Books for all seasons & spaces

Journal staff reflect on their favourite seasonal reads and why they’re perfect for certain times of year

Reading outdoors is a pleasure in every season, especially when it’s accompanied by a hot drink during the winter and a sandy beach in the summer.
Reading outdoors is a pleasure in every season, especially when it’s accompanied by a hot drink during the winter and a sandy beach in the summer.
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SPRING

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

As both winter and second semester come to an end, the jokes of that one wacky professor somehow lose their novelty and the harsh reality of exams once again sets in. At this often painful time, it’s nice to be able to put down the courseware and indulge in that rarest of pleasures: reading for fun.

It doesn’t get much more fun than Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A volume from the hilarious seven-book series is the ideal rest for the eyes and the mind after a long winter’s day of dense course readings.

It doesn’t matter how long or short your study break is going to be; you’re guaranteed some stress-relieving endorphins as you follow the hapless Arthur Dent and company on their adventures through the universe.

The relatively simple plot of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy means it can easily be put down and picked up three weeks later without the reader losing track of what’s going on.

Carefree, fun, and fantastical, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the perfect out-of-this-world escape during the far too serious—and stressful—spring exam season.

—Monica Heisey

Open
by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore’s Open, a collection of 10 short stories and a 2002 Giller Prize finalist, rings true to its name. Moore peels away layers of Newfoundland life, leaving us with vulnerable characters and their rich, sensuous, stream-of-consciousness thoughts.

Moore paints characters so real you’ll want to grit your teeth, but she doesn’t leave you time as she carries you through a tumultuous, yet satisfying, emotional ride that will leave you craving more.

Whether it’s a young girl trying to impress her cooler, hitchhiking, truck driver-kissing best friend Melody, or an older woman doubling as a friend’s confidante and that same friend’s husband’s mistress, Moore’s protagonists ache with self-awareness, dragging you in to teach you heartbreak and spitting you back out again just as quickly.

Moore’s textured images, laced with love, laughter and sex, make you feel privy to an internal dialogue you wouldn’t otherwise manage to catch. The phrase “A church basement, no music. Everyone wearing sweats. A woman rolls toward me. Her bare foot squeaks on the gym floor. I’m lying on my stomach. Old wood, shiny brown varnish. High ceilings. My first time, I whisper. Mine too. Our calves touch, we start like that,” introduces an improv class, but this snippet and others like it stand for so much more.

Moore’s characters—many of whom remain nameless—love, experience loss, feel guilty and love harder. As she walks you through gut-wrenching regret and remorse until the very end, you can’t help but think life is an endless cycle of love and loss, and spring is the perfect time to begin again.

—Katherine Laidlaw

Ahab’s Wife or: The Star-Gazer
by Sena Jeter Naslund

After I have finished exams, I like to kick back and read something familiar and unlike the works I read throughout the year.

Ahab’s Wife tells the story of Una, the young wife Captain Ahab refers to briefly in Moby Dick. From this minute mention, Sena Jeter Naslund pulls one of the most beautiful and unforgettable stories I have ever read.

So far, I have read this book twice and each time I was completely enthralled. Naslund weaves elements of American history into her story while allowing it to flow naturally from one event to another. In a way, Una’s story is like a fairy tale—only much sadder and filled with more choice.

Naslund tells Una’s story in prose so closely linked to poetry it flows from the page with a subtle ease that manages to sound both utterly sincere and carefully expressed. Nowhere does Naslund sound as though she’s trying too hard; everything about Una’s life rings as true as the bell on a ship.

That Ahab doesn’t even enter the narrative until halfway through is another testament to Naslund’s skill. The title may define Una by her marriage, but Naslund offers the reader a much broader, more satisfying vision.

Ahab is Una’s unlikely choice for a second husband, a man she meets after being pulled out of a lifeboat after a whale rammed the whaling ship she had run away to work on. And this is only one of the captivating moments in a life full of such events.

—Angela Hickman

SUMMER

Harriet the Spy
by Louise Fitzhugh

Summer is the season of youth—those long mental stretches of evening with no school in the morning last far past the days of going home when the streetlights came on. Even if you spend your summers as an underpaid corporate intern, I can think of no better way to reach back to those halcyon days than by returning to the literary standbys of youth, through the eyes of an adult.

Harriet the Spy was my favourite book during my nervous, notebook-toting days as a late-blooming sixth grader, and perhaps because of its presence during such a raw time, it has stayed with me. It’s the perfect just-because book—a better beach alternative than the Shopaholic series—and dark enough to provide some pathetic fallacy with August afternoon thunderstorms.

Though it’s meant for kids, the book meets all the requirements of the adult appetite—fallible, yet well-intended characters, expressive detail and a plot that looks at the complexities of society through Harriet’s paradoxically angry and innocent eyes. In a sea of moralistic children’s writing, Fitzhugh writes a novel that respects error and celebrates the beauty of trying.

Ole Golly’s words hold true for all of us regardless our age or our predicament (in Harriet’s case, people reading the nasty things she’s written in her notebook): “You have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them. 1. You have to apologize. 2. You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend.”

