Books·My Life in Books

Martha Wainwright: My life in books

The 2015 Canada Reads panellist reveals the modern classic that inspired one of her own songs.
Martha Wainwright defended Jocelyn Saucier's novel And the Birds Rained Down on Canada Reads 2015. (Courtesy)

Too many books, not enough time: that's Martha Wainwright's problem. At the same time as she was defending Quebec author Jocelyne Saucier's novel And the Birds Rained Down in Canada Reads 2015, the singer-songwriter was working on a new album, and a memoir tantalizingly titled Stories I Might Regret Telling You.

In her own words, Martha shares some of the books that have shaped her life, from the modern classic that inspired one of her own songs to the literary discovery that will forever cement her as a cool mom.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

"The first real book that I read independently was Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and it really marked my pre-teen years. It was sitting on a bookshelf in my house in Saint-Sauveur, Quebec, and I just picked it up when I was about 12. I'm not a big sci-fi reader, but it reads pretty easily. It was the most expanded that my mind had ever been to that point by far! I don't know if I understood all of the subtleties of it, but it was the beginning of the possibility of fiction, in a way."

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

"I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking after I lost my mother. It was a very interesting account — very different from my own personal experience, in that hers was so descriptive and detail-oriented in terms of timeline and what happened to her husband and then her daughter's illness. There's a coldness and an objectivity to it that I really loved and somehow needed at that time. It also opened the door for me to read more memoirs."

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

"I have a song called "Lolita" and I saw the movie before I read the book, to be honest. But when I read Nabokov's book, I was bowled over. I probably read it when I was about 19. And I didn't identify with Lolita at all, but rather with the character of Humbert Humbert, which is what I wrote about in this song. I understood the feeling of having an obsession with someone you probably should stay away from."

The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy

"As a young person, I tried to read Thomas Hardy many times and it took a long time to get there. But I read The Trumpet-Major and that actually turned me on to him. It was really my introduction into "classic" literature, where the stories are so dramatic without being overly operatic. It's a story about a widow who needs to find a match for her daughter to lift the daughter into a higher social bracket. Three men are trying to woo her and they're all completely different. The trumpet major is the kinder, gentler man who is the better choice. It's an excellent mix of comedy and history."

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

"I fell upon Kazuo Ishiguro's book The Unconsoled. I know he's most famous for The Remains of the Day, but I've never read it. The Unconsoled is very visual, very cinematic. It's about a piano player trying to get to a show and he can't get there. It describes the physicality of what he has to do, so it has that musical sense. Ishiguro has a great way of making you feel where the characters are in the story. The book was really badly received, but I thought it was absolutely great."

Ask the Dust by John Fante

"I'll be recommending Ask the Dust by John Fante to my son. It's a proto–Beat Generation drugs-and-alcohol writer book about a struggling artist living in a crappy apartment in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. It's a coming-of-age book that's fun and a bit dangerous. Arcangelo would have to be at least 16. I'll be the cool mom, coming in, recommending it, then leaving."

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