Silent book club – another warm gathering on a cold winter morning

Our silent book club gatherings are growing … and everyone wants to take part!

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(That envious reader wannabe is Milo, amiable canine assistant at the cafe at which we gather.)

On another cold (but brilliantly sunny this time) Saturday morning, we bundled up, grabbed our books and gathered once again at local cafe Press Books Coffee Vinyl for our third silent book club meeting. Four people attended our inaugural meeting in November, and five gathered for our second meeting in December. This time, after we scrambled a bit to push together another table and grab some additional chairs, our circle was comprised of nine booklovers.

We were together for about two hours or so, and as before, I came away feeling energized and enthused, and pretty confident that fellow attendees felt the same way. The hour of silent reading was both soothing and productive, during which I finished a short story collection over which I’d been lagging and struggling a bit during the week, and also read some poetry. I so enjoyed the discussion beforehand, during which I got to know some neighbours and acquaintances a bit better and learned about the authors and subjects that fuel their individual reading passions, across a range of fiction and non-fiction.

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Here are the books the members our silent book club meeting read and/or discussed today:

Our next meeting is already scheduled for mid-February. Again, I can’t wait. The books, the discussion, the time spent in company with neighbours and devoted readers – it’s all so welcoming and infectious. As I predicted, the warmth of these gatherings is seeing me through this decidedly wintry winter.

What I read in 2017

As I mentioned last year around this time, I started a handwritten books diary in 1983. It’s coming apart at the seams a bit. Over the years, I’ve backed up my list in databases, spreadsheets, Goodreads and other book apps du jour … but I’ve always updated this little diary as part of my reading routine. This beloved diary grows ever more battered, but it has seen me through another year, and as it celebrates its 35th anniversary, I commit to treating it tenderly so that it will see me through another year of reading.

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Here are the books I read in 2017, with links to reviews where I have them. Again, this is an exhaustive, “all of” list, not a “best of” list.

I continued my commitment in 2017 to a daily devotion to at least one poem … and usually more, as friends on Twitter continued to generously share their poem choices and reflections via the #todayspoem hashtag. We’re now heading into our seventh uninterrupted year of poetry tweets. I gathered up all my 2017 tweets here, if you’d like to take a look.

In recent years, I’ve welcomed some wonderful guest reviewers and correspondents to this blog. I extended some invitations again this past year, but the reviews didn’t come together for various good reasons. I’m going to try again in 2018 to add some guest pieces to the mix here.

Here are the books I read and read aloud in 2017. Wherever I go, I try to carry a book with me, so for each book, I’m also going to try to recall where I was when I was reading it.

  1. Being a Dog
    by Alexandra Horowitz
    (read aloud)

    As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of our reading aloud takes place in the kitchen, with my talented husband cooking and me singing for my supper. Quite appropriately, our Airedale terrier Tilly and beagle-basset Jake were often in attendance as I read this particular book.

  2. The Small Nouns Crying Faith
    by Phil Hall

    This poetry collection kept me company on several subway rides.

  3. Swing Time
    by Zadie Smith

    I recall devouring this book pretty quickly, curled up in bed on a few cold winter nights.

  4. The Two of Us
    by Kathy Page

    This short story collection kept me company on several subway and streetcar rides.

  5. Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book
    by Lawrence Hill

    I read this essay in a couple of sittings at home. I have a home office, and it’s often easy to just fix a quick lunch and eat it at my desk while continuing with my work. I do my best, though, to step away from my desk and computer, eat lunch in the dining room and read a book, magazine article or something not displayed on a screen for a break. I know I read this during one of those lunch breaks.

  6. My Brilliant Friend
    by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

    … and indeed, this Ferrante quartet took me through the winter and early spring. I read them everywhere.

  7. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip
    by George Saunders, illustrated by Lane Smith

    I read this gorgeous book at home, carefully, at my desk. Later in the year, I was thrilled to meet George Saunders, and he seemed bemused to see the book when we asked him to sign it.

  8. The House on Selkirk Avenue
    by Irena Karafilly

    I read this novel during several subway rides.

