August 30, 2015
Some might say that this blog has been lately suffering from a dearth of photos of my children, and so here they are, modelling the season’s latest fashions in Dufferin and Spadina Subway Stations (the latter at the Walmer Road exit). You will note that between the first and second photo, new shoes and crowns were acquired, so it was an all around excellent day. We’re hoping for a few more of these before they start school in a week and a bit, and yes, I am having my usual pre-September “I do not know what my new routine will be yet!!” anxiety. Hopefully, as in other years, it will all be fine.”
August 27, 2015
The thing about a book illustrated by Julie Morstad is that you’ve just got to buy it, because Julie Morstad books are an occasion, the occasions not at all diminished by the fact that she’s been very prolific lately and her books coming out every few months now. (Recently: Julia, Child; This is Sadie.) I’ve been particularly looking forward to her collaboration with Laurel Snyder, because I’ve been an admirer of Snyder (who is pretty prolific herself) since before she’d ever written a book, when I was an avid follower of her long-ago blog (except then we called ourselves readers and not followers). I even have a copy of her 2007 poetry collection (for grown-up people), The Myth of the Simple Machines, whose cover image is more than a little Julie Morstad-esque.
Morstad and Snyder’s collaboration, Swan, is a picture book biography of the ballerina, Anna Pavlova.
For anyone with a thing for laundry lines in literature (and there are many of us!), this book is for you. It’s the story of a young girl (born in 1881, as the note from the author at the end informs us) whose world is transformed when her mother takes her to see Sleeping Beauty at the ballet.
“Now Anna cannot sleep. Or sit still ever.” Even as she works with her laundress mother, she is thinking about dancing. “She can only sway, dip, and spin…”
The route to success is not so direct. Anna does not get into ballet school on her first try. Once she is admitted (“The work begins. The work? The work! Up and down and back and turn and on and on… Again! Again! Again!”), it is generally assumed that she does not have the right body type, too strange feet for ballet. But she flourishes. Five years into her career, she dances her most famous role: The Swan.
Swan reminded me of Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, the story of a young woman with fierce ambitions who also wishes to make the world more beautiful. Anna Pavlova does this not by planting lupines, but by bringing her art to people around the world who’d never before had access to the elite world of ballet. “Across bullrings and the warped boards of dance halls, she moves everyone. The sick and the poor come to meet her boats and trains, they cheer her, and are cheered.”
I love the fashion (that cloche hat!) in Morstad’s illustrations, and the gorgeous costumes. I also love the footsteps in the snow, which reminds me of Singing Away the Dark, by Caroline Woodward, one of my favourite Julie Morstad titles. Snyder’s prose is full of its own kind of music, sound and rhythm, repeating patterns, a contrast of soft and quiet tones, the reader wholly engaged in the narrative. It’s a book that begs to be read aloud: “There’s a swell of strings, a scurry of skirts. A hiss and a hum and… HUSH! It’s all beginning!”
Full disclosure necessitates that I tell you that Harriet isn’t quite as mad for this book as I am. She admires much about it, but says she finds the ending much too sad. While I really love the ending, how Anna Pavlova’s death is represented as another beautiful performance. (The author’s note explains that Pavlova was calling for her swan dress in her fever.) I appreciate that death is necessarily part of the story, and how gorgeously Snyder puts it: “Every day must end in night. Every bird must fold its wings. Every feather falls at last, and settles.”
“Can I still read it anyway?” I ask Harriet, and she says I can.
I have a feeling it’s going to grow on her.
August 26, 2015
There are some of us, a kind of tribe, I think, who know certain things, like the significance of the address, 20 Forthlin Road, without even Google or the aid of a map. We are indeed the same people who have visited the Beatles Museum at Albert Dock, and can properly visualize the brick wall outside Paul McCartney’s house at 7 Cavendish Avenue London. (We are probably the same people who know that John Lennon lived with Aunt Mimi at Mendips on Menlove Avenue, in the box room above the door where the acoustics were particularly good. And that Paul McCartney has allegedly claimed to have lost his virginity to his babysitter. And how his brother changed his name from McCartney to McGear.)
