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December 10, 2017

2017 Books of the Year

January seems like a long time ago now, when I was reading Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, and drinking out of a mug that broke in October. Do you remember? I don’t even remember who that reader was really, or all the readers in between, but all the same, I am grateful to all the books and authors who made my 2017 so rich, bookishly speaking. The following titles are the ones that have particularly stayed with me.

Hunting Houses, by Fanny Britt

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

The Dark Flood Rises, by Margaret Drabble

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

Guidebook to Relative Strangers, by Camille T. Dungy

Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

What is Going to Happen Next, by Karen Hofmann

Dr. Edith Crane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzette Mayr

Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear

My Conversations With Canadians, by Lee Maracle

F-Bomb: Dispatches From the War on Feminism, by Lauren McKeon

Boundary, by Andrée A. Michaud

We All Love the Beautiful Girls, by Joanne Proulx

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson


Lillian Boxfish Take a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney

So Much Love, by Rebecca Rosenblum

The Slip, by Mark Sampson

Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds

Autumn, by Ali Smith

December 8, 2017


My Instagram #2017BestNine is pretty Mitzi Bytes-centric. I am grateful to everyone who helped make the experience of publishing the book a pleasure. Grateful too that my adorable children in their Jane Goodall/Woman Woman Halloween costumes snuck in there as well. Rad Women all around.

December 6, 2017

The Reason We Persist

December 6 is a weighty day in Canada as we remember the 14 women murdered in Montreal at Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, and women who are victims of violence (male violence) across this country and beyond, including more than a thousand missing and murdered Indigenous women. And every year it hits me harder and harder, the realization at how little women and their work and their voices and their bodies are valued. When I was a university student I used to sing in a choir and every year on December 6 we’d participate in a memorial for the murdered women, and while it moved me and broke my heart, the violence and rage that was the impetus for the massacre seemed far away then in time and place. I thought Montreal in 1989 was an outlier, that we’d got beyond it. But in the last few years, I’ve felt it closer and closer, more and more personally. Every December 6 for the last few years it’s occurred to me that I’ve realized an even deeper understanding of how much our society hates women than I’d had the year before. We are the same society in which a Canadian MP stood in the House of Parliament in 1982 to speak about domestic violence and her colleagues responded by laughing.

Two posts by friends today got me thinking though, one writing about the complicatedness of her family’s celebration of Saint Nicholas Day on December 6, along with commemorating what happened in 1989. Another noting that it was her son’s birthday, a strange mix of feelings and emotions which underlines her intent to raise her boy to be a good man. And it’s these stories that make me feel better, actually, the way that memory and mourning and activism are built around the joyful and hopeful corners of our lives. All of it is the world and life itself, and no part is less worthy than any other for inclusion in the precious hours of our day. These joyful hopeful corners are why activism and politics mean anything, actually. They’re the reason we persist in hoping for and working for change.

December 6, 2017

My Life With Bob, by Pamela Paul

It’s here! I’m on vacation, in my reading life at least. Which is the way it happens every year sometime in the first half of December when I realize that I’m done. And that for the rest of the month I’ll be reading books just for fun, because I want to, unabashedly and uncritically and for the love of it (including four big books I’ve been saving for the holidays when I take time off-line, biographies of Vita Sackville-West, Svetlana Stalin, P.K. Page, and Joyce Wieland). I’ll be reading books just like I read Pamela Paul’s book, My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, voraciously and with delight. I loved My Life With Bob, which I bought Friday, started reading Sunday evening, and finished last night whilst sitting on my kitchen table waiting for the pasta to boil.

