book-related events

The Back Forty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~40-year-old Steph

 Forty Books I Recommend

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

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

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

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



  1. Sara Van Barneveld

    I received a guitar and guitar lessons on my 36th birthday from my beloved.
    I had told him in passing that I’d love to learn the guitar one day…

    1. Steph Author

      Sara!! It’s great to see you here! Thank you for commenting.

      What a perfect gift. I can see you on stage, playing the guitar…have you learned? Colin’s parents gave me their piano. I still have to take lessons…I can’t remember how to play “Stairway to Heaven” anymore! :)

  2. Marie

    Great idea about listing 40 books! Your list didn’t include a single title that I’ve read myself, so I’ve decided to do my own list, inspired by you. Here it is (in no particular order):

    1. “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” by Iain McGilchrist
    2. “Rum tar tid” by Rolf Wohlin
    3. “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard
    4. “The Children’s Book” by A.S Byatt
    5. “Palladio” by James S. Ackerman
    6. “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
    7. “Sense and Sensibility” by J. Austen
    8. “Persuasion” by J. Austen
    9. “Jane Eyre” by Charlotthe Bronte
    10. “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte
    11. “Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson
    12. “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy
    13. “Kristin Lavransdotter” by Sigrid Undset
    14. “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    15. “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy
    16. “Middlemarch” by George Eliot
    17. “The Mill on the Floss” by G. Eliot
    18. “Kejsarn av Portugallien” by Selma Lagerlöf
    19. The Ring Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
    20. “What Money Can’t Buy” by Michael J. Sandel
    21. “Love the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment” by Ian Angus
    22. “Jerusalem” by Selma Lagerlöf
    23. “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf
    24. “Between the Acts” by V. Woolf
    25. “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
    26. “Kiurut laulavat” by Virtanen
    27. “Essays” by Michel de Montaigne
    28. “Svensk dikt: en antologi”
    29. “The Social Construction of Reality” by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann
    30. “Hem till jorden” by Peter Nilson
    31. Chekhov’s plays
    32. “Hamlet” by W. Shakespeare
    33. The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962
    34. “Taken on Trust” by Terry Waite
    35. “Maan kämmenellä” by Laila Hietamies
    36. “The Spire” by William Golding
    37. “Not Wanted on the Voyage” by Timothy Findlay
    38. “Gunnar’s Daughter” by S. Undset
    39. “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton
    40. “Fludd” by Hilary Mantel

    There! :)

    1. Steph Author

      WOW!! Marie!! Thank you for such a fantastic, diverse list! It was an undertaking for me, trying to pick, and here you’ve provided your own. And I can say yes to at a few on your list that I’ve read and enjoyed: Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter and Kristin Lavransdatter, Tolkien’s Ring trilogy (though I loved The Hobbit best), Jane Eyre… Of course I love Shakespeare, but Hamlet has never been a favourite. I much prefer Macbeth!

  3. First of all, Happy Birthday. I remember 40…a distant memory now.

    I really remember 50. Just after my 49th birthday my husband of 17 years decided he no longer wanted to be married and hit the road. So when 50 came around I was in need of some serious fun. I threw myself a BIG 5-OMG party. I rented a room, made some food, chilled the Prosecco and loaded up my iPod with all my favourite songs. I invited all my of my closest friends (some of whom came from far away) and family and we danced all night. It was SO much fun.

    That birthday party was the gift I gave myself at a time when I really needed to feel like everything was going to be okay. And although the journey since he left has been arduous and lonely, it’s also been amazing.

    I turn 53 in May…and I say: bring it on.

    1. Steph Author

      Christie: a heartwarming story! That sounds perfect, actually: maybe I’ll do something like that for my 50th, too. I love the idea of being surrounded by the people you love best, celebrating you and your life, and the people who have been there through it with you. I too had a husband who hit the road and it was hard, so I can relate. I went out and treated myself to a leather jacket. :)

      I’m so happy you feel so good now, willing and glad to see the silver lining in the arduous journey. I wish you so much joy. BRING IT ON!

