authors, books

Ottawa, Mayfair Theatre, 18 May 2010

Who’s Who lists her hobbies as “‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system,’ although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin and her daughter Anouchka, about 15 miles from the place she was born” (taken from her website).

Now I ask you, is there any more intriguing author description than this? I think not.

Even better, I’m sitting at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, several rows up from the stage, waiting with bated breath and pounding heart to meet this very person, someone I’ve admired for years—and not because I too love witchcraft, rebellion, diamonds, tea, and biscuits, although I do. It’s because she is none other than Joanne Harris. If you don’t know who Joanne Harris is, shame on you. (You’re missing out.)

As part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Harris is to read from her newest novel blueeyedboy and then participate in a Q&A, later open to the audience. After that you can get your book(s) signed (there’s a limit of 42 per person, artistic director Sean Wilson jokes, and thank God, because I brought five and had wanted to bring more), and then nestle back into your seats, popcorn on your knee, for a special screening of Chocolat, which is, of course, one of my favourite films.

My coffee table overfloweth

Before everything starts, I quickly visit the book table where Harris’s books are being sold and pick up a copy of Chocolat. Mine has the film cover, and I don’t prefer that for my books, but after deciding I don’t much like this other cover either and considering the sentimentality I have for my well-read copy, I put the new book back and return to my seat. I’m trying to remain calm but I’m buzzing. Harris has come all the way from Yorkshire (incidentally my favourite place on the planet) and this is her first visit to Canada, the first time I’m seeing her in person.

And then I turn to my right, wondering where the throngs of fans are, and there she is. Joanne Harris, author extraordinaire, is casually perched on the arm of one of the theatre seats, clutching a gargantuan cup of what I later learn is Coke, sipping merrily through her straw while chatting with two other women. She’s smaller than I thought, topped with a close-cropped pixie, clad in a black soft leather motorcycle jacket, red blouse, and black jeans. The finishing touches: ballerina flats and a sparkling necklace. She looks edgy but sweet: a little dark with the light. How very like her.

I realize I’m beaming. Joanne Harris looks to me like an imp, and I do not mean that in a bad way. Suddenly she laughs, and her youthful, vibrant face is instantly and amazingly transformed. She is one of those people who lights up when she smiles, eyes crinkling to crescent-moon slits. I want to gobble her up.

I also want to go over there and meet her. But I’m looking about and not a single person aside from the two women with her, who seem to be involved in the event, acknowledge her presence. Either they don’t think it’s proper writers festival event etiquette or they’re too polite. They can’t possibly not know it’s her. But no one is even looking her way. I’m both flabbergasted and trying to swallow my racing heart. Aw, screw polite, I finally decide (I’m not totally Canadian anyway!), and make my way over to her. I’m not missing out on this opportunity. I came three hours to see her, after all.

Of course I’m a complete bumbling fool when I ask if I can interrupt and then try hard not to come across as the creepy fan who ends up in horror stories, or the Twihard-ish enthusiast. But I can’t help it. I’m practically vibrating with nervousness and excitement and I say stupid, inarticulate things. And then it’s Joanne being polite and calming me down by being so remarkably grounded and casual and making it seem as though she’s an old friend. She’s one of us. But I know there’s something special about her. One of the women obliges me with a photo of the authoress and me, which comes out looking as though we are two classmates goofing around in a photo booth. It is brilliant—until I realize later I had forgotten to save it. Merde.

We chat about Yorkshire and I tell her I’ve brought her a taste of home—Yorkshire Tea—and she thanks me for being so thoughtful and says that had she had it this morning, her day would have been completely different: hence the giant Coke. Apparently we don’t know how to make tea here (I quite agree!). She tells me a story about Betty’s, where both of us have been, that makes me guffaw and thus embarrass myself. But Joanne Harris is full of stories, and before long we’re chatting and laughing almost like people who’ve met before. I’m enamoured, and suddenly I know that tonight will never be long enough to say all the things that have been building up for years. Especially since most of it won’t come to me till she’s gone.

The lights dim and I return to my seat. The magic is about to begin. A spotlight illuminates the already glowing author, and she begins to introduce blueeyedboy, warning us that this is not a book about food, and it is not a book that takes place in France. It is not, in fact, even a book that many people like, seeing as they found no likable characters in it. With this, she elicits appreciative laughter from the mostly senior audience. Then she begins to read. In my seat I shiver with delight, listening to her round tones and alto voice as she enunciates the words she’s written as though she remembers the love of her craft, which she poured into this book. Her rich English accent makes me think of hot chocolate with cream and chili. I could listen forever.

All too soon, the bit she is reading is over and she takes a seat, concession stand drink in hand, one leg crossed over another at the ankle. The questions are good, about blueeyedboy (though because the book has many twists, not much can be discussed at the risk of spoiling it for those who haven’t yet read it) and herself, too, and she answers them freely and off the cuff, intermittently taking sips through her straw. What we learn is that she is not at all like Gloria, a horrid woman in blueeyedboy, and that she does not like to be asked which of her characters she is. (This is understandable. People have this very interesting need to make books at least somewhat autobiographical regarding the author, which confounds me because it strips away the author’s very purpose, which is to imagine outside herself.) We also discover that a certain red evokes the smell of chocolate for her (thus she calls it chocolate red), and that she dislikes and ignores when people tell her she must write a certain way about certain things (e.g., about food and France).

Listening intently, I realize with chagrin that I’ve been a very naughty and negligent girl having written a review directly after finishing blueeyedboy far too late at night and having read others’ reviews to feed my own. It’s irresponsible and unintelligent, and even kind of cheating, and I’m deeply ashamed. Of course the point was not to like the characters. Of course there’s deeper things going on than I allowed myself to process, having devoured the book as quickly as possible in preparation for this event. In light of having met Joanne and hearing her speak her mind, in remembrance of the brilliance of her other books, and thinking about the book in retrospect, I feel diminished, and look forward to racing home to delete or vet my review, as cowardly as that is. The things is, I’m still not sure what exactly I would change, even though it’s not a good review.

