Travel planning through literature

Hello book people—

I’m writing this newsletter later than usual because I have been pleasurably diverted— not by reading, as usual, but by writing. Earlier this weekend, I filed a review of Gillian Wigmore’s upcoming collection Night Watch: The Vet Suite, and a piece on this week’s hot topic in parent-internet discourse, and I’m excited for both to be out in the world soon. In between I also drank two extremely fancy hot chocolates and applauded Maeve for learning the word “cheese.”

I was mostly able to get this done because I took Friday off from work, ostensibly to chill, but instead I spent it trying to corral my 4,000 word “trash draft” into a cogent 800 word essay. My ability to write with a toddler is predicated on full-time childcare (which allows me to spend a vacation day noodling around in various Google Docs) and her reliable sleep schedule, two strokes of incredible good fortune.

If you’ll permit me a little more self-promotion, I’ll be telling a story on Thursday night at Closer During COVID: A Night of Stories and Connection about how my experience of parenting in the last 10 months diverged from my expectations. The other storytellers are fantastic, and I’m speaking last, so you can always leave partway through. I’ll never know!

This week’s BOOK PERSON is Alexandra Fedyk. We follow each other on Twitter, and she emailed me to say “I have a lot to say about books!!” which is my favourite thing to hear. Read on, read on:

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

I grew up in a small town in Northwestern Ontario, but since age 18 I have mostly lived in Vancouver. I’ve been riding out the pandemic at home but plan to go back to Van whenever things get “normal.”

Describe your literary tastes.

I read mostly contemporary fiction. I try to read something more serious, and then a thriller whenever I want a “palate cleanser.” I used to only read one thing at once, but right now I have a bunch on the go that I’ve been shuffling through as my mood dictates.

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

TYPE Books in Toronto. There’s one right across from Trinity Bellwoods on Queen. I take these long meandering walks whenever I’m in Toronto and they always end up leading there.

And Macleod’s in Vancouver, which is an obvious fire hazard but so much fun to comb through if you’re in the right mood. The poetry section from about F onwards has been inaccessible due to piles growing larger for quite a while though, and I’ve stopped holding my breath that will ever change.

What time of day do you do your best reading?

My favourite time to read is weekend mornings. I like to get up at a semi-reasonable hour and make a cup of tea then get back into bed and read for a few hours.

But in all honesty I do most of my reading at night. I have insomnia so if I know I’m not going to sleep I just read and hope drowsiness takes over at some point. When I used to go places, I kept a lighter read on the Kindle app on my phone to get little bits of reading in during the day, but that’s obviously less of a thing now.

What are the last five books you read?

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, Gretchen McCulloch
And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
A History Of My Brief Body, Billy-Ray Belcourt
Plum Rains, Andromeda Romano-Lax
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

How do you choose your books?

The subreddit blogsnark has a weekly thread called “blogsnark reads” and it’s great for finding new things and having people recommend based on what you’ve liked.

I follow people on Goodreads who I know I like similar things to. I’m also trying to get into “bookstagram” but I kind of find it overwhelming. My mom and I talk about books a lot, and of course my reader friends. And this newsletter!

Do you keep track of what you read?

I use Goodreads, even though it is an absolute hellscape usability-wise that makes me truly mad at just how bad it is. It’s a trash fire of a website that I use every single day.

What book is next to your bed right now?

One of the absolute best things about the Kindle is that all my books are always beside my bed, but I am in the middle Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler at the moment.

I have always really enjoyed dystopic fiction, but needed to take an anxiety break from them because the world has been strange enough. Recently I have found my way back and am finding them weirdly soothing.

What's the best book you read last year?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I honestly will not shut up about this book, I have been telling everyone I know to read it. Even my Mom loved it and we don’t always have the same taste in books. It’s one of the most beautifully written and captivating books I’ve ever read. I love multi-generational family stories, but typically tend to shy away from anything really historic. This made me completely rethink that.

Do you have a favourite passage or line?

There’s a Leonard Cohen poem/song called “bird on the wire” that goes “like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free” and I got “bird on the wire” tattooed on my ribs about a decade ago.