We are the kind of people them who buy Kimmy Beach’s poetry collection, Fake Paul, on a Wednesday afternoon, and have the whole thing read by Thursday morning. A fantastic tale of obsession and Beatlemania, fan fiction at its very best. Beginning with a woman who is conceived the night the Beatles make their North American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, her stars inextricably linked to those of Paul McCartney in particular. A childhood infatuation in the 1970s leading to a pilgrimage to England and all the Beatles sites, a stolen head from a wax museum, and becoming troublingly devoted to the Paul (the eponymous Fake Paul) from a Beatles tribute band in Edmonton, Alberta.
I am not suggested that only those of us in the tribe can appreciate Beach’s book, but instead insisting that those us in the tribe should. A playful and more than slightly crazed narrative that somehow manages to articulate my experience of longing and infatuation. And yes, who could ever fault a poetry collection that one can devour in a day.
I loved this book.
August 25, 2015
If you’re like me, you’ve always thought the one thing missing from the bucolic idyll of Three Pines in Quebec’s Eastern Townships (apart from a cell phone signal) was arms dealers and old Cold War conspiracies. Or maybe you never knew that you were missing these, but while their arrival into Louise Penny’s fictional village initially seems a bit incongruous, you will quickly suspend disbelief and just settle into her latest title, The Nature of the Beast, enjoying the ride.
After finding her previous release underwhelming (and it was always going to be a challenge to follow up the amazing How the Light Gets In—interestingly, too, her books set in Three Pines [no matter how unfathomably!] always seem to be her most compelling), I was so pleased to be swept away by a new Chief Inspector Gamache novel. Although in this one, Gamache is Monsieur instead of Chief, retired from the Sûreté du Québec and living with his wife in Three Pines. Which should really be the last place a homicide inspector goes to retire. It means he’s still in the centre of things when the body of a young boy prone to telling tall tales is found in woods, that horror yielding another more deadly discovery.
Gamache remains a part of the murder investigation, but the dynamics are different now as Isabelle Lacoste has taken his place as Chief Inspector, Gamache’s son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir her second-in-command. The interpersonal relations are one of the most compelling aspects of the narrative, the web widening to include all the residents of Three Pines we’ve become familiar with over the past decade, and a few we haven’t met before. Matters complicated by the arrival of CSIS agents, a mysterious physics professor from McGill University, and old stories about arms deals to the Soviets and Saddam Hussein, a draft-dodger who wrote folk songs with appalling lyrics, and a serial killer whose evil continues to haunt Gamache to this day. Plus a Neil Young soundtrack, references to classical literature and the Book of Revelations, and a wonderful line, an allusion to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, in which Gamache tells Jean-Guy that he “is a brave man in a brave country.”
Weapons of mass destruction in Three Pines? It’s all a bit nuts, as are the connections between plot points, but the characters are so realized and convincing in their actions and motivations that it works. As do the arguments about good and evil and courage and bravery that Penny and her characters have been grappling with through the entire series. And it’s a relief to find, as the novel suggests, with Gamache making plans for his future, that they’re not finished yet.
August 23, 2015
We went camping this weekend, and will need a few days to recover (and to do loads and loads of laundry). It was a beautiful, if exhausting weekend, and in addition to the company of my own family and that of my dear cousin’s people, I had the pleasure of Louise Penny’s and I’m now midway through her new one, The Nature of the Beast. It’s wonderful! (And must get this one read and then reread Joan Bodger’s How the Heather Looks before my book club meets on Wednesday.) Anyway, the Louise Penny was some consolation for the fact that I am now allergic to both lake water AND sunshine, and therefore had to spend our beach time hiding under an umbrella that kept blowing away. I was only 40% completely grumpy and annoyed about these circumstances, though some might estimate the percentage as a wee bit higher…
August 20, 2015
Today my short short story, “Preventative”, is up at the fantastic The Litter I See Project, a brainchild of the excellent Carin Makuz. She has enlisted a slate of Canadian writers to create a piece inspired by a piece of litter (“the litter I see”) in order to support literacy. Readers who enjoy these pieces are encouraged to make a donation to Frontier College. Find out more about the project here.
“She’s all arms and legs, that girl,” was what everybody kept saying to Myra when Teeny turned six and got gangly. Which irritated Teeny, who was not only pedantic but also sensitive to remarks about her appearance, and so she’d glare at whoever was speaking and she’d say, “That’s not even true. I have a body.” Slapping her bum to make the point, storming away, a tornado of limbs. Eventually Myra’s sister felt she had to have a word.
“That girl needs to learn to watch her tone.”
