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K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

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2018 Reading Challenge: Part 3

For my “favourite” books of 2018, I can’t just pick one thing from each genre – that seems a bit too artificial for how haphazard my reading was last year. Instead, I’ve just highlighted the books that I’m still thinking about the most, even months after reading them. Call them my most memorable books of 2018 (most of which didn’t come out in 2018).

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)I can’t not mention the third installment of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky. While I was the most blown away by the first installment, the rest of the trilogy didn’t fail to deliver. It’s tremendously inventive and intricately drawn far-future science fiction by a Black woman. She has won umpteen major awards for this trilogy, and she doesn’t really need a recommendation from me. But here it is anyway.

This One SummerI’m still thinking about Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s YA graphic novel This One Summer. It’s a haunting coming-of-age tale that takes place at the lake, “this one summer.” Girls and women of different ages each change in different ways, and the pubescent protagonist learns—with resistance, even dread—what she’s up against becoming a woman. Definitely YA, not kids’.

Gothic Tales of Haunted LoveI read a few Hope Nicholson/Bedside Press comics anthologies this year, and the one that stood out for me was Gothic Tales of Haunted Love, which is just what it sounds like – spooky, gory, supernatural doomed romances, by a variety of artists and authors in a variety of styles. The stories featured many LGBTT* and BIPOC characters, breathing life into a genre that could otherwise come across as old-fashioned and stale. My daughter was so taken by the presence of this book in my house that I had to write a guide for her telling her which stories she could read and which were not age appropriate. (My daughter is obsessed with comics and I have to watch every one that I bring home.)

In cross-genre poetry/memoir/essay, I finally got around to reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I recognized it as poetry, myself, and only realized that some people categorize it as essays upon reading some reviews. I’ve never believed in genre myself, so its cross-genre quality just makes me love it more. A book about a colour is a beautiful idea, and blue is the best colour, right? (Weirdly, I also read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red this year, which isn’t about a colour, only it sort of is….)

Wide Sargasso SeaOne of the literary classics I picked up this year was Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. I have to say that what stays with me is more an impression than a specific element of craft or thematic takeaway, though I know it has many; for me, this book was an immersive experience that I can still kind of sink into in my mind.

Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous PeoplesThe most important book I read this year was Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style. If you are a writer or communicator in this country, you should read this book. It gives practical and clearly explained, organized, and argued advice for best practices when writing about Indigenous subjects or working with Indigenous writers.

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest GenerationI adored Daisy Hay’s book The Young Romantics, and it’s probably what gave me the biography bug. I’ve read that it was her PhD thesis in another form, which surprised me because the prose is so lively and the story so riveting (not something one can usually say about a dissertation). In it, she argues that the archetype of the lone, individualistic, tortured writer—an image invented by the Romantics—was never really true, certainly not by the second generation (the “young” Romantics), and probably not even for the first. She interweaves the stories of Leigh Hunt, Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, and a number of peripheral figures in order to show how they all interacted with and even depended on each other for inspiration, debate, intellectual stimulation, camaraderie, and support. (She also illustrates handily how the women of the circle paid the higher price for their nonconforming ways.) I am officially obsessed with the Romantics again, and if anyone can recommend which is the best biography of Byron, I’m gonna put it high on my list for 2019.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)Last, probably my favourite book of 2018 was another one that needs no recommendation from me: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It won the Booker, it was made into a miniseries, blah blah blah. These are historical characters I never would have predicted I’d have gotten so attached to. Thomas Cromwell, of course. And Henry VIII! I really missed him when I finished this book. This was one of the behemoths (about 600 pages) that I read this year, but it was worth every page. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to commit to reading the next two installments in 2019… maybe just part 2, Bring Up the Bodies. And, oh, maybe I’ll get the miniseries from the library, too.

Onward to 2019, my friends, and happy reading!

 

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2018 Reading Challenge: Part 2

My method of choosing books to read in 2018 looked systematic (I like systems) but had a whole lot of serendipity embedded in it. When I heard about, or remembered, or researched, or otherwise discovered, a book I wanted to read, I looked it up in the public library, and if it was there, I added it to a list in my account. My lists are divided up by subject and genre, to keep them organized. Sometimes, when a book wasn’t in the library but I really, really wanted to read it, I’d put in a purchase request, or else order it from interlibrary loan.

