Non-fiction and graphic novels abound!

Pre-BOOK PERSON, I used to write a different newsletter, which was derailed by the same thing that is happening now, which is that the news cycle is so wild and stressful that it feels just as bonkers to write a cheery email about things you might wish to read.

But! If you can’t affect current events, sometimes it’s good for your own sanity to ignore them. If you have had enough of watching this video of Miya Ponsetto speaking with Gayle King (“Gayle, enough!”) while wearing a “Daddy” hat, allow me to offer you a pleasant diversion.

This week I interviewed Megan Lau, my best friend and life partner (sorry to my husband), who reads a lot of non-fiction and recently lent me Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo, which just happens to be a very useful book for making sense of what’s happening in the world lately.

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

I live in Vancouver and consider it my hometown, but I was born in Toronto. In thinking about where I’m from, It’s also worth mentioning that I’m a first-generation Chinese Canadian. My parents are from Hong Kong and their respective families are from 湛江 and 中山 in southern China. My maternal grandfather was a prolific builder who worked for the French government in a concession. Whenever I feel uneasy about my comfort with colonial culture, or why I studied English but have lost my Cantonese, I find it useful to think about my family history.

Describe your literary tastes.

In 2020, I almost exclusively read nonfiction. My tastes are largely shaped by writers I follow who mostly live and work in LA and New York. The coastal elites! From there, I filter for memoirs, essays, criticism, history, sociology, and basically anything you can file under creative nonfiction. Also, give me all the literary graphic novels and any fiction about sad women and dysfunctional families. 

I happen to gravitate toward work by BIPOC authors and women. It’s probably because marginality is such a rich place to write from and any exploration of those experiences helps me to make meaning out of my own life.

What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?

Daikanyama T-Site in Tokyo is the most stunning bookstore I’ve ever visited. It’s actually a complex with two buildings, each with three floors, and is open 9am-11pm every day. It has a massive selection of magazines, art books, and records and a gorgeous restaurant/lounge. 

Closer to home, I dream of visiting Glass Bookshop in Edmonton one day, in whatever incarnation it might be in at that time — it’s mostly an online business at the moment. Glass focuses on “Canadian writing with special attention paid to LGBTQ2SIA and IBPOC writers, as well as the independent publishers who help to produce their work.” Their Instagram is the finest bookseller account I’ve ever come across.

What time of day do you do your best reading?

Weekend mornings are when I feel the least distracted. I also like to read at night because it gets so quiet in my apartment. 

What are the last five books you read?

Sex and Vanity was utterly trashy and I do not recommend it. Mediocre was… mediocre. Of this bunch, I loved Body Count the most and I am still thinking about it. I wish more poets wrote like Kyla — if they did, maybe I would read more poetry!

How do you mark your page?

I use subscription cards that fall out of magazines, receipts, and hold slips from the Vancouver Public Library. My favourite bookmark is one from Black Bond Books (they now operate Book Warehouse) that says “Speed Reader” and has a drawing of a beaver running away with a stack of books. 

I use Post-It tabs I have stolen from various office supply closets to mark my favourite passages or sentences, which I’m moderately diligent about transcribing into Google Docs. 

How do you choose your books?

Covers and blurbs are very important. And I can say this with some authority because I spent two years getting a master’s degree in publishing (one of my many embarrassing and impractical life choices.)

Investing in a good cover and the stirring blurbs is part of the publisher’s responsibility in giving a book a good life. So, I really appreciate a well-designed, eye-catching cover. It’s definitely going to get me to notice a book, and then endorsements from authors and personalities I admire will seal the deal. 

I also like to browse staff picks in independent bookstores (Heather’s Picks, no, thank you) and will read most books recommended and lent to me by well-read friends (I’m looking at you, Michelle, Lizzy, and Ellen).

I once had a wonderful experience at the Powell’s location on Hawthorne after eating an edible. After browsing for a few minutes, I was really drawn to a hot pink and black book called Unfuck your Adulting. The cover had an illustration of an anthropomorphic cat wearing a studded hat and CAT EYE GLASSES (LOL). If my description isn’t working, let me make clear: the cover is hideous. Still, I floated up to the cashier and bought it, and it’s one of the best book purchases I’ve ever made. It’s part of a series called 5-Minute Therapy by Dr. Faith G. Harper, and I promise that any book in the series will level up your life. 

