January 20, 2017
Tonight at dinner, Harriet told us a story. “Today for Show and Tell,” she said, “Eric brought in a diaper.” A diaper? “Yes,” she continued. “He punched it, and then he cut it in half and took these things out from inside it, and he put it in his jello bowl, only there wasn’t any jello in it.” I was trying to make sense of this. “So it was like an experiment?” I suggested. The insides of diapers are filled with these gross little gel balls that I only know about because of the times(s) I put a diaper through a wash cycle and it exploded (don’t ask).
“And then he ate it,” said Harriet, and I said, “What?” and we all started laughing, quite hysterically, the way you might if you were eating dinner, someone ate a diaper, and the world’s worst man was being elected the American president tomorrow.
At certain moments, absurdity is fitting, and not much else these days is making the me laugh the way I like to laugh, which is to say, so hard that I shake noiselessly with one of my eyes closed—trust me when I tell you it’s very attractive. At certain moments all you want is a picture book with a sea urchin, a gruff fly, a missing trumpet, and a bat that’s sitting on the toilet. In 2016, the word of the year was “surreal,” and so all this is quite in keeping with the zeitgeist.
Have You Seen My Trumpet?, by Michael Escoffier and Kris DiGiacomo, is a book that’s brought delight to all of us during the past few months. Ostensibly the story of a small girl searching for a trumpet (that doesn’t turn out to be quite what you’d expect), the book’s true charm is spread after spread of bizarre beach scenes with appealing illustration and engaging, amusing details. On every page, a question is asked whose answer is to be found in not only the illustration, but also the question itself—and don’t you love that smug fish (above), who’s hogging all the pails and is sporting his I Love Me t-shirt?
The strangeness of the English language is underlined by this exercise—because indeed, the crow thinks it’s too CROWded, but that’s not we say it. And while it’s true that the owl has fallen in the bOWL, we don’t pronounce “bowl” as “bowel.” Which brings us to everybody’s favourite page, who’s in the BAThroom indeed?
It’s almost as weird as a kid who brought a diaper to Show and Tell and ate it, and makes as much sense as anything.
January 19, 2017
“One day my daughters will ask what I did to save the world for them, and I don’t want to tell them, ‘Nothing.’” I wrote a piece for Today’s Parent about why I’m taking my daughters to the Women’s March here in Toronto on Saturday.
See you there, or in solidarity?
January 19, 2017
Three years ago, I wrote about the importance of using books as literal building blocks, but it’s true that our metaphoric bookish building blocks are always what’s most fundamental. I suspect that somewhere deeply twined into my DNA is the book The 1980s: Macleans Chronicles the Decade, published in 1989 by Key Porter Books. It is possible that no one, apart from the book’s editors, have read this book as avidly as I did, for years and years, and at point in my life too when my brain was still forming so that its images are now seared upon my consciousness—in particularly, unfortunately, a photo of Lech Walesa fishing in his tiny underpants. It would be years before I learned why Lech Walesa mattered, and even once I did, I’ve never been able to disassociate him from his weird blue plaid briefs.
1991, of course, was the end of history, according to Francis Fukuyama, and this is the lens through which I viewed this book, perused its pictures, fascinated. History was done. In my recollection, I was literally in my grade seven history class when the Soviet Union was dissolved—though I am not sure how this is possible because the coup was in August and the union was finished on Christmas, and at neither of these moments was I at school, but still. It’s the idea of a thing. Suddenly all of history was there in the past, and I remember wondering what The 1990s: Macleans Chronicles THAT Decade would look like. But my family never got that book. If history is finished, who needs a chronicle after all?
A copy of this book lives on my shelf, and I don’t leaf through with the same regularity I did as a child, but I did the other week, after two months of feeling so downtrodden, uncannily not at home within the world in which I find myself. I’d read somewhere about the psychology of nostalgia, and how for all of us the moment of greatness in the past lies precisely when we were on the cusp of everything, with so much hope. Remember the ’80s, I was thinking, a decade so ripe with possibility, Lech Walesa’s underpants aside. But then as I started flipping the pages, seeing those iconic, devastating images—the Challenger explosion, famine stricken children in Ethiopia, Bloody Sunday in Beijing, the body of a child buried in ash after the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India; another dead child, lying with its mother, the casualty of poison gas attacks in the Iran-Iraq War; terrorist hijackings, albeit the retro kind when in the end the bad guys let the hostages go. But still. There’s an entire chapter entitled “Assassinations.” The ’80s were really terrible.
