Monday, December 14, 2015

Greatest Lit Hits, 2015.

People often ask me for book present recommendations around this time of year, and I often respond in the same way that any self-respecting librarian would--by talking about books I've never read. (It's a really useful party trick, too.) That said, I actually DID read some wonderful books this year, so I figured I'd write them all down and offer them to y'all as you toddle (or sprint drunkenly) through your Christmas shopping.

Most of these are relatively new releases, although there are a couple of classics and midlisters in there, because I am nothing if not inclusive. Please feel free to share, dispute, or ask questions.


The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. An emotional gut-punch of a short story and essay collection, written by an incredibly gifted young writer who died just days after graduating from college. Each piece is beautiful, emotional, dark, rich, and heartbreaking in its own right, and doubly so when you begin to consider the massive tragedy that this is all we'll ever read from her.

Hellgoing by Lynn Coady. Beautifully rendered short stories for the slightly depressed, morally ambiguous CanLit lover in your life, with a healthy side order of BDSM.

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer. My favourite kind of book--the story of an intelligent and somewhat well-intentioned family as it ebbs and flows between order and chaos over a couple of generations. This one takes place against the backdrop of turmoil in the 1970s, with the Jonestown Massacre providing a strange frame of reference for the children as they come of age. Packer writes familial distress like no one else.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I loves me some post-apocalyptic dystopia, especially when it has an emotionally resonant heart. This novel is so wonderful and creepy, following a bunch of seemingly unconnected characters from the night a superflu hits Toronto during a performance of King Lear, through the months and years that follow. It is gorgeous and heavy and weird and amazing.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. My OTHER favourite kind of book--the story of an intelligent and somewhat well-intentioned family as it gathers together in a small space for an important milestone, in this case, a daughter's wedding. The Times called this "smart and frothy," which I love. Like modern John Cheever, with happier endings.

The Maples Stories by John Updike. Speaking of Cheever, or at least Cheever-adjacent...who doesn't love tales of domestic unrest? Updike wrote this series of stories over a number of years, following the Maples from early marriage to divorce and beyond. I think Updike is at his best when he's conveying the dark ugliness that sometimes comes with intimacy, and this collection has that in spades. They also serve as a really lovely chronicle of the 20th century.

Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford. I LOVED this book. It follows an ambitious 26 year old woman trying to establish herself in the New York high society scene in the mid-2000s, and it manages to be somehow satirical and sincere at the same time. It's also peppered with allusions to Sondheim, Bernstein, and Broadway in general, and has one of the best covers of the year to boot.

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume. Based on the incredibly surreal true story of a period in the early 1950s when planes just kept crashing over Elizabeth NJ, this is Blume at her very best. A massive cast of characters, tons of intrigue and love and heartache and secret-keeping, perfect details of the 1950s that just bring it all to life. As an aside, I read this during 2 days of sicktime and it is essentially the perfect read for a cold grey day.

Non Fiction:

Death On Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney. If you like true crime and yoga in equal measure, you will love this strange and creepy story of Geshe Michael Roach, one of the most renowned Buddhist scholars in the West, and his onetime partner, and their descent into spiritual madness and murder.

Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman. More true crime, with a side of American imperialism, indigenous art appropriation, foolish Rockefeller sons, and CANNIBALISM.

Gender Failure by Rae Spoon and Ivan E Coyote. A collection of memoir essays and song lyrics from their live shows on each writer's lifelong struggle to find a gender identity. It's so lovely and sad and funny and such an eye opening read for anyone curious about what gender looks like in a non-binary world.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. A really fascinating and often hilarious dissection of contemporary dating and wooing practices that basically feels like Tom Haverford reading a sociological essay, in the best possible way.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Peterson. Chapter after chapter of gossipy, impeccably-researched stories about the great actors and actresses of the first half of the 20th century, from Mary Pickford to Bogart and Bacall to Carol Lombard and Marlon Brando. It's also fascinating as an examination of the rise of tabloid culture.

