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Pickle Me This

December 3, 2020

Be Large and Complicated

I don’t like faux.

I especially don’t like the obligatory faux self-effacement/self-deprecation a lot of women bring to their personal marketing/self-promotion efforts.

I think if you have to preface your self promotion with an apology, then you’ve probably already undermined your efforts anyway.

That said, I am GRATEFUL for those of you who follow me here— friends and acquaintances, online pals and everyone—who are patient with my blend of personal and professional posts, along with too many teacups.

I know that it’s common practice to split the personal and professional stuff into separate accounts, but twenty years of blogging has created a hybrid sensibility to my online life that makes that kind thing of impossible.

It also seems like a lot of work to maintain two (or more) online personas. And how do you know where one ends and the other begins anyway? They overlap, inform and complement each other. I think my posts are richer because of where my personal and professional selves intersect. Avoiding such separation also makes it easy to be a human, online and in the world.

I have become more comfortable with plastering my giant head all over the internet, and with being unabashed and unapologetic about efforts to market my work. It is what it is, and if you hate it, you probably unfollowed ages ago anyway.

BE LARGE AND COMPLICATED might be the best advice I have to offer today. And also that when you roar like a lion while getting your photo taken, you look like a big mouthed weirdo, but one who’s had a facelift, which is actually pretty great.

December 2, 2020

Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuayasi

One more title that I am glad I got to before the year was out was the debut novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was fantastic, a debut that was so polished and assured, hugely ambitious in its reach and just as successful in execution…and by page 19 it was clear I’d be baking the cake Taiye makes to celebrate the occasion of her twin sister’s homecoming, salted caramel chocolate. Which was baked before the day was out.

It’s a hugely evocative novel, gorgeous and sensual, rich with foods and cooking, and also with sex. Although it begins with something more unearthly, the birth of Kambirinachi, a Nigerian woman presented as an Ogbanje, “a spirit that plagues a family with grief by dying repeatedly in childhood and being reborn.” Except that Kambirinachi cheats the system and clings to her life, but she will pay a price for this. Which is how she explains tragedies that befall her when she loses her parents, and her husband dies, and then something terrible and traumatic is suffered by her twin daughters that tears the rest of their family apart.

The three strands of this novel belong to Kambirinachi and her daughters, Taiye and Kehinde, who grow up estranged from each other and head out into the world apart. Taiye goes to London, and then studies cooking in France, and eventually arrives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before returning home to care for her ailing mother. Meanwhile, Kehinde is left behind when her sister moved to London, and makes her own way to study in Montreal and build a life there.

At the beginning of the novel, Kehinde is arriving home to Lagos with her new husband, meeting her mother and sister again for the first time in years. We learn her story in the first person, seeking to make sense of her traumatic past and move forward in her life. Similarly, Taiye’s tells a story that blends the present day experience with what she’s been through in her life, and finally their mother’s story is told chronologically, adding necessary context to the twins’ experience—for the twins themselves and the reader alike.

The progress of the novel is these three strands becoming re-woven together, braided tighter and tighter throughout the narrative. It’s a novel that in many ways reminded me of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, for themes of family estrangement, loss and mystery, and also food, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoyed that book.

I also appreciated its treatment of Black communities among the diaspora, Nigerian Taiye in Halifax visiting the Africville museum commemorating that city’s historic Black community, and the other Africans she meets in London. And that a novel creates such a powerful sense of place in so many different places—Lagos, London, Montreal, Halifax—is also a remarkable achievement.

Butter Honey Pig Break is a standout debut, and as much as it will make you hungry, it will also more than satisfy.

December 1, 2020

Alfie’s Christmas

I’ve measured out my life by the children in Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books. I remember when we thought of Alfie as a big kid, and when we wondered what Iris would be like when she was as old as Annie Rose, and then my children kept on growing and now we’re looking in the rear view. Alfie and Annie Rose are tiny little relics now, but we’re so fond of them (okay, maybe it’s just me and everybody else is mostly just being indulgent) that we’ll never let them go completely, especially Alfie’s Christmas, which is the first book I’ll be writing about over the next few weeks as we blow the dust off the titles in our Christmas Book Box.

I love Shirley Hughes scenes of domestic life, the jumble of stuff in her illustrations, the clutter and mess of family life. I also love the shading in her illustrations, rich and vivid colour, but just muted enough that it’s sepia-toned. The books themselves are an exercise in nostalgia.

