BOOK PERSON | Vol. 32
Carly Drake's soft spot for Canadian fiction, from Robertson Davies to Elizabeth Hay.
Everyone I know has been having a hard time in November, which includes me. Probably it has something to do with the combination of 4:30pm sunsets, constant rain, and relentlessly grim news here in BC, most notably the devastation from extreme weather in the Fraser Valley and interior and police violence against Indigenous land defenders in Wet’suwe’ten.
Suffice to say I’ve had a hard time reading lately, opting instead to crawl into bed at 8pm and numb myself with the soporific rhythms of Gilmore Girls. I did rip through Miriam Toews Fight Night, which was reassuringly Toews-y: chatty, crackling, heartbreaking. I re-read passages of Memory Serves and My Conversations with Canadians while working on a tribute to the incomparable Lee Maracle for The Tyee. And I’m currently alternating between The Great Offshore Grounds and What Makes You Think You’re Awake, which draw from two of my favourite genres: dysfunctional family drama and trippy story collection, respectively.
I’m glad to be back here, with you, sharing book recommendations from clever, thoughtful people. This week’s BOOK PERSON is Carly Drake, friend of my friend Kirsty, who put us in touch (I love when people do that). Carly is a professor and researcher with a background in journalism, originally from Calgary but now living, teaching and reading in Naperville. Amid the gloominess of the past month, reading Carly’s intelligent, insightful answers was a little beacon of light. I hope you feel the same way.
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I’m from Perth, Ontario, but I have also lived in Ottawa, Halifax, and Calgary. Right now, I live in Naperville, Illinois. I moved here for my professor job two years ago!
Describe your literary tastes.
My research focuses on gender and bodies, so my recreational reading really complements those interests. I read about an equal amount of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, and I love books that take a critical stance on social issues. I prioritize reading women authors, especially women of colour, because I find it’s a good way to learn about the world around me. I tend to read “heavy” books that others might interpret as depressing based on my descriptions, but I don’t interpret them that way and I get mildly offended at the suggestion.
What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?
There’s an independent bookstore in Naperville called Anderson’s Bookshop. Of course, this type of business is now very rare, and I love browsing their non-fiction when I’m wandering around downtown with nothing in particular on my agenda.
However, my true favourite bookstore would be the one I grew up with in Perth, which is no longer there - and I don’t even remember the name! It was in an old, two-story stone building next to a river, and the children’s section was tucked away on the top floor, so I felt very special and secretive while exploring it away from the store clerk’s gaze.
What are the last five books you read?
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell
Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Notes to Self by Emilie Pine
What book is next to your bed right now?
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. I’m always here for a memoir and this one includes a lot of descriptions of delicious food, so I’m not complaining.
What's the best book you read in the last year?
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – and I know I’m not alone in this! It won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and if I tried to explain the outlandish plotline in a few sentences it wouldn’t make any sense, but reader, you need to trust me that it was a thrill.
What draws you in while reading?
I was originally trained as a journalist, so I love clear, simple prose that doesn’t mess around. I would rather a book try to bring the reader in rather than make them work to understand what’s going on. Once a book clears this hurdle, I want to feel empathy. I love characters who are working through big challenges, because I like to cheer them on and hope for them.
Were you a big reader as a child? What was your favourite book?
I was a big reader and a true product of my 1990s upbringing. I loved the R.L. Stine Goosebumps books and, as I got older, his Fear Street series. I also devoured the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, because who doesn’t love sword-wielding rodents?
Are there any "classic" books you genuinely love?
It depends on how we’re interpreting “classic.” I have a soft spot for Canadian fiction. I loved Fifth Business by Robertson Davies when I read it for English class in high school, because it was the first time I realized that books are pieces of art that we can analyze from every direction. In my 20s, I read a lot of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro’s early work. I think of these books as classics for how they shaped their genres, and how they connect multiple generations of Canadian women.
What's your favourite book that no one else you know has ever read?
I read The Catalpa Tree by Denyse Devlin when I was in a French immersion program in rural Quebec in 2008 and feeling a lot of feelings stereotypical of a 20-year-old person. It is an emotional and romantic coming-of-age story that centers around a young orphan named Jude who is also feeling a lot of feelings. I have since re-read this book multiple times, but I feel compelled to keep it a secret because I suspect it may not be very good, and that my extremely specific emotional connection to it may have influenced my judgment. In the interest of science, if anyone in a balanced emotional state would like to read it and send me a review, I would be interested in your findings.
What's your comfort read? How many times do you think you've read it?
I have read A Student of Weather by Ottawa-based author Elizabeth Hay at least three times because it is a beautiful story but also because of its strong sense of place. It is partly set in the neighbourhood around Carleton University where I did my undergraduate degree, so I can see it all play out in my head and I loved that. This book was my gateway to Canadian fiction, a genre that makes me feel a lot of comfort and belonging, especially since I now live in the US, which has a completely different national imagination.
What's the last book you devoured as fast as you could read it?
I read Luster by Raven Leilani in a single weekend this past summer, which is fast for me lately. The book is a fraught love story between a young Black woman and an older (married!) white man, and their dynamic was fascinating and infuriating.
What's a book that took you a long time to read, but was ultimately worth it?
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a multigenerational family saga set in South Korea and Japan. It was slow-paced but I really liked how it was a touching and complicated story wrapped in a political history I knew very little about.
Has a book ever fundamentally changed your opinion about something?
Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the other two books in the trilogy made me take science fiction and speculative fiction seriously. After my childhood obsession with Redwall, I figured anything not rooted in reality was juvenile. How wrong and limiting! Now I regularly read and watch anything even remotely post-apocalyptic because I love how we can learn about ourselves through the conversations societal collapse inevitably sparks.
What book are you most excited to read next?
I’m excited to read Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis. I have a lot of progressively-minded women colleagues and we are planning to discuss it together over wine and snacks.
Free-for-all: tell me about a book you love that didn't make it into your answers above.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall and White N*groes by Lauren Michele Jackson are excellent critiques of racism in the feminist movement and pop culture more generally. A huge part of my academic work and personal politics is questioning my biases as a relatively privileged white woman, and these books have been invaluable in helping with that project.
Bonus round: What book pairs best with…
… sitting alone at a bar, savouring a perfect cocktail?
Meaty by Samantha Irby.
… a snow day?
Annabel by Kathleen Winter.
… a long flight?
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis.
… a bubble bath?
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen.
Thank you Carly for your answers! Gentle readers, I promise not to ghost you again in December— BOOK PERSON is back and I’m eager to hear what volumes are piling up besides your bed, accumulating dog-eared page corners and library fines. What’s keeping you company in the darkest weeks of the year? I’d love to hear about it.