  9. Minds of Winter
    by Ed O’Loughlin

    I initially read this rich, fascinating novel printed out in loose, 8 1/2 x 11 inch printed out pages at my desk in my home office, as I prepared the readers’ guide / book club questions offered by the publisher, House of Anansi Press. I was glad to get a proper bound copy later, as the book boasts a gorgeous cover … and oh, I imagine I’m going to read this one again.

  10. The Story of a New Name
    by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

    As I mentioned, I read the Ferrante books everywhere.

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  11. Transit
    by Rachel Cusk

    I tend to avoid taking hardcover books along when I’m out and about, so I read this book at home, not on transit (nyuk nyuk). I recall having a lovely Twitter conversation about this and Cusk’s previous and related novel, Outline.

  12. A
    by Andre Alexis

    This was a quick read, so I think it might only have accompanied me on one or two subway rides.

  13. On Turpentine Lane
    by Elinor Lipman

    This was a cozy curl-up-with-a-dog-nestled-with-you kind of read.

    Cozy quilt, snoring beagle, @elinorlipman's latest, bookish beloved nearby.

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  14. Lincoln in the Bardo
    by George Saunders

    This was a sit-up-straight-and-pay-attention read, mostly at the dining room table, finished not long before we went to see George Saunders read and be interviewed by the incomparable Eleanor Wachtel at the Toronto Public Library Appel Salon.

    Yes!

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  15. Believing is not the same as Being Saved
    by Lisa Martin

    I took my time reading this poetry collection, and transcribed selections from it while sitting at my downstairs office desk.

  16. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
    by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

    Again, I read this everywhere, including by candlelight during Earth Hour.

  17. Mitzi Bytes
    by Kerry Clare

    This novel was definitely a good subway ride companion. I remember being quite absorbed in it and almost missing my stop when heading out one evening to meet friends with whom we were going to a concert.

  18. Silvija
    by Sandra Ridley

  19. Violet Energy Ingots
    by Hoa Nguyen

    I’m pretty sure I travelled by subway and streetcar with both of these poetry collections in tow, as I finished them within 24 hours of each other.

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  20. The Story of the Lost Child
    by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

    In the spring, I bade farewell to these constant book companions.

  21. Falling Awake
    by Alice Oswald

    This poetry collection was often particularly perfect company in my travels around the city.

  22. The Lonely Hearts Hotel
    by Heather O’Neill

    This was another sit-up-straight-and-pay-attention read, again mostly at the dining room table.

  23. World of Made and Unmade
    by Jane Mead

    I remember having this poetry collection with me once or twice when I was out running errands in the neighbourhood.

  24. Swallowing Mercury
    by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak

    … and then there are the riveting reads that make you forget where you are when you’re reading them …

  25. Fever Dream
    by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

    Yes, I definitely remember reading this one on the streetcar.

  26. The Burgess Shale – The Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s
    by Margaret Atwood

    I remember reading this piece in one sitting at the dining room table.

  27. So Much Love
    by Rebecca Rosenblum

    This novel made some subway and streetcar rides pass very quickly.

  28. Hot Milk
    by Deborah Levy

    I was reading this absorbing novel during our trip to Dublin.

    #fridayreads Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin Canada)

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  29. A General Theory of Oblivion
    by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn

    We attended the Dublin Literary Award ceremony when we visited Dublin. Right after the ceremony, we walked down the street to Hodges Figgis bookshop and purchased one of the last copies of this book in the shop. I read and finished it on the flight home.

  30. Conversations With Friends
    by Sally Rooney

    This was another excellent Dublin purchase (from Winding Stair bookshop’s local recommendations table) which I also read on the flight home.

  31. 4321
    by Paul Auster

    At 800+ pages, this was a fascinating but not at all portable read. I did attempt to read it in bed a few times, but after it tipped over on my sleepy head one too many times, I stuck to reading it on the dining room table.

    Tilly, Jake and Paul Auster are good lunch company.

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  32. Little Sister
    by Barbara Gowdy

    This novel was topmost on a stack of cottage reading for one of our first extended cottage stays this summer.

  33. Swimming Lessons
    by Claire Fuller

    Another cottage read …

    #sundayreads Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (@houseofanansi)

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  34. Moanin’ at Midnight – The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf
    by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman
    (read aloud)

    We read this one aloud at home and at the cottage, always to a Howlin’ Wolf soundtrack, of course.

