February 17, 2017: #BookClub4eva!

Reading is a solitary pleasure. With the possible exception of reading aloud to a child, it really is an activity best enjoyed alone. Sometimes my daughter and I play “reading club” where we each bring our books to the couch and curl up together, but there’s no conversation, each of us lost in our own fictional world. 

Love of books, on the other hand, is something that’s meant to be shared. Finding a kindred reading spirit, with whom you can discuss favourites and disappointments, exchange recommendations and anticipate a favourite author’s newest work, is a wonderful thing. To that end, I belong to two different book clubs, one that runs hot and cold, and the other now mostly defunct. I miss the conversation and camaraderie of those book clubs, not to mention the discipline of having a deadline to keep my reading on track. More on that in a separate post. 

So I’ve closed the gap in other ways. At work, for example, I regularly discuss books with two different colleagues who both find ample time to read during their train commutes. (I fantasize about the Go train being essentially a library on rails.) One colleague, we’ll call her Liz (because that’s her name), is a bubbly and delightful millennial. In the beginning of our book friendship, I had her pegged for a Gone Girl / Girl on the Train / Girl with the Dragon Tattoo type. Any thriller with girl in the title.  But she surprises me regularly with the depth and breadth of her selections and I always enjoy our chats standing by her desk. She recommended Hausfrau to me and we had a brief but great discussion about the influence of Anna Karenina and the unhappy fate of being trapped in a loveless marriage. 

The second colleague, KW, is a sophisticated and well-read Baby Boomer. She has an office with a door that closes so we get into it a little deeper. KW’s tastes run to historical fiction, as she enjoys the artistic license and speculation that authors employ to connect the dots between known facts and events. We both loved The Paris Wife and spent some time together daydreaming about life in Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon, rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound. “Heady times”, KW said, shaking her head. “Heady times.”

Possibly my favourite part about these two mini workplace book clubs is the contrast. KW sends me books via interoffice mail with a handwritten note on her personalized notepaper: “Don’t be put off by the cover art. It’s a great read. Beryl Markham – what a gal!” Liz leaves books on my desk with no note but messages me later: “Read that book and don’t talk to me until you’re done. #BookClub4eva” 

It just goes to show, book clubs come in all shapes and sizes. Reading may be a solitary pleasure but books are for everyone. 

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February 3, 2017: Dipping a Toe Back In

Hi. I’m back. I know it’s been a while. Three years, two months, one week and three days, to be exact. So what have I been up to during that time? Not blogging. And truth be told, barely even reading. I’ve read a few books here and there, including some great ones, but it’s been in short bursts rather than part of my regular routine. 

So why am I back now? In the spirit of new year’s resolutions, being a better me, drinking 8 glasses of water, 10,000 steps a day, etc, etc, I’m trying to get my reading groove back. My game plan is a combination of solid book recommendations from people and sources I trust, blogging to keep me honest, and just getting on with it. To that end, I finished two books in January and am well into my third. It’s not the #100bookchallenge by any stretch. It’s not even 50 pages a day. But it’s a start and it feels good to be back. 

Starting with solid recommendations from a trusted source, I came across a list of the best 20 books of the past 20 years on Goodreads, as chosen by the Independent Bath Literature Festival. Billed as the definitive books of the past two decades, it’s a pretty great list. I’ve read 10 and loved them all (including The Goldfinch). I figure I can’t go too far off course if I chip away at the other half of the list. First up, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Loving it so far. Stay tuned. 

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Page-blocked by The Goldfinch

Amy, The Swiss Lovie and I met up for dinner a couple of weeks back. Bar Centrale. I arrived first and headed inside after being denied a patio spot by a bunch of early diners wearing driving mules (I counted 6 pairs of Tod’s out there, no joke). Sick of suffering cottage envy on Instragram, I reached for my book. It’d been toted around for weeks. Virtually untouched. Dog-eared on page 12. I was in a slump.

Once the girls arrived and we were happily tucked into some burrata and rose, we spotted not one, but two BBCE members walking up Yonge. The window seat is steamy, but it’s great people watching. White people specifically. Not a lot of diversity at Yonge and Price, as it happens. A statistician would find a correlation between this and the proliferation of mules, I bet.

We started talking books. Specifically summer reading. It turns out we were all in a slump.

I have a theory as to why. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I think it may have been the last book we’d all read. 800 pages of Pulitzer Prize winning genius.

Selected for BBCE sometime in the winter, I had only just started it when we met that month. Normally not an issue, since normally, anyone ahem, “behind on their reading”, can easily participate in the salami, cheese and catching up. Not this time. The ladies were buzzing. They had not had such a heated discussion since On Chesil Beach. When I tried to steer them off topic, I got exiled to the kitchen.

