Books and bakes #18: The Wild Laughter and banana chocolate chip muffins

The bake

As I mentioned in my last “books and bakes” post, I haven’t been baking as much since it has gotten hotter. However, I had three overripe bananas sitting on the counter, staring at me. I usually make banana bread when I have overripe bananas, but I decided to do something different this time. OK, who am I kidding? These muffins are just banana bread baked in a muffin tin instead of a loaf pan. It might not be a different flavour, but it’s a different shape! That still counts as changing it up. Plus, I used a recipe that was new to me (favourite banana chip muffins from Taste of Home).

I was a little skeptical of the 1/2 cup of chocolate chips; it seemed a bit stingy. I went with it, though, and I found the ratio between chocolate and banana bread to be on point. These muffins were flavourful, moist, and light–perfect to pair with my afternoon cup of tea.

The book

I just finished The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes. This slim family drama is set in rural Ireland in 2008 and centres around adult brothers Cormac and Hart and their parents. The family farm that Hart is supposed to take over is struggling and his father’s health is rapidly declining. And then Cormac and Hart’s father makes a request of his sons that could have devastating consequences for the entire family.

I enjoyed how Hughes illustrated the complexities of familial relationships, particularly between the parents and sons, and especially between the brothers. Alongside all of this, there is so much humour, making the heavy parts of the story much lighter. To be honest, I wasn’t drawn into the book right away, but when I did get into it, I was very into it. And that almost makes me want to go back to the beginning to see if I might get more out of it now.

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.

A reader’s guilt

Reader’s guilt. That’s a thing, right? Logically I know that the only way guilt is worthwhile is if your conscience is telling you you’ve done something wrong and that you should take steps to fix it. When it comes to reading, I don’t feel like I have done anything wrong. (I mean, how can you do reading wrong?) But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling guilty when it’s not warranted. What I’m not as sure about is if other readers feel guilty about the same things I do. So here I am, coming clean about what I feel guilty about when it comes to reading.

Giving a book fewer than three stars on Goodreads

When I first started using Goodreads, it was just so I could track the books I read. I didn’t use any of the social aspects of the site, and I didn’t think about my ratings contributing to a book’s overall rating. But as time has gone by, I’ve become more aware of this. When I finish reading a book that I didn’t particularly enjoy, I struggle with how to rate it. This isn’t so much the case for classics or extremely successful writers, but it’s certainly true for new books and even more so for debuts. I don’t want to deter others from picking up the book (tastes are so subjective). On the other hand, I want to keep an honest record of how I felt about what I’ve read.

Not finishing books

I’ve been getting better with this one, but there’s still some guilt when I put a book aside before reaching the end. But I’ve realized that sometimes you just can’t get into it. Maybe it’s the particular time you picked up that book, or maybe it really is that that particular book isn’t for you. But if you’re not enjoying reading a book, you don’t have to keep reading it. What a concept! I think the pandemic helped me finally learn this. Read the book you want to read in that moment. (Unless you are a student, or an academic, or a book reviewer, or–okay, I’ll just clarify that I’m talking about reading for pleasure here.) Why does it sound like l I am trying to convince myself?

Not being able to read all the books

This is a common feeling amongst avid readers. And it can be stressful, too. There are so many books out there and new ones coming out all the time. And this is actually great! This is wonderful! Let’s surround ourselves with books and never run out of stories to choose from and new voices to hear from. But it’s just impossible to get to all the books we want to read. The TBR pile is always going be teetering. I will always regret that I can’t get to all the books I want to. But never running out of things to read? It seems like a pretty good trade-off.

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.