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March 23, 2017

The Mother of All Questions, by Rebecca Solnit

“There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” —Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions

Do you remember where you were when you discovered Rebecca Solnit? I do—I was listening to The Sunday Edition on CBC and she was talking about her book, The Faraway Nearby, a book that had a line of prose running throughout the bottom of every page. I read The Faraway Nearby, and fell in love with it, writing this effusive response. This was in 2013. In 2013, we still didn’t know that the world would fall apart and that I’d come to rely on Rebecca Solnit so much to put the pieces back together.

Solnit started particularly steeping in the zeitgeist with her 2012 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” which lead to the term “mansplaining” although she’s far too elegant a writer to have invented it. The essay was part of a collection of the same name on feminism that was published in 2014, which was the same year that many of the essays in her latest, The Mother of All Questions, were written. “I’ve been waiting all my life forget what 2014 has brought,” her essay, “An Insurrectionary Year” begins, about that “watershed year” in which conversations about rape and sexual violence started changing. It seems like a long time ago now.

There is a Rebecca Solnit book for every moment—and sometimes for two of them. Her collection of essays Hope in the Dark was first published 2004 in light of George Bush’s re-election and the American invasion in Iraq in spite of global demonstrations for peace the likes of which had never been seen before. After the 2016 US election, the book was reprinted and I read it with such gratitude—it gave me comfort. I was reading it as we marched on January 21, and it made me feel buoyant for the first time in months. It indeed brought me hope, and perspective. There have been hard times before, activism is always a process, it’s always too soon to go home, and that you never know what effects your actions will achieve. There are grounds for hope. It’s a reason to bother.

The Mother of All Questions is another book about feminism, although it reads less triumphantly than such a book might have a short time ago. Before the patriarchy saw fit to elect an incompetent sexual predator to its highest office, because the alternative was a smart and qualified woman who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. They sure showed her though, and all of us, where we’re at in terms of gender politics and equality. It is true that with the elections all my illusions about feminism and progress went kaput, and I’ve been functioning in a  state of perpetual heartbreak ever since then. To think I’ve been raising my daughters to have a voice and to take for granted that their ideas and input would be valued by the world—what was I even thinking?

The ideas Solnit takes on here involve silences: “Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.” She writes about the people who weren’t permitted to speak, and the tales that weren’t allowed to be told. She writes about the men who are silenced by patriarchal forces, from being themselves, telling their own stories. She writes about rape, consent, domestic violence. She writes about the silence that occurs because no one is listening. About new and difficult conversations that have started to happen in the last twenty years or so, attempts to reconcile the unreconcilable (and the backlash). Most of these essays have appeared elsewhere and I’ve read a few of them, but it does me good to read them here assembled all together. There are many ways that I process the world, but reading Rebecca Solnit is a very important one of them. It’s true, I don’t read for her interrogation. I read her for comfort. Wanting comfort is not such a terrible thing.

However. “All your faves are problematic,” somebody tweeted last week, possibly in response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about transwomen. And it’s true, and Adichie’s comments were ignorant and she’s not the spokesperson for every single living thing, but I’m not sure there is anybody who isn’t problematic. Remember the year we had to keep quiet about our admiration for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton because she too had failed to be perfect? And I went along with that. It was a silence. To admit one’s lack of socialist principles, and her Iraq war vote. She was the establishment, and there was Wall Street. She wasn’t even cool. Similarly, I had go to keep my excitement about Caitlin Moran’s new book on the downlow because she was racist and ignorant in a tweet in 2011. Which was problematic. But everybody is problematic. (It also seems that there is nothing more problematic than a woman being popular. Or in particular being popular with other woman. If too many women like you, then you’ve suddenly lost all your cred.)

I think we need to give women the space to be problematic though. I think we have let our feminist heroes cause trouble, and be wrong, and not even to atone if they don’t want to. We need to let people complicate things. We need to let others rail against it. That’s how progress happens. That’s how truth emerges. Uncertainty is okay, containers are porous. And I keep returning to the quote I started this essay with, “There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” Rebecca Solnit keeps refusing it admirably.

