we must feel guilty, about our literary passion? There are worse things to love, to obsess over, to do for an hour or more. Like many of you, I choose books over clothes and other items. Sometimes I forget myself and read for five hours at a time. Books nourish my soul, whether or not I actually read them. Who among us would argue that buying books and reading are not important? There are countless reasons why they are!

Of course, that’s not to say we need not show restraint. Even a love of books can cause issues, if we’re falling much into debt or neglecting to feed the dog or pay attention to our family. But barring those things, assuming we’re not causing any hurt to ourselves and others, there is nothing wrong with buying books or taking time out to read. There is no rational reason for guilt.

Guilt, as we all know, is a completely useless emotion. It does not actually motivate us to change: positive factors do. Guilt makes us feel badly about ourselves, and as escapists we usually just perpetuate the same behaviour in an effort to ignore the nagging.

So let me offer the few words I could find that might help alleviate some if not all that guilt, at least of buying more than you can keep up with. Wise booklovers come to terms with their habit of buying more than they can keep up with, of requesting more from publishers than they can read in a timely manner. They know precisely the attitude to have to keep reading a pleasure rather than an obligation. And not a guilty pleasure, as we are too often prone to call it. (I’m not even sure, when I think about it, how those two words can coexist. Guilt always stains pleasure.)

I have no feelings of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience. They will wait for me till the end of my days. —Alberto Manguel

You don’t need to keep up—being surrounded by unread books is THE BEST way to live. Think of all the potential. —my friend @MidlandThorn

Of course anyone who truly loves books buys more of them than he or she can hope to read in one fleeting lifetime. A good book, resting unopened in its slot on a shelf, full of majestic potentiality, is the most comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper. —David Quaimen (also in my sidebar)

Never apologize or feel guilty for a love of anything that is edifying. Celebrate, rather than lament, your bookishness. — Me

So let’s stop counting how many books we’ve read or didn’t read, stop comparing our habit to others, stop calculating reading and buying statistics. Let’s allow that we all read differently, perhaps slower (by choice or necessity) than those who are tweeting or blogging a review every day or even week. Those actions and decisions on our part immediately lessen the pressure we often feel, the tendency to berate ourselves as “bad booklovers.”

When you’re in a bookstore next, try to think about nothing else except the process of choosing your books. Become one with the bookshop—seriously. Pay attention only to the books as you browse. Go at a time when you’re most likely not going to feel pressured by anything else you have to do.

And when you go to read, pick a cosy, comfy place (not waiting for the subway or your husband or wife to pick you up or while brushing your teeth or during your 1/2-hour lunch at work. These times are fine, but they are evidence of us squeezing in moments, when I mean deliberately carving out a significant chunk of time when you’re at home)—the place where you feel most relaxed, where you’re least likely to be interrupted (you’ve already chosen a time you’re least likely to be, I assume), and think of nothing else but about what you’re reading. Truly immerse yourself.

Getting rid of guilt isn’t necessarily about justifying your actions but rather truly, mindfully experiencing them.

No Time Wasted: First Book Purchases of the New Year

While I have a ridiculously long wish list (see sidebar), I was able to decide what to buy today with the gift certificate I got for Christmas.

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, M&S, 2007, pb

Terry Fallis’s Best-Laid Plans was obviously not an option: it had to be bought. I can’t not read this book, since I think it’s going to win Canada Reads 2011 (call it a hunch), and having read Nikolski before it was even chosen for CR and having correctly predicted its win, I feel I need to keep up the trend here. Plus I want to be able to properly back up my vote. Plus, it’s a hilarious satire of Canadian politics (we all know we need a sense of humour in our notoriously glum literature—and in our politics!) (I’ve managed to read snippets before the next customer snapped it up; indeed, today’s copy was something like the sixth that I’d put aside for myself!).

I really love the story of how The Best-Laid Plans got started. Tired of waiting for an agent or publisher to take on the novel, Fallis decided to make it available, chapter by chapter, as a podcast. It took off. So he self-published it. That garnered even better results, and he ended up winning the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. THEN it was picked up by McClelland & Stewart. It’s a rare occurrence but it gives hope to aspiring authors, and ideas to those who want to increase exposure and sales, like Robin Spano, who decided to follow in Fallis’s footsteps with a podcast of her debut novel, Dead Politician Society.

PS. You don’t even have to like or know politics to read The Best-Laid Plans and get it. And if you’ve already read it, don’t forget the follow-up: The High Road.

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna, Penguin, 1995, 2010, pb

I also bought The Year of the Hare, by Finnish author Arto Paasilinna. I’ve never heard of it, or the author, who just happens to have penned over 30 novels, but the cover attracted me so much I couldn’t shelve it, as hard as I tried (it lasted there one minute before I went and pulled it off again).

