The Recommend for Spring 2020: Seven Books You Need to Read

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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 readers, writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.

This week we're pleased to present the picks of writers Sarah Leipcigar (Coming Up for Air), Karina Onstad (Stay Where I Can See You), Alex Pugsley (Aubrey McKee), Shani Mootoo (Polar Vortex), Marjorie Celona (How a Woman Becomes a Lake), Katherine Fawcett (The Swan Suit), and Tara Henley (Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life).


Sarah Leipciger recommends Suzanne, by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette (translated by Rhonda Mullins)

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette grew up with the knowledge that her mother and uncle had been abandoned by their own mother, and that they suffered greatly for this. Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her grandmother, Suzanne, and hired a private detective to discover what she could about this captivating (and I want to say cruel; I want to say selfish, but I’m not entirely confident that’s fair, or that Barbeau-Lavalette would use those words… I’ll just whisper them) this captivating woman, this artist and poet who walked away from her children and later, her husband, in 1950s Québec.

Written in the second person (though framed briefly and poignantly by the first), the result of Barbeau-Lavalette’s search is a fictionalized account of Suzanne’s eighty years, a life which moved through Montreal and Europe and New York. This book is a letter, an indictment and a supposition that digs deeply into the most secretive, shameful and exquisite parts of an elusive woman’s heart. It is written with tenderness and empathy. It is full of lines that compel you to stop reading, lay the book on your lap and savour the words.

Lines like these: “You like touching the books, feeling the paper nip your fingertips. You gather words like nectar, going author to author.”

I cried. I got angry. I learned a thing or two. And if this isn’t enough to whet your appetite: get your hands on a copy of the Coach House Books edition. The paper is weighty and textured. It’s the colour of butter. There’s pleasure in simply turning the pages.


SARAH LEIPCIGER is the author of the acclaimed novel The Mountain Can Wait and the upcoming novel Coming Up for Air. She won THIS Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt and her stories have been shortlisted for the Asham Award, the Bridport Prize, the Fish Prize, and the PRISM International Short Fiction Contest. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria and an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths University, and she is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, also at Goldsmiths. Born in Canada, she now lives in London, UK, with her three children, where she teaches creative writing in prisons.



Katrina Onstad recommends Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill

I’m a sucker for coming-of-age novels, probably because even mid-life, I feel like I’m still coming of age and might never arrive on the other side. I suspect a lot of us share that feeling. In this crowded genre, Lullabies for Little Criminals is set apart by Baby, now an iconic character of CanLit (Anne of Green Gables in the red light district of Montreal?). Heather O’Neill imbues 13-year-old Baby with a magical eye on the underworld she inhabits. Just shy of an orphan, Baby grows up on the streets of Montreal with an absent mother and a dad, Jules, who’s both wearyingly drug-addled and intoxicatingly eccentric. He comes and goes, leaving Baby to mostly fend for herself. She’s a heartbreaking guide, poetic and comic, navigating a hazy maze of untended kids, dealers and foster parents. As a reader, you want to reach out and grab Baby as she falls, her burgeoning adolescence on a crash course with a local pimp named Alphonse. It’s hard to believe that Heather O’Neill was ever a new writer; she’s so deeply entrenched in the Canadian literary soil today. But this book, her first, published in 2006, only feels like a debut in the best way: raw, wildly imaginative, unfettered. It’s a book that comes back to me in fits and starts even now, especially this line: “Childhood is the most valuable thing that’s taken away from you in life, if you think about it.”

KATRINA ONSTAD'S third novel, Stay Where I Can See You, is out this month. Her first non-fiction book, The Weekend Effect, “brilliantly chronicles the birth, death and revival of the weekend,” according to Success. Her best-selling second novel, Everybody Has Everything, has been published in several countries and was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Toronto Book Award. Her first novel, How Happy to Be, was a NOW Magazine Best Book of 2006. Born and raised in Vancouver, BC, Katrina now lives in Toronto with her family.


Alex Pugsley recommends Emma Fitzgerald's Hand Drawn Halifax

What to recommend?  We happen to be living in a vitalization of poetry and prose from young Indigenous writers. Alicia Elliot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Joshua Whitehead, Kai Cheng Thom, Gwen Benaway, and Arielle Twist are just a few of the creative artists, literary division, who have recently arrived. I encourage you to keep track of them. Three slightly older offerings that were very important to the writing of my book are Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, A Bird in the House by Margaret Laurence, and The Street by Mordecai Richler. These all came out within two years of each other, all can be understood as story-collections-as-novels, and all feature adult first-person narrators remembering the lives, loves, and losses of childhood. But, as my novel is about the capital of Nova Scotia, let me recommend Emma Fitzgerald’s Hand Drawn Halifax, a sketchbook of the storied spots in that saltwater city. It’s magic.

ALEX PUGSLEY is a writer and filmmaker originally from Nova Scotia. His new novel, Aubrey McKee, which collects award-winning work from The Journey Prize Anthology and Best Canadian Stories, will be published this spring.


