Favorite Books of 2023

I read so many wonderful books this year, including new-for-me authors like Cao Xue, Tan Twan Eng, and Vanessa Onwuemezi as well as old favorites like Italo Calvino (The Castle of Crossed Destinies). I read books that I enjoyed and others that showed me something new, and some that did both. This list includes those that did both, but I understand that other readers might find some of my entries hard to love.


The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li: Something about Li’s voice tends to grab me and not let go. This book has smart things to say about the harrowing intimacies of girls’ friendships and the absurdities of fame.

This Other Eden by Paul Harding: Harding writes gorgeous prose, including a boatload of muscular, one-syllable verbs: birl, shim, reeve. While some readers may not appreciate the perspective shift in the middle section nor the sense of glimpsing history down a long, dark tunnel, I loved it.

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Award for Little Bird and the Tiger

Congratulations to Ellis Amdur for winning first prize in the mainstream/literary fiction category for Writer’s Digest‘s self-published book awards! Little Bird and the Tiger is a historical novel about a real-life woman warrior in Meiji Japan. I was lucky enough to edit and blurb this searing novel, and I highly recommend it.

I occasionally take on book editing projects, so if you have one that you think I’d be a good match for, please contact me at cynthiagrallabooks@gmail.com.

I Made a Promise Today

A few months ago, I started using Reddit. At first it was to see what the online BPD community was like. But I was surprised to find a fairly positive social media site. So I signed up for subreddits related to cats, books, Twin Peaks, fashion, dance, cooking, lupus, and endometriosis. I have a gift for puns, which found appreciation on the cats sub in particular.

This morning, a woman on the cats sub asked, “If I leave a suicide note, will someone take care of my cat?”

I didn’t even read her entire post because I rushed to answer it. But I saw that she lived on the street with her disabled cat Kafka, that she’d tried to get a shelter to take him because she’d used her last money to feed him, that they wouldn’t accept him because he was disabled, that she had a history of being sexually abused.

In my reply to her post, I asked her to please stay here. I told her that I had been that desperate and it had gotten better. I told her that I didn’t even know her but I was crying. After a minute, I edited my reply to say that she could DM me, which I never said because I’m shy and social media scares me.

A few minutes later, she messaged me to say, amidst her life’s collapse, that she was sorry she’d made me cry.

We talked for about an hour. I told her my name, but she wouldn’t tell me hers or her city although she said she was in Turkey. A shitty, awful town, she added.

I told her, I’m a professor and researcher, and I can help you find resources in your country.

She said, please believe me, there aren’t any.

I asked her to stay for today. I told her I cared so much. Her cat was beautiful. There must be some way to help.

She didn’t ask for anything, which made me want to send her some money to get through the day all the more.

Please. I want to help.

But I haven’t eaten for days and neither has the cat. I need to do this now. I’ve been crying for days too.

I asked her again for her city. I told her that I would contact the nearest animal shelter even if it was in another country.

She said that she shouldn’t take up any more of my time, that talking wouldn’t help, that there was nothing more to say and that was why she had posted.

I told her I would be here if she changed her mind. I admitted it wasn’t my job to tell her what to do. I told her I was honored that she’d talked to me because it was clear that she was a very kind person.

While we talked, I loved her as much as I ever have, do, or ever will love anyone.

She wrote, “You’re probably the last person I spoke to, and you made me very happy.”

I repeated that I cared and told her that no matter what happened, I would never forget her.

Then I prayed. I prayed to my best friend Sue, who died 11 years ago, to send this woman and her cat an angel because they were pure beings and because this world is unbearable and because there are so few we can save even when we think to want it and because please, please, let me save this one person and the creature she loves.

I won’t ever know, probably, if an angel helped her.

Nine hours later, I still open Reddit compulsively, hoping for a message from her.

A couple of months ago, I told my husband that I always thought of him as the angry one, but I’d come to see that I was the angriest person I knew. Angry at the difficulties I’ve gone through, the stigma I’ve experienced, and how people take advantage of my desire to show and receive love. But a couple of hours after talking with this woman, I realized something.

All of my anger was gone.

I didn’t feel lighter. I felt repurposed.

In the moments during which I talked to her, loving kindness was the golden pillar on which all life balanced.

It always is.

I will never forget.

I will never forget you.

I’m Learning a New Dance

Theatrical. Teasing. Tantalizing. Tanda. Together. Timing. Turning. Twisting. Tableaux.

Argentinian. Ad-lib. Angsty. Arched. Angular. Artful. Ardent. Always-almost. Again.

Nevertheless. Nonchalance. Negotiation. Niceties. Noir.

Gallant. Gentle. Genteel. GustoGancho. Graphic.

Oblique. Overacted. Offering. Orchestra. Ocho. Oh.

Upcoming essay in the next issue of Room

I’m thrilled that a creative nonfiction essay of mine will appear in the “Ghosts” issue of Room, Canada’s oldest feminist journal. (It’s almost as old as I am.) It will be available in bookstores and online in mid-September.

