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The Art World and the University

A recommended reading list by the author of The Lost Tarot

Book Cover The Lost Tarot

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The Lost Tarot unfolds between two of our most cherished outposts of capital-c Culture: the art world and the university. In my dual roles as novelist and English professor, I’ve come to recognize galleries, museums and educational institutions as spaces of power. They are sites of rigid hierarchy, brutal initiation, exploitative privilege—even of indoctrination and abuse. But these hothouse environments also incubate the cultural seeds of rupture, expansion, innovation and transformation. 

The books on my list mostly feature the same type of protagonist: a woman in some uneasy relationship to institutional power. Whether an artist or a scholar, her passion and uniqueness of vision casts her as heretical, even monstrous. Like me, these authors are fascinated by the slimy underbelly of seemingly cozy, collegial in-groups. They revel in the elastic nature of language and perception, and they favour the deep dive into ideas over the page-turny plot or easy read. Through compelling characters and exquisite prose, they ask us to consider who and what is kept on the fringes of culture, and why.


Book cover Sofie and Cecilia

Sofie & Celia, by Katherine Ashenburg

I’ve long been a fan of Ashenburg’s nonfiction, so I was excited to discover that she’d written a novel about the friendship between the wives of two real-life Swedish painters in the early 1900s. Sofie fascinated me in particular: a talented artist herself, at her husband’s insistence she gives up her painting to support his career and raise their large family, but she also takes up traditional folk handicraft like embroidery which begins to garner her acclaim. Her deep ambivalence—artistic yearning tempered by commitment to the roles she’s been assigned—is portrayed by Ashenburg with beautiful nuance and historical sensitivity. At a key moment in the story Sofie meets a photographer whose experiments with multiple exposures unsettle and inspire her: “She knew what Nils would think of Miss Helmersen’s work—childish, self-indulgent, probably demented. It was strange, no question, and Sofie didn’t always like it. But she felt sure Miss Helmersen was an artist.”

Book Cover Dr. Edith Vane

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr

Poor, research-loving Edith will never measure up to her fraudulent, egotistical colleagues and their hatchet-wielding Dean of Arts. Like every good satirist, Mayr celebrates her subject even as she takes it down. But this book pushes well beyond snarky campus-politics comedy into a wholehearted embrace of spooky, carnivalesque surrealism. Edith’s insecurities bloom into waking nightmares as the humanities literally disintegrate around her: the ceilings of Crawley Hall collapse on professors’ heads, a sinkhole eats the parking lot, and small animals proliferate menacingly underfoot. 

Book Cover Wan

Wan, by Dawn Promislow

What if art is only an escape or a denial of reality rather than an engagement with it? In 1970s' South Africa, a wealthy white artist enjoys a cloistered life painting abstracts in shades of white while the Black servants run the household. A political dissident who shelters in an outbuilding destroys her fragile peace, confronting her with the violent realities of Apartheid and exposing even priviledged lives under such a regime as unliveable. In delicate, nuanced prose, Promislow poses probing questions about artistic agency, conscience and complicity. “You can make beauty out of any ugliness, any great sin,” the troubled artist reflects, “and the question is why, why would you do it? Why must you do it?”

Book Cover Unsettling Canadian Art History

Unsettling Canadian Art History, edited by Erin Morton

This beautifully produced tome—part coffee table book, part essay collection—showcases Indigenous and Black artmaking practices in the white settler spaces of Canada’s galleries, museums, and universities. What can Norval Morrisseau’s paintings teach us about land rights and sustainability? How do artists like Camille Turner and Robert Houle excavate and restore racial memory from colonial urban histories (e.g., Toronto’s)? The complexity of arguments here is brought into the service of promoting and celebrating a generation of artists whose voices disrupt and transform what it means to live and create in this country.

Book Cover Twin Studies

Twin Studies, by Keith Maillard

Dr. Erica Bauer, a psychologist who studies twins, is struggling with the devastating loss of her own twin sister when she meets a pair of precocious young siblings whose bond defies scientific explanation. The storyline sprawls and doubles and spirals in on itself in messy, fascinating ways as Maillard explores the limits of professional ethics, friendship, fanship, grief and depression. What is a family if not a case study, an ongoing experiment, a work of art?

Book Cover Ordinary Notes

Ordinary Notes, by Christina Sharpe

This nonfiction book, like its author, is a boundary-crosser. Sharpe, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the the Humanties at York U, interrogates the languages of history, memorials, museums and other sites of cultural memory. She seeks new ways to narrate Black lives, to reckon with everyday experiences of racism and violence but also of connection and care. The dense collage of “notes” spans several genres including philosophy, political commentary and memoir. Recounting her mother’s regular “Sunday teas” with their songs and recitations of Black writers’ work, Sharpe concludes, “The reading life, the beauty-filled one, was central to the liveable internal life my mother tried to carve out for us and to equip us to make for ourselves.” 

Book Cover Higher Ed

Higher Ed, by Tessa McWatt

A large, lively cast of characters whose lives interweave assert varying perspectives on the hardships of campus and city life. Everyone is looking for connection, trying to heal old hurts, hoping for love. McWatt’s deft control of the individual narrative voices gives the book an immersive, saga-like quality, and the cumulative effect is both comical and moving.

Book Cover the Dictionary of Animal Languages

The Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka

Like Promislow’s Wan, this novel centers an avant-garde artist looking back on her life from a location of old age and (self) exile. While compiling her magnum opus—a conceptual compendium of animals’ emotions—she receives a letter from a granddaughter she didn’t know she had. This disruption prompts her to relive the heady, fertile days of her art education in Paris between the wars. Through in its meditative first-person point of view, the story offers us a fly-in-amber experience: the past preserved in all the prismatic, crystalline detail of suspended animation.


Book Cover The Lost Tarot

Learn more about The Lost Tarot

A legendary set of tarot cards is the key to unravelling decades of secrets in this dazzling novel about art and deception, from Governor General's Literary Award–winning author Sarah Henstra.

Theresa Bateman, a struggling junior art historian in Toronto, receives a single tarot card in the mail. The image is unmistakably the work of celebrated avant-garde artist Lark Ringold, and its discovery would mean a breakthrough in Theresa's career. But the legendary Ringold Tarot doesn't exist. . . . Its paintings were lost in a fire that claimed Lark's life along with dozens of others—the final, horrific implosion of a notorious cult called the Shown.

Sixty years earlier in England, Lark and his twin sister Nell join a bohemian commune led by their charismatic uncle. While Lark settles happily into his work on the tarot project to aid in his uncle's occult teachings, Nell finds it harder to adjust. Just beneath the Shown's golden surface she uncovers secrets that, if revealed, threaten to erupt into chaos.

Why was the tarot card sent to Theresa? How can she prove its connection to Ringold when her art-world superiors declare it a fake? And who has been holding onto it for all these years—and why? As Theresa follows the trail of the lost tarot, she is drawn into the deeply entwined mysteries of Nell, Lark and the Shown. What begins as the tale of one artist and the battle over his legacy unspools into a web of passion, violence and deceit. In twist after startling twist, and in vibrant, exquisite prose, The Lost Tarot is a landmark novel about love, creativity, power and perception.

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