Category Archives: Popular Posts

On the Death of Beverly Cleary

In the ten plus years of writing Literary Vice I’ve never commented on the death of an author (though I’m sure I’ve rambled about the death of the author at some point). And for good reason. While I have favourites whose work I seek out and enjoy, I’m mostly not bothered by biography or terribly interested in the what’s what of an author.

But I wanted to mark Beverly Cleary’s death because her books, and the Ramona series in particular, matter to me. I’ve written here before on how Ramona offered me a certainty and comfort in moments of distress and it remains true these quiet stories of a remarkably curious, imaginative and determined girl, achingly aware of how she is meant to fit in but never quite does… resonate.

One of the best gifts I received when I was pregnant with R. was the boxed set of Beverly Cleary. The gift, from C., was intended, I’m sure, for R. but was, of course, for me. I remember opening it and being so excited for the moment I’d be able to share the stories with a small human, and excited more for how that small human might also come to love a world of true-to-a-child challenges overcome by persistence, caring adults and asking for help. Sort of like the world I hoped might be possible for my child.

R. listened to Ramona for the better part of an hour tonight (I’m no hero, we have the audiobooks out from the library), as he has for the past months since discovering them. And now he asks simply for “another Ramona” and I have accrued a small fortune in fines because he Cannot Part with Ramona the Pest. And I cannot say no to a small human who loves Ramona as I do.

I know Ramona doesn’t and can’t connect for all readers the way it did for me, and so I offer this note of appreciation without my usual urging that you seek it out for yourself or a child you know and love. More that I wanted to say I am grateful – always – for the magic worked by stories. And grateful for the work of Beverly Cleary in creating and sharing Ramona with me. These are books I love.


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What to Read in a Pandemic: Book Recommendations for Long Days

I hope this finds you well.

I usually start emails with that line, or something like it. A perfunctory sentence to soften the blow of whatever thing I’m about to ask for, remind someone about, describe. Something to make an impersonal message approximate the personal. It never really works.

I mean it here: I hope this finds you well. I hope this finds you in a circumstance where the biggest challenge you have to think about today is what novel to read (don’t worry, I’ll eventually get to some recommendations).

Me? Like most of us: not so well, but then, so very fortunate that a catalogue of the things and ways that are Falling Apart is unjustified and selfish. If you asked me though, for that list of my privileged complaints, I’d certainly include the closure of the physical branches of the library. Because what am I, if not so fortunate as to bemoan a limitation on what I can read. Or what R. can read. But then I am also so lucky as to have secret access to the library through unnamed sources, and friends who read, and continued income for panic purchasing books (which I did!). So again: complaints that are of convenience rather than true hardship.

Here’s hoping you have access to books, too. Maybe ebooks are your thing. Or you can do as I’ve been doing and you can ask friends for book swaps (and quarantine those books in your garage for 72 hours as S. insists I do). Or you feel like now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop (folks: now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop) by buying books. Whatever the case, you may find yourself with time to read like you haven’t had time to read recently (or, you may find yourself like so many others, like me!, balancing a full-time job with full-time childcare and so reading just a few pages every night and that is also okay). And so I’ve combed through the annals of Literary Vice and compiled this list of novels to get you through the months ahead. Some are funny, all are beautiful, none have anything to do with pandemics or panic or pans. I hope you find one or some of them suitably distracting:

Black Swan Green: David Mitchell at his most accessible, this young adult protagonist reminds us of the base requirement to be kind to one another.

Love and Summer: William Trevor writes ridiculously beautiful sentences and tells a small, poignant story that shifts the focus from the Big and Global to the small and particular.

The Sisters Brothers: The first of two Patrick de Witt recommendations, because de Witt is hilarious AND a genius and so laugh amid truly tremendous writing. Here with historical fiction that is so far from the present you can almost forget.

French Exit: Number two for de Witt, this one is equally funny, shorter, and more contemporary. Slightly more macabre though, so you know, brace yourself for mention of Death.

Let the Great World Spin: Interlocking stories that demand you focus while you read: an excellent exercise in mindfulness. Also beautiful writing.

Adrian Mole: The classic Sue Townsend series is delightful both for its humour and for the sheer volume of available words: probably a dozen books in the series? All funny, all smart.

The Goldfinch: I’d read anything by Donna Tartt right now as the books are sweeping and absorbing and entirely distracting. This one has one of the more compelling protagonists of recent memory and a truly gripping plot.

Us Conductors: I went a bit bananas with how much I loved this one when it first came out, and I still do – a bit more darkness in this one, but still fabulous writing and easy to get lost in.

Americanah: Uhhh this one might not fully distance you from the reminder of inequality and outrage, but nevertheless suggesting it here because it’s also funny, smart, absorbing and so worth reading.

The Bone Clocks: I melted down with joy reading this epic David Mitchell book (event? masterpiece?). It’s long, it’s involved, it’s the best writing on this list, and I dare you not to lose a week of this mess in reading it.

A Little Life: Okay, so if I just said Bone Clocks was the best, I take it back, this one. This one! Except this one is Dark Dark Dark and so maybe not exactly how you want to spend your quarantine. But So So good. And long!

