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March 4, 2021

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion

For years, I kept a photocopied piece of paper pinned to a cork-board that hung on my wall, the following lines from Joan Didion’s essay “Telling Stories”: …it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.” And it’s strange now to think about piece of paper, because I don’t write like that I at all. I never learned that ease, or such strategy, and my reverence for this passage (and for Didion in general) has always been mostly aspirational. I never ended up writing anything at the desk that the cork-board hung over, eventually writing my books while lying on the coach instead, far too reclined to be deploying weapons.

“Telling Stories” is the only essay in Didion’s new collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, that I have read before—and I had to visit the sub-basement of an archive to find it, so if my experience is anything to go by, these pieces aren’t so widely known. Though my expectations for the book were pretty low—Joan Didion is 86, and hit the height of fame with her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a book that doesn’t really typify what Joan Didion’s work is all about. Written in the throes of grief as well, it would have surprised me if anything written and published afterwards could have been as sharp and pointed (“tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page”) as her previous work. I have appreciated every one of her releases since then, but there does seem to be a lack of urgency in all of it, they’re mainly obligatory, though always interesting. But of course, this is a writer who has been looking back on things since her early thirties, at least, who was born supposing that the best of everything was well behind her, so maybe it’s all just in keeping.

I read a review of this book (somewhere! Can’t remember where) that remarked upon the strangeness of the title, incongruous with Didion’s work, whose words were so strategically deployed that such explanations were usually unnecessary. Interestingly, the title itself does not come up in the book, and instead is (I assume) altered from the far more typically Didion-esque “Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind,” from her essay, “Why I Write.” Always a shower not a teller, in her introduction to her 1968 collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she writes about the advantages of being so physically unimposing as a figure that the people she’s writing about scarcely notice she’s there.

But in this collection, perhaps to satisfy readers seeking …Magical Thinking levels of disclosure, she’s more of a presence than I’d been anticipating, and the title does not seem so unfitting indeed. I get a sense of how a writer is formed and of her process, and not just simply her observational eye (which is eviscerating in her essay about Nancy Reagan, then First Lady of California). She’s also very prescient, in a 1968 essay about parental expectations that anticipates parenting fixations of the 20th century, or her 2000 piece on Martha Stewart, and branding, and the World Wide Web, and the expectations for women to succeed in a culture that is always going to hate them for having done so.

March 4, 2021

More Cool Book Things



And watch my interview with crystal fletcher on her booktube channel, ALL ABOUT BOOKS!

March 3, 2021

We Haven’t Been Going Nowhere.

We haven’t been going nowhere. You know that, right?

That while indeed it feels surreal to find ourselves in March again, seemingly right back where we started from, that is to forget or discount the cycles, seasons and emotional roller coasters we’ve travelled in the past year.

And I am NOT saying that there aren’t better ways to spend an annum, that whatever we’ve learned is worth what it has cost us, that there are lessons and takeaways we can tie up prettily with a bow.

THIS IS NOT A SILVER LINING.

But also none of us has been standing still, even those who’ve barely left the house or ventured down the block. Even when it’s seemed like life is on hold, every day has been bringing us closer to a time when it won’t be. We have found a way to render some good days out of these strange days, and to weather the bad ones. We have sat with hardship and uncertainty, anxiety and fears when it seemed like the world was ending—but it didn’t. We have born loss and kept going, and found ways to connect across distance, and we’ve grown things, and made things, and tried things and failed things, and while we might be gazing out at the same view tonight… we’ve all actually come very far.

Unimaginable things have occurred this year, but some of them have been so good that 2020 Me would be envious, switching places in an instant—we have vaccines, rapid tests, treatment options, new technologies. Virtual schooling kind of works. We know how disease is spread and I don’t have to worry much about cleaning my doorknobs or disinfecting my shoes. Plus Evermore and Folklore.

I know now more than I ever did before. I know that I am courageous and brave, that I can rise to the occasion and pick myself up again when I fail to, and that community doesn’t fail us, and other people will be what saves us, and that I really can get through this, and I know that you can too.

March 2, 2021

Something to Be Said for an Island

During the past year, I lost all my patience with the hive mind. I don’t think I’d ever blocked an acquaintance on Facebook before, but this year it’s been something of a reflex, and not even without sometimes telling that acquaintance to fuck off first , as in *typing it right out there in the comments thread,* instead of just yelling at my screen as per usual.

I mostly have quit Twitter altogether, because constant access to everybody’s thought processes like a ticker-tape was turning me into a misanthrope.

