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April 30, 2017

A Remarkable Week for Mitzi and Me

As excellent weeks in the life of Mitzi Bytes go, I don’t know if any other will top this one. On Monday, I had the great pleasure of listening to my interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. On Tuesday, in preparation for the 1000 Islands Writers Festival (next weekend!!), I published a post on Mitzi Bytes and ambivalence on the festival blog. On Wednesday, I drove to Waterloo to partake in the Appetite for Reading Book Club event, which was so much fun, totally delicious, and dear friends were there, part of a room packed with avid readers—you can see some of their smiling faces above.

Thursday evening was the thoroughly bonkers and wholly enjoyable Toronto Library Bibliobash, which took place at the Toronto Reference Library, which is one of my favourite places on earth. It was hilarious fun and also a privilege to be able to support the library in such a wonderful way. It was very exciting to see Mitzi Bytes in such a setting…

And the next day I would discover it somewhere just as lovely—in Shawna Lemay’s beautiful response to the book at her blog, Transactions With Beauty.

Saturday was the third Authors for Indies day and I had the pleasure of a road trip with CanLit superstars Kate Hilton, Jennifer Robson, and Karma Brown, who were so much fun and (unsurprisingly) delightfully bookish. We went to Curiosity House Books in Creemore and Forsters Book Garden in Bolton, which was so wonderful because there is nothing I ever love more than a destination bookshop. It was terrific to meet the booksellers and the readers…and of course I bought a few books on my own. There was much raucousness and the snacks were great…

…and I arrived back home in time to listen to the rebroadcast of The Next Chapter with my family! (Happy to see Mitzi Bytes included on “15 books you heard about on CBC Radio this week”!).

One more thing—the new issue of The Hamilton Review of Books is up and it’s really great. And it also includes my review of Marianne Apostolides’ memoir, Deep Salt Water, which was such a joy to puzzle out and write about. I’m very pleased to be included in this issue. And I’m closing out here with a photo of Marissa Stapley and I from my Toronto Library Eh List Event on April 13. Marissa was wonderful and it was such a good night—one of many I’ve been experiencing lately.

April 26, 2017

Authors for Indies!

Saturday is the third annual Authors of Indies Day, and I’m doing something a little bit different this year, namely hitting the road for a little bookshop discovery. Alongside bookish dynamos Kate Hilton, Karma Brown and Jennifer Robson, we’ll be driving out of town and landing as follows:

Hope to see you there. And if you won’t be there, check out the other Authors for Indies events going on in your neighbourhood.

April 25, 2017

The Dark Flood Rises, by Margaret Drabble

I’ve spent the last week reading Margaret Drabble’s new novel The Dark Flood Rises, an experience that is the closest I’ve ever come to reading Drabble for the very first time, The Radiant Way in 2004. Which has been weird, because reading that book was the most visceral experience, a book that read like butterflies in my stomach. I still remember. Although it was possibly because my life was on the edge of everything in 2004: about to get married, return to Canada, enrol in graduate school. I was 25, and everything amazing lay just before me. There I was looking out at the world, and The Radiant Way was exactly like that: I want to be there, I remember thinking, intellectuals and Oxford grads, cultural critics and North London. The way she wrote the world: I want to do that too, her work affirmed for me. Her amazing omniscience, and the remarkable body of her knowledge—inspiring but overwhelming, because I could never do that. But she made me want to reach. For me, discovering The Radiant Way in a  second-hand bookshop in Kobe was the discovery of literature proper.

It was also exciting because even in 2004, Margaret Drabble had a huge body of work behind her, and she was sufficiently unfashionable that her books was always readily available in used bookshops, even the Japanese ones. I spent our year in Japan buying up orange-spined Penguin paperbacks and reading wildly. We coined the verb “Drabbling,” which meant to be reading and utterly enraptured. I enjoyed her early works, though I found her books before The Needle’s Eye interested me less—these books were about individuals, but it was her engagement with society that so fascinated me. I insisted on sending all of the books home by sea, which was stupid because battered secondhand Margaret Drabble novels are hardly rare, but I am glad I did so. And I began to discover her newer work when we got back to England—I bought The Peppered Moth from an Oxfam bookshop in Notting Hill.