It’s the kind of book that makes you want to write a book just like it, an autobiography through reading. I would write about reading Tom’s Midnight Garden when my first baby was born, and the night after the second when I sat up breastfeeding and reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Reading Joan Didion for the first time on a tram in Hiroshima, which was around the time I started reading Margaret Drabble, the secondhand bookstore in Kobe that’s responsible for my connection with some of the writers I love best. Reading Astonishing Splashes of Colour, by Clare Morrall when I had pneumonia, and Fear of Flying on a plane to London, and The Robber Bride when I was far too young to properly understand anything it could tell me. I really could write an entire book like this—except it probably wouldn’t be as good as Pamela Paul’s.

“Bob” is Paul’s “Book of Books,” a list she’s been maintaining for decades of all the books she’s read. A list without annotations, but who needs annotations, because when she sees the titles they call forth an array of memories and stories. Forcing herself to read the entire Norton Anthology in college, the books through which she learned about New York before she lived there, reading Kafka on an ill-fated high school exchange to France, and her own Catch-22—”the unquenchable yearning to own books—to own books and suck the marrow out of them and then to feel sated rather than hungrier still.” These essays are not necessarily about the books in question, but about what it means to be a book person, to identify as a reader and have literature underline one’s lived experience.

The essays are so incredibly good. They are subtle and unnerving and do precisely what essays are supposed to do, which is to catch their reader off-guard and take her somewhere she wasn’t expecting. As life itself tends to do, and we follow Paul through college, and then post-college travel to Thailand, through the precarity of her early career, and such a stunning sad essay about her short-lived first marriage. Which leads to self-help, of course, and of the time Paul took a writing course with Lucy Grealy (right??) and how she gradually became a writer, as well as a reader. (And oh, do not forget the essay about her relationship with a man who liked the “Flashman” series. Needless to say, it didn’t work out, all this in an essay on the impossibility of getting along with someone whose books you do not like.) And then the essays on reading with her children, and the one on her father’s death and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books, which don’t have so much to do with one another except that books are not so simple and so his death and the books become intertwined.

“Ultimately, the line between writer and reader blurs. Where, after all, does the story one person puts down on the page end and the person who reads those pages and makes them her own begin? To whom do books belong? The books we read and the books we write are ours and not ours. They’re also theirs.”

And as I begin my reading holidays, I’m quite ecstatic that this one is mine.

December 6, 2017

Books on the Radio

You can listen again to my book recommendations from today’s episode of CBC Ontario Morning on their podcast—I come in at 35:45 minutes.  Although I was sorry to miss the chance to talk about Alison Watt’s Dazzle Patterns, on the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, no less! But in this case, “So Many Books, So Little Time,” is literally true. You should still check out the entire stack though.

December 5, 2017

Short Story Splendour

Things Not to Do, by Jessica Westhead

I still remember my first Jessica Westhead short story, the title story from what would become her debut collection, And Also Sharks. It was 2012 at the Pivot Reading Series and I was sitting at the bar, and was enthralled: this was a voice like no other. A character whose voice is the light in her darkness, the force and will of it. I loved that entire book, and Westhead’s latest collection does not disappoint those of us who’ve been waiting for it. From Judy who has been working on her assertiveness, to the wedding DJ and Justin Bieber’s dad, and these stories are sad, funny and so quietly and powerfully subversive. I loved them.

A Bird on Every Tree, by Carol Bruneau

This collection had me with its very first story, “The Race,” in which a disappointed war bride takes her chances in a marathon ocean swim, and as a swim-lit aficionado, I was besotted. The story was a feat of language—such sentences. And it’s not just that all the stories in the collection are that splendidly written, but that they manage to be with such incredible breath—historical fiction with the war bride, and then a nun via Lagos, a new mother in a greenhouse with her baby on her chest, a married couple unmoored in Italy, a mother leaves her grown son in Berlin: “We wake to the news that Osama Bin Laden is dead. My treasure in tow—the cheap, matted repro of Kollwitz’s Sacrifice—we catch our early morning flight to Rome.” Old flames and burning fires, and some stories in which the fire goes out completely. If this book were non-fiction, it would be an encyclopedia, because it’s got the whole wide world inside it.

