2021 reading: half-time update

We’re halfway through 2021 (which seems wild to me, by the way), so it felt like a good time to reflect on some of my favourite reads so far this year and share some of the books I’m anticipating.

5 books I’ve read and loved this year

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 16)

I tore through this novel that made me love a robot more than I’ve loved many human characters (and I don’t typically read science fiction). Several months later, I still think about Klara.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (March 16)

I relished the different layers in this beautiful novel and in all the characters’ secrets as they were slowly revealed.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (April 13)

This short novel broke my heart with its examination of race and masculinity and the barriers to maintaining a connection.

The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker (May 18)

Disturbing and dark from the first sentence, this story is told through the first-person perspective of an 8-year-old girl who murders a younger child. It’s difficult subject matter for sure, but the story is gripping and moving.

Animal by Lisa Taddeo (June 8)

A man shoots himself in front of a woman, compelling her to escape New York City and finally confront her traumatic childhood. Gritty, raw, and so engaging.

5 books I’m looking forward to this summer

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin (July 6)

A woman struggling with anxiety is mistaken for a job applicant to replace a recently deceased church receptionist. After getting hired, she becomes fixated on her predecessor’s mysterious death.

The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer by Dean Cobb (July 13)

The true story of a Victorian doctor who committed murders in the United States, Canada, and Britain.

We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin (July 27)

These short stories are described by the publisher as “surprising” and “darkly funny.”

All’s Well by Mona Awad (August 3)

A theatre professor with chronic pain is at the end of her rope when she decides to work on a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya (August 31)

A young woman lives in rented rooms and on the sofas of strangers as she searches for her own home and a place in the world.

5 books I’m looking forward to this fall

The Pump by Sydney Warner Brooman (September 7)

A gothic collection of linked short stories set in a southern Ontario town called “The Pump.”

Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente (September 21)

A non-fiction work that examines relations between white and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The Strangers by Katherena Vermette (September 28)

A family saga following generations of the Strangers.

Dog Park by Sofi Oksanen (October 5)

A woman sits on a bench, watching a family play in a dog park. Someone sits next to her, and the woman realizes it is a person whose life she ruined decades ago.

People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami (November 30)

A tiny book of short stories about the different people belonging to a neighbourhood.

Books and bakes #17: Heaven and lemon blueberry yogurt loaf

The bake

I haven’t been baking as much lately, and it’s all because of the changing seasons. When the weather is nicer, I want to be outside more, and I can’t say I love turning the oven on when I’m already sweating. Also, I have been eating a lot of ice cream, so it’s not as though I’ve needed to satisfy my sweet tooth with some baked treats. But I did feel the urge to try this lemon blueberry yogurt loaf from Jo Cooks the other day. The yogurt, along with the lemon syrup, made it so wonderfully moist. The glaze added even more lemon flavour with a bit of sweetness to balance it out. (But I do wish I’d made the glaze a little bit thicker.) The result was a light cake bursting with flavour that wasn’t too sweet. I recommend it for late spring or early summer evenings when you want to take a break from all of the ice cream you’ve been eating (although I’m sure a scoop of vanilla alongside a slice would be quite delicious).

The book

I recently finished Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, a short coming-of-age novel translated into English from the original Japanese. The book centres on a 14-year-old boy called “Eyes” by his bullies (a reference to the protagonist’s lazy eye) and describes the isolation and torment he experiences. The boy becomes secret friends with a schoolmate–a girl who is also being bullied. The two friends never speak in school and communicate primarily through letters and by occasionally meeting in private. The depictions of the bullying can be quite intense–it might be quite triggering for some people. Reading about the trauma these two young teens endure was difficult, to say the least. There is a lot of pain in this book, but there is a lot of beauty, too. I particularly liked the relationship with the boy and his stepmom. And, honestly, I am just in awe of any writer who can provoke so much feeling in a reader with such a short work.

Books and bakes #16: Secrets of Happiness and poppyseed bagels

The bake

I’ve wanted to try making bagels for a while. But, for some reason, I was intimidated. I guess I thought they were complicated. I built up the courage and told my boyfriend I was going to try. He was also interested, so it become a Saturday afternoon project.

It turns out bagels aren’t that difficult to make! We used a recipe from King Arthur Baking Company. Since this was my first time making bagels, I can’t compare to other recipes, but I think the trick to a good bagel is using bread flour (not all-purpose) and kneading the dough long enough to give it that chewy texture. We topped the entire dozen with poppyseeds, but the recipe is for plain bagels with some tips if you want to try variations.