I find myself also desperately wanting to chime in during the Q&A period, to get in on the conversation, to protest that indeed blueeyedboy does have food in it, and lots, as a matter of fact. There’s biscuits and pies and rotting vegetables and fruit and likely more I don’t remember, not only the vitamin drink. Joanne can’t help but include food, it seems (and I certainly don’t object). In fact, what I’ve noticed about all her books is how sensual she is: how prominent are the senses of taste and touch and smell and hearing. Colours also factor in many of her books, right from her first novel, The Evil Seed. These are thesis topics, methinks, and though it’s been ten years since I graduated from uni, I think I may yet pursue them.

One audience member asks her question in French, and without hesitation Joanne answers her back also in French, with an impeccable accent. Of course I knew she could speak it, but for me to hear it, and for her to have the opportunity to do it here in Ottawa seems meaningful to me. Even more so when the audience obviously understands her answer.

Finally, it is time for her to sign our books. The lineup isn’t long but, sadly, neither are there many in the audience. “Better than Glasgow,” Joanne said to me earlier, where only two men showed up, and one of them to escape the weather. Nothing could be worse than Glasgow, she said wryly, though apparently she still managed to enjoy herself.

Gamely, Joanne signs all five of the books I’ve brought and takes two more photos with me, unfortunately neither as good as the one that got away. She accepts the Yorkshire Tea as well, but only one teabag to sneak for breakfast next morning. Much to my pleasure she remembers the story of my copy of The Evil Seed, which was out of print until recently and is still unavailable in Canada. I’d written her about how I acquired it a few years ago, and now looking at it she tells me that only 1000–2000 copies had been printed, and only in the format I own. I have in my possession a rare book indeed, and now it’s signed. Too bad it’s also stamped by the Nipissing Public Library.

Joanne Harris and me

I can’t stay for the viewing of Chocolat, as much as I would like to. I am happy at this event, with Joanne, mingling with other people who appreciate good literature. I’m in my element, and I know in my heart this is where I ought to be on a regular basis, among authors and good books, and people who love to read. But I am staying with a friend, who eagerly awaits my report on the evening.

Amid moviegoers trickling in, I leave the theatre and Joanne, stepping out into the cool night regretfully but also exhilarated, and at the same time somehow knowing I will meet her again. Joanne Harris is not a woman one easily forgets, her magical writing not so easily put aside. I feel certain that her next book, or perhaps the next after that, will have me not on the train but rather boarding a plane for Yorkshire.

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book reviews

I’ve just finished Joanne Harris’s latest novel, blueeyedboy, in anticipation of meeting her this Tuesday the 18th during the Ottawa International Writers Festival. I’m a major fan of Harris’s writing, so I’ve really been looking forward to this event!

Because you can read a synopsis of blueeyedboy anywhere, I won’t include one here. I will say by way of introduction that the story is current and interesting because, as the back cover says, it “plays on the myriad opportunities for disguise, multiple personalities, and mind games that are offered by the internet.” As a blogger both here and elsewhere and someone who thus interacts with many online personalities, I was certainly intrigued.

Now, at the risk of sounding like most of Joanne’s readers, I absolutely adore her novels that take place in France. Those are undoubtedly my favourites. I can’t help it. I lived in France for a year. I love food. And I am a romantic, too. But I also loved The Evil Seed and Sleep Pale Sister, both dark, Gothic novels. There’s not only sweetness in Harris’s writing: as she demonstrates with these last two novels I mentioned, and Holy Fools, too, there’s a definite streak of seductive blackness to her writing as well.

Gentlemen and Players as well as blueeyedboy are both departures from her other works, and I really did enjoy G&P, which was deliciously twisted. Both these books contain mystery and murder in various forms, and while I have absolutely nothing against those things in fiction since I have my own black streak, I admit, apparently like one of those people, that they’re not what I love most coming from Harris. She can write a fantastic twist, though, and she’s very good at dark. In this case, blueeyedboy is no exception. Dark is an understatement, though the book is not without humour.

Still, I got off to a disappointing start with blueeyedboy, thinking the writing seemed a bit forced, for lack of a better word. There was just something about it, perhaps the fact that the readers had to learn everything through web journal posts, which seemed then to make the characters speak a bit unrealistically, too informatively, too purposefully. That was my initial impression, anyway. I’m not certain this was intentional, or that it’s there at all; perhaps I’m just being overly critical. I’ve read many blogs over the years and I’ve never encountered writing like this, which is not to say it can’t exist but perhaps is to say I’m uncertain about how…natural it is. You know how sometimes when watching a movie you can tell a character is saying something for your benefit? It felt something like that—too…directed, almost as though the characters didn’t have their own voices.

True to herself, though, Harris is wonderfully evocative in blueeyedboy. I was easily transported to the little village where this story takes place, my senses overloaded with smells and colours, even tastes. At the same time, I had a bit of trouble knowing where I was in the story—that is, following the non-linear timeline (typically I don’t have a problem with this), and I wondered if perhaps this is because nothing, and no one, is as it seems in the novel. But I worried: was I being particularly dense or was I meant to be confused? Was I not being the intelligent reader I’ve learned to be? It wasn’t until about halfway or three-quarters of the way through blueeyedboy that I oriented myself and the pace picked up for me and then I didn’t want to put down the book; there were a couple of brilliant twists that threw me for a loop and which I thought quite clever, though the big twist at the end was one I had unfortunately already suspected.

In general, I found myself wondering if the story wasn’t a bit too fantastical, a bit too unbelievable for me. I have no doubt there are people on the internet pretending to be people they’re not; in fact, I imagine that’s a part of the allure of having a web journal or blog. You can be who you want, you can play out whatever fantasies you want. You can confess. There’s something to that unique kind of anonymity that opens you up, even though it’s in public. You are also pretty much free to live out an entirely false existence if you so choose. In this book, you never know what’s true or not, not even when it seems you’re reading the truth.

