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Pickle Me This

July 19, 2021

Getaway

How I spent my summer vacation! So nice to read such an eclectic selection of fiction.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is one of the most hyped books of the season, and I really liked it. A fictional oral history of a 1970s’ pop act, it’s also a fascinating treatment of how race and gender can eclipse talent, and a withering indictment of white allyship.

I picked up Picnic at Hanging Rock after it was included on the Topaz Literary Summer Reading Round-Up, and I am so glad I did, because indeed it’s a sultry, languid read, weird and disturbing, the story of the unsolved disappearance of three school girls in turn-of-the-century Australia.

Single Carefree Mellow was everything I was hoping for in a Katherine Heiny book, so sparkling and weird, and definitely a riff on Laurie Colwin who knew better than to assume that love and infidelity were interchangeable, because real life is more messy and complicated. The only problem is that now I’ve read all her books, and so she has to publish another one pronto

I read Burnt Sugar next, by Avni Doshi, so unrelentingly bleak, kind of holding up a magnifying glass to its characters so we could see ever errant hair and enlarged pore, and there was so much ugliness. I didn’t like it, but that’s not to say it wasn’t really good.

And then I read Long Live the Post Horn next, by Vigdis Hjorth, and wasn’t crazy about it initially. I am allergic to the works of Ottessa Mosfegh, and this was kind of similar in the beginning, not far from the bleakness of Burnt Sugar, with characters numb and detached, but then it clicked for me, mostly because it’s about hope and the postal system, which is definitely my jam. And I don’t think I’ve ever read a Norwegian novel before.

After that: Maeve Binchy! I read Circle of Friends years ago when I was a teenager who cut out pictures of Chris O’Donnell from magazines and hung them on my wall, but never read anything else, deciding that Binchy was for biddies, but for the last few months I’ve been listening to the You’re Booked podcast and they talk about her all the time, and so when I found Light a Penny Candle in a Little Free Library, I brought it home, and it was delightful, which I don’t say about most books more than 800 pages long, and it only became COMPLETELY ridiculous in the last few chapters, which is pretty impressive. A really wonderful look at friendship, and also of women who are allowed to be different and now just foils.

And finally, Astra, by Cedar Bowers, which I started on the last night of our trip, a novel in pieces, and I am waiting until I get to the end of give my assessment, but maybe smart people are saying many good things about this book.

July 9, 2021

The Fourth Child, by Jessica Winter

I could not love the cover of this book more, at first glance one of those abstract artful prints that have been splashing over literary novels in recent years but, upon rotation, the picture becomes a landscape, a suburban streetscape complete with a picket fence, and the whole novel is a little bit like that, art and realism, something different every way you look depending on your point of view.

Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child is a novel about abortion and motherhood, but to say such a thing is far too reductive, because this is a book far richer than merely what it’s “about.” Instead of about, it’s a world conjured, decades of history, layers upon layers of meaning, and it begins with Jane, a fervent Catholic schoolgirl who becomes pregnant and marries her boyfriend. Going on to have three more children, and a less than satisfying marriage, and when her eldest daughter Lauren comes of age, she takes on a share of the narrative, consumed with high school social dynamics, Jane existing on her periphery, consumed with her local right-to-life group. But then this arrangement is shattered with Jane brings home an orphan from Romania, a disruptive toddler who’s somehow Lauren’s sister now, and the extent of her attachment trouble sends each member of this already fragile family to the end of their tether.

But also Lauren is not a satellite, her story the effect of Jane’s cause, because she’s on her own collision course, and that a daughter can be a part of you and also her own separate universe at once is the confounding paradox of parenthood. Which only makes each character’s story richer and more complicated, of course—that our mothers and daughters don’t exist for our own purposes, and here they come along, messing up. And I think it’s the seeming randomness of the novel’s many elements that underlined its artfulness to me, enhancing the texture, the way that all the pieces don’t just lock into place, because they don’t in the world. The years passing by with culture happening in the background—Buffalo makes a curiously compelling setting here, a player called O.J. Simpson playing for the local sports team, and it’s like we can see the 1990s coming. (The Fourth Child reminded me a lot of Ben Lerner’s Topeka, the way it traces so many of our current cultural divisions back to the 1990s, when all the players were stepping into formation.)

I adored the way that The Fourth Child complicated binaries, sat comfortably with paradox, and not only dared to show the many “sides” of the abortion debate, but to suggest it’s not a debate, but life itself, in all its painful, messy splendour.

July 7, 2021

Grinding Sharpening

For years, the knife sharpening van has existed on the margins of my experience, an uncanny ringing in the distance, slowly moving up and down the streets of our neighbourhood, slightly sinister. The idea of waving him down with a handful of knives always seemed awkward to me, and so I never have, and so all of our knives are dull dull dull.