For awhile, it seemed like Margaret Drabble novels were an infinite resource. She had new books out in 2005 and 2006, and I still wasn’t through with her backlist. I began to see that with her works in the 1990s and 2000s, she was less interested in society than the novel itself, at pushing the limits at what a book could contain. With The Witch of Exmoor and onward, her books began to get rather curious. I didn’t love them as much (by which I mean to the point of intoxication) but Drabblers takes whatever Drabble they can get. They were never ordinary or boring. With the publication of her memoir The Pattern in the Carpet in 2009 (which I read two weeks before Harriet was born—there’s always a Margaret Drabble book when I’m on the edge of something) she declared herself retired from writing fiction, but thankfully she was lying. The Pure Gold Baby appeared in 2013, which was a Drabble throwback, a reimagining of her preoccupations from her early works.

And now The Dark Flood Rises, which is also nostalgic in approach, another book about people and connections, her fabulous omniscience. Esther Breuer from The Radiant Way trilogy appears in this book, there are towers and ariel views as with The Middle Ground, the same fatalism that permeates so much of Drabble’s work. (I started reading Margaret Drabble at the same time I started reading Joan Didion. They are not similar stylists, except for that fatalism, which so links them in my mind.) It’s a book about old age and death, but the ways in which it probes the interestingness of these scenarios makes it a very compelling novel. At it’s centre is Francesca Stubbs, who works for  a trust charged with innovating care homes for the elderly, and she tours around England in her car and appreciating the comforts and familiarity of basic hotels. We meet her children, her son Christopher, an unemployed TV interviewer whose partner has just died after an illness in the Canary Islands, and her daughter Poppet, an environmentalist who lives in a cottage on a flood plain. Her friends too who are marking old age in their own distinctive ways. She brings dinner to her bedridden ex-husband, who is engaged in relations with his private nurse, a Zimbabwean called Persephone. The narrative ruminates on islands, and migrants, environmental catastrophe. On books and art and cellars and histories. Archives. This is a novel that, like another referred to in the narrative, is written “in a state of uncertainty… a modernist open-ended novel… on the edge of history.”

The Dark Flood Rises is vastly different from Ali Smith’s Autumn in every way, but similar in its edge of history-ness, uncertainty, and that both books refer to artist Pauline Boty. And it was interesting to be reading it last week when I learned that Drabble’s adult daughter had died last week after a short illness, underlining the entire project with a layer of sadness. Parts of it seem ominous now, and it made me feel Drabble’s grief in a way that could have been more theoretical otherwise. But this has always been the case with my feelings for her work, how its ideas refuse to stay confined to the text, how it seems impossible that the worlds she creates aren’t actually real, how the story seems to creep its way into the world, the culture, like vines so, until the lines between them become difficult to decipher, and it’s impossible to tell where one stops and another begins.

April 24, 2017

My Book in the World This Week

It’s going to be a very fun week in the world for Mitzi Bytes, which kicks off with my interview on CBC’s The Next Chapter With Shelagh Rogers. Our interview is broadcast today at 1pm and on Saturday at 4pm, and you can listen again online. And yes, our talk—which took place in February—was an excellent experience, everything a debut novelist could dream of. Really, it was such a pleasure.

April 24, 2017

Sputnik’s Children, by Terri Favro

There’s no point in writing a lead-up, and I’m just going to say it: I loved Terri Favro’s Sputnik’s Children in a way that makes my heart feel like it’s on the brink of exploding and my new mission in life is now to persuade everyone to read it. It begins with our heroine, Debbie Reynolds Biondi, creator of the cult comic hero Sputnik Chick: Girl With No Past. She’s a bit washed up, strung out on pills, travelling from one hotel convention room to another, tired of her fans asking her why she’s yet to write Sputnik Chick’s origin story. The reasons are complicated, but namely: that it’s actually her own story. Debbie is Sputnik Chick, a Cold War nostalgic, delivered to our universe from a parallel one (Atomic Mean Time) that was destroyed by nuclear war in 1979, Debbie sacrificing her life, true love, and her identity to deliver humanity to the safety of Earth Standard Time (which you and I know as “here and now”) the parallel worlds safely merged.