However, finding the course of events perhaps too unbelievable was ultimately not what I found disappointing; rather, it was the fact that there was nothing redeemable in the end, nothing good that stays. There was almost nothing but dark, from domestic violence and discord to murder or murderous fantasies and fear and insecurity. It wasn’t quite the kind of dark I prefer, which is deliciously thrilling and noir and magic and even underworldish. I can deal with those other things, but there needs to be some sort of counter for me, then, and I don’t necessarily mean a happy ending. Much of the content was upsetting or disturbing for me, which I can hardly fault Harris for since it’s me who’s sensitive, but it did affect my opinion of the novel, as did the fact that there also wasn’t a single character in the book I could like, love, or relate to, even if that’s the point, i.e., to not like any of them. Almost everyone was repelling or nasty in some way or mentally or emotionally immature or unstable, or the likable characters were not more than sketches and were killed off.

I can’t say, then, based on these above things, that I would highly recommend this book, and that pains me greatly. Joanne Harris is, after all, a brilliant writer, but blueeyedboy was not, for me, a great read. My opinion of Harris certainly hasn’t changed after reading this, of course, and I would wholeheartedly recommend a number of her novels. Certainly as an author she’s allowed to explore genres and topics and various levels of dark (it’s evident she has fun doing this and it bothers me because I like her so much that I can’t descend as deep as she can). And certainly she should not be limited to writing stories set in France or in which food is a major component. But I can’t help but hope for something I like more next time.

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book reviews

Gunnar's Daughter, by Sigrid Undset, 1909, Penguin Classics

If you’ve been reading here, you saw when I received Gunnar’s Daughter as a birthday present from my good friend M. It came wrapped in lovely paper with a large red and white print, and was tied with twine.

I was going to read it right away. It’s not a long book, especially considering there is a substantial foreword and historical and translator notes at the back of it, but either work or other books kept me from it.

I have already read and very much enjoyed Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, which M and I affectionately refer to as KL. M introduced me to the trilogy years ago and I bought it right away and devoured it. There was no doubt in my mind about why Undset had won the 1928 Nobel Prize for it. A sweeping medieval Norwegian saga, beautifully printed and bound by Penguin, I buried myself under winter blankets and cradled hot cups of cloudberry and crowberry Inuit tea (one of each of the tea bag wrappers lies still in book, which is displayed on one of my side tables in the living room) and read that three-book volume voraciously.

So it came as a surprise when I picked up Gunnar’s Daughter (also beautifully published by Penguin with soft pages and a gorgeous cover) that I could not get into it right away. The style was seemingly different and cumbersome, and the text fraught with endnote numbers, which caused me to keep flipping to the back. I made it several pages in and put it down, thinking I would return to it later, when I felt more in the mood for it. I suspect that editing academic texts made me feel as though I needed a break from endnotes!

It wasn’t until this weekend I picked up the book again, and this time, except for the two chapters I’d read earlier (and the chapters are very short), I read the book in almost one sitting (I decided to ignore the endnote numbers and read those at the end; this did not take away from my understanding or the story). I was totally reluctant to put it down last night and so picked it up again first thing this morning while lying comfortably in bed listening to the geese that passed three times overhead and the soft-falling rain. There I finished the last few chapters.

Her first historical saga novel, set in the tenth and eleventh centuries in Norway and Iceland and published in 1909, Gunnar’s Daughter tells the story of Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, who when young meets Viga-Ljot (pronounced Yot). I don’t want to tell too much of the story, and typically in a review I don’t: you can find that information anywhere.

Let me tell you, though, that the story is fraught with hardship and tragedy, in among the triumphs. I loved how strong a woman Vigdis was (she could make a study I’m sure; probably most of the medieval Scandinavian women could, for they seemed often in some sort of charge), but ultimately I was sad about how unforgiving and hard she remained over the course of her life and what this meant in terms of the people she loved. As a reader you feel you want to direct the characters, because you know what they’re headed for, and the writing and events were such that I felt not only drawn into the story but quite emotional as well: angry, indignant, mistrustful, triumphant, sorrowful.

Not long into the story I got used to the historical style and felt it reflected a storytelling tradition, which I enjoyed, imagining old Norsemen recanting as they did tales of bravery and triumph, revenge and tragedy. I was reading what seemed a fairy tale or legend, also a moralistic story. Many times I felt KL echoed in Gunnar’s Daughter, which gave me a sense of déja vu, though KL came afterward.

Reading Gunnar’s Daughter, as short as it is, transports you out of culture, country, time, and mindset. Everything is so foreign yet so well evoked it is a great and beautiful escape. You feel the icy wind across the sea, hear the creaking of ships on the waves, smell the pines of the forests, the woodsmoke in the winter’s air. You can feel the warmth of mead and fire on the hearth, of furs that smell slightly musty. You can imagine the brightly coloured jewels and riches, feel the rough-hewn benches and tables under toughened skin. Much like KL, it is also a story and atmosphere that stays with you long after you turn the final page.

Undset was without doubt a significant woman and author for her time. I highly recommend reading her for a lesson in not only talent and skill but awesome medieval Scandinavian history (and did I mention that she writes a damn good strong woman?).

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I’ve posted here several times about one of my favourite Canadian poets, Al Purdy (just do a search at the top of this blog), and after reading this excellent and inspiring article, I’m doing it again.

Several times throughout the article, Marnie Woodrow observes that Canadians seem to suffer from cultural apathy, and when I first read that, my heart began to pound. It’s exactly the reason behind my concept of Biblio: a bookshop/literary hub to preserve but more importantly encourage and grow support of our literary contribution to this world. This means promoting not only Canadian literary output but also that which is tied to it, like Al Purdy’s A-frame house, once a meeting place of literary genius, now threatened by Canadian disinterest.

