canada day and reading recap!

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Happy Canada Day!

I hope everyone is preparing for a relaxing, joyful mid-week day off to celebrate. I’m off to a barbecue at my parents’ in a few hours with forty to fifty (!!!) of our closest friends and family. Hopefully the weather holds up and we can relax outside by the barbecue and trees.

Canada Day also means the beginning of a new month and I’m going to tell you about the books I read in June. I managed to read two books, which is a slightly less than my average, but for some reason I took forever to get through one of them. I read both You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers and The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray.

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You Shall Know Our Velocity is Eggers’ first fictional novel. It was released in 2002 and despite my deep love of his work I had yet to read it. I picked up a copy at a local used book store for four dollars, hardcover, and was elated by this. I was also elated by the fact that the book starts on the cover. Yes, the words on the front cover are actually the beginning of the first chapter and this novelty was thrilling to me. What can I say? I’m a sucker for schtick.

I’m not sure why but this book took me forever in terms of my normal reading speed. It took me over a month and given that it’s under three hundred pages and overall quite enjoyable this was extremely slow for me. Prior to reading it I had read a non-fiction book and I knew I was going to read The Massey Murder next, also non-fiction, and I felt like I was suffering from a slight disinterest in the fictional world. I’ve never been a big non-fiction reader and since “discovering” its worthwhile stories and lessons I’ve felt an intense desire to read more. So maybe this Eggers experience was simply met with a disinterest in all fiction at the time.

That being said, this novel was great in the way that most Dave Eggers is. It’s strange, imaginative, and irreverent. It made me laugh out loud and it also made me think. Despite its completely off-the-wall moments (taping money to donkeys in an envelope that says, “Here I am, rock you like a hurricane” on it, anyone?) it was also quite touching. It provides an interesting look at what happens to a person when they lose someone, how death can affect your emotional and mental state, and how the people closest to you after that death change in your life, as well. If you can handle a little (okay, a lot) of strange in exchange for a good dose of humanity, I highly recommend this book.

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The Massey Murder was recommended by my grandmother’s partner, Bill Freeman (who also just released a book himself called The New Urban Agenda and if you’re at all interested in Toronto, community, and politics, you should check it out), a few months back. I’ve had this copy since my birthday and kept meaning to get around to it but it’s sat there waiting the whole time.

As someone who grew up just outside of Toronto and now resides in the city, the story was interesting to me on many levels. I loved learning about the state the city was in one hundred years ago. I recognized many of the street names and even live less than a block away from Euclid Hall (now Keg Mansion) where some of the Masseys lived. I loved comparing the politics and attitudes that existed in Toronto a century ago to those that exist now. In some ways the city had evolved immensely and in others not so much. The battling of two separate political views on what Toronto should be is not something we are missing today, let me tell you. And while the newspapers may have changed a little in name or style, they certainly haven’t changed in their taking sides on political issues and imparting their bias on others.

Beyond the interest in how my city was managed and growing so many years ago, I was also very interested in this story from a feminist perspective. For those who don’t know, the Masseys were a very powerful family in Toronto. Their name carried a lot of weight and a lot of money. When one of the Masseys was shot dead by his young female maid, it created a lot of buzz throughout the city. When she said she did it because her master tried to “ruin” her, it was a huge scandal. I loved reading about how what the women’s groups were lobbying for at the time, how the war was affecting how women were viewed in the city, and ultimately what a woman’s purity meant in Toronto one hundred years ago (spoiler: it meant a lot). Growing up in the same city one hundred years later, when work, the vote, and my purity were my own right and business, it was incredibly interesting to me.

For anyone who is interested in history, Toronto, feminism, or scandal, I would highly recommend this book. It’s well-written, well-researched, and incredibly captivating.

book talk.

I recently got into a conversation with some coworkers about the director of the Toronto International Film Festival watching three movies a day. They were enthralled by this, the idea that someone would get paid to sit and watch movies all day. I crinkled my nose at it. I’ve never been much of a movie-goer, never sought out films that weren’t fairly well known. Once in awhile I’ll put something on Netflix that I’ve never heard of before but it’s usually background noise to my other activities, of which I will find plenty.

Everyone has a thing, a creative thing that they’ve delved into in a serious way. For them, it is movies and television. For me, it is books.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love books and not just reading them; I love the look, the smell, the way a new spine cracks when you open it and how an old spine welcomes you like a comfortable chair. I love cover art and discovering after finishing reading (always once finished) what the hardcover looks like under the dust jacket. I love shelves of books and stacks of books and lists of books. I love books.