Street Gang-A History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis. I think I know enough Muppet Obsessives to know that this one will be a hit for SOMEONE on your list. The level of detail and primary sourcing in this one is just astounding. This book will make you long for your childhood.In a good way.

Women in Clothes, edited by Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton. This book has everything, and everyone, from Jonathan Goldstein interviewing his mother about her favourite clothes to Lena Dunham talking about her best outfit to pages and pages of random women talking about the rings they wear on a daily basis. It's a beautiful book to give as a gift or keep out on a table and dip into once in awhile. Everytime I pick up my copy I discover something new. This book is the literary manifestation of getting dressed and ready to go out and meet your girlfriends somewhere, or hanging around getting ready all together, which is, I think, one of my favourite things to do. Come to think of it, if I could just do the getting ready part and then just have us all stay in and watch movies, I would be living my ideal life.


Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. A harrowing and often hilarious comic book memoir by one of my favourite New Yorker cartoonists as she details the horrible experience of her parents' declines and deaths. Not for the faint of heart, or perhaps even for folks who have recently experienced a great loss, but oh so worth the risk.

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley. By the author of the Scott Pilgrim series, a new graphic novel about a young woman chef trying to make a go at getting her new restaurant up and running, as it becomes increasingly clear that otherworldly forces may be at play in her new space. Lush, gorgeous illustrations that are both complex and traditionally comics-y.

Locke And Key (series) by Joe Hill. One of the creepiest and most nightmare-inducing series I've read in awhile, like illustrated Stephen King. There's murder, magic, demonic possession, and highschool angst rendered in illustrations that were often so scary I had to hide the book in another room before going to bed. In a good way.

Hawkeye: My Life As A Weapon by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Javier Pulido. I've been getting back into some superhero comics lately, partly a welcomed side effect of cohabitating with a man who has excellent taste in comic books (truly I have found my equal). Fraction's version of Hawkeye is quick witted and intense and somehow more lighthearted than a lot of superhero stuff I've read. I mean, as lighthearted as you can get when lives hang in the balance.

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. Okay, this series is categorically perfect. 2 star-crossed lovers (one of whom is a hot librarian, so of COURSE I love her) discover that they can both stop time when they orgasm, so they decide to rob a bank (to make money to SAVE THE LIBRARY). Obviously, mayhem ensues. There are 2 volumes out so far, and they are GREAT. (Also they are BEYOND racy, which probably isn't a surprise, and which may not be your cup of tea!) Chip Zdarsky is a national treasure.

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton. Everyone needs more Kate Beaton in their lives. EVERYONE.

Friday, May 29, 2015

back and forth forever.

Six years ago today, I left Ottawa. "So long, suckers," I posted on facebook (thank you, On This Day app, for enabling my debilitating nostalgia addiction) before unplugging my modem, walking it back to the Rogers store around the block, and dashing back home to pack up the last of my things (mostly VC Andrews paperbacks and half drunk bottles of wine). My then-somewhat-boyfriend drove down from his hideout in the woods to help me move that final load. In a particularly hilarious encounter, he and my first floor neighbour, an odd sort of duck who had both a heart of gold and a propensity for conveniently practicing guitar shirtless in the hallway of our apartment-house whenever I was arriving home, ended up sharing the burden of loading my mattress into the back of the truck. It was the closest I've ever come to causing the kind of macho posturing that I think is known as peacocking. A well-intentioned civil servant-slash-aspiring playboy and a ponytailed hermit carpenter, competing for my affection with some version of brute strength. As I watched them, I sought out the metaphor, something about my horrendous fake-white-collar past in Ottawa and my potentially amazing hipster-hippie future in Kingston bumping up against each other.

"Let's get the fuck out of here," my carpenter yelled, pulling me from my reverie.

We convoyed down the 416 and the 401 all the way to the Division Street exit, and got to my new North of Princess apartment just as the sun was setting. I had never been so glad to leave one place and arrive in another.

This is it, I thought. This is definitely it.

