On Reading: My To Be Read List

On ReadingThere are so many books to read. Of course, I love reading and so this makes me very happy in many ways. I love checking out new and old releases and thinking about what I want to read next. But if I’m being honest, all this choice can also be overwhelming. There are so many books that sound appealing to me. How will I have enough time to read them all? How will I choose? The books just keep coming!

Add to that my tendency to plan what I’m going to read as if I’m scheduling appointments, and it takes the fun out of it. If a new book has to go on the bottom of some list, I take away my own ability to start spontaneously reading something new right now just because it appeals to me. And I don’t want to miss that.

I know I’m not the only one who deals with this. There are plenty of articles and blog posts about TBR guilt and how to avoid it. The bottom line is that reading isn’t a chore – it should be enjoyable! For me, I went through a little exercise at the beginning of January that made me feel like I was starting fresh.

I started from scratch with my TBR list.

I had a monstrous list that had been accumulated over years and years. I took everything off and started from the beginning. I weeded ruthlessly. I looked at all the titles on my list (and looked them up if I had no idea what the book was even about anymore), and I only kept books that I was still genuinely interested in or that really appealed to me.

What really inspired my purge was this article from The Guardian: “Three thousand reasons to choose your reading carefully.” The author estimates she’ll read around 3,000 books in her lifetime: “Life is short and books are long. We don’t get to read many of them and I’m starting to realize that some books don’t deserve to be among my theoretical 3,000.” Some books just aren’t worth it – not necessarily because it’s a “bad” book but because it isn’t a book for you.

So the books that went on the chopping block when I cleaned up my TBR were the ones that weren’t for me – the book that I put on because someone told me it was a “classic,” or the book that I put on just because it’s a bestseller. They’re books that don’t really interest me, although they may be wonderful titles for someone else. Those are all gone. What’s left are books I really want to read. I’m excited by what’s on my list, and that’s the best type of TBR list around!

Right now, my “Next to Read” list contains Ru by Kim Thuy, Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill. I’m currently reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I’m excited by all of them.

What’s on your TBR list right now? How do you decide what makes the cut?


Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

2015-02-08 21.44.30There is no easy way to capture the essence of Etta and Otto and Russell and James. It is not a typical love story, but it is about relationships and bonds that last a lifetime. It is a pilgrimage story, but it is as much about those left behind as it is about those on the journey. The novel is dreamy, exploring memory, separation, and the mystery of life’s twists and turns.

One morning, 82-year-old Etta Vogel, who is struggling with the beginnings of dementia, leaves her home in Saskatchewan and sets out on foot for the eastern coast of Canada. She wants to see the ocean for the first time, and soon meets a talking coyote names James who accompanies her as she presses onwards. She leaves behind her husband Otto, who is plagued by memories of his own journey east as a young man during World War II. Their neighbour, Russell, starts off after Etta, but eventually ends up going on his own journey.

The novel moves continuously between time and viewpoints, shifting from Etta’s present-day pilgrimage to the coming of age of the characters during the 1930s. Otto, one of 14 children in his family, grew up with Russell, his neighbour and an honourary brother. Etta came to their town in rural Saskatchewan as a school teacher, just as everyone was leaving to fight overseas. When Otto leaves, he and Etta write to each other so she can correct his letters, and their relationship deepens.

Hooper’s depiction of rural Saskatchewan during World War II, a scene of endless dust and abandoned farms, is sharply written. She sets the scene with sparse, powerful writing. At the same time, nothing feels quite real – even in the past. The entire novel is magical realism and requires a suspension of disbelief.

The story explores many themes, one of which is aging and the question of whether it is ever too late for adventure or for forgiveness. It also explores the tension between obligation and desire. Though Etta and Otto and Russell seem to be inextricably linked, even as decades pass, it is easy to see how they could have taken different paths.

Yet for a story about relationships, the characters remain opaque. Because of the shifting of time and the blurring between fantasy and reality, we only see snippets of them. Much of the story is told through letters. While the characters are empathetic, we do not get to fully explore their motivations and relationships, and I found myself wanting to know more and to deepen my understanding.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is beautifully written. The whole thing reads as if it is a dream, and Hooper leaves the reader the space to take what they want from the world she has created. In many ways, the novel is what you make of it.