I want to hug the woman in the above photo who is protesting for the Equal Right Amendment to the US Constitution. “My foremother,” I want to say to her, “you don’t even fucking know.” Except she probably does, hence the look on her face. To think that 30 years after Henry Morgentaler, on the facing page, won his legal battle to strike down Canada’s abortion law, access to abortion would still seem so precarious (and only theoretical to Canadian women who live in so many places). #FuckThatShit has been my go-to hashtag these last few months as I grapple with “the absurdities that have been foisted on me and my neighbours,” to paraphrase Jane Jacobs. As Macleans chronicles the decade, things right now seem not much different from what they ever were.
None of this is a new story, in what I mean. Donald Trump and his ilk have always skulked the earth, knuckles dragging on the ground. Which is incredibly annoying and demoralizing, but also kind of reassuring too, that people have stood up against dark forces before and we can take courage from them. That goodness prevails, that things can get better.
The fight is never won, but maybe the winning is not the point, and instead the fight is.
January 17, 2017
The first definition of “reconcile” in the Merriam Webster is ” to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions>” but it’s the second definition that is more meaningful to me: “to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>.” This definition certainly resonating in general, because in the past two months my ideals and reality have certainly been at odds, and reconciling that has been a process. The world is more complicated than I ever knew, which makes “restoring to friendship and harmony” seem like a pipe-dream, except: restoring, how? Because when was there ever friendship and harmony? It all sounds a bit like the notion of making America great again—elusive and facile. The first definition is a misnomer. Reconciliation is a process, and in order to be properly it is a process that will never end.
I’ve been thinking a lot about reconciliation lately, as I’ve been reading I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. A friend of mine has also recommended Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. I’m interested in and troubled by the way that people seem unable to constructively disagree with each other. (Another book along these lines that I’ve appreciated is Creative Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity, by Patrick Finn.) I take some solace in the fact that people in disagreement, while inconvenient, is actually much healthier than the alternative, and that the potential for learning is infinite. A community in which everybody though the very same thing, and nobody challenged anyone or asked any questions, would be the very worst thing I could imagine. Worse even than the state we’re in now.
Remember my mantra for 2017, “Listen. Be Better.” I’m trying. It’s a challenge, and such an opportunity. Once upon a time, when I was young and things were simpler, I fervently underlined the following bit from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play I loved: “This is the best time possible to be alive. When everything you know is wrong.” Such a prospect is more terrifying than I ever thought it would be, now that we’re kind of here and, you know, with the collapse of the world order, but still, there is something extraordinary about it too. I’m thinking about reconciliations big and small, in terms of domestic politics and literary criticism, even. Literary criticism, especially, because I wonder if this is a constructive metaphor with which to understand the process that has to happen in order for anything to happen.
Literary criticism, the best kind, is a conversation. A back-and-forth, a broadening, the prying of a text wide open. The best kind of literary criticism isn’t just about the text itself, but it’s about everything, and it invites big questions and many different answers. It provokes debate and causes the reader to change her mind—about the text, about the world. It’s not about whether a text is necessarily good or bad, but about the things it makes us think about, the places it takes its readers beyond itself. Literary criticism is a process, a collaborative ongoing pursuit which requires generosity, openness, consideration and respect on the part of the players involved. If no one’s listening, nothing happens, but if everyone is willing, anything can.
I was thinking about all this as I read Debbie Reese’s review of the award-winning picture book, Missing Nimama, which I reviewed in 2015—and you can read my review here. I am a huge admirer of Debbie Reese’s scholarship and advocacy about representations of Indigenous people in children’s books—she’s taught me a lot and she challenges my understanding in uncomfortable and constructive ways. She’s not afraid to go up against really popular authors—see her review of Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I don’t always agree with her assessments of certain books, mostly because there are so many lenses through which readers approach a book, and hers is one, but I’ve never found her to be wrong.
While I still appreciate Missing Nimama and celebrate its success, Reese’s review shows me my own weaknesses in approaching it as a writer and a critic. Reese writes: “To me, however, Missing Nimama …. strike[s] me as something Canadians can wrap their arms around, to feel like they’re facing and acknowledging history, to feel like they’re reconciling with that history.” She continues, ” To many, this review…will feel harsh. Most people are likely to disagree with me. That’s par for the course, but I hope that other writers and editors and reviewers and readers and sponsors of writing contests will pause as they think about projects that involve ongoing violence upon Native women.”
