What to read while ensnared by a cult, and other delicious and surprising recommendations.

On Tuesday, my book club had its annual festive book exchange. In previous years, each member would bring a wrapped book, and we would draw to determine who would pick first. As the books are unwrapped, the giver might say a little bit about why they chose that book, or what they love about it. We’d bring treats, too, and drink eggnog from The Best of Bridge, made by our book club hostess Amanda.

There’s no communal punch bowl of eggnog during the pandemic, but we made the rest happen this year. On the day of our exchange, we all stopped by Amanda’s to pick up a wrapped book and leave one behind. Amanda made the eggnog, too, and sent it home with each of us in single-serving Tupperware. We opened our books on Zoom, we drank our eggnog, we talked about our December book (The Glass Hotel). Somehow all the magic was there, too. A tiny holiday miracle.

(I gave A History of My Brief Body, and received How a Woman Becomes a Lake, which I read all in one go on Thursday evening. If you like “chilling literary mysteries,” as the publisher says, I recommend it.)

I was very excited to interview Marisa Grizenko this week. Marisa writes one of my very favourite newsletters, Plain Pleasures, where her evocative and witty book reviews are accompanied by her hand-drawn illustrations of their covers. Every month features three books I’ve never heard of that all sound enthralling, which is a testament to Marisa’s prose as well as her taste. Subscribe, subscribe! Then read on:

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

I grew up in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, lived in Montreal for a few years, and have been in Vancouver for about a decade.

Describe your literary tastes.

I mostly read what the book marketers call “literary fiction,” but I read non-fiction and poetry, too.

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

My go-to bookstore is Vancouver’s Pulpfiction Books, usually the Main Street location for its proximity to my apartment, but they’re all great places to while away an hour or two.

Where do you read at home?

I tend to assume a variety of reading postures, mostly in the living room: stretched out on the rug, curled up in a yellow chair, or lying on the couch. If I’m writing about a book, I often awkwardly take notes on my laptop, which is propped on an armrest or sitting at an odd angle to my body. Nothing I do is ergonomic.

What time of day do you do your best reading?

These days, I read during the evening and whenever I can on the weekend. My best weekends involve spending at least one full day reading; I feel it slows down time.

Before the pandemic, I used to read on my commute—on the bus and Skytrain, yes, but also while walking. (I’m very risk averse, so you have to believe me when I say that I do this extremely well and have yet to fall into a manhole or hit a pedestrian or car. It’s all about making frequent eye contact with both the sidewalk and the book.)

In my experience, people love to talk to you when you’re reading in public. Some highlights: the woman who thought Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual was a self-help book (a fair guess!), a man who swore he’d seen me the day before reading The Brothers Karamazov (wasn’t me), another man who was leaving policing to pursue his literary ambitions (I could only approve).

How do you mark your page?

Even if I’m not reading a library book, I usually have tons of those wispy little library slips with my name on them hanging around, so I use those as bookmarks. Sometimes someone else’s slip comes my way, which is a delightful reminder of our community of book sharers and a thousand times better than finding a stranger’s stray hair.

Are you fastidious about your books? Or would I find crumbs between the pages and coffee rings on the covers?

I’m not fastidious or particularly messy, and I don’t tempt fate by reading in the bath.

Do you ever skip ahead to spoil the ending?

Rarely, mostly because the books I usually read wouldn’t tell me much even if I did skip ahead. It’s like, oh, the woman who was sitting in a room at the beginning and middle of the book, neurotically reflecting on her past and making odd pronouncements, is still doing so by the end? Of course!

How do you choose your books?

I read reviews, solicit recommendations from family and friends, keep my eye out for book talk on Twitter. There are some publishers whose titles always interest me: Dorothy, a publishing project; NYRB; Fitzcarraldo Editions. The nice thing about having a books newsletter is that people often write to me about books they’re reading—my own literary tip line.

Do you keep track of what you read?

When I was seventeen or so, my best friend’s mom gave me this small book made of handmade paper (thanks, Mimi!). I’ve been writing down everything I read in there ever since, though the spine has cracked and the pages are pretty loose—a precarious situation.

What book is next to your bed right now?

If I’m being truthful, there is no book there. As soon as I slip into bed, I fall into a deep, uninterrupted sleep for seven to nine hours. It’s my one true gift. But what am I currently reading? David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue and Darryl Pinckney’s Busted in New York.

What did you read most avidly as a teenager?

