August 20, 2014
The bowls on the right were given to me by Amy Lavender Harris, who awakened me to the wonders of Pyrex. And then I found the dish on the left on the street last week, the bowl in the middle today at Value Village, and I do fear that this might be becoming a habit… I’ve got a ways to go though.
August 19, 2014
Yesterday, we took a trip on the streetcar to the newest (and 99th!) branch of the Toronto Public Library, the Fort York Library at the foot of Bathurst Street, a place that is helping to turn this former no-man’s land between the rail-lines and the waterfront into an actual neighbourhood. A bright, airy building with floor to ceiling windows, Fort York Library is a transport vehicle-loving toddler’s paradise, actually, with streetcars and cement-mixers rumbling over the Bathurst Bridge, trains running by to the north, and cars on the Gardiner Expressway whizzing by overhead. Not to mention condo towers going up all around us, cranes in the air, the CN tower so close—what a spectacular view of the city!
We walked in and were drawn to the views, and then to the new books on display in the foyer (and the great thing about a new library is that every book is a new book, and it was an excellent selection of new releases and classics, nary a dog-ear among them yet). And then Harriet and Iris made their way into the kids’ section, where they felt immediately at home.
Harriet was pleased to find a Superman picture book, and I tried to read it to her, all the while chasing Iris around the library. (I have found that visiting the library with both children on my own is a pretty ridiculous experience.) Both girls had fun climbing in the letters and picking books off the shelves, and recognizing some of their favourites among the collection.
And then Iris discovered there was a staircase, and so of course, she had to climb it. Big Sister led the way.
They spun around in the spiffy red chairs and didn’t annoy the other patrons too much.
We were intrigued by the sight of the 3-D printer, and the objects it has made. Lots of space for reading, and group and individual study up there on the second floor too, and a really nice selection of books for teens, brand new gorgeous art books and graphic novels.
When it was time to go, Harriet signed her Superman book out.
And then we took a selfie as we waited for the streetcar, which delivered us home just in time for lunch.
August 19, 2014
Today, a little dream came true. My short story, “If Life Gave Me Lemons”, has been published at Joyland. It’s a story about unrequited love, finding yourself, the bizarre culture of English teachers in Japan, and all the ways we fool ourselves. I love this story, not just because it’s part-ode to my life in Japan more than 10 years ago, though the lovingness of that ode is mostly hidden. But it’s there. So I’m so pleased that the story has found a home, and what a home it is. Thanks to Kathryn Mockler for her great edits, and to the Joyland team for making such a fantastic space online. I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.
August 18, 2014
Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces is the novel we’ve all been waiting for. Me, because I’ve been reading pieces of Ellen in Pieces in journals and magazines for the last few years, and hearing rumours they’d culminate in an actual book, and how often are one’s longings so perfectly satisfied? And you’ve been waiting for this book, because I promise that it’s one of the best you’ll read this year. Devastating, wonderful and brilliant. Because aren’t you always looking for a book to apply such adjectives to? Because I’ve been longing to read this book for years, and when I did, it was even better than I’d hoped.
It’s a novel in stories, or a collection of linked stories, or maybe a novel comprised of fragments, which is more like a life is than most novels I’ve ever read. The first three “chapters,” I’d read previously, and through which I’d become entranced with Adderson’s character, Ellen McGinty, divorced, determined, blundering, flawed, impulsive, hated, and loved. Because it’s rare to encounter such a character in fiction, a woman in the middle years of her life, a woman who is not a type, who has history, is unsure of what to do with her present, who has a body, experiences lust, gets tired, loves her children, cannot stand her children, has friends, fights with her friends, who is herself with such remarkable specificity—”Ellenish” is a term applied at one point in the book, and I knew exactly what they meant. It is rare that a character is so vividly realized—so familiar and yet utterly original at once.
Caroline Adderson pays attention to words, which are as specific as her characters. No one else would write a sentence like, “A melting weakness overtook her and she remembered all those years ago, not here but in Ellen’s North Vancouver kitchen, how he glissaded out of the way so Georgia could set down her platter of blintzes.” A platter of blintzes—has there ever been such a thing? The world reinvented through Adderson’s extraordinary, euphonic vocabulary.