March 20, 2017

Mitzi Bytes in the World this Week

The neat thing about Mitzi Bytes in the world this week is that Mitzi Bytes is actually in the world this week! The book launched on Tuesday, whose highlights were the appearance of an excellent review in Quill and Quire (“The novel’s cover makes it seem like a light read–and it is fun… At the same time, though, Clare makes us rethink what it means to be a mother, daughter, husband, and friend, and places the book directly within the current conversation about parenting in the 21st century.”) and an appearance on CBC Here and Now. I am also particularly proud of this review by Rohan Maitzen, who is a critic I admire immensely. On Thursday, we had our launch party here in Toronto, which was sponsored by the Toronto Lit Up Program via IFOA and the Toronto Arts Council. It was a terrific evening, and I got to read the ventriloquist sex scene, so that was amazing. It was so nice to have so many friends there and celebrate properly, and sign many many books. So grateful to Ben McNally Books for hosting us!

On Saturday Mitzi Bytes received the best imaginable review possible in the Toronto Star, which concluded with “Entertaining, engaging and timely, Mitzi Bytes is a pleasure to read from start to finish. It heralds the arrival of a fantastic, fun new novelist on the Canadian scene.” So THAT was nice. (!!!!) And then we were off to Peterborough for a hometown launch at Hunter Street Books, and we sold all the books. Which I can’t take much credit for, really. It just turns out that I am the child of incredible networkers (and very proud parents!) who invited everyone they’d even known to the launch and are well-liked enough that the people even came. I am so grateful to everyone who was there, and glad we had very cool Mitzi Bytes cookies for everybody. It was a really fun event, and great to see old friends and hang out in Michelle Berry’s wonderful shop. It was a grey and gloomy day, but the inside bookstore was so bright.

PS It was nice to read reviews from the HCCFirstLook program. I am grateful to these great readers for talking about the book.

March 19, 2017

So Much Love, by Rebecca Rosenblum

My friend Rebecca Rosenblum’s third book and debut novel So Much Love launched on the same day my book did last week, although I’d picked up a copy (from Indigo’s “New and Hot Fiction” table) two days before. I’d read it years ago in manuscript form and really liked it, and it was to my great joy to discover as I read the book last week that everything I remember loving about the first version—lines and scenes and settings—were still there, but that all the pieces of the story had been pulled together into a beautiful package that reads as seamless. It’s an incredible book, about the disappearance of a young woman and the devastation her absence leaves, and we also hear from the woman as well, and from a poet who’d been murdered in an act of domestic violence years before in a story with strange parallels to the central story. But not so many parallels—maybe vague connections are a better descriptor. Because to say there were parallels suggests that two characters’ stories might be alike, or that the the people who populate the novel are anything like types, because they’re not. And that’s so remarkable. The specificity with which the novel’s characters are evoked, every single one of them. I am awed by how Rebecca manages to imagine a 50-year-old male college professor reflecting on decades of marriage, a single mother desperate at her grown daughter’s absence, a kidnapper, a waitress, a poet, a builder. Each of them so stunningly realized—it’s magic. Sometimes the characters are so singular that it makes me wonder why—Catherine Reindeer, mature student, married young, works as a waitress, taking just one class a semester because she’s determined to avoid student debt. Which comes full circle, because, why? Because that’s who she is. These people are alive, and their city has its specific geography, and they all have their histories, and not all of it is delineated, but it’s there. We know it’s there. The whole novel was so enveloping, which is what hooked me, even though this is not a novel you’d call “deftly plotted” or “chockfull of suspense.” Which is not to say it’s boring or slow, but it more cerebral. It’s a novel whose atmosphere the reader steeps in rather than races through, and I loved that. Even though it wasn’t always easy—Rebecca avoids sensationalizing violence and only alludes to the worst bits, but it’s all very emotional wrought. There is so much sadness…and yet. And the title then, the so much love. Which is, of course, the whole point.

I loved this book. It’s an incredible achievement. I’m so proud of my friend.

