How to buy books as gifts

20161204_195145In general, I do not enjoy Christmas shopping. It’s crowded, and everyone’s rushed and in a bad mood. But shopping for books is an exception. It’s one of my favourite parts of the holidays. If you haven’t discovered the joy of buying books for your loved ones, here are a few tips.

Consider their interests

Maybe you don’t know what this person likes to read. Maybe you’re not sure how much reading they do at all. There are lots of books that can link to other hobbies or interests they have. Do they like to cook or bake? Check out the newest cookbooks. Maybe they like history and would be interested in a biography of a historical figure. Or you might try a book about gardening or travel.

Connecting a book to a hobby doesn’t mean you have to stick to non-fiction, either. You can find a novel or a book of short stories that has this person’s hobby or interest as a central theme.

Check out their social media feeds

You can, of course, pay attention to the conversations you have with this person, or maybe even sneak a peek at their bookshelves. But when you don’t have the opportunity to do some sleuthing in real life, it’s time to turn to the internet.

The most obvious choice is to see if this person has a Goodreads account. This can show you what they have already read and give you an idea of the kinds of books they like. But you can look beyond Goodreads, too. They might discuss books on Twitter or Facebook. Or maybe they posts photos of books on Instagram.

Ask a bookseller for help

Sometimes, no matter how well you know a person, you could still use some assistance. That’s when you should turn to a professional. Booksellers know of a lot more books than the rest of us do. It’s their job. Tell them a bit about the person you are shopping for and see what they recommend.

Shop in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore

This will make the above point a bit easier, but there’s also something about picking up books in your hands and being able to examine them up close. You can also check out store displays for titles you hadn’t thought of.

Give your personal favourites

This only works if you read a book and you truly think the person you are buying for will like this book, too. But sometimes you don’t need to take a chance on a book you’ve only heard about. Maybe the perfect gift is something you’ve read yourself.

When in doubt, stick with the visual

I love words and perhaps you do, too. But if you’re not sure that your giftee has a similar affinity for reading, go with a coffee-table book or a book of photography. If nothing else, this object of beauty will be something they can display.

Have fun with it

Yes, there’s a chance you’ll give a book that the person won’t read or that you’ll get them a duplicate copy of something they already own. But it really is the thought that counts. Of course this means you actually have to make an effort and not just grab the first thing you see off the shelf. But as long as you’re shopping with someone specific in mind, that will come through. Trust me. And that’s the best gift you can give.

Homegoing: an impressive debut

20161111_092100What I read

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

What it’s about

Homegoing opens in Ghana in the mid-18th century and tells the stories of two half-sisters, who never meet, and follows the lineage of each sister up to present day. Each chapter serves as a window into the lives of one of the sisters’ descendants.

The book begins with a chapter for each of the sisters. Effia is forced to marry a British slaver, and Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters alternate between Effia’s and Esi’s family lines and compare and contrast the lives of the characters in Ghana and in America.

Why I picked it up

I suggested this title to my book club, and the group thought it would be a good choice, so we read it. I’m not sure where I first heard of Homegoing. I only know that I read about it online in a few different places before I suggested it to our book club. I liked the premise, of following the lineage of the sisters over time. I happily purchased a copy from my favourite bookstore.

What I liked about it

In general, I liked the structure of this book. I loved the interconnectedness of the stories, and how oftentimes the characters from past chapters would show up as secondary characters in later chapters. I liked following the families through generations, and seeing the connections between characters who never met.

But while I liked the structure, it did leave me with a couple of frustrations. At times it was hard to keep track of how the characters were connected. (A family tree at the front of the book helped with this, and I was flipping back to it quite a bit.) My other frustration was that there were times when I wanted to stay with a character or story a bit more than Gyasi allowed–not because it felt like she had moved on too quickly, but because she did such a good job with them.

The story I was most captivated with while I read the book, and that stands out to me the most now upon reflection, is the story of H., a convict worker in a coal mine in the south. But each chapter is there for a reason, addressing themes of colonization, enslavement, racism and identity, to name a few.

You’ll want to read it if…

You should read Homegoing if you like historical fiction (or history) and/or novels-in-stories. It’s also a good choice if you’re a fan of family sagas.

It’s not really a good choice if you’re looking for something light. I’m not just referring to serious themes that are addressed. There’s some work involved in keeping the characters straight. It’s also maybe not the best choice if you really want to spend time with a single character and watch them develop over time.

Recommended refreshments

Our book club talked about Homegoing with some red wine and cheese on hand. I don’t know if the refreshments had anything to do with how the meeting went, but we did have some interesting conversation. And, really, wine and cheese is often a good idea.

4 ways fiction can help you get through the darkness 

20161120_162817We’ve entered a very dark time of year, and I mean that literally. Please don’t shoot the messenger, but we’ve got another month to endure before it (slowly) starts getting lighter in the evenings again.

Whether or not you are someone whose mood and well-being are affected by seasonal changes, we all experience figurative darkness at some point. I won’t suggest there is an easy fix for emotional and mental troubles, but a good book can help us navigate through difficult times, or provide a bit of comfort.

So even though you might want to hibernate over the next few months, I strongly suggest you first make your way to your local library and/or bookstore and stock up.

