A reader’s guilt

Reader’s guilt. That’s a thing, right? Logically I know that the only way guilt is worthwhile is if your conscience is telling you you’ve done something wrong and that you should take steps to fix it. When it comes to reading, I don’t feel like I have done anything wrong. (I mean, how can you do reading wrong?) But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling guilty when it’s not warranted. What I’m not as sure about is if other readers feel guilty about the same things I do. So here I am, coming clean about what I feel guilty about when it comes to reading.

Giving a book fewer than three stars on Goodreads

When I first started using Goodreads, it was just so I could track the books I read. I didn’t use any of the social aspects of the site, and I didn’t think about my ratings contributing to a book’s overall rating. But as time has gone by, I’ve become more aware of this. When I finish reading a book that I didn’t particularly enjoy, I struggle with how to rate it. This isn’t so much the case for classics or extremely successful writers, but it’s certainly true for new books and even more so for debuts. I don’t want to deter others from picking up the book (tastes are so subjective). On the other hand, I want to keep an honest record of how I felt about what I’ve read.

Not finishing books

I’ve been getting better with this one, but there’s still some guilt when I put a book aside before reaching the end. But I’ve realized that sometimes you just can’t get into it. Maybe it’s the particular time you picked up that book, or maybe it really is that that particular book isn’t for you. But if you’re not enjoying reading a book, you don’t have to keep reading it. What a concept! I think the pandemic helped me finally learn this. Read the book you want to read in that moment. (Unless you are a student, or an academic, or a book reviewer, or–okay, I’ll just clarify that I’m talking about reading for pleasure here.) Why does it sound like l I am trying to convince myself?

Not being able to read all the books

This is a common feeling amongst avid readers. And it can be stressful, too. There are so many books out there and new ones coming out all the time. And this is actually great! This is wonderful! Let’s surround ourselves with books and never run out of stories to choose from and new voices to hear from. But it’s just impossible to get to all the books we want to read. The TBR pile is always going be teetering. I will always regret that I can’t get to all the books I want to. But never running out of things to read? It seems like a pretty good trade-off.

Books and bakes #3: Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear and blondies

The bake

I wanted something sweet the other day (I pretty much always want something sweet, tbh), but I was also feeling lazy. I wanted to bake something that was easy and fast and that I could make with the ingredients I already had on hand. Smitten Kitchen to the rescue! These blondies are done in 45 minutes–from the time you start to when you take the pan out of the oven–and requires just a few, basic ingredients. It’s perfect for when you get that spontaneous urge to bake (or eat) something.

You can customize this recipe, too. I’ve made these blondies before, and I once added crushed-up pretzels and chocolate, which turned out beautifully. I didn’t have any pretzels this time and had to make do with what I had in the cupboards. This meant I didn’t get any kind of interesting combo and added only chocolate chips. (That’s not a bad thing, though, if you like chocolate as much as I do.)

The book

I’m reading Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear by Matthew Salesses, which I first heard about through The Millions. It’s a quirky book about a man named Matt who increasingly feels like he is becoming invisible. And then he finds out he has a doppelgänger who is supposedly better than him in basically every way. Matt learns this after meeting his girlfriend’s doppelgänger, who happens to have been dating Matt’s doppelgänger. But now Matt’s doppelgänger has disappeared. It’s a weird and smart novel and I am enjoying it.

Books and bakes #2: Big Girl, Small Town and stromboli

The bake

I don’t bake a lot of savoury things. Sweets are more in my wheelhouse. But this recipe for stromboli on Sally’s Baking Addiction interested me. So when my boyfriend suggested we bake something together, it seemed like a great time to try out this recipe. (Plus, it saved us from figuring out what to have for dinner.) Sally’s recipe calls for enough dough to make two stromboli, suggesting you use the dough to bake one and freeze the second to use another time. But we made both so that we could try different filling combinations. We made one with pepperoni, red pepper, Edam, and mozzarella. We filled the second with ham, mushrooms, cheddar, and mozzarella. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d choose the pepperoni, But they were both delicious! As Sally points out, it’s a combination of bread, cheese, and meat, so you can’t really go wrong.