March 17, 2017

You Are Three, by Sara O’Leary and Karen Klassen

Three is a good age, is a thing that someone said to me today, and it might have been the first time I ever heard that. I cocked my head. “Oh, really?” Although she was talking about her grandchild and maybe three is a good age if the child is only yours on a partial basis. For the rest of us though, three is a battle. Three is ferocious, still wakes you up at night and no longer naps. Three has more complex needs, and will still bite you in a pinch. Three is strong and tenacious and refuses to give in, and can whine and whine until the sun goes down. And keep on whining.

And yet. Three is also sturdy legs that can walk long distances with no complaints. Yes, three will point to your stomach and remind you that you look like you’re having a baby, but three will also whisper in your ear that you look like a princess. You never even knew you desired to look like a princess, but you are satisfied. Three tells stories about her friends at school, and eats everything in her lunchbox even though she never eats at home. She loves cats, but only if they are pink. Three likes to read chapter books because her big sister reads chapter books, and she picks sparkly ones out at the library with fairies on the cover, and she sits alone thumbing the pictureless pages and you wonder what she sees.

So yes, three has been a good year, even though three is hard and stubborn and still screams when you are unable to conjure impossible things. Three will howl for blocks and blocks or run away from you in a crowded subway station just to demonstrate how much she doesn’t want to hold your hand. But three will also sit at the table, most of the time. She will tell jokes and contribute to discussions and ask questions and point out things you never would have noticed on your own. With a three-year-old, you are a family, instead of three people and a baby. Your seven-year-old will say to you, “It’s really great to have a sister you can talk to.” And you will only be partially totally confused about what exactly she means.

(My favourite thing in the world is listening to my three-year-old singing along to songs that my seven-year-old is making up on the spot.)

Three is a good age, because it means we no longer have a baby. We never wanted another another baby after we had our last one, and I don’t lament the end of the baby years. My baby is heading off to kindergarten in the fall and I am fine with that. This is why we had babies anyway; the babies were what we had to go through to get the kids. And we love the kids. We toss the baby stuff out to the curb and cheer, and have filled all that space with camping equipment.

And so I was surprised to be moved by You Are Three, the final book in Sara O’Leary and Karen Klaassen’s trilogy celebrating the milestones of toddlerhood. Flipping through the pages the other night, I felt a bit emotional. Because three is a cusp, about to unfurl. Three is a person’s threshold to the world, and while I’m ready to usher my little person through the door, it’s easy to forget the moment we’re in. This funny girl will never again be so funny, or at least not funny in the same way. The You Are Three book reminds us to notice where we are right now: the kid who rides a scooter, carries her umbrella, and loves to hide. Her incredible worlds of make-believe, and her pictures, and the ways she sings her ABCs. “You are still our baby/ but you are also your own person./ We love to hold you close/ and we love to watch you run.”

March 16, 2017

Tonight!

March 15, 2017

Revisiting Booky

Harriet and her Brownie group served dinner to a group of homeless and impoverished young people at a local church a few weeks ago, which taught us an essential truth about the face of poverty, which is that it has many faces, people with all kinds of different stories, and people with children and babies. None of the girls could quite get over that—that there had been a baby. Though of course it was the baby’s table everyone wanted to serve at, but even the people who weren’t babies were really nice and everyone was friendly and polite. And then we came home and picked up another chapter of That Scatterbrain Booky, by Bernice Thurman Hunter, a novel we’d been reading together over the past few weeks.

Hunter’s Booky series and her Margaret books had been huge for me growing up, as both a reader and a writer, although until I picked the novel up again and realized how much the stories were now built into my literary DNA, I hadn’t given them that much credit. The series is not exactly unsung—a Booky film was made starring Meaghan Follows about ten years ago, titles are still in print—but there were no copies for sale in the bookstore I was in the other day. And you don’t hear writers talking about Booky, the same way they talk about Anne or Emily, or Alice or even Harriet and Ramona—although a few years back Carrie Snyder included the Booky books on a list of titles that inspired her as a young writer.

One Saturday night though, so happy to be rereading the book and impressed to find that it was such a strong and powerful literary work (which is a thing you discover quickly when you’re reading out loud) I posted a photo of the cover on Instagram. And then my Instagram feed went bonkers. Everyone remembered Booky. Everyone loved Booky. Grown men professing their love for the Booky books and memories of Hunter visiting their school libraries in the 1980s. Everyone had Booky memories to share, the vivid scenes still resonant. There’s something about these books, and all its avid readers should look into revisiting them as an adult.