I must admit that I love some books more than others. Some books changed the way I saw the world or myself. Some books reached into me, to a place so deep, that it found things I didn’t know existed. I want to share some of those books with you:

1. She Came to Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

It has only been in the last few years that I have delved into both feminism and existential literature. Enter Simone de Beauvoir. While I have yet to read her ultimate text, The Second Sex, I did pick She Came to Stay up at a used bookstore before our trip to Paris and Amsterdam. The story is fictional but based on true events in which a young woman threatened to destroy the relationship de Beauvoir had with Jean-Paul Sartre. It is an emotional, raw account of what happens to a person when they feel their love is threatened by another. I recognized the feelings of jealousy, the internal dialogue attempting to rationalize what’s happening, and the conviction that you are being crazy rather than seeing something your loved one does not. It brought back moments where I knew I was not the only woman in someone’s life but ignored that sinking feeling. It made me feel proud and strong, knowing that when I stood up for myself I did the right thing. It made me feel not alone in those moments of betrayal, no matter how long ago they were. Plus, good old Simone also dedicated the novel to the woman who had tried to come between her and Sartre and I highly appreciate this quiet cattiness.

2. The Hour I First Believed – Wally Lamb

If you were ever wondering what book made me cry more than any other book in the history of the world, this is it, finally beating out The Bridge to Terabithia. Lamb is a master storyteller, an author who knows how to weave a tale from beginning to middle to end in a profound, artistic way. He grips you and takes you with him but still gives you time to yourself. I can’t even tell you exactly what about this reached me so deeply – perhaps the woman who was lost in her life, trying to make herself happy or maybe the man who was watching his wife get lost in her life and was trying to make her happy. Either way, it resonated and it resonated hard.

3. How to Be a Woman and How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran

I suppose I could put these in two different spots but I feel that’s not fair to the other books. I told you, I’m crazy when it comes to books. How to Be a Woman was one of my first introductions to feminism in the form that I adopt today. It is funny, insightful, approachable and intelligent. It made me think about things I had never noticed and accept things that had always angered me. It caused a lot of growth and despite not reading it until I was twenty-four, it was formative. I can say the same thing about How to Build a Girl. If you want to know if there’s a book out there that made me wish I could go back in time, give teenage me a copy and write in the front, “You see, you’re not alone”, this is it. This is a very important book. It appears light and funny but it’s really saying many things most people are too afraid to say. One of the final chapters was read three times through teary eyes before I moved on from it, it gripped me so hard.

4. 1984 – George Orwell

I love me some Orwell and I love me some 1984. I didn’t have to read this in high school so I didn’t pick it up until I was in my early twenties. I’ve read it three times since then and will probably read it again. It was one of the first times I recognized the power of governments and society, as we all know the premise may be a little over the top but not as much as we’d like to believe. It made me feel queasy when I recognized similarities between the domineering, terrifying things that were happening in this book and what was happening in the real world. It opened my eyes to things I had previously chosen not to see.

5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

This is on here for one very simple reason: I absolutely adore Dave Eggers and this was the first book I ever read by him. I will forever be grateful for this introduction into his weird, intelligent world.

6. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

I always had a problem with the Jane Austen camp praising her novels for their feminist qualities. I read Pride and Prejudice and I finished it disappointed, feeling that it turned out to be another love story about some insolent girl who really just wanted to get married. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it really didn’t make me feel like I had learned anything new. One day I picked up my first foray into the Brontes, Jane Eyre, and I found what I had been looking for. Jane is a hero of mine. She almost killed herself to avoid abandoning her principles when it came to a marriage proposal. I’m serious. She might be a little high and mighty for some but I love her. She taught me that love isn’t everything if you don’t have love for yourself.

7. Chrysanthemums – John Steinbeck

This is actually a short story but it’s a fantastic one. I had chosen it for a project in my grade twelve literature class and therefore had to read it multiple times. Short stories generally say things without saying them and the entire point can be missed on the first go-around. These multiple readings gave me so much insight and I am grateful for them. It’s a story about missed chances, love, and accepting a life that you possibly didn’t want. Elisa is a woman I think many of us would recognize in some way. I remember during my presentation I asked the class if they thought she was a pathetic or heroic character and it was nearly split down the middle. I’m still not sure which one I would pick but maybe that’s because I saw some of myself in there and didn’t want to think I was pathetic.

There are many other books that made me feel things, that made me think, but these are the ones I recognized myself most in. They vary in style, length, and plot, but the common thread between them all is an accessible, at times unwanted, link between my world and the characters. I, obviously, recommend them all.

