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Books that Made Me Realize I Needed To Be a Writer (by Alison Pick)
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Books that Made Me Realize I Needed To Be a Writer (by Alison Pick)

By 49thShelf
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Alison Pick's most recent novel, FAR TO GO, won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction. It has been optioned for film, translated into Dutch, French and Italian, and published internationally. Alison was the winner of the 2002 Bronwen Wallace Award for most promising Canadian writer under 35, the 2003 National Magazine Award for Poetry, and the 2005 CBC Literary Award for Poetry. Currently on Faculty at the Humber Correspondence Program in Creative Writing, Alison Pick lives in Toronto with her family.
Hard Light

Hard Light

also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian
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Why it's on the list ...
I began writing seriously in the final year of my undergrad degree when I took an elective in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. Janice Kulyk Keefer put together a stellar reading list, including Michael Crummey’s collection of prose poetry, Hard Light. I was gob-smacked by the way he could evoke the complexities of human dynamics, by the way those dynamics were so rooted in place, and by the fact that this all happened in just a couple hundred words. Michael came to visit our class: other than Janice, he was the first real live writer I’d ever met. So, indirectly, Hard Light made me realize writing was a viable career option, and not just a hobby like macramé or card tricks.
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Grace and Poison
Why it's on the list ...
Although I was a Psychology Major, I lived with a woman who studied English, and there was an extensive Canadian Poetry library in our shared house. During that final year of undergrad, I tore through her collection, staying up late at night marvelling at similes and metaphors. I remember being especially struck by a line from Karen Connolly’s book The Small Words in my Body: "We lie along each other’s lengths like mirrors reflecting the light." Amazed by the precision, the elegance of the line, and by the way the language itself seemed to shine.
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also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
Helen Humphreys was one of the first contemporary Canadian novelists I admired. Although the style is very different, I read passages from her book Afterimage over and over again when I was writing my first novel The Sweet Edge. In the conclusion of Afterimage, Humphreys implies that art is inadequate to life, and that it cannot replace or equal lived experience. I was totally, completely devastated to learn that this new thing I’d found (writing!) might not make my life perfect.
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People You'd Trust Your Life To
Why it's on the list ...
I published my first book relatively quickly, which I attribute entirely to the luck of winning the 2002 Bronwen Wallace Award for most promising unpublished Canadian writer. I was chuffed to win this award because my new hero Michael Crummey (see above) had been the inaugural winner, and especially because it was given in the name of Bronwen Wallace whose writing I adored. People You’d Trust Your Life To is a little known but wildly successful book of short stories, and Wallace’s poetry is equally gritty and heartbreaking. Highly Recommended.
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Young Men

"So." Dominic looked across the table at Gordon. Gordon smiled at him. He wore dark glasses, in which Dominic could see his own tiny, warped reflection. Dominic was also wearing dark glasses. They were both wearing linen shirts which fluttered slightly in the breeze. King Street rustled around them; it seemed full of women in dresses.

"So," said Gordon. "How are you?"

"I'm good. It's good to see you too. I just thought I'd call because—"

"Oh, of course, it's great to—"

"Just to see how you —"

"Would you gentlemen care for something to start?"

"Are you going to have something?" asked Dominic.

Gordon looked at his watch. "I have to be back at the office."

"I'll have a soda with lime," said Dominic.

Gordon said, "Do you have a fumé blanc by the glass?"

"Ah ..." The waitress's blue eyes wandered over them. "I'm not sure."

"Could you check for me?" said Gordon quietly.

"What I do have, which is similar, sir, is a Pinot Grigio, which is a little fruitier, but I find it —"

"You've had it?"

"I like it." She smiled, and Dominic had to look away from her bare neck and smooth bust. "Shall I get you a —"

"I'll have a glass of Chardonnay, whatever you have, the biggest you have," said Gordon, passing her the wine list with the tips of his fingers as if he didn't even want to touch it. "Something oaky, something I can chew on. I trust you." He smiled at her from behind his glasses.

Dominic resented not having ordered a drink; he felt cheated. He almost called her back as she swung away, but hesitated too long. He resented the feeling, distant as a hangover, that he still wasn't quite sure of the rules.

"Attractive," said Gordon.

"Terrific, in fact," said Dominic. "Monster. I'd forgotten what it was like, downtown. Stuck up in the frozen north." He had been teaching at a university in a suburb.

