A beginner's guide to speculative fiction, and a poem for Canadian winters.

Hi folks,

I’ve been a delinquent reader this week! I didn’t even reread Monkey Beach for my book club on Tuesday, a book I originally read back in high school and assumed I would remember in perfect detail even though it’s been seventeen years since I graduated. I have two books to review, neither of which I have cracked yet. Instead, I’ve been watching Search Party (excellent, incredibly stressful) and the Edge of Tomorrow, a perfect film that combines an apocalyptic sci-fi premise, elaborate action sequences, and Tom Cruise’s disturbing cult-leader charisma to rapturous effect.

Since this isn’t a newsletter where I talk about my favourite action movies (yet), I’ll move on to the books. Earlier this week I published an interview at The Tyee with the incredible Francecsa Ekwuyasi, whose debut novel Butter Honey Pig Bread I devoured in January. I recommend the book and the interview! Both delicious!

And serendipitously, this week’s BOOK PERSON is my friend Karen Pinchin, a journalist and author living in picturesque Nova Scotia. Karen’s also a trained chef who taught my husband how to carve a chicken and clean a salmon, and everything she writes about food is sublime (this story about Canada’s top-secret potato lab will blow your mind.) This week she has a bounty of recommendations for you, including a speculative fiction primer and a poem for Canadian winter.

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

I'm from Etobicoke, a west-end Toronto suburb that was slowly eaten up into the GTA throughout my childhood and teens. Its name was drawn from the Anishinaabe Mississaugan name, Adobigok, meaning “where the alders grow." My neighbourhood was a bucolic and sheltered white-upper-middle-class enclave near the Humber River. Now, I live with my husband and son in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, which is Mi’kmaq ancestral and unceded territory. In this chaotic, terrible timeline, we're very lucky to have landed here.

Describe your literary tastes.

I've always been an omnivorous reader, and drawn to strong points of view, storytelling and language use more than than any particular genre or form. That said, I love being transported to new or unfamiliar worlds, so perhaps my "'taste," as it is, is for works of human insight and thoughtful translation.

Because I'm a journalist and writer by trade, I try to space out my non-fiction and essay reading throughout the day, and save fiction, short stories and poetry for evenings and weekends.

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

Without a doubt, Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York. It's beautifully (if sometimes idiosyncratically) organized, the employees are so friendly and knowledgable and it has the feel of a "fancy" bookstore with the coziness of a library. It's the type of place where you randomly pick one book, lose yourself in it, and then pick up the one beside it and lose yourself again. Last fall, partially due to COVID, they were on the brink of going out of business, but managed to fundraise more than $100,000 to pay off some overdue bills. Thank goodness.

In Toronto, shout out to Ben McNally, who were forced to vacate their gorgeous Bay St. location for Adelaide. But let's be honest, that store is Ben, not the moulding on his bookshelves.

Have you ever read a book about your hometown?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is so good, and shows a kind of view-from-the-top Toronto condo living (and a terrifying flight along the shore of Lake Ontario) that felt very real to that place for me. As a counterpoint, The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole is a bracing, gorgeously written look at the Black experience in a city I was raised to believe was an idealistic melting pot — in that way, his book felt opposite of my own experience, but is a truer way of seeing "my" city.

How do you choose your books?

One of my favourite writers, Anne Helen Petersen, has a newsletter called Culture Study, and subscribers can access threads on specific topics. It's designed to be "one of the good places on the internet and it is really and truly that!

Every so often, on Fridays, she'll start a thread on what people are reading. Usually, the recommendations are always bang-on, suggested with care and context by other fans of Petersen's. When this happens, my poor, long-suffering husband will usually get a long list of books by email, and he'll go to our online library subscriptions and download them for my Kindle. Ours is truly a golden age for reading and readers.

What are the last five books you read?

Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Why Fish Don't Exist by Lulu Miller
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

What book is next to your bed right now?

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard by John Birdsall. It's one of those books I'm reluctant to read too quickly, because I know I'm going to miss it when I'm done. I'm was so stoked to hear it's being adapted into a movie!

Did you ever read a book for school, or out of a sense of duty to the classic canon, and find it was unexpectedly good? If so, which one?

I've never been one for the Big Russians, but I read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons in high school and was absolutely captivated by his ability to render scenes and internal lives of his characters. I once picked up his Diary of A Superfluous Man at Fredericton's Owl's Nest Bookstore (RIP) and read it over an afternoon in a hammock. I suppose that makes him the most approachable of the least approachable genre!

Do you have a favourite genre?

I love, love, love fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction. Those genres have an ability to peel back human natures and large societal-scale issues and problems and allow a kind of four-dimensional thinking that I find simply isn't possible for me when I'm reading about the real world. The best of these books are readable and smart, lyrical and not "nerdy." They start with real, relatable characters and then draw you through believable universes that are funny, captivating, dreamy or just so insane it's hard to imagine a human person actually conceived of the concept.

