Reading in the midst of a global pandemic

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As I write this, it seems like everyone is either social distancing or self-isolating because of COVID-19. At least we have books.

Stories connect us. They show us other perspectives, introduce us to new ideas, make us feel things on a deep level. Books can provide us with a lot of joy. But while all of this is true, reading during a global pandemic can be tricky. How can you get your mind to focus on the words on the page when there is so much going on?

So here’s how I’m approaching reading these days.

Turning to stories that offer escape

Earlier this week, I finished The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, which was a perfect book for me to read right now. I was able to immerse myself in this other world–one that was magical and enchanting, that talks about stories and books in such a beautiful way. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so I can’t compare this to other novels in the genre, but this book gave me the escape I needed.

Finding books that make me LOL

My current read is Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and I’ve found myself chuckling at socially awkward Eleanor more than once. I’m about a third of the way into it, and I feel that something is coming that’s going to pull at my heartstrings, too. So maybe it will be one of those books that makes you laugh and makes you cry, too.

Skipping the dystopian fiction

A lot of people are reading or recommending Emily St. John Mandel’s wonderful novel Station Eleven lately. While I did enjoy that book, I definitely don’t want to read about civilization collapsing at this moment. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker is another book I really liked but it seems to be hitting too close to home at the moment. I don’t want to read about a virus right now, TYVM. Maybe later.

Re-visiting favourites

I may re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters–two gothic novels that I love and can really sink into. The familiarity of re-reading a favourite book can be comforting, but also it’s great because, if you get distracted, it’s not like you’ll be completely lost. You already know what happens! I find myself craving childhood favourites, too, like Judy Blume YA novels. Alas, I don’t have those books on hand.

Doing other stuff

No matter what the state of the world is, I will always love to read. But when I find it too difficult to focus, I do other things. I exercise, bake, cook, connect with friends and family online, sketch…maybe even write a blog post. Reading will always be there, so don’t feel bad if you have to take a break from it.

The books I read in 2019

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The 2019 best-of book lists are out, and, if you’re like me, you’ve added a few (or many) titles to your to-read list. While I get excited thinking of all the books I want to read, I also like to reflect on what I’ve read in the past year (as I’ve done in 2018, 2017 and 2016). So I’m putting down my mug of tea and plate of shortbread cookies to break it down. Maybe you’ll find another book or few to add to your to-read list?

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (592 pages):

The shortest book I read

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (97 pages)

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

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield. I had heard good things, so I was intrigued, but I didn’t think this book sounded up my alley. I’ve often been dismissive of magic realism, and, while I’ve been really into linked short stories in the past few years, other short story collections haven’t appealed to me as much. But I loved this collection. Armfield does an amazing job of using fantastical elements to illustrate real and universal female experiences. I borrowed a copy from the library, but I may buy one, too (I already want to reread some of these stories).

The book I expected to love but didn’t

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada. This is a case where formatting really affected my enjoyment of the writing. This book is filled with long paragraphs. I think the only places there were paragraph breaks were when there were time breaks. I found it especially difficult with dialogue, as I’d lose track of who was speaking or even if it was dialogue or narration. It’s too bad because the story was a wonderfully weird take on modern life–about three unrelated characters who work in different areas of a factory–but I had so much trouble following that I couldn’t really get into it.

The book that I loved to hate

Dead Heat by Benedek Totth. I was attracted to this book because I’d heard it compared to Trainspotting (which I am a big fan of) and because I love coming-of-age stories (this one about a group of teenagers on a swim team in Hungary). But I didn’t expect it to be quite so raw and violent and gritty. I didn’t expect so much of the book to make me feel physically ill or for it to make me angry in so many places. I’m impressed by any writer who can evoke those kinds of feelings in a reader. It certainly is well-written. I can’t call this book “enjoyable,” but reading it was quite an experience.

The book I knew I wanted to read from the title alone

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine. I read my share of non-fiction books about language, as many word nerds do. But a work of fiction called The Grammarians? This novel had my heart before I knew the premise. I fell in love with this one because of its playfulness with language and its humour. But I liked it even more because Schine tied these aspects with a more poignant story of two sisters who are inseparable and how they come apart.

The book that taught me a lesson I didn’t know I needed

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson. I’ve thought about privilege in many ways in the past few years. What I hadn’t given much thought to was my privilege as a native English speaker as someone who lives in Canada. This book made me think about that a lot. And it has me thinking about how I can use my passion for language in ways that are more beneficial to others.

The book I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t taken part in the Toronto Public Library’s reading challenge

Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton. To be honest, there were several books I wouldn’t have read this year if I hadn’t participated in the library’s reading challenge. But some of these were books that had been on my to-read list for years, or ones that I could see myself stumbling across eventually. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have picked up this one in any other circumstance. I read the library’s blog post about non-prose books and saw this one as a suggestion. The book consists of mostly drawings with minimal text, and explores jealousy in relationships.

