Can-Lit Heats Up
How many Canadian authors does it take to recommend your summer reads and summer movies? We got 12.
"And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
For the Books on Film edition of The Review, we reached out to our favourite Canadian authors to get their thoughts on summer reads and summer movies. Our contributors are (in alphabetical order):
Jen Agg, Jesse Brown, Julia Cooper, Durga Chew-Bose, Barbara Gowdy, Scaachi Koul, Stacey May Fowles, Sean Michaels, Heather O’Neill, Naben Ruthnum, Adam Sternbergh, and Zoe Whittall
If your book was a movie, who would direct it and who would you cast as the main characters?
Jen Agg: My memoir I Hear She’s a Real Bitch tells the story of how I fought my way through the patriarchal service industry and made it happen, from getting my first job pouring drinks all the way to opening some of Canada’s most famous restaurants and leading the vanguard of Toronto’s culinary revival with my restaurants The Black Hoof, Rhum Corner, Cocktail Bar, Grey Gardens, and Agrikol in Montreal. The ONLY person who should be playing me is ‘90s Catherine Keener, but that feels like it might not happen. Nadia Litz should direct because I already know we'd have a blast.
Jesse Brown: The director would be Sarah Polley; it would star Seth Rogen as John Diefenbaker, and it would be awful. The CANADALAND Guide to Canada is a rude, dumb book. It's the meanest book about Canada. It has nothing nice in it at all.
Julia Cooper: My book The Last Word is about death. It’s about the public pressure to be happy, even when you’re very sad. It’s also about the wacky ways that grief crops up in pop culture, from The Big Lebowski to Love Actually, and Bridget Jones mourning Princess Diana with a copy of Vogue, instead of flowers. I would like my book to be adapted into a mockumentary, directed by Stella Meghie (Jean of the Joneses; Everything, Everything). She could bring in the fantastical elements that grief and memory occasion. I would watch the hell out of that.
Durga Chew-Bose: Too Much and Not the Mood is about my family, film, my friends, but mostly it's about how I use my many distractions (or enthusiasms) as a way forward. If it were adapted somehow? Something Chris Marker–ish? Or a Paris, je t'aime–type collection with many directors and their interpretations. But it would be called “Durga, I hate this.”
Barbara Gowdy: In Little Sister, Rose feels everything Harriet feels emotionally and physically, and she gradually starts to access her thoughts. I guess the obvious choice for a director would be Spike Jonze because of Being John Malkovich, although Little Sister has a different tone in that it’s not as comical — there’s a tragedy at the back of it. Other dream directors? Sofia Coppola, Atom Egoyan, Sarah Polley, Bruce McDonald. For Rose, I’d like Thora Birch. I thought she was great in Ghost World — her flat, wistful sarcasm, and her smarts.
Scaachi Koul: One Day We'll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter is a collection of essays about fear, shopping, race, weddings, the internet, friendship, drinking, body hair, home, and my dad. I’m not sure who’d be the right person to direct, but I’ll tell you what, I’d run craft services. Mama needs her jalapeño poppers.
Stacey May Fowles: I suppose Baseball Life Advice is about a sport, but one reviewer said that it’s really a book about love, which is a take I particularly like. If it were made into a movie, it would be one about my personal experience with sports culture, which makes it a little tricky (and feels a little indulgent) for me to cast. But hey, maybe Ken Burns could be involved?
Sean Michaels: Us Conductors reimagines the invention of a strange musical instrument called the theremin. It’s a lying love story full of Cold War espionage, New York nights, the Siberian gulag — and kung fu. Surely, one day it will be a film by Xavier Dolan, starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Brendan Gleeson as Pash.
Heather O’Neill: The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a story of two talented orphans who grow up together and envision the creation of a magnificent theatrical revue. They are separated as teens and begin a search through the underworld of Montreal to find one another during the Great Depression. I think Floria Sigismondi could be an interesting director to bring it to the big screen. I could see Charlotte Le Bon and Niels Schneider as the leads; their appearance and something of their physical presence reminds me of the main characters.
Naben Ruthnum: Curry talks about how this catch-all term for a dish that’s totally inauthentic (and a reflection of the complex colonial history of India) is actually a useful metaphor for the complexity of brown, diasporic, immigrant identity. I think Aziz Ansari has made a version of part of this book, as it deals with ways diasporic South Asians are supposed to imagine their identities.