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Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham.

A brief note before this post: I recently had a discussion with my boyfriend as to why I haven’t done any book reviews lately, despite continuing to read at a rabid pace. I reasoned that I do not desire to read anything I don’t have an interest in and therefore my “reviews” come across as incredibly one-sided. I lack objectivity in most things in life and this is no different. Since I am not being paid to review, and therefore really do not have a reason to read anything I don’t want to, it is difficult for me to say anything besides how much I adored something I read. Therefore, the reviews I am going to do from this point forward are much less critiques than they are a simple discussion on something I’ve given my time to for the past little while, just as I would speak about any experience I have.

I had the absolute pleasure of attending a Q&A and book signing with Lena Dunham on Thursday. She is, without a doubt, a hero of mine for a variety of reasons. To simply be in the same room with her was thrilling, but to hear someone so candidly speak about her life, experiences, and work, including her missteps and personal issues, was incredible to me. I left there with an even greater respect for her and a copy of Not That Kind of Girl in my bag, autographed to me, my name in her handwriting.

I even managed to get out about five words when face to face to her and this was a personal victory.

I know I am a little behind the times given that the book came out a few weeks ago now but I have an intense desire to talk about it. I picked it up this morning and have hardly put it down since, resenting having to make food and shower during this time. It is a beautiful book, as candid and thought-provoking as Girls and, as I recently discovered, as she is in person. Covering everything from sex to school to work to her struggles with mental health, it was as much of a cathartic experience to read it as I could only assume it was to write it.

I relish in moments where I do not feel alone. It is a rare and beautiful time when I connect with another person in a way that makes me feel that while I may be going through life blindly, I’m not necessarily the only one doing it in my quirky, sometimes ill-advised way. In this past year I knew I found one of the greatest friends I would ever know when I admitted to her that, given the opportunity, I will look through anyone’s things. She did not laugh, she did not judge, I just watched her eyes light up as she said, “Me too!” and we embarked on a conversation in which we found a mutual understanding that we were not trying to snoop, we simply wanted to know. Everything.

Every single page of this book held a moment like that for me. I had moments of such deep and utter recognition I felt, without jealousy or resentment, that Lena Dunham had written my story long before I ever got the chance to. The undesirable sexual situations, the difficulty in dealing with life and death, even right down to naming a black and white hamster Pepper – these were all things I knew already and had no idea someone else did, too. As she starts recounting her experiences with anxiety and the things she fears I felt a large wave of relief wash over me. Only this morning I listed for my boyfriend the reasons jumping off of anything was terrifying to me which included full paralysis or ending up catching your foot at the last second and smacking your body off the structure rather than making it safely to the ground. To me, this made sense yet his facial expression told me that it was possible my reaction was overblown. Only a little while later I read about Dunham’s anxiety and reminded myself that even in the craziest of things I am not alone.

It is difficult to write about your experiences without coming across as overly self-involved. Who is anyone, really, to write about their life as if the rest of us want or need to hear about it? It is a tricky thing to do, to show that while you are attuned to yourself enough to want to share your story, you are doing it for the benefit of others as well as yourself. Dunham does this with such grace and such depth of understanding it is difficult to believe that she was meant to do anything other than tell us her entire life story. A person who can write the way she does, with such passion yet somehow still maintain a level of emotional distance to allow the reader to get what they need out of it, is a person that needs to be allowed to continue to write.

As much as it seems she needs it to help herself survive, I know I need it for the same reasons. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Not That Kind of Girl is brave and refreshing. She never apologizes for mental illness, for her past mistakes, for anything she has ever said. But she also makes it very clear that it doesn’t necessarily make it easy, it’s not frivolous, and the things she has experienced (and still does) are, at times, incredibly serious and require special attention.

I would prescribe this book to anyone who has ever made a mistake. Anyone who has ever been young. And especially to any girl or woman who has ever wondered who the hell she is and where the hell she’s going.

“how to build a girl” and everything wonderful about Caitlin Moran.

I just finished Caitlin Moran’s new book, How to Build a Girl. Just finished as in I turned the last page less than two minutes ago and I’m still trying to clear the tears and mucus from my face. I haven’t done a book review in a very long time. Yes, it’s true, I haven’t even written here for a very long time, and I’m not going to do a review this time, either. There is a moment in this book where Johanna Morrigan is told that she is a critic, not a fan, and to write like one. There is no way that a review of How to Build a Girl would be anything but an overly lauding piece of work, full of insanely supportive adjectives and professions of love.

