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Pickle Me This

November 20, 2017

Shut up, shut up, shut up

I’ve been thinking a lot about interviewing lately, mostly because I’d like to get better at doing them. Mostly because if I get better at interviewing, the proportion of time I spend listening to my own voice and wanting to die while transcribing will decrease, which is always a good thing. And because there’s a lot about being a better interviewer that is synonymous with being a better person in general, an ongoing project of mine. Becoming a better interviewer means becoming the kind of person that people want to talk to, which is always useful kind of person to be at dinner parties and other social gatherings (or so I imagine).

Before an interview I did last month, I asked a group of writers for any interviewing wisdom they might want to impart, and I received some excellent advice, including to go over your interviews very critically and apply that feedback to do a better job next time, and I think it really worked for me, because I did another interview on Friday morning which I’m about to transcribe now and there is a possibility I won’t want to die once while listening to my recording of it. It helped that the person I was speaking to was utterly fascinating and generous with her thoughts and ideas, of course, but it also helps that I really worked to obey the voice in my head commanding me, Shut up shut up shut up.

I am a pretty good conversationalist. And I am a downright superb monologist, for that matter, but that is very different from being a good interviewer, a good listener. Part of the problem is that I have to fight my reflex to crack a joke every time one seems readily available. Which that is also called interrupting. You don’t have to be funny, was something else I was telling myself on Friday morning, and it kinds of goes against my religion.

Not all my interviewing downfalls are symptomatic of my character flaws, however. It occurred to me while I was shutting up on Friday morning how much I feel compelled to interrupt as a kind of affirmation, an act of empathy. To say, Me too. Me too. I know exactly, and then proceed along a tangent with an anecdote to demonstrate just how much I do. I think the motivation here is genuine kindness as much as it is self-absorption, but it’s also such a faulty communication mechanism. Empathy has its limits, it does. Because we can’t ever really know exactly what another person is going through, and to suggest we can instead of taking the time and effort to genuinely listen and learn is ultimately counter to the project—if the project is connection.

And the project should always be connection.

November 19, 2017

Baby Cakes, by Theo Heras and Renne Benoit

When Harriet was three-years-old, I read Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman, and loved it mostly because it affirmed all the things I already believed about raising children and therefore I got to feel sophisticated and European, which is always nice when you’re only Canadian. And what I remember mostly about the book, apart from the fact its author had previously published an article in Marie Claire about giving her husband a threesome for his fortieth birthday, was the chapter on baking, and the recipe for yogurt cake. (There was also a chapter on babies sleeping through the night. That chapter didn’t work for me.) French children, according to Pamela Druckerman, bake all the time, and thereby learn about fractions and chemistry, plus stirring and pouring and patience and not spilling things. All of which were things that I could get behind, and so we made that cake, and we made it over and over, in addition to so many other cakes we’ve baked in all the years since. And that I’ve still yet to lose the weight from my last pregnancy suggests Druckerman may have omitted an essential detail in her text, which is that French mothers possibly don’t eat the food their children bake. But then where’s the fun in that?

We have a photo of Harriet from the first time we baked together, sometime in the months before she turned two, and she’s standing on a chair wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon, and I tweeted the photo with some kind of caption like, “Basically I only really had children in anticipation of this moment.” Because I also remember standing on chairs while wielding a wooden spoon, and have such visceral childhood memories of baking, and I wanted Harriet to have to her own. Plus I wanted cake, of course, and so we baked, but it wasn’t always easy. My frequent admonishments of, “Don’t put your hands in the flour,” “Don’t sneeze in the batter,” and “Goddamn it to hell, you’ve just poured vanilla all over the floor” usually went unheeded, and we began to consider a baking session successful if I’d kept my swear words to a minimum of three. Baking with kids was often not as fun as it was made out to be. But I persisted—in addition to math and chemistry, I told myself, my children were learning about human fallibility (mine!) and also expanding their vocabularies.

The very best thing about having children, however, (which is also the very worst thing) is that you basically get a new child every two weeks or so. Which is to say that everything changes, all the time, and the things that seemed impossible once upon a time eventually get to seem easy. Harriet sneezes in the batter hardly ever now, and when she and Iris sit down to baking they’re actually quite capable. And when I’d recently read Iris Baby Cakes, by Theo Heras and Renne Benoit, she’d declared, “That’s such a good book, Mommy.” Mostly because she’s obsessed with cupcakes, but still. Plus there was a recipe for cupcakes in the endpapers; I said, “We’ve got to make these.” And so on Saturday night, we did.