I still really love both listening to and reading Leonard Cohen so I’m all right with that decision 22-year-old Alex made… some of the others were questionable.

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?

I picked up Intimations by Zadie Smith in the fall after thinking that I absolutely did not want to consume any media about the pandemic or quarantine, but she very much proved me wrong.

I also deeply dislike reading writers talk about writing and firmly believe that the best way to ruin a favourite author for yourself is to follow them on Twitter. But she wrote an absolutely perfect essay called “Something To Do” where she talks about that, at its core, writers write because “it’s something to do”. She goes on to say, “Now I am grateful to find this most honest of phrases in everybody’s mouths all of a sudden, and in answer to almost every question. Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do. Why did you make a fort in your living room? Well, it’s something to do. Why dress the dog as a cat? It’s something to do, isn’t it? Fills the time.”

I think about this all the time in pandemic life, that there isn’t really a wrong way to fill your time.

What's your comfort read? Not necessarily your favourite book, but the one that soothes you, like a warm bath, whenever you need something familiar and relaxing.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin. It’s memoir-based short stories combined with recipes and very easy to pick up. I also love to cook so this was like combining all of my favourite hobbies. It feels like talking to a very funny close friend and it’s a warm hug of a book.

Which book do you give most often as a gift?

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is a good choice for anyone going through just about anything, I know it’s been there for me during tough times.

What's the most romantic book to give someone else?

I received Call Me By Your Name by André Acimen from an Italian man on the last day of a travel-related fling. He tucked an extremely sweet note inside, in that way that Italian men can do absolutely anything and it’s the most charming thing you’ve ever experienced in your life… I was absolutely swooning. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

Is there a place you dream of visiting, now that you've read about it? In what book was it so vividly described that it's now embedded in your travel fantasies?

I’ve been reading a lot about Korea in pandemic times, I even planned a “one-day” trip there as a boredom-induced activity. Pachinko, The Island of Sea Women, If I Had Your Face, Kim Jiyoung Born 1982, and The Vegetarian have all helped paint a more specific picture in my head of what it’s like there.

Although I read almost exclusively on Kindle, I have a tradition to buy books I’ve loved in their native language when I travel as a souvenir. I spent a lovely Christmas Eve in Hiroshima in a book store picking out a couple Japanese language Murakamis to take home, so hopefully I’ll have the chance to do something similar one day in Korea.

Have you ever read a book about your hometown?

My favourite book when I was younger was Juliana and the Medicine Fish by Jake McDonald, it’s about a young girl who is at her father’s fishing lodge on Lake of the Woods in Kenora. She becomes obsessed with catching the medicine fish (a muskie), and it also explores Ojibway folklore/traditions and how she navigates her parents divorce.

I reread it for the first time since I was young this past summer. He does such a great job of describing Kenora and how fleeting the summer feels. It felt strange seeing it described in fiction because most people don’t even know where it is, let alone have visited. It’s so beautiful here in the summer that it almost felt like a secret was getting out having it described in the book.

What's your favourite vacation read?

I try to just read what I feel like reading and not feel guilty when I’ve done something like read three thrillers in a row because no book is inherently more valuable than another just like reading isn’t an inherently more valuable hobby than any other.

That said, there is something that feels appropriate about reading something light and maybe a little trashy in the sunshine. I’m a big fan of The Bachelor/ette and last summer on one sunny afternoon on the dock I read One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London in one sitting, which imagines what it would be like to have a plus-sized lead, and it was perfect.

What book are you most excited to read next?

I’m really looking forward to Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro coming out in March.

Reader’s choice:

Inspired by Alex’s recommendation for Zadie Smith’s essays, I’m wondering: what is your favourite non-fiction essay lately? And after Megan mentioned her, I’ve been reading Lauren Oyler’s criticism. Reading critiques of books I do love without reservation is strangely pleasurable. I also recommend Roxane Gay’s brief essay, The Last Days of Discord, for some post-US election cycle catharsis.

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?