Intrigued, I stepped up my game and barely did anything else for over a week.   I talked about it to anyone who would listen. I passed it along and then nagged friends on their progress, hungry to hear their thoughts. Quite a few said it’s the best book they’ve ever read. Others hated it. My mom said she found it depressing and almost gave up. I think a lonely boy lost in Las Vegas armed only with a Russian best friend and a dead-beat dad was too hard for her to hear about. But the interesting thing was that everyone had something different to say.

I read some reviews in retrospect. The Globe’s was most surprising to me: “ambitious, over-the-top tale of a boy, a painting and our love of the inanimate”.   They mean the painting, of course.   I never saw it that way. For me, it was about being left alone. Holding out for meaning. Trying to fit in. Being flawed and vulnerable to exploitation. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back.   The Pippa scenes nearly broke my heart.

Anyway. There’s a lot there. And while I’m still thinking about it, it’s hard to imagine going back in.

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November 24, 2013: Stand Up For Our Public Library

This is a great reminder that there are important issues in our city that require our attention. We’re so much more than Rob Ford.

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Take one virgin secretary, snowbound with her ruthless boss and Stephen Harper.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending one of the KAMA Benefit Reading Series with our Amy, her elegant mother, Mary and delightful sister, Katie.  The subject of the evening:  What is Stephen Harper Reading?   The speakers: Elizabeth May and Jann Martel.

Don’t arrive hungry” said the invite from Amy.  “Lovely event, but the food is not that great”.   I heeded that advice and thought how lovely to have friends who are both sensible and cognisant of your hunger-triggered mood swings.

What is Stephen Harper Reading?  I pondered the topic as I made my way downtown.  I was vaguely aware that Jann Martel had been sending the PM books, but very vaguely.  I don’t spend as much time thinking about Stephen Harper as I should.  Aside from a healthy distrust for anyone formerly aligned with Stockwell Day, no regard for science, and strange eyes that remind me of a husky, I know relatively little.

The evening began with me negotiating around a group of Rubenesque belly dancers in the ladies room.   ‘It’s going to look choreographed’, they assured me,’ but it’s not’.  I later called b.s. on that one… those ladies had their moves down pat.  Elizabeth May was great. But, Jann Martel’s discussion of how he came to sending Stephen Harper a book every two weeks with an accompanying letter delighted me.

He read us a few of them.   All his letters are published in the book: 101 Letters to a Prime Minister, which I promptly went out and bought.  Having developed a new literary crush, I was all-in for his curated reading list.

Some of the suggestions were classics:  Le Petit Prince, Waiting for Godot, Animal Farm.  Others were more obscure – ancient Greek poetry, graphic novels and religious material.  There was a Harlequin for good measure, and a dose of Voltaire, maybe just to make it a little strenuous…

Jann was clear it wasn’t all elitist book-loving condescension.    It was important because when someone has power over others, what they choose to read will be found in what they think and what they might do;  “Once someone has power over me, as Stephen Harper does, it’s in my interest to know the nature and quality of his imagination, because his dreams may become my nightmares.”

Stephen Harper might say he’s too busy to read.  I’ve heard this excuse from others.  And so, I give them this passage from Jann’s website:

To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

Jann pointed out that books uniquely teach us empathy as we temporarily live in the experience of others.   I happen to love that.   And as I tuck into Harlequin’s The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss, I also love that I get to imagine that ship didn’t sail long ago.


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He’s like olives….

You either love him or you think he’s vile.  Here he is with my Emma.  Fool.



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Dreaming of Summer Reading: Your Voice in My Head

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know how much I despise winter. I’ve been bitch-tweeting so heavily lately that I’ll refrain from complaining about it here. I don’t ski or toboggan and haven’t had much interest in skating since I hung my Leaside Lazarettes track suit in the late 90’s. I’m more of a summer bunny. Hello Golf! Love you Tennis! My freckles are adorable! And today, after a frosty trip to Book City, I find myself dreaming of summer reading.

Every August, I get to catch up on reading when I head to the shores of Lake Huron with 6 of my favourite people in the world. It’s good quality beach time and I’m quite competitive (with one of them in particular) on the speed reading front. My book choices are easy, as I usually have a stack of unread material at my disposal; remnants of good intentions and BBCE selections.

One from this selection that I read this past summer was Emma Forrest’s memoir, “Your Voice in My Head”, hailed by the New York Times as ‘part of a literary tradition that began long before Susanna Kaysen’s girlhood was interrupted or Elizabeth Wurtzel got her first Prozac prescription.’  In other words, another story about a hot, crazy girl with bad taste in men.

Loved is the word. Loved the writing. Loved Emma. Loved her brutally honest and brave self reflection. Loved the relationship she describes with the therapist that saved her life over and over again. Loved getting a little dirt on Colin Farrell (google it), who I just flat-out love (because I also have bad taste, sister).

Someone recently commented to me that every relationship runs its course eventually. I think that’s right. Sometimes that course is a lifetime, but more often, it’s not. Some relationships don’t mean much. Others mean everything. And when those ones end, it’s hard to let them go. And that’s what Your Voice in My Head is really about. Loved.