Have you read Etta and Otto and Russell and James? What were your thoughts about the book? What did you make of it?

Backlist Bump: Valentine’s Day Edition

Backlist Bump (1)
Backlist Bump is a semi-regular feature where I’ll post mini-reviews about older releases related to a timely theme.
It’s that time of year again – Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. And whether you believe it’s a corporate holiday designed to have us spend money on chocolates and Hallmark cards, or you’re a devoted follower of Cupid, there’s one thing that can bring all book-lovers together this Valentine’s Day: reading. Maybe you’re looking for a book to give as a gift, or maybe you’d like to do some reading in the spirit of the day. Either way, I’ve got the perfect suggestions for you.

If you believe in love and magic: 

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell
Landline is about a marriage in trouble. When work forces Georgie to cancel a Christmas trip to see her husband’s family, she doesn’t expect Neal to take the kids and go without her. But he does. While they’re apart a magical phone line may give Georgie what she needs to fix her marriage. The characters in this book are lovable and witty and will have you rooting for them until the end.

If you want to stay up all night sobbing your eyes out:

The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green
This one is a tear-jerker, so only crack this book if you’re ready for a good cry. The Fault In Our Stars is a young adult novel about Hazel and Gus, two teenagers with cancer who fall in love and bond over an adventure spurred by Hazel’s favourite book. I love that the characters in this novel are so realistic, and Hazel’s relationship with her parents is incredibly written and also heart-breaking.
Bonus: You can watch the movie when you’re done!

If you like picturing men in kilts:

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
If you haven’t read this series yet, you’ve certainly heard about it thanks to the adapted TV show that started last fall. There’s just something about men in kilts that gets people talking. Outlander is the story of Claire Randall, a former British army nurse who gets transported to 1743 Scotland, where she meets Jamie Fraser. Even if you’re a devoted Gabaldon reader, take this opportunity to go back to the first book and read about the start of Jamie and Claire’s love.

If you think marriage is a form of torture: 

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
There’s been a lot of hype about this thriller (and the accompanying movie), and it’s well-deserved. When Amy Dunne disappears, her husband Nick becomes the prime suspect. But there’s more to this marriage than meets the eye. It’s a suspenseful nail-biter, and also the perfect anti-Valentine’s Day read.

If you celebrate Galentine’s Day:

The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel
This is the true story of the wives of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. These wives went through the highs of stardom and the lows of tragedy together, building friendships that would last a lifetime. This is a great read for fans of non-fiction, friendship stories, and space (which, let’s face it, who doesn’t think space is cool).
What are your Valentine’s Day reads? Any favourite love stories or anti-love stories? 

Meet the Girl Behind the Book

Welcome, dear readers, to The Shelf Life.  Some of you may be wondering who I am and what I’m all about, so I thought it may be a good idea to give a bit of an introduction to me and my “shelf life.”

My name is Alex and I am a book-lover (obviously, or this blog wouldn’t exist). I’ve always got a long TBR list and I’ve been known to read a 400-page book in one sitting. I mostly enjoy fiction (contemporary, literary and historical), and I sometimes delve into non-fiction (mostly biography). I love Canadian literature. By day, I work as a librarian. By night, I read (and sometimes binge-watch TV on Netflix).

Why do I love reading?

One of my favourite quotes about books is by Stephen King, who says, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” The reading experience is magical. It allows me to step into another place or into someone else’s shoes. It helps me develop empathy and compassion and understanding for people who may be different than me. It gives me a unique perspective on my own life. Sometimes, it helps me escape and explore new worlds. Sometimes, it reminds me of the familiar. Reading can bring comfort or joy or laughter. It helps me learn and grow.

What is my favourite book?

I can’t pick favourites. So many books I’ve read are like old friends. I’ve loved different books at different times in my life and for different reasons. So I’m cheating – here are my favourites in different categories.