Screen Shot 2018-12-31 at 10.29.31 PM.png

I kept my holds list full, with the holds mostly suspended, and when I took a book out and a hold spot opened up, I’d go to my lists and, rotating through the different subjects and genres, I’d place a new hold on something that took my fancy at the time. I tried to have one longer book and several shorter books checked out at all times.

And how did I find out about these books? Several ways:

  • Social media. Even though I am not on it that often any more, the majority of my friends and followees are writerly types who talk about books rather a lot. A lot, but not all, of the books I learn about this way are Canadian books, because that is the world I friend in.
  • Goodreads—the platform I have not blocked. Not that many of my friends are on it, but the feed is 100% about books.
  • Personal recommendations from friends, colleagues and students IRL.
  • Library research on subjects of interest to me, often for writing-related reasons.
  • Podcasts. I listen to a number of book-related podcasts to hear about what’s new, and what I’ve previously missed, in the book world. Some of my favourite book shows this year:
    • LeVar Burton Reads. He reads contemporary short stories and has really good taste. Also, he’s LeVar Burton.
    • The New Yorker Fiction Podcast and The Writer’s Voice (respectively, older and newer stories from The New Yorker).
    • Literature and History. This is a podcast about the history of English literature and everything that influenced it. It’s been going on for years and he hasn’t even got to the English language yet. It’s all about totally canonical stuff, but I haven’t read all of that (and it’s been a while since I read what I read). He also recommends scholarly works.
    • Professional Book Nerds (from OverDrive), and Bookworm (from KCRW, with Michael Silverblatt). For book “round-up and interview” shows, those two are my current favourites, though I am also known to listen to the BBC’s, The Guardian’s and the TLS’s book podcasts for British book news, plus a whole slew of other American ones. (And the CBC, too!)

So, how did my semi-managed reading turn out by the numbers in 2018? Here are some percentages; keep in mind they are approximate, since I haven’t thoroughly researched the bio of every author and might not be privy to how they identify. Also, some of my genre attributions are probably debatable.

  • About 68% of the creators (usually authors, sometimes illustrators, editors, or translators) were women or non-binary people.
  • About 46% were Canadian.
  • About 14% were LGBTT*.
  • About 25% were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour).
  • About 8% of the books were translated from another language into English.

I gravitate towards books by women, plus the methods by which I get book information—due to the makeup of my friends circle—is going to emphasize books by women and books by Canadians. I need to put more attention towards choosing books by BIPOC, LGBTT*, and non-English-writing creators. My plan is to focus on the third in 2019, since it came in at a measly 8%. I’d love to practice actually reading in French (I used to in university), but I’m afraid that would slow me down a lot on my quest for 95 books. I’m looking at Asymptote for recommendations on new translated books. (Alas, their book club no longer ships to Canada!)

As for genre, here are the significant ones:

  • About 35% of the books I read were novels (my first love).
  • About 33% were SFF (science fiction and fantasy, though I’ve defined that broadly).
  • About 21% were children’s and YA (young adult).
  • About 21% were poetry.
  • About 20% were in graphic forms (comics).
  • About 14% were some form of narrative non-fiction.
  • About 14% were based on myth or traditional stories (either presented straight-ahead as non-fiction or retold as fiction).
  • About 11% were biography, autobiography or memoir.

For research purposes, I was actually trying to read significant amounts of mythology, YA, and SFF work this year. Those trends will probably continue, though I kind of got the bug for reading biography, what little of it I did.

I probably should have counted the living versus dead authors – but I can tell you the number of dead authors would be small. I also read a tiny bit of mystery, short stories, and informative non-fiction.

Next time: highlights of the year.

2018 Reading Challenge: Part 1

What is this? An actual blog post? Yes, it is, only two years since the last one. The thesis novel I last updated you about is back up to 92,000 words and officially in draft 5 (but who’s counting); yes, I did get my degree, but that doesn’t mean the book is finished. I just compiled that draft 5 MS today, December 31, so I felt it was a good milestone to mention.