This book would make a great Christmas gift from 3-5-year-olds. With simple vocabulary, a brother and sister would together to make cupcakes (with the unhelpful assistance of their pet cat). The story lists the equipment necessary—”Here are a big bowl and measuring cups and spoons.”—and goes through the recipe, “Sprinkle salt, but not too much.” And “Creaming the butter is hard work.” And is it ever! The recipe inside makes for a nice extension of the book, bringing the story to life and inspiring the reader to  try something new. That the brother and sister in the story bake together without the help of grown-ups (except for with the oven) inspires independence. Plus, the cupcakes were delicious. Obviously, I ate one. Because I am not French.

November 15, 2017

In the middle of a reno

The novel as a house is one of my favourite metaphors, and one I’ve used often to explain my experience of working with editors—the way they can open a door and show you that your house has a whole wing you never knew. But right now as I’m at work on my new novel’s third draft, I’m thinking of the metaphor in another sense: I’m in the middle of a reno.

Chapter Two, and a lot of the furniture has been moved move out, put into storage (i.e. into a word doc on my desk top). And we’re knocking walls down, putting in windows and skylights—and basements, ever digging deeper. Raise high the roof beams, carpenters! I have actually, literally, installed a hearth. Lifting up the floorboards to see what’s underneath them, and inside the walls—all the parts of the structure that have been present all along, just waiting for me to find them. The process is fascinating, almost mathematical, the way all the pieces have to fit together, the necessary strength of the structure underlining it all. Knock, knock. Is there integrity? Is this a supporting wall? And if it isn’t, would it matter if we ripped the whole thing down?

There is also a dumpster on the lawn, for all the inevitable detritus. Delete, delete. All the lines I wrote in order to understand what I was thinking, but now that I know, I don’t need them anymore.

November 13, 2017

The Prisoner and the Chaplain, by Michelle Berry

An interesting thing was that I started reading Michelle Berry’s novel, The Prisoner and the Chaplain, on the night the clocks went back, which meant I ended up reading most of it on a day with an extra hour in it. The extra hour significant in light of the novel’s treatment of time, counting down the final twelve hours of a man’s life before his execution. Even for those of us for whom the future is not so limited, a twenty-five-hour day serves to underline how much every hour matters. And such a day is useful too, particularly when one is reading a novel as difficult to put down as this one is.

The novel begins as part philosophy—a treatise on faith, belief, on the nature of self—and part bildungsroman. There are two men in a room, a prisoner who has committed a heinous crime and the prison chaplain tasked with being with the prisoner in his final hours. The chaplain is young, inexperienced. He’s only there at all because his mentor has become ill and no one else can do it. And the chaplain wonders if even he can do it, if he’s up to the task, considering his inexperience and also the violence in his own past. What will these hours make of him?

The prisoner though, he just wants to talk. To tell the story of how he got from there to here, and he begins with his childhood, his mother’s abandonment, his brother’s violence, his father’s alcoholism, his sister’s descent into addiction. Petty thievery leads to larger crimes, one thing leading to another, this story told in chapters interspersed with those set in the present, which is ever encroaching upon their limited future. And here the chaplain reflects on his own violence, the events leading up to it. How is he different from this man before him, the chaplain wonders? Why is this man and not another the one who deserve to die?

It’s as intense as you’d expect, this story, the intensity growing stronger as the hours count down, as the prisoner gets closer and closer to revealing his crime. I read this novel right after Alison Pick’s Strangers With The Same Dream, which was similarly intense and had overlapping thematic concerns (certainty being one of them) and on Sunday night I had such a troubled sleep, and the next book I chose from my shelf after that would have to be a slim little volume called Calm Things. But still, it is a testament to the novel and a mark of its success that it’s just so unsettling. It’s not every book that creeps into your head like that, gets right into your dreams.

By its conclusion the novel has also become a thriller, and it’s here one sees the connections between The Prisoner and the Chaplain and Berry’s previous novel, Interference, which was similarly genre-blurring and feature and underlying current of violence, a sinister edge. Contributing to the unease of The Prisoner and the Chaplain is that the prisoner’s story never quite lines up with the one the chaplain knows is on the official record, although he’d been warned about this by the warden. That the prisoner would try to get under his skin, to get him onside. And is this what has happened when the hour for the execution is imminent and the chaplain is quite sure the prisoner didn’t actually commit the crime he’s being punished for? Or is this really the case of an innocent man who’s about to die?