The book

This weekend, I’ve been reading Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen. This novel is about a young woman who works in a fish-and-chips shop in a small town in Ireland. Majella lives with mother, who is an alcoholic and often needs Majella to look after her. Majella is also dealing with the recent murder of her grandmother, for which there has been no arrest. That all sounds much more grim than the book actually is. I’m only about 50 pages in. So far, Gallen has given a real sense of Majella’s quiet and mundane life, but I am hoping for more of the hilarity and entertainment that the book jacket copy and endorsements promise.

Books and bakes #1: The Discomfort of Evening and cinnamon rolls

It’s a grey Sunday here in Toronto, and, while it’s not too cold (for January), it’s one of those lazy days where I haven’t left the house. I knew I’d get some reading in today but wasn’t sure I felt up to baking. Then I realized it was a good time to bake something with yeast, since I could read while I waited for the dough to rise.

The bake

I’ve been thinking about baking cinnamon rolls for a while, and today was my first attempt. I used the Easy Cinnamon Rolls (from scratch) recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. These were, in fact, quite easy to make. But next time I think I need to make a better roll (like, make it tighter or something?). Anyway, I enjoyed one of these fresh from the oven with a bit of icing drizzled on top. I didn’t frost all of them, as I’m planning on freezing some of them. My guess is that, even if I warm up the others, they won’t be quite as good later on. But they’re still homemade cinnamon rolls, and that’s something to be excited about.

The book

I’m reading The Discomfort of Evening, written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchinson. The story follows Jas, a young girl, who lives on a farm in the Netherlands with her family. Her older brother, Matthies, dies tragically at the very beginning of the book, and Jas and her remaining siblings are left to contemplate death and watch their parents grieve. The novel is well written (it did win the 2020 International Booker Prize, after all), and I am interested in the characters and how they cope with Matthies’ death, but I am finding it a little heavy and somewhat disturbing for my current mood. Luckily, the cinnamon rolls are providing a bit of comfort to go with this discomfort.

The books I read in 2020

Back in March, when COVID-19 first infiltrated our lives here in Canada, there were a few weeks where my reading habits changed. I found it difficult to concentrate. When I could concentrate, I certainly didn’t want to read anything too dark or heavy. But it wasn’t very long until, for the most part, I got back to my regular reading habits. I’ve read almost as many books in 2020 as I did in 2019.

It’s been a strange year (what an understatement!). As 2020 comes to a close, there’s a lot I don’t want to think about–a lot of things I wish I didn’t have to think about. It’s nice to take a break to reflect on the things I do want to hold on to, including the books I’ve read during these past 12 months.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (588 pages)

The shortest book I read

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (99 pages)

The book I didn’t expect to like but ended up loving

Reproduction by Ian Williams. I probably wouldn’t have read Reproduction if it weren’t for the Giller Prize. And that’s not because the novel won the 2019 prize, either. During the award ceremony, before the winner was announced, I tuned in to the broadcast and heard Williams describe his book. I was sold. Prior to that, I didn’t know much about the novel. I had picked it up at the bookstore once and flipped through it, noticed that it was a bit experimental, and decided I wasn’t feeling that. I’m glad I was swayed to read this because I loved this story of an unconventional family in the Greater Toronto Area in the 1990s. And the experimental structure turned out to be a delight!

The book I expected to love but didn’t

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s no secret that I’m partial to a good coming-of-age tale. This one is a classic–one I’ve heard about for many years and that has been adapted into film. This might be a case of me expecting too much from a book, but there are many novels in this genre that have spoken to me more than this one did. I didn’t hate this book, but it was a bit forgettable.

The book that is perfect for everyone to read right now

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. I read about Wintering somewhere online (of course I don’t remember where) and promptly added it to my to-read list on Goodreads. I do this with a lot of titles, and many remain on the list for some time (or never leave it). However, it was only the next day or so after I added Wintering that I was in the bookstore and, not looking for this book, happened upon a copy on a table. I was compelled to buy it. Wintering is partly a memoir and partly a meditation on the times in life when things are just, well, bad. Instead of fighting against our difficulties, why not try to accept them and comfort ourselves instead? In this beautifully written book, May looks at her own experiences and also shares examples from nature about resting and retreating during dark times.

