On the desire to be better at gifting books

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books on display at The Paper Hound in Vancouver, BC

Surprise, surprise: I love books. I love buying books, browsing books, borrowing books, looking at books, learning about books and, of course, reading books. But, as much as I love gifting books, I’ve been doubting how good I am at it.

I’ve written about why books make the best gifts, and I truly enjoy going into bookstores, thinking about the recipient and choosing something I think they will like based on their interests/life/other books they’ve read and liked. But, as much as I like doing this, I don’t know if I’ve really done a good job of getting it right.

When I think about it some more, it’s not even just gifting books. It’s also giving book recommendations, or lending books to people when they ask for “whatever you think I’ll like.” I like it when people do that, but how many times have people come back and said they loved the book? (Well, it’s happened for sure. I don’t always get it wrong. But I guess I’m saying I wish it happened more.) Thankfully, booksellers and librarians are there to help.

Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself. After all, I don’t always love the books people give or recommend to me, but I do always, always appreciate it when I can see the thought that was put into that selection, when I can see how the person had my interests/life/books I’ve read and liked in mind.

I’ll continue giving books to people (sorry if you’re a person in my life who hasn’t liked what I’ve picked out for you in the past). I can’t help it; I love sharing the book love way too much to stop now.

Are you good at gifting books or offering personalized recommendations? What do you think about when deciding which book to gift or lend someone?

5 Canadian books to look for this spring

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In just a few more days, it will officially–finally–be spring. That means I’m starting to picture myself getting out from under these blankets and taking my books to a patio or to the park. Here are a few CanLit titles coming out this spring that I can’t wait to take with me.

Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas (April 15)

I am not the biggest fan of short-story collections, but I’ve developed a particular fondness for collections where the stories are interconnected. Coconut Dreams is a collection of linked stories following a family and focusing on two siblings. The siblings are first-generation Canadians, and the stories explore their South Asian roots and the family’s experiences as new immigrants.

26 Knots by Bindu Suresh (May 1)

Bindu Suresh’s debut novel, 26 Knots, begins when two journalists meet while covering a fire in Montreal. One journalist falls in love with the other, while the other is in love with someone else…and that person is married to another. Described as being about love, betrayal and obsession, it sounds messy and complicated and very, very good.

Worst Case, We Get Married by Sophie Bienvenu, Translated by JC Sutcliffe (May 8)

Originally published in French, Worst Case, We Get Married is a novel in translation that follows a precocious 13-year-old girl in Montreal. The book is a confessional novel, written as the protagonist’s statement to her social worker, and it sounds like it is quite gritty. The novel was made into a film, but I haven’t seen it yet…and I won’t (at least not until I’ve read the book).

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta (June 4)

Frying Plantain is about a Jamaican-Canadian girl struggling to find her identity as she grows up in Toronto’s Little Jamaica. These linked short stories follow the girl from elementary school to high school graduation and explore themes of discrimination, peer pressure, and family relationships. I am a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, and this debut sounds stunning.

Bunny by Mona Awad (June 11)

I seem to have a thing for dark humour in fiction…or at I least I do lately. Bunny–described as a darkly funny book–is a story about a grad student who abandons her only friend and gets in with a clique of popular girls. I eat up stories about outsiders, and I loved Mona Awad’s first book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, so I am super excited about this one.

Which CanLit titles are you looking forward to reading this spring? Any of these? Something else? I’d love to know.

The books I read in 2018

20181229_135440I’m taking a break from all of the holiday festivities to reflect on the books I read this year. While the amount of non-fiction books has gone up from the books I read in 2017 (and in 2016), I’m clearly still primarily a fiction reader…and probably always will be.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (661 pages)

The shortest book I read

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (96 pages)

The book I expected to hate but didn’t

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. Why did I think I would hate it? I think it might have partly been the cover. It’s not that it’s an unattractive cover, but when I paired it with the title, I thought this was going to be a quirky story about a young woman who moves to the big city and learns to make it on her own. And I just didn’t feel like that was a story I wanted to read. But then I kept hearing how great this book was, so I decided to give it a chance. I’m so glad I did! I loved the character of Andrea and felt very connected to her.

The book I expected to love but didn’t

Census by Jesse Ball. I’d only read one book by Ball before this one (How to Set a Fire and Why). But I wanted to read this one mostly because there was a lot of buzz around it and the aspect of the father-son relationship and road trip sounded interesting. But I just couldn’t get into it. I partly blame myself for this, though, as I don’t know if I gave the book the concentration it deserved.

