The Recommend: April 2018

Research shows that most of the books we read are the result of one thing: someone we know, trust, and/or admire tells us it's great. That's why we run this series, The Recommend, where writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.

This month we're pleased to present the picks of Shawna Lemay (The Flower Can Always Be Changing), Andrew Battershill (Marry, Bang, Kill), Claudia Dey (Heartbreaker), Elinor Florence (Wildwood), and Sarah Henstra (The Red Word).

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Shawna Lemay picks Nicole Brossard’s Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon

It’s difficult to say precisely how well known an author is but it seems fair to say that Nicole Brossard should be much more appreciated. Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon is virtuosic, a work of art, in the way that Virginia Woolf’s books are art. Two women meet at a hotel bar every night and talk. One of the women is trying to finish her novel, and the other catalogues artefacts at a museum. They enter into a dialogue that is both shifting and solid, detached and intensely engaged. One of the characters asks, “What is the value of a question in a dialogue? How important are the answers?”

The shape and the construction of the book is something Woolf surely would have approved. In Woolf’s diaries she says, “I am not trying to tell a story.” Instead she’s interested in a “mind thinking.” She speaks about writing “islands of light” that convey life. And this is what Brossard does; she creates islands of light. She creates a situation where women talk to women about women. There are monologues, dialogues, and a section which resembles a script for a play. The last section of the book is titled, “Some Notes Found in the Room at the Hotel Clarendon.” These scraps of thoughts, seemingly random, just may be “sentence[s] for healing.”

The more I read this book the more I think that there is something both radical and healing about women in dialogue, women talking to and about other women. Not to mention listening to women talk.

Shawna Lemay is the author of The Flower Can Always Be Changing, essays, and the novel Rumi and the Red Handbag. She blogs at Transactions with Beauty.

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Andrew Battershill picks Mikko Harvey's Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit

Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit is PEN New Voices Winner Mikko Harvey’s first collection of poetry, and it’s an utter delight on every level, and at every moment.

Now, I’d like, at this point, to give you one firm assurance: I do not recommend books of poetry to people who don’t usually like to read poetry. Poetry, in my experience, is a bit like gambling, you find it fun or you don’t. It gives you a rush on a deep primordial level, or you feel literally nothing and think everyone around you is a degenerate. BUT! Even if you don’t like poetry, you should still read this book. It’s a blast.

The thing that makes this collection fun to read is its expert variety. What does that mean? Well, I just made it up right now as a rando-amateur-poetry-critic, so nothing to anyone but me. But to me, that means that this is a book that does a lot of different things, and does them all at the level of someone who does that individual thing obsessively and exclusively. There’s the poems of an obsessive and exclusive dark creep, a whimsical cloud starer, an uber-smart poetry nerd, and a feckless but super witty humorist in here. Page after page, there’s an abundance of energy and creativity that really takes this book out of the realm of poetry and into the realm of some amazing riverside rave where a gorgeous Eastern European grabs both sides of your face and tells you the secrets of the universe in language you don’t fully understand, so you get the idea, but those truths all manage to stay secret and perfect and profound.

Andrew Battershill’s first novel, Pillow, was longlisted for the Giller Prize and shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. His second novel, Marry, Bang, Kill, has just been released, and it is in stores now.

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Claudia Dey picks Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

I first saw The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a play adaptation. I was fifteen years old. Like most teenagers, I was moody, shifting, filled with secrets and wanting to find a form for the electricity I continually felt inside. The play—the writing in the play—illuminated a life for me. It gave me a clear direction in the wilderness. I thought: I want to do that. I am going to do that.

What struck me? Its aliveness. The language—like the story it told—was bodily, horrifying, violent, beautiful, and outrageous. It was also so many things at once: a play, a sequence of poems, a novel, a Western, an epic. I could not believe that so much could be combined inside such a slender volume. We know Ondaatje is a master. This is old news. But he moved me in this particular way during this very vulnerable and charged time in my life—when I was all anger, all love and all questions. In this asteroid of book—that you can fit inside a breast pocket—Ondaatje challenges us to call on different faculties inside ourselves.

In our current world, where books are being increasingly suggested and sold by logarithms, I return to Billy the Kid often. It reminds me that these sorts of books—the rebellious ones, the ones that are most alive and have the capacity to teach us how to live—are still possible.

Claudia Dey is the author of the acclaimed novel, Stunt. Her second novel, Heartbreaker, will be published this August by Random House (U.S.), HarperCollins (Canada), and Borough Press (U.K., Australia, New Zealand).

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Elinor Florence picks Susan Juby's The Woefield Poultry Collective

There are not enough funny books in the world. That’s why I recommend Susan Juby’s The Woefield Poultry Collective. Normally I’m more of an internal chuckler, but this book made me laugh out loud. Prudence is an idealistic young hippie from New York who inherits a tumbledown farm on Vancouver Island and decides to grow organic vegetables without the faintest idea what she is doing. She is both helped and hindered by a quirky trio of island nutters: grumpy old Earl, teenaged blogger Seth, and precocious little Sara, a self-taught poultry expert. Rounding out the four-legged cast is a half-sheared sheep named Bertie, and a randy rooster named Alec Baldwin. Since Juby lives on Vancouver Island, she knows her subject matter well. Woefield is the first novel for adults written by this author of award-winning young adult novels. The language is salty—for example, this quote from Earl: “I didn’t know whether to shit or brush my hair.” The sequel, titled The Republic of Dirt, is just as amusing.

Elinor Florence was raised on a Saskatchewan farm and worked as a journalist in all four Western provinces before moving with her family to the resort community of Invermere, B.C. Her wartime novel, Bird’s Eye View, was published in 2014 and became a Canadian bestseller. Her new novel, Wildwood, tells the story of a single mother from the big city who must live off the grid in the remote backwoods of northern Alberta. Elinor loves village life, Canadian history, old houses, and all things vintage.

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Sarah Henstra picks Catherine Bush's The Rules of Engagement

Catherine Bush’s second novel, The Rules of Engagement, made a huge impact on me when I first read it in 2000 as a young student and fiction writer. I devoured this brilliant book while writing my PhD thesis and found myself closely identifying with its main character, Arcadia Hearne. Arcadia is a war researcher bunkered down in her London flat, burying herself in her studies as a way of protecting herself from the riskiness of real life. But her academic subject won’t stay safely at a distance. Arcadia is haunted by traumatic memories of an event from a decade earlier, when she was a student back in Toronto. Two male classmates, rivals for her affection, fought an old-fashioned pistol duel in which one of them was badly hurt. The ghost of this violence is resurrected for Arcadia in London when she becomes involved with Amir, an Iranian refugee, who has bad memories of his own.

Bush’s masterful juxtaposition of external, international conflict and internal, psychological conflict is the engine that drives the story forward. Through her research and her relationship with Amir, Arcadia learns how war is becoming more granular and complex in the late twentieth century, affecting not just armies and politicians but everyday citizens. At the same time she comes to realize how the violence in her past, though smaller-scaled and based on archaic codes of rivalry and chivalry, has had a lasting, deeply crippling impact on her.

Returning to the scene becomes the only way Arcadia can work through her own sense of guilt and responsibility. The novel thus explores the shifting “rules of engagement” on complex philosophical and psychological, as well as political, levels. Almost 20 years later it remains a compelling, timely, and beautifully wrought work of fiction.

Sarah Henstra’s novel The Red Word is out this month from ECW. She is also the author of Mad Miss Mimic, a historical novel for young adults and the scholarly monograph, The Counter-Memorial Impulse in Twentieth-Century English Fiction. She is an associate professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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April 5, 2018
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