  35. Nuala
    by Kimmy Beach

    Another cottage read …

  36. spill simmer falter wither
    by Sara Baume

    Another wonderful purchase from our Ireland trip, I read this one slowly and carefully, both at the cottage and on the back porch in the city.

  37. The Pet Radish, Shrunken
    by Pearl Pirie

    This poetry collection was particularly good company during an extended and somewhat anxious wait for a delayed train at Toronto’s Union Station.

  38. Frontier City – Toronto on the Verge of Greatness
    by Shawn Micallef
    (read aloud)

    A lot of this one was read aloud (and thoroughly enjoyed) in our kitchen in, of course, Toronto.

    Next up on our #readaloud list: Frontier City by @shawnmicallef …

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  39. The Last Wave
    by Gillian Best

    I toted this novel all over, reading it at the nails place, at the cottage, out and about …

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  40. England
    by Nia Davies

    I read this striking chapbook at my home office desk.

  41. In the Cage
    by Kevin Hardcastle

    I had to read this novel and two others (The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry and Men Walking on Water by Emily Schultz) on very short notice to host three book club events at this year’s Toronto Word on the Street book fest. How fortunate that all three books were compelling, infectious reads. I gobbled this one up in about 36 hours at home on a sultry September weekend.

  42. The Original Face
    by Guillaume Morissette

    I remember reading this novel in a parkette near Skydome before meeting my beloved to take in a Blue Jays baseball game.

  43. The Prisoner and the Chaplain
    by Michelle Berry

  44. Men Walking on Water
    by Emily Schultz

    Toronto’s Word on the Street book fest was on a sweltering day in late September. I’ll remember that, and that the authors and I all managed to wear black clothes that day, and that their books were all superb.

  45. Pockets
    by Stuart Ross

    I read this wee, beautiful book at my home office desk.

  46. The Theory of Hummingbirds
    by Michelle Kadarusman

    I purchased this exquisite book at Toronto’s Word on the Street and started reading it on the streetcar ride home that afternoon.

  47. I Am a Truck
    by Michelle Winters

    This novel was fine company on several subway and streetcar rides.

  48. Brother
    by David Chariandy

    I devoured this book on a cottage weekend.

  49. Bellevue Square
    by Michael Redhill

    This novel was also a cottage read.

  50. The Curious History of Irish Dogs
    by David Blake Knox
    (read aloud)

    Another fine purchase from our Ireland trip, this was a great read aloud choice.

  51. If Clara
    by Martha Baillie

    This was meant to be a book suitable for toting along on transit, but I’m pretty sure I read it swiftly at home.

  52. Next Year For Sure
    by Zoey Leigh Peterson

    This book was fine company for our first neighbourhood silent book club meeting.

  53. Son of a Trickster
    by Eden Robinson

    I read this novel at home, on home office lunch breaks.

  54. H(A)PPY
    by Nicola Barker

    I read this singular book at home, giving it my full attention, as Nicola Barker books always demand.

  55. No TV For Woodpeckers
    by Gary Barwin

    I read this poetry collection at home and on the go, and transcribed at least one striking poem into my journal.

  56. A Line Made By Walking
    by Sara Baume

    This book was such good company for our second neighbourhood silent book club meeting.

  57. Panicle
    by Gillian Sze

    Like Gary Barwin’s latest, I read this poetry collection at home and on the go, and transcribed at least one striking poem into my journal.

  58. What We Once Believed
    by Andrea Macpherson

    I read this novel at home and on transit.

  59. Glory
    by Gillian Wigmore

    I pretty much inhaled this novel over the holiday season, at home and at my brother-in-law’s over Christmas.

  60. String Practice
    by Jan Zwicky

    I read this poetry chapbook at my home office desk on the last day of 2017.

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In 2017, I read a total of 60 works (a new record for me): 43 works of fiction (novels and short story collections), 11 poetry collections and 6 works of non-fiction. I did not re-read any books this year (but commit to doing that again in 2018), read 7 works in translation, and read 36 works by Canadian authors. My husband and I read four books aloud to each other this year and have another one in progress as we greet the new year.