What book is next to your bed right now?

I keep a stack of books on my nightstand that are mainly decorative now that I’ve read them and loved them: The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, and Feel Free by Zadie Smith — all masters of the essay. I keep stacks of books under my nightstand that I’m actively reading. Right now, that includes Daddy by Emma Cline and Fairest by Meredith Talusan.

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

Everyone should read Random Family by journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. LeBlanc spent more than ten years embedded in the Bronx following the lives of people connected to a heroin dealer named Boy George and wrote their story. The men in the book are charismatic and frustrating, but what makes the story amazing is the women. Coco and Jessica are tenacious, young, desperate, and resourceful. Their fierce love for their families is devastating. Mostly you never see LeBlanc in the book, but then you start to understand that she was there for everything — the rat infestations, the weeks there was no food, the sudden evictions — and you are awed by what it would take to be there for all the highs and lows for over a decade and to shape it into a coherent story that reads like a great novel. After I read Random Family, I understood poverty as culturally-sanctioned systemic abuse. 

Honourable mention goes to Nick Drnaso whose graphic novels feel sterile and creepy and so precisely illustrate the tragedy and violence that’s below the surface of everything in America.

What's your comfort read?

Because I’m fascinated by why people like what they like, I often think about, and sometimes re-read, a small section of Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of the Taste by Carl Wilson, where Wilson sees Céline Dion live in Las Vegas. 

The book is part of the 33 ⅓ series, which are small volumes about a single album — this one is about Celine Dion’s 1997 album, Let’s Talk About Love, which includes the blockbuster “My Heart Will Go On.” 

Wilson starts the book as a cynic, describing Céline’s whole thing as schmaltzy and basic. He’s over here with Elliott Smith, and Céline fans are over there weeping about Rose and Jack. But as Wilson investigates what makes something high or low brow, or in good or bad taste, the categories start to blur. By the time he sees her show in Vegas, he’s moved to tears. He cannot resist the diva’s earnestness, and realizes that the Céline experience transcends taste. It’s about connection and celebrating the truest version of yourself. I love that Céline is for everyone. I love Céline.

What book are you most excited to read next?

In December I came across this comic in the New Yorker by Lee Lai, a cartoonist based in Montreal and Melbourne. If you feel kind of meh about having kids, you’ll relate. After that, I had to know more about Lai and I looked at every one of her Instagram posts. Her characters feel so real, it’s like documentary. Fantagraphics won the privilege of publishing her first graphic novel, Stone Fruit, which comes out in May.

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?

I don’t have a specific title in mind, but your question reminds me of this excellent interview with book critic Lauren Oyler, where Olyer explains the disconnect between the hype and the actual quality of so many “big books.” It will probably not surprise you that publicity teams tell us we should like a book, and no matter our actual experience of reading it, we tell people we like it because our friends like it and the critics like it. This is a terrible system! Book culture needs more haters.

What's the most romantic book to give as a gift?

Oh, I love this question. I’ve never given this book to anyone, but I hope one day that I’ll love someone enough to share Calvin Trillin’s About Alice and say, This is our story, too. The book is Trillin’s adoring and funny portrait of his late wife, Alice, an educator and writer, and his muse. As Trillin writes in the first chapter of the book, after Alice passed away of lung cancer, he “got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, ‘But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?’”

She was a woman with an unwavering moral compass and a flair for fashion. Trillin wrote everything for her, including his classic Tummy Trilogy (American Fried; Let’s Eat, Alice; and Third Helpings). It’s my greatest romantic fantasy to be with a funny man who enjoys food as much as Calvin and is on staff at the New Yorker. (If you know anyone….)

Have you ever read a book about your hometown?

Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being by Amy Fung has my all-time favourite description of Vancouver: 

The evening streets were always darker in Vancouver than in any other city, the paved roads slick with faint amber dew. The people I walked with would change from week to week. Never knowing any one of them too well, I generally found people in Vancouver to be socially aloof, but intellectually demanding and emotionally withholding. Even if I had met the same person three or four times, it would be a strange encounter if I was to say hello.

Reader’s choice:

Megan wants to know: “What’s a book that inspired you to be a better person? It can be self-help, but I’m also curious about books from other genres that motivated you to be kinder, more generous, more patient, or more engaged with the world.” I want to know too— leave your answer in a comment or email me!

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?