Heavily atmospheric books and a balm for your inner weird kid.

Hello gentle readers,

Recently it felt like everyone was talking about hitting a new pandemic wall and feeling depressed, hopeless, totally burnt out. “Huh,” I thought, and then a couple days later it happened to me. Everything I have written this week is garbage, including this introduction. Sorry! Whenever I start feeling too bleak I watch the trailer for Fast & Furious 9, and the rapid sequences of elaborate vehicular stunts pulls me back from the brink of despair.

Anyway, to cheer myself up, I bought Patricia Lockwood’s new autofictional novel No One Is Talking About This. Her memoir Priestdaddy is the funniest thing I have ever read and she is such a bizarre, playful, joyous writer, so I was excited for her first work of fiction, the first half of which is an homage to the insular and baroque culture of the internet rendered in funny and precise vignettes. For example:

Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.

I was chugging merrily along, feeling buoyed by the ingenious hilarity of her prose, and then the second half of the book pivots abruptly into surreal family tragedy and profound grief. Now I’m wrecked. Only Patricia Lockwood could devastate me so utterly in a book that also features a cat named Dr. Butthole. You should read it!

Onto the BOOK PERSON! This week it’s Julie Larsen, who emailed me out of the blue (I love when people do that!) and shared her wonderful answers with me. Reading them was a bright spot in an otherwise challenging week and I’m grateful to her for reaching out, and to you for reading this.

Where are you from, and where do you live now?

I grew up in a small town near Montreal, and have been living in Vancouver for almost 9 years now.

Describe your literary tastes.

I am definitely a fiction reader, with a soft spot for short stories, dystopias, and interconnected characters. I do read non-fiction here and there, and in particular personal essays, but for me, reading fiction has always been the conduit for how I’ve learned about empathy, relationships, other cultures, and social issues.

What is your favourite independent bookstore in the whole wide world?

Right now, I am feeling very nostalgic for Montreal so I’m going to say Encore Books in N.D.G, the last neighbourhood I lived in before leaving. When I picture their space in my mind it’s bathed in warm sunlight and very much tied into my memories of lazy summer days browsing their shelves with an iced coffee in hand and my best friend nearby.

What are the last five books you read?

Solutions and Other Problems, Allie Brosh
Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubgeshig Rice
Daddy, Emma Cline
The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Saint X, Alexis Schaitkin

If you were a weird kid, and/or have experienced deep depression and grief, Solutions and Other Problems will make you cry-laugh and sad-cry, sometimes at the same time. The “Richard” story perfectly captures my sense of humour and I can’t get over how Brosh can convey so much emotion with her stick-figure avatar.

I can’t stop thinking about Moon of the Crusted Snow. I wanted it to be more tightly edited and to delve deeper into the relationships between characters, but there’s a particular passage about apocalyptic events and whiteness that has stayed with me and has me reconsidering other Indigenous stories I’ve read recently.

Are you fastidious about your books?

Mostly no. My book collection is majority paperback and I’m not particularly precious with them (the books I’ve read most recently are stacked on our coffee table and frequently end up as a surface for various things).

I am a paper-book reader, no e-reading, mostly because I like the tangible element of reading a paper-book, and I think the various scuffs and stains along the way add to the experience. I do think that if someone lends you a favourite book from their collection and you drop it in a bathtub that you should probably replace that book for them! (an old wound surfaces!)

How do you choose your books?

In addition to recommendations from friends and browsing bookstores (locally, mostly Pulpfiction on Main and Massy Books in Chinatown) and the library, I look for reviews and recommendations on sites like Book Riot and the Millions. Book Riot's Read Harder challenges are an excellent source of diverse recommendations to push your reading further. I follow Roxane Gay on Goodreads and her recommendations are usually aligned with my reading tastes.

I also highly recommend VPL’s “What Do I Read Next”, you can get a personalized list of recommendations from one of their librarians - brilliant! Finally, this newsletter is a new source of recommendations and I’m now following @thunderbirdwomenreads on Instagram for Indigenous author recommendations.

Do you keep track of what you read?

Yes, my memory is terrible so I need some kind of system. I use Goodreads, despite their clunky user interface and refusal to add half-star ratings! I’ve been doing their annual reading challenge since 2015 and it’s a useful way for me to revisit past-me through the books I’ve read. I also keep a growing list of ‘to read’ books so I can refer back to it when I’m looking for something new to read.