But its complicated, and Favro takes us back to the beginning, to Debbie’s upbringing in Atomic Mean Time, a realm not unlike our own except for key differences—the Cold War is actual, there is no peace movement in the 1960s or calls for nuclear proliferation. From a young age, Debbie is visited by a figure known as “The Trespasser,” although he only sometimes turns up in her realm with an awareness that she is the chosen one who is going to save the world. Jumping in and out of time, The Trespasser complicates Debbie’s past, present and future, but the prophesies prove correct when Debbie is enlisted to save the world as the inevitable nuclear showdown finally arrives.

So it’s all true, except that Debbie’s addicted to booze and pills and her sister reminds her that she’s always been one to make up stories to hide the traumatic facts and experiences she’d prefer to avoid. Although Debbie’s a compelling enough storyteller that we believe her story to be true. In fact, we want it to be true. And the novel exists in this fascinating state of narrative possibility, in-betweenness, a puzzle whose pieces all fit but the surface has two faces. Not to mention the story itself is exhilarating, so hard to put down, rich with comic book twists, explosions, villains, and familiar tropes that are fresh and surprisingly rendered.

It’s A Wrinkle in Time meets Wonder Woman—with a literary twist of Madeline Sonik’s award-winning Cold War essay collection Afflictions and Departures. And easily one of my favourite books of 2017.

April 21, 2017

Stop Feedin’ the Boids, by James Sage and Pierre Pratt

There are several levels in our appreciation of Stop Feedin’ Da Boids, the new picture book by James Sage and triple Governor-General’s Award Winner Pierre Pratt.

Number One: the whole wildlife in the city thing. I was a fan of Alissa York’s Fauna a few years back, and this story similarly illuminates the wildness hiding in the concrete jungle—and not just the people and their dogs either. Pratt’s beautiful spreads bring the diverse and frenetic city to life, and this is a city in particular: Brooklyn, to which Swanda has moved after years in the countryside, leaving rolling hills and animals grazing in pastures behind,

Number two: the pigeons. This has been a season for birds, literary-wise, but pigeons still don’t get a lot of respect. The great thing about wandering the city with children, however, is that they don’t discriminate, and pigeons and sparrows are as marvellous as downy headed woodpeckers. In fact, imagine seeing a pigeon for the first time in your life. Wouldn’t you think it beautiful? So I can kind of understand their appeal, why the animal-loving Swanda jumps on the pigeon-feeding train…but things quickly spiral out of control and soon the neighbourhood is overwhelmed in that particular way only pigeons can make an urban place.

Which brings me to the third level of our book appreciation, the splendid moment in the text when, after reading the scrams and the shoos and the subtle suggestions by neighbours and experts (“I’m afraid the problem with pigeons was ever thus…”, when finally, finally, push comes to shove, and the reader gets to proclaim with the entire city street:

It’s intoxicating, that proclamation. And now my three-year-old has taken to calling birds “boids,” and it’s catching. And now we kind of want to move to an apartment in Brooklyn with big old windows, fire escapes and a superintendent called Mr. Kaminski… By this point, however, Swanda has started feedin’ the fish, and you’re going to have to read the book to learn how that turns out.

April 18, 2017

Mixed Reviews

My book has been rendered as jewelry, bunting, a cross stitch pattern and cookies, and now its latest incarnation is as a wood carving. Seriously. My best friend’s mom made it for me and it has a spine and everything, and it’s pretty much mind-blowing. I never imagined that such a thing could exist, but it’s perfect. So many good people have ensured that this experience of publishing a book is one that is rich with delight.

Although just being read is almost more than a person can ask for. It’s huge, really, to have someone take the time to enter your fictional universe and spent awhile inside a story you invented a few summers ago. When readers have done so and understood exactly what I’m going for, it’s means everything. I have had the fortune of really positive reviews, and as a book blogger it’s been a particular pleasure to have writers I admire, such as Steph and Rohan, review my book with such care and respond with such insight. Not all readers have been as enthusiastic, some for precisely the reasons I’d anticipated and wrote the book intentionally for—I wanted to a difficult protagonist who never learns her lessons. And if that is the basis of a reader’s criticism, then at least they’re reading the book I wrote, and I still appreciate that.