Adam Sternbergh: My novel The Blinds is about a sequestered town in remote Texas that’s populated entirely by former criminals and high-leverage witnesses in need of protection. They’ve all had memories of their past lives and previous exploits erased, in hopes of getting a fresh start. I should mention that some of Hollywood’s brightest minds are developing this as a TV show as we speak, which I am assured will be awesome. In any case, my most important cinematic requirement is that Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Sicario) has to be the cinematographer, since he already basically shot this book in my mind.
Zoe Whittall: My latest book is called The Best Kind of People. It's an aftermath novel about the family of a man who is arrested for sexual impropriety at the school where he teaches, and how his family is stigmatized and affected by the arrest and impending trial. Sarah Polley has optioned the book for a feature film and will write and direct the adaptation — it's a dream! My dream cast would be Frances McDormand as Joan, the wife and mother; Catherine Keener as Clara; Merritt Wever as Dorothy; and Elle Fanning as Sadie.
What memories do you have related to summers spent reading books and watching movies?
Jen Agg: I fell in love with film and how transformative it could be around age 14. It blew me away with how much could be conveyed with a simple glance, or a toss of hair. Add brilliant writing, fleshed-out characters, and beautiful filming, and you have a way to communicate art that feels very "whole.” I've read A Prayer for Owen Meany more times than I can count. It's a great novel — full of humour, pathos, and magical thinking.
Jesse Brown: When I was a kid, I would go see every dumb comedy that came out and every one I saw was my favourite movie. I remember watching The Naked Gun with my dad and I laughed so much it hurt. I remember sneaking the TV and VCR into my room to sneak-watch Eddie Murphy's Raw.
Durga Chew-Bose: Summers were for blockbusters, weren't they? Spending a couple hours in an ice-cold Cineplex was ideal. But I remember loving movies that took place in the summer, like Rear Window. The sweat on Jimmy Stewart's brow was summer.
Barbara Gowdy: One day in August 1965, when I was 15, I put a blanket, a thermos of apple juice, and a book from the library in my bike carrier and rode north of my suburban home to a hayfield where I made a bed for myself in the long grass. The book was To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved it, except for the part where Scout dresses up as a ham for Halloween. That struck me as a clunky plot device and I thought, “Authors can make mistakes.” In fact, they can make mistakes and win Pulitzer prizes. The realization was life-changing, eventually.
Scaachi Koul: I read a lot as a kid because I liked being a pseudo-intellectual (still do!) and I liked sinking into another place, other people, and someone else’s motivations, good or bad. My brother and my cousins were all a good decade-plus older than me, so during their summer vacations, they’d sometimes let me hang out with them while they watched wildly age-inappropriate movies. They showed me Face/Off! That was a mistake.
Stacey May Fowles: I remember being in a local library-hosted summer book club as a kid, where the goal was to knock off as many titles as you could before school started up again. In retrospect, it's kind of weird to make reading competitive for children, but I was certainly inspired. We got sparkly stickers next to our names for finishing novels like The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or A Wrinkle in Time. I also have some pretty strong memories of clipping through The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High books in the summer months, along with Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine’s seemingly never-ending catalogue — all mostly read by flashlight, under the covers, after bedtime.
Then there were those secret, clandestine summer camp reads — books like The Bell Jar, The Story of O, Flowers in the Attic — that were passed around by counsellors and campers like contraband. My summer camp rainy-day movie-watching is particularly vivid, too; easy crowd-pleasers like The Goonies, Dirty Dancing, Star Wars, or Footloose projected in front of bunch of rowdy, popcorn-eating kids to prevent them from acting out.
Sean Michaels: Every summer, I’d fill bags and bags with library books before heading down to the cottage. My parents, sister, and I would spend the whole vacation reading, either sundrenched by the lake or up in the cottage’s shady cool, as the chickadees chickadeed. I remember reading fantasy series by Lloyd Alexander and Terry Pratchett or, later, John Gardner’s Grendel and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Once or twice each visit, we’d watch a movie after dark on the black-and-white TV. Films like Top Hat or Three Men in a Boat felt like transmissions from a distant civilization, or dreams.