—Meghan Sheffield

Gods Behaving Badly
by Marie Phillips

Having been interested in mythology my whole life, the idea of the Greek gods living in a modern time—in a dilapidated house in London, England, no less—was fascinating.

Marie Phillips plays off the gods’ traditional roles and gives them cheesy twists—Artemis as a dog-walker and Aphrodite as a phone sex operator make for a few good laughs. The fun really starts when the listless Olympians meet some mortals and wreak havoc on their lives.

This novel is perfect to read while tanning on the beach, lying in a hammock or even if you’re just stuck in the house on a sunny summer day. After a year of slaving over Dickens and Milton, organic chemistry or calculus, this book is a light, fun, fast and enjoyable read.

—Kathryn MacDonald

Travels with Charley
by John Steinbeck

The words “road trip” remind me (and, I suspect, many others) of either summer family drives to one location or another, everyone piled in a too-small car, or of trips with friends in similarly too-small cars, in search of something or another.

My interpretation of the “road trip,” I’m pretty sure, is just one of the differences between myself and John Steinbeck. To him, it would appear, a road trip is not necessarily a summer journey, but one taken after a late-summer hurricane.

Instead of the cramped quarters of a car, a truck named after Don Quixote’s horse is the prime mode of transportation. Instead of seeing the trip as a vacation or an opportunity for adventure, Steinbeck’s road trip is a result of a mid-life fear that he has lost touch with the country about which he wrote for many years. And rather than bringing friends or family along for company, Steinbeck’s ideal travelling companion is his poodle Charley.

The result is a perfect summer read. Steinbeck describes the country he finds in his uniquely Steinbeck way: he’s straightforward and honest, with more than a hint of dry humour and some patient reflection. He makes the land he covers familiar and inspires an urge to attempt the same journey. The book, like many of his books, is a quick read, but not a light one. Altogether, Travels with Charley is perfect for enjoying on a warm summer day when you’re itching to travel but lack the necessary time, vehicle or poodle.

—Lisa Jemison

To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf

For the past two summers I’ve found myself spending time with To the Lighthouse, re-reading passages, visiting certain characters and finally, after many attempts, making it to the end. For me, Virginia Woolf’s words require reflection and more thought than I can usually afford during any other season. Something about the relaxed pacing of summer, the walking to work, knocking on doors instead of phoning or e-mailing, puts me in the right headspace to get lost in Woolf’s beautiful philosophical current. Her narration seeps into the minds of all her characters, emphasizing the importance of perception and revealing such intricate and spot-on observations on human relationships that it breaks my heart. The streams of consciousness echoes vague moments I’ve felt or observed and there’s something about the warm weather and rain of summer that makes me sensitive to my surroundings—maybe it’s that they’re less hostile than in February or I have the time to take more in.

There’s also an underlying sense of transience in the partially hidden plot: characters leave or die, houses decay, relationships change, but in the beginning of the book it feels as though life will remain the same. The style of Woolf’s prose reflects this transitory quality: the passages of thought aren’t always easy to understand and sometimes one line will resonate at first read, but later feel less appropriate, giving me another moment in the novel to connect with on an individual level.

Summer, though a constant, becomes a different experience especially as we age. Without the burden and stress of school, I finally get a sense of how things have changed since the last summer. It’s a marking post that comes and then goes and reading the same book in the once-a-year heat is something I find comforting.

—Adèle Barclay

On the Road
by Jack Kerouac

Promiscuity, illicit drugs, sleepy small towns and a sudden attack of dysentery on an impromptu trip to Mexico—the sweet, sweet signs of summer.

Dean Moriarty, the iconic sex idol and masculine ideal of Jack Kerouac’s infamous On the Road, and his travel companion Sal Paradise, give us this medley of images tied to what is—in their spasmodic existence—the carefree abandon of travel and the discovery of a multifaceted nation.

For many, the summer months walk hand in hand with the promise of escape—from work, from school, from one unnecessarily hot destination to another. It’s the time when we look to journeys and pseudo-adventures to lift us out of routine.

Written with Kerouac’s sprawling, poetic prose, yet easily readable and accessible (necessary for any summer novel), On the Road provides an escape into a winding world of travel where the love of the uninhibited is paramount in the quest for meaning.

Next time the heat becomes too unbearable, the surroundings become too familiar, and the road is open to you, pick up Kerouac’s 1957 classic and find yourself zooming across an American frontier you’ve never bothered to know, lost in the jazz and spectacle of the beat generation—it will burn, burn, burn your summer away.

—Taylor Burns

FALL

Leaven of Malice
by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies’ Leaven of Malice is the second book in his Salterton trilogy, which takes place in the imagined city of (wait for it) Salterton. The book opens with the publication of a false wedding notice in the town’s daily paper: the offspring of two feuding families in town are to celebrate their nuptials on Nov. 13.

All characters involved spend the rest of the novel attempting to discover how—and why—the false announcement was published.

The fictitious university town is said to be modelled after Kingston, where the Davies family lived for many years—which, in my opinion, makes it a perfect fall book to read as students return to Kingston and student life.

