The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Category: Fiction

2019 Year in Books

It’s time for my annual blog post about what I read in the past year!

Buoyed up by having read 67 books in 2018—more, in fact, because I realized later there were a few that I had forgotten to count–in 2019, I joined the #95books challenge. I was way ahead for the first part of the year, but I got behind in the fall when teaching started up again, and just barely made it over the break to 95 books on Dec. 31. According to Goodreads, I read about 22,000 pages, or about 230 pages per book on average.

My original plan to concentrate on translated books in 2019 totally went out the window. Only about a quarter of the books I read were for what I’d deem “pleasure,” as in, I chose them kind of on a whim. The rest I read for work, for a specific research purpose, or for my daughter, or because I was reviewing the book.

As others have observed, doing big book challenges makes one less apt to abandon books, and I found this hard. I read more books that I didn’t like or find useful than I would have liked this year, especially towards the end when I was racing to meet my goal. I had to decide really fast, like in the first 50 pages, if the book was worth using more precious reading time on. I think the solution is to let myself “count” a book toward my goal so long as I’ve read past those 50 pages.

Here are the books I found the most memorable this year. It just so happens I picked one fiction, one non-fiction, one poetry, and one drama, but I didn’t plan it that way:


Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Though I was impressed with Normal People, I’m wondering now how much I was influenced by all the hype around that book, because months later, I think find myself thinking much more about her earlier book, Conversations with Friends, which I also read this year.

chooses you

Miranda July, It Chooses You. This is a delightfully odd non-fiction book by the incomparable July, in which she interviews random people in LA chosen through their classified ads selling used goods. I most remember the boy who created frog habitats in his back yard, and the man who wrote dirty birthday cards for his wife. It’s about people and what you can learn if you just talk to them.


Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves. Probably my favourite of the books I read this year. I reviewed this book in the The Globe and Mail, and I could have gone on and on about it. It’s a sideways take about what poets are to do during this time of existential crisis—only set in a medieval hermit’s cave. Solie’s work is a poetry benchmark. Unsurprisingly, the book has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.


Cliff Cardinal, Huff & Stitch, which were published together, but it’s Huff that had the big effect on me. Regret not seeing this play when it was produced here. Huff is an in-your-face whirlwind of tragedy, about intergenerational trauma and the relentless loss faced by Indigenous communities and, in particular, Indigenous youth.

In 2020, I expect to keep reading for research, work, reviewing, and my child, but my project for those “extra” books I get to choose for whatever reason? I’m going to read books I already own and are sitting on my shelves taking up space. Then I’m going to give them away unless I can justify keeping them under one of the following categories:

  • favourite books I am likely to read again
  • books useful for reference
  • books by people I know
  • small press books (overlaps greatly with the previous on)
  • books I’m attached to for strong sentimental reasons (note to self: high bar required)

I just don’t have that much space, and the library exists, right? I use the library all the time. I’m not too optimistic about the number of books I’ll actually be able to give away using this method, but time will tell. See you this time next year.

Taking the Scissors

I got a lot of use out the delete button over the past month while working on my thesis novel.

So far, the thesis process has gone down more or less like this:

  1. Draft one: 60,000 words. Written over two summers, including all the outlining and such.
  2. Draft two: 89,000 words. Included considerable cutting, so I added well over 30,000 words on the second draft, mainly for plot and character development. Written over one summer—one month, really.
  3. Draft three: 66,000 words. I did a few thousand words of cutting at the end of the summer, but mainly this was done over the Christmas break. Included three or four new scenes, but basically it was a cull.

And how sweet the cull is.

I did not cut any chapters. Maybe one or two small scenes went. This was good, old-fashioned dross excision. Big chunks of exposition got the turf, excessive adverbs and adjectives, saying the same thing three ways in case the reader didn’t get it the first time, wordy constructions, all that jazz. It’s by no means perfect – I expect many more drafts to come – but on my way to getting this good enough for thesis submission, I’m pleased with the operation.

