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.

Q&A with author Brian Francis

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Brian Francis (photo credit: Samuel Engelking)

Brian Francis is a Toronto-based writer whose third book–a YA novel entitled Break in Case of Emergency–will be released in September 2019. I recently asked Brian about his upcoming novel, his motivation for helping other writers, and how he ended up writing a play. I also didn’t miss the chance to find out which refreshment Brian recommends you enjoy when you crack open his newest book this fall.

Can you describe what Break in Case of Emergency is about in five sentences or fewer?

The book is about a teenage girl named Toby growing up on her grandparents’ dairy farm. Her mom died by suicide and Toby is convinced she’s destined to follow in her mom’s footsteps. Those plans go astray when she receives the news that her father, someone she’s never met, is returning home. And that he’s a female impersonator.

How did you come up with the title?

I didn’t. My editor, Suzanne Sutherland, did. We were struggling to find the right title for the book and she offered up this gem. It stuck. Thank god for editors is all I have to say. Otherwise, this book would be called Book.

What was different about the experience of writing Break in Case of Emergency from writing your other novels, Fruit and Natural Order?

Given that Break is a YA book, I had a stronger sense of the intended audience. Not so with the other two books. I think Break is my tightest book in terms of storytelling. But I guess readers will be ultimate judge of that.

In the book reviews I’ve posted on my blog, I suggest some recommended refreshments. What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading Break in Case of Emergency?

Hmm. Well, if you’re Arthur (Toby’s father), I’d recommend a stiff martini or two. But if you’re underage, then I’d recommend milk, since Toby lives on a dairy farm.

How does having a day job at the Toronto Public Library inform or affect your writing?

It’s nice to be in an environment that celebrates and recognizes the value of books and reading (as opposed to, say, working in an accounting firm.) So my work isn’t at odds with my writing in that respect.

I met you when I took a class you taught called “Kick-Start Your Creative Writing.” What or who helped you to kick-start your creative writing?

I took a class at Ryerson, which really helped. It gave me the focus and structure I needed. It can be hard to keep yourself motivated when you’re the only holding yourself accountable. Paying out money for a course changes the dynamic. Writing becomes work. And you start taking it seriously. Which you should.

In addition to your experience teaching, you also write an advice column for Quill and Quire. Why is helping other writers important to you?

I just remember feeling really shitty and alone when I was first starting out. I wasn’t friends with other writers, so I had to figure a lot of stuff out on my own. When I help other writers, I help the writer I used to be. I want writers to understand that there is no secret formula and that all of us are struggling in our own ways. But none of us are alone.

Are you still teaching, or do you have any future plans to teach?

No, none at the present time. It was a nice run, and I enjoyed doing it, but it’s a lot of work. I might go back to it at some point.

What are some of your favourite books, or who are some of your favourite writers?

I love me some Alice Munro. David Sedaris, too. Margaret Laurence. Some great books I’ve read in the past year include Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight, Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and Little Fish by Casey Plett.

Is there a book or a writer you love to read that you think deserves more attention and readers should know about?

Honestly, I think most writers deserve more attention.

You used to run a blog called Caker Cooking, and you write a food column for Taddle Creek called “The Kitch.” What got you interested in food writing?

I don’t think I got interested in food writing, per se. It was more about the recipes, if that makes sense. I’m not one of those “mouth feel” people. And I generally don’t like food blogs because they make you wade through 25 variations of the same damn shot before you get to the recipe. But I’m interested in the history of recipes. They’re like snapshots to me, little souvenirs, not only of my life, but also of the world I grew up in.

You also wrote a play based on your real life experience called Box 4901, and you’ve starred in the production as well. What made you want to try this different art form and type of writing?

Initially, I thought it might be a website or a podcast or a book. But certainly not a play. But when I approached director Rob Kempson with the material and asked him what he thought, he basically said, “This is a performance piece. And you’re in it.” So it wasn’t deliberate on my part at all. But it’s been a great experience so far. And I’m glad I did it. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone.

You always seem to have some creative project on the go. What are you currently working on?

I bought a paper mache book a few weeks back for a dollar and I’m going to try making a pencil holder. Wish me luck.