Because they’re really good. This incredibly strong but chatty first-person narrator who pulls in close and focuses on details (the warmth from the stove on the streetcar as passenger huddled around it, the stripes on the sweaters from the Toronto Star Christmas boxes which the kid who wore them got mocked for, the exact contents of a bag of penny candy) but then pulls out too with a broader perspective (“grandpa would only live three years after that…”) and shows the reader that these are stories told with the benefit of hindsight. The deftness with which Hunter maneuvered this was so impressive, but so too is the story’s gritty edges, which never detract from its buoyant tone. In fact as a young reader I never noticed, but they’re there. Booky’s family can barely support the children they have and (although nobody knows yet) another’s on the way, and she overhears her parents discussing the possibility of her parents giving this baby up for adoption. Strung across the entrance to High Park is a sign announcing that the park is “Gentiles Only.” When Booky’s dad finally finds work as a maintenance man at the chocolate factory, it’s only after the previous holder of that titled has been fatally injured in an industrial accident. Throughout the entire book, the family is this close to being evicted and at one point they actually are. And although the fact of it is breezed by, Booky is severely malnourished and therefore eligible for free milk at school. When her family sits down together at the table, often her parents eat nothing.

So this is far from the Old Toronto nostalgic days-gone-by kinds of stories I remembered Booky for, the kinds of stories Kamal Al Solaylee warned us about in his essay “What You Don’t See When You Look Back.” Although like those sepia-toned images, there aren’t people of colour in Booky’s stories, but they are just outside the frame. And the bygone days are not made sweet in their memory—these were hard times, and people suffered mercilessly. In the ways that so many still do.

By which I mean that when we read Booky the night after serving dinner at the church, the bygone days didn’t seem so bygone after all.

March 14, 2017

It’s Mitzi Bytes Day!

Having a book is like having a baby, except with less heartburn, but what I mean is that there is so much waiting, and then all at once the waiting is done and the day is here, and it kind of feels like there should have been something in between the anticipation and arrival. Or maybe I’m just nuts, which is possible. Nevertheless, it is March 14, which means that Mitzi Bytes is officially now in the world, even though it’s been making its way into bookstores and even groceries stores over the past week or so. We went to Indigo at Bay and Bloor yesterday, and it was very exciting, and I got to sign a stack. A cool thing is a Mitzi Bytes rave from Susan at Pocket Alchemy, who even made a cross-stitch pattern for the cover. I also did a really fun event at the Writers Community of Durham Region on Saturday, and a writer in attendance posted a wonderful piece in response to my blogging workshop. And now we’re getting ready for the launch on Thursday at Ben McNally Books and the hometown launch in Peterborough on Saturday. It’s going to be fun. And be listening to CBC Here and Now tomorrow at 4:45 to hear my live interview with Gill Deacon. I’m looking forward to it.

PS As I’ve written about before, my book shares a birthday with my friend Rebecca Rosenbaum’s novel, So Much Love. I’m reading it right now and it’s stunning. Definitely pick this one up.

March 12, 2017

Literary Coattails

I had this plan that I would be blogging about things other than my book when my book came out, possibly the same way I’d once upon a time planned to not be a person who posts copious photos of her children on social media. But those kinds of plans aren’t always rooted in reality. My whole approach to blogging is that you blog about what’s in front of you, and the book is everything right now. If I were blogging about things other than Mitzi Bytes at this moment in time, that would be inauthentic.

And today I’m thinking about the books that are Mitzi Bytes‘ literary foremothers. On International Women’s Day, Jessica Rose posted a photo of a page from Mitzi Bytes (with brackets. Someone drew brackets in my book. This is huge) and it reminded me that I’d written that part of the novel under the influence of After Birth, by Elisa Albert. This was in the second draft, written in the spring of 2015, when it was beginning to get warm but there weren’t yet leaves on the trees. I spent Sundays at Robarts library writing this draft, and I think this was added because I wanted to show more of her process as a blogger. I was inspired by the rage in After Birth (and its treatment of female relationships) and wanted to convey that same feeling, but it was also inspired by Reta Winters’ rage in Carol Shields’ Unless. At some point my character says, “It’s because I’m a woman,” the same way that Reta Winters thinks her daughter’s trauma comes down gender and oppression. And it does, but it’s more complicated than that. Like Carol Shields, I wanted to write a woman who didn’t always see the whole picture. (Because who always sees the whole picture?)

