BOOK PERSON | Vol. 4
Finally, a sexy book recommendation! Plus, terrifying non-fiction.
This past week I have been “on vacation,” which is to say, doing Christmas errands and spending lots of time with my kid as our daycare provider also deserves a vacation. I did not love having a newborn but now I think dreamily about those long, lazy days, where I mostly went for walks, read novels, and watched TV with a sleeping baby nestled against me. Now the baby is a wily toddler who runs everywhere and climbs everything and is always shouting, unless she’s sleeping, which thankfully she does for 15 hours each day. What I mean to say is there is still time to watch TV.
In addition to binge-watching the entirety of The Flight Attendant during those precious kid-free hours, I recently read Having and Being Had, by poet and essayist Eula Biss, which attempts to delicately disentangle the fine threads of meaning that distinguish work, labour, service, artistic production, and care, while delivering gentle critiques of capitalism in the form of domestic and professional anecdotes. In my favourite, her son obtains a rare Pokemon card that elicits so much envy on the school playground that he becomes hysterical, flees into the bushes, and gives the card away to a younger child who doesn’t know anything about Pokemon in order to relieve himself of the burden of its value. If Biss was also moved by capitalist guilt to give away her material possessions, that would make for a more exciting book, but she doesn’t. It’s an enjoyable book anyway, even if the political aspirations go a little limp by the end.
Anyway! This week’s interviewee is Veronica Best— one of my best friends and also the person who sends me the best books. One of the only pleasant surprises of this past year was getting Vero’s copy of Luster in the mail. She also has a lovely newsletter of book recommendations (are you noticing a theme with my interviewees?), Vero Reads Books. Why not start 2021 on a high note by picking up some of her favourite books from this past year? Then find even more gems in her answers below:
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I live on Vancouver Island. I grew up in Toronto, spent most of my 20s in Vancouver, but then lived two years in Berlin.
Describe your literary tastes.
Broadly: Fiction. My taste oscillates between literary, historical, and hyperrealistic, and it must be in the novel form. I dabble in other genres but my favourites are always in that vein.
What is your favourite independent bookstore in the whole wide world?
Dog Eared Books in the Mission in San Francisco. Every time I go I fill my carry-on with books. Their staff picks are legendary. Day-to-day, I shop at Munro's in Victoria (yes — Munro as in Alice). It’s a landmark.
What time of day do you do your best reading?
I like to crush through a deeply engaging novel on Saturday afternoons while lounging in a sunbeam, while I periodically look up from what I'm reading to see what's going on outside the window. I also read in bed every night before I go to sleep.
How many books do you own? Where do you keep them?
While I pretend that I don't have many books because I don't fill bookshelves with them, I have definitely accumulated many boxes full.
There's also a book of poetry on my bedside table (I don't really read poetry much), a pile of books in my office, a couple of stacks in a closet (which I'm pretending to be preparing to give away as gifts), and some library books scattered about. All this, and I mostly read ebooks from the library these days.
How do you mark your page?
I always use a photo that was included in a Christmas card from someone I love. My parents include photos of cool fungi or trees they've seen in the previous year, so that makes for a good bookmark. I also have great photos of my sissy and her husband, and my niece Matilda.
How do you choose your books?
This could probably be the topic of an entire essay on my own book-related newsletter someday. But, in a nutshell:
I trust book recommendations from a select few bookworms: Michelle Cyca (duh), my mother (who reads as voraciously as I do), and Molly Young.
I read a lot of reviews for new books (all over, including weird places like Science, The Economist) and try to avoid spoilers while simultaneously trying to figure out what might be *good*.
I tell the nice people at my favourite book shops the last three books I enjoyed and they give me some stellar recommendations.
Do you keep track of what you read? If so, what’s your method?
A few years ago, I started keeping a spreadsheet. I read a lot of books and can't remember them all. I keep a few notes about each book, (nothing tedious, just general impressions) and refer to the list when someone asks me for a recommendation.
What book is next to your bed right now?
Le Plongeur by Stéphane Larue. I'm trying to read more in French lately.
Who is your favourite author?
I don't have a single favourite anything, let alone a favourite author. There are a few authors for whom I am a completist because I just lovelovelove their work. I've read all of Louise Erdrich's books, for example, and all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's.
I also love Hilary St. John Mandel, Alice Munro, Roxane Gay, Elena Ferrante, Jon McGregor, and lately, Lawrence Osborne and Douglas Stuart.
Come to think of it, the completist thing might be misleading, though. I've read all of Karl Ove Knaussgaard's memoirs and I still can't decide whether I loved them or despised them.
While I wouldn't say that reading any single book or author has been life-changing for me, I would readily admit that the combined history of everything's I've read, all those novels especially, has amounted to something that resembles life alteration in slow motion.
Do you have a beloved under-the-radar author who you think more people should read?
Yes! Alexandra Fuller's memoirs are raw, magnetic, and unforgettable. Each book reveals more of her upbringing, telling her own stories but also stories about her family that aren't always hers to tell. While her family has faced a lot of tragedy, the books are funny and charming and revelatory.
Fuller was born in England but raised as not-terribly affluent white girl in what is now Zimbabwe and Zambia. The books aren't political memoirs, but they are incisive about her and her family's position in a part of the world that was fraught with conflict for decades.
I recommend reading them in order, starting with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.
Do you have a favourite passage or line?
