9 of Toronto’s best literary events in 2017 

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I try to get out to as many literary events as I can (at least to the ones that interest me). Here are a few of the highlights from this year. Looking forward to seeing what events this city has to offer in 2018!

Literary cocktail class at Famous Last Words

This was my first time visiting Famous Last Words, a book-themed bar in Toronto’s west end (I’ve since been back). We learned how to make cocktails that were inspired by authors and their books. You can read more about the class in the post I wrote back in February.

IFOA Weekly’s Lit Jam

This one is a bit biased because it’s not just an event I attended, but it’s also one I performed in. This was IFOA Weekly‘s inaugural interactive storytelling competition, held at Harbourfront Centre. Teams of emerging writers improvised stories on stage based on prompts from the audience. My team didn’t win, but it was a lot of fun. And, from what I can tell, the audience really enjoyed it, too.

Beer and Book Club with Zoe Whittall

Henderson Brewing Co. paired with their neighbour, House of Anansi Press, to present a series of beer and book club events. I’m not a beer drinker, but I am a fan of Zoe Whittall, so I attended on the evening when her book was discussed. For non-beer-drinkers, Henderson Brewing had their own root beer and lemon-and-ginger soda on tap. Whittall was interviewed by the brewery’s general manager, and while it wasn’t the best interview I’ve witnessed, I loved the casual atmosphere.

Trillium Book Award 30th anniversary readings

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Trillium Book Award, the Ontario Media Development Corporation organized an evening of readings by past winners. Authors who read included Kate Cayley, Wayson Choy and Nino Ricci. The event was free to attend, and was held at St. Paul’s Church on Bloor–a beautiful venue.

The Cooke Agency’s 25th anniversary event 

Celebrating 25 years of their literary agency, The Cooke Agency organized an event that raised funds for First Book Canada. Three Cooke Agency authors gave short readings–John Irving, Rupi Kaur and Jeff VanderMeer–which was followed by an entertaining and fascinating discussion among the authors led by literary agent Dean Cooke.

The Word on the Street

I couldn’t write a post about book events without mentioning The Word on the Street. It’s one of my favourite days of the year! This year, the book festival fell on what was quite possibly the hottest day of the year. This made it not as enjoyable for walking around, but I drank plenty of water and took breaks in the shade, and managed to stay almost all day. As always, I had a great time browsing (and buying) books at the booths of publishers and booksellers and attending some of the author talks.

IFOA: The Basement Revue

The Basement Revue is a showcase of Canadian musical and literary talent, where the performers are kept a secret until they are on stage. The showcase has been going on for more than 10 years, but this event, partnered with the IFOA, was my first time attending. Co-hosts musician (and Basement Revue founder) Jason Collett and poet Damian Rodgers put together a great lineup of music and readings. My favourite part was at the very end, when crime fiction writer and comedian Mark Billingham got on stage to provide some stand-up comedy, sharing some of the feedback he’s gotten from readers.

Between the Pages: Scotiabank Giller Prize readings

Held in Koerner Hall, each of the five Giller Prize shortlisted authors read from their books and then participated in a discussion led by journalist Johanna Schneller. At the time of the event, I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted titles. But after the event, I knew I wanted to read Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster (which I picked up that evening from Ben McNally Books) and Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square (which I later checked out from Toronto Public Library).

Helen Humphreys at Toronto Reference Library

Helen Humphreys is one of  my favourite writers, and I was thrilled to see her promoting her newest book, The Ghost Orchard, at the Toronto Reference Library’s Beeton Hall. The room was packed–staff had to bring in some extra chairs. I’ve never heard so many questions from a book audience before, and while not all of them turned out to be actual questions, it was great to see the audience so engaged. I was also happy to have Humphreys sign my book afterwards. While I may have came across as a bit of a fangirl, it was nice to briefly discuss our mutual adoration of Robert Frost.

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The sweet taste of The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys

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What I read

The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys

What it’s about

The Ghost Orchard‘s subtitle is The Hidden History of the Apple in North America. It’s not that this subtitle is inaccurate, but it doesn’t cover everything the book is about. Sure, Humphreys delves into details about the history of the fruit (which is much more fascinating than I expected), but the book is also partly a memoir.

Humphreys was inspired to write this book when she found the White Winter Pearmain variety growing near her home. At the same time, a friend of hers was in the process of dying.

In The Ghost Orchard, Humphreys starts with the apple but moves beyond it, creating a book about relationships, friendship, art and the human connection with nature.