And like Louise Fitzhugh did in her novel Harriet the Spy (which I didn’t read until I was 27, but then I named my firstborn after it and wrote a book in homage to it—what an impression…) I wanted to write a character who doesn’t learn her lesson and change at the end. This is still controversial and frustrates readers. And it’s why I feel very lucky to have found an editor who supported this aim of my project, who recognized that this radical notion was essential to the book. I suppose it’s another thing I admire about Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? too, along with all its other goodness. Bernadette is suffering from depression and admitting that and beginning to get over that will be important to her—but she’ll still kind of always been an asshole. And there are people who love her anyway. I wanted to write a person like it. (It is distinctly possible that I am a person like that.)

And speaking of Bernadette, oh, that book. The book I stayed up all night reading the night after Iris was born, and I just loved it so completely that I secretly resented every other book for not being Bernadette for months afterwards. As I read it I also knew that this was kind of novel I wanted to write—a novel that was smart and funny at once. I reread it perhaps a year later to discover if it was really as good as I remembered, or if it had just been the pain meds. And it was just as good. Only thing, it dawned on me that my work might never reach such levels of greatness, which left me despondent for about five minutes. And then I got over it, and thanked my lucky Semples for the inspiration.

Another book that’s been so important to me is Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, by May Friedman, from which I got the phrase “critical uncertainty in practice,” which pretty much underlines everything I ever get up to. Friedman’s book is a wonderful history of women in blogging and one of the most excellent books about feminism I’ve ever read. (She has also become my friend, and I feel so extraordinarily lucky that endorsement is on the back of my book.)

And finally To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf, which ended up in my novel because I reread it the summer I wrote the novel (and like my character, I’d just bought a new copy and replaced the old one with my childish and embarrassing marginalia). I think it is possible that I might be able to weave themes from To the Lighthouse into every project I ever write. The questions Woolf poses about who women are and how they are seen and how they spend their time and their preoccupations are no closer to being answered for than they were a hundred years ago. But those questions themselves and the ideas they are inspire remain oh so rich.

March 10, 2017

Under the Umbrella, by Catherine Buquet and Marion Arbona

A beautifully illustrated picture book that celebrates a few of my favourite things, namely light, umbrellas, and baked goods? Yes, please.

This week’s pick is Under the Umbrella, by Catherine Buquet and Governor General’s Award-winning illustrator Marion Arbona, translated by Erin Woods. As we turn towards the season in which the rain can seem unceasing and the world still a bit too cold and grim, it becomes important to be reminded not to hurry too much, and not to miss those moments in which light and communion is possible.

The book begins with a man who’s doing battle with the wind and rain, barrelling his way along his journey, and furious at the crowds and the weather, and everything that’s offering resistance. We follow along with him in rhyming verse: “The wind attacked. He bent his back/ and forced his way along./ Wet and cold and late—what else/ could possibly go wrong?”

The man doesn’t even notice the boy he passes staring into the window of the bakeshop. “Dry beneath the awning,/ he gazed upon the spreads/ Of cakes and creams and cookies/ meant to turn each passing head.” And what follows is a delicious golden spread that’s entrancing, a torrent of dancing baked goods…

When a gust of wind rips the umbrella away from the hurrying man’s clutches, the flyaway object lands at the little boy’s feet. The boy retrieves it and the man offers his thanks, and suddenly notices the world around him, the light at the window, the good things on display inside. “Aren’t they amazing?” the boy asks him.

I’m going to spoil the ending: the man goes inside and buys the wide-eyed boy a rhubarb-raspberry tart. (Like most things with rhubarb, I assume it’s made palatable with a great deal of sugar: yum.) And when the man delivers this delicious treat, the boy breaks it in half and shares it. Possibly he knows that shared baked goods have no calories…

“Under the umbrella, time seemed to stall. The rain fell on…/ The sky hung low…/The crowds crept by…/ And none of that mattered at all.”