The one part of the process that gave us some trouble was rolling the dough into “smooth” balls. We did our best, but they weren’t totally smooth, meaning the shapes of the bagels were less than perfect. But does it matter how a bagel looks if it tastes as good as these ones did? We didn’t think so.

My one complaint was that some of the bagels stuck to one of the two pans. So next time, I’ll try with greased parchment paper instead of just greased pans.

The book

I’m halfway through Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber. The book is divided into seven sections–sort of a novel and sort of a collection of linked stories. It opens with New York lawyer Ethan learning that his father has a second family and has been living with this secret for years. This first story is told from Ethan’s perspective, and the subsequent sections in the book are first-person accounts from different characters connected to this. (Or at least that’s how it’s been so far. I’m in the fourth section.) I seem to have a thing for linked stories. I like getting an inside look from various perspectives on the same events. So far, I wouldn’t say the book has been “unputdownable,” but I am quite enjoying it.

Canadian short story collections for Short Story Month

May is Short Story Month, and with the Victoria Day long weekend coming up here in Canada, you might consider picking up a collection to read while hanging out in the backyard, on the balcony, or in the park. Here are a few by Canadian writers I’ve particularly enjoyed

How to Pronounce Knife

It’s probably no surprise to see this one on the list. Souvankham Thammavonga’s short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize and has received much praise, both in Canada and beyond. I found these stories about the immigrant experience to be achingly beautiful.

That Time I Loved You

I was hooked from the first sentence of Carrianne Leung’s book That Time I Loved You: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.” This collection focuses on a group of neighbours in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in the 1970s. Reading these stories was like wandering the neighbourhood and peering into the windows of the houses. I loved learning the secrets of these characters–the parts of themselves their neighbours didn’t get to see.

Coconut Dreams

The stories in Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas centre around a brother and sister, first-generation Canadians whose parents emigrated from India. I enjoyed the different perspectives in the stories as they told the experiences of the siblings, exploring themes of innocence, identity, and belonging.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

In Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, thirteen stories show protagonist Lizzie at thirteen stages of her life, from her teenage years to adulthood. We see Lizzie struggle with her weight and with her relationships of all kinds. I was impressed with how each story worked as a standalone piece, but, when read together, they provided such a strong sense of Lizzie’s character.

The Toronto Book of the Dead

When I think of the short story as a genre, I think of fiction. But I suppose it doesn’t have to be. With Adam Bunch’s book The Toronto Book of the Dead, I think it’s fair to say this is a collection of short stories, even if the stories are true. It was fascinating to learn about Toronto’s history through these tales of some of the city’s most interesting deaths. (I happen to be currently reading Bunch’s new book, The Toronto Book of Love, which may appeal more, if you’re not feeling the morbid stuff so much.)

Books and bakes #15: Unsettled Ground and cherry pie

The bake

I wasn’t a big pie fan when I was younger. But as I’ve grown, so have my tastes, and I find myself craving a fruit pie quite a bit these days. I’d been wanting a cherry pie in particular for the last few weeks. (I’m not sure why, as I’ve probably eaten cherry pie only a couple of times in my entire life.) And this weekend I baked one.

I used frozen cherries, since it’s not quite cherry season in Ontario (bonus: the frozen cherries were already pitted). I’ve heard that sour cherries are best for pie, but I could find only sweet cherries in the freezer, and this recipe from Baker by Nature stated any type of cherries would work. Still, I added more lemon juice than the recipe called for, as I didn’t want the pie to be too sweet. (By the way, I used this recipe for the filling only, and I used my tried-and-true pie pastry recipe from Canadian Living.) It was my first time doing a lattice pie crust, too. At first, I was a little confused on how to do it, but this video tutorial from Sally’s Baking Addiction quickly cleared that up.

The result was a technically great pie that I definitely have enjoyed eating. But after weeks of craving a cherry pie, I’m not so sure it’s one of my favourite fruit pie fillings. I think I’ll be making other fruit pies before trying cherry again. (I do want to work on perfecting the lattice pie crust, though.)

The book

I have read and enjoyed every novel Claire Fuller has published, so when I heard that she was releasing her fourth, Unsettled Ground, there was no doubt I would read that one, too. The book was published a couple of months earlier in the UK, and since then it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I picked up my copy last week after it was available in Canada and started it a couple of days ago.

The story follows 51-year-old twins Julius and Jeanie who live with their mother, Dot, in a run-down cottage in the British countryside. Within the first pages, Dot dies suddenly, and the twins struggle to survive as they sort through what their mother has left behind: all of her debts and secrets. I am about halfway through, and I can’t wait to see what will happen with the twins.