Which is another way of saying that they’re also timeless, in away, because they always appealed to my children, books written exactly from their point of view, and my favourite bits were always the parts in the margins—the pets who wandered into the spread, teapots on the counter, when Dad sits on a bench while Alfie splashes in puddles, and how I’d love to go have a cup of tea with his Mum and get to know her—I feel like we’d get along.

Alfie’s Christmas is a delight—not much of a plot, to be honest, apart from when they realize that Alfie’s new remote control car requires batteries. Alfie gets ready for Christmas, prepares presents for his parents, they put up a tree, carollers come by on Christmas Eve.

In typical baby sister fashion, Annie Rose gets up in the night and rummages through her stocking, and at first, Alfie thinks it’s Father Christmas creeping about his room. And then finally it’s Christmas morning, and the big day begins, and I like too that their family celebration is a bit modest, which our family can relate to. Alfie’s grandmother and her brother (from Australia turn up) and then Uncle Will and Alfie’s Dad get Christmas dinner on while Mum and Grandma head to church (taking along some of Alfie’s Christmas baking “to share with people who had no home to go to”).

Which is to say that these books are not so old fashioned at all, that their coziness is underlined by a progressive sensibility, and while Alfie gets some fun things for Christmas, connection is really what the holiday is truly about. “As they walked home they could see lit Christas trees shining out of all the windows and neighours like the MacNallys and the Santos family with their friends and relations, enjoying themselves, eating nice things, and watching television together.”

And oh, the colour of the sky at dusk! The most majestic ordinary splendour.

December 1, 2020

Gleanings

*Last two picks feature Waiting for a Star to Fall!

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November 30, 2020

Smitten

I loved EVERYTHING about this profile of Deb Perelman in The New Yorker. I had no idea that she was an old school blogger before she was a food blogger proper, but I should have guessed—and it’s possible that this is why I love her blog as much as I do.

Incidentally, my blog (if not this blog, but rather my blog in general) turned twenty years old last month. To mark this occasion, I just went back and found my OG blog in the Way Back Machine Internet Archive—the first archived post is VERY EMBARRASSING and possibly not anything to celebrate or commemorate. To be so obviously needy. It’s a miracle I had any friends—and not surprising that I didn’t have a boyfriend.

But—it’s hard to altogether rue the person who got me here, which is not a bad place to be. She was trying (really, really, REALLY hard).

Some sensibilities of old school blogging are totally baked in though, integral to my process. I recognized this from Deb Perelman: “I try to have a schedule, but I’m extremely bad at keeping schedules. I have watched corporate blog after corporate blog go to crap, because there was a posting schedule where you had to write five posts a day. I think that everybody would rather just write when you have something good to say.”

Or even when you have nothing good to say, but feel like checking in anyway.

November 27, 2020

Emperors

From Caitlin Moran’s More Than a Woman: “It is an unfortunate truth that, sometimes, it takes true horror to make you realize something you should have known all along: that a normal ordinary life is the most covetable thing on earth. A day in which nothing happens but breakfast, and school, and peeling potatoes, and monopoly, and sudden laughter over nothing really, before a sleepy movie and bed, is like paradise, relocated to a house in the suburbs. We feel beyond royal. We smile at each other like emperors ruling a whole continent of joy.”

November 25, 2020

The Seasons of My Life

Back in the Day

I have outgrown picture books…again.

Which I feel nervous even writing. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, and all that jazz, and I have learned through my interest in kids’ books over the last eleven years that those who create these books can be a bit sensitive about their work, about its relegation to the world of childish things. Wonderful children’s literature appeals to readers of all ages, and readers who restrict themselves to a certain age group (or genre, etc.) are missing out. All of this is true.

But it’s nothing not-nice that I’m trying to say here. Instead, it’s a matter of practicality. That for a long time, picture books were my primary way of engaging with my children and this opened up whole worlds to me, and some of those worlds seemed as real as the one I walk around in every day—but time makes you bolder and children get older, and I’m getting older too?

We still read them sometimes. Iris is only seven and we have so many great books on our shelves that all of us enjoy, books we can recite by heart. There are picture books in our library I’ll never be able to part with, and yet—we’re reading them less and less. I used to blog about picture books weekly, but now I hardly do. Everybody in our family is firmly into chapter books now, books we read on our own and the ones we read together. Picture books don’t have the same integral place in our daily life that they once did.

