BOOK PERSON | Vol. 24
Alyssa Arbuckle reads broadly but appreciates the classics. Also, do us both a favour and read Leslie Jamison's The Recovering.
I hope everyone reading this from the west coast is surviving the heat wave. I found this list of ways to stay cool helpful. More helpful, certainly, then switching tabs between the increasingly-apocalyptic forecast for Monday (highs of 41, which is a temperature I didn’t know we could reach here) and this bleak meme.
If you want to take your mind off of our melting planet, or maybe just pack something for the beach, there are some good reading recommendations below. This past week I read The Overstory, which combines transcendent nature writing and absolutely ludicrous human melodrama. I rolled my eyes a lot but I almost wept just as often, so if you’re looking for a book that provides the same emotional rollercoaster as a Grey’s Anatomy season finale, you might enjoy it! I’m hoping things will pick up with my next book, Animal by Lisa Taddeo, which arrived in the mail as a welcome mid-week surprise from my book angel Veronica.
In the meantime, this weeks’s BOOK PERSON has some worthwhile selections for your beach bag: scholar and avid reader Alyssa Arbuckle, who reached out to me on Twitter and thrilled me with her wonderful responses. I’m also thrilled to find one other person who doesn’t use Goodreads.
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, in Treaty 7 territory. For the past 15 years or so I've been on the west coast, primarily in Vancouver in Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory.
Describe your literary tastes.
I read pretty broadly. I tend toward contemporary fiction (with a long tail view of contemporary), literary non-fiction, essay collections, poetry, short story collections, even some memoir-esque nonfiction. (I guess that's just about all the things?) I appreciate good writerly technique and a strong voice, and that cuts across forms and genres.
What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?
Shakespeare & Co in Paris. The Left Bank! Notre Dame! An ancient bookstore! Batter my heart, three person'd God.
How do you choose your books?
I tend to glom on to certain authors and relentlessly read their oeuvres, but I also get introduced to new-to-me writers through friend recommendations and internety stuff like Roxane Gay's newsletter, McSweeney's updates, etc.
Do you keep track of what you read?
I just started doing this during COVID, actually. When I'm finished a book I number it and write a little summary in my notebook. Sort of like micro book reviews for an audience of one.
What are the last five books you read?
It's A Big Deal by Dina Del Bucchia — a fun and light poetry collection. It's sort of jokey and self-deprecating but still astute when needed.
Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese — a re-read for my book club. From its description it's a book that seems at best cheesy and at worst problematic, but is at core a deeply empathetic and romantic book.
I've Been Meaning to Tell You by David Chariandy — a personal book, or at least it felt so to me. Chariandy explores issues of race superimposed on his relationship with his teenager daughter. If you've met or seen Chariandy speak you'll know that he has a quite gentle but serious demeanour, and I really felt that throughout the book. It was sort of... quiet and careful. But in a good way.
The Persephone Book of Short Stories — an anthology. I picked up this collection at London publisher + bookseller Persephone Books pre-pandemic, but wasn't drawn to it until this spring. Not sure why. Maybe because it's 450 pages (lol). The book collects 30 stories from various women authors over the 20th century, chronologically ordered, and was a delight to read. And I learned things, including that moisturizer in the UK 100 years ago was called "face food" (!)
Embers by Richard Wagamese — a book of affirmations and meditations. Would recommend if you need a little soul-tending.
What book is next to your bed right now?
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (another re-read, which I gravitated toward during a period of intense work stuff a couple weeks ago) and The Shadow List by Jen Sookfong Lee (which I just started but am so taken with already. It's much more... honest than I was expecting?!)
What's the best book you read last year?
O, so difficult to choose! Can we do a threeway tie? Anne Boyer's The Undying. (Full title: The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care) It was very, very well written and was just so full of rage and sadness and fuck-all-of-you-ness. But it also changed my perspective on cancer narratives, both how they're told and what I've expected from them, and I am forever indebted to writers who deepen my own perspective on a given topic.
Desmond Cole's The Skin We're In, for being so damn honest. A critically important book, and I really admire Cole's commitment to anti-racism and to telling white Canadians to wake the frig up already.
Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which is a gorgeous personal essay collection. I've re-read the first essay a handful of times since and am struck by Chee's ability to create an atmosphere every single time. Also he writes about tarot so bonus points.
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?
Unpopular opinion: I actually think a lot of canonical works are quite good. Ugh! I know! The politics of canon-building! The exceptional exclusion! It's not right that so many got left out, and I think we should criticize and rail against the canon when needed. But also: Salinger, Faulkner, Dante, Ford, Hemingway, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Woolf, Homer, Fitzgerald, Dickinson, Chekov, Eliot, Ovid, shit, even Chaucer and Shakespeare... genuine appreciation for all of these writers.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Indeed! Books were a central part of my little world. I was quite feminine as a child (dolls, cats, ballet, dresses, pink stuff, tea parties, stuffed animals, etc), and so my favourites were in keeping: Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables.
Do you read poetry?
O YES. Can I pick a few favourites? T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" is one of the saddest and, I think, best poems ever written. Allen Ginsberg's "Song" is my favourite love poem, period. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass is so beautifully spiritual and full of universe love, I just can't. (every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you!)
Are there any "classic" books you genuinely love?
Again, so many. This makes me unhip, I know. Anything Virginia Woolf wrote but especially Orlando, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Dalloway. James Joyce's Ulysses is truly phenomenal even though yes it is a hard read and is not accessible. It is still a feat. Tess of the D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy is an absolute must. Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises has a permanent place in my heart. J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories includes the story "For Esmé — With Love and Squalor" which is absolutely brilliant.
What's your favourite book that no one else you know has ever read?
A near answer: I am obsessed with The Recovering by Leslie Jamison and will tell anyone who will listen about it. I've recommended it dozens of times, and no one has ever taken me up on that recommendation until my friend Bryce did a couple of months ago. And... he hated it! Like really, really didn't like it. So I am still searching for the person who reveres Jamison and The Recovering in the same way I do... (ed. note: it me)
What's a book that you've changed your opinion on over time?
Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which I liked a lot for its technicality and craft when I first read it as a young adult. But now it feels... too wrong.
What's your comfort read?
Which book do you give most often as a gift?
I haven't done this for a long time now, but used to give Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce to young men I was dating who I felt seriously (or semi-seriously) toward. I don't know if I should cherish that fact or cringe for my earnest young self. I've given Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem a number of times, too, which is also just incredible — such an adept writer. I recently read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and will be adding that to my gift list too. So damn beautiful.
What book are you most excited to read next?
What's the last book you devoured as fast as you could read it?
The third instalment of Eden Robinson's Trickster series, Return of the Trickster, which I just ripped through. Robinson is so dang good at dark comedy, and her characters are always compelling, even when they are Whistler bro sasquatches.
What's a book that took you a long time to read, but was ultimately worth it?
Leo Tolstoy's War & Peace! I started reading it at a time when I was having a lot of trouble sleeping, thinking it would bore me enough to put me to sleep. But then I got really, really wrapped up in its world. No regrets.
Free-for-all: tell me about a book you love that didn't make it into your answers above.
Tanya Talaga's Seven Fallen Feathers. Talaga is just relentless in her commitment to truth-telling and to facilitating change (here and in her other writings), and I am in awe of her. Also Audre Lorde's essay "Poetry is Not a Luxury." I mean, the first line? ("The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.") I think about that line, a lot. It's been world-shaping.
Speed round! What book pairs best with…
…celebrating your COVID vaccine? Zadie Smith's Feel Free.
… a summer afternoon at the beach? Elif Batuman's The Idiot.
… a big plate of salty french fries? Anything by Ursula K. LeGuin.
… a long weekend with no plans? Téa Obreht's Inland.
… a breakup? Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies.
… a snow day? Waubgeshig Rice's Moon of the Crusted Snow.
… a park blanket and a picnic? Emerson Whitney's Heaven.
… a really fancy hotel room, plus room service? F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, duh.
As you might know if you’ve been reading this series for awhile, I refresh the questions every few interviews. If there’s anything you think I should ask, let me know in the comments or by email! Alyssa’s suggestion is going in the next edition: What book is inextricably linked with a distinct period in your life? Her answer is Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys, which is tied to the ages of 15-17: “It's sad and poignant and a bit unpredictable.”