I always knew it was theoretically possible to edit away a quarter (at least) of one’s shitty draft without losing anything. I can now vouch that this is true. Same story, three-quarters of the words.

Of course, I’ve still got those words somewhere. O, all those archived files of words we decide not to use! Not to mention all the half-written and abandoned Facebook posts. (Apparently, Facebook keeps them all. Somewhere.)

Before we had a computer at home, we had an electric typewriter with eraser tape. You could backspace and delete letters. This was exciting. When the roll of eraser tape was done, you could unroll it and examine all the letters that had been erased. My sister used to keep all the old rolls. She called it her collection of mistakes.



“I’m from the ’90s, and I’m a sucker for Puccini”: Q & A With Myself

Myself and I realized that we hadn’t posted anything for a while, so we sat down at our disorganized desk today to ask and answer a few questions. The theme: personal taste, naming the books, movies, TV, and music we’ve actually been into lately, because the actual titles can tell no lies.

Q: What happened to the other blog post you were working on about that play you went to see last term?

A: It’s gotten out of hand. I feel like I need to do scholarly research for it. Maybe some day I’ll release it.

Q: So this was the only lame thing you could come up with?

A: Apparently.

Q: What is the purpose of this Q and A?

A: You tell me.

Q: Um… okay. I’m trying to give readers an idea of my… your… our taste in movies, music, TV and books by listing stuff I/you/we having been consuming. Because people like reading about that stuff.

A: Awesome. You know, you could adopt the double “I” pronoun like the angels in Angels in America.

Q: Um, or not. Have you been reading that lately?

A: How astute. Yes, I just did.

Q: What are you listening to right now?

A: You mean, right this minute? Hang on, let me check… it’s something from La Boheme.

Q: Tell me about when you went to see that opera last year.

A: One of the singers fell off a piece of set furniture and twisted his ankle or something. They improvised by having one of the other dudes sing two parts. Luckily, it was close to the end.

Q: What books are on your desk right now?

A: Writing Short Films by Linda J. Cowgill, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Q: What’s the last thing you bought on iTunes?

A: The HBO miniseries of Angels in America.

Q: What have you been watching in Netflix?

A: The Killing, the U.S. one, just started Season 2.

Q: Last feature film you saw?

A: The F Word. Canadian! No, wait. I watched Frozen (again!) with my daughter since then.

Q: Last time you went to a movie in the theatre?

(Tumbleweeds blow by for a second.)

A: Um… I think it was one of those Hobbit movies. The one last year, the second one. I think.

Q: Last album you listened to in its entirety?

A: The new one by The Decemberists.

Q: Last novel you actually finished reading?

A: I finished book two of the Karl Ove Knausgaard thing. But that’s only sort of a novel. Before that, I read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. I thought it was delightfully weird.

Q: New releases you are looking forward to?

A: My friend Peter Darbyshire’s new book The Dead Hamlets, under his Peter Roman pen-name. I’m always a season behind on Game of Thrones because I don’t have HBO and prefer to get it legally. I’m number 24 at the library for pre-ordered Season 4! Waiting impatiently for whenever there are going to be new seasons of Orphan Black and the French zombie show Les Revenants (I think there was one of the latter, but I haven’t got my hands on it yet).

Q: What are the songs in the “Top 25 Most Played” list in your iTunes?