This piece is very important to me because in it, I write about Lara Gilbert, a woman who died by suicide at age 22. The University of Victoria houses her archives, including 3,200 pages of a trenchant, stunning, and heartbreaking diary. I spent months exploring it, and this essay responds to some of its implicit questions about memory and abuse. I’m especially excited that it will appear in Room as Lara’s mother, artist Carole Itter, has also published in the magazine.

I would be honored if you’d read it!

My Facebook page is no longer mine

Unfortunately, the Facebook author page in my name is no longer under my control. It was an offshoot of my husband’s Facebook page, which was hacked a few days ago. So if, heaven forbid, Neo-Nazi propaganda starts to appear on my author Facebook page, it was not written by me. My LinkedIn profile is still mine.

Lack of Mental Health Care Coverage for Adjuncts Is Inhumane and Immoral

Like the title says.

I’m currently experiencing depression. On the one hand, I’m lucky because I have time to devote to taking care of my mental health. I just finished a major revision of my memoir, I’m only teaching a six-person course at the moment, and my husband is ensuring that I eat and don’t have to worry about anything but myself right now. On the other hand, I recently lost my extended medical coverage when I was essentially laid off from the University of Victoria (which is one factor in my depression). Because of that loss, I had to stop working with my EMDR therapist, whom I liked very much but could no longer afford, and go on a waiting list for a low-cost counselor who does DBT; none of the low-cost counselors in my city offers EMDR. In the meantime, I’m trying to stay afloat with free Zoom support groups. This situation prompted this month’s post.

Over 75% of instructors at North American universities are now non-tenure-track. The majority of them are adjuncts (or sessionals, as they’re often called in Canada), hired part-time. What this means is that most people teaching college and university students do not have any mental health care coverage.

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Carl Jung’s Starlet

Carl Jung’s Starlet

April 2023

Sabina Spielrein might be considered the patient zero of psychoanalysis. She was predated by several of Freud’s most famous subjects, including Dora, but Sabina’s story of saving and survival is complicated by her relationship with Carl Jung, who, as her doctor, treated her according to Freud’s methods and inspired her to become one of the first female psychoanalysts. She is also representative of a time when treatment for debilitating symptoms of mental illness was measured in months rather than years, although in a more general sense, recovery never truly ends.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian port city near the Sea of Azov, Sabina was raised speaking Russian, German, French, and English. As a child Sabina granted herself a magical power she called partunskraft, which allowed her to know and obtain everything if only she desired it, but it would be a long time before she knew herself.

After several breakdowns, she was hospitalized in the progressive Burghölzli hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. There she was treated for hysteria by director Eugen Bleuler and Jung. (Bleuler is a wash—on the one hand, he coined the term schizophrenia and believed in livable conditions for mental patients; on the other, he advocated their sterilization based on eugenics.) In that it often affected materially privileged Caucasian women, hysteria was the anorexia of its day. Hysteria was not a new concept, but it was the height of fashion when Sabina was diagnosed with it. Its patients made distress visible through gestures, postures, and embodiment, like the silent screen actresses of their time. They were stars of somatization.

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February 2023

I just started working on a new novel called The Mnemosynes. No: the truth is I dreamt of it for years. I only now started assembling its pieces with my fingertips.

I lived with this novel long enough for it to become memory before it mazed and runed rough pages.

But I still don’t understand memory. I’ve studied it in literature. I’ve felt its imprints, the just-slipping-into-sleep of it, during rushed hours. I know it’s married to time. After I explained the working plot of The Mnemosynes, in which plots run forward and backward and implode like stars, a friend remarked, “Since memory is what gives us our sense of time, I think it makes sense that memory might manipulate time somehow.”

Memories are—

Timbered, embered, antlered, torn.

Spring’s blossoms, summer’s haze, autumn’s turns, winter’s rage.

Less terraformed than dreams.

Hugged to one’s chest like a child’s legs, when feeling one’s heartbeat is enough.

Scanned and metered, and even when you smirk at the idea that everyone

stresses the same syllable, you still find their poetry.



All the languages I didn’t let myself know.

The cool stream, ribboned and sheened, in which I dip my toes—but I am upside down.

Women Make History: Nine Great Historical Novels by Female Authors

January 2023


In 2016, Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion analyzed the gender imbalance in authors of popular history books for Slate and found that roughly three-quarters of them were men. Last year, Johanna Thomas-Curr averred in The Observer that women are dominating fiction in terms of prizes and hype. For readers who are interested in both history and discovering new books by female authors, the solution is simple: explore the past through the following historical novels by women.

Many of the novels below feature real-life characters while some just recreate past epochs and their radical shifts, yet in all of them, women emerge from history’s sidelines. They fight, work, make hard decisions, and strike out to new countries or continents. But in the stories of these nine authors, history is made through private moments of love, creativity, and mourning as much as widely noted acts of bravado and defiance.

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My Favorite Books of 2022

December 2022


A dying year promises rebirth. As the Northern hemisphere turns its face away from the sun, we all tilt and tremble, waiting for the new.