And none of this is remarkable. Children outgrow a lot of things, and families do too. We used to go on road trips listening to the same CD on repeat, this song with a barking dog in the chorus, because Iris cried in the car otherwise, and we don’t do that anymore. I used to get a big kick out of reading Go Dog Go in ridiculous accents, but these days the dog party is over.

But I feel a little bit disloyal, admitting to giving up on my allegiance to picture books. Or rather, moving on from it—although the new frontier, for me, is middle grade and also graphic novels, and I’m getting the same pleasure from relating to Harriet through some of the novels she’s reading as I once did when we used to examine the illustrations in Allan and Janet Ahlberg’s Peepo together, her gummy baby fingers pointing out the dog in the corner that shouldn’t be there. But I’m also trying to give her space to develop her own relationship with books and reading, one that has nothing to do with me.

And this is what happens, of course, the way things come and go. And how when they go, new things grow up in their place, which I keep reminding myself of in these moments of unprecedented change and upheaval. As businesses shut down in my neighbourhood and city and it’s enough to drive one to despair sometimes, the extent of the loss, all of it so overwhelming and hard. But even harder is trying to hold on to it all.

(And remember: a blog needs space to grow and room to wander!)

It’s okay to grow. It’s okay to change. It’s okay to change again, is what I’m thinking, and for the thing that used to define you so much and mean everything to become a spot of the horizon. And those things we loved will always be a part of who we are, because of the way that we wouldn’t have become ourselves without them.

November 24, 2020

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.

November 23, 2020

More Stars!

November 19, 2020

Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee

Yesterday, just the day after I’d finished reading it, Jessica J. Lee’s second memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts, was awarded the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Lee is also author of Turning: A Year in the Water, a book that literally changed my life (after reading about her breaking ice with a hammer to swim in the dead of winter, how can I ever not just plunge into summer water ever again? There are no more excuses…) and which is distinguished by being one of the few books I’ve ever gotten rid of to regret. I have lots of books and live in an apartment, so I pass along most of my books once I’ve finished with them, but it turned out that I wasn’t finished with Turning after all. One of these days I’ll be replacing my copy, but in the meantime, there is Two Trees… which I’m never giving up. I learned my lesson the first time.

Lee’s work is an entrancing blend of nature writing and memoir, her stories grafted onto the landscape in a way that illuminates everything. And she’s got an eye for metaphor, or maybe it’s obvious. The book begins with the idea of “island,” which in English is defined by its relationship to water, but in Chinese (a civilization grown inland from the sea) the character for island includes a bird sitting on a mountain. Taiwan, from which her mother came (her parents fleeing there from mainland China after World War Two, an island that had always seemed particularly remote and distant to Lee, who felt more connected to her father’s culture in the United Kingdom, and was unsure of her own relationship to Taiwan and its culture.

The book braids together the story of Lee’s grandparents, which she discovers from a letter written by her grandfather and recordings she’d made of her grandmother before she died, along with a travelogue of Lee’s own discovery of Taiwan during trips during her 20s and 30s (including one with her mother, and another longer stay to improve her Mandarin), and the natural landscape of Taiwan, with mountains, and forests, rivers and coast. The land is fraught, prone to earthquakes and landslides, exacerbated by deforestation in Taiwan during its period of martial law until the 1990s. (In those years, Lee writes, conservation was suspect. Binoculars could be a tool of espionage…)

I know always nothing nothing about Taiwan, and its complicated history. I knew a bit about the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, which prompted a ceasefire in China’s civil war between the Communists and Nationalists and pushed mass populations westward and the Japanese invaded, because I’d read Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends in the spring. I’d been accustomed lately to thinking of Taiwan as “the good guys,” and had no idea about its oppressive history throughout the second half of the 20th century, its own kind fraughtness in addition to the earthquakes and landslides.

Lee’s eye for detail, her beautiful prose, and broad depth of knowledge (underlined by her remarkable curiosity) about the natural world make Two Trees Make a Forest a remarkable read. Her ability to see and weave patterns from disparate materials make the story surprising and engaging, and results in a book with considerable depth, a book fascinating in its specificity but also rich with general knowledge.

This is a book for anyone who ever wondered where they belong, who feels detached from stories of family, who revels in natural spaces and the stories they tell, and the incredible illuminations these spaces can grant us as we yearn for connection in the world.

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Book Cover WAITING FOR A STAR TO FALL

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