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No Longer a Footnote: Extraordinary Lives

Lauren McKeon's latest book is Women of the Pandemic.

History is too often told through the texture of men’s lives. Women become accessories and footnotes, their struggles and dreams, triumphs and sacrifices inevitably erased. In recent years, the rise of women’s biography and memoir has sought to rectify that, making permanent extraordinary stories about women’s lives, past and present. There is courage in demanding your voice be heard, in telling the world your story matters—that you matter. Today, we celebrate diverse women who’ve boldly told their truths, making us all richer for it.

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Book Cover Mistakes to Run With

Mistakes to Run With, by Yasuko Thanh

Yasuko Thanh tells us what to expect in the title: this is not a tidy book, and she has not had a tidy life. Her memoir is beautifully vulnerable, inviting us into her life as a teen on the streets of Vancouver and showing us how past informs—but doesn’t always define—who a person is constantly becoming. Neither the book, nor Thanh’s story has a neat ending, a reminder that women’s lives don’t have to come pre …

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12 Books for International Women's Day

Can you hear them now? If you can't, you're not listening. Recent memoirs and biographies about remarkable women would make great picks for International Women's Day.

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Can You Hear Me Now?: How I Found My Voice and Learned to Live with Passion and Purpose, by Celina Caesar-Chavannes

About the book: Celina Caesar-Chavannes, already a breaker of boundaries as a Black woman in business, got into politics because she wanted to make a bigger difference in the world. But when she became the first Black person elected to represent the federal riding of Whitby, Ontario, she hadn't really thought about the fact that Ottawa wasn't designed for someone like her. Celina soon found herself both making waves and breaking down, confronting at night, alone in her Ottawa apartment, all the painful beauty of her childhood and her troubled early adult life. She paid the price for speaking out about micro-aggressions and speaking up for her community and her riding, but she also felt exhilaration and empowerment. As she writes, "This is not your typical leadership book where the person is placed in a situation and miraculously comes up with the right response for the wicked problem. This is the story of me falling in love, at last, with who I am, and finding my voice in the unlike …

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Launchpad: TIFF: A LIFE OF TIMOTHY FINDLEY, by Sherrill Grace

Launchpad Logo

Last spring—as launches, festivals and other events were cancelled across the country—49th Shelf helped Canadian authors launch more than 50 new books with LAUNCHPAD. And now we're back this fall, but with a twist.

LAUNCHPAD 2.0 features new releases selected by great Canadian writers who've chosen books that absolutely deserve to find their way into the hands of readers.

Today Andrew Pyper is recommending new biography Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley, by Sherrill Grace.

Pyper writes: “Tiff is a biography of becoming. Timothy Findley was a writer, but one who arrived at the vocation by way of the stage, a storyteller who shifted from the speaking of others’ words to the crafting of his own. Sherrill Grace brings thoughtful attention to both the man and the work, the latter of which notably marked the national literature by its particular obsessions and inventions.”

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Book Cover Tiff

49th Shelf: What particular thing have you achieved with this book of which you are especially proud? 

Sherrill Grace: I believe I have brought Timothy Findley to public atten …

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Marianne Boucher's TALKING TO STRANGERS

Today we're launching Marianne Boucher's graphic memoir Talking to Strangers, about her experiences as a teenage girl who was lured into a cult and later fought to escape and reclaim her identity.

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The Elevator Pitch. Tell us about your book in a sentence.

My memoir, Talking to Strangers, takes place in California when I was 18. I had travelled there to audition for the Ice Capades, but instead I was lured into a scary religious cult.

Describe your ideal reader.

Someone who has been flung off the planet by a traumatic experience and is curious about how I found my way back from the same. People concerned about brainwashing or mind control and how disinformation undermines the truth and the rights of others. And those with an interest in mental health, psychology and the history of PTSD.

What authors/books is your work in conversation with?

David Small, Stitches; Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive; Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just; Dr. Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst.

What is something interesting you learned about your book/yourself/your subject during the process of creating and publishing your book?

I thought it was going to be difficult to draw myself, but it was actually very satisfying to relive this event visually, and I developed a huge crush on my 1 …

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Radical Acts: An Interview with Andrea Warner

Andrea Warner follows up her fantastic debut, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music, with Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, and here she talks to us about the challenges of biography, chronology, and the experience of working with a music legend. 