A: Ooh, that’s an evil question. There is no hiding there. Here it is:

  1. Shot in the Arm – Wilco
  2. Zombie – Cranberries
  3. Loser – Beck
  4. Boy in the Bubble – Paul Simon
  5. La Boheme: O Mimi, tu plu non torni – Puccini
  6. (I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World – Nick Cave
  7. Manic Monday – Bangles
  8. Polyester Bride – Liz Phair
  9. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
  10. It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) – R.E.M.
  11. Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
  12. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
  13. Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
  14. Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve
  15. All I Really Want – Alanis Morissette
  16. La Boheme: Si. Mi Chiamano Mimi – Puccini
  17. Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor
  18. 9 to 5 – Dolly Parton
  19. La Rondine: Chi Il Bel Sogno Di Doretta – Puccini
  20. Tubthumping – Chumbawamba
  21. Buffy Theme – Nerf Herder
  22. What’s the Frequency Kenneth? – R.E.M.
  23. Gianni Schicchi: O Mio Babbino Caro –– Puccini
  24. Islands in the Stream – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
  25. Carmen, Act 1: Près des Ramparts de Séville – Bizet

Q: What can we learn from this list?

A: I’m from the ’90s, and I’m a sucker for Puccini.

Q: Last thought?

A: Two of those songs were written by Prince. Who out there can name which two without the help of Google?

Writing Process Blog Tour

I recently got tagged in the Canadian Writers’ Writing Process Blog Tour, which has been going around for months. I was tagged by Ottawa writer Cameron Anstee. So, I’ve got four questions to answer:

1. What am I working on?

Well, this is awkward, because that was what my last post was about. But I’d say that of the things on my plate, the one I’m most interested in, and am the farthest along with, is the draft of the YA fantasy book about Shakespeare Land. I’ve got a massive backstory for Sycorax, who is so not dead. And, oh, Hamlet is the captain of a pirate ship (he took over the ship instead of returning to Denmark). A pirate airship.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. I’m going to take this question to be referring to my work in progress, which is totally unlike anything I’ve written before (I’ve mainly published poetry). I don’t know for sure yet, but here’s what I hope. I did go on a YA reading binge for the project, and found that books in the small sub-genre of Shakespeare-related YA books tend to be romances. I found one that had both fantasy and romance elements, though I may have missed others. I wondered, why can’t I do a Shakespeare book for fantasy readers? There’s so much supernatural in Shakespeare. I’m still looking at a romantic sub-plot, but I’m pretty committed to avoiding a sunset-ending romance. My heroine is questioning her sexual orientation, for one thing, and I don’t intend for the outcome of that to be clear even to her by the end of the story

3.  Why do I write what I do?

“Try everything” is my current writing motto. When I was a teenager, I wrote whatever I wanted: humour, plays, choose-your-own-adventure, audio plays, whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. Then somehow, I can’t even remember how, I ended up being a poet. Not that there isn’t a huge field to work in there – poetry is so vast – but I kind of felt hemmed in by my own work. Maybe I’m entering premature second childhood, but I’m trying to come back to a place of “anything goes” in choosing what I work on. Though I have a new book of poetry coming out soon, the writing of it goes back years. I am sort of trying to give poetry a rest for a while. Maybe it’s not just age: I think I can also blame this on teaching, which has made me think about many different genres and styles of writing in ways I wouldn’t have considered before.

4. How does my writing process work?

Oh, that depends. It has changed so much. My forthcoming poetry came about through the accumulation and filtering of fragments, but some of my earlier works were very “project” oriented, in which I’d set myself a number of poems to write about x, y, and z, and though I’d still filter some of it out later, it was through setting myself a structure that I was able to write those projects fairly quickly—at least, far quicker than the new book, which was a nightmare. I’m writing the first draft of this novel via an extensive outline (and using Scrivener), though I’m still expecting the revision process to be its own nightmare.

That’s all, folks. I’m tagging my friend and colleague, Winnipeg’s Sally Ito.

iDEATH: Richard Brautigan and Steve Jobs

It turns out that the narrator of Richard Brautigan’s prescient 1968 masterpiece In Watermelon Sugar was Steve Jobs. To whit:


It was about dark when I arrived at iDEATH. The two evening stars were now shining side by side. The smaller one had moved over to the big one. They were very close now, almost touching, and then they went together and became one very large star.

I don’t know if things like that are fair or not.

Too soon? You should have seen the Jack Layton/Yoda joke I stopped myself from posting a while back.