August 19, 2015
While it is true that the books one reads on her vacation can in fact make or break that vacation, it is essential that the reader not worry too much about all that. That she not fuss about reading books that are geographically fitting, or thematically on point; there needn’t necessarily be a syllabus for one’s vacation reading, is what I mean. And not because a syllabus is not important, but because a syllabus has a strange way of asserting itself. It’s a kind of magic, I think, how when a few random books are selected to be read one after another, they end up speaking to each other in uncanny ways, and echoing the world around their reader.
While I take full credit for reading seven books during my recent one-week summer vacation (with children, no less) full disclosure requires me to inform you that I spent 1.5 hours waiting by myself for our delayed rental car with Nora Ephron’s Heartburn in my bag the day we left, so I got a jump start on the reading. I finished that book before we arrived, but this is kind of cheating because I started it before we even got on the road. In fact, I was reading it on the subway on my way to pick up the car, strap-hanging with one hand, the book in the other, when Rachel’s analysis group gets held up by a robber, and I almost fell over with the pacing of that scene, the absurdity, surprise. The book’s mingling of comedy and tragedy is so wonderful, and the only way a writer could ever get a book like this to work so well, I decided, would be for her to be Nora Ephron. From a technical standpoint, so much is wrong with Heartburn, but it’s perfect. I also tried the Potatoes Anna recipe and it was so ridiculously delicious, and not just because it was butter-laden. I really loved this novel, which introduced what my vacation-reads thesis was ultimately to be: books about marriage, but from often-unexamined points of view. Ephron’s roman a clef about the end of a marriage taking her reader on the roller coaster ride of emotions, the will-she-stay, will-she-go, will-she-plummet-or-soar questions as Rachel navigates her heartbreak. I loved it.
And then Still Life, by Louise Penny, her first Inspector Gamache novel. Which is one of the two mysteries I read that week, neither actually according to the syllabus, but what kind of fun is consistency? Whereas Still Life is so fun, wonderfully good. (I was reading it partly in preparation for the new Gamache book that comes out next week.) Though if I had to make this novel pertain to the syllabus somehow, it would be that Louise Penny novels are books that both parties in my marriage are crazy about. Having Stuart to talk about them with is one of my favourite parts of the reading.
And then Barbara Pym, and I do love to reread her in the summer. I can never remember her titles distinctly until I reread them and it all comes back. Some Tame Gazelle is the one with a Harriet, who lives in a country parish with her sister Belinda. It is also the one with a caterpillar in the cauliflower cheese. Harriet is mad for curates and Belinda harbours an impossible old love for the Archdeacon, who is married. These longings not quite the stuff of Jane Austen (with whom Pym is so often compared) in that the novel only ends with just one wedding and not six, and neither Harriet nor Belinda are the bridal party. And yet these unrequited affections are not meaningless or unimportant: ”Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love.” Marriage need not be the end of the story for a life to be full and complete.
Next was The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, whose Thunderstruck was one of my favourite books of last year. I didn’t like it as much as the short stories—the sadness brought me down and I found that the narrator didn’t give us enough of herself, when she was the most fascinating character in the book. But McCracken is wonderful, and I’ll read everything she writes. Her narrator a rather Pymmish character, a librarian who meets a young boy with giantism. Peggy is drawn to James and desperate to be part of his orbit, never mind the different in their ages or height. It’s a story with a compelling sense of place and time, and richly drawn secondary characters. Two points about the marriage: that Peggy describes herself as the product of two parents who were in love with each other, and that is a blow no child can recover from. And McCracken too describes a Pymmish arrangement, a love that was not conventional or a marriage as we’d understand it, but meaningful and profound all the same.
And then I read Laurie Colwin. Oh my god, Laurie Colwin. I have not reread her books in so long, and I think I was a bit too young when I read them the first time. She is so excellent and funny, and so perfectly strangely skewed. Her book, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, is about a young woman who must renegotiate the terms of her life after the sudden death of her husband in a sailing accident. A husband with whom, she admits, she probably would have divorced—he was young and reckless, and she came along for the ride. So yes, she is devastated, but the ride is over, and what now? The narrative zeroing in on all the parts lesser writers might skip, the seemingly mundane. Colin has unconventional views about marriage and fidelity, and oh yes, she believes in love, but life is as complicated as her characters’ psyches. I loved this book and devoured it, and reread Goodbye Without Leaving last week and then ordered Passion and Affect and The Lone Pilgrim right after, which are the two remaining Laurie Colwin novels I haven’t read yet. Oh, you have to read her. She is so so good.