Why I picked it up

I’ve read several of Humphreys’ books (I’ve also written about Wild Dogs), and so far I have liked everything I’ve read. There was a good chance I was going to pick this one up at some point. While browsing in the bookstore at IFOA this year, I saw The Ghost Orchard and read the first couple of pages. Sucked in by Humphreys’ writing style, I bought the book that evening.

What I liked about it

The book is broken up into five main sections, and one of these sections is about Robert Frost. Frost is one of my favourite poets, so I sort of expected to like this part as soon as I saw the heading. This section beautifully described Frost’s personal relationship with apples as well as his close friendship with poet Edward Thomas.

There is also a section on the United States Department of Agriculture watercolour artists. Here, Humphreys tells of the lives of the artists who used to paint apples before photographers ran them out of jobs. She also brings in stories of her grandfather, who used to paint pictures of plants for seed catalogues. It’s a job I’d never thought of, and I appreciated these stories of art and artists.

But the main thing I liked about this book is what I like about all of Humphreys’ books: her gorgeous prose. She writes so beautifully. It’s no surprise that she is not only a non-fiction writer and a novelist, but also a poet.

You’ll want to read it if…

Readers who will enjoy The Ghost Orchard the most are ones who like nature, or at least have an appreciation for it. It’s for readers who might be intrigued by the history of the apple, but who are even more fascinated by people and human relationships. And if you’re looking to develop more of an appreciation for agriculture, this might do the trick, too.

Recommended refreshments

This is too obvious. However, venture outside of your local grocery store to get your apples! For the ultimate refreshment, visit an orchard. Pick your apples off a tree! I must agree with Humphreys and Henry David Thoreau: The apple tastes best when it’s eaten outdoors.

(I know; it’s getting cold. A mug of hot apple cider while reading by the fire is also a good option.)

Where the books I read come from

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Taking a cue from Laura at Reading in Bed, I’ve listed the last 30 books I’ve read and have included how I got them.

Putting this list together reminded me about a post I wrote a while back titled How did your bookshelves get so full? In that post, I selected a few books from my shelves that I thought had some interesting stories tied to how I acquired them. This, however, is a straight-up list of the last 30 books I’ve read.

All of the books I review on this blog are books I’ve acquired personally; I don’t receive copies from publishers in exchange for reviews. If you’ve noticed that my reviews seem unusually positive (except for one that I wrote early on), it’s because I’ve decided to only write about books I really enjoyed–the ones I want to rave about to other readers. That being said, there are books on this list that I have not reviewed but have still enjoyed immensely. What can I say? I guess sometimes I’d just rather be reading than reviewing.

The last 30 books I’ve read

  1. Smile by Roddy Doyle — borrowed from library
  2. Brother by David Chariandy –borrowed from library
  3. Marlena by Julie Buntin — borrowed from library
  4. The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker — purchased from publisher (ECW Press) at Word on the Street Toronto
  5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng — purchased from Book City (Bloor West Village location)
  6. Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton –borrowed from library
  7. The Burning Girl by Claire Messud — borrowed from library
  8. Things that Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini — purchased from Queen Books
  9. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto — purchased at used book sale in Toronto Reference Library
  10. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai –borrowed from library
  11. Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese — purchased from Queen Books
  12. Strange Light Afar by Rui Umezawa –borrowed from library
  13. Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa — purchased from Book City (Danforth location)
  14. Be Ready for the Lightning by Grace O’Connell — purchased from Book City (Danforth location)
  15. Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin — purchased from Queen Books
  16. Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash — borrowed from library
  17. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel — borrowed from library
  18. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami — purchased (secondhand) from Eliot’s Book Shop
  19. Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez — borrowed from library
  20. For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known by Danila Botha — purchased from Ben McNally Books at the Trillium Book Award readings at Toronto Reference Library
  21. Pedal by Chelsea Rooney — borrowed from library
  22. The Nix by Nathan Hill — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  23. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid — borrowed from library
  24. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  25. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami — given a secondhand copy from an acquaintance who was getting rid of some books
  26. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  27. It Happens All the Time by Amy Hatvany — borrowed from library
  28. So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  29. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes; Music, Music, Music; Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine — borrowed from library
  30. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid — borrowed from my mom

Looks like I’m pretty evenly split between the books I purchase and the books I borrow. It feels like I buy more secondhand books than is reflected in this list, and also that I buy more books at events than is shown here. I do admit to having several books on my bookshelves that I haven’t read yet (don’t we all?), so that might be why. But I can’t say that acknowledging this is going to put a pause on my trips to the bookstore or library.