I found a few people online who’ve mused about iDEATH’s connection to Apple, but I’ve always been surprised it hasn’t been commented on more. Maybe Apple-devotee nerdiness and Brautigan-reading nerdiness do not often go hand-in-hand.

Books I Have Loved: Favourite Children’s Books of 2010

This installment of Books I Have Loved is actually more like Books I Currently Love, and am reading, and reading, and reading, and reading, again, and again, and again, and again. To my toddler, that is, and if you have or ever have had a toddler, you know what I mean about reading it again.

I rarely read for “fun” these days—it’s either for work (Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, anyone?) or to the baby. So when books land in my lap that both I and the girl love to read, those books become my own treasured reading material, too.

Close to the end of 2010, we added two books to our repertoire that I am so grateful for I feel compelled to review here. They are both big, yellow picture books published in 2010: 13 Words by Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Maira Kalman), and Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck (illustrated by Marjorie Priceman). I should mention right away that, though my baby enjoys and requests them, these books are complex enough to last years. In the bookstores, they are categorized for ages 4-8.

Yes, I have linked you to Amazon, above.

13 Words by Lemony Snicket

The only thing I can quibble about in 13 Words is its title; there must be a better one. The story is structured, loosely, around said words, but I’m not convinced that structure was title-worthy. Not that it matters; it’s by Lemony Snicket, so they could just as easily have called it “Don’t Buy This Book” without any discernible effect.13  Words Cover

Anyway, the words are

    Panache, and

It’s a good list, though “ladders” is actually another key word in the story that could just as easily have been on it. “Despondent” is just pure Lemony Snicket, and by the time we get to “mezzo-soprano,” “haberdashery” has already upped the stakes so much that we hardly blink at the unexplained appearance of the diva in our story. And it does serve as a vocabulary-builder; I punched up some opera on the old iPod to explain what a mezzo-soprano was, and now my almost-two-year-old asks, “Listen to mezzo-ahprano?”

The list of words is meant to seem random. The book carries a mildly surreal aesthetic, especially in the scenes where the dog and goat drive through landscapes in their flashy green convertible, landscapes of impossible multicoloured hills populated with all manner of illustrations, sometimes unrelated to the text: a ballerina en pointe, a rectangular hot-pink cow (I think), an angel playing a tambourine, a mime, a porcupine enduring an isolated rain shower. Maira Kalman, a New Yorker illustrator, has truly added another dimension to this story—something which cannot be said for all picture books. At the centre of the centre spread lies an illustration of a dour, pudding-faced, bespectacled man wearing bunny ears, staring directly at the reader, which I’m going to guess is a representation of our author, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler).

And yet, behind the whimsy there is a real story here, beyond the full comprehension of my toddler, but immediately apparent to me. The bird (female) and the dog (male) are the main characters, and the bird is despondent—it’s never explained why. But when the dog tells her to get busy painting ladders while he goes for a drive with his friend, the spiffily dressed goat, you get a hint of what’s going on here—there is something amiss with this bird/goat relationship. When the dog goes to the haberdashery to buy the bird a hat to cheer her up, he doesn’t just by the one hat—he buys himself one while he’s at it. (In fact, the text mentions the dog’s hat first: “The dog has finally chosen one hat for himself and one for the bird.”) It’s no wonder the bird is still despondent at the end of the book, despite the panache-ful hat, the copious cake, and the mezzo-soprano’s beautiful song. She lives with an oblivious and self-centred dog.

Around our house we’ve been putting on a falsetto and singing the mezzo-soprano’s summarizing song at the end of the book, and until now we’ve been using (more or less) the tune of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” I was going to say here that HarperCollins needs to package this book with a CD, but duh, what was I thinking? It’s on-line, of course, and you can get a $1 download of the mezzo-soprano’s song through (or directly here). The composer is Nico Muhly, and the mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti.