Shani Mootoo recommends Gwen Benaway's Holy Wild

Holy Wild might be about myriad things, but in the end I believe it is about love. Wanting to love, and to be loved. As one is. Not as others might see you, or want you to be, but as you are. It’s not a lecture, or a slap on the wrist. It’s a plea. For love. I’ve been reading this book of poems over and over since I got it, and I continue to be moved with each reading, and my mind keeps being opened—not only because this book is full of desire and longing that every human with a heart will recognize—but because of an undercurrent: masculinity. This is what has surprised me most, and awed me: it takes coming to see how a man treats a trans woman, to further my understanding about certain kinds of masculinity and misogyny. The book exposes a twisted hatred whose particular nuances are extremely important to know if misogyny is to be combated fully. And all directed at a human being who simply desires the most beautiful and basic of gifts: love and to love. And all of this in lines of poetry that make me read them again and again. It takes admirable courage and strength that no doubt come from wisdom, and the long view, to write a book like this. There’s a kindness, a straightforwardness that is crisp, succinct and earth-encompassing that stirs the poetry lover in me.

SHANI MOOTOO was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and lives in Canada. She holds an MA in English from the University of Guelph, writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited locally and internationally. Mootoo’s critically acclaimed novels include Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Valmiki’s Daughter, He Drown She in the Sea, and Cereus Blooms at Night. She is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Artist Award, a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the James Duggins Mid-Career Novelist Award from the Lambda Literary Awards. Her work has been long- and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the International DUBLIN Literary Award, and the Booker Prize. Her latest book is Polar Vortex. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.


Marjorie Celona recommends All My Puny Sorrows

In Miriam Toews’ 2014 novel, All My Puny Sorrows, we meet Yoli Von Riesen, whose sister, Elf, wants to die—and that’s all there is to the plot. But what more of a plot do you need?  This is a book about suicide, depression, and grief that will make you laugh. Hard; Lorrie Moore-style. This is a book that examines the world with a gimlet eye, Sigrid Nunez-style. (Someone get the three of them in a room, please.) I felt like I was the last person on earth to read this book—somehow I didn’t get to it until last year—but once I did, I bought everything that Toews had ever written. Also, I finally have an answer to that irritating question, asked of me possibly never but ping-ponging around in my mind inexplicably still, if you could take only one thing with you to a desert island . . . Reader, I’d take this book.

MARJORIE CELONA's debut novel, Y, won France's Grand Prix Littéraire de l'Héroïne and was nominated for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Marjorie's work has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, The Sunday Times, and elsewhere. Born and raised on Vancouver Island, Marjorie teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Oregon. Her new novel, How a Woman Becomes a Lake, is out in March.


Katherine Fawcett recommends Bunny, by Mona Awad

Bunny, by Mona Awad, is a trippy, twisted horror story—and one of the most original books I’ve read in years. The main character, Samantha Mackey is on scholarship at an elite MFA program. Her workshop cohort is a group of rich young women who call each other Bunny and hug incessantly. Navigating what it takes to gain the Bunnies’ respect and somehow maintain her friendship with Ava—the chain-smoking bad girl who always wears a black mesh veil—proves to be rather explosive for Samantha. Beyond that, the book needs to be experienced rather than explained. It’s been described, fairly accurately I’d say, as a hybrid of Heathers and Dr. Frankenstein.

Read Bunny for a bang-on take-down of power, cliquey mean girls, loneliness, high-brow art schools, and the ideal man. Awad achieves a beautiful balance of funny, sad, and shocking, with an undercurrent of “what the hell is happening?” throughout. The writing is delicious; sometimes violent and messy, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes wearing perfectly patterned dresses, heart-shaped sunglasses and smelling of fruity, organic shampoo.

KATHERINE FAWCETT'S acclaimed new collection of short stories is The Swan Suit. Her previous short story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows (Thistledown Press, 2015) was shortlisted for the ReLit Short Fiction Award and for a Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her short fiction has also appeared in Event, Geist, FreeFall, Grain, SubTerrain, and Other Voices. She lives in Squamish, BC.


Tara Henley recommends Pattern Recognition by William Gibson


When I was in my twenties, I was working as a hip-hop journalist for the Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s independent newsweekly. I lived in Kitsilano, quite possibly my favourite neighbourhood on the planet. The problem was that I didn’t seem to fit there. My hometown felt small and suffocating, its scenic beauty oppressive, its residents slow-moving. I had the distinct sensation of being out of place, and was constantly casting about, trying to find a different life. Around that time, I picked up Pattern Recognition by fellow Vancouverite William Gibson. Books have always provided a gateway for me to a bigger world, a bigger understanding, and, indeed, a bigger life. And Pattern Recognition was that kind of book.

The writing is, of course, brilliant. The narrative follows Cayce Pollard, a coolhunter whose sensitivities to corporate commercialization I have not a little in common with, and whose fascination with the shadow realm of the Internet I share. She embarks on an adventure quest, with stops in London, Tokyo and Moscow. The scope of the novel is global, and the ideas probed are among the biggest and most pressing of our time. Pattern Recognition may be loosely classified as science fiction, but like much of Gibson’s work, it’s shaped in profound ways by current affairs.

One of the notions he puts forward here is that of “soul lag.” In London, as Cayce navigates the fog of transcontinental travel, she realizes that her “mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic.” Gibson writes: “Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”

In the years to come, as I myself roamed the globe, walking the streets of Bangkok and Caracas and Johannesburg, contemplating the state of our dark, complicated, radiantly beautiful humanity, I’ve often thought of that paragraph, and indeed that whole book—which forever expanded my thinking about the world, and my place in it.

TARA HENLEY is a writer and broadcaster. Her work has appeared on CBC Television and CBC Radio, and in the L.A. Times, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and The Walrus. Her debut, Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, is out this month.

March 4, 2020
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