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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Making the Familiar Strange

A recommended reading list from the author of the short story collection How You Were Born.

Book Cover How You Were Born

The tenth-anniversary edition of Kate Cayley's award-winning collection How You Were Born (which includes three new stories) is up for giveaway throughout March.

Head over to our giveaway page for your chance to win, and also to check out everything else that's on offer.


I’m not sure if this counts as a thematic category, but I’m going to treat it as one. I love books that make me feel off-kilter in an interesting way, that make me reconsider what is daily and ordinary and not. Like being in a familiar kitchen but seeing it uncannily, from a different angle. As if you were suddenly lying underneath the table rather than sitting at it. The world, which seemed familiar, is made new.


Book Cover The Dolls Alphabet

The Doll’s Alphabet, by Camilla Grudova

This book is a small masterpiece of the detailed, the odd, the obsessive and the folkloric. None of these stories, as far as I know, are based on existing folktales, but they have the confidence of myth, and the intricacy of miniature houses or containers of glass beads. Woman shed their skins, becoming metallic like sewing machines. A shop in Kensington Market has more to it than meets the eye. An attic room conceals angels. If you haven’t read it, go out and find it right now.


Book Cover How to Pronounce Knife

How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa

This Giller-winning collection is couched in precise, dispassionate language that gains slow power by understatement. A feat of immense technical skill and daring: it takes craft to conceal craft. These stories, in their plain diction, camouflage how outrageous they actually are, how blunt and violent and difficult. An old woman has an affair with a much younger man. Two children go trick-or-treating for the first time. A young woman ponders her mother’s obsession with a country singer. In the title story, a child refuses her teacher’s pronunciation, insisting on a small act of loyalty.


Book Cover The Adult

The Adult, by Bronwyn Fischer

A young girl moves to Toronto from a small town in Northern Ontario to attend university and falls into a relationship with a woman 20 years older than she is who she meets in a park. Told in first-person, this book is a study in growing up: leaving home, finding love, finding sex, finding ambivalence never ends, while maintaining a detached and dreamlike narration.


Book Cover Paper Houses

Paper Houses, by Dominique Fortier

This singular book could be described as an experimental novel, blending the narration of a person who might be the author with a kind of fictional biography of Emily Dickinson, but that wouldn’t quite convey delightful it is. Sometimes experimental doesn’t mean taxing or difficult. The title refers to “paper towns,” meaning the 19th-century cartographer’s trick of placing a fake place name on a map to make sure rival cartographers didn’t copy their work. In this book, we all might be paper towns, imagining ourselves into existence.


Book Cover The Anatomy of Keys

The Anatomy of Keys, by Steven Price

A biography-in-poems of Harry Houdini. I am obsessed with this book, from the opening line “the trunk alone understands the journey.” I found it in a bookstore by chance (ages ago, I don’t know where the time goes), and was amazed. This book reflects the subject: it’s a conjuring trick, a sleight of hand, an escape act. Dazzling. I reread parts of it whenever I need to be reminded of what poetry does, and why.


Book Cover The Natural Hustle

The Natural Hustle, by Eva H. D.

More poems. This one was just published. You will not walk a street the same way again. This is what poems about city streets should be like: dirty, exciting, frenetic, surprising, broken glass and shouting, sirens a long way off, growing nearer.


Book Cover The Natural Hustle

The Third Person, by Emily Anglin

An unsettling collection in which very little happens, but everything does. You will be left with an impression of what it’s like to walk alone at night, and notice a lighted window in a building above you. I can’t think of a better thing to be left with.


Book Cover Beauty and Sadness

Beauty and Sadness, by Andre Alexis

This book combines essays with fiction to brilliant effect. Alexis wages a funny and quietly subversive war against Canada’s tendency towards literary homogenization, whether that means an insistence on “uplifting” stories and the writers who peddle them, or a tendency to ignore the genuinely weird, like this book. One of the stories is based, if memory serves, on a Balzac story the author heard of in an interview with the musician John Cale, which he then searched for extensively and concluded didn’t exist. But the premise was too good to pass up. So he wrote it himself.


Book Cover How You Were Born

How You Were Born, by Kate Cayley

Lastly, I’d like to recommend my own book. I think it does a pretty good job of making what is ordinary strange, whether it’s an encounter with an old woman in the Appalachian Mountains in 1967, or two girls playing Bloody Mary in a school bathroom, or a girl being persuaded by her brother that their neighbours are Nazis.

Learn more about How You Were Born: A young mother intrudes into the life of an older woman, thinking she knows what's best. An academic becomes convinced that he is haunted by his double. Two children spy on their supposedly criminal neighbours. A man enables his cousin's predatory impulses out of loyalty, and a circus performer dreams of a perfect wedding. These characters fail despite their best intentions and continue on despite their failures.

The stories in How You Were Born, each more incisive and devastating than the last, examine the difficult business of love, loyalty, and memory. Sharing the bizarre and tragi-comic of life—whether in present-day Toronto or in small towns of the early 20th century—Cayley champions the importance of connections, even when missed or mislaid, and the possibility of redemption.

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