One more reason to love this book: the design. I care deeply about book design, and this one’s got it going on. I expect that since a Lemony Snicket book is guaranteed to sell a bazillion copies, they were able to pull out all the stops in this department. No space is wasted—the end papers have been used for illustrations (the last spread continues right on to the inside back cover)—and even that always-bothersome copyright page has been used wisely, with the copyright text formed into a sort of visual poem in the shape of a bird. “Book design by Alison Donalty,” it says; good on you, Alison Donalty (she also worked on Lemony Snicket’s popular Unfortunate Events books).

The 13 Words book trailer is here.

Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck

Paris in the Spring with Picasso cover

I also have a problem with the title of this book. Picasso is not the protagonist. He’s one of an ensemble cast, and if anyone in this book were the main character, it’s actually Gertrude Stein. Titles are marketing tools, of course, not literary ones, so the reason behind the title is pretty clear: Picasso is the household name among the book’s characters. They certainly weren’t going to call it Paris in the Spring with Guillaume Apollinaire.

This is the book for introducing your children to modernism, if you’re the kind of person who does that kind of thing (and I am!). A stray cat wanders around Paris peeking into the lives of Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and their respective partners (my baby’s vocabulary now also includes “Alice B. Toklas”). And we see them engaged in creating art: writing, painting. A picture book about the process of artistic creation? Yes! The story, and the illustrations (by Marjorie Priceman), contain a lot of movement as the cat-narrator jumps quickly from apartment to apartment, as Picasso frantically moves his brush, as Apollinaire is interrupted mid-poem; at one point you even need to turn the book sideways to look at a spread designed vertically, with Montmartre and Sacré Coeur at the top.

In the end, the artists all take a break and go to Gertrude Stein’s house at 27 rue de Fleurus for her salon.

It’s not much of a story, exactly—if I were to dissect the plot, it would be to say that their goal is to go to the party, but the complication is that they each need to make some art first.

Lots of books out there introduce art to young children. Baby Einstein does, but I’m not a fan of it, since I’ve found embarrassing factual errors in Baby Einstein materials. The popular Olivia series also comes to mind, a series I don’t mind, but am not really impressed with. Olivia introduces art in that the protagonist looks at a Jackson Pollock painting and takes a trip to Venice and wants to be a ballerina.

Paris in the Spring with Picasso introduces art too—among the works included are Stein’s Sacred Emily and Picasso’s Two Nudes—but the emphasis is on the process of making art, not exposure to the works themselves. As poet-parents, a book about art as process, and as vocation, is very appealing.

This book is also a great companion to the Madeline series (which my daughter adores) for the complementary illustration of Paris.

My only problem with this book, other than the title, is the uneasy feeling I get when Alice B. Toklas is referred to as Gertrude Stein’s “best friend” while the mistresses of other characters are called “girlfriends.” I can only imagine the gnashing of teeth that went on at the publisher (Random House) over this particular decision (guessing that this was a publisher’s cop-out rather than the author’s). The dialogue between Stein and Toklas does make the nature of their relationship pretty clear; in fact it’s so lovey-dovey, it seems like overcompensation. The biographical information at the back of the book calls them “lifelong companion[s].” While I strongly appreciate a book for children depicting a same-sex relationship in a normalized way alongside heterosexual ones, I’d appreciate it more if it called it what it was (in an age-appropriate manner, obviously) rather than use an inaccurate euphemism like “best friend.”

As an author, Joan Yolleck is the opposite of Lemony Snicket–it’s her first book, and I’m super-impressed with it. She lives in Toronto and reviews children’s books for the Globe and Mail.

In Conclusion

If you got this far, you must really care about children’s books. Good on you. Now go read something else. Not another blog.

Interview with Anita Daher

I interviewed Anita Daher, today’s CreComm guest speaker and Winnipeg writer extraordinaire, by email just before classes started–but decided to save it for when she arrived to speak about her extensive experience as a children’s writer. Note carefully her point about grammar and how editors roll their eyes!