Heather O’Neill: There was an amazing repertory cinema near my apartment called Cinema V. It only cost 99 cents to get in. They were really lax about letting me in to see R-rated films. I would go every day and see wildly inappropriate films like Blue Velvet, Down by Law, and Repo Man. The movies I saw there, and the theatre itself, profoundly affected my imagination and ideas about the transgressive nature of storytelling. I remember seeing Blade Runner and it changing my life. The idea of an imagined urban landscape excited me to no end. The filthy glamour affected me deeply. Also, the depiction of objectified bodies, and the desire for ownership of your own personhood, has become a major theme in my own work. I always thought of myself as a hunted android after that film.
Naben Ruthnum: My earliest summers in Kelowna, I read reams of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven books, along with the usual Hardy Boys and Beverly Cleary material, which meant that my vision of other people’s more exciting childhoods was largely borrowed from British and American imaginings. The movies I most closely associate with childhood are the ones that stuck because they were violently grownup. I remember sneaking a VHS rental copy of RoboCop into a stack of other rentals (“7 Days for 7 Dollars”) and feeling exhilarated by that movie, from the exploding cop hand to melting Emil just liquefying over the hood of that cop car. The brilliant satirical angle doesn’t really jump out when you’re under 10, but it’s absolutely still a perfect movie for a certain kind of kid.
Adam Sternbergh: The summer of 1977 will forever be linked in my mind with seeing Star Wars. As a six-year-old, I remember thinking as the credits rolled, “Oh — so apparently that’s an experience that’s available to humans.” I’ve been chasing that experience every summer ever since.
Zoe Whittall: I remember very clearly watching the movie Harold & Maude as a teenager and it being a revelation. I also spent many summer nights watching Heathers, The Breakfast Club, Pump Up The Volume, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show — all movies I had pretty much committed to memory. When I was 18 or 19, I became obsessed with the movie Girls Town with Lili Taylor, a largely improvised indie movie about teen girls who take revenge on a rapist at their school.
What do you think it is about summer that encourages us to retreat to books and the movie theatre?
Jen Agg: That it's fucking hot? Most people feel a sense of entitlement to their personal time in July and August they may not feel the rest of the year. It’s almost like we hold on to the idea of “summer” equalling “freedom,” even when we are no longer kids.
Jesse Brown: It's just the most pleasurable thing in the world. Last summer on a rainy day, I took my kid to see a mostly lousy kids’ movie at this great old theatre in cottage country and he was completely enthralled. I realize I've lost the ability to watch movies that way.
Julia Cooper: In the summer, time feels elongated, slow, and in need of spending. The heat slows me down, the light stretches past nine o’clock, and I find that my heart is at its most comfortable resting rate with a book or large popcorn (extra butter) in hand.
Barbara Gowdy: For those of us who live in northern climates, summer is when you can read outdoors. If it gets too hot, you can sit in an air-conditioned theatre. Air conditioning was especially attractive 40 years ago, when almost nobody had it at home. There were also drive-in movies back then — you could park under the stars and make out with your boyfriend unseen behind fogged-up windows.
Scaachi Koul: Frankly, I don’t like summer very much. I hate the heat; the pressure to be doing stuff or to be out all the time. But there’s something really comforting and easy about reading a book in the summer, maybe outside in a park, or in your living room near a window where you get a lot of light. I didn’t go to theatres as a kid very often, but I remember it having the same kind of magic; everything stopped for a minute, you were forced to focus in a dark room for an hour-and-a-half. As an adult, I still like that — it’s good to be shamed off your phone now and then.
Stacey May Fowles: My association with warmer weather is books and films that lean on the side of what some may call “frivolity,” or what snobs might call “light,” “fluffy,” or “not serious.” I’ve gobbled up Stephen King, Thomas Harris, Gillian Flynn, and even Dick Wolf novels in the sun; my summer taste in movies and TV shows tends to be of the same wildly entertaining variety. I take my “not serious” entertainment very seriously.
Sean Michaels: When the sun’s too hot, it’s nice to find some gloom.
Heather O’Neill: As children, we spent so much time considering the myth and possibility in the state of being that is summer. Reading is the ultimate act of profound, shared daydreaming, where you borrow the imagination of another and allow it to guide your own. Everyone always felt that reading a book in schools ruined it for them. You were open to having a new personality in the summertime. You met new, summer friends and oddballs from other neighbourhoods. So the summer is a time or state which is more conducive to meeting other people, and to accepting other ideas. You take more from books in that state.
Naben Ruthnum: Being able to go to an early evening film and walk out into daylight, which makes the theatre seem like a brief, artificial night, enhancing that sense that you’ve been somewhere else entirely for a couple of hours.