(It’s also illuminating to learn that Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which is my very favourite book in the whole world, has critical reviews on Goodreads. If this is the case, it is possible there is nothing worth worrying about ever again because the world is that unfathomable…)

In terms of being reviewed, however, I have just discovered that the most fascinating experience of all of them is the critical reviewer who reads your book so well but in ways you never anticipated. The reviewer whose interpretation, it turns out, can broaden your perspective on the very book your wrote—how cool is that? What I got up to in the book wasn’t quite her jam, and the reviewer isn’t wrong in her interpretation. The part that surprised me the most was when she wrote about her disappointment in the ending, that Sarah permits her husband to validate her identity. I’d never considered that the book could be read that way. My own idea is that she isn’t asking him to validate her identity—she’s pretty secure in who she is, but the experiences in the novel rattle her security in her relationship (and for good reasons—they’ve got a communication problem). So when he tells her that he needs her, it’s underlining the foundation of their family, which is important. But the fact of her identity, in my opinion, is never really up for debate: she knows who she is (and this is part of the reason her husband loves her). Moreover, she likes who she is and I’m imagining that now being able to own her authorial identity of Mitzi Bytes and reconcile her two selves will be a positive step forward. I see the end of the novel as her beginning: she’s going forth into the world and she’s even going to sign her name to things. A writer has been born—for real. While it’s true that she’s the centre of their home life, as her husband tells her, she’s the centre of a lot of things. And for the first time in her life, she’s going to attempt to bring all those things together.

…Which doesn’t really matter, of course, is that’s not what the reader read. But that’s the beauty of books, I think, the infinite possibilities and interpretations contained within. It’s fascinating to me how being an author and being read is such a process of discovery. That every time a person reads my book, it’s a new book every time.

April 17, 2017

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, by Steve Burrows

Last year I made the error of inviting my birder friend Julia to an event in early May, to which she gave her regrets that the event would coincide with the peak of spring migration. “Sigh,” she wrote to me. ” I’ll be busy oohing-and-ahhhing at some warbler or another…” Because in spring, as birders and friends-of-birders know, there are some things you can count on. And adding to that list of things, at least for the past four years, is a new title in Steve Burrows’ Birder Murder Mystery series, which I’ve been reading with such pleasure since A Siege of Bitterns in 2014. This is my version of spring migration. And the best news: the books keep getting better and better.

A Shimmer of Hummingbirds begins with Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune departing for Colombia for a birdwatching trip, although everybody knows he’s really going to find out what happened to his brother in the lead-up to the tragic crime for which he was charged—and the other Jejeune has been on the run from the law ever since, which complicates things. Meanwhile, Domenic’s girlfriend Lindy knows what’s going on, but her own security becomes threatened with the release of a shady figure from Domenic’s past. And it turns out Domenic’s not safe either as his arrival in South America has raised red flags for the guide and company behind his birding tour—the same outfit his brother had been involved with. And then at the centre of it all, back at Saltmarsh, a young accountant has been murdered and she has ties to a group of investors each of whom has something to hide. There are barn owls. And Jejeune’s former boss and nemesis is brought in to handle the case, which makes things awkward for Jejeune’s colleagues…particularly when it becomes clear how much better everything is without the quiet and brooding Jejeune around…

The pieces come together very nicely, and I’ll forgive the part where Jejeune turns up in a foreign country again and just happens to run into a friend. I loved this book, and read it with pleasure. I continue to admire so much that Burrows has provided his complicated detective with an excellent relationship with a fantastic woman who is one of the best characters in the book. The plot is not too crowded, the momentum perfect and compelling, and while the ending was completely satisfying, Burrows also manages a mini-cliffhanger that leaves me altogether ready for the arrival of Book 5 next spring.

April 14, 2017

The Fog, by Kyo Maclear and Kenard Pak

Sometimes it is useful to be reminded that not everything is an allegory. But at the same time, those “It doesn’t have to mean anything! It’s a story!” people are even more annoying, because a story has to mean something, or else what is the point? Which isn’t to say that every book should necessarily be Animal Farm. The answer, as with most things, is somewhere in between, and in her latest picture book, The Fog (illustrated by Kenard Pak), Kyo Maclear has achieved that balance with stunning precision.

