10 good reasons to take a break from Netflix this holiday season

This reading wish list offers plenty to keep you entertained.


With the holidays upon us, English professor and acclaimed non-fiction author Ted Bishop invites us to do the math with him. You might be looking forward to catching up on a little Netflix, but in the time it takes to binge watch half of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, he estimates, you could easily read the better part of one of those titles burning a hole in your to-read list. Sure, Marvel has released a few prized works, but as Bishop points out, so has Toronto-based Coach House Books.

Bishop sat down to discuss what’s on his personal reading wish list this holiday season. Here are his top 10 picks:

1) André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs

Winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Fifteen Dogs is a contemporary fable that asks the question: “Would endowing animals with human intelligence make them happier?” While it’s the imaginative narrative, set against the familiar backdrop of Toronto, that draws you in, it’s the physical beauty of the book that renders the reading experience a true joy. Like most Coach House Books, Bishop asserts, this one is as much a sight to behold as it is a pleasure to read.

2) Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

A post-apocalyptic novel for those of us who don’t read post-apocalyptic fiction, recommended to Bishop by a former student. In a world without Internet or cellphones, Station Eleven follows a travelling Shakespeare troupe as it makes its way through a sparse and unrecognizable landscape. The novel celebrates the value of art and the resiliency of humanity, highlighted by the troupe’s motto (adopted from Star Trek: Voyager), “Survival is insufficient.”

3) Lawrence Hill, The Illegal

A novel tackling the topic of the year: the movement of refugees and the politics of belonging. Given the current international political climate, this is a must-read. For more from Hill, check out his provocative essay “Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book,” a response to an email from a man in the Netherlands who threatened to burn Hill’s internationally acclaimed novel, The Book of Negroes. This essay, originally given at the annual Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta, features an introduction written by Bishop.

4) Karl Ove Knausgård, Dancing in the Dark

The fourth book of Knausgård’s six-part series entitled My Struggle, which charts his path toward becoming a writer, is full of humiliating confessions and extraordinary banalities. Knausgård’s genius lies in making the quotidian fascinating. According to Bishop, he’s one of those rare authors who could produce a thousand words of the best writing you’ve ever read about the most mundane moment you’ve ever experienced. Although Bishop admits to having read only the first book of the series, he maintains that, despite what the title and length of the series may lead you to believe, the books are far from a struggle to get through.

5) Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child

Recently translated into English from Italian, this is the fourth and last instalment in Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels. While Knausgård might have a knack for bringing to life everyday objects and experiences, Ferrante has a gift for mapping the intricate inner workings of everyday relationships. The series centres on a friendship between two girls who grew up together in the outskirts of Naples, offering an honest portrait of the shifting tides of emotion and misunderstanding at the heart of, let’s be honest, any relationship. For those of us intimidated by a hefty book series like Ferrante’s, Bishop advises to adopt the “tapas bar” approach. Sample the first and go from there.

6) Camilla Gibb, This is Happy

This new memoir is by the author of Sweetness in the Belly and past writer-in-residence in the Department of English and Film Studies. Gibb started writing This is Happy after her dreams of starting a family fell apart when her wife left her eight weeks pregnant. During this time, as Bishop recounts, Gibb reached out to fellow memoirist Ian Brown for guidance. Brown, who had just published his award-winning memoir, The Boy in the Moon, about life with his son suffering from a genetic disorder, responded: “Just write it all down. Write it all down because you must.” The result is a lyrical memoir about starting a new, unexpected kind of family, which Bishop, a devotee of Gibb’s fiction, looks forward to reading.

7) Ian Brown, Sixty: the Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

You do not have to be 60 or a man to enjoy this memoir, Bishop insists. If you appreciate shocking frankness in the handling of heart-wrenching topics, Brown’s memoirs are for you. Based on a diary that Brown started keeping in his 60th year, this work is shot through with his signature candour and wit as he tackles the question of what we will remember as we die.

8) Will Ferguson, Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey into the New Heart of Africa

Known for his humour writing, Calgary-based Ferguson’s new memoir recounts his travels in Rwanda, 20 years after the genocide. From the source of the Nile to sites of genocide, Ferguson and his travel companion — a genocide survivor who happens to be Ferguson’s son’s soccer coach in Calgary — offer us a glimpse into a country transformed. A fan of Ferguson’s Giller Prize-winning 419, Bishop is eager to delve into this new travel memoir, celebrated for adeptly shifting between humorous and serious tones in dealing with a heavy and complex history.

9) Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

A book that succeeds in doing what the best non-fiction does, according to Bishop: make you fascinated by something you had absolutely no interest in to begin with. This award-winning memoir is both a history of falconry and a diary of grief, documenting Macdonald’s process of training a goshawk while coming to terms with the death of her father. Starting with the father’s sudden death, the memoir is far from plot-driven. Rather, it takes us on an expository and reflective journey, teaching us much more than just what “jesses” and “sails” are. (Spoiler alert: leather straps and wings, respectively.)

10) Marina Endicott, Close to Hugh

We all have unspoken rules about what we include in our reading rotation at any given time, and Bishop always makes sure to have at least one local writer on tap. Edmonton-based writer Marina Endicott’s new novel revolves around the central character of Hugh Argyll, who finds himself surrounded by family and friends with lives unravelling in all sorts of ways. It seems that only one person can help them keep it together, and it’s got to be Hugh. The pun of the title (if you haven’t got it by now, go back and read it aloud) is a perfect example of what Bishop loves most about Endicott’s novels: her thoughtfully crafted sentences.



If you love books, then you probably also love ink. Check out Ted Bishop’s The Social Life of Ink (2014) for a “rich and imaginative discovery of how ink has shaped culture and why it is here to stay.”

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