Honey, the new novel by Brenda Brooks (whose Gotta Find Me an Angel was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award) is a dark story about obsession. In this amazing reading list, Brooks recommends a wide-ranging list of books she just can't quit.
“Time to pull up stakes and move to smaller, more expensive digs? That means sweating the book test, whittling the library down to its absolute essentials. Who of your too many darlings isn’t going with you? You’ll be ruthless. No excuses. You’ll drop them off at the used bookstore and sell them away for 3 cents per pound, or kilo, or whatever. And so it begins: you choose a darling, read a few sentences—put it back. Pick another, read a few sentences—put it back. Why, here are a few darlings that belong to somebody else! You keep them too.”
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
Oh, what Elizabeth Smart accomplished in 128 pages. In her remarkable foreword to the book Brigid Brophy calls the novel “a rhapsody and a lament,” its images strung together with such perfection that it’s like “saying a tragic, pagan, erotic rosary.” This is the story of a love triangle, Smart’s passion for married poet George Barker with whom she bore four children, a passion which continued throughout her life. Talk about not being able to let go! But who cares now? All that matters is that she transformed her experience into what Brophy calls one of the few masterpieces of poetic prose. I have three editions. I can’t let go of any of them.
Keep That Candle Burning Bright & Other Poems, by Bronwen Wallace
The bookmark tucked into my copy of Keep That Candle Burning Bright is a concert ticket: Commodore Ballroom, April 4, 1996. Emmylou Harris w/Special Guest. I don’t recall who the special guest was that night, but I wish Bronwen Wallace could have been there too and started things off with: I know someone who insists that Emmylou Harris saved her life the year she left her husband. In Wallace’s poem, "Driving", the only music her heartbroken friend could bear was "Pieces of the Sky." What a choice: that’s the album where I realized that it really was possible to want to walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham just to see someone’s face—although, knowing my sense of direction ... This is Bronwen Wallace’s poignant testament to the magic of Emmylou Harris, and a reminder of her own.
The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America, by Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney
In their dedication, the authors honour “the farmers and carpenters of the last three centuries in North America.” Dutch, English, Pennsylvania barns; the connected barn, the circular and polygonal barns—they’re all here in both colour and black and white. I’ve seen several of these beauties first-hand and have often visited the Dalziel Barn on what used to be the outskirts of Toronto. (Someone tell me it’s still there!) But there’s nothing like being surprised by a barn you’ve adored on the page, forgotten about, and then happened upon in the most unexpected way, as when I visited a friend’s Victorian house in Madoc, Ont. some years ago. As we pulled slowly up the drive I could see the house was fantastic—but it was the barn that really got me. Inner voice: Haven’t I seen that hipped gable roof and central carriage door before? And those sash windows. Be still my heart!
Tarts and Muggers, by Susan Musgrave
First published in 1982, Tarts and Muggers (Poems New and Selected) is by turns dreamy, violent, mysterious—always intense. I first read the book as an easterner, but after moving to the Gulf Islands I realized how well these poems evoke the magical feel and mood of the coastal landscape, with its dark, cold rivers, looming forests, and long, slow rains. Trees can be witches, and river hunters. There are boats, ghosts, tracks in the snow. The collection is a meandering dream, like heading out on the water in a boat you can’t be sure is safe until safely landed. But it’s a risk worth taking, as in my favourite poem in the collection: "Doubt Being the Measure of Worth."
Cowgirls, by Candace Savage
What is a woman? How should we define femininity? Look no further than the frontier women of the Canadian and American west who ignored expectations based on sex (and gender), and defined womanhood for themselves; the bronco riders, wild west performers, ranchers, and cattle-women who exchanged their skirts for “divided garments” and rode astride into their lives. The book is filled with dozens of illustrations, archival imagery and photographs from private collections. These are women who knew how to provide a colourful quote: Any woman who does not thoroughly enjoy tramping across the country on a clear frosty morning with a good gun and a pair of dogs does not know how to enjoy life. (Annie Oakley, 1901) This is a vivid reminder of the resourceful, dynamic, and extraordinary women who galloped before us.
Night Walk (Selected Poems), by Roo Borson
Roo Borson’s collection, Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida, won the Griffin Poetry Prize, and I love it too. But Night Walk, published in 1994, is staying put in my bookcase. It’s tempting to simply quote from the poems themselves. Poems like "Save Us From," a riveting, and wry, plea to escape a long list of all things bleak—from “the mind’s eternal sentry,” to “any object in which horror is concealed.” I treasure the collection also for a poem called "Loyalties," which somehow allowed me to feel tender towards myself in a year when life seemed to stretch too far into the future. Or "Summer’s Drug," with its cigarette glowing “like a rose caught in a sunset on a distant hillside.” A keeper, along with all of her others.
Frozen in Time, by John Geiger and Owen Beattie
In 1845 explorer John Franklin and his crew of 128 men, aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were lost in the ice off King William Island while seeking the Northwest Passage. Then, in 1981, Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie and a team of scientists set out to retrace the expedition’s steps. Certain discoveries led them to Beechey Island, where they exhumed the bodies of three Franklin crewmen. It’s a heart-rending adventure within an adventure told by Beattie and author John Geiger. But the reason I can’t let go lies in the photographs of the exhumed crewmen, so well-preserved after 130 years encased in permafrost. One in particular stands out. The hand-painted plaque reads: John Torrington, died January 1, 1846, aged 20 years. There he is in his gray button-up shirt. Strips of linen secure his limbs. His pale, beautiful hands lay along his thighs, perfectly preserved.
Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro
The setting is of course the small town of Jubilee—the fertile ground for all of these linked stories. In the title piece young Del, a hungry reader, witnesses a pathetic act of sexual exposure by an older man, a family friend. The act, carefully noted and detailed in her mind, both repells and intrigues her, but she shares it with no one. She finds that she can’t retell the story to a friend in a funny way, and neither can she put the man back in his old role: “I could not make him play the single-minded, simple-minded, vigorous, obliging lecher of my daydreams.” There are things I understand about the complexities of being a girl, a woman, and even a writer, only because Alice Munro evoked them with such subtle, unerring precision.
David Blackwood, Master Printmaker, by William Gough
I’ll leave you with a book that’s a real commitment. In many ways it’s so much bigger than its actual size. After all it’s called upon to contain images of whales and ships, must hold the scale and sweep of the ocean, the land, the sky. Or perhaps simply a pair of mittens, or a coal oil lamp burning in the night. The actual dimensions of these prints are noted, but it really doesn’t matter. Each one, no matter its size, fills you with a sense of the dignity and valour that existed on a daily basis in another time and place called Newfoundland. Annie Proulx in her foreword: “David Blackwood, in his glass-bottomed boat of memory, gazes down through the deepening water as one might look at drowned Atlantis, and sees the outport world that existed in his childhood.”
Even if I could let go of these books, they won’t let go of me.
As 24-year-old Nicole Hewett mourns at her father’s grave, she worries about her mother, badly injured in the car accident that killed him, and whether they’ll be able to make ends meet. Then she sees her beloved childhood friend, Honey, standing beside her old Cadillac. As Honey approaches, Nicole realizes how numb she’s felt ever since Honey fled their hometown without explanation six years earlier. Before long, Nicole’s old fascination with Honey is reignited, along with a new desire for her wild, charismatic friend. But the prodigal has returned bearing secrets and troubles, and when Honey disappears again Nicole must decide: Is her lover in peril? Or is she the peril?
Honey is a thrilling modern noir novel with a classic refrain: nothing is more dangerous than love.
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