1. What’s the fastest you’ve ever written a book (Describe – how fast, how many words in the end?)

Earlier on in my writing career I wrote much more quickly than I do now, however the fasted by far was Two Foot Punch. Because of an incorrect file transfer and a crashed hard drive I no longer have my draft manuscripts, so I can’t give you an exact word count. It wasn’t a long book—probably around 42,000 words. With an ok from my editor I began writing it in May of 2007. With great relief, I handed it in before my end-of-June deadline…only to be asked if I could rewrite the book from 3rd person to 1st person. I did, and still made the print deadline of August. It was published in October.

2. Your #1 top book recommendation for someone who wants to write for young readers.

Just one? Can’t do it! We all learn from reading others, and so I recommend we read books from other authors, particularly authors we admire, particularly authors who are writing in the genre we are most interested in. Beyond this, I must make three recommendations:

General reference: How to Write a Children’s Book and Get it Published, by Barbara Seuling. The material is well presented, touches on picture books, novels, and non-fiction, and offers guidance on query letters and submission packages.

General skills: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. This book is meant for any writer, fiction or non-fiction, and offers terrific guidance on pacing, dialogue and originality.

From the department of “too often neglected”: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty. This guide developed over time from the author’s web site, and is a quick and easy read—enjoyable, even. Too often we let our basic grammar skills slide, or maybe there are areas we were never 100% sure about to begin with. Make a few pages bedtime reading, and increase chances for publication. Stupid mistakes can cause editors to roll eyes, and we want to avoid that whenever possible.

3. You’ve become a horse person. What is so compelling for you about horses?

I love spending time with horses. They are reactive animals, which means when I am with my horse I need to have my mind completely on him so that I don’t miss subtle body language telling me that he is nervous about a scary bush, or annoyed (though my boy is rarely annoyed), or distracted in a way he might step on me. If my mind is completely on him, it is completely off the 24,000 other things going on in my life on any given day. It’s like a vacation. Also, I’ve learned contrary to what I thought when I was a teen, there is a lot more to riding than hopping on and saying “go.” It’s been a rush taking lessons (at my advancing age), and training my body to work all parts together in order to communicate well for a better riding experience.

4. What is your favourite brand and flavour of potato chip, and why?

Oooh…love hate relationship. I love potato chips, and I hate it that I love them. Right now I’d love to hate myself for snacking on (with love) Dutch Crunch kettle Cooked Jalapeño and Cheddar chips. Each one is an experience: loud, and bites back.




Surprise Me

If I haven’t stressed this enough in Creative Writing class: surprise me.

This week I handed out the short story assignment, and along with it gave a scintillating PowerPoint presentation about things not to write the short story about, a presentation comprising both some useful tidbits of advice inherited from my predecessor, Armin Wiebe, and some observations on unfortunate student writing trends during my thus-far teaching career.

Three trends I’m tired of:

1) Stories about cars. Car crashes, car chases, drunk driving, texting and driving. Mostly these are violent for the sake being violent, or moralistic (cue ironic text message popping up during fatal collision), or both.

2) Stories about drinking and/or drug use. Write stories where these things occur, sure, but I’ve seen so many where the bender is the main point. We are not William S. Burroughs.

3) Therapeutic stories about your ex.

It’s entirely understandable that students like writing about these things. Write what you know, right? And hey, isn’t there a lot of great literature falling into these categories? And where do I get off picking on item #3 especially, messed-up relationships being, essentially, the basis of all literature as we know it?

These things are hard to pull off precisely because they’ve been done so many times. Try to write them without resorting to clichés. It’s hard! Your best bet is to work on fantastic flippin’ characters. That way, they can go through as many hallucinogen-induced traumatic post-breakup car crashes as they want, and it’ll still be original because your characters are original.

Hey, there’s a thought. I dare something to write a story including all three of my ranted-against topics. And surprise me with it.