The novel’s momentum starts strong and just keeps going and going, and then the ending packs a wallop. Make sure you set aside a good block hours before you start this book, because you’ll be needing every one of them.

November 10, 2017

Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things

Full disclosure necessitates I tell you that I had lunch with Sheree Fitch yesterday, although possibly I’m just telling you that because I’m still marvelling at the fact that I had lunch with Sheree Fitch yesterday. Sheree Fitch, whom we travelled to Nova  Scotia to see this summer on the day her seasonal bookshop opened. Sheree Fitch is the most extraordinarily generous brilliant person I’ve ever known, a woman whose books have been the framework of my life as a mother and remember when a tiny Harriet crashed the stage to read with her at Eden Mills years and years ago? Although I was one of hundreds upon hundreds of people who traveled to River John, Nova Scotia, to see Sheree Fitch this some, because she is the sort of person who inspires such a gesture.

Even fuller disclosure: Everything Sheree Fitch touches is more than a little bit magic.

Although in the case of her latest project, the anthology Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things: Atlantic Canadian Poetry and Verse for Children, co-edited with Anne Hunt, she’s not the only magic-maker. Credit belongs too to the designer of this gorgeous book whose cover art is absolutely enchanting, along with delightful leafy end pages, borders, and yellow ribbon to hold one’s place. And to her co-editor too, with whom Fitch has selected these works, and to the poets too, some of whom—Fitch herself, Jennifer McGrath, Kate Inglis, Al Pittman—I’m familiar with through their words for children, and others—Lynn Davies, Kathleen Winter, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, E.J. Pratt, Alden Nowlan—I know if a very different context.

So how do you use a book like this, a pretty book with a ribbon, a book that isn’t a picture book because there aren’t any pictures? Which is to say, how does one awaken the magic within, the whispers of mermaids and wonderful things? And the answer, of course, is to read it. To take book off the shelf and leaf through at random, see where the pages fall open or where the poem catches your eye. To make a ritual of it, a poem before bed, perhaps, or first thing in the morning, like a vitamin. To revel in the words and rhymes, and share that wonder with the people around you. Let beginning readers have a chance to read these poems too, to experience the pleasure saying their phrases, how the words feel in their mouths.

This is a book that will make an extraordinary holiday present for (or from!) anyone with an affinity for words or poems, or an affiliation with Atlantic Canada. It’s such a beautiful object, a treasure, and then you open it up, and there are worlds upon worlds inside to explore.

November 7, 2017

Euclid’s Orchard, by Theresa Kishkan

One of my greatest claims to fame was that I once tied for second place in an essay contest with  Susan Olding—whose collection is the wondrous Pathologies: A Life in Essays—and that the first place spot went to the magnificent Theresa Kishkan, who would soon after publish Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. In terms of literature, I don’t know that I’ve ever been in finer company, and I don’t think I properly appreciated this in the moment. Seven years later, I look back and can’t believe that really happened, but I am glad it did—mostly for how it brought me to these authors’ work.

In the years since then, Kishkan has published two novellas, and now a new essay collection, Euclid’s Orchard, which I read avidly over a couple of days last week. It’s a book I’d been looking forward to for a long time and whose genesis I knew a lot about and had kind of born witness to as an avid reader of Theresa Kishkan’s blog. Which is also how I knew that these essays, while they explored many of Kishkan’s usual preoccupations, had been written during a particularly trying time in her life, when she was awaiting a scary medical diagnosis, confronting the weight of her history (so much of it left unknown with her parents gone), and contemplating the wonders of her own children coming up in the world, and becoming a grandmother.

The title essay comes at the end of the collection, referring to her son’s proclivity for mathematics, which came as a surprise to both his parents. She writes of trying to understand the codes and languages of her mathematical son’s mind, and of trying to map such understanding onto her own experiences through quilting. But she is also writing about fruit, and grafting, and the orchard she and her husband planted when they arrived at the place that would become their home, and orchard that would be abandoned for reasons the essay delineates. Which is to say that the fruits they would harvest weren’t the fruits that they were planning on—and isn’t it always the way? There’s not a formula for that. Nor for keeping out the coyotes and the bears either. Kishkan is writing about patterns, and functionality, and parenthood, pollination, and Fibonacci numbers, and coyotes singing:

They were our names, our bodies under the heavens, all of us singing together in different voices to tell the story of our orchard, our time here, in this place we have inhabited since—for John and me—1981, and the only way to shape the story is through connotation, not ordinary discourse, though I praise the literal, the specific, but by reaching up into the starlight to parse what lies beyond it.