Adam Sternbergh: It’s very hot in the summer and theatres are air-conditioned. This was, for example, the entirety of my rationale for going to see the movie Congo in 1995.
Other than your own book, what should we be reading and otherwise consuming this summer?
Jen Agg: I'm currently reading Durga Chew-Bose's wonderful debut collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood. Her writing is pure and perfect and wanders tangentially in a way that feels like you are right there with her, watching her chew (lol NO PUN INTENDED) something over. I will read it again and again — the first essay "Heart Museum" is a masterpiece.
Jesse Brown: I usually read non-fiction but I just can't this summer; I need a break. Maybe I'll read some crime stuff on vacation, like James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, or maybe I'll catch up on all the comics I've missed since I stopped following all the good comics. The internet has ruined me — I read all day, but I don't read books.
Julia Cooper: I’m going to be reading Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, because her second, A Little Life, was — and I don’t say this lightly — a goddamn masterpiece. May I also recommend Shot-Blue by Jesse Ruddock? Smart as hell, atmospheric, and just heavy enough that it’s nice to read in good weather. Film-wise, I am so very ready for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, and am counting down the days until the release of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. I’d also like to shout out to Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch — a cannibal rom-com that is as messed up and mesmerizing as it sounds.
Durga Chew-Bose: Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart comes out late summer. Something to look forward to. I like watching movies about young love in the summer. I'll revisit my favorites: Splendor in the Grass, Running on Empty, Raising Victor Vargas.
Barbara Gowdy: Read any of the best books I read over the past year — Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; Juliet Was a Surprise by Bill Gaston; Guy: Or Why Women Love Me by Jowita Bydlowska; Don’t I Know You? by Marni Jackson; There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter; The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky; The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill; The Green Hotel by Jesse Gilmour; After James by Michael Helm; Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee; A Really Good Day by Eyelet Waldman; and The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall.
Scaachi Koul: Sam Irby’s We Are Never Meeting In Real Life comes out on May 30. It’s incredibly funny. Everyone should read it.
Stacey May Fowles: I’ve been recommending Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation to anyone who will listen. It certainly doesn’t fall into that category of “light, fluffy frivolity,” but is brimming with hope, optimism, and appreciation for the little things that is perfect for sunny afternoon reading. As for baseball reads, I loved Tim Raines' recent memoir, and am really looking forward to David Ortiz's, which is released this month.
Sean Michaels: Give me heist movies, give me movies that feel like picnics, or love songs, or cold dives in lakes. And read Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! or Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, or something fogged and faded by Patrick Modiano.
Heather O’Neill: Read Canadian women for sure, like Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People and Katherena Vermette’s The Break, if you haven’t already. Eden Robinson, Barbara Gowdy, and Claire Cameron all have new books out. I’m looking forward to reading Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography; I’ve been carrying it around without being able to finish it. It makes my suitcase impossible to close, and it’s been a major nuisance to me.
Naben Ruthnum: Summer is good for some Javier Marías — I’m finally going to read his Your Face Tomorrow series. Usually, I like to bite off a classic. This June, I’ll read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. If you can’t afford the time or money to travel, some other place memoirs or travel books are good to have around. Two that I read for Curry research are Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and Elizabeth Bowen’s A Time in Rome.
Summer movies? Usually some ‘80s action, of course. I’ve been digging for obscurities lately, like John Frankenheimer’s Dead Bang with Don Johnson as a broke LA cop fighting white supremacists and trying to get a travel expense account, so he can do so properly. I’d like to re-watch Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, which seem summer-ish to me, especially Claire’s Knee.
Adam Sternbergh: You should read The Smack by Richard Lange, who is one of the sharpest writers going. I’m not sure whether his books are best described as literary thrillers, or thrilling literature, or if that even matters — they’re great. As to movies, I am strongly supportive of the recent trend toward counter-programming huge summer blockbusters with smart, lean thrillers, such as last summer’s sunbaked standout Hell or High Water. I’m psyched this year for Baby Driver from Edgar Wright and Logan Lucky from Steven Soderbergh.
Zoe Whittall: I would recommend The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee (it's an absolute page-turner), The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I just saw Weirdos, the new Bruce McDonald and Daniel MacIvor film, and it was brilliant. It’s definitely a great summer road trip movie.
Describe a particular smell, taste, sound, or image that just says “summer in Canada.”
Jen Agg: Trinity. Bellwoods. Park. It just teems with life all summer long, and I love it.