I still marvel at all those curious enough to put the big questions onto social media, beyond maybe, “What are your plans for tonight’s supper?” I am here for the minutia and your photos of your cats. But oh my god, I have never cared less what you think about vaccinations, or lockdowns, when you’re local nail salons should open, and my aversion to the airing of these concerns is so apolitical—the over-anxious bother me as much as the laissez-faire types. (Though it’s worth noting that I don’t have many of the latter in my circles, really. And if I did, I probably told them all to fuck off last April…)

I think it’s because I’ve found this very tenuous balance of keeping it together, and anything that causes me to waver makes me irate. And I don’t mean “anything” in terms of data, facts or news stories—I am always happy to consider these, because it’s not like I don’t inhabit reality, but it’s just other people’s feelings, other people’s fears and worries about the same things I fear and worry about—I just absolutely lack the capacity to take them on board.

Which is why my blog has more than ever seemed like a beloved retreat. Where I go to write pieces for myself, and I don’t even share some of the posts on social media because I really don’t care what anybody thinks of them, and I write these pieces for myself more than anything. If someone shows up and finds my thoughts worthwhile, then that’s terrific, but it’s not like I’m broadcasting them, you know? It’s “I don’t care what you think,” but not even from a place that’s defensive. Like really, all the work I can do right now is the work in my own head.

(It’s worth remarking that I have infinite capacity for other people’s blog posts, for their thoughtfulness and process, for work that makes me think. It’s the more surfacey, less exploratory kind of content that I just can’t contend with.)

And the strange thing about all of this is that while I’ve also been having no truck with the virtuals, I’ve been trying very hard to be zen about the actuals. Accepting that the behaviour of others is beyond my control, trying to trust that most people will make good-enough choices for our community, and trying not to lose my mind about people who don’t, because that anger serves no one. Possibly this is easier because the actual people are more theoretical these days of isolation, and virtual people are all getting up there in my online grill, having ideas and opinions, and everything.

(It is possible that the latter group of people drives me up the wall because they are proof that Project of Live-and-let-live is a lost cause? Or does Live–and-Let-Live only work if you keep people at a remove [ie not while receiving a tickertape of their every waking thought]?)

On the weekend, there was an article in the newspaper about “conspirituality,” which is the kind of nonsense I’m all over—if you ever want me to read an article, make sure it’s about a cult, is what I am saying. And I checked out the Instagram account for the woman mentioned in the first half of the article, and couldn’t stop scrolling because her audacity and entitlement was just so fascinating to me, like all I want to do is figure it out… But I won’t. And eventually I had to stop because if I didn’t, my brain would have exploded, and I just have to let it go, let that whackadoodle woman do her whackadoodle thing, and let all her whackadoodle fans respond to her posts with the worshipping hands emoji.

Like I’m reconsidering the idea of society as a web, is what my point here, or maybe I’m talking about (just?) the web as a web instead. This blog as the place I’ve got out in the country, off the grid, where we’re collecting the water in a rain-barrel, and while you’re welcome to stop by and I’ll pour you a cold glass of lemonade, there is really something to be said for an island.

March 2, 2021

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

March 1, 2021

Anniversary

I know I am not alone in feeling a mild sense of dread as this new year moves toward mid-March, toward dates as indelibly etched on my mind as they were on the calendar, before the calendar ceased to be etched altogether.

March 8: our last normal day out in the world, albeit with uncharacteristic attention to hand sanitizing. We took public transit, ate gelato in a restaurant, and gloried in the arrival of spring, discovering the year’s first crocus blooms as we walked home from the streetcar.

March 11: when it became clear that things were not right, and I stopped at the grocery store on the way home from picking up my children from school to stock up on cans of beans and frozen vegetables, a shopping trip the children remember well because they haven’t been to the grocery store since and also because I let them buy all the chips and candy they wanted.

March 16: the day we were meant to fly to England to visit my husband’s family, including our new baby niece and my father-in-law, who was in the last weeks of his life. But we’d cancelled our vacation days before, which at first was a difficult decision and then seemed straightforward, the least of our concerns as the entire world descended into crisis.

After that, dates ceased to mean anything, each day blurring into the next with another sleepless night and heart palpitations from acute anxiety. We were lucky to be safe and cozy at home, counting all the blessings (and there were plenty), but I was not functioning well, unable to do anything much except for one mindless rewatch of Crocodile Dundee on Netflix and refreshing pages on the internet in search of the elusive answer to one question: “What is going to happen next?”

Eventually the distinction between day and night would resume, and dates began to have meaning again—kind of. We managed a pretty satisfying summer. Our children returned to school in September. We are not alone in having found creative and sometimes-satisfying ways to conduct our lives under the circumstances, even if the circumstances still aren’t great.