The Whole Beautiful World, by Melissa Kuipers

And speaking of the whole word, let’s turn to Melissa Kuipers’ debut collection, which I read over a lovely couple of days in early October. Not all the stories were equally impressive, but those that set the standard were really great. I loved “Mourning Wreath”, a look back at a childhood friendship and this fantastic image of a letter written along the entire length of a roll of tape. Many of the stories take place within small, tight-knit Christian communities where the outside world is viewed with suspicion: the sight of a dead cow and a preacher’s invocation of hell commingle in “The Missionary Game.” I also really liked “Happy All The Time,” which tracks how a reaching college kid turns into a cult leader, and “Mattress Surfing,” worlds colliding when an ultrasound technician contemplates the tiredness of her romance with a air balloon pilot.  Memorable and original, these are stories that have stuck with me.

What Can You Do, by Cynthia Flood

I knew I was in very good company when I was out for dinner in late September, and we were talking about books, and every single one of us had something admiring to say about the work of Cynthia Flood. At that point I’d just read the first or second of the stories in her latest collection, What Can You Do, a collection I’d been well advised not to barrel through but instead to savour slowly, story by story. In the first story, a vacationing couple try to recreate a memory but find it haunting by disturbing stories in the present. In the second, a woman attending an event alone soon after a break-up takes the most satisfying revenge. And oh my gosh, the rumours of a kindergarten predator in “Wing Nut,” hiding behind a tree: how do we ever discern what is reality? Plus the girl who finds the letter from her dead mother hidden in a desk. I could go on. This isn’t a collection that’s easy to talk about as a whole, but every single one of its parts is worth an entire conversation. I like these stories, and they’re ones that I’ll return to.

December 3, 2017

I have an opinion about elves on shelves

Eight and a half years into being a parent, I have not yet stopped judging other moms and dads, but I feel compelled to judge less often now, and when I do judge, I don’t feel the need to write a status update about it on Facebook. Which is a major parenting milestone, really, to see a small girl in a stroller watching a movie on a tablet in the grocery store, and just walk on by. Though I’m not so far along in the process that I don’t mention in passing while writing a blog post eighteen months later, but still, I have come a long way.

Which is why it feels very 2011 to be writing this blog post, to have an opinion on the way parents do something and then elucidate in a number of arguments how this opinion is underpinned. It feels strange also be expressing an opinion about Elf on the Shelf, because a) having opinions about Elf on the Shelf is also very 2011, though most of them are still expressed ad nauseum each December, and b) I don’t really know what Elf on the Shelf is anyway. Somehow I have managed to spent 38 years in sweet Elf on the Shelf ignorance, and been fortunate that my children have remained the same. It is only through social media that I’ve discerned the basics about how Elf on the Shelf works, which brings me to the point of this endeavour.

There seem to be two ways to engage with Elf on the Shelf: the first is to go gangbusters, Elfing on the Shelfing like a superwoman, getting creative and hilarious and delighting your children, and having an extraordinary amount of fun in the process. Often your Elf in the Shelf will be discovered upside down in an empty wine glass, swimming in the dregs, and it will have been your wine, and today you’re a bit hungover, but no matter. Tonight Elf on the Shelf will be dangling from a lampshade, or spinning circles on the your record player, and you’re hatching a plot for the next day in which he’ll be discovered passed out in a pile of festive jube-jubes.

The second way is to pull Elf on the Shelf out every December and basically to do everything delineated above, but all the while talking about how miserable you are and how much you hate Elf on the Shelf, but you have to do it because your children demand it. It’s straight-up Elf on the Shelf martyrdom is what it is, and it drives me bonkers. If you genuinely hate it, don’t do it. Explain to your children why you don’t want to, and they’ll get over it. If they don’t get over it, then it’s all the more reason not to give in because your children should not be the conductors of your life and not wanting to do something is a totally fair reason to decline it. You’re teaching them a very good lesson about mothers being human beings not doormats, and one day they will thank you (and long before that you will thank yourself).