And this is just the point. The pause, the reflection. Disagreeing is even okay, but it’s failing to consider that is inexcusable. The point is the conversation, the questions that are asked, which are far more important than the answers. And how we take these questions with us, this broadened perspective, with the books we read and the books we write. The point is to listen, and then be better.
UPDATE From Carleigh Baker’s review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break:“A generous storyteller, Vermette does not take it for granted that all readers will inherently understand how damaged the relationship between indigenous people and Canadian society has become. As readers, we can honour this generosity by not allowing ourselves to be lulled into a satisfying sense of camaraderie, having suffered alongside fictional characters. We can honour it by not repeating over and over how strong the women in this book are. It is true, they are strong. But let us not nod our heads in grim recognition of this strength, as if acknowledgement equals solidarity [emphasis mine]. Let us not pull our lips into thin lines and furrow our brows and express amazement at their resilience, as if its origin is a mystery. This makes it too easy to dismiss.”
January 16, 2017
I absolutely loved Take Us To Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor, which was just as fun as its cover promised, and meaningful in a way I should have expected. Because while there is indeed something incongruous about First Nations’ science fiction, it’s only because I’ve never read any, not because it doesn’t make total sense. Is there a cultural group more familiar with notions of alien contact and invasion, for example, as in “A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon,” in which broadcasters at a community radio station inadvertently summon attention from extraterrestrial beings? In “I Am…Am I,” scientists manage to create artificial intelligence, and the being (who is fed encyclopedias of knowledge) is drawn to notions of First Nations culture for its notions that all things, in fact, have souls, because the alternative is too hard to bear. In “Lost in Space,” an astronaut contemplates being Native in orbit: “What happens when you aren’t able to run your fingers through the sand along the river? Or walk barefoot in the grass? Or feel the summer breeze blowing through your hair?”
In “Dreams of Doom,” an Ojibway journalist learns that dream catchers are a government conspiracy, actually devices to spy on and control First Nations people and keep them in line: “You will notice that since Oka and Ipperwash, other than a few flare-ups here and there, things have been relatively quiet.” In “Mr Gizmo,” a suicidal teenage point is given a wake-up call by a toy robot, in keeping with his culture’s understanding that all things are imbued with a soul (including, awkwardly, your toilet). The narrator of “Petropaths” is a man whose troubled grandson learns to travel through time via ancient codes in petroglyphs. In “Superdisappointed,” the shockingly common conditions of housings on a First Nations reserve (houses with mould, substandard drinking water) causes a chemical effect that renders one man an actual superhero. And finally, in the title story, three reticent Objbway men are taken as ambassadors from Earth when aliens arrive on the planet.
I’ve cited nearly every story in the collection here because they were all of them hits, no misses. I read this book exclaiming at how fun it was, and appreciating the way in which Taylor plays with sci-fi tropes, and that each story pursues such a different line. And yet this collection is not merely an exercise in whimsy either—Taylor’s stories are fervent arguments as to the continuing tragedy of colonialism, which seems to be a solid through-line from the past and right into the future. Familiar ideas then, to those who’ve been paying attention, but the point is that too few are paying attention and maybe more might be with this fresh and utterly engaging context.
January 15, 2017
I specialize in accidental cakes—I wrote about one of these in my favourite blog post ever. And here is another, in a post that was originally an Instagram post, but I was a few hundred words in before I realized it was a blog post after all. And so here it goes.
Yesterday there was no cake scheduled and there would have been no cake, except that when I was looking in a drawer for chopsticks at lunchtime (we were having udon noodles), I found an implement (shown in the photo above) which I’ve never used and cannot remember where it came from—from my mom or my aunt? Was it my grandmother’s? But regardless of origin, I didn’t even know its purpose: a comb? A plow for mashed potatoes? But then Stuart remembered that it was a cake server. “That’s right. But how??”
And then I googled “cake server with prongs” and found Jessica Reed’s website (“CakeWalk: Exploring Stories, History, and Identity Though Cake”), which is my new favourite place on the internet. In the post I found, Reed writes about this implement, “the cake breaker,” patented by Cale J Schneider in 1932. The cake breaker is specially designed to slice a cake without destroying it, essential in delicate cakes such as angelfood…
“Well, let’s make an angelfood cake,” I declared, determined—until I found the recipe had 12 eggs in it. Our eggs are free range and eggs are far far too precious for that. So no. I scoured my cookbooks for other options, and settled on an apple upside-down cake. Not the best cake for a breaker, I realized in retrospect, because it would have to slice through apples too. So not optimal, but it worked. We ate the second half of it this afternoon, and it was even yummier.