  4. Kelsey

    Happy birthday, Steph! Have a lovely day. And that’s a fantastic book list. :)

    It sounds totally cliched and ridiculous, but one of my favourite birthdays was my 18th. It was Thanksgiving weekend of my first year of university, and I returned home after a rough few weeks away from home for the first time. At home I was surrounded by family, and then so, so many friends showed up to visit. My dad barbecued everyone hamburgers. It was a lovely moment, a perfect memory, that reminded me of all the wonderful people in my life, and that no matter how I felt by myself at school, I was not alone.

    1. Steph Author

      Hey Kelsey! First, thank you for your well wishes and I’m glad you like the list! So many more I could add, so many I haven’t read yet that I know I would add.

      And Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday of all. I’m smiling picturing you returning home, tired and feeling rough, and then being surrounded by loved ones for a simple but homemade meal. When you put things in perspective, these are the things that matter most, the things stories are made of. :)

  5. Penny @ LiteraryHoarders

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY GIRL!!! Love the new look – it’s snazzy to roll out a new look for such a momentous occasion!! And love the idea of recommending 40 books for turning 40! Have yourself a great time! It’s a good time, one where you get to settle in and truly find yourself content and happy. Have a great day lady!

    1. Steph Author

      Thank you, Penny! :) I’m so glad you like the new look! I’m excited by it, every time I log on. The picture captures my reading moments perfectly, always squashed with love by a dog or two, and with lots of cozy blankets.

      I’ve had a perfect day so far. My husband was so thoughtful and made it all so great. My sister’s got the radio blaring, making me Laura Calder’s Lemon Tart with cookie pastry. We’re ordering in Indian and going to watch whatever movie I choose, and later toast the day. I feel so content.

  6. Best birthday: My 30th. I went to Las Vegas with 3 amazing women. We laughed, we cried (getting tattoos) and had the best joint December baby birthday celebration ever!! Those 4 days away were fuel for the beginning of my favourite decade so far. Reading this blog post made me feel so good. I know that when I enter my 40’s I want to be as strong and happy as you are today! Love you to the moon and back Steph! Everything WILL be amazing for you. :) XOXO

    1. Steph Author

      That sounds awesome, Kath, like so much fun. I still have to see your tattoo, you know. And I still want one, too. Maybe you can come with me whenever that is, so you can hold my hand while I cry. :) I’m so glad you felt good when you read this post.

      Thank you for your love. That you want to be as strong and happy as I am makes me laugh, though. You already are!! Probably much more so! xoxo

  7. I am so happy to have found your blog! I don’t know why I haven’t come across it before, but now that I have, I look forward to following along with you and looking through your archives to catch up a bit. This is a great list! I am reading The Good Lord Bird right now. And Happy 40th! It will be my turn in a few months!

    1. Steph Author

      Naomi! Welcome, and thank you so much! How do you like The Good Lord Bird? I found it quite hilarious, actually. Very entertaining. A thoroughly enjoyable read!

      May you reach 40 feeling boundless!

  8. Mary

    Happy birthday, Steph! Your husband is a keeper. What a lovely way to make your birthday special. As for my own birthdays, I don’t usually make a fuss, but the year I turned 25, we happened to be on an airplane, and my fiancé had the crew and passengers sing. Thoroughly embarrassing, but a good memory.

    I’ll have to look over your book list. It’s always a treat to discover a new favourite – that’s why I love to read your blog. :)

    1. Steph Author

      Thank you, Mary! Oh, that plane ride. Talk about a great memory! That would have made the flight so much better, I’m sure.

      I hope you find some books you really enjoy on this list! Let me know.

  9. Lovely post. And a good list too! Mine is always changing and I’m thankful for that — the sense that accumulated years provide new perspectives, new expectations. Will Cranford ever be as perfect as it was when I read it 30 years ago? Will Wuthering Heights? Will Annie Dillard’s beautiful novel, The Living? On my 40th birthday, I went skating on Smail’s Pond in Pender Harbour, the only time there’s been ice in my 35 years in this community. I held the hands of my three children and husband, in intervals, and flew around the pond, remembering their surprise party for me the night before, a marvellous event, and hoped I’d have another 40 years on earth. 19 years on, I’m still hoping!

