In All Ages, Globe Books asks authors to dig deep for memorable books that span their lifetime, from childhood to what’s on their reading list right now.
Heidi Sopinka is a Toronto-based writer, editor and co-designer at Horses Atelier. Now, the former Globe environment columnist is also a debut novelist. In The Dictionary of Animal Languages (Hamish Hamilton), she tells the story of 92-year-old Ivory Frame, a reclusive painter living an artist’s solitary life when she suddenly learns that she has a granddaughter − a surprise to someone who has never had a child. Here are Sopinka’s life-spanning picks.
What did you read as a kid?
My early life was shaped by wild imaginings of writers like Maurice Sendak and Ursula Le Guin. But I distinctly remember in Grade 3, my teacher Mr. Dodd reading The Hitch-Hiker from Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More with our heads down on our desks. It felt grown-up because it was the first Dahl story I’d read that didn’t have a child protagonist. He’d found a way of writing about power dynamics and complex characters that were deeply relatable but didn’t pander – bullies, mystics, bumblers, unlikely heroes. He described the hitchhiker as looking rat-like, but he was not entirely mercurial. There is a beefy, sadistic cop who ruins things but then the story takes another turn.
There was a hyperactive kid who always disrupted our class and who, during the reading, had ripped the seat of his pants. Midway through the story, Mr. Dodd grabbed him, and with the boy squirming on his desk, stapled the kid’s pants together right up the back and then calmly continued reading. I remember being so intent on what happened next that I ignored the stapling and sat upright and saw Mr. Dodd delivering the last line, touching his hand to his shirt pocket with a look of confusion and feeling the thrill of how a story can alter you.
What did you read in grade school?
It might be a tie with both The Diary of Anne Frank and pretty much anything by Judy Blume. Her Blubber captured perfectly how empowering, but also how deeply mean, girls could be in a group, and how it actually felt to be caught between worlds. Her books were so of the body and interior, yet they somehow also turned the investigation outward, toward us.
Anne Frank’s diary had the horrific overlay of knowing that she died in a concentration camp, which was obviously alarming for young readers. I remember thinking, nobody really helps you when you most need help. She was so skilled a writer that you actually lose track of the fact that she is writing about her early adolescence hidden behind a bookcase in an attic. She was so self-aware and able to articulate her most private thoughts and feelings – her bond with her father, her lack of love for her mother, the stirrings she began to feel around the boy in the attic. Her illicit and full-fledged curiosities about the body and sexuality were so radical. She was a girl being hunted by Nazis in the 1940s and she wrote about her vagina. It seemed like bravery to me then and still does. I will never forget the copy I’d read. It was checked out from the public library. Someone had written, “Eat dirt, Hitler” on the back page.
What did you read in high school?
Probably like a lot of teenagers, I spent my high-school years in obsessive but changing phases of philosophic, hallucinogenic, magic-reality and existentialist thinking. I’d pick an author then read every single book I could get my hands on – Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Anais Nin, Beckett, Marquez. But I remember finding the novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, by Richard Farina, on our bookshelves, and it had my dad’s name in it, which seemed impossible to reconcile given the book’s haze of pot smoke, sex and anarchy. My family had moved out to a stone farmhouse in the country, which is a bit like death to a teenager. It was a weird time. My dad’s clothes kept disappearing – eventually, we found that rats had made a nest out of his old cowboy shirts.
Farina had recorded songs with Bob Dylan and married Joan Baez’s little sister and then was killed riding a motorcycle home from his book launch, and that mythology definitely surrounds the book. I remember lending it to a friend and we took up smoking and adopted the diction of the protagonist Gnossos Pappadopoulis. Hilarious things like, “Dig me, lying here in peace.” (In a time when you feel deeply bored and a bit lost, the only thing that makes life even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you are talking about.) The book was Odyssey-like and also political, with student protests and the Cuban Revolution. Right after reading it, I fast-tracked high school, cut off my hair and bummed around Europe with money I’d saved waitressing and painting houses. It was a time when going away meant two phone calls a month from grubby payphones and picking up letters from agreed-upon post offices.
What did you read in university?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was required reading for a 20th-century English-novel course I took at university, and I sort of powered through it dutifully but didn’t fall in love.
For some reason, I took it to the Yukon, where I worked as a bush cook for forest-firefighters that summer. I remember reading it outside my tent at three in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. I poured whisky into a coffee mug and could see white clouds in the immense sky and a strange light because the sun never really went down, and I felt so out of time and place. In this new setting, Woolf was a revelation.
I loved how she put the novel to sleep for 30 pages and how great swaths of life were rendered in laser-sharp sentences between square brackets.
What are you reading right now?
I read everything from butterfly migration to elephant linguistics when I was writing The Dictionary of Animal Languages, but was moved by one diamond-hard fable-like novel, Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear. Three generations of (real-life) polar bears tell their stories, beginning with the Russian matriarch who, after retiring from the circus, gets a desk job, becomes interested in bicycles and socialism, and then writes a bestselling memoir. Her daughter, Tosca, performs with her human trainer and lesbian love, Barbara, and gives birth in the Berlin Zoo to a baby named Knut. (Remember that brief moment when celebrities went “green” and Annie Leibovitz photographed Leonardo DiCaprio for Vanity Fair with a polar bear cub? Well, that poor animal was Knut, who died a couple of short years later in captivity after much controversy.)
The book, beautiful and precise, looks at how we teach bears to dance on balls and gaze at them in zoos out of curiosity and a longing for a connection to nature that we have lost, but all our affection and good intentions really only serve to devour them. Tawada writes on a different frequency like a visionary (think Kafka crossed with Yoko Ono) about language, identity and ownership of our stories. She makes us feel our humanity by seeing what strange animals we really are.