But on to other, better books than my unfinished behemoth. Dismayed at my declining reading over the years and feeling distinctly like the internet has been making me lose my ability to read in depth, in 2018 I decided it was time to take on a reading challenge and publicly track my reading, which I did over on Goodreads – DAMN ITS EASE OF USE, AMAZON IS EVIL.

(Self-flagellates.)

Alas, I have not established a new tracking system for 2019.

Though I was most aware of Jonathan Ball’s #95books challenge, I decided to go for the more modest 52 books, a commonly declared challenge on Goodreads. I’m aware that these reading challenge numbers are all relative: to some people (let’s say, most of the students I teach), 52 books in a year might seem like a lofty goal, but to many of my writer and academic friends, not to mention friends who are voracious genre readers, it probably seems laughably small.

While there were times during the year that I fell behind, in the end I made 52 books quite comfortably, with about a month to spare, and then had a very productive December (vacation, air travel), getting my final total to 66. (Actually, it was 67, but there was one book I read early in the year that I wanted to forget and decided to delete from my list in a fit of pique.)

Screen Shot 2018-12-31 at 9.48.16 PMBuoyed by this success, I’m going to try for #95books in 2019. Things I need to keep in mind, given my experience in 2018:

  • Read on the bus. I’m lucky that I don’t get motion sick. That’s at least 40 minutes per day reading right there, so long as I don’t get seduced by the news apps.
  • Read before bed. Working or going on-line before bed does not help me sleep. Reading is better.
  • Stay off social media. My reading time this year shot up when I installed a social blocker which I’ve set so I’m only allowed on social media during limited periods of the day. As a result, no one likes my Facebook posts any more (I’m guessing they are not even seeing them), but who cares, really? I found pretty fast that once I blocked myself, I no longer wanted to go online, and got into the habit of reading instead.
  • Less Netflix. It’s so easy to start watching something and binge through a bunch of episodes for hours on the couch. I’ve tried to limit Netflix to two hours per week, and—just like with the social media—I found that after a while I no longer really wanted to go there, to the point that I had to schedule in my two hours so I didn’t completely ignore that form of storytelling.
  • Use the library. Not only does the public library offer good tools for organizing lists of books you want to read, the due dates create a deadline and a sense of urgency that I just never have when reading books I own (and believe me, I own a lot). But yes, I actually buy the books by people I know.
  • “Book” does not only refer to 600-page epics or weighty literary masterpieces (though those are also good). Only three of the books I read this year were upwards of 500 pages. Au contraire, lots of the books I read were poetry books, children’s books, and comics. I counted the books I read to my daughter for bedtime (five YA novels over the course of the year). I counted the ones she insisted on reading to me (three YA graphic novels which I had to look at over her shoulder). Books are books.

Parts 2 and 3 of this post will break my reading habits down a bit, and then highlight a few of my favourites from 2018.

Books, bountiful and rare

So, a little over a week ago, we ordered Chinese food. My fortune read thusly:

"Something interesting will happen soon at work."

My fortune

In case you can’t read that terrible photo, it says, “Something interesting will happen soon at work.” Or, on the French side of the fortune, “Il se produira bientôt au travail quelque chose d’intéressant.”

Now, “interesting” is a weak, sickly and slippery word, so this fortune struck nervousness into my heart. A little bit. As Mindy says to Homer, “Desserts aren’t always right.” (It’s in the episode with Michelle Pfeiffer guest starring, for those who can’t quite remember the line.)

The next day at work, I got a mysterious email message from a new college librarian I’d never met before, saying there was a gift he wanted to give me that he’d had for a few years, and now that we were colleagues, he thought he should give it to me, sorry if this sounds creepy, etc.

The thorough LinkedIn background check I performed revealed only an affinity for books, and for rare books in particular, so I quickly assented to a meeting, despite feeling at the mercy of a fortune cookie.