In the first chapter, “I Feel Lousy”, Ellen discover that her younger daughter, not even the disappointing one, is pregnant, which evokes memories of her own troubled past, an accidental pregnancy with her ex-husband, the terrible, awful burden of motherhood, single motherhood in particular, and the lengths that a mother will go to—this mother in particular—for her daughter’s sake. “Poppycock” finds us a few years into the future, Ellen’s estranged father on her doorstep, obviously suffering from some kind of malady and she’s horrified to find him but also bowled over because he wants her, he needs her. She’d assumed her family had written her off altogether since she’d tried to sleep with her brother-in-law at her father’s 50th birthday years before. But the past, just like the present, turns out to be more complicated than that, and the reappearance of her father is a gift that comes with a shadow, a particularly long one.
And if you think that ending is devastating, read “Ellen-Celine, Celine-Ellen” next, about Ellen and her two friends whose relationship was forged at pre-natal class years ago, Ellen all alone because her asshole husband Larry had just abandoned her (the first time). The three stay close in the decades to follow, Ellen and Celine taking a trip to Europe together, which is ill-advised, so say their other friend, Georgia, and also Ellen’s hairdresser, Tony, because Ellen and Celine spend much of their friendship not being able to stand each other, a situated not mitigated by their strong personalities, and also that of the three friends who’d met in pre-natal class, it had been Celine’s baby that died.
Have I conveyed that these stories of death and crisis, all the drama of a life, are also funny? Adderson portrays human behaviour at the intersection of heroism and buffoonery, or else just irritability, to much effect. There’s a subtlety at work here. There are lines that are going to come along and break your heart.
The next few stories are more concerned with the present, pieces fitting more closely together. Ellen begins to find herself—her daughters are settling down, or else calming down; she sells her house; she takes up pottery again; after years of searching, she is learning to be present. She also starts sleeping with a young man who is her daughters’ age, which doesn’t hurt. She thinks she’s beginning to get over her ex-husband, Larry, whose desertion has wrung her heart for years and years.
One chapter is from the point of view of Matt, Ellen’s young lover, who is using Ellen to escape from his own troubled domestic situation. Another by Ellen’s older daughter, Mimi, who has overcome her problems with addiction but is still searching for something to hold onto, and still running from her mother too, whose presence is still vividly felt even from halfway across the country in Toronto, currently in the midst of a garbage strike. (Mimi traces back most of her problems to having once discovered her mother in bed with her grade-five teacher, whom she’d been in love with. Until that point.) Another word in this chapter, “orrery”, which recurs at the end of the story as Mimi rolls down a car window using a similar device. “She saw the moon, the faint stars vying for attention against the glare of human habitation. Pluto was up there somewhere, that small cold outcast planet far away. But there were people who still believed in it, people who wished it well.”
If the story doesn’t devastate you, I promise that the prose will.
At the end of this chapter, Mimi finally gets an inkling of why her mother is who she is, with the aid of a handy Bryan Adams lyric. Maternal ambivalence is a two-way street, and Adderson’s is a gut-wrenching depiction of its flip side. And then in the next chapter, “Mother-eye—the curse cast on every birthing woman, the hex of self-sacrificing empathy. I will see your pain, but you will never see mine.”
It’s at the end of this chapter when Ellen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m going to tell you this, tell you this straight: Ellen dies.
I am telling you this because it’s revealed anyway in a tiny sentence on the back of the book (“…we watch Ellen negotiate the last year of her tumultuous life as the pieces of who she is finally come together.”), and in the epigraph as well, and I am telling you this because if you aren’t prepared, it might just be too terrible to take. When was the last time an author dared to kill off the central character in her novel and not even at the end of her novel…
…and of course, Virginia Woolf did, in To the Lighthouse, which I read last month, and which I see as having all kinds of parallels with Adderson’s book, although the two vary greatly in style (and Adderson’s prose is devourable, while Woolf’s must be savoured in measured portions). The notion of “time passes” and that we see a character through the eyes of those around her, the mixture of love and dislike and what lies between which makes up most relationships, and she isn’t even knowable to herself, because who has ever been so pinned down? That she a person whom people assemble around, in all her flaws and fallibility. If she is a solar system, here is the sun, and what happens after the light goes out?
The death scene is sublime, written from the perspective of Ellen’s young grandson, who has his own problems, and when I came to the paragraph break, I put down the book and sobbed and sobbed, and had to go find someone to comfort me—it’s rare that text on a page is ever this affecting. I was devastated, but also amazed at the beauty of the scene, of Adderson’s writing—it was perfect. Masterful.
In the final stories of the book, Ellen’s friends and family gather around her, offering richer perspectives on the scenes we’ve already read. I was especially besotted with “The Something Amendment,” from the perspective of Georgia, who is the third in Ellen’s friendship with Celine. We’ve previously known Georgia through her telephone conversations with Ellen, her jolly husband Gary chiming in from the background. As ever, however, the reality of life is more complicated than can be discerned from down a telephone wire, and Georgia’s own relationship with Ellen is different from even what Ellen suspects, and one of the great achievements of Adderson’s book, I think, is her rich portrayal of decades-long female friendships, the betrayals and compromises that are implicit in such relationships.