I also kept track this year of the publication dates of the books I read. (I think this is fairly easy to track in Goodreads, so I want to go back to previous years to see what my mix of current versus older reading is year over year.) In 2017, the oldest book I read was published in 2000. I also read books published in 2004, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, and more than half of what I read in 2017 was published in that year. Even before I go back and explore publication dates in previous years, I know right now I want to try to read (or re-read) more of a selection of older books in 2018. Let’s see how that works out …

Currently in progress, heading into 2018:

  • Stranger
    by David Bergen

  • The Left-Handed Dinner Party and Other Stories
    by Myrl Coulter

  • Collected Tarts and Other Indelicacies
    by Tabatha Southey
    (read aloud)

For another year, I’m looking back fondly on my 2017 reading, looking forward eagerly, with anticipation and even some curiosity to my 2018 reading, I’ll simply conclude (as I always do) …

It’s not how many you read that counts. It’s that you read that counts.

2017 #todayspoem tweets – poetry every single day

For now six years running, I have not missed a day during which I’ve selected and read a poem (discovered in many different ways, which I should perhaps write about separately one day), chosen an excerpt and tweeted it, including the #todayspoem hashtag. When I click the hashtag every day, I’m thrilled to see other poetry lovers, including poets and poetry publishers, sharing poems they love, that have spoken to them, that have helped them mark a day or occasion. The shared poetry comes from around the world, so it surfaces at all hours of the day and night. #todayspoem is always there, providing insight, enchantment, solace, amusement and much more.

I gathered up all my 2017 #todayspoem tweets in month-by-month Twitter moments, then I threaded them all together in a series of tweets, starting here:

Here is what the individual months look like. Twitter Moments are particularly fun to page through on mobile, where you can swipe your way through each slideshow.













Not as studiously compiled is a running Pinterest collection of #todayspoem pins.

I’m going to do my best to keep it up again in 2018. I’m excited and intrigued to see who will join me and what they will share.

Silent book club – getting us through those cold, dark winter days

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On a cold, brooding Saturday morning, we bundled up, grabbed our books and gathered again at local cafe Press Books Coffee Vinyl for our second silent book club meeting. Three of us returned from the inaugural meeting in November and two new members joined us. This time, we gathered at a table near the back of the book-lined room (how perfect is that?) with our books, beverages and pastries, eager to share and be warmed by good, bookish company.

We were only together for a little under two hours, but I came away feeling simultaneously calmed, rejuvenated and energized. The reading time was grand (I finished off two books I teetered on the edge of finishing all week, then started a third) and learning about fellow readers’ latest bookish interests and delights was illuminating. The gathering offered other special moments. One member who is getting back into reading asked for suggestions, and one of the books I brought along for her to sample captivated her: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. I was so pleased to see her leave with it tucked under her arm. Another member shared an important milestone: a very special project she has been devoted to for three years is nearing publication.

In addition to coffee, tea, treats and books, Press purveys used vinyl records, and the music that plays in the shop is often from the vinyl selection. Absorbed as I was in my reading, I did let the background music seep in enough to realize that for part of the hour, we were listening to Klaatu. Did that blast from the past add to the pleasant coziness of the occasion?

Here are the books the members our silent book club meeting read and/or discussed today:

I can’t wait until our next meeting, already scheduled for mid-January. I’m certain the warmth of these gatherings will see me through the winter.

Pockets, by Stuart Ross

bookcover-ross-pocketsWhen I first read (well, devoured) Pockets by Stuart Ross, I rushed to Goodreads with my delighted reaction. I thought I would go back and expand on those thoughts for here on the blog, but you know what? I like that initial burst of enthusiasm so much, I’m just going to tuck it in here as is …

Fresh from the last page of this exquisite, poignant poem/novella, let me just tumble out some reactions, like a grateful exhalation. Pockets is a unique meditation on childhood and grief, shifting from dreams and hallucinatory half-dreams to sharpened-pencil-precise memories and images. The shifting continues between childhood and seemingly reluctant adulthood (“I was driving a car, but I can’t remember if I was a child or an adult. I reached a hand to my face. It was rough, unshaven. I was an adult.”) … from fleeting happiness to bewildered despair, from love to anger to yearning. Throughout, the title hovers and takes many forms. Pockets are places of safekeeping and secrets withheld, but most strikingly, pockets turned out (like those of a Red Skelton clown) denote everything from poverty to generosity denied to being drained of every last resource.