The Home, by Penelope Mortimer, was my biggest surprise. She is the most undated 1970s’ novelist ever, and I remember thinking that when I read My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof, but this one could have been written tomorrow. (This is the novel I have been wanting to read for years because Carol Shields and Blanche Howard wrote about it in their collected letters.) It was so funny, contemporary, surprising, and strong. About recently-divorced Eleanor who embarks upon her new life as a divorcee after 25 years of marriage, at first with wide eyes and ideas about a home where her grown children would return, her youngest son could grow up secure, where she would have parties, entertain lovers, and be free, for the first time in her life. But reality doesn’t quite measure up (and oh, there is a heartbreaking scene where she has prepared herself and her home for the arrival of a lover, with tragic results). Eleanor’s children are so distinct, loveable, terrible and annoying—I was most amused by the family’s reaction to the eldest, Marcus, a homosexual who lives in France. This was a Margaret Drabble-ish read, but also particular and so excellent. This is a book that absolutely has to be brought back into print.
And then I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which I loved, but there is no way I’m going to see the movie because it might terrify me. The book was definitely not on the syllabus, but it was so good though that I couldn’t put it down and finished before the sun went down. Which mean that I was left bookless: usually a terrifying situation. But kind of a liberating one, after seven days of mad marathon reading.
I am thoroughly incapable of reading nothing though. That night I made do with two 1980s’ Archie Double Digests, and they were fantastic.
August 19, 2015
In the continuing story of our community garden planter, it appears that fairies have suddenly and mysteriously set up shop there.
August 17, 2015
I hadn’t budgeted for books at The Stop Farmers’ Market at Artscape Wychwood Barns a few weeks back, but it turned out that Pedlar Press and Brick Books were vendors (and I met Kate Cayley, whose How You Were Born I loved so much!) so I couldn’t help but pick up something. And I am so glad that the something I got turned out to be the deluxe redesign of Marilyn Dumont’s Gerald Lampert-winning debut collection, A Really Good Brown Girl. A book I read in days, which is rare for me and poetry, but I was captivated by the narrative, the language, the brute force of these poems, as well as their sense of humour, their cheek. “Squaw Poems,” about growing up Metis on the prairies, a household surrounded by “The White Judges” who waited to pounce. And never really went away. But then—
“I am in a university classroom, an English professor corrects my spoken/ English in front of the class. I say, “really good.” He say, “You mean/ really well, don’t you?” I glare at him and say emphatically, “No I/ mean really good.”
This line giving the book its title, a double as so many of the poems show the Metis girl who hears, “You are not good enough, not good enough, obviously not good enough/ The chorus is never loud or conspicuous,/ just there.” And also connecting Dumont not just to her literal foremothers (the women raising Blue Ribbon children with the White Judges looming ) but her literary foremothers too—in her Afterword she writes of the African-American women writers who inspired her, and other Indigenous writers from all around the world. She writes of another really good brown girl in “Helen Betty Osborne”:
Betty, if I set out to write this poem about you/ it might turn out instead/to be about me.
Another poem, “Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald”:
Dear John: I’m still here and halfbreed,/ after all these years/ you’re dead, funny thing… / because you know as well as I/ that we were railroaded/ by some steel tracks that didn’t last/ and some settlers who would settle/ and it’s funny we’re still here and callin’ ourselves halfbreed.
The poems are their own context, but in this new edition they are complemented by Dumont’s Afterword, as well as with an introduction by Lee Maracle:
“No other book so exonerates us, elevates us and at the same time indicts Canada in language so eloquent it almost hurts to hear it.”
I’m so glad I finally read it.
August 16, 2015
While it is certainly true, as Joan Didion wrote, that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it is possible that by now the phrase itself has become so hackneyed as to be a cliche, as have become gushing publisher’s copy comparing heartbreaking memoirs to Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking. But while the good people at Doubleday Canada have resisted to the temptation to slap Camilla Gibb’s memoir, This Is Happy, with the Magical Thinking comparison, I think this the rare case in which the comparison really does apply—Gibb’s memoir is a no-holds-barred dispatch about devastating heartbreak from the frontiers of stark grief, a gut-wrenching story told from the perspective of a most cool and discerning “I”. It’s the “telling ourselves stories in order to live” in practice, Gibb, like Didion, pasting the pieces of her shattered life together, the art that emerges from the exercise.