John Burdett's Royal Thai Detective series always have great quotes at the start, and one is a Buddhist proverb that has kind of just stuck with me. Maybe it's because I'm one of those yoga people. Anyway, it goes like this: "What you do to yourself, you do to the world. What you do to the world, you do to yourself." I do not intend to tattoo this proverb on my body.
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?
The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. It's one of those novels you buy in an airport, but it's really just so good and not trashy or fluffy or suspenseful for the sake of being suspenseful. It's thoughtful and interesting and I think about it to this day.
What is your favourite opening to a book?
I recently read Trevor Noah's memoir of his upbringing in South Africa during apartheid, titled Born a Crime. It opens with an incisive essay that really sets the stage for the whole book.
Okay and also: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish,” from The Old Man and the Sea.
Which book has your favourite ending?
The ending of Chanson Douce (in Enligh, The Perfect Nanny) by Leïla Slimani is perfect, and I can't tell you why because it would fully spoil the book. The book is excellent, though, so maybe this cliffhanger will convince you to read it.
Or, better yet, the ending of A Delhi Obsession by M G Vassanji still perturbs me to this day.
Which book do you give most often as a gift?
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. It's in my top-10 favourites of all time because it's the most simple thing — the story of a woman who works in a convenience store in Japan — but everything about it is anything but simple.
What character in fiction do you most strongly identify with?
I kind of thought I saw some of myself in Selin's character in Elif Batuman's The Idiot, but I think that's just because I loved that book so much and wish I was as erudite and clever as Elif Batuman.
So I probably identify most strongly with Harriet, in Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh or Angela from Angela's Airplane by Robert Munsch.
What is the funniest book you have ever read?
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier has it all: a road trip, Siberia, Russian humour, and an entire chapter about bugs. I also laughed my head off while reading A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen, which is also set in Russia.
(I can't explain why the two funniest books I could think of are about Russia but here we are).
What is the most devastating book that you can think of?
The Break by Katherena Vermette made me feel cold and sad and alone, and I wept for the women in that book. It's a sad tale, but such a powerful and moving book.
Also, All Quiet on the Western Front. So raw and honest and bleak and devastating.
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?
Oh, I find a majority of widely-praise and critically-acclaimed books to be crushing bores.
Educated by Tara Westover. It exploits tragedy and takes every single catastrophe too far. Each horrific episode further strips the characters of their humanity, and I was left feeling like it wasn't a family's story that had been told, but a story of wreckage, like the way people can't help but stare at a a car wreck. There is no redemption for them, only pain.
The Overstory by Rich Powers won a Pulitzer Prize. I tried over and over to get into it. There was a loose tree-related thread weaving through unrelated, somewhat grim short stories. Solid pass. Instead, give me Greenwood by Michael Christie, or better yet, Barkskins by Annie Proulx! I love beautiful, scintillating, and fancy writing but I hate pretentious writing, so I'll take Barkskins over The Overstory any day.
Which is the most terrifying book you’ve ever read?
Spillover by David Quammen, and Say Nothing by David Radden Keefe.
The former is an older book about how infectious diseases infect humans, but it's meticulously researched and about as suspenseful as science writing gets.
The latter is a book about The Troubles that places the historical events into contemporary focus, investigating where the key players in the conflict are now, and ultimately trying to shed light on an unsolved murder with new and revelatory findings.
Oh and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which kept me up at night.
Has a book ever fundamentally changed your opinion about something?
Marshall B. Rosenberg's seminal book Nonviolent Communication gave me the tools I needed to become a better communicator. It taught me that people are capable of change. In fact, I believe that people have a great capacity for change.
What's the sexiest book you have ever read?
It's been over a decade since I read it, but Tamara Faith Berger's Little Cat is raunchy and sexy and the kind of porn I want to read.
Is there a place you dream of visiting, now that you've read about it?
Lawrence Osborne's Cambodia as it comes through in Hunters in the Dark because I could almost feel the humidity on my skin and taste that damp, jungle air in my lungs while reading that book. It made Cambodia seem wild and wonderful. It's a seedy, creepy book, too. Perfect combo.
Also, I've been thinking about Russia's Eastern-most region, around Kamchatka, as it is described in Julia Phillips's novel Disappearing Earth. It felt cold and crisp but the colours of the sky and the general mood of the landscape were really memorable. I'd love to see that tundra.
Have you ever read a book about your hometown?
I recently read Brother by David Chariandy, which takes place in Scarborough (a Toronto suburb). It was a great coming-of-age story set in a diverse Toronto neighbourhood. This book definitely reminded me of the Toronto I knew.
Toronto is frequently used as a doppelgänger for New York in films, but it isn't frequently the setting in novels, is it?
What's your favourite vacation read?
Oh I don't have special rules about what I read on vacation. I think vacation reads should be like everything else: just read what you like. I never finish reading books I'm not enjoying, and that's especially true on vacation.
Veronica’s question for the readers is perfect, given that this is the last BOOK PERSON of 2020: What was the best book you read this year?
The books that lingered with me longest this year were The Night Watchman, Lanny, The New Wilderness, and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. But I had to pick just one, it would be Ali Smith’s Summer. What about you?
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?
Totally impossible to choose, but I can say Minor Feelings, Body Count, Big Friendship, and How We Fight For Our Lives were all books I had to tell someone about *right away.*