Books·My Life in Books

Saleema Nawaz shares nine of her top-shelf reads

The author of Bone and Bread, a Canada Reads 2016 book, picks some gems from her overcrowded bookshelves.
Saleema Nawaz is the author of Bone and Bread. Bone and Bread won the Quebec Writers' Federation's Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2013. (CBC)

Saleema Nawaz isn't just a reader; she's a re-reader. The author of Bone and Bread, which will be championed by Farah Mohamed on Canada Reads 2016, has taken this year's theme for the annual battle of the books, "starting over," to heart throughout her reading life. (Mansfield Park, Dracula and Bleak House are just a few of the titles she keeps coming back to.)

To prep Nawaz for her own book being passionately debated, we asked her to tell us about nine of her top-shelf reads.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

"I was definitely an Anne of Green Gables superfan. My mom took me on a camping trip to PEI when I was nine to see Green Gables and it rained the whole time, and our tent leaked, but it was still so amazing. We went to her grave and I snuck away on my own so I could kiss it! Montgomery was the first model for me of wanting to be a writer, and learning how many times Anne of Green Gables was rejected before it was published, and I really took from that that I was going to keep at writing, no matter how much rejection there was. Here's another example of just how obsessed I was with this book: If you're raised Catholic, when you take sacraments, you can take on additional middle names. When I was in Grade 4 or so, I took Anne as a middle name."

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

"I was travelling in Europe and staying in Rome, and Kate Atkinson's Emotionally Weird was just sitting on the bookshelf. I don't think it has a very good title, but it drew me in nonetheless. It's set in an English department of creative writing - it's metafictional but also super funny. It's light, it's well written, it's like a mystery. There aren't that many funny books that I've read in my life when it comes to novels. I like imagining myself in that kind of milieu, in Dundee, with all these hippies. It's one of those comfort books."

Trixie Belden Series by Julie Campbell Tatham

"I own pretty much all of the Trixie Belden books — they're a girls' mystery series written between the 1950s and the 1980s. Trixie was very different from Nancy Drew — she was a tomboy, and she rode horses. I have 34 different Trixie Belden titles, but I have several editions of the same book in some cases. I find them at used bookstores, which is half the fun. The plots are fantastic. There's one where she's trying to find out what's happening to her uncle's sheep, and another where she catches a bunch of gun-smugglers. There's another — one of my favourites - where they go across the country in a red trailer looking for an orphaned boy who's run away from his abusive stepfather but is actually the heir to a huge fortune. I'll re-read these before I go to sleep, to get into that zone of leaving the cares of the world behind. Also, I have a really bad long-term memory, so I don't actually remember how books ended."

Americanah by Chimimandah Ngozi Adichie

"I recently read Americanah by Chimimandah Ngozi Adichie — it's so modern and global and incisive about race, and it's one of those books that seems to contain so much of the world, right now, in a way that I don't always read. There were so many things she was saying about race, and so many subtle experiences that she was articulating that seemed to me really important to be conveying to a wide readership. The main character is a blogger, and I liked that the book captured these new ways of disseminating ideas and participating in a global conversation. I really like books that have so much of the world in them and so many different modes in them — I like it when books are more than just one thing or the other. There's a love story, there's drama, there's many funny moments as well."

Scar Tissue by Charles Wright

"My husband, Derek Webster, is a poet, and he published a book this year called Mockingbird. Thanks largely to him, we have an incredible poetry library in our house — probably at least seven whole bookcases of poetry. And Charles Wright's Scar Tissue is a book that he passed on to me that he thought I'd like. He handed it to me without me knowing much about the poet. Often I pick up a book because I've read reviews, or people are talking about it online. This was the opposite. The book has very long lines and it's very meditative. I seem to remember a lot about trees and introspection and life and death, and the fragility of life. Sometimes a book creates a sort of heightened mental state, and that is what I remember about that book. I read it a lot on the subway, and it just completely transported me."

Dracula by Bram Stoker

"Everyone has to read Dracula. It's amazing. It's actually scary. I first read this in university, because I had to. I spent the first three years of my university degree procrastinating until I finally learned my lesson. I stayed up all night reading Dracula before an exam, but when I finally finished it, I was scared to go to sleep! It's actually an epistolary novel, which a lot of people tend to forget. It's so surprisingly modern, you can't believe it was written over a century ago."

In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier

"In Search of April Raintree is about two sisters in foster care who move to Winnipeg. I didn't read it until I was an adult in Winnipeg - I did my MA there — but it just portrays so many of the struggles aboriginal communities face, and the real issues of racism in Canada. Growing up in Ottawa, I felt very sheltered from these realities, and I would recommend it for every high schooler in Canada."

Silent Cruise by Timothy Taylor

"I don't know if other writers do this, but when I get stuck when I'm writing I read something that's exciting to me, and it gives me ideas. And Timothy Taylor's Silent Cruise was one of those books that was really useful to me when I was writing short stories — just the surprising places that his characters go. I picked up this book, sadly, at the remainders table at this one bookstore on Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal where it seemed like all great Canadian literature just went to be remaindered."

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

"There was a fire in my old apartment, and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life was on my bedside table in the apartment at the time of the fire. So we sent all of our books to be cleaned afterwards, but in the process of sending them they got all jumbled. We moved and unpacked quickly, but we never really organized them at all. And we had just gotten married and hadn't really combined our collection yet. I feel like for ages I kept asking Derek, 'Have you seen that book with the fox on it?' Now I've finally found it and I'm definitely reading it next."


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