March 8, 2017

My Book in the World: The Keeping It Real Edition

I’ve long dreamed of the moment I would first spy my novel on sale in a bookstore, and I’ve looked forward to it. On my way to an event a bookstore tonight, I had a fleeting thought that this could be it, that I might see my book on display, for it’s been spied out-and-about and turning up in people’s mailboxes before the release day on Tuesday. It might bring me to tears, I thought. This was kind of exciting and I was feeling pretty uplifted anyway after a vigorous walk on this chilly night, walking west as the sun set. Inside the store, I only felt better. How extraordinary to be a part of this, to have a book. I eyed the stacks on the display table, books selected with care, books whose stacks I’ve selected purchases from many times. Soon, I was thinking, my book will be among these. I imagined how cool that stack would look. I took a moment to see if it in fact wasn’t already there. I checked out the spot on the shelf where my novel would live, right there between Ted Chang and Chris Cleave. Already it was such a magic space and I envisioned the look of my book’s spine. Little Book, I was telling it, which wasn’t entirely sensible since it’s a book and wasn’t even there, but there you go. There is so much waiting for you. 

In my experience, being published is a roller coaster of highs and lows. There were the gorgeous reviews from actual people, and the readers who connected with me, and the thrill of connecting with booksellers, and then there were the events that literally nobody comes to. Like that story about Margaret Atwood signing books in the sock department in Eatons. There is a Margaret Atwood story about every kind of humiliation that solely exists just to make us all feel better. I remember headlining a sparsely attending event not so long ago and sending my husband a text message a few minutes before showtime: Oh my god, this is terrible, why do I keep doing this to myself, oh my god oh my god, the humiliation, I want to die. 

It was a bit like that, that moment when I first spied my book on sale in the bookstore. Moments before I’d been feeling pretty good about everything, still a bit stunned at the book’s appearance in Hello Magazine last week, anticipating stacks and stacks on tables, mobs of school girls chasing me down streets like Beatlemania. It was all kind of inevitable. And then there it was, my book. I’d know that spine anywhere and I spied it across the room, which is a good sign, I guess. We wanted it to “pop.” But there was a problem. I was standing in the children’s section. What was my book doing on the shelf in the children’s section? And why was there only one sad little mis-shelved copy and was this a systemic problem and my book was going to be shelved in children’s sections into perpetuity?? Oh my god, had everything gone wrong?

I picked my poor little book off the shelf and cradled it in my arms, and slunk up to the bookseller in total shame. “Um, this is kind of weird,” I said. “But, um, I wrote a book, and it’s on the shelf, but it’s not on the right shelf.” “Where was it?” “YA,” I said. “But it’s not YA?” I shook my head. “Well, what is it?” “Fiction, I guess.” This was unbelievable. Didn’t this person read Hello Magazine? I thought you were all eagerly anticipating my book as much as I was. I thought I would walk into the bookstore and alarms would start blaring, and not even because I was shoplifting.

She checked the system. There was no reason the book should have been mis-shelved in YA. I was so mortified. “I mean, I wasn’t, like, looking for it, or anything. But I just saw it there, and I don’t know how impressed you might be with it if you were looking for YA. Not that I’ve got anything against YA. I mean, some of my best friends write YA.” This was totally totally terrible.

“Well, you can put it on the shelf, I guess,” she told me. It wasn’t really the climax I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It was more like I wished the ground would open up and swallow me up, and my book. (I should have known. I have known well for quite sometime that being a writer is nothing less than a series of abject humiliations.) But I was holding the book, that lonely little book, and it wasn’t like I was going to buy it. And so I shelved it, between Ted Chang and Chris Cleave. It looked good, but that didn’t help much. I took a photo, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was only taking the photo anyway to accompany the inevitable blog post about this terrible, painful experience that I am only writing in order to make something worthwhile of it. And to make me feel better.

“Oh, do you want to sign it?” the bookseller asked me as an afterthought.

My answer was a definitive no. Somehow it didn’t seem appropriate, and I didn’t have a pen.

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