I spent most of my twenties moving, swearing each time that this would be the last one, this would be home, this one was for life. I called myself a reluctant nomad. I've always been a homebody, so if nothing else, I got really good at putting down roots as quickly as possible wherever I ended up.

In the six years since I left Ottawa, I've survived a few more moves. Four years ago yesterday, I picked up the keys to my house, and unlocked the door to this little cottage by the train tracks, and cried.

This is it, I thought. This is definitely it.

The thing is, though, you never know when you're done moving. You always think you are, but you have no idea. Life has a funny way of spinning you around in circles just when you were getting comfortable where you were. The good news is, for this perpetual homebody, it never takes too long to unpack, to get settled, to bury those roots, and bloom where you're planted. I've gotten better at it over time, the subtle art of finding a place to call home and landing there. It's the journey that can be the hardest part, but I know I'll arrive sooner or later. We always do. We can only wander for so long.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Good Fridays.

For the last little while, I haven't felt much like writing. It should come as no surprise that I can graph my level of creative productivity with my level of despair in a fairly straightforward way. So I guess I should feel glad that I've somehow, miraculously, absurdly, found myself with a contented form of writer's block. For the first time in a long time, looking back with anger (or nostalgia, or schoolgirlish regret) doesn't have the same appeal to me. And it's kind of wonderful.

Something I think a lot of us come to realize is that being happy is cumulative in nature. It doesn't happen all at once. You have to put your time in. There will be a lot of false starts. And once you've happened upon it you almost won't believe it. A lot of people describe their changing times as lightbulb moments, psychological seismic shifts. For me it was more gradual. I spent a few months in a state of reassuring flux. It was like one of those overcast afternoons, when you'd turn the lights on one at a time as the sky darkened, until suddenly, around dusk, you'd realize that the house had gotten brighter inside even as the sun had set.

Oh, you'd think to yourself, isn't that nice.

Real happiness, when it arrives, is absolutely fucking terrifying. It's even scarier when it arrives late, or perhaps just later than you'd expected it. When you've spent more than a few long years under the weirdly enjoyable spectre of mild existential ennui, when you've gone to strange and not entirely unpleasant places in search of anything that might mean something, when you've maybe even half-talked yourself out of the notion of it, finding yourself suddenly not just content but elated can be paralyzing. Oh god, what did I DO to make this happen, you wonder silently, your pulse as rapid as a baby bird's, and how on earth do I hold onto it. I don't know if I'm alone in the tendency to imagine all the ways in which the universe could potentially just rip it all from my arms. I might be. It's amazing and awful, isn't it, to realize you've finally really let your heart bust open after years of just wearing it quietly on your sleeve. It's a complete goddamned beautiful mess.

I don't know that I have a really tidy remedy for all that, other than to try to snap the hell out of the panic. It won't always be this way, dizzy and new and strangely familiar. Sink into that. Save the worry for when you need it. Replace sadness with compassion. Lean on their shoulder. Sleep a little late. Don't set an alarm you don't really need.

A couple of Fridays ago it was Good Friday, and after ramen for lunch and running into my little brother on Queen Street, we went to see the piece of the Douglas Coupland exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. It was delightful and comforting somehow, and as we wandered between digitally altered Group of Seven paintings and Lego towers and pulled each other by the arm toward the pieces we wanted to tell one another about, I was thinking of a line from Generation X that has rattled around in my brain since I read it in eighth grade. "Nothing very very good and nothing very very bad lasts for very very long." We held hands and went home for a nap. I woke up hours after he did and wandered out to the living room, knowing exactly what I'd find there.

I couldn't help remembering how I spent Good Friday last year: meandering along the Sunshine Coast in a hilariously sporty rental car, alternately enjoying the shit out of every moment with my best west coast friend Tara and long-distance text-fighting with a guy the way you do when you want something completely different than he wants. My life was exceedingly complicated in a way that was entirely my own weird doing. I can't believe I drew a line between that day and this one, I thought to myself.

Isn't that nice.