And the point of this, of course, is the amazing way that all roads (even udon!) lead to cake, however indirectly.
I mean, at least they do if you’re lucky…
January 14, 2017
Today I was thrilled to find Mitzi Bytes in the paper, in grand company on a list of “25 Books We Can’t Wait to Read” in The Toronto Star. You can read it online here. Other books on the list I’m particularly excited about include new non-fiction by Sharon Butala, Marianne Apostolides, and fiction by Eva Crocker, Suzette Mayr, Eden Robinson, and, well, everything.
January 12, 2017
There is a whole subset of nursery rhymes that I never learned as a child, although I did know my Rockabye Babies and Pat-A-Cakes, and was fairly literate in most respects. But it turned out what I knew was only just scratching the surface of the enormous richness and history that nursery rhymes offer, the bulk of which has been passed down through the annals of time by, well, (at least in my experience), librarians at the Toronto Public Library—could they really be responsible for preservation of this cultural trove? In addition to the Opies, of course. Rhymes like See, Saw, Sacredown and Leg Over Leg the Doggie Went to Dover. I discovered these at the Baby Time circles at the library after Harriet was born in 2009, which was same time I discovered Mem Fox.
Mem Fox, author of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Harriet You’ll Drive Me Wild, Hattie and the Fox, Time for Bed, and most spectacularly, Where is the Green Sheep, which were mostly the books I read more than any other through 2009-12. A passionate advocate of early literacy, Fox is also author of Reading Magic, a book that has been fundamental to my practice as a parent, and which recommended children get on a necessary diet of at least a handful of nursery rhymes every day. And because of the TPL Librarians, I had nursery rhymes to spare, so it was handy.
For parents who do not have a plethora of librarians at their disposal, however, Mem Fox comes to their aid with her picture book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, illustrated by Judy Horacek. Fox has taken age-old nursery rhymes (“It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” “Round and Round the Garden,” This Little Piggie,” etc.) and linked them into a story featuring a rather dynamic babysitter called Skinny Doug whose mother must have been a TPL Librarian, because she’s taught him all the rhymes, which he’s now passing onto his babysitting charges, Bonnie and Ben. Who are definitely enjoying his performances—and not just because they’re delaying bedtime—because whenever he finishes another rhyme, this happens:
“‘We love it, we love it,’ said Bonnie and Ben. ‘How does it go? Will you say it again?'”
“‘Some other time,’ said Skinny Doug. ‘But I’ll tell you another. I heard it from my mother…'”
Which becomes, quite frankly, the most beloved rhyme in the whole book, so much so that when anything is regarded with great enthusiasm in our family, we take to chanting, “We love it, we love it, said Bonnie and Ben!!” in a way that’s a bit nonsensical. But then most nursery rhymes are.
We’ve had this book out of the library a million times, and it’s become such a part of our canon that I wanted to make sure that I wrote about it here. It’s a simple premise for a book, but it’s also quite profound, taking centuries-old rhymes and introducing them to new audiences—children, their parents from non-European cultures, or anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to learn these rhymes first time around. Through her story and Horacek’s illustrations, Fox conveys how these nursery rhyme works and how to use them, that this one book is not just one book but instead the product of generations’ cultural lore, ensuring literacy and a love of language for those who come after.
January 9, 2017
The scene: our bedroom, 11:50 on Thursday night. Stuart has turned out his lamp and rolled over to go to sleep, but my light is shining and there are urgent matters still to be discussed before the night is out. I’m thinking about Vicki Ziegler’s blog post about the books diary she’s been keeping since 1983.
Me: Stuart—I have to talk to you about something.
Me: Remember when I used to keep a list of all the books I read?
Me: I stopped doing that—it seemed a bit less obsessive-compulsive to just read the books.
Me: But sometimes I worry, like I should have been keeping track, but I haven’t.
Stuart: Uh huh.
Me: I mean, I write about books on my blog, and there’s Goodreads, and if I really wanted to go back and compile a list, I could. I just don’t need to. Which is kind of a positive thing, I guess. Not a bad way to be.
Me: And I think probably what I am doing is the least bananas scenario, right? Being in the moment, just reading what I want to read. It’s what normal people do. A sign of good mental health.