Little Fires Everywhere should be your next book club pick

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What I read

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What it’s about

Little Fires Everywhere begins with a house fire and then reveals the series of events leading up to it. The events centre around two families: the Richardsons and the Warrens.

After years of moving from town to town, artist Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrive in to Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where they intend to set roots. They rent a home from the Richardsons, whose four teenaged children quickly befriend Pearl. But when an adoption case involving people close to both families forces the entire town to pick sides, Mrs. Richardson digs into her tenant’s past to find out just who she is renting to.

This novel will give you a lot to think about, as it examines themes such as race and class, secrets within families, motherhood, and suburban life.

Why I picked it up

It’s hard to remember where I first heard about Little Fires Everywhere. I’ve come across this title in several online lists and articles and have seen it all over social media, too. But I was curious to read it because I’ve also read Ng’s impressive debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I picked up a copy at Book City’s Bloor West location.

What I liked about it

I loved how real the characters felt, especially the teenagers. Pearl and the Richardson children (Trip, Lexie, Moody and Izzy) are such distinct people with their own strengths, weaknesses and desires. I felt empathy for each of them at different points and for different reasons. And I was impressed that Ng could write a novel that deals with big ideas and themes and could connect them so beautifully. There were some elements of mystery in this book that had me hooked, too (the origin of the fire, Mia’s past). It was difficult to put this novel down, but it felt like such a treat whenever I could steal a moment to get back to it.

You’ll want to read it if…

Little Fires Everywhere will appeal to readers who like novels with realistic characters and some element of mystery. It’s also a good choice for readers interested in family dynamics and mother-daughter relationships in particular. This novel would make an excellent book club pick. I suspect it would initiate some interesting discussion.

Recommended refreshments

Leftover Chinese food, like the rice and sweet-and-sour pork rice Mia brings home after her shifts working at Lucky Palace.

Fall events for Toronto book lovers

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Fall is a great time to be a book lover living in Toronto. In addition to all of the new releases to read curled up with some hot apple cider, there are also lots of literary events to attend in the city. Here are a few to look out for.

Toronto’s First Post Office’s used book sale

There are lots of used book sales happening in Toronto this fall, including the college book sales at U of T. But Toronto’s First Post Office is having their first used book sale ever to raise money for the Town of York Historical Society’s research library. The sale runs September 22 to 25 during the post office’s regular operating hours. Perhaps there may be some gems waiting for you.

Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon Series

A new season of the Appel Salon series begins this month at the Toronto Reference Library. Authors appearing this fall include Claire Messud, Orhan Pamuk and Jennifer Egan. Tickets are free but are required. They can be reserved three weeks ahead of each event.

The Word on the Street festival

The Word on the Street festival is one of my favourite days of the year. A giant book fair that includes readings and talks by writers and publishing professionals? Yes, please! The Word on the Street is taking place at Harbourfront Centre on Sunday, September 24, 11 a.m, to 6 p.m. Buy some books and/or magazines, get some information about writers’ and literacy organizations and attend some readings or talks.

Toronto Public Library’s eh List Writer Series

The Toronto Public Library’s eh List Writer Series features Canadian authors at various library branches across the city. Some of the authors participating this season include Helen Humphreys, Catherine Hernandez and Alison Pick. These events are free and no tickets are required.

An Evening with David Sedaris

Humourist David Sedaris will be at the Sony Centre on Tuesday, October 17. At $45.13 to $60.13 per ticket, this is the priciest event on this list. However, Sedaris–who is quite an entertaining speaker and reader–has been known to not only sign books, but to also take the time to speak with every fan who lines up at the end of the event. It’s just a matter of whether or not you will be patient enough to wait your turn. (And whether or not you think the wait is worth the money.)

International Festival of Authors (IFOA)

October is filled with book events to choose from since IFOA runs from October 19 to 29 at Harbourfront Centre. Most events will run you $18 a ticket, but there are a few that cost a bit more and a few free ones, too. This year’s festival includes appearances by Heather O’Neill, John Boyne, Colm Tóibín and, of course, many others.

R. L. Stine at the AGO

If, like me, you were a fan of R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series growing up, you may want to attend his talk at the AGO on November 29. Tickets are $30 for the general public.

Various literary events at Famous Last Words

I’ve written about this west-end book-themed bar before and the literary cocktail class I attended. Since that time, Famous Last Words has created “Book Lover Tuesdays.” Each month, on different weeks, the bar hosts a silent reading party, a book exchange and a drop-in book club. These events aren’t specific to fall, but getting cozy in front of the bar’s fireplace with a cocktail and some fellow bookworms seems like a pretty good way to spend a fall evening.