As a teenager, I set myself the stupid goal of reading “all the classics.” I was helped in part by my parents’ bookshelf and the pretty good selection of used books at the bookstore down the street. As I struggled through the Penguin edition of Thucydides or whatever, I also started reading what I consider more typical teenage fare: Kurt Vonnegut, the Beats. A lot of this I’ve outgrown, but some of the discoveries during that time have remained important to me, like Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women.

I had two wonderful high school English teachers, Mrs. Roberts and Ms. Jacek, who introduced me to so much and modelled how to engage with literature. So what may have started out as some dumb way to prove myself gradually just became a lifelong love of reading. Then, as now, I’m drawn to good stories, and I delight in interesting uses of language. I remember being a teenager and feeling excited to spend a whole summer’s day reading Dickens in my room while my mom urged me to call a friend or go outside. No thanks, Mom! Things haven’t changed all that much.

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

A true under-the-radar author? Hmm, not sure. I would say that there are authors who have gotten recognition but not nearly enough. Paige Cooper’s short story collection Zolitude, for instance, is brilliant. Everything Dionne Brand touches is gold; she’s read and celebrated, especially in Canada, but she deserves way more attention, in my view. She’s a genius.

I loved Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs when I read it a year or two ago.

Books in other languages often have this under-the-radar quality, even if they’re well-known in their countries/cultures of origin. Like, Witold Gombrowicz is a big deal in Polish literature, but I hadn’t heard of him when I stumbled across Pornografia (which blew my mind). Same with Can Xue’s The Last Lover. Obviously, I operate in a pretty narrow linguistic and cultural sphere, but venturing outside of it is usually rewarding.

Which book has your favourite ending?

I was once in a cult-like situation, where I worked by day in a laundromat cafe (for free) and spent the rest of the time working on business schemes with a group of other young people as we received directions from a charismatic but highly shady leader. I was renamed Mary (!!!). It sounds exciting, but it was mostly tedious.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time in that laundromat cafe, making terrible lattes and folding clothes. A customer and I would play checkers a few times a day. And I read Proust. In Search of Lost Time is long and beautiful and at times maddeningly boring. In my regular life, I might not have had a reason to keep reading it, but it did serve as a lifeline of sorts. When you get to the end of the last volume, during which Marcel has a revelation about the nature of time and narrative, and all the threads of the previous volumes come together...oof, what a feeling!

So, yes, I spent a year of my one wild and precious life enthralled by group-think, but at least I got to experience the shiver-inducing end to Time Regained.

What is the funniest book you have ever read?

Fran Ross’s Oreo. Published in 1974, it’s the story of Christine (or Oreo), a young girl born to a Black mother and a Jewish father, the latter disappearing post-divorce. Christine’s quest to find her father brings her to New York, where she encounters outrageous situations and characters. It’s based on the Greek myth of Theseus. It’s got Joycean levels of linguistic play. It’s so funny that I laughed many times per page (!) and so smart that it left me stunned, as the best books do.

As Marlon James writes, “Oreo buzzes with whip-smart comic ferocity. The book is just goddamn funny. Its most wildly discursive turns are still delivered with a smartass wink, just one degree short of too clever for its own good, meaning just clever.” Agree!

What is the most devastating book that you can think of?

I’m supposed to say A Little Life, right? Well, that book did destroy me, but even more wrenching is Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, a polyphonic catalogue of loss and love and desperation.

Other books that have made me cry and/or fall into a morass of feeling include Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. All these books are wonderful and worth the emotional devastation.

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?

Even now, I’m scared to say this publicly. Okay, here it is: Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. For about two years, whenever I drank too much at a party, I would begin ranting about it (I’m very fun). At the time, seemingly everyone loved it, but in the past year there have been some dissenting voices. I’m not alone!

Weirdly, I thought Normal People was fine; it didn’t stir up any animus for me.

Which is the most terrifying book you’ve ever read?

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has it all: a big manor, charming but creepy children, malevolent ghosts.

Reader’s choice:

Regardless of your level of enthusiasm, it’s the holiday season. You cannot escape Mariah Carey’s Christmas album, even when you are merely dashing into Shopper’s Drug Mart to buy their off-brand Pringles. Why fight it? Instead, I want to know: what’s a book that feels like snow falling and holiday spirit?

Mine is Little Women (duh). For a spookier and slightly murderous (but, importantly, still festive) mood, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Finnish fantasist Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen.

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?