Davies’ descriptions of town sights and sounds conjure up images of daily life in Kingston and the old houses, churches and school buildings in which many scenes occur become familiar. Even the characters seem oddly familiar, from the awkward young professor to the domineering old professor.

—Lisa Jemison

The Last Samurai
by Helen DeWitt

No, this is not the same “Last Samurai” as the horrible Tom Cruise movie. Helen DeWitt’s debut novel is about Sibylla, an independent and intelligent single mother with a strange approach to child-rearing, and Ludo, her prodigy son.

To stand in for a male influence in Ludo’s upbringing, Sibylla plays her son Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which he comes to know by heart. Ludo’s combination of genius and naïveté guide him in a search for his real father, with some bizarre results.

The novel is stylistically and thematically complex, but still manages to be funny and engaging. I have read this book five times, and with each read, I like it more and more. It’s perfect to read during the fall, before schoolwork starts getting too heavy.

The rights to make a film fromthe novel have recently been given to Tom Dey, who did Failure to Launch and Shanghai Noon, so make sure to read this amazing book before the movie comes out.

—Kathryn MacDonald

Eats, Shoots and Leaves
by Lynn Truss

It’s amazing how quickly you can forget things after the holidays. It seems every September when I come back to school, I’m a little hazy on the correct usage of the long-dash and what exactly constitutes a comma splice.

Luckily, Lynne Truss wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which may just be the most hilarious and helpful guide to punctuation ever written. I may be sealing my status as a literary nerd when I say this, but some of Truss’ anecdotes are laugh-out-loud funny. Never has it been so inappropriate to read about punctuation in a waiting room or on a bus.

The only problem I can see with her book is its ability to suck me in. I may think I’m just looking up the correct protocol for the use of a hyphen, and I become so engaged when I’ve finished that chapter, I restart the book.

There are very few books I can truly enjoy reading multiple times, and if you had asked me four years ago whether or not a book about punctuation would have made the list, I would have laughed at you. But then Truss entered my life and everything changed.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a book for anyone who ever has to write anything—including text messages. Truss presents the rules of polite and enlightened punctuation with clear joy, which I promise, is contagious.

—Angela Hickman

WINTER

When I Was Young and in My Prime
by Alayna Munce

During the season of short days and long nights, it’s easy to find refuge in that which is static—though life, as the book’s narrator discovers, rarely stands still. When I Was Young And In My Prime skips between and around generations of one family, telling their stories with raw and beautiful concision, from Mennonite children in revolutionary Ukraine to broken bones on backyard ice rinks in rural Ontario to the painful awkwardness of old age.

Through diary entries, lists, poems and prose, over and over again, Munce nails the everyday—the mundane—with knowledge that comes from the heightened awareness of pain. Our narrator is a young woman in her mid-twenties living in the Parkdale area of Toronto who splits her time between waitressing in a bar and writing. She’s a version of Munce, and the book walks a blurred edge between fiction and autobiography—its truth is that palatable.

When I Was Young paradoxically provides comfort in its realism and its simple acceptance of the things that are beginnings, ends and everything between.   

—Meghan Sheffield

The Birth House
by Ami McKay

In the winter very little seems cozier than a good book, a mug of something hot and somewhere warm to curl up and read. Last winter I picked up Ami McKay’s staggering first novel and couldn’t put it down until it was finished.

McKay’s invocation of a small Nova Scotia fishing village on the cusp of change is brilliant. Even if you don’t know the coastline she describes, your personal connection with the landscape will become just as strong as that of the characters.

The novel follows Dora Rare, a midwife in training, as she grows up and must face the challenges posed by new medical technology and what that means for the art she performs for women in labour.

Through McKay’s skillful prose, Dora Rare becomes a very real character—so complete I cried at the end of the book, not because it was sad but because I felt I was going to miss a friend. Truly, this is the power of a well-crafted novel.

The Birth House is a perfect novel to pick up just as a snowstorm is beginning because it will carry you through to the other side with no risk of cabin fever. As you read McKay’s words, you are transported to Scots Bay, a place you would happily spend some time.

—Angela Hickman

A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L’Engle

Any novel that begins with “It was a dark and stormy night,” and makes me believe it, is a classic in my book. With its combination of outer tempest and inner turmoil, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is the perfect accompaniment to any cold, blustery Kingston night.

Sinking into a cushy chair with a blanket and a mug of something hot, all that’s missing is a bowl of hearty stew simmered all day long on Mrs. Murray’s Bunsen burner. Like a warm fire warding off the chill of a snowstorm, there’s something about a two billion-year-old alien disguised as a welly-wearing old woman with an affinity for Russian caviar and other people’s bed sheets that makes me feel that much better about my own collection of vices.

In a book that wraps you in the complexities of quantum physics, weaving science and mythology and whiting out the line between fact and fantasy, you’ll still be caught off guard by the simplicity of young love.

When Calvin tells Meg to put her glasses back on because “I don’t think I want anyone else to know what dreamboat eyes you have,” it’s enough to melt even the iciest of hearts.

—Erin Flegg

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