The knife sharpening van makes a cameo appearance in my first novel, Mitzi Bytes, underlining the danger inherent in ordinary lives.

We were having a conversation about the knife sharpening van, its elusiveness, and our dull kitchen knives as recently as yesterday.

And then tonight we heard the tell tale clang clang clang, and ran out the door, knife wielding maniacs. “Stop, stop!” And he did!!

WE CAUGHT THE KNIFE SHARPENING VAN.

And it did not even open up a portal to another dimension.

It did, however, generate considerable sparks.

And someone is likely to slice open their hand in our kitchen within the next few days.

It was really and truly magic.

July 6, 2021

Gleanings

(Gleanings is going in summer holidays! Will be back at regular speed in September and maybe sooner here and there…)

July 5, 2021

Habits

In February, with infection rates rising, along with new variants whose increased transmission rates were still not understood, plus cold temperatures that made potentially infectious droplets hang in the atmosphere longer (and made face coverings very practical due to facts of chill), I got in the habit of wearing a mask every time I left my house.

This was especially important since I live in a densely populated area, and every trip down the sidewalk necessitated close encounters with my neighbours, because distance wasn’t always possible. And the shift to wearing a mask all the time was a deliberate and considered one. I’d been wearing a mask every time I took my kids to school and picked them up since September, but that was because I wanted to model this behaviour and take responsibility as the parent of children with the privilege of attending school in-person. I had resisted masking as a reflex, however, because it didn’t make sense from an infection control standpoint and also I don’t like being told what to do. I was going to wear my mask when it made sense to wear a mask—indoors and/or when I was in close proximity to others.

But in February, masking outdoors made some sense, and so I shifted my habits, and so it’s been ever since, but I’m trying to quit now. With infection rates falling in Ontario (170 cases today! There were more than 4000 daily cases in April…) and vaccine rates climbing (I am two-weeks past my second shot on Thursday!), masking to walk down the street seems less necessary, especially if I am keeping to less busy routes.

It’s too easy to become entrenched in one’s habits, which makes little sense in such a dynamic situation. But one’s habits become a comfort, of course, and can stand for security, and so it takes a bit of courage and thoughtfulness to keep evolving as everything else does, but I am determined to do so, so I don’t become that nutty woman yammering on at the Farmer’s Market about what Dr. Fauci was saying about masks in March 2020, if you know what I am saying.

June 29, 2021

Gleanings

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June 25, 2021

3 Things for 42

Yesterday was my birthday, and there were three things that I wanted to do.

I went to see my book in a real indie bookstore! I was lucky to see it in Indigo before the province shut down in November, but seeing it at Book City was definitely a dream come true. Even better: I got to buy books, after I’d signed mine.

I went to get my second vaccination! Stuart had his the day before. Harriet gets hers tomorrow. What a thing to have this all done before the beginning of summer. We are so profoundly grateful—for our opportunity, and also for everybody else who’s doing their part to get us to the end of all this.

And then after dinner, we went swimming! After no city pools at all in 2020 (they were open, but required lining up, and I am not big on line ups if I’m not guaranteed something at the end of one), it feels extraordinary to be back again. I’d tell you that I’ve learned not to take these ordinary things for granted…but I really never ever did.

June 23, 2021

Returning

Something that is surprising me about my feelings about the world reopening again after a very long and difficult time is that I AM SO READY FOR IT. Like ridiculously ready. There is no trepidation, or anxiety, or complicated feelings (though of course there are. But far fewer than you’d think). None of it is complicated in the slightest: I want to do all the things. Bring on the Roaring Twenties, Motherfuckers! Basically, if I’m not dead in Jay Gatsby’s pool by the end of August, what have I even done with my summer?

I have erred on the side of caution over the last year and a half. We did visit the museum and art gallery when permitted, and my children returned to school in person in September, but we haven’t socialized with other families since last summer when we’d picnic in the park. My mom came to see us at Christmas, but we sat apart with the windows wide open (and you can imagine how pleasant that was in the depths of winter). I’ve not been inside anybody else’s home, or eaten in a restaurant. We at dinner on a patio once in October, but only because we couldn’t find anywhere to get takeout from, and it definitely wouldn’t have been our first choice…

But now we’ve thrown all caution to the wind. (WITHIN REASON! I am still only gathering outdoors for the summer, keeping distance, wearing masks when I can’t. Tomorrow I receive my second vaccination shot.) I WANT TO DO ALL THE THINGS. Last Friday, Stuart and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary with a dinner on a patio. It felt like a dream. Sharing space with other people! Drinking beer out of a proper glass! Choosing to order dessert! I sat down and thought, “Delta variant!” but then put that bad thought out of my head, because I am finished with this pandemic. You know that thing that people kept saying all winter, something like, “The pandemic is not over just because you’re over it.” But you know what? It is. I am. BYE BYE BYE.