Some top all-time favourites, if you're nervous: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb, Corvus by Harold R. Johnson, The Stand by Stephen King, The Expanse by James S.A. Corey.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I read Number The Stars by Lois Lowry until it was dog-eared and tattered, and honestly, I'd be nervous to read it again as an adult for fear that it isn't as good as I remember? One quote that, miraculously, has stuck with me (although I'm not sure if this is true!) is roughly, "It's easier to be brave if you don't know everything." That kind of reads like "ignorance is bliss," right? So what does that mean about my urge to understand everything (through my writing) — am I trying to be brave the harder way? Trying to prove this wrong? YA novels are so smart at going deep in a way you don't notice at the time. (On that note, shout-outs to Hatchet, Jane Eyre and The Goats.)

Do you read poetry? If so, do you have a favourite collection or poem?

My partner, Sean, brought modern poetry into our marriage via his English degree, and I fell hard and quick in love with New Brunswick's Alden Nowlan and his 1996 Selected Poems by Anansi. In 2017, Goose Lane released his incredible, bigger-than-a-brick collected poems and it contains whole worlds. My favourites change with the seasons, but recently I've been thinking about “Canadian January Night":

Ice storm: the hill
a pyramid of black crystal down with the cars
slide like phosphorescent beetles
while I, walking backwards in obedience
to the wind, am possessed
of the fearful knowledge
my compatriots share
but almost never utter:
this is a country
where a man can die
simply from being caught outside.

I find that amazing, that moment of shared understanding that is also the feeling of being utterly alone? Other than those whose ancestors were born here, I've always been skeptical of what makes a person "Canadian." Still, there's something about this shared link to nature (and the danger/peril posed by it) that I often feel might is the thread strong enough to bind us together: sailors caught at sea in the same storm.

Do you have a beloved under-the-radar author who you think more people should read?

Margaret Visser! She's a social anthropologist and writer of two of my all-time favourites, Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. She was an absolute trailblazer in the world of interdisciplinary food and culture writing, and her essays about tanning and privilege, lettuce and labour, to toasts and sexism are seminal. She interweaves history, literature and anecdotes in such a smart, charming way, I often find myself studying how she organizes her information in total awe.

Have you ever picked up a book expecting to be underwhelmed and found yourself completely knocked flat on your ass by how good it is?

When I read the description of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, I remember thinking that there was no way it could tackle all the ideas it promised to in a satisfying way — scientific method, feminism, lichen! — so I suppose I had low expectations due to my high expectations? Anyways, I was super-wrong, because it was such a yarn, and a romp, and big-hearted look at the forced miniaturization of the lives of women and how our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought to build satisfying lives for themselves.

What's your comfort read?

I'm currently working on my first book, a non-fiction book about bluefin tuna, an obsessive fisherman, and our urge to understand and control the ocean. It's a huge opportunity I worked for years for, but is also very, very hard! When I find myself overwhelmed at the prospect of putting so many words in the right order, I go back to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. It's a simple, short and specific story that also manages to touch on the universal. And it also has one of the ultimate first sentences of all time: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." I double dog dare you to set up a story faster than that!

If you read scary books, what's the most terrifying novel you've read?

I don't read scary books, generally, because I'm a wuss and I get nightmares! I started Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia without reading about it before I started, so imagine my terror as the creepy stuff started happening. (Ed. note: ensuing spoilers from Karen omitted for those who have not yet read this book, but trust us, they are wild and thrilling!)

What is the funniest book you have ever read?

Shrill by Lindy West is the only book I've read on an airplane and found myself laughing out loud like a maniac.

Her relationship with the crumbs at the bottom of chip bags is something I deeply relate to, and the fact that she can be so funny while also deconstructing the stupidest parts of society is truly next-level.

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?

I hated, HATED Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. The concept is so good, and I'm really interested in breathing, yoga, science, and everything else this book purports to tackle. I really wanted to like this book! But I couldn't get past Nestor's voice and writing style, and the anecdotal self-centring way he chose to approach his material. Disappointing.

What book are you most excited to read next?

Do Better by Rachel Ricketts just arrived at my house and I'm so excited to dive into it. Rachel's work is amazing — she helped me through my dad's death when she was working a lot with grief — and seeing her turn her brilliance and energy to racial justice and societal transformation has been incredible to watch. Championing her work in white spaces is something I've been doing a lot of recently, and cannot wait to dig deeper into it.

Speed round: What book pairs best with…

…a roaring fire?

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.

…a summer afternoon at the beach?

The Price You Pay by Aidan Truhen.

…a long journey?

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

…a big change in your life?

Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

…a snow day?

How To Cook A Wolf by MFK Fisher.

… a park blanket and a picnic?

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi.

Reader’s choice:

Okay, I lied in my introduction: I did read something this week, which was this bonkers deep-dive into the new-age, white-supremacist cult behind the Celestial Seasonings tea company. Three separate friends sent it to me (and Amanda included it in her newsletter), and I have sent it to at least 10 people. I love when everyone is talking about the same weird story. So: what is the weirdest story you’ve read recently (fiction or non-fiction) that you can’t stop sharing with people?