This year has schooled me. I spent more time reading than I have in a while, and the books I’ve chosen are only some of those that thrilled me.


Favorite novels

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk: Gargantuan and restless, like Poland and all nations.

What Are You Going Through? by Sigrid Nunez: Inspired by a line from Simone Weil’s essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View toward God,” this novel attends to the pain of others.

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Walking Through These Trees, Knowing

We speak of losing ourselves in both books and forests, but only the latter bodes ill. We pine to escape dark thickets in phrases like “We’re not out of the woods yet.” However, this view of woodlands as sinister and impassible is lensed by colonizers—or, as we call ourselves in Canada, settlers. Fearing an expanse of trees only makes sense if you traffic in cities, industrialization, normalizing, conquering. It only makes sense if you have never been close to the earth.

I’m trying to learn unity and reverence, not fear, in a majestic old-growth forest on the Royal Roads University Campus, which rests on the Xwsepsum and Lekwungen families’ unceded lands on Vancouver Island. Moss emeralds the ground. It reflects not just light but touch; I can feel its cat-fur softness from six feet away. I’m breathing in the smells of mushrooms and pine needles, musk and lichen, and a further June rose.

Botanist and bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests, “When botanists go walking in the forests and fields looking for plants, we say we are going on a foray. When writers do the same, we should call it a metaphoray, and the land is rich in both.” Such a metaphoray requires the writer to remain alert to the terrain, and indeed, my senses quicken as I fathom this forest from the ground up. As I grow, rustling and dappled, at its feet.

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The New True North

I’ve been drawn to the Canadian North since childhood. When I was eight, I saw the movie Never Cry Wolf, based on Farley Mowat’s memoir about researching wolves and caribou decline in the Canadian Arctic. The ice, the space, the sky—I’d never imagined the world could look like a snow globe had broken out of its glass and swallowed half a hemisphere.

The term, “the Canadian North,” is disputed territory. By one definition, it’s synonymous with the triumvirate of Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, whose southern borders more or less run along the 60th parallel. This trio accounts for less than one percent of the nation’s population but two-fifths of its land area. However, Statistics Canada, a government agency, classifies not just these territories but the upper portions of most provinces as northern Canada. Their boundary skirts the Greater Toronto Area and lifts its hem just above the tip of Vancouver Island, where I live. Yet we also speak of the Far North or Canadian Arctic, whose scraps of land thrash in the crushing cold above the Arctic Circle.

In the 1960s, Canadian geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin coined the word “nordicity,” which delineated the North by latitude but also according to social and geographic determinants like summer heat, annual cold, types of ice, precipitation, population, and economic activity. Of course, global warming is putting pressure on at least the first four. In a few decades, it’s possible that even parts of the Canadian Arctic may not be northern by these criteria.

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An English Professor Gives Feedback on Sex Spam Subject Lines


  1. “There is no problem for me to sleep with strangers, from Abigail.”

Abigail, that’s great, but there is a problem with your “there is.” In this case, those two words are an expletive construction, meaning they don’t add value to the sentence. It’s like how “fuck” is a filler word with no real meaning (though it can be a verb too—I guess I don’t have to tell you that!) Be more concise. Why not just say “I have no problem sleeping with strangers”? Save your energy for your other endeavors.

  1. “I’m so lustful. I can’t be a modest one.”

I like the short, staccato sentences to thematize breathless concupiscence. The anaphora created by the repetition of the first-person pronoun is also nice. However, “I can’t be modest” would be a stronger statement. As written, the sudden switch from the definite “I” to the indefinite “one” is problematic. James Thurber wrote of this kind of error, “Rare examples of it still exist and are extremely valuable as antiques, although it is usually unsafe to sit or lie down on one.” Especially in your case, I’d imagine.

  1. “So just one chance for you to hook up with me.”

Be sure to proofread for dropped words. Microsoft Word won’t catch the missing verb, perhaps “remains,” in this sentence. I find it helpful to read my work out loud. Do you have a cat? Read it to him, a john, whomever!

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A Tale of Twin Queens of Hearts

I’ve been thinking about why we love the art we love. In some of my most formative encounters with creative work, like Lolita, trauma fueled the attraction; in others, such as butoh dance, I was lured by an exotic vibration that turned familiar with time. But for Twin Peaks and The Tale of Genji, two of the works that shaped and soldered me, both trauma and the tension between exotic and familiar fostered my love. And this contemporary television series/movie franchise and this 1000-year-old Japanese novel are both obsessed with doubles.

When I first read The Tale of Genji in college, a friend remarked on the theme of the double. Its protagonist, Genji, loses a forbidden love to taboo (she’s his stepmother) and religion (she takes the tonsure), so he grooms her very young niece to take her place. In the novel’s radical last third, the antihero Kaoru replaces Oigimi, a lover who dies, with her half-sister Ukifune. My friend observed, “Twin Peaks is the same story when it comes to Dale Cooper’s infatuation with Annie,” a young woman and love interest who resembles his dead beloved, Caroline.

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