Stuart: Normal people read books, or maybe they keep track in a list. But YOU have managed to not keep a list and also worry about not keeping a list, which is the most bananas way of all to be. It’s kind of amazing.
Me: You probably want to go to sleep.
Me: Good night.
January 8, 2017
It was three Christmases ago that I spent my holiday immersed in Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, one of those perfect reading experiences you never quite get over. In homage to that, I had a vision of devoting my holiday this year to biographies too, because biographies require wide windows of time and focus and I can’t always accommodate such things in my ordinary life. But on holiday, I can, so I was all set to read Robert Kanigel’s biography of Jane Jacobs, Eyes on the Street, which I bought back in October, and also Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson biography, A Rather Haunted Life, which I’d had an inkling would be under the Christmas tree. Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet, and the Painting of the Water Lilies, had not been part of the plan, but then we went to see the Mystical Landscapes exhibit at the AGO on Christmas Eve, and I have to tell you that I only had the vaguest sense of Monet and his water lilies beforehand, but the whole exhibit was a little bit life-changing. And Ross King’s biography has the most gorgeous design ever, the title fonts inside were gorgeous, and Chapter One was called “The Tiger and Hedgehog”. So I kind of had to, right?
It all turned out so wonderful, each life story captivating and connected in curious ways. Even more oddly, I’d gone offline for the week after Christmas (hence all the time for reading) and we were doing the Globe and Mail holiday crossword at the same time, and I kept coming across answers in the book I was reading—Hammurabi’s Code was something Jane Jacobs studied in her continuing ed courses, and then I got a synonym for “crafty” from translation somewhere in the Monet book, and also knew that Rodin was the sculptor from another clue. As always, the way that books speak to each other is always strange. What to say then about these three? That they’re all about three brilliant people who weren’t conventionally attractive, and it’s funny how the latter point is spoken in such lovable terms with Monet but with the women it’s an altogether different matter. Each character lives through a world war, Monet quite directly with World War One in France (and it’s fabulous to read about his insistence in his painting being included as “war work,” not just for reasons of nationalism, but also because it would ensure he received extra rations of petrol and cigarettes), and both Jane Jacobs and Shirley Jackson (via her husband) would come under suspicion of the McCarthyites. Jane Jacobs was shaped by coming of age during the Great Depression and Jackson by marrying a Jewish man with a terrifying awareness of the genocide being wreaked upon European Jews at the very same time, an awareness that would continue to haunt her.
I’ve spent most of my life with a blithe sense of living outside of history—I was ten in 1989 and everything after that was supposed to be easy, and not even 2001 and everything after would deter that sense until very recently. And what I really appreciated from these three biographies was what it showed about ordinary lives through vast historical backdrops, mainly that it goes on, and also that society’s pendulum swings. World War One, and Monet is painting and art still matters (and even matters more) and Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, which was not quite the utopia I’d figured it as, all Summer of Love and civil rights. No, I hadn’t been thinking about the fight before it was won, that before the win it was all fighting. And like right now, it was a time of a divided America, a country at war, racial tensions, riots in the streets, so much injustice. Ours is not a brand new story, is what I am saying, and these three books offer remarkable context to the world we’re living in at this very moment.
This from Jane Jacobs: “I resented that I had to stop and devote myself to fighting what was basically an absurdity that had been foisted upon me and my neighbours.”
Another point that links these figures is that all lived vital, creative lives while firmly ensconced in a domestic scene, surrounded by children—although Monet, of course, is the only one whose stepchild basically devoted herself to subservience in order to facilitate his creative life well into old age; Jane Jacobs’ grown son, on the other hand, would decide to start a business importing bicycles from China but the bikes arrived disassembled and his parents were recruited to assemble 30 of them from directions written in Chinese. Not that his mother wasn’t happy to do so, but still. It’s funny to read about Robert Kanigel’s (whose previous biographical subjects have all been male) fascination with Jacobs being a wife and mother—that she did all she did, and made dinner too—not that her status as mother wouldn’t be used to dismiss her work, the ideas of a woman who was just a mother, oh no! Which reminds me of Shirley Jackson filling out a form at the hospital before she gave birth to her third child, when she wrote “writer” under “occupation” and the nurse changed it to “housewife.” But yes, for Jackson and Jacobs both, their domestic lives fuelled their creative work.
Interestingly, both Jacobs and Jackson lived in Greenwich Village too and frequented Washington Square Park, but a decade apart. I don’t think they ever hung out. And never with Monet—at least not until this blog post, of course.