BOOK PERSON | Vol. 17

Science fantasy, a great pandemic activity, and books that betrayed you with Natalie Ord.

Hello my little Easter chicks,

I love a long weekend, particularly right at the beginning of springtime when everything is blooming. The magnolia trees are just about to unfurl their blossoms, and everything smells green and alive. I read on Twitter that magnolias are one of the oldest flowering plants, so ancient that they evolved before bees existed and were pollinated by beetles 95 million years ago. I hope you enjoy the mental image of a velociraptor pausing to admire a flowering magnolia in the Cretaceous era as much as I do.

I’ve been reading Klara and the Sun, the new Kazuo Ishiguru, which is wonderful but bleak. As with Never Let Me Go you are gradually consumed by the horror of realizing what’s been happening in front of you throughout the novel. I wouldn’t call Ishiguru gimmicky (I don’t think you’re allowed to use that adjective for a Nobel Prize winner) but he’s peerless at pulling off this particular trick.

I don’t have any new links to my own writing to share but I will have a few interviews and book reviews out later in April. If you haven’t read my BOOK PERSON columns at The Tyee, you can find them here.

This week’s BOOK PERSON is fellow Vancouverite Natalie Ord, who replied to an earlier newsletter and offered to tell me about her favourite books. I love when people do that, by the way!

Describe your literary tastes.

The good people behind the Vancouver Public Library's Books Just For You service told me that I like literary, character-driven novels and I'd say that's pretty accurate.

What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?

Shakespeare and Company has a very special place in my heart. I lived in France when I was 19, which was amazing, and also I was at times very lonely and sad. I'd go for long walks by myself in the evening and would often end up at the bookstore and it was deeply comforting to be in that cosy, welcoming space surrounded by good things to read.

Do you keep track of what you read?

I used to take photos of books I wanted to read so I could find them at the library afterwards, and also had loads of notes on scraps of paper. I started using Goodreads a couple of years ago and find it to be a bit more reliable in terms of keeping everything in one place.

What are the last five books you read?

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
How She Read by Chantal Gibson
Like a Boy But Not a Boy by andrea bennett

What book is next to your bed right now?

There are two! Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and Words Are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books by Ursula K. Le Guin.

What's the best book you read last year?

The Overstory by Richard Powers. It took three people recommending it to me before I picked it up, and then I devoured it in a matter of days. I still think about the characters. I liked trees before, but I really appreciated and thought about them differently after I reading this book. As a result, I picked up David Tracey's Vancouver Tree Book: A Living City Field Guide and went on a couple of the self-guided tree tour walks which was an excellent pandemic activity (and a cute date).

Do you have a favourite poetry collection?

I don't read much poetry, but I do love Onjana Yawnghwe's poems. I started flipping through The Small Way when I brought it home and an hour later was still in my coat and boots, completely immersed in it.

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

I really liked Hazel Jane Plante's debut novel, Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian), and am hoping she writes more. It's about death and love and friendship, specifically between trans women, and made me want to watch a TV show that has never existed (I actually had to look it up afterwards just to make sure). And Onjana did the illustrations!

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?

N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season. In my defence, I'm pretty sure this was before she won the Hugo Award for it, and also I hadn't read science fantasy in a while and wasn't sure it was a genre I still enjoyed. The Broken Earth series is now one of my favourite trilogies and I recommend it to anyone who says they don't like fantasy or science fiction because my goodness it's amazing.

Have you ever lied having read a book to impress someone?

Is it lying to let someone believe you've read something even if you never actually told them that you'd read it? Someone I was dating was convinced I'd read Crime and Punishment (I'll never know why) and I just never corrected him. I still haven't read it and at this point don't think I will.

What's your comfort read?

I used to re-read books a lot. There is something so comforting about already knowing what's going to happen, and that it's going to be thoroughly enjoyable, and you can just relax into it and go along for the ride. Plus there's usually new things that I pick up each time. Remembering where and how I was the last time I read it is also a bit like visiting past versions of myself. I've had a harder time re-reading things lately (with the exception of books that are part of a series and I want to make sure the previous instalments are fresh in my mind): there are so many books I want to read, and more get written every day, and there's no way I can fit them all into this lifetime! All that said, the book I turned to most recently when I needed something reliable was The Plague. It seemed appropriate in these COVID times.

Which book do you give most often as a gift?

For a while I was lending out copies of the The History of Love by Nicole Krauss so often (and not getting them back) that I started stocking up whenever I would see one at a used bookstore or the VPL's library book sale. It's sweet and sad and funny.

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'm not mad I read it, but I was disappointed by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman's Big Friendship. The importance of friendships is something I've thought about a great deal, so I think I just wanted something deeper maybe? It's not bad; it's just not as good as I wanted it to be.

Is there a book you've been meaning to read, but just haven't gotten around to it yet?

I've had Middlemarch by George Eliot on my shelf for a long, long time but still haven't read it. This might be the year!

What's a non-fiction book that reads like fiction, with thrilling action, memorable characters, and surprising twists?

Last year I read both Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House and Carolyn Forché's What You Have Heard Is True and they definitely fit the bill. I couldn't put either of them down.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed your opinion about something?

This is neither a defining nor an important opinion, but I had a bit of a British history obsession when I was a kid and was convinced that Thomas Cromwell was A Very Bad Man. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy completely reversed that opinion.

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

I'm on the fence about whether or not I actually want to go there or if I'm just weirdly fascinated (and repelled) by it, but Kristen Arnett's Mostly Dead Things left me with a very visceral impression of Florida. I really enjoyed the book, and it made me feel ... sticky. A dear pal is a Floridian and has promised a tour so hopefully I'll get there one day.

What's a book that helped you believe in the fundamental decency of humanity?

I think Miriam Toews's books do this for me. In many ways they're about the worst aspects of humanity (patriarchy, authoritarian thinking ...) but also contain a lot of hope and make me believe in the possibility of goodness and decency in at least some humans. And maybe that's enough?

Have you ever read a book about our hometown?

It's never explicitly stated, but I'm pretty sure Zoey Leigh Peterson's Next Year, For Sure is set in Vancouver. I'm convinced I know exactly where parts of the book takes place, and the whole thing feels very Vancouver to me.

Some shameless family promotion: my mom and stepdad wrote Vancouver Noir 1930 - 1960 and it was fascinating to learn more about what this city was like then. Vancouver is still a gritty port town underneath it all.

If you were to add your own reading-related question, what would it be?

I want to know if there's a book you feel betrayed by. For me it would be Bridge to Terabithia. I read it a long, long time ago as a kid and was SO MAD that the little girl died unexpectedly. It's been so long that I don't really remember much of it, other than my anger (and I refuse to read it again). Turns out my younger self can hold one heck of a grudge.

What is a book that makes you hopeful for the future?

Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. It's a generous and joyous look at transformation, interdependence and change.

What book are you most excited to read next?

Both Patricia Lockwood's No One Is Talking About This and Eden Robinson's Return of the Trickster came out recently and I cannot wait to get my hands on them.

Speed round! What book pairs best with…

… a roaring fire? Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline.

… a summer afternoon at the beach? This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki.

… a really delicious slice of cake? Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.

… a long journey? Outline by Rachel Cusk.

… a big change in your life? The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin.

a long weekend with no plans? On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

… a bad mood? One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg.

… a snow day? The Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

… a park blanket and a picnic? Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.

Reader’s choice

I’m refreshing my questionnaire this week before I send it out to more unsuspecting readers! If there’s a question you think I should add (or cut) let me know. I appreciate all the emails and notes and input I get from you and I am truly, over-the-moon delighted every time someone discovers a new favourite book here. Thanks for reading!