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49th Shelf: “My God, how does one write a Biography?” wrote Virginia Woolf once, and she’s just one of many writers who’ve struggled with the genre. I imagine it’s a bit easier, however, when you’ve got the person you’re writing about telling stories down the telephone and reading over your manuscript, offering clarity and answering questions. Do you think you could have written this book without Buffy Sainte-Marie being a partner in the project? Would you have wanted to? 

Andrea Warner: I wouldn’t have done this without Buffy’s consent and support. Her voice is essential and so powerful. This is her life story and she doesn’t really need me to do tell it. She’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, she’s an amazing storyteller. But what I can do as a writer and as a feminist music critic who has spent years writing about Buffy’s music and the music business is provide a framework for her story and contextualize her journey so far. 

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She’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, …

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Notes From a Children's Librarian: Great Biographies

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

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Here are some great biographies for Grades 3 to 6, part of both the Reading and Writing curricula.

Book Cover Dennis Lee

Weigl’s Canadian Writers Series is aimed specifically at students writing a biography, and it includes Dennis Lee, Gordon Korman (whose first book was an English assignment, mailed to the Scholastic Arrow Book Club address, at age 12), Jean Little, and Melanie Watt. Each book is organized in a way that students can see how a biography might be structured (e.g., Introduction, School Years, Early Writing, Successes, etc.) and includes writing prompts, creative writing tips from the author, and a quiz. Weigl has other series: Canadian Explorer, Canadian Prime Minister and Aboriginal Biography. These also teach the format of a biography along with a concept web and Internet resources. Grades 4–6.

The Scholastic Canada Biographies, by Maxine Trottier, with various illustrators, does it differently with each book highlighting five figures in each of the f …

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11 Life Stories To Read This Spring

This assortment of memoir, biography, and autobiography brings real life to the page, and into the minds of readers. 

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Homes: A Refugee Story, by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung

About the book: In 2010, the al Rabeeah family left their home in Iraq in hope of a safer life. They moved to Homs, in Syria—just before the Syrian civil war broke out.

Abu Bakr, one of eight children, was ten years old when the violence began on the streets around him: car bombings, attacks on his mosque and school, firebombs late at night. Homes tells of the strange juxtapositions of growing up in a war zone: horrific, unimaginable events punctuated by normalcy—soccer, cousins, video games, friends.

Homes is the remarkable true story of how a young boy emerged from a war zone—and found safety in Canada—with a passion for sharing his story and telling the world what is truly happening in Syria. As told to her by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, writer Winnie Yeung has crafted a heartbreaking, hopeful, and urgently necessary book that provides a window into understanding Syria.

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Book Cover The Never Ending Present

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20 Life Stories Rocking Our World This Spring

This month we're curling up in our proverbial chairs with life stories, biography and memoir, stories that run the gamut and take you all over Canada and beyond. Here are twenty compelling life stories that are rocking our world this spring. 

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I Hear She's a Real Bitch, by Jen Agg

About the book: Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg, the woman behind the popular The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner, and Agrikol restaurants, is known for her frank, crystal-sharp and often hilarious observations and ideas on the restaurant industry and the world around her. I Hear She's a Real Bitch, her first book, is caustic yet intimate, and wryly observant; an unforgettable glimpse into the life of one of the most interesting, smart, trail-blazing voices of this moment.

Why we're taking notice: More books about kick-ass, talented women, please. This book is getting so much buzz. 

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The Unfinished Dollhouse, by Michelle Alfano 

About the book: No mother is prepared for the moment when a child comes out to her as a person whose physical gender is out-of-keeping with his e …

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Elaine Lui on the Big Love Driving Listen to the Squawking Chicken

ElaineLui_cr Dexter Chui

As a years-long devotee of Elaine Lui's world-famous gossip and entertainment blog, Lainey Gossip, I read her debut book, Listen to the Squawking Chicken, the moment I could. The book is aptly described on its jacket as "a mother-daughter memoir that will have readers laughing out loud, gasping in shock, and reconsidering the honesty and guts it takes to be a parent."