    1. Steph Author


      Picturing you skating along with your kids and husband makes me smile. Skating always has such a freeing look to it. The last time I did it I was in elementary school. I was never a great skater, but I remember moving as though I was awesome at it, only because it made me feel so open and thrilled. And a surprise party: what makes those things great, as well as the kind of thing my husband did, is imagining them planning it, thinking of you, anticipating the surprise and your reaction…it’s such a warm, boosting feeling! I’ve read and very much enjoyed some of your essays in Phantom Limb, and I too hope you have another 20 years of living and writing! :)

  10. Sarah

    You beautiful, insightful, generous gem of a woman. Happy 40th! This is also my 40th year – and you’ve inspired me with your words in this celebratory post. Okay yes: LET’S! Me too! love, Sarah

    1. Steph Author

      Thank you, Sarah! I’m glowing with the thought that I inspire you, too. You have no idea how often you enter my mind. I’m so blessed to know you! I can’t wait to wish you a very happy and inspired 40th on the day. xoxo, Steph

  11. Ruth

    Best birthday ever? I’ve had so many, and we’re coming up to #52 this summer. Perhaps it was spending my 18th birthday in Europe with my mother. Perhaps it was dinner up the CN tower with my husband. Perhaps it was taking myself to Victoria one year and having a 27-hour-long birthday. Perhaps it was actually my daughter Emily’s 17th birthday when we hit all the Value Villages in town and I found a Moxy Fruvous cassette. That tape brought back so many memories of radical nights on the town in the ’80s and Sarah Polley losing her teeth to the OPP at Queen’s Park and picking coffee in Nicaragua and, for some reason, Rick Salutin. Perhaps I can’t remember the best one now because I’m so aged now, or perhaps they’ve all been good.

    1. Steph Author

      Oh Ruth!! You have so many! I can’t even remember my birthdays, really. This one I WILL remember, but the rest have been rather nondescript. Except when my parents bought me a ticket to Les Mis in TO, and my mom and I went while Dad took my sisters to the Eaton Centre. I have no idea what age I turned, sometime in my teens, but that was a big deal…

      I love these memories, particularly the one in Victoria, because sometimes the best gifts are the ones you give yourself.

  12. You must have been thrilled with the day starting off so brilliantly for you! Happy (now belated, mind you) birthday; I hope the year ahead is filled with as many wonders.

    If you haven’t already discovered it, the audiobook of James McBride’s novel is absolutely wonderful; it brings the story to life in a truly spirited fashion. Even as a reader who doesn’t listen to many books, the occasional audiobook seems to smack me up the side of the head and chastise me for not listening more often, as this one did (and, too, Helen deWitt’s Lightning Rods, which I also think you’d love).

    1. Steph Author

      Thank you! I’ll have to find the audio. I rarely listen to audiobooks but only because I rarely find myself doing anything that would allow that. I wish I could listen to stuff while I work, like my sister does, as she paints or draws. But that’s a good endorsement, and I would definitely not have any qualms doing the story again. I’m glad you liked it so much!

      I’ll look up deWitt’s Lightning Rods, too. Thank you! Recommendations are so welcome, as usually they are bang-on!

  13. Steph Author

    Okay, all! I put your names on a pieces of paper and folded them and told my sister to pick one.

    The winner of a signed copy (to you!) of Sarah Selecky’s This Cake is for the Party is Kelsey!!

    Thank you, everyone, for reading and commenting. I enjoyed reading about your best birthdays. :)

    Kelsey, I’ll email you.

  14. Happy Birthday!
    There will be a morning very soon I wake up and I put this magic number behind me too… I’m a bit daunted but it sounds like you celebrated in style. Best birthday ever… hopefully still one to come but a surprise party by my bestie (with whom I share a birthday), was pretty special :-)
    Happy reading x

    1. Laura: YAY! Happy upcoming birthday! Well, I turn 41 in 20 days now, and let me tell you, 40 was an eye opener. I hope to carrying into the next year all the major stuff I learned (your health matters, and it’s harder to maintain!! Also, life is not and does not have to be as hard as I make it!). All my best, and happy reading to you, too! I’ve read some of the best books ever this year.


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