The book that had been on my TBR list for too long

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I bought this more than a decade ago, when I was in university, but I never got around to it. I finally read it this year when it was selected for one of my book clubs. And, of course, I loved it and couldn’t believe I’d waited this long to read it.

The book that surprised me the most

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. The only other Ondaatje book I’ve read is In the Skin of a Lion, which I picked up years ago. All I remember of it now is feeling confused and not enjoying it. So when I found out that Warlight was selected for book club, I wasn’t too keen to crack it open. But when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. I was immediately drawn by 14-year-old narrator Nathaniel and the mystery of his parents abandoning him and his sister, leaving them under the watch of a strange man they call “The Moth.” This wasn’t one of my favourite books that I read this year, but I did look forward to getting back to it–and it has made me more willing to pick up other Ondaatje titles.

The books with the most interesting structure

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey and Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys. (I can’t choose just one.)

The Western Wind is a mystery told in reverse. The novel takes place in the 1400s in an English village after a man has drowned in the river. The story is told from the perspective of a priest as he tries to uncover whether the man has died by accident, suicide, or murder,

Machine Without Horses is a book in two parts. The first half is non-fiction, with Humphreys explaining her process of writing as she researches the life of salmon-fly dresser Megan Boyd. The second portion is the fictionalized account of Boyd’s life that Humphreys has based on her research.

The book I read at just the right time

For the Love of Mary by Christopher Meades. I bought this book last year, when the publisher, ECW Press, was having a sale. I hadn’t heard of the book before, but the marketing copy described it as a coming-of-age story that included family secrets, and that sounded like my kind of book. I didn’t read it until this summer, when I was in a bit of a reading slump and also feeling a bit down in general, and this book was hilarious and heartwarming and exactly what I needed to read at that time.

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

  • Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (a girl returns to civilization after living in the woods for nearly a decade after being kidnapped by her survivalist father)
  • You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (a creepy novella about a screenwriter and his family renting a house for a week that may be haunted)
  • The Beloveds by Maureen Lindley (a thriller about sibling rivalry, delving into the mind of a woman whose envy of her sister is terrifying)

My 5 favourite books read in 2018

  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (a memoir exploring 17 of the author’s near-death experiences)
  • Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys (an exploration of the life of a salmon-fly dresser and the author’s process of writing the story)
  • That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung (a collection of linked stories following the lives of suburban neighbours)
  • Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan (a man takes over his sister’s life as he tries to find out what happened to her after she was mysteriously stabbed to death)
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (part true crime, part memoir, and part meditation of the author’s love of libraries as she researches the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library)

By the numbers

Books bought: 53% (bought new: 48%, bought used: 5%)

Books borrowed from the library: 41%

Books received as gifts: 3%

Books won as prizes: 1.5%

Books borrowed from friends: 1.5%

Books written by Canadian writers: 30%

Books written by women: 65%

Books published in 2018: 47%

Fiction: 85%

Non-fiction: 15%

For 2019, I’d like to read some longer novels–ones I can really sink into–and I continue to want to get more into non-fiction. But, to be honest, more than anything I just want to keep reading whatever piques my interest.

One lit(erary) weekend in New York City

I recently returned from a brief visit to New York City. I had been to NYC only once before, 10 years ago. Back then, I visited some of the more standard tourist destinations (Times Square, Central Park, etc.). This time, seeing more of the literary side of the city was a priority. Here are some photos of some of the bookish places I checked out on my latest trip to the Big Apple.

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is run by volunteers and its stock comes entirely by donation. All proceeds go to services that support people living with AIDS and HIV.

I told myself I wasn’t going to buy any books in NYC that I couldn’t get in Toronto, because 1.) I didn’t want my luggage to get too heavy and 2.) I want to support my local indies as much as I can. But I made an exception for Housing Works. I picked up a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and a cute Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  journal.

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Three Lives & Company

Three Lives & Company is located on a street corner that is easy to miss. But I had heard many good things about this shop, and I also wanted to stroll around Greenwich Village, so I made sure to check it out. It’s a fairly small shop–which I loved because it felt so cozy–but it certainly seemed well-stocked.

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The Strand

If you’ve heard of only one NYC bookstore, chances are it’s The Strand. Maybe you’ve even taken the quiz that the store gets job applicants to take, such as this version published in the New York Times a couple of years ago.

The store opened in 1927 and claims to have “18 miles of new, used and rare books.” The Strand is also the last remaining bookstore from NYC’s “Book Row”–48 bookstores that used to cover six city blocks.

