Author Alix Ohlin started a new life chapter this January, becoming head of UBC’s Creative Writing Program. Born and raised in Montreal, Ohlin graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with an English and American Literature and Language degree in 1992 and earned her MFA in writing from the Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas at Austin, in 2001.
Today, she is an internationally renowned writer whose 2012 novel, Inside, was named a best book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon.ca, and iTunes Canada, and a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller and Rogers Writers’ Trust prizes. She has also published two collections of short stories and her first novel, The Missing Person, was published in 2005.
Ohlin has been an English professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, a faculty member in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers in North Carolina, and has also taught writing at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Most recently, she taught at McGill University as the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence for 2016-17. She specializes in teaching fiction, screenwriting and environmental writing and has distinguished herself as a mentor to younger writers.
When we asked Ohlin to recommend some choice books, she didn’t have to look any further than the Creative Writing Program’s own talented grads. From a sweeping historical novel to an adventurous memoir to a story you can read with your kids, Ohlin is confident these books will entertain and enlighten you all summer long.
By Ellen Keith, MFA’16
Amsterdam, 1943. Marijke de Graaf, a Dutch woman involved in the resistance, and her husband Theo are arrested and deported to separate concentration camps in Germany. Faced with the terrible choice between work in a labour camp or in a brothel, Marijke picks the brothel. Meanwhile, at Buchenwald, an SS officer named Karl Muller faces the cruel tasks of punishment that are required of him. Years later, in Buenos Aires, young student Luciano Wagner is caught up in the Argentinian Dirty War and struggles to endure military captivity. How will these three lives gradually intertwine? What path will each person follow against the dramatic backdrops of war, terror, and oppression? The decisions they make will have lasting consequences. Winner of the Harper Collins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, The Dutch Wife is both a romantic page-turner and a gripping historical thriller. Ellen Keith handles her intense material with such skill and maturity, you’ll be amazed that this is her debut novel. She has a great gift for writing vivid scenes and characters that come to life. As the spellbinding plot unfolds, Keith raises intriguing questions about love, sacrifice, and the limits of human endurance. The Toronto Star called The Dutch Wife “a well‑researched, supremely absorbing tale that shines a light on the horrors of humanity.” Lushly written and powerfully imagined, The Dutch Wife is the perfect summer read – a poignant yet fast-paced one that you can sink into.
By Eden Robinson, MFA’95
Eden Robinson is a national treasure, and by the time this magazine arrives in your mailbox, she’ll also be the recipient of an honorary doctor of letters from UBC. In this Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated novel, the first of a planned trilogy, Robinson gives us Jared, a young teenager struggling to find his way in the world against difficult odds. His mother loves him dearly but she has problems of her own. His father has a new family and a debilitating back injury. He misses his dead dog, Baby Killer, a much sweeter animal than the name implies. Though he’s only 16, Jared is the one who takes care of everybody else. Meanwhile, he doesn’t understand why his grandmother, who seems to dislike him, has told him he’s the son of a trickster and – even more disturbingly – why ravens sometimes speak to him. It’s impossible not to root for Jared, a relatable teenager faced with more troubles than any one person should ever have to deal with. When Robinson won the prestigious $50,000 Writers’ Trust Fellowship in 2017, the prize jury noted that her characters are “magnetic, resilient, and spirited, even when they might be a bit twisted.” Her quick‑witted dialogue and unique humor sparkle on every page of this gritty, funny, and enjoyable book. The second volume of the trilogy comes out in October (and the entire trilogy has been optioned for television), so read the first one now in order to be caught up in time.
By Michael Harris, BA’02, MFA’17
“I came away from this book a better human being,” says celebrated author Douglas Coupland about Michael Harris’ latest book. Harris, an award-winning writer of non-fiction, examines what it means to be alone in today’s world, why true solitude is so hard to find, and why it may be more important now than ever before. Being alone, he argues, takes skill. It offers great rewards in terms of our creativity, individuality, and sense of self. By allowing us to recharge, it can even fortify our relationships to others. Yet in a contemporary world that focuses on the social and the shared, in which interaction is monetized by digital platforms, our solitude is undervalued. And paradoxically, though we’re increasingly connected online, many of us feel lonelier than ever. One cure for loneliness is other people; another one, Solitude suggests, is learning to truly understand and appreciate our time alone. With a poet’s eloquence and a reporter’s knack for observation, Harris gives us examples of solitude as an uplifting experience. He weaves together anecdotes from his own life, historical details, and reporting from the worlds of brain research, psychology, and technology. Ultimately optimistic, Solitude shows how to find quiet inside crowded spaces and hectic hours. You can read it, as the Winnipeg Free Press wrote, as “a self-help instruction manual for snatching up more of these valuable moments in our busy lives.”
By Jan Redford, MFA’15
If you enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, you’ll be drawn to Jan Redford’s spirited, exciting memoir of a life spent climbing mountains in and around British Columbia. Her love of climbing is first kindled as a teenager, and is only heightened in her twenties when she meets and falls in love with her boyfriend Dan Guthrie. When Dan is killed in an avalanche, she throws herself into marriage and family life with one of his best friends. Later, after they divorce, she comes into her own as a single mother, teacher, and writer. Adventure and risk, Redford’s memoir tells us, are part of life at every turn, and things rarely, if ever, turn out the way we expect them to. Redford’s style is raw, insightful, and unflinchingly honest, and you will cheer for her as she forges her unconventional path through the world. Her passion for mountains comes through on every page: “the only thing that had seemed like my own was climbing,” she writes. End of the Rope is a book that beautifully captures the culture and landscape of climbing, includes the close‑knit group of people who are drawn to the challenge it represents. But this book is about more than mountains; it also tackles love, grief, failure, parenting, and the quest for self-fulfillment. It’s a gripping and memorable reading experience.
By Nicola Campbell, BFA’07, MFA’12
On a beautiful spring day in the Okanagan valley, a First Nations family heads out together in their red minivan. With much laughter, the family explores, picks plants, and eventually shares a picnic of hot sweet tea and salmon sandwiches. The young grandchildren ask questions and their grandmother, Yayah, answers them, sharing her wisdom. She tells them which plants can be eaten and which can be used as medicine, from lightning mushrooms and wild rhubarb to sunflowers and arnica. At the same time, she instructs the children – and the reader – in their Indigenous language. “What a beautiful day,” she tells the children. “In our language, qwámqwəmt means beautiful.” The book includes phonetic pronunciations of the Indigenous words as well as a glossary at the back. Written by First Nations author Nicola Campbell, A Day with Yayah depicts a family in harmony both with one another and with their culture. The mood is festive and uplifting, and the rich descriptions of the natural world set lovely scenes: “The sun shone bright and shadows danced through the red willows and cottonwood trees. An owl flew low overhead. The breeze was cool, with the warmth of spring.” Beautifully illustrated by Julie Flett, A Day with Yayah was a finalist for the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize. It’s a perfect choice for a family to read together on a summer day.