There is an Elf on the Shelf third way, of course, though I’ve spent less time puzzling this out, but I have my suspicions. That you hate Elf on the Shelf as much as you say you do but spend that much time dedicated to the craft of it (let alone documenting it on social media) seems pretty dubious. So how about you give up the guise and let your Elf on the Shelf Freak Flag fly—you totally love it. You’re not fooling anyone.

November 30, 2017

Eating all the pies

I felt very liberated when I read in a cookbook about pies that one should use store-bought puff-pastry always, because attempting to make puff-pastry from scratch was just stupid. I don’t really know if the author of my pie book is an authority (according to wikipedia, she’s an interior designer and pies are just a sideline) but I’m not going to ask too many questions, because puff-pastry makes pies so easy. Savoury pies, I mean, as in for a meal. I still have pretty strong feelings about pastry from scratch for fruit or dessert pies. But puff-pastry means you could have a meat pie on the table as an easy weeknight supper. And we were all over that while we were reading The Piemakers, by Helen Cresswell, which our librarian recommended to us recently and we read-aloud with pure delight. A story that reminded me so much of The Borrowers in tone that I kept forgetting that the characters were not miniature—although the giant pie dish in which they float down the river didn’t make the scale any less confusing. It’s about a family of pie-makers—the daughter is called Gravella, named for Gravy—and it all goes wrong when they get the opportunity to bake a pie for the actual king. (Too much pepper, cough cough.) But then they get another chance to redeem their pie-making reputation, and everyone in the village pitches in, and (spoilers!) the result is a pie-making triumph. We loved it. But it made us hungry. And let me tell you the other best thing about store-bought puff pastry? That it’s sold in packages of two.

November 30, 2017

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

Do you know what’s NOT very original? Me writing about The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline, that’s what. The book that won the OLA White Pine Award, the Governor General’s Award for Young Readers, the big-deal Kirkus Prize, among its many accolades, and has since run out of space on its cover for awards. I first encountered Dimaline at The Festival of Literary Diversity in 2016 on a fantastic panel about faith in literature, and she was so impressive I bought her short story collection A Gentle Habit right after and I really liked it. But even so, I was less inclined to pick up her novel that followed it, because I was all, “YA dystopia, huh? No way.” Partly because of my own genre-biases, it’s true, but also because the world is dark enough: why should we throw a pack of post-apocalyptic teens into the mix?

But we should, actually, as advised by Shelagh Rogers who tweeted, “I am delighted @cherie_dimaline. The Marrow Thieves is billed as YA. I urge A’s to read it!!” And then this fall everywhere I went, people kept asking me, “Have you read it yet?” Until finally, I had no choice but to buy it, and I am so glad I did, because (and you never saw this coming): The Marrow Thieves was amazing!

Although it took me a few pages to settle into it, to get a sense of the shape of the narrative. It’s from the point of view of Frenchie, a 17-year-old who travels through the wilderness of Northern Ontario with a ragtag family of kids and a couple of elders ever on the move to escape the clutches of “the recruiters,” officials who take Indigenous people away to special “schools” where their bone marrows are harvested. The reason? Climate change has sent the environment into turmoil and as a result of the devastation people have lost the ability to dream—except for Indigenous people, whose resilience and connection to the land has enabled them to survive one apocalypse already and whose dream lives are an essential part of their cultures. And so the bone marrow of Indigenous people become coveted, the key to recovering the ability to dream without which people the world over are going mad.

The book begins with Frenchie’s brother being taken by the recruiters, after the boys have already been separated by their parents and the world is a dangerous, toxic place. Using his wiles, as well as his connection to the land and remarkable abilities in hiding and climbing, Frenchie gets away from the recruiters and is eventually found by Miig, who tells Frenchie and the other children who travel with him the story of what has happened to their land and their people, some of this story still speculative to novel’s the reader and much of it historical fact. We follow Miig and Frenchie and the rest of their found-family, learning the often harrowing stories of how many of them came to join the group.

