Couldn't Put It Down
What do Steph VanderMeulen, Vicki Ziegler, Daniel Francis, Sarah Leavitt, Chad Pelley, Eve Corbel, Evan Munday, and Nancy Flight have in common? No time for boring books. That's because they are—variously—reviewers, bloggers, publishers, authors, editors, and publicists who spend a huge amount of time thinking about and working with or on books. So when it comes to the simple pleasure of reading, the book has to be good. We asked the bunch of them for the Canadian reads they couldn't put down this summer and got a delightfully eclectic list as a result.
Steph VanderMeulen picks Alix Ohlin's Signs and Wonders: Of my sizeable number of short story collections, some of course stand out as favourites. Alix Ohlin's Signs and Wonders is one such book; aesthetically gorgeous, it contains some of the most striking stories I've ever read. They go deep, to the heart of the matter, every time. Though each is original, all examine our desire for love, attachment, belonging, acceptance, connection. Ohlin explores truth and love in all its forms—pure, twisted, romantic, spousal, parental, familial, always complicated—with such insight that even if you haven't experienced such things, your heart aches with the remembrance of them. And there is no gentle easing: already the first story unzips your skin and exposes your inner workings. In the second, a young doctor's girlfriend's brother asks the impossible of him. "Vigo Park" will leave you wide-eyed.
By the end of the collection, I felt I was inside out. Ohlin's prose is wondrous, each word carefully chosen, nothing wasted or extra. It's punchy and full of unexpected turns. Signs and Wonders goes down like the hard stuff: peppery and fiery and invigorating. It tastes like more, please.
Steph VanderMeulen is a freelance copy editor and proofreader for Canadian publishers and independent writers. She writes the book blog Bella’s Bookshelves, and is stalwart promoter of authors, publishers, indie bookshops, and Canadian literature in particular.
Nancy Flight picks Jowita Bydlowska's Drunk Mom: With excruciating and enviable honesty, Jowita Bydlowska lays bare the ugly reality of addiction—“the wanting that has no end”—in Drunk Mom. She admits she loves drinking more than her baby. She blacks out for hours while he lies in his crib screaming. And she awakens in a hotel room wearing nothing but her milk-soaked bra, with no memory of what happened the night before. I cringed during such passages but couldn’t stop reading. Recommended especially for any woman who has ever thought she was a bad mother—you were probably never as bad as this.
Nancy Flight is associate publisher of the newly revived Greystone Books and is usually only a slightly tipsy mom.
Vicki Ziegler picks Jessica Kluthe's Rosina, the Midwife: Jessica Kluthe reaches a hand—at first tentative and trembling—across oceans and generations from her life in Canada to that of her ancestors in Italy in her captivating family memoir, Rosina, the Midwife. Those ancestors were part of a 26-million-strong exodus of Italians from 1870 to 1970, departing Italy for other parts of Europe and further afield, to North America. Kluthe’s particular focus, however, is the stalwart and enigmatic figure of a family member who chose to stay behind: her great-great-grandmother, Rosina, respected matriarch and, as a practising midwife, essential keeper of community tradition, secrets, and life.
Kluthe’s passion for the intricacies of heritage and the enduring love of family and how they inform both social fabric and individuals make Rosina an absorbing read. Kluthe’s pursuit of answers, interwoven with her own life’s joys and sorrows, rounds out the emotional satisfaction quotient of the book, making Rosina a “can’t put down” book for any season.
Vicki Ziegler is a website/online/social media manager who works with the Griffin Trust For Excellence in Poetry, among other amazing clients. She reads steadily and omnivorously, blogs about books from time to time at Book Gaga, and tweets regularly about things literary via @bookgaga.
Daniel Francis picks Rolf Knight's Voyage Through the Past Century: I don't really judge a book by whether I can put it down but rather whether I want to pick it up again. By that standard, this summer I've been enjoying Rolf Knight's memoir, Voyage Through the Past Century. Knight is a Vancouver anthropologist-turned-cabbie who has written several books about BC working people. This time he relates the story of his own eventful life, inside academia and out. His voice is irascible, alienated, angry; just what one wants in a memoirist.