Maclear’s early picture books had obvious messages—Spork was about being mixed-race, Virginia Wolf was about loving someone with depression, Mr. Flux about learning not to fear change. They were good books and artful, but Maclear’s more recent work has become less concrete, more nuanced. While I’m entirely in love with her book Julia, Child, however, I admit I’ve never been able to get my head properly around it; it’s a book a little too intent on trying to mean. Her others like The Specific Ocean, however, manage to mean without trying to. And her latest, The Fog, is her best work yet.

It’s a book about a bird who likes to people-watch (and this book ties in nicely with Maclear’s recent memoir, Birds Art Life). The endpapers are illustrated with human varieties—”Dapper Bespectacled Booklover,” “Masked Bohemian Weaver,” “Solitary Knitter.” The bird is named Warble and he lives in a place called Icy Land, an island that people from all over the world come to visit, giving Warble excellent opportunities for spotting. One day, however, a thick fog descends, and everything changes. It’s hard to see, the people stop coming, but nobody seems to notice. Nobody, however, except for Warble.

The birds around him adapt—this is what living creatures do. Soon, nobody else remembered that there hadn’t always been fog, and even Warble began to wonder if things had ever been different.

But one morning something happens. Peering through his bins (I say “bins” instead of binoculars because I’ve just finished Steve Burrows’ latest Birder Murder Mystery and I know the lingo…)  Warble spots a speck on the horizon: “Peering closely, he saw a dark-haired human ghosting through the meadow. It was a rare female species and she was singing a song.”

The usual transpires: he offers her insects, she teaches him origami, and then they both acknowledge the fog. And they wonder—if each of them can see it, might somebody else out there be able to see it too? So they send out paper boats with the message, “Do you see the fog?” and after a long, long wait some answers return. “Notes arrived from around the world: “We can help!” “We see it too!” And with every message received, the fog lifted a bit, until you could see things again. “Big things. And tiny things. Shiny red things. And soft feathery things.” The story ending with Warble and the girl together against the starry sky enjoying the clear night view.

So what is the fog then? Is it climate change denial? Is it fascism? Is it the volcanic ash that enveloped Iceland in a cloud not too long ago, grounding flights around the world? None of these suggestions mapping onto the book exactly, but in this they serve to open up the story and the ideas it offers rather than rendering them in a narrower fashion. What does it mean? becoming the beginning of a conversation.

April 13, 2017

My Book in the World Cont.

So yes, I recognize that it’s ridiculous to say, as I did in my previous post, that I’ve found the last few weeks anything short of fabulous and exhilarating. Especially when the last few weeks have really been so fabulous and exhilarating, which I want to talk about now. I got to answer the Magic 8 Questionnaire at CBC Books. I want to talk about Mitzi Bytes was a number two bestseller on the Canadian indie list for trade-fiction the week it was published. I was outsold by Katherena Vermette, Roxane Gay and Chris Hadfield on the overall bestseller list, and I think that’s a sign that all is as it should be in the universe. And I want to talk about too how the excellent Melanie took Mitzi Bytes to Iceland and presented a copy of Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid (who is Canadian!). When one publishes a book, one never foresees the adventures upon which that book might travel.

Photo Credit: Ann Y.K. Choi

And I want to talk about the pleasure and joy of my trip to Hamilton this weekend for the gritLIt Festival. At first I was unexcited about having to take the bus, but then it turned out to be a double decker bus, which was amazing. I also got to visit J.H. Gordon books, whose origins I followed online long ago, and I was so pleased to see it in person. My first event at gritLit was a panel with Merilyn Simonds, whose book I’ve made no secret of my affection for. We had the very best time, talking about books and technology and how tech has enhanced the experience of literature for readers and writers, but also how The Book isn’t going anywhere and we love it so. And late in the afternoon, I taught a blogging workshop, which I’ve done enough times now that doing is just an absolute pleasure. In between, I checked out events with Scaachi Koul and Ann Y.K. Choi, Kyo Maclear, and Denise Donlon. For a great sum-up of gritLit, check out this post. And the topper most of all the pleasures was a night in a hotel room ALL BY MYSELF, and I went for an early morning swim before returning to my room to order breakfast. Breakfast being the greatest revelation: room service is a thing a person can do. And oh, it was wonderful. I’m never going to forget it.

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