Here are a few ways reading fiction can help you through you a rough time.

It provides emotional support

This is like having a good friend to lean on/cry to. The friend in this case just happens to be fictional. Reading about characters who are experiencing an issue or a feeling that you are can help you realize you’re not the only one going through that. Also, it can be helpful to have an author articulate things you are feeling but don’t know how to put into words.

It can offer potential solutions

You might want more than empathy when reading about a character with an experience familiar to your own. You might want to see what you can do to better your situation. This works particularly well if you’re dealing with a practical dilemma. In this case, you read to see how others have handled situations like yours and consider whether that might work for you.

It helps you consider the experiences of others

You might find it useful to take some of the energy you’ve invested in mulling over your own problems and transfer it to over to think about someone else’s. It gives you a bit of a break from your own troubles, and it can feel good to think and care about another person (even if they are fictional).

 It will entertain you

This seems simple and obvious, but we can put a lot of pressure on the fiction we read. With any kind of art, we might expect it to teach us something, show a different viewpoint or even cause us to have some sort of epiphany. But reading fiction is also important for the fact that it’s entertaining. As human beings, we enjoy stories. A good story might make us laugh, or keep us in suspense, or transport us into another world. Good stories are entertaining. They give us joy. And that might be enough of a reason to get cozy with a stack of books that will keep us busy even after we’ve caught a glimpse of the light.

The Magnificent Six and the 2016 Giller Prize

20161106_162541

Five of the six 2016 Giller Prize finalists (the sixth is behind that man!). From L-R, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Leroux, Zoe Whittall, Madeleine Thien, Mona Awad and the man blocking Gary Barwin.

How normal is it for a reader to get this excited about a literary prize? Because, truthfully, I haven’t really experienced this in the past. But tomorrow the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize will be announced, and I can’t wait to find out who wins.

I’ve read three of the six shortlisted titles (read my reviews of Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder and Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People), and all three are incredible books. But the reason I picked up each of these titles wasn’t because they made the shortlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book just because it was nominated for, or won, a prize. But when books are nominated, they obviously get some more publicity, so I’m more likely to hear about it. And no matter how I find out about a book, if it grabs me, I’ll read it.

Today I attended the Giller Prize Between the Pages event at Koerner Hall in Toronto. The six finalists read from their nominated books and discussed their work. After today, I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick up the three shortlisted titles I haven’t yet read (Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates, Catherine LeRoux’s The Party Wall and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing). They all sound like great books.

The discussion portion of the event (moderated by actor and director Albert Schultz) was fun and insightful. I love hearing writers talk about writing. When Schultz asked the group if they were nervous, Donoghue answered that it’s easier now that the authors have spent some time together and have gotten to know each other. They approach these things “like a gang.” A gang of authors–what a beautiful idea.

Tomorrow should be a long day for the Giller Prize jury, as that’s when they will choose the winner. I’ve read only half of the shortlisted titles, and it would be difficult for me to pick from those three. I don’t imagine it will be easy for them to decide.

Watch it all go down tomorrow at 9 p.m. on CBC Television or via live stream on CBC Books…and read the books written by this wonderful gang of authors, the Magnificent Six.

Looking at Mona Awad’s first novel

20161023_200816What I read

13 Ways of Looking At a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

What it’s about

Set in Misery Saga (Mississauga, Ontario), this book follows Lizzie (aka Liz, Beth, Elizabeth) through her teenage years to adulthood as she struggles with her weight. We get thirteen different stories, thirteen glimpses of Lizzie at a different stage in her life, that explore her relationship with her body, her friends and her mother. We see Lizzie as a fat girl and then as a woman who has succeeded in losing the weight but who continues to struggle with how she sees food and her body. This book explores themes of body image, girlhood and relationships of all different kinds.

Why I picked it up

While I haven’t been making a conscious effort to read the titles on this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, this is the third of the six titles I’ve read. But I’ve actually wanted to read this book for a while. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I really enjoy coming-of-age stories, and I’ve also been reading a lot of Canadian literature this year. I’ll also admit that the allusion in this title to Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” caught my attention. Anyway, after being on my TBR list for several months, I picked up a copy a few weeks ago.

What I liked about it

The structure. This novel composed of thirteen interconnected stories works very well. Each piece works as a standalone story, offering profound moments in Lizzie’s life. Reading them together as a novel provides us with a strong sense of Lizzie throughout her life, having each story build on the next, letting us see how each of these moments affects her later in life.

Awad has done an excellent job with voice and tone in this book, too. Lizzie is relatable in all thirteen stories, as a teen and as an adult. And while there is humour in this book and plenty of funny moments, Awad also doesn’t hold back, confronting some serious subject matter that can at times be uncomfortable.

You’ll want to read it if…

Fans of short stories or lovers or coming-of-age tales will like this one. It’s even better if you like both of those genres.

Recommended refreshments

It will come as no surprise that food is mentioned  a lot in this book. What immediately comes to mind is all the salad mentioned in this book, but it hasn’t made me crave any of it. I can also strongly see Lizzie’s French fries served with ketchup and mayonnaise, but I don’t find that image very appetizing. But the squares of dark chocolate Lizzie allows herself do sound good. So I recommend a bit of chocolate…and, of course, a cup of tea.