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

  • The Body in Question by Jill Ciment: The story centres on two sequestered jurors on a murder trial who have an affair…but there’s so much more going on in this one, too.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: An excellent psychological, twisty and unputdownable thriller about a woman who kills her husband, then refuses to talk, and the therapist who is determined to get her to speak.
  • Educated by Tara Westover: An incredible memoir that tells the story of a woman who is born into a family of survivalists.

My 5 favourite books read in 2019

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: A heartbreaking story about a Nigerian poultry farmer who will do anything to be with the woman he loves.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A fun and dark thriller (love this combo!) about a woman who is constantly having to clean up her sister’s messes–the murders of her sister’s boyfriends.
  • How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas: A story about adolescence, sibling relationships and tragedy. This book was sweet, sad and very funny, too. I adored the narration of protagonist Isidore Mazal–the youngest of six siblings–who is 11 years old when the book opens and 13 when it ends.
  • Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: A woman begins looking after her former roommate’s stepchildren: twins who have the ability to spontaneously combust. It’s so weird and funny and touching all at the same time.
  • Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: A collection of short stories that blend realistic depictions of female experiences with beautiful fantastical elements.

By the numbers

Books bought: 47% (bought new: 44%, bought used: 3%)

Books borrowed from the library: 39%

Books received as gifts: 7%

Books borrowed from friends: 7%

Books written by Canadian writers: 27%

Books written by women: 70%

Books published in 2019: 49%

Fiction: 78%

Non-fiction: 22%

So it looks like I did increase my non-fiction books and have read some genres and writing styles I have avoided in the past. For one thing, I think I have to stop saying I’m not into magic realism. Not sure when it happened, but I think I actually really am into it…like, maybe even a lot?

I said I wanted to read bigger books in 2019…but that didn’t really happen. I’d like to take that goal into 2020. But, even more, I’d like to not put too much pressure on myself. I’m continuing to grow as a reader, and that’s good enough for me.

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.

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.)

Spring and summer reading: the books I want to read next

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It’s the end of May, so it’s basically already summer. For the next few months, I’ll be spending a lot of time with my books outside, sitting in a park or on a patio. Here are some of the books I plan to read.

Books released this spring or summer

Calypso by David Sedaris (May 2018)

I know when I need a laugh, David Sedaris is going pull through for me. So as soon as I heard Calypso was coming out, it went on my to-read list. As if Sedaris’ laugh-out-loud essays weren’t enough to make this suitable summertime reading, the essays in Calypso are apparently themed around Sedaris’ purchase of a beach house. So it’s kind of the perfect book to take to the beach.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (May 2018)

The latest novel from Sarah Winman was released in the UK in 2017, and I’ve wanted to read it since I first heard rumblings about it. I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about Winman’s last novel, but I can’t express how much I absolutely loved When God Was a Rabbit (I should really reread that book). Tin Man is about two boys who become friends at 12 years old and then the story jumps forward to many years later to examine what happened in the years in between. It’s described as “heartbreaking,” and I guess I sometimes I like it when books break my heart.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (June 2018)

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of  translations of Japanese books. But I hadn’t heard about Convenience Store Woman until I saw @Booktrovert tweet about it as part of her summertime reading list. The story is about a 36-year-old woman who has worked in a convenience store in Tokyo for the past 18 years. My understanding is that it’s about societal expectations of employment and adulthood, and that it has it’s share of funny moments too.

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively (June 2018)

I’ve recently developed more of an interest in plants and flowers. Because of this, I was looking up gardening memoirs a few weeks ago and came across Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively. Lively is British, and since the Brits use “garden” to describe what North Americans would call a “yard,” this is not exactly what I was looking for. But this sounds even better! I’m a sucker for books that are described as being part memoir and part meditation on a topic. This book is supposed to be not only a memoir about Lively’s experience with gardens, but it’s also an examination of gardens in literature. Sounds amazing!

Books that are slightly older

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is our next pick for family book club. It’s been on my bookshelf for a while, but I’ve never read it (assigned reading in university that I never got to). I’m excited to have the push to finally crack this one open.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I’ve been really into Haruki Murakami lately. After years of avoiding him because I thought his books would be too weird for my tastes, I am making up for lost time. I snagged a copy of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World from a friend who was moving and getting rid of some books. (The bonus is that this was the Murakami title I already wanted to read next!)

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

A co-worker recently read Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore and recommended it to me. It’s about a bookstore patron who commits suicide and the bookstore employee who tries to solve the mystery left behind.

There are more books of course (there are always more books), but these are the ones I want to get to for the next little while. What are you looking forward to reading this summer?