The book works on several levels—some serious, some funny, many surprising, and all dauntless—and Lui agreed to answer some of my questions about this. 

(Photo credit: Dexter Chew)

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KT: Theory: Listen to the Squawking Chicken is at once a love story, a biography, a a Feng Shui 101 course, a drama, a comedy, and a memoir.

Elaine Lui: This is mostly correct, although I’d like to clarify that it’s not so much a Feng Shui 101 than it is a very selective introduction to it. Feng Shui is very complicated, very nuanced, and sometimes very secretive. And I would never want to misrepresent myself as an expert in the practice. Bad things can happen when Feng Shui is used for dark purpose …

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Elspeth Cameron on Writing Lives and Aunt Winnie

Book Cover Aunt Winnie

Elspeth Cameron is an award-winning biographer and memoirist, and she blurs the two genres in her latest book Aunt Winnie. Winnie Cameron, Elspeth's aunt, was born in Seattle, raised briefly in Dawson City, and then moved to Toronto to live in Rosedale with her family in the 1910s. Over the course of her life, she saw the city change from one dominated by the English and Scotish immigrants, horse-drawn buggies, to a multicultural city where the car reigned supreme. But Winnie wasn't able to keep up with the times: she remained a perpetual debutante, and eventually became a bankrupt, unable to cope with the demands of her changing times.

Elspeth Cameron talked to us about her book, Toronto in the early 20th century, the difference between men's and women's archives, and about how a biography takes shape. 

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49th Shelf: Your Aunt Winnie skirted the edges of history in some fascinating ways—her early life in Dawson City during the Gold Rush and that dance with the Prince of Wales, for example. But you make clear that she was never of her history, always just outside of what was happening around her. What made her a compelling biographical subject anyway, beyond your close personal relationship with her?

Elspeth Cameron: I actually see her at the centre of some thin …

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Biographer Sandra Djwa Talks About Journey With No Maps: A Life of P. K. Page

Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page, by Sandra Djwa.

Journey with No Maps (McGill-Queen's University Press) is the first biography of poet P. K. Page. The product of over a decade's research and writing, the book follows Page as she becomes one of Canada's best-loved and most influential writers. "A borderline being," as she called herself, Page recognized the new choices offered to women by modern life but followed only those related to her quest for self-discovery.
 
The book is shortlisted for 2013 The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, to be announced March 4, 2013. It's author, Sandra Djwa, talks to 49th Shelf about the process of charting a map of an intensely private, yet revered, personality. An excerpt follows the chat.

P. K. Page, considered one of Canada's most beloved poets, is the author of more than a dozen books, including poetry, a novel, short stories, essays and books for children. Awarded a Governor General’s Award for poetry (The Metal and the Flower) in 1954, the BC Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary excellence in 2004, and appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1999, Page was also shortlisted twice for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2003 for Planet Earth, and posthumously for Coals and Roses in 2010. A two-volume edition of Page's collected poems, The H …

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Robert J. Wiersema on the Springsteen songs that don't appear in his mixtape-memoir Walk Like a Man.

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Please join Canadian Bookshelf host Julie Wilson (aka Book Madam) in conversation with her chum Robert J. Wiersema as they talk about coming of age and the soundtracks of their youths. Rob's mixtape heavily features Bruce Springsteen, the subject of his latest book Walk Like a Man (D & M Publishers); Julie realizes she has a lot of Enya on vinyl and a worn out cassette of Bronski Beat's The Age of Consent.

When: Tuesday, September 13, 7 p.m.

Where: Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay St., Toronto, ON

RSVP on Facebook

And now, a few words from Rob:

I've come to realize over the past couple of books that writing is at least as much about what you cut out, and what is not written, as it is about what actually appears on the printed page. Suffice it to say, I learned this the hard way.
I don't feel so bad about writing long and editing back, though, when I remember that Bruce Springsteen wrote and recorded more than seventy songs for the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. He left sixty plus on the cutting room floor; the remaining ten songs comprise what might just be a perfect album.


With my book Walk Like a Man, I didn't overwrite. (Well, no more than normal, I suppose. After all, what's twenty thousand words between friends?) Given the nature of the book—short es …

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