Jesse Brown: I have very little sentimentality for Ontario summers. I hated summer camp. Last summer, I realized that Muskoka (where all these Toronto people look forward to going all year and obsess about) is actually just buggy, rocky, and homely, so this year we're renting a place in Quebec. I plan to eat a lot of hot dogs and pie.
Durga Chew-Bose: Summer in Montreal. Smells: freshly cut grass, sunscreen on a summer fling's body, lime, fresh mint. Sounds: the faraway sound of music somewhere, always; the very-near sound of music. Sprinklers spitting! Images: a constant glare.
Barbara Gowdy: The smell of Lake Huron. It’s a fresh, cleansing smell that was easier to pick up when I was a girl, either because the water isn’t as fresh as it was then or because my sense of smell has diminished. I used to spend part of each summer with my grandparents at Lake Huron, so for me that smell is the smell of escape, joy, freedom — everything good.
Scaachi Koul: Hot garbage, grass, weed, chilled rosé.
Stacey May Fowles: Obviously, for me it’s a sunny weekend afternoon at the ballpark. The treat of riding your bike there, fighting off a shoulder sunburn, a cold tall can in hand, dome open, fans cheering, and hopefully, my team getting the win.
Sean Michaels: The magnolia on my street, parked among the grey, that spends just two fleeting weeks in bloom.
Heather O’Neill: The colours of neon lights downtown. I do a lot of wandering in the summertime, especially at night. There’s something about looking into all the restaurant windows, like each is a different stage set, that I associate profoundly with summer. All the lightboxes and strings of fairy lights are like a garden of exotic flowers.
Adam Sternbergh: When I was an editor at Toronto Life, we did a monthly map of the city, and one of the most memorable ones I worked on was “Toronto’s Worst-Smelling Places.” This question feels less like a Proustian prompt than a reminder of the hellish miasma that is the primates pavilion at the Toronto Zoo in mid-July. Now that I’m in New York, there are two things I miss most about summer in Toronto: drinking on patios in Kensington Market and riding a bike around Ward’s Island. When I am in Toronto in the summer, those are my top priorities, often undertaken in tandem.
Zoe Whittall: Iced coffee while riding your bike with bare legs, the smell of campfire, Tragically Hip ballads, and reading poetry on a lakeside dock.
Our contributors (in alphabetical order):
Jen Agg is the badass restaurateur behind Toronto restaurants The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner, Grey Gardens, and Montreal’s Agrikol. Her new memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, was published this week by Penguin Random House.
Jesse Brown is creator of the podcast network CANADALAND and hosts the weekly CANADALAND show. His satirical book The CANADALAND Guide to Canada (written with Vicky Mochama and Nick Zarzycki) was published this month by Simon & Schuster Canada.
Durga Chew-Bose is a Montreal-born writer, a past contributor for The Review, and an instructor at Sarah Lawrence College. Her first collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood, was published in April by HarperCollins Canada.
Scaachi Koul is a culture writer for BuzzFeed. Her collection of personal essays, One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter, was published in March by Doubleday Canada.
Stacey May Fowles is a writer and journalist. Her memoir Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game that Saved Me was published by McClelland & Stewart in April.
Sean Michaels is a writer and the creator of the music blog Said the Gramophone. His first novel, Us Conductors (published by Random House), a fictionalized account of the life of Léon Theremin, won the 2014 Giller Prize.
Heather O’Neill is a novelist, screenwriter, poet, and journalist whose last three books have been nominated for consecutive Giller Prize awards. Her third novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, was published in February by HarperCollins Canada.
Adam Sternbergh is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and Vulture, and the former culture editor of the New York Times Magazine. His new thriller, The Blinds, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in August 2017.
Zoe Whittall is a poet and novelist, and has contributed to the writing of shows like Schitt’s Creek and Degrassi: The Next Generation. In 2016, her third novel, The Best Kind of People (published by House of Anansi Press), was nominated for a Giller Prize. It will be adapted into a film by Sarah Polley.
Can’t get enough summer reads and summer movies? Watch screenwriters and authors introduce the movies that inspire them as part of TIFF’s ongoing Books on Film series, supported by our Presenting Partner Warby Parker and hosted by Eleanor Wachtel. Director Mira Nair will introduce Queen of Katwe June 5, and on June 19 writer Colm Tóibín introduces Brooklyn. Only at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
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