As Woodrow mentions in her article, Purdy’s wife Eurithe promised him that she would turn the A-frame into a writers’ retreat, and while her efforts are bolstered by hardworking individuals like Jean Baird and George Bowering, who initiated the project to save the A-frame, and by Harbour Publishing, there is yet a sense of urgency, of struggle in making this happen. Why don’t we care about stuff like this? The million-dollar question.

I’m not a writer looking for a place to work on my novel or chapbook (yet). But if I were, I would definitely want to be creating at the A-frame, where the ghosts of past literary celebrations were held and the muses still reside, in among the chittering chipmunks and whispering pines and by the peaceful lake.

I feel a sort of desperation in me when I read about things like this, the kind you get when you find a cause you firmly believe in.

My own financial situation is too close to where the Purdys found themselves when they first started out, but my plan is to begin support by buying the Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology, published by Harbour, since the proceeds will go toward saving the A-frame and helping Eurithe fulfil her promise. Then I hope to convince a local bookstore to participate, one where I plan to be working very soon (discussions as to how are in the works — woohoo!). The library could be next by way of working together to garner support.

If I can start now to cultivate the type of atmosphere and mission I envision for Biblio, I’ll be a happy woman with a purpose. Helping save the A-frame and thus provide a place for Canadian writers to produce their works while at the same time honouring Purdy’s own contribution and attempting to banish Canadian cultural apathy sound like very worthy causes to me. There is no harm in thinking big.

After all, that’s how Purdy and the rest of our literary notables started out.

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book reviews

Recently I signed up for ECW Press’s Shelf Monkey program, which allows you to submit titles of their books you’d be interested in reading and reviewing. They enter your choices in a draw and if you win they ship the book to you. What, I ask, is better than free books?

Jen Knoch, who runs the Keepin’ It Real Book Club but also happens to work at ECW sent me my first book for review, the aptly named and eerily designed One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau (who, I have to include here, is a mere 30 years old, dammit). This sort-of-YA book has had rave reviews from Quill & Quire, Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, and more, and though I’m not at all a horror fan I thought, sure, whatever. It’s less than 200 pages and the chapters are short.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. Which just goes to show, sometimes you should step out of your comfort zone and try something altogether different. And let me tell you, this book’s definitely different, and it actively avoids being definitively categorized.

It’s rare, I have to admit, that a book takes me so little time to read—a couple of hours, if that—and not only because it’s short.

Last night I was working but Comeau’s book lay invitingly beside me on the table, having just arrived in the mail, and finally I couldn’t deny it anymore and picked it up—just to have a peek, you understand. I’m already reading another book. But better to open this one than to have that black kitten’s eyes boring a hole through the side of my head.

Before I knew it, I was on page 107, the manuscript I had been proofing still on my lap, red pencil still in hand. I couldn’t believe it. I had got so caught up in the story I forgot about everything else. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t on purpose. Jen told me I had time to read and review it. But talk about an easy read.

I’m not all about horror, as I said. I don’t read it. But this book was so unexpectedly engrossing, so sneaky about the horror bits, subtly, matter-of-factly slipping them in among tender scenes of various forms of love, loss, friendship, and family, that it wasn’t like anything else I’d tried, and therefore not a deterrent. As I said, the novel defies categorization.

And yet, while the supernatural and even gory bits slyly weaved in and out of the story, they commanded quite a presence. I was grossed out, unsettled, chilled, the hairs raising on my arms and back of neck when I put the book down. It was as though as long as I kept reading I would be okay, but when I closed my eyes those horrifying bits became magnified. Which is of course what makes the book great, among other things, like it’s poetic brevity of sentence, paragraph, chapter and the book as a whole. I’ve always enjoyed that spooky thrill a book can give, even when I was very young. Ghost and other supernatural stories were among my favourites.

Comeau’s writing was excellent: the present tense, the characterization, the mixture of humour with horror, the unexpected, the suggestion or ambiguity of many things, the short and powerful sentences, the poignancy, and his masterful choice of words all married to produce an impressive story that in its brevity finds even more power.

The book’s layout was superb as well, and the frisson I felt when I first realized there was that tiny spidery text on the bottom of some pages and what it meant and said — how clever, but more so, how spooky! — was enough to make me love this book. Well, is love the right word? I don’t know; somehow it seems inappropriate for the subject matter. It was compelling, creepy, touching…ultimately haunting.

Haha. Well done, Comeau.

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At last! My leatherbound classics have all arrived safely. They came slowly, though I have to say that did allow me to appreciate them all the more as they trickled in (they came in 8 shipments! Plus no customs fees that I’ve seen). They really are gorgeous. I was afraid they might not be as thick as they looked or as nicely put together but that is not the case. I can’t wait to properly feast my eyes on each one of them! They’re lovely. I feel as though I have new friends. As I experience each one, I’m thinking of the work that went into them.

The first impression I had of each was the fragrance of bonded leather and the wonderfully designed cover, usually with a sort of woodcut design and an inlaid illustration in the centre. YUM. The pages have either gilded or silvered edges and a ribbon bookmark completes each volume. I can’t even believe, as I go through them, that I got four of these for free!

There is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Other Stories, illustrated by Sir John Tenniel, an English illustrator whose pictures for Alice date back to 1865. Those are the illustrations I’m most familiar with. The latter bit of the title of this particular volume excites me: I’ve actually never read other stories by Lewis Carroll! On a side note, I was in Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire last October and there is a carving in the choir that they say may have inspired a bit of Alice in Wonderland. Isn’t that cool? I regretted not taking a photo then but I had suddenly felt ill and escaped the church shortly after. (Maybe it was the church, because minutes later we stopped in a tearoom where I had lapsang souchong tea and shared a slice of decadent carrot cake with my sister and mom, and I felt wonderful.)