But soon the recruiters are getting closer, and the stakes are getting higher. Three quarters of the way through, this novel becomes so difficult to put down and part of the appeal is that all its darkness is underlined with such abundant joy. The love story between Frenchie and Rose is part of this, as well as the family love between Frenchie and Miig and the other members of their group, and the strength and wisdom they carry on their journey that seem incorruptible. Amidst the YA darkness is the rich spirituality of the novel and its sense that some things—love, not least among them—are inconvertible. That life and love and land are worth surviving for.

And the third last page! The third last page! It had me audibly gasping like a, well, like a grown up devouring a YA dystopian novel in all its incredible goodness. I still can’t get over that third last page, and what it leads to. I loved this book, and urge you to pick it up if you haven’t read it yet.

November 27, 2017

Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens

After a few days stuck in a reading rut, I knew I was probably going to enjoy Your Heart is the Size of a Fist, by Martina Scholtens MD. I’d flipped through it and supposed this was a collection of vignettes about a doctor’s experience working with patients at a Vancouver refugee clinic, a timely topic with the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees in Canada over the last two years, and considering that our previous Federal government had seen fit to cut refugee healthcare—a decision that was reversed when the Liberal government restored benefits in 2016. A few passages jumped out at me—there was a bit about Canadian sponsors and infantilization of the refugee families they’d supported, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, the complexity of those relationships. This would be a book I’d find interesting, I knew.

What I was not anticipating was that I’d be so compelled by the work as literature, for its shape as a memoir, the glimmer of its prose, and for its depth and richness as memoir. These are not just stories of Scholtens’ patients, the story of her work, its challenges and contradiction, its joys and satisfactions. The book is framed by Scholtens’ engagement with a family newly arrived from Iraq (although, as she writes in her preface, her patients in the book are composites of actual people for privacy concerns) and also by her own family life as she suffers a miscarriage and then later becomes pregnant again, giving birth to her fourth child. She counsels the Haddad family through their health concerns (PTSD among them), works to diagnose their son’s developmental problems, talks to their teenage daughter about sexual health, and gives the girl’s mother advice about how to get pregnant all the while being wary of the many health risks involved. Along with this family, we are shown glimpses into Scholtens’ relationships with other patients, from Kenya, Myanmar, Syria and Iraq.

It is with Scholtens’ own pregnancy loss and the profound way in which her own healthcare provider is present for her that she has a revelation about the role she plays in her patients’ lives. Previously, she’d felt uncomfortable with their profound gratitude toward her when she felt as though she wasn’t really providing anything, or certainly only providing to piecemeal solutions to the problems they were working to overcome in their lives. But she comes to understand the value of a physician just to bear witness and listen. She comes to understand too that while the gifts her patients bring for her, for example, might make her uncomfortable, her patients are seeking to balance a relationship in which they feel profoundly indebted. Or else gift-giving is an important cultural touchstone for that particular patient—and there funny and lovely anecdotes depicting these interactions.

Bearing witness is no small thing though, and Scholtens writes beautifully about her own struggles. What does it do to one’s spirituality and notions of God and good and evil, to see evidence of the harm and trauma that people can inflict on others? How does she reconcile her own comfortable life in contrast to the poverty and social isolation of the people she cares for? How to balance the demands of her job with her own mental health and general wellbeing—not to mention the demands of caring for four children? How to bridge cultural gaps without undermining the essential nature of cultural identity and religion?

Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist becomes a story of how a doctor learns from her patients the answers to all these questions, or at least discerns clues as to the direction to go in search of answers. To say that it’s an uplifting and breezy read should not undermine the spiritual weight of Scholtens’ story and its importance—but hopefully it will compel you to read it.

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