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.)

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.

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.

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?