Each segment of these beautiful and sometimes quietly harrowing reflections is bottom justified on the page, and even that gives a sense of a narrator who has perhaps reached rock bottom in reconciling his sorrows. But … “Then, out of the sky, my mother’s hand reached down.” So small, Pockets invites you to turn to the beginning and read it again, where new pockets of grace and consolation will be revealed.

Pockets by Stuart Ross (ECW Press, 2017)

Thank you to the publisher, ECW Press, for providing a complimentary copy of Pockets.

Silent book club – looking for time to companionably read together

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How did it go?

The inspiration started here … and then it came up in conversation with some neighbourhood friends this summer after a lovely yoga-in-the-park class. We’re now starting to organize our first silent book club get-together at a neighbourhood coffee shop. We’ve scheduled it for early November, when the weather’s getting cooler and folks might be seeking cozier indoor pursuits, still coupled with an excuse to get out of the house and get out and about in the neighbourhood.

As the description at the link above reinforces, a silent book club is a completely no-pressure version of the traditional book club. The idea is that people still gather with books, and do so at a local cafe, watering hole, restaurant or the like, but …

  1. Everyone shows up with their own book or books, whatever they’re reading at the moment or want to start reading.
  2. At the start of the silent book club, you do a quick survey around the table so everyone can introduce themselves and speak briefly about what they’re reading.
  3. Once the introductions are done and refreshments are ordered and in place, everyone puts their noses in their books and reads – for an hour.
  4. When the hour is up, folks can stick around to chat about their books or whatever, or they can be on their way. No pressure!

I recently heard an item on CBC Radio about something called The Loneliness Project. In my mind, the plight of contributors to the project connected with the reference on that Silent Book Club web page to “introvert happy hour”. I certainly don’t want to downplay or oversimplify why people are lonely and how difficult it is to remedy that … but maybe little gatherings like this are a modest possibility.

I’m guessing you come away from a silent book club gathering having enjoyed some quiet fellowship and perhaps having picked up some leads on future good reads. If you hold the gathering in a neighbourhood establishment, you’re helping support your local businesses while you’re at it. Well, this is my humble hope as we anticipate our first gathering. I’ll be sure to report back.


How did it go?

Splendidly! We held our first silent book club meeting on November 4th at local cafe Press Books Coffee Vinyl. Four of us gathered with books in hand – three reading paper books, one reading on iPad and phone. We settled in by the front window with coffees and chai lattes. We not only discussed the books we were planning to read during the upcoming silent reading hour, but other books we’d read recently. We all compiled lists of recommendations and ideas. And then we got to it, engrossed in our reading for the next hour while other cafe customers wandered in and out, the cafe’s resident dog trotted about and the Tragically Hip’s Phantom Power played in the background. The hour went quickly. I felt I’d gobbled great chunks of the novel and poetry collection I brought along.

We’ve already made a date for our next silent book club meeting, in about a month. I can’t wait for what I know will feel like an oasis of calm and thought, just as it did today.

Here are the books the members our silent book club meeting read and/or discussed today:

No TV For Woodpeckers by Gary Barwin
Bella by Terri Favro, illustrated by Ron Edding
In the Cage by Kevin Hardcastle
Next Year For Sure by Zoey Leigh Peterson
Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer
Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

See also:

Sustained silent reading (Wikipedia) – thank you, Gary Barwin!

Celebrating the beautiful book object – Dart, by Alice Oswald

Most recent of poet Alice Oswald’s many accolades is the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize, for her 2016 collection Falling Awake. While the words on the page are glorious unto themselves without further enhancement, it is even more enchanting and satisfying when an accomplished poet’s beautiful words are showcased with rich and gorgeous packaging. Such is the case with Oswald’s early work, Dart, produced in a special edition by publisher Faber & Faber.

Dart, by Alice Oswald

Dart, by Alice Oswald

Dart, by Alice Oswald

Artist Jonathan Gibbs’ design feels very attuned to how Oswald approached the extended poem’s subject matter, as she describes it:

“This poem is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river. I’ve used these records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters – linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margin where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”

I don’t know what Gibbs’ creative brief might have been for this lovely assignment, but the phrase “river’s mutterings” seems captured perfectly by the lush tumblings of leaves and strands and colours on the cover.

