For the May installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invites Lucy K Shaw to tell us about her all-time favorite book. Lucy is the founding editor of Shabby Doll House and ~Profound Experience, as well as the author of The Motion, WAVES, and How To Be A Perfect Bride. Below is her favorite book.
Thank you for asking me about my favourite books.
I’m going to write about this as though I am writing only to you, because I don’t believe other people are particularly interested in my answer. And I’m going to write, really, only about one book, because this is the book which has most profoundly affected me.
Thirteen summers ago, I was living in Montreal with my best friend Marie-Soleil. We were living this luminous time of trying to figure out how to be adults. And I was reading all of this mid-twentieth century American literature, and playing Amy Winehouse songs on my acoustic guitar every day. As you’ll remember, it was when we had the internet, but we didn’t live here yet. 2008. And I don’t think I was aware of the crash, at all. I mean, I know I wasn’t. We lived in a bubble made of jazz and frozen pierogies. We drank boxed wine on the balcony and watched the elderly neighbour from across the street come down late at night and reorganise everyone’s recycling bins. We rented all of the Disney movies from Blockbuster on DVD and accompanied them with Smartfood popcorn.
I was just about to go into my final year of formal education and I had finally figured out what I wanted to do: live an interesting life and write books about it. If there were no good jobs, then that felt like a relief, as I had no intention of doing one.
One day I remember we rode our bikes down to the Parc-Jean Drapeau and took it in turns reading out loud from Howl. (We had zero sense of self-awareness about this, which I’m glad about.) We were always learning new things and making collages about them. I was always writing songs about love, and how much of a disaster it was. One day I dropped a beer bottle on the floor and slashed my foot open and just let it heal. (I still have the scar.) Mostly we just went to Value Village/Village des Valeurs, to buy ridiculous clothing, or up the mountain to get some perspective.
Marie-Soleil was the person I had been waiting my entire life to meet.
But I should probably begin telling you about my favourite book, as that is what you have asked me to write about.
So it was like every book led me to the next one, following a trail of namedrops. (Imagine Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but drinking a can of Rockstar.) I would come out of the Redpath Library with a stack of ten hardbacks and carry them back to the apartment to sit on the balcony to try to suck out as much information as possible from every story before they were due back. I found this local jazz radio station that we would play all the time, which is funny, but I felt frenetic. I began to read all of the classic books by all of the classic men from the Beat Generation because those were the ones I’d heard of, and I liked them, to be honest—I just inserted myself and Marie-Soleil into the roles of the always male, main characters. We planned a trip across America. We foraged the sales racks of Urban Outfitters. We laughed at this invisible humour. And then somewhere, amongst it all, it began to happen... I found my way towards the women and their memoirs. Diane di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, How I Became Hettie Jones by Hettie Jones, Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. There is a genre of book that came out of this time which could only be described as women fighting tooth and nail to prove they ever existed, and it felt like the blood in my veins.
One day, I came out of the apartment where I had been babysitting some francophone, toddler twins, (basically following them around saying, Attention! Attention!) to find, much to my tristesse, that my bike had disappeared.
My beloved Pacer! (That was the name painted on her frame.)
And then I had to walk everywhere and wonder where she had been taken.
This was all only thirteen years ago but I’m seeing it now in some kind of sepia tone.
And I have no choice but to digress even further now...
So, as you’re aware, I run a poetry book club, which is—bla bla bla, I won’t go into my relationship with poetry. But recently we read a book by Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette, which I enjoyed very much, though I’m not calling it one of my favourite books.
I haven’t named my favourite book yet, just so we’re clear.
I’m building suspense.
But I read and listened to a lot of interviews with Alice Notley during the time that I was reading her, and there was one idea that kept coming up: ‘I had no predecessors.’
Sebastian, I don’t know if I can explain to you how insane this makes me feel, but I’m going to try. Alice Notley is only forty-four years older than me, and thirteen years younger than my grandma. My grandma who is still alive. No predecessors! No predecessors! An ordinary woman being able to tell her own story, being able to live her own story, it’s new! I think people forget that. But I don’t forget that, because I remember the shock of the lightning when I found my favourite book, and when I found Marie-Soleil, when we found each other.
Now I’m not entirely sure of how to get out of this digression and back onto the main topic as this is my first time ever digressing in such a formal manner. But I suppose I’m just going to chatter my way back into it. I have to tell you how much of a difference it made that Amy Winehouse existed. I know she has nothing to do with books, but it was her voice, her control, her use of language, I mean, her lyrics are so evocative. I wanted to be like her, although I knew I never could be... and I guess it turned out, she couldn’t either.
Thirteen summers ago, I was twenty years old, and that’s an ideal time to find your favourite books, when you’re really ripe for them and everything is new to you. Although for the purpose of writing about this, I reread the one I’m thinking of to check if I had simply been a basic bitch all this time. And it turns out, no... I haven’t been. Or my current self agrees with my younger self, at least.
I should explain to you what happened with the bicycle first though, because it’s something I would have never expected...
About a week after the disappearance of Pacer, bored of moving at the speed of a pedestrian, I was scrolling through the used-bikes-for-sale listings and I came across an ad by somebody saying they had found a bicycle abandoned behind their building. Respond with a description of yours if it has recently been stolen, they said. So I wrote them an email detailing Pacer. A blue road bike that I had bought from somebody else on craigslist a few months before.
And it was her! Somebody had taken her to Little Italy from the Plateau, a journey of around 5km, and then just discarded her. It didn’t occur to me that the person who emailed could have been the thief, or indeed a serial killer, I just went straight up there and collected my bike from some big house. And the person who found it seemed to be very kind. They even appeared to be hosting a dinner party at the time of my arrival. I half hoped for them to invite me in, but they just handed me the bike and I went off into the night, riding all the way downhill without pedalling. So I had a sense, in that moment, that things were really coming together for me.
The book I love is called Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson. I first read it that summer. It is a memoir about being a young woman writer in the 1950s. I love it because it gave me the feeling that I had found a predecessor. An example to follow. A roadmap for how it might be possible to live, which is something that everybody needs. And not everybody has yet. The friendship described between Joyce and Elise Cowen made my life with Marie-Soleil feel important, as though we might be interesting enough to write about, as though we mattered.
"I’m in such a hurry at nineteen to finally be the heroine of my own drama. My life fills with the excitement and newness of love. I’m borne up, up, stronger than any bubble, and I know I’ll feel this way forever."
"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.