Instead I want to share here a chapter in the book that I read twice so far and will likely go back to again and again. It is the cause of the tears and mucus and is something I wish I had five, ten, fifteen years ago. It is a short chapter that contains so much wisdom, one that should be shared with every daughter, mother, aunt and grandmother.

“So what do you do when you build yourself – only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?

You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years – to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars. To be fearless, and endless, in your reinventions – to keep twisting on nineteen, going bust, and dealing in again, and again. Invent, invent, invent.

They do not tell you this when you are fourteen, because the people who would tell you – your parents – are the very ones who built the thing you’re so dissatisfied with. They made you how they want you. They made you how they need you. They built you with all they know, and love – and so they can’t see what you’re not: all the gaps you feel leave you vulnerable. All the new possibilities only imagined by your generation, and nonexistent to theirs. They have done their best, with the technology they had to hand at the time – but now it’s up to you, small, brave future, to do your best with what you have. As Rabindranath Tagore advised parents, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”

And so you go out into your world, and try to find the things that will be useful to you. Your weapons. Your tools. Your charms. You find a record, or a poem, or a picture of a girl that you pin to the wall and go, “Her. I’ll try and be her. I’ll try and be her – but here.” You observe the way others walk, and talk, and you steal little bits of them – you collage yourself out of whatever you can get your hands on. You are like the robot Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, crying, “More input! More input for Johnny 5!” as you rifle through books and watch films and sit in front of the television, trying to guess which of these things that you are watching – Alexis Carrington Colby walking down a marble staircase; Anne of Green Gables holding her shoddy suitcase; Cathy wailing on the moors; Courtney Love wailing in her petticoat; Dorothy Parker gunning people down; Grace Jones singing “Slave to the Rhythm” – you will need when you get out there. What will be useful. What will be, eventually, you?

And you will be quite on your own when you do all this. There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.

And some versions of you will end in dismal failure – many prototypes won’t even get out of the front door, as you suddenly realize that no, you can’t style-out an all-in-one gold bodysuit and a massive attitude problem in Wolverhampton. Others will achieve temporary success – hitting new land-speed records, and amazing all around you, and then suddenly, unexpectedly exploding, like the Bluebird on Coniston Water.

But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improvise upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked.

Until – slowly, slowly – you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day. You’ll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you’re busy doing other things. What your nurture began, nature will take over, and start completing, until you stop having to think about who you’ll be entirely – as you’re too busy doing, now. And ten years will pass without you even noticing.

And later, over a glass of wine – because you drink wine now, because you are grown – you will marvel over what you did. Marvel that, at the time, you kept so many secrets. Tried to keep the secret of yourself. Tried to metamorphose in the dark. The loud, drunken, fucking, eyeliner-smeared, laughing, cutting, panicking, unbearably present secret of yourself. When really you were about as secret as the moon. And as luminous, under all those clothes.”

I suppose that what I’m trying to say is a huge, warm, and absolutely heartfelt thank you to Caitlin Moran. Thank you for writing what you do, how you do, and without shying away from what needs to be said. Thank you for making girls and women everywhere see worth, beauty, and independence in every single one of us. And thank you for making me love you too much to properly review anything you write.

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Title: Strange Bodies
Author: Marcel Theroux
Originally published: 2013
This is a bottom shelf book.

strange-bodiesPicked up based on a vast number of glowing reviews, Strange Bodies was a whim purchase done with trust in others. It sounded unique and strange, both of which I highly enjoy in novels. I’m strange, the world is strange – strange is very good. Sometimes, however, it does not get executed greatly and strange quickly becomes quite awful. You sit, reading page after page, hoping you’re wrong, hoping the storyline will right itself, and upon every flip of the paper you find yourself disappointed.

Marcel Theroux tried, I suppose. There was an attempt to link science fiction, literature, and thrilling plotline, one that almost succeeded but in the end fell short. Questions of consciousness, identity, and death arise with promise of deeper conversations being had but they never seem to reach the desired level of seriousness. It felt forced, contrived, and absolutely ridiculous.

I had high hopes for a book that promised a “literary thriller” that were dashed quite quickly. I could never get into it and was never all too interested in what Theroux had to say. The characters were overwrought and boring. The use of the device of a story within a story plus the addition of excerpts from the psychiatrist’s notes made for muddled, messy storytelling. I found it all so unappealing that it felt physically difficult to get through each page.