Here’s the other thing that attracted me, a sentence on the back cover: “Which of us has not had that wonderfully seditious idea: to play hooky for a while from life as we know it?”

I mean, come on! That’s me, all the time! I bet that’s most of you, too; we are readers, after all, and I think it’s safe to say that many of us read to escape.

The summary is also irresistible: A journalist hits a hare with his car, an event that changes the man’s life. He quits his job, leaves his wife, sells everything he owns, and goes off to wander the wilds of Finland “with the bunny as his boon companion.” The Year of the Hare is about the comic misadventures of a man and a hare who “leave mayhem (and laughter!) in their wake.”

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer, Riverhead, 2004, pb

The third book was from our bargain basement, which carries discounted new books—well, they’re old, but not second-hand. Often remainders and such. I picked this book in exchange for Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields, which I’d also found down there for $4.99 and which I’d bought for my sister. Turns out she already has it (as do I, of course), so I returned it and picked out Drinking Coffee Elsewhere: Stories, by Z.Z. Packer. This book was on my wishlist forever, since it first came out, I think. I haven’t seen so much praise for a bunch of short stories, and it’s a debut collection. The back cover says that Packer launched from The New Yorker, and her stories have appeared in Harper’s and Story, and in a Best American Short Stories compilation. They’ve been read on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She’s also won several awards, graduated from Yale and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as well as Johns Hopkins, and is a fellow at Stanford, where she’s a lecturer. Holy shit.

Then there are the endorsements from John Updike, Zadie Smith, Margot Livesey, the NYTBR, and every major newspaper and magazine you can think of. At first I was dubious: why all this hype all over the book and inside it? But when I started one of the stories, I could see what they were talking about. Also, this is one gorgeous paperback I’m holding. You can’t tell from the image but the title and author’s name are embossed and the matte finish is a bit rough, which I like as well as the vintage design. It reminds me of the days of Salinger and Cheever and Carver, among other things.

I had been toying with the idea of not buying another book this year, since I have enough on shelves and floor to keep me going for years, and I do periodically receive books from publicists and authors—did I tell you there were 55 tbr books on my night table alone, until Saturday or so? Two precariously leaning piles that nicely hid my alarm clock during the holidays. To start the new year fresh, I finally removed them all and now they lie on the living room floor in three piles. A little less stressful than haunting my dreams at night beside me (all these authors/publishers are awaiting your response!), or threatening to brain me in my sleep.

And in another effort to regain some control and alleviate stress, I also reshelved my embarrassing pile of to-buys at work, built out of recommendations from tweeps and customers and other friends and from shelving new books. Instead, I’ve added the titles to my amazon wishlist and I’ll keep doing that.

But I’m sure I’ll break down a couple of times; I can’t imagine an entire year of not buying a book! My coworkers tease me at work, that I want to buy everything (it’s not true, but I am open to so many…gulp! I’m beginning to think working in a second-hand bookshop would have been a better, more economical idea…). But I really want to start saving money again for my trip to England. No shortage of books there, either, and so much cheaper!

Have you already bought books this new year? If so, what were they? Any resolutions about buying this year?

Weighing In On Canada Reads 2011 Contenders and Defenders

As if you didn’t already know: Canada Reads 2011 announced their five contenders and defenders today! Follow the link I just gave you for more on each book and panelist. Up for debate are Terry Fallis’s The Best-Laid Plans (Ali Velshi), Ami McKay’s The Birth House (Debbie Travis), Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage (Georges Laraque), Jeff Lamire’s Essex County (Sara Quin), and Carol Shields’s Unless (Lorne Cardinal). I was close: I think when I predicted the five I was off by one. Maybe. I can’t remember anymore.

Fallis’s book is on my tbr pile, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about it. And from the snippets I’ve read, it’s hilarious. Even though I have no interest in politics, I think I’d enjoy this novel. There are a few things going for Terry’s book, the major one being that this story seems to have defied the odds from day one: originally self-published, it won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and was later picked up by McClelland and Stewart. (This September, the sequel, The High Road, was also published by M&S.) I’d really love to see BLP win—for once can we have something funny?

I can’t remember what made me finally pick up The Birth House. Everything about it made me steer clear beforehand, since I’m not the maternal type. I don’t want to have children, and in general I don’t have much use for them, even though I can love them. But this book transcends that, it’s just not what you might think, and I unexpectedly really enjoyed it, every last bit, right down to the recipe for groaning cake, which sounds gross but is definitely not. And Ami is a sweetheart. When we did her book for the library club, she sent us all beautiful personalized book plates. I finished The Birth House in almost one sitting, not because it was fluff but because I didn’t want to put it down. I’ve lent it to my hairdresser and placed it in the hands of several this Christmas season at the bookstore already. I have to comment, though: Debbie Travis?? Where did that come from? I’m very curious about this debate; to me she seems the odd one out. Heads up: Ami has a new one coming, the long-awaited novel called The Virgin Cure.