It turned out I was gifted with the best surprise I’ve had in a long time: a copy of Henry J. Morgan’s 1903 illustrated biographical dictionary Types of Canadian Women. Volume 1.

Nearly six years ago, my book Types of Canadian Women—Volume 2—was published. It’s a mock biographical dictionary in poems and poetic prose, inspired, you guessed it, by Morgan’s Volume 1. I talked about the source material in the publishers’ bumpf, and in some interviews at the time. Morgan’s book says a Volume 2 was in the works, but, having never found trace of one, I thought I’d just have to write it.

Types of Canadian Women title page

Types of Canadian Women title page, with lovely 1903 print ads opposite.

I’d been in Winnipeg for about a year when Types came out. But our mysterious new librarian, Matthew Handscombe, was still in Toronto, where I’d written all but the last few drafts of the book–partly on Toronto Island at the fantastic Gibraltar Point centre, partly in a second-floor apartment in a Victorian brick oven in Parkdale, with no air-conditioning, one summer on a Canada Council grant.

Matthew was operating a tiny bookshop specializing in fine press books. My publisher, Gaspereau Press, does some pretty fine printing, so Matthew had no doubt seen my book in the catalogue, probably read one of the interviews, and may have been familiar with my earlier Gaspereau release, Spine, which contained, among other things, poems about fine printing. Somehow, my reference to Morgan’s Volume 1 stuck in his brain.

I used to consult Volume 1 in the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, as part of my work as a researcher on Canadian history books and book proposals. The Robarts had a circulating copy, and while I was aware of a few copies on offer from book dealers, even after I’d fallen for the book and decided to write Volume 2, acquiring my own copy—which dealers listed for around $300—had never become a priority.

Still with me? Let’s get back to Matthew Handscombe, who, somewhere in the depths of his brain, catalogued this detail about my interest in this book.

A spread from Morgan's Types of Canadian Women, Volume 1: the book responsible for inflicting 50 of my poems on the world.

(Wait, I have to digress again to say how much I like librarians. There’s Wendy, with whom I hung out during my M.A. in Ottawa, and now works at Memorial University Newfoundland; my sister Christine who works at the library in the Law Courts in Edmonton and is finishing her MLS on the side; Brian in the cubicle opposite mine who teaches in the library tech program–Hi Brian!; his colleague Tabitha whose CanLit class I once bombarded with my collection of obscure–duh–Canadian poetry chapbooks. I used to think librarianship was my lost calling, but then remembered that I promised myself, after paying off my student loans, never to go to university again. In short–go visit your library.)

Matthew’s father, Richard Handscombe, taught linguistics and children’s literature at York University (scroll down the linked page for bio), and was an avid book collector. Though significant parts of his collection were donated to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the U of T—particularly a collection of over a thousand items by and about John Cowper Powys and his brothers—when Richard died, Matthew was left with a massive number of books to find homes for. Thirteen thousand, I think, was the number he told me (he’ll correct me if I’m wrong. Right?).

Types of Canadian Women was not, alas, lurking in the collection. But slowly, as Matthew and his family donated or sold books, he started to acquire things from the dealers, essentially doing part of the transaction in trade, with the intention of gifting specific books to individuals. It was at Greenfield Books here in Winnipeg that Matthew saw Types of Canadian Women and acquired it, somehow remembering that I, a writer he’d never met, had wanted it. It never occurred to him that I was also living in Winnipeg, until he noticed that I was a colleague at Red River College, where he’s only recently arrived.

Matthew styled the gift as a present from his father. I never met Richard Handscombe, and Matthew had never met me when he picked up this book and put it aside. I ran back to my office to get Matthew a copy of my little Volume 2, as an inadequate thank-you.

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

This post has gone on too long, and there is much I still want to research and write about: how books end up in rare book collections (my books are all in the Fisher, I can only assume by virtue of being Canadian small press books); more about Matthew’s father and his collection; how all this talk of book collecting reminds me of my father-in-law, Martin Levin, and his house filled with books; how Morgan’s Volume 1 will read to me now, years after I left my project behind on the poetry circuit; and how none of this would happen in a world where books are infinitely reproducible.