Next we have Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, illustrated by no other than Arthur Rackham. I love Arthur Rackham. I have a copy of Dicken’s Christmas Carol and also Barrie’s Peter Pan and a few other books illustrated by him as well. Anyway, this volume is also beautifully designed and the endpapers made me sigh.

The Arabian Nights edition is translated by Sir Richard Burton, ethnologist and linguist, among many other heroic things, which makes it one of the oldest translations of the stories in existence, but it does read a little like the King James Bible. Yet Burton has an adventurous life story regarding his visits to Mecca, and that’s what captivated me in the first place. There are other translations I’ve read and would like to read, particularly that of Husain Haddawy, but I have read this one before and liked it. And the illustrations in this book are flat-out gorgeous. Soft and colourful and wonderfully interpretative.

Jane Austen’s Seven Novels is a very pretty volume, and nicely laid out inside. I love having the books all in one place as well and look forward to reading especially Northanger Abbey, which was my favourite of hers that I’ve read. I admit to not having read all of them, and that makes me all the more excited to read them in this book.

For years and years I’ve wanted to read Sherlock Holmes, and here they all are in one scrumptious volume, but as with many of the classics, I tend to put them aside for more contemporary fiction because I don’t want to fall behind. The classics have been around for ages, so there’s no rush. Perhaps that’s an odd way of thinking, and I certainly didn’t always feel that way. There was a time when I devoured classics like they were going out of style (ha!). I’m still interested in Conan Doyle (has anyone read Arthur & George by Julian Barnes? Great novel about Conan Doyle) and I still look forward to spending many a night ensconced in mystery. I’ve been craving mystery lately.

I read H.G. Wells in high school, when I was going through a Piers Anthony, Ray Bradbury, Wells, Orwell, etc. phase. I love all this stuff, which may surprise people, and I haven’t read all of Wells, though I’d like to. Now I have the chance. The cover and design of this book that comprises seven novels reminds me of the old paperbacks I used to read that sold for something like 60 cents when they first came out. Nostalgia really enhances a reading experience!

I have never read Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey in full. Bits and pieces yes, and I have an illustrated children’s version of The Odyssey. I don’t have a clue why I haven’t read them in their entirety; the stories are fascinating. I absolutely adore mythology and the times of Troy. You should see my three-volume Bulfinch’s Mythology, illustrated by Giovanni Caselli (who lives on Malta, where my parents live, with the largest personal non-fiction library on the island. Cool, eh?).

Now, I’ve been intrigued by Dante’s Divine Comedy since I read some of it in university but just haven’t made time for it. It’s not exactly light reading. But this incredibly lovely volume, famously translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and decorated with Gustave Doré’s 1867 engravings, is incentive to make time, believe you me. Boy, I have my reading time cut out for me…

This might surprise some people but I really enjoy gothic literature. I haven’t read a ton of new stuff, and I don’t think Twilight counts, but Poe stands out in my memory as one of my favourite gothic authors. We dissected Poe in university till all the fun was gone out of what I was reading, so I look forward to reading these stories again, long out of university, just for the atmosphere and tales themselves. Studying what was really going on behind the writings I read actually fascinated me for the most part, but for Poe, I just wanted pure darkness and horror, mystery and macabre. Delicious. Just like this thick volume, whose endpapers feature artful blood splatters reminiscent of a Pollock painting.

It will come as no surprise, then, that Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles haunt my shelf. I can’t wait to sink my fangs into this tome. Of course I’ve read these impressive books before, but I’m thinking their particular silver, black, and red leather casing this time will lend an extra special thrill. These might be ones I read aloud to Colin, an upgrade from the Twilight series he actually listened to me read.

Speaking of blood, Gray’s Anatomy is a huge and beautifully illustrated book. The cover is stunning, in my opinion. I’ve actually never seen GA before (the book, not the show, though I haven’t seen the show either). Mine is the 15th edition, and includes photos, diagrams, and drawings, and has kept my attention for quite a long time already. I’m not a huge fan or reader of non-fiction but the human body has always fascinated me. When I was little, I spent hours upon hours with my nose buried in my parents’ medical encyclopedias, which had clear pages with painted bits of our insides that when overlapping another page made the picture more complete. (I wonder what happened to those. I’ll have to email my parents.) When I took kinesiology, biomechanics, and fitness assessment in university, I used to pour over my textbooks just for fun. I memorized all the veins, muscles, bones. The way our bodies operate and how complex we are is nothing short of miraculous, in my mind. While I am sure I’ll never read Gray’s Anatomy cover to cover, I’m certain I’ll find myself exploring the matter-of-fact, simple descriptions in the interest of better understanding and appreciating myself and humans in general.

Truthfully, there’s not a lot to say about the Complete Works of Shakespeare. There’s not really any embellishment to the text, though the cover is very rich and attractive. I wanted this one because of how beautiful it is, but also because my Riverside is so full of marginalia from when I studied that it sort of ruins the reading.

Of course I took photos of the books but most didn’t work out and my stupid batteries are dead and the camera sucks and I’m a terrible book photographer. Also, the words on the backs of pages shows through, oddly—the paper isn’t that thin and they don’t show when you’re just reading. Strange. Anyway. I’ll put the ones I saved all in a row here instead of throughout the text so I don’t have to worry about trying to squeeze them in by their relevant paragraphs (if you click on them, they’ll get bigger and a little better). I wish you could see these books in person! Birthday money well spent.

Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales

Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales

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Today marks the tenth anniversary (already!!) of Canadian icon poet Al Purdy’s death, and is thus deemed National Al Purdy Day. Harbour Publishing writes on their site that “Purdy fans across the country are planning their own “Purdy Parties” to help raise funds to protect Al’s old A-frame home in Ameliasburgh, Ontario as a writer’s retreat.” I wish I’d read that before today.