"It's particularly wonderful today." They both looked over the railing — they were practically right in the middle of the sidewalk — at the suits, walking quickly past them, and the folded newspaper and the bare legs. It was one of the first days warm enough for them. The breeze was enough to make Dominic shiver. A streetcar rumbled past and drowned something that Gordon said. Gordon took his cellphone from his pocket and laid it on the table.

"So," said Dominic.

"So," said Gordon. "How was it?"

"The teaching?"

"Well, everything. You got a lot of thinking done too, I suppose?"

"Oh, more than that. I got a couple of my own projects finished."

"Really? Did you? Well, that's good. That's terrific. And you have any, you have any definite plans for them?"

"Oh yes."

There was silence.

"Good." Gordon looked at the menu. "I always enjoy the carpaccio. I like a wet carpaccio."

"So do I. It's wet?"


The duck crêpe with wasabe cream looks good."

"Actually, I'd warn you off that one."


"The crêpe is heavy. Stodgy."

"Forget it. I'll have carpaccio too."

"Let's start with that and decide on mains later."

"Fine." They folded their menus and smiled at each other's glasses. "So how are you?" said Dominic.

"Actually," said Gordon, "I'm good. Very good. A number of ... a number of things on the go."

"Excellent. Are you still at — "

"Well, for the time being, yes."


"Yes. Something — a possibility has just presented itself to go somewhere else. It looks like a pretty sure thing. You understand that I can't be specific just yet about what it —"

"No no, of course, no no no. But you're happy — excited about it?"

"Oh yes. It would be a pretty interesting position. As I say, things are just about to be finalized, and I'll let you know as soon as I know for sure, and actually, I probably will want to talk to you then, because there are ways in which you might be able to, to —"

"To get involved."

"To contribute. In some way. Yes. This is one of the reasons I wanted to see you, to just touch base with you, see what you were up to, see if you had any projects on the go, if you were looking to get involved with any —"

"Oh, I'm always looking to get involved," said Dominic.


"Have you gentlemen decided?"

Gordon opened his mouth but Dominic spoke as quickly as he could. "We'll have two carpaccios to start, please. And we'll order the mains later."

"All righty then." She leaned to gather the menus.

"Could we hang on to those?" said Dominic.

"Oh. Certainly." She was looking around as if someone was going to catch her.

"Since we haven't decided yet."

"Of course." She was still hesitating. "I'll just leave these with you then."

"That's what I'm getting at," said Dominic, and Gordon snorted. Dominic felt a wave of guilt like sudden nausea, but he smiled at Gordon.

As she swished away, Gordon said, "Her boss has told her never to leave the menus."

"Isn't that tough?" said Dominic, and felt it again.

"Isn't it. So." Gordon took a sip of his white wine. The glass was large, round and yellow with wine, misty with condensation.

"You know, that looks so good I think I might have a drink after all." Dominic looked around for the tall girl.

Gordon was frowning. "That's not exactly what I'd call oaky." He swallowed again and grimaced. "You know," he said, his voice deep with concern, "I'm not even sure that's a Chardonnay at all."

"Excuse me," said Dominic to the girl as she passed. "I'm sorry, I've changed my mind. I'll have a glass of wine too."

"Don't order this one," said Gordon, just so she could hear, and Dominic cringed again.

"I'll be right with you," she said. She was carrying plates of food.

"Anyway," said Dominic. "So."

"So. How's life otherwise? On the personal front, I mean."

"Well, you heard I — me and Christine are no more."

"Yes, I heard that. I'm sorry to hear it. Was that ... tough?"

"Yes, it was."

"That's too bad."

Another streetcar passed, so they didn't have to talk about it for a second. Finally Gordon said, "But I suppose it's better in the long run?"

"Oh yes. Much."

"Good." Gordon drank from his glass and grimaced again. "You know, I don't think this is what I ordered at all."

"Well, you did say you trusted her," said Dominic gently.

"I didn't trust her to give me a goddam Riesling or something. Hello."

"What can I get you?" She was at their side again, blushing a little, Dominic thought, but perhaps he was being optimistic. He studied her flawless skin.

"I'd like a glass of the Pinot Grigio you mentioned, and my friend —"

"Are you sure that's not what you brought me?" said Gordon.

She hesitated. "I'm sure that's the Chardonnay, sir. You don't like it?"

"I don't think it's a Chardonnay, but never mind. Let me try something else."

"Certainly." She shook her head slightly to clear a wisp. It was very controlled. "What would you like?" Her voice had a fine edge now; it was crisper.