A year on though, we’re still superstitious about the calendar. We’ve been in lockdown since November 23 here in Toronto, so I would have had to go out of my way to get a 2021 calendar to hang on the wall in our kitchen, and I didn’t want to jinx it. A charity soliciting donations had sent us a calendar in the mail and we went with that, feeling virtuous for saving it from the recycling. March is a photo of a humpback whale—but there is not a single thing written on the grid of days. January and February are also blank… Partly for fears of inviting fate to fuck with me, but also because there hasn’t been a whole lot to write.

I’m beginning to bank on summer though. Not completely—a few plans I’ve not dared to set in ink, because they’re dependent on things beyond my control, but we’ve been booked a camping trip, another week away. The other day I took a chance and penned in our spring birthdays, because it seems likely they’ll be happening, regardless of how many friends we can gather with. Little by little we begin to dare to count on something like the future.

February 26, 2021

Wintering, by Katherine May

It’s funny you know, for some reason I was expecting a more literal guide to surviving winter with Katherine May’s Wintering, but she writes about having to wait years for snow to fall where she lives in the south of England. In order to get a handle on winter’s reality, she has to go on field trips. For her, wintering is a metaphor, an idea—one year, her husband becomes very ill, her own health is suffering, her son stops attending school due to anxiety. She and her family are forced to rest and retreat for a while, to observe a different kind of season, but one she feels she has a muscle for after a breakdown she’d experienced as a teenager. Sometimes the best thing is just to submit and acknowledge the season you are in, which is part of a cycle.

Wintering is a fascinating book about reconnecting with cycles, seasons, the rhythms of the natural world. Although it does feel curious to read this book here in Canada, written by a person from a country where people don’t tend to have parkas or even winter boots. May’s winter as metaphor doesn’t always translate here, where the season can go on so long, everything still and frozen, where we’re still digging out long after the vernal equinox. It’s hard to buy that this is a season as rich with life as all the others are. But I suppose that makes the book for me all the more purposeful.

May’s writing is bright and engaging. I kept reading bits aloud to whoever had the good fortune to be in my presence. It made me consider becoming a modern-day Druid, to be honest, and I loved the parts about winter swimming, though I could never dare such a thing.

If you read and enjoyed Wintering, I recommend you read Maria Mutch’s beautiful memoir Know the Night (I reviewed it for the National Post and am still really proud of what I wrote) nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2014. Definitely the two works are gorgeously complementary.

February 24, 2021

‘90s Films About Hideous Women Finding Love

The 1991 River Phoenix/Lili Taylor vehicle, Dogfight, could only be construed as a romance by a certain sort of person, namely an awkward teenage girl with low self-esteem and no sense of her own narrative beyond being a character in someone else’s story. Who is content to sit around waiting for a boy with a pretty face to saunter over and ask her on a date—even if the only reason he’s asking is to win a bet with his friends as to which of them can pick up the ugliest girl.

 The movie takes place in San Francisco, 1963, the night before the Kennedy assassination, which is also the night before Phoenix’s character, Eddie Birdlace, a Marine, ships out to Vietnam. He brings Taylor’s Rose to the “dogfight,” and not only fails to win the bet, but Rose ends up slugging him when she gets wise to the ruse. Which, of course, provokes his interest—turns out Rose is more than an ugly face. And the two proceed to spend a Before Sunrise-ish night in each other’s company, Rose managing to project a sense of humanity onto Birdlace’s bland exterior, so that it seems kind of sweet that they end up sleeping together. Birdlace promising to write to her, but then he tears up Rose’s address the next morning as his bus pulls away, and now the 1960s proper can finally begin.

 If Dogfight wasn’t hope enough for weird girls with problems applying eye-makeup or fitting unruly bodies into pretty dresses that one day they too could be used and abused by a fellow with A-List good looks, along comes 1995’s Circle of Friends, based on the novel by Maeve Binchy. This time, the absolute dog is Minnie Driver who inexplicably draws the eye of Chris O’Donnell, a Hollywood Chris before Hollywood Chris’s were even a thing. Set in 1950s’ Dublin, their unlikely pairing invites disbelief—Driver’s Benny was supposed to end up with a very greasy character played by Alan Cumming—and then it all goes wrong when Benny’s conventionally attractive friend tricks O’Donnell’s Jack into having sex with her and pins her accidental pregnancy on him. In the movie, unlike the book, Benny eventually takes Jack back, however, because—obviously—such a girl can’t afford to be picky.