If I have to go out of my way to find a criticism of the book, it would be that the Ellen herself is so compelling that the chapters in which she’s at a distance are not as much—the half-grownness of Ellen’s lover is so bland compared to the presence of Ellen in her prime, although the characterization of him at home with his family is vivid, rich and surprising. Or maybe it’s just that I think that Ellen could have done better?
I don’t hate that she died. I wish she hadn’t, but I also didn’t feel like Adderson was using cancer or death as a plot device, to manipulate her characters or (worse!) to manipulate her reader. If its confrontation with cancer and mortality, Ellen in Pieces is a companion to Oh, My Darling by Shaena Lambert, which I read last year (and Lambert is thanked in Adderson’s acknowledgements; they share a publisher). It’s a brave take on things, really, but typical, because the exquisite nature of the entire book comes from Adderson defying her readers’ expectations, surprising you with every line, with every turn of the page.
August 12, 2014
In most of our photos from this summer so far, a memorable (much) recurring character has been my yellow polkadot dress, which is one of the few things I own that always garners compliments from strangers. I bought the dress at a secondhand store at the end of May, which was surprising because I’m sort of between bodies right now and clothing is an awkward fit. So it was shocking to encounter this Donna Karan shift dress for $30, and then the yellow polkadot dress for $20, which I can even breastfeed in if I’m unabashed about having my boobs out.
The yellow dress was a strange purchase for me–I’ve never worn anything yellow before. I am very much partial to red and blacks, to fuchsia if I’m feeling like some colour. But the yellow dress appealed to me because it looked like something Harriet would wear. Yellow is her favourite colour, and she’s zealously devoted to it, still, even though she has recently consented to be served dinner on a plate that is another colour (if necessary). When I wear yellow, I look even more sallow than I actually am, so I’ve always avoided it, while celebrating Harriet’s affinity for it. Hooray for a little girl whose favourite colour is anything but pink.
But this dress… “What would Harriet do?” I wondered. Obviously, she would buy it, and insist on wearing it to bed, and while I didn’t go that far, I bought it and even put it on. “What do you think?” I asked my family, and they loved it. It’s kind of a weird dress with a ruffly colour, one that’s meant to be worn off the shoulder, I think, but I don’t do that because I am not a 1970s’ bridesmaid. It’s a wee bit too tight (but what isn’t these days) but the cut is flattering. And it turns out that I look not so terrible in yellow after all, or at least not once summer has arrived and the sunshine has kissed my face a bit.
And it’s a lesson I think, as well as a fortunate fashion tale (because it could well have gone the other way). That I can learn a little something by taking a leap and seeing the world through Harriet’s eyes. That something might be gained by aspiring to be just a little more like she is.
I am thinking of taking up her practice of lying on the sidewalk and screaming and kicking whenever I’m hungry or tired…
August 11, 2014
The M Word received two new reviews this weekend from blogs I admire. And my favourite thing is that each review has comments already that show the way the book generates conversation. I’m so pleased about that.
From the review at Matilda Magtree: “In other words, there’s something for everyone. Even me. Because if you’re a woman, you fall into some category where motherhood is concerned. This, whether you like it or not. You have the parts. And if you don’t, that may be the problem, or the celebration, depending on your outlook, your personal goals.
And that it is so personal is what I most enjoyed about the book. The writing, yes, but I wasn’t merely reading, you see, I was being drawn into this conversation, being reminded that yes, I also have a story, some history on this subject. And let’s hear it, the conversation seemed to say, because as you can see, no woman is excluded from this club, for here is a truth: if you’re a woman it’s pretty hard not to have a few thoughts on the motherhood thing.”
And in her review, Laura Frey highlights her favourite essays from the anthology, and writes, ” These essays inspired me to think and remember and empathise, and I want to talk about it!”
August 7, 2014
If not for the internet, I never would have heard of Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken. But the wonderful Sara O’Leary had wonderful things to say about it on Twitter, and then it was this post from the Parnassus Books blog that clinched it, the line, “I would rather be funny than just about anything.” So I ordered a copy, and was disappointed to have to put it aside before we departed on vacation last week, because its first line was, “Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”
Not that the book is funny, exactly, or that McCracken isn’t funny, because she is, but the book is more heartbreaking than anything, or maybe I mean heartwringing—it’s amazing and magnificent. Passages like, “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book, They get mail. Their wigs rest of styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.” Passages you want to underline, and annotate with, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The most remarkable combination of specific details and universality. The whole book is like this. I loved it. (It also reminded me of the best parts of Lee Kvern’s remarkable collection, which I enjoyed earlier this year.)
