A new Friday fugue, running through this month, considering the ways in which our working lives appear on the pages of novels and short stories.

Wasn’t I just talking about novels set in bookstores? Yup, in last Friday’s post (here). Gabrielle Zevin’s book fits perfectly on that shelf.


Arsenal Pulp, 2009

But if you’re more about music than books, but weren’t into the life of a Justin-Bieber-esque celebrity, perhaps a peek into the life of a retired opera singer will suit you (Lydia Perović’s Incidental Music).

And if you’re looking for snacks, certainly there is no shortage of fiction written about various aspects of the food-service industry (from Jaspreet Singh’s Chef to Abi Liebegott’s waitressing work The IHOP Papers).

But I don’t know of another book like Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems. (This is the first of his books that I discovered, but I have enjoyed Artificial Cherry and Impact: The Titanic Poems too.) Maybe you think you’re not a “poetry person” but I bet you will love this poetry.

Billeh Nickerson’s McPoems (2009)
“Flush twice:
it’s a long way to the kitchen.”
“Your Favourite Washroom Graffiti”

More than three years after a first reading, I happily reread McPoems to refresh my memory. The walk-in freezer and the drive-through window, frying and cashing, from French fries that spell out words to cannibalistic birds: Billeh Nickerson’s poems provoke an emotional response as quickly as the smell of those golden fries once sparked my appetite. If a book of poems about the experience of working in fast-food seems unlikely to satisfy, a copy of McPoems is guaranteed to make you rethink.

AJ Fikry

Viking, 2014

Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014)
“Knife. Flatten. Stack.
And yet… He had spent hours with the man over the last half-dozen years. They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?
Knife. Flatten. Stack.”

Of course readers have an affinity for stories about bookstore owners, but although Gabrielle Zevin does capture both the tedium and the charm of such work, A.J.’s story turns out to be as much about caring for human beings as it is about curating his shop and its contents. As opinionated as he is well-read, he is a solitary and independent character forced to reach beyond his comfort level in his working and beyond, which results in some unexpected reading choices (among other changes). The author’s style is uncluttered and the story told in broad strokes, as befits an experienced YA author, but bookish readers will happily forgive any perceived weaknesses, for the tale is as book-soaked as can be. Not only is it a gentle, warmly told story, but it might well add several other titles to your TBR list.

Inanna Publications, 2012

Inanna Publications, 2012

Lydia Perović’s Incidental Music (2012)
“When he was gone she placed his folder on top of the urgent pile. The urgent pile was now several folders tall. She was about to check her voicemail when the phone chirped again. ‘Good morning, Jennifer Moreland’s office.’”

From part-time work in academia to more-than-full-time as a campaign worker, from a day filled with chatter about renos and heritage buildings to memories of a professional career as an opera singer: Incidental Music incorporates women’s working lives alongside talk of politics and relationships, exploring dedication and devotion in causes and couples. The story is Toronto-soaked and routes and neighbourhoods are immediately recognizable for those familiar with the area, but the broader themes of meaningful work and connections ensure that readers who do not call Toronto home will still find a place to inhabit in the narrative.

Swap the hamburgers for donuts and change the script on the telephone and I can relate to these workplaces too.

How about you? Do you want to see your workplaces on the page? Or do you get enough of that in your working life?