The book that made me LOL

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This book has been out for a couple of years, but it previously hadn’t interested me enough to pick it up. But then, when the pandemic hit, I was looking for something lighter to read, something that might make me laugh. And Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine delivered. This novel about a socially awkward woman learning how to open up and deal with her dark past is very funny and uplifting without being corny or overly sentimental. It was just what I needed.

The book that had been sitting on my bookcase unread for too long

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. I can’t believe I hadn’t read this novel until this year. I bought it a few years ago, after The Paying Guests came out (the first Waters book I’ve ever read.) After reading that one, which I adored, I kept hearing Fingersmith was Waters’ real masterpiece. I picked it up at the bookstore and then just never got to it. I even read The Little Stranger in the meantime, which remains one of my favourite books ever. And yet Fingersmith sat and waited for me. And then this year, when the libraries were still closed and the bookstores weren’t open for browsing, I finally picked it up. Fingersmith is an engrossing twisty novel about petty thieves in Victorian England, and I enjoyed it immensely (but not as much as I enjoyed The Little Stranger).

The books that had me saying “Just one more chapter”

  • Daniil and Vanya by Marie-Helene Larochelle, translated by Michelle Winters: A story about a couple who adopt twin baby boys, but the happy family they imagined doesn’t quite work out.
  • We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper: A true story about the 1969 murder of a female Harvard anthropology student that remained unsolved for 40 years until Cooper first hears rumours about the murder as an undergrad. She then spends the next 10 years looking into what happened, trying to find justice for the victim.
  • Throw Down Your Shadows by Deborah Hemming: A coming-of-age story set in rural Nova Scotia about manipulation and the dark side of teenage relationships.
  • Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan: A compelling novel about a lawyer who learns the client she has been having an extramarital affair with has tragically died. The story follows her as she befriends his widow as she tries to make sense of his death and of their relationship.

My 5 favourite books read in 2020

  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker: An incredible and true story of mental illness and a thought-provoking exploration of family. My favourite book read this year.
  • Rabbit Foot Bill by Helen Humphreys: Based on a true story, this novel is about a boy in 1940s Saskatchewan who befriends the local tramp, Rabbit Foot Bill, and witnesses him commit a violent murder.
  • Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch: A hilarious novel about being sad and basically being okay with that, even if others aren’t. A real gem.
  • Reproduction by Ian Williams: A quirky, poetic novel about an unconventional family that combines serious subject matter with humour and an experimental structure.
  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré: An impressive debut novel about a Nigerian girl who, despite being sold into marriage by her father, is determined to get an education and have her voice heard.

By the numbers

Books bought: 56% (bought new: 53%, bought used: 3%)

Books borrowed from the library: 31%

Books received as gifts: 7%

Books borrowed from friends: 6%

Books written by Canadian writers: 22%

Books published in 2020: 46%

Fiction: 82%

Non-fiction: 18%

I felt like I had read more non-fiction than in past years, but, in actuality, the number has gone down a bit. Maybe it just feels like more because the non-fiction books that I did read were so damn good. Without being able to browse in bookstores for much of the year, and with the libraries being closed for a few months, I cracked open some of the books that had been on my shelves for months or even years. That being said, almost half of what I read this year was published in 2020 (I do like my contemporary titles).

I finally accepted that it’s okay to not finish a book. I mean, I’ve not finished books in the past, but it’s never been a regular practice for me. Usually, if I am not enjoying a book, I stick with it, hoping something will pull me in. But, in 2020, I put aside more unfinished books than ever before, and I feel good about that. Sometimes the book just isn’t for me, but sometimes it’s just not the right time for that particular title. I like to think of these books as not being “left unfinished,” but more as being “put aside for now.” Sometimes a book will serve us better at a different time in our lives. I like knowing I can return to them later on, when they might be just what I need.

As always (but perhaps this year more than ever before), I am grateful for books. I am thankful for the authors who write them, the publishers who get them out into the world, the journalists and bloggers who promote them, and the bookstores and libraries who get them into the hands of us readers. I don’t know what 2021 will bring, but I am betting that whatever comes our way, books will help us get through it.