The stories are unfathomable, approached from the oddest angles, but their pieces fall together in a perfect kind of sense. In “Something Amazing”, two troubled families come together in a remarkable collision that changes both of them forever. In “Property”, a widower moves into a rental house and is overwhelmed by the detritus of the house’s owner; in “Juliet”, a murder sends shock waves across a small town, in particular amongst the staff at the public library; in “The House of the Three Legged Dogs”, a British ex-pat hits rock-bottom, his house sold out from under him by his alcoholic son; in “Hungry”, a young girl stays with her grandmother while her father is critically ill in the hospital, and the grandmother must protect the girl and process her own complicated grief.
In “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”, the discovery of a young boy shoplifting in a discount supermarket is interpreted differently by the boy himself and the supermarket manager who imagines himself the boy’s saviour. In the title story, a family tries to get away from their teenager daughter’s problems by relocating to Paris for a summer, only to discover that her problems travel with them, to devastating effect. And the last lines of the book? The man who “…felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.” And I’ve read those lines over and over, marvelling at their imagery, pondering their puzzle, their resonance, in particular in light of incidents within the story itself. Throughout the collection, these passages that strike you, suggesting deeper rumblings—the book’s title is so perfect.
Of course, I’ve outlined the plots of the collection’s various stories, but they aren’t really what the stories are about. Many of them are about grief, about the peculiarity of details during the times in life in which we’re grief-struck, or stricken at all. They’re about human connection in surprising places, about misunderstandings in which the connection is missed. Their about the things that get lost and what we choose to preserve. They’re funny even with the sadness, a many sided shape. And they’re absolutely extraordinary.
August 5, 2014
I wondered if my stack of vacation books might be a bit too ambitious, a tower too high for one week of reading. After all, I wasn’t going away for a week alone, and family togetherness was sort of the point of the endeavour. But the family was obliging with plenty of time to read. There was Iris’s two hour nap each afternoon after all, during which Harriet could watch a movie, which sort of violates cottage rules, but leads to parents’ leisure, which is Cottage Rule Number One. So everybody was happy, and I stayed in bed reading with cups of tea in the mornings (with sugar, of course), and then in the evenings once the children were in bed, Stuart also reading Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, and therefore as avid a reader as I was (and one of the best parts of marriage, I think, is enjoying books together. Such a pleasure). Of course, our summer getaway wasn’t all about reading, as we were also busy going out for lunch, eating ice cream, lounging in our new hammock, playing in the sand, eating corn on the cob, getting slightly sunburned, having lots of fun, and buying books—we had another wonderful visit to Bob Burns’ Books in Fenelon Falls, and also perused the used book sale at the Bobcaygeon Library. After a slightly disappointing trip last summer (when our baby was new, the weather was bad, and Harriet was kind of crazy), we were pleased to find we had our vacation mojo back. The week was terrific, relaxing, so rich with hours for spending, plus we got to swim on lakes and walk barefoot on grass soaked with dew.
But the reading. Oh, the reading. Every book was just so thoroughly good.
I started reading To the Lighthouse a couple of days before we left, so this is me cheating slightly with my plan for a book a day. And I was needing a vacation so so badly, with so much going on the weeks before, my churning brain, and I was having this frustrating internal argument about “women’s fiction”, which I think is definitely a thing, a genre onto itself, wholly worthy of celebration, but is forever being used as synonym for “formulaic”, which drives me nuts, and then authors of formulaic books go around whinging because their books are being marketed as “chick lit” and complaining that all books about women and relationships are so assigned, which isn’t true anyway, and I don’t know why I care so much, but rereading To the Lighthouse is always the solution. Perhaps to everything. Nobody has called this book chick-lit ever, and perhaps we should all aspire to stretch the limits of the novel, as Woolf does in this book, which I’ve read so many times, this time reading a fresh new copy, the old one with my inane marginalia gone for good. It’s a beach read, really, because there’s even a beach on the cover, sand underfoot. A perfect holiday book. Thinking about the book in terms of arguments about characters’ likability: “How did it all work out then, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that, and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached after all?” And Mrs. Ramsay having eight children, irreconcilable with her innate sense of dread about…everything. The multitudinousness of all Woolf’s characters, each one a kaleidoscope, also each moment in time, which never stands still, not even for a moment.
