Nik is an eccentric art student obsessed with painting his dancer girlfriend, Jennifer. When one day she inexplicably disappears, Nik’s world is shattered. Determined to find her, he embarks on a cross-country journey following a scant trail of clues. He doesn’t anticipate how far he’ll have to travel, what he’ll do when he runs out of money, or the fact that an intimidating stranger is looking for Jennifer, too.
Today she shares with us a list of books that, like her own book, address the question of how we are to live in urban settings just as multitudinous and complex as our lives are.
In an era when we broadcast only versions of our happiest selves and highest achievements on social media, it’s comforting to read books that go to the depths of complexity, chaos, and crisis and to stumble along with their characters. One of the questions I’m interested in as both a reader and an author is not only the universal how do we live, but also more specifically, how do we live in the jumble and scramble of today’s vast and ever-changing cities.
Canadian authors are looking at this from multiple angles and myriad viewpoints, shining flashlights at shadowy corners down the street and travel-guiding us through far flung—yet uncannily recognizable neighbourhoods around the world. On a grand scale, writing defuses the soul-destroying messages of contemporary life. And, on a simpler plane, it’s just refreshing when not every story is a heroine’s trajectory. Success is never a permanent state. Things go wrong, fall apart, mess up irrevocably. And then the central question becomes how do we solve our problems—or can we?
American Innovations, by Rivka Galchen
This was my favourite read of 2014 and is full of surprises, including the contents of a character’s apartment collectively revolting and fleeing in the night (I loved the image of the ironing board running away). Galchen masterfully describes of the confusion and uncertainty of city life.
Girls Fall Down, by Maggie Helwig
Helwig doesn’t shy away from marginalization, or what’s happening on the fringes or underground. This book shows the chaos pulsating underneath Toronto—and every city—along with strange, dark coincidences, without losing its sense of humanity or story. It’s extraordinary.
Inside, by Alix Ohlin
Ohlin’s stories dive into the raw complexity of relationships. Divorcees, failed suicides and grown-up former teenage runaways in Montreal, New York, Hollywood, and other cities struggle with the consequences of bad decision-making and disconnection.
Monoceros, by Suzette Mayr
Mayr is a brave, unflinching writer whose (very funny) novel Venous Hum is a magic-realist satire on race, gender and sexuality (with vegetarian lesbian vampire cannibals). She followed it up with this multifaceted tragicomedy about loneliness, suicide, thoroughly confused students, frazzled educators, and drag queen named Crêpe Suzette.
The Answer to Everything, by Elyse Friedman
Perfect for the social media era, Friedman’s story is told from multiple perspectives and narrative forms. Set in contemporary Toronto, Friedman looks at how appealing—and destructive—a new age cult with vaguely comforting spiritual messaging can be.
The Sky is Falling, by Caroline Adderson
This is my all-time favourite novel about student activists. Set in Vancouver in both 1984 and 2004, this book examines the passionate zeal, and altruism—together with the anxiety and naiveté—of trying to make the world a better place.
How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau
Lau’s stories are snapshots into the everyday lives of young Asian Canadian characters struggling to find a niche for themselves, and achieve their own formulations of identity in an overcrowded, fast-paced world.
Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill
It’s a Canadian contemporary, coming-of-age classic, at this point, but this book perfectly captures the day-to-day struggles of growing up in less-than-ideal circumstances, and how the city itself (Montreal in this case) can raise you and shape you in its own way.
Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden
In my opinion Boyden is at his best when he juxtaposes historical with the contemporary, rural with urban. He’s an incredible storyteller, especially when it comes to issues of identity, culture and the profound effect place has on our vulnerable psyches. His scenes in Moosonee, Toronto, Montreal, and New York City are both vivid and haunting.
White Rapids, by Pascal Blanchet
Though this gorgeously drawn graphic novel spans the 1920s through the 1970s, the thematic concern of a single, uniformed decision made in a city boardroom affecting the everyday lives and futures of thousands is both haunting—and very contemporary. We think that cities are infinite, but this book reminds us any place can live, die and become a ghost town.
Suzanne Alyssa Andrew is the author of the novel Circle of Stones. She also writes for digital media, including games, interactive documentaries and cross-platform TV projects. She is a guest associate editor for Taddle Creek magazine and plays bass in an indie rock band. She grew up on Vancouver Island, went to Carleton University in Ottawa for a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s of English and now lives and writes in Toronto. Visit her online at suzanneandrew.com
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