Daniel Francis is the author of two dozen books, principally about Canadian history. He is editorial director of the mammoth Encyclopedia of British Columbia (Harbour Publishing). For several years he has written a regular column on books for Geist magazine. In 2010 Daniel was shortlisted for the prestigious Pierre Berton Award which recognizes excellence in bringing Canadian history to a wide popular audience. He has a new website: www.danielfrancis.ca.
Sarah Leavitt picks Genevieve Castrée's Susceptible: Susceptible, a 78-page comic, recounts the chaotic childhood of Goglu, full of neglect, instability, and violence. Reading this book was not always easy; in fact at times I wanted to put it down, worn out by the relentless scenes of family dysfunction. But the simplicity of Castrée’s writing, her dark, delicate drawings and oddly balanced compositions kept me coming back. The reward: a very satisfying ending.
Sarah Leavitt is a writer and cartoonist living in Vancouver. Her book, Tangles, was included in the Globe and Mail’s top 100 books of 2010 and Maisonneuve Magazine’s top 10 for 2010, and winner of the CBC Bookie award for Best Comic or Graphic Novel. More at sarahleavitt.com.
Chad Pelley picks Katie Boland's Eat Your Heart Out: I want to plug a book of short fiction, because short fiction is ideal summer reading for me, and, I prefer the stuff to novels, because a short story is all punch and stylistic pizzazz. Katie Boland’s new book of short stories is a great example of the punch and pizzazz you’ll only find in a book of short fiction. Eat Your Heart Out is a vibrant collection: it’s snap crack and popping with life. Katie Boland is a bold new old-soul in CanLit, and Eat Your Heart Out is a remarkable debut.
Chad Pelley's fiction has been recognized by 10 literary awards. His debut novel, Away from Everywhere is being adapted for film, and his new novel, Every Little Thing was released this year. He's also the founder of Salty Ink.
Eve Corbel picks Michel Rabagliati's The Song of Roland: The Song of Roland, Rabagliati’s sixth graphic novel about Paul, his alter ego, unfolds at the deathbed of Roland, Paul’s father-in-law. As Roland’s family gathers to say goodbye, they remember his life: growing up with a “no-good cheating bastard” drunken gambler dad, surviving an orphanage and a seminary, getting a foothold in business because he happened to have English. His story becomes their story too, with all the joys, surprises, coincidences, bad decisions, rites of passage and boring bits of family life. Rabagliati’s artwork is simple and loose, and the drama is quietly ordinary, but it is impossible to set down this book anywhere between start and finish, or to walk away from it unaffected.
Eve Corbel is an illustrator and a maker of comics. In another life she is Mary Schendlinger, writer, editor, teacher, mum, grandma, and senior editor at Geist. (Photo credit: Mandelbrot).
Evan Munday picks Amanda Leduc's The Miracles of Ordinary Men: One book I couldn't put down this summer is Amanda Leduc's debut novel, The Miracles of Ordinary Men. To be completely honest, The Miracles of Ordinary Men isn't a novel I'd normally pick up, but it came highly recommended from a few good friends (who all noted the strong emotional impact it had on them), my book publicist (full disclosure: Leduc and I have the same publisher) and one bookseller who talked about wanting to buy stock in Leduc's writing career. So I had to check it out. I am so, so glad I did.
The novel follows dual protagonists and is located somewhere between the real and unreal—any book with a man who's grown wings that only certain people can see deals somewhat with fantasy. But it's all handled in such a realistic, kitchen-sink style that I bought every word of it. In another writer's hands, the details of Sam and Lilah's (sometimes harrowing) daily lives might prove tedious, but Leduc is such an enthralling writer that I couldn't wait to see what happened next (or in some cases, what happened earlier). If you told me last year one of my favourite books of the year would delve into themes of religious faith and sexual submission, I wouldn't have believed you. But writing this good can overcome one's innate biases and tastes.
Evan Munday is the publicist for Coach House Books and the author of The Dead Kid Detective Agency series of novels for young readers.