And then I really was down to a book a day, though I made a terrible mistake with this one. I started reading Halfpenny by Jo Walton, whose latest novel, My Real Children, is one of my favourite books of the year so far. Halfpenny is part of her Small Change Trilogy, a series of crime novels set in an alternate history after Britain makes a peace with Germany in 1941. I started reading, immediately gripped by her fictional version of The Mitford sisters, who are very different but just as compelling as the real deal, and this plot to overthrow Britain’s government, which seems be living in Hitler’s pocket. And then I realized that there was a bit too much backstory here, and that I was reading the trilogy out of order! Halfpenny was actually the second book, after Farthing. Luckily, we’d brought Farthing along too, and the spoilers didn’t ruin the reading experience. The whole series is excellent, Walton’s Inspector Carmichael is fantastic, and her woman characters are wonderful. I’d like to foist them books onto everybody…
Next was The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, the second in her trilogy that began with Old Filth, and ended last year with Last Friends. Old Filth was the first of her books I read, three years ago, and it wasn’t what I’d expected. Gardam has a unique style, one that’s not immediately accessible, and I’ve made a thoroughly enjoyable project of learning to appreciate her ever since. And when I read Last Friends a few months ago, I thought I’d finally had her licked. The Man in the Wooden Hat confirms this, and while this is another trilogy I’ve read out of order, it matters less here, as the whole series is anti-chronology, and I think that The Man in the Wooden Hat is the penultimate volume anyway, and now I want to read all the other books again because they’ll be so much clearer now. Gardam’s tale of Betty Flowers is heartbreaking, understated, and quite Woolfian in its grasp of the multitudinousness of things, of love. I am quite proud that I’ve finally figured out this writer (or begun to—who’d ever want to be done with such a thing?) who is revered by so many readers I admire.
Then I read Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, whom I’d never read before, and while it took me a little while to find my literary footing, once I did, I was entranced. A fairy tale ensconced in realism, subtle allusions, and a piece that becomes about itself rather than its source. As with all the books I was reading this week, nothing was ever one thing. The book was beautiful, sad, generous, and surprising. The British-born Oyeyemi a kind of literary ventriloquist, but that’s not the right term because it suggests puppets, and her people were so solidly real. Their voices too, which is my point, and also how Oyeyemi, British born, channels the American novel, its tropes and tones and New England atmosphere. I loved this book, and now I have to read her previous novel, Mr. Fox.
I read Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny after that, because I’ve become quite adamant about my connection between Louise Penny books and the cottage. To me, she’s the definition of vacation reads. I only started reading Penny with A Trick of the Light, a few books ago, so I have many unread Inspector Gamache novels before me, not even counting her latest, The Long Way Home, which is out this month. So this was a catch-up read, and I really liked it. (Stuart read an ARC of The Long Way Home this week, and predicts that I will enjoy it.)
And finally, I read Farthing. Where I probably should have started, but alas. It was so so good. Jo Walton is a tremendous writer who really deserves to be better known. A series written in the tradition of Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers, Walton explains that her historical writing is strongly linked to the present day: “Nothing is written in a vaccuum. I wrote these books during a dark time politically, when the US and the UK were invading Iraq without a Security Council resolution on a trumped up casus belli. I was brought up by my grandparents, and the defining event of their lives was WWII, it cut across them like a knife. To find a government I had voted for waging a war of aggression really rocked my expectations. If I’d been in Britain I’d have marched and protested, but I was in Canada, which kept out of that unjust war. My husband is Irish, and Ireland wasn’t doing it either. I think it was my isolation on this that went into writing these books.” The result is extraordinary. I’m reading the final book now. Will be sorry when it’s done.
August 3, 2014
My review of K.D. Miller’s wonderful story collection, All Saints, was in the Globe and Mail yesterday. I enjoyed the book so much when I read it in July, and appreciated its vital links to Lynn Coady’s Giller-winning collection, Hellgoing, as well as its Barbara Pymmishness, and the ways in which outright Pymmishness is subverted.
“…All Saints reads like a collision between Pym and Lynn Coady’s recent Hellgoing, whose epigraph is from Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem which asks the question, “When churches will fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into.”
The easy answer is condos – their developers are the only ones still banging on All Saints’s door. As with those in Coady’s collection, Miller’s characters are negotiating existence in a world in which the old rules and morality Pym satirized no longer apply.”
July 24, 2014
These are the books I’m taking away on vacation. There is no possible way this can go wrong.