I’m an Al Purdy fan, living in Al Purdy country. If you like, you can read my little tribute to him here. Now, I’m not about to celebrate his significant contribution to Canadian literature by cracking open a beer in the Quinte Hotel in Trenton (about 15–20 mins. away and the site of one of his poems), but I will grab his Collected Works and read a poem or two in memory. I wish I could donate to keeping his A-frame house in Ameliasburgh from being turned to scrap. That house has seen a lot.

I wonder what Margaret Atwood is doing. Perfect Peggy and Awful Al were friends.

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authors, book reviews

Come, Thou Tortoise Author Jessica Grant and me

The first thing I said to Jessica Grant when I met her this evening at the Belleville Public Library was that I was a huge fan. I was sweating, breathing heavily, and highly excited. I was also talking very loudly, so I had a bit of an audience, even though I was early and one of the first to arrive. Okay. Probably frightening.

But I had run from my workplace about ten minutes away, loaded down with bags and books! I had been afraid of being late (I lost my watch somewhere today). To be fair, though, she didn’t know that. For all she knew I was one of those people to watch out for. Oh, those ones. Yes. For all she knew I was…odd.

And I kept gushing but inside, really, I was kicking myself under the table. “I’m a huge fan”? Ugh. I mean, this is not Stephenie Meyer we’re meeting and I’m not 13. No, this is Jessica Grant: calm, cool, genius Jessica Grant, who does not wear her matching sweater to every reading and book signing (I can’t even believe I asked about it). You do not gush like a fool, you do not show off how much you know about her—you beautifully articulate how much you loved her book and why you enjoy her writing. Punto e basta.

But I’d already started off wildly enthused and bumbling and there was no stopping me. In my defence (my poor friends were embarrassed, I think, by my behaviour) I have to say that none of it was exaggerated or dishonest. All day long I had been excited about meeting Grant, the author of Come, Thou Tortoise, my favourite book of the year. I truly felt as though I was in the presence of an amazingly talented woman (well, because I was) who possesses the power (times sixty) to imagine such incredible things and render those things with exactly the right words in unique and wonderful ways that speed their way directly to your heart. I am jealous of this. Time and again while reading I was struck by how beautifully the characters spoke and expressed themselves.

I wondered briefly—as I stumbled over my words and asked her to instead just read my review here on the blog and would she please maybe comment too and also sign my book and also take a photo or two with me—if she thought I was “too much.” She was so gracious and down-to-earth and calm. In comparison, I felt too in her face, too touchy, too scarily enthused, perhaps too strangely unlike most booklovers of literary fiction (you know the type).

To her credit she did not scrunch her face and back away slowly. So, then, meh, what of my geekiness, I decided. This is who I am: in love with this book and her writing, and extremely happy to be immersed in some way in the book culture again. I wish so much that more people would be this supportive, to be honest. Every author needs at least one person who believes in their book this way! If I were a published author, it would mean the world to me, and if someone liked my book I would not want them to be shy. I would not say no to a picture or two.

Anyway. To my disappointment, there were not a lot of people there. Sigh. O Belleville: once again you disappoint me. How can I open a bookshop in this atmosphere? Then I decide, no, this is exactly the atmosphere I want because then I have a heroic mission; I can wake up Belleville and get them excited about our Canadian authors. Excited times ten.

When we finally got started, I found myself desperately wanting  Grant to feel comfortable and accepted and appreciated—and I worried for nothing, in spite of the number of people who showed. She was undaunted, good-natured, professional, smooth, and unwavering. She gave us background on the book, answered questions she said people mostly asked her, and then read to us the first two chapters. I wanted her to keep going. I would have sat there till she’d finished all 412 pages, to tell the truth. She read well and elicited much laughter, and later applause. It was almost as though I was hearing the book for the first time.

Then Grant fielded questions from those in the audience. She spoke about her writing insecurities and about certain fears and how she’s transferred some of those fears into the book, particularly flying (which she both loves and fears: imagine being killed by something you love. Imagine that something not loving you back. Imagine). She answered the inevitable autobiographical question (no, Oddly is not anyone in particular but, yes, she shares some characteristics with Grant). She discussed Winnifred and how the  irresistible tortoise sort of appeared later as she was writing, and she described the misgivings she had had about writing a talking tortoise (would it be too Walt Disney. No.), and how Winnifred is another (more intimate) look into Oddly and Cliff and Chuck and Linda.

Grant also carefully addressed the relationship between Walter Flowers and Uncle Thoby, asking first for the question to be clarified. What exactly did they want to know? It was obvious Grant did not want to give too much away, did not want to impose any interpretation over another’s, perhaps did not want to enter into a discussion about possibly gay relationships. This was wise on her part, I thought—that is, to deliberately keep things ambiguous. Grant’s mentioned before that the book doesn’t answer all the questions for the reader. Oddly asks some but also doesn’t think to ask others, and as much as Oddly fancies herself a kind of detective, this was no Flavia de Luce novel. Ambiguity, for me, is what makes a book rereadable.

I wish I’d thought more ahead of time about questions to ask, good ones, not silly ones, and I’ll probably think of them later, knowing me. I also wish I’d taken pen and paper so I could have written what she’d said so I could have quoted her here.

But I did find, thankfully, that much of what she said I’d read elsewhere. And because what she expressed is important, I’ll share it with you so you can read it for yourself, in her own words. Below you’ll find links to some of Grant’s National Post guest editor pieces, and also a bonus short story, excellent of course, called “Humanesque.” Plus, I’ve included a link to Random House’s New Face of Fiction page for Jessica. At the bottom is a video in which she says some of what we heard in person tonight. Read, too, on BookLounge’s blog, how one book club honoured Grant and her book.

Oh, and one more (important) thing. Grant is working on a new novel. No, I have no clue what it’s about. She won’t say. And no, it does not have a tortoise in it (yet) and it is not a sequel to Come, Thou Tortoise. I do not know if the wind sings in B flat or if swans search for the bottoms of ponds (Can you see the bottom. No. Can you.) or if there are magical strings of Christmas lights in this new book. I doubt it.