Reaching up into starlight (figuratively speaking) is also the only way left to search for answers to the gaps in Kishkan’s parents’ histories, particularly as historical documentation has proven elusive and misleading. In two essays, she tries to make sense of these gaps and the documents, as she searches for her mother’s birth parents—her mother had been born to an unwed mother and raised as a foster child—and as she explores the history of her father’s family, immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic who become homesteaders near Drumheller, AB, although some sleuthing reveals her grandparents had been squatters whose petitions to own the lands they lived on had never been successful. And what do they mean, all these pieces and gaps in her history. As Kishkan writes, “the only way to shape the story is through connotation,” and Kishkan does this masterfully.

In the other pieces, she writes directly to her remote father who always seems disappointed in his sons, who had never properly regarded his daughter. On what to do with a fifty-year-old bottle of her mother’s perfume. She writes about the landscapes of her childhood, places firmly etched on the map of her mind. About trees and flowers, cuttings the history and stories of gardens—and this book is a nice complementary read to Helen Humphreys’s new book, The Ghost Orchard, which I read not long before it. Euclid’s Orchard is a collection of fascinations and astonishments, of the world as it is and was and is ever becoming.

November 6, 2017

The Intricate Properties of Teacups

“How well we artists and writers know the chances of our work sinking into the abyss! And yet how grateful we are to be able to make these marks, to live a life that risks blooming in the bracing cold, that can offer tender furled messages, indecipherable traces. A life that has allowed us to sink into the knowledge of the real and difficult abundance, while merely sitting before a white teacup on a table. It is something, as well, to pay attention to traces of these fine eruptions of gratitude that escape into paint. For we have much yet to learn about how souls connect, let alone about the intricate properties of teacups, their simple gleaming.”

Calm Things: Essays, by Shawna Lemay, “Of Coffee Pots, Teacups, Asparagus and the Like”

November 5, 2017

Cozy Inside

It’s so dark, but I’m not tired of it yet. It’s still novel, and my house is warm with all the lights on. I’ve literally got an illuminated banner hanging up in this room right now whose letters read LIGHT LIGHT so I guess you can see that we’re really trying here. And it’s working. I really do love evenings like this, the world so dark outside our windows but everything bright and cozy inside, each of us here exactly where we belong.

It hasn’t been the easiest season, for reasons that are mostly (and blessedly) unremarkable, the usual business of life. It’s not been terrible either, but it’s also been busy, and while we’ve had many adventures and good fun with excellent friends, this Saturday was the first Saturday in at least a month or maybe more where we had absolutely nowhere to go. And it was perfect, the way an empty Saturday can be, the way it isn’t when everyone is tired and the house is too small and nothing good is in the cupboard. No, everything was completely the opposite of that, and yesterday was cold and bright and sunny. We didn’t leave the house until after two o’clock, when we headed to the library, and we’d had bread and jam for breakfast, and played games, and then Harriet made a video game about putting all your apples in one basket (and it turned out fine!). At the library, amazing books we out on display, and we got the new Carson Ellis and whole stack of Bob Graham books, the brand new Girls Who Code book by Reshma Saujani, and a book of kitchen experiments about growing mould that for some delightful but obscure reason was exactly what Harriet was desiring.

We walked home via Kensington Market, and bought bagels. And then arrived home to the smell of bread in our bread-maker, nearly done. And I made that one kind of soup that my children will consent to eat, which is pretty much devoid of flavour, but it’s still soup and they eat it which means we’ve come a long long way. All I’ve ever wanted really are children who eat soup, so I won’t quibble, and their company at dinner was delightful. It’s been that way most of the weekend actually, which is so so nice. When we turn to each other and say, “Don’t you just adore these funny people we made?”

(This is in contrast to early in the week when one of those funny people kept coughing in bed and we were contemplating making her sleep in the shed.)

Today was the day with twenty-five hours in it, which is always my favourite day of the year, and this year it once again delivered, never mind that I probably spent my extra hour in bed struggling to go back to sleep after creepy dreams were keeping me up in the night—I’ve been reading too many intense novels lately. We had cottage cheese pancakes this morning and hung out reading newspapers and the children entertained themselves, and we made banana bread. After lunch, we went to the pool and spent a delightful hour frolicking in the shallows, which saved us from a  day of doing absolutely nothing at all and going stir-crazy. We came home and I read books while the kids watched TV, and then Stuart made dinner, and Harriet and Iris and I made guacamole, except Iris kept calling it Whack-a-moley. And Iris even ate it! (“And Iris even ate it!” is the unbelievable incredible ending to so many stories I tell.)