On Sunday evening, a dream came true. After a year and a half of (mostly) patient waiting, our family returned to our sacred swimming ground, the Alex Duff Pool at Christie Pits Park. Which seems much closer to our house than it did before everyone in our family became a cyclist, but now it’s just the most pleasant, swiftest journey away, up Brunswick and across on Barton. I didn’t dare to really hope that it would happen—the possibility of thunder clouds, or a pool fouling. I’ve learned over the past year and more not to think too far into the future, just to take things as they come instead, but it came. Six o clock, and we were let into the pool area (45 swim sessions reserved online, no use of change areas, but still) and there it was, the place I’d been dreaming of since Labour Day 2019, which was the last time we’d swam there. Even better? As the other swimmers began to arrive (attendance was capped) we discovered we had friends among them, and I jumped into the deep pool without testing the water, and it was like no time had passed at all.

June 22, 2021

Gleanings

Do you like reading good things online and want to make sure you don’t miss a “Gleanings” post? Then sign up to receive “Gleanings” delivered to your inbox each week(ish). And if you’ve read something excellent that you think we ought to check out, share the link in a comment below.

June 16, 2021

How the Pandemic Has Changed Our Home

Every weekday morning for the past year and a bit, I’ve woken up in the morning and moved the furniture around in order to transform our living room in a yoga studio. Enough space for two mats, though not enough that a supine twist can be performed properly. I’d love to extend my arm, but there’s the matter of the sofa, and what can you do?

The home gym doesn’t stop there though—upstairs in our bedroom we have a stationary bike that I bought about five years ago, and used joylessly until I discovered that swimming was my ideal physical activity, and put away in the closet. I really supposed I’d gotten rid of it altogether, but it’s a good thing I didn’t, because it’s been our pandemic saving grace.

When our bedroom is not a spin studio, it’s the place where we hide for Zoom calls because it’s most out of the way. Until a few weeks ago, our “desk” was a patio table with a table cloth over it, but when spring returned, we wanted our patio table back for eating, and I was lucky enough to find a secondhand desk online. (Very lucky! Desks are hard to come by these days. I’m sure there’s not a spare desk in the city…) The desk has wheels, which means we can arrange things to ensure racks of drying laundry do not show up in the shot. I have spent the pandemic envying people who have sensible homes with offices and bookshelves, but these days I am just happy to not be sitting at a wobbly bistro table from Canadian Tire whose bolts really need to be tightened.

Last year our children were certain they wanted a beanbag chair, and bought one with their birthday money, because what else are you going to spend your birthday money on in 2020? So now there is an additional place to sit in their bedroom, even though it takes up most of the floor space. It’s been one of our favourite pandemic purchases, and makes for a comfy seat when someone’s tired of sitting at her desk for virtual school. Her sister does virtual school in the living room, which gets turned into a classroom once its done its yoga studio duties.

The children’s bedroom is also the only room in our house that has a door, and so it’s where everybody else hides when I’m doing an important online event at the desk upstairs. Alternatively, when I had to record an interview for national radio, I did it in the children’s room, although Stuart had to go outside and tell the guys with the leaf blowers to stop it. The children’s bottom bunk has also proved to be a fairly good escape from it all when there’s no one else to hide in a way that I might not have expected.

The kitchen table has always been my desk, and so my pandemic has probably been less disruptive than everybody else’s, and I have to share my desk now, but it’s with a person who regularly makes my lunch, and so its always nice to have him. He always refills my teapot when he makes a pot of coffee, and we take turns fielding queries from the children down the hall: “What do you know about phantom power?” “How do you spell luck?” (My answer to any of the spelling questions: “What do you think?”)

It doesn’t surprise me that so many people have pulled up stakes and decided to move during the pandemic. The last year and a half has highlighted so much about our lives, and opened new possibilities we might not have considered before. If you have to spend weeks locked down at home, it’s also really imperative that that home be someplace comfortable, which is just one of the many reasons we’ve considered ourselves so lucky during this time. Our apartment isn’t large, but it’s adaptable, and has different spaces so we can all have a little bit of space to do our thing. We have a backyard too, which has meant the pool that’s delivered us so much happiness while public swimming has been off the table. Even better, we love our neighbourhood, and I’ve appreciated being close to great stores and bakeries, so many restaurants close for takeout, and being here throughout these last fifteen months has been to be connected to others, even when that seemed like a scary thing. It required us to go out into the world with courage and also faith in our community, and both things have been good for the soul, I think.

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