Dart, by Alice Oswald

Dart, by Alice Oswald

This inviting book has already inspired me to share its contents:

Dart, by Alice Oswald (Faber & Faber, 2002, 2016)

Minds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin

bookcover-minds-of-winterMinds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin has been on my mind a lot in recent months.

As I’ve mentioned before, I regularly prepare readers’ guide discussion questions for some House of Anansi Press titles. Early this year, I had the pleasure of losing myself in Minds of Winter, then finding my way back out sufficiently to put together some questions that I hope did this sprawling, engrossing novel justice.

As I’ve also mentioned before, I’ve discovered that formulating these questions is an excellent way to more fully and deeply appreciate a work. You go in as a book’s advocate when you know you’re compiling questions, because you assume from the outset that people have been motivated to obtain the book, read it and discuss it with others, so there must be some respect for the book and positive perspectives on its value, out of respect for those readers. I didn’t have to work hard to remind myself of this advocacy role, however, because I quickly found myself wrapped up and captivated by the book.

The following are the reader’s guide questions that I developed for Minds of Winter. (These are the questions I submitted to Anansi. An edited version of the questions are provided to accompany the book.) If you’ve read the book, are these questions useful for exploring the book further? If you haven’t read the book, do the questions perhaps spark your interest in the book?

  1. “Maybe stories converge at the poles. Like the lines on the map,” Fay observes to Nelson as they realize her grandfather and his brother seemed to have similar interests and trajectories as they made their way in the Arctic. How does this observation inform the entire collection of stories in Minds of Winter? Are there logical and perhaps mundane reasons for why these stories seem to intersect – at both poles, in fact – or is Fay suggesting something bigger and perhaps more mystical?

  2. How does “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, the poem that stands as the epigraph to Minds of Winter, serve the story that follows? Select a line or phrase that could best capture the novel’s over-arching theme. For example, argue for or against:

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    Are all of the characters who survive and even thrive in their time in the Arctic good listeners?

  3. Who are the most attuned listeners in Minds of Winter (referencing again Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”)? As readers, we are given intimate access to Hugh Morgan’s thoughts as he listens and listens. Who else is a good listener, of either the Arctic environment or of others around him or her?

  4. What useful purposes are served in stories like this, where real-life characters intermingle with fictional characters or, from another perspective, fictional characters are put in front of a real life/historical backdrop?

  5. Exploration and mapping were historically male-dominated pursuits. In Minds of Winter, several women influence the explorers and voyages. Discuss three women who play significant roles or make important appearances in the novel’s different exploration stories.

  6. In the prologue to Minds of Winter, horologists are delving into the mystery of the carriage clock that is purported to be a disguised chronometer from the Franklin expedition. Horology is defined as both the science of measuring time and the art of making instruments for indicating time (Merriam Webster). Give examples from the novel of where the passage of time and use of timepieces helps or fails different characters or enterprises.

  7. The chronometer described in the prologue to Minds of Winter appears, disappears and reappears throughout the novel. The object is a resonant thematic component throughout the novel, but as part of the mysteries being explored, is it an important talisman or kind of a red herring?

  8. “The white planks of the deck were a snow field; the dancers were swirls in a blizzard, figments of a winter dream.” Minds of Winter begins with an elaborate society ball in Tasmania that juxtaposes political and military machinations with seemingly trite society intrigue. Give examples of the several ways in which this opening sequence sets the stage for characters, storylines and themes that follow.

  9. J.R.R. Tolkien once observed the following about the fictional maps designed to accompany his fantasy works: “They are more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme. I showed them to my friends whose polite comment was that they reduced my text to a commentary on the drawings.“ How do the maps included throughout Minds of Winter enhance – or distract or detract from – the novel’s storylines?

  10. Is there significance to explorer John Meares’ repeated declaration “I was trading in furs”, and his observations about whether others he encountered in his travels were or were not also interested in the fur trade?

  11. Does Minds of Winter give convincing evidence of the true identity of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River?

  12. “Was it to rob her of freedom that Amundsen had sent for her? Is that what possession had meant to him? Was that why he’d flown away in the end?” Bess Magids muses in her final search for clues about Roald Amundsen’s fate. Who in the sprawling cast of characters in Minds of Winter has true freedom? Do all seem to be shackled to another person, to a commitment or obsession?