 If Dogfight wasn’t hope enough for weird girls with problems applying eye-makeup or fitting unruly bodies into pretty dresses that one day they too could be used and abused by a fellow with A-List good looks, along comes 1995’s Circle of Friends

The 1994 cult fave Muriel’s Wedding also falls into this peculiar genre, but at least with a high degree of self-awareness. Dumpy Muriel (played gorgeously by Toni Collette in her breakout role) wants nothing more than a dream wedding and a love story as rousing as an ABBA song—apparently she never listened very carefully to the lyrics of songs like “Waterloo” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” She finally schemes her way to a happily-ever-after with marriage to a hunky South African swimmer with a face so plastic he makes Chris O’Donnell look like a character actor. Eventually a series of tragedies makes Muriel realize that her priorities are shallow, and she discovers that female friendship can give us the real loves of our lives. But in the meantime, she has managed to consummate her marriage with the swimmer—score one for the ugly chick!

 It’s another bet that kicks off She’s All That (1999), perhaps the most defining film of this kind. Big man on high school campus Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) suffers a comedown when his girlfriend dumps him for a cast member of MTV’s The Real World, and then he accepts his best friend’s challenge to turn the most unlikely girl at school into a prom queen. The girl? Lainey Boggs, played by Rachael Leigh Cook, an artsy dork who finds Zack and his friends insufferable and falls down a lot. But it also turns out—and get this—that when she takes her glasses off, she’s actually hot, and this helps Zack realize (as River Phoenix and Chris O’Donnell did before him) that this weird looking chick might be the only real thing he’s ever had.

 Which is the point, of course, for any woman, whether she wears glasses or not: she is there to bring meaning into the life of a painfully boring, oblivious man. To awaken his feelings, his passion, and remain loyal to him even after he treats her poorly, because after all, how could he know any better before she’s shown him the way? It is the job of this woman to be his helpmeet on the journey toward enlightenment, the discovery of his truest self, never mind her own desires.

(1990s’ films remind us to be wary of women with desires: remember how The Hand That Rocked the Cradle turned out? And Rebecca DeMornay wasn’t even ugly.)

What higher purpose is there anyway than making a man who resembles a Ken doll consider that he might be human?

February 23, 2021

Gleanings

Very happy to share another round-up of GLEANINGS this week, including a whole bunch of new voices from writers who’ve taken part in my MAKE THE LEAP course this month. I hope you’ll be as excited about their work as I am.

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

February 22, 2021

On Rereading Wuthering Heights

I received the Gladstone Press edition of Wuthering Heights for Christmas this year, a beautiful book that replaced perhaps the most hideous copy of Wuthering Heights in existence, a cheap paperback full of typos—I’d got rid of it or else I’d post a photo, but you can check it out here. (Oh, and while I’ve got you, doesn’t this look like the version of Wuthering Heights that LM Montgomery wrote?) Anyway, the Gladstone Press Wuthering Heights is beautiful, and an occasion to reread this classic novel. I don’t remember when I’d read it previously—at least once, perhaps for a university English class? But it was a curious thing to encounter it again.

Mostly because…everybody in the book is terrible. Except the housekeeper, Nelly Dean. Somebody needs to write a Wide Sargasso Sea-style retelling from Nelly Dean’s point of view. But everybody else: awful. And not just Linton, who had every right to be awful, because somebody had named him Linton, but all of them, including various Catherines. If only somebody had thought to take the children from these families into town and encouraged them to mingle with wider-society. If only any of them had ever been attired for the weather, which would meant there would have been less catching one’s death. This book, I wrote a few weeks ago in an Instagram post, would make an excellent advertisement for Goretex.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the book—I did. But I sure did hate everybody within it, until the end when the pieces began to come together. The book underlined for me too how little patience I have for men these days, the excuses we make for their deplorable behaviour. However did anyone get the idea that Heathcliff was a romantic hero? Heathcliff was a monster. Really, this is kind of a book that’s up there with Frankenstein, instead. He makes Mr. Rochester look like Prince Charming. And, well, maybe I was wrong to assume he was meant to be a hero at all, maybe I just put him that category because I was young and stupid when I first read this book. But I found absolutely nothing redeemable in his character this time.

Sometimes I feel like we don’t know how to talk about men except in exemplary terms. I write about this in my own novel. We’re finishing a read-aloud of The Odyssey right now, and maybe it’s Emily Wilson’s translation, but there is something ironic about the constant refrain of “the godlike Odysseus” in the text, when he really seems to be so fallible, painfully human. And so too with Heathcliff, in whom we attribute depth in order to better understand his terrible behaviour, so that he becomes larger than life, when really he’s so pitifully small, and we really need to stop making excuses for terrible men just like him.

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