For anyone familiar with Gibb’s fiction, much the memoir will be familiar too, so much of the former rich with autobiographical details, her first two novels in particular. It is clear that Gibb has been telling herself stories in order to live since her success with her first book in 1999, Mouthing the Words, which was also the story of a young girl from a broken home with a troubled father and plenty of trauma, mental illness, and the disillusionment of the Oxford experience. In This is Happy, Gibb goes back to her own beginnings to paint a picture of her early struggles, trying to pinpoint the moment where it all went wrong.
The happy ending was supposed to be Gibb’s marriage, which lasted ten years, to a woman who is called “Anna” in the book. A period of calm, of happiness. She does not slip into depression, she writes, she finds continued literary success. And then in her late thirties, she is surprised by a yearning to have a baby. After a painful miscarriage (though I don’t know there is any other kind), Gibb finds herself pregnant again, still tentatively so—just eight weeks along. When Anna reveals that their relationship is over, that she has fallen out of love with her. Sending Gibb into torrents of grief, which is extra-troubling because of the new life she carries inside her: this was supposed to be a beginning. Instead it’s more of the same, and Gibb fears her child growing up with the same hardships, emotional deprivations, and sense of displacement that plagued her throughout her own childhood. The damage is being done already, she feels, knowing how a fetus is meant to be affected by a mother’s stress. And she is powerless to stop it.
Except that she isn’t, which is the miracle of narrative. That it moves forward, even if one is only crawling in agony. The final third of the book is the story of Gibb’s pregnancy and experience of new motherhood, and it’s not clear for a long time that this will be a story of triumph. For most of this period, Gibb is wracked with despair, receiving special care after the baby arrives—she realizes later—not because her midwife has concerns about lactation, but because she is crying all the time. Gibb resisting a diagnosis of depression in a way I find interesting, because felt similarly when I first became a mother: that this is not depression, it just that life is terrible. Except that for Gibb, returning to antidepressants brings with it some relief. As does the support system that she has built around her as she’s put her life back together again.
In the new home that she has made for herself and her daughter, Gibb is surrounded by her long-estranged bother, an addict struggling to overcome his demons; her nanny, Tita, an immigrant from the Philippines who is waiting to be able to bring her husband to Canada to be with her; as well as friends, but not the ones she might have expected. Her brother builds her a back deck and does home renovations, she and Tita embark upon the complicated dance of an employer and employee who become much more than that. When her daughter is just a few weeks old, Gibb takes her across the country on tour for her novel, The Beauty of Humanity movement, revealing little of her pain in media interviews, though to be fair, most new mothers only ever really understand the mess they were in in retrospect anyway.
It is not a convenient trajectory: this unconventional family arrangement is not the ending either, but a moment in time. Gibb’s brother eventually leaves for Vancouver, his period of sobriety ending; Tita’s husband arrives, and they’re going to need space to become a family of their own. Gibb’s daughter gets older, a little person in her own right. Every resolution brings with it another kind of challenge, but eventually—with the help of her psychoanalyst, her unique support network, and a lot of what she’s learned about herself in the stories she’s told herself in order to live and then interrogated in order to see deeper—she finds some kind of footing:
“This is the circle that could never quite be complete… It is a story with a different ending. A story without an ending at all./ And this, I know, is happy.”
The amazing but necessary understatement of the final statement. Happiness being only an ordinary thing. And it is, and yet one must undergo a certain amount of experience before understanding that there is nothing ordinary about it—Joan Didion wrote about that in Blue Nights.
While Gibb’s own story is harrowing and awful, it emerges not as the most remarkable element of the memoir, which is instead her narrative voice, the “I” that is Didionesque. Not in the rhythms and cadence, for Gibb’s prose is excellent and entirely her own, but in the distance, the coolness, and restraint. The reader is not to imagine herself in Gibb’s shoes on that fateful day when everything changed, when she’d just purchased a freezer full of expensive fish, anticipating dinner parties and occasions unrolling into the future like a ribbon. She gives a sense of what it felt like, but that sense is not the point: the point is what does it mean? What does one make out of this kind of devastation?
And in Gibb’s case, with This is Happy, the answer is a beautiful, powerful book.