  13. “Some people slip through the cracks,” enigmatic RCMP Sergeant Peake concludes in his report that closes Minds of Winter. Is that true, or does someone only truly do that if no one remembers them anymore? For example, even though Sgt Peake purports to not know the people he is referring to in his report, we the readers do. Build a case to agree or disagree with this conclusion by connecting it to the concept of people dying two deaths: first, their physical death and second, their death when the last person who remembers them dies.

  14. “[the photograph] showed two men in winter clothing standing at the door of an old-fashioned ski-plane. It was not these men who had interested Bert, it seemed, but two shadows, one on either side of them, cast by figures just out of the frame. Bert had circled both shadows several times with a marker pen.” Several characters in Minds of Winter are situated more out of the stories’ frames than in it. Who casts the biggest shadow?

  15. Family relationships are clearly important throughout Minds of Winter, but are they largely a burden or a blessing? Give examples of both.

  16. Is Fay and Nelson’s final fate tragic or romantic? Is it surprising?

My fascination with the book didn’t end when I handed in the questions, however. A potential opportunity to promote a work of my choice from an Ontario-based publisher inspired me to record a 30-second review of Minds of Winter … which you can, er, endure right here:

… and if you don’t want to listen, here’s basically what I had to say:

Minds of Winter continues with the legendary Franklin expedition from where the likes of Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler and Stan Rogers left off. [Author Ed] O’Loughlin melds historical fact with enigmatic fictional characters, blending in World War I intrigue, Inuit life and traditions, polar climate and terrain, ghosts, hallucinations and maps, lots of maps. The maps are kind of ironic because this is a story about people who are lost or who want to be lost.

Oh no, I won’t make a habit of book vlogging. It’s good book reviewing practice, mind you, to force yourself to boil it down to 30 seconds. That was fun.

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for the opportunity to read an advance version of Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin.

See also:

Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin (House of Anansi Press, 2017)

Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell)

“I see my feet walking and I wonder if I am the one moving them.”

bookcover-schweblin-fever-dreamSamanta Schweblin’s vivid snapshot of a nightmare is at its most unnerving when it alights on paralyzing moments of bodily disconnection. What compels the reader to endure the at times unbearable tension of this deceptively slim novella is the equally powerful moments of tender connection and intimacy. The tale captures two portraits of intense motherly devotion against a murky backdrop of what might be a toxic environmental disaster, or might be some other (or otherworldly) form of menace. Those moments of connection also include the fleeting kindnesses of strangers, just as dreams sometimes forge emotional affinities where they are least expected.

The rewards of those moments of connection, and awe at the grip and momentum of Schweblin and translator Megan McDowell’s words are what will hold the reader to the end. It won’t be the closure of a clear explanation or resolution.

(As a haunted, rattled and very appreciative reader, I can’t begin to imagine how Schweblin’s Lynchian vision had to have taken root in translator McDowell’s mind. She likely had to live with and be immersed in it more than anyone.)

You’re relieved when a nightmare releases you back to reality … but you don’t soon forget it, you don’t soon disengage its tendrils.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books, 2017)

A, by André Alexis

A, by André Alexis bookcover-aAndré Alexis’ novella A packs an incredible amount to enjoy and ponder in its infectious 74 pages.

To start, it’s a charming celebration of place. As Toronto book reviewer and aspiring poet and novelist Alexander Baddeley makes his way through his city’s streets and neighbourhoods, they are shown as simultaneously muted and vibrant, welcoming in understated fashion:

“It was again November. Parkdale was grey, but it was a soft grey. Its streets were wet; its pedestrians in half-unbuttoned coats.”

It’s also a sly CanLit romp, oh my. Though the inspiration for Gil Davidoff is thinly veiled (“I’m writing about all the great television I’m making my son watch”), it doesn’t make the character and his ilk and their haunts and machinations any less deliciously observed and criticized. Baddeley circulates in the peripheral waves around other recognizable literary names (Alexis doesn’t always mask them), making wicked observations:

“… it seemed to Baddeley that there was something of the iguana to her …”

A is also a meditation on the nature of artistic inspiration. It offers reflections on mortality and spirituality, rendered haunting and given profundity as they emerge in the midst of the novella’s savoury mischief.

A, by André Alexis (BookThug, 2013)