BOOK PERSON | Vol. 21
The funny, experimental and insightful favourites of Rachel Burns. Also, Julia Roberts pizza.
This past week I read Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson, a story about intergenerational trauma, family, and identities— the ones we’re given, the ones we choose. It was very good and when it comes out in August you should buy it. If you want to read something now, let me recommend Carrie Jenkins’ trippy debut novel about misogyny and madness in academia, Victoria Sees It. Mandy recommended it in her BOOK PERSON interview, and I reviewed it for the Vancouver Sun.
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I currently live in East Vancouver -- the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh people. I am originally from London, Ontario-- the lands of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lūnaapéewak and Attawandaron people.
Specifically, I now live above a No Frills that is adjacent to a cemetery. Living here has taught me about the impermanence of life / to live in the present moment. Mostly because if you grow attached to a certain brand of tofu at No Frills, you can’t be certain that it'll show up on shelves again, next week.
Were you a big reader as a child?
I checked out around seven books a week as a child, then read every YA title available at my local branch. I also collected Roald Dahl’s books at home, and read Matilda six times. It was the first kids’ book that I could remember reading that used some sarcastic humour. When I read a line that skewered Matilda's classmate by using a pun, it felt so exciting! And that as a young reader, I was entrusted to understand it.
Describe your literary tastes now.
I am drawn to contemporary writing, whether that is fiction, poetry, books of essays, graphic novel, or memoir. Anything vaguely experimental / comedic, coupled with an endless supply of philosophical insights and minimal plot lines is my go-to.
Apparently, I am also often drawn to “up-market chick lit, often chosen for book clubs”. <Insert cry/laugh emoji.>
What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?
The Paper Hound! It’s like if all of life's ironic, whimsical observations were put into one place, then organized (relatively dust and clutter free), before being sold, efficiently, to eager readers via ultra-specific categories. I recently found a book there written by Claudia Cornwall called Print-outs: The Adventures of a Rebel Computer. It was the best discovery that I’ve made in a long time.
Do you keep track of what you read? If so, what’s your method?
I use Goodreads. I gave away most of my books a few years ago, due to a serious aversion to dust. The digital trace I’m now creating helps me to feel like a book’s imprint is still with me, or at least on record. It also helps me to remember what I want to read and be inspired by others (while simultaneously dodging paid advertisements and reluctantly gifting my data to Bezos).
What are the last five books you read?
What book is next to your bed right now?
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb. It’s a touching memoir, pieced together through voicemail recordings and other conversations that Bess had with her grandmother. I especially loved the super direct advice from Bess’s grandmother regarding fashion (including appropriate colours of peacoats).
What's the best book you read last year?
So hard to pick! Some were: How to Pronounce Knife; Girl, Woman, Other; Purple Hibiscus; Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; A Mind Spread Out on the Ground; Weather; and Stay Sexy and Don't Get Murdered.
Did you ever read a book for school, and find it was unexpectedly good?
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury! I read it this year while studying at the Writer’s Studio at SFU. His approach seems to be all about riding waves of intense feelings and getting absorbed in the passion of the work. His approach wasn’t methodical at all — just about getting things onto the page, enjoying the process, then sorting them out later. I was so into it.
Do you read poetry?
I loved Maggie Nelson's Bluets. The book kind of blends short bursts of observational philosophy, autobiography, and poetry, all woven into a coherent narrative. It was published by Wave Books in Seattle, an independent, contemporary poetry press. I want to read more of their titles.
What's your favourite book that no one else you know has ever read?
I adored the book Moms by Yeong-shin Ma. It’s a graphic novel inspired by the life of the writer’s mom / his mom's friends, while they look for love with (often deadbeat) men, face financial ruin, and fight for better career prospects. The best thing I learned while reading this book is that, in South Korea, there are alcohol-free bar-style spaces where seniors can go to hang out, pick up dates, and dance throughout the afternoon. I sincerely wish that you could dance somewhere in Vancouver between 2-6pm.
Have you ever lied having read a book to impress someone?
(Like many before me?) I think I pretended to have read Infinite Jest, and I somehow ended up with a worn copy on my bookshelf. I still haven’t read it — sorry to any dudes I met in my early 20s who may have been duped into thinking otherwise.
What's the last book you devoured as fast as you could read it?
Motherhood by Sheila Heti. I’d never seen the discourse around deciding about having children depicted that way before, and with such honesty.
I also absolutely loved Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking about This. Its sort of fragmented style mixed with insightful sincerity, internet rabbit-hole obsessions and existential dread is what I truly connect to right now, in 2021.
Has a book ever fundamentally changed your opinion about something?
Not an opinion exactly, but after I read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, I sometimes feel sad when I see urban trees standing tall and alone, with their roots bursting through cracked sidewalks. I didn't realize just how communal, altruistic, and communicative they are. Thanks for ruining tree-lined streets for me, Peter!
Is there a place you dream of visiting, now that you've read about it?
I wanted to briefly see Naples because of the Neapolitan Novels. And I did eat at L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele when I made it there — because Julia Roberts did, in the film adaptation of the book... Eat, Pray, Love. It took 40 minutes on a bus to arrive, and almost an hour to get in. Luckily, the pizza was significantly better than the movie.
Have you ever had an argument with a friend over a book?
Huge one about the merits of The Shadow of the Wind. I’m sorry, I couldn’t get into it!
Which book do you give most often as a gift?
This is The Path The Wolf Took, by Laura Farina. So whimsical!
What books are you most excited to read next?
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. It's on hold for me now at VPL! The library hold system has really been a bright spot in this pandemic. A+ service! I still can't believe sometimes that it's real.
Also In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott. I had the privilege of seeing her read recently, for an author panel in class—my mind usually drifts a bit during Zoom readings but she held my attention with every word.
And Fuse, by Hollay Ghadery. I selected a non-fiction piece of Hollay's for an issue of Room that I edited in 2008. I randomly found her again on Instagram this year, where she’s now promoting this new book (and making hilarious posts). Sometimes social media is a nice place! <3
Speed round! What book pairs best with…
… a summer afternoon at the beach? The Perfect Nanny — such a beautifully written, insightful thriller.
… a road trip? A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit.
Rachel’s Julia Roberts pizza made me curious if your books inspire your meals. Haruki Murakami has inspired me to eat many bowls of spaghetti (the man loves spaghetti), and after I read Butter Honey Pig Bread I really wanted jollof rice. What about you?