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January 29, 2013: This Book Has Been Flagged

Remember the episode of Seinfeld when George took an expensive art book into the bathroom at a bookstore (he finds the pastoral imagery of the French Impressionists very conducive to…) and then is forced to buy it because he defiled it? He tries to return it when different people are working and discovers it’s been flagged as a bathroom book. He then tries to donate it to get a tax receipt and learns that it’s been flagged in all the city’s databases. So good. I mean really, who wants to touch a book that someone else has brought into the bathroom with them?

But what if you keep all your books in the bathroom? In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect library-bathroom-1place for a bookshelf. According to George, “If it weren’t for the toilet, there would be no books!” so why not keep a supply close at hand? Author Michael Cunningham’s bathroom library was featured on Remodelista last week. Isn’t it gorgeous? I love how packed the shelves are, interspersed with the odd artfully placed objet. But the display isn’t too contrived; it’s mostly about the books. And the stack of magazines on the side of the bathtub? I love it. I’m imagining it to be just the right blend of New Yorker and Vanity Fair. I can see how someone might log a lot of hours in this room (no pun intended).

Below, a clip of George’s best moments from The Bookstore (season 9, episode 17). Still the funniest show on television.

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January 27, 2013: How To Raise A Reader

I grew up in a family of readers. Beyond parents and siblings, this extends to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews… everyone. Reading has been a lifelong pleasure for my entire family tree. Tastes range from fiction to biography to medical journals to every page of every local weekend paper; as long as there is reading material at hand, it will be consumed by some member of my family. One of my earliest memories is of a summer evening at my grandparents’ cottage, saying goodnight to a roomful of adults who were each reading their own book, not conversing with one another. (This may or may not have actually happened. My older sister has no memory of same. And it’s not to say we’re introverts; we just really enjoy some quiet reading time.)

So how do we foster a love of reading in our children? The literature suggests some pretty standard strategies: read to them often, have books readily accessible in the home, model the behaviour, etc. A recent international literacy study looked at reading ability in grade four students in 45 countries and by all accounts, Canada scored very well. The study pointed to several key factors that can help or hinder children’s early affinity for reading. Parental involvement is important but it seems there’s a subtlety to it. It’s not about teaching the children to read, but rather teaching them the joy of reading. Research suggests that teaching a child to read early, as North Americans seem inclined to do these days, may result in early ability but the child is more likely to be disinterested in reading by the age of eight. Socioeconomics plays a role as well, although the good news in Canada is that this plays less of a role than anywhere else in the study. Kids will be happy to hear that time spent on homework isn’t all that important either. Canadian students doing less than 15 minutes a day scored higher on the test than kids in other countries doing much more.

I’m very happy to report that my family’s love of reading has (so far) been passed down to my own children. They’re keen to be read to and now that my eldest can read on her own, she devours chapter books at a breakneck pace. One of our current favourite activities is “reading club”, where we curl up on the couch together and each read our own book. It truly warms my heart. We’ve even started a two-person book club. I’m going to read her favourites and then we’ll talk about them. In honour of National Family Literacy Day (today!), I’ve added the first book to my 2013 completed list: Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows. So far our discussion has been limited to: “Didn’t you think it was funny when Bean called her sister a boogerhead?” although I’m hardly disappointed. That’s 100% more discussion of the book than my last book club evening.

Happy Family Literacy Day everyone. I hope you’ve been able to find a moment to celebrate.

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January 25, 2013: Judging A Book By Its Cover

A few months ago, I wrote about Random House of Canada’s planned Books Are Beautiful collection featuring 30 titles from the publisher’s backlist reissued with a single-colour Books 165text-only cover treatment and billed as a “celebration of the physical book as objet d’art“. The collection is now available for sale (only at Chapters Indigo stores… not exactly a celebration of Canada’s independent literary spirit) and I think we can all agree that the collection’s effect is quite pleasing, both as individual objects and as a Pantone-inspired set. And while I haven’t found a complete list of titles and authors, it looks like a pretty great collection of serious fiction.

yellow spinesBut what was stressing me out, if you recall, was how they were going to decide what colour they would assign to each title. As you can see from the picture, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures is a mustardy yellow, which makes no sense to me whatsoever. (Shouldn’t it be dark red?)

A little digging revealed that the colours were assigned in an almost indiscriminate manner by Random House of Canada’s Creative Director. He apparently chose 30 colours arbitrarily and then made a second pass to ensure that the colours fit the tone and content of each book. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time went from bright yellow to deep plummy blue. At least that colour choice makes sense.purple spines But The Satanic Verses in a grassy green? Not so much. Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, which I haven’t read but understand to be a story about loneliness, is a shocking hot pink. Doesn’t really work for me. Black Swan Green is neither black nor green… I could go on. It’s really all about not judging a book by its cover.

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