Anne of Green GablesFavourite book growing up: Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

I loved Anne (with an “e” – don’t forget!) and her spirited personality. She represented the type of person I wanted to be: passionate and fiery. I read and re-read all of the Anne books growing up, and I still occasionally pull one off the shelf. One day, I plan to go to Prince Edward Island to see the beautiful scenery Montgomery describes and visit the real Green Gables.

Favourite book as a teenager: The Princess Diaries, Meg CabotPrincess Diaries

I can’t even express how obsessed I was with these books – the entire series! Funny and relatable, Princess Mia was the perfect companion for my teenage self and I read and re-read these books time and again. I was so unbelievably excited when I heard that Meg Cabot is coming out with an adult Princess Mia book next summer, The Royal Wedding!

FavouJane Eyrerite “classic”: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

I love Pride & Prejudice and Jane Austen as much as most bibliophiles, but my favourite classic has always been Jane Eyre. I love the characters – the dark and mysterious Mr. Rochester and the principled Jane. It’s been too long since I’ve picked up this book.

Favourite book right now: All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam ToewsAMPS

I read this book back in the summer, but it has stuck with me. All My Puny Sorrows is about two sisters, Elfie and Yoli. Elfie wants to end her own life, while Yoli attempts to keep her alive. It’s honestly written and perfectly captures the relationship between sisters, balancing between funny and hauntingly sad at the same time.

And just to prove that I truly can’t pick favourites and because I can’t bear to leave anyone out, here are some honourable mentions: Harry Potter (all of them, but especially The Half-Blood Prince), Midnight’s Children, Persuasion, and A Fine Balance.

What are your favourite books? Do you have certain favourites from different times in your life? Why do you love reading? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Review: They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson

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We can spend years with someone – living with them, eating with them, talking with them – and never really know them. That’s a theme explored by Plum Johnson in her memoir, They Left Us Everything.

When Johnson’s elderly mother passes away after nearly 20 years of elder care, Johnson takes on the task of cleaning and dismantling the family home, Point O’ View (so named by her mother). The monstrous 23-room home, in a small town on Lake Ontario, is where her parents lived for over 50 years and raised Johnson and her four younger brothers. Thanks to Johnson’s packrat mother and frugal father, who passed away five years earlier, there is no shortage of treasures to be unearthed in their home. But as Johnson works her way through the dust and clutter over the course of 16 months, she begins to learn about her parents, understanding their lives – and her family – in new ways.

Although Johnson’s book is a personal memoir, I found myself thinking of my own childhood and family throughout. Thankfully, I’m not able to relate to the experience of parents passing away and cleaning out the family home, but I was still able to relate to what Johnson discovers: our parents leave us everything. The meaning of inheritance is that our parents are part of us in ways that we often do not even realize.

Johnson’s writing is both humourous and touching in turns, and I found myself laughing and nearly crying in parts. One of my favourite anecdotes is about a plaque Johnson and her brothers put up as teenagers, marking their house’s former owner as a slave driver (their father), and signed by The Oakville Hysterical Society. Their furious father soon redirects his anger towards the the Oakville Historical Society, who demand he take the plaque down – a demand he refuses – and so the plaque stays up for years.

Johnson doesn’t romanticize when she describes her parents. Her relationship, particularly with her mother, is complex. She paints a portrait of her mother as strong-willed yet almost needy at times, and her father as disciplined and meticulous. Yet Johnson comes to understand that her perception of her parents is not the way others saw them. She also comes to realize, through old letters and artifacts, that their relationship was perhaps not what she thought. Johnson’s journey through grief mixed with guilt after the death of her mother is intangible in many ways, but she manages to put the experience it into meaningful words that resonate.

They Left Us Everything has been shortlisted for 2015 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction, and it’s easy to see why. It’s moving and heartfelt and incredibly relatable. It left me thinking about my parents, and what I thought I knew about them. It made me see them as people who once had an identity that didn’t include being parents. It’s a book that leaves you thoughtful about the meaning of family and legacy long after the last page.

Have you read They Left Us Everything? How did it make you think about the meaning of family? Could you relate?