Infinite Jest: A bit of a joke here, but honestly, if you’re ever going to read Infinite Jest (a book that took me the better part of a summer to read) it’ll be now. Cross it off the bucket list.

Song of Achilles and Circe: Both of these distracting mythological retellings are tremendous: great writing, absorbing plots and endearing characters.

Fleishman is in Trouble: Another funny one, modern moment, middle-class take down.


And if you can’t resist reading books about the end of things because you find that soothing, you can check out:

Station Eleven: A now-classic novel about the aftermath of a pandemic and how art and civilization are remade.

The Fifth Season: N. K. Jemison’s fantasy series that is So Good and gripping and about the world after the end of things.

The Great Believers: Not dystopian unless you count reality as dystopia: the HIV epidemic and the criminal ways suffering and death were/are ignored unless the privileged are at risk.

Let me know what you’re reading; or just let me know how you’re doing. Sending my love to each of you. xo

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Harry Potter 1-7: The Emotional Labour of Hermione Granger (and why I cry at Quidditch matches)

So I only did a super fast search of Google Scholar, but I am stunned that no one has written a Master’s thesis on the emotional labour of Hermione Granger. It’s not that she’s constantly doing Harry and Ron’s homework, or cooking for them, or (often invisibly) smoothing their path by working fancy charms and spells to literally make their tasks easier – though of course she is doing all of those things), it’s that she is also and forever explaining Feelings to Harry and Ron. Throughout all seven books (and yes! I am done all seven!) Hermione is counted on to translate emotional reactions or to help Harry and Ron anticipate the way feelings will intersect with action because the two of them appear entirely incapable of navigating an emotional landscape more rugged than a freshly paved parking lot.  Continue reading

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Ten Years of Literary Vice

Driving home last night I had a moment imagining writing the ten year post for Literary Vice, thinking it would be at least a few years before the anniversary arrived. So when I checked this morning and realized this thing launched in November 2009 (on tumblr!) I was surprised. And sad? Maybe sad. Or maybe nostalgia, remembering where and who I was when this collection of my reading reflections began: living with M. and Titus, finishing my PhD, surrounded by friends who loved to read as much as I did and we had All the Time in the World to do just that.

This year I’ve read fewer novels than in any of the past ten. I’m tempted to make excuses, but I’m sure a lot has to do with a smart phone and how I used to fill the quiet moments of waiting with novels, and now I fill with Twitter. Sad. (A sure sign I’m reading a book I love is when I slip back into my old habit of walking across campus with my book open to squeeze in just a few more minutes with characters).

Maybe more than sadness it’s an observance of change. Certainly to my life – where I am, what I’m doing and who I’m doing it with. But more the way and what I read has changed, I listen to audio books now because I commute for two hours a day. I fall asleep earlier and forget what happened pages before. I read many, many children’s books because I am raising a kid and one of my (too many) hopes for him is that he will find as much comfort, joy and light in reading as I do.

For all that changes that gift – the total love of reading – remains true. I wasn’t a popular kid in high school (shocked face). I remember being in drama class and every time (which was all the time) there were group activities, I wouldn’t have a group. And so I started skipping class and finding my way to the library to read. And it was in every way a better education in the expression of human emotion, I promise. Not that I had a Tragic time or anything, I had S., J., and J. and they got me. Just that I knew then and I know now that whatever else might be happening around me – and there is so much happening – there is this space of mindful, quiet, slowness. Of absorption and warmth. Of conversation with characters who evoke and provoke and we are so lucky.

And I have been and am so lucky to continue to be surrounded by people who love me and love reading, too. I’ve formed too many book clubs over the past ten years, and the one that remains is full of smart, caring and wise friends. I continue to have some of the best chats with my mum about what she is reading and what I am reading (and why I’m not reading more than I am) (and I know differently now, in the fiftieth recitation in one night of Where the Wild Things Are, how much I owe to her and my dad for giving me this reading joy). I swap book recommendations with friends and colleagues (and strangers) and in each of these moments of connection through books I am grateful.

Proud, too, I suppose. For ten years of writing here and ten years of reading. It’s about 500 books in the last decade. Almost all of them novels. You could look for trends in what I read and when and you’d probably find I read more in the summer and I read a lot of Canadian literature and I have attachments to particular authors and unpopular views about others.

At one point I imagined I’d stop writing at ten years. It’s one more thing and now I almost always forget until several weeks have gone by (see my latest post for evidence!) and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve used the same adjectives to describe the same things in different books. And I’m not sure who my audience is or what the point is (is it a summary? a critique?). But in recalling the original purpose – to help me remember what I’ve read – it seems like it might be okay to continue. To scale down my expectations from the high of the 2010s when I wrote 3000 word thoughtful reviews to something smaller and more in line with what I can do right now: I read this book and I liked/didn’t like it.

And maybe you will continue to read here, too. Such a humble imagining to know there have been thousands of you checking to find out what I thought about a particular book. And I’ll try to keep thinking of you in writing reviews, but really – and selfishly – this is really for me.

So cheers to ten years. Thanks to each of you for reading. Reading this, sure, but reading.

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