Brian’s Francis’ new novel, Break in Case of Emergency, will be available in Canada in September 2019 from HarperCollins and in the U.S. in February 2020 from Inkyard Press. You can find out more about Brian’s writing and his other projects by visiting his website at www.brian-francis.com.

All We Shall Know: an emotional roller coaster you’ll want to ride

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What I read

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What it’s about

Melody Shee, a 33-year-old woman, is pregnant, but the father isn’t her husband, whom she’s been with since high school. The father is Martin Toppy, the 17-year-old boy Melody has been teaching to read inside her home.

Melody’s husband has left her, and she can’t find Martin. In her search for Martin, Melody befriends a young woman named Mary Crothery, who is dealing with her own troubles. The two women develop a bond while they deal with family feuds and town gossip.

Most of this story is introspective, where the reader gets much more information from Melody than the characters do. Melody tells of the mistakes she has made leading up to the pregnancy and some of the secrets she has kept from others in her life. But Mary might be able to help Melody right some of her wrongs.

Why I picked it up

I heard about this book back in the summer, marked it on my TBR list, and then forgot about it. Browsing in the bookstore earlier this month, the spine jumped out at me. The title was familiar. I read the back cover copy and was reminded of my desire to read this one. So, of course, I bought it.

What I liked about it

At first, I was drawn in by the idea of the affair. I wanted to know what led to Melody taking advantage of her student, and I wanted to find out what would happen with her marriage. But I quickly realized there is a lot more going on in this book. I thought I had a handle on things only to discover there was more to it, reinforcing the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.

Melody isn’t exactly a likeable character. She’s made some terrible life choices and her decisions weren’t always ones I had empathy for. But she did feel believable, and I was hooked on trying to understand her decisions. At times I was shocked by the things she did, but I wanted to see her somehow redeem herself.

You’ll want to read it if…

If you like emotional roller coasters, this one’s for you. At only 180 pages, you’ll wonder how you could experience a wide range of emotions so quickly, how you could go up and down so much in such a short span of time.

This is also a great choice for readers who like to get into the psyche of characters, even if those characters aren’t necessarily people you’d like in real life.

Recommended refreshments

A cappuccino, like the ones Melody and Mary order at a cafe in town (Mary, who has never had one before, endearingly calls it a “coffacheeno”) and/or the KitKats that the two women share sitting in Melody’s kitchen one day.

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.

4 ways fiction can help you get through the darkness 

20161120_162817We’ve entered a very dark time of year, and I mean that literally. Please don’t shoot the messenger, but we’ve got another month to endure before it (slowly) starts getting lighter in the evenings again.

Whether or not you are someone whose mood and well-being are affected by seasonal changes, we all experience figurative darkness at some point. I won’t suggest there is an easy fix for emotional and mental troubles, but a good book can help us navigate through difficult times, or provide a bit of comfort.

So even though you might want to hibernate over the next few months, I strongly suggest you first make your way to your local library and/or bookstore and stock up.

Here are a few ways reading fiction can help you through you a rough time.

It provides emotional support

This is like having a good friend to lean on/cry to. The friend in this case just happens to be fictional. Reading about characters who are experiencing an issue or a feeling that you are can help you realize you’re not the only one going through that. Also, it can be helpful to have an author articulate things you are feeling but don’t know how to put into words.

It can offer potential solutions

You might want more than empathy when reading about a character with an experience familiar to your own. You might want to see what you can do to better your situation. This works particularly well if you’re dealing with a practical dilemma. In this case, you read to see how others have handled situations like yours and consider whether that might work for you.

It helps you consider the experiences of others

You might find it useful to take some of the energy you’ve invested in mulling over your own problems and transfer it to over to think about someone else’s. It gives you a bit of a break from your own troubles, and it can feel good to think and care about another person (even if they are fictional).

 It will entertain you

This seems simple and obvious, but we can put a lot of pressure on the fiction we read. With any kind of art, we might expect it to teach us something, show a different viewpoint or even cause us to have some sort of epiphany. But reading fiction is also important for the fact that it’s entertaining. As human beings, we enjoy stories. A good story might make us laugh, or keep us in suspense, or transport us into another world. Good stories are entertaining. They give us joy. And that might be enough of a reason to get cozy with a stack of books that will keep us busy even after we’ve caught a glimpse of the light.