"I'd like a fumé blanc, but I guess I'll have to —"

"There's a sauvignon blanc, a Pinot Grigio, and another Chardonnay, it's from Oregon, it's a little lighter, so —"

While this went on, Dominic stared at Gordon's cellphone, lying flat and small and heavy and meaningful on the table, as if it was threatening to ring, a silent threat to everyone around.

"Anyway," said Gordon, once she had gone. "Whatever happened to that project you had going with Pyramid?"

"Oh, Pyramid, that just, they really —" Dominic shook his head.

"Fizzled out?"

"I think they kind of took me for a ride." He sighed. Suddenly he was tired of caution. "They read my proposal, liked it, brought me in, I had all kinds of meetings, and then it was like everybody forgot about it all of a sudden, as if nothing had ever happened." Dominic squeezed his napkin into a ball. The waitress was weaving towards them.

"Who were you dealing with there, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Not at all. Mimi Bean."

"Ah. Mimi Bean." Gordon leaned back, smiling widely.

"What? You know her?"

"I've had similar dealings with her."

Dominic felt exasperated. He leaned forward. "Well what? Tell me what you know about her."

"Pinot Grigio," said the waitress, "and the Eyrie Vineyards Chardonnay. Are you finished with the first one, sir? I'm so sorry you didn't like it. We won't charge you for this one, sir."

"Thank you," said Gordon, as if to a small child. He smiled up at her like a grandmother. Dominic half expected him to pat her on the head. He wondered what Gordon had that made people react to him like this. Even he, Dominic, wanted Gordon to be pleased all the time.
Absently, she began to gather the menus again.

"If you don't mind," said Dominic.

"Oh, of course," she said. "I'm sorry."

He watched her hips slice the air in their tight black fabric and felt a sudden bitterness, at her, at Gordon. "Nice girl," he said, "but obviously not blessed with vast intellect."

Gordon laughed loudly. He threw his napkin onto the table and laughed some more.

Dominic blushed with his own success.

"Listen," said Gordon. "Did you ever have the impression that Mimi Bean'smotivation, in her dealings with you, did you ever have the suspicion that her motivations weren't entirely professional?"

"You mean, that her motivations may have been more social than professional?"

"So to speak."

"Did I ever feel that she might have just wanted to —"

"To bag you. So to speak."

Dominic laughed. "That's exactly what I thought. I thought it was my self-flattering imagination."

Gordon shook his head, leaned forward, and in a murmur began to tell him stories of Mimi Bean. Dominic listened closely, his heart pounding. This was the exciting part of being with Gordon. This was really lunch, this was really lunch on King Street. As Gordon spoke and chuckled, and he chuckled too, he watched the women passing on the sidewalk, brushing past him in envelopes of perfume, and felt that he was watching them knowingly, and thought that he might even try, today, before the end of lunch even, to smile at one.

"But I'll tell you one thing you may not have noticed, in case you ever do need to know," said Gordon, finishing up. His voice went even lower. "She's a little heavy in the leg."

"Ah." Dominic raised his eyebrows.

"Dresses very carefully. You'd never notice. But she's a little heavy in the leg."

"Thank you." They both nodded sagely and sipped their wine. The wine tasted marvellous. Dominic felt marvellous. He knew their linen shirts looked great together. When the waitress came back, he would not be afraid to make some crack about the menus and her boss watching, or even about the wine. He glanced at a woman on the sidewalk who had a white skirt and top on, and blonde hair; she carried a bunch of flowers. He pushed his glasses down and caught her eye. She stared for a second, and he smiled, as confidently as he could. She quickly looked away and quickened her pace as she passed, as if she had seen something that frightened her.

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Why it's on the list ...
I loved this whole collection, but the story that really made me want to write was called Responsibility. Russell Smith had written about my mother. Perfectly. How did he know? I emailed him to ask. Oddly enough, it turned out he had been writing not about my mother, but about his own. Imagine! If skewering one’s family members—beautifully, artfully—was permitted in this game, there was no other game I wanted to play.
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This All Happened
Why it's on the list ...
The first book review I ever wrote was for Off the Shelf, the monthly newsletter from The Bookshelf bookstore in Guelph. I reviewed Michael Winter’s ‘roman du clef,’ This All Happened. Thinly disguised autobiography, it recounts a year in the life of Gabriel English, a writer living in St. John’s Newfoundland. I was impressed by the liberty Winter had taken with the form, by the way he had clearly written the exact book he wanted. It is moving and compelling, and the craftsmanship is incredible. This all Happened is still my favourite of Michael Winter’s books.
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