If you decide to look up the book and check out reviews you will find them all to be extremely positive. Perhaps I missed something, perhaps they did. Or perhaps Strange Bodies is just not my type of book. What it comes down to is that I could not stand this novel, would not recommend it, and would never lend it out in fear of the angry diatribe that would be coming my way once the receiver had finished the book.

Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell

Title: Books v. Cigarettes
Author: George Orwell
Originally published: 1946
This is a top shelf book.

4064936I find George Orwell’s works fantastic for a variety of reasons from his simple yet intelligent prose to his dominating yet calming voice. What I usually find most fascinating about him, however, is how much his pieces still resonate today. I’m not only talking about 1984 (although that clearly relates to the world we live in today) but his other stories and essays, as well. Books v. Cigarettes is a collection of six essays ranging in topics from his early schooling days to censorship to the book reviewer to a comparison of how much more expensive reading is than other hobbies.

In a world where the bookstore is becoming out of date and people seem unwilling to spend the money on literature anymore, or even read at all, the title essay is something that particularly resonated with me. It is likely that his findings that most people spend much less on books than they do on other items such as cigarettes or alcohol would still be true today yet, just as it were seventy years ago, people still balk at the cost of a book. Anyone who has an interest in reading and the book industry would find this piece of great interest as well.

Beyond his ability to seemingly see into the future, it is worth reading this volume for his masterful writing. He writes so succinctly and beautifully, never misusing a word or creating a clumsy sentence. It feels so perfectly revised and fluid, with each piece possessing its own personality and emotion without being out of place alongside the others. He is intelligent and well-researched, unafraid to show it, but does so without being condescending towards the reader. While Orwell assumes you will know what he is talking about he also provides enough background knowledge that you can understand his point without having to take up your own research project if you don’t wish to.

Simply as an example of perfected writing style, this collection of essays is worth picking up. If you ever need to see how a great author crafts a sentence, then a paragraph, then brings it all together into one coherent piece, pick up anything by Orwell. I highly recommend these works, though, for their thought-provoking subject matter, humour, insight, emotion, and honesty.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Title: Ethan Frome
Author: Edith Wharton
Originally published: 1911
This is a top shelf book.

ethan_fromeI love a good unhappy ending. It takes guts for someone to write a story that builds you up with all the hope in the world over one hundred pages then tear it away from you in only a few. An author who is conscious of the fact that she is going to make you believe in love, in destiny, in the power of attraction over reality and then slap you in the face with it anyways is impressive in her resolve. Edith Wharton did for me in Ethan Frome what she could not do in The House of Mirth which was make me feel deeply and somehow feel content with the horrible unhappiness of everything I just bore witness to.

A story of a fictional New England town called Starkfield where title character Ethan Frome calls home with his sickly wife, Zeena, it captures the struggle of small town life with little money to spare quite beautifully. She writes her characters so beautifully that you are aware of how old the Fromes appear due to the harshness of their cold life together, both due to the winters and a lack of love, despite the fact that they are actually quite young. When Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver comes to live at the home as a hired girl and changes Ethan completely when she is around, you feel as if you are reading about an entirely different man during those exchanges. It is this change Mattie creates in Ethan that is the catalyst for all subsequent events.

We have all read and seen the story of the ill-fated lovers. We have been depressed by them and haunted by them. There is something about two people in love who never quite get to be that can be aching. But what is special about Ethan Frome is that there is never a line crossed. All encounters and desire is transmitted through a slight blush, a batted eyelash, or a one-second-too-long touch. The beauty of this story lies in the fact that almost never are you led to actually believe anything good will come of it but somehow you think it anyway.

Wharton weaves a tale of suspicion, jealousy, lies, and betrayal that is not melodramatic or sickeningly sweet. It is surprising and heartbreaking, but simply so. The characters are true to themselves and each other, never faltering in their resolve and always understanding what must happen despite any desires they might have. There is something refreshing in reading a story that had the opportunity to spin out of control but the author chose not to. Instead, she decided to let the reader imagine what could have happened instead.

Do not delve into this one looking for happiness or excitement. Do not go looking for a love story or a sweet tale of people who wanted each other but were simply not destined to be. It is not happy and it does not leave you feeling uplifted but it is brilliant, well-written, and creative in the way the characters’ lives play out. The only criticism I have is the unnecessary device used by Wharton of the visitor to Starkfield being the narrator of the story of Ethan based on accounts he was given by other neighbours. The only reason this was needed was to give us an idea of what Ethan looks like now, years later than the rest of the novel, but still feels slightly contrived. The rest of the book, however, is so fantastic it is an easy thing to look over.