I haven’t read The Bone Cage because I hadn’t heard of it before this Canada Reads contest. Which I like, because what I see as the CR point is coming to fruition here: giving stellar writing the exposure and support it deserves. What I assume is stellar literature, anyway. To be honest, though, for me this book is likely going to be the Good to a Fault of last year. Which I haven’t read and likely won’t. I’ve peeked in on it several times because the idea intrigues me, a different spin on Shield’s question in Unless about goodness. But the writing just doesn’t grab me and the characters seem to repel me. The Bone Cage doesn’t really grab me, either.

I hate saying this but I was given one of the Essex County books (this being debated is the collected works) and didn’t like it. I don’t like the illustrations, for one, which is important to me, but I also couldn’t get into the story. I’ve read a couple graphic novels before, so it’s not that I’m averse to them, but I can’t help but find myself suspicious that this book was added mostly because it’s a graphic novel and thus “cutting edge” for Canada Reads.

Now, I’m a major Carol Shields fan. On my first try, I absolutely hated The Stone Diaries and never finished it, but then I picked it up again in university and devoured it and wrote a paper on the organic and inorganic in the book, and became her champion and read every one of her books thereafter. I remember going out and buying a bunch of them all at once, and I always suggest her at the bookstore. When she died I was bereft; I watched the CBC documentary on her, crying into a tissue or two, curled up on the couch. I clipped articles about her and still have them, and I simply can’t believe I’ll never have another book by her. She was the writer I wanted to be. I don’t consciously try to emulate her but I might do well to, if I ever start writing fiction again.

Perhaps needless to say, I enjoyed Unless, though I have my doubts it will make it very far; people seem so divided on it. I think it’s an important contribution to CanLit, and it asks significant questions, but readers seem to either hate or love Shields, and Unless is not the best of her novels. Also, it might be too stereotypical for Canada Reads, which seems to be trying to break new ground this year.

Actually, I have a hard time picking who will win this contest. Last year I predicted correctly, but this year, I don’t know. I want to say The Best-Laid Plans, but without seeing the arguments and the panelists in action, it’s hard to say.

I really would have liked to have seen John Lavery’s Sandra Beck in this debate; it was the book I voted for. More people need to read John. He’s a genius with words and a master storyteller…and I’m meeting him next Monday in Kingston, at the Grad Club at 7 pm, where he’ll be reading, signing, and singing. I’ll take pictures and post on the event! Stay tuned.

Rushdie Writes Magic

I don’t know if you guys read and like Salman Rushdie, but I’m a fan. My absolute favourite is Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I read way back in university for the first time, but I also loved his short stories East, West, which I read aloud to my ex. We laughed, I remember. I’m big on magic realism in fiction, or just plain magic and enchantment, and I really appreciate Rushdie’s sense of humour and wit. I remember enjoying Imaginary Homelands, a collection of essays and reviews, too, and I devoured Fury in almost one sitting, after starting it a couple of times.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, his writing is so clever and quick it’s a bit much; it’s thus seemingly too self-conscious. I’ve started several of his books but was unable to finish because the magic was lost for me, like with Midnight’s Children. But I nevertheless anticipate his books and try all of them, whether or not I finish them (I never did finish The Satanic Verses—not yet, anyway—or The Enchantress of Florence, though that was because I was at the time irrevocably interrupted by something else). My favourites of his are the ones that read like The Arabian Nights: similar to many of his characters, Rushdie is a storyteller extraordinaire, so it’s hard for me to resist when he comes out with a new book.

Luka and the Fire of Life is his newest, to be released on November 16. I’m very excited about this. When I first found out this book was written, I wanted to shout at Rushdie, “Hooray!! And, damn it all, what took you so long?!” For this is another like Haroun and the Sea of Stories (indeed, Haroun is actually Luka’s older brother!), with magic and enchanted illness and storytellers and companions in the forms of bear and dog and things called the River of Time and the Fire of Life, the Swamp of the Mists of Time, and the Whirlpool of El Tiempo, to say nothing of the Rings of Fire.  There are curses and an evil circus master named Captain Aag.

You’ll have to read the fabulous description from the Amazon link I gave you above, but here is something I wanted to share with you: the best book trailer I’ve seen yet. This business of book trailers is really exciting to me and to see authors make their own and ones that are excellently done on bigger budgets, one gets the sense that the challenge to the printed books is not all bad; after all, it’s brought out some innovative, attractive ideas.

Without further ado, here’s Rushdie and friends, reading from Luka and the Fire of Life. Prepare to enter a world of enchantment:

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