What book is next to your bed right now?

I am alternating between What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, and The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I’ve re-read the first story in What is Not Yours is Not Yours, “Books and Roses,” three times already, and am looking forward to reading more of Oyeyemi’s dreamy and subtle writing.

What's the best book you read last year?

Like many people, I think, reading was hard for me last year as it was too easy to feel distracted by, well, everything. My favourite books from 2020 are the ones I remember being able to just sit and read, the ones that absorbed me into their words and worlds:

Bangkok Wakes to Rain, by Pitchaya Sudbanthad. I’ve spent a lot of time in Bangkok and this book is a lyrical love letter to the city itself, and made me want to be wandering her streets again.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn, introduced me to aspects of Hawaiian folklore and class issues that I was previously unaware of and had me looking up words and histories to better understand the characters experiences. It’s a devastating novel so be warned.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. I realize now that all three of these books are heavily atmospheric, probably the reason why it was so easy to be drawn into them!

Do you have a favourite passage or line? The kind of thing you might get tattooed on your body, if you were the kind of person to get such a tattoo— or maybe you already have?

I’ve had two lines tattooed onto me, so I guess I am that kind of person! One was subsequently covered up, and the other is a line from Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. While I don’t exactly regret getting it, I also wish it wasn’t as immediately visible. I’ve become more of a private person over the years and people being able to ‘read me’ without knowing my context for the quote feels uncomfortable sometimes.

Have you ever lied about reading a book to impress someone?

I haven't, but YEARS AGO I was corrected for mispronouncing Camus by someone I was quasi-romantically entangled with and I still sometimes think about how embarrassed I felt. I swear I had actually read The Plague prior to being corrected, hah!

What's your comfort read?

I love this question! My book is The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. I refer to it as my “book brain cleanser.” I re-read this book when I want to read but also don’t want to focus or think too much. It is set at a declining all-girls school in the Adirondacks, and Latin, ice-skating, bobby pins, and a peacock-blue fountain pen figure predominantly in the narrative. It is absurd in the best way possible.

Which book do you give most often as a gift?

The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell — I think they absolutely need to be read together! They’re formative books for me. I first read them when I was 18, and, while the more-adult-and-educated-me can see flaws more readily now, they are fundamental to my journey of understanding how the nuances of language, context, perspective, and justice matter; how we can never truly understand the impact of the choices we make in the moment we make them; and the dangerous and devastating impacts of good intent, cultural misunderstanding, and Judeo-Christian dominance.

What is your favourite opening to a book?

“Her mind is a haunted house.” From The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam.

Generally speaking, I'm interested in books you love, but I am also desperate to know: What’s a widely-praised, critically-acclaimed book that you hated?

Ohhhhh. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I’m sorry, I can’t with this book and it’s magic-pixie-dream-most-beautiful-girl-in-the-swamp protagonist, stereotypical depictions of rural poverty, and “magical-negro” characters. I went on a rant about it to a friend who then reluctantly and quietly told me she really enjoyed it, and I think about that moment a lot.

Reading is incredibly important to me and my growth as a person, and I want to encourage everyone to just read without any judgements attached... But the intersection between reading for pleasure and reading critically, bisected with notions about the value and celebration of certain kinds of literature over others, and how to communicate and encourage that lens without alienation, is something I’m still trying to figure out.

Is there a place you dream of visiting, now that you've read about it?

This question made me think of another favourite short story, "City of My Dreams," from Zsuzi Gartner's collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth. I re-read it a couple of years ago and realized how deeply that story shaped my conception of Vancouver before I even came here for the first time, and how much it continues to influence my complicated feelings towards this place.

What book are you most excited to read next?

Return of the Trickster by Eden Robinson!

Reader’s choice:

I just revised my questionnaire so you may see this question answered in future editions, but I want to know: what’s your favourite poem? I don’t read much poetry, but I’d like to read more.

I love Kyla Jamieson’s Body Count, but that might be the only volume of poetry in reach on my shelves. My daughter likes it too, for her own inscrutable reasons (she can’t read, because she’s a baby), and she carries it around the house like a prize, murmuring softly to the pages. Maybe she’ll be a poet. If that’s the case, I hope you can provide her with some inspiration.

If you know a BOOK PERSON, please send them my way so I can pry into their shelves. All preferences welcome! And if you enjoyed this edition of BOOK PERSON, why not subscribe or share it with a pal by clicking these cheery buttons?