Today was the kind of grey and rainy Sunday you just hope will come along, during those rare and precious times when you’ve got nothing else to do. This entire weekend feels as restorative as a week-long vacation, and we don’t even have to unpack.

November 3, 2017

Captain Monty Takes the Plunge, by Jennifer Mook-Sang and Liz Starin

Is it wrong to fancy a mermaid? Well, it mustn’t be so wrong, because sailors have been doing so for centuries. But is it wrong to fancy a mermaid in a picture book? One who’s already in a relationship with a pirate who is also a cat? Well, if loving a picture book mermaid is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

And it’s not like Meg is just any picture book mermaid. “She’s like you, Mommy,” said my daughter. “She has a star tattoo.” And I remind my daughter, “We also both have awesome squishy tummies.” Because Meg the mermaid is the kind of mythical creature you want to have a lot in common with. She’s cool. She plays the ocarina, likes bad jokes, and she teaches Captain Monty how to set his course by the constellations, which is a useful thing for a pirate captain to know.

While she might be a punk rock mermaid, Meg still swims like a fish, displaying amazing skills that put poor Monty (who’s afraid of water) to shame. And she’s got standards too: when Monty asks her out, Meg turns him down. Because a guy who’s afraid of water never gets a chance to bathe, and she tells him, “You’re a real nice pirate, Monty, but you smell like stinky boots.”

When Meg gets captured by an octopus, however, Monty has to step up to save her. Which he kind of fails at, until he thinks up a clever way to outwit the many-legged sea creature, and Meg joins in on the action, the two of them rescuing themselves together. And all that is pretty romantic, so of course they fall in love. “My brave Monty,” Meg tells him. “Now that you smell like fresh air and seaweed, would you like to have dinner with me?”

Captain Monty Takes the Plunge, by Jennifer Mook-Sang and Liz Starin, is a fun and lively book for any young reader who’s into pirates, dislikes bathing, and/or requires just a few more ounces of courage before she leaps into the pool. But it’s Meg who steals the show, a fabulously subversive and feminist rad mermaid, and she’s the reason we keep returning to the book again and again.

November 2, 2017

Rereading Autumn in autumn.

I returned to Ali Smith’s Autumn because when I read it in April I was as baffled by it as I was entranced. And I returned to it also because it was actually autumn, October: “October’s a blink of an eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all over the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, then down./ The days are unexpected mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of condensation on the web strings hung between things./ On the warm days it feels wrong, so many leaves falling./ But the nights are cool to cold.” And now it is November, which is the very point.

I finished rereading Autumn and was no less baffled than I was the first time, which normally would frustrate me, but there are so many things in this novel that function as footholds, even when reading makes me totally lost. The characters of Elisabeth and Daniel, the satire of post office bureaucracy, the beautiful writing, the contemporary nature of the setting, its immediacy. (“It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with.”) I got such comfort from that when I read this in the spring, the world being too much with us—and yet somehow it was helpful, a comfort, to find it in a book. Upon rereading I underlined the part (though I underlined many parts) when Elisabeth is reading A Tale of Two Cities and sees her own reality reflected in literature: …it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… And Smith writes, “The words had acted like a charm. They released it all in seconds. They’d made everything happening stand just far enough away.” [Emphasis mine.]

The main character in the novel (apart from the man who is a tree, obviously…) is a lecturer in art history, and art features prominently in the story, particularly the art of Pauline Boty, who was a founder of the British pop-art movement and its only female painter. Both worked in collage and I got the sense that Smith’s novel is kind of a literary homage to her style, figures and ideas from current events cut out of newspapers and magazine and glued onto a surrealist background. The kind of art I’d take my kids to see exhibited, even though we don’t fully understand the project, because so much in the images are recognizable, remarkable, and interesting in their new contexts.

This time when I read I took note of all the instances of “leaf,” and “leaves,” and trees and scrolls. On the remarkable ways that book speak to the world around us (like when Elisabeth is reading Brave New World in the post office and comes across an allusion to Shakespeare, looking up at the very moment to see an advertisement for a Shakespeare commemorative coin on display), what the novel says about neighbours and neighbourliness in the age of Brexit, about what is story and what is fiction and what is real, about drawing lines and blurring lines, divisions and connections. And speaking of lines, my very favourite one in the entire book continues to be, “Whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” which is an idea that continues to fascinate me. When Elisabeth is asked a question, “Why should we imagine that gender matters here?”

Also, “Time travel is real… We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.”

And so, here we are.

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