Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs Jowita Bydlowska, the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom. Jowita’s books are in her west Toronto home, which she shares with her partner and fellow writer, Russell Smith, and their son Hugo. When I arrived, Jowita was defending her home against a particularly stinky raccoon that had decided to occupy the balcony overlooking her backyard, but almost as soon as she started describing her favourite books, we both forgot about the smelly vermin outside.
I tried to not clean this up on purpose, because this is how it naturally is. Russell has his own bookshelf upstairs. Some of these are ours, a lot of them are books by friends, which is fantastic, because so many of them are signed. They used to be alphabetically organized, and then Hugo happened. So his books are slowly moving up and up, and spreading like mold. It’s gonna be kid’s books everywhere.
There’s one kids book that I’m obsessed with. I wrote about how obsessed I am with this book. I Want My Hat Back is the best. It’s about death. Hugo’s not crazy about it.
They’re all mixed up. I’m just putting books wherever there is space really. This section is full of my favourite ones. I go back to them all the time. This is a book I’ve had since I was 8. It’s in Polish, but it’s French. It’s called Nicholas in English. It’s about a little boy, named Nicholas, and he has different adventures. It’s a really—not dark, but it’s very adult humour. He observes his parents all the time, he describes their fights, but from a child’s point of view. As a grown-up, you totally get what he’s talking about. I don’t know, I just felt that children’s books, growing up, were really infantalizing. They talked down to you. This one was kind of showing that kids know more than you think they do.
I don’t understand—these are library books, but I’ll show them to you anyway. I’m guessing they’re for younger kids, but they’re so stupid. This is a good example. It’s all like this, very simple, all exclamation marks, very aggressive, or something. It has lots of pictures. I’m assuming it’s for younger kids, but there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I like books with stories.
I used to be really into Michel Houellebecq, like everyone else at some point in their lives. Platform is my favourite book ever. It’s very romantic. Atomized was probably the first book that I read in English that made me really excited about books written in English. Does that make sense? I had to read the ones we all read in high school, like The Great Gatsby, The Handmaid’s Tale, and I liked them, but at that time my sense of the language wasn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate anything. But this made me really excited about reading in English, and writing. I didn’t try to write like him, though.
I loved Let the Right One In. They made a movie of it, but the book is brilliant. It’s even more disturbing. Well of course, this one. This book, Sarah, sort of showed me what you can do with language. I know JT Leroy is not “real” but…and this is the last one, when all the shit hit the fan. She commissioned an artist to do all the illustrations, and they’re quite beautiful.
I love Maidenhead. I love Tamara Faith Berger. There are new ones, right? Being re-issued. We have a few first editions of Lie With Me. In all different colours. You can collect them. I think we have them because—Russell worked on this one, or something, at Gutter Press. There were like five different colours.
This is a book [The Boy in the Moon] that made me cry. Ian Brown, his son has a very serious genetic disorder and he’s severely disabled. The book just talks about his son growing up, in their house, and how difficult it is. It’s so beautiful. It’s set up almost like a narrative, where it seems like things are going to get better. He’s in a special home at the end of the book—the parents can’t take care of him, he can’t feed himself or walk, he’s self-harming, he just needs constant care. And in the end, after things are really really bad, he takes his son to Sick Kids, and he has his first seizure. So he realizes things are only going to get worse. You read this as a story and you think, oh, it’s going to get better, or it’s going to be okay, but it’s real life and it doesn’t get better. I love his writing.
This one, How Should a Person Be? is really good. I read it right after it came out here, and it got this sort of lukewarm reception. I remember reading it, and being like, oh, it’s okay. And then after reading it I realized it was actually doing something to my brain that I didn’t expect it to do. And it’s so sexy, too. It’s a filthy, filthy good book. I love it.
I’m all into embarrassing myself. When I was about 11, I never read comic books, but when I was about 11 this book was there. It’s a comic book, there’s a whole series, and it’s like Game of Thrones slash that new series about Vikings. I read these books obsessively. It was the first comic book that was from outside of the Iron Curtain. It was impossible to get anything that wasn’t Polish or Russian for a long time, and I don’t know how these got printed, but suddenly it showed up in book stores and kids were lining up to buy them. There were fights over who was going to get to read the next one. There was one girl in my class who was really unpleasant, she was a bit of a bully, I remember having to suck up to her because she had these comics. So when I grew up, and I had this little boy—under the pretence of buying these books for him I ordered them online from a European publisher, and now I have them. He’s going to read them one day…they were like ₤90, or something.
So this is where I go back to. I loved Miranda July’s Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, and this is so embarrassing—I should know better, I’m old enough, but I loved it and so many people hated it that I developed this problem where I wasn’t sure anymore if I really liked it? It’s so embarrassing. I think it’s people, when they hit their 30s, they suddenly decide to develop—I don’t know, it’s not a more sophisticated taste, but they’re sometimes embarrassed of their 20s. I had a lot of friends who were like, oh yeah, I read this when I was 27, it was so twee, and so on. So it’s there, and I will stand by it. Most of the time.
And this, my iPod, is the most important book of all. Perhaps related to my awfulness as a mum, in the beginning, I got this. And as things got better, I got really obsessively paranoid about something happening to Hugo. So I used to sleep on the floor of his room and hold his hand every night. And because the light had to be off, I got this iPod. Look at all these books, and a lot of them are good. This one, The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, was fantastic. It’s almost Beckettian, written by a woman who is very unapologetic and goes crazy when her husband leaves her. It’s very similar to The Woman Upstairs, which everyone’s talking about. It’s really disturbing, and it ends really beautifully. And I think it was maybe the second book, after The Boy in the Moon, that made me cry. But maybe I was PMSing that day.
It’s funny, Lucky Jim is Russell’s favourite book. We’ve been together for 11 years, and so for 11 years he’s been trying to get me to read this book. It’s become sort of something I can’t do on principle. I kind of want to—I know I should, I actually desperately want to read it, but I’m just not going to. Maybe I’ll read it secretly. It’s sad, because ten years ago, when he gave it to me—I just have a problem with me suggesting what I should read. Even though he’s my partner. I’ve read a lot of books that he’s suggested, but that one, I just can’t.
Shelf Esteem runs every Tuesday.