20180929_18062420180929_18150320180929_181515Browsing the shop was a lot of fun, but what I enjoyed even more was attending Banned Book Bingo in the store’s Rare Book Room. Hosted by drag queen Sol, the evening included free pizza and beer, lots of trivia about banned books, and prizes made of Strand-branded tote bags filled with books and other items (that I did not win). The event cost $15 to attend, but, in return, everyone received a $15 Strand gift card. So, really, I felt like I got a lot for my $15.

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Rizzoli Bookstore

In contrast to The Strand, which sort of feels like a giant warehouse filled with books and book-related items, Rizzoli Bookstore has a much more sophisticated feel to it. Walking in, I was struck by all of the dark wood and chandeliers. In fact, the decor reminded me a bit of Ben McNally Books here in Toronto.

Rizzoli Bookstore has two rooms, The room at the back has two comfy chairs for reading, and, being far back from the street, it’s the perfect place to do some quiet reading.

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Albertine

Since Albertine is located on Fifth Avenue, it was convenient for me to pop in for a quick look on my way to the Guggenheim. Albertine specializes in French-language books, but there are some English-language books, too. (It looked like the English books were all original French titles translated into English, but I could be wrong about this.)

This is a gorgeous bookstore. The mural on the ceiling of the second floor is stunning, and the lighting and furniture almost got me to curl up with a book on one of the couches and forget about the Guggenheim (even if I didn’t understand the language the book was written in).

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New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)

Going inside the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the main branch of the New York Public Library) was a must for this visit. The only problem was, I went on a Sunday. I didn’t realize much of the library is closed on Sundays, so there wasn’t as much to see as there would on a weekday or a Saturday. Even the shop is closed on Sundays. But I did manage to take a guided tour and go inside the Rose Main Reading Room, so I’m happy.

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Alice’s Tea Cup

I’d read about Alice’s Tea Cup. A book-themed tea shop? I had to check it out. Alice’s Tea Cup has three locations: Chapter I, Chapter II and Chapter III. I went to Chapter II on East 64th Street.

The tea was pretty good (I ordered Anna’s Earl Grey) and the scones were delicious (and quite large), but the cream and preserves were disappointing. However, this certainly is a cute place that does feel special.

Before I went, I thought this place might be geared toward children, and I wondered if I would feel out of place. Maybe the cafe does get more children on weekends (I went on a Monday morning), but, while I was there, the place was filled with adults and there appeared to be at least two business meetings happening. So I guess I shouldn’t try to judge who’s going to be interested in an Alice-themed cafe.

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That Time I Loved You shares the secrets of a suburban community

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What I read

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

What it’s about

This collection of linked stories takes place in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in the 1970s after a spate of suicides in the community. Each story centres on one of the neighbours–adults and children–and provides a glimpse of their various experiences during this time.

Why I picked it up

I came across That Time I Loved You while browsing in my local indie bookstore. I was initially drawn by the title and cover image. Then I pulled it off the shelf and read the first sentence: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.” I didn’t need to read any further to know I was walking out of the store with this book.

What I liked about it

I didn’t realize That Time I Loved You was a book of linked stories until I got it home. (It says so in the book flap, but I guess I skimmed over that part.) Short stories and essays have been speaking to me lately. Maybe that’s because it’s summer, and it’s nice to have a book that’s easy to pick up and put down. The linked stories mean you get a book you can dip in and out of while still allowing you to immerse yourself into one group of characters, the way you can with a novel.

I loved how reading each story resembled wandering through the streets and peering through the windows of the houses, seeing who and what was inside. The reader learns about the secrets that the neighbours keep from each other. I loved the suburban setting being a character in itself–how the landscape affected the characters in different ways. I finished this book earlier this week, so it’s not incredibly strange that I’m still thinking about it. But I believe these characters and their experiences will stay with me for a long time.

These stories touch on many serious issues (racism, homophobia, sexual abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, infidelity). However, it doesn’t feel like a heavy book: There is lightness and joy and humour in these stories, too.

You’ll want to read it if…

This is a great choice if you are interested in character over plot, if you want to learn the secrets and get into the heads of the people you read about. Also, if you’re a fan of novels but want to try the short story genre, this book is a great entry point.

Recommended refreshments

A glass of spiked punch that the neighbourhood kids drink during a party in the book’s final story. (Just remember to go easy. You don’t know how much alcohol is in there.)