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What's YOUR Canadian bookshelf, Laura Penny?

Laura Penny

"What's YOUR Canadian bookshelf?" turns the spotlight on the shelf-lives of extraordinary ordinary Canadians. The feature begins with Laura Penny, author of Your Call is Important to Us and More Money Than Brains. Laura Penny has a PhD in Comparative Literature, a MA in Theory and Criticism, and a BA in Contemporary Studies and English. She has worked as a bookstore clerk, a student activist, a union organizer, a university instructor, and her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Saturday Night, and Toronto Life. She lives in Halifax, where she teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University.

I read grossbuckets for both my jobs. My professor gig requires I read and re-read a lot of great stuff and then enjoy heaps of student interpretations thereof. Writing non-fiction requires I plough through piles of research and reports and news, horrible news. Even though my work sometimes makes me go glue-eyed, I still unwind from reading by reading. I dig celebrity junk food books: Keith Richards, Tina Fey and Jay-Z all showed me a good time, in that order. I also love short stuff. Happily, Canada has a number of exceedingly talented writers who are great at packing maximum punch into minimal pages. Since I don't want to be a blog hog—and frankly, lit coverage tends to tilt dudeward—I shall confine my enthusiasm to some women writers that have recently made me laugh, made me think, broken my heart and blown my tiny mind.

Too Much Happines

Alice Munro: Too Much Happiness

I realize nearly everybody adores Munro. Endorsing her is like saying “hey, everyone! Chocolate is delicious” or “you should really try having coffee in the morning”. Still, I can't help but love this book. Instead of reclining on her considerable laurels, Munro delivers some of her darkest, sharpest work yet. Some of the stories do revisit themes she's touched on before, such as dealing with a child who chooses an incomprehensible lifestyle, but in other stories, such as "Dimension", she ratchets up the plotting without sacrificing her trademark precision or borderline creepy insight into human behaviour.

Book Cover Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Zsuzsi Gartner: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

This is Gartner's second collection of stories. I also aggressively recommend her debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, which was released in 1999. Gartner's fiction is snazzy, snarky, nervy and smart. She acutely skewers Vancouver's subcultures and their folkways and slang, with a cast of characters that ranges from yuppie foodies to recovering terrorists. Gartner's stories are dense with info and pop culture references and arcana, and she really revels in the jargon of modern urban life. But these stories pack some serious emotional wallops too, as Gartner can go from sarcastic to deeply sad in the space of a single swervy sentence.

Boo Cover What Boys Like

Amy Jones: What Boys Like

Where Gartner is writing about Vancouver, a place I do not know, Jones sets many of her stories in my burg, Halifax. She totally gets the local colour bang-on. Young folks in this neck of the neck do, in fact, get liquoured up at beer baron Alexander Keith's grave. Jones gets a lot of things bang-on. Even though this is Jones' first collection, she fluidly and confidently inhabits a number of different characters, male and female, screwed and screwee. She's really good at capturing the amplifying qualities of teen angst and has a terrific ear for dialogue. Jones' stories deal with some very heavy stuff—death, poverty, love, sex—but her characters mouth off in hilarious ways and her prose has a nice wry snap.

Book Cover Hark A Vagrant

Kate Beaton: Hark! A Vagrant!

This is cheating a little, as this book is coming out this fall .The nice people at Drawn and Quarterly have collected Beaton's popular web comics and some new material. Beaton's comics are total catnip for literature and history nerds, with their affectionate and amusing portrayals of the foibles and frustrations of folks like Tesla, Liszt, Napoleon, countless kings and queens, and authors such as the battling Brontes, Jane Austen and Jules Verne. She's also done comics based on Macbeth and The Great Gatsby, and a series of delightfully absurd strips based on the covers of Nancy Drew novels. Beaton's enthusiasm for Canadian history is infectious, and her depictions of its heroes—Trudeau, Diefenbaker, Riel, Montcalm—are like Heritage Minutes that are intentionally funny.

August 28, 2011
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