But I can’t doubt there will be cleverness and humour and wordplay and tenderness and beauty in her new book. Even without a tortoise and a girl like Oddly, and even without planes and kissing pilots or horses’ hooves that are like exposed hearts, I would not say no to a new book by Jessica Grant.

Before she left, I did what I felt compelled to do, as I had done with her book when I finished it: I hugged her. Thank you, I said. She said it was nice to meet me. And then, as she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and added, making my night: I’ll never forget you. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.


Random House New Face in Fiction : Jessica Grant

Jessica Grant’s Booklounge blog post on attending a book club in her honour

National Post Guest Editor pieces: Jessica Grant (here is one link, and you can click on the others below the article. Don’t miss a word!

Making Light of Tragedy: Jessica Grant’s short story collection.

” Humanesque”: Jessica Grant, short story

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Every now and then, a publishing headline will catch both my eye and my sympathy as a proofreader. This time, Penguin Group Australia has been forced to reprint a pasta cookbook after one recipe called for “salt and freshly ground black people.”

For more, read the BBC News article that was released on Saturday, April 17th.

Obviously, mistakes like this are easy to make. God knows how many times I’ve typed odd slipups like this, and thank goodness I catch most of them before I publish or print. When I worked at a publishing company, we used to keep notebooks of such errors we caught, and then on bad days (regrettably there were many) we’d pull out those notebooks and have a good guffaw or two. I wish I could remember them all, because they used to have us in stitches. Perhaps not oddly, the only one I recall was an easy-to-miss goof: “Take the time to medicate” when it should have read “meditate.” No kidding! we spluttered. I imagine that one had an impact on me because we all needed to do that while working there.

Anyway. I agree with Penguin on this error (lucky for the proofreader, they found it forgivable): it’s an easy mistake to make and miss (the mind works in interesting ways and on several levels), and an honest one. Hardly something to get one’s knickers in a knot over. Honestly, I have to admit, I laughed aloud.

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book reviews

I just read the best book of the year. Brilliant. Tender. Unique. Innocent. Imaginative. Funny. Heartrending. Beautiful.

If there is only one book you’ll allow yourself this week or this month or even this year, make it Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. Truly, there is no book like it. With those few words above you might already feel compelled to buy and read it. You might also, as I do, really want a tortoise after.

Come, Thou Tortoise is the story of Audrey (nicknamed Oddly) Flowers. It is also the story of Winnifred, her extraordinary tortoise; Wedge, a rescued mouse; Audrey’s scientist father and her asymmetrical Uncle Thoby; and also others, who for Shakespearean and Grantian reference we’ll call “extras,” though they all play some part in forwarding things along and aren’t really extra at all. The book brilliantly treats past, present, and future, history and biography and science, the personification of animate and inanimate subjects, love and abandonment, light and dark, life and death. Its themes are rich, the characterization richer. Grant’s expression of human emotions and understanding is exquisite. The book is raw yet delicate, humorous yet poignant. And it’s illustrated, which makes it more endearing.

Here I gave my first impression of Grant’s book. Only moments ago I finished Come, Thou Tortoise, with a lump in my throat and the feeling that I want to squeeze the author to me with deep appreciation and thanks and admiration (I may do this on Tuesday when she comes to the library. Will she bring a tortoise. I would if I were her). Instead I put the book to my chest and sense its heartbeat. It feels as though it’s a living, breathing thing I need to take care of, that’s how alive it was. When I flip through it again, wishing it looked more read so she will know that I really read it and not just read it but loved it (that will come in time, I promise you), I scan the bits of praise at the front and find them sadly bland in comparison to how I feel just now. What is wrong with people, I’m thinking. Why do these endorsements all sound the bloody same in every book. At least one of them said “tortoise de force” instead of tour de force.

I enjoy novels all the time. I rarely regret a purchase. But there are those very rare books out there that become priceless and the pittance you paid in comparison to their value makes you feel guilty or weird for even having purchased them in the first place, not regret but as though paying for the item cheapens it, like how I feel looking at Lucy, our dog, when I remember we actually bought her for $550. That’s weird, to pay for a family member so dear.

Not that I feel toward this book the way I do about my dog. But it is definitely my favourite book of the year so far, possibly of several years. I haven’t read a book I felt was perfect in a long time. I’m a critical reader, and a copyeditor, and I’ve read many, many books, for a very long time. So perfect is a word I use carefully, if ever. And this book, I do not hesitate to say, is perfect. Honestly, I can’t think of a thing I’d criticize. Even if there are things. This first time around, I didn’t notice. I was too engrossed. I didn’t care to notice.

I will admit that I didn’t buy this novel the first day I picked it up. For some reason, the title annoyed me (this so totally changes when I understand it that I have to take a moment before I can continue reading), and when I opened the book and read the first few pages, I didn’t think I’d be able to tolerate the style. But when I picked it up again, I remembered my experience with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I had put that book down immediately after reading the first page. But something in me couldn’t resist, and when I picked it up the second time, I ate that book up like it was the best book of the year too. And then it was on Oprah and also won the Pulitzer. I have impeccable taste. What happens is you realize the style is exactly the style it needs to be. It works. It’s…perfect.

At a hefty 412 pages, Come, Thou Tortoise is nothing short of genius to be able to constantly impress and surprise a reader the way Grant does with this book. Her witty and clever wordplay, her well-wrought sentences, her unusual similes and metaphors, her excellent characterization, especially of Audrey and Winnifred, and the things they observe and say and how they surprise you, Audrey’s endearing personification of inanimate objects and how she chats with animals, how absolutely related everything is (there is nothing unnecessary, nothing forgotten, everything is so well tied together), how cleverly wrought—all this makes me want to say this book is perfect. It’s scary, but I don’t take it back. Every bit of the story, as non-linearly told as it is, is so connected, so well woven, that you can hardly remove a sentence to quote without feeling that something will be lost, that the person won’t get it without reading the rest. And yes, this to me is a good thing. Absolutely nothing is irrelevant. It’s tight. 412 pages shocked me because I had no concept of how long it was. It doesn’t look long and it certainly didn’t feel that way.

Many times throughout I marvelled at how well-written this story was, how carefully chosen the words, how perfectly placed the segments and chapters were. Either Grant is a brilliant writer or her copyeditor is a genius. Probably both. Whatever, the book makes me teary with jealousy. How, I asked myself a gazillion times while reading and finally of my husband when I put down the book, did Grant do this her first time? How does a first novel end up so brilliant? How can I do that, too? Because now I know it’s possible.

Come forth, I say! there’s other business for thee:
Come, thou tortoise! when?

—Shakespeare, The Tempest

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book reviews

I decided to be brave and record my review of Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book. I did it for the Keepin’ It Real Book Club, one of my favourite book blogs to read and one of the only ones I really participate in. They’re currently doing a month-long show of book video reviews for Keep Toronto Reading. My book twin Jen Knoch has written up a flattering introduction to my vid, too. She has kindly ignored my unshoweredness and the funny disembodied hand on my neck (it’s my own, thank goodness). I was leaning my arm across the back of my couch. But anyway. All self-consciousness aside, okay.

People of the Book is one of my favourite novels, and it’s stuck with me for a very long time. It even inspired me to look up book repair courses. I haven’t signed up for them, but anyway. It’s still an interest.

Geraldine Brooks is a Pulitzer-Prize winner and the author of Year of Wonders and March.

There’s more I could have said, more I could have said much better. I highly recommend this book. It stuck me on such an emotional level that I find it difficult to articulate why I liked it so much. Mainly, my appreciation as a bibliophile for books deepened, and my feelings towards the books on my own shelves also grew, though I didn’t know that was possible. I already think of my books as little souls, but now I see them as characters in my life with their own histories. Who touched my books before I did. What hands did they pass down through, from making to my purchase, especially the second-hand ones. Think about it.

Without further ado, here is the video. I’ll make better ones as I go on, I promise. It will be useful here and for Biblio, when the time comes, which it will.

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book reviews

A while ago I posted about impulse buying Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie from our local grocery store. The cover is what got me first, but also I hadn’t delved into a mystery in eons, though I can’t think of why. Growing up I swallowed mystery novels whole, from Encylopedia Brown, to Trixie Belden, to Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators, to Agatha Christie and others.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of six mysteries (the second book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, was just released), and is Alan Bradley’s first novel. With only fifteen pages, Bradley attracted Doubleday and now has several other publishers on board for the series. Those same fifteen pages, all he’d written at the time, won him the acclaimed British Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger Award, and the book has gone on to win many other accolades since.

Now 70 and residing in Malta, where my parents live (had I the cash on hand and the free time, I’d visit my parents and have a chat with him! He’s actually on beautiful Gozo, Malta’s sister island), Bradley has previously authored two non-fiction books—the controversial Ms. Holmes of Baker Street (which apparently suggests Sherlock Holmes was a woman!), and a memoir called The Shoebox Bible. After reading Sweetness and feeling a sort of inexplicable kinship with Bradley, I’m sure I’ll read at least his memoir.

Literature is blessedly speckled with headstrong, intelligent, and spunky young girls who are both brilliant and hilarious, and I can’t tell you how much this thrills me. (Another debut novel that promises such a character is Mathilda Savitch, by Viktor Lodato. It’s on my wish list!) But none I can recall, from Harriet the Spy to Nancy Drew, compares with the clever, imaginative, and irresistibly lovable eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an “aspiring chemist with a passion for poison,” who possesses a level-headedness that shames me and a unique way with words (not to mention, though I’m just about to, her own fan page!). Very soon after I began reading, I was laughing aloud, admiring the turns of phrases and original similes, and thoroughly enjoying our narrator’s extraordinarily mature yet believable voice. At the same time as Flavia is wise beyond her years, Bradley reminds us of our young character’s age with incidences of sibling rivalry, getting into trouble, adventures with her “sidekick” bicycle (affectionately named Gladys), and poignant vulnerability.

Although I thought the mystery well set up, I admit there were several times I was pulled out of the story, being for some reason hyperaware of the author behind the writing. This had nothing to do with Flavia possessing knowledge and a vocabulary beyond her years: I fully accepted that, since her background, independence, and two “weird sisters” lent to the story in this respect, and I very much enjoyed learning from her about chemical compounds and their effects. I think it may have been the fact that I felt things sometimes a tiny bit contrived, as they can be in mysteries. Things might unravel just a little too neatly, or the investigator comes far too easily to conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere. On the other hand, this may have been purposeful: there were indeed times when I felt, along with Flavia, sure of myself in deducing what was going on only to be pleasantly surprised.

I was thrilled, because of my love of England, that the book was set there, in a small village called Bishop’s Lacey,which reminded me of several places I visited in North Yorkshire last year. The particularly English vocabulary and expressions made me smile, and although it is possible for this story to be placed elsewhere, even in Canada, something about it being set in 1950s England gave the novel a distinct flavour that worked very well in terms of history, atmosphere, characterization, and of course subject, since the mystery centres on two valuable English stamps, particularly the Penny Black.

Another thing I very much enjoyed was that the novel was cleverly spotted with all sorts of vagueish literary and cultural references I actually got, endearing me all the more to the gloriously well-educated Flavia (and the author!) but also making me feel quite proud of myself, of course.

I’ve already sung Sweetness‘s praises to several friends, and I’ll sing them here as well. This is a first novel